In the spring of her junior year of high school, just after she had started dating, Rita Whitman’s father decided to reorganize their house. Leo Whitman was a compulsive re-arranger; Rita and her brothers and sisters were used to his Saturday morning moving sessions, to the scrapes and thuds of furniture being dragged around over the din of their favorite cartoons. Sometimes he exchanged one battered sofa for another, sometimes he moved the TV into a different corner of the living room, sometimes he re-shuffled the beds and dressers of their cramped bedrooms. Always, the goal was to create more space, but Rita, at seventeen, knew that there was no longer any way to make space; they were packed to the walls of every room like sardines and the only solution now was for someone to move out, a solution that was still more than a year away in her case. She was the eldest. She would be the first to leave.
Rita and the two oldest of her five brothers, Tommy and Paul, often helped with the rearranging; Leo would assign each of them to the end of a bed or a sofa and call out directions—angle to the right, dip to the left—in a faintly apologetic voice, because he knew that even his older children were too young and skinny-armed to be moving furniture. Rita was in fact the strongest; she could lift the end of a sofa like a man, but her father was uncomfortable asking his daughter to squat and grimace at arm’s length of her brothers. So on the day he decided to make the family living room into a bedroom, with the help of Tommy and Paul, Rita was not home. She did not learn of the change until she came home from school.
She banged open the front door in her usual state of four o’clock aggravation, set to fling herself onto the crumb-covered living room sofa and watch Dark Shadows, but instead she found herself in her parents’ relocated bedroom—their bed still covered with unfolded laundry, a bassinet and changing table in one corner, her father backing into the room, dragging his end of an oak bureau, Tommy and Paul groaning on the other side of it.
“You’ll be using the back door from now on,” Leo told Rita from between his teeth. “We’re giving the boys our bedroom. Your mother’s decided.”
“You’re going to sleep in here?” Rita asked.
“You heard me. Until the addition.”
The addition. Two words that made Rita’s blood boil. Her mother and father had been uttering them for as long as she could remember, usually in hushed voices. In recent years, both parents had begun to pray for the addition at Sunday Mass; the older boys and Rita’s sister Marty were also routinely praying for it, as though with enough prayers, it would begin to build itself. Tommy, who dreamed of becoming an architect, had already made floor plans; Marty had chosen a personal color scheme for the main room—everything in shades of lavender with green accents—her father was planning a huge second bathroom with nine labeled brass hooks—one for every child. Eva Whitman’s dream was for an elaborate playroom with built-in closets and shelves—everything her children would need to play contentedly for hours, days, weeks. She believed that the addition would improve the personality of every child in the family.
They all believed it, everyone but Rita, who saw the addition for what it was—a mirage, something that her mother and father had invented to keep them all from cracking, the way the house itself was cracking at the seams. She knew that nothing about her family’s situation would improve during her final year of living at home. The only home improvement she believed in was her own impending absence.
When she realized that her parents actually intended to sleep in what had only yesterday been the living room, rage made her chest constrict under her pink sweater-blouse. She stormed past her straining father and panting brothers, clomped up the stairs to her bedroom, and confronted her sister, Marty, one year younger than herself. Marty was sitting up on the lower mattress of the bunk bed they shared, surrounded by library books and issues of National Geographic magazine.
“I hate them so much!” Rita cried.
“I loathe them.” Marty agreed quietly. She was whipping up a report on Japanese culture for extra credit in her Geography class. She was always doing something for extra credit, although she was already an A student. She lifted her head. “How did you do on your math quiz today?”
“Have you seen what’s going on downstairs?”
Marty nodded.”Dad wanted me to help, but I told him I was getting a migraine.” Marty’s migraines had given her a kind of special exemption in the life of the family, where everyone else’s headaches were flu-related and ordinary. “I have to completely finish this whole report tonight or it won’t count. What happened with your math quiz?”
“Who cares about my math quiz?” Rita cried. She had failed her third one in a row. “I can’t believe they’re doing this to me! How am I supposed to explain to people that my parents sleep in the living room?”
“It’s only until the summer,” Marty said. ‘Then they’re going to start building the—”
“Don’t even say those words!” Rita screamed, covering her ears. It bothered her most of all that Marty believed there would ever be an addition—Marty who was so smart, so scientific. “They’ve been promising us that stupid addition ever since we were in kindergarten!”
Marty bit her tongue. Unlike her sister, she clung to the belief that her parents could provide this one particular miracle. She needed to see the family on an upward spiral, heading for better days. She pointed out calmly, “They were actually filling out a loan application last week.”
“They’ll be sleeping in the living room, Marty!” Rita shrieked. “And who knows for how long!”
Marty sighed, sympathetic now. “I know. They might as well hang a sign on the front door that says Breeding Area.”
“I won’t be able to invite any of my new friends over here ever again!”
Marty said softly, mournfully, “Lucky for me I don’t have any friends.”
Leo Whitman did hang a hand-lettered sign on the front door, but it said nothing about breeding. Please use the back door, it read. He reiterated the situation at dinner. “From now on, I don’t want any of you kids coming in and out of the house through the front door.”
“And no playing on the porch after school either,” Eva warned. “You’ll wake up the baby.”
“We can’t play on the porch?” Jimmy whined. He was the noisiest of all the boys. The Whitman front porch had become a kind of after-school gathering place for his neighborhood pals.
“Play in the yard,” Eva insisted firmly. “Until we finish the addition.”
“When will construction start?” Marty asked brightly.
“In June,” Eva announced. She pointed grandly toward the rear wall of the kitchen. “A whole new wing on the house, connected from right there.”
The boys whooped; Marty clasped her hands to her chest with joy. Her sideways glance at Rita was meaningful: you should believe.
“Things will be a little inconvenient until then,” Leo added. “We’ll all have to make some sacrifices.”
Rita cornered her father after dinner, once he had settled into his green corduroy recliner, which he had recently moved into what was now a combined living and dining room—couch and chair on one side of the room, dining room table on the other. “Did you actually get the loan for an addition, Dad?” she asked.
Leo, who was not comfortable talking with any of his children about money, lifted his newspaper high and replied from behind it, “None of your business.”
“It is my business,” Rita argued. “You shouldn’t say it’s a sure thing unless it really is. You just keep getting everybody all excited for nothing!”
Eva, eavesdropping, shouted from the kitchen, “Since when do you give out financial advice, Miss Math Whiz?”
Rita drew back, stung, turned on her heel and stomped away.
She found Marty in the bedroom sketching designs for their new bedroom—twin beds with white upholstered headboards, separate desks, matching ceramic reading lamps. “I don’t like curtains,” she decided aloud. “I say those little pastel blinds that we can pull all the way up at night to see the stars.”
“Don’t start,” Rita muttered. “Just don’t even start.” She climbed to the upper bunk, slammed her head against the pillow and added nastily, “You’re starting to sound just like Mom.”
This was a low blow. Her sister went back to thoughtful sketching, but accused softly, “At least I don’t go around attacking people for having dreams.”
“I have a dream,” Rita cried. “You want to hear my dream?”
“How about I get to live in a normal house that’s organized in a normal way, where I can invite friends to sit in the living room with me and watch TV like normal people!”
“Since when did you ever sit in the living room with your friends anyway, Rita?” Marty asked. “I thought your main goal in life was to hide the fact that you even live here.”
Rita had started to softly cry, rocking back and forth in the upper bunk. “I can’t stand the thought of telling people that they can’t come to our front door. I just can’t. It’s like we’re trash. It’s like we’re nothing but trash!”
“Japanese families all sleep in the same room,” Marty said, trying to be helpful. “They have for generations. They use basically the same room for eating and sleeping and—”
“I don’t care what Japanese people do!” Rita cried. “I can’t live like this! They don’t even have the loan yet, Marty. They’re tricking us! You said it yourself. You called it a dream!”
Marty was sorry to see her sister so upset. Despite their differences, they had an unspoken pact never to add to each other’s miseries. She made an effort to change the subject. “I can help you with your math homework once I finish this,” she suggested, a coded way of offering to do Rita’s homework.
But Rita couldn’t stop crying; she broke into a new round of sobs each time she imagined herself telling a prospective date not to come to the front door. Below her, Marty quietly began her sister’s math homework, completing even the story problems, carefully imitating Rita’s more careless handwriting.
Rita assumed that her mother was unaffected by her growing contempt, and it was true that Eva Whitman had built up an immunity to Rita’s temper, as she had to other irritants in her life—the baby’s constant ear infections, the boys’ endless fighting, her husband’s incompetence at repair. But Rita’s reaction to the relocated bedroom cracked through Eva’s defenses and caused her real pain, because Leo’s original solution for the current situation had been to put two-year-old Michael in with Rita and Marty, to set his crib at the foot of their bunk beds, next the desk they shared. Eva had refused even to consider it. “If you put a crib in that room,” she predicted, “those girls will never forgive us.”
“We can explain how it’s only temporary,” Leo pointed out. “We’re only talking about a few months, here.”
But Eva shook her head vehemently. “It wouldn’t work for a few days, Leo. You can’t put babies in with teenagers, you just can’t.”
“Where, then?” Leo wondered. They were sitting alone on the sofa in the living room, alone but for the baby in Eva’s lap, watching Johnny Carson.
“I have no idea,” Eva admitted.
Leo gestured with his arms, encompassing the space they were in. “How about we just move our bed in here?” he suggested. “Then we could put Jimmy and Lenny in a bunk bed in our old bedroom with Michael’s crib along the wall.”
Eva frowned and scratched under her ponytail, thinking this over. In some ways, it was an even more drastic solution, but the advantage was that none of the children would feel as though anything had been taken away from them personally. No one would blame her. And it was temporary. The addition was coming, becoming more real with each passing week, now that the van was nearly paid off. Finally she lifted one arm and flapped her hand—a queenly gesture, permission for him to begin the rearranging, to make the best of things. Always, Leo waited for this gesture and only went into action after he had received it. Later, he would tell his children your mother’s decided, as though he’d had no part in the decision himself. As though he was as much at the mercy of the ebb and pull of her whims as the children were, which they all believed.
Two weeks after the rearrangement, Rita’s math teacher at the high school called Eva at home to report that her daughter had now failed so many weekly math quizzes, it was unlikely she would pass the class. “She’s turning in her homework,” Mr. Johnson said, “but with the quizzes, it’s like she’s not even trying. I don’t think she’s coming to class with the right attitude.”
Eva managed a reply. “I will certainly have a talk with her.”
She hung up the phone and covered her eyes with her hands. She hated being called by the school; it made her feel personally exposed and reprimanded. It was important to her that her children do well; it was one of the things that distinguished her brood from the other, more ordinary large families in the parish. She took a few deep, steadying breaths and went back to washing dishes. From the kitchen window, she caught sight of her oldest daughter, walking the last block home from the bus, wearing her too-short skirt, her platform shoes, and a typically fed-up expression because she was almost home, where she was only slightly less miserable than at school.
Eva glared through the glass. All the recent pain that Rita had been causing her—the icy morning silences, the after-school sarcasm, the refusal to help put the toddlers to bed anymore, all of this came crowding into Eva’s mind, making a pressure build at the back of her head. She stifled an urge to throw open the window and scream at Rita, accuse her of bringing shame to the family, failing a simple math course that her younger sister could have passed in her sleep.
Rita did not see her mother at the kitchen window. She was in a daze of discouragement, having not only flunked another math quiz, but also a test in American History. She wandered into the house, forgetting that the front door was off limits now, and so found herself two steps inside her parents’ bedroom before realizing her mistake. The room was dark, the curtains pulled across the tall windows. The air, overheated and claustrophobic, smelled of fabric softener and baby powder. Rita’s eyes fell onto her mother’s bed, but she saw, to her relief, that her mother wasn’t in the room. She held her breath and inched between the double bed and the bassinet—where baby Marie was sleeping, possum-like, on her stomach.
From the kitchen, Eva saw Rita coming out of the front room and called to her in a harsh whisper, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“I forgot,” Rita said, whispering too. “It’s easy to forget, it’s so bizarre!”
“If you’d get your head on straight, maybe you wouldn’t have so much trouble with your memory.”
Pure sarcasm now. “Oh, thanks for the advice, Mom.”
“Now that you’re home, why don’t you try studying your math for a change?”
“Oh, I will. I’ll start right away.”
“Then maybe your math teacher wouldn’t have to call me, telling me you won’t even pass the class.”
This stopped Rita at the bottom of the stairs. “Mr. Johnson called you?”
“He most certainly did. He said you’re about to fail the class.”
“I am not going to fail the class, Mother,”Rita insisted. “Mr. Johnson is exaggerating. He’s an idiot.”
“Don’t you talk that way about your teachers!” Eva scolded. “The problem is your attitude!”
Her voice was rising, and Rita went back to climbing the stairs. Below her, Eva finished shrilly, “I never failed a math course in my life!”
“Yeah, look where it got you,” Rita muttered. But she said it too loudly and her mother heard. The next sound Rita heard was Eva charging up the stairs behind her. She turned, saw that her mother halfway up the stairs with her arm raised to strike her. The sight of her mother’s angry, accusing face, ascending, becoming larger, made a deep and defensive energy well inside her. She opened her mouth and let out a full-throated, man-sized bellow, “Don’t you come NEAR me!”
It seemed the loudest sound she had ever made in her life. The force of it froze them both. Eva teetered and flailed to keep from falling backward. Rita wondered for a terrible instant if her mother would topple down the stairs in front of her eyes. She didn’t; Eva caught the handrail and steadied herself, her eyes still fastened on Rita. From below them came a thin, flat wail of distress—the baby.
“You woke her,” Eva said.
Rita groaned. She knew what the punishment for this was—whoever woke the baby prematurely had to babysit the rest of the afternoon. But now Eva was backing down the stairs, responding to Marie’s cries. “You better change your ways, Missy,” she threatened grimly and then disappeared.
Rita stayed at the top of the stairs, listening, until she heard her mother speaking in the voice she used only for the baby, a reassuring drone. Marie’s cries subsided. Rita wandered into her room, awash in mixed reactions—shock at the strange voice that had come from within her, relief that she wasn’t going to have to babysit, embarrassment that her math teacher had exposed her ignorance to her mother. This, she decided, was the worst of it—that her mother had something new from the outside world to use against her.
Lacking the strength to climb to her upper bunk, she collapsed onto Marty’s mattress. The faded blankets smelled of her sister, a different scent than her own, more earthy, faintly sour—Marty had recently decided that Americans use too much deodorant and perfume. Under Rita’s hips and shoulders were hard planes and angles—several books, a Mademoiselle magazine, notecards bound with a rubber band—Marty’s bed was like a room in itself, filled with projects and distractions. Rita brushed her sister’s belongings from the bed to the floor, but hesitated at the sight of Marty’s sketchpad. Marty had been sketching the new bedroom again, this time with colored pencils.
Rita studied the drawings, the dimpled headboards of the twin beds, the lavender bedspreads, the accent pillows. On top of their new, more spacious desks, Marty had drawn separate alarm clocks and private telephones. As she drifted off to sleep, Rita allowed herself to believe that what Marty was sketching was real. That once the addition was finished, they would actually share such a perfect room, a space so self-contained and lovely that it made the condition of the rest of the house irrelevant. All conflict, gone. All plans for escape, unnecessary. This, and the scent of her sister’s pillow, lulled her into deep sleep.
Marty came in half an hour later, to find her notebooks and magazine on the floor, her sister asleep in the lower bunk. She felt invaded, but also sure that something serious must be wrong with Rita, something beyond the usual after-school frustration. She approached her sister; Rita was curled up on her side with her face tipped slightly skyward, eye-liner smudged, lips parted.
Marty decided not to wake her. A faint pulsing between her eyes was starting; she needed to escape it. She climbed into the upper bunk and settled there, burying herself in Rita’s scents—hair spray, Shalimar, and the strong deodorant Rita wore—a coarse, leathery talc that even bathing didn’t remove. Rita’s bed was thick with preparation for adventures, both public and private. Marty let some of her own loneliness out, allowed a few tears to spill from her eyes, dampening her sister’s pillow.
The headache receded. She drifted off as well. They slept this way, out of the order of things, until their father called them down to help their mother with supper.
5 replies on “Simple Addition”
Wow, I had no idea that Margaret Willey, whose y/a novels I have enjoyed reading for years! was equally adept at the short-story genre. Here she simply nails the complicated relationships that spring up when many people–not all of them rational–must share a small space in this world (and go through adolescence and midlife at the same time. Kudos, Ms. Willey
An evocative and painful story that is also funny! Without special effects or a contrived plot line, it manages with delicacy and precision to convey a teenage girl’s rage, frustration, despair, and longing. I loved the way the story transported me into Rita’s head and sensibility, while also letting me in on the machinations and motivations of the other characters, including Rita’s mother. An honest, ironic, and sympathetic portrayal of the shock of rebellion as a girl struggles to become herself—without yet knowing exactly who that self is.
I loved this story. I was drawn in from the first few sentences. Margaret Willey’s engaging style of writing made the setting and storyline seem so real and the characters, with all their quirks, so appealing. The dialogue is spot-on — so believable that it’s like she was a fly on the wall of the Whitman house, just writing down everything she saw and heard. The only bad thing about it being a short story is that it left me wanting to know more about these people (please write more about them, Margaret!).
I love the density of this story of a family’s difficult interaction over a few days. Everything rings true — from the complex relationship between the the two older sisters to the the casual acceptance by the parents of a tired marriage. Spot-on details keep popping up, and the conversations are totally believable. As in all good stories, you are left with the strong feeling that there is more to tell, and you want to hear it.
Fantastic story about a dysfunctional family, from the viewpoint of teenager Rita Whitman. The voice is fresh and true. Some favorite moments: when one of the otherwise clueless parents realizes that a particular action would be a breaking point for her daughter, and the ending, when Rita and her sister temporarily switch beds. Each sister inhales the scent of the other, and feels the other’s dreams and longings, and this creates a sweet and poignant connection amid the lonely bitterness of their adolescence.