When I was seven, in second grade, we had a snow day. There were more of them then, more snow. My mom worked, so I spent the day at Lissa Davis’s house. Lissa and I weren’t friends exactly; in fact, we didn’t really get along that well. She was smart—smarter than any seven-year-old has a right to be. And she was, even at seven, a fox, with lushly dark curls and eyes and a precociously intense brow. So to sum up the nature of our relationship: I was feverishly attracted to her, and she tolerated it.
I was poor and dirty. My mother drank and did drugs—pills, hoards of them. The one time I brought anybody over to our apartment—Diana Booker, our school’s one foster child, already five feet tall and developing, the word for breasts back then, who picked her nose as she stared eerily at you staring at her—when we walked in the door after school, my mother stumbled out of the kitchen in her underwear and a little tank top to greet us, a Miller High Life in her hand. I was six. I’m 37 now, I live alone, and I can count on one hand the times I’ve made the mistake of having anyone over again.
Lissa Davis lived on Howe Street in Shadyside. Hers was the first house I was ever in that was detached from other houses, a red-brick castle swallowed up in ivy. Her parents were history professors at the University of Pittsburgh. Years later I would learn the word academic. The Davises, John and Joan, were academics. In their bedroom, at the wall opposite their bed, were two matching sinks. Bathroom sinks, only this was their bedroom, and there were two of them, his and hers, for teeth-brushing and washing up. I’d never seen anything like it before. Lissa bragged that her parents hated each other, and I took her word for it, sensing she knew more about these things than I did. That a husband and wife—graying around the edges, submerged [End Page 119] utterly in a time and culture that bore little resemblance to the present—should find and loathe and never leave each other seemed to me as natural as the ivy devouring the mortar of their home.
The Davises were always pleasant to me in their absent way, a way that made me feel invisible or like I wished I was. If I was already there, they would invite me to eat dinner with them, an invitation not without a price, and to which I recall saying yes only once. Their dining room was a dank cathedral, gloomy and vast, unheatable; I shivered as we ate, a family and its stray. The only sounds were the cat-scratch of forks on thin china, our sneakers scraping the wood floor beneath our chairs, and the ringing of distance kept, cultivated really, all around the table. The forks were real silver, but tarnished, the prongs bent at odd angles, and we ate real steak instead of Steakums. Behind me threatened a wall of books, floor to ceiling. On the opposite wall was an upright piano on which Lissa and I would sometimes bang out “Für Elise,” and next to the piano, a window seat covered in decimated Sunday Times and old New Yorkers. The dingy stained-glass window let no light in. There were no pets, just a couple of spider plants dropping dull brown daggers on the Oriental rug.
Dessert was chocolate ice cream, Häagan Dazs, which Lissa’s mother took a conspicuously long time doling out in the kitchen. Dr. Davis asked us, finally, how was school? Lissa looked at him like he was the stupidest man she’d met to date, and replied, “We didn’t have school today. Remember? There was a blizzard?” To which he responded, “Oh, right,” and returned to pushing his dithering knoll of ice cream around in its bowl. Mrs. Dr. Davis asked if we thought we’d have school tomorrow. She had a high, frightened voice that aimed to please...