Marina: I saw history the day I decided to go back to Virginia. I came out of the farmacia, where some women in their black hose, long-sleeved dresses, and scarves, like my mother-in-law, circled around its door and talked only to each other. Once through the small crowd, I looked down Grand across the river to New York; its spikes snagged the clouds. I told myself, Marina, it’s time to go, the war’s on.

Mama had just passed.  Papa and my brothers and sisters could no longer tie strings around me. I, the youngest, Marina, needed no one to care for, and no one to care for me, I figured.

Careful to keep my tiny heels from tripping me up between the bricks of the street, I stepped off the curb on the other side. Turning around the corner, I almost snagged my knit sleeve on the bricklayer’s wall with its spinning design and urn on top, which made my eyes blurry. Up higher, the lines of sheets and panties wavered like flags and pennants for a business opening, hanging between the tenement windows above the urn, while I was saying good-bye.

Entering the shiny diner, as if I was in Virginia, I half-expected Charlie to lope along, pop in, and plop down on the seat across from me on his day off, off base. That’s where he’d usually meet me after work, at the right time of day, the right temperature in late spring.  Every detail sprinkled over me. I wondered what Aunty Lila was doing, and Charlie. I did then; I still do about Charlie, Rocco, and Artie. That is, people once key to me, now out of touch, come to my mind. People who could have been thinking of me at the same time I thought of them in a friendly or unfriendly way. Blessedness was supposed to snap back from those who you’ve cared for.

A chance I took when I used to pray. I’d stiffen into helplessness. It first gripped me at age thirteen or fourteen at my Aunt Lila’s. About to go to sleep in her cellar, I became immovable during my prayers, and I could sense any whoosh or whiff and hear my cousins in my aunt’s house overhead, but I could not move. Hours later I resolved never to tell my cousins, because one of the two, an undertaker’s assistant, once cracked, “You got the rigor without the mortis.”

My aunt’s prayers, patting, and Artie’s or Charlie’s poking, or Danni’s or Rocco’s, pulled me through. If by myself, I jerked my head side to side and rubbed my eyes to see the fireworks inside my brain. If they’re green, it’s peace; if orange or red, it’s pain. Over time the stiffening got less, like when I’d left New York. I had to go back to Virginia.

Not much happened back in the city once Charlie left. For a while, I went out with Artie from high school, ’til he went into the Merchant Marines. Then I hooked up with Charlie again. I spotted his note—“Don’t worry, if I’m late meeting you.” After marriage for three years, he roved back to Dakota.

* * *

Sixteen years later, I decided to go back to Virginia Beach. In the big diner there, instead of doing my usual office work, I turned on the jukebox. High and friendly with the music, bobbing like the buoys outside, I waited tables and liked the boys in their summer whites. Charlie’s face still comes through, or his buddy’s, Artie, who welcomed my black-blue curls and round breasts. My girlfriend and I’d go bouncing with them. One weekend, I drove up into the Blue Ridge with Artie, I think.

Driving back, the land billowed like a great, wide skirt stuck with crosses, telephone poles to carry the news. I announced, “It’s done.”

My life began to fly out so far it might have happened to somebody else.

* * *

Marina: What else could I have wished for at age thirty-nine? I was no kid. I won her.

At first, nausea and nerves bothered me, but not physical troubles. After Danni was born, an infant home cradled her. I wanted her too much to put her out for adoption. I had to swipe her back, in those old days, to bring her to New York. Lila, Auntie, that is, and my big sister told me we could stay with them. It was the longest, hardest time of my life.

Danni’s, my baby’s eyes, followed me around like an old Italian portrait, wherever I was moving. Here she was for real.

At one-and-a-half, she’d go to the toilet or mess in her pants and get herself a beating. She never messed again.

A big two-year-old, she was sickly with allergies and high-strung, on the move, wiry-like, chubby, so chubby, she could only waddle.

For her bowlegs at three, the doctor fitted her with braces while under the care of St. Luke. She’d fight the doctors in white coats. She ran around in her braces. You could not keep her down. A mule. Still is. She’d rise up; I’d bang her down. She’s had beatings, but she’s good now. Soft too, not a street kid. I don’t believe in all this child psych. I let her suck her thumb and sleep with her teddy.

Danni troubled the nuns and lay teachers all along the way because she’s stubborn and sat up straight very little. They hit more in those days. She tried to duck their arms. Times have moved forward, but they might move backward. With the black robes gone now, they’re like ordinary people.

Then they started changing the Mass into English. I was against it as not being religious. Tradition’s tradition, lasting like stubbornness. When nuns called on Danni, she refused to go up front.

Danni is a child full of fear.

Once in a while, I wonder if I did right to bring her into the world. I wanted a girl so much. Once I gave birth to her, I never bothered with a man.

She asked me what her father was like, and where he was. “Mommy, I won’t hate you, if you tell me the truth.”

I fear to tell her all of the truth. What does he look like? Really, I cannot remember her father anymore.  I believe she looks a lot like him.

* * *

Marina: One feast day, I was worrying about my jalopy life. I sat on the church steps, when the Father was giving out the blessed bread. A jolly, friendly widower of sixty-five, he came down the steps toward me. He was way ahead of me in years.  My sisters held him in high regard. We talked and walked on the boardwalk.

One day he announced, “We’re driving up to Connecticut.”

“What for?” I asked.

“We’ll all live up there.”

“I’d have to live a sneak life up there.” I never could find Charlie in Dakota to get me a divorce. Artie, the mariner father, never knew Danni. Besides, Danni was forever saying, “I’ll do anything to get out of New York. But I won’t move up there.” More muleheaded, balking at my time with Rocco, she was turning into a twelve-year-old. For two fine years, after he insisted that we move up near his sons, we did.

Like some southern European, block-headed paisan, he’d never divorce his wife, who thumbed her nose at him. But he’s left the door open for her return. His sons understand him better than he does himself, and they have assured me she’d never return.

“Charlie,” I’d informed him, “was a mama’s boy, who returned to Dakota; Artie was a seaman; Rocco, you are a sons’ boy.”

He snarled. He couldn’t stand a woman’s expecting anything from him. So, our breakup bucked up on Easter. He’d traveled to Florida and met a sixty-seven-year-old woman who was giving him her all—cooking and her nights with him—when I traveled there to be with him. I turned into the crazy one, pushing, smacking, and throwing.

Danni enjoyed this event. She, too, dug at him to share his love with me. She squealed at me, “Rocco was good to us, Mama. But you must find your own life. Marriage is no good for you.”

I replied, “You, at least, love me.” We are close, too close. She wants friends. When we talk like friends, she feels relieved and says, “He never wished for me to be around. No man does.”

I am dragged-out nerves, all nerves.

* * *

She goes deep into her thoughts. “Mommy, stop talking. I am thinking. I am not like other girls, because I will never grow.” She has not grown much for a fourteen-year-old, though she is a little developed under the arms.

The AA cups I buy fail to fit her nipples, so I stuff cotton in the cups to make her feel good.

In school, the kids picked on her and called her “Danny Boy.” Danni’s a loner, a quiet type, who likes to talk, like me. Some of the kids now talk with her, like the little Puerto Rican girl, America, who invited Danni to her birthday party. I have nothing against Puerto Ricans. We Italians have our troubles too. I have mine.  Danni wanted to go.

The girls never misbehaved too bad with her anyway, just the boys, until they started to ignore her. Danni wouldn’t speak up, so boys and girls would pick on her. She’s learned to stand up for her rights now and talk back.

Otherwise, Daniella is a child full of fear. She fears the fall of the night. When I hit the pillow, I’m out right away. She’s up half the night and says, “I cannot understand how you can sleep.” Sleep is my most peaceful time; my heartache is the day.

She does good now in school, with grades in the high eighties. I was told that I was smarter than my grades showed.

When we applied to high schools, she signed up for dental assistant studies at Sara J. Hill, Mabel Dean, and Clara Barton. She could have mixed gold fillings. They turned her down. A commercial course she rejects as too lowly for her. She prefers to be a dental assistant to handle the ivory and gold.

Fortunately, a little neighborhood girl was withdrawing from her public high school to enter a Catholic high school. Danni will grab the girl’s spot at the vocational high school, with the opportunity for her to make do with cosmology.

I have always accompanied her everywhere, though she will now take the bus to school. I let her go to the library the other day, when she cried, “Please, Mommy, you’re helping yourself by hanging me up.”

I cannot be alone. I scrub my kitchen floor. I go out to talk to anyone if I’m not working. With my spells back, I could go on disability for the time being.

At times I’ve lived a doozy of a life. I’ve been downed. I don’t mean I went to bed with all those men, just some. Daniella will point out, “I’ve never heard of anyone going through so many men not meant for them.” I say these things, and she winds up saying them back to me. Through the nerves, a parent transmits her innermost feelings. She’s no dummy.

Sometimes I am proud of her. I’d see her scrapbook, a record of what the kids said all year long. You’d never have thought she could be artistic, putting all her pictures and drawings together with her thoughts. I display her album to everyone. Now I am giving a surprise party for her with a birthday cake, and I’ll invite little America.

Photography credit: Jason Rice

Jean Verthein earned a master’s of fine arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and received two writing grants from the Ragdale Foundation. Her work has been published by Adelaide Literary Magazine, Artifact Nouveau, The Saint Ann’s Review, Downtown Brooklyn, Gival Press, Green Mountains Review, Hypertext Magazine, Oracle Fine Arts Review, and other presses.