Loud music reverberated from the stereo: sentimental Fifties crooners, Italian favorites. My parents never seemed to tire of “Che La Luna Mezzo Mare.” The “legal” adults were at various stages of drunk by now. The scene amusingly reminded me of The Godfather movie, prompting me to recall that disturbing conversation between Phil and Sergio.
Before I knew it, I had blurted out a question. “Daddy, if somebody says he has connections and is planning a hit on someone, would you think he’s lying? Because I don’t think somebody in the mob would want you to know that, right?”
“Who’s that?” Joey asked.
Uncle Dom raised an eyebrow. “He was telling this to who? You? He said he’s in the mob?” He looked at my father. “Cafone!”
My father laughed.
Uncle Dom waved his hand in disgust. “If he was in the mob, he wouldn’t be telling you that. Stay away from him. He’s trouble.”
“It was a conversation I heard between two guys I barely know,” I explained. “One guy was saying he was going to take somebody out—that he was going to ice someone.”
My father said, “If he was in the mob, he would never discuss that in front of someone who’s not involved.”
“Even with the people involved, they are very careful about what they say,” Uncle Dom pointed out. “Believe me, if this guy’s in the mob, he’s not gonna be for long. If he’s talking like that, they will kill him.”
We all laughed heartily at that.
“Don’t get involved,” Uncle Dom said. “Tell him to take a hike. Believe me, there’s something wrong with a guy talking like that in front of a girl. Tell him, adios, arrivederci, so long. Better yet, when you see him coming, go the other way.”
Everyone continued to laugh, but I couldn’t help thinking, I wish I had. By the time Phil and Sergio had revealed their true natures, it was too late. For the most part, I believed they were no longer a danger to me, and now I could rest assured that they weren’t likely to be mobsters who’d send someone gunning for me, ludicrous as it seemed.
I could tell that everyone remained oblivious to my true concerns. They drank their demitasse with lemon, sugar, anisette, and amaretto. We ate dessert. They sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
My grandmother was staring at Angie with a nostalgic look in her eyes. She remarked that Angie and Dom Jr. had looked so much alike. Angie never talked about Dom Jr., her identical twin, but she often visited his grave with her parents. Zuza got misty-eyed when talking about him, and Uncle Dom got quiet. He’d look down only slightly, but I could see the forlorn gaze.
Angie smiled now in response to the noted resemblance. It was hard to read what she thought about it, or about anything. I wished she would talk to me, and I vowed that I would continue trying to reach her.
The party moved to the family room. Everyone had expressed an interest in seeing old family movies. My father had every tape labeled—his and my mother’s vacation to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, another tape of when my mom took us to Bear Mountain, and childhood birthdays or holidays.
There was a scene in the home movies where my Uncle Dom stood behind my chair as I tackled a strawberry tart. I climbed on the chair in an effort to reach him. Then, turning to face him, I gave him the tightest hug I could give. He instantly reciprocated the hug with a kindly smile. Watching it moved me to tears.
Once past the age of three, my mother had instructed me not to allow any man to pick me up off the ground. If someone tried, I was to demand that he put me down and to tell him I could walk. I didn’t have to worry about Uncle Dom. He didn’t do that, and yet he responded genuinely and appropriately to a hug from me. It worked out with my father, too, since I was probably two the last time he carried me. When I was a little girl, I would jump on him as he lay on the couch watching television, and I would tickle him, laughing. I wanted to shower him with kisses.
“Get off of him,” my mother would say. “Cut that out.”
At the time, I took it to mean he needed the time to relax, and I was pestering him. As I grew older, it felt more and more that he was off-limits to me in that way. Even now, if I hugged him, it was customary to let go of him sooner than I wanted to, wishing I could stay in his arms.
I thought of Uncle Dom as someone who could observe boundaries and still make a girl feel loved and adored.
The movies revealed, too, that from the moment I could walk, I followed Robbie everywhere he went. I sucked my thumb, and he kept slapping my hand. When I stopped, he would get up and walk away.
We played children’s games at the birthday parties. Everyone, young and old, clapped heartily, smiles radiant. If it was my birthday, my mother dressed me like a princess. When it was time to blow out the candles, the birthday boy or girl stood up on a chair, wearing a crown or tiara, towering above all the seated guests. It was our moment.
My father held shot glasses out to the children. Each of us reacted the same way after taking a sip—disgusted scowls. The adults seemed to find this response hilarious.
It was apparent I had become the paradigmatic little girl—a girly girl, all ribbons and lace. I wore everything from sash-belted sailor dresses to peter pan-collared designer tunics with white anklet socks and my favorite red leather shoes. I had a purple suede coat I loved with furry cuffs and a furry hood. I endured the daily hair-brushing torture that resulted in meticulous hairstyles. The painstaking effort seemed to take centuries. My mom ripped out every minuscule knot like a mad hair-follicle scientist.
They had movies of my brothers and me standing side by side, posture perfect, holding hands and singing Christmas carols for the relatives. My mom had taught us a couple of the carols in Spanish.
That was the highlight reel.
I happened upon an unlabeled tape while fumbling through the box and handed it to my father. He played it. The first scene was a typical party. My father, presumably, took the camera from the dining room to the living room, filming. The last scene showed a baby lying on its back in a playpen they had kept in the family room.
“That’s you,” my mother said to me.
“How come we never saw this one?” Joey asked.
A boy of about two neared the playpen.
“That’s Robbie!” my father shouted.
In the clip, Robbie began yanking at my arms.
“Oh, Dio!” my grandmother cried. Her hand went to her chin.
My mother appeared on film, grabbing hold of Robbie. She slapped his face and led him away. “You were told to leave her alone!” she shrieked at him.
Robbie was wailing, and the film fizzled out.
“You said that never happened,” I blurted out.
Joey was blunt. “Were you hiding this one?”
“I was not hiding it!” My mother appeared defensive. “You found it in the box, didn’t you?” She scowled at him, clenching her teeth.
My father laughed, along with Dom, Zuza, and Angie. My grandmother was still shaking her head.
“Oh, my goodness!” Angie exclaimed. “You were right about that, too!”
“Don’t worry. Robbie loves you,” Zuza said. “Kids do stupid things. What are you gonna do?”
“Ah, kids, adults—we all do stupid things,” Uncle Dom concluded with a shrug.
The Meadowside Inn was close to the beach and had a back entrance. Walking in, the first thing I saw was Valentin behind the bar. One patron sat on a stool a few feet away from him.
Valentin’s magnificent head of rock-god tresses looked divine against the red button-down shirt he had tucked into belted pants. Despite having pleasurable shivers, a sudden warmth coursed through me, and I couldn’t contain the beating of my heart.
He and Joey exchanged the customary fist bump.
I avoided his eyes. “So you’re a bartender?”
“Today I am,” he replied. “A friend of mine had an emergency. What can I get for you?”
“How about a margarita?” I said.
“Yeah, how about a soda? Your brother just turned twenty-one, but you haven’t.”
“Fine, fine … Pepsi, then.”
Joey seated himself on a stool and asked for a beer.
I removed my coat and laid it on an unoccupied stool then hoisted myself onto the stool beside Joey. I placed my handbag on the bar and glanced around. The jukebox was a few feet from the door, between the door and the window. There were four wooden booths with a partition behind the fourth booth. I could see a pool table in the back, with more tables and chairs.
Valentin placed the soda before me, asking, “So what happened with this car you went to see?”
“The mechanic says it has oil seepage from the engine bay to the cabin,” I explained. “He said it wouldn’t be a big problem, but …”
Valentin was shaking his head. “It’ll be a problem. Did you sign a bill of sale yet?”
“No, but the mechanic got me a thousand dollars off the price.”
“He should have told you not to buy it. A friend of mine has a 300ZX for sale—nice paint and interior, leather seats, no rips, no tears. He had it completely redone. It’s in excellent condition, runs exceptionally well—chrome spoke wheels, new radial tires, good working AC, everything. It’s red, though, not blue, but that can be painted.” He moved down the bar to tend to the other patron. “The guy who’s selling it will be here within the hour,” he continued, his voice trailing. “I’ll make sure you get a good price.”
“I appreciate your help,” I said when he returned.
“Not a problem. We don’t want to see you driving some heap of junk choking as it throttles up the road. Ever read the story Tootle when you were a kid?”
I laughed. “No …”
“I read it to my daughter—the train that wanted to drive off the track. That would have been your car, deciding it wants to try driving on the sidewalk or bumbling through houses.”
I laughed again. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“Well, surely you’ve read The Three Little Pigs. One built a house of straw. The other built a house of sticks. The patient one built his house very carefully out of bricks—”
“Stop!” I kept laughing.
The phone behind the bar rang. He excused himself then turned and walked a few paces to grab the phone, where he held a brief conversation. Returning to us, he told Joey, “That was a guy from the club. He was broken down and stranded at 3:00 a.m. last night.”
“Is everything all right?” Joey asked.
“Yes. I had Tommy with me, so we went down there with his truck. This is a guy who always gets me in these conversations about regrinding valves and torquing head bolts. It’s all he wants to talk about. I had to cut him off.”
Joey said, “I may have to take you with me to help someone pick out his first ride.”
“I could get him a good chopper bike or sell him the Norton I’ve been working on. It’s a good bike, just harder to work on, hard to get parts. I did the murals on this myself.” Valentin looked at me and smiled. “I’m sorry. How are you?”
“I’m good,” I told him. “How are you?”
“Not bad,” he replied. “Your brother mentioned that you wrote a book.”
“Oh, yeah!” I perked up in an instant and babbled on about the agent, my revisions, and my plans.
“That’s very ambitious,” he said. “What’s it about?”
“Kind of a bizarre love story with a few twists … turns into a mystery.”
He raised his eyebrows as though it impressed him. “I want an autographed copy,” he said. “I’d be happy to buy it.”
His vote of confidence and his kindness managed to pique my curiosity. “It must have been an incredible experience going to school in Spain,” I gushed. “What were your favorite places there?”
He appeared to give it some thought. “I loved Barcelona, loved Santiago de Compostela. Seville, too. I liked Segovia and Formentera. Spain is beautiful. You have to go see it.”
“I hope to one day.” I smiled. “So, have you been to Transylvania?”
“What’s so funny?”
“Such a common question, and, yes, once when I was fourteen. We went to Russia, then Craiova, then the relatives took us to Brasov.”
“Is it nice?”
That weird déjà vu thing happened. I said, “I have to tell you—I don’t know if it’s because your voice is familiar, or your presence is familiar, but the feeling gets stronger every time I talk to you. I feel like I know you, or I knew you before.”
He seemed intrigued by that. “You believe in past lives?”
“I don’t know. Part of me thinks we may get to come back again and again until we get it right. I would like to think that.”
“Oh, doll, I would sure like to get it right.” I seemed to have touched a tender place inside of him. I could tell by the sudden glint of light in his dark eyes. “If only that were true. I need to do some soul searching, seek deliverance.”
I had to wonder if Valentin was joking, but there was something about his eyes and expression. “You’re serious.”
“He is serious,” Joey assured me.
“Yes!” Valentin said. “I want to do the right thing for my daughter. I just don’t know where to begin.”
Despite the absurdity of it all, he was precious in his vulnerability.
“Fine. Shall I call for a priest to hear your confession or go for broke and host a full-scale exorcism?”
He laughed to no end about that—merry, hearty laughter—and his playfulness kindled a new fire in me.
I shook my head. “You’re messing with me.”
“Then why do you say that?”
“I’m not sure I will ever be forgiven for the things I’ve done.”
“Well, you don’t believe in God, right?”
“A ruling God who condemns people to hell? No, I don’t.”
“Then who are you looking to for forgiveness?”
“Not believing in the Abrahamic concept of God isn’t a license to do unforgivable things, and not believing doesn’t make it any easier to live with what I’ve done.”
“Because you can’t forgive yourself.”
“Okay, so what have you done?”
“I’ve hurt people, caused irreparable damage in some instances. Isn’t that enough?”
“But we’ve all done that.”
“Ah, she is precious,” he said to Joey. He leaned in on the counter and clasped my hand. “You truly are an angel.”
“I do feel as if there was never a time we didn’t know each other.”
“That’s a good feeling.” He let go of my hand and stood.
That was when Katharine walked in.
She approached and stood there in silence for a moment or two. “I need to talk to you,” she finally said to Valentin. She threw her purse down on the bar.
“I can’t leave, love,” he told her. “I’m working.”
“You can’t leave the bar for two seconds to talk to me? Or is it her you can’t leave for two seconds?”
My eyes widened. “What, me? Oh great, now she’s blaming me. I’m here to check out a car he said was for sale.”
She kept her eyes focused on Valentin. “I don’t see how it would take that long for you to respond.”
“To your ultimatum?”
“What difference does it make? It’s a yes or a no.”
“You don’t want to do this here.”
Joey sighed. “Time to check out that pool table.” He got up with his beer and went to the back.
Katharine flashed those baby blues on me. “How would you feel if the man you loved wanted to move out and still have a relationship with your child, but not you?”
“I’m not getting in the middle of this,” I said. “Why would you put me in the middle of this? I barely know either of you.”
“I have talked to you,” Valentin said to her. “I told you I’ll take care of you, and I’ll always take care of my children, no matter what.” He looked at me like a helpless little boy. “Talk to her.”
“Are you serious?” The predicament had me flustered.“Why would she listen to me? Honestly, if I wanted to talk to my husband, and he asked some other woman in a bar to talk to me, I would be even madder.”
“I’m sorry,” Katharine said, appearing to calm down. “It’s not that I’d really want to deny him custody.”
“Well, if he’s a good father—”
“He’s a good father.”
“Settled!” I yelled. “My work is done here.”
Valentin laughed again, and I wished he hadn’t. It made me want to hug him. He said, “You see? You’re a good person and a kind person, and that’s why I knew she’d listen.”
“Please think about it,” Katharine said to him. “I have to go.” She turned to me. “Good luck with the car.”
Valentin walked her to the door, and then stopped at the jukebox. He played “Always” by Atlantic Starr—such a tenderhearted song. When he turned around, the other patron, who was now leaving, stopped before him. They spoke, and in the brief moment before they parted, he caught me staring at him. It was obvious that he did, and I feared his discerning gaze. I thought he was undressing me with his eyes. He was first to look away.
When he got back to the bar, slipping artfully behind it, we talked about music—as if that little scene had been purely my fantasy. I learned that he shared my eclectic tastes and appreciation for many styles of music. Like me, he was a big Motown fan. He seemed to know anyone I mentioned. I couldn’t deny that his energy was captivating. I loved how animated he was, the passion in his voice, and his warmth. His smile was as infectious as his enthusiasm, and, yes, he was beautiful in a way that was difficult to ignore.
He said, “There are things I’d love to share with you one day.”
I laughed. “Oh, go on, I can’t wait … tell me your secrets.”
He seemed surprised by this request but quickly regained his composure. “You will hate me.”
“Uh, I think it’s safe to say, based on whatever the hell just happened here tonight, we are friends. I would never hate you. There is nothing you can say to me that would make me hate you. And nothing shocks me, by the way.”
“Nothing? How sad for you at such a tender age!”
“I would try to be helpful and not judge.”
“You will turn away.”
“Oh, man, you are so dramatic. What could be so terrible? I’d never turn away from you.”
“You say that now.”
“Does this have something to do with me?”
“No, my dear.”
“I am struggling with my dark side.”
“What dark side? Are you a vampire or something?”
He laughed. “Metaphorically speaking, I am, indeed.”
“Seriously,” I teased. “It’s okay if you are a vampire … really. I’d still be your friend.”
He laughed more.
“No shock if that’s the secret.”
“But you’ve seen me in daytime!”
“And you’ve seen me laugh and smile … no fangs.”
As maddening and exasperating as he was, I had to wonder if this drama was part of his repertoire—another stunning performance pulled from his bag of tricks. Perhaps I was dealing with the “Lord Hades” that Billy despised, and, of course, I would resist him at any cost. It was a promise I made to myself.
As far as reinforcing the strength of my mind’s resolve, my body was a useless entity. In his presence, it betrayed me like dangerous waters beckoning to me in their mystifying beauty, the thrill of their tantalizing fluidity caressing my body as I resisted taking the plunge. Yes, my body betrayed me. It ignored me like a preoccupied stranger. With a will of its own, it intoxicated me. As I had cruelly learned, I could control what happened to it only if people were merciful. Watching Valentin, and listening to him, was not merciful. It was a torturous joy.
“I want you to know something,” he said.
“Although you’re not going to tell me—”
“I’m talking about something else.” His tormented eyes focused on me, seeming to yield no mercy.
“You do know you have Scorpio eyes, right?” I said it, not knowing why, or how I dared.
He responded to my question with a beguiling smile that made me want to surrender to him in all ways. “Yes, the Scorpio eyes,” he said. “I’ve heard that. I suppose it would be true of you, as well, but it’s possible we both coincidentally match that description.” His voice was more tantalizing than I wanted it to be.
I remembered he had commented on my eyes before. Now I had begun to use eye shadow and mascara, which enhanced the effect.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“I really don’t know. I have no way of knowing.”
“But you think I match the description.”
He leaned over the bar now, resting his arms on the edge. “I want you to know that my respect for you knows no bounds, that you never have to fear me, because I’d never betray your trust. As for your eyes, I’ll put it this way. I’m looking into these almond-shaped gems, big and booming, a brilliant witch hazel with specks of amber, gold, brown, and green, different colors in different lights. Even at a distance, they are full of mysterious lights. They have the hypnotic intensity to entrance. Up close, they shine with a never-ending curiosity, all the while guarded. Above all, you have the eyes of an angel, a bit mischievous, perhaps, but always sparkling with your love, caring, and concern.”
My skin tingled, and I doubt my expression concealed my surprise. “Wow, you’re good,” I said. “Are you a poet, too?”
“Oh, hell no.” He stood and backed away a few paces. “But I am an artist. I notice details.”
Joey returned then, and the car owner arrived with a friend. It was too soon—way too soon. Valentin introduced everyone, and, after the exchange of pleasantries, I headed out with Joey and the others.
“Goodbye, Danielle,” Valentin said before we left. “Good luck.”
I smiled, thanking him.
As a favor to Valentin, I got a sweet deal on the car and agreed to buy it.
On the way to the parking lot, I teased Joey. “Thanks for leaving me alone with them.”
He laughed. “Were you scared?”
“Billy said Valentin and Gianni are Hells Angels.”
“No,” he said, “one of the clubs Gianni belongs to is affiliated with the Hells Angels. That’s the only link between us and them.”
“He also said Valentin was a member of the Pagans.”
“That would make no sense if he thought V was HA. HA and the Pagans are rival gangs. Valentin doesn’t belong to either one.”
“The Warlocks, maybe?”
“No, he belongs to a local club. Tommy and Gianni belong to veterans’ clubs. Nico and I have no affiliations. We ride independent, but there’s nothing wrong with the clubs. They do charity toy runs for donations to children. The Lynx are good people, and we’re not derelicts, like Billy might have people believe. We all have jobs.”
We reached his bike and stopped.
I said, “What’s interesting is, I have no idea what any of them do. I know Valentin is some kind of artist.”
“Yeah, a graphic artist. He works for an ad agency in Manhattan. They just promoted him to assistant art director. Nico wants to do the same thing.”
I was delightfully surprised again. “Well, you still left me alone with him. I know Katharine was there but not for long.”
“I trust Valentin.”
“What, that he wouldn’t hit on me? That he would jump to my defense if some other guy came in and started harassing me?”
“Yes and yes.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know him.”
“For how long? Because up until a couple of months ago, I’d never heard of him.”
“Over a year.”
“So, after knowing him a year, you’re sure he would never do that, never be tempted.”
“I can’t say whether or not he’d be tempted. You’re a beautiful girl.”
“Aw, well, thanks. Anyway, Katharine was doing a number on him.”
“Yeah, she always gets him to give in. That’s the whole problem. He has a soft spot when it comes to her. That’s what’s really going on, not that he wants to use or hurt her. He married her because he wanted to step up, be the gentleman, but he’s not ready for that.”
“Yet they have two children.”
“They have one.”
“Billy said two.”
“They’re from different mothers.”
“Oh, God … so he doesn’t learn his lessons, does he? Who’s the other one?”
“The mother of his son lives in New York. I never see her. But I do think he learned his lesson. I’m pretty sure about that.”
“Would you vouch for Nico, too, that he wouldn’t pursue me?”
“Maybe to a lesser extent, but yeah.”
I had to laugh. “You do know he has a thing for me.”
“Nico told me. More people are watching out for you than you think. Don’t get me wrong, I trust Gianni, but I’m glad you turned him down.”
“You know I turned him down, too?”
“He told Valentin. Hey, don’t worry about it. Just put that freaking helmet on, so we can get out of here. Doesn’t sound to me like you were too scared about Valentin.” He helped me strap the helmet on before getting on the bike sans his own helmet. I got behind him and braced myself for the chilly ride home.
At this hopeful hour, the cawing of crows seemed ordinary. All of nature’s creatures sounded calm and eager for the new day. Licorice, our black, green-eyed Manx, had decided to curl up near my pillow. He purred now as I began petting him, and I smiled. There wouldn’t be much time to write this day, but if all went well, I’d be getting a new car.
I sprang out of bed and showered then went to the kitchen. My dad was there in his robe and slippers, making coffee.
“Good morning, Daddy!” I said.
“Good morning!” He smiled before taking notice of my bare feet on the linoleum floor. “It’s cold,” he said. “Put something on your feet. You want coffee?”He was taking cups and plates out of the cabinets, setting them down on the countertops.
“I’m going to look at a car with Joey today,” I said.
He opened the refrigerator and grabbed milk, butter, jelly, and a couple of grapefruits. “Zuza’s coming to eat with us today. What’s the rush?”
“We’ll be back by then,” I assured him.
He went about making toast and setting the table. My mother joined us, and we had breakfast. Moments later, I did my routine check from the dining room window. Phil and Sergio seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. They had conquered as much as they would conquer of me, and it was on to the next mark, the next will to disregard, the next spirit to break.
Farran called. She wanted to know what Gianni said to me the night before, when he walked me to my door. I filled her in.
“I think he’s trying to tell you this is something very different with you and him,” she said. “It’s like a fairy tale prince finding his princess. You’re helping him realize he’s with the wrong girl, but I think he already suspected that. I think he doesn’t want to talk bad about Liz, but from what he said, he’s not sure about her.”
“Nice of you to write this script for him,” I replied, “but he never once said, ‘I will leave Liz.’ Not that it matters. I wouldn’t want him to, but he never said that. I wouldn’t hurt Liz, friend or not, but you keep ignoring the fact that these guys have been around the block a bunch of times, and we haven’t turned a corner. He’s almost seven years older than me!”
“Listen to you!” I could hear her teeth clenching. “You know, you’re good with all the prissy, proper talk, but if you’d stop revolting against everything and everyone for one minute, you’d see a break in the clouds. The heart does not care about numbers! He’s attracted to you in spite of your age not because of it. He’s taking his cues from you, Dani. Give him a break. He has unexpectedly fallen in love with you, and you didn’t give him a shred of hope or encouragement. You could’ve had him. You could’ve had Gianni Bonafacio! Liz would have been history. I guarantee it. I don’t see him flirting and falling for others. He’s serious about you, and I believe he’d take good care of you and protect you with all of his heart. He loves you!”
“He doesn’t know me well enough to love me.”
“You’re crazy, man! You should go for it.”
“Well, I guess I could say the same about you and Tommy.”
“Tommy is a friend.”
“Couldn’t tell by the way you were kissing him.”
“Nuh-uh, you don’t get to do that. We were talking about you and Gianni.” She laughed.
I told her I had to go and went back downstairs.
My mother called from the dining room. “I have something for you,” she said as I entered. She was in a sleeveless top and shorts, holding a dust cloth. She told me to wait. Then she put the rag down and vanished. She returned with one of those Captain Zoom records that would say your name about eight times in a personalized happy birthday song. She played it for me, smiling. Seeing me laugh, she laughed, too, and her little shoulders shook. There were many different sides to this woman, and this side was the one I loved best—the child within who loved silly things. She could laugh to the point of tears at something like this.
“I was going to give it to you Tuesday,” she said, “but since we’re celebrating your birthday today, I couldn’t wait.”
Before long, she was in the kitchen making lasagna, stirring her simmering sauce, and shifting meats that were stewing in the saucepot.
Joey arrived at noon, and we took off on his bike.
The car owner lived on Shady Hill Lane, right off Manchester—a little over a mile from me, except we had gone the wrong way. By the time we arrived, the guy was sitting on his porch with the mechanic I had hired to meet us there. They were having beers.
“Oh, great,” Joey said. “They’re best buds now.”
We both laughed.
“I wish you would have told me about the mechanic,” he said. “I could have had Valentin meet us.”
“Valentin!” My heart raced. “Why? Is he a mechanic?”
“No, but he’s good with cars and bikes. I was at his house yesterday with Nico. I watched Village of the Damned with him. If I knew, I could have asked.”
The car we saw looked great—a light blue ‘83 Nissan Sentra—but I was disappointed with the mechanic’s assessment. Joey told the owner we’d get back to him. The moment we got home, he called Valentin.
“There’s a 300ZX you can look at,” he said after hanging up. “His friend’s selling it, but we have to leave after we eat. The guy’s gonna meet us at the Meadowside Inn in Milford. I got the address.”
My mother had changed into a pretty dress by now. Everyone arrived before two. Zuza brought a batch of Italian cookies wrapped in cellophane, sealed with a red ribbon and bow. Angie gave me a sweetly wrapped gift of purple legwarmers. She blushed and smiled when I gave her an extra tight squeeze. My grandmother fretted that Angie’s hands were cold and said she looked thinner.
“Buon compleanno!” Uncle Dom shouted. He turned to my father. “Ay, goomba!” He held a brown paper bag, which he handed to him—fresh Italian bread he had picked up at the deli. Most Sunday mornings, they went to the Italian deli together to shop for homemade pasta and sliced Italian meats, or they went to the bakery and brought back cannoli with other Italian pastries. Uncle Dom was my father’s paesano. They went fishing, especially during Lent, along the Quinnipiac or Farmington River, or to Crescent Lake in Southington. They also hunted in Enders State Forest with a group of guys they played cards with.
I asked Angie if she’d gotten any sleep, and she shrugged.
“This one doesn’t sleep and eat enough, and my husband doesn’t stop smoking,” Zuza complained. “He had bronchitis again.”
As children, my brothers and I used to say Zuza was beautiful—the pronounced Italian accent, her dark eyes, and the dark hair she wore in a loose wave of curls caressing her shoulders. She was not as tiny as my mother was, but she was small. She was not as stylish or as glamorous, but she was praiseworthy in every regard. These days, she was a rounder version of her younger self with a short, stylish haircut but still lovely. I was beginning to see a resemblance between her and Angie, though Angie looked more like her dad.
I asked Uncle Dom how he was feeling.
“Better than ever,” he assured me with a broad smile. “Thank you for asking.”
My father tried to give him money for the bread, but Uncle Dom cursed him in Italian. My father cursed back. My grandmother said they had fought all the time, even as kids.
When it was time to settle at the table, my father poured the wine and toasted me. Once he said, “Salute,” we all banged glasses, no matter what we were drinking, no matter how awkward our positions were. Everyone wished me a happy birthday again. There was chatter throughout the meal. I encouraged my father to tell us about him and Uncle Dom fighting back in Italy.
“Oh, yeah, he was a big troublemaker,” my father said. “My mother didn’t want him talking to Zuza. He would do magic tricks, and some of the old people in the town believed magic comes from the devil, you know. My mother, she didn’t trust him. As time went on, she was seeing, more and more, he was good. Then, one day, he asked Papa if he could marry Zuza, and both Mama and Papa agreed. They got to love him like a son.”
I’m certain my eyes were as wide as my smile. “What was it like to live in Pozzilli?” I asked.
“It’s beautiful there,” Uncle Dom mused. “On the hills, you see vineyards, olive trees, lakes, the river in the valley, Triverno Stream. You go through the woods, and it’s like a fairy tale. And the mountains after it snowed? You wouldn’t believe it.”
“Mama and Zuza would bake bread all the time,” my father said, “and the whole house filled with the aroma. I tell ya, it was heaven.”
Uncle Dom shifted the focus to me. “How’s the writing?”
This topic appeared to capture Zuza’s interest as well, and both of them seemed pleased to hear I was still hard at work on the novel. Then Zuza asked if I wanted to be a petite model for her dresses. She designed and created formal wear for the dress shop she owned.
My first thought was that it would likely be Saturdays, and my Saturdays were devoted to writing. It would be a disruption not only to my routine but also to the pursuit of my passion.
“Ay, you’re not going to be rich,” she said, “but you’re not going to do it for free, either. I’ll pay you by the hour.”
I knew Angie had modeled for her mother in the past, and it wasn’t a big deal. Still, I hesitated.
“Listen, you can try,” Zuza told me. “If you don’t like to do it, then you tell me.”
I agreed, because it was Zuza.
“Good,” she said. “Stop by after school tomorrow if you can, and I’ll take your measurements.”
Robbie interrupted that conversation when he called to wish me a happy birthday and to say hello to the rest of the family.
My dad protested about Joey and me leaving to go see the car, but Uncle Dom and Aunt Zuza assured us that we could all have dessert later. Angie said she was going home to check on her dog anyway and would be back in time for dessert.
The first week in November, I had an interview with an advertising agency in Glastonbury. My school uniform—white-collared blouse, gray skirt, and navy-blue vest under a blazer, seemed perfect for a good first impression.
Angie had an interview that same day with a management consultant firm. We were together at school during lunch when she tried to reschedule the appointment. She told them her dog was sick, and she had to take him to the vet.
She looked pale when she hung up. “They said someone else could take him.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I said no. My dog needs me.”
She was on my mind during the ten-minute bus ride from school to the interview. I hoped for a good outcome—for Angie, for the dog, and for me.
The personnel director at the ad agency seemed genuinely impressed that, in my junior year, I’d worked part-time as a secretary to four vice presidents at a lighting fixture distributor company. She gave me the grand tour. Everyone seemed friendly.
When I got home, I called Angie for an update.
“He’s better,” she said, “but I’m gonna stay with him tonight. I know it’s the weekend, but I have to study anyway. My parents are upset that I’m falling behind in everything.”
That surprised me. “I didn’t realize you were falling behind.”
“Yeah, I’ve been having a hard time falling asleep at night and a hard time waking up in the morning. It’s okay. I’ll be fine. How’d the interview go? Did you get the job?”
“Yes,” I said. “They’re going to start me as a floating temp, so they can see where I fit best. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she replied. “I just need to get off the phone. I’m happy you got the job, though. Congrats.”
I called Farran next. She congratulated me before asking about Angie’s interview.
“Bless her heart,” she said after I’d explained. “She rescued that sweet puppy! I can understand her wanting to be home with him. It looks like we’ll all be staying home tonight anyway. I can’t get my mother’s car anymore.”
I was sure it had to do with the price of gas—that she couldn’t afford it after quitting her part-time job at a gift shop. Her father left when she was a child, and I supposed he had continued to provide minimal support, but her white-haired mother, one of the sweetest women I’d ever met, suffered from various illnesses and physical limitations. Farran’s only sibling, a biologist, had headed off to the Peruvian jungles with his wife. While Farran and her mom appeared to have the essentials, their home remained mostly lamplit. It was hard not to notice the considerable difference between her house and mine.
I offered to pay for the gas.
“I’ll try to find something on campus at Manchester Community,” she said, as though I hadn’t said a word. “Logistically, that’ll be easier to pull off. With the respiratory care program, I could be working at a hospital in two years. I know that won’t help us now, but …”
“Let me give you the money,” I insisted. “We’ve been going to the Cove for months, and I never had to pay for gas. I have a job now, and I don’t have expenses.”
“Oh, wait, you know what?” There was a lilt in her voice. “We can actually get a ride from my neighbor. She hangs out at a bar in New Haven—near East Rock or something. She’s meeting her boyfriend, and she won’t be going back to East Hartford ‘til Sunday, but one of the guys could give us a ride back.”
Evidently, I was not adept at social cues, so I tried again. “What’s wrong with me giving you the money?”
“There’s no reason to. Look, when you get your car, you’ll always be the one getting gas. That’ll be, what, in a week or two?”
“I’m not allowed to take the car, Dani. Can we leave it at that?”
“Fine,” I said, “but I’m bringing cab money to get back. I’m not going around asking for rides.”
“I’m sure someone will offer.”
It was as if she’d accept anyone’s help before mine.
At the Cove that night, she talked nonstop about Valentin while sipping one Gin Rickey after another. “I heard he has a gorgeous 1978 King Cobra Mustang, blue with black interior,” she raved. “A ‘Stang and a Harley Electra Glide Ultra Classic, wow. I just hope he doesn’t take a better look at that body of yours and decide he wants you.”
I was quick to respond. “You have a nice body, too, Farran.”
She shifted gears. “I miss my Angie girl. Poor thing really wanted that job—easy bus ride to and from school, good pay. I feel terrible for her.”
“Me, too. In fact, I’m worried.”
I guzzled what remained of my Tequila Sunrise, savoring the taste along with every glorious sensation. “I really want to tell you what happened that day, because I don’t think you understand.”
She stared blankly at me. “Understand what?”
“When we went with those guys to Pleasure Beach, they drugged Angie and me.”
Her eyes widened. “Angie didn’t say she was drugged.”
“She was, and it didn’t affect us the same way. I could tell from the beginning. I may not remember everything, but she doesn’t remember anything.”
“I’m confused, Dani. You imply that you were raped, and then you say you’re a virgin.”
“Just because that final thing didn’t happen …” I shifted nervously in my chair. “I mean, oral sex is rape, too, but everything that did happen—it was a crime, Farran.”
“Okay, how exactly did they force you? I didn’t see any bruises, not even a scratch.”
At the time, I didn’t know how to answer that question. Of course, the point of drugging us was so they didn’t have to be brutal. They weren’t screaming at me or making derogatory remarks. Rather, they were enamored of my body and me.
“And why didn’t you call the cops when it happened?” she went on. “You can still call the cops if you feel they’re harassing you. That’s what I don’t understand.”
I clenched my teeth. “What I don’t understand is how you can sit there and challenge anything I say about what happened. You weren’t there. As for your suggestions, if I can’t convince you that this happened, and the person who was there doesn’t remember, how am I supposed to convince someone else?”
She shrugged. “Well, that’s just it. Angie doesn’t remember anything like that, and, damn, I hate to think anyone would put you two through what sounds like a terrifying experience. I mean, we’re so young. We’re innocent, really. Is the world that cruel? Could these two guys have been that cruel?”
“Are you kidding me?” I took a deep breath then exhaled. “Do we live in the same world? Yes and yes again.”
“Dani, I know your father has a temper. I think he made you fearful and distrusting of all men. Look, my heart goes out to you, but that could be the reason you reacted so strongly to Tommy’s nonsense, too, as a kid.”
“Ha! I’m afraid of men. You know what you just reminded me of? When Angie and me were hanging out at Addison Park, boys said that because we weren’t ready for sex, we had to be stuck-up, lesbian, or afraid of boys. Of course, it couldn’t have been that we were thirteen years old at the time. That would have been when the little bell or buzzer should have gone off … like, right answer. No, something had to be wrong with us, not them for pushing the issue. Bullshit. I was with Mike a long time, and when we broke up, the other boys were still saying that crap about me.”
She raised a brow. “Yeah, but, Dani, I remember you were always uptight even with Mike. You haven’t changed. You never felt normal, and you wanted to do drugs back then. You told me about things that happened in your childhood, like Robbie saying you lived in your own little world, and the strange things you did, and those incidents you thought you remembered as an infant—”
“None of that changes anything.”
She was shaking her head. “You know, this is a difficult subject to talk about, but I’ve been trying to help you sort this out. I feel bad. All I’m saying is, maybe you need to take some action—you know, like talk with someone who’s in a position to help. Girl, I’m your friend. I’m with you. I’m not going anywhere.”She flashed a smile, and I melted. I think her empathy was a thing I craved, along with any reassurance that she was, indeed, my friend.
We opted for another round of drinks, which helped me shift everything to the depths of my subconscious.
She changed the subject. “Gianni’s been staring at you again.”
I knew that but said nothing in response.
“Did you know he has a boat? Tommy told me. It’s pretty big, sleeps six.”
“Is that supposed to make me want to bust up his relationship with Liz?”
She twirled her hair. “I just thought it would be a lot of fun. Gianni is Valentin’s best friend, you know. If I snag Valentin, Angie gets Nico, and you grab Gianni, we’d be the new Lynx women. We’d get to go everywhere with them. They all go out on that boat when the weather is nice, and we’d be right there with them.”
“You conveniently forget—they’re all with someone. Why would you deliberately sabotage someone’s relationship or ruin a friendship by going after the guy someone loves?”
She appeared astounded by this question. “He’s not married, Danielle! Plenty of women would step right over Liz to get him. She knows that, and until she has that ring on her finger, he has a right to explore other options. I say, show me the ring. You owe her nada. Besides, if two people really are friends, and the man doesn’t love her, but loves her friend, the friend he’s not in love with should be happy for the one he loves. Why shouldn’t they be happy together? And if they’re not friends, who cares? All’s fair in love and war.”
Yeah, except when it came to Valentin.
She went on. “I think there’s another reason you hold back. I’m not saying those other reasons are bull, but I also think, deep down, you don’t think we’re good enough for those guys.”
I shook my head.
“At least consider that. You think the world of them—maybe not Tommy, but the others. Do you think Shannon, Katharine, and Liz are better than we are? They’re not. We deserve those guys as much as anybody, if not more.”
The idea wasn’t worth entertaining for me. I was still trying to get over something horrific, something no one had validated.
“I’d never want to hurt Liz—or anyone,” I said.
She averted her eyes. “I told you— he doesn’t look at her the way he looks at you.”
“If he doesn’t, he should.”
Her gaze shifted to me again, and she flashed that irresistible grin. “This thing with Gianni is classic love at first sight. You’re a writer, one who loves fairy tales, and you don’t believe in love at first sight?”
She had no idea, but I had long since stopped believing in fairy tales, and that’s only if I ever had.
I called us a cab before nine and began putting on my coat as we walked toward the front.
Gianni was inches from the door, leaning against the window. Tommy faced him. Nico sat on a barstool nearby.
Gianni gave me the once-over. “Where ya going?”
“Home,” I answered.
“You’re gonna walk out that door and break my heart?” He’d been drinking beer and placed the bottle on the window ledge.
Tommy turned around.
I buttoned my coat, smiling. “I’m sorry.”
He asked questions about my ethnicity—specifically, where my dad was born.
I stopped before him. “A town called Pozzilli in Isernia.”
“I’m a half-breed, too,” he said. “My mom’s Irish-American, father was born in Trevignano, province of Treviso, Veneto.”
“Cool. Can I ask you something?”
His eyes were dreamy and soulful. “How can I say no to someone as lovely as you?” He gave Tommy a wink. “Especially when you ask me with that husky little voice.”
Nico laughed, shaking his head.
“You were a Marine, right?”
“Yes. Why are you leaving so early?”
I knew Farran would not want me to give him the long version of that, so I provided a brief explanation.
“A cab from here is gonna be expensive,” Tommy said.
Gianni told me he would rather walk me all the way.
“Walk! Hah!” Tommy looked amused. “You’re gonna walk to Glastonbury! Okay, she’s a very pretty girl, but that’s insane.”
“I’d walk to the ends of the earth, if she asked.”
Nico turned, smiling. “Bah! Geez, Giancarlo!” He turned around again and guzzled from a bar glass. I wanted to drown him in love.
“Besides, it’s a nice night,” Gianni said. “Gives me a longer time to talk with this fascinating young lady.”
Nico hopped off the stool and stretched, dazzling us with another smile. I wondered if he had any idea how sexy he was, stretching like that. His eyes shifted from Gianni to Tommy, and then me.
“Don’t worry, Ginzo’s in good shape,” he said. “A forty-mile walk for him is no problem. I don’t know about Tommy, though. He’s lazy. You may end up having to carry him.”
I laughed. “Farran’s going to carry Tommy.”
“Seriously, I could take you home,” Gianni said again. “You can ride with me. She can ride with Tommy.”
There was no reason to be afraid of him or any of them. They were my brother’s friends.
“You’re giving me a ride, then?” Farran’s eyes were on Tommy.
“Yeah,” he grumbled. “Why not …?”
“Aw, that’s so sweet.” I surprised myself, feeling anything other than repugnance where he was concerned.
“Yeah, he’s a benevolent soul,” Gianni quipped. “Shall we go?” He grabbed his jacket, a plaid flannel one that gave him a rugged appeal.
I cancelled the cab.
Farran kissed Nico goodnight, a peck on the cheek.
“Good night, Nico,” I said. He put his cheek forth for a kiss from me, and I obliged.
“Goodnight, doll.” He endowed me with a wink, and my heart raced. “Take care of this beautiful lady,” he told Gianni.
“Thank you,” I muttered.
“Oh, you’re welcome,” he returned.
The butterflies swarmed.
“Where is Valentin, by the way?” Farran asked. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Valentin is very busy right now,” Nico replied. He walked toward the back of the bar.
Farran and I proceeded to the parking lot with Gianni and Tommy. With their tight jeans and motorcycle buckle boots, they did have that bad boy appeal. Gianni lit a cigarette.
“So you guys met Valentin and Nico through the McGraths?” Farran asked.
“No, ma’am,” Gianni replied. “I met Valentin at Notre Dame High, when his family moved to Connecticut from the Bronx.”
Tommy made his tsk sound at Farran, something he would come to do often with her. “Why are you always asking about Valentin?”
She laid into him. “Are you going to do the Billy thing, tell me I don’t want to be a Valentin conquest or another notch on his belt?”
“I never said anything bad about Valentin,” he shot back. “Nor would I ever.” He stopped in front of a red Harley that had an American flag on the tank.
Gianni also did an about-face and squatted, half sitting sideways on the seat of his bike—a Harley, too, in a gorgeous shade of midnight blue. “So, tell me something about you.” He tilted his head to one side, his eyes twinkling.
I told him about my writing. Of course, it was the first thing that popped into my head, and I’m sure it was not what he expected from a sixteen-year-old.
He seemed mesmerized and too content to move a muscle. At one point, he kept shaking his head, smiling as if he were in awe. I could see a genuine interest, but, every so often, I did catch him checking out my body.
“You’re smart,” he said. “Really, that’s very good. I’m sure your parents are very proud of you and supportive.”
“Yeah, he thinks they’re the worst. Everything about them bothers him. He even got mad about some silly story my mother told us once about this man who was struck by lightning.”
“It’s dumb. She told us this story when we were kids. She said her brother told her. It happened in Brazil. There was an electrical storm. This brother of hers, my uncle, was walking behind some man. The man was struck by lightning, and he disappeared. She said there was nothing left on the ground but his hat.”
Tommy looked over at us, his curiosity apparently piqued.
“She swore it was true,” I continued. “She got upset when we questioned it, so we actually believed it, and we told everyone this story. They thought we were nuts. Years later, when I asked her about it, she denied ever having said it! But that’s not even the end of it. A few months ago, Robbie asked her about it. Now she says it did happen, but the reason the guy disappeared was because they had to take him to the hospital, and they forgot the hat!”
Gianni and Tommy laughed so hard that even Farran had to smile. She appeared to have been listening intently, possibly wondering if I had inherited the tendency to fabricate.
“This is a story Valentin would love,” Tommy said to Gianni. He turned to me. “Ay, ask her what hospital. Go see if it’s on file there. Ask her if he ever got the hat back or if it still fits without the head.”
We all laughed hysterically. I needed that.
“It never happened!” I shouted.
How strange it seemed, to laugh with Tommy, as opposed to being the joke. I found him to be funny, and it was hard not to like him in that moment. He wasn’t off the hook, though. The disturbing comments he’d made all those years ago remained etched in my brain.
“So Robbie is pissed off about this?” Gianni seemed surprised.
“It’s one of the petty little things, but, yeah. It pisses him off if you remind him. He says she and my father have to lie about everything, that they don’t even need a reason.”
Farran diverted their attention, telling Tommy she had noticed his tattoos and thought they were awesome.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Tommy said. “Gianni has way more than I do.”
Gianni merely smiled, handed me a helmet, and strapped it on my head. Tommy gave one to Farran. They put on their own helmets, and we mounted the bikes.
The ride stimulated me in ways I never could have fathomed, as did feeling Gianni’s body while I held him tight. His mastery titillated me, and the experience was exhilarating.
Tommy stopped along with him when we arrived at my house. He waited for Gianni, who walked me to my stairway.
Gianni kissed me good night, a peck near my lips, and his hand traveled down the length of my hair. His eyes became glazed and torturously tempting, as though I were the star of his most erotic fantasies. “You have beautiful lips,” he said. “Then again, everything about you is beautiful.”
Again, with that word beautiful. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get used to it, but it felt good. At the same time, it made me nervous.
“I’m serious,” he told me. “You’re the girl of my dreams.”
“You’re in love with Liz,” I replied.
“You are with her.”
He was quiet, still looking at me.
“You have too many eggs in your basket.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You never heard that saying?”
He laughed. “I think you mean: ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’”
“Oh …” I laughed, too. “My mom tells me these things that get lost in translation. She messed it up.”
He looked amused, and those twinkling eyes were killing me. He said, “I’ve never been so completely enchanted by anyone.”
I noticed that Farran and Tommy were standing right across the road, making out. I looked at Gianni. I was infatuated with him and wanted to kiss him, but I wouldn’t dare. It did surprise me that, despite associating him and other men with danger, he was almost as easy to talk to as Valentin—well, after a few drinks, he was. In addition to making me feel charming, funny, and interesting, he made me feel sexy. I hadn’t really felt that before.
“You know …” He hesitated. “Nah, I shouldn’t say it.”
“You got me falling in love with you.”
I was flattered yet dumbfounded. “How can you say that?”
He stared a moment, then said, “You’re right. I shouldn’t have said it. Please forgive me.”
It was both a disappointment and a relief that he would give up the idea rather than persist. He was being the man I’d wished others could have been. Then again, he had no right to come onto me, and that did warrant an apology. I was confused, so pathetically confused. In spite of everything, I would have loved a boyfriend who could see me the way I thought Gianni saw me, and respect my wishes to boot.
We said good night, and I thanked him as he walked away.
He waved without turning.
It was hard not to be excited—but not only because of the incredibly sexy guys I kept running into at the Cove. There was my promising future to think about, my job, the car I would soon have, and all the wonderful things said to me of late. It was a different kind of high, for sure.
As the weeks passed in that glorious October of ‘87, it seemed inevitable that Farran, Angie, and I would be at the Cove most Friday and Saturday nights. Admittedly, I craved the ambiance and excitement.
I was there this Saturday night with my arm in a sling—the result of having tripped on the way to the parking lot the night before.
It seemed to embarrass Farran. “You’ll be cut off by Steve, if he knew. You were drunk.”
“I wasn’t drunk,” I said.
It was true. The two or three drinks I’d usually have never caused me to stagger around, pouring my heart out, or to act impulsively. I was never loud or the life of the party. I consumed just enough to keep me on guard while making my fears and insecurities somewhat bearable.
We were at the table farthest back from the bar. Steve was leaving. Billy had taken over bartending duties, and I was glad I had my drinks already. Billy would not serve me liquor. I was certain if Tully knew Steve did it, he would have fired him. Evidently, Billy didn’t want the guy fired, nor did he want to tell him how to do his job.
“Don’t you quit, man,” I heard him telling Steve once. “Tully’s picky, and if you leave, I’ll get stuck behind that bar 24/7.”
Farran interrupted my thoughts. “You’ll get plenty of attention with that sling.”
Angie smiled, and, almost as if to the sound of trumpets, the Lynx members filed in. No one could miss the grand entrance. The Castel brothers were dapper and dashing in their long coats—Valentin flanked by Nico on the right, Tommy Catalano on the left, and Joey behind him. A brawny male of about six-foot-three walked alongside Joey. His medium brown hair was almost shoulder-length.
Billy seemed well aware of the disturbance. It was like an atmospheric wave.
I could see them all stopping in certain circles, giving out fisted handshakes along with the occasional kiss. It might have been a campaign trail.
“Who’s that really tall guy?” Angie asked.“He’s good looking, too.”
“I haven’t formally met him yet,” Farran replied, “but his name’s Giancarlo.”
“Gianni Bonafacio,” I said. “He’s Tommy’s cousin.”
Farran turned to me. “How do you know that?”
“I was at his house in Bridgeport three years ago. He lives in the South End, around Black Rock—a few blocks from where Tommy lives.”
I had liked that quaint seaside community. Joey mentioned while we were there that Pleasure Beach wasn’t far. A fanciful picture of it came to mind at the time—a lovely place I’d heard about with decades-old buildings and a dance pavilion with glass sides and bell towers, supposedly the largest ballroom in New England. People spent days at the beach and amusement park and nights dancing in the pavilion. That was back in the fifties.
In my mind now was a chillingly different picture, one I didn’t want to think about.
Farran was still talking to me. “You were at his house?”
“He just came home from Beirut and was having a bachelor party for some Marine buddy,” I said. “Joey just went there to bring him a camcorder, and I tagged along.”
“So he’s a Marine. Wow.” Moments later, she was off on a tangent with, “Valentin hates the nickname Val, you know. That’s why some people call him V. Oh, and I heard he lives in Stamford with Katharine. Nico’s living with his parents, but he’s looking for a place.” She was like this small fountain of tidbits.
“Uh, Nico and Joey are on their way over here,” Angie warned.
When the two reached our table, Joey explained about my arm before I could open my mouth.
“Sorry to hear,” Nico said. His smile astounded me.
“How long have you known Joe?” Angie asked him.
“Hush,” Joey said with a finger to his lips. “I think there’s been a comment from Angela.” He always teased her that she was quiet.
Nico glanced at her. “What’s that, doll?” The music was loud.
She raised her voice. “How long have you two known each other?”
“Not that long, but he’s become a very good friend and part of the family. You come from good stock.” He shifted his gaze to me, winked, and smiled. Someone called him then, and he excused himself.
Farran was red-faced and smiling. “Oh, fess up, Dani. If Nico wanted to, wouldn’t you? Or are you too much of a little girl for him?” She laughed. “Hey, if you don’t wanna give it to ‘im, someone else will.”
It took me a few minutes to recover from these declarations, which I found disturbing on many levels.
Farran didn’t let up. “You’d do it, wouldn’t you, Angie?”
“I have to admit, it would be really hard to resist that guy,” Angie said. “I can respect he’s with Shannon, but something happens to me whenever I see him. I don’t know, I’m getting this huge crush on him.” She giggled.
“See, Angie’s normal,” Farran teased, grinning. “We’re young. We’re not saints. It’s only natural to feel this way.”
“Thank you for defining normal.” I rolled my eyes. “These are experienced men. You have to be careful what you’re asking for.”
She held my gaze with a look of bold defiance. “Maybe I want what I am asking for.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “By the way, Giancarlo is checking you out.”
I shrugged. “Maybe he recognizes me and can’t remember why.”
“He watches you a lot, though. He was in a trance the moment he saw you.”
The arrival of Valentin at our table interrupted this uncomfortable exchange. He asked about my arm, and I downplayed it, not wanting to incur Farran’s wrath.
His eyes scanned our little trio. “How’s school?”
Perhaps Farran took offense to this question, a reminder that we were young, or that it was a polite way of conversing with minors. She appeared stumped.
The liquid courage helped, but I didn’t mind the subject of school. My English teacher had an enthusiasm for literature that matched my own. My classmates seemed to appreciate my talents and often asked me to share my poetry.
“Good,” I replied. “This year’s been great. I really love my English teacher. He rents movies for us to watch in class so we can talk about them, like Wuthering Heights, which is my favorite, and then Nicholas and Alexandra.”
He looked at me. “You like Wuthering Heights?”
I told him I loved the bizarre romance on the Yorkshire Moors, and he said it was a favorite of his. He asked what authors I liked. I rattled off quite a few, and it became apparent we liked many of the same writers. The opportunity to talk with anyone about books delighted me. Most of the people in my everyday world had little, if any, interest in reading. In grade school, my favorite thing had been ordering books. After picking out so many that I liked, it took forever to narrow it down. When the books arrived, the sight of those fresh paperbacks thrilled me. In high school, I couldn’t wait to read the classics that made the other kids groan.
Before I knew it, Valentin’s coat was over his arm, and he was standing there chatting with me about poets—Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley among them. He recommended John Keats.
There was little time to savor that and no time to continue. A song came on: “Dancing on the Ceiling” by Lionel Richie. Shannon entered from the back—perhaps the kitchen or some other part of the building, since she wasn’t wearing a coat. She began dancing and then grabbed Valentin. He had to toss someone his coat. Onlookers backed away to give them room, obviously enthralled by the performance that followed. Shannon and Valentin were good dancers and so good at being sexy with their undulating hips and perfect spins—him, especially.
To say I couldn’t take my eyes off him—well, that was the least of it. I felt this burgeoning desire from the depths of me, like dying embers set alight with a single flame’s fury and resilience. It was mindboggling to me that he triggered this response after those two men and Pleasure Beach. What had those vile creatures unleashed in me? What beast had they awakened? I think I vowed to kill the beast and bury it so deep in the abyss that it would never again rear its ugly head. Part of me did make this promise. The other part embraced an unfolding of life’s inextinguishable flames and the mind’s unspoken bondage.
Angie smiled now, shaking her head. “I wonder what Nico’s thinking.”
Valentin was closer to Shannon when the music began, but Nico was nearby, and he stood alone.
Angie called out to him. “Nico, why aren’t you dancing?”
He looked at her, his eyes glazed, and smiled warmly. “I’m beat, doll … long day.” He glanced at me, treating me to a wink and a smile. After the dance, Shannon went to him and kissed him quite passionately before they went up to the bar.
Farran turned to me. “Uh, thanks a lot for carrying on with Valentin about Wuthering Heights and every other thing.”
I tried to laugh it off. “Should I not talk to him?”
“Dani, when you get on those subjects, you come alive. You get very excited. I can understand that, but it’s like you don’t even know Angie and I are still sitting here. You’re oblivious to anything else going on around you. I mean, I’d like to talk to him, too.”
Valentin didn’t stay long after that. He never did.
We went up to the bar. Farran went to grab a hold of Tommy for some reason, and Angie trailed after her, so I stood alone in front of Billy, feeling nervous. Gianni headed toward Billy with a slow, lazy swagger, moving a step closer to me with every click of his boots.
He asked Billy for a Black Sunday then turned to me, touching my sling. “What happened?” His voice was gentle and soothing. His dimpled chin was sexy.
“It’s a ridiculous story.” I said. “You don’t want to know.”
“I love ridiculous stories.” He was soft-spoken with a velvety voice. “Tell me.”
“I tripped over a broken stop sign.”
He met my gaze fearlessly, and I noticed the color of his eyes—hazel like mine.“You tripped over a broken stop sign. Where do you find broken stop signs you could trip over?”
“Yeah, well, it was only about yea big.” I demonstrated with my hand. “Maybe a foot. And it was dark. I missed it.”
Though he wore a denim jacket adorned with patches, emblems, and embroidery, it was open to reveal a tight black shirt, one that couldn’t hide a well-defined masculine chest and broad shoulders. I imagined anyone would feel safe in his big, strong arms.
I smiled. “You don’t remember me. Or do you?”
“I came to your house in Bridgeport with my brother Joey.”
“Now that you mention it, I do. You were a kid then and now…” He paused briefly, as if studying me a moment. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
“Thanks. Well, do you still live in Bridgeport?”
“I remember there was a lady with you.” I recalled she was Asian and pretty. After introductions, Gianni had invited us to sit and offered sodas, but I have no memory of what we discussed.
“The young lady and I parted ways some time ago.”
Billy handed him the drink.
Gianni put money down on the counter and clasped the glass. He looked at me. “Are you even eighteen yet? Where’s your boyfriend? You must have a boyfriend.”
Billy clenched his teeth.
“I’ll be seventeen soon, and I don’t … have a boyfriend. I’m keeping out of trouble.”
Gianni shook his head and then lifted the glass to salute me.
He had a two-way radio with him, which now transmitted interference. He took it out of his jacket. “Yeah, what is it?”
A loud, muddled voice came through. “We could use you, G, but it’s an NE—your call.”
“Be right there. I do owe you one.”
Gianni put the radio back in his pocket.
“Are you a cop?” I was curious.
“He’s not a cop,” Billy answered for him.
With a nod in my direction, Gianni departed.
“He’s a bodyguard,” Billy said. “I think he wants to be a cop. Just be careful around them. I have my suspicions that Gianni and Valentin are connected to the Hells Angels, and Valentin’s been linked to the Pagans and Warlocks.”
I had to ask. “What are the Pagans and Warlocks?”
“Other motorcycle gangs,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Gianni wears a bulletproof vest at times and carries a gun.”
I don’t know why, but the idea of Gianni in a bulletproof vest, carrying a gun, was exciting to me. I did wonder how good it would feel, him holding me safe in his arms, comforting me, caressing my hair as I buried my head in his chest, holding me closer as I cried on his shoulders, and then cuddling with me in his bed.
All of them were gone within the hour, and I’m sure Billy was glad.
With and without his help, however, I learned a lot about the Lynx.
I could tell much about what was going on in the various romantic situations by the songs people played on the jukebox. Nico would play “In Too Deep” by Genesis more than any other song.
Katharine and Shannon liked to play Whitney Houston’s “You Give Good Love,” because, according to Farran, Valentin and Nico had to be the ultimate lovers. The three of us had fun speculating.
I noticed every little thing about the Lynx—like the way they all used “doll” when addressing females. And they focused on you when you spoke to them. They paid attention, and I liked that.
Tommy was an integral part of the gang—nicknamed Tommy Cat. We learned he was an Air Force paratrooper, honorably discharged. Someone said he had participated in the bombing strikes on Libya. He worked as a delivery driver for an auto parts store and now lived alone in the Bridgeport house. I had never again seen him as drunk as he’d been that first night we reconnected. In fact, he often seemed more sober and grounded than anyone else.
Valentin came across as the most genuine and approachable of the bunch. He was not around as much as the others. All the more reason for Farran to appear spellbound when he was there, and he would remain the god of gods, something of a legend, all-powerful, and then he’d just laugh like crazy because I’m sure even he knew how silly it was. Women fell in love with everything there was to love about him, including his laughter.
Gianni and Nico, on the other hand, had the air of icons who, every so often, consented to grace you with their presence. Nico, however, seemed guarded and a bit less secure than the others, but he had an endearing innocence about him.
Gianni would be in the bar only a few minutes before Farran would say, “Look, he’s staring at you.”
“Just be careful,” she told me another time. “Liz is his girlfriend.”
She pointed her out to me: a pretty, doe-eyed brunette, maybe five-foot-seven, with hair styled in a meticulous bob. I thought she could be a model, considering her boyish, athletic frame and petite bone structure. Her makeup was perfect, her style of dress modest and tasteful, with a designer bag always strapped over her shoulder. She plopped herself into Gianni’s lap whenever I came into view, some kind of animalistic marking of her territory, and she made it a point to be all over him. Farran found this behavior hilarious. Gianni would gently caress Liz as he might do with a pet that belonged to him.
“He is stunned by you,” Farran insisted. “He doesn’t look at anyone else like that, not even Liz. Damn, even when Liz is with him, he can’t take his eyes off you. She is so jealous of you. Not kidding, man, she hates you.”
I didn’t hate Liz, or even dislike her, but I couldn’t understand her perception of me as a rival. I was unable to relate to her jealousy. She was the star of this show, along with the entire Lynx gang. I was an audience member riveted by their adventures, using booze now and then as my popcorn. Getting up on that stage with them wasn’t part of my plan.
Flattered as I was, I would not pursue Gianni while he had a girlfriend, particularly one I had seen in his arms. I would not pursue him at all.
Not that I didn’t want a boyfriend. The thought of having a guy who respected my wishes seemed tangled up with fantasies about these take-charge older men who could easily overpower me. Before Phil and Sergio, I’d known what I wanted, but I now found myself in a position of needing to sort out my confusion. The crushing of one’s will didn’t cease with the conquest. Poison oozed from the wound like some fairy tale curse that corrupted your spirit, making it so vile that you couldn’t know or understand your desires.
I tried not to look at Gianni. It irked me that he had the balls to undress me with his eyes. I could only blush and look away.
Paul Catalano was shorter and pudgier than his brother, Tommy, was. He had a broad face, similar light brown eyes, lighter hair, and a prepossessing smile. He’d kissed me in a garage during a game of hide-and-seek when I was nine. It was a forceful peck on the side of my mouth. After a brief delay, I opened my mouth once or twice to say something and then dashed right out of there. In my daunted state, it was like fleeing the accursed grip of a murky tomb into the glare of the blinding sun.
In September of fifth grade, he walked up to me in school and hugged me. I didn’t know what to do with my arms. Another morning, I felt something at my back when I exited the coatroom, a mere graze, but it tickled me and caused me to jerk and jiggle, twisting as I turned. It was Paul trying to feel for my bra strap from the outside of my blouse. He smiled, and I noticed then that other boys had been watching. I hastened to my seat, humiliated, but the expressions on their faces surprised me. They were somewhat in awe.
Not a week later, at the end of class, I was about to slip my arms through my coat sleeves when Paul came to me. He grinned before hugging me, burying his head in my chest, and rolling it from side to side as though savoring the moment. Other boys watched, wide-eyed. I saw their smiles and heard their laughter as I pushed Paul back with all the strength I could muster. In a trancelike state, I slipped my arms through my coat sleeves and maneuvered the buttons. Paul and his friends were still watching, smiling, and laughing, their eyes sparkling with admiration.
It confused me. I neither wanted to be a victim of ridicule nor a target of desire. If I could have chosen the middle ground of being invisible, I would have.
Years later, Robbie seemed horrified when his friends liked me, leered at me, or told him I was cute. He hung around at Addison Park, as Joey sometimes did. Tommy Catalano made the occasional appearance as well—until his mother died, and he moved with Paul and his father to Bridgeport. Angie and I rode up on our bikes, like many of the other kids. Some lived outside of Glastonbury, including Farran. She walked to Addison Park from her little house on Timber Trail in East Hartford.
Upon introduction, the first thing Farran said to me was, “I love your brothers, man. They are awesome.” Of course, I agreed. By then, I thought everybody was awesome but me. My brothers were outgoing charmers who made people laugh. Boys liked them. Girls adored them. Joey had achieved something of a teen idol status.
I was another story, in Jordache or Bonjour jeans, with long, oversized tops and my Keds, my hair in either a loose bun or ponytail, always neatly fastened with a barrette. Angie and I sat by the courts, on the bleachers, or on the grass. We watched people play baseball or basketball. When the ice-cream truck came, we rushed over to buy cones and then sat on a bench to relish every gluttonous lick.
Robbie never wanted me there. He would tell me to go home. Joey would tell Robbie to keep an eye on me.
Addison Park was where I saw Mike McGrath for the first time, and where I’d dreamily noticed his blond hair and cornflower blue eyes. He was walking with his jacket over his arm, and something fell out of the pocket. He kept walking. I went to pick it up—this tiny prayer book. On my way to returning it to him, Farran raced over. She introduced us, and, after he’d left, I realized I hadn’t given him the prayer book. Angie and I were talking about it later. I showed it to her and then accidentally dropped it into a nearby trash receptacle. Shannon came along while I was trying to retrieve it.
I approached her, book in hand.
“You’re Mike’s sister, right?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Um, this is his.” I tried wiping off the book with my hand, embarrassed. “I dropped it. I mean, he dropped it first, and then I … I didn’t mean to drop it, but …”
She laughed and took the book for him.
When Mike came to the park, he liked to sit on a table or perched on top of a bench. He and his friends would drink beer they concealed in a brown paper bag. Every sighting of him had me in a hopeless state of thrill and panic. Angie seemed to think I had caught his attention—that he was checking me out whenever he passed with his friends.
He did ask me out. He invited me to his house. I rode my bike there, feeling great until something splashed on my head—something cold and squishy. Shannon was headed my way, and the moment she reached me, I told her, in a panicked state, what I’d suspected had happened.
She leaned forward to examine my head. “Yep,” she said. “You have pigeon shit in your hair.” With an effervescent chuckle, she tapped my arm. “Come with me. We’ll wash it out, and he’ll never know what happened. We just have to work fast.”
She took me to a small bathroom at her neighbor’s house, where I sat on the toilet while she washed out the green goo. She styled my hair into a side ponytail. I must have thanked her a hundred times, and the smile rarely disappeared from her face. Before going her merry way, she told me a pigeon crapping on my head was good luck. Feeling nervous, I went to the house, climbed the steps, and rang the doorbell. Billy came to the door. He seemed big, with a strong build, and handsome.
His wide grin put me at ease.
“Is Mike here?” It was all I could think of to say.
“Aw.” He said that loudly, as if tickled and amused him. “Ay, Mike!” he yelled. “Your little girlfriend is here.” He shook his head and stepped to his left, smiling. “Come on in and sit down. He’ll be down any minute.” As I entered, he motioned for me to have a seat and then chuckled before barreling up the stairway.
When Mike came down, he was sweet and shy and such a gentleman. I met Tully that day, too. Mike introduced him.
The first time Mike and I kissed, he had to suggest, politely, that I open my mouth. A year later, we hadn’t gone beyond holding hands, hugging, and tongue kissing.
Farran said, “You know, I hate to break it to ya, but guys get tired of kissing. Sooner or later, he’s gonna want more. He’s fifteen, for goodness’ sake! I’m surprised he’s waited this long. He must really care for you.”
“What would he expect me to do?” I asked.
Farran laughed. “Well, he’ll wanna at least touch the merchandise.”
“Eww.” I winced.
“Are you normal?”
“I’m not even in high school yet!”
“You will be in September.”
“Well, if that’s what he wants, he’ll have to get it somewhere else, because I’m not doing it.”
“Why?” she asked. “You have a nice body. If I had your body, I’d have done it with him already. You’ve got the chest they all lust after.”
I didn’t get that—why the size of my breasts seemed inordinately important, not only to the male species but to females as well. At times, I’d have gladly given back my embarrassment of riches.
Images of touching and nakedness did disgust me then. Everything to do with sex evoked shame. The subject was taboo in our home. My parents were modest and never talked about it. No one did, except priests behind the podium who said sex outside of marriage was wrong, and that the thought of it alone was a sin. One of them had repeatedly emphasized that we were already tarnished with sin and unworthy. Like we had inherited shame. Anything to do with premarital sex could only bring more shame—unbearable shame, along with the shame of every other incident where one came across as pathetic and unworthy.
Of course, I had developed a curiosity about sex. Still, I voiced my concerns to Mike.
“It’s only natural I would want more,” he said, “but I’d wait until you are ready.”
That was nice, but it also meant he expected me to be ready at some point. “What if I’m never ready?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
I didn’t believe him.
Then there was Paul. He had kept a respectable distance for years, and now, in eighth grade, he cornered me on the stairway as we exited the school building.
“I bet you think you’re a whore now, hanging around Addison Park with McGrath,” he said.
I was sure I’d misheard. “What?”
“You think I buy your nice little girl act?”
I walked away, trying to make sense of something that unequivocally made no sense. It was then I became familiar with the ingrained concept—you had to be a good girl or a bad girl. Your outward appearance could determine which one. If people who believed in this concept wanted you to be a bad girl, they were hell-bent on transporting you to the dark side. I was upset and more resolved than ever that I would not yield. It was the reason I chose to go to Catholic high school instead of Glastonbury High, where my brothers had gone.
I wrote Mike’s name surrounded by hearts all over my notebook and wore his high school ring on a chain. We were together every day after school and on weekends. Soon enough, I wore an anklet he had given me for my birthday, and then a nameplate he bought me for Christmas. I kissed him with rosy cheeks in my soft, fluffy angora sweaters, but I had yet to give him anything more in exchange for his generosity.
He began to try when I was babysitting—while we were alone in some stranger’s house with their child fast asleep. There was a point when I didn’t want to stop him, but I did.
We fought, too. My mother once showed me a song I had written about him at the time. I couldn’t believe she had kept it tucked away.
This part made me wince in later years:
I may be nasty, I may be mean, but you gotta remember, I’m only thirteen.
When my mother read it to me, she couldn’t seem to stop laughing. She said she intended to keep it forever. I don’t know if I ever gave that to him. Poor guy—he gave me the loveliest things, and all I could come up with was that.
He wanted to be with me always, and sometimes I needed to be without him. I felt restless, curious. I had big plans. Publishing a book would be the stepping-stone for other career paths like singing and acting. I planned to work toward and achieve every goal without depending on anyone but myself.
While many of my classmates had already had sex by sophomore year, I focused on those goals. The girls discussed doing things sexually that I’d never heard of or thought about doing, things they had to explain to me. I was fifteen and could never have fathomed how much all of this would change in the following year thanks to Sergio and Phil. It seemed a cruel joke—one I didn’t wish on anyone and felt no one deserved, sexually experienced or not.
In my room now, thinking about all of this, the scenes began to play out in my head.
Sergio had taken me to the kitchen for a drink of water because I felt sick. It was right after the forced oral sex, and I wanted to hurl. Phil walked in naked, and it made me sicker. He was boasting to Sergio, “If he does that, I’ll just make one phone call. I know people, and they got my back anytime. Getting him iced would be a gift to this town.”
“Iced? You’re getting him iced?” Sergio asked. “And who do you know that’s gonna burn him?”
“I know plenty of people,” Phil said. “I can have it done within twenty-four hours.”
“Oh, well, if you have connections, yeah.”
“You know I have connections.”
They didn’t seem to care that I was listening.
“I want to go home,” I told Sergio.
He held out his hand. “Come back inside.”
I wanted to trust him. I had to.
He took me to the bathroom because I said I had to throw up, and he waited outside the door. I tried vomiting over the toilet but couldn’t.
Next, I was in a different bedroom, a smaller one. At some point, Phil was there. He sauntered into the room, closed the door, and fiddled with the lock. I shut my eyes tightly now, remembering I’d been trapped in there with both of them for what seemed like hours, and much of it was a haze.
“Where is Angie?” I had asked, trying to get up.
Phil pushed me back down. “She’s fine,” he said.“She’s in the other room, waiting for me.”
“Angie!” I screamed her name at the top of my lungs, but it faded like in a dream. “Where is she?” I asked, sounding exhausted.
Phil was lying on one side of me, Sergio on the other.
I tried to get up a couple of times, wanting to look for her, but they threw me back down. I feared she was dead, and that I could be next.
Phil brushed my cheek with his hand. “If you’d relax, you’d enjoy it.”
“No, no, please.” I was crying.
“You have a pinup’s body with an angel’s face,” he said.
I thought I heard her moaning. She sounded so far away. I wondered if she was dying, but I was too weak to get up.
Tully was bartending. I’d met him one time and so spotted him easily, a mostly bald man with bits of white hair at the sides of his head. We presented our IDs, and he shook his head, offering sodas in an endearing Irish brogue. He did look sympathetic with his softhearted smile. He had a dear face—a lovable face. His weary eyes had a mystical charm.
We went along with the sodas, as would be the case whenever Tully was there, and I lectured Farran about Valentin. “Look, if he shows up, just try to keep in mind that he’s older, and he’s experienced. Don’t give him any ideas. You’ll be sorry.”
“Uh, no. If that guy gets ideas about me, I will not be sorry,” she said. “I need to hit the gym first and work off some of the junk I’ve been scarfing down, but I’ll turn that head of his.”
“You’re not fat,” I told her. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Despite my concern for her, I loved the self-deprecating humor she shared with Angie. However, when she pointed out these flaws she believed she had, it triggered my feelings of inadequacy. It was as if I didn’t want to alert anyone to the fact that the world had stopped laughing at me. Well, it had seemed like the world, when, primarily, the culprit was Tommy Catalano. He had been my adversary for nearly a decade, doling out misery without mercy in those awkward childhood years, and now there seemed to be no end to the world’s cruelty, for there he was. He breezed in as if on cue, like he owned the place—or like a bad dream.
My heart sank, as I felt the heat from the blazing torch of shame I had carried since childhood. It permeated my body. I felt as if a dam had burst and flooded my brain with an unyielding gush of emotion. The world was too small, I told myself. Entirely too small.
His face hadn’t changed much, but how strange: He looked small now. He was maybe five-foot-eight with a medium build, but he’d been a giant to me for so long.
Farran was agape. “Last I saw of him, he enlisted in the military after high school.”
I noted that he had kept the short hair.
“He lost his mom too young,” she went on. “That was only three years ago. Then, last year, his brother shot himself in the head. A couple of months ago, his father got killed. My heart goes out to him.”
“How awful,” Angie lamented.
He staggered in our direction, and the feeling of dread overwhelmed me. After leaning this way and that, he zeroed in on me. “Hey, beautiful …”
Beautiful … did he have any idea? Well, I could see he was drunk.
“Long time no see,” I replied, catching him with my arm as he tipped forward. Many tattoos were visible with the tight, short-sleeved T-shirt he wore.
“You know me?”
“Um, yeah, Tommy, you know me, too. I’m Danielle DeCorso.”
“Little Danielle DeCorso? I don’t believe it!”
“You know my cousin, Angie.”
She was biting her thumbnail when he looked at her.
“I remember her. Seen Joe last night. I heard Robbie’s down in Florida.”
“Yeah, he’s going to college there.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “If you’re Danielle DeCorso, you’re probably still in high school. Do your parents know you’re in a bar?”
“Do they know? You’re kidding me, right?”
“I’m serious. Do your brothers know you’re in a bar?”
“Shush!” That was Farran. “Come on, Tommy, you can’t be more than twenty-one yourself. Give me a break.”
He shifted his eyes to her. “You look familiar.”
“I’m Farran Chapin. You probably saw me at Addison Park many moons ago. You hang out here?”
“Here and sometimes Déjà Vu in Manhattan—on the Upper West Side. What are you all doing here at the Cove?” He looked at me. “Do your brothers know you’re going to bars and drinking alcohol?”
“This is the first bar I’ve been to,” I said.
He didn’t let up. “So, right now, your parents have no idea where you are or what you’re doing.” He was staring me down. I thought those golden eyes of his eyes conveyed deep pain and sadness, with a touch of bitterness that seemed to attest to too much wisdom. “If you were my daughter, I’d want to know where you were. I’d want to know who you were with and what you were doing. I’d still be taking you out for ice cream. I wouldn’t want you hanging out in a bar with a motorcycle gang. Not that we are a bad motorcycle gang …” He smiled then, a rascally smile. He still had that fierce tiger face.
Farran asked the predictable question. “Are you one of the Lynx?”
“Yeah. You didn’t know that?” He walked off before she could reply.
“He’s cute,” Farran said. “He’s looking good.”
“Well, he was a bully to Danielle,” Angie reminded her.
“And I won’t forget his prejudice toward my family,” I said. “There’s so much hate in this world.”
“It’s not necessarily hate,” Farran argued. “People like to stick with their own. It’s what they know. Boys can be jerks. Everybody knows that. Tommy has grown up. He was nice to you, and he did make friends with your brothers eventually, so he’s obviously gotten over it.”
I rolled my eyes. “Well I’m glad he’s gotten over it.”
I admit I had become as intolerant of him as he’d been of me all those years ago. Though a pattern had begun, I no longer wanted to be a victim—his or anyone else’s.
“He sacrificed to enlist in the military,” Farran said. “He deserves our respect.”
The conversation ended there, because Valentin showed up, and whenever he did, it was like a torrent of wind. He walked briskly, whole-souled and energized, providing kisses, handshakes, and chatter. He had a way of flitting around like lightning with a fast-paced whirl here and there. He shined, appearing comfortable and confident.
This night, he had someone with him—someone with the same chiseled cheekbones, albeit two inches shorter and with a weighty batch of very dark, curly hair to his shoulders. They were stopping at tables and talking with various people, including Shannon.
Shannon called me over. “This is my boyfriend, Nico Castel,” she gushed about the one who’d arrived with Valentin. “Nico, this is Joey’s sister, Danielle.”
I could swear Nico’s eyes were coal black. He had a chiseled jawline, sensuous lips, and the nose of a Greek God. When he nodded and smiled, the gleam was white radiance and dimpled perfection. He was ruggedly robust, dressed casually in a sweater with jeans and boots.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said.
“Pleased to meet you as well,” I replied.
Shannon drew Valentin into the circle, saying, “Valentin, you remember Joey’s sister, Danielle.”
I tried not to stare at people or watch them too intently when they spoke to me, but it was hard—especially with this bunch. At the same time, I easily avoided the many admiring eyes upon me—patrons throughout the bar. I wasn’t comfortable being the focus.
Valentin leaned forward and clasped my hand. “Joey tells me your father is Italian, and your mom is from Brazil.”
“Yes,” I said. “Actually, my maternal grandfather purchased farmland in Paraíba and moved the family there when my mom was only three, but they are originally from Spain.”
He perked up. “Where in Spain?”
“The Extremadura region of Cáceres.”
He smiled. “An incredible place.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Yes, I went to school in Spain for four years.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“Never?” It seemed to surprise him. “You have to go. It’s a very medieval old town with a lot of Gothic and Italian Renaissance architecture. It’s amazing.”
In that moment, he was familiar to me. I didn’t want him to be, yet I had this feeling I already knew him, that we had met in another life, and I had always known him, in every life that I’d lived. The feeling was corny and bizarre but strong.
“The weird thing is, my mother speaks a lot more Spanish than Portuguese,” I told him. “Even when we went to Brazil, they were all talking Spanish. And she makes only one Portuguese dish—arroz de pato. It’s like rice with duck.”
Farran came over, and, I must admit, I had almost forgotten about her and Angie, whom she was pulling along.
Shannon introduced them to Nico, and Farran asked which brother was older.
Nico pointed a thumb toward Valentin. “He’s going to be twenty-three soon. I’ll be twenty-two in December.” His accent was not much different from my own, though I heard a faint inner city blend. I figured that was the reason Farran had to inquire about their ethnicity.
“Spanish, French, Russian, and even some Romanian blood,” Valentin told her. “Our maternal grandmother was from Craiova.”
“Is that near Transylvania?” I had to ask.
Valentin laughed and then turned to Nico. “Ah, she likes vampires.”
Nico responded with a smile.
“Well, they fascinate me,” I said. “I mean, the subject fascinates me.”
“Me as well,” Valentin replied.“But to answer your question, Craiova is in the southern part of the country. It’s the Wallachia region, where Vlad the Impaler ruled as a Wallachian prince. Transylvania is in the central part of the country. It’s a four or five-hour drive.”
Farran clamored for center stage again. “Do any of you, by chance, have a cigarette?”
Shannon pulled a pack of cigarettes from her jacket and gave one to Farran, who lit the cigarette, took a long puff, and seemed to exaggerate the exhale.
Katharine Jaeger arrived then and sauntered in our direction. She slipped her arm through Valentin’s while Shannon made the introductions.
“I vaguely remember seeing you somewhere,” she said to me. “Farran I remember.”
She was, perhaps, five-foot-six, with a lovely figure and a nice chest, dressed casually in knee-high boots. Her light, natural blonde hair, straight and fine, fell a few inches past her shoulders. If she wore any makeup, I couldn’t tell, but her baby blue eyes were incredible. They held an ingenuous gaze—a blend of naïveté and raw honesty. To look at her, I never would have thought of her as a married woman, let alone a mother. I did see her as an older woman, which is quite funny, as she was barely twenty at the time.
She kissed Valentin before gracing us with a childlike grin of appreciable size, aseptic, stainless teeth beaming. He held her close.
“We have to go, or we’ll miss part of the movie,” Shannon said, adjusting the bag over her shoulder. “Oh, Danielle, it was so nice to see you again.” She gave me another hug. “I hope to see you soon.” She hugged Farran and Angie.
Valentin wished us all a good night. “Ten cuidado,” he said, looking directly at me.
“Always,” I assured him with a good-natured grin.
He put his arm around Katharine and gently led her forward.
“Good night, girls,” Nico said.
I saw Tommy intercept them at the doorway. He was horsing around with Valentin and then followed them out the door.
Farran began her inquisition immediately. “What was all that with you and Valentin? Shannon took you over there and ignored Angie and me.”
I tensed. “I don’t think she meant to exclude you. She was excited for me to meet Nico.”
“I am more concerned with your bonding with Valentin over Spain and all this other crap. Are you trying to make it harder for Angie and me?” Before I could get angry with her, she flashed a smile. “Damn, you got enough guys here drooling over you. Leave some for us.”
Her concern that Valentin would become interested in me romantically—or any of us, for that matter—surprised me.
“So what’d he say to you in Spanish?” she asked.
“He told me to be careful. He was being polite. It’s normal for people to find common ground. I mean, he was with his wife!”
Her eyes narrowed. “Valentin can do better. So can Nico.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I argued. “Valentin is with Katharine. Nico’s with Shannon. And I doubt they want to play tea party with a bunch of teenagers.”
Farran was defiant. “I’ll play tea party with Valentin anytime he wants, or whatever the hell else he wants to play.”
I wondered if she had any grasp on the reality of what she was saying. At the time, every male signaled danger to me. I knew what could happen if I let my guard down, even for a moment, and I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t want Farran or Angie to do it either. I felt like their mother (not to mention, a broken record) saying things like, “You can get pregnant. You can get a bad reputation.” What I didn’t say was, “You can get into a situation where you are forced to do something you really don’t want to do.” And that’s what I wanted to say most of all.
Running into Tommy had worried me, too. I brought it up at the dinner table on Saturday night when it was just my parents and me. I didn’t mention that I saw him, but I asked if they remembered his dad and the accident that had killed him over the summer in Bridgeport.
“That was no accident,” my father divulged.
My mother seemed taken aback. “Why would you say that? He was crossing the street outside a bar and got hit by a car.”
“Eh, why do I say that …? He was run over twice, Grace. The car ran him over, backed up, and ran over him again. That’s why I say that.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Heh! Means they wanted to make sure he didn’t survive.”
My eyes widened. “You think that was a mob hit? Like an execution-style murder?”
My mother clenched her teeth. “Like he was there.”
“I wasn’t there, but I heard about it,” he said.
I was intrigued. “So Tommy’s father was in the mob?”
“Of course. That bar is a bookie joint run by the mob. Just like when they lived here, the guy was hanging around in a mafia-run bookie joint.”
“What’s a bookie joint?” I asked.
“They play the numbers,” he said. “They’re involved with all kinds of gambling and who knows what else.”
My mother seemed confused. “Why would they kill him?”
“Why? We have a saying for it in Italy, but they say the same thing here. Loose lips sink ships. He drank too much, and he had a big mouth. For sure, somebody didn’t like it. Somebody did away with him. Just like Kennedy. Who do you think killed Kennedy? That was the mob, too.”
“Stop,” my mother said.
“You say nothing to nobody,” he told us. “You know nothing. I know nothing. That’s all. The guy was no goddamn good anyway. The wife wanted to leave him for years, but the church wouldn’t allow it. What kind of bullshit is that? She had to put up with his shit ‘til she dropped dead.”
“They had problems,” my mother said. “That doesn’t mean he was bad.”
He waved, dismissing her. “You didn’t sleep with him. She did. Who knew better than her? Same bullshit with my mother and father—they were young, their parents arranged everything. My father was never happy. My mother was never happy.”
“That was the way they did things then.”
“I understand that, Grace,” he said. “What, because people do it, that means it’s a good idea? People jump off the bridge, and that makes it a good idea? What gets me is, you got all kinds of guys of all kinds of nationalities in the mob, but it’s always Italian, Italian. In the movies, they’re Italian. If you’re Italian, they want to know if you’re in the mob.”
I laughed. My mother did, too.
“Well, this guy was Italian,” she quipped.
The look on his face was priceless. It had my mother and me laughing again.
A few weeks into the fall ‘87 semester, Robbie finally called. Delighted to hear from him, I sprawled across my bed with the phone and settled in for a long, cozy chat. We talked about school and his new campus life before revisiting his last night at home.
“So, what baby were you dreaming about?” I asked. “You said you killed the baby.”
“No idea,” he responded. “I have a lot of bad dreams. How could I not in that house?” He began venting about my father. “He was always talking about how we should go to college. I got a scholarship for a fucking ABET-accredited aerospace engineering program at Florida State, and now it’s not good. People who graduate from college are dumb. That’s all his bitterness because he didn’t go to college.”
“No, he’s proud of you, Robbie,” I said. “They’re both proud of you and very happy for you. I’m proud of you, too. You’ve come such a long way.”
“Thanks, Dan. Don’t forget, I was supposed to be a doctor—after he failed to make a doctor out of Joey.”
“He was devastated when Joey dropped out of high school.”
“Yep … he wasn’t happy when Joey worked in the bakery either, or the pizza place, or as a trucking company dispatcher. He wasn’t happy when Joey took the firefighter exam and managed to get on the list. That’s the only reason Joe’s doing this elevator technician thing and working with Uncle Dom. Honestly, it would be nice if our father tried to find out what we might actually like. Just do this, do that. Fuck him. At my fucking grade school graduation, he tells me I should work on becoming a doctor. I didn’t even get to high school yet!”
“Yeah, well, I was not even good enough to push along the medical path.” I laughed, but it hurt. “He says to me, ‘Do you know how hard it is to become successful at writing or singing? Are you kidding me, Danielle? You’re better off learning some kind of trade.’” The realization that he didn’t believe in me stung. I would fluctuate between wanting to prove he was wrong and wanting to be gone from the world.
“Right,” Robbie agreed. “He was sure Joey and me could be doctors, and we don’t even wanna be doctors, but he knows you can’t be a writer even though you love to write.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “He has no patience with me, no faith in my ability. Like when he was teaching me how to drive—what a disaster! But he always had so much faith in you and Joey.”
“Not really, and, no, it’s not okay!” he said. “None of this is okay. He split your head open, the crazy fuck.”
It was true. I was twelve at the time. My father had been raging about Robbie breaking curfew and being asleep at one in the afternoon. He called him a goddamn stupid bastard then went into a rant about one of Robbie’s friends being black.
I first defended Robbie.
My father yelled, “What are you, his lawyer?”
I went on to defend the black kid and black people, and he continued to assail me with generalizations.
“You don’t know all the black people, Daddy,” I said. “You probably don’t know any!”
Not that he was alone in his concern about race and ethnicity. I saw it all around me. What I rarely saw was a black person. Neighbors didn’t think we belonged there either. It hadn’t escaped me that people mocked and ridiculed anyone perceived as different in any way. They didn’t know what else to do with people who didn’t fit their perception of what normal should be. I was tired of witnessing all the rejection. Granted, I loved my grandmother, but she would ask people flat out what they were in terms of ethnicity. My mother told me she had wanted my father to marry an Italian girl.
“Who cares how white or dark anyone is, or what part of the world they were born in?” I raged on that day. I rose from the table, making no effort to conceal my vehement disgust.
“Where are you going?” my mother asked. “We’re gonna eat now.”
“Wake up your brother!” my father roared.
I stormed off to my room and locked the door.
I heard the clinking of glasses and utensils downstairs and the plunk of each plate upon the hard surface of the dining room table. My father called me to come and eat, twice. I didn’t budge. Instead, I looked longingly at the jewelry box with the pink flowers on my dresser. My grandmother had given that to me. I opened it, wanting to hear the music and watch the ballerina dance. I was ready to wind it when I heard him yelling. It scared me enough to take my hands off the jewelry box, rise, and head for the door. I hastened down the stairs. We met in a narrow corridor, in the little alcove where the desk used to be before he put it in my room.
He slammed my head against the wall.
I felt nothing. I could see everyone around the dining room table as I walked inches ahead of him. There was the ravioli, the plate of meatballs, beef braciole, artichokes, boned rabbit, and sausages in sauce. I saw salad with black olives, olive oil, and homemade vinegar. There was the red table wine my father made with Uncle Dom. All eyes were upon me—shocked faces.
My mother’s chair swung back, and she sprang to her feet. She screamed at my father. “You beast!” Next thing I knew, she was rushing me over to the sink. I watched it fill with the blood gushing from my head.
My father paced.
“Get a towel!” she hollered at him. “Hurry up!”
He got the towel and wrapped it tightly around my head.
“You have to take her to the hospital!” she yelled.
I felt dizzy going down the outside stairs. “I’m so sorry, Daddy,” I sobbed on the way to the car.
He had a cold, faraway look in his eyes. I couldn’t decide whether it was anger and hatred for me, or his eyes had simply died. I sensed he was angrier with himself, dealing with the torment of his guilt, and I wanted to comfort him.
“I’m so sorry, Daddy,” I said again. “I should have come when you called me.”
He didn’t respond or look at me. He focused on the road with many glimpses into the rearview mirror.
I apologized all the way to the emergency room.
He pulled into the parking lot of Manchester Memorial, took the key from the ignition, and spoke with his eyes on the wheel. “I am the one who is sorry, okay? You have nothing to be sorry about.” I’d never heard him speak in such a shaky, fractured voice.
“I love you, Daddy,” I assured him.
An awkward silence ensued.
“I feel like you don’t love me anymore.”
“Danielle, it has nothing to do with whether I love you or don’t love you. You’re my daughter, okay? What happened should never have happened. You didn’t deserve that. Now, let’s go. We need to get you checked out.” He got out of the car, helped me out, and hurried me along through the entrance.
“I think he told the doctor I walked into a wall,” I said to Robbie now. “I remember him asking how long it would be, and the doctor telling him I was going to need a few stitches, but that I would be fine. He seemed relieved. The doctor said he could come back, that he’d just be outside in the crowded waiting room, and there was no point. It was true; they did have a lot of injured patients. They needed a place to sit. I told Daddy to go eat. I remember he smiled at me and told me to call him when I was done, that he’d come get me.”
“Wow,” was all Robbie managed.
“Yeah, I figured it was easy enough to find a phone booth, but when I was ready to go, I realized I didn’t have the money to call. I didn’t have anything. I went to a phone booth, and I was pressing the receiver up and down to see if I could get the operator, but, for whatever reason, it didn’t work. I was going to ask a nurse or someone to call, then a man from one of the shops at Glast Center recognized me and offered to drive me, so I went. He asked what happened, and I said it was an accident.”
“We were stunned when you came through the door.”
“Yeah, Mommy came over and hugged me. Daddy was asking how I got there, and why I didn’t call. He kept going on that I said I would call, asking why I didn’t, why I didn’t say I had no money, why I didn’t have the doctor get a hold of him.”
“You told him you were fine, and I had to laugh. It was so absurd … that you could be fine after that.”
“He felt bad. He was rushing around, filling my plate and my glass, and Mommy helping him. I saw you and Joey looking at each other like what the hell—?”
“Joey asked them, ‘Aren’t you gonna heat that up?’ He said, ‘It’s probably ice cold by now.’ They insisted it wasn’t. I also remember Joe asking you if you were okay, and you said you were. You told me later you didn’t want to upset Joey.”
“I felt bad for causing all that.”
“He hit my head, and it bounced against the wall.”
“He slammed it against the wall!”
“I know, but he didn’t mean to. He was as shocked as everyone else.”
“He couldn’t even wait for you! He didn’t make sure you had money for the fucking phone. You had to risk accepting a ride from some stranger that nobody knew you were with!”
“That was stupid of me. I could have asked someone at the hospital to call.”
“You were a child, Dan! It didn’t occur to them to warm up your food, when it occurred to Joey and me. I got the blame for all of it, you know. Mommy told me it was my fault, and when I said it wasn’t, she slapped me. I told her, ‘I’m not the one who slammed her head against the wall or the one who was fighting with him.’ I told her, ‘This is sick. Who do you think’s gonna eat all this crap after that?’ I felt physically sick.”
“I’m sorry she blamed you.”
“Will you stop saying you’re sorry? None of that was your fault! He was drinking before it happened. And you were worrying about Joey, too. You were worried about the people in the emergency room not having a place to sit. Stop worrying about everyone but yourself. Stop making excuses for Daddy. You always make excuses for him.”
I couldn’t help it. I felt the profound suffering deep inside him that had started long ago, the little boy heartache along with the pain of a soldier who’d never spoken about the war. I had watched him fight with Robbie, plead with him—desperate to find the underlying cause of Robbie’s troubles. He had no idea what to do. Convinced he was a terrible father, he blamed himself. I had caught him crying one New Year’s Eve when he’d had too much to drink. It was as if I lived in his heart during those moments and could feel what he was feeling—like his pain was my pain. It was hard to fathom at the time that he could never feel mine.
I once took it upon myself to reassure him that he was a wonderful father, writing a poem to that effect, which I wanted to read to him.
“I’m busy,” he had said, focusing on his newspaper at the dining room table.
“It’s not long,” I said.
“Go ahead,” he growled.
Seeing that he was holding his place in the newspaper with his finger and not looking at me, I read with a trembling voice and a lump swelling in my throat.
He said, “Thank you,” when I’d finished and then went on reading his news.
My mother had been smiling the whole time. She looked proud of me, and hopeful that this tribute would move him. “Beautiful,” she’d praised me. “Very nice.”
Yet I felt diminished and dismissed by my father.
I knew, too, that when Robbie broke curfew, as he often did, my mother wouldn’t sit down or go to bed. She continued wiping kitchen countertops long after dinner and dessert. She moved on to the stovetop, to the range, to the hood, to the cabinets, and every one of their knobs. She cleaned the sheathed cloth of the breakfast table. She wiped down the three upholstered chairs, and, every once in a while, wandered into the dining room and stole a glimpse out the window, her dishrag clenched tightly in her fist. With her free hand, she separated the drapes, magnifying the intensity of the darkness. I could see her forlorn gaze as she watched for her son. At times, I went to her and stood helplessly at her side. For what seemed an eternity, there would be nothing but twinkling stars and a beautiful moon over the vast, blackened earth. I felt her weariness and anguish.
“Sit down, Grace,” my father would call to her from the dining room table. He might as well have been invisible. She barely saw him anymore. I bore witness to my father’s dejected expression, and I believe her rejection marked the beginning of their marital woes.
Robbie would come home and apologize profusely to avoid punishment, but my father did beat him once.
Another time, I followed Robbie from the house to confront him about his behavior, and he walked faster to ditch me.
“Leave me alone!” he yelled, turning around. “Go home!”
“You know, Robbie, I idolized you since I was a child,” I shot back. “How dare you do this! You are destroying yourself, and, because of that, Mommy and Daddy are heartbroken. I worshipped you! I wanted to be like you. But now I don’t ever want to be like you. You are the last person on earth I’d want to be like!”
I saw a glimpse of the Robbie I thought I knew in that moment, but he turned from me and took off.
I reminded him of it now.
“That got to me,” he admitted. “It was the moment I’d always remember when I knew I was going down, and it was the moment I remembered when I finally decided to get clean and sober.”
It took a while for that to sink in. “If that’s the case, I’m glad I said it. I never meant to hurt you.”
“I know. I don’t blame you. I blame them. They live in their own little worlds, getting ripped on their wine and martinis.”
It was true they were oblivious to most of the troubles we’d had and knew nothing of the pressures we’d felt. We didn’t tell them. I would ask if I could babysit, and they’d say yes without a thought. They never asked for whom or for a phone number. They had confidence in the way they’d raised me. They wanted me to feel trusted, since, as far as they knew, I’d done nothing to betray their trust. When I thought of all the things they didn’t know I’d done, I felt guilty.
Another thought occurred to me. “Let me ask you something.”
“When we were talking about Daddy snapping and killing the whole family, it surprised you that I thought he was capable of that. After everything, why is it so hard for you and Joey to believe that could happen?”
“Oh, he has snapped plenty of times,” Robbie said. “It’s interesting that you think he would go that far. I never thought of that. My gut says we’ve seen the worst of it.”
“But how do you know?” I asked. “How do you know when somebody’s reached their limit? When they’ve taken all they can take and can’t take anymore?”
It was dark when I turned up Cricket Lane. A thin level of fog had developed with the cooling air. There was nothing to light the wooded path except the sun’s golden gleam reflected by a waxing gibbous moon. I’d been walking fast or running. I kept looking over my shoulder.
Passing the little white church, I could see a group of teenagers inside the cemetery—three standing and one slumped over a tombstone.
I could see it was Robbie. He jerked his head and tried to rise but fell back over the stone. He couldn’t open his eyes.
“What did he take?” I demanded.
No one spoke immediately. They appeared stunned that an eleven-year-old girl would come here alone in search of her brother.
“Tuinals,” the one female answered at last.“Maybe five …”
“Oh, God … Robbie?” I shook him. “Are you guys just going to stand there? Help me get him out of here!”
The two males flanked him and made a bungling attempt to pull him along.
“Danielle?” Robbie called out to me in a faint voice. He stumbled, nearly dropping to the ground.
His hair was in a shaggy style back then that had bangs swept off to the side. Those bangs now hung over his eyes.
I reached for him as his handlers tightened their grip. “I’m taking him home.” There was an authoritative air in my tone, mingled with impatience.
“I don’t think so,” the girl responded. “If your parents see him, he’ll be screwed.”
“My parents are not home yet.”
“We’ll take him somewhere to sleep it off.” It was the guy on Robbie’s left talking.
“You can’t!” I yelled. “If you do that, he’ll die!”
I don’t know where that notion came from, but I believed it and evidently convinced him as well. He offered to help. We anchored Robbie by his arms across our shoulders. All the way home, Robbie kept mumbling, stumbling, and calling my name.
“I’m here,” I answered him.
We dragged him along, passing familiar homes decorated with pumpkins, skeletons, and tombstones. My mom had decorated our house, too, and I could see the lights on when we got there. Joey appeared in the doorway, likely worried about not finding me home, and ready to go looking for me.
“Help him up!” I shouted. “I’m calling 911.”
Joey hastened down the stairs and took my side of Robbie as I ran ahead. They brought Robbie to my grandmother’s room and laid him down to rest on her bed.
I nervously rattled off the details to a dispatcher and hung up the phone.
“Don’t sleep,” I beseeched him upon my return.
“Why can’t I sleep?” Robbie slurred.
I could see the concern in Joey’s eyes. He stood close to the bed now, trusting my instincts.
“Where’d his friend go?” I asked.
“He took off, but he told me about the pills,” Joey said. “Where’d you find him?”
“A bunch of kids … I didn’t recognize them, but they knew him. They knew me. They told me they saw him heading toward the cemetery with two guys holding him up, and he was in bad shape.”
“You went to the cemetery?”
“I was five minutes away, halfway down Angie’s block.”
I normally left Angie’s house before it got dark, but we got busy creating a scrapbook of our teen idols, and I hadn’t noticed the time.
He shook his head disapprovingly. “What’s his problem, man?”
Robbie’s breathing was slow. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings, barely hanging onto consciousness. Rosary beads dangled over one side of the headboard. A nativity scene on a plaque loomed above. I sat on the bed. “Robbie told me a funny story about this one day in church, during Benediction, when he thought he was getting that calling to be a priest. Right, Rob? See, it was the fumes from the incense making your head all fuzzy. They would never call you to be a priest.”
He was fading fast, so I sat him upright, holding onto him.
“Stay awake!” I yelled.
“Stay awake, Rob,” Joey echoed, shaking his shoulders.
“Don’t fall asleep,” I told him. “Talk to me.”
“About what, Dan?”
I heard sirens. It wasn’t long before the emergency technicians descended upon him.
“What did he take?” The paramedic who asked this question was the only black man—a hulking figure with a warm voice and the sweetest, most caring, eyes.
“Tuinals,” I told him, “maybe five.”
“Has he done this before?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Are you all siblings?”
“What’s his name?”
He spoke to my brother. “Robbie? What’s going on? Do you know where you are?”
I watched as they examined him. I saw them shine a light into both of his eyes.
“Yes,” my brother said.
“And where’s that?”
He fell silent, and they hoisted his leaden body onto a stretcher.
“I didn’t think he should sleep,” I told the kind man.
“Well, you did a good job. He took an overdose. If he had gone to sleep, he would not have awakened.”
“You mean …?”
“He could have lapsed into a coma. He could have died. You can’t be messing around like that.”
I looked at Joey, and he shook his head.
“How old is he?” the man asked.
“Thirteen,” I replied.
“Where are your parents?”
Joey answered that. “Some two hundred-year-old lady died, and they all went running off—some friend of my grandmother’s.”
“I think you better get a hold of them.”
Joey wrote a note for my parents and grabbed my mom’s car keys off the dining room table. We left for the hospital. He wasn’t supposed to be driving without supervision, but I knew he’d get us there safely.
“The woman was ninety,” I told him.
“Grandma’s friend who died.”
“What’d you write in the note?”
“That Robbie’s okay but in the hospital.”
“He is going to be okay, right?”
“I hope so.”
He hugged me in the waiting room. I hugged him tight in return, afraid to let go.
My father showed up at the hospital sooner than I had expected.
“Where’s Mommy?” I inquired.
“Where do you think? She’s home, cooking. She was worried sick, your mother. She wanted to come. I told her to stay there. So what happened?” His gaze shifted from Joey to me and then back again.“Is he all right?” My father began walking in circles. “Where is he?” He approached an emergency room physician who’d been walking toward us. “I’m the father,” he said. “What happened?”
The doctor smiled politely. “I’ll fill you in on what happened, but your son is fine. He had his stomach pumped, so he may be feeling some pain. He may be fatigued. Let him rest.”
The ER staff released Robbie in an improved state, but he continued to stumble around with his eyes closed. My father held him by the arm then assisted him into the passenger seat of his car—the Pontiac Bonneville he drove then.
“Geez, I know none of us are saints,” he mused on the way home. “I did a lot of things when I was a kid to make my father mad. He would get so mad at me, he wanted to kill me. My mother would say, ‘Wait until you grow up and have kids of your own. You’ll see.’ She was right.”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” a groggy Robbie replied.
“Well, I hope you learned your lesson.”
My mother was wringing her hands when we helped Robbie through the door. She looked flustered and pale. I couldn’t tell if she wanted to hug Robbie or kill him.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” she screamed.
Robbie said nothing in response. My father and Joey helped him upstairs to bed.
“What’s going on with him?” she asked me.
I told her what had happened.
She clenched her teeth and then went about setting the dining room table.
I helped minimally, distracted by my concerns about Robbie. Did he know he could die? Did he want to die, or did he simply not care if he lived or died?
We sat down to dinner without him. My grandmother asked what had happened, and my father spent the next five minutes talking to her in Italian. She made the sign of the cross, tears streaming.
“And don’t go blabbing to Zuza and everyone else, Mom!” he bellowed. “It’s nobody’s goddamn business.”
Grandma denied she would say anything while nervously grazing her fingers across her forehead. Her hair was up and tightly bound, as always—hair she would say was the color of coffee beans, except for the dusting of silver. I could see her sad little brown eyes behind the lenses of her glasses.
We ate with no further talk about Robbie. Everyone assisted my mother in cleaning up. She prepared demitasse. We all had a piece of Entenmann’s cake.
I checked on Robbie in his blissful sleep and then joined my grandmother in her room.
She was sitting on the bed where Robbie had been earlier, the tufted chenille bedspread in pure ivory pulled up to the headboard, as though nothing had happened. The dimly lit sanctuary was quiet and safe again, a simple place of walnut-crafted furnishings, eggshell walls, and wood floors. All of it had faded away—Robbie, the sirens that had brought heroes to my door, and all the day’s events. For a few moments, we remained silent and in a comforting womb of peace.
I looked around the room at her wooden crosses of Jesus and her pictures of the pope. There were many pictures of the pope. One might have imagined he shared the room with her. He hung amid family wedding photos. She’d tucked another photo of him in one side of the annual calendar she got from our neighborhood dry cleaner. Every year, on Palm Sunday, she brought a palm home from church, shaped it into a crucifix, and tucked it behind the same calendar.
She’d hung two paintings of birds in this room, one a pair of bluebirds perched on a tree branch adorned with large leaves and tiny flowers. The other featured a white heron amid blossoming trees. She loved birds, as I did.
“Oh, Dio…” She was calling to God. She looked at me. “The way you know?” It was how she talked, yet I understood.
I explained how I’d found Robbie and what had happened next.
“The way you know?” she repeated.
“I didn’t know anything. I didn’t think about it.”
“God knows—and the angels.” She reached for my hand and squeezed it. “God bless. God bless … you good girl.”
I could feel her pain profoundly, just as I could with the other members of my family. Every one of them suffered immensely.
I gave her a hug and then stood, making my way over to her lace-lined dresser adorned with resin statues of prayer plaques, angels, and the Blessed Mother. Our Holy Communion portraits were there in gold frames. I opened the musical jewelry box she’d brought from Italy, and, with my fingers, traced the gold satin lining the hardwood. I knew she shared a piece of my joy, taking notice of what I admired. It was the reason she’d made certain I always had a musical jewelry box with a dancing ballerina. I’d notice new things right away, like the bluebird song box in handcrafted porcelain and the floral trinket boxes.
“Here,” she was saying.
I turned to see her reaching for a small tulle pouch on a low wall shelf. Bomboniere is what she called it. Brides gave it as a wedding souvenir. She was untying the ribbons. She would eat the sugared almonds inside when she felt like it, unlike my mother and Zuza, who kept theirs intact. She put two in my hand and popped one in her mouth.
I smiled and began eating the almonds. “These are the only gifts you ever like.”
She smiled back. “Ah! I’m old, honey. I no need anything.”
The woman rarely smiled, but, when she did, it went to my heart.
She did go over to Zuza’s in the morning. She told them everything. I knew, because Angie rushed over and wrapped me in a hug.
My involvement in all the Robbie madness, however, didn’t end there.
Not a week later, I was in the family room recliner watching television. Robbie showed up with some friends. They cranked up the music, since no one was home, then put paper towels inside brown paper bags and soaked the paper with glue. Robbie handed one of the bags to me.
“Hold it up to your nose and then breathe in and out,” he said.
I can’t remember if I even asked why.
The surge to my head was like a magnetic recharge, and all I could hear was AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” An explosion in my brain unleashed an outpouring of dazed, rapturous sensations. Light prickles and tremors trickled through every fiber of my being. I reveled in the light-headed euphoria. A prevailing illusion of calm and peace washed over me. Everyone, everything, faded away. In that moment, nothing was better than this high. My love for these sensations was more powerful and more enslaving than my love for anything or anyone else I knew.
We inhaled ourselves into oblivion. The pillow top of the recliner felt so soft on my back, and I closed my eyes, drifting off to sleep with the bag on my nose. I awakened with a sense of the paneled walls encasing me. My first vague awareness was of the crouched porcelain tiger lamp resting atop the television set. I could see the fireplace my mother had decorated with sculptures—a cherubic angel with wings and a pair of praying hands. Photos in ornate gold frames, depicting all of us in our younger years, adorned the television top and the end tables. When I looked to my left and to my right, my brother and his friend were still there. I stood, dizzy, nearly losing my balance as I tried to position myself. There was laughter, howling, and cackling, all sounding far off. I felt giddy, uninhibited, and excited. I was unable to say or do anything without laughter and smiles.
Yes, fantasy was better than reality for me, and I welcomed any escape from the latter. I kept trying to bond with Robbie, too—going on “shopping” sprees with him and his friends. We rode the bus to neighborhood department stores and returned with stolen merchandise. I stole plastic bangles in different colors, earrings, T-shirts, and pants.
“You’re good,” a friend of his marveled.“A master thief and con artist.”
“Well, she has the face of an angel,” said another. “Who’d suspect her?”
I had ripped the lining out of my puffer jacket, so I could slide things around to the back.
“Where did you get this?” my mother would ask, regarding our new acquisitions.
We’d say a friend gave them to us, and, though she didn’t seem comfortable with the idea, she never pressed the issue. If it had been Robbie alone, and, possibly Joey, she might have, but she evidently couldn’t fathom her sweet little girl lying or stealing.
It was an unsettling time of strange and constant shifting between the uncorrupted purity of youth and the recklessness of a demoralizing coming-of-age. A choice seemed to continually surface, bittersweet reality or sweet imagination, child or grown-up, right or wrong. I kept searching for the in-between, but I couldn’t find it. I felt a rebellious joy as well as a distant sadness.
I began to see a parallel between life and roller coaster rides at amusement parks, even if I could not have explained it. We went barreling along on the formidable journey, propelled by some overpowering entity. There were uncomfortable moments. In other moments, we would be elated. There’d be mirth and amusement, just as there would be treacherous, spine-chilling turns. We twisted this way, that way, down many paths, and we hung on. We whirled backward, then forward then backward again. The times of gentle rolling on the track made the unexpected dark tunnels an intriguing mystery fraught with peril. We had to hold on, and we laughed a lot. It did seem uncertain, on various declines, that one was truly safe in the midst of it all, but everything was linked together toward the final destination—a higher purpose and greater good. At the same time, I weaved an intricate ball of yarn that would take a lifetime to untangle.
I hated this place and every place like it—uniformity, mediocrity, everything so black and white, cold, and clinical. It had taken me a while to work up the nerve to make an appointment, but, according to the phone book listing, the initial intake was free.
A woman called me in. It’s a face I can’t remember—except to say she looked average and seemed normal. She asked me to tell her about myself. She wanted to know what had prompted me to seek psychotherapy.
My mind seemed to have emptied itself, leaving only an uncomfortable notion that I was uniquely unacceptable. I told her my name and my age, and then paused before speaking again.
“I’m too honest,” I said. “I always tell people the truth even when I shouldn’t. If I don’t like something, and someone asks me if I like it, I can’t say I do, and I can’t talk to people I don’t like unless I really have to.”
She smiled. “I see nothing wrong with that. It’s not uncommon for a young person to be blatantly honest. You’re becoming more and more aware of your feelings, and you want to make them known.”
“I don’t think people like that honesty… or me,” I confessed.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t tell them what they want to hear.”
“You will outgrow that. Or, rather, you will sort out what is appropriate and what isn’t and find a more comfortable way of dealing with people.”
“I don’t know how to be myself.”
That was true. All my life, people had referred to me as Joey’s sister, Robbie’s sister, or “one of those DeCorso kids.” By eighth grade, my classmates considered me a tough girl, though I didn’t fight. My brothers did. Once they were in high school, and I was still in middle school, a different Danielle emerged. I became a popular, gregarious type—in school, anyway. I enjoyed making others laugh. By the time I got to high school, I was befriending classmates the popular crowd shunned, perhaps because I knew a thing or two about being on the opposite end of that spectrum. If anyone knew the hearts of those quiet, fearful souls, it was me, and I wanted to use what power I had to put them at ease.
I told the therapist about that, how I would invite them to eat with me, thinking I could end up an outcast, too, but it had the opposite effect. The others subsequently welcomed my new friends. While I had never expected that, I was glad.
A different structure existed within the family dynamic. Whatever flaws I saw in those I held dear paled in comparison with their goodness, but I did not extend the same courtesy to myself. My flaws erased everything else about me.
Quite possibly, it began with my barbaric entry into the world. I had arrived with my fists tightly clenched, looking more like a boxer than a baby, more like a boy than a girl, and ready to fight, rupturing membranes, and necessitating a C-section. A priest had administered Last Rites to my mother—Extreme Unction, as they called it, the Roman ritual that meant you were doomed.
My first recollection is of lying face up in my playpen. I could see shadows. One seemed small, compared to the others, yet it signaled danger and instilled fear. The moment I became aware of its presence, hands assailed me … pulling, hitting, and hurting. A larger shadow would appear, scolding, “You were told to leave her alone.”
It was as if I were witnessing my life from another plane.
Years later, I asked my mother if Robbie or Joey had harassed me when I was a baby, though I felt strongly it was Robbie. I asked if she had scolded him and pulled him away. She said I’d imagined it all.
“Sounds to me like you are a good person,” the therapist was saying.
“Then I don’t need help?”
“You do if you think you do, but something prompted you to come here today. You took a big step in doing that. Is there something else bothering you that you wanted to talk about?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you have hopes, Danielle? Dreams? Future plans?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Tell me about that.”
I told her about my writing and my singing.
She flashed a grin then said something nice and encouraging. That impressed me, so I tried to convey how those dreams kept me alive and how terrified I was that through the continuous horror and chaos that was life, those dreams might fade away.
“You’re so young,” she said. “What’s the hurry?”
Good thing I didn’t tell her I had initially hoped to achieve all of my goals before my seventeenth birthday—that, at one time, I vowed to kill myself if that didn’t happen. I don’t think I ever intended to do that, really, but I must have figured if it took much longer than that, I would be too old to enjoy my success. Where these absurd notions came from, I could only guess. I was drowning in my oblivion, and I thought these accomplishments would save me.
What I did say was, “I think I’ll be writing until they decide to take the typewriter away from me and lay me to rest in my grave.”
“Who are ‘they?’” she asked.
I grew more nervous and lowered my eyes. “You know, I thought I was … I mean, I felt … I just get so … I don’t know. I seem to be fine now. I felt something was wrong. I get very depressed sometimes. This is so stupid. I shouldn’t have come here. There are enough people out there who know what’s wrong with them, and here I am. I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t even know what to say.”
“Tell me about your family.”
Something inside me caved. I had butterflies but not the happy sort. It was panic. I hesitated before saying, “There’s my mother, my father …” My eyes filled with tears. “I have two brothers.” I hesitated again. “Joey and …” A lump swelling in my throat made it difficult to speak.
“Is there someone else?”
I shook my head.
“Take a deep breath.”
I did and then broke down crying. “Robbie,” I said, “Oh, God, Robbie …”
Deep concern filled the woman’s eyes now—and pity. It made me uncomfortable.
“I think you should schedule an appointment for regular sessions,” she said. “Although, because you are a minor, you would need parental consent. I’d have to give you a form, and you’d have them sign it, then we can begin.”
“No, I can’t do that.” I stood.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice.”
“They think you only go to a shrink if you’re crazy or want to find out who’s to blame for your problems and, deep down, they’ll think whatever’s wrong with me is their fault. No, they can’t know. Isn’t there a way you can bend the rules? Or is there something I can sign to say I take full responsibility? I’m going to get a job, and I can pay myself …”
She looked sympathetic while shaking her head. “I’ll give you my card. Please think about it, and if you decide to go ahead with their consent, give us a call. I think it would be a mistake if you didn’t.”
I took the card knowing I would not call. It angered me that I was not entitled to help unless my parents agreed. All the relationships I had nurtured thus far in my life meant the world to me, and I cherished them in the only way I knew how. Oh, my … how I cherished them! It was a big part of why I worried so much. I felt unworthy of their love and feared losing them all. My instinct was always to take care of them, as if their needs were more important than my own. I fantasized about being rich and famous and buying them whatever they wanted, I suppose as some way to compensate for my inadequacy.
Oddly enough, not once throughout the course of that therapy session did I mention what had happened with Phil and Sergio. I didn’t think about it. There was a little girl within me whose wails I ignored. On the surface, I was a DeCorso who would rather rebel and defy than admit defeat. People seemed to prefer that, anyway—that I bury it. It worked better for Farran, better for Angie. Maybe it worked for countless women who’d lived in places and times where you simply didn’t talk about those things. You picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and trudged on. Except I was certain, at this point, that I was not okay. I felt lost. I didn’t like myself. I wanted nothing more than to be okay again and to feel normal.
I had a dream that night. I was plummeting to the depths of something. It was a smooth, effortless decline in total blackness until I could feel a surface beneath me. People were talking to me. I smiled, wanting them to know I was okay and could hear them. In a subsequent dream, I saw angry eyes that changed from dark to light and then red, before flames began to burn in them with a fury. The eyes had no face or body. Though I didn’t recognize them, I wondered if they were a reflection of my parents when angered—or Robbie. They may have been the eyes of others who were angry with me. It may also have been me, I suppose, angry at the world.
When I woke, however, all I could think about was Robbie.
He was the brother who had looked for ladybugs and caterpillars with me in our yard. He watched me chase butterflies and elusive dandelion puffs that floated through the air.
“They’re wish nicks,” he had explained. “You’re supposed to catch one in your hand and make a wish, then blow it away.”
It felt like holding on to nothing, yet it saddened me to open my hand and watch it float farther and farther from my view. I didn’t want Robbie to be like that wish nick. It was a familiar longing I had. There seemed to be an ongoing risk of losing him in my life, resulting in this need I had to cling to him.
Everything changed between Robbie and me after the wish nick phase, and it seemed to begin with a boy named Tommy Catalano. There was more to it, of course, but I knew Tommy was trouble the first time I laid eyes on him.
I was four years old at the time, returning from the hospital with a black patch over my left eye, clutching my mother’s hand as we emerged from the car. We began our ascent up the staircase. Tommy headed toward us. He must have been eight or nine at the time. He passed and, after a few paces, turned around for another glance. It was a foreboding glare, and it chilled me to my core.
“Come on,” my mother encouraged me. She shot him a fierce look and moved me along.
When she wasn’t around, he made fun of my eye patch. He got other neighborhood kids to make fun of me, too.
Admittedly, he was a good-looking kid, with his dark brown hair in a regulation school cut, his downward-slanting eyes an unusual light golden brown. The fierceness in his face always reminded me of a tiger. I sensed, however, that although he acted tough, it was some sort of camouflage—an omnipotent, unshakable external facade masking something dangerously fragile. Perhaps something had distorted his countenance, stripped him of his humanity. When he laughed, he looked pained. I would see anger in his amusement.
He used to say my brothers and I should go back to wherever we came from with our spic mother. Robbie had told him at the time that we were born here and then called him a jackass.
When, after numerous eye examinations, I was able to trade the dreadful patch for a pair of glasses, Tommy called me “Four Eyes.”
Robbie had defended me, saying, “The doctors fixed Danielle’s eyes.”
But Tommy said I was still ugly, and he taunted me until tears blinded me, something collapsed inside me, and I could no longer hear him. In retrospect, it seemed such a pitiful waste of energy and emotion—the extent of my humiliation perpetuated by some bully who likely harbored his own feelings of worthlessness.
“He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” my father said when I told him. “He’s a stupid jerk. Your eyes are straight, perfect, beautiful. When somebody like that says something to you, let it go in one ear and out the other.”
“Don’t pay any attention,” my mother agreed.
Joey told them Tommy never said anything when he was there, or he would have beaten the crap out of him.
But all I wanted to know was why I had to wear glasses in the first place.
My father looked at my mother, and Robbie’s eyes shifted from one face to the next.
“You had what they call a lazy eye,” my mother said. “A lazy muscle in the left eye.” It didn’t escape me that both she and my father looked away, like they felt guilty or embarrassed.
“Didn’t the surgery work?” Joey asked.
My curious gaze shifted to him and then back to my mother again.
“Of course,” she said, “but the doctor said there are no guarantees. She wants you to wear glasses to keep the eye straight, so it doesn’t go back or more in. If you don’t, your eyesight might get worse instead of better.”
“I only have to wear them for a while, right? Like the patch?”
“You have to wear them until the doctor says you don’t have to, and if she says you have to wear them all the time, then you wear them all the time.”
“Whatever it is, it is.”
“No!” I screamed. With a vigorous pull, the glasses were off. I heaved them upon the patterned linoleum and stomped on them until they’d shattered.
I can’t forget the look of pain in my father’s eyes.
Robbie shrieked, “Oh, my God, she broke them!”
My father rose from his chair. He picked up all the pieces and set them aside, then moved toward the china cabinet. “I’m going to show you something,” he said. He opened a side drawer. There was another tiny pair of glasses in there. “Those are yours,” he revealed. “We bought them, just in case. But I’m not gonna make you wear them. I’m not gonna force you. They will be right here in this drawer.” He lifted them to show me, and then placed them down again. “If you don’t wanna wear them, you don’t touch them. Okay?”
I nodded, tears streaming.
Robbie seemed shocked. “But she has to wear them!”
My father clenched his teeth. “And how’s she gonna wear them if she breaks them again?”
“The doctor said it’s like water,” my mother said. “If you’re thirsty, you’ll drink. Or like medicine: If you need it, you’ll take it.”
It surprised me that the decision was up to me, but, for the moment, I was satisfied with my choice.
“You know if you don’t take your medicine, you get sick and die,” Robbie hounded me.
“So? I’m not sick.”
“You’re supposed to be wearing your glasses!”
“So the doctor said you’re gonna go blind if you don’t.”
“I am not.”
Now, I don’t know when exactly it happened, but Robbie went from defending my honor to laughing at me alongside Tommy Catalano. It was as if he’d reached inside of me and ripped my heart out, along with the rest of my insides, leaving a mere hollow cave behind. He had set about trying to convince others that something was wrong with me. In all fairness, I think he believed that to be true.
At seven and eight, I’d spent hours drawing pictures, mostly of children. I’d cut them out, so that each one was an individual on a rectangular slip of paper, and I named each one.
“She’s drawing her little girls again,” my father would say to my mother.
“They are not all girls,” I told him. “There are boys, too, and some of them are teachers.”
“She puts them in rows like school, and she talks to them,” Robbie tattled. “She thinks she’s the teacher, and they are her class.”
He seemed ashamed of me, and I got the feeling my behavior was worrisome to my parents as well.
“That makes it easier for me to study and do my homework,” I explained. It was a strategy I had devised to break the monotony of giving my attention to something I didn’t enjoy. Otherwise, it bored me to a level I couldn’t bear.
My pretend game worked with buttons, too. I collected them from my aunt Zuza and my grandmother. Concentrating on mundane tasks never got easier, but I would learn to devise other strategies.
My brothers, on the other hand, broke the monotony of life by fighting with other kids. It was par for the course to see one of them throwing someone into a pile of bushes or up against a wall. Adults told their kids that my brothers were crazy, and to keep away from them. I often hid on them myself.
As far as Robbie was concerned, I was the crazy one. I think he had a sense that I relished fantasy far more than reality, and that it was not merely an extended phase but very much a part of my nature. He would tell the other kids, “Oh, she’s retarded.” There were times he summoned friends, siblings, and cousins to his room and locked the door. They would be in there talking and laughing, and I would be on the other side, wondering how I’d managed to get myself placed outside the sphere of acceptability.
When Robbie was nice, he was irresistible. Though I could never interest him in all the writing I did, he praised my singing voice. We would listen to albums on the stereo in his room. We played a game where we took turns singing and acting out songs. I was ten and beginning to realize that music had an incredible power to lift me. Over the years, I grew to love Bach right along with Led Zeppelin. Christmas hymns during the holidays moved me to tears now, while, year round, I enjoyed gothic rock bands like the Cure, Bauhaus, and Christian Death.
At age eleven, I continued to play with dolls. Angie and I often sat on the rug in my room or hers with our Barbie dolls and their dream houses.
Robbie would wander in bellowing, “God, are you ever going to grow up?”
It broke my heart to think I might have to let my dolls go in exchange for more complicated things, but that’s exactly what happened in the fall of ‘82.
It was Friday—the end of our first school week. Angie and I were officially seniors. Farran was unequivocally a college girl, and she insisted we celebrate by going to Marauders Cove. She borrowed her mom’s old Fairmont Futura, and, by 7:30 p.m., we were on our way to New Haven—a fifty-minute drive on I-91 South.
Marauder’s Cove was near the harbor on the north side of the Long Island Sound, where a powerful glow enduringly beckoned from a lighthouse on Southwest Ledge, about a mile offshore. Through the fog and mist, and through many torrential downpours, that monumental structure seemed to beam in all of its glory. For me, it was a symbol of hope.
After parking in the lot, we peeked through the pub’s large window, which provided a view of patrons on corner stools at the end of a long bar. You could see who was at the front end or at any of the small tables parallel to the bar. We went inside, turning one head after another.
Chocolate-colored paneled walls and wood-plank flooring gave the place a cozy cabin ambiance. There were tables parallel to the bar and more in the back, where framed baseball teams and logo prints lined the walls, and a large anchor hung in their midst. The kitchen was at the farthest end, and I could smell yummy burgers on the grill.
To be honest, I wanted to drink myself into oblivion, if there was such a state, and wash away every lingering bit of mortification. My plan, however, was to have one or two, and that would keep me on guard.
The first person we ran into was Billy McGrath. He was alone at the bowling machine, drinking beer. It was hard not to recognize him—all clean-cut and as preppy as in his high school glory days, his light brown hair in a classic taper cut. He had to be about twenty-two. His body looked admirably compact in its five-foot-nine-inch frame.
We went over to say hello. Farran asked a million questions. We learned he had a job installing security alarm systems and a nice one-bedroom apartment in North Branford. She asked about his family.
He said everyone was doing well, and then his pale blue eyes were on me. “I know you.” He bowled an easy strike and leaned back.
I figured he would. “I’m Joey’s sister, Danielle.”
“You were dating my little brother, Mike, a couple of years back.”
“How is he?” I asked longingly. “Last I heard, he was captain of the football team.”
“Yup, and made the local paper.” Billy knocked down eight pins with his next turn. “He’s living down south with his wife and kid. They’re with her folks in Tennessee, trying to cut costs.”
Crushed as I was by this news, I knew I had broken Mike’s heart. I hadn’t even started high school when we were a thing, and I felt suffocated, so I ended it.
Farran spoke up. “You won’t blow our covers, Billy, will you?” She told him she had proof for twenty-one.
He glanced in the direction of the bar. “My Uncle Tully owns this place. He’s not here now, but when he’s here, man … he won’t serve any of you.”
“What about the guy who’s on duty?” she asked.
My gaze followed hers to the middle-aged man with dark, slicked-back hair who stood behind the bar.
“That’s Steve,” Billy said. “To be honest, I don’t know if he would or not.”
Farran motioned for Angie and me to accompany her. Steve checked our ID’s and served us without hesitation. On a whim, I paid for the drinks.
Another McGrath headed in our direction—Shannon. She did a double take when I called her name. “Oh, my goodness … Danielle!”
I remembered Shannon McGrath as a fresh-faced, freckled, and ginger-haired girl with a joyous, melodious laugh. She was twenty now, and she evidently labored to tease her shoulder-skimming, layered cut for the big hair effect. The sculpted brows were new, like the makeup she wore to dramatize her grayish blue eyes. Despite these efforts, she had porcelain skin and cherubic cheeks that betrayed her youth. She towered over me in her high heels, appearing confident and comfortable in tight clothes that accentuated her curvy form. When she reached out for a hug, I hugged back.
Stepping away, she marveled. “God, look at you, you’re gorgeous! You have this exotic look with the high cheekbones, and look at this amazing figure! Jesus, what do you eat?”
Angie replied on my behalf. “She has an apple and a can of Diet Pepsi for lunch every day.”
“Are you serious?” Shannon’s smile was infectious.
“I bring a tuna fish sandwich on Fridays,” I divulged, “and I more than make up for it at dinner.”
“Oh, well, thank goodness! I’m glad.” She laughed, shaking her head. “Well, you’re fine. You should eat.”
“You remember Angie, right?” I wasn’t sure.
“Yes, I do!” She hugged her as well, then Farran, and zeroed in again on me. “It’s so nice to see you all! Tell me everything! The last time I saw you was years ago, back in the old neighborhood. You told me you wrote fairy tales.”
“Yeah, when I was eight.” I blushed, I’m sure.
Angie glanced at me, smiling.“I remember that! And now she wrote a book.”
Shannon appeared lost in amazement. “A book!”
Farran redirected the conversation. “Shannon, how do you like living in New Haven, compared to East Hartford?”
“I live in East Haven,” she said.“I have for the last couple of years, but I waitress nights at a club around here.”
She waved for us to follow her and then urged us to join Billy in his bowling game. Along with the McGrath siblings, I was on a lucky streak and bowling strikes, so I was happy, animated, and jumping up and down. Then Billy started going on about some gang called the “Lynx” and Shannon’s romantic involvement with one of them.
Farran asked who the Lynx were, and his small, never-fluctuating eyes fell upon me. “Ask her brother.”
“My brother?” I was confused.
“Your brother will be one soon, if he’s not already. He’s in tight with the Castel brothers.”
I savored every swallow of my drink. It loosened me up, and it felt good. It made all the humiliation, all the pain, go away. “What kind of gang?”
“He’s talking about their biker gang,” Shannon replied.
“Aptly named, since Lynx are wildcats,” Billy added. He looked at Angie. “Your turn.”
Angie cracked up. “My turn! I’m in last place. I don’t know why I bother going at all.”
We all laughed.
“So who are members of the Lynx?” Farran asked. “Tell me.”
“Hang around. You’ll see.” Billy took a hearty swig of his beer. “Man, they’re not fucking gods to me. Excuse the language. You always gotta watch what you say about them and who you say it to. If any of the Lynx is in trouble, they’re all there. They stick together. What, I should be grateful I get a nod from them while most of the patrons, regular customers for years, are ignored?” He took another swig and looked toward the door. “Speak of the devils … here comes the leader of the pack.”
We followed his gaze to a tall figure bustling confidently through the crowd. The guy looked more like a glam metal rock star than a biker and was clad in a sleeveless, black-studded vest, tight jeans, and boots, his magnificent head of dark hair falling two inches below his shoulders. I thought I’d have to pick up Farran’s jaw—and Angie’s.
Farran was salivating. “Damn! Is he drop-dead gorgeous or what?”
“Enough to make you forget Dave Navarro and every single one of The Lost Boys,” Angie concurred.“I mean, those cheekbones, too—like they were sculpted to perfection!”
He was svelte more than herculean, with a well-toned physique that included muscular biceps adorned with tattoos. I figured him to be six-foot-one, and in his early twenties.
“Wait,” Farran said, glancing at Shannon. “Is that the guy you’re seeing?”
“Who, Valentin?” Shannon giggled. “Uh, wait a minute. Come with me.”
Farran, Angie, and I followed as she led us to Valentin and hugged him.
He hugged her tight in return.
“This is Valentin,” she said.“I go out with his brother, Nico, but he and I are close friends.” During the subsequent introductions, she provided my full name.
“Ah, Joey’s sister,” he acknowledged.
I could see the tattoo on his left arm was a dragon. On his upper right arm, he had what appeared to be a king cobra amid a myriad of roses and flames.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said.
“The pleasure is mine,” he returned.
His dark eyes drew me in with their formidable intensity. I felt a chill in their power to seduce without effort. It was as if his soul was burning, and I could see its fire through the darkness. It forced me to look away.
Ironically, turning to Shannon, he remarked, “She has the most beautiful eyes.” I thought he spoke with an accent—a hint of Spanish, but I detected other undecipherable influences.
He exchanged cordialities with Angie and Farran, minus the compliment, and turned to Shannon again. “What’s your darling cousin up to?”
“She’s missing you,” Shannon replied. “Give her a call or stop by to see her.”
He said he would, and then made his way over to the jukebox. I didn’t know where Shannon went then, but Farran made a beeline for the jukebox. It was close enough that I could hear their exchange.
Using the sweet, Southern-accented voice she could turn on and off at will, she asked him to play Gregory Abbott’s “Shake You Down.” Well, she was from Biloxi, Mississippi before her family moved to Florida—Fort Walton Beach.
I knew Valentin had obliged when the song came on.
“Are you in a band?”she asked him.
He seemed preoccupied, looking at the song titles. “No, I’m not.”
“You look like you are.”
He glanced at her and laughed, then walked off.
Passing Angie and me, he flashed a polite smile—white, warm, and gracious, with a small chip on the front left incisor. I couldn’t help noticing a studded and spiked leather wrap and silver jewelry—a pendant and a bracelet.
Farran returned and resumed gushing over him. “Oh, man, look at his ass in those jeans. Perfect shape, and so tight.”
“Will you stop?” I had to say it.
“He smells great, too,” she went on. “I think he wears Antaeus. Do you think he likes me? I mean, do you think he found me attractive?”
“I don’t see why he wouldn’t,” I replied, “but for all you know, he could be married. He could even be gay.”
“Bite your tongue! That man is not gay, and he’s too young to be married.”
“No, he’s a few years older than Mike, and before I knew Mike was married, the only married people I knew were related to me or my teachers.”
“He’s got a hell of a package down there, too.”
“I can’t believe you!” I had to contain myself so I wouldn’t shout. “What … did you bring a measuring tape?”
Angie laughed her ass off, but I was mortified, wondering if any of the guys in the bar noticed Farran looking at Valentin’s various parts. I barely had the nerve to look below their chins or at their hands for a ring. It would never have occurred to me to look below their belts.
“You’re insane!” I said.
As for Valentin, he was alone all of three minutes before a trio of women crowded him. They obviously knew him but seemed brazenly flirtatious in clamoring for his attention. I caught a glimpse of Billy watching and shaking his head. One of the women ran her fingers through Valentin’s hair. Her gesture exhibited a peculiar reverence. She gazed into his eyes with such longing that he looked sympathetic, as if wanting to comfort her. After a few moments, he looked away. Perhaps he remembered something, or something else caught his attention. He left soon after that. In fact, Joey had arrived as he was leaving, and they interacted briefly in the doorway.
I wrote the script in my mind. Valentin could have taken advantage of the woman who seemed to adore him. I imagined she ached for him so pathetically that she would have allowed him to destroy her in every conceivable way. He was used to the attention and adulation but not quite sure how to handle it. I was certain of that, and I could relate.
Billy approached us. “Be careful of Lord Hades,” he warned. “He can be very charming.”
Farran raised a brow. “Lord Hades?”
“Yes, that’s my name for Valentin. He’s the king of the underworld, as in hell. Don’t let him fool you. He’s another hothead like the rest of his band of brothers.”
“Oh, bullshit!” The remark came from Joey, who had unexpectedly joined our circle.
Billy didn’t back down. “No? Take a look at the jewelry he wears.”
“You mean the Celtic bracelets?”That was Shannon, who now greeted my brother with a hug and a kiss.
“All the tribal gothic shit. I’m waiting for the skulls and bat heads.”
“I didn’t see skulls or bat heads,” Angie said innocently. “I did see a cross—”
“Yeah, probably the Viking Wolf Cross. Don’t think it’s any kind of representation of Christ, because, according to him, he’s a pagan.”
“What do you do, McGrath, study him?” Joey was smiling.
“I absolutely do not study him,” Billy replied, “but I have learned a lot about him—being that he knocked up my cousin, Katharine, and will leave her heart in pieces. Katharine, by the way, is married to Valentin. He’s got two kids now. And here’s the best part. He wants out. He wants out of the marriage, yet he lets her pal around with him out of the goodness of his heart, I suppose, or so she’ll never get over him. You’ll notice she wears the ring. He doesn’t.”
“You know, there’s a thing called minding your own business,” Joey said.
“Wait, why would Valentin have to represent Christ if he’s not a Christian?” Angie asked.
Billy shook his head. “Well, I don’t care what he claims to be. In my opinion, if he’s not on God’s team, there’s only one other team.”
Joey laughed loudly. “So you’re saying Valentin’s on Satan’s team?”
“Laugh all you want,” Billy maintained, “but what he wears—occultism is being represented.”
Shannon tried to make peace. “Why do you all have to fight? Billy, there are a lot of people in this world who are not Christian. It doesn’t mean they’re not good people.”
Billy shook his head. “He has you and God knows how many others jumping to defend his agenda, whatever that may be.”
“And what is yours, McGrath?” Joey asked. “Character assassination?”
“All I see of Valentin is a kind person,” Farran said.
“You see what he wants you to see.” Billy walked off.
Joey eyed us now, one by one. “Now for the million-dollar question. What the hell are you three doing here?”
“Visiting you,” I teased.
“I don’t think I like you being here.” His eyes were on me then shot to Angie. “Or you …”
“They’ll be fine,” Farran assured him.
“Do you trust me?” I asked.
“I do trust you.” He looked at Farran and flashed an enormous grin that encompassed everything from guileless youth to mischievous lad. “Hey, Farran, don’t be corrupting my innocent cousin or my sister.”
“If you are worried about anyone corrupting them, worry about your Lynx buddies,” Billy quipped, passing by again.
“Me?” Farran looked surprised.
“You got ideas,” Joey said.“Just remember—whatever you three do, I’ll be watching. As for you, McGrath, shut the fuck up.”
“Don’t press your luck, DeCorso,” Billy snapped. “I can get you all barred, and you know it. Stop fucking with me.”
We didn’t stay long after that, but during the long ride home, Farran wouldn’t shut up about Valentin. “So Katharine Jaeger is his wife? I can’t believe it.”
We’d met Katharine back in the early eighties. She was a blonde beauty who seemed to fascinate every male in sight.
“Yeah,” Angie said, “and just when you want to ask, does he have a brother? The brother is with Shannon. That pretty much sucks, but she’s happy and deserves to be. I’m happy about that.”
“And Shannon’s not even a pretty girl,” Farran replied. “I mean, her face isn’t that pretty. Her front teeth stick out a little. Oh, I can see how she’s attractive. I mean she has those big tatas, and that’s partly because she’s a tad overweight. Then, she just has this personality that’s larger than life—”
“She is pretty.” I said, “She looks great. But you should be careful throwing yourself at Valentin. He’s still married, and besides that, he could be dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” Farran laughed.
“Well, you don’t know him.”
“Darling, nobody knows anybody until they do,” she said. “Life is about taking chances. You win some, you lose some, but if you don’t play, you get zip, nada, and may as well be dead.”
Glastonbury, on the banks of the Connecticut River, was a heartwarming sight whatever the season. It often managed to console my anguish and somewhat ease my discomfort.
On this day, however, during the five-minute walk to Angie’s house, I glanced several times over my shoulder, fearing that those two creeps could show up anywhere. Their black sedan had circled my house a few times, but not in the past half hour. They continued to call.
The fear subsided as I reached Hebron Avenue and caught sight of Angie moseying toward me. We waved at each other, smiling. Whatever I had felt before now changed to invigorating hope and giddy delight. The new school year would soon begin. Beginnings were important in constituting an end, and I needed an end to that summer of 1987. With Angie by my side, I could easily embrace another glorious New England fall—changing colors, falling leaves, and farms brimming with apples, pumpkins, and cornstalks. Christmas wouldn’t be far behind, and in that wondrous season, trees, wreaths, and apple cider would replace the early fall offerings at the farm stands.
We walked along Hebron, turning down Manchester Road, and then onto Brook Street, near the bog. I told her everything that had happened with Robbie, with my dad, and with Joey the night before. She sympathized.
It was hard not to monopolize the conversation with Angie, as she seemed to prefer listening. If I tried to keep an even flow, there would be many lulls. My questions, asked often out of guilt, weren’t likely to elicit a loquacious reply, and, aside from that, I needed to talk. Admittedly, there was this desperate madness at times—wanting to get it all out. The impetus of the moment was what had happened with Sergio and Phil. She shut the discussion down, asking about my book.
“The agent sent me a six-page critique,” I told her. “It came in the mail today.”
“Is that good?” she asked.
“Well, I have a lot of work to do,” I said, “but they were encouraging.”
Our leisurely stroll continued to a place we had loved since the days of our childhood. It was home to the ruins of a wool factory that had existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The surrounding woodlands were full of towering hemlock, white pine, and oak. We took the longer trail along the west side of the brook. Wind bustled lustily through the trees, and I could hear the rushing water of the brook up ahead. The brook, like a purposeful rainstorm, awakened my ears and silenced my soul. It was as alive as the singing birds. Its steady flow created an illusion of abundance, infinite beauty … eternal good. It didn’t matter that hikers and lovers passed, or that families strolled along the same paths. It was the enchanted forest of my dreams.
We did a lot of walking and climbing on rocks and then poked around the partial gray brick structures of the stone ruins, where a broken window hung.
“It helps to talk,” I said. “You can talk to me about anything.”
“I know I can,” she replied without looking at me.
We walked through the door of the structure.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She continued to look away. “Yeah … are you?”
“Everything’s going to be okay, Dani.”
We sat on the remnants of the dam wall—on the rocks overlooking the marshes—and watched the ducks in the stream.
Angie started to cry.
As I turned and hugged her, we both cried. We held each other in that state for several minutes.
“I was terrified, Angie,” I said.
She let go. “Dani—”
“Most of the time, I didn’t know where you were.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I don’t remember everything either, but—”
“No, I don’t remember a nightmare experience or fighting anyone. I remember going to the beach in their car, walking around Pleasure Beach, having fun, and then we went home. They drove us.”
My heart sank. It ached and pounded in such a way that it terrified me.
I had gone over it in my mind many times, the parts I could remember.
The room was a blur. Sergio had lifted me in his arms and carried me to the bedroom. It felt like a dream. I was present and then not present, slipping in and out of consciousness. Screaming and crying, I fought, but I visualized someone else fighting, as if I had separated myself from my body, and the person lying there was not me. Other times, it appeared I had surrendered while the terror, chaos, and confusion continued to swirl violently in the inner recesses of my mind. I fought so hard that I was sure my hymen remained intact—having seen no blood after all. Maybe I made it too difficult for them, or perhaps they felt sorry for me. Either way, I held on to that with all of my heart.
My father often talked about incidents of rape on the news. He had lamented, more than once, that pressing charges would put the girl on trial and not the guilty person. He said the lawyers tried to make her look like a tramp so the bastard would get off.
I struggled now with what to say to Angie.
“Remember when they went to the concession stand at the pavilion, and we were waiting for them?”
“They got soda for themselves and us, too.”
“I remember that.”
“When they gave us the sodas, the cans were open, and they wiped the tops. I thought they were trying to be gentlemen, but they must have put something in the sodas.”
“I only remember walking around the beach and having a great time.”
A great time on the beach—these words stung. My mind’s association with beach days had shifted from joyful, carefree memories to regret. I fully realized that Angie and I felt empathy where others could not, but it never occurred to me that we were so naïve. My sinking heart shattered.
“I’m not crazy.”
“No, no, I know you’re not.”
“If you don’t remember what I remember, why are you crying?”
“I don’t know!” She wiped a tear. “I want to help. I don’t know how. You remember things no one else can remember, like from when you were little, just a baby. You remember all these details from a long time ago—astonishing details about every room you’re in, every person you meet, and I believe what you say. I know you. I trust you. You’re not just a cousin to me. You’re like my sister.”
My lips parted to answer, but a lump swelled in my throat. I wondered how I could shield her from harm, how I could save her from any and all pain. Something told me to say no more, yet I often wished that I had.
Confused as I was, I, too, wanted to forget. I wanted the voices of those two predators out of my head, as I did not intend to relinquish anything further for their gratification.
When I went to bed that night, disconcerting thoughts and concerns had led to what seemed a foreboding nightmare.
Though the light was off, my room remained lit in the dream as I slept. Opening my bleary eyes, I noticed water stains on the ceiling. They were ugly stains—the color of urine—and I thought I should see if they were wet, indicating a leak somewhere. A ladder was there for my convenience. As I scaled its rungs, I heard the distant voice of a woman calling my name. I didn’t recognize the voice, but it echoed like we were in a cave. She called again. Her tone seemed neutral, and yet reeked of deception. Disregarding her, I continued my climb, reaching the second highest rung. The water stains I had observed were now splashes of blood. As I turned slightly to climb down, the ceiling began to crack. My heart pounded, and I stumbled, attempting to decline. An unsightly hand reached through the crack and grabbed me. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake its tenacious grip on my arm. I told myself it was over. It seemed evident that I’d lost whatever battle this was.
Awake now, I tried to sort out what the dream meant. In my interpretation, confusion prevailed as to what was real and what wasn’t. When the world around me was light, it appeared dark. It was light when I sought to fade into darkness. Something had tarnished me—something ugly. I bled anguish. People reached out, offering the nurturing I craved, but then yanked it away. Locked in this unyielding fear, there was a sense that no one could intervene, and that no one ever would. I felt defeated in my struggle to rise from despair, thwarted at every turn. In that frightful moment of my nightmare, I was alone, same as I felt these days while fully awake.
I managed to drift off to sleep again, only to awaken once more to the sound of Robbie’s voice.
“I killed the baby,” he was saying. “It happened so fast.”
Oh, my dear Robbie … it had only been a few years since that night he’d woke me up, insisting there were naked people climbing all over the walls in his room. He said they were beckoning him.
Joey had lived here at the time and had rushed into Robbie’s room.
“Robbie’s having a bad dream,” I told him.
“It’s not a dream!” Robbie swore to it.
“You think they’re real, but they’re not. Look, you’re gonna wake everyone up.”
“Maybe we should wake everyone up,” Joey said.
“They’re still there,” Robbie maintained.
Joey told him no one was there, but he didn’t believe it, so I offered to lie beside him and talk to him until he fell asleep. We were up most of the night. Joey came in several times to check on us. In the morning, I glimpsed Robbie’s face as he slept. It was the face of pure innocence, as though none of it had ever happened, and as if everything bad had faded with the darkness.
I hurried to his room now, aware that his chatter about killing a baby was not part of my nightmare or any past recollection. His mattress was smoldering, and when I flipped on the light, he was standing there as if in a trance.
“I thought I killed the baby,” he said.
I raced to get a bucket and fill it with water. “Help me,” I beseeched him as I dumped the contents of the bucket onto the mattress. I made several trips back and forth before he snapped out of it and began to assist me.
“What happened?” I asked. “Were you smoking in bed?”
I urged him to help me get the scorched mattress down the stairs and out of the house. How I thought we would manage the situation without my father’s help, I’ll never know, but I feared that man’s wrath.
He came out of his room, my mother trailing, holding her robe closed.
“I smell smoke!” my father bellowed.
I thought of the “fee-fi-fo-fum” giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” who smelled the Englishman’s blood.
After I explained, my father took charge, dragging the mattress to the woodlot.
“I’ll deal with that thing in the morning,” he said upon his return. He yelled at Robbie. “Where the hell would you get the crazy idea to smoke in bed? Did you ever see anyone here do such a stupid thing? Do you think I’m buying you a new mattress?”
“It’s okay,” Robbie said. “I’m leaving for Florida Sunday.”
“You can go right now and go burn down the whole goddamn state of Florida, for all I care. Robert, you’re eighteen years old. If you don’t know better by now, when will you?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “When I get a job in Florida, I’ll send you money for the mattress. I can sleep on the couch tonight.”
“No, you will not!” my father shouted. “Go stay at a hotel or sleep in the street or go sleep outside on the mattress you ruined!”
“Come on, it was an accident,” my mother pleaded.
My dad shifted his gaze to her. “And how’s he supposed to learn?” He looked at Robbie again. “All right then, give me the cigarettes and go sleep in the basement. There’s an old sleeping bag in one of the closets there.”
“Are you serious?” Robbie asked. “What is the point of that? That makes no sense.”
I gave him a gentle push toward the curved, carpeted stairway. “I’ll help him find the sleeping bag,” I said.
I had always dreaded going down to that basement alone, and I surely wouldn’t have slept there. Most of the rooms in our house had a refined, almost imperial, look with their dark-paneled walls, vaulted ceilings, and crown moldings. The basement door seemed to bar us from a contrasting world.
The switch at the top of the stairs cast only a dim light upon the stairwell. When I was alone, I’d descend with a frantic urgency to pull the switch near the bottom of the stairs. It would cast only another dim light.
“Don’t worry, I’ll stay with you until we think of something,” I said as we descended.
Robbie clenched his teeth.“He’s out of his fucking mind.”
“You’re lucky,” I told him. “He had his explosion before you got here.” I shivered, as it was cold down there, always, despite the paneled walls. An antique marble fireplace that had all the elaborate gilding my mother loved was the first thing we saw, but it was fake and purely for ambiance.
Robbie’s curious eyes widened. “What are you talking about, Dan? What did he explode about?”
“He got mad at Joey for cutting an apple. He thought he was going to cut the tablecloth, and he went nuts.”
“Yeah, it’s probably why you’re still alive.”
Robbie laughed. “You think he would kill me?”
“I don’t know.” I told him the rest of the story, and he agreed with Joey that my father wouldn’t likely kill anyone.
He evidently had a bigger concern. “Does he really think I’m gonna sleep in this dungeon?”
With its many ominous doors, it did look like a dungeon. “Yeah, I always feel like someone’s watching me here.”
I glanced at the long extension table. My father once told us that my grandfather liked to sit there alone in the dark, drinking wine from a goblet, smoking, and making weird whistling noises. My grandmother maintained he still did.
In old home movies and photographs, my grandfather was a silver-haired, clean-shaven image of my father with a broader face, deeper lines, and wrinkles. Joey told me he’d been a dockworker in Brooklyn who’d had a bunch of mob friends in New York. Joey always believed he’d gotten involved in some of their shady dealings, come into some money, and then bought the house in Glastonbury. He died weeks before I was born.
“Grandma hears footsteps when she’s down here,” Robbie said now, “and they don’t come from upstairs. She thinks they’re Grandpa’s footsteps. She hears floors creaking when she’s alone in the house, and all this rapping and banging. She says she hears music, too, and Grandpa calling her.”
“I think she just misses him.”
“Are you kidding? Who would miss that monster?”
“Shush!” I hushed him.
“Why? Do you think he’ll hear?” He laughed.
“How come it’s not happening while we’re down here?”
He shrugged. “Maybe he’s waiting until you’re all by yourself like he waits for Grandma to be by herself. I heard he was really mean. He abused Grandma. He was always yelling at her, making fun of her, calling her names. The old geezer was even locked up in Cedarcrest for a while.”
I shook my head. I had never been sure what the deal was with Cedarcrest. It was in Newington, an old place in the woods left in ruins. Robbie insisted it was an insane asylum. I read that it had been a psychiatric facility, but not until years after my grandfather died. My father told us it was initially a sanatorium for treating patients with tuberculosis and other incurable illnesses.
“Remember the spookhouse events we held in this creepy cellar?” Robbie asked.
“Yeah, the ones we’d set up down here with no adult permission or supervision.”
“I was always hoping that ghoulish fiend would make an appearance.”
“Oh yeah, I bet you were.” I rolled my eyes.
It was odd, since we’d had parties down here for the first several years of my life. There was a paneled bar across from the table that had seemed alive with guests on the New Year’s Eves of my early childhood. Left dark now, it looked like an abandoned old relic.
Robbie wandered into the small basement kitchen now, and I followed. He sat on top of the retro dining table, and though there were three folding chairs around it, I sat in the spindle rocking chair with the puffy back cushion and held one of its fringe throw pillows in my arms as I rocked. It reminded me of Robbie’s bizarre childhood game, where one person would sit in the chair, and another would get behind the chair and rock it, singing “Rock-a-bye Baby,” drawing the chair farther back until he or she let it drop to the floor. I suppose, if there had been a bed of nails somewhere, we’d have been on it.
Uncle Dom had walked in on us one afternoon. He was on his way to the wine cellar to take home a bottle of wine. Robbie had let go of the chair in that instant, and I plummeted to the wood floor.
“Whoa!” Uncle Dom had hollered. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” He was looking at Robbie, and then shifted his gaze to me, clearly disconcerted. “Are you okay?”
His genuine concern had melted me. He didn’t have my father’s screen idol looks, but he was this old world gent with cheerful brown eyes and a sweet, handsome face. Despite a few gray hairs, he hadn’t changed much over the years.
“I’m okay,” I’d assured him. “It didn’t hurt.”
The entrance to the wine cellar was a few feet away, and he had gone in there. It was a separate room, where rows of jugs filled with wine lined the stone walls. There was a pull light for the front section, but all you could see beyond the barrels was darkness. My dad made the wine in that cellar with Uncle Dom, but when they were around, the place was somehow cheery.
“Good thing you didn’t crack your skull,” Uncle Dom had said when he came back with his wine. He looked at Robbie. “Don’t do that anymore! I’m going to talk to your father, and you’re gonna get it.” He motioned a spanking with his hand. “This is not the way for kids to play. Let’s go upstairs.”
My parents had given us a stern lecture, mostly directed at Robbie.
I never knew whether to feel happy or sad about these memories. I recalled them with giddy delight and underlying disbelief.
I reminded Robbie of the game now.
“How would you know if I’m responsible for anything that happens in this house of horrors?” he asked.
“Are you gonna tell me it’s Grandpa?”
“I saw Mommy walking around just before I went to bed tonight.”
“She did not start that fire.”
“I’m not saying she did, but I never told you this. It started a couple of years ago. She came in my room and asked for a lock of my hair. Then she told me to put these coins under my pillow.”
“Uh … yeah?”
“You say that so casually, like you’re not even shocked.”
“I read a little about it.”
“She goes to see a psychic, Dan. She told me not to tell anyone about it. She asked the psychic for help straightening me out.”
“She’s desperate to help you and is getting taken for her money.”
“She’s also desperate to save her marriage.”
I knew what he was talking about, since Robbie and I had listened with cups to the wall whenever my parents fought.
“You were there,” I’d heard my mother say to my dad. “I hired a detective to follow you. Your car was there. He saw everything.”
“Look who’s talking,” my father had replied.
“You’re a liar,” she’d shot back. “There’s never been anyone.”
“No, I’m not a liar. Someone saw you come out of a car a block away.”
“Who saw me?”
“I’m not gonna say.”
“Because you’re making it up.”
“I’m not making it up. This has been going on for years. You want this guy or you want me? You better decide.”
She’d begun to cry. “If you’re going to make up stories and not believe what I say, I might as well get a divorce.”
I could hear a breaking down in his voice as well. “If you want a divorce, we’ll get a divorce.”
“She said the psychic doesn’t charge her anything,” Robbie continued. “She can make a donation if she wants, but it’s all free. Don’t tell her I told you.”
“I won’t, but I have to get upstairs before they come down here looking for me.”
“Fuck this,” he said. “I’m not staying here.”
“Why don’t you go to Joey’s?”
“And drive all the way to New Haven? I don’t want to do that. I have a friend I can call. Let’s go up, and I’ll get some of the things I need. I can come back for the rest.”
My father had gone to bed. My mother asked Robbie questions about where he would go, what he would do, and he assured her he would be fine.
He did come back the next day to say goodbye to my parents. They were kind to him. My father wanted to feed him, advise him, help him. My mother had tears.
I walked him to the door and cried when I hugged him. “You know, I’m really going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too, Dan,” he said, “but this is the best thing for me. I don’t feel safe in this house. I never did.”
“I understand.” I kind of did, and I kind of didn’t. I found the house strangely soothing despite many moments of fear.
Our house was an antique colonial nestled in the hills—all muted gray and charcoal, even the brickwork. It was a marvel of rusticated stonework. We had a spacious garden, a well on our expansive lawn, and a private wooded lot. The steep staircase had the look of stone and slate, and only those of us under the age of twenty-one managed to hear the bell by the arched gray door. My grandmother would embroider pillows for the seat of the wrought iron bench on the porch, where she liked to sit. She would cut flowers from the perennial gardens and arrange them in vases on the windowsill.
“Tsk,” I heard now. “Get away from the window.”
I turned as my mother approached. There was no need to ask whether her concern was about me putting smudges on the glass or what the neighbors might think. I’m sure it was both, although I couldn’t imagine what she thought the neighbors would think: A girl is looking out the window—oh, no! Something is not right in that house. Surely, her mother is to blame.
Friends told us she had an exotic accent—northeast Brazilian; I’d suppose—but we didn’t hear it any more than we heard our father’s Italian accent.
I relinquished my hold on the drapery and turned from the window. “You look nice.”
She did, indeed. No one would believe the woman was forty. Nor, in my estimation, could anyone sufficiently praise her beauty. Her dark chocolate hair reached her shoulders. Long mascara-laden lashes enhanced her dark eyes. I noted the familiar beauty mark next to her round, pouty lips, the red lipstick, and the hint of blush on her fair skin. The dainty summer dress she was wearing for another day of work at my Aunt Zuza’s dress shop complemented her well-proportioned figure. Pearls glistened around her neck, and tiny diamonds sparkled from the bracelet on her wrist. She had elevated her five-foot frame with high heel sandals.
It was hard to fathom that this delicate creature was the same woman who became enraged during her Saturday cleaning, as I had witnessed throughout my childhood. She would go on and on about “these people.”
“All these people do is make a mess. These people don’t give a damn about nobody.”
Like she was referring to people we didn’t know, or who weren’t there, and she hated these people.
The anger seemed to consume her. She would say she wished she’d never had kids, and that we had ruined her life.
I thought I should help at the time, but the energy flowing around us had an incapacitating effect. We sat on the couch, watching cartoons and movies, while she cleaned around us like a robotic toy gone mad.
Back then, she frightened me. Not that she harmed anyone physically. Aside from tossing her tiny slippers at us from a distance, she merely scolded or resigned us to sitting in separate corners of the dining room.
She grilled me now. “What are you going to do? It’s a beautiful day. You should go out, take a walk somewhere.” What a paradox she was—loving one minute, and then preoccupied and oblivious the next. I didn’t feel as connected to her as I once had.
“Maybe later,” I said. “I’m just going to write.”
She smiled, and, of course, to me, there was nothing in the world prettier than or as gracious as my mother’s dimpled smile. It soothed me now, and then she was gone.
I went upstairs to my room. My father had recently furnished it with an old wooden desk and a six-foot-tall bookcase to accommodate my collection of books. When I was eight, he bought me a journal to write in. Five years later, he’d allowed me to take a home correspondence course for writing. We bought a series of books, which I read cover to cover. Now he seemed to think I was wasting my time.
It made little difference that I’d completed a novel, or that I had gone ahead and contacted a literary agent. Given a rare opportunity, I traveled to Westport, hours on the bus with my five-hundred-page manuscript bound in a three-ring binder, holding it close to my heart, as if it were everything in the world I owned and as precious as a child from my womb. I was excited, full of confidence. The agent I had spoken with on the phone seemed eager to introduce me to her colleagues, all of whom were in awe. They must have thought it was cute, me traveling all that way, novel in hand—a novel about everything I had witnessed in my sixteen years of existence. They saw my passion and hope and wanted only to do right by me. I thought we needed people like that in the world, and happily left that copy of my book with them.
While awaiting their response, I dusted and polished my office furniture daily with a pitiful Cinderella kind of hope. The bookcase, like the desk, was solid wood with a mahogany finish, and displayed volumes of classic literature, poetry, and philosophy books, as well as books on writing. More recently, I’d begun collecting books on astrology, occult history, and witchcraft, in part due to my thirst for knowledge and my boundless curiosity. Perhaps I needed to believe, as many do, that there were other miraculous realms beyond our comprehension providing infinite hope, and that anything was possible. I needed to believe that now more than ever.
Anyway, I was alone—something I’d come to dislike intensely, despite my tendency to isolate myself. Working at my desk, every noise distracted me, compelling me to rise and investigate. I don’t know if I expected the two men who’d been circling my house or some unknown intruder, but I was afraid. That fear had to coexist unnaturally with my passion and drive, which it did, right up until I heard the vigorous thunder of a motorcycle. Certain it was Joey, I went downstairs and ventured out the door.
He was in the driveway, perched on his black Harley, wearing no helmet. The sun was blinding after a day of symbolically dark isolation, and I struggled to transition from my fictional world to reality.
I knew why Joey had foregone the helmet. He used plenty of mousse and pomade on that cropped blondish hair of his, perfecting the textured, tousled style.
“Daddy didn’t want you to get that bike because you have no protection, if you get hit,” I said. “If he sees you riding without a helmet, you’re going to get another lecture. He doesn’t know why you had to sell the Camaro.”
Joey’s prominent green eyes glared. “Do I ask him why he insists on driving a Buick Regal that seats more people than he’ll ever like in his lifetime?” He pursed the lips Farran gushed about—the lush “Mick Jagger lips,” as she would say, proclaiming they could tempt her to the fires of hell. She would lavish praise upon him. Joey was so cute. Joey was adorable. Joey was a hunk. I got it. His devotion to hitting the gym on a regular basis had rewarded his five-foot-ten-inch frame with a ripped body. He looked like a rebel these days—tight denim jeans, a cutoff jean jacket with an American flag emblem on the back, a new tattoo covering his left bicep, and a tiny hoop earring in his pierced left ear.
I laughed at his remark about my dad. “Nobody’s here yet,” I told him, “but since Robbie’s leaving for Florida Sunday morning, Mommy’s going to make his favorite tonight.”
“Yeah, spaghetti,” he said. “She told me when she invited me.”
My mom drove up now in her taupe-colored Toyota Corolla, flashing a sweet smile before hugging Joey and then me. We went inside. She was quick to change and get down to the business of dinner, while Joey and I sat at the square kitchen table she had draped in a dainty floral tablecloth. The sun continued to brighten the room through ruffled Priscilla curtains.
My father arrived next, earlier than usual, in what seemed a good mood. Considering how handsome he was, he could have been a movie star. He stood five-foot-ten with a solid build and a wavy batch of chestnut brown hair. He wore it slightly longer than average, while sporting a painter’s brush moustache and goatee. His thick eyebrows curved inward toward the bridge of his nose, framing his compelling green eyes.
Joey grabbed an apple and a knife to cut it. We moved to the dining room table, where my father eventually sat to read his newspaper.
Despite the elegant beauty of the baroque furnishings and a crystal chandelier, the dining room had always come across as spiritless to me. Nothing was to be imperfect or out of place. Under the relentless overhead lighting, things had a tendency to become tense without warning.
“Why are you eating that now?” my father asked Joey. “We’re gonna eat.”
“It’s an apple,” Joey said, “not a three-course meal.”
“Be careful with that knife.”
“I’m just cutting the apple.”
“You could have used the apple slicer in the kitchen and brought it here in a dish.”
Joey ignored him. We kept talking.
My father looked up from his paper again. “Joe, you’re gonna cut the tablecloth.”
“I’m not cutting the tablecloth!” he bellowed. “I’m cutting the apple.”
We resumed our conversation. Another moment or two passed before my father jumped up. “Joey, goddamn it! You’re gonna cut the tablecloth, and I’m gonna kill you!” He was livid, screaming at the top of his lungs. I noted the clenched fists and saw his cheeks flush with the increased flow of blood. His eyes were terrifying! Perhaps it was attributable to the bulging blue veins, but from my perspective, they seemed to have turned purple, transforming him into a creature I barely recognized.
He lunged at Joey, who remained calm and seated. I sprang up and got behind my father, ready to jump on his back to restrain him, as if I could. In that instant, I believed he might kill Joey if I didn’t intercede.
He turned around so fast that he startled me. “What do you want?” he yelled.
Joey laughed. “I told you I wasn’t cutting the tablecloth. I’m not an idiot.”
They argued, and I ran to the bathroom. In a state of panic, I locked myself in. I believed my heart would continue to pound at this furious pace until it exploded and killed me.
Moments later, Joey came knocking on the door. “Dan?”
I came out, and he hugged me.
“Don’t be scared.”
“When he gets like that, I think he fits the profile of one of those guys who snaps one day and kills his whole family,” I said.
“Nah, he’s just barking. What did you think you were gonna do, anyway, sneaking up on ‘im?” He laughed.
“I don’t know. I just wanted to keep him from hurting you.”
“He ain’t gonna hurt me. I could take ‘im.”
“But if he went and got his guns …”
“Oh, come on, don’t worry. He’s not gonna kill anybody.”
It seemed odd to have these feelings about my dad. For the most part, he was the kind father who would pay us fifty cents to eat a dinner we didn’t like. When Robbie and Joey said they could eat an entire box of chocolate-coated ice-cream bars, he dared them to do it for five dollars. A couple of times, he brought all three of us to work with him. There, I had seen how the name Luca DeCorso had garnered respect. He was gone by 7:30 a.m. six days a week and returned twelve hours later. He never called in sick and rarely took a vacation.
He had come to the U.S., learned English, and taken a minimum wage job. Shortly afterward, he went to aviation maintenance training school, earned his licenses, and became a successful avionics/electrical technician with a high level of expertise. Now he held a senior-level position at Gulfstream in Westfield, Massachusetts. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the blueprints and schematic diagrams in his briefcase, but seeing them made me proud. In my eyes, he was a responsible and reliable role model who never left home without his trusty Omega watch or the three-stone band of gold with faceted diamonds around his ring finger.
How was it then that I could see a monster in him as easily as I could see his dignity, his integrity, and his charm? I had learned over the years that he held everything in for as long as he could. When he reached his limit, unrelated incidents could unleash that pent-up anger to an unprecedented degree. My mother once complained, at the wrong moment, about my grandmother putting one of her pots back in the wrong place so she couldn’t find it. My father got so mad he broke the handles off every one of her pots. He was in a blind rage. My mother had gone to her room and shut the door. When she returned, I could see she’d been crying. It wasn’t long before he apologized and bought her a new set of pots.
I returned to the dining room with Joey.
My father was still reading the newspaper, and Robbie was there after working his last day as a cashier at the local market.
Robbie was handsome, too, of course—a slim five-foot-eleven with sparkling hazel eyes. He wore his wavy, dark brown hair in a traditional medium-length cut, and his defined cheekbones were identical to mine. I had often seen that smile of his light a room with its brilliance, although that was a rare sight while he was under this roof.
He took a seat and made small talk before introducing the topic of college. I announced that I wanted to go to NYU or to Amherst in Massachusetts.
“Forget about New York,” my father said. “When I was young, you could walk around there any time of day or night, but not now. You can’t even go to Central Park anymore. And Amherst is too far.”
“I would live in a dorm,” I told him. “Those are great schools for an English major, and I would love to be in New York. It’s where I belong. You can’t believe everything you read in the paper, Dad.”
“You don’t have to live in no dorm,” he said.“I told you—apply for a scholarship to Yale. It’s right here, and it’s a better school.”
Robbie looked both stunned and annoyed. “She won’t get into Yale! And if she’s not allowed to live in a dorm, she’ll still have to drive an hour back and forth every day!”
My father chugged down some wine. After setting the glass down, he took a different approach. “You know, everybody’s talking about college, but the best thing to do is join the military. I’ll tell you, it was wonderful.”
“Oh yeah, wonderful,” Robbie quipped.
“I’m not talking about what goes on in combat,” my father said. “What I’m saying is, it’s a good experience for anyone. They teach you to grow up. All of you should go. It’s an honor and a privilege, if you want to know, and if your country needs you …”
“I’m not good at killing things,” I said. “If they made me go, I wouldn’t shoot anyone.”
“And you’ll be killed.”
Joey laughed but kept mum.
“I don’t care.”
“You’ll care.” He nodded. “You would not only shoot to protect yourself, but to protect your comrades.” He went back to reading his paper, but he had piqued my curiosity.
“You were in Vietnam, Daddy, right?”
He didn’t look up. “Mm-hmm … frontline infantry battalion.”
“I remember the day we found your old army uniform in the drawers of the china cabinet,” I said. “Did you have to go?”
He held his place in the newspaper with an index finger, but his eyes didn’t shift from the page. “I didn’t have to, no. I enlisted.”
“Why?” I asked. “Weren’t you scared?”
His eyes began to deviate from the page, but he kept the finger there, marking his place. “Danielle, when you’re that young, you’re not scared of much.”
“But why did you go if you didn’t have to?”
“Hah! Why?” He released the paper and looked up without meeting my gaze. “I came here to become a citizen. I wanted to learn the language. I wanted to work. It was an honor to serve.”
My mother entered, drying her hands with a dishtowel. “He was a sergeant,” she stated with obvious pride. “Sergeant, First Class.”
“They move you up quickly when you’re on the frontline,” he interjected.“Anyway, that was almost twenty years ago.”
“He came home with a Purple Heart,” she said. “It’s something to be proud of, but he never wants to talk about it.”
He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “I told you I got it, didn’t I? You get it in the line of duty. I’m not the only one who ever got it.”
She shook her head. “You did something to deserve that honor.”
“And that’s why I got an honorable discharge. Grace, you don’t go over there to get praise or a pat on the back. You go to serve your country and do your duty. Anyway, I’m sure your pasta’s been boiling for ten minutes over there. We gonna take the spaghetti out or what?”
He got up to drain the pasta for her. My grandmother shuffled out of her room. I removed the faux fruit from the long rectangular table and wiped the plastic shielding of the tablecloth. My dad poured the wine. Ordinarily, he’d wash everything down with beer in his favorite mug while he watched the news on the dining room television set, silencing us whenever we spoke. Now, he resumed the discussion about college.
“If you want to know the truth, all they teach you about in college is sex.” He was drinking his wine. “I got college people working for me that are dumber than a box of rocks. I don’t know what they teach them, but they can’t figure out the simplest things.”
Robbie clenched his teeth and got up from the table.
“Where you go?” my grandmother asked in her broken English. “Stay. Eat.”
“I’m done eating,” he said.
“Have more,” my mother urged. “You like this.”
“I had two bowls.”
“Your mother’s got cake,” my father said.
“Yeah, shut up and have cake!” Joey bellowed.
The two of them left not long after dessert.
I helped my mother and grandmother clean up until Farran called. We talked a while, but I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. By the time I returned to the kitchen, my father and grandmother had retreated to the family room.
“Where did you go before dinner?” my mother asked. “When your father was upset?”
I told her I hid in the bathroom.
“Ah …” She looked sympathetic. “That Joey likes to push and push. You don’t do that with your father.”
“Do you ever feel afraid of him?”
“No. I know how to handle him,” she said. “I know when to keep my mouth shut and when to walk away.”
I was glad, because, despite all my fear, he had easily become my hero. I loved him desperately and had worried about him throughout my childhood—mostly that he wouldn’t come home. Out of the blue, I would fear someone might hurt or kill him, and I prayed to keep him safe. The obsession went on for years, though he was a strong man who could take care of himself. He always turned up smiling, and whenever he arrived, all was well with the world.
The seeds of loyalty to my family, planted long ago, had created a blind and unlimited devotion. I became increasingly willing to go to great lengths to protect them from harm. Thus, telling any one of them what had happened to Angie and me wasn’t an option. Aside from the shame, I could never have added to their burdens or caused further disappointment.
It might have been a glorious beach day. Horned larks looked happy among the plum and bayberry shrubs, yellow sunflowers, and purple roses. The blue waters of the Long Island Sound were as beguiling as the landscape. Young men were perched on railings that glistened under the glare of the sun—ogling, whistling, and confessing their undying love. I witnessed this phenomenon whenever I walked to and from the bus stop in my school uniform, and came to realize I could easily disrupt traffic and possibly cause a collision.
I had never achieved a placid familiarity with the horn-honking and people clamoring for my attention. I had spent many years feeling like the ugly duckling muddling haplessly through the dark green marsh. If I had advanced from there at all, it was to become the tiniest winged critter, never able to keep up with the flock, and never certain I wanted to.
My metamorphosis was magical. I had the same golden brown hair—by then almost waist length—the same hazel eyes, coveted high cheekbones, enviable skin, and ravishing lips as before, but it had all become relevant! I believed I had willed and constructed this change. More accurately, I’d grown into my beauty, and my painstaking efforts to straighten my thick, wavy tresses made no difference. People looked mostly at my chest. I was a busty girl of five-foot-four who kept herself trim and toned with exercise.
Pain hindered my walking that day.
“We should rent a summer beach house here—or a cabin,” Farran said. “You met those two older guys here the other day, didn’t you? The ones you made a date with?”
“Yeah, one of them was thirty,” my cousin Angie chimed in. “The other guy was twenty-nine.” Her angelic voice was a touch above a whisper.
“Well, they knew you were both sixteen, didn’t they?”
“Yes, they knew,” I replied.
Mental images intruded—gold crucifix chains upon masculine chests. I had noticed those chains from the moment the men approached us on the beach. Perhaps I had an ingrained trust in that sacred symbol. I shouldn’t have. People wore things for different reasons. We adorned our arms with plastic jelly bracelets in neon colors because Madonna wore them, and she was the most fussed-about pop star. She also wore crucifix chains, which Angie and I had displayed with devotion since childhood.
We spread out our blankets in the middle of the beach. All eyes were on me when I stripped down to my halter-style swim top. In light of the ensuing commotion, I decided to keep the shorts on.
“With you around, I get no respect for my B-cup,” Farran complained. I saw the twinkle in her electric blue eyes when she smiled. Her high-cut one-piece elongated her pretty legs and flattered her figure. She was taller than me, with a nice head of light brown, shoulder-length hair that she often wore in a ponytail or chignon.
“What about me? I have nothing,” Angie lamented. She left her shorts on as well, with a skimpy bandeau top.
Angie and I had grown up together in Glastonbury. We’d been in the same classes since kindergarten. In a couple of weeks, we’d be seniors at the same high school. She was an inch shorter than I was, and always in sneakers, jellies, or flip-flops. Her dark hair was past shoulder length, framing a heart-shaped face and prominent brown eyes.
All three of us wanted admiration and, yes, adoration—from males, especially. When it became uncomfortable, I figured I wasn’t used to it. At the same time, I preferred being uncomfortable to being ridiculed and shamed.
I don’t recall which of the two men that day had asked what country I was from, insisting he detected a trace of European, and possibly Latin, in my New England accent. This extravagant attention to every detail did more than flatter me—I felt like it validated my existence. I’m certain I had blushed when I assured him I was a Connecticut native from Glastonbury.
“The whole thing was a nightmare,” I blurted out, as if Farran and Angie had been following my thoughts.
“A nightmare! Why?” Farran looked at Angie, probably to gauge her reaction. “Wait, I thought it was a date you all went on yesterday? I mean, you were both there, right? Angie said she liked the guy.”
Yes, Angie had liked Phil, the muscular, tattooed one with the mustache and short blond curls. When she’d unexpectedly begun kissing him, I had wanted to pull her away and shout, “What the hell has gotten into you?” She had always been painfully shy, but while surrendering to Phil’s embrace, there were moans coming out of that girl that she would not likely have emitted in private, let alone in a room with three other people.
I remembered how horrified we’d both been in seventh grade when a group of boys from our class began following girls to the bus stop. They would wait for an opportunity to grab a girl, and then pull her into the bushes or woods. They did whatever they could get away with before she broke free. Angie and I had had to walk, sometimes run, in a different direction, and wait until they were gone before we could return to our bus stop. They never caught us. When I told my brothers, they made it stop.
Angie and I had clung to our perception of that sacrosanct bequest—being “saved” for the right person. Our parents had never talked to us about defiled reputations or unwanted pregnancies, but in school, there were proclamations that only bad girls welcomed attention from boys. I didn’t think Angie had intended to go beyond kissing, but these men could not have known that. She had this tranquilizing humility, and though she kept her composure now, I could see a trace of fear in her large, haunted eyes. Could Farran not see it, or was I wrong about that, too?
“It was supposed to be a date, just to Pleasure Beach,” I explained. We sat on the blanket. I used some of Angie’s lotion on my already bronzed skin.
Farran applied sunblock. “Pleasure Beach … my parents used to go there back in the fifties.”
Things came to me in shadowy flashes. Phil had carried Angie away, and I was alone with the other guy. Sergio was his name. Though I did think he was cute with his close-cropped brown hair, brown eyes, and pencil-thin mustache, I was not attracted to him. I had felt dizzy trying to stand. The room spun, and I fell back on the sofa with only a blurred impression of the room. Sergio’s voice sounded like it was a distance away. I couldn’t see his face.
“They told us they’d forgotten their camera and wanted to stop and get it, since it wasn’t far,” I explained. “It might have been one of the beach cottages on Long Beach West. I had to fight them …”
Yet I remembered them driving us home. Angie was in the front seat, talking to Phil, who was driving. She appeared to be okay. Sergio was in the back with me. I had slept most of the time, with my head resting on his shoulder. We’d gone over that rickety bridge.
“Come on, Dani!” Farran’s smile was ingenuous. “Sounds like you had some wild experience that maybe got out of control, and you’re feeling guilty. You shouldn’t. Guys would be celebrating! I mean, you can’t take it back. It sounds like that’s what you’re trying to do. Maybe it’s time you grew up. I’m serious! Don’t be such a baby!” She laughed.
Farran was generous with smiles and laughter, right down to the wrinkling of her nose and an occasional wink. I imagined those eyes would shine until her dying day, and she would forever be as lovable and sweet as she was. I adored her. With her self-deprecating humor, people liked her in an instant. I expected boys to be falling all over her. What I didn’t understand was their interest in me. My assets were merely the luck of the draw.
“It was horrible,” I insisted. “I thought about going to the police.”
She looked dumbfounded, and that solidified for me the idea that going to the police would be futile.
I looked to Angie, and she didn’t avert her eyes. Those dark pools were now an ocean, with depths I couldn’t fathom. I saw her concern for me. Farran seemed to latch onto how Angie hadn’t confirmed any of it, but she ignored that Angie never denied it. Still, I backed down. My sense of reality had been undermined, but I didn’t doubt what I’d recalled, not for a moment.
Farran grabbed her radio, reminding me of how she and I would sing at the beach. When she turned up the volume, I looked away.
I thought about my family.
My dad had liked this beach when we were kids. It was Hammonasset in Madison, a two-mile stretch from Tom Creek on the western end to the Hammonasset River and Clinton Harbor on the east. He used to take us to West Beach. We were on East Beach now, which we preferred. It was quieter, with fewer kids.
The waves were no more than one or two feet, and I liked the gentle breeze. I loved watching the birds—osprey, piping plovers, sandpipers, willets, snowy egrets, and all the amazing herons. Birds resonated with me.
Innocent singing on the beach was a pleasant memory, as were family days when we searched for shells and copper scraps, marveling at starfish. Joey liked big-clawed hermit crabs and breaking rocks on the pier to find garnets. Uncle Dom usually brought a kite to fly—Angie’s favorite thing. Joey and Robbie played Frisbee. There were coolers with food and drinks. When the adults had had enough sun, we packed up and moved over to a picnic table in the shade. We could spend hours at the beach and still not want to go home—until Robbie had about had it with the stinging black flies that came up from the marshes. By his reaction, you would have thought they targeted him alone.
“Are you okay, Dani?” Angie was searching my eyes.
“She’s fine,” Farran assured her.
I held back tears. “They keep calling me. They called me five times when I got back from the so-called date and a few more times this morning.”
“Well, tell ‘em to call me,” Farran quipped.
“I don’t want them calling!”
“Dani?” Angie called out.
“I’m okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
Her wide-stretched lips eased into a smile, endearing her to me, as always.
Farran, however, was off on another tangent. “Hey, we’re not far from Marauders Cove. It’s about twenty minutes from here. Isn’t that where your brother, Joey, hangs out? And doesn’t he live only two blocks from there?”
“He hangs out with bikers,” I reminded her.
“I know.” She beamed.
“Besides, you have to be twenty-one.”
“Well, Joey’s not twenty-one.”
“He will be in a couple of months.”
She waved if off, flashing an ear-to-ear grin. “Danielle, Marauders Cove is an old-fashioned pub owned by the McGrath family. I practically grew up with them.”
Yes, and the McGrath family included Mike McGrath, my first and only love—someone I had always been able to trust. The mention of his name now evoked a twinge of melancholia that fanned the flames of my anguish.
“I’m sure your brother will be looking after you anyway, and so will his friends,” she went on. “I can get us phony proof. Hey, I’m starting college in the fall! It’s a rite of passage!”
This behavior was typical of Farran. She thought nothing of suggesting we hitchhike to the beach if we didn’t have a ride. Thankfully, a neighbor of hers had given us a ride that day. The plan was to meet up with the woman by three-thirty at Joshua Rock, just to the east of the park entrance.
“I’m not sure we should be barhopping,” I said.
“Oh, please.” She lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and exhaled. “You are always so uptight, Dani. You have to live a little.”
I wanted to address the absurdity of that second statement, but I didn’t know where to begin.
“School starts in a couple of weeks. It’s probably our last beach day. We gotta do something for excitement—like meet up with people. Maybe if I were a total knockout, I could sit home and wait for them to beat down my door, but that ain’t gonna happen.” She laughed. “Hey, I’m surprised you didn’t bring one of your car magazines. Still looking for a Nissan?” She was making nice, I could see, piling on the sugar.
“Yeah. I’m hoping by my birthday I will finally pass the road test.”
“Third time’s the charm, right?”
Angie laughed, a gentle laughter, but I saw the change in her. She looked more fragile to me.
There was no blood. I was dead inside, but not bleeding. Zipping my shorts in a daze, I focused on the brown and gold hues of the wall tiles. I washed my hands over the sink, avoiding my reflection. The hexagon-shaped mirror was antique and gilded. I now felt debased in its presence as well as in these familiar surroundings. After turning off the faucet, I stood there for a moment, and then hastened to my room.
The brass bed, dressed in white eyelet sheets and frilly pink bedding, was an update of my choosing. The nativity scene plaque on the wall above it had been there throughout my childhood—Mother Mary in a protective stance over Baby Jesus. I suppose the intention was to comfort and protect me. Still, I lined the bed with stuffed teddy bears and kept a sixteen-inch porcelain doll with golden hair and dark blue eyes on my white dresser. She wore a pink Victorian dress with lace trim and glimmering beads and a hat to match. I picked her up now and held her tightly to my chest. A tear fell as I snuggled her to me for as long as I could. After setting her down, I approached the window.
I could see far from these foothills. A woodlot of mixed forest surrounded our home. In one direction, I saw the Hartford skyline—in another, steep, rolling hills in their divine and blissful glory. My room faced the direction of Old Buckingham, not half a mile away. The ancient cemetery was set back from the road, just beyond a fortress of trees. We heard stories of weeping spirits, distant cries of agony, and diaphanous circles of white light floating above and between the tombstones. I never knew whether people convinced themselves of these things or merely embellished the truth. One thing I knew did happen: Fierce hurricane winds had nearly destroyed the little church on its grounds.
Much as I loved this house, it was an eerie place to grow up. That had little to do with ghost stories. I would lie awake in my bed at night, listening to the sounds of darkness—imagining that the hoarse caw of the crows warned of impending doom. I got this sense of urgency from yapping dogs, yelping coyotes, and the ear-piercing whistles of the woodchucks. Some nights, even the benign chirping of crickets grew louder and more intense with each moment.
I prayed, always.
Watching from the window now, I felt like some reclusive old person who got all the neighbors whispering. I watched for a dusty black Cutlass Supreme, needing to make certain it was nowhere in sight.
The phone rang, and I panicked. My father had mounted it to the wall between my room and the master bedroom, so I had to leave the room to answer it.
“Hello, Danielle,” the voice cooed.
Sickened to my core, I hung up.
It rang again, the innocuous ivory phone that seemed suddenly possessed. I wanted to rip it off the wall.
I lifted the receiver.
“Don’t hang up.” It was the other guy.
“Stop calling here!” I ended the call with a slam.
They had the gall to utter my name! They sounded so casual, so elated—as if the atrocity I had endured earlier that day had been mutually rewarding. Granted, it could have been worse, and yet a part of me had died. More unsettling still, they knew where to find me.
Starting on Saturday, December 5th, I will be posting a free serialized version of my debut novel, Deadly Veils Book One: Shattering Truths. A new chapter will appear right here on my blog every week, always on Saturday morning.
Winter is on the way, and, while we’re spending more time at home, it’s a great time to cozy up with a new book! Right?
Follow my blog and read along. For book discussion, feel free to leave comments and questions for each chapter.
Missed chapters will still be available on this site for catching up.
So, what is Shattering Truths about?
Imagine, for a moment, being able to go anywhere on the earth at any time with absolutely no threat of danger lurking and luxuriating in that comfort of being safe. We felt it as children if we were lucky, and it’s sad to think many of us experience harsh reality and betrayal and then never feel safe again. Yes, that is life—the world we live in—but it’s often a rocky road to recovery.
Let’s start with the assumptions—the “one size fits all” solutions, the one-size process of healing, and things others decide for us, like how we should behave and react, the determinations regarding what we should be doing.
Many form conclusions with a lack of understanding and empathy. They try to justify what is unjustifiable, doling out additional punishment and shame. These reactions often discourage people from disclosing what has happened to them. As a result, recovery can be a much longer process if it happens at all.
So, while not for the faint of heart, Shattering Truths is about one young woman’s path to healing from trauma.
Since the main character and her friends are underage and living with their parents, some readers felt it was a story for young adults and didn’t read it. While Shattering Truths does fit young adult fiction criteria, it is chock full of weighty adult themes. It was the adults, in fact, who, in reading the book until the end, seemed to appreciate and enjoy it the most.
Here are some of the things they had to say about it:
Ken Scott – 5.0 out of 5 stars
Shattering Truths is a most compelling story that weaves family and peer relationships into a fabric of great strength and fragility at the same time. The main character and her cousin are teenage girls on the cusp of adulthood who seem to be over their heads relationally in some ways and who, unwittingly, become engaged in activities that have subsequent emotional repercussions. Family dynamics and interactions between the girls and other characters, many of whom are somewhat older and more mature, are brilliantly presented to the reader by this author. I’m sure my comments thus far regarding the story line of the novel are “preaching to the choir” but I must also praise the author’s writing prowess. I find it difficult to express the depth to which she pierces emotional barriers in order to share the struggles the characters in the book were required to face. I was literally brought to tears on a couple of occasions. I really believe I felt the writer’s extreme range of emotion that she must have had as she was writing this novel. Her profound understanding of human emotion and spirituality are evident in her poetry as well. Basically, a brilliantly written novel by a brilliant writer. I can’t wait to read more from her.
C.L. Cannon – 5.0 out of 5 stars
This coming of age story is eloquently written and will transport you back in time to 1987 to witness the journey of 16-year-old Dani as she comes to terms with the horrors, joys, and often the shattering realities of growing up. This book has well-rounded characters that are multifaceted, genuine, and believable. It also deals with feelings of self-worth, loyalty, family, and friendship. I would recommend this to every person I know and even those I don’t. It truly is a compelling book that you will not be able to put down after you begin. It flows effortlessly along and leaves you aching for more. I am looking forward to reading more titles from this talented author!
Chelsea Girard – 5.0 out of 5 stars
A confused teen with a rough past has her conflicts conveying more than it may seem. Love Triangles, teases and mysterious character’s leave the story with your mind wandering.
There is some comic relief that shows she is still young and learning about who she is and what she wants to do with her future.
Her dreams left fears in my mind and I certainly could not get some of her thoughts out of my head. The novel was fast paced and had a great couple twists that kept me reading.
Love Books – 5.0 out of 5 stars
Kyrian Lyndon has the ability to turn words in beautiful mosaics of description. This gift shines throughout this emotional story of a girl trying to dig her way out of heartbreak and turmoil while growing up in teenage life. She does a wonderful job developing all of the characters and you become attached to their fates, their losses, their victories.
One can sympathize with the main characters as they try to find their place in this often chaotic world, struggling with inner and natural desires, looking to set up boundaries to live life with dignity. It’s a harsh lesson for Danielle. Society is ready to devour her, and she’s confused in how she should respond.
The vulnerability of the characters makes this a terrific first book in the series.
Final note – Though some of the book’s characters allude to a supernatural existence, this is not a paranormal romance or adventure. It depicts the harshness of life’s rude awakenings, and I believe it will resonate not only with women but also with the men who genuinely love and care about them.
I dedicated the book to trauma survivors—
“May you become free to love and be loved in return.
May happiness never elude you.”
I believe that until we fully heal from whatever it is we need to recover from, we remain in bondage to something or another and prone to all kinds of obsession. Disentangling from all that is a painful process, and that’s where the path to healing begins.
People run from life in many ways. We can want a hug so desperately and yet recoil from it. We can crave love more than anything and build fortresses to keep it away. There’s this idea that the more bridges we burn, the harder it will be to go back to the things that caused us pain. Sometimes, that is true, but, at the same time, we keep looking for that place where we belong, and, in some situations, trying almost too hard to fit in, until we accept, with a great deal of shame, that we need to move on. Reaching out to people is overwhelming and terrifying, but we try it, and when we feel unheard, we vanish again. So many goodbyes––until we don’t want to do the relationship thing anymore or the intimacy thing or ask anyone for help or love or whatever the hell we need. Intimacy doesn’t seem worth any of that, and we lose interest. We shut down, close our doors for business, and thrive in our safe, predictable worlds.
We wonder if we are crazy, but people tell us only sane people question their sanity. Sometimes we think we’re monsters, but we come to learn that monsters feel no guilt, no shame, and no love. We do love, from a distance and we absorb the world’s pain.
In my twenties and beyond, I kept changing my name, my hair color, my address, my phone number, my job–you name it. It was as if I couldn’t run fast enough, couldn’t hide in a safe enough place. Without realizing it, I was running away from the trauma of childhood and teen years.
At some point in the healing process, something tells you that you don’t need to hide anymore. You don’t need to run, so you try not to. What’s unsettling is how far you can come in your healing and still get thrown back there in a heartbeat.
Progress can seem slow, but it keeps happening. I’m not a patient person, but I’ve learned to be patient about healing. I’ve had to, and I love healing because I’ve reaped its rewards. Often, I look back and ask myself, “How did I survive, being such an idiot for most of my life?” That may seem harsh, but in light of how far I’ve come, it makes sense. We can’t fix what we don’t know is broken. We can’t benefit from learning the truth about ourselves until we feel safe in rejecting the lies.
As survivors, we want this healing for everyone while needing to learn, too, that people are only ready when they’re ready. And it’s painful when we love people who need desperately to heal but remain trapped in their fear. Sometimes we wish we could absorb every bit of their agony; even it means holding on to all of it ourselves because we know we can handle it. We have.
We can’t get stuck in that inability to forgive either. It’s understandable because we witness so much unnecessary cruelty toward ourselves and others, and we don’t know what to do with that. For instance, how do you come to terms with the fact that someone willfully tried to destroy another person, or that person’s reputation, or his or her life, that they did everything in their power to annihilate another human being?
What I realized, quite a long time ago, is that revenge and punishment are not up to me. Divine retribution happens without the least bit of my help—no matter how we interpret divinity and even if we are divinity in the sense that we represent it in the universe. It works that way because we can’t destroy people without destroying ourselves. If it’s destruction we want, it’s destruction we’ll get, and it’s never one-sided.
A better solution is to keep following our path and goals and let go of the burdens people give us to hold. The weight comes from feelings of not belonging or being worthy and accepted as we are. It comes from others mischaracterizing us or our actions to suit their agendas and punishing us for not being who they need us to be, not wanting what they require us to want.
We have to find our own happily ever after. It’s undoubtedly not the same for everyone, and that’s another place we can get stuck—wanting what we don’t have and realizing it’s not even what we want but what we think we’re supposed to want and have. Most people want to find that special someone, get that dream house and job. From the time I was eight years old, what I wanted was different—maybe, in some ways, the opposite of what everyone else wanted. It took me a while to realize that I have everything I’d ever wanted or needed in my life and, while I may have moments of feeling sad for another or sad for the world, I am happy.
One thing I’ve always known is to never give up. It does get better, a little at a time, but it gets so much better. Our survival not only gives hope to others but sharing our experiences allows us to help in their healing. We help each other, yes, and we give each other the love that’s been so hard for us to ask for or accept.
I’m not a religious type, but the prayer below has always been my favorite. It can certainly get you through it. ❤️
People suffering from lower back pain often ask me how I manage scoliosis and lumbar spine disk disease, because I do manage it, despite having a disk determined to be “shot” rendering me a bad candidate for back surgery. One doctor told me I would end up in a wheelchair, but I haven’t had a back episode in years, and I do not take or need pain medication of any kind.
As an advocate of healing mind, body, and soul from all trauma, I hate to see people suffer, so I’m happy to pass along what has worked for me.
I am not a doctor or any authority on health. I’m just someone who has learned a lot through experience and from chiropractors who are willing to teach you what you need to know. These solutions won’t be enough for everyone dealing with pain, but most of it will help tremendously, and it will certainly help people who are in a situation similar to mine.
Let’s start with the mental stuff. I read somewhere that I needed to change my relationship with pain. If this sounds hokey, it’s not. I learned that while I could endure almost unbearable emotional pain, the biggest fears I had were things that could lead to physical pain. I was terrified of physical pain. I wanted to be comfortable all the time and couldn’t accept being uncomfortable ever. I feared it so much; it caused anxiety, and that only made things worse.
Changing my relationship with pain required getting to a place where I could accept when I was uncomfortable and hurting. I needed to remind myself that I wasn’t the only person on earth this was happening to, that aches and pains were normal, in fact, and people deal with it all the time. I also came to recognize that the physical pain I had was not solely a result of this inevitable thing inflicted upon me by some disorder I had no control over; it was my body telling me that something needed attention. Something I was doing or not doing needed to change. I hadn’t realized how reckless I’d been with my body throughout my life, never giving it the tender loving care it deserved. I needed to take care of it and take care of myself, and I needed to know I was worth that. This realization helped, as did the relaxed attitude of seeing myself as just another person on the planet dealing with something unpleasant and seeing myself as a more confident, take-charge person who could address and remedy situations. It means not only learning to love yourself but to trust and believe in yourself as well.
So let’s talk about treating the pain.
I don’t know about you, but I used to panic whenever I felt pain. It made me want to stop everything and get to a place where I could lie down and stay there. That’s a good time to stay away from coffee and sugar. These days, I don’t have to avoid coffee or sugar if I’m feeling a little off, because I understand how everything works, and I don’t panic. Until you get to that place, avoid those things when you’re feeling vulnerable.
Now, for me, ice treatments are everything. A chiropractor taught me to lay on my stomach with a small pillow rolled under my navel to elevate the lower half of my body and then put the ice pack right in the middle of my lower back (no matter where the pain is). Another way is to lie on your back with a pillow under your legs and the ice in the middle of your lower back, never less than twelve minutes, never more than twenty, and the ice pack should have a sheath. If you don’t have a wrap for it, you can put it over your thin T-shirt rather than under it, but it should never be directly on your skin. While in the worst pain where I could barely move, I did twenty minutes of ice every two hours. People who can’t stand ice can use heat, but it’s best to do ice at least for the first couple of days to reduce the inflammation. I rarely have to do an ice treatment now, but I try to do one at least once a week. It just feels good. 🙂
I do have an ice pack I can use at my desk, too, with a wraparound belt that has a pocket for the ice. I bought an extra one to take to the office with me when I worked for a law firm. I kept the ice in their refrigerator and the belt in my desk.
Years ago, I used back braces. They help but can also be a crutch, so it’s good if you use them as needed and wean yourself away as you can.
There are those who can’t function without pain medication, and I understand that. Back when I was struggling, I took Tylenol every four to five hours for days until I was better. That worked to reduce the inflammation, and there were occasions doctors had prescribed stronger medications. However, even Tylenol and Advil are getting a bad rap these days, so for people like me who don’t want to use these medications, I’m including a link below about natural alternatives.
A lot of time, too, our neck is out of whack, and it throws everything off. Take a small pillow or towel and roll it up tight, lie on your back and put that pillow behind your neck. Relax like that for twenty minutes or so whenever needed.
As for prevention, you may already know some or all of these things, but since I run into so many people who don’t know, I’ll cover it all.
First, having a solid abdominal core is essential. For some people, this means changing eating habits, making healthier choices, but others who may not necessarily be out of shape can still have weak cores. In my experience, I would always exercise but then stop for weeks when I felt any pain and slowly rebuild my strength. I was also causing injury by not doing the exercises correctly. While it’s true that you shouldn’t exercise while you are in pain or to the point of pain, sometimes the pain issue is resolved within a day. The trick is to get back on track when you can, even if you can only manage pelvic tilts. When your core is strong, your back is not so vulnerable. For people who can’t get to a gym, there are great exercise tapes on the market. You can do your workouts at home, and the instructors tell you how to do it right, so you aren’t injured. Ideally, you want to work all the muscles in your body, and you want to include strength training, yoga, Pilates, and aerobics in your routine. However, if you don’t have a lot of time to work out, you can at least do abdominal exercises five times a week for ten to fifteen minutes.
I mentioned that pain sometimes resolves itself within a day. I’m talking about food digestion. Very often, the pain people feel in their lower back comes from being bloated and unable to digest food. If this is going on for days, maybe you’re not drinking enough water. I try to drink eight to ten glasses daily. When people get older, they need to add more fiber to their diets.
When my back problems began, one of the first things my doctor told me was to stop lifting my toddler and bending at the waist to pick up his toys and all that. You should always bend at the knees anyway.
If you have back issues, it won’t help you to stay in any one position for too long. That sucks, I know—especially if you have to sit all day at work. Get up and stretch when you can. It’s the same with standing and walking. If you have to stand a long time, walk around a little or sit when you can. A mile-long walk is usually fine but can backfire if you’re hurting. Lying in bed for days isn’t good either. When you are injured, you can’t help that, but as soon as you can, get up every so often and walk a little farther and for a little longer each time.
Everyone knows it’s important to stretch after exercising, but when you have lower back issues, you can take time to stretch even when you’re not beginning or ending a workout.I have a big purple Pilates ball that I can use for stretching at home. You don’t need one to do stretches, but they’re awesome, and they usually come with instruction on how to use them.
Your doctor may have already told you that you need a good mattress and to get a restful sleep every night.
Your back should always be flat against the chair you’re sitting in, no space between your back and the chair. You’ll probably find chairs with arms and high backs to be more comfortable and supportive. I also use a lower back pillow when I’m working at my desk.
All this may sound like a lot of upkeep, but it’s a lifestyle change and becomes second nature to you once you get used to it, so please don’t be discouraged, or give up. Believe me; I know how debilitating this can be, so I don’t want you to suffer for years as I did.
It’s easy to judge the impaired, to walk away, make fun. It’s easy to take advantage of their vulnerabilities. What’s not easy is acceptance, and that’s unfortunate because acceptance paves the way to learning and understanding. Without it, there can be no solution or resolution. What’s not easy either is helping to heal those wounds.
Unfortunately, the afflicted/addicted are often in a cycle of narcissistic abuse. Caught up in that dynamic since childhood, they remain surrounded by narcissists who lack the healthy self-esteem and empathy to love them through their imperfections. Narcissists are too busy burying their shame and inadequacy, so instead of accepting, they punish and reject. They never put themselves in another’s place. Instead, they feel short-changed, embarrassed and inconvenienced.
I’ve heard arguments like, well we all have anxiety now and then, or nobody likes to do that, but we saddle up. I understand this logic. Maybe some refuse to test their limits. I don’t know. What I do know is we don’t have any idea how hard something is for someone else, or how hard he or she tries.
That doesn’t mean you don’t set boundaries or that you should tolerate anyone crossing the line.
At a time when I couldn’t understand an irrational source of anxiety, a therapist told me, “Think of anxiety as a hat. You can hang it anywhere, put it on anyone’s head, and wear it for anything.” It’s transference of deeper fears, and you can find a number of ways to throw them out into the universe.
I adopted the mantra, “Life is an adventure” to help me through the toughest moments. I’d picture myself as this tiny being inside a vast, fascinating universe… a being no better than any other, given opportunity after opportunity for experience and adventure. I knew I wanted to hang in for the ride rather than give up. For whatever reason, that grounded me.
So acceptance has been the key to learning and understanding for me, too, and essential to managing the afflictions on a day-to-day basis. Everyone I have met who struggles along these lines is fighting every day to manage, to test their limits, and to survive. My feeling is, if it doesn’t require as much effort for you, then whatever is going on with them is not going on with you, so this comparison is pointless. Sorry for your inconvenience, your expectations, your disappointments, and that you can’t get what you want when you want it, but I guarantee a little acceptance will go a long way.
I saw a quote once, something to the effect that, people who don’t have their stuff together are judging us all. Yes they are.
Stevie Nicks once spoke about her addiction and use of benzodiazepines to treat her anxiety. She said, in an interview, “People don’t forgive you.” It’s true. Some people will never forgive or forget the past transgressions of the afflicted or the addicted no matter the circumstances, and no matter how far you’ve come. It’s another hindrance, but we go on.
Someone I love dearly has almost all the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. Aside from having some of these symptoms myself, I care about this person more than I do anyone who would judge. I can see the world of difference it makes when you accept, love unconditionally, and play even a small part in helping a person in these circumstances to not only survive but to thrive.
If everyone could resolve their personal bias and issues, they would see individuals who are just as lovable and beautiful as they are, every bit as worthy, and strong enough to have survived the most oppressive and unrelenting pain.
Here is another thing I learned. Everybody is trying to feel good about himself or herself, from those with afflictions and disorders to the people who love and cherish them—and yes even the people who seem to have it all together. I just don’t want to make that harder for anyone.