An Excerpt From
You Are One of Them
We went swimming that afternoon, and I can still remember my first glimpse of Jenny underwater. We sank beneath the surface in unison and sat cross-legged in a breath-holding contest on the bottom of the pool. She wore a canary yellow bathing suit and green goggles and I could see her eyes open wide and staring at me, her rival. I forced my eyes open despite the sting of chlorine. From above, the pool looked glassy and hard, a surface that must be broken with force, but below, it was soft and beckoning, a membrane through which light sieved like sugar. The sunlight webbed across Jenny’s skin and through her hair, giving it a reddish tint. Suddenly, she stuck out her tongue. My laughter forced me up for air. “I win!” Jenny announced as she triumphed from below.
Mrs. Jones asked about my family. What did my dad do, she wanted to know.
“He lives in London,” I said.
“London, England? Gosh, that’s far away,” she said.
“They’re divorced,” I said. And though divorce was not uncommon in our Washington circles, Mrs. Jones looked shocked. I liked her innocence: troubled thoughts rushed across her face like clouds and were gone just as quickly. She was a clear sky.
“What about your mom? What does she do?”
“She works for nuclear disarmament,” I said.
It was only after my father left that my mother had begun to worry about nuclear war. The good thing was that she started leaving the house to attend disarmament meetings. She got over her fear of the dark so that she could turn our basement into a fallout shelter. She mapped out scenarios, calculating the reach of the radioactive fallout if the blast hit Kansas City, say, or Washington. She drew ominous red circles in our Rand-McNally to mark the circumference of destruction. At the kitchen table, the hanging lamp created a tunnel of light under which she envisioned doom. She’d press her slide rule across swaths of U.S. territory.
I liked to flip the atlas to the Soviet Union, its borders drawn in a muted red. I couldn’t even fit the top of my pinkie inside Luxembourg, but could press both of my palms onto the Soviet sprawl. The Russians fascinated me. My mother and I watched clips of Brezhnev on the evening news—his chest clotted with medals, his eyebrows bristling under his fur hat—but it was ordinary Russians I was curious about. Moscow, as the capital of the other Superpower, struck me as Washington’s twin. Was there an eight-year-old girl somewhere in Moscow whose sister had also died, whose father had also left?