You don’t know why, but you refuse to allow anyone to touch your ankles. Not the shoe salesman at Macy’s, not the nurse at school, not even your Aunt Rachel who presents you with a thin gold ankle bracelet which you put, untouched, in your jewelry box. You avoid all boots, most shoes, sneakers. You would be content to suffer the most wicked New England winter in no more than split-toe socks and flip-flops.
Then one hot day in August, something happens. Along with your adoptive mom, you visit her ex-college roommate who lives in Larchmont, New York. Her name is Linda, she’s a recent divorcee, and she has a son who, at sixteen, is two years older than you. You’ve seen his picture on a Christmas card. When you meet, he’s handsome and funny and it’s summer and who’s to say?
“Hot enough to deep-fry a turkey,” Linda says just before she suggests you all go swimming at her new country club. “It’s one of the perks of having a blood-thirsty divorce lawyer,” she smiles.
You’ve known about this possibility and you’ve hoped for it. You’ve worn your one-piece swimsuit under you t-shirt and cut-offs. You’ve brought a towel, an eco-friendly one, the one made from organic terry cotton. And you’ve packed sun block – Bull Frog SPF 45 – even though you never, ever burn, hoping he might ask to rub some on your back.
The pool water is as clear as those pictures you’ve seen of the Caribbean Sea near Curaçao. The area around the pool, as well as the pool itself, is surprisingly uncrowded. A life guard sits above it all, and somewhere close by a Beach Boys CD plays “Fun, Fun, Fun.” And while normally you might feel some disdain for these privileged few, today you are accepting because today there is music and a bright sun and a good-looking boy.
You’re standing in water four feet deep. You’re adoptive mom, back by the Pepsi machine, is calling to you. “Did you bring any change?” she wants to know. And before you can answer, before you can call to her to look in the ladybug purse in your straw bag, it happens. This boy – Chandler – this boy who has gently teased you all afternoon, swims up behind without your being aware. He moves rapidly under water, and before you are sure what’s happening, he maneuvers between your slightly parted legs and playfully lifts you up and out of the water. Instinctively, your mouth opens and your hands wrap around the top of his head. Your knees cling just above his ribs, and he squeezes your ankles beneath his armpits.
Someone gleefully shouts, “Chicken fight!”
And just before you scream, the lifeguard -- standing straight up in her chair -- points at you and blows her whistle.
Later that day, as you ride north on the Merritt Parkway, your adoptive mom says, “Come on. It’s not the end of the civilized world.”
And you say, “I peed on him.”
“What?” your mom says.
“Right on his shoulders. All across the back of his neck.”
After a moment hesitation your mom says, “You were in the water. He probably didn’t even notice.”
But you know he noticed. By the warmth. By the odor so close. By the way he unceremoniously dumped you backward after you screamed. “What is it with me?” you ask.
Your mom says nothing for a second, and then she lets out a puff of air. You are familiar with this gesture. It’s the same one she used just before explaining your period. The same one you heard prior to being told that you, unlike your cousins, were not Catholic. “I guess I should have told you this before,” she says. “When you were in the orphanage there was this – what would you call it? – this ‘practice’ they had.” She looks directly at you and says, “There were so many of you and so few caregivers.” Her eyes back on the road, she continues. “Three times a day they would put those of you who couldn’t walk onto potty chairs. Regular wooden chairs, actually, with a hole cut in the seat and a pot underneath it. You were kept from falling off by straps tightly fastened around your ankles.”
“How do you know this?” you ask.
“You know me,” she smiles. “I researched.” The smile fades. “You still had the marks on your ankles for five months after we brought you home.”
“Why would they do that?” you ask.
“In the interest of time,” she says. “They trained you all to relieve yourselves simultaneously.”
“But how?” you ask.
“Like Pavlov’s dogs,” she tells you. “They blew a whistle.”
You both ride in silence. You glance down at your ankles, and for a moment you think you see them. Dark leather straps with glinting metal buckles. But no. It’s only shadows cast by the sun as it sets behind so many seemingly identical trees.
You almost laugh. And then a bud of hope begins to grow. You look over at your mom, so protective, so naive. And you think that tonight, once you are both home safely with your adoptive dad pouring wine and boiling spaghetti, that you might try on that ankle bracelet.
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