Although I'd been relieved of Jimmy duty by then, on the hottest days my mother would suggest that I take him swimming. This was the mountaintop of my years as a teenage reprobate, so I huffed around as if I'd been asked to give Jimmy my kidney. "How could you ask such a thing?" I said. "Why don't you take him?" Of course, we didn't belong to a pool and he could only go on my guest pass. Long gone was the impulse I had as a kid to say "If you want me on your team, you have to take my brother." I was determined not to miss out on the afternoon's fun or to be excluded from the evening's plans, since arrangements weren't made on the phone but at the snack bar by those present. I begged to go alone and won.
As evidence that we sometimes pay for our youthful indiscretions, I now beg Jimmy to go swimming with me, and lose every time. He's either afraid of drowning, or reminded of those sweltering days he was left behind. He won't as much as stick a toe in the water.
My poor parents didn't know what hit them. They fought back as they saw me become a second-class student and a first-class social butterfly. There were no signs yet that I was headed to Washington. There were no signs yet that I was headed anywhere. I was still a bookworm, and the nuns taught us Catholic writers first (I have an uncommon knowledge of the works of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc) and others like Theodore Dreiser (they must have thought Sister Carrie took place in a convent). Catcher in the Rye was sweeping the country, but I didn't hear of it until I was a freshman in college. As with Henry Adams, "my education had not yet begun."
Despite my social aspirations, I never became the belle of the ball. I had a lot of friends for someone who was by no stretch cool. I didn't have a car, I didn't even have a license until I was eighteen, and there were strict rules about whose car I could ride in. I was still dressing as if my mother had veto power. When I got cut from basketball (I wasn't as tall as I thought), I sublimated my disappointment by going out with the captain of the boys' team, which made for an odd sight since we were separated by more than a foot in height. Yet my parents approved. Victor had been an altar boy at St. Theresa's.
I spent a lot of time trying to make my parents presentable. Because my mother was such a fanatical homemaker, we had some touches of the gentility I aspired to: linen napkins with hand-sewn handkerchief borders, Nouvelle Cuisine (when it was Old), a garden full of vegetables, fresh bread every day. But I obsessed over her deficiencies: Why didn't we get The New Yorker? (A nun had given me a copy, and I took to reading it in the library.) When could we go skiing? I was grateful the shellacked jigsaw puzzle had migrated to the basement, but why did we have a tacky picture of John Kennedy on the wall? I begged my mother to get highlights in her hair so it wouldn't look as though she'd colored it with shoe polish. (By the time she did, she was a teacher's assistant at my little brother's nursery school and one of the children shrieked, "Mrs. B., Mrs. B., you finally washed your hair!") If she wanted me to wear anything she made, I announced, she would have to give up crocheting, learn how to knit, and remove from her fabric stash all but 100 percent natural fibers.