Want to hear about a party?

The first time remember my sister cheating was the summer that I turned nine. My niece, nephew, and brother-in-law were strangely absent, off visiting faraway family.

She had a tryst with the neighborhood handyman. His name was Victor. He had three little girls, one older than me, the other two younger, and he brought them with him for the three days he was with my sister. I joined them, playing all day, sleeping in a heap on the living room floor at night.

For months, maybe even years, before the actual deed, she used to flirt with him from her lounge chair on her patio. She’d be in her swimsuit with the straps pulled down, sunning herself while he mowed the lawn around her. Even then, at my young age, I knew what was happening. I sensed the ephemeral lines being crossed, the invisible limits breaking. They laughed a lot. It felt like fun.

What made her decide to go through with it? I suspect it was his sudden availability, the finalization of his divorce. Did she worry for the fate of her own marriage? I suspect so, but she flagrantly defied it. She traded the rush of those three days for her own well-being – she stayed at home with the kids, my brother-in-law earned the paycheck. She traded the illusion of happiness for the excitement of temporary anarchy.

During those days, we kids were in charge of ourselves. I barely remember seeing my sister at all. We girls ran wild outside. We played at the park, rode our bikes. We ran outside in the rain. We braided each other’s hair. Did we eat? I suppose so. I vaguely remember Froot Loops and pizza, maybe barbecued chicken at some point. We definitely drank Kool-Aid. I did not go hungry.

Music blared from the radio at all times, in my memory. This was mid-80s, and my sister was a fan of James Taylor, Carly Simon. Ironic, right? Nevertheless, the party atmosphere pervaded. I had a lot of fun during those three days.

My mom was in and out of the picture. I recall the grownups drinking beer and playing cards while we watched movies in the next room. Strangely, even though we lived just a few doors away, I don’t remember ever being at home during that time. Perhaps my mom felt that she had to watch over my sister as she ventured down this strange path. Maybe she wanted to keep all memory of it out of her home. I think she liked seeing me in the company of so many little girls, almost but not quite like cousins. She wanted me to have that, never mind the illusion or the downside.

I loved playing with those girls. I can still remember the feeling of being included in their group. It felt like butterflies and rainbows, but sad. I knew that what was going on was wrong. I missed my nephew, my longstanding buddy. I wanted to twist the scene like a Rubik’s cube and make it all better. I wanted to make it suddenly right. I wanted to erase my complicity. I wanted fun to be just fun. I wanted to put my family back together and somehow still have the three little girls and nice Uncle Victor. I wanted the impossible.

Do you like grape gum?

Last week, I bought the kids a pack of grape gum. Anna asked for it, and hoping that she would behave in the line at the grocery store, I said okay. Outside I gave her a piece.

“Don’t you want one?” she asked.

“Nah,” I said. “I hate grape gum.”

“Why?” she asked.

“It reminds me of being a kid,” I told her. I doubt that made any sense to her.

When I was growing up, I lived with my mom in a crummy apartment building. Not the worst type of apartment building – it was in good condition, it had all of its shutters – but nothing fancy. Nearby there was a McCormick spice factory. On certain days when you walked outside that heavy grape smell hung in the air. It would almost choke me.

We were poor. My mom bought our food with food stamps, and my clothes were gifts or from the Salvation Army. I certainly never asked my mom for gum at the grocery store, and if I had she would have said no – and not because she wanted to. I grew up watching my mom add up the price of groceries on a piece of paper, carefully calculating all the costs before getting in line. I remember walking with her to and from the grocery store every week alongside a busy major street without sidewalks. Cookie cutter suburbia towered around us and oblivious people in cars would zoom past. And sometimes that overwhelming, cloying grape scent would make breathing impossible.

I grew up happy. My mom was always there, and she made me feel special. She taught me a lot about the important things, and she showed me how to have a lot of fun with whatever was right in front of us. But I always felt something was missing. I always felt a little bit scared at the grocery store. So now, I’m glad that I can buy Anna gum and have it just be gum. I’m glad it doesn’t dump her on a busy street behind an old lady cart like it does for me.