THE BASTARD CHILDREN OF JOE ROCCA, a novella
[continued from part 1]
Later, I hear the sound of a breeze rustling leaves, my eyes open a little. I'm amazed, in a groggy way, to find myself still out on the porch. The sun has swung about and is easing down behind the trees so that I'm sitting in late-afternoon shadows. A stream of cigarette smoke shoots by me, dispersing in the breeze, and when I try to see where it came from I discover that my neck and back have stiffened up from snoozing in a lawn chair. I pull myself around to find my sister sitting on the floor, her back up against the building, nursing a cigarette, her shoes off. She shows up like this sometimes -- she has a key to my place, as I do for hers.
"Been here long?" I ask, rubbing my eyes.
"Maybe half an hour." Smoke trails from her nostrils as she speaks.
"I never spoke with Joe again."
"He hung up while I was talking with you."
She stares at me. "He what?"
"Either that or he got cut off somehow."
"He hung up?"
"I guess," I say, watching a robin glide by the porch. "Who knows?"
"Did you get to talk at all?"
"Well, no." I look back at Amanda. "I mean yes, but I wasn't very coherent and we never got past the preliminaries."
"How did he sound?"
I shrug. "Hard to say. A little tentative. I don't think I made him feel as welcome as he might have hoped."
"So he hangs up?" She is on a slow burn.
"It was uncomfortable. I don't know that I blame him for bolting."
Amanda is silent, her face unreadable. Her cigarette has just about burned down to the filter, she mashes it out in a teacup she brought outside from the apartment. She reminds me of our mother at times like this.
Lina was one of the angriest people I've ever known. She nursed a smoldering bitterness until the September day last year when her heart gave out, and there was never any telling what would get her going. Relatives have spoken of a different woman, the younger Lina -- gentle, pretty, light in spirit. I never saw much of that in our fatherless household. What I saw was a proud woman bearing wounds that never seemed to heal. In her softer moments, what looked like pleasure was often simply the fleeting absence of pain or anger, a placid lack of affect. Volatility usually reasserted itself before long, and there was no mistaking its return. In our younger post-father years, that meant explosions of physical violence. Lina kept a thick piece of doweling on the stove in the kitchen, a weapon known to us as The Stick, and if it was within reach when something set off she would grab it and start swinging. I have a generic memory of trying to fend off the battering with my arms, a stiff smile on my face in an effort to appear undefeated. Amanda, on the other hand, simply shut down any show of emotion, as if she truly were unaffected by the beating and could endure anything -- rocklike, immovable -- so that she often outlasted Lina. I looked up to her for that, though I never said it out loud.
My mother never became involved with another man after Joe left, never dated. Amanda, on the other hand, drew men to herself like iron filings to a magnet once puberty hit. She'd date them for a while, sometimes a long while, then lose interest and move on. I don't think any romance has ever satisfied her in a deep way, and lately she's chosen to be alone, growing more quiet and smoking more as time goes on. Sometimes I wonder if life isn't slowly wearing her down, the way she used to survive by wearing out the world around her.
We hear the apartment door buzzer. Amanda looks at me, her expression suddenly apprehensive, and says, "You don't think that's him, do you?"
"Nah," I say, but as I walk through the apartment a sensation of queasiness slides around in my stomach. I open the door to find a 50ish woman standing at the top of the stairs, pleasant-looking and trim. "Can I help you?" I ask.
"I'm sorry to bother you," she says, a cautious smile appearing. "By any chance, are you Nathan Rocco?"
"That's me," I say politely, wondering what's up.
"I wonder if I could talk with you." I must look hesitant, because she adds, "I was a friend of your parents."
I remember my father's abortive warning and don't know what to say, after an awkward second or two I invite her in. She looks familiar somehow, but before I can explore that Amanda calls out, "Who is it?" from the porch. I aim an inquiring look at our visitor.
"I'm sorry," she says, extending her hand. "Annamarie Cinzie. Please call me Annamarie." She pronounces her last name chin-zee-ay. We shake, I ask her to take a seat. Then I ask her to excuse me for a moment and zip out to the porch where my sister is leaning against the railing.
"I think you should come in here," I tell her quietly. She slips on her shoes, tucks her cigarettes into her pocket, picks up the teacup and follows me inside, looking puzzled and a little wary. I introduce her to Annamarie, who gets to her feet to say hello. Then, mentally kicking myself for forgetting to prepare my sister beforehand, I mention that our visitor was a friend of our parents. Amanda looks from me to Annamarie blankly, recovers, then steps forward to shake hands. We all sit, Annamarie in an armchair, my sister and I together on the sofa, striped with bands of late-afternoon sunlight that slant in from the windows.
Annamarie is nicely dressed, her dark hair touched with traces of gray. She's a handsome woman with an intelligent face, and I'm mystified by her appearance in my home. "I'm sure you don't remember me," she begins. "I knew when you were very young. You were lovely children, from a lovely-looking family." Her expression softens, a sadness seems to steal over her features. "I remember seeing you all in a grocery store once. People actually stopped and smiled as you moved through the aisles." She pauses, I feel Amanda's fingers slip between mine, clasping my hand, down between us on the sofa cushion where Annamarie can't see it. I look at my sister, but she's gazing intently at our visitor. "Your father told me he was going to try to call you," Annamarie continues.
"Yes," I say. "I spoke with him today."
"Oh," she says, something that might be alarm showing in her eyes for an instant. She looks down, then looks back up at me. "Did he tell you I might be coming?"
"Yes," I say, and Amanda looks at me, startled. "Sorry," I tell her, attempting a hasty apology. "I forgot." She looks like she's contemplating breaking my fingers, but stays silent.
"He's probably not happy about me coming here," Annamarie says, eyes searching my face for a confirmation of that. Her gaze lingers a moment, then she continues: "He might have every right to be displeased. This isn't really any of my business."
"What do you mean?" interrupts Amanda. "What's this about?"
Annamarie stares for a second as if weighing her response, then answers, "I have some idea of the trouble you've had and there are things I think you should know, things that might help, especially if your father is serious about establishing contact with you."
A moment of disconcerted silence from me and Amanda, Annamarie's eyes moving from my sis to me then back. "How did you know our parents?" Amanda finally asks.
"We met in college. We got to know one another in our first year there and became very close."
Something in what she says jogs my memory. I stand, slipping my hand out of Amanda's grip, and excuse myself, hurrying to the bedroom to track down the envelope of snapshots. I grab them and return to the living room, sifting through the pics as I go. The two women watch and when I pull out a photograph of my parents with the other couple, handing it to Annamarie, Amanda leans over to look at it. "Is that you?" I ask our visitor.
"Yes," she answers, surprised. "Yes, it is. This is me and my husband, Kevin." She runs a fingernail gently across the photo, stopping at her spouse, the skin around her eyes crinkling as she peers back through time. When she returns the picture to me, an expression both pleased and melancholy has settled across her features. Amanda looks at me, I can see her processing all this unexpected information.
"You're still in contact with Joe," I say.
"You and your husband?" Amanda asks.
"No. My husband passed away."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"It was a long time ago," Annamarie says, attempting a smile.
"Are you close with Joe?" I ask her.
"Close?" She pauses to consider. "In some ways it's hard to apply that word to your father, but as close as a woman can be with him, yes, I think I am. Or I was. It's all changed."
"How so?" asks Amanda.
Annamarie hesitates, then forges ahead. "After my husband died and Joe was on his own, we became involved."
"Involved," Amanda says, echoing that one word. "You dated?"
"Well...," Annamarie begins, then hesitates once more.
"You were a couple."
"Yes," says Annamarie, nodding. Her gaze drops to her hands -- resting in her lap, loosely clasped, fingers revealing her discomfort with gentle fidgeting. A moment passes, then she straightens her spine and looks back up at us.
"When was this?" Amanda asks.
"Well, it was... it happened... on and off, for a long while."
"For how long?"
"Years. Seventeen or eighteen years."
A pause as we absorb that. I lean back, extending an arm along the back of the couch while I run my other hand through my hair and release a long breath.
"Seventeen or eighteen years," I say slowly. "That's a lot of years. That's a long time."
"Yes," Annamarie agrees, "it is." I hear sadness in her voice.
"What happened after all that?" Amanda inquires softly.
"I finally stopped kidding myself. I ended my long-running fantasy that Joe might commit to something if I gave him more time."
"You wanted to get married?" Amanda asks. I can hear she's getting into this.
"Yes," she admits in a subdued tone. "It was stupid. He couldn't make that kind of gesture. Not that he wasn't sweet or affectionate in his way. But if doing something for me meant making a declaration of some kind of permanence or taking legal steps that would make breaking off more complicated than walking out the door, he wouldn't have anything to do with it." Annamarie manages a slight smile. "Your father is a charming man. He's bright, he's personable. He's fun to be with. And he knows flies are attracted by honey." Her words trail off, she looks away, her head shaking just the slightest bit.
Something about the way Amanda has been listening catches my attention, or maybe it's the racket from the wheels spinning in her head. "You said you came here to tell us something," she blurts out. "You wanted to help us."
"That's right," Annamarie says.
"Why? You don't know us."
Annamarie looks surprised. "Because of all the damage, all the heartache."
"Heartache?" says Amanda. She starts to speak, stops, staring hard at Annamarie, then starts again, looking more focused and intent. "Why exactly are you here?" she asks. Annamarie's mouth opens in response, nothing comes out. "Is this about getting even?" Amanda continues. "Are you trying to get back at Joe?"
Annamarie meets Amanda's gaze before answering. "Maybe," she says quietly. "Maybe I am." She turns her head and gazes out the window. For a moment the room is quiet. I watch some dust particles swirl slowly in the late afternoon sunlight, Amanda shifts her position next to me on the sofa. "I have reason be angry at your father," Annamarie says, eyes still focused on the window. "But this is not just about that. It's also about guilt."
"Guilt?" I ask, confused.
"Your father and I were sexually involved on and off from the time we met in college. I may have been part of the reason he left your mother."
Amanda looks from Annamarie to me, her face fiercely inexpressive, then she fumbles out a cigarette and lights up. For some reason, I think of the burn mark on the carpet and consider asking her not to light up inside the apartment. Then I figure better she should smoke than assault our guest.
"Has it occurred to you," I venture, turning my attention back to Annamarie, "that you may do people no favor by disclosing certain things?"
"Yes, it has," she says, shaking her head slightly, eyes averted. "I'm so sorry. This was not what I intended when I came here."
Amanda blows out smoke, stares at Annamarie for a moment, then quietly asks, "How did it start?"
Annamarie shrugs. "It just kind of happened, before I realized what was going on." She clears her throat, her eyes meet mine. "When your father focuses all his attention on you, it feels... wonderful. I found myself thinking that if a warm, intelligent man like him wanted me, it wasn't cheap, it wasn't sleazy. I don't know how I could have stopped myself when it began. It wasn't until sometime later that I realized his attention wasn't the same as real intimacy. It wasn't reliable or exclusive. And I found myself willing to settle for just a portion of him, for whatever I could get, regardless of what I might be risking."
"Mmm," Amanda offers in tones of sympathy and support, as if she's not boiling with emotion, as if she's never treated any men the way Joe treated Annamarie. I shift uncomfortably, feeling like I'm trapped in a lurid romance novel. I open my mouth to say something, Amanda gives me a look that closes it. "Go on," she says to my father's ex-lover.
"We were both married then, and I was having a hard time carrying on the deception.." She looks away from us, as if ashamed. "My husband knew something was wrong, but I don't think he ever believed infidelity was the problem. He thought it was 'women's troubles.'" The ghost of a wry smile stretches across her lips then disappears. She looks back at us. "I broke off the affair. I wanted to do the right thing, and for a couple of years I did. When the four of us got together, I was married and Joe was a friend and things were as they should have been. But it didn't last. I missed him. My resolve gradually began to break down. One afternoon I was alone in the house and I heard the doorbell. I peeked through the curtains to see who it was. And there was Joe. He rang the bell a few times, when I made no response he began knocking. I went down and stood near the door without answering, leaning against the wall with all the drapes closed. I felt my heart pounding, my body longing to pull the door open, let him in." I see that her cheeks have reddened slightly. She sees me notice and stops talking, the color in her cheeks growing more intense, spreading down her throat.
Jesus, can you believe this? A stranger materializes in my living room, begins vomiting up a long stream of horrible, super-personal factoids. Describing a sordid story that directly intersects with my family history, each word shedding unwanted light, providing unsolicited knowledge. My sister sits next to me, her expression a combination of revulsion and avid attention, the cigarette in her fingers forgotten. And I sit there, a sensation of nausea sliding around in my stomach, wishing I were far, far away in a land of blessed mindless distraction, free of all clan-related drama.
Annamarie takes a breath as if to clear her head, her chest rising and falling quickly. "This isn't what I came to tell you about," she says, making an effort to get ahold of herself. "I wanted to give you some information I doubt your father intends to pass along, some things you have a right to know."
Now what? I"m thinking. And then the doorbell rings. My sister shoots me a glance of inquiry, I excuse myself, stand, go pull open the door and find Jeanne standing there. I'm momentarily confused, with no idea that it had gotten so late. Her smile fades as I check my watch, God knows what kind of expression on my face.
"I'm sorry," she says. "Did I get the time wrong?"
"No," I respond, reaching for her hand. "No, no, no, not at all." I drag her inside where she finds a small crowd scene instead of the intimate setting she'd been expecting. I introduce her to our guest, who stands to shake hands, and when I mention that Annamarie was a friend of my parents I see curiosity flicker in my sweetie's eyes. I apologize to Annamarie for having lost track of the time, she apologizes for intruding. We both wave away the other's apology, practically smothering in good manners.
Amanda touches Annamarie's arm. "Since we're in the way here," she says -- an editorial comment delivered with a faux innocent tone -- "I wonder if you'd feel like joining me for a cup of coffee. Maybe we could continue talking."
"Oh," says Annamarie, surprised and grateful. "I'd like that."
Annamarie exits first, as my sister follows her out she fixed me with a cryptic, vaguely baleful look. I can't tell if it's directed at me or if she's indicating her real feelings about our visitor.
I'm relieved to shut the door on the two of them, when I turn to my sweetie all I can muster up is a tired smile. She takes my hand, we sit on the sofa and she puts her arms around me, one hand in my hair. We hold each other for a while, until it's nearly dark. Then I remember there's a ball game on the tube and we go into the bedroom to watch, somehow never making it over to the TV.
Later, I wake from uncomfortable dreams, sweating, and sit up. According to the clock, it's 3:30 a.m. Everything's quiet, in that early morning way. The curtains swell and blow slowly in from the open windows, the crickets that were earlier singing up a storm have called it a night. A couple of streets away a solitary dog barks. Jeanns stirs next to me in the dark, draws in a breath, lets it out. After a moment, she puts a hand on my back and says a soft, "Hi."
"Hiya," I murmur back.
"You're awake. And you're damp."
"Everything all right?"
I lay back down and fill her in on everything, from my father's phone call to Annamarie's long confession. When I'm finished, she asks, "So what do you think?"
It's early, my teeny brain is working sluggishly, I have to think before answering. "Well," I finally say, "if the things she told us are true, I can see why Joe took a stab at telling us she was coming, maybe try to warn us away from her or something." I think about Joe for a moment. "It almost seems like my father has no conception of the effect his actions have on people. Or that he doesn't care."
"Did he sound like a sociopath to you when you spoke to him?"
"No," I say, a little disturbed by the word sociopath. "But we barely spoke. What do I know?"
Jeanne runs her fingers slowly through my hair, her touch gentle. I feel her eyes on my face, sense her scoping out my state. "Would you rather stop talking about this?"
I turn my head, my eyes meet hers, I nod my head. She places a hand on my chest. The room is quiet enough that I can hear her breathing, a soothing, steady sound of life.
[continued in part 3]
© 1997, 2009 by runswithscissors