New York, 1966
When my sister Helene was thirteen she was obsessed with spies, and read as much as she could about them. For an outsider, it might’ve seemed like her preoccupation was unusual, that it was surprising for a black girl from Queens to know so much and have such strong feelings about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. For me, that was simply who she was.
Our father’s closest friend, Mr. Ali, was a Fed and when she started grilling him about his work, to his credit, he took her seriously. He answered her questions thoughtfully, treating her like a potential agent instead of dismissing her as a girl child. It was through their conversations that she decided she didn’t want to be a spy because she didn’t want to be anyone’s lackey. She wanted to run them.
Every summer, the three of us (me, my sister, and our Airedale Bunny) would stay at our grandfather’s in Brooklyn for a few weeks. When Goldfinger came out we went to see it at the Sumner Theatre, which was in walking distance of his brownstone. While I’d thought it was sexy and cool and a little scary, she’d thought it was ridiculous. She said Ian Fleming was no match for John Le Carré, whose spy novels were advertised as the real thing. He was in MI6, she’d said, eyes shining.
I’ve since read the Le Carré biography that argues he was interested in spies and secret lives because his father was a confidence man and a professional liar. I think that conclusion was drawn too neatly—people are too complex for such simple arithmetic—but I understand the purpose it serves. Our mother could pass for white; she could hide in plain sight. And then one day she suddenly she left us, and that is all a spy does—they hide in plain sight, and once they’ve exploited all they can from their relationships, they leave. I know what would’ve been written in Helene’s biography.
Our grandfather sent us to a black day camp run by St. John’s Rec Center in Prospect Heights. We were given yellow T-shirts with St. John’s Camp on them, and green plastic totes in which to keep our lunch and bathing suits and whatever money we had. At thirteen, Helene she felt she was too grown up for St. John’s, but went because she was popular there and because I liked it so much. They took us on field trips; my favorites were the ones to McCarren pool, in Williamsburg, on the other side of Brooklyn.
Both Helene and I could swim; that we should know how to was one of the few things our parents agreed on, Agathe because she was from an island, and Pop because he’d learned at the Harlem Y. Growing up near a pool that black folks could use was one of the privileges he’d had that made him think of his childhood as a lucky one.
As I was sitting at the edge of the pool, tucking my pressed hair up under my bathing cap, running footsteps drummed behind me. I turned to see two boys my age jump in; while one of them bobbed up immediately, the other took so long to ascend that it scared me. Inwardly I chided myself: He’s fine. Don’t be so afraid. Still, when the boy broke the surface coughing and laughing, gems of water slipping out of his black hair, I was relieved.
I climbed down the ladder, tread water for a bit, then tentatively dog-paddled along the edge of the pool toward the deep end, avoiding the groups of kids who were shrieking and laughing as they played. I was almost to the far wall of the pool when I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders. They dunked me under. I flailed in the water, sending off plumes of bubbles as I tried to fight the hands off. Through the pool’s haze I recognized Rhonda’s worn-out green bathing suit.
Rhonda was probably twelve that summer. The hardness of her features, her sinewy neck, and the scars on her legs made her look rough, but she also always wore bows in her hair and floral dresses under her yellow camp T-shirt. Her appearance is seared into my memory because she picked on me sometimes. Little things mostly: a shove in the back, a yank on one of the braids Helene had done for me. Her behavior wasn’t exactly vicious; it was more like she wanted attention and had run out of good ideas.
I surfaced, coughing, heard a whistle tweet as Rhonda dunked me under again. I scratched her and she recoiled. I got free for a moment and broke the surface of the water. “Rhonda! Stop!”
She laughed and shoved me under a third time. I tried to push her hands off me, but she was much stronger than I was. I fought her until the strength started to course out of me. She was still laughing. I could hear it, muffled and coming from far above.
Helene’s skinny legs sliced into the water, causing a surge of bubbles. She tackled Rhonda, and I floated up to the surface of the pool, limply paddled to the closest ladder, and pulled myself out of the water, panting.
Helene pushed Rhonda’s head underwater and kept it there until the lifeguard blew his whistle. She let go and Rhonda bobbed up. As she was climbing out of the pool, my sister, who was just behind her on the ladder, yanked on Rhonda’s ankle, and she tumbled to the concrete pool deck. Helene pulled herself out of the pool and stood over her. A counselor flew to Rhonda’s rescue before Helene could land a punch.
“Calm down!” the counselor shouted at Helene, which never failed to further agitate her.
“You could’ve drowned her!” Helene shrieked.
“I was just playing,” Rhonda said.
“What’s the matter with you? Who plays like that?”
She turned away and came over to where I was sitting. “You okay?”
Still coughing, I nodded.
“You don’t look it.”
“I’m fine,” I said as Rhonda and the counselor approached.
“Listen,” he said to her in front of us. “You can act like that around where you live, but you can’t do that here. Apologize.”
Rhonda muttered that she was sorry. Helene screwed her face up, and I braced myself for an explosion—my sister had an unusual capacity for rage. I didn’t understand all of the reasons for it and never will, but I do know it wasn’t a coincidence that she got into her first fight only a couple of months after Agathe left.
Something unexpected happened though. Her face suddenly relaxed. She took a breath, smiled. She said: “It’s okay. Marie’s all right. Aren’t you?”
I glanced at her, at that point more concerned by the strangeness of her reaction than having nearly drowned. “Yeah.”
As they walked away she touched her head. “Made me get my hair wet,” she muttered, appalled.
A year later, the summer I was twelve began quietly enough. My favorite thing to do when school was out was read. I liked to keep to myself, which isn’t to say I was a disagreeable kid. In general, when people first met me they liked me, and that’s still the case. I close up though when they start getting familiar; I can’t run the risk of caring too deeply about too many people. The result is that I’ve never had very many close friends, but have always excelled at being an acquaintance.
Helene, on the other hand, always had a lot of friends, and she’d started counting Rhonda among them. When we stayed overnight at our grandfather’s house, they’d wander the neighborhood together, and occasionally Rhonda would come all the way out to Queens too, which was so far to travel that she’d usually sleep over. She adored Helene, and had attached herself to my sister with incredible speed and loyalty. If I wondered about what Helene got out of the friendship, I probably settled on it being some exercise in the power of kindness. Whatever she was doing had worked: Rhonda was as sweet as pie to me.
Helene’s best friend was Robbie Young’s sister, Pam. They lived with their uncle Chickie, who worked as a porter somewhere in the city, and his wife, a God-fearing Seventh-day Adventist who saw herself as persecuted for righteousness’ sake because none of the badass kids living up underneath her roof were hers.
Sometimes Helene forced me to go outside, and we’d ride bikes around the neighborhood, or I’d look on as she and some of the other girls jumped double Dutch, too afraid to jump in myself. Pop still worked a lot, and often at odd hours, so it fell to my sister to give me chores, send me on errands, and help me with my homework. My grades were more important to her than her own. She said that was because I was smarter than her, that if I used my brains and got A’s I could make a million bucks.
But Helene was plenty smart. Actually, I think her intelligence was the reason she was barely passing her classes—because so much came naturally to her she couldn’t stand having to apply herself. If she couldn’t understand a concept within twenty seconds, she considered it a waste of time and dismissed it. Being her sister often felt like trying to catch up to someone who was beating you so effortlessly that they weren’t even aware you were trying to compete.
Pop had put up a wall to split the room we’d shared in two, which meant Helene had to pass through mine to get downstairs. One afternoon, as I was sitting at my desk, she came out of her room and asked in French, “What’s that you’re reading? One of the books on the list from your teacher?”
I nodded. I was being skipped ahead to eighth grade, so the school had given me a summer reading list to make sure I didn’t miss any of the hits on the seventh-grade curriculum.
“I’m going over to Chickie’s with Rhonda. Take a break and come outside. You need some fresh air. And I want you to go pick up a few groceries.”
I grudgingly agreed and followed her downstairs where Rhonda was waiting. She’d slept over; the blanket and backpack she’d brought were sitting neatly on the sofa. The three of us left the house, Helene closing the door behind us in Bunny’s disappointed face. Chickie’s house was a few blocks from our own, directly across the street from the neighborhood convenience store that belonged to Mrs. Menoni.
Our neighborhood was full of kids; on the way we passed some of the boys from Helene’s grade, who were shooting craps between two parked cars, the game obscured from the view of any parent that might look out their window.
At Chickie’s house, his two youngest nieces were playing jacks on the front walk while Pam and another girl lounged on the front steps. Helene and Rhonda passed through Chickie’s gate and I continued to Mrs. Menoni’s store.
Mrs. Menoni farmed a small plot in the yard at the front of her property, which may sound odd considering I grew up in Queens, but she’d lived in the neighborhood for so long that I’m sure she could remember when it was all farmland. And when it had all been Italian too; by the time I was growing up, the only ones left were too old or too broke to have joined in on the white flight. Helene’s friend Matt Testaverde’s family fell in the latter category; his father beat him with a belt every time he caught Matt hanging out with the rest of us, but that didn’t stop him.
Inside Mrs. Menoni’s dim, old-fashioned shop, she was sitting on a tall stool behind the counter, swaying gently to the classical music pouring out of the radio on the shelf behind her. She was in her eighties and, as always, was wearing a black dress and shawl. I liked her even though Matt Testaverde said she was a witch. He’d once told me that she could look at any pregnant belly and know the baby’s sex, and that she could put the evil eye on people too.
She smiled when she saw me. “Maria. Come va?”
“Non c’è male. E Lei?” I replied. Not bad. And you?
She laughed as she always did when I spoke in the minimal Italian she’d taught me, and answered, “I’m good.”
I picked out a loaf of bread, a carton of eggs, and onions, and put them on the counter beside a box of wrapped penny candies and a jarful of the Spaldeens we used to play stoopball with. After I’d paid, she pressed a piece of candy into my palm.
“Grazie,” I said, pronouncing all the letters as she’d taught me—graht-zee-a—then walked out of the store, the bread and onions in a paper bag. I heard a bloodthirsty chorus of kids’ voices shouting and jeering, and ran across the street to join the group clumped in Chickie’s front yard.
Helene had Rhonda pinned down on the patchy lawn and was punching her. I called for her to stop, but it was like she was in a fugue state, unaware of anything but the mechanical beating she was giving her friend. No one intervened. Then Helene landed one last punch and stood abruptly, like some kind of internal timer had dinged. By then all of the spectators had fallen quiet. I’d witnessed a lot of fights growing up, even a few where someone was hurt worse than Rhonda, but none had ever struck me as being so strange, or quite so brutal.
“Damn, Helene,” Matt Testaverde said.
She came over to me. She asked, “Did you remember to check the eggs?”
I held out the carton. She opened it, moved each of the eggs around to make sure none were cracked, then gave it back. Her expression was as calm as still water, her face was streaked with dirt and blue chalk dust from the skelly board one of Chickie’s charges had drawn on their front walk.
Rhonda was still curled on the lawn, crying. As we started back toward our house, it was only once we were almost out of earshot that Rhonda got to her feet and weakly threatened to have my sister jumped.
“Your nose is bleeding,” I said to Helene in French. Her lip was split too. She touched the tip of it lightly and sniffed hard at the blood creeping out.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“What happened? What did she do?”
She shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Nothing recently. She tried to drown you though.”
I started to ask what she was talking about before I remembered. “But I thought you all were friends.”
She was amused. “Really?”
Confounded, I turned to her. She put her arm around me as we crossed the street toward our house.
“No, I was practicing something. Spies have to be able to get close to people, then turn on them. Just ’cause I’m not gonna be a spy myself don’t mean I shouldn’t know how to do it. You should never ask someone to do something you can’t.”
Helene opened our side door—it led into the kitchen, which was avocado green and had a large, generically African mask hanging on the wood-paneled wall. I followed her through the house, going first to the living room, where she grabbed Rhonda’s bag and blanket and tossed them out onto the front steps, then to the bathroom where she washed her face. I followed her to the kitchen where she announced she was going to start dinner. I couldn’t get over how calm she was. Holding up one of the onions I’d bought, she said in French, “Cut this for me, please? And set the table. After that go get your book. You can read it down here.”
Helene was at the range when our father came home. He was wearing his uniform. “Smells great!” he said cheerfully.
His good mood deflated the second he noticed her split lip. He lifted her chin and held it firmly in place. “What happened here?”
“Nothing,” she said as she tried to push his hand away.
“I told you already I’m tired of this.” He let her go and she turned back to the stove.
“You don’t have nothing to say for yourself?” He watched her back as she silently ladled rice onto a plate.
His voice was full of malice when he said, “No, of course you don’t. Just like your damn mother.”
He turned to me. “Marie take your food upstairs. I need to talk to your sister.”
I left the kitchen and hid on the staircase to eavesdrop on him shouting at her. Pop was furious. Her behavior reflected badly on him, he said, and he was going to do something about it. She didn’t say a word, but at one point in his tirade I heard her shriek—it sounded involuntary and made me think he’d hit her. Scared, I ran up to my room and read at my desk until I heard Helene on the stairs.
I looked up from the book. Her eyes were red and her face was puffy. I asked, “What happened?”
“He said if I’m gonna act so much like Maman I might as well go live with her.” She went to her door. “He’s sending me to Martinique.”
Before I could respond, her door closed and locked. I couldn’t believe it. How could Pop separate us so abruptly? I went over and knocked on her door, but she didn’t respond.
“When are you going?” I called.
She put on some music. Turned it up loud. The wall was thin—she did that sometimes when she didn’t want me to hear her cry.
I missed Helene more than I ever had Agathe. Or maybe the way I missed my sister was simply less bearable—the difference between the sharp pain that takes you to the hospital and the dull ache you can ignore because you’ve always had it. I’d felt like I needed to be insulated against my mother—in the five years since she’d left, I’d spoken to her only occasionally, far less than my sister did.
But I wrote Helene once a week and spoke to her as much as I could, even though an overseas call was an expensive rigmarole back then (you had to book it through the operator and get rung back when the call was ready). That was when I first learned that Agathe owned a cattle farm with one of our uncles—a farm! I couldn’t picture it.
I felt guilty about Helene’s banishment—she’d gotten in that fight with Rhonda because of me. And I was lonely without her; she was without question my best friend. But I resented her too. She’d been rewarded for her bad behavior with an extended Caribbean vacation, and I thought Helene was the only one of us who was welcome at our mother’s, which triggered that old childhood jealousy.
When Pop picked her up from the airport and returned her to our house in Queens six months later, she had a golden suntan and was ostensibly reformed. She walked through the door and said, “Jesus, neither of you know how to use a broom?”
It was true that the household had fallen into shambles while she was gone. I hugged her hard as Pop came through the door behind her. She handed us both small parcels wrapped in newspaper—always a practical gift giver, instead of souvenir tchotchkes, she’d brought Pop back a Swiss Army knife that he still has, and gave me a little red address book that I kept for years.
And later that night, when I was in bed, I asked her in French how it had been down there. We could hear each other through the wall, and sometimes it was easier to be honest when we couldn’t see each other.
“It was fine. Good.”
“What else do you want me to say?”
“What was it like being with her?”
“Nice. She took care of me. Made pancakes sometimes. And she took me to the beach. Not all the time though, don’t be jealous. There’s a lot of work to do on a farm.”
“A farm. With animals and everything?”
“Of course. Cows and chickens.”
“I can’t picture it. I can only see her here, you know? In the city. In the kitchen when we came home from school. Or in Ohrbach’s that time when she bought me that nice coat with the toggles. Or the three of us in the button store on Delancey.”
She started to laugh, and I knew why. I said, “You thinking about that thing I did with the sample button?”
Every wall in that button store had been lined with shelves, and stacked on each were thousands of two-inch tall cardboard boxes. Glued to each box was a sample of the button inside. They were organized by color; the effect was surreally beautiful. The samples were as appealing to me as candy, so once when no one was looking I’d ripped a round button off a box, and not knowing what to do with it once I had it, shoved it up my nose. I was six. It had seemed reasonable.
I remember a young clerk in a yarmulke holding my face and trying to claw it out of my nose, while a second one, fat, suspendered, his face red, had shouted, No! Get her to blow. Put a finger over her nostril and get her to blow it out! My sister hysterical with laughter, my mother frozen with mortification.
“You never did stuff like that,” she said, still giggling. “Maman got so mad at me for laughing, but I couldn’t help it.”
“Helly, are you glad to be back in Queens?”
It took her a few long moments to answer. “Yeah. I’m glad I’m here.”
It seemed obvious she was lying, which upset me. If she’d wanted to stay in Martinique, then she should’ve stayed. Sometimes I still worry that she came back out of obligation to me—out of guilt—and feel awful for taking her away from a place that made her happy.
Staying in Queens was contingent on her behavior, so Helene committed to being good. At least that’s how it looked to everyone else. She did better in school, just well enough to stay out of trouble. She joined the cheerleading squad and started dating a basketball player my father strongly approved of. She never got into another fight that I heard about. But I suspected she wasn’t really reformed. I could sense that her new personality was manufactured, and who she’d always been was still present just beneath it. I couldn’t prove it though—how do you expose a dormant sleeper?
From American Spy. Used with permission of Random House. Copyright © 2019 by Lauren Wilkinson.