It was the summer all the children in the neighborhood caught a virus.
One by one they were felled for a week that involved buckets next to beds and cool towels to swab foreheads and mouths. Their mothers speculated the origin, placing silent blame on Suzie Epstein’s fifteenth birthday party, where Sarah Epstein, derailed by an argument with her estranged husband that took place in the front driveway of their home during the party, left twenty or so unattended teenagers to open all the cans of soda in the cooler and cut the cake, sharing forks and drinks and saliva with abandon. The bug spread so fast that Suzie Epstein’s party had taken on the mythic proportions of a bacchanalia, the gossip chain now fueled by exhausted women whose nostrils were lined with the sour smell of their children’s vomit.
In the evenings, when stomachs had quieted before the next bout began, women gathered on front stoops. If you looked down the street at dusk you would see an uneven trail of red dots, like a runway lit by a madman. Mothers, solitary and weary smokers, afraid to spread the germs to each others’ homes, called from porch to porch to check on the wellness of the children contained within. How’s Frankie? Ruthie? Bella? Peter? Did Mindy get it too? Has the fever broken yet? Do you need extra buckets? I’ll leave some on your porch.
They drifted off to sleep to the disembodied voices of their mothers floating through the open bedroom windows as they lay twisted in pastel sheets, now slightly damp from their fevers, their stomachs hollow and their ribs aching.
By that first crack of daylight, as most of their fathers left for the train station, newspapers landed on doorsteps next to a pile of cigarette butts, and often a lone empty glass where the ghost of foam stuck to the rim. Milk soured in boxes and the deliveries were reduced from two days to one because no one felt well enough to drink milk, let alone dunk a cookie. It would be weeks before real food had any appeal: vacations got canceled, sleep away camp and swim lessons and summer jobs were missed. In the glare of late July, as most of them recovered slowly, they left their houses in the mornings stepping onto unusually quiet streets, squinting into the sun, their arms, legs and chests pale as December.
Sam was among the last to get sick, which surprised him because Suzie Epstein had been first, probably adding to the rumor of guilt. In truth, Suzie and Sam had missed the birthday cake and the cola. From where they were sitting in the basement, in the room where Mr. Epstein had been living before he moved out, they could hear their friends singing Happy Birthday unaware or uncaring that Suzie wasn’t present. Thigh touching thigh, they sat on the floor, their backs against the bed, as Suzie showed Sam the box of photographs that she had found hidden in the closet way on the top shelf covered with woolen ski sweaters patterned with snowflakes. The photographs were stored in a dented Buster Brown shoebox, the lid ripped at the corners, mended with ample amounts of scotch tape.
Suzie placed the box gently on Sam’s lap. Due to the proximity of her bare brown thighs against his own, he was grateful for the extra coverage. “Here,” Suzie sighed as Sam lifted the lid. Like she knew too well what he was about to see. The sound escaping from her lips would be something Sam forever associated with anticipation and disappointment.
Clara Stevens, Mindy’s mother, was the first face Sam recognized. She was on the bench by the little kids swing in Westside Park, laughing into the camera. It looked like a totally normal picture except that her skirt had gathered at the top of her thighs so a triangle of her underpants was slightly exposed.
Esther Newman, Ruthie and Celia’s mother, was next. Her photo showed her in the Epstein’s’ pool, her floral bikini top bright, her arms blurry, splashing water at the photographer. Sam lifted each photo slowly, curious of the mother he would encounter next, and a little afraid to see his own mother included in Mr. Epstein’s bizarre collection. The photos certainly weren’t worthy of the Playboy magazines John and Sam had discovered in John’s basement, where Mr. Ross had hid them behind the non-working toilet. But he did wonder what Mr. Ross would think of his own bikini-wearing wife sitting with her legs crossed at the ankles on the edge of the Epstein’s’ diving board.
The exceptions to the photographs were Mrs. Chang, who was older than their mothers, and had adopted Peter when he was five; Mrs. Spade, Bella’s mother, who had been in and out of the hospital for as long as Sam could remember; Mrs. Epstein, who Sam didn’t expect to see; and his own mother. Every other mother in the neighborhood was here.
Sam fanned the photos out in his hand as if Suzie and he were about to play a round of cards before he dropped them back into the box. Suzie replaced the lid and took the box from his lap and went back over to the closet. She climbed on the chair and raised her arms above her head and when she did her t-shirt lifted too and Sam could see the underside of her bathing suit top where her breasts swelled away from her narrow torso.
When Suzie was done she sat back down next to him. Sam turned his head; about to ask her what she thought the box of photographs meant, when her face collided with his. Her mouth missed his that initial attempt, then their teeth hit painfully and then somehow their lips were firmly pressed together. Sam couldn’t say who opened his or her mouth first, but as soon as he felt Suzie’s tongue against his Sam’s entire body was hot all over. His hands were down at his sides, as were Suzie’s, and so they leaned awkwardly toward each other, connected only by their lips and then their tongues. Sam didn’t even know how long it lasted. Longer than when Bella Spade and he had been locked in Peter Chang’s closet during a game of Seven Minutes in Heaven and longer than the kisses he’d received from Mindy, Ruthie and Celia during games of Spin the Bottle.
He didn’t know how much longer they would have gone on kissing had they not heard Mr. Epstein’s tires squeal against the drive as he backed out of the driveway, signifying that before long that Mrs. Epstein’s attention would once again be focused on the birthday party, and specifically Suzie’s absence from it.
When Suzie pulled back Sam thought she would be embarrassed. Instead she smiled at him, her chin tucked to her chest. He noticed for the first time that she had a constellation of freckles on her left cheek that formed the letter S.
“Happy Birthday,” Sam sputtered, suddenly unable to think of anything to say. He had known Suzie so long they had swum naked in each other’s kiddie pools when they were toddlers.
“Thanks,” Suzie whispered, her lips puffy and shiny from their saliva.
As it turned out they could have stayed in the basement with their mouths attached for all the attention Mrs. Epstein paid them. Sam had come up before Suzie, and saw Mrs. Epstein do nothing more than glance at the destroyed birthday cake before she slipped through the sliding glass doors and disappeared into the kitchen. He doubted she even noticed the clouds of yellow and blue frosting from the food fight floating in the pool like phosphorescent lily pads. She didn’t bother to close the heavy glass doors all the way behind her, even though when Mr. Epstein lived there he could be heard shouting at Suzie and her brothers to close the door behind them, that he was tired of air conditioning the outdoors. Sam watched Mrs. Epstein take a bottle of vodka from the cabinet over the refrigerator and pour herself a juice glass full that she tossed back in one angry shot. When she was done she gagged a little, dropping the glass into the sink and holding the back of her hand against her mouth.
After that Mrs. Epstein moved further into the deep, dark coolness of the Epstein family home and she never emerged again, even as Suzie was opening her presents.
The second time Mr. Epstein caused a scene in the driveway of the Epstein family home, the neighborhood was still under siege by the virus and was unusually quiet for the middle of a summer day. Later their mothers wondered aloud how Mrs. Epstein could be so caught off guard, as the German motor of Mr. Epstein’s diesel Mercedes Benz heralded his arrival, enough to cause them to stop their various activities: hanging the laundry, changing the bed linens, deciding what, if anything, was needed for dinner, so that they all tensed and wondered if they should call and see if Sarah Epstein needed them. But they didn’t. Sam didn’t know if it had anything to do with the existence of the photographs, but even his mother stayed inside that day while Mr. Epstein, from the driveway, his Mercedes still running, called his wife a drunk and threatened to report her to the police for child neglect if she didn’t let him in the house to get his things.
When Mrs. Epstein had had enough she called the police, a fact she told Mr. Epstein from the front door, but then Mr. Epstein punched his fist through the screen door. Mrs. Epstein was faster. She slammed the inside door before he could unlatch the screen door. Everyone could hear him cursing that she had broken his fingers. When the police arrived Mr. Epstein was still standing on the front lawn, shouting, and holding his throbbing digits. The police had to threaten to club him to get him to leave.
Sam was still sick then, too weak to get out of bed and look out the window. The shouting, though, woke him from a fever dream. The ice chips in the glass his mother had left on his nightstand had melted. Before he fell back to sleep Sam wondered if Suzie was home, if she was still sick, if she was sitting in the basement looking through the pictures and thinking that was what her father had come to collect. One thing was for sure: he wasn’t there for Suzie and her brothers.
ROBIN ANTALEK is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010) chosen as a Target Breakout Book and the forthcoming The Grown Ups (William Morrow 2015). Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown and collected in the following anthologies, The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in Salon, 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. She has twice been a finalist in Glimmertrain Magazine, as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
You can visit her site @ www.robinantalek.com , facebook.com/AuthorRobinAntalek
Author photo credit: Jill Cowburn
Adapted for The Grown Ups by Robin Antalek. Copyright 2015 by Robin Antalek with permission of the publisher: William Morrow, Harper Collins.