by Robert Sachs
Lenny overhears his mother tell his father that Irene is adopted. The news makes him sit up in his bed. Adopted. Until now, Lenny knew no one who was adopted. Irene’s mother had confided the secret to his mother. And while he is surprised, he wonders why it needs to be a secret. Should he ask Irene about it, ask how she feels about it?
Irene arrived at his middle school from the southwest side, spoke infrequently and kept mostly to herself. She wore her pitch-black hair down, un-teased, un-sprayed and longer than the hair of any of the other girls in 7A. Her cornflower blue eyes, which seem to him suffused with sadness, fascinate Lenny. She wears oversized flannel shirts and loose jeans. Her lips have color enough to make it appear as if she were wearing lipstick, and Lenny wonders whether those impassive lips conceal a frown or a smile or something completely unknown to him; such is the garland of mystery encircling her.
She is beautiful, but to Lenny she seems, if not indifferent to her beauty, then burdened by it. The fawning of the most popular boys elicits from her something less spirited than displeasure—as if she wouldn’t waste that emotion on them. She refuses to join the girls’ clubs, preferring, Lenny supposes, to be alone. And now, he knows something about her that no one else knows.
Because she moved into the apartment next to his and maybe because his mother quickly befriended hers, Irene—four months his junior—treats Lenny like a family member, like a little brother. She calls him Leonard, the way his mother does. They spend recess together talking about routine topics: a boy in eighth grade that called her one night: ‘I didn’t even know who he was, for God’s sake. Did he really expect me to go to the movies with him?’ Or about math class or the Cubs or what they want to be when they grow up. Irene wants to be an architect. Lenny doesn’t know what he wants to be, but he tells Irene he wants to be a lawyer.
When he asks her how she liked the school in her old neighborhood, her response is vague. ‘Alright, I guess. Mostly a bunch of losers. I grew up in the neighborhood. It was like a small town: everybody knew everybody else’s business. I got tired of the talk.’
Lenny must have made a sound, maybe the bed creaked, or maybe it was just that sense reserved to mothers that causes her at that moment to walk into his bedroom. ‘You were listening, Leonard?’
He feigns sleep, but she ignores the ruse.
‘So you know. But now you mustn’t say a word about this to anyone. Do you understand?’
Lenny opens his eyes and props himself up on one elbow. ‘But why is it such a deep, dark secret?’
‘Because Irene doesn’t know and her parents don’t want her to know.’
‘Leonard, do I have your word of honor on this?’
‘Absolutely no one. And especially not Irene. Do you understand?’
‘Yes. I understand. No one.’
Laying in his bed, Lenny’s mind flips through images of Irene much as he’d flip through a pile of baseball cards. There she is standing in the snow in front of their apartment building, waiting to walk with him to school. There she is in the spring in the middle of the street with a bat on her shoulder waiting for his pitch. There they both are in a booth at Cooper & Coopers waiting for the bag of French fries they will douse with catsup and share. There they are again on Saturday morning on the Ravenswood ‘L,’ going downtown to see a movie. And now he knows something about his friend that she herself doesn’t know—a major, major secret he has vowed to share with no one. What will happen when he sees her next? He worries she’ll see it on his face. Would she say, Why are you looking at me like that?
It occurs to Lenny just then to wonder also if he would know if he had been adopted. Would his parents tell him, or would they be like Irene’s parents? How would it change his life? If it were he, he decides, he’d look for his real mother and father. How can you live without knowing who they were and why they gave you up? He wonders what it was about Irene’s biological parents that was so bad her mother and father didn’t want her to know.
Here in Lenny’s neighborhood, pimply eighth grade boys with big eyes, ducktail haircuts and leather jackets—the Class of ’52—sidle up to Irene in the schoolyard. They say things meant to impress her, but she just looks at them without expression and, taking Lenny’s arm, walks away in silence. He is aware that she isn’t romantically attracted to him, that having him around is protection of sorts against unwanted intrusions, and he is willing to act as this buffer as long as it keeps him close to her. Who knows, he tells himself, something might one day develop.
Now, on the edge of sleep, he wonders about Irene. Was English her native tongue? She could have been born in a foreign country or on the West Coast or found in a cornfield wrapped in swaddling clothes? And now that he knows something about her that few others share—certainly no one else in school—he finds her all the more irresistible. Maybe her sad eyes reflect the unconscious loss of her biological—Lenny wants to say “real”—parents. He wonders a lot about Irene and he falls asleep to the pleasant rhythm of her voice; the way she says Leonard, not like the accusation in his mother’s voice, more like a spiritual incantation. Something you’d say while lighting a candle.
Near the end of eighth grade, Lenny says, ‘So let’s go to the graduation dance together.’ They are walking home from school and have just reached their yellow brick apartment building. It is something he’s rehearsed for several days. He doesn’t want it to sound like a question. Not, ‘Will you go to the dance with me?’ But a statement one friend might say to another.
‘I’m surprised you want to go,’ she says. ‘It seems like a big bore.’
‘No, it’ll be fun. We don’t have to stay the whole time.’
She looks at him with those sad eyes, tilts her head to the side and says: ‘Sure.’
For the dance, Irene wears a long black dress. When they walk into the gymnasium—the first time she has entered the school in anything but flannel and denim—there is an immediate buzz and heads turn. Irene has never looked more beautiful. Lenny does his best to avoid showing his delight at being Irene’s date for the evening; he is feeling taller and better looking than he has a right to be. Lindy Lou Petersen, a lanky blonde with the figure of a swimmer, has brought as her date Buddy Simon, a high school sophomore. It doesn’t take Lenny long to notice that while dancing with Lindy Lou, Buddy has his eyes on Irene. Lenny impulsively pulls Irene closer to him as they do a simple two-step. She smiles at him and moves even closer. The touch of her sends his body quaking. He feels himself getting hard and says, ‘Let’s sit for a while.’ Red-faced, he walks her quickly to a table where they sit out several dances.
Over the summer, Irene is in South Haven with her parents, while Lenny stays home, working four days a week as a stock boy in a local shoe store. He writes her a letter about how boring it is in Chicago and how he wishes he could be with her. Irene’s response is cheery and expository about life in her beachfront cottage, but it doesn’t contain an invitation to visit.
She returns near the end of the summer with a deep tan. With her long black hair, Lenny imagines her as a Pacific Islander. ‘Happy to see you,’ she says to him, and then she hugs him and kisses him on the mouth. It is a quick kiss, impetuous perhaps, in front of both sets of parents, and while it lacks the sensuality Lenny longs for, he takes it as a sign that their friendship has survived the summer separation.
‘High school, next Monday,’ he says. ‘Orientation at eight. Ring my bell when you’re ready to go.’ Lenny tries to be matter-of-fact, forcing himself to assume Irene would want to walk with him to high school as she had to middle school.
Irene says, ‘Sure.’
During the first semester, they are in different home rooms. They see each other in the halls and at lunch. He can tell she is loosening up, developing a few friends, and while Lenny is happy to see this happen, he is also worried that it will one day mean the end of their special relationship.
At some point during the second semester, Irene decides it is up to her to find a girl for Lenny. ‘She’s nice looking,’ she says. Or, ‘Wouldn’t you like to know her better?’ At first he thinks it’s funny, but soon he becomes embarrassed and saddened by her efforts. He feels she is doing this to make it clear she is his friend and not his girl. Does she think he doesn’t know that? He soon sees it as a tragedy—the girl you love setting her sights on finding you a girl to love.
‘Here’s what you have to do,’ she tells him once when they are alone in her parents’ apartment watching American Bandstand. ‘Be confident. Look the girl you’re talking to in the eye. You can be funny; use this humor to…’
‘I don’t need you to do this for me, Irene,’ he interrupts. ‘Knock it off.’
Oh God,’ she says. ‘You’re a homo. I had no idea.’
‘Funny,’ he says. ‘Go screw yourself.’ He has never before said that to a girl and it shocks him when he hears himself say it to Irene.
She only laughs. ‘Don’t get your balls in an uproar, Leonard. I was joking.’
‘Ha, ha,’ he says and leaves her apartment.
In their junior year, Lenny notices a marked change in Irene. The long talks walking home with her dwindle and then stop. She is suddenly more seductive. She begins wearing eye shadow, lipstick, and tight sweaters. Skirts replace jeans. She swears often and smokes cigarettes, as if this will make her look older, sophisticated. For whom is she doing this? Certainly not him.
It turns out it is for Peter Knowles, the young Social Studies teacher. In his class, she raises her hand and waves it in a way that makes her breasts bobble. She is always asking questions. Always staying until the other kids have gone on. She leaves notes for him. Lenny hears this from his friend Jimmy Blalock and realizes it is as obvious to everyone else as it is to him. He becomes depressed. The thought of Mr. Knowles taking advantage of Irene affects his appetite, churns his stomach. He experiences the first headaches of his young life.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Lenny asks one weekend, confronting her in the alley behind their apartment house.
‘I love him,’ she says. ‘I can’t help myself.’
‘That’s bullshit. He’s married. He’s at least fifteen years older than you, maybe twenty. You’re making a fool of yourself. And you’re being so obvious; everyone’s noticed.’
‘Fuck everyone. Fuck you too if you can’t understand.’ She is leaning against a cherry tree that had grown through the back fence of their apartment house, separating one part of the fence from the other.
Lenny starts to cry. He loves her and she loves Mr. Knowles. He wants to hit her. He picks up a stone and throws it angrily along the alley. ‘I know something about you that you don’t. Something important,’ he says, wiping his eyes. He knows this is wrong. He knows it won’t help matters.
‘Sure,’ she says and turns to walk away.
‘I’ve been sworn to secrecy.’
Irene turns back to him. ‘About what?’
‘I’m not saying.’
‘Then why the hell did you bring it up?’ she says, moving closer to him. And then: ‘You’re not the only one with secrets.’
Irene is not at school the following Monday and Lenny feels he no longer has the right to knock on her door or ring her bell. That evening, he mentions Irene’s absence to his mother, but she looks away and changes the subject.
When Lenny comes home from school the next afternoon, there is a moving van in front of the apartment house. The furniture from Irene’s apartment is being loaded on the truck, but neither Irene nor her parents are around. All this, he says to himself, because she found out she was adopted. Did she run away from home? Did she move somewhere with her parents? Lenny blames himself. If only he hadn’t gotten mad and broke the oath he swore to his mother.
His mother refuses to talk about it. She isn’t blaming Lenny. ‘Why would I?’ she asks him. ‘It isn’t your fault.’
It makes no sense. Of course it is his fault. If he hadn’t said anything about the secret, Irene wouldn’t have known, she wouldn’t have asked. But is Irene so upset and embarrassed that they have to leave the neighborhood?
‘Heard about your friend,’ Jimmy Blalock says to Lenny in the lunchroom the next afternoon.
‘Not interested in what you’ve heard; she’s gone and that’s the end of it. Maybe when she calms down, she’ll come back.’
Jimmy says, ‘What are you talking about, man? They’ll never let her back in.’
Lenny doesn’t respond. He doesn’t want to get into a discussion about what had happened. And he definitely doesn’t want anyone knowing that he was the catalyst that set everything in motion. Besides, he thinks, no one knows why the news hit her so hard. Could have been embarrassment that others knew before she did. Could have been anger at her parents for not telling her. Most definitely she was angry with Lenny for saying what he did, trying to hurt her.
‘Heard they moved her out of state,’ Jimmy continues. ‘Heard she wants to have the baby. Pretty-boy Knowles is history.’
Lenny feels unsteady, as if the ground under him shifted. ‘You okay, Len?’ Jimmy asks, touching his arm.
Lenny, saying nothing, turns and leaves the building. He walks to the drainage canal behind the school, ducks under the bridge and walks along the narrow bank of the canal for nearly a mile, until it drains into the North Branch of the Chicago River. Along the way he fills his pockets with stones. He sits on a concrete pillar and throws the stones as hard as he can, one by one, into the river until his arm hurts and they are gone.
Robert Sachs’ fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Free State Review, the Great Ape Journal, and the Delmarva Review among others. He holds an MFA. in Creative Writing from Spalding University. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. His story, Yo-Yo Man, was a Fiction Finalist in the 2019 Tiferet Writing Contest. His story, Old Times, was the Fiction Winner in the 2021 Tiferet Writing Contest.