That skinny eleven-year-old boy sitting across the table from me with the wispy dishwater-blond hair and glasses, that’s my twin brother, Milo, short for Myles. He’s got his long nose pointed down where his physics books and sheets scribbled with mathematical equations are neatly lined up at 180-degree angles on his end of the table. This is where Milo is likely to stay until bedtime (even though Mom says we have to study only until four o’clock), mumbling to himself and moving his face closer and closer to his work and getting more and more fidgety, until he’s reaching for his inhaler. Then Mom makes him stop for the day and go to bed.
Milo is “profoundly gifted.” One of those scary-smart geniuses who could have started college while still in diapers. Milo is going to be a physicist one day. His dream is to get a paper on string theory published in the globally renowned journals Nature and Physical Review and to prove some startling theory in quantum mechanics so he can earn himself a place among the leading geeks in the physics field.
Mom had me tested when she sent Milo, but I know it was for no other reason than that she didn’t want me to feel left out. Same as she had the eye doctor give me a Sponge- Bob SquarePants sticker when Milo got his last eye exam, even though my eyes are as sharp as a hawk’s, and even though I didn’t know who the little character was. We were six when we took that test. Mom hid the results when they came, but it wasn’t hard to figure out where she’d hidden them, since she puts all of her important papers in one place: her file cabinet, in a folder marked Important Papers.
“Don’t be disappointed,” Mom told me when she found me sitting on my knees alongside the file cabinet, staring down at our scores: Lucy Marie McGowan—144. Myles Clay McGowan—180. “You have a photographic memory and you’re an exceptionally creative child. These IQ tests don’t adequately measure either trait. If they did, you’d have scored every bit as high as your brother.” Later that day, she handed me a quote by Albert Einstein that she had jotted on an index card: Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.
Milo and I are homeschooled. Mom says it’s because we have special needs and would only fall through the cracks in a public school system. But in reality, it’s because we’d have to go to an inner city school here in Chicago because there’s no money for a private school for the gifted, and she’s afraid that Milo would get knifed or shot on the playground for being a freak and a geek. She’s also afraid that if people knew just how smart he is, he’d be hounded by the press and doctors and develop mental problems, which would be an easy thing to do, since the experts believe that profoundly gifted kids are more fragile than others (they sure got that one right!). And, of course, I have to be homeschooled if Milo has to be.
Mom agrees that I should become a psychologist when I grow up, and either get into people’s heads and cure what ails them or test and study gifted kids. Not because she has a particular fondness for shrinks—she doesn’t!—but because she believes that kids should be steered in the direction of their gifts, and I happen to be people-smart.
After I convinced Mom that my interest lies in human behavior, she started checking out psychology textbooks from the college library for me: social and personality psychology, cognitive and experimental psychology, abnormal psychology, clinical psychology, you name it. I enjoy the parts of them I can understand, but like Carl Jung said, “Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world.” I know I learn more by studying live people. Not that I have many people to study, mind you, because for the most part we live like recluses. So I watch my mother and my grandmother, the people who sit on the stoop downstairs on the rare days we leave the apartment, and sometimes Milo. Undoubtedly, though, study- ing Milo would be more beneficial if I were going to be a botanist.
When I told Mom that I’d like to become a psychologist (although I’d rather be a figure skater, even if I do have weak ankles and my balance isn’t up to par. And even if I don’t know how to skate, period, much less do a double axel or a triple lutz), she brought me home a little present that I know was meant to show me that she supports my decision. “I know how much you’ve always liked puppets,” she said when I opened the cloth Sigmund Freud finger puppet that came with a little chaise longue. “They have magnets on the back, so you can stick them to your computer tower.”
Milo got upset when I put Sigmund on my index finger and bobbed him in front of his face, asking him if he thought that having an overprotective, overanxious mother was what made him such a sissy. He punched me in the arm for teasing him, but it didn’t hurt, because Milo is even smaller than I am and his fist is only about the size of a walnut.
In all honesty, if I can’t be a figure skater, and if I have to cure people of what ails them, I’d rather be a shaman. My grandmother, Lillian, snuck me a book about a shaman in Africa. I thought it was cool the way he traveled to the underworlds in search of the missing pieces of people’s souls to heal them.
Mom got upset when she found the book tucked under the dirty clothes in my hamper. “Take that book back when you leave, Mother,” she snapped. “And stop filling Lucy’s mind with that crazy crap.” My grandmother scoffed at her, saying, “What a shaman does is every bit as real as the shadow at our feet, our breath in winter.” Unfortunately, there’s no school that gives a degree in Shamanism. And, anyway, where would I set up my practice? I’d probably have to go to a remote village in some Third World country and risk dying from cholera or dysentery and get paid in dead chickens, not money. That would suck, because being poor sucks.
Besides worrying about our education and Milo’s mental and physical well-being and me getting a complex because I’m not as smart as my brother, Mom worries about us running out of money. Every time I bring up the mail from downstairs, she looks at me like I’m carrying in a poison- ous snake, wrinkles her nose, and says, “Just set it on the kitchen table,” where it’ll sit for days until she musters up the courage to open the bills.
It’s because of our money situation that Mom sold out and started writing Christian romance novels, even though her love is literary fiction and even though she’s an atheist who happens to be bitter about love. What was she supposed to do, though, after she sold her first novel, The Absent Savior, three years ago, to a prestigious press on the East Coast and it sold only four hundred eleven copies? It didn’t earn enough to allow us to buy a frikkin’ case of boxed macaroni and cheese, Mom said, so she scrapped her second work-in-progress and started writing Christian romance, with her sights set on the Wal-Mart market, which is where the big bucks are. She’s ashamed of writing them, so she isn’t using her real name, Tess McGowan, but instead uses the pen name Jennifer Dollman. Her advance reader copies are still sitting in a box in her closet, unopened.
Last month we stopped by Wal-Mart to buy sunscreen on our way to the public pool—a rare treat, brought on only because of my grandmother’s sudden, not completely irrational fear that Milo was suffering from a vitamin D deficiency because he won’t drink milk and doesn’t play outside in the sun. Never mind that Milo doesn’t play, period, and that there’s no place to play outside our apartment but the street, even if he did. We were almost to the checkout line when Milo happened to spot Mom’s Christian romance on a cardboard display at the end of the aisle. He pointed to it and said, “Look, Mom, your book!” He grabbed a copy and ran his fingertips over Mom’s pen name and said, “Jennifer Dollman, that’s you!” Some lady behind us in a T-shirt that had a picture of Jesus on the cross and the words Follow the Leader stretched across her chest heard him and got all excited.
“You’re Jennifer Dollman? Oh, my gawd! My book club is not going to believe this! We picked your book for next month’s selection, and I’m reading it right now.” And Milo—who may have an IQ of 180 but has absolutely no common sense—said, “Yes, she’s Jennifer D—”
Mom clamped her hand over his pale lips and backed away, but the woman rushed forward. It was as if she’d entered the rapture early, and she couldn’t stop gushing. She was on chapter seventeen, she said, and she “absolutely adored” the trials and tribulations of Mom’s protagonist, Missy Jenkins, and bless Mom for upholding the sanctity of marriage and not allowing Missy to be sweet-talked into sin by that good-looking philanderer Chase Milford. Mom quickly told the woman that it was a misunderstanding, her son only meant that it was the same book that is sitting on her nightstand. The woman started to protest, her finger wagging over Milo’s head. “But he said—”
“No. No. The author and I share the first name. That’s all he meant. My son . . . he’s . . . he’s learning disabled.”
Mom almost yanked Milo’s poor little arm out of its socket as she dragged us out of the store, Milo shouting, “Learning disabled? You called me learning disabled?” the whole way, the sunscreen left on the candy shelf for some weary-footed employee to march back to the pharmaceutical department. When we got home, Mom sat us both down and lectured us about not airing our dirty laundry in public.
“Can we tell people that you edit academic books?” I asked, and Mom said we could.
“What about your articles? Can we tell them that you’re a travel writer?” Milo was referring to the many articles Mom writes each year, advising gonna-be travelers on where they should go and what they should see in exotic places like Shanghai, Bali, and even Roatán, that magical island off the coast of Honduras where many go on vacation, then decide to never leave. The truth is, Mom has never been to any of these places. She gets photographs e-mailed to her by a woman she knew in college who dropped out of school to become a flight attendant. She likes to brag about all the places she’s been by sending Mom photos. Then Mom researches the places online and writes the article. I rolled my eyes at Milo’s question. Milo should have had the sense to figure out that since Mom’s travel articles are every bit as deceptive as her Christian romances, they, too, would be off-limits.
Mom has a lot of issues, frankly. And, unfortunately, at least some of them began with the woman who just burst through the door. Her mother, Lillian. And although I don’t know if my grandmother is right and I am truly a bit psychic, I do know the minute she swoops into our apartment on this morning in mid-September that this visit is going to generate more than the usual amount of sparks.