There were four of them: a man who looked not unlike the other neighborhood dads, a young boy who resembled him, and a woman with a baby harnessed close to her chest. An older sister, I thought, until I studied her. Her hair was long and black and smooth-looking, her facial features Asian. She wore a baggy orange blouse, an ill-fitting pair of cargo shorts. Her lower legs, even with tube socks and suede hiking boots, were flawless. I watched them through the viewfinder of my Nikon FM10 as they moved furniture and boxes from a U-Haul into the house directly across the street from ours. But it was the woman I zoomed in on: the shape of her neck, the narrowing waist, the sensuous span of her shoulders. I waited until she was the only person in frame, but hesitated to push the shutter.
“Instead of spying out your window, you should walk over and help.”
My mother, who moved as silently as an assassin, had stationed herself in my upstairs bedroom doorway. Rita Zumpano was the topic of neighborhood gossip, a widow who’d gotten over the death of her husband a decade ago, a woman who lit no candles at church, who favored floral patterns over black, who took tango lessons at the community center. The day after she buried my father, she left me with a babysitter and came home three hours later with a new pair of shoes and a job as a bank teller at Staten Island Savings. Now she was a branch manager with a social life, two boyfriends, and a white Camaro.
It was Sunday afternoon, the month of June nearly over, ten weeks before I was to set to leave home. I’d been accepted at Providence College in Rhode Island on a partial scholarship, and my mother had helped me secure a student loan from her bank.
“Think of it as investment in yourself,” she had said. “A guarantee that you won’t wind up like the rest of the kazoos around here.” She could have been referring to any number of them: Frank Cangelosi, thirty-five and still living with his parents; Ralph D’Albis, who’d impregnated his first cousin during her visit from Florida; Johnny Rao, with a signed picture of Snooki taped to his dashboard.
During the week I was either taking pictures around the neighborhood or halfheartedly looking for a summer job.
Life was not terrible. On Saturdays, I worked for a landscaper who paid me well. Last January, the second half of my senior year, I had started dating a girl named Linda Maggio. Her father, a certified rigger for Con Edison, told me that a job was mine if I was serious about his daughter and decided to stick around.
“They’ll be hungry,” my mom said referring to the new neighbors. “I’ll make them some baked ziti.” (My mother, not the stereotypical Italian cook, meant Stouffer’s Baked Ziti, boxes of which we kept stacked like firewood in our basement freezer.)
As I approached the U-Haul, I thought about introducing myself and asking if they needed an extra hand. I figured they’d tell me that it was okay, that everything was under control, but I also knew what my mother would say if I returned home seconds after I’d just left: Of course they’ll say no if you ask them. Just get in there and start helping.
Which is what I did. I grabbed the end of a coffee table that had been set on the sidewalk, the new kid took the other end, we nodded in sync and lifted.
“My name’s Max,” he said.
“Well look at this,” the father said as we maneuvered up the flagstone walkway. “A kid who isn’t lazy. You can learn from this guy.” I noticed that he was wearing some type of uniform shirt, white with a red logo reading
Ocean Diner on the breast pocket, the name “Vince” stitched above it.
And I immediately recognized his remark for what it was. Not so much a compliment to my work ethic as much as a shot at his own son.
The house had previously been owned by the Donovans, one of the few non-Italian families on the block, a pack of dubiously related individuals that the neighbors referred to as “hillbillies.” They fled a few steps ahead of foreclosure and left holes punched in the sheetrock, water stains on the ceiling, deep gouges across the wooden floor, and a toilet bowl that looked as if it had been struck with a sledge hammer.
Max and I put the coffee table in the living room where the woman had just unfolded a playpen and placed the baby—Asian also, I now noticed—inside. I got what information I could from Max between trips back and forth, and learned he was thirteen, that the name going on the mailbox would be “Gulia,” that his father worked in the Bronx.
“Is that your mom inside?” I asked him when it was just the two of us out by the truck.
“That’s Nicole,” he said.
“Is she your stepmom?”
“She’s Chinese,” he said.
My own mother, now that everything was inside, brought over the baked ziti, a tossed salad, and a 2-liter bottle ofDiet Pepsi. Introductions were made, the food was accepted, appreciation was expressed, and then we went back across to our own house, our own carefully arranged furniture, our own Stouffer’s Baked Ziti which was just about done.
I was a sexual novice. Linda Maggio and I had been dating for almost five months, brought together on a blind date, two unpopular kids at New Dorp High School who somehow managed not to notice one another for our first three years. Neither of us was particularly attractive. Linda was bone skinny, with slightly bulging eyes and a spray of acne across her forehead. I was doughy and rather jug-eared, with dark brown hair that curled as tight as a poodle’s. Like her mother, Linda was “awed by the gifts of the Lord,” although what those gifts were she never really made clear. We’d talk on the phone during the week, hang out at the mall on Friday evening, see a movie or go bowling or eat a pizza on Saturday night. When I walked her home, we’d kiss on her back deck—no tongues, no inappropriate touching—until one of her parents flashed the outside light to indicate that enough was enough.
Linda considered going to college a waste of time. Four years when you could be making money and starting a family. “Besides,” she said. “Why study photography when it’s something you already know how to do?” She had a point, and I considered the possibility of staying put, of marrying Linda, of us living with my mom for a while.
The thought was numbing not because I didn’t like Linda, but because she failed to excite me. She was like that stripped-down car a parent might force on an irresponsible teenager: safe, but incapable of going over the speed limit.
It wasn’t long before my mother lost her place to Nicole as the primary target of neighborhood gossip. You’d hear it among the women whose carts blocked the aisles at ShopRite, among the men who stood in the street and yakked, just like their own fathers had done in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx. Skank, they called her. Homewrecker. Seductress. A personality was invented for “the first Mrs. Gulia” as well. Mental problems, suicidal, a lesbian. No blame fell on the husband. Vince Gulia was deemed a hardworking man with his own business, who’d been the victim of some type of trickery, some devious form of Oriental deception. And then, one sweltering afternoon, Vince established a reputation that would be remembered long after the summer ended.
During the spring, the Scacciaferros—who had a Down’s syndrome ten-year-old named Lizzie—had adopted a collie mix from the ASPCA. “Swiffer,” the girl named it. Problem was, Swiffer bit. And when he clamped down on Lizzie’s hand, Mr. Scacciaferro voiced plans to have the animal destroyed. I witnessed the entire exchange during a Fourth of July cookout in Mr. Scacciaferro’s yard where the entire block, most of whom showed up carrying covered dishes and 12-packs of beer as if they were the magi, showed up. Vince Gulia, arriving with Max, claimed his “old lady” was tired, and added, “Tired from what, I can’t tell you.”
Swiffer was restricted to the house, crated up like a convicted murderer, and every so often we could hear him bark at the pop of not-so-distant fireworks.
“There’s nothing wrong with that dog that discipline won’t cure,” Vince said loud enough to be heard by everyone.
“One week with me and he’d know his place.”
“He’s ready to go when you are,” Scacciaferro said half-kidding. But Vince took it as a challenge and before he left, Swiffer was on the end of a leash. I could tell Max wasn’t thrilled with this arrangement—what kid getting a family pet he already feared would be?—but the kid wisely stayed silent.
Things exploded one Saturday about a week later when Frank Cangelosi brought home a Honda 250 motorcycle. On our block, where the norm was Ford or Chevy, Frank may as well have ridden in on the back of a camel. People poured out of their houses, my mom and I among them. Children begged for rides, women approached the machine as if it was a bomb, men stood next to the bike and asked me to take their pictures.
“You wanna fuck around?!” Okay, come on! Let’s fuck around!”
We all turned to the sound of the voice, heard even over the roar of the motorcycle, and there he was, Vince Gulia, standing on his front lawn. He was holding Swiffer by the leash, but his grip was close to the dog’s collar and the poor animal hung its head and raised its eyes like it had just been discovered plotting the overthrow of the government. In his other hand, Vince was holding a thin orange rod that I quickly recognized as one of those reflective metal markers that people stick at the edge of their driveways.
The scene, I imagine, resembled a public caning. Vince beat Swiffer like he was a dusty carpet hung over a clothesline, while the dumbfounded spectators on the opposite sidewalk watched. With each strike the dog would yelp and try to twist away, and the entire time Vince’s verbal bantering continued. “Like that?!” he’d say. “Feel good?!”
It was my mother who sidestepped through the crowd, who walked purposely across the street, who stopped midway up the walkway and calmly said, “That’s enough, Vince.”
“Son of a bitch bit my son!” Vince said, the rod finally still.
“Go on inside. Leave the dog out here.”
Vince hesitated, gazed across at the onlookers, released the leash. The dog flopped on its side, its tongue lolling out, its breath labored. When Vince walked up the four brick steps and through his front door, my mother approached the dog. She stopped when Swiffer raised his head and showed his teeth, but stood her ground until Mr. Scacciaferro came across and carried the animal home in his arms. At once, the neighbors became animated. I heard somebody say, “Dog had it coming,” and somebody else mumble, “Yeah, but not like that.”
As far as I know, no one ever saw Swiffer after that day. We all had our imaginations, and I guess that was sufficient.
In the mornings, from the crow’s nest of my bedroom, I would observe the routine as it unfolded. At 7:30 Vince, along with some of the other neighborhood commuters, would set out for the four-block trek to the train station.
Shortly after that, Max would take off somewhere on his bike. Around half-an-hour later, Nicole would come out carrying Rose, secure the baby in their Ford Fiesta, and drive off.
I’d go downstairs, make myself cream cheese on a bagel, watch TV. Around noon, I’d be back at my window looking for Nicole to get back. I hoped that she’d be loaded down and in need of assistance, juggling the baby in one arm while trying to manage a bunch of shopping bags with the other, and I’d have time to rush to her aid.
That never occurred. During the afternoon a truck from Home Depot or Peapod might occasionally stop by and make a delivery, but nothing much else happened.
One morning, a couple of days after July Fourth, I walked over to talk to Max who was kneeling in his driveway and pumping air into his bike’s front tire.
“Where’d he get you?” I asked.
“Swiffer. Your dad said you got bit.”
“Well he’s not a liar if that’s what you’re trying to say.”
“So he did bite you?”
“If my dad says he did, I guess he did.”
And with that, Max was on his bike and gone.
It was a week later that Max was hospitalized with a fractured femur. My mind instantly turned to Vince, but apparently the poor kid had been sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver one morning while riding his bike. He went into surgery almost immediately and spent four nights at Staten Island University Hospital. My mother and I visited him a couple of times, after which he was sent home with instruction to stay off his feet for a few days.
Nicole called our house the day Max came back. It was around six on a Saturday. I had just gotten home from mowing lawns all day, and had a date to take Linda to an Adam Sandler movie. My mom was going to a dinner party with Andrew, one of her two boyfriends.
“Mrs. Gulia wants to know if you can help her out tomorrow,” my mother said after she hung the phone up.
She shrugged. “Stuff.”
“She’s like my age,” I said. “I don’t even know what to call her.”
“Call her ‘Mrs. G. She’ll correct you if she doesn’t like it.”
My date with Linda turned out to be extremely weird, and for that I take full blame. I’d gotten my license a year earlier, but my mother had been reluctant to let me take her car. “Use public transportation,” she’d say. “It’s safer.”
On this night, for whatever reason, she gave me a short lecture on responsibility, talked a little about accident-induced insurance rates, and handed me the keys.
Linda, perhaps impressed by the fact that most of our evening wouldn’t involve waiting for the S74 bus, agreed to skip the movie in favor of “riding around.” She suggested the mall, where we were bound to be seen by less fortunate classmates on foot. I took her instead to Mount Loretto Beach, a creepy, rock-strewn strip of sand that I’d photographed a few times. I parked as close to the water as I could, turned off the ignition, put my arm across Linda’s shoulder.
“Down, boy,” she said.
I had hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that the romantic lights of Perth Amboy would awaken her sexuality and that we’d go places we hadn’t been before. I was wrong. We kissed for a few minutes in that same mash-faced manner we’d practiced on her back deck, but when I put my hand on her left breast, my wrist was seized by a grip that could have pulverized a bag of chestnuts.
“Do not,” she said, “even dream of going there.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just thinking that maybe it was time to move things up a notch.”
“Why?” she said. “So you can go off to college and tell all your new friends how you scored?”
“I might not even go.”
“I haven’t totally decided.”
“When you do, let me know. But until then, don’t treat me like a prostitute.”
I took her to Planet Wings where we made some labored small talk, and then on the way back to her house she said, “I don’t know if I could wait four years for you to get back.”
“It’s Providence, Rhode Island,” I said. “Not Iraq.”
“Either way you’ll come home totally different.” She looked out her side window and said barely loud enough for me to hear, “Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe my mother is right. ‘Don’t settle,’ she told me. ‘You deserve better.’”
“Your mother said that?”
“She also thinks you’re too heavy for your height,” Linda said, still not looking over.
There were no kisses exchanged on her back deck that night, just the slam of the car’s passenger door, the sound of me carefully backing down her driveway, and the sight of her front light going black before I even hit the street.
I hadn’t seen the inside of the Gulia house since that day I’d helped them move in. Now the place resembled a construction site: buckets of paint stacked in a pyramid, packs of pink insulation pushed against the cellar door, a 5-gallon plastic bucket filled with tools. In the living room all the furniture had been pushed to the center and covered with a tarp, and in one corner there were folded drop cloths, paint pans, roller pads, brushes, and mixing sticks.
Mrs. G met me at the front door the next morning with Rose in her arms. She was wearing some kind of belted blue shift that seemed a couple of sizes too big.
“I appreciate this,” she said. “If you could just stay with Max until I get back.”
“No problem,” I told her.
Max was in one of the bedrooms down the hall and when I walked in he was propped up wearing a Cape Cod t-shirt and a pair of pajama shorts. Attached to his right leg was what he proudly told me was “a stabilizing frame” with a half-dozen pins going directly through the skin and into the bone. There was a small flat-screen TV in the room, and somebody had given him the entire first season of Attack on Titan on DVD. He was in pain, but happy for the company, even if it was a guy who’d insulted his father.
We watched Titan for over ninety minutes, and then there was a soft knock on the bedroom door and Mrs. G looked in. “I just want to change my clothes and put Rose in her crib,” she said. “Can you give me fifteen more minutes?” I told her it was no problem, and she was back quickly thanking me and asking if it was possible for me to drop by again on Monday.
I told her sure.
I noticed she’d put on a paint spattered pair of overalls and a yellowing t-shirt. Her feet were bare and her hair was pulled back into a pony tail that stuck out the back of a worn Mets cap. She was beautiful. Exotic. We were almost to the front door when I asked her if there was anything else—anything at all—I could do.
She smiled. “I don’t want to use you up in one day,” she said.
“I’ve got nothing,” I told her.
“Do you like to paint?”
“I can’t pay you much.”
“You don’t have to pay me anything,” I said. “My mother would kill me.”
I walked back over to my house, dug out the oldest clothes I could find, accepted my mom’s praise for what a good, unselfish thing I was doing, rinsed with Listerine, and headed back across.
Mrs. G had the drop cloths spread out and a 6-foot ladder set up by the time I got back. She would use a brush to “cut the lines” that separated wall from ceiling, wall from windows, wall from floor. I was instructed to roll paint—a shade of green designated as “Spirit Whisper” on the bucket—using a long wooden pole with a paint roller screwed onto the end.
“Take off your sneakers and socks,” she instructed, and when I looked at her questioningly she told me that way if we stepped in wet paint, we’d know it.
We worked in relative silence for a couple of hours. She had a steady hand and didn’t even have to use tape. I was painstakingly careful not to drip. When I finally asked her what happened to the holes in sheetrock, she told me she’d patched them. That she used to do this kind of stuff with her dad all the time.
“Where’s Mr. Gulia?” I asked.
“Vince has a ‘friend’ he visits on Sunday.” She paused a moment, and then added, “He says he goes to see his cousin, but that woman is no cousin.”
I was naïve, but not stupid. I decided to change the topic.
“You seem really young,” I said.
“I’m twenty-three,” she said. “You’re probably what? Seventeen?”
“I’ve seen you taking pictures.”
I told her it was my hobby, but that if I decided to go to Providence College it could be my concentration in a Studio Arts major.
Mrs. G stopped work and looked down from the third step of the A-frame ladder.
“Why would you decide not to?”
I laughed. “You sound like my mother.”
“I wish I could go back.”
“Why can’t you?”
“People make choices.”
We worked for a while, and I said, “I kind of have this girlfriend who doesn’t want me to leave.”
“Ah,” she said. “Young love.”
“She also thinks I’m too heavy for my height.”
Upstairs, Rose started to cry.
“My girl is ready for lunch,” Mrs. G said, stepping down. “How about you?”
I told her I could always eat.
Mrs. G changed into cut-off jeans that reached past her knees and a red t-shirt, and brought the baby down while I washed my hands in the bathroom. I found them—Rose harnessed and looking sleepy-eyed—in the kitchen. Mrs. G handed me a tray of food and asked if I’d bring it down to Max. It was peanut butter and jelly on white bread, a cold can of Coke, a salad bowl of potato chips. I was expecting the same, but by the time I got back to the kitchen I saw that she had set out several plates along with a pitcher of iced tea. One plate was white rice, one was broccoli, a third was small pieces of chicken mixed with chopped up carrots and onions. Two places were set, each with a paper napkin, a set of chopsticks, and a small ivory-colored bowl.
“Max’s father insists he eat American,” she said as if she could read my thoughts. “Why don’t we go a little healthier?”
I’d had what I considered Chinese food any number of times. We’d gotten it from a place called Panda Kitchen, and my meal usually consisted of deliciously greasy beef chow mein heaped with crispy noodles, a couple of deep-fried eggrolls, and few fortune cookies. The stuff in front of me just seemed like somebody’s leftovers.
Mrs. G, already at the table, told me to sit, to not be shy, to take whatever I wanted. I spooned a bit of rice in my tiny bowl, some of the chicken, a piece of broccoli. When I reached over for the iced tea, I noticed that she’d raised her t-shirt and was breast-feeding the baby. She smiled at my obvious shock. “I hope this doesn’t bother you,” she said.
I lied and said it didn’t.
“So where do you go in the mornings?” I asked.
“I swim,” she said.
“At the beach?”
“At the Y. I drop Rose off at toddler care in Annadale, and then I do laps for a couple of hours.”
I pictured her. Her lean body slicing through the chlorinated water. I saw her using those aluminum steps to climb out just before toweling herself off. I wondered what her bathing suit looked like. I visualized something black and formfitting.
We finished lunch, and while I cleared the table and washed the dishes, Mrs. G set the playpen up in the kitchen.
Rose seemed totally content to stand inside, gripping the padded side and watching us. I visited Max for another hour and we played a couple of games of dominos. Before I left, I even considered volunteering to change the baby’s diaper, but I realized how needy that would make me look.
“Okay, Mrs. G,” I said at the door. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Maybe you can call me Nicki,” she said. And then she handed me the small bowl and a pair of black plastic chopsticks. “Eat all your meals from this,” she said. “It’s magic.”
Halfway across the street I wanted to break into a run. I wanted to jump straight up like Superman and land on somebody’s roof. I wanted to sing out as loud as I could. But I knew the neighbors, at least some of them, were watching.
Linda texted me a few times and left messages on my phone. Her texts ranged from: R u ready to apologize yet??? to I’m worried about u!
I finally texted back that I was fine, that I was busy, that we’d have to get together when things settled down. And then, to be honest, I hardly gave her another thought.
And that’s how the summer went. I looked in on Max every morning his father wasn’t home, and then—following his doctor’s recommendation—I walked him around a bit. Nicki and I painted the living room and the kitchen, we assembled modular shelving in the master bedroom, we sanded the floor in the dinette, we replaced rotting boards on the back porch. I used the tiny bowl instead of a plate—my supportive mother picking the miniature meatballs from Progresso Chickarina soup—and lost some weight.
On Saturday, when Vince was home, Nicki would neither swim nor work on the house. Instead, she drove around the island—to lumber yards, to furniture stores, to plumbing supply outlets—and took pictures with her phone. She’d reproduce these photos using a color printer, then lay them out on the kitchen table for me to check out during the week.
“Look at this crown molding,” she might say. Or, “I love the way this living room is arranged.” And then she’d almost always add, “We should do something like this.”
On the last day of July, after we’d finished hanging a heavy set of drapes over the picture window in the living room, Nicki handed me an envelope. When I opened it, I saw that it was a one month membership to the YMCA for the entire month of August. When I thanked her, she told me it wasn’t a totally unselfish gesture.
“I’m hoping that now I’ll have somebody to swim with,” she said.I found out the next morning that her bathing suit was neither black nor formfitting. It was a red high-necked one-piece with a modest little skirt on the bottom. It complimented a flesh-colored latex bathing cap that made her look like a cancer patient.
The longer Nicki and I worked together, the bolder I got with my questions: “Do you like living here?” “No. Not really.” “Have you always wanted to be a mother?” “No, but I’m glad I am.” “Do you think I could photograph you?” “Vince would go crazy.”
One time I said, “Did you lose a lot of weight?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Your clothes. They seem like they would fit a bigger woman.”
“Vince picks them.”
Once, about halfway through the morning, we decided to take a break and play with Rose on the new living room carpet. Nicki brought in four kitchen chairs and a couple of just-laundered bed sheets, and I positioned the chairs in a square with their backs facing while she pulled the sheets over the top.
I asked about her family, and Nicki told me she had an older sister named Daisy. Her parents—a building contractor and a dental hygienist—had recently retired and moved to Hawaii.
“What about Mr. Gulia.?”
She hesitated on that, then told me that when she met Vince she was in her second year at Queens College.
“I had it bad for this waiter who worked at Vince’s diner and I used to go there every day after class, drink V-8, and stare at him. The guy never said anything to me other than “Hi,” and “Would you like more juice?” After a while Vince noticed my infatuation. One night just before closing, he asked me to hang around, and once we were alone he told me I was wasting my time. That the guy was engaged.”
I watched Rose who, unsure at first, crawled toward the fortress we’d built and gently passed inside.
“Vince was very considerate. Very comforting. We talked all night, and then he made me strawberry pancakes and coffee with cinnamon. I kept going to the diner, but now it was to talk with Vince after the doors were locked.”
“Then this little chipmunk came along.”
Nicki flipped up one edge of the bed sheet and Rose stared out like a kitten in a shoe box.
“So he divorced his wife and married you?”
“He divorced his wife, but we never got married,” she said. She leaned in toward me and smiled. “But don’t tell anybody. Okay?”
I couldn’t help it. Here the poor woman had just told me this heartbreaking story and the first thought I had was Wow. She’s not married.
“Has he ever hit you?”
Her smile disappeared and her face clouded over.
“If he even touches me, he’ll never see me again.”
“Where will you go?”
“Seattle. I’ll live with my sister.”
And then, just that quickly, her smile returned and she went down on all fours and crawled inside with Rose.
“Hey, Willie,” she said. “Come join the party.”
I squatted down and looked inside and there was Nicki sitting “Indian-style” and Rose creeping up onto her lap. I wished I’d had my Nikon with me. I could have taken that picture, had a print made, and carried it in my wallet. That way, in the future, if anyone were to ask about the exact moment I fell in love with Nicki Gulia, I could have simply shown them.
For the rest of the summer, I felt as if I was drowning. Underwater and unable to breath at night, breaking the surface and gulping oxygen during the day. I wanted to say something, repeat my request to photograph her, but feared losing Nicki’s friendship. I don’t think we should work together anymore, she might say, and for my remaining time home I would be stuck sitting in my room separated by that stretch of blacktop that ran between us like the River Styx.
Except then, again, something happened.
I was scheduled to leave for Providence on the last Saturday in August, the weekend before classes would begin. This was the Wednesday prior, three days left to either let Nicki know my feelings, or choose to hold them in check for the rest of my life. Max was getting around pretty well on crutches. Nicki and I had worked on the house most mornings and some afternoons, and the project we were currently involved with—one we would have never tackled at the beginning of the summer—the renovation of the upstairs bathroom—was close to complete. Nicki was on the ladder painting the ceiling while I was cutting away the mildewed caulk around the bathtub. As we’d done all summer, we were working barefoot. I was using a utility knife, one of those with a plastic handle and a push-up blade divided into segments. Each time the tip of the blade became dull, I would use a plyers to snap off the old section, and place it into an empty olive jar on the lip of the tub. At one point the jar had tipped onto the drop cloth, but I was confident none of the used pieces had spilled free.
Nicki came down from the ladder in order to refill her roller pan. I heard her cry out in pain, and when I looked over she was standing on her left foot and trying to lift her right one.
“I stepped on something,” she said.
“Let me see.”
She boosted herself up onto the sink counter and I raised her foot to eye level. There was some blood on her instep—not very much—but I could see the angled end of a blade no larger than my pinkie nail sticking out.
I tried to grab it with my fingers, but the blood make is slick and there wasn’t enough to grip onto. I thought of using the pliers, but knew they were far from being sterile.
“It hurts,” Nicki said.
I pushed the leg of her coverall up to her knee, brought her foot to my mouth, was able to trap the razor tip between my teeth. I drew my head back. I spit the blade into the tub behind me, and then watched the wound began to really bleed. I ran warm water in the sink, washed and dried the cut as well as I could.
“Rubbing alcohol in the cabinet underneath,” Nicki said.
I used a hand towel to slow the blood flow, found a couple of Q-tips, applied the alcohol. Nicki drew in her breath and grimaced. I continued to hold her foot, to dab at it, to blow on the cut in an effort to cool it, to make a scab form. I asked Nicki if she’d had a tetanus shot recently, and she nodded. But she seemed distant, almost in shock. Her breathing was labored and her mouth was partially open and I realized I was not only tending to her foot, I was caressing it.
“Willie?” she said.
I couldn’t speak, couldn’t take my eyes from her.
“Lock the door.”
And so I decided to tell her. I might have done it that day in Nicki’s bathroom, but I was afraid it would have sounded entirely insincere, the raving of some ecstatic, immature adolescent.
The next day, August 29th, was Nicki’s birthday. Earlier in the week, I’d hit up my mom for a few extra bucks and asked if she had any ideas for a gift. She suggested a CD or a Whitman’s Sampler or a photograph of myself in a nice frame. I humored her, but these were things you bought for an aunt, a grandmother, maybe a teacher.
On Wednesday night, I drove over to Kohl’s hoping to find an inexpensive piece of jewelry when I saw a sign in the window. They were having this “Welcome to Fall Sale,” all summer merchandise half price or less, and within fifteen minutes I’d found what I wanted: a white two-piece bathing suit I figured was Nicki’s size. The bottom was designated “French cut,” the top “bandeau.” I realized that as a gift it was somewhat intimate, but at this point I had no problem with that.
What I didn’t expect to find was Linda Maggio. She was behind one of the counters, a late summer hire, and she spotted me the same time I spotted her.
“Hey,” she said as she rang me up but kept her eyes on the cash register. “How’s things?”
“Things are good.”
“So who’s the lucky girl?”
“What do you mean?”
Now she looked up.
“You don’t buy a bathing suit like this for your mom, Willie.”
“Hey, it’s all right,” she said. “I got a new boyfriend myself. You know Denny Shea?”
I did—he was a goon—but said I didn’t.
Linda fished out a flattened gift box. “You look good,” she said.
“I lost some weight.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Very hot.”
I’d never heard her talk like that. She passed some kind of laminated card over the scanner.
“I just gave you the employee’s discount,” she said.
On the way home I stopped at ShopRite and picked up a bunch of carnations and a Mylar birthday balloon, primarily to show my mother how her money was spent.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said over dinner that night. “Maybe I should stick around here for another year.”
My mom had made chicken Parmesan and at this point was use to serving me in my small bowl as if she was a little girl filling up a doll’s dish.
“Why would you do that?”
“Is it Mrs. Gulia?”
“I’m confused then.”
“Maybe I want to stay because of you?”
“Maybe I’d feel guilty if I left you here all by yourself.”
My mother was not a crude woman. She considered bad language the sign of a lazy mind. But now, as she glared at me across the table, she seemed to find some measure of vulgarity appropriate.
“Hey, buddy,” she said. “Don’t put this shit at my door. If you want to stay and lower the bar, that’s your decision.”
I was embarrassed and pissed off enough to reach over and tear off a chunk of garlic bread the size of a grown man’s fist.
The next morning it was raining hard enough that I put my yellow rain slicker on and tucked Nicki’s gift underneath to keep it dry. I figured we’d take our morning swim at the Y, then put the final touches on the upstairs bathroom. But when I showed up at the house holding the flowers and the balloon, she hugged me and pulled me inside as if I was some long-lost prom date.
“There’s something else,” I said as she searched through the kitchen looking for a vase, and I gave her the package I had concealed under my slicker. She took it to the kitchen table and started unwrapping it. All night I’d pictured her holding it up against her body, telling me how much she adored it, trying to rush us out the door so that she could model it for me at the pool.
And at that point, I would let her know.
“Well,” she said, but her smile had faded and she neither lifted it from the box nor really even looked at it.
“It’s a new bathing suit,” I said.
“I see that.”
“Don’t you like it?”
“Hey, can I see?”
Max, on his crutches, had come out of his room and up behind us without being noticed.
“It’s nothing,” Nicki said as she folded the paper back around the box. “Maybe we should skip the Y today,” she said to me. And to Max she said, “And maybe you should be careful about sneaking up on people.”
We quietly finished the bathroom in about an hour and then Nicki said we were done for the day. She reached her hand out and said, “I probably won’t see you before you leave, so be safe.”
I shook her hand. I didn’t know what else to do. And I went home without my rain slicker.
On Thursday morning she left twenty minutes early, without me. I hung around the house for a while feeling sorry for myself, then said fuck it, then packed my gym bag and walked out to the bus stop.
I got to the Y half-an-hour later, rushed into the changing room, put on my trunks, hurried out. The pool area, as it generally was that time of day, was uncrowded. Just the apathetic lifeguard sitting in her elevated chair and a few waterlogged senior citizens.
I found her. She had just climbed out of the pool and was drying off with a white beach towel. She was wearing her bathing cap and her old red bathing suit and she acted surprised to see me.
“Willie, what are you doing here?”
“I leave the day after tomorrow. I’m not even sure where I’m going. But I want you to come.”
“You, me, and Rose.”
“Why is it crazy?
She looked at me with those lovely dark eyes and she said, “Because you’re just a boy.” Then she walked past me to where I couldn’t follow her, into the women’s locker room.
I dressed as quickly as I could and waited in the hallway for over an hour. But she must have beaten me out, must have left in her still-wet swimsuit, because when I walked out to the parking lot I couldn’t find her car anywhere. When I got back home shortly before lunch, there was still no sign of her. I called Max, asked if he knew where she might be, asked if he wanted me to come over and hang out, but he seemed angry with me for some reason.
I sat on my bed and studied her house from my window. I’m a stalker, I thought. How pathetic. But I watched until my mother got home, until Vince himself rolled in. Nicki, with Rose in tow, came in shortly after that. I wasn’t about to go over with him there, not after seeing what he’d done to Swiffer, not knowing that it could just as easily be me on the end of that leash.
But then he came to me.
My mother was the one who put down the Staten Island Advance and got off the recliner when she heard the knock on the door. I was upstairs in my room sorting out my problems and folding the clothes I’d just taken out of the dryer.
“Where’s your son?!” I heard, and I recognized Vince Gulia’s voice immediately.
By the time I came into the living room, he was standing there, my mom a few paces away, the box with the bathing suit on the coffee table where it had apparently been tossed.
“I gave it to Nicki,” I said.
He took a few steps toward me and stopped inches from my face. “Listen to me, fella! You even go near Nicki again and I’ll bust you open!” He turned toward my mom, his big mistake. “What the hell kind of a kid are you raising?!” he said.
“Let me tell you something,” my mom said squeezing in front of me. “Number one, I didn’t know anything about this. Number two, if you even touch my son you’ll be the sorriest man who ever drew breath.”
He tried for a few seconds to stare her down, but quickly realized he have a better chance against two eyes painted on a stone wall. He looked over the top of my mother’s head directly at me.
“Stay out of my house,” he said, and then he was gone.
“She’s not even his wife,” I said.
“Whoever she is,” my mother said, “it might be a good idea to stay on this side of the street for a while.”
Not surprisingly, I found it difficult to sleep that night. I continued to stare out at the house throughout the dark, moonless night, and wondered what was going on inside. I envisioned myself walking over, forcing the front door open, taking Nicki by the hand while at the same time shouldering the baby, and walking out.
And then what? I thought to myself.
I finally lied back on my still-made bed and drifted off sometime around 4:00 AM. When I woke up, it was close to nine, I was alone in the house, and Nicki’s car wasn’t parked outside anymore.
Max splayed his crutches out to the sides in order to block access through his front door.
“I don’t know where she is,” he told me. “She left early this morning with Rose.”
“Why would she do that? What happened?”
He looked away, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“I told my dad about the bathing suit.”
“Yeah. I figured you did.”
When I turned to leave, he said, “Hang on.”
Max went inside the house while I waited just outside the doorway. He came back holding my yellow rain slicker.
“Nicole came into my room just before she left. She wanted to make sure you got this.”
I took the bus to Richmond Savings, went inside to my mother’s office, and told her I needed the car.
“I want to look for Nicki.”
She puckered her lips and pushed them to one side, but then she reached down and opened the empty file cabinet where she kept her pocketbook.
I drove around the island—its 14 mile length, its 7 mile width—hoping to see her car parked outside some motel, some restaurant, some hardware store. No luck. At 4:30 I returned to the bank and picked up my mom, who convinced me that it was time we both went home.
“You’ll be okay,” she said as I pulled up to the house, and at first I took it as a question, which it wasn’t.
My father and I never got along that great. He was pretty distant and—from my eight-year-old perspective—unappreciative. At night, I’d do what practically all kids do. I’d picture a scenario where I’d save his life at the cost of my own. An armed thug would break into our house and I’d subdue him, but the one shot he’d manage to get off would strike me, and as my life billowed away, my father would recognize his mistake.
And then he’d be sorry.
I was going through that exact same thing as I packed. Once I’m gone, they’ll realize. Linda, Nicki, even my own mom. Once I’m gone. Then they’ll be sorry.
I wanted to be like that old movie cowboy, Randolph Scott, and fade away from Staten Island the way he used to slowly disappear over the horizon of the western plains. I’d gotten up at 6:00 AM, and loaded the car with the few things I needed. I figured I’d wake my mom, eat a fast breakfast, then we’d drive to Boston where she’d help me settle into my dorm room. We’d agreed to make our goodbyes quick, no public displays, no drama. And that’s exactly what we did.
I met my roommate, a guy named Derek Gamble from Portland, Maine, and he and some other anxious freshmen had already formed a pack and were heading to a place called Tomato City Pizza just off campus. I told them to go on ahead, that I’d catch up. I said I just wanted to phone home and make sure my mom got back in one piece. When I called, she’d just gotten in. Her second boyfriend—Jake—was on his way over and taking her out to see a local production of the musical Memphis.
I kind of wished I was there.
I got ready to join my roommate, saw that outside it had started to sprinkle, grabbed my yellow slicker and slipped it on. As I slid my room key into the pocket, I hit something. It was a sheet of paper folded in quarters, and when I opened it up I saw it was a photograph printed from a color copier. It wasn’t sexual—she wasn’t stretched across a bed or splayed out suggestively on a fur rug—it was just Nicki standing in the afternoon light, a little half-smile on her face. She was wearing that white bathing suit, and I could see the sun shining through the bathroom window we’d glazed and painted, reflecting off the shower wall we’d retiled and scrubbed spotless.
And I pictured her in the present. Or maybe a day or two from now. She was up in Seattle with Rose and her sister Daisy, and the three of them were doing whatever it is people in Seattle do.
Watching salmon spawn maybe.
Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 finalist for the INDIFAB Award for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places. Z.Z.lives in Connecticut where he teaches at Western Connecticut State University.