“’Cause next year I’m going to kindergarten.”

“I see.”

“I picked it out myself.”

“I can tell.”

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

At the least, he was beautiful in it, his body lean and flat as the piano, which hadn’t been tuned since Roo switched to flute, and covered in the little nicks and bruises that showed he was doing a good job of being almost five.

“Sorry.” Carmelo shrugged when Claude had run off again. “Once I told him he was old enough to pick out his own suit, there was no going back.”

“Empowering children.” Rosie sighed. “Always a mistake.”

“Are you worried?” Was Carmelo asking because her daughter looked worried? Or because she thought she should be?

“No?” It came out as a question. It was a sweltering almost-evening, no clouds, no wind. Rosie squinted against late-afternoon sun glinting off the water genuflecting from the sprinkler. Was it time to worry? Was the dress one thing but the bikini another somehow? Gnats danced lines and crosses just above her eyes, but she was too tired suddenly to wave them away. “Maybe a little worried,” she admitted to her mother.

“Fiddlesnicks.” Carmelo dragged hard on a cigarette Rosie hoped might induce the gnats to dance elsewhere.

“Fiddle snicks?”


“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘poppycock.’”

“Bullshit then.” Carmelo was not a woman bogged down by semantics. “He’s fine. Look at him! He’s ecstatic. He’s euphoric.”

“For the moment.”

Carmelo looked at her daughter. “For the moment’s all there is, my darling.”

“Spoken like an indulgent grandmother,” said Rosie. But deep down she knew that wasn’t it. It was spoken like someone whose baby didn’t get to grow up.

“He’s happy,” said Carmelo as if that settled it, as if it were just that simple. “Happy, healthy, and fabulous. What more could you ask?”

“Other kids will make fun of him.”

“What kids?” said Carmelo.

“I don’t know. Kids.”

“Kids don’t care about stuff like that anymore.”

“They don’t?”

“No. And why do you?”

“You do realize,” Rosie turned to her mother, “that I’m supposed to be calming you down about all of this, not the other way around? I’m the one who’s supposed to be talking you off the ledge. You’re supposed to be panicking and dragging him off to church or something.”

“So few Jews at church these days,” said Carmelo.

“You’re too old to be open-minded and tolerant,” said Rosie.

“I’m too old not to be.” She sucked coolly on her cigarette again, then waved it at Rosie to punctuate her point. Not for the first time, Rosie envied smokers their rhetorical device. “I’ve lived life. I know what’s important. I’ve seen it all by now. You think he’s the first boy I ever saw in a bikini? He’s not. You think your generation invented kids who are different?”

“There are different kinds of different.” Rosie chewed on the side of her thumbnail.

“Fiddlecock,” said her mother.


It wasn’t Claude who most worried them that summer anyway—which was, in some ways, his last—but Ben, who had always been quiet but was quieter than usual, who had always been bookish but spent that summer he was eleven reading Shakespeare while his brothers swam. They’d decided he didn’t need sixth grade and should skip right to seventh, where he’d be a year younger but only a year or two ahead of everyone else as opposed, in sixth grade, to being so far ahead there was no point in his being there at all. Penn thought the fewer years in the hellscape that was middle school the better. Rosie thought being in class with Roo would make up for any of the social stuff he might miss. They’d broken it to the two oldest boys gently, worried Roo would feel his world cramped and horned in on, worried Ben might rather be smarter than everyone around him by four or five times rather than just two or three. Roo had been delighted and immediately started scheming for them to secretly switch places so Ben could take his tests for him, as if promoting Ben to seventh grade would also render them identical twins. But Ben had clammed up, worried about neither Rosie nor Penn knew what, worried in a way that the sun and the summer and even Shakespeare could not touch.

The Sunday afternoon before school started up again, there was a picnic at the pool: crockpot-boiled hot dogs, American cheese slices, limp pickles, watermelons hacked to pieces by someone who evidently had bad blood with the fruit going back generations. Because they’d spent all summer in the lake, it was their first—and last—foray of the season to the public pool. Orion wore orange flippers, a rainbow snorkel, and a fake fin. Ben wore khaki shorts and a button-down shirt, just to make sure no one thought there was any chance he was going swimming. Claude wore his bikini because Penn found he could not say to his son, “The suit you love is okay at home but not in public,” because Rosie would not say, “We’re proud of you in private but ashamed of you at the pool.”

They staked out chairs, a table, a corner of grass on which to pile towels and goggles and flip-flops. Every flat surface seemed sticky with melted ice cream. Late-summer bees, not easily deterred, nosed their bottles of sunscreen. The dark parts of the sidewalk were too hot to walk on barefoot for more than a few steps. The whole world smelled of chlorine and sugar. A few kids shaded their eyes to stare at Claude. A few pointed and laughed. A few—maybe more than a few—adults raised hands to their mouths and whispered behind them to one another as if, Penn thought as they stared at his family, this masked what they were talking about. A classmate of Rigel and Orion’s ran over to them.