here were the hands again…groping, touching. With every moment, my fear intensified. The attempt at seduction seemed clear—until those hands tightened around my neck. I thought about turning and looking for a crack of light through the doorway, but I couldn’t move. My body shivered and shook, although perhaps only in the dream realm. There was no way to tell, no way to awaken, and the best logic I could employ was a nonsensical dream rationale. If I can grab those menacing hands, and I can feel them like any other tangible thing, I am not dreaming.
With fierce determination, I reached around and clutched the hand, feeling the flesh of a human hand urgently struggling to free itself. It succeeded. I heard the bedsprings and then footsteps—someone or something hurrying to get out the door.
Licorice was there, under the covers, his soft fur against my ankle. Instead of scrambling for the overhead light, I rolled over and switched on the lamp. It was 3:00 a.m., and the house was perverse in its silence.
Lying down again, I tried thinking of Johnny Depp and the singer, Chris Cornell, with the hope I’d dream of one of them instead of this horrible thing. Soon, I was dreaming but not of either of them.
Passing through the courtyard entrance of some medieval fortress—thick walls, marble columns, numerous domelike towers— I peeked into a grand ballroom of gilded walls where rock crystal chandeliers hung from the highest carved ceilings. There was a pendulum Westminster clock on the wall. The ballroom was crowded, but I could see him. His back was to me, but there was no mistaking it was Valentin. Though he wore the ingratiating tuxedo, I sensed that affluent society did not impress him.
He looked up at the clock as it chimed and then strolled to the vineyard terrace, the rhythmic movements in his stride seeming all too suggestive. The moonlight appeared to shine upon him, as his dark, silky hair tossed in the wind. As always, I felt the pull toward him, and I followed.
If he was surprised when he turned, I couldn’t tell. His eyes fell upon me, and I felt shackled by the chains of their mysterious light, wickedly enticed by them and at his full mercy. I moved closer to him, perhaps too close. His jeweled fingers stroked my cascading tresses. I ached for him, knowing he could see that aching. My hands trembled along with my lip sand my heart.
He moved the wayward strands of hair away from my cheek and caressed my cheek with his hand. He kissed me, merely another caress to my lips, but my lips parted. I could feel the warmth of his fire as his body grazed mine, and he kissed me again—really kissed me. It came from deep in the soul, as savage and untamed as I’d imagined, causing me to realize that the aching, the craving for him, had begun long ago.
Our tongues mingled and danced like kindred souls of a past era rejoined, and he approached every embrace with a sense of wonder, seeming to drink in every nuance of my beauty. He lingered lovingly, relishing the sensations, and then pressed passionately. My fingers grazed his hair. My body succumbed to him, and the notion that he felt my surrender titillated me to no end. In my willingness to learn, I mirrored his sensual finesse, understanding it had come with experience. I might have begged that he teach me everything, all that my indoctrinated psyche thought forbidden, because with every deep breath, every sigh, every moan from him, I wanted more.
“I understand your hunger,” I said.
“Do you?” He held me tighter.
The passion resumed and intensified, confirming what I knew. There was no partial surrender with him. My body was his, as his was mine. He hugged me to him as though overcome by salacious, forbidden urges.
I told him I could not have resisted him if I’d wanted to. “Am I right?” I asked.
“You could have resisted, love,” he said. “You didn’t want to.”
“How do you know?”
“Mm, you gave me a treasure hunt map with clues I could decipher with a fair amount of effort.” He laughed. “In short, you left bread crumbs to your door.”
My lips tickled his, teasing. “Was that unwise?”
“I think so.”
He secured a fistful of my hair and drew me close to him again. He pressed his hardness against me, kissing me furiously, moaning as if he were pained now. My small cries to him were of agony, and he soothed me. He lifted me into his arms and carried me off in the darkness, then laid me on the grass, somewhere in the forest. I shivered in response to his deep breaths as he nibbled on my neck and shoulders. The notion of bending to his will aroused me like never before, and I allowed it, unconcerned about the consequences. I didn’t have to think about consequences. Having orchestrated this fantasy, I braced myself to feel the stinging pain; I ached for it and for the rush of euphoric intoxication that would follow.
He said, “Now may not be the time, but no matter what happens in this life, I will see you in the next. If we lose each other, find me when you awaken, and I will look for you, too. I will take care of you. I’ll defend and protect you.”
“I love you, Valentin,” I whimpered.
“I love you, too, Danielle,” he said. “I will cherish you, always.”
I awoke then.
Approaching the window, my fear had subsided. A half-illuminated moon loomed high in the darkened sky while drops of glistening rain pelted the window. Those drops, clear as crystal, blurred any vision beyond the glass, like the thickening fog. It was enough to obscure our glorious view of the mountains, and the dreary gloom seemed acknowledged by the crow caws and birdsong. I could hear, too, Mother Nature’s cleansing teardrops, and a bit of her roar. It soothed my ears and my soul, as though we were one. Her rebellious pummeling spoke volumes to me, as she was this omnipotent force, unwavering in her power and duty. She washed over me—her fickle, tainted child, a child depleted by the blistering trek through the maze. How fractured was my mind that everything in the blackness of night seemed distorted—so much so, that I could almost hear the anguished wails of spirits in the old cemetery. This was crazy, I thought.
It didn’t help that my period had lasted ten days, with more blood than usual. After two weeks of PMS, there was one week left of feeling normal.
Something inspired me to write a poem, and it came to me quickly as if I’d been writing words I could hear.
Thunder and lightning make this night
Seem a battle of foes;
He responds with lightning blows.
I believe it is the rage of my father,
The thunder is his voice.
There is a crackling and blinding light
That holds some burdensome truths.
The day will come
When those startling truths
Will break you,
Like you’ve never been broken before.
Listen to the thunder, Father;
Listen to your children.
If you listen to the thunder,
You will hear this child.
The thunder is my voice.
It was typical of what I’d been writing at the time. If I’d have gone through every recent poem and counted each time the word darkness appeared, it could have been a drinking game. In retrospect, I had it all etched in my brain—good and evil, dark and light, one extreme or the other, never a balance, never a middle ground. To some, you had to be the good girl or the bad girl, the serpent or the Madonna. It was absurd.
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.