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.”
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.