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Swim Back to Me
Walk for Mankind •
September 1972. It was the first week of eighth grade, and I sat alone near the back of the school bus: a short, scrawny honor-roll boy with small hands and big ears. The route home meandered through Los Altos Hills, with its large houses sitting in the shadows of old oak trees and dense groves of eucalyptus. Finally we came down out of the hills and arrived in Stanford, where the last twenty or so of us lived, in houses built close together on land the University leased to its faculty. A couple of stops before mine, a clump of kids rose and moved up the aisle, and that’s when I saw her, a new girl sitting up near the front.
To my surprise, she shouldered her backpack at my stop. I waited until she was off the bus and then made my way up the aisle, keeping my eyes away from Bruce Cavanaugh and Tony Halpern, who’d been my friends back in elementary school. Down on the bright sidewalk, she was headed in the direction I had to go, and I followed after her, walking slowly so I wouldn’t overtake her. She was small-boned like me, with thick red hair spilling halfway down her back and covering part of her backpack, which was decorated with at least a dozen McGovern buttons, rather than the usual one or two. There was even a Nixon button with a giant red X drawn over his ugly face.
She stopped suddenly and turned, and I got my first glimpse of her face: pale and peppered with freckles. “Who are you?” she said.
“Sorry.” I was afraid she thought I was following her when I was just heading home.
She came forward and offered me her hand. “Hi, Sorry—I’m Sasha. Or maybe I should say ‘I’m New.’ We can call each other Sorry and New, and then when we get to know each other better we can switch to something else. Shy and Weird, maybe.”
I had never met anyone who talked like this, and it took me a moment to respond. “My name’s Richard.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know that. I didn’t mean who are you what’s your name—I meant who are you who are you. Your name is Richard Appleby and you live around the corner from me, in the house with all the ice plant.”
Now I got it: she was part of the family renting the Levines’ house. Teddy Levine was spending the year at the American Academy in Rome, and the Levine kids were going to go to some Italian school and come back fluent and probably strange. The Jacksons had spent a year in London, and afterward Helen Jackson had been such an oddball her parents had taken her out of public school.
The girl’s hand was still out, and though I’d never shaken hands with another kid before, I held mine out for her, and she pumped it up and down. She had blue-gray eyes with very light lashes, and a long, pointy noise.
“Sasha Horowitz,” she said. “Happy to know you. I was waiting for you to come over, but it’s just as well we met like this—if you’d come over I’d’ve probably been a freak. Plus my parents would’ve co-opted the whole thing. Do your parents do that? Co-opt everything? When I was really little my dad would always try to play with me and my friends—he’d give us rides on his back like a horse, and he’d kind of buck sometimes, and one time a friend of mine fell off and broke her wrist. Her parents were really overprotective—she was never allowed to come over again.” Still looking at me, Sasha shrugged off her backpack and ran her fingers through her heavy, carrot-colored hair. She gathered it into a thick ponytail and secured it with a rubber band from her wrist. She said, “There, that’s better. So do you love San Francisco? We had a picnic in Golden Gate Park on Saturday, and we saw a guy on an acid trip—my little brother thought he was in a play. The only thing is, I’m expecting to be miserable about missing winter.”
“Are you from somewhere cold?” I said. “Did you have snow?”
“New Haven. And God, yes—we had mountains of it. It was a huge pain in the ass. Do you want to come over? You should, because my mother’ll ask me to tell her about school otherwise and I really don’t feel like talking to her.”
She stood there looking at me, waiting for me to answer, and I thought of my mother, in her shabby apartment across the bay in Oakland, where she had lived alone for the last seven months, an exile of her own making. I looked at my watch. In two and a half hours my father would bike home from his office on campus, and after he’d had a drink we would sit down to a dinner that Gladys, our new housekeeper, had left us in the oven. Telling him about school was my job, just as asking about it was his.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll come over. For a little while.”
Within two weeks I had eaten dinner at Sasha’s house three times, had gone with her and her father to buy tiki lamps for the backyard, had driven to San Francisco with all four Horowitzes to have Sunday morning dim sum. On election night, the five of us squeezed onto the living room couch and yelled at the television set together. In December I ate my first ever potato latkes at their house, and on New Year’s weekend my father allowed me to skip a visit to my mother in favor of an expedition with the Horowitzes to Big Sur.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That first day, once I was home again and my father and I were in the kitchen just before dinner, I found out what had brought Sasha’s family to Stanford. According to my father, her father had been denied tenure by the English Department at Yale and had accepted a one-year renewable appointment at Stanford—which, my father said, was “quite interesting.”
“Usually you’d stay on for a year or two, try to publish some work, get your CV in order, then go on the job market for a tenure track position somewhere else.” He paused and drew his lips into his mouth, as he often did in thoughtful moments. He was a straight-backed man with neat gray hair and hazel eyes: handsome enough. But when he did this thing with his mouth his chin took over, and he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
He let his lips go. “Maybe there was some bad blood. There often is in a case like this.”
I said, “Maybe he just wanted to leave.” I had met him—Dan—on my way out, and he’d seemed far too friendly for whatever my father might have in mind. “Richard Appleby!” he’d said. “Excellent to meet you! Tell me, are the natives amicable? May we count on you for guidance? You must tell us what the customs are. The customs of the country. You’ll help us, won’t you? Correct our clothing, teach us the vernacular?” And all the while Sasha stood there rolling her eyes but unable to keep from smiling.
“I could ask Hugh Canfield,” my father said. Hugh Canfield was my father’s closest—really, his only—friend outside the History Department. They’d been at Princeton together. Hugh was chair of the English Department and therefore someone who’d have information about Dan.
“You don’t have to ask,” I said. “I don’t care.”
“No, of course not,” my father said. “Though it’s curious. To have been at Yale, he must be very promising.”
He was far more than promising to me. He was promise fulfilled, one of those people who makes the most ordinary occasion brilliant. Build a blanket fort in the living room, which Peter, Sasha’s little brother, loved to do? With Dan’s help we built Peter a blanket civilization, with a theater and a civic center and a mausoleum for Peter’s stuffed hippopotamus, whom we named Hippocritz, the Czar-King of Egypt-Arabia.
He was tall and skinny, Dan, with Sasha’s frizzy red hair and a great beak of a nose. He played endless games of Risk with us, literally yelling when he lost hold of a continent; and he was fond of showing up at our school at dismissal time with the car packed full of quilts and announcing that he was taking us to the beach to watch the sunset. Joanie, Sasha’s mother, possessed quieter charms, but she had a knack for making things special, too: on Halloween night, a little too old for trick-or-treating ourselves, we shepherded Peter around the neighborhood wearing caps she’d made for us, with badges that said “Official Halloween Escort—Will Say Yes to Candy.” At home, she did quick charcoal sketches of anyone who happened to be nearby, and when she thought they were good she wrote a caption on them and taped them to the kitchen walls. There were a lot of Sasha and Peter, of course, but within a few months there were a couple of me, too, one in which I was holding a deck of cards in my hand, labeled “The Schemer,” and another, in which I was looking off to the side, that said “Richard waiting.” “He looks like a retard in that one,” Sasha said. “Take it down.” But Joanie didn’t, and though I didn’t say so to Sasha, I was glad.
Sasha. She had a little of each parent in her, Dan’s gaiety, Joanie’s warmth, plus something essential and not altogether pleasant that was entirely hers, like a back note of pepper in a rich chocolate dessert. It was a quality that made her—that gave her permission to—insist on what she wanted. We played Truth or Dare a lot, and her dares invariably had me taking risks that just happened to have as their end points some small reward for her: a stolen candy bar, the details of an overheard—an eavesdropped-upon—conversation.
“Someone has a sweetheart,” Gladys said, but it wasn’t that. For one thing, we hardly spoke at school, Sasha having found a niche among some other Stanford kids while I stuck with two guys I’d met during seventh grade, Malcolm and Bob, precisely because they weren’t Stanford kids and hadn’t known me when my mother was around. Occasionally Sasha would track down the three of us at lunchtime and plop down next to me with her brown bag (which contained, unvaryingly, an egg salad sandwich on pumpernickel, a handful of dried apricots, and a small can of pineapple juice). More often, we’d join up once we’d gotten off the school bus, or one of us would appear at the other’s front door at about four o’clock and say, with heavy irony, “Do you want to play?”
“I’ve always had boys as friends,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”
I hadn’t had a girl as a friend since kindergarten, and for me it was strange and exciting. But I wanted to seem as blasé as she was. “Yeah,” I said. “People are so idiotic.”
Gladys may have given me knowing smiles when Sasha came over, but my father hardly noticed I had a new friend. Right after my mother left, he reduced his time at the University, spending Saturdays in his study at home rather than going to campus. He was hard at work on a book about the New Deal, though, and by the time the Horowitzes arrived he was back to his old habits, and he clung to them through that fall and winter, working, working. Sunday was his only day of rest, and we always did something together: went to a concert or played a board game or even tried to navigate our way through some complicated baking project, in service to his ferocious sweet tooth.
He was fifty that year, the age I am now, but he wore fifty in the old way, with lace-up leather dress shoes and starched shirts. Sometimes when I’m out for a run, or just kicking a soccer ball with my kids, I think my father, if he were still alive, would not recognize me. He would see that I was his son, he would see that I was Richard—but he wouldn’t be able to make any kind of sense of me as a middle-aged man.
From the Hardcover edition.
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