here’d been no sign of trouble, no drama, since the fiasco at the Inn and getting home that night, so I’d begun to relax some. Home became my safe haven. After a week of this gratifying peace, however, Joey called with devastating news. Evidently, Gianni had found Tommy unconscious after a heroin overdose. He started CPR immediately but lost him within minutes.
The news stunned me since, aside from the angel dust episode, I’d never seen Tommy high on drugs. If there had been any sign of him using, I’d missed it. It seemed unfair. It always seems unfair. He was twenty-one, for God’s sake, and had lost so much.
“Yeah, he had problems with it in the past,” Joey told me. “I didn’t know until he started again recently. I can’t believe it, man.”
After hanging up the phone, I sat on my bed with my face in my hands, wishing someone would say this was all one never-ending nightmare.
At the wake, I approached Gianni before anyone else. His eyes were downcast. When he looked up, he seemed to look through me, as if he didn’t recognize me.
I touched his arm lightly. “Gianni, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
There was no trace of the smitten Gianni as I pulled him into a hug. He looked battle-weary and bewildered.
“Good of you to come, pretty lady,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
“Of course I would come.”
“He died in my arms, you know.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, me, too. Thanks, doll.”
I expressed my condolences to the family members, which included the Lynx gang, and then I knelt before Tommy to say my silent prayer for his soul. Even in the suit they’d dressed him in, he looked too young. I pictured his eyes in all their sincerity, the golden eyes—my fierce little tiger. My heart bled for him, and I could never express to him how sorry I was for his pain.
As I turned away from the casket, I nearly walked into Liz, donning her smart suit and mid-heel pumps.
“I forget now,” she said. “Which one are you?”
I had no doubt she knew exactly who I was. “It’s Danielle. I know you and Tommy were very close. I’m sorry for your loss.” As emotional as I was feeling, I almost wanted to apologize to her for Gianni’s behavior as well.
“Thank you,” she said smugly. “He was a good-hearted person.”
“Yes, he was.”
She looked down now, as if studying my shoes. “Gianni and I broke up months ago—on New Year’s Eve.”She looked up at me again. “I found someone who thinks the world of me, Danielle, and I’d never settle for less. There are no hard feelings with Gianni. He wanted that for me—for me to be happy.”
I smiled. “That’s great. You deserve that.”
“Thanks,” she said. “Listen, their aunt just arrived. I need to go over and say hello. You take care now.”
An arm slipped around me then, someone who had come up from behind—Valentin.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said when I turned.
“Oh, no, you didn’t. Are you okay? I know poor Gianni found him …”
“Yes, I was there. I called 911 while he started CPR.”
“I’m so sorry.” Aware of the fluttery feeling inside of me , I nervously scraped a hand through my hair. “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” he replied.
“It was an accident, right?”
“Yes, it was.”
Was it better that Tommy didn’t intend to die? Maybe, maybe not, but at least I knew that much, whereas, with Angie, I continued to wonder.
“Billy was here,” Valentin said. “That made the reality hit.”
I sympathized. “That must have been hard.”
“Not harder than anything else. I’d like to make amends to him—not now but eventually.”
“But you were leaving the bar, after you defended Katharine, and he …”
“I lost control, Danielle. I’m not proud of it. Anyway, I have to make the rounds here.”
It was odd how every conversation I had that day seemed to resolve something for me, even the one I had with Joey as he walked me to my car.
“Everything seems to be falling apart,” I said. “What happens with the Lynx gang now?”
Joey shrugged. “I don’t know. I doubt there will be a Lynx gang after this. Valentin’s busy. Gianni’s becoming a cop, and now that Nico and I aren’t friends—doesn’t look very promising. But no one else is mad at me besides Nico.”
“You were pretty mad at him, too,” I recalled. “It sounded like he was accusing you of something.”
“Something that never happened.”
“Does he think it did?”
“Nah, he’s just being a dickhead. I was always close with Shannon. It never bothered him before.”
“Not until he found out she was keeping that secret about Valentin’s kid. Nico was defending Valentin.”
“And himself. He doesn’t trust easy. I think it scared him that he was falling for Shannon, caring more than he wanted to. Then give him a reason to think he’s gonna end up getting played, and he wants out.”
“Okay, so how is that different from what you did to Farran? You didn’t trust Farran, but you used her and then humiliated her. At least Nico trusted Shannon for the time he stayed with her.”
“Farran teases.” he said. “Did you know she cornered Valentin not long ago and begged him to take advantage of her? Yeah, I’m not supposed to know about that, but Nico told me. She acts like she’s not afraid, but she can’t make up her mind from one minute to the next. I don’t blame her for that, but, by the end of it, she was acting like a child, and I was all out of restraint. I didn’t want to push her, so I kicked her out. I wish I could say I waited for her to powder her nose and escorted her back to her friends, because, really, I wish I could have done that. I wish I was a more patient person, but I’m not. She wasn’t far from the Cove. I knew she’d be all right, but I’m your brother, and you thought the worst of me in this situation. You felt the need to come to her rescue against me. How ‘bout you take your friend and find someplace else to hang out where you’re not in over your little heads?”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” I shot back.“I don’t have any more friends, and I won’t be hanging out wherever you do.”
“You’re not friends with Farran?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Good,” he said.“Because I can’t stand her.”
Frustrated, I sighed heavily. “I still think treating her like that just because she changed her mind is wrong, and I hope you realize that.”
“I walked away!” he shouted. “Maybe I didn’t do it like a gentleman would, but I walked away!”
“Okay, but if you knew she wasn’t my friend, and she was trashing me, why were you fooling around with her in the first place?”
“I didn’t know she was trashing you.” His voice was still loud and intimidating.“I just knew I didn’t trust her as far as you were concerned. Tommy felt the same way, and the first time she trashed you to him, he ended things with her! Look, I’m sorry any of it happened. If I could change it, I would.”
“I believe you,” I said, fighting back tears. My instinct was to hug him, and he hugged back tight, as he always did.
When I arrived at the funeral, Joey was with Gianni, Valentin, and Nico. The four of them, along with two other pallbearers, carried Tommy’s flag-draped casket into the church. It began the swell of emotion in me. Gianni was in his marine uniform.
Farran already had a seat in the pews when I entered.
At different points, they played “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens, then “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel. The songbird and lyricist in me wept from my soul.
Gianni delivered the eulogy. Liz did a reading, and, lastly, during an operatic rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” the pallbearers carried the casket out of the church.
Farran and I spoke briefly outside. We hugged, crying. She had to go to work, but I followed the limos and motorcycles to the burial site.
A procession of bikers arrived ahead of the flag-draped casket. It was a clear day, like most days that March. I heard the ever-present crows, and watched the honor guards’ salute before they carried Tommy’s casket to his grave. An honor guard lifted the flag and held it over the casket. There was another salute before, “Attention. Ready. Aim.” I heard three shots and then “Taps,” followed by a salute from the bugler. The honor guard folded the flag, carrying out every detail of the ceremony with amazing precision and dedication. One of them held the folded flag over his heart, and then all of them touched it before another gave the salute. An officer knelt before Gianni and a woman I knew to be both Tommy and Gianni’s grandmother. He said something about presenting the flag on behalf of the Department of the Air Force and a grateful nation for Tommy’s faithful and dedicated service.
I’d always had an impassioned awe for pomp and circumstance, but this ceremony stirred me profoundly. I was a soldier’s daughter with such a deep, complicated love for my father. I had also become the unlikely friend of another soldier who’d endeared himself to me at a critical time in my life.
Wiping my tears now, I could feel Valentin’s eyes on me. At the end, he came and hugged me, and I squeezed him tighter than I’d ever had.
“At some point, I need to talk to you,” I said.
The timing seemed all wrong, but he had offered to lend an ear after Angie had died. I knew he was also in pain, and I wanted to do the same for him. Besides all of that, we had something to resolve. It might have been my last chance, since it was possible that I’d never see him again.
He glanced around. “Gianni’s having a very small gathering for friends and relatives. I need to be there.”
“Oh, of course,” I said, feeling foolish.
He looked at me. “What are you doing later?”
I wished I could silence my heart with its tumultuous pounding.
We agreed to meet at 6:00 p.m. and settled on a spot in East Haven near the beach. Still paranoid about my stalkers, I told Joey what I had planned and asked if I could stay at his house that night. I knew he’d be home, watching a game, and that he lived ten minutes away from the designated meeting place.
“Of course you can,” Joey said. “But if, for any reason, you decide you’re not coming, call me.”
I smiled. “What reason would that be?”
“Never mind,” he said. “I trust him to do the right thing, whatever that is.”
t was about the third week in March when Farran told me she’d come close to losing her virginity to Tommy. She said they ended up arguing over something unrelated, so it didn’t happen.
When I pulled into the Cove parking lot that night, Tommy and Nico sped in on their bikes and pulled up alongside me. They invited us to the Meadowside Inn and led the way as I followed.
The Inn was beautifully eerie, and the nearby beach looked inviting. It was dark and chilly, but we had seen the last of the winter snow. The streets had cleared, and spring was days away.
Valentin was behind the bar when we walked in. Farran rushed to hug and squeeze the stuffing out of him, leaving him to smile affectionately like a pet had ambushed him or a child.
After kissing me hello, he held my hands together in his. “How are you doing?” he asked.
I told him I had taken on writing and editing our senior newspaper, as well as contributing poems for every edition. It was true. I needed the focus.
He said that was great, along with whatever else I asked him. Daytona was great. The kids were great. He and Katharine had separated, and he was sharing a place in Greenwich with Nico and another guy. He also said he hadn’t picked up a drink since the night of the fight with Billy, though he was bartending one or two nights a week.
“Is it wise for you to be pouring drinks?” I had to ask. “Aren’t you tempted?”
The question seemed to amuse him. “Sometimes,” he said, “but it strengthens my resolve. It’s not something I would recommend to anyone I sponsor down the road, but it’s been therapeutic. I see the other side of it, and it’s a powerful reminder.” He asked what we wanted, and I ordered a soda. Farran tried for a Gin Rickey and got a soda as well.
“God, I love him!” Farran gushed as we settled in a booth with our drinks. “I think he’s wearing Creed. It’s scrumptious on him. I’m making my move on him tonight, just going for it. I’m telling you, that man is a god.” Her eyes sparkled, and her grin was as wide as her face. “Hey, you know, I ran into someone from my church this morning, and she said the world was going to end today. Not kidding. She really believes that, and, whether it’s true or not, I ain’t wasting time.” She laughed.
Tommy slipped into the seat next to me. “‘Sup?” he said.
It was as if they all descended upon us. Gianni surfaced from the pool table in the back, ready to sit beside Farran, and she stood to let him slide in.
Nico shoved at Gianni. “Move over.”
Farran sat down next to Nico.
“Yeah, have a seat,” I told them all. “The world’s going to end tonight. Farran’s church friend told her.”
Nico said, “They’ve been saying that since the beginning of time.” Our eyes met, and he held my gaze, looking intrigued and maybe a bit curious. It could have been my imagination, but I think he was wondering if I had meant what I’d said to him.
Gianni shouted over to Valentin at the bar. “V, sit down, man, the world is gonna end tonight.” When Valentin looked over, Gianni said, “Oh, if I know Valentin, he knew about this already.”
Tommy laughed. “He got a psychic revelation.”
“Better serve those drinks up a little faster,” Nico said. “And seek deliverance!”
I think Farran was the only one who didn’t get the deliverance part, but she laughed with us.
I saw Valentin laughing, too. He said, “I don’t know what the hell you guys are talking about, but, by all means, enjoy the end.”
It made them laugh more.
Tommy continued to joke. “How does this church lady know? Memo from God? It would have been in the paper.”
“How is it going to end?” Nico asked. “We need the details.”
“Maybe it’ll just blow up,” I said.
Nico winked at me, dazzling me with a smile. “It’s good to see you’re okay.”
I felt embarrassed and thanked him for what he’d done.
“I did nothing,” he replied.
Gianni looked at me. “Hey, if this world’s gonna blow, you can come home with me tonight. It won’t matter, and we won’t have another chance.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. I did ask him where Liz was, and he shrugged. I felt Valentin’s eyes on me, but when I looked back, he shifted his gaze and walked down the bar to tend to a customer.
That’s when things began to get crazy.
Joey came in with Katharine and Shannon. Though the greetings all around seemed polite enough, I could see Nico wasn’t happy that Katharine and Shannon were there. I caught a glimpse of Valentin, and while he may not have been thrilled, he seemed to take it in stride.
Joey spent the next half hour playing pool and drinking beer with Shannon while Katharine lingered at the bar. At some point, Joey came over with his beer. He pulled the material of Farran’s plunging neckline and poured the beer down her top.
She jumped up and began screaming at him. “Joey!”
It seemed Tommy was trying not to laugh.
Gianni yelled, “Hey!”
Nico shook his head, and Valentin came over with napkins.
“Why’d he do that?” Farran asked, wiping herself with the napkins.
Valentin brushed her cheek with his hand. She collapsed into his arms and clung to him.
“Why did you do that?” Valentin asked Joey as he held Farran.
Joey did not answer or even flash a smile.
Valentin looked at Nico. “What’s with him?”
“No clue,” Nico replied.
Everyone was standing around now. Shannon and Gianni began chastising Joey.
“Why can’t you leave her alone?” I asked my brother.
“I don’t know why you’re mad at me!” he bellowed. “She’s a bitch to you.”
“You’re calling my friend a bitch now?”
“She’s not your friend,” he replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t trust her.”
Tommy said, “He did that for you.”
My eyes widened. “For me? Please don’t do things like that for me.”
Farran backed away from Valentin, in tears now. “What have I done to Danielle? I said some things when I was mad, just as I’m sure everyone does when they’re upset.”
“That’s not all you’ve done,” Tommy said. “Try being there when your friend needs you and not bad rap her every chance you get.” He looked at me. “She’s jealous of you.”
“Jealous? Why would I be jealous?” Farran’s tone was bitter now. “I have no reason to be jealous of her. Jealousy isn’t the only reason women are put off by each other, but, of course, that’s what you guys would think. Come on, it’s not like she’s Cindy Crawford.”
“Okay, this ends here,” Valentin said. “Joey, you need to leave—and Tommy, I love you, man, but if you can’t let this go, you’re going to have to leave, too.”
“Oh, and by the way, Danielle’s been very sneaky,” Farran went on. “She’s great at playing Little Miss Innocent. Meanwhile, she turned out to be the backstabber.” She looked at me. “I know exactly who you’re after. Just don’t come off like this innocent little prude.”
My head was spinning, my heart pounding. “What the hell is your problem?” I shouted.
“Maybe I’ve just outgrown you, Danielle,” she said.“Or maybe this town just ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
That prompted a mirthless laugh from me. “What’s next? Leave town before sundown or else? I’m not going anywhere, so maybe you should start packing.” I couldn’t believe she actually said that—that the town wasn’t big enough for both of us.
The others laughed at the absurdity, but none of it was funny to me.
“She should make you walk back to Hartford,” Joey said to Farran.“Or you could always hitch.”
Nico spoke up. “I will say this, Joey: You need to have some respect. Whatever’s going on with these two girls, that’s between them. Besides, this is Valentin’s space not Billy’s—our place of refuge—since they barred him from the Cove. You know better than to come here with those two.”
“Shannon has friends here,” Joey argued, “including me.”
“We just came to say hello,” Shannon interjected in the gentlest tone. “I miss you, Nico. I think about you. Is that a crime?”
I could see how Nico stiffened then, how the light disappeared from his eyes. “Really? It seems your boy toy here provided you with plenty of comfort. You chose to cozy up to my friend, so live with it. If there was ever any hope of reconciliation, it’s gone now.”
“Bullshit!” Joey shouted. “You did not want to reconcile with her. You had no intention of doing that, and you know it.”
“Joey, you’re not helping,” Katharine said with a smile, pushing him back gently with her hand.
“And why do you know these things?” Nico asked. “Because you were a brother, and you betrayed me. You wanted her, now you got her.”
“It ain’t like that,” Joey replied.
Tommy said, “Is there a bad moon rising or full moon or something like that?”
Shannon’s only concern seemed to be Nico. “If I had known you wanted to reconcile …”
Nico clenched his teeth. “Lies. You still believed we could reconcile. You believe it now. Well, it ain’t gonna happen.”
“It was never gonna happen,” Joey barked.
Shannon went to grab Nico’s arm, but he recoiled from her like she disgusted him.
Joey got a grip on him. Nico threw his arms up, freeing himself from Joey’s grip like it was child’s play.
Valentin intervened now. “Okay, this party’s over. Put down the horns and balloons and get your goody bags at the door.” He looked at me. “Dani, if you are not comfortable driving Farran home, I’ll get someone to take her. Anyone else hell-bent on fighting needs to leave.”
“I’ll take Farran home,” I said aloud. “Unless she’d rather walk.”
Valentin laughed then shifted his gaze to her. “Would you rather walk?”
“No,” she said. “Thanks, Dani.”
“I’m leaving,” Joey announced. He pointed a finger at Nico. “I do love you like a brother, man, but Shannon’s a really good person. She never deserved the way you treated her.”
“Maybe not,” Nico responded, “but many of her actions showed a blatant disregard for me.”
“Oh, boohoo!” Katharine replied. “She swallowed her pride, apologized to you, begged you, I don’t know how many times, and she loves you more than you deserve, Nico! You watched her cry her eyes out and walked away with not an ounce of sympathy. That’s not how you treat the woman you claim to love.”
He glared at Katharine, his eyes cold. “She loves me more than I deserve? She had no problem lying to me that she didn’t know Valentin was the father of that little girl until Valentin and I knew—months after my niece was born. If you hadn’t told my brother the truth, she never would have told me.”
Katharine yelled, “My family threatened to take my daughter away from me if either of us told! I ended up telling Valentin anyway, because I love him. He understands that, so what’s it to you?”
“What’s it to me?” Nico seemed furious. “My brother’s child. My niece. Up until December, your cousin here was still telling me she found out when I did. Once the truth was out, I asked her how long she knew. She looked right into my eyes and lied. Now she keeps calling my house, coming to my door. She charges at Valentin every time she sees him to ask where I am. I moved on. And she needs to do the same.”
Shannon shook her head and then turned to me, her eyes glistening with tears. “Are you okay, hon?”
I nodded, and she gave me a tight hug before leaving with Katharine and Joey.
Tommy pulled me aside and handed me a slip of paper with the license plate number of Phil’s Cutlass. “Been getting the 411 on those two,” he said. “If you see them anywhere, give it to the cops. Otherwise, they’re holding you hostage, man.”
I promised I would, then slipped the piece of paper into my bag and thanked him.
“Doll, I care about you,” he said. “I didn’t mean to come down so hard on Farran, but that’s the reason. I care more than you know. You’re a special lady, and that’s all I’m gonna say.” He looked sincere and perhaps vulnerable.
“Same here,” I replied. “You’ve become special to me, too.” I hugged him.
Farran apologized to me on the way to the car.
“I’m sorry, too,” I told her. “I wasn’t honest about Valentin. All is not fair in love and war after all, is it? None of this is fair. I had no control over how I felt. I felt guilty, and it would have turned out to be a mess no matter what I did or didn’t do.”
She said nothing, and all was quiet as we got in the car and fastened our seatbelts. Then I questioned why she claimed to love Valentin yet wanted to stake her claim to every cute guy.
“It’s easy for you,” she said. “You show up, and you could have any one of them. I just want a chance at something! As for Valentin, yes, I do love him. I’d give up anything and anyone for him in a heartbeat. Doesn’t matter, though. I hate to say it, and I can’t believe I’m going to, but I’ve seen the connection between you and him from the start.”
I pulled out of the parking lot, shaking my head.
“Well, he’s clearly more interested in you than me—or anybody, for that matter,” she said.
“No, he isn’t,” I told her. “He needed a friend like I’ve needed a friend.”
“Well, he has friends. You both have friends. Something tells me it ain’t over—for you, anyway. I don’t think I’d ever be welcomed back at the Inn, and, even if I were, I don’t know if I could face them.”
“Let me ask you something, though. After all this, would you still want to sleep with Joey or Tommy?”
“Well, before tonight, if I had another chance, yeah,” she said.“But I’m done with all of this, Dani, and I don’t blame anyone. Joey loves you. He’s protective of you. Tommy—that boy is just on overload, and when he cares about someone and thinks someone’s trying to harm them, he comes out guns blazing. I do worry about him. I think he’s had a hard time being strong about his dad, his brother, and everything. He’s been through a lot. To be perfectly honest, I think they’re all on overload. Nico could have ripped your brother to shreds back there, though I can’t say who would have won. They all have their demons, and Valentin may be the only one winning that battle right now, but they seem like they’re at a point in their lives where they’ve just about had it, young as they are. I feel like my life’s just beginning. Yours, too. I mean, you have a bright future to look forward to, with or without V.” After a brief silence, she added, “You know, there’s this place in East Hartford we could go to.”
I knew two things in that moment: I was never going to be a patron at the Cove or the Inn again, and I wasn’t going to this place in East Hartford. It was enough drama already, enough jealousy and competition, enough fighting and craziness. Farran had it in her to be a good friend; I’d seen that. Deep down, she was a kind person who’d grown up needing to be strong and having to prove herself. We didn’t see eye to eye on everything, and maybe she’d never liked me as much as I’d liked her, but that wasn’t entirely her fault. I had yet to begin liking myself, and maybe I was on overload, too. There was an unrelenting anguish in the realization that I had lost her—if I’d ever had her at all. I wouldn’t call her anymore. I promised myself that. When she called, wanting to go somewhere, I’d make up excuses until she got tired of asking.
As for my dear Valentin, my heart ached, but there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
The long ride home seemed absurd now. We had ventured out of our way all these months, and the result was pain and humiliation. The goodbye at Farran’s house was awkward, and once alone in the dark, I was a bundle of nerves. This night seemed darker than past nights along these roads. It was clear, with a sliver of a moon. When I passed Addison Park, a place of innocent love for me, I saw merely a place where crickets chirped and strangers loitered—no longer familiar or mine. After three miles on CT-94 E, along Hebron, I passed Angie’s house, and I knew I didn’t want to wallow in this misery. The lights were still on, a warm and comforting reminder of Zuza and my uncle Dom likely dozing off watching TV. It reminded me, too; I had been the lucky one. I’d learned some lessons and was free to move on, start over, and make my dreams come true.
I turned onto the final isolated, tree-lined road, and there was the black Cutlass parked on the side of the street. I saw Sergio and Phil in the car and made the startling conclusion that my tendency to panic would be the death of me in any crisis. They are just guys, I told myself. Cowardly guys. You could even get out of the car and tell them to fuck off, and they won’t do shit. And what can they do to you if you don’t get out of the car? Nothing. You can drive to the end of the long road where your house is and make a run for the door, screaming, or stay in the car and honk the horn like a maniac. What could they do? I knew there was good reason to fear strangers in the dark, and there was a particular reason to fear these men, but my perception had become so distorted that I no longer trusted my instincts. Nor was I clear on what people might consider a normal reaction. I had this bizarre idea that they could turn out to be monsters after all—homicidal maniacs ready to kill my whole family.
Fear paralyzed me. It was enough already. Tommy was right. I needed an end to this madness.
I turned the car around and drove to the police station. They followed, passing me once, and then they switched lanes, ending up behind me again. I had a shaky grasp on the wheel. My heart pounded predictably. I couldn’t believe I had chosen this option when I was closer to home, but it felt right in that moment.
Three cops were outside the station when I pulled over. Phil had turned down another street. I got out of the car and approached the police officers, bracing myself for the typical male reaction of seeing an attractive girl. I told them about the stalking, the calls, and that I feared for my safety. They looked me up and down a number of times and asked a lot of questions, including why I was out alone at night, where I’d been, how I knew these guys, and how they’d gotten my address and phone number.
“Did they get out of the car any of the times you saw them?” one officer asked. “Did either of them roll the window down, say anything? What do you think they were planning to do?”
I had to admit they did nothing, but I believed they were waiting for an opportunity to grab me.
After giving them the license plate information, one of the cops made a crack that I’d probably just had a tiff with my boyfriend. Another told me, in a fatherly manner, to be careful and travel with at least one other girl when going out at night.
They kindly offered to follow me back to my house and said they’d look around for the car. I thought about telling them the whole story, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how crazy it all sounded. I felt crazy, like someone had been gaslighting me.
t was hard to contain my anger at times. Singing in my room was a great release. When I went shopping at the mall, I couldn’t look at all the people or deal with their energy. I felt caged and like I needed to bolt.
Robbie and I talked about it on the phone.
“Wear shades to the mall,” he said. “It helps.”
He had spent half of spring break in Orlando. Joey had gone to see him, and they were together at Disney World. Joey was staying in Orlando with plans to meet up with the Lynx gang in Daytona for Bike Week. I was picking Robbie up at Bradley Airport to bring him home for a few days. On the way, we talked about his visit with Joey. He said it was great the first couple of days, but then they started getting on each other’s nerves.
Later that day, while we were sitting on the bed in my room, I told him about the uncovered movie clip where he was seen attacking me in my playpen.
He said, “What was I, two, when that happened?”
“I know. The thing that surprised me was her saying it never happened.”
He shook his head. “So they had no clue how to prepare one kid for another kid. They leave them unsupervised, and then smack the older baby for hitting the new baby. That’s the thing that gets me—all the secrecy and the lies. Like, for them, the natural thing to do is cover things up, lock things, deny things. Why?”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” I said, “but you know what I think?”
“They don’t do that because they’re hiding dead bodies or anything like that. They are ashamed of who they are, especially her, and they’re ashamed of getting things wrong, being seen as wrong or bad.”
I brought up something I hadn’t thought about in years—my hospital stay when I was four years old. I had begun the conversation innocently, though some gut feeling may have prompted it.
“I couldn’t have been there a week, but it seemed like forever,” I recalled. “They brought me a Furga doll, Little Adrianna, and I kept her with me every minute. Even when I was sleeping, I held her.”
It all came back to me. The old hospital building with its dramatic baroque exterior looked like an entire kingdom to me, dwarfing the beautifully landscaped flowers and the trees in its midst. Through the lens of my childhood eyes, it was a symbol of power and magnificence. I had developed a love for that type of design, but an aversion to everything I’d found beyond those doors.
“We gotta leave you here,” my father had said in the gentlest of tones. “The nurses and doctors will take care of you. We’ll come back for you.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“We’re going to buy candy.” He winked.
“Why can’t I go with you?”
“You have to stay here,” my mother said. “Wait for us.”
I knew something was wrong. Her skin was pale. When I reached for her hand, it was trembling. She seemed reluctant to walk away.
My father took her arm.
“Please, Mommy, Daddy, no!” I screamed, tears clouding my vision. “Don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me!”
My mother turned, and I saw she also had tears. My father steered her onward. I cannot imagine the agony they’d endured, as they continued to disappear from my view. They turned back only one time to wave goodbye to me.
I would not go willingly with the nurses. I wanted to wait for my parents right there in that spot. They tried taking hold of my arm, but I pulled it away. I became hysterical. They could not calm or console me. They lifted me from the floor and injected me with a needle. I had little time to react to the sting of this jolting ambush. The nurse who carried it out hurled me into a bed with bars around it. She sounded mean. I continued to cry hysterically, and, within seconds, I was asleep.
I awoke to a sea of beds and lab coats as white as the walls. The uncompromising uniformity and blinding fluorescents would remain etched in my memory for a lifetime. The atmosphere was purely clinical—no color, no vibrancy, and with an abhorrent stench of metallic odors, bitter antiseptics, and foods with unpleasant aromas. It was noisy, too—loud voices, rolling carts, the clanging and clamor from the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
I remember calling out for my parents.
A nurse delivered my meal tray, lowering the guardrails. “Your Mommy and Daddy are not here,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll be visiting soon.”
If there was anything other than a cup of tea on that tray, I didn’t see it. Rage blinded me.
“It would be good for you to drink a little,” the nurse coaxed. I refused to look at her.
“I don’t like tea,” I scoffed. Why wasn’t it good for me to drink orange juice the way I normally did? In my attempt to push the tray away, I knocked over the teacup.
She scolded me while cleaning the spill.
I raised my knees and rested my chin on them, at the same time clasping them tight to my chest. I held on to my defiance a moment longer, and then rocked vigorously back and forth in an effort to drown out her voice. Whatever I dreamt about in that place, I woke screaming.
In the hospital playroom, another child’s plate of food ended up on the floor. I was responsible. They isolated and sedated me again. Later, a nurse offered to take me to the bathroom, but I refused. The bandaging over my left eye made it difficult to see, and I was afraid. I sat coloring in my chair, as best I could with one eye.
“I see we ate all our vegetables today,” a cheerful, friendly voice announced. I hadn’t heard that voice before. When I looked up, a tall black man sat on the edge of my bed. I can’t remember anything we talked about, but I dropped my guard.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Come on.” He held out his hand. “I’ll walk down there with you and wait right outside.”
I reached for his hand and held it as I stood.
With the bandaged eye, it seemed as if we were taking a long walk through a darkened passageway. Of course, the walk was not long, and we were under the glare of the brightest fluorescents. Once in the bathroom, I hurried, afraid he might disappear if I took very long. Upon opening the door, I was relieved to find he was still there. He brought me back to my room.
He might have been a nurse or a doctor; I don’t know, but he was especially kind to me throughout my stay, and he gave me hope in a traumatic time. Funny, he would never know that, and I would never know his name.
“When Mommy and Daddy visited with Grandma, they said Zuza was taking care of you and Joey,” I told Robbie now. “I wanted to know when I was going home. Mommy said you and Joey were asking her the same thing every day—especially you.”
“I prayed for you every night,” he said.
“Yeah, Mommy told me that.” I smiled.
“When they told me you were going into the hospital, they wouldn’t say why. They made it seem like a big, dark secret, and they seemed so ashamed. I was terrified you were never coming home. I thought something was seriously wrong with you, and I thought it was my fault.”
“Your fault? How could it be your fault? I had a problem with my eyes. I needed surgery.”
“You had a problem with your eyes after you fell down the stairs. I think you were unconscious. They called for help and were told not to move you. You went to another hospital first, in an ambulance.”
I had a weird flashback of blinking lights in my eyes, which could have been any number of things.
“Grandma said you had seizures.”
My eyes widened. “You were there when I fell? Where was Joey?”
“I was there. Joey was in the house, but he wasn’t at the scene.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me? Why didn’t Joey?”
“They said not to say anything, to leave it alone, since you never remembered. I didn’t know what would happen if I told you. They made it seem like it was the worst thing in the world we could do. Do you see why I hate this lying shit?”
“I have to ask them about it.”
“Don’t say I told you.”
“What am I supposed to say, then?”
“I don’t know, that you remembered.”
“Do you think one of them was responsible for making me fall and feels guilty?”
“No. I caused it. I didn’t want a baby sister. I wanted to be the baby.”
I clenched my teeth. “You were a kid, and one thing had nothing to do with the other.”
“No, I was mad at her for hitting me and being so mean to me because she was always protecting you. She would get so mad with that evil hate in her eyes. It was me, Dani. I held you over the banister, and I pushed you over it. I can still picture your face in that moment, how scared you were. I watched you fall, and I saw our mother’s eyes go dead. She blinked like she had checked out for a minute and then came back again. She started screaming.”
To an extent, I had grown accustomed to outlandish revelations and witnessing the bizarre, but I believe on some level, I already knew this.
“I thought you were dead,” he said, “that I killed you. Dad said there was a minute you weren’t breathing.”
“You were a child—a little boy in your first years of school.”
“I’m so sorry.” He hugged me.
“It was obvious you didn’t want me around,” I told him. “Even after all that, to be honest, you seemed more accepting of Tommy’s vision of me. When I met your friends, you didn’t seem too happy that they didn’t find me to be ‘retarded,’ as you once put it, or repulsive, or weird. It upset you that they thought I was cute.”
“No, I was relieved that you were normal, that you seemed normal to them.”
“You didn’t seem relieved.”
“I was. Believe me. I may have been confused, but I knew that was a good thing.”
“And Joey knew about all this?”
“Not at first. He knew you fell, but up until a year ago, he thought it was an accident. I told him the truth.”
“What’d he say?”
“Not much. He was shocked. I don’t think he knew what to do with it. He still doesn’t, and our parents will always blame me.”
“They don’t blame you, Robbie. They love you! She hid that movie, just like they hid the truth about what happened because, in her own weird way, she was protecting you. They were both protecting you. They all were, really, even Grandma, and I’m sure if Grandma knows, Dom and Zuza know. Did Angie know, too?”
“No, not Angie. Grandma blamed our mother because it was even possible for that to happen. It’s another reason why she hates her.”
“Well, it’s over! I loved you then. I love you now. I will always love you and be here for you.”
He smiled. “I love you, too, Dan, and I’ll make it up to you. I’ll always help you in any way I can.”
“Hey, you already helped me,” I said. “Thanks for the tip about the shades.” I grabbed my Ray-Bans from the dresser and put them on.
his chilly February morning, I awakened to bright sunshine and chirping birds outside my window. Except it wasn’t my window. It was Joey’s place in New Haven—his bedroom— where New York Yankees pennants, hats, and collectibles lined the four walls, and where his Nintendo hooked up to the TV, a stuffed armchair in front of it. He had a stereo with huge speakers, a dresser with no mirror, and a telephone. The bed I’d been sleeping in had warm comforters but no headboard.
It seemed, at first, I’d been dreaming.
I remembered drinking tequila at the Cove the night before—and Farran making eyes at Joey, flirting with him, and doing shots with him at the bar. They left, with Farran promising she would be right back.
My nerves had been on edge. Earlier in the day, I’d spotted the black Cutlass Supreme outside my bedroom window. Nobody was home, and I had just come home from school. Seeing Phil’s car unnerved me to the point where I considered grabbing the phone to call for help, but he peeled away and didn’t return.
In the bar now, Tommy came over to me. “Insensitive of her,” he said. “You’re hurting for your cousin.”
“So is she,” I said.
“Yeah … more like she’s itching to sow her wild oats. One day it’s him, one day it’s me, and every day she wants V.”
“Maybe you should tell her that instead of telling me,” I replied, taking a swig of my drink.
He maintained strong eye contact, exuding calm. “I wanna talk to you.”
“You look like you need a friend.”
I laughed. “Would that be you?”
“It could be me.”
He had changed somewhat since we’d first reconnected. For one thing, his hair had grown out. In the past, he never would have worn it middle-length with a carefree edge. I liked it. He also seemed more youthfully lean now rather than fit, but he looked good.
“Right now, I just want to get out of here,” I said, setting my empty glass down on the bar. “But she’s driving.”
He asked if I wanted to take a ride. He had his bike, and though it was cold for a bike ride, I agreed with a halfhearted shrug.
It was windy as we strolled through the parking lot. A February snowstorm had dropped almost a foot of snow across Connecticut’s northwest hills, but there had been only a dusting in New Haven.
I shivered beside him. “So what is all this friendship stuff? Is it to make up for all that crap you said to me when I was a kid?”
He was looking at something up ahead. “What crap?”
“What crap? Come on, you were so mean! You terrified me! When I saw you coming, I wanted to hide. You told me I was ugly, called me Four Eyes. You hated me.”
“If I did all that to you, I was an ass.”
“You did do it! You told me my family should go back to wherever the hell we came from, that we were spics and not welcome!”
“I don’t remember that, but I’m embarrassed,” he said. “I’m sorry. I was a bully back then, young and stupid. I learned all that is bunk. People are people.”
His words softened me. Besides feeling validated after many years, I became emotional.
“I’m sorry again for your loss,” he said.
“You went through a lot of loss yourself.”
“Yup. My pops got killed right on Fairfield Avenue near Pacanow Street, walking home from a bar, drunk. He knew he’d be drunk, so he didn’t take his car. He messed around with the wrong people, owed them more money than he could ever repay.”
It had occurred to me that when Tommy was a boy back in Glastonbury, he was often on a mission to locate his dad. It was common knowledge that if he didn’t find him asleep in his car, he’d head over on his bicycle to the nearest bar. Some days, Mr. Catalano would come to get Tommy or Paul and drag one or the other home by the ear.
“I’m sorry,” I told him now, “about your father, about Paul. I always meant to tell you that. I should have. Paul was so young.”
“He was manic depressive,” Tommy divulged. “No one heard the cries for help. I didn’t know. One day he lost it, went up to his room with my dad’s shotgun, put it up to his head, and pulled the trigger. For the first time, I was glad my mother had passed. She didn’t have to live through that. I was in Libya. I didn’t know how I’d go home to face that, or how I’d get through it, but I did. And you will, too.”
When we got to his motorcycle, he instructed me on what to do and what not to do on the back of his bike, but I already knew.
“I have to explain,” he said. “I never know what to expect with you girls. Shannon grabs the handlebars when she gets scared. She did it to Nico all the time and then to me. You’re all crazy.”
The funny thing about riding with Tommy was I felt safer than I had with Gianni or even my own brother. He was cautious, alert, and very much in control.
We stopped at another bar because he said he needed to talk to someone. I suspected he enjoyed the attention I got and the assumption that we were a couple. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed walking alongside him, helmet in hand, playing the biker girl. Someone had given him a joint, and I called him on it when we left.
“Guy said it’s angel dust,” he told me. “I haven’t smoked that shit in years, man.”
Up until this point, I hadn’t thought much about my past drug use. I’d gone from drinking beer and wine with Angie at age twelve to smoking pot with Mike at thirteen. I didn’t like pot but wouldn’t turn down hash, and I began popping pills—amphetamines in particular. Mike wasn’t into any of that and didn’t like that I was, but, at the time, no one could stop me. I didn’t know how to be myself and would ask Farran or Robbie how they managed to be themselves. They never understood the question. I ultimately figured out that you couldn’t be yourself until you found out who you were. It wasn’t rocket science, but it had me stumped for years.
“I tried it once,” I said, “about two years ago.”
“Really?” He looked at me. “Who got you started with that shit?”
“Robbie gave me pills and stuff, but I did the dust with Angie and Farran. We bought it from someone.”
“Figures, because I know Joey wouldn’t let you do drugs.”
“No way. Joey frisked me a couple of times like a freaking cop. When we hung out at Addison Park, I’d see him coming with his battalion of comrades, and I wanted to run. Like whenever I saw you.”
“Tsk.” His eyes were downcast. “Aw, I’m sorry, man.”
“You probably don’t remember this,” I went on, “but I didn’t want to wear my glasses because you made fun of them.”
“Well, wait, there’s a good story here.” My hand lightly grazed his shoulder. “See, according to my mom, St. Lucy was the patron saint of eyes. She explained to us that St. Lucy carried her eyes in a cup. My father was like, ‘You don’t call that a cup, Grace. They call it a chalice.’ And Robbie was horrified, wanting to know how St. Lucy’s eyes got into the cup in the first place. Supposedly, she gouged her eyes out, and, at some point, God restored her vision, and it was a miracle.”
Tommy gripped the sides of his head as if to cover his ears. “Holy shit. Who tells a kid these stories? Here’s this saint who gouged out her eyes, but she can still see you.”
“Well, you went to Catholic school,” I said, laughing at his reaction. “And, yes, so when I was in second grade, she wanted me to be St. Lucy for Halloween—eyeballs in a cup and all. She said the way St. Lucy walked with her eyes in that cup meant she was proud, not ashamed, that she stood straight and tall, like she was carrying gold, and that I should be that way, too. But all I could think of was, What if I run into Tommy Catalano?”
“Please tell me I wasn’t throwing eggs at this saint with no eyes.”
I laughed hysterically.“No, no, well you did have eggs. I was trick-or-treating with Angie, and you were walking toward us with your friends, but I kept my erect posture and dignity like my mother said. You freaked out a little about the eyes in the cup, but when your friends wanted to bomb us with eggs, you gave the wave to let us pass.”
“Mighty genteel of me.” He shook his head. “So what happened with the glasses?”
“My next eye examination, the doctor told me I had twenty-twenty vision in both eyes. Of course, my mother says that was a miracle, too. They celebrated by getting a piano and paying for my lessons.”
“You play piano?”
“I lost interest by the time I was eight, but yeah. Then no one else wanted to learn, so they gave it away. Now I wish I had it.”
“Wow, that’s cool,” he said. “I just bought a Strat. I’m learning to play. I wanted to play guitar ever since I was a kid—blues rock like Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Those are my idols.”
It occurred to me that although I’d known Tommy all of my life, I’d never really known him. He was becoming more human to me.
We were back in the Cove parking lot when he asked if I wanted to smoke that joint with him. I think it was a momentary lapse of judgment on his part and mine. I hadn’t touched any of that stuff in over a year, but I was desperate for an escape.
He lit up, took a few tokes, and then handed it to me. I did the same, but I began coughing and couldn’t stop. I had a hazy awareness of falling, and he caught me before my head hit the ground.
“Oh, shit,” I heard him say. “Hold on. I’ll get help.”
No, don’t go. Please don’t go. Don’t leave me. I was thinking that, but I couldn’t speak.
I heard another voice. “Oh, my God, Danielle. Oh, God, can you hear me? Wake up!”
A blurred figure was shaking me.
“What day is this?” I asked.
“It’s Friday night. You waited all week for this night.”
“Didn’t I help you write a term paper?”
“Yes, weeks ago.”
“I bought two boxes of chocolates in a heart for Valentine’s Day for my mom, in case I’m tempted to eat one.”
“I know you did, darlin’. I just got back. Tommy went inside to get help.”
Someone else was there now, another blurred figure that sounded like Billy. “Take my arm,” he said.
I grabbed his hand, and he lifted me.
I heard a bike pull up and wondered if it was Valentin, but it was an irate Nico castigating Tommy. “What the hell’s the matter with you? Stupid shithead, I should bash your head in. If anything happens to this little girl, you’re responsible. She’s a child, for God’s sake.” Next thing I knew, he was on one side of me, and Tommy was on the other, but I couldn’t see them. They held my arms, led me along, and stopped me from falling whenever my knees gave way. Farran walked alongside us.
“Damn, I’m an idiot. I’m so sorry, man,” Tommy was saying. “We started smoking a joint, and then she passed out.”
“A joint of what?” Nico yelled. “She’s out of it.”
“It was dust,” Tommy confessed.
“Could have been laced with something,” Billy said. I determined by his voice that he was now behind me.
Farran explained to everyone that I’d also had a few drinks at the Cove. “Could that have affected her? I mean, Tommy’s fine. Maybe stress because of Angie? Anyway, Joey’s home. We can take her there.”
We left the Cove’s bright spark for a house shrouded in darkness. I could barely see it when we arrived, although I was cognizant of its monumental size and the seemingly endless climb to its door. Fieldstone walls framed the stairway, so there was nothing to grip but Tommy and Nico.
“What the fuck happened, man?” That was Joey when he opened the door, though he was a faceless silhouette.
We passed through a massive space of old hardwood flooring that creaked. Nico and Tommy took me into the living room. Nico asked everyone to sit on the rug, and then he took off my coat, lifted me up in his arms, and carried me to the sofa, placing me on my side. When he draped a blanket over me, I wanted to hug him.
Farran asked why they couldn’t put me in Joey’s room.
“We need to keep an eye on her,” Nico replied.
The room was lamplit, with an additional light coming from the kitchen. The bodies began to take shape. It was Billy, Tommy, Farran, and Joey on the floor, along with a few other guys who shared the place with Joey. I felt like an illustrious centerpiece—Cleopatra on her regal palanquin—except nothing about my predicament was imperially impressive. It wasn’t romantic, and it sure wasn’t pretty. More pertinently, my demise was on display, as Angie’s had been. My mourners appeared to be talking among themselves as if I were dead. I was merely hogging the sofa. I could sense Tommy was beside himself and didn’t know what to do. Nico came over to check on me, looking worried. He seemed to be going in and out of the kitchen. I saw Joey walk out of there and take a seat on the rug. He seemed mad at me or embarrassed. In that moment, I felt like I would die, or I wanted to, as the realization of what had happened began to sink in. I didn’t understand how I could have let it happen after everything.
I saw Angie then. Had I fallen asleep, or was she there? Her face was such a comfort.
“I’m freaking out,” I told her.
“Nah, you’ll be all right,” she said. “I’m right here beside you.”
I don’t know how much time had elapsed before the image of her seated beside me had faded.
Nico crouched before me. “Are you okay?” His smile was gentle and sweet. “Would you like another blanket?”
I shook my head. “Am I dreaming?”
“I don’t think so,” he replied.
“I love you,” I said to him. He was just so cute, I couldn’t help myself. I meant it, too, as he had been kinder than I ever would have expected.
The revelation seemed to stun him. His eyes filled with compassion and concern. He went back to the kitchen and returned with a cup of water. “Think you can sit up and drink this?” He set the cup down and helped me up. “I’ll hold it for you.”
Tommy was apologizing again to Joey, who said, “You didn’t know that would happen, but that’s why I don’t mess with any of that shit. I’ve heard one horror story after another.”
“I need to go home,” I said, after taking sips from the cup. “I have to.”
“I’m not sure you’re all right to go home yet,” Nico said.
I felt terrible having caused all this fuss. I was ashamed. “I’m much better,” I insisted. “I swear.”
“Well, hang on.” He called Joey.
“You can stay here,” Joey said, approaching me. “I’ll call and tell them you’re here. You can sleep in my room. I’ll sleep on the couch.”
I stood in protest. My head was spinning, and I fell forward. Nico was quick to catch me, and, for a moment, just held me in his arms.
“I have whatever you need—even an extra toothbrush, unopened,” Joey went on. “And there’s a washer and dryer downstairs.”
Billy was on his way out the door, and Nico said he had to leave.
“I think you should stay,” Nico told me before he departed.
Farran left soon after that, and I could tell she wasn’t happy.
I sat on the rug with Tommy. Joey went to get extra blankets.
“I messed up,” Tommy said. “We were laughing together. Got swept up in the moment … I apologize.”
I told him it wasn’t his fault. I didn’t feel deserving of so much fuss, and my old nemesis was beating himself up on my behalf.
He let out a sigh. “I care about you, Dani. We all do. I’m supposed to be one of the guys looking out for you here, protecting you.”
His admission brought tears, and I lost it. I tried wiping each tear that fell, but they kept coming.
He said, “Talk to me, doll.”
I told him about Phil and Sergio. I somehow blurted it out, what had happened to Angie and me, as if I could no longer contain it.
He was shaking his head. “I didn’t know. Do your brothers know?”
“Robbie does, but not Joey.”
“Why not Joey?”
“I want to tell him. I will. I’m scared, I guess.”
Joey returned and, for once, looked so innocent.
Perhaps the shock had worn off, but it pained me to talk about Phil and Sergio now. I don’t remember how I said it, but I managed to tell him what I had told Tommy.
He sat on the couch, his eyes wide. I hadn’t seen him that shocked since the day Robbie overdosed. His response was, “Farran, too?”
I suppose he asked that somewhere between shock and denial, not knowing what else to say in such an uncomfortable moment.
“She wasn’t with us that day, but I told her,” I said. “She didn’t believe me.”
“How could you not believe your friends?” Tommy asked. “You’re not a liar. Man …”
Joey asked if our parents or Robbie knew, and he appeared surprised by the revelations. “And then you told Tommy.”
I interpreted that as, Why in the world would you tell Tommy? His eyes suggested the realization that I had trusted Robbie, Farran, and now Tommy before trusting him. With both of them staring at me, I was at a loss to explain. I can only surmise, in retrospect, that with Tommy, I saw the open window or, perhaps, an open heart—the invitation to divulge in a space that welcomed me. I had felt safe in the moment.
Joey’s eyes remained focused on me. “Are you okay?”
I told them both about the calls and about seeing Phil and Sergio in the car that day.
“Bastards,” Joey said. “Who are they? Do I know them?”
“Hire Gianni,” Tommy suggested. “He’s certified in Personal Protection and Intelligence. He has a concealed gun permit, and he’s licensed to carry a firearm, a concealed tactical shotgun, and a handgun in a holster. Whatever he has is registered.”
“To do what, guard me?” I knew Phil and Sergio were not going to do anything unless they could get me to take their drugs again, and that was never going to happen. “I do think these two guys are cowards. They were talking like they were mobsters or something.”
“What’d they look like?” Tommy asked. “Do you know their names? They probably didn’t use their real names.”
I provided whatever details I could, and when I mentioned their names, Tommy said he thought he knew them. “If it’s who I’m thinking, and I’m pretty sure it is, Sergio went to school with Gianni’s older cousin on his mom’s side. Has to be. He hangs out with a guy named Phil. The descriptions match.”
Joey was shaking his head as if in disbelief. “So they’re from Bridgeport?”
“I don’t know where they’re living now,” Tommy said, “but I can find out. They’re both drug-dealin’ burnouts—and poseurs; I’m sure, with the gangster talk.”
I told him I didn’t want anyone I cared about to go after them and get hurt or end up in jail.
Tommy nodded. “Promise me, if they come by again, you’ll talk to the police or Gianni.”
“If I thought I had the slightest chance of getting them put away, I would have so they couldn’t do it to someone else,” I said, “but I heard the odds are slim even with way more evidence than I have.”
“I understand what you’re sayin’,” Tommy replied. “I had a friend who went through that—someone who meant a lot to me. It sucks.” Before he left, he hugged me gently and gave me a goodnight kiss on the cheek.
So here I was now, still at Joey’s, though it seemed oddly quiet for a place shared by four guys. Grabbing a robe that hung on the door, I ventured into the living room.
“I thought I was gonna have to call an ambulance for you last night!” Joey bellowed. Of course, he was up, getting ready for work.
I shushed him. “Stop yelling.”
“It just feels like I had the most bizarre dream.”
“It was no dream.”
I winced. “Look, I used to do stupid stuff as a kid—”
“You’re still a kid.”
“Okay, but I learned my lesson. I’m sorry about last night.”
“Let’s just not do that again, and I’ll be happy.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
But the moment he stepped out of view, the wheels began turning in my head. Was I losing my mind? Considering all that had happened, it seemed possible. I’d been terrified of anything that could further along the crippling of my spirit. On the other hand, I thought the worst that could happen was something was so burdensome, that I didn’t want to live anymore. I soothed myself with the conclusion that I didn’t have to, that there was, ultimately, a way out of all of the misery.
Wanting to both pacify and punish myself had created a vicious cycle that had led me to hate myself more and respect myself less. There was a danger in shutting down the way Angie had. I certainly didn’t want to die, but I could have just as easily, and the threat still hung over me.
I wished I could be a different person—wiser and more comfortable in my own skin but always in control—carefree and uninhibited, rather than painfully aware, hyper-vigilant, and afraid. At the same time, I didn’t want to lose the part of me that cared about everything and everyone on a level that surpassed the anger in me. Above all, I wasn’t going down without a fight.
Farran came to pick me up after Joey had gone. Her stern voice was sobering as she confirmed much of what I remembered. “You told Nico Castel that you loved him. Did you know that? I was standing right there.”
I knew then that all of it was true.
She rambled on. “Do you realize you scared the crap out of me? I mean, you lecture me about getting into trouble, and then you do this. Dammit, Dani, we just lost Angie.”
The nurturer in her seemed to take over. “Are you hungry? We can stop in Dunkin’ Donuts and get some breakfast, if you want.”
“Sure,” I said.
She grinned. “So did you and Tommy fool around?”
“Of course not.”
“I wish I could say the same about Joey and me. Oh, wait, no, I don’t.” She laughed. “Man, he was wild last night. We made out in his Maserati. I didn’t exactly stop his hands from wandering.”
“I really don’t want to hear this,” I said.
She laughed again. “Why? Aw, come on. Damn, girl, I have to tell someone. I’m about to bust.”
My hand was on my forehead.
“We went to his room. We were doing pretty much the same thing, but my top was off, then he unbuttoned my pants, but I got scared. I tried to sit up, but he pushed me back down.”
A feeling of dread coursed through me. “What?”
“Well, wait, it wasn’t rape. I don’t want you to start saying it was rape or anything. He got my pants open, but I said, ‘No, Joey, don’t!’ That’s when he said, ‘I knew you were a tease.’ He got up and made me leave! Yep, he kicked me out. So I went back to the Cove and found you laid out in the parking lot.”
I was all over the place trying to juggle my emotions. “I’m relieved he didn’t force you, but I can’t believe he kicked you out of his house and made you walk back to the Cove alone and freezing in the dark.”
“It wasn’t that far, and he wasn’t physically forceful in kicking me out or anything. He tossed me my coat and my bag and told me to get out. I got dressed real fast. He walked me to the door and slammed it behind me. It was embarrassing but totally my fault. I don’t blame him.”
“I do!” I was mad. “I will never forgive him for this.”
“Think he’ll tell Valentin?”
“Why? Do you want him to?” I couldn’t believe her. I would have been devastated if someone had treated me that way. Once again, Farran and I were in two different places, because she seemed to be enjoying this dangerous game.
“I don’t know. It might convince Valentin I’m not a little girl.”
“Is that why you’re doing this?
“Nah, I have a huge crush on Joey that goes way, way back. I’m not in love with him like Valentin, but he drives me nuts, and, girl, I don’t do anything I don’t wanna do. He was mad that I came back to the house with you. He didn’t want me there.”
“You were the one who should have been upset.”
We got coffee and a couple of donuts, but I didn’t enjoy it much.
anuary of ‘88 was so freaking cold. The harsh, wintry weather was only a part of the glumness, just as the days of rain and fog merely enhanced the gloom. I almost understood Angie’s pain over losing her twin. She was my karmic soul and wound mate, and, together, we had experienced a life-altering and game-changing trauma. I prayed she had found peace, but I was content to remain tortured. I never wanted to see the roof of my home again, nor the attic, and yet I continued to see her eyes and her smile. I couldn’t bear not to. She was forever young now, and eternally innocent, like Saint Agnes—the girl I had wanted to be.
On a positive note, my dad changed our phone number—my dad who hated to change anything. I managed to convince him that some obsessed lunatic had gotten hold of our number. It was true enough.
Trips to and from the Cove triggered my anxiety, since Angie was no longer beside me for the return trip. I hated that, and I hated how different everything seemed. The additional time it took to drop Farran off had never bothered me before, but it bothered me a lot now. She got an on-campus job making calls for the college’s fundraising office, so she drove her mother’s car to the Cove Friday nights, and I drove on Saturdays, but I wanted to stay home both nights. Seeing how she was always determined to make that trip with or without me, I did accompany her most of the time, rewarding myself with tequila shots and margaritas.
I knew Valentin wouldn’t be there. Tommy showed up now and then, and, when he did, Farran either made out with him at the bar or disappeared with him for an hour or so. I spent that time chatting with Billy and the non-Lynx regulars. Nico and Joey waltzed in every so often, dressed to the nines—Nico with his Trussardi Uomo cologne and Joey with his Drakkar Noir. At times, they had women with them. Either way, they left soon after they arrived. They’d go to The Anthrax in Norwalk or The Devil’s Nest in the Bronx.
One night, Joey pulled up outside the Cove in a new black Maserati. We’d had more than half a foot of snow that day, and he called Farran over, though he had three girls in the car with him.
“What?” she yelled, climbing over the snow bank at the curb. “It’s freezing out here.”
“Come ‘ere,” he said. “Give me a kiss hello.”
I didn’t know what had gotten into him, or who he thought he was.
She approached the car, and, when she leaned in to kiss him, he closed the window in her face and laughed. Then he drove away like a maniac, with his car door swinging open. He drove two blocks before closing the door, waving the whole time. I questioned whether he might have been drunk, though I had never known him to drive drunk or recklessly.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to Farran. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“Oh, he’s just teasing,” she replied. “Acting out. We’re all grieving and in shock.”
Another night, Gianni was singing my praises in front of everyone.
I winced when he solicited Tommy’s endorsement. “Am I right?”
“She’s the bomb,” Tommy said.
Nico shook his head, fake-coughed, and laughed.
Gianni looked at him. “Hey, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
“I’m not blind,” Nico said. “But I prefer not to eat my dinner behind bars.”
Billy was there, watching football at the bar and having a beer. He weighed in, as I figured he would. “Nico has the right idea,” he said. “These two young ladies are probably still virgins.”
Farran’s face was red, and I could tell Billy was drunk. “If it’s true that you girls are virgins, I think it’s awesome,” he went on, “but, goddamn, how do you do it, man?” He laughed, and the other guys laughed with him for a change.
“It’s not easy,” I replied.
My answer seemed to surprise and delight Nico, while further embarrassing Farran.
“I mean, it’s not easy, because guys are bugging you from the time you are ten,” I explained.
Nico’s brilliant smile lingered. “Stick to your guns, doll,” he said. “You’re doing the right thing.”
When we walked away, Farran punched me in the arm. “It’s not easy? Oh, my God, I can’t believe you said that. Now they’ll feel sorry for us and more obligated not to come on to us.”
She pissed me off. “And maybe that’s good, Farran, you know? Ever think you might get in over your head? I know what that’s like.”
“What are you talking about?” She laughed. “You haven’t been in over your head. You’re such a prude. You’re afraid to do anything. Aside from Gianni, I’ve seen Nico checking you out, and if you really pushed it, you could probably get him to cave. I would let Valentin do me in a heartbeat. Damn, I’m nineteen years old! I want to experience life, not hide in the background. Then maybe we’ll be invited somewhere for a change. Trust me, that’s what these guys are used to, and it’s what they want. If you keep acting like a baby, you will always be a baby to your brother and his friends.”
She continued to flirt with guys and ask everyone about Valentin. It was depressing. Everything was depressing. Every place, every situation, had become less familiar.
I returned to work after a week’s absence, and Quinton was first to express his sympathy. We were at the elevator, and he told me to stop by his post when I could.
His office was tiny, barely able to accommodate the old desk he shared with the other guard. There were two swivel stools, and, thankfully, I stopped in at the right time—when the other guy was away. I sat in his chair.
“The desk’s a little messy,” Quinton said. “I got in a bit late this morning, and I’m catching up. I had a busy weekend, took the grandkids to the zoo.”
“Grandkids!” I gasped.
“Yeah, my daughter has a three-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl. I tell ya, it’s not easy for an old man to keep up with the wee ones. They wear me out, but I love every minute of it.”
He pressed for details about Angie’s death, and I expected the bizarre explanation to shock him, but he just said he was sorry again.
“It was all so devastating,” I told him, “and then seeing my Uncle Dom and my Aunt Zuza have to endure the loss of another child. How do you endure that even once? I can’t imagine.”
“It’s hard, I’m sure,” he said. “Look, you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but was there a precursor to all of this? I’m sure there was.”
Instead of answering the question, I told him about the dream I’d had of her. “I think she was sending me a message,” I’d decided. “Or maybe I was sending a message to myself and just assigned her the role of angelic messenger because, deep down, I know the answers.”
He didn’t come out and say I never answered his question, but I read it in his eyes.
“You wonder what you should have said or done, you know?” I let out a sigh. “Her life was so short. I just want to know she’s okay.”
“She was telling you that in the dream,” he said. “She’s okay and looking after you.”
That prompted me to tell him about his presence in the next sequence, and it seemed to amuse him. “Wonder what I was doing at about that time,” he joked.
It felt safe enough to tell him the rest—about all of the bad dreams.
“Dreams like that can happen when a person is still shell-shocked over something and reliving the trauma and fear, whatever helplessness they felt,” he said. “Hey, I’m no shrink, but I had friends who suffered from PTSD. They had dream hallucinations, something similar to what they endured on the battlefield.”
“Yeah, but this is different. My feeling about that one dream is that it’s a dark entity of some kind that’s preying on me. Hey, at this point, nothing would shock me.”
“About entities, I’ve only heard stories,” he said, “but there were a few roaming spirits at my aunt’s old house on Magnolia Street in LaFayette. I’d say, though, since your dreams are so vivid, it could very well be just a dream.”
“But I have no problem interpreting dreams,” I insisted. “The meanings have always seemed obvious. If it’s a dream, I’m missing something that’s deeper than anything I can see. Fear is a part of it, yes, even though I’m less afraid now, having shared it with you. I have to admit, too, I’m drawn to the paranormal, the unexplained. I feel like it’s my job to explore everything—to pass through every forbidden door. It’s like I have a logical mind that says things like numerology and astrology can’t be valid, but I know Scorpio eyes when I see them.”
“Scorpio eyes, huh?” He chuckled. “Well, I just have these old crab eyes then, since I’m a Cancer, but I do agree, there is so much we don’t know, and, of course, I don’t know what you’ve been through. What I do know is, darkness is something we all confront at some point in time, and it ultimately leads to the light.”
My pulse increased with intrigue. “Did I tell you that Lord Byron’s ‘Darkness’ poem is one of my favorites?” I smiled. “All so fascinating, and, hey, if darkness leads to the light, I’m all in.”
“Oh, yes, that’s an excellent piece,” he agreed, again seeming to notice how I’d deflected.
“Thanks so much, Quinton,” I said now. “I’ve really come to treasure your friendship.”
“I treasure yours as well,” he replied. “That’s why I gotta tell ya, get back to your desk. Much as I enjoy talking to you, I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
I smiled and waved goodbye.
My inbox was full of work left in my absence. As I was rummaging through the papers, Trish stopped by to offer her condolences. She asked if I was okay.
I shrugged. “Maybe I should quit this job, take Adderall, and focus on nothing but writing.”
She shook her head, smiling. “Okay, I know you’re having a tough time right now, chicky, but I’m not about to recommend getting hooked on pills.”
“Fine,” I said. “But I really would like to hide for a while.”
She smirked. “Just don’t ask me to help you get Adderall, because I can’t say no to you. You know that. And don’t leave, because I’d miss you, and you’d miss your friends here. I know you would.”
I laughed. “I’m not asking, and I’m not leaving—not yet anyway.”
Not an hour later, I bolted into the ladies’ room holding Xeroxed copies I had made for a supervisor. With a casual glance at the mirror on my right, I noted my reflection was hideous. I placed the copies on a countertop corner and moved to the center of the mirror. It confirmed what I believed I saw, an ugly girl—not merely an ugly girl, but one who had managed to convince everyone that she was beautiful. It struck me that I needed to look beautiful. It was my image now, however deceptive, and I had to cultivate this image without deviating. People expected it.
Someone came into the ladies’ room after me—one of two secretaries who sat alongside me in a small pool of desks but who worked in another department. She smiled, said hello. We had a normal exchange of lighthearted chitchat, and she went into a stall.
I touched up my makeup, but it wasn’t enough. My hair was all wrong. I brushed it this way and that, but no matter where I parted it or what I did, the face looking back at me was repulsive. I hated it. I hated her. I had no idea who she was.
My coworker came out of the stall within minutes and made more small talk while she washed her hands. She seemed less comfortable, possibly wondering why I was in no obvious hurry, and whether I was hiding or avoiding something. We exchanged pleasant goodbyes as if she was leaving my home. I was happy when she’d gone.
I couldn’t think any more about her. I couldn’t think about anything except what I was doing, though I had no idea what that was. It didn’t matter that nobody wanted to be in this place any longer than necessary—a purely functional vault of stalls, basins, and unpleasant odors—everything white or eggshell white except for the gray paper towel holder and dizzying little square tiles on the floor. I couldn’t afford to feel guilty or embarrassed.
My heart pounded, and I brushed my hair until my head hurt. Then everything blurred. I couldn’t see that horrid face anymore. I set the brush down and tried closing my eyes then opening them again. I had to turn away from the mirror and not look at it for a few minutes. It seemed to have beguiled or bewitched me. When I faced it again, my image was no longer blurred or particularly unattractive. It was okay, albeit rather plain, and I was able to fix that with a few minor adjustments.
Alas, I saw what I wanted to see—the beauty I figured they wanted. I was good enough to walk out the door, my heart still pounding.
uza invited the family and a few friends to the house for something to eat. Of course, her home—a small Colonial nestled under a hulking black willow—was as familiar to me as my own. They had their Black Hills spruce lit for Christmas, a sad and yet glorious sight amid the purple crape myrtle shrubs. The witch hazel bush on the other side had bloomed in early fall, but only a few of its bright and fragrant yellow flowers lingered on the branches. It reminded me of Angie, as I’d expected everything would, especially in a place I had held dear since childhood. The lightly wooded lot behind her home was a place where we had picked the prettiest blue forget-me-nots that bloomed in springtime.
Everyone filed in through the back now, through the garden, which in six months would be full of flowers, including a wall of apricot roses that lined the side pathway to the yard. Angie would have picked the yellow gerbera daisies from the garden, her favorite, and then arrange them in vases. They’d have calla lilies in white and gold, irises in a bluish purple with flecks of yellow gold, and shrubs of blue hydrangea. This yard had always been a peaceful place—rapture for the birds who visited the little barnwood birdhouse. We had all played here while my father sat on the gated metal bench near the back kitchen door, chatting with my Uncle Dom. Ordinarily, there was an aroma of something delicious cooking or baking when you entered the house. The kitchen was a cozy, sun-filled room with wide floor planks of tan hickory hardwood.
We gathered in the living room now, where a real pine tree heralded the occasion. It was always a real tree at Zuza’s, with a candlelit angel at the top. The angel’s shimmering dress and feathered wings managed to shine with more mesmerizing beauty than the star on top of our tree.
It was a comfortable place—everything from the upholstered floral sofa with the embroidered pillows to the padded rocker always draped with the softest fleece blanket. It was alive with plants in urns. Zuza loved red roses. I had given them to her on special occasions, and I’d watch with deep admiration as she rushed to fill a teardrop vase with water, looking happy and contented as she arranged them. My mother said plants and flowers were for dead people, and my grandmother agreed. Here, Angie had decorated the cast stone fireplace with a mound of pinecones. I knew because I had walked with her through piles of leaves to gather them.
My favorite little birds lived here, a set of song canaries that were a combination of yellow and green. There was a gray-and-white tabby, too, and, of course, the dog—Angie’s German Shepherd puppy. This place was alive with critters, while I had always wondered what it would be like to have a dog. My father would have loved it, but not my mom. I felt sad for Angie’s dog now, knowing how much he would miss her.
My fond memories of this place included Christmas mornings when Zuza made zeppole and holiday cookies. Uncle Dom had played the same Christmas songs we’d play at home, and we were all happy and excited to exchange gifts.
I could still hear my Uncle Dom asking back then, “How’s your singing? I know you love to sing.”
“She writes songs!” Angie had told him.
His smile was wide. In his eyes, I saw mirth and captivation. “No kidding!”
“She’s going to be a famous writer, singer, and actress,” Angie would say.
“Wonderful!” he’d respond.
“I hope you will remember us,” Zuza gushed. “You’ll still come visit me, I hope. I’m gonna be so proud of you always.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d felt safe here, and loved seeing myself through my godparents’ eyes—just a normal, appropriate, and acceptable child who could easily make people laugh and smile. Granted, they didn’t have the responsibility of molding me into a person who could lead a normal life and be happy, as Zuza had said, but their genuine interest in me touched my heart. I felt welcomed in their home, truly cherished, as if I was, perhaps, the most loved little girl in the world. It was unfair that they had lost their son, and now their daughter. Nothing anyone could say would help me understand or accept that.
“There’s food on the dining room table,” Uncle Dom told everyone now. “Come, eat!”
They had inserted the leaf in the long cherry wood table where there were six Queen Anne chairs. People had brought fruit, pastries, and casseroles. In addition, there were platters of cold cuts, along with potato salad, rolls, and condiments.
I went to Angie’s room for one more gaze at her cherry wood sleigh bed dressed in her favorite quilt, and I touched the things she’d loved—stuffed bears and a furry white kitty holding a big red heart that said I love you, which I had given to her on her birthday. Then I sat on her bed and I cried.
Zuza came in and sat beside me. “Do you remember when Dom Jr. died?” she asked. “You told me you were sorry I’d lost my baby.”
I nodded, the tears falling.
“He was crazy about cars,” she mused. “On the way to school, he noticed every car, what make, what model it was, and he’d stop. I’d have to say, ‘Come on, Dominic, we’re going to be late!’ And he loved Grandma. He wanted to go see her all the time. Angie loved your grandmother, too, you know, and your mother. Most of all, she loved you.” She clasped my hand in hers. “I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe we lost her.” She gave my hand a squeeze. “My little Dominic will take care of her now. And she was my little girl—my baby girl. I don’t know what it’s gonna be like without her, but we’ll face it together. Somehow we’ll manage.”
Snowflakes fell, as if from the Heavens, that day and the next. It didn’t amount to much, but Angie would have liked it.
On the morning of her funeral, we rode in limos, heading north on Sturgeon River Road and proceeding along Hebron until we turned left onto Sycamore Street, then left again onto New London Turnpike. There was something beautiful about this morbid procession, the celebration of life and death. I felt a sense of pride in being part of this entourage, but I’d have given anything to make it all go away and have Angie as she was before all the terrible things had happened.
I kept thinking about her—how easy it was to make her laugh, and then all I had to do was look at her, and she would laugh again. Her smile was sweet and shy—guileless, vulnerable, endearing. If anyone sought to hurt her in any way, I wanted to fight for her. I felt it was my duty to protect her, and I had failed. I thought now about her advice to me, about following my heart. It made me smile because I could picture her floating above in a big bubble like Glinda in The Wizard of Oz waving her glittery wand.
There was beauty in the ritual of walking forward as a family now, nestled close to one another, arm in arm, with people reaching out from the pews, the sorrow and compassion in everyone’s eyes, the smiles of recognition, and mourners sobbing or silently tearful. At some point, I heard bells ringing and then the priest’s bellowing voice. “When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’”
My eyes fell upon the casket with its spray of daisies, roses, lilies, carnations, and larkspur.
“This celebration is to welcome Angela home into the loving arms of her father,” he said.
There were faint sounds of weeping. I saw Zuza lower her head to cry and Uncle Dom’s arm slip around her. I heard agony and anguish when my grandmother cried. At one point, my father escorted her from the church, likely to console her.
An hour later, we prayed over what was to be Angie’s grave. A red-tailed hawk soared above, weeping in the form of an ear-piercing cry—a bitter lament. Crows and ravens circled overhead. Sparrows and blue jays perched in trees. There were herons from along the coast. Squirrels and pigeons loomed on rafters, in steeples and eaves, or frolicked between the graves. So much life and so much death, and, as such, we had gathered. Angie would have an oval gray, granite gravestone with an engraved cross, and she would be buried alongside Dom Jr. The funeral director handed us daisies and lilies to toss on the casket, now covered in white and gold cloth, and we said goodbye.
nly seventeen years old,” a woman behind me said. “God bless. She was a baby.”
I knelt, made the sign of the cross, and folded my hands. Angie looked tiny indeed inside the fancy box lined with satin—my precious cousin and friend. They had draped rosary beads over her lifeless hands, and her skin was ghostly white. It was hard to fathom; this was someone who had amused, delighted, and amazed me. She’d made me laugh and smile even in my sadness, and I loved making her laugh. Well, she was free of her pain now, and that was a good thing. She no longer needed protection from me or anyone else.
Zuza had to feel gutted. Who could blame her? She broke down and cried several times, but she was strong, so brave. I could tell she was fighting to accept that Angie was with God, and if there was anyone on earth who excelled at unrelenting faith and acceptance, it was Zuza. She reminisced about Angie already, as she did about Dominic Jr.
I hugged her desperately.
When she released me, I met my uncle Dom’s gaze. A grim countenance replaced his usual grin. I went to him immediately and hugged him. “She was my best friend,” I said.
He hugged tighter. “Thank you, Danielle.” When he let go, he gave my hand a squeeze.
My parents hugged Dom and Zuza. My grandmother was hollering and crying. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how paying respects to a loved one at a funeral home was a comforting thing. All these bodies occupying that small space—I felt trapped and suffocated. The lines of folding chairs looked absurd—front row seats for a show where the top-billed, center-stage entertainer slept, drained of blood and life, in a shell that was not her but a mere representation of who she’d once been. The room wasn’t large enough to contain all the sadness, and the smell nauseated me.
Joey arrived, looking visibly shaken. I watched the exchange of handshakes and hugs until it was my turn to hug him, and I did so with all my might. Amid all the chatter, he was uncharacteristically reserved, though he seemed calm. We spoke briefly before he went up to the casket.
I looked around at all the Italian relatives, the neighbors. Zuza’s nephew had come from Italy. He’d been attending a seminary in Rome for the past year. I was glad he was there, because Zuza had always said he was like a son to her. I knew she wrote to him all the time, and his presence would help her get through this.
As for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that something awful would happen at any moment, and that there was no safe place to hide from it anywhere on earth.
Robbie was heading out the door, and he yanked at my arm. “Going out for a cigarette. Want to walk?”
“Sure,” I said.
We strolled across the lawn and then along Douglas Road. It was mild for December but windy.
“How are you, Dan?” he asked.
I told him about Angie’s sleepwalking. “I didn’t know anything about it,” I said. “I didn’t know she would think to go to the attic or up to the roof, or that someone sleepwalking could climb.”
“From the way she was talking, something really bad happened to her,” he said. “I think she was raped.”
“She was, and it didn’t only happen to her. We were together. They drugged us.”
His eyes widened. “Oh, wow.” I think, for once, words didn’t come easily for him.
“I guess I was stupid to trust them. I mean, I know people have to take risks trusting others, or nobody would ever get together, but they were a lot older—too old for us.”
“So, they were the older ones who knew better,” he said bitterly, avoiding my eyes. “If anything, you probably had more trust in them because they were older, and it was easy for them to betray that. You do have some daddy issues.”
“Yeah, well, I tried to get Angie to talk about it. She kept shutting me down. I feel like there was something I should have done or could have done. I didn’t do enough. I didn’t want to push her, but maybe if I had … Who else could have helped her?”
“You can’t blame yourself. This was how she chose to deal with it, Dan.”
“That seems so harsh, though. She couldn’t handle it. I don’t think she really wanted to die. She fell …”
“It’s like when someone doesn’t mean to do damage, hitting someone. They create the circumstances for that to happen.”
“You sound angry at her.”
“I’m not angry at her,” he replied. “I’m angry that this happened to her. I’m angry that I wasn’t there to protect you both. I’m angry that protecting you guys always falls to Joey and me, since none of the adults in our lives have any clue what’s going on. You know what they say, it takes a village.”
His innate perception of people and things never ceased to amaze me. Listening to him now brought back a fond memory of how he had coached me with a bully when I was in eighth grade. The girl had wanted to fight me, and I’d never had a fight in my life. She picked the time and place, then cancelled for a dental appointment and said she’d get back to me.
“I don’t want to do this,” I’d told Robbie when I got home.
“Neither does she,” he replied. “You really believe she had a dental appointment? Walk up to her tomorrow morning and say, ‘This is your last chance. Meet me at Addison Park Saturday, 1:00 p.m. sharp.’ Ride up on your bike at exactly that time. If she’s not there, leave immediately. Then, when you see her at school Monday, go right up to her and say, loudly, ‘Where the fuck were you?’ Trust me, she’ll back down completely.”
“And what if she’s there?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Then you fight.”
“She’s not gonna be there.”
She wasn’t. She apologized profusely on Monday morning, concluding with, “Maybe we shouldn’t fight.”
I didn’t think it was possible for me to idolize my brother more than I did that day.
We returned to the morbid funeral parlor now. In the next half hour, we had visitors I never would have expected—Shannon and Billy followed by Tully and Mike. Yes, it was Mike! All at once, at my ripe old age of seventeen, I missed the good old days.
Those cornflower blue eyes entranced me once more. I noted that he was a bit taller and leaner than Billy. His blond hair had darkened to a sandy shade, as it always did in the winter months. I’d forgotten how cute he was, and about the trust he invited with his eyes and his smile.
We all hugged, and I would have imagined a hug from Mike McGrath would have been the most comforting thing at a time like this. It was, and it wasn’t. Happy as I was to see him, it seemed painfully obvious that our relationship wasn’t the same. He was different. We both were, and he was not my boyfriend. He was someone’s husband—some woman I had never met—and he was some little boy’s father.
“How are you doing?” he asked. “I sent a mass card. We all did.”
“Yeah, he was here for the holidays,” Shannon said, her hand on Mike’s shoulder. “They’re staying until New Year’s, so he wanted to come.”
“He brought the whole clan,” Billy added. “They’re back at the house—my mom’s.”
“How are they?” I looked at Mike and then the others. “How are your parents?”
“Everyone’s good,” Tully answered for him. “I am so terribly sorry for your loss.”
Shannon, Billy, and Mike echoed his sentiments.
While they mingled with my family, it seemed inevitable that I would remember things about Mike that I had forgotten—how sociable he was, how he loved people. I could see he was as curious and concerned about others as his sister was.
While Farran was busy chatting with Billy, Shannon took me aside and sat with me on a set of cushioned chairs in the vestibule, where an electric fireplace beckoned and a pretty wreath hovered above it as if to bring cheer. She asked how I was holding up, and she held my hand as I tried to explain what I couldn’t—that the events of the past several months had simply broken me. I tried to determine at what point it had all gone wrong and realized I had never gotten it right to begin with. I decided to ask how she was doing instead, and how things were going with her and Nico. She became teary-eyed at once.
“We broke up,” she said. “Long story, but he won’t take my calls. I’ve gone to his house. He won’t see me, wants nothing to do with me.” She patted my leg. “I’m so sorry. You’re in mourning, and I’m troubling you.”
“You’re not,” I assured her.
She held my hand. “I’m sorry again for your loss. If you need anything, I’m here.”
I hugged her, and, when she let go, Mike was standing there.
Shannon stood. “Let me go see how Joey is doing. I’m sure he’s devastated.” She walked away, and Mike sat down in her place.
“I missed you,” he said.
“I missed you, too,” I returned.
“Spent a few days at Bill’s house when I first came up. Nice place! Makes me proud he’s doing well. I’m a little worried about my sister, though. She got her heart broken. Feel bad for you, too, and your family, having to go through this.”
“I’ll be okay.” I forced a smile.
“Yeah, well, a little spark’s gone out of your pretty eyes.” He sat quietly a moment before speaking again. “What have you been up to the past couple of years?”
“Busy with work, school. I’m still writing. So much has happened, I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“Tell me, babe, I’m here for you—always was, always will be.”
“No, you’re not. You can’t be, but that’s okay.”
He leaned back and looked down at his shoes. “I guess that’s true in a way. She didn’t want me to come. She’s jealous of you.”
That prompted an eye roll. Being single had to be better than being on either end of that, I supposed. Insecure as I was, I couldn’t relate to these people with their jealousy and competitiveness. Life was hard enough. I was beginning to feel I couldn’t relate to people, period.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “Thank you for coming.”
“I wanted to.”
“Your wife and child are your priority these days. I understand that.”
“It’s a rocky road, babe.”
“Yeah, one of the many reasons I never want to get married.”
“Really?” His eyes widened as he focused again upon me. “They say it’s every little girl’s dream.”
“It was never mine. In fact, I remember worrying about it and telling my mother I didn’t want to ever. She kept saying it was because I was still a little girl, and that when I grew up, I’d feel differently. I remember thinking, no, I won’t. Marriage would just complicate everything. I told her it would ruin all the plans I made for my future, and, besides that, I’d be too busy.” I laughed at the memory now.
He laughed with me. “I hear ya, but I’m trying to make it work out for my son. Don’t get me wrong. She’s a good woman—a very good woman. I should be happy.”
“But you’re not.” I shook my head. “See, that’s another thing. Is anyone ever happy in marriage—or together? It doesn’t seem like it.”
“I miss the simple times,” he admitted.“Me working on a farm in Glast, loading and unloading the trucks. I thought I had so much responsibility then, which is funny when you think about it. Everything was so uncomplicated.”
“The old days were not exactly uncomplicated for me.”
“Oh, yeah, your pops—and you guys having to eat a three-course dinner before coming to the beach on Sunday.”
“Ha! We weren’t allowed to leave before that traditional Sunday meal.”
“And then you’d come to the beach wearing long pants in ninety-degree weather. You’d never wear shorts. I didn’t know what you were hidin’.”
“I was shy.”
“Shy! You said that about singing, too, but you have a hell of a voice. Remember that time you and Angie got sloshed, and you were walking all through the neighborhood, singing and staggering? I said, man, she’s good.”
I laughed. “That was the time Robbie dragged me home by my ear.” I reflected a bit. “I do miss those days. Remember when we used to go horseback riding? And when you took me to all your hangouts in Hartford? Everybody knew you. I was so impressed.”
“You were impressed? Whenever I got back from seeing you, my dad would go, ‘Are you back from Buckingham Palace? Did you see the princess?’ He called you the Glastonbury Princess. You were like my uptown girl. Ha! Remember that fight you got into on your fourteenth birthday? You came to me all crying and shit, saying it was the first fight you ever had in your life, and she was hitting you over the head with an umbrella.” He laughed.
“Oh, God! Yeah, that was my first and last actual fight. She was trying to pick a fight with me for weeks. I had no idea why. Someone said she was jealous of me. How stupid is that?”
“Yeah, well, people are stupid, but you are very beautiful.”
“I’m not beautiful.” I meant that. “How can I be beautiful?”
“What do you mean, how can you be? You are. You look incredible. Why be so down on yourself? Back then, you were hidin’, and you’re still hidin’. You got it—show it.”
Of course, we didn’t talk about our break-up, though it did cross my mind how relieved I’d been at the time to be free. By the time the summer had come around, however, I was having second thoughts. Mike looked better than ever then, driving around in his blue Chevy Sprint with his sleeveless shirts and hair grown out to mid-length. He seemed to have plenty of female admirers. Gone were the days of him having eyes only for me. He had moved on, and I’d missed him terribly.
“You had big dreams,” I said now. “You wanted to be an actor.”
His wistful smile spoke volumes. “I wanted a lot of things, babe. I wanted you, too. And the wonderful thing about life is—you can want all you want. You just can’t have it.” He laughed heartily at that.
“You’re quite the philosopher,” I said, laughing with him.
“I know, right? That’s like one of those things you say after you smoke a few J’s, and you think it’s brilliant.” He flashed the ear-to-ear grin that had charmed me so often in the past, and it was easy to love him, to want him, but it was easy, too, to resist. I supposed then that I had also moved on.
“Well, just so you know, I haven’t given up the acting dream,” he said. “I hope to move back when I can afford it and give it a shot. I’ll probably move to New York. But I’m not gonna lie, babe. I have regrets. I still think about you—what might have been. Hell, what’s done is done. This marriage may work out, or it may not, but I have to try.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I’d still like to be able to just sit and talk with you somewhere, nothing more. We can meet up—grab a bite. Whatever you need, man.”
My eyes clouded with tears. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Probably not,” he admitted. “You’re right, and I respect that.”
The other McGraths gathered around, and we stood.
Tully slipped an arm around Mike. “You can help us at the pub tonight,” he said with a wink. “Billy’ll give ya a crash course.”
“Definitely,” Mike replied.
“Thanks, man.” Billy responded with a fist bump for Mike. “Can’t let that charm go to waste.”
Gianni, Tommy, and Liz arrived as the McGraths were leaving, creating an awkward moment. Tully and Billy gave polite nods. Shannon extended a greeting, and Mike went a step further, shaking hands, and asking how they all were. The McGraths said goodbye, and, just like that, my reunion with Mike was over. I went inside with the Lynx gang.
Robbie and Tommy talked. My mother gave Tommy a side hug and said he was a nice boy and nice-looking.
I could have sworn he blushed. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “Your daughter is a good girl.”
He and Gianni had both impressed her with the ma’am bit, I could tell.
Gianni said if there was anything I needed, anything he could do, I shouldn’t hesitate to ask. Liz was nodding behind him. They all had a moment before the casket and then remained with Joey. Farran was in that circle.
I found myself sitting alone in one of the side chairs as I tried to process my memories of Angie.
I saw us as children—skating, horseback riding, riding bicycles, playing video games, making scrapbooks, watching movies. I could hear the rhymes we’d chant on the sunny days we had played jump rope. She’d wanted everything my brothers and I had had, whether it was the King Kong Colorforms Playset or the Atari 2600. I had always wanted a sister, never realizing that I’d had one, if only for a while.
The previous year, Zuza had taken us to Radio City Music Hall in New York to see Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Angie and I bought a bag of chocolate at a candy store in Manhattan, and we’d eaten so much chocolate I was sure I had gained five pounds. Angie was happy. We’d laughed a lot. I would remember it always as a day that I had all I needed—a Dickens tale, chocolate, New York City, my aunt Zuza, and my dear, sweet Angie.
I was tempted to tell people who she had been—that she had tried to do everything right by society’s standards, including going to church and hanging on to her virginity. She’d never had a boyfriend! It was her dream to fall in love one day, have a big family, a nice house, and plenty of rescued pets. None of that would ever happen for her.
Surprisingly, my reflection on our friendship made me feel selfish. I realized I hadn’t thought much about Angie’s longings for Nico or anyone else. I hadn’t encouraged her much or thought much about how inferior she had seemed to feel. Cute as she was, she seemed invisible at times, between my physical presence and Farran’s strong personality. It occurred to me that few people had gotten to know Angie, and even I hadn’t known her like I’d thought I had. It had never sunk in—the isolation she must have felt as an only sibling when she had once been a twin, or that she’d never had much to say. It was all terribly sad.
Engrossed in these thoughts, I didn’t notice my father until he sat beside me. He grazed my arm lightly. “Everything okay?” The earnest look on his face was endearing.
We talked. He answered some questions I’d had about my grandfather. I’m not sure why I brought him up. Perhaps it was because he was also dead. I learned he had been a clockmaker at one time. He’d worked in a shop, making and fixing clocks. After that, he worked in a train yard. That was all before he began working on the docks in Red Hook. He’d lived in Astoria—in New York—before buying the house in Glastonbury.
“What was he like?” I asked.
“Quiet-like,” my father said. “He liked to read the paper. Sometimes he’d put his two cents in while we were talking because he got mad or he was being a wise guy. He fought with my mother. He yelled if the kids made a lot of noise. I remember he didn’t look you in the eye.”
I asked how he’d died, and my Uncle Dom, who had joined us, said it was from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage and cirrhosis of the liver.
“We used to have a cat who acted very strange after he passed away,” my father told me. “They say the animals sense spirits. Who knows?”
Another unexpected visit put an end to our chat, and this one made my heart skip a beat. It was Valentin, with Nico at his side. His presence heartened me more than it should have, I suppose, and brought a comfort I could not have explained. When he expressed his sympathy, I thanked him and asked how he was. I told him I’d been worried.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m sorry I caused you and others to worry.”
I reveled in his hug, and even Nico’s. Both Castel brothers adhered to proper etiquette and good manners.
My mother smiled at Valentin and gave his arm a squeeze. “Such a handsome guy,” she affirmed, “and very nice.”
I didn’t get to talk to him much. He was chatting with everyone, and Farran was in his face half the time. She told him that Tully barring him from the Cove was a shame, but he said he didn’t blame Tully, and that if he’d been in Tully’s place, he would have done the same thing.
At one point, he took me aside. “How are you doing?” he asked.
I shrugged, fighting back tears.
“I can’t imagine,” he said. “Listen, if you need an ear, a shoulder, I’m here.”
I thanked him.
The Lynx gang didn’t stay long, and when they left, I lingered at the registry where they had all signed their names. It seemed to provide further evidence that this was a done deal. Angie was gone.
I went up to the front and sat with my godparents, often crying. Robbie sat beside me. He hugged me a couple of times and cried with me.
side from the usual predatory demon, I had other chilling dreams that night.
In the first, a barely audible voice in my head kept telling me I needed to wake up. In my hazy vision, I could see I was in my room, and yet I was desperate to get out of it and find the others. An omnipotent force pulled my body quickly through the air. I couldn’t control it.
“Mom?” I called.
There was no response.
I followed the sound of a radio playing. It led me to a closed door, but when I gave it a push, there was no one inside.
“Mom? My head hurts,” I said.
Now I was merely a ghost of a child, and what lay beyond the door was off-limits to me. I felt ready to faint or fade into oblivion. The silence and emptiness of the large house seemed to pose a threat. Was I dead? The thought pained me. I floated toward a banister in the corridor and gazed down the stairway, then gripped my aching head. It seemed like if someone didn’t reach out to me, I was sure to fall and keep falling.
In the next dream, I was in some desert with golden brown sand dunes but no rocks, no boulders, and no sign of life until a horned lark flew by. Seagulls followed it, landing to scavenge in the sand. The squawking of the gulls turned to harsh wails of distress. I thought they were dying, and the moment I noticed that, they lay dead in the sand, every one of them. I could see their bones. Then the lark took an unexpected dive, continuing to descend until all I could see were its black wings in the sand. Now the person on the beach was not me. It was my mother. I could see her eyes, and they looked normal, as if she didn’t notice the lark, the dead seagulls, or the bones left in their wake. Finally, I was myself again, looking up as dark clouds hovered, worrying that it would be dark soon.
It appeared someone had left me in this place tangled up in barbed wire. The sand was gone, and darkness surrounded me as I fell into an abyss, no longer tangled in the wire. It was hard to tell if someone had thrown me there, or if I had escaped, but when I looked up, there was an opening above all the blackness where I could see swirling clouds that were black, grey and gold covering a grey sky with just a hint of the sun’s light. Angie was there! She seemed calm now, in a white gown, a crown of flowers in her hair—yellow gerbera daisies, white jasmine, and black calla lilies; I was sure of it, though she was far away. Beyond her was the backdrop of a wintry scene with snow-covered trees and a glowing lamppost, just like a Christmas card I’d once seen—one she would have loved.
She tossed something down to me. As it got close, I couldn’t move, couldn’t grasp it, and I was in tears. It was nothing more than a blank piece of paper, but a sense of relief came when I realized it didn’t matter if I caught the page; I saw it.
“It’s okay, Dani,” she said, her voice distant. “I told you. It will be okay.”
After that, it was night, and I was with Quinton under the moon and stars, sitting on what seemed to be a high concrete wall in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind it was Quinton, though I didn’t picture him. We talked. God knows about what, but we were aware that I was also asleep in my bed. It felt like an out-of-body experience.
The feeling of Angie’s presence lessened but never faded that night. Even after Quinton and the wall, I felt she was still there as I slept, watching over me like the angel she was.
When I woke, I had to process every detail. What I derived from the dreams was that fear had me trapped with many obstacles to overcome, and I was punishing myself, avoiding reality, allowing people and things to keep me down. Part of me continued to lament my loss of innocence, my fall from grace, and I was stuck in the past, afraid to move forward. I was angry, grieving, drowning in guilt, and seething over betrayals, lost, desperate, and confused. At the same time, I was healing and becoming cleansed, seeing a light in the distance and fighting to break through to the other side of this misery and helplessness. There was a protective hand of love reaching out to me, urging me on, and I knew inner peace was attainable if I could manage to grasp it.
he had said she would sleep in Joey’s room but must have changed her mind. She was beside me now, asleep, with an arm around my waist. For a while, it was peaceful. Then she began twisting, turning, mumbling. I couldn’t understand what she was saying.
“Angie …” I whispered to her.
She stopped moving and fell silent. Seconds later, she sprang up and gasped. I switched the lamp on and saw her hand over her heart, her eyes wide with fear, and beads of sweat trickling down her forehead.
“Angie, what’s wrong?” I asked.
She didn’t answer or look in my direction. Then she went back to sleep.
I was half-asleep myself, drained by all the emotions of the day, so I, too, went back to sleep, leaving the lamp on. I felt her moving again—releasing the arm she had once more wrapped around me. I heard the bedsprings as she rose. Licorice meowed from his spot at the corner of the bed. I sat up.
She walked at a frenetic pace around the room—almost in circles, as if the room was on fire and she wanted to get out but didn’t know how. In her pure white nightgown, she had an ethereal aura about her. The gown was ankle-length, with long sleeves, and revealed little more than her tiny bare feet. She looked like a Victorian doll or, more aptly, a centuries-old ghost. I considered whether all of it was a dream, as I was not fully awake.
“Angie!” I called to her.
She didn’t turn or acknowledge me.
I threw the covers off and approached her, grazing her shoulder. When she turned to me, her vacant stare—so disengaged and expressionless—chilled me to the bone.
“Angie, wake up!” I pleaded, gently shaking her shoulders.
She became enraged. I could see the fury in her eyes. She was far from the sweet, fragile Angie I knew, and she pushed me away with such violent force that it flung me hard against my bookcase, causing one of the hardcover books to fall on my head. I caught a glimpse of her bolting from the room before everything went dark, and I could feel my body sinking. You have to get up, I kept telling myself. You have to find her. But my head hurt. My back hurt. And I was out.
It would have been the typical nightmare for me—except it wasn’t a dream.
I couldn’t have been on the floor more than five minutes before I frantically awakened everyone. Bruised and in some pain, I threw a coat on over my pajamas and slipped on a pair of boots. The day was dawning, but it was still mostly dark, and there was no trace of Angie. My mother and grandmother huddled in the doorway, looking anxious and afraid, as my father, Robbie, and I headed for the driveway.
An impulsive glance at the sky halted me in my tracks, or perhaps I sensed it. The omnipotent gold of the sun was rising against a backdrop an artist might have painted—ominous charcoal gray, flames of orange, nuances of blue, and an invigorating, most passionate, purple. In that exquisite hour, when hope reigned with the promise of a new day, I saw her— as if a divine force had illuminated her. She was on the roof in that virginal white gown, her dark hair blowing behind her like a child lost. My heart pounded. I made a dash for the stairs with Robbie close behind.
We raced up three flights to the gloomy old attic door with its dark, rustic stain and antique handle. It was slightly ajar, and I could feel the draft now. The first streak of sunlight in that murky chamber came from the small window and the open roof hatch. We hurried along the creaking floors, beneath the angled ceiling, through the room dusty with cobwebs. A scissor stairway led to the horizontally placed roof hatch.
Angie was at the edge when we got there. Her back was turned, but she heard us and turned. I thought it was possible she could hear the beating of my heart that was thumping so violently.
Robbie looked panicked. “Should I grab her?”
I pulled his arm. “Don’t scare her.”
“What’s going on with her?”
“I don’t know if she’s awake.”
I held my hand out to her.
I saw the vacant stare turn to confusion. “Dani?” She blinked.
“Come inside, Angie,” I coaxed gently. “It’s cold out here.” I took a step forward. “Just walk toward me.”
“I remember sitting in the attic, crying,” she said. “Then I saw the stairs.”
“It’s okay,” Robbie told her. “You’ll be fine.”
My parents and grandmother were there now. I moved closer to Angie.
She began to cry. “I tried to hang on. I tried hard. My parents deserve that. They lost Dom. They can’t lose me, and my dog needs me. My parents do criticize me a lot, you know, and they may talk too much sometimes, but they love me. I know they do. They’ve been great parents to me, and you’ve been a great cousin and friend.”
“It’s not over,” Robbie said.
“I thought about talking to my mom about what happened,” she went on, “but I couldn’t. They deserve better than that, than me. You’re stronger than I ever could be, Dani. You always were. You can do this. I can’t. I don’t know how.”
“No one’s better than you,” I told her, “and I’ll help you to be strong. I’ll show you.”
I went to grab her, and, at the same time, Robbie moved in closer. I saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes, and then I saw fear. She shook her head then turned suddenly and quickly, backing up. I don’t know if she lost her balance or intentionally let go, but she fell.
I let out a blood-curdling scream.
She landed on the right side of the lawn, a couple of feet from the front of our house. Robbie went to call an ambulance, and I rushed downstairs to her side. I pressed my head to her chest. She was still breathing, and her heart seemed to be beating as fast as my own.
“Can you hear me, Angie?” It was my voice posing the question, but I barely recognized it.
My mother placed her fingers upon Angie’s wrist. “It’s weak,” she said, “but she should be okay. The grass is soft.” Yet she looked so deeply saddened and wiped away a tear, saying, “This will break Zuza’s heart.”
I lost it when Dom and Zuza arrived. The pain I imagined they felt only heightened my own.
“Wake up, my little girl,” Zuza cooed, kneeling over her daughter. “Mommy’s here.” She caressed Angie’s face and kissed her head.
My heart bled.
My father tried to explain it to a baffled Uncle Dom, apologizing for not having locked the attic door.
“That has nothing to do with anything,” my godfather told him. He cursed in Italian.
“Pray,” Zuza told him. “Pray for your daughter.”
Emergency responders and neighbors came from every direction. As paramedics examined and assessed her, I gathered what information I could. They said she had landed headfirst, with progressive contact to the spine. They opened an airway to assist her breathing, which they documented as rapid and shallow. They noted dilated pupils, an irregular heart rate. They said she was in shock. I watched them look at the cuts and scrapes on her legs. They provided her with oxygen, immobilized her spine, and elevated her legs. At some point, they recorded a decrease in blood pressure. Then she went into cardiac arrest, and they could not revive her. She died at the scene.
Amid the hysteria, I felt dizzy, nauseated, and disoriented. I would have fainted if my father hadn’t caught me. Paramedics offered to treat me for shock, and I refused at first, not wanting to leave Angie. When I acceded, they had me lie down on my grandmother’s bed. They removed my coat and boots. I kept asking for Angie. They were kind and tried to soothe me, saying things like, “Sorry about your friend,” and “You’re going to be okay.” They took my vitals, covered me with a blanket, and monitored me.
In the whirlwind of the next day, Zuza passed along what the doctors had reported about Angie’s condition—prolonged shock, fractured ribs, dislocated shoulder, her spine fractured in two places. Her head had snapped back. She had a concussion and the wind knocked out of her.
At breakfast, my grandmother said, more than once, that the angels had come for Angie, and that she was home with her brother and grandfather. “God—he wants another angel in heaven,” she reasoned with a shrug.
My father’s eyes widened in horror. “So he throws a girl off a roof?”
My mother tried to shush him.
He didn’t let it go. “You want to talk about God? Okay, my sister has the biggest heart of anyone I know. She is always praying and going to church, and he robbed her of two kids.”
“Nobody knows what God’s reason is,” my mother said. “Maybe he has a good reason that we don’t understand.”
“A good reason for a little boy to die like that, so young, so innocent, and to suffer so much? A good reason for a young girl, seventeen years old, to be killed falling off my roof? For my sister to go through all that hell?” His voice was shaking. “They brainwash you to think that! Ah, what’s the use?” He cried then. It wasn’t for long, and we all reached out to comfort him. He rebuffed us.
I wasn’t sure when he had lost his faith in God, but I was convinced it had happened way before this. I remember in grade school, telling him what the priest had said during Mass.
“He’s full of shit!” he bellowed, waving his hand in disgust. “They’re all full of shit.”
My mother would clench her teeth and admonish him. “Stop,” she’d say. “It’s not for you to question. That’s the wine talking, and whatever you say, the kids will repeat.”
My grandmother went to church every Sunday and hounded him to go. He wouldn’t, so she went with Zuza.
“Angie and Dom Jr. are with God,” I said to him now. “He’s taking good care of them.”
“I hope so,” my father replied. “I really hope so.”
About an hour after that, I went to see Farran, half expecting her not to believe the sequence of events. I could easily convince myself that it had never happened, if not for the pain in my tailbone and back.
Sitting beside her on her bed, I blamed myself. “I shouldn’t have awakened her,” I said. I made ridiculous assertions: I should have barricaded the door before confronting her. I should have grabbed her sooner.
“How could you know what to do?” Farran asked repeatedly. She assured me she would have done the same thing.
We cried together.
“She wanted the memory of what happened to stay buried,” I said.
“But deep down, she knew,” Farran replied. “She couldn’t remember it if it didn’t happen. If we’d known she was hell bent on self-destruction, we could have done something, but she didn’t want us to know. God bless and love her.”
“The doctor mentioned her cutting.”
Farran grabbed a couple of tissues from a box on her dresser. She handed one to me and used the other. “Did your aunt and uncle ever suspect?”
“No idea. I had her purse, you know. I had to go through it. She carried a razor blade.”
“Jesus …you think you know someone,” she said. “I wish I had paid more attention.”
he phone calls had begun again. I’d answer, and there’d be silence on the other end. Sometimes, I heard breathing or noise in the background, and, within minutes, there was a dial tone. I realized it could be anyone, but I suspected Phil or Sergio. It frightened me when I was alone.
Another problem had developed—Angie was cutting.
We had gone up to my room to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. She tried on a shawl scarf Farran had given her, catching the material on her silver studded wristband.
“What’s that on your arm?” Farran had asked as she carefully disjoined the material from the bracelet. She had grazed Angie’s forearm with her hand. “Your cat was never that feisty.”
Angie told us her dad liked to get him riled up.
During dinner, Zuza chided Angie for eating so little. It was our traditional meal of seven fishes. My mother had prepared most of it, along with spaghetti in marinara sauce. Everyone praised the meal, especially Farran and her mother, who had joined us.
Farran’s watchful eyes seemed focused on Uncle Dom when he interacted gently and affectionately with Licorice. “Is she calmer than your cat?” Farran asked.
“Nah, they’re both calm, very nice,” he replied.
It occurred to me, as I suspected it did Farran, that Uncle Dom had the gentlest nature.
There was another conversation about Angie never being in a hurry, as if she had all day. “Over an hour in the bathroom,” Zuza divulged. “Then she’s taking out the garbage from the bathroom because she complains it’s too full, that I don’t empty it enough. That’s not true. And I tell her take the other garbage, too, and she says she can’t because she’s late.”
Farran grabbed hold of Angie and me outside of the kitchen after dinner and asked if we could go outside. She said she needed a cigarette. We grabbed our jackets, headed out the door, and gathered in the lot.
Farran got right to the point. “Angie, I know what you’ve been doing.”
Angie’s eyes filled with innocence and surprise. “What am I doing?”
“What? No …”
I had no idea what they were talking about, since cutting hadn’t been a widespread concern at the time.
“A friend at school did it, a very troubled girl,” Farran explained. “She’d make cuts on her arms and legs. It’s an endorphin rush, and they get addicted real quick.”
Angie shook her head.
“Those were not scratches from your cat,” Farran said, “and I’m betting there’s more. It’s what you’ve been doing in the bathroom at home.”
I hadn’t seen Angie in short sleeves since summer, which was normal, but I realized she’d been keeping her sweater on in school, where we wore half-sleeve blouses.
“Is it true?” I asked.
“It’s not,” she replied, averting her eyes.
Farran grabbed her coat sleeve. “Let’s see your arms.”
Angie pulled away. “It’s so cold. I’m not taking my coat off!”
“Tell the truth, or I swear I’ll take it off you,” Farran said.
Angie looked guilty and then ashamed. “Okay, look, I swore it would be one time, but it was very soothing, and I did it again. It’s not a big deal. It’s not dangerous. I’m not gonna accidentally slit my wrist or something.”
“How long have you been doing it?” I asked.
“A couple of months,” she replied.“About ten times.”
Despite being the one to uncover it all, Farran looked shocked by the admission. “Damn, this is breaking my heart,” she said. “What would make you do this? Is it Nico? I know you’ve been upset about Nico.”
“You can talk to us about anything that’s bothering you,” I told Angie, “and I mean anything. You know we love you, and we’d do anything to help you.”
She teared up. “I love you guys, too.”
I hugged her as tight as I could.
“You need to promise you’re not gonna do this again,” Farran said, hugging her next. “I’ll kick your ass. I’m serious. I don’t want to lose either one of you.”
Angie promised, and I had renewed hope that she would soon be ready to face what had happened. Until then, I didn’t want to tell either of them about the phone calls.
On Christmas morning, I labored to get in as much writing as I could before Robbie’s arrival. The ideas kept coming—at work, in bed, and in the shower. Still, when I heard his voice from the top of our two-story foyer, I couldn’t get down there fast enough. We hugged with exuberance. He looked healthy, and he had grown his first thin mustache.
We ate dinner at two—lasagna and then coffee and pastries. It was just the immediate family. Robbie shared news that he’d begun working nights as a desk clerk at an inn near the campus. He planned to work summers as a camp counselor. He also said he had met a nice girl. After dessert, my mother brought out the board games. Joey encouraged my father to play and got a dismissive wave in response.
“He won’t because I always beat him,” my mother said. “He doesn’t like to lose. The minute he starts losing, he knocks the whole board over, then he says it was an accident.”
My father shook his head. “She’s making up stories. I grew up listening to all my mother’s stories, and now she makes up stories, too.”
Robbie’s eyes widened. “What kind of stories did Grandma tell you?”
We already knew my grandfather had abandoned his wife and kids when he left Italy for America. He was gone six years before they joined him in the States. My father revealed that, at the time, Grandma was always crying, and she was deathly afraid of witches and vampires.
It sounded absurd to me, but my grandmother was there, nodding her head.
I had to ask. “You believe in witches and vampires?”
“Not me,” my father said.
It saddened me to think that while my father had suffered the pain of his father’s abandonment, the one person there to comfort him had probably frightened him instead. I felt for my grandmother, too.
Joey asked about our grandfather’s alleged ghost.
“I never saw or heard anything,” my father replied.
Grandma was nodding again.
Robbie said, “I heard a door slam once in the basement when nobody was near any doors.”
My mother shook her head. “That’s not true. How would you know there was nobody near any of the doors on three floors when you can only be in one place at a time?”
So, this was impossible, but a man disappearing after a lightning strike was somehow probable? It boggled the mind.
I realized that she, too, had raised her children while being terribly afraid, maybe not of witches and vampires, but of other things. Thunderstorms seemed to rattle her far more than they did the average person. When we were kids, she would keep us all together in the dining room until the storm passed.
We played a round of Parcheesi now, which she won, but if we had played Trivial Pursuit, we’d have left her in the dust.
Joey, Robbie, and I went to the Cove after that. Joey had taken his bike, and Robbie came with me. We joked that it was a “foggy” Christmas.
I asked Robbie if he thought my father knew about the psychic my mother had consulted or about the witchcraft.
“No,” he replied. “The psychic specifically told her not to tell him or you.”
“Hmmm, maybe because I have all those books, including the one on witchcraft, and she knows I’ll know what she’s doing,” I said.
“I don’t know. I haven’t read that book cover to cover, just skimmed through. It’s a bunch of different spells.”
We picked up Angie and then Farran.
Tully was on duty. Gianni stopped in briefly with Liz, barely acknowledging us. I couldn’t help feeling slighted, though I had wanted it this way.
Farran talked about the fight between Billy and Valentin. “Dani was absolutely terrified,” she told my brothers. There was that word again—three generations of terrified. “Poor thing, she looked so upset.”
Robbie said, “I think when you grow up in a house where there’s a constant threat of violence, you either get used to it or constantly fear it.”
This declaration surprised me, and I could tell it seemed odd to Angie as well. When I thought of a violent home, I pictured tortured, abused children cowering in the corner while their father beat their mother, but he was right. Even if incidents of physical abuse in our home seemed isolated, and there was evident remorse, violence was violence.
Farran responded with, “I’m really glad Billy didn’t press charges.” She looked at Joey. “I heard Valentin disappeared, though. The latest rumor is he’s in Florida.”
“Oh, no, he’s back,” Joey divulged. “He’s barred from the Cove.”
Farran’s eyes widened. Her lips parted slightly, and there was that questioning gaze. “Have you been in touch with him? Is he okay?”
“I’ve been in touch with him,” Joey replied. “He’s fine.” He got up from our table and went to the bar. Robbie soon joined him.
“You know, as far as all this fighting and brawling goes, it doesn’t matter if it’s common or expected,” I said to Farran. “I don’t have to be okay with it. And, to be honest, I’m not sure why we were ever comfortable coming to this place.”
“I knew you weren’t,” Angie replied. “I think you wanted to be comfortable, and you tried to be, but I can always tell when you’re uncomfortable.”
Farran said, “Maybe the times you had enough drinks, you were. Anyway, how much you wanna bet Joey will meet up somewhere with Gianni and the others? Why aren’t we invited anywhere? I feel like total shit.”
Angie sighed. “They think we’re too young.”
Farran got teary-eyed. “I’m not, and I’m tired of being left behind in life.”
“I understand,” Angie said. “I feel that way about my brother dying, like he left me here, and I lost a part of me. I know it was long ago, and Dom and I were little, but we were like one. I miss him every day.”
An old, familiar feeling resurfaced—that of being a misfit who could never seem to figure out where she belonged. From the time I could walk, I merely followed my brothers. It seemed, too, that in the months after Phil and Sergio, I had become little more than a spectator in life’s drama. I had yearnings that hadn’t been there before—a hunger I didn’t understand. I felt drawn to the Lynx. Part of my hunger had me wanting to become a part of them, even if only in the fantasy realm. I was at a loss to explain how I missed them now, how I ached. Our fates seemed intertwined, and the heartbreak was excruciating.
“Well, we do have each other, no matter what,” I said. “And I will be rich and famous.” The bit of hope in that dream was enough, and all I needed. Perhaps I wanted it to be all that I needed. I had no idea at the time what a long road it would be.
Farran laughed, saying, “Oh, yes, any day now, your yacht will dwarf Gianni’s boat at Meig’s Point in Hammonasset. You’ll coast that sucker right up alongside his.”
Ignoring her, I thought about Valentin. I still felt that pull toward him. The desire for him hadn’t ceased, nor the aching. But that last time I saw him, I had feared him, and, yes, the violent recklessness was, in itself, disturbing, but there was that effortless seduction I’d found hard to resist. I might have granted him that power in fantasy, but, in reality, I thought I should run the other way. In truth, I was uncomfortable enough with the fantasy now.
Joey left, having said his goodbyes to everyone with one last Merry Christmas hug and kiss.
Robbie came back to our table. “I could have gone with him, but he can’t take me back tomorrow,” he said. “He has to work.”
I remember thinking if Joey had invited us, I could have taken Robbie back.
Robbie may have sensed the tension, as he took me aside in a possible attempt to distract me. “I liked seeing Farran,” he said with a smile. “She’s really sweet, and she looks great.”
“Yeah, she is. She does,” I said. “By the way, Angie’s sleeping over tonight, so you’ll get to spend more time with her, too.”
He laughed. “Angie barely talks! I am serious, Dan. She has so little to say. That’s strange for a cousin you’ve known all your life. I asked her what she wants to do, her plans for college. She doesn’t know or seem to care. She has no ambition at all, no dreams.”
“I think she’d love to work with animals.”
“She didn’t even say that, though. She’s like an empty shell. I can’t even get a grip on who she is or what she’s about.”
“Maybe she’s a little down.”
“How can you tell?” He laughed again. “She seems like she’s on Valium 24/7.”
e never had a real tree, but the artificial Scots pine in our living room looked beautiful with all the trimmings. At night, we kept the room lit only by the blinking bulbs, and passersby could see the lights through our window.
We didn’t spend much time in this room. It had a sophisticated elegance with the right touch of warmth—wall-to-wall carpet in a burnt umber shade, and the windows draped in a dark olive green. My father had paneled the room with dark, heavy wood. The baroque-style sofa had silk upholstery in a mint shade of green. The coffee table had an antique marble-top. There was the usual crystal chandelier, but my mother’s pride and joy was the nineteenth-century Louis XV-style display cabinet embellished with foliate and shell carvings. On top of it were pictures in gold frames. Throughout the holiday season, this room was welcoming and cozy. It was where memories lived, and I could hear the voices of the children we had been.
The Christmas I was eight, Robbie tried to convince me there was no Santa Claus by showing me the toys hidden in the master bedroom closet. Though she generally kept the door locked, my mother sometimes forgot.
I was in awe of that forbidden room when I saw it—rosewood and dark walnut furnishings ornately carved with brass pulls, key escutcheons, and cabriole legs. The garden-facing windows had gold pinch-pleated drapes with sweeping valances. The king-sized bed had an ivory-colored tufted headboard and a footboard framed in gold. My mother adorned it with regal lace jacquard bedding, gold and beige cottons, and silks. Her bureau looked elegant and pretty with a Victorian-era vanity set and snuff perfume bottles. The gilded mirror had deep crests and scalloped edges. She displayed numerous dolls here, ones that wore frilly dresses and bonnets. Her portrait, in a gilded frame, sat upon the bureau’s crocheted ivory lace. She’d looked like a porcelain doll at only nineteen. Upon the armoire, there was a similar gilded portrait of my father at twenty, looking every bit the movie idol.
When we had peeked in their closet that day, I saw an endless row of plastic-protected garments and a gazillion boxes of shoes. Most of them were hers. There were toys, but the blue Schwinn Sting-Ray we had seen in the window of the bicycle shop, the one I had begged for, wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. Where would it have fit?
I’d been restless that Christmas Eve, lying in bed. The house was quiet. When I heard the shuffling of footsteps in the corridor, I had hoped it was Santa, but it turned out to be my grandmother. My parents had gone shopping, and she’d come up to check on us. I fell asleep for a while then awakened once more in the dark. I scampered out of my room and tiptoed down the stairs to the living room. There were presents under the tree but no bike.
In the morning, I heard my mother’s soft slippers before she peeked in the doorway of my room. Since I was obviously awake, she put an index finger to her lips and waved me on. The hushed footfalls must have reverberated throughout the house because, one by one, everyone gathered in the living room, and, to my surprise, the blue Schwinn Sting-Ray from the shop was under the tree.
“I thought Santa forgot,” I said.
“No, he didn’t forget,” my mother replied, seeming to enjoy my incredulity.
“But … the bike wasn’t there when I peeked in the middle of the night, and all the other toys were there.”
“That’s because Daddy was down in the basement for hours putting it together,” Robbie quipped. “I am surprised he got any sleep!”
“Be quiet,” my mother said with a wink. “It was Santa. I saw him leaving.”
My eyes fell upon my father, and I could believe by his smirk that he and my mother had had their own romantic mall adventure, after which he’d stayed up until the wee hours assembling our toys.
Every Christmas would be the same. Whatever gift we wanted most would be there under the tree on Christmas morning. It was one of the many reasons I didn’t fully understand Robbie’s criticisms or his anger. I felt blessed to have such a wonderful family. My love for them knew no bounds, and, at times, overwhelmed me.
We also had an extended family of affectionate people with sweet, loving natures, all of whom had welcomed us with enthusiasm. All we had to do was look at them and they’d smile. My mother’s family, in particular, seemed to share the sole purpose of keeping us reassured of our beauty. After a while, if I knew they were expected, I would make a beeline to the mirror to make certain I was still cute, lest they be disappointed. I wanted nothing out of this deal except to not disappoint.
I liked seeing my mother with her family. I loved her incessant Spanish chatter with them. It was the only time she got to be Grace Nayara Alves.
My father, on the other hand, didn’t like her siblings. We all knew that. He and my mother were arguing this very night, a week before Christmas, because her brother had invited us to a holiday gathering.
“Grace, you know I don’t like to eat in somebody else’s house,” my father complained.
“It wouldn’t kill you,” she said. “It’s nice to have some of the things we used to have in my country.”
“What, when you make paella, don’t I always eat it? And the—what do ya call it—the plantains? Don’t I eat it?”
“Whenever we go there, I tell you they’re going to have lunch for us, and you insist we eat at home first. Then they offer you something, and you say you already ate. That’s not nice. If someone invites you to eat, you eat with them, or you stay home.”
“Ay, I’d be happy to stay home,” he said. “They invite me there on my only day off and make wisecracks. Didn’t you hear your brother’s crack about the meatballs last time we were there? As soon as I got in the door, he asked me, did I bring my meatballs? What kind of crack is that? I gotta drive an hour and a half to Framingham, Massachusetts to be insulted by him?”
“He was joking! He didn’t mean anything by it. They know I always cook Italian for you.”
“Come on, Grace! If you wanna know the truth, I never ate a meatball until I came to this country. I don’t even like meatballs! My mother never made meatballs in Italy!”
She clenched her teeth. “Whenever we go there, he always goes out of his way for you.”
“Oh yeah … out of his way. Hah! He served me beer in a plastic cup! Who the hell gives you beer in a plastic cup?”
“Who cares? Why are you always making fun? You know my brother doesn’t have a lot of money.”
“You mean to tell me you can buy plastic cups to throw out every time you use them, but you can’t afford to buy a glass? I see he smokes cigarettes, so he buys cigarettes. And he bought a TV. You can buy a TV, but you can’t afford to buy a glass? Come on!”
“They don’t think like you do, that it’s such a big deal what kind of cup you put beer in. He just wants to make you happy. You don’t understand.”
“I understand, all right. But you say your brother’s joking. Think about it. Use your head. He implies, because I’m Italian, I eat meatballs, and I like meatballs. I can’t do anything except what Italians do. And to say I would be so rude to bring my own meatballs, so I would not have to miss them, even for a day.”
She waved her hand, dismissing him. “He was playing with you. You don’t have to take everything so serious.”
“Another time, he offers me a beer. I say, ‘Okay.’ Then he says, ‘Lemme run to the store. I’m all out.’ I said, ‘Forget about it, thank you. Don’t go to the trouble.’ He insists. ‘Come on, it’s no trouble.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ Guy goes to the store. He buys one beer, a can. He comes back, says, ‘Here ya are, Luca.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ Then, when I finished the beer, he says, ‘You want another beer, Luca?’ I’m thinking, You gotta be kidding. What if I say yes? He’s gonna run to the store again? I mean, how cheap can you be? Unbelievable! I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m good.’”
“Shut up! That’s all you do is criticize. You exaggerate everything. You make him out to be a bad guy, and he’s not. Give him a chance.”
“I did give him a chance! I gave them all a chance. I mean, he’s waving Brazilian and Spanish flags over there. This is America. You don’t see me waving my Italian flag. If I’m gonna fly any flag, it’ll be an American flag. Okay?”
“The flag is in his living room. On the Fourth of July and other holidays, he puts an American flag in the window. He’s very grateful and happy to be here. Stop it. They don’t have what you have, but they worked hard for what little they have.”
“Eh, who doesn’t work hard? I remember what it was like when I first came to this country. I had a little apartment, same as you. We were both were more than willing to take any type of work that paid the bills.”
“My brother works whenever he can.”
“He wants to do construction. I could have gotten him other jobs. You take what you can get, Grace.”
“His English is not that good.”
“Nothing wrong with his English when he’s talking about my meatballs—”
“He’s a good man. They all have good hearts. You are not going to make me ashamed of my family.”
He seemed to soften. “I don’t say you should be ashamed of them. I say they can make a better life. We did. I know it’s not easy, so don’t say I don’t understand.”
“You don’t. You grew up with everything. You can never understand.”
“Sorry. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“Yeah, please … keep your mouth shut.”
I intervened to lighten the mood. “Mommy, did you miss Brazil when you came here?”
“What’s she gonna miss?” My father chuckled, but I could see sadness in his eyes and in his smile. “They had nothing, her family.”
“I wish Abuela could have come here before she died,” I said.
In photos we’d seen, my maternal grandmother was gaunt, frail, and tiny, with brittle gray hair. She clung to rosary beads and never smiled.
“You met her,” my mother said. “We took the bus to see her in Santa Rita, where she was staying with my sister.”
At one time, she had said we were sick and couldn’t go to meet her while we were in Brazil. Now she was saying we did meet her. I never knew what to believe.
“What about your father?” I asked. “We never saw any pictures of him.”
“Nor did I,” she said. “I was about four or five years old when he died. They say he was very good-looking, but I don’t remember him.”
I then realized the shame my mother felt, and it was becoming apparent that everyone in both extended families hid some kind of shame. Those who instinctively tried to make us feel good did so because it was how they wanted to feel. I was coming to believe Robbie resented my parents because they were never able to make him feel anything but ashamed, though I knew it wasn’t intentional, and he needed to get away from them to feel whole. I had been feeling increasing pressure to look good and fit in, all the while becoming more and more self-conscious. After Phil and Sergio, the self-consciousness had become manageable only when I was intoxicated.
alentin was outside the Cove entrance, perched on his bike—a purple and black Harley with flames on the side panels. Nico, Gianni, and Joey were with him. The streetlight had cast an amber yellow glow in the cold evening darkness. A radiant full moon loomed above.
In the round of hello kisses, I welcomed Valentin’s warm, sensuous lips on my cheek.
Gianni brushed his hand along the faux fur of my brown leather bomber jacket. “Very nice,” he said.
I managed a thank-you and could have sworn Valentin detected both my delight and discomfort. He was in jeans and a distressed aviator-style black denim bomber jacket. He wore biker boots and held the helmet that rested on his lap. I’d say he was a welcomed sight, but he was more of a godsend.
A car sped past across the road. The female driver honked the horn. The other females in the car began squealing and calling out to Valentin. One hung out the window, waving. Another leaned out her window, throwing him a kiss.
Joey laughed. “You saw who that was, right? Haylee Higgins. Billy went around telling everybody you forced her to strip on Gianni’s boat when we went out on Labor Day. Are we lying, Gianni?” Joey grinned. “You know how charming and seductive Lord Hades can be.”
Gianni’s response was, “Yeah, uh … I’m not into Valentin like that.”
Valentin laughed. “Yes, he is.”
Everyone joined him in laughter.
“The day she was supposed to have stripped on the boat, I was not even on the boat,” Valentin stated emphatically. “And Billy was never on that boat.”
Farran teased him. “I guess the ol’ warlock skills come in handy, huh? You could have been there invisibly. A warlock is a male witch, right?”
“It’s come to mean that,” Valentin replied, taking it more seriously than I’d expected, “but in the early centuries, a warlock was an oath-breaker, a betrayer who couldn’t be trusted. In Wiccan culture, a witch is a witch—or a Wiccan—regardless of gender.”
“So are you a witch?” That was Angie.
“No,” he said.
“I think Billy’s just mad because he’s got a thing for Haylee,” Joey quipped.
Nico said, “He can eat shit and die. My brother would never do that—not to Haylee, not to anyone. I’m tired of these lame attempts to dishonor my brother and me.” Something about his conscientious intensity was as appealing as it was intimidating.
My eyes shifted from him to Valentin, who met my gaze and then winked.
“How’s the novel coming?” he asked.
It meant a lot that he remembered how important it was to me, regardless of my “tender age,” as he might have said.
“It’s coming along great,” I replied. “I’m going to start entering poems in contests, too, and submitting articles to magazines. I’ve gotten some decent feedback on the book but nothing published yet.”
He said he was impressed.
A shivering Farran asked if they were going inside. Gianni mentioned that Tommy and Liz were in there, and, after some discussion, everyone turned toward the entrance.
Valentin grazed my forearm. “Wait,” he said. “I need to talk to you.”
Farran appeared alarmed by this gesture, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Angie tugged gently on her arm and led her inside.
Everyone went in but Valentin and me.
“So, you missed me,” he said.
“Wait, did Tommy tell you—?”
He answered before I could finish. “Yeah.”
“It was no big deal.” I trembled. “I was just wondering about you. Now that you don’t need an angel healer or an exorcism, you forgot about me. You are like here today, gone tomorrow.”
“All time, for me, is fleeting,” he said. “A month is like a moment. A year is like a day.”
“Let me guess. It’s because you are immortal and have lived for centuries!”
He laughed. “You have a lively imagination. What a tragedy it would be if nothing could compare or compete with that.”
“Last time we spoke, it felt like we were good friends. Now it seems you just like to play games.”
“I’m not playing games.” Those eyes of his were soul-piercing blades. “I missed you, too, love. As for being out of touch, I’m sorry.”
“Why would you have to say you are sorry? You certainly don’t owe me an apology.”
“Because you are right. We are friends. I hope I never made you feel otherwise. I never meant to. I didn’t realize any of it until I told you I had something to confess.”
“Any of what?”
“That we have developed a friendship as well as a bond.”
“Yeah, we have.”
“There you have it.” That smile. It destroyed me.
“I want to know more about you.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Hmm, what you draw, being an artist?”
“I do sketches, drawings, illustrations … a lot of cartoons.”
“That’s funny.” I smiled. “I used to draw Charlie Brown. It’s the only character I can draw where someone would actually recognize who it is.”
Again he laughed. “I can do Charlie.”
“Joey was telling me about your job. I work in advertising, too—as a secretary. How did you end up an assistant art director at some Manhattan ad agency?”
“I did go to school in Spain to study art,” he said. “I got my design degree there. I want to start working on my master’s.”
“Wow, good for you. I’m so proud of you.” I smiled. “Now I am impressed! And I always wanted to work in Manhattan! That must be awesome.”
“If you worked where I work, those guys would never get anything done.”
I was both flattered and amused. “Well, I’m sure it’s the same with you and the ladies. I’ve watched you mesmerize all the women around here. They seem to worship you.”
“They don’t know me.”
“And they’d do anything for you in a heartbeat … must be quite a boost to your ego.”
“To be a false idol? To have others succumb to you with blind faith and reckless abandon? It’s a double-edged sword, and, going by your impact on the male population, I’m sure you’ve already bled from it.”
It took a moment for that to sink in, and then I opted to shift gears. “You were talking about confessing something, but then you do like to confuse me. I think you want me to join your many admirers in worshipping the ground you walk on.”
“You are wrong.”
Things changed from harmonious to awkward. I felt I had messed things up, and yet I was not sure what it was I’d messed up, since I had no idea what I wanted from him.
“Fine,” I said. “Maybe I don’t understand what you mean by all this metaphoric vampire stuff.”
He explained. “In the past, I’ve instinctively used my power to drain what I needed from others to survive. I’ve come to realize I’ve done this all my life, unaware. There were times I hated myself. When I see innocence, I am drawn to it. I want to take it and preserve it somewhere, so nothing can taint it, as if it could bring me back a piece of my own innocence. There were times I tried to do that, and I tainted that innocence before I ultimately destroyed it. It’s pathetic, when you think about it.”
“Is this about Katharine?”
“She’s a part, yes.”
“Are you still living with her?”
“I’ve been looking for a place. I’ll be moving out.”
“I take it she knows.”
“Yes. She’s inside—drowning her misery with one straight-up gin after another.” He looked at me. “All of this must seem absurd to you. You walked into this play during the fallout of its tragic conclusion.”
“You really care about her.”
“Of course, I do. She’s been a wreck. Something is telling me I need to fix this, and something is telling me to just go. I’m not sure what to do, but it’s not your concern. You were right—it is unfair to involve you.”
“I owed you for the car, so we’re even.”
“Ah, so that is how it works. We barter.”
“For our next exchange, I’ll walk you to the door. You, in return, stay safe.”
“You’re not going in?”
“I am, but I have to park.”
He dismounted for the short stroll to the Cove door.
“You are very mysterious,” I said nervously, as he walked alongside me. “I am half expecting you to fly by my window one night.”
“Fly by your window, huh?”
“I was kidding.”
I felt a wave of righteous indignation, and I was ready to admonish him, but my heart palpitated more than I’d thought possible. “God, you’re so serious! I’m trying to cheer you up by joking around. I didn’t realize—”
“May I ask you a question?”
“If it were possible for me to fly by your window, would you let me in?”
We were at the Cove door. He turned to face me and repeated the question. “Would you let me in?”
In that brief second, he seemed the devil’s child—the bad boy, every bit as wicked as I’d heard. I couldn’t help feeling, for those fleeting moments, there was nothing I wouldn’t do, nothing I wouldn’t say to bring forth that smile, and nothing I would not do to please him.
“Yes.” I laughed after I said it, not knowing why I said it. Perhaps it was the giddy madness of the full moon, or his eyes. Yes, I could easily blame his eyes.
He looked serious now and a bit apprehensive. It made me nervous.
“Relax,” I told him. “I know you’re messing with me. You try to confuse me, because you are confused.”
He opened the Cove door and stepped aside for me to enter. “You seem to be the one who is confused.”
The door closed behind me. He was gone.
Farran rushed over immediately. “What’d he say?”
I had told her already about Meadowside Inn and his help with the car. She had seemed distressed by it, so I wasn’t going to elaborate. “It was a follow-up of last time.”
Billy approached and expressed his concern. Evidently, he had seen Valentin at the door with me.
Farran laughed. “Oh, Billy, come on. You make it sound like all Lynx men are diabolical. I’ve known Joey and Tommy for years. Tommy’s a pussycat!”
“Tommy … Valentin … yeah, that’s like comparing a puppy to a junkyard dog,” Billy said.
“You’re saying Valentin is a junkyard dog? And Tommy is a puppy?” That seemed to amuse Farran. “Look, Billy, I don’t blame you. Family is family, and you feel they hurt your family. But you can’t think because some relationships don’t work out or have problems, those guys are going to have problems with everyone.”
“Alrighty, then,” he said, “you girls enjoy the night.” He moved on.
Katharine was about two feet from us, and a drunken man was beginning to harass her. Valentin had returned and intervened. He got the man to back off while appearing relatively calm.
“I’m sorry,” I heard Katharine say to Valentin. “I keep giving you a hard time.”
“It’s okay,” he replied.
“Can you forgive me?”
He put his arms around her waist and kissed her on the cheek. “It’s all forgiven.”
“I still love you. I always will. Please tell me how you feel.”
He dropped his arms to his sides. “I don’t know how I feel.”
“You protected me.”
“I will always protect you.” He walked away.
As the night progressed, Katharine was at one end of the bar drinking, while Valentin and Gianni were at the other end doing shots.
Angie played Metallica’s “Fade to Black,” and the three of us remained huddled near the jukebox. Angie was drunk and lamenting Cliff Burton, the Metallica bass player who’d died in a bus accident the year before. She became quite emotional, saying he was so young, and questioning why God took people so young.
I gave her a hug, and then Joey snuck up and grabbed Farran from behind, pulling her into a hug. He must have left shortly afterward, because it was the last I saw of him that night. I recall thinking that, not long before that, Farran was sitting on Tommy’s lap, running her fingers through his hair, and now she was eyeing Valentin.
I watched Valentin, too, as he walked over to Katharine. I didn’t hear what he said to her, but she took another guzzle of her drink and shouted, “You shouldn’t be allowed to have a dick!”
Then she was yelling, “I lost my virginity to you! Oh well, guess what? I don’t give a fuck what you want!” When she got off the stool and stood before him, those entrancing eyes of hers burned with defiance. She threw the drink in his face and told him he would never see his daughter. Though he never touched her, she looked as though some invisible barrier kept her from moving in any direction. Her eyes were wide and focused solely on him.
“Don’t ever do that again,” he said. “This isn’t a game, and my child is not a pawn in your futile crusade.” He backed away from her and headed for the door.
Billy went after him, yelling, “My family owns this bar! If you guys are done screwing over the women in this family, why are you here?”
“You make a good point,” Valentin said, though I could see he was fuming. “I’ll go.”
“Good, and take your high and mighty brother with you.”
“Fine with me,” Nico said. “I thought we could all be friends and work it out since there’s a child that’s connected to us all, but I’ll concede to your better judgment.”
Katharine and Shannon pleaded with all of them, and then Valentin confronted Billy about spreading rumors.
Billy said, “Maybe I don’t always get it right, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and you two have been nothing but trouble since day one.” He went to push Valentin in the direction of the door, but the moment he put his hands on him, Valentin grabbed Billy by the collar and flung him hard against the wall.
“Easy, Lord Hades,” Billy taunted.
A fight broke out. Steve called the police, but not before Valentin threw Billy into a side table. When Billy got back on his feet, he charged at Valentin. It looked as if Valentin crouched, grabbed Billy’s legs, flipped him over, and began slamming Billy’s head against the floor. I could hear female screams and pleas for it to stop. Many attempted to intercede, but Nico grabbed Valentin first. The grip didn’t hold. Gianni assisted, and the two of them held him back.
The police arrived.
Billy was a bloody mess. “Look what it took to get him to stop,” he said. “He’s an animal. Valentin’s the God of Hell.”
“Billy, don’t lie,” Nico said. “You started this. You don’t have any respect. You never do. It’s like that all the time, not just this time, with you calling him names.”
Billy ignored him. “I want that bastard in jail.”
Emergency technicians led Billy away. Katharine and Shannon followed.
“And stop telling people I’m a warlock!” Valentin shouted after them.
I might have laughed at that if I hadn’t been so frightened.
“Let’s go,” one cop said to Valentin, taking him out.
Nico and Tommy ambled out behind them.
Liz was there, shaking her head. “Billy always has an attitude with me, too. His attitude toward fellow bikers is not one of mutual respect and loyalty. He rides a BMW and drives a LeBaron. Need I say more? He’s a poseur.”
Angie rolled her eyes. “I have a headache.”
“We’ll go,” I told her.
We got our coats and headed out. It was hard to see anything with all the flashing lights, vehicles, and bodies. I couldn’t hear above the noise.
Tommy passed, and Farran asked him if they had arrested Valentin.
“Well, they didn’t cuff him,” Tommy said. “They’re talking to him, trying to calm him down and find out what happened. They gotta know everybody involved is drunk.”
The cops urged us to move on, and we proceeded to the parking lot. Angie looked sick.
Farran’s eyes were on me. “Valentin will be fine.” She smiled reassuringly. “Billy’s okay, too. He walked out of there. Shannon and Katharine will get Billy to drop the charges. I know it’s upsetting, but if you hang out in a bar long enough, sooner or later you’re gonna see a barroom brawl, and, yeah, brawls get bloody.”
I was more than worried. I was devastated.
Farran nudged me. “Tell ya what. When this blows over, and, trust me, it will, maybe you can talk to Valentin about me, tell him I’m interested. I mean, since you two seem to have a platonic friendship, it’s time I put my cards on the table and the ball in his court.”
There were many reasons I didn’t want to do that, my own conflicted emotions being the least of them. It crossed my mind that he’d come to put things in perspective for me after what Tommy had said to him. I shuddered at the thought. It never occurred to me that I didn’t have the right to say such things in the first place, to send him these ambiguous messages. He was a forbidden fantasy—an impossible fantasy, especially now.
y job at the advertising agency was boring. I welcomed any excuse to wander off, whether to make copies or to deliver things—anything to break the monotony of captivity and assigned tasks. In those wanderings, I’d spend a little time chatting with new friends I’d made.
One of those friends was Quinton P. Aguillard, III, a tall and handsome black man with a goatee and pencil mustache. He worked in Maintenance and Security and kept in good shape for a man of forty. He sat at the reception desk after four, when the receptionist left for the day, and during her fifteen-minute breaks. One staff member or another would sit in the armchair facing the desk, to talk to him. We also liked to visit him in the tiny office he shared with another guard.
Quinton lit up when I talked about writing, humbly referring to himself as a novice in the field, though he wrote poetry and had started on a book. My conversations with him, whenever we were fortunate enough to have them, became the highlight of my day.
He was married to a woman he described as the warmest, sweetest, most wonderful woman in the world. She was from Kingston, Jamaica, and he was from Savanna, Georgia. They’d been married twenty years and had three grown children who were fifteen, seventeen, and nineteen. He said he loved that woman with all of his heart, and I was happy to hear it.
Like my dad, he’d served in Vietnam. He had lived in Manhattan for a while, going to school. He’d been a model. He took acting classes, had a voice coach, and worked on and off at menial jobs. “Part of me believed I was living the dream already,” he said. “I’d be at the celebrity hangouts—Studio 54, Xenon, Elaine’s. I ate at The Palm, Gallagher’s, Sardi’s. Man, I was on the go 24/7, and I started to unravel. I needed something that would ground me, so I managed to get my degree in Criminal Justice and joined the police force. I eventually opted to go the investigator route, but I didn’t like the politics.”
Of course, I eagerly shared with him my plans to write books, launch a singing career, and end up on a movie screen.
He talked about Aleister Crowley, and I talked about Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde.
“You must read The Man Without Qualities by Austrian novelist Robert Musil,” he said in his deep, distinguished voice. “Its German original title is Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, and it takes place in the time of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy’s last days, just before World War I. It’s one of my favorites.”
We discussed various religions and Eastern Philosophy, deciding we both loved the concept of unity, of oneness, and the interconnectedness of all things. We explored the possibility of a supernatural existence. We plunged, at random, into discussions about philosophers Voltaire, Huxley, Socrates, Rousseau, and Montaigne, and psychiatrists Freud and Jung—even Sánd or Ferenczi. He talked about theatre. We talked about music. I even read him some of my poems, which he seemed to enjoy.
Our conversations were stimulating. They made me feel like the intelligent woman I was and not some empty-headed bombshell.
Yet, there were clear boundaries. Oh, he chuckled when his young friend from the accounting department “acted the fool” in my presence, as he put it, but he himself never said or did anything out of line. Perhaps that was one reason he made me feel safe and relaxed.
There were other friends, including Trish, a tough, twenty-two year-old biker chick. She was heavyset with engaging blue eyes and cropped blondish hair. She could look awful with a mad face, but so pretty when she smiled. She had the loveliest smile.
She was the secretary that supervised me, and she took Adderall regularly. She told me she knew a doctor who was willing to prescribe them without a medical diagnosis, as long as you had a good enough excuse.
“Like if you tell him you’re having trouble concentrating at work, and you’re afraid of losing your job,” she said. “It calms me and helps me to focus.”
She was interesting to me, as Quinton was. She was also a nurturing type, and I craved that. In fact, the workplace had become a second home to me, one that seemed to both welcome and support me.
This Monday, however, that wasn’t the case.
Passing the department manager’s office, I said good morning and waved.
She looked up. “Uh, Danielle, can I see you for a moment?”
“Sure.” I positioned myself in the doorway.
I can see her vividly to this day—her silver hair in a pixie cut, the lines of age on her wearied face, the troubled look in her soft green eyes. “Come in,” she said. “Have a seat.”
Not feeling the least nervous, I sat.
“We were looking for you earlier.”
“Yeah, our whole class was detained when the bell rang. I did call—”
“No, that’s fine,” she interrupted. “Look, you’re a sweet, sweet girl, and I like you, but I have to ask. Is everything all right with you?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Why?”
She frowned. “I know you’re smart and very good with the typing, but there are some issues we need to discuss.”
It caught me off guard, but she had my interest. “Okay.”
“For one thing, you disappear. You socialize a great deal. This isn’t a playground. I’m concerned about whether proper boundaries are in place. You’re young, attractive, and, frankly, naïve. Then some of the filing—I can’t for the life of me figure out why you would file some of these things where you have. You have me literally scratching my head. At times, I have wondered where your mind is, whether you’re taking drugs or what the deal is. It breaks my heart to say this to you. Even if I could give you another chance, there’s a project manager who feels there’s a personality clash, and it simply isn’t going to work.”
It was the first time anyone had expressed these concerns, so it shocked me.
“Personnel will set up an appointment for you,” she continued. “It seems there’s a junior secretary position available in the Print Production/Traffic Department, and they can transfer you. Again, I’m sorry. Please take what I said into consideration, and see what you can do to improve. I’d hate to see you out of a job entirely.” She made a call to Personnel then told me, “You can get your things and go on down there now.”
I stood, in a daze. “Thank you.”
Leaving the office, I could see the anguished expression on Trish’s face.
“I’m so sorry,” she said when I went to her desk. “I tried hard to convince them not to do this. I’m totally bummed.”
“It’s okay,” I replied.
“I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too.”
She smiled. “But I’ll see you around, and if you ever want to have lunch …”
“Thanks,” I said. I felt numb as I gathered my things.
“Because you’re vulnerable right now, I won’t push,” she went on. “Just know that whatever you need, I’m here. And if one day you happen to find that you’re interested in testing the waters with me, let me know.”
“Got it.” I smiled.
It wasn’t the first time she’d made an offer like that, but she took no for an answer. Still, she exuded desperation and even a bit of loneliness. She was probably grappling with who she was and what the world expected her to be.
The personnel director was waiting for me outside of her office. In a motherly fashion, she slipped an arm around my shoulder. “It’s going to be fine,” she assured me. “Some people, some situations, don’t click. I’ve arranged for the transfer. You’ll be assigned to coordinators and production managers who work with typesetters, artists, illustrators, and other creative staff. They’re a lovely bunch. Ah, don’t look so sad! You’ll be much happier there.”
The negative feedback from my department manager, however, was difficult to accept. Where was my mind? Other than getting ideas for writing while in line at the cafeteria and in different places here and there, I had devoted my attention to whatever task they’d assigned. At least, I’d thought I had.
In terms of boundaries, well, there were a number of flirtatious men in that place. I dressed appropriately— dresses, skirts, or dress pants with ankle-strap heels. My tops, including sweaters, were not low-cut, but that didn’t stop men from salivating. The women attempted to be motherly at first and then turned resentful. I’d had conflicts with other secretaries who seemed to feel somehow shortchanged by my existence.
When a visiting client had announced to my male supervisors, “Danielle is so delectably well endowed,” I’d wanted to knock his lights out. I knew that was inappropriate.
A director in the creative department once told me I had the perfect complexion for a television soap ad he was working on. He asked if I would consider modeling. I didn’t find that to be inappropriate. It was business, and, while flattered, I’d felt shy and declined.
So my judgment was good, as far as I could tell, and I knew where to draw the line.
If anything that woman had said was true, it was that the Research Department wasn’t my niche. I did what I could to break the monotony. Funny thing was, much of what I did on a day-to-day basis served only to break the monotony of life. Perhaps the world I lived in was not a good fit for me either.
n my heart, I knew not to pursue Valentin, and yet I continued to daydream about him in school.
“Danielle, where are you?” my English teacher asked.
“Jupiter,” I mumbled.
The other students roared with laughter, and the teacher smirked. “Danielle, would you like to write a thousand-word composition on why you should not be so sarcastic?”
“I’ll write two thousand.”
He couldn’t resist joining the laughter, but he held tough. “Okay, do two thousand words.”
I didn’t care.
I drove to the library on Main Street after school that day and spent the first half hour searching for poetry books by John Keats. Skimming through one volume, I came across “The Eve of St. Agnes” poem.
An odd memory surfaced.
“Mommy, I want to choose Agnes for my confirmation name.”
I was nine years old.
“Agnes?” My mother had winced. “Why Agnes?”
“St. Agnes had so much courage,” I said. “Did you know that a man looked at her like he wanted to do bad things to her, and he was blinded then lay dead?”
I explained how she supposedly used her long hair to hide her body from the heathens who’d stripped her, how they’d killed her with a sword and cut off her head, and how she was just a girl and had died a virgin because that was what she wanted. Nothing anyone threatened her with could change her mind.
“I know,” my mother had said. “The lamb is her symbol—the symbol of innocence. Why don’t you choose Elizabeth? Danielle Grace Elizabeth is a beautiful name.”
I chose Agnes after the fourth century martyr. Her story, whether true or not, still haunted me.
Reading the poem now, I found no connection to the story, but I enjoyed it. I then read “Ode to a Nightingale” several times and decided I would check out two books, Letters of John Keats and The Complete Poems of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. I wanted to ask about another poet Valentin had mentioned, but all I could remember was Gustavo Adolfo, a Spanish poet.
“Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer,” the librarian said. “I’m surprised to have someone looking for Bécquer. It’s more popular in Madrid, where I come from.”
At the time, the coincidence made quite an impression on me.
“My friend told me to read his letters and prose,” I divulged. “He mentioned Leyendas?”
“Ah, Leyendas. It’s very fun, excellent, especially if you like fantasy and medieval times.”
She found the book for me. One short poem, “Know If Someday,” had a line that translated to, “The soul that can speak through the eyes can also kiss with a gaze.” It melted me, and, in the moment, I saw Valentin’s eyes with all their compelling allure. They were the same eyes that lit with endearing warmth when he laughed or smiled.
It was five when I got home and already dark. I figured my mother and grandmother had gotten home by then or would be pulling up at any moment. The lights were out, except for a flicker from the living room, which seemed odd. The lights would have been on if my mother were home, and she’d be in the kitchen making dinner. I heard noise. Always imagining the worst, my heart raced, and what I heard next was my mother’s voice. It seemed every bit as strange as the darkness.
She looked in my direction when I entered and, for a second, seemed unfazed. It appeared she hadn’t heard me come in the front door, and that she had been lost to her chanting—or whatever it was she was doing. Before I could utter a word, she smiled— her charming smile.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Moving closer, I could see two antique brass candleholders, inside of which she had lit a couple of red, bell-top taper candles. She was so radiant in their glow that it took another moment for me to notice something between the candles. They were photographs, and she removed them now in a furtive sort of way.
I turned the lights on.
“They are photos of Robbie,” she explained, as though I had asked. “I was praying for him.” She blew out the candles and stood. “You said you were going to the library. I thought Angie was with you at the library, and you went over to Zuza’s after that. Your grandmother is over there—at Zuza’s. She’s going to eat with them, and Dominic’s going to drive her home …”
I wasn’t about to let her distract me with chatter. “If that’s some spell you’re doing, don’t mess around,” I said. “This stuff can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re getting into.”
She looked curiously at me. “How do you know that?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s my instinct. It’s what my gut says, and what makes sense to me. I know your motives are good, and I suppose, if someone with the right intentions fully understands what they’re doing, that’s a whole different thing, but to do something blindly that someone tells you to do—”
She interrupted with the stern look I knew well from childhood. “Who told you someone told me to do it?”
“Well, wasn’t it that psychic you go to?”
“You know about him?”
“I’ve known for some time.”
“You’re right,” she said, surprising me. “I raised a smart girl.”
“So you’re going to stop with this stuff?”
“Yes, come on.” Her hand was on my shoulder, as she led me gently from the room. “I’m making hamburgers.”
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Farran, Angie, and I had a few intense moments outside the Cove.
“What is it, Dani?” Farran asked. “You seem more and more uptight coming here.”
Angie’s gaze was upon me, too.
I told them about the recurring dream—content to call it a dream anyway—though I wasn’t sure.
Angie’s eyes were wider than I’d ever seen them. She seemed at a loss for words.
“Let me ask you,” Farran said. “Do you feel right with God?”
What a loaded question that was. I didn’t feel right, period. God was another matter. My trust in Him, my faith, had been strong. At least, I’d thought so. Did I feel that He’d betrayed me, or that I’d betrayed Him? I couldn’t say. There was this guilt, this shame, this feeling that I didn’t deserve anything good—not anymore anyway.
“Because it’s in the Bible,” she went on. “Demons can prey on you and try to influence you if you’re not firm in your faith. They do the devil’s bidding, and they can possess you.”
“Stop it!” Angie said. “Just stop.”
“Well she’s into the occult, and so is her mother, from what she’s told us.”
“My aunt Grace is a really good person,” Angie told her. “So is Dani. God would protect them. Dani’s just having bad dreams. They’re upsetting to her, and you’re judging. That’s not right.”
“I was trying to help,” Farran replied, “but forget it.”
Angie asked Farran for a cigarette now, and it seemed to surprise Farran as much as it did me. “Just this once,” Angie promised. “I have an urge.”
Farran handed her the cigarette and lit it for her. “You all right?”
“Not really,” Angie replied. “I’m keyed up, and I felt dizzy before.”
I offered to take a walk with her.
“Sure, if you want.” She took a drag of the cigarette and coughed.
Farran glanced at me and then shifted her gaze to Angie. “I’ll be inside if you need me. Don’t be too long, or I’ll have to come looking for you.”
The moment the Cove door closed behind her, Tommy pulled up in a blue Ford truck. He came to greet us and asked who was around. He mentioned something about Lynx members avoiding this place.
“Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Valentin,” I said.“Three weeks maybe?”
“He’s been busy,” Tommy replied.
“Aw, I do miss him.” The words seemed to leave my lips without any thought “Tell him he’s breaking my heart.”
I felt the weight of Tommy’s gaze. “You seriously want me to tell him that? I’m not responsible for how he takes it if I do.”
“How would he take it?” I smiled. “We’re friends. Ask him. He helped me get a good deal on my car. I helped him with Katharine.”
“Not sure that’s a good thing, about Katharine,” he said. “Nobody should help him with Katharine. So you drove here?”
“Yes.” I felt empowered by that, not needing anyone to take me where I needed to go or bring me back home. It was a reason to stay sober, as well. “When Farran starts working on campus, we’re going to take turns. She’ll be able to use her mom’s car again.”
He nodded. “Where is she?”
“Inside,” Angie told him, now biting her nails.
“All right, catch you guys later.” He went into the bar.
I turned to Angie, wringing my hands. “Why did I say that? Now he probably thinks I want to be a notch on Valentin’s belt. I was kidding around. I mean, I do miss him, but … I just hope Tommy doesn’t say anything.”
“This is Tommy we’re talking about,” Angie reminded me. “If he thinks anything needs saying, you can count on him to say it. It’s not like it was said in confidence or anything.”
“Then I hope Valentin doesn’t take it the wrong way. We really did become friends, not intentionally. It just happened.”
“Do you feel guilty?”
“Why, Dani? You like him. He likes you.”
“And it’s innocent.”
“Even it wasn’t, who could blame you?”
“He’s trying to get out of that relationship.”
“I still feel bad, though. She loves him, and, don’t forget, Farran loves him.”
“Okay,” she said. “Well, I love Nico. Every time we come here, I’m hoping to run into him. I feel guilty for having these feelings because Shannon loves him so much, and I can’t blame her. I’m not one for dirty tricks and coming between people, but no one has a right to stake any claim to Valentin right now. I love Farran, but she wouldn’t think twice if the situation were reversed. I just want you to be happy, and we should want each other to be happy. Life is short, you know?” It was the most she had said in a long time.
I gave her a tight hug.
“Dani, I remember,” she said then, hugging back. When she let go, she looked away. “It took a while, but I remember it all.”
“You mean what happened with Sergio and Phil?”
“Yes.” She looked down. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you, and for all the trouble I caused.”
“You didn’t cause any trouble,” I said. “We can still talk about it.”
“I’m not ready to do that yet, but eventually, yeah.”
“Angie, look at me.”
“Promise me we’ll talk about it. Promise me you will talk about anything that’s bothering you any time you need or want to.”
he holiday season after I turned seven, Zuza and her coworkers had strung clear-colored mini-lights around the dress shop windows, as they did every holiday season. A decorated tree blinked with miniature lights from its pedestal in the reception area. The back table had an abundant variety of cookies and cakes. Zuza and my grandmother had shared their homemade cookies. Customers brought more sweets. Fellow storeowners from the neighborhood brought bottles of wine, whiskey, and scotch. Zuza invited customers to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and help themselves to the treats. It was a happy time. All of us kids dashed over to the table as many times as we could, especially since Zuza had decorated it with a candy cane holiday cloth and pine garland mixed with pinecones.
Zuza had been talking in Italian with my grandmother as they stood near the little desk in the back of the shop. The tone of their conversation was hectic and tense.
When my mother arrived, Zuza greeted her politely and yielded to appropriate discourse about the weather. Then, with a subtle shift, Zuza changed gears.
“Grace, you don’t have to pick up the kids or watch them if it’s trouble for you,” she said. “I’ll take care of them. You do whatever you have to do.”
I saw the rise of my mother’s brows as her smile faded. “Maybe you are the one having trouble,” she replied.
“It’s no trouble for me,” Zuza said. “I love them as if they were my own.”
“I don’t?” My mother was incensed, I could tell. “I drop everything to pick up the kids whenever you ask me to.”
“And I did the same.”
“Well, I’ll keep my boys and my little girl, and you just worry about selling your dresses.” She grabbed hold of my arm and shot a glance at Robbie who was several feet away, looking on. “Robbie, get your brother. Let’s go.”
“I love you, Grace,” my godmother said. In her voice, stern resolution mingled torturously with a sympathetic softness. “I love Luca, my brother. I love all the kids.”
My mother pushed all three of us in the direction of the door. We looked back several times, bewildered by our mother’s anger and Zuza’s sorrowful countenance.
Grandma brought up Zuza at dinner that night. “God bless her,” she lamented. “They worka very hard all day, and with two kids. Then she takes care of Joey, Robbie, Danielle, everybody.” She was shaking her head. “Too much.”
“We took turns,” my mother shot back. “We helped each other.”
“Maybe it is a lot for her,” my father said. “She does work hard.”
“So do I. If you wanna know, I am the one who picks them up more—more than her, because I know she’s working and needs help.”
“It’s not the same,” my grandmother said. “They work, no just disappear.”
“And I just disappear?” Those dark eyes widened to unprecedented enormity. “I don’t work? I have three kids here, and you think I don’t work? I disappear? Can you believe this?”
“Hold it, hold it,” my father interjected. “Mama, did Zuza say something to you?”
Grandma shrugged. “It’s not my business.”
He clenched his teeth. “You brought it up, and now you say it’s not your business. Mama, did she tell you it’s too much for her?”
All of our curious eyes fell upon her.
“I no wanna get in trouble. They no say anything. I shut up.”
My parents looked at each other.
“Why didn’t she come and tell me?” my mother asked. “I don’t like that. If it’s too much for you, then say it’s too much for you. Don’t say it’s too much for me. Don’t go behind my back.”
My grandmother defended her daughter. “They wanna do! She can’t, Grace! The shop is too busy. They feed everybody.”
“You gotta be kidding!” my father shouted. “When they are here, we feed everybody, too. We give them everything, whatever they want, and it’s no problem. All right!” he bellowed. “Grace, from now on, you pick up the kids yourself. I don’t want Zuza picking up any of the kids from school. However we have to do it, we’ll do it.”
“Daddy!” Robbie yelled. “Grandma said Zuza didn’t say nothing!”
“Anything,” my mother corrected. “She didn’t say anything. You live in America. Speak proper English.”
“That’s right,” my father snapped. “Besides, don’t you have homework?”
“Then go do it. Take your sister with you.”
“How am I supposed to do homework if I take her with me?”
“Then go play.”
My mother glared at my grandmother. “I don’t disappear! What proof do you have to make an accusation like that—that I just disappear?”
Joey hustled us out of the room, but their discussion raged on with added intensity.
“And where do you go all the time?” my grandmother pressed.
“It’s none of your business where I go!”
“Grace, you don’t bring the kids there no more!” my father shrieked. “You hear me? And you stay here, where you belong. From now on, I don’t want any of the kids to go over there to their house, or to the dress shop, for anything.” He waved his hand in disgust. “They are all dead to me.”
“Sfatcheem!” my grandmother yelled. “Stubborn like the mule.” She reminded him that Zuza was his sister, that it was between her and Grace, and that Dominic and the kids had nothing to do with it.
“I never saw that side of Zuza,” I heard my mother say. “This really hurts me.”
I didn’t know what side she meant. Zuza was nice to me all the time. I never got the impression she thought taking care of us was too much, not even for a minute.
It was awkward running into her now with Angie and Dom Jr. My mother would look away from them. Angie sat farther away from me in school, but Dom Jr. would wave to me in secret with his hand down low. Zuza tried talking to my mom. The sadness in her eyes matched the sadness in my heart. I could feel her love, as it continued to envelop me like the fluffiest blanket. My father said Uncle Dom had tried talking to him a couple of times, but he waved him off and kept walking. We would hear their cherished, familiar voices in the yard when they visited my grandmother. We had to go on eating Sunday dinner as if they weren’t there. My grandmother would come in several times and plead with my father to join them or invite them inside. I could hear all the weariness and frustration in her squally voice, but he wouldn’t budge.
My brothers and I would walk over to the Vaccaros’ house. We stood directly across from it, on the other side of the street, and watched the multicolored lights blinking festively on the windows. They had the same gleaming white Venetian blinds as we had, and had strung lights all around the house. I figured they had placed their usual “Happy Holidays” welcome mat at the front door, but, I thought sadly, it wouldn’t welcome us that Christmas.
I missed them terribly and clung to the monkey Uncle Dom had given me once.
“Throw that thing away,” my mother demanded when I brought it to the kitchen. “It’s filthy, and it’s all ripped.”
“No! No, please!” I cried. “If I let you give him a bath, can I keep him? Please don’t take him. Please, please, you could wash him and sew him. Mommy, please?” I cried so hard.
“It’s not worth it, Danielle. It’s falling apart.” She looked sorry for me, as she tried to pry the monkey from my grip, but I clung to it.
Exasperated, she promised to buy me something at the store. That didn’t soothe me, but I handed him over, tears streaming.
I saw Zuza after the holidays. She headed toward the school as I waited there for my mother. My heart pounded, for I could see my mother as well, at a greater distance.
Zuza came close to greet me. “Hello, Danielle.”
With a yearning in my heart, I lowered my eyes.
She lifted my chin with her delicate touch. “I want you to know I love you with all of my heart. I don’t want you to ever forget.”
“I love you, too,” I whimpered.
“I was very happy to take care of you and your brothers,” she said. “I love you all, your mother, and your father, too, and I’m not gonna give up. I promise.”
My eyes shifted, as my mother was no more than two yards away.
Zuza didn’t scurry off or quicken her pace. She simply moved along.
My mother glanced in her direction before fixing her gaze upon me. “What did she say?”
“She said she loves me, Mommy, and she loves all of us. She loves you, too.”
“What did you tell her?”
“That I love her back. I miss Zuza, Mommy.”
“I know,” she replied. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”
I saw Zuza outside the school again on a blustery February afternoon. The ties of my pom-pom hat were dangling.
She stopped in an instant and stood before me. “You have to cover your ears,” she said, tying my hat. “I don’t want you to get sick.”
She was gone before my mother arrived, and my mother assumed I had tied it myself. The next time she saw me waiting outside with the ties dangling, she asked why I hadn’t tied them.
“I didn’t tie it ever, Mommy,” I confessed. “I don’t know how.”
“I told your teacher not to tie it for you. You have to learn.”
“She didn’t, Ma. Zuza did.”
“I told you to stay away from her, Danielle, and I told you to practice tying your hat. Either you tell Zuza not to do that, or I’m going to tell her.”
“Please don’t,” I begged. “Don’t be mean to her. I promise I will tell her.”
“Your mother is right,” Zuza said. “I shouldn’t interfere. She’s trying to help you, believe me. I have the easy job with you, just to love you. I know you don’t understand. It takes a lot of love to be tough. There is nothing like a mother’s love, Danielle.”
I felt determined and tied the hat in her presence, then witnessed her glowing pride before she departed.
I hung onto hope throughout the winter months. It was like a solitary candle that burned boldly with its singular fury. On Easter Sunday, however, I watched that flame extinguish with the gust of a raging typhoon.
The bell rang. I peeked out the upstairs window and was happy to see Zuza at the front door. She was carrying something in her arms.
My happy delight would soon become agony, as my mother held the door open below. “What do you want?” I heard her say.
“Hello, Grace,” Zuza greeted her. “I brought an Easter bunny for Danielle—chocolate—and a little something for Robbie and Joe. May I come in?”
“Get out of here,” my mother snarled. “Take your bunny and whatever else you brought, and get the hell out of here.”
“Danielle is my godchild,” she protested. “We all miss each other. Grace, please, let me give this to the children—at least, to my godchild. Or you give it to them, if you want.”
“My kids don’t need anything from you. Whatever they do need, they’ll get it from me and their father.” She closed the door.
I had but a second to glimpse the pain on my godmother’s face, then cried on and off for hours, knowing how much courage it must have taken for Zuza to do that, and how my mother had turned her away like a piece of dirt. Dear Zuza! It was more difficult to accept the pain inflicted on her than the pain I was feeling. I would never forget her face, nor her amazing humility, dignity, and grace under the circumstances. It truly broke my heart. More disturbingly, I barely recognized the woman who had sent her away, though I’d seen glimpses of her before.
After dinner that night, my mother presented us with chocolate Easter bunnies, saving one for herself and one for my father. She nibbled at her bunny as we nibbled at ours, giggling with us. She put out the jellybeans we loved, remembering how much I loved the black and red ones. Before I went to bed that night, I saw she was alone in the dining room, doing her manicure and pedicure as if all was right with the world.
Come fall, there were no Vaccaros at my birthday party. The holiday season was upon us once more. We were having dessert in the dining room—the whole family enjoying lemon meringue pie—and my grandmother had a meltdown.
“Oh, Dio, oh, Dio,” she began, shaking her head. Tears were streaming down her face.
“What’s happened?” my father asked.
She shook her head and then began what seemed an exhaustive, emotional discourse in Italian. “I make a mistake.” She kept shaking her head.
My mother shot a glance at my father.
“It’sa no true,” my grandmother said.
My mother’s eyes fell upon her. “What’s not true?”
“Zuza no say anything. I say. I feela sorry. She worka hard.” My grandmother was bawling like a small child, and she continued to apologize.
My father clenched his teeth. “Then you thought it was too much for Zuza, and you put words in her mouth. But, Mama, why don’t you mind your own goddamn business? Do you see the trouble you caused? Unbelievable! And you probably said the same thing to Zuza, I bet—that it was too much—and she thought it was Grace complaining. Why do you do that? Goddamn it!”
My mother pressed for clarification. “You’re saying Zuza never said anything about it being too much for her to take care of the kids and about me disappearing?”
Grandma was shaking her head. It was then she told us that there was something wrong with Dominic Jr., that he had a heart condition.
My dad turned to my mother. “Grace, call her, please. Call Zuza.” He went on chastising my grandmother, and she continued to cry.
Zuza would confirm that my grandmother was the one who insisted it was too much for her daughter. She’d also given Zuza the impression that Grace had complained.
“Can we go see them?” I begged.
“We’ll stop by the dress shop tomorrow,” my mother said.
Zuza was dressing a mannequin in the window when we arrived. I ran to hug her, and she laughed merrily, her arms full of me. She kissed my head and cheek several times, then hugged Joey and Robbie.
“I’m sorry,” my mother conceded, her arms outstretched.
They laughed, cried, and hugged for nearly five minutes.
“I couldn’t believe it when she told me this,” my mother said. “I was shocked.”
Zuza’s eyes matched her beaming smile. All I could see was admiration. “That’s Mama,” she said. “Mama is Mama, and she’s always gonna be. She wants everybody to be happy, but she doesn’t know when to keep quiet. God bless her.”
They talked about Dom Jr., and Zuza seemed optimistic, unless she was putting on a brave face. I couldn’t tell. The next thing I knew, that sweet boy was hooked up to monitors at Hartford Hospital and turned mostly on his side, in too precarious a state for frequent visits or visits by anyone other than his parents.
We had all believed that, somehow, he’d pull through. My mother began working at the dress shop and taking care of Angie, so that Zuza could visit him often. When my father said Dom Jr. had passed away, I couldn’t sleep nights trying to comprehend that. It had me obsessing about whether there was an endless nothing or this fabled “Heaven” where God waited to welcome us. I tried to imagine myself being no more, and the fear overwhelmed me.
The first time I saw Zuza after that, she was folding clothes in her bedroom, and I told her I was sorry that she had lost her baby.
She set the clothes down and turned to me. Scooting down to meet my gaze, she placed her hands on my shoulders. “Yes, I lost my son, one of my babies,” she said, “but God will take care of him. I know your father gets mad and says a lot of things, but never stop believing, Danielle. You have to believe in and trust God.”
I wondered how it was fair that Dom Jr.’s precious face would be no more, and yet there would be the fierce eyes of Tommy Catalano, still watching, lurking, and waiting in the wings.
“Will the angels fly with him to heaven?” I asked.
“They better!” She smiled. “I don’t think he knows how to get there by himself.”
“Will he get wings?”
“Will he still look like him?”
“I imagine so!”
“What’s it like up there?”
“Beautiful,” she said. “He will be very happy.”
“Could we ever visit him, and stay with him for a little while?”
“One day, honey. One day, we will all be together again.”
“But would he remember me?” I began to cry so hard that she scrambled to grab me.
“How could he ever forget you?” She hugged me tight and rocked me gently back and forth. “You are such a beautiful, wonderful girl. I will always miss him, too, but I’m gonna take care of the rest of my babies, my children, including you. I am very lucky to have you, Danielle. Thank you.”
God, I loved her! In that moment, she was the most wonderful woman in the world to me.
It was about four when I arrived at the dress shop. The Versailles curtains in the display windows changed with the seasons. In winter, they were heavyweight opaque in a platinum shade. Zuza would herald the arrival of spring with bead-trimmed, crushed fabric in sage, which remained throughout the summer. Chenille in taupe was the fall look. By Thanksgiving, she had replaced it with plush velvet draping in gold.
The familiar bells jingled as I passed through the door. Zuza was at the register, chatting on the phone. I hung my coat on the rack. My mind conjured memories from a decade ago—all of us children prancing around the reception room. Since our early kindergarten days, Zuza and my mom had taken turns transporting us to and from school. When Zuza picked us up, we waited here for my mother.
I’d be thrilled to arrive and see the latest dresses displayed on the mannequins, one in each window, and two in the reception area against a backdrop of pale blue walls. We often slumped on the floral sofa beside the floor lamp that had a fringe shade of broadcloth. The center table surrounding the sofa offered past and present editions of Harper’s Bazaar, until Angie and I convinced Zuza to add Cosmo and Seventeen.
Display counters that once exhibited handcrafted fabric dolls and plush, hand-stitched bears made by employees, including my grandmother, now displayed brooches, pendants, chains, and hand-dyed silk scarves. None of the women had time to make dolls anymore. I missed the dolls. I thought immediately of Sweet Cookie, a store-bought doll Zuza had given to me on my fifth birthday.
How I missed that innocent time! All of us kids would stampede to the workroom in back like a herd of cattle. Depending on when you visited, it could be a quiet place with people working or abuzz with the chatter of visitors. Zuza kept coffee brewing on a table against the wall. People brought cookies she would set out there. Beyond the table, as far in the back as you could go, there was a tiny desk where Uncle Dom would sit to do the books. I always looked to see if he was there, though he usually wasn’t on a weekday. He owned a popular barbershop back then where my dad liked to go. It was a hangout for some of the locals.
Zuza hung up the phone now and smiled. “Here’s my beautiful godchild!” Her eyes radiated warmth, caring, kindness, and much love.
We went to the back, where my mother sat cutting and trimming at the long table—the same table where we’d sat coloring during childhood, with the cushioned armchairs and chintz-covered stools and many braided baskets filled with patterns and supplies. My grandmother was at one of the sewing machines, doing alterations, while another worker stood a few feet away, hand-pressing a gown.
Oh, the wonderful memories I had of this place!
Uncle Dom had been so kind when we’d visited on the Saturday after my eye surgery all those years ago.
“I only have to keep the patch for a little while,” I recall telling him.
“Don’t worry,” he had said, “when they take it off, you’re gonna find a princess under that patch.”
“That’s right. And, one day, I’m gonna take you to Pozzilli with me. They have beautiful castles there. You’re gonna see.”
“Oh, yeah, they are huge! I’m telling you, the way they are now is the way they were hundreds of years ago. You’re gonna be the Princess of Pozzilli there, and you’re not gonna believe it.”
I couldn’t help giggling.
“It’s funny?” he asked. “Why do you find it funny?”
“Princess of Pozzilli is a funny name.”
“What, you would rather be Queen of Pozzilli?”
I nodded and then tugged on his sleeve. “Did you bring the dummy?”
I was referring to a wooden doll he sometimes brought with him for his ventriloquist routine. He made everyone laugh, though no one laughed harder than Grandma.
“Next time,” he promised with a wink.
No matter where Uncle Dom was, he appeared more than willing to deliver the impromptu magic tricks, particularly with bills, coins, and cigarettes he would pull from his pockets. Seeing him laugh after he made us laugh was part of the treat. I felt blessed that my parents had chosen him and Zuza for my godparents.
Zuza took my measurements that day, just as she had years ago before creating the costume for my first grade play. For that—my acting debut—she transformed brown moiré fabric into a tunic, seaming the sides, traced a white clock face, cut it out, and drew Roman numerals with a black marker. She glued toy mice to the tunic and headpiece, and, in the final phases, added gold cords and cut out the hands. I had no more to do than tilt my head from left to right, chiming, “Tick-tock. Tick-tock,” but everyone marveled.
I had looked forward to that, but this modeling gig, not so much.
“When you come Saturday to model, bring two pairs of shoes,” she said, “one with maybe a three-inch heel, another with four. I know you must have them, and if you have a strapless bra, bring it. It’s better if it’s beige, that way you can’t see through—and if you have the seamless panties, that would be perfect.”
When Saturday arrived, I gathered all of those things and stuffed them in a backpack. Then I put the backpack aside and took some time to study my books on writing. I looked over Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—my bible long before The Chicago Manual of Style. Then, hoping it would seal the information in my brain and make a quick, easy guide, I typed a booklet of notes, including notes from the literary agent’s critique.
As I slipped the booklet into a binder I had pulled from my bookcase, a somewhat tattered page fell out. It was an article I had cut out of a magazine: “What to Do With Your First Million.” It might have been from Writer’s Digest or Money Magazine. I subscribed to both. Now, in my mind, seeing this article at precisely that moment seemed like a sign from God. Still, it amused me. Yes, Danielle, God wants you on the French Riviera, wearing a string bikini, shades, and a floppy hat, sipping margaritas and snapping your fingers at cabana boys. Nonetheless, it reinforced my determination.
Along with the college courses I would take to further my literary pursuits, I vowed to sign up for acting classes and voice lessons. Perhaps a desire to prove my worth was one motivating factor, but my interests were genuine.
By one o’clock, I was at the dress shop.
“You’re just going to put on a sample and see how it looks and feels when you move around, when you go to sit down, and when you walk,” Zuza explained. “That way, we can take a look and see how better to fix it. After that, it can be made any size.”
I followed her to the back where Angie was walking around filling a scrap bag with discarded materials. My mother and grandmother usually took Saturdays off, but they were there now working. After the usual greetings and casual conversation, I passed through the louver doors of the fitting room with Zuza’s dress in hand. There was no escaping my reflection in the well-lit room. There were large mirrors with unique etching and pink swags at the top. I didn’t like what I saw in those mirrors. Zuza poked her head in to ask whether I was having a hard time getting the dress on and if the zipper was okay. I said it was all good. I used the bench to put the first pair of heels on and walked out to model.
My grandmother and another worker showered me with praise in Italian.
“Yes, she’s like her mother,” Zuza acknowledged. “Grace always looks beautiful.”
My mother smiled, thanking her. She told me I looked great.
My grandmother remained silent about Zuza’s compliment to my mother, as she always did.
Angie’s grin was one of approval, but something was off with her, I could tell. Even before her dog got sick, she would sometimes be like her old self, and then, other times, she seemed almost too guarded or lost.
In our junior year of high school, we had laughed so much in class that a teacher had asked us if we were on some type of drug. We weren’t, so that made us laugh more. Angie seemed to love how funny I was at school. She was coming out of her shell, like I had, but I could see only a fragment of that girl now. Ordinarily, I could comfort her about her dog, a fight with her parents or anything. All she did now was pull away.
These were my thoughts as Zuza pinned my dress, did her marking, and scribbled notes in a small pad. The prodding felt a bit intrusive, but I knew she was accustomed to working with a dress form. Countless times, I had watched her bone a bodice on that form. She was the ultimate pro.
“How does it feel?” she asked. “If it’s uncomfortable anywhere, let me know.”
She had me walk around the shop and then pretend to be dancing.
We all had a good laugh over that—including Angie.
An hour into this, Angie demanded to leave, lamenting that she’d been at the shop all day, and her dog was alone. The other worker had finished for the day. She offered Angie a ride, and they left.
I was there a couple more hours, trying on other garments and combinations.
Zuza offered to pay me, but I refused. I felt guilty enough having to tell her I could do it only a few more times, or every now and then. The truth was, I didn’t mind taking off here and there on a beautiful day, going for a walk or a trip to the mall, but I reserved much of the weekend for writing.
She seemed to understand, and she shared something with me. “Did you know I almost named this place Vaccaro’s?”
“Yes, I figured I was Mrs. Dominic Vaccaro. It made sense. But it didn’t really make sense. You know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because that was my dream for so long—to have a dress shop. It was not Dominic’s dream. We decided to use my name, and since Zuza wouldn’t have sounded so good, we used my given name—Lucrezia. That’s how we came up with Romance Designs by Lucrezia. You love to write, Danielle. That’s your dream, and I don’t blame you. You keep writing.”
As tightly as I hugged her, it was not sufficient in expressing how dear she was to me.
t had to be a dream, but I could have sworn I wasn’t alone. Something or someone was behind me. Not a mortal being, I decided. It was clear he had not entered and would not exit through that bedroom door.
How did I know it was a he? Yet, I did. No other possibilities seemed worth considering—not even the equivocal it.
Swarms of glittering lights flashed on and off inside of me whenever he departed or returned as if warning me of his presence. From head to toe, I could feel the fire, as if my insides were ablaze.
Lying on my stomach, my cheek against the pillow, I felt his hard, scaly skin caressing my neck and shoulders. He entered me, and all I could do was shudder—my chest tingling, my heart racing.
At one point, there was the sound of footsteps outside the door—my mother passing. I didn’t dare turn around, but he seemed to know who was there and what would ensue.
“She will see me,” he said.
“Can she?” I seemed to think he could dematerialize.
“She can see me,” he stated with certainty.
Either I managed to hide him, or he hid himself. I tried calling to my mother for help, but I merely struggled, gasping for breath. No words came until she was gone.
“How can she see you?” I asked in a haze.
“She can see me,” he said.
I supposed that, like me, she would see no more than a shadow in the darkness.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He didn’t reply.
Once I was surely awake, I sprang from the bed. Struggling to steady my quivering limbs, I scrambled for the light.
I sat on the edge of the bed, my head bowed and resting in my trembling hands. The alarm clock buzzed, startling me. Angrily, I slammed it quiet and glanced at the towering mirror atop my chest of drawers. Sweat trickled from my brow. It had seemed so real, and, for the moment, silence prevailed. No one was in the room except me. Nothing had changed. There remained only the conception of innocence with my frilly pink bedding, my Victorian rose table lamp, the sweet teddy bears, and my cherished doll. The old nativity plaque of the Blessed Virgin with Joseph and baby Jesus seemed frozen in time.
Proceeding to the bathroom, and, subsequently, downstairs to the kitchen, I switched on any light switch I passed. In a weird hypnotic state, I grabbed what I needed from the refrigerator and prepared a breakfast of coffee and toast. Before returning to the upstairs bathroom, I checked the locks on the front doors. I checked the stove. It occurred to me, I had developed some odd new habits to ensure my safety, and the safety of those around me. I knew no one had come in or gone out the door in the middle of the night, just as I knew I hadn’t used the stove, that no one else had overnight, and that my mother had made sure all was well, tidy, and clean before she went to bed.
Undressing now, I stepped from the brown and gold floor tiles to the Moroccan brown scatter rug and into the bath. Every now and then, I interrupted my shower to slide open the glass doors just enough to peek out, and my heart pounded.
Hours later, I took my road test.
The license examiner must have felt sorry for me, since I’d been too nervous to make a proper U-turn. He passed me anyway. I had taken the day off from school and work—to get plates and take care of other car business—all before a visit to Zuza’s dress shop, so that she could take my measurements.
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.
This book was initially reviewed in May, 2012, but I am recommending it again to horror fans.
Before The House on Blackstone Moor, we experienced the wicked, self-involved albeit charming vampire and his polar opposite— the long-suffering, brooding wimp with a conscience. Carole Gill’s Louis Darton is neither. Instead, he is the perfect balance between the two—a Byronic hero with substance. He endures, as the author writes, no matter what. He does so with great courage, inner strength, and compassion. Now that’s seductive!
As a fan of 19th century British literature and all things gothic, I found, in TheHouse of The Blackstone Moor, all the elements I enjoy in a novel and all the features of a classic. The moods of great works such as Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, even Dickens (a la Oliver Twist and David Copperfield) surface throughout. Carole Gill presents excellent narration, well-drawn characters, and has a sharp ear for dialogue.
While hopelessly invested in Rose Baines and her beloved Louis Darton’s fate, I read this entire book in two days. No sooner had I put it down when an irresistible lure seemed to beckon my return. 😉 I’d have finished it in one sitting if I didn’t need to be elsewhere.
Between Darton and Satan’s cohort “Eco,” there is the additional element of the proverbial dark side with a twist. It brings to mind Anne Rice’s poetic Memnoch The Devil inspired by the Book of Enoch and Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. This genre has been met and embraced in the past with great interest and sheer fascination. Carole Gill continues in that vein. She pulls it off quite skillfully with wonderfully bold and descriptive passages.
About Carole Gill
Carole Gill is published by Creativia. She writes dark Gothic romance as well as contemporary horror.
Preditors & Editors’ Readers’ POLL #2 BEST HORROR NOVEL 2016 I, BATHORY, QUEEN OF BLOOD
BEST INDIE BOOK FINALIST 2016 CIRCUS OF HORRORS
Her acclaimed 4-novel series, The Blackstone Vampires: 2014 – Amazon Bestseller in Dark Fantasy – THE BLACKSTONE VAMPIRES OMNIBUS 2015 – Amazon Bestseller in Vampire Horror – THE BLACKSTONE VAMPIRES OMNIBUS 2015 – Amazon Bestseller in Horror Anthologies – HOUSE OF HORRORS
AWARDS: eBook Festival of Words 2014 Best Horror: The House on Blackstone Moor and Best Villain: Eco
Top 10 Books – 2013 – The House on Blackstone Moor Aoife Marie Sheridan – ALL THINGS FANTASY Publisher, Ultimate Fantasy Books ‘ 92 Horror authors you need to read right now, Carole Gill – The Blackstone Vampires Series. ~Charlotte Books Examiner,
Justine: Into The Blood Book One – Blood and Passion Series is on sale at Amazon. Book 2, Anat: Blood Princess, follows.
I, Bathory, Queen of Blood, a novel about the Blood Countess Erzsebat Bathory is her latest book. For dark horror fans there is, Carole Gill’s House of Horrors and the novel, Circus of Horrors.
In 2000 she was selected by Northwest Playwrights of England for further development. Short stories and novels were what she preferred to write. Her story, The Devil’s Work is being broadcast web and television in the Fragments of Fear Program in 2016.
She is widely published in horror and sci-fi anthologies:
Fragments of Fear tv and You Tube, ‘The Devil’s Work Killing it Softly, Digital Fiction Publishing Corp. Sideshow, published by PsychoPomp After Armeagedon short story collection by Brian L. Porter (guest story by Carole Gill) Rogues Gallery, The Illustrated Police News, Firbolg Enter at Your Own Risk: Dark Muses Spoken Silences Firbolg Vampires: Romance to Rippers an Anthology of Tasty Tales A S Publications: Enter at Your Own Risk: Old Masters New Voices, An Anthology of Gothic Literature, Fresh Fear: Contemporary Horror Triskaideka Books’ Masters of Horror Anthology One, Triskaideka Books’ Masters of Horror Damned If You Don’t, Sonar 4 Publishing’s Ladies and Gentlemen of Horror 2010, SNM’s Bonded By Blood3 Languish In Lament, Sonar 4 Publishing’s Whitechapel 13, Anthology, Rymfire’s Undead Tales, Rymfire’s Zombie Winter, Rymfire’s Zombie Writing Angelic Knight Press’ Satan’s Toy Box: Demonic Dolls and Whitechapel 13, An Anthology of the Victorian Era Sci Fi Almanac 2009 and 2010 and Science Fiction Freedom Magazine, issues 1-4, Sci Fi Talk’s Tales of Time and Space.Read less
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.