by Susan Dashiell
The heavy door slammed like the hatch of a submarine before descending under water. Anticipating the inevitable scrutiny, I would deal with things one handful at a time. From the next room, secondhand laughter and throbbing dance music made its way into the vestibule. Passing pockets of people, I maneuvered to the rack against the wall, grabbed a hanger, and wedged my jacket between two bulky coats. Tonight, the VFW hall hoisted waves of crepe paper and colorful lanterns against the grim realities of the Vietnam War. My oldest brother Bob’s engagement to Dianne assembled two families in delighted celebration.
“Hey, Little G.”
The childhood nickname confirming my familial tie to my older brothers, Bob and Paul Giovano, withstood the test of time. A longtime family friend, Arty, saw me enter. His long strides glided across the lacquered floor, and at an arm’s length he swept me into a bear-hug.
“I’ve been keeping an eye out for you. Man, it’s good to see you.”
I tattooed Arty’s cheek with a Berry-Cherry tinted kiss and he lowered me to the ground.
“Damn, you clean up nice,” he said. “Real classy.”
I dusted my fingers along his charcoal padded shoulder. “Look at you, all dressed up and shiny.”
I peeked into the main hall and a flutter of panic whisked through me. “Wow. The place is packed.”
“I’m glad you showed. Bob and Dianne were afraid you wouldn’t come. He worries about you, Luce. You know, being with Ronald, and if you get married. The mixed-race thing shook up your whole family.”
Friends first, the affection Ronald and I tucked away over time grew too large to ignore. Becoming a couple two years ago, we broke step with family tradition and society’s norms, knowing repercussions lay up ahead. But we were invested in a future together, and our durability was essential to carving a path.
Arty’s gaze dropped to his hands.“Your aunts and uncles are hard on Bob. He gets the older brother speech, that he should be watching you since your father…you know.”
My father had packed up and vanished last year when my mother least expected it. They’d been married thirty years. While there had been periods when their marriage hovered above the drain, his abrupt disappearance had left her, and us, stunned.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I get what you’re saying.” Like a vase, I turned my cracks to the wall to show my best face.
“Come on.” Arty grabbed my hand, tugging me towards the main room. We swiveled around huddles of chatty guests and side-stepped our way along back-to-back tables and chairs.
“Where’s the family consiglio sitting?” My focus remained fastened to the back of Arty’s stiff pale-blue collar.
“Elders are at the second round table on the left, and you’re on the radar.”
I didn’t have to look to see the contempt on their faces. I could feel it. “Paul’s probably watching this whole thing from some tucked away corner. Where is he?”
Arty shrugged. “Haven’t seen him for a while.” I felt Arty’s body lurch. “Hey, Bob’s by the windows.”
My brother’s trim physique stood pillar straight, his tie perfectly knotted, every hair in its place. Sensing the beam of our attention, he turned and excused himself, making his way through the crowd. His face exposed a tense eagerness and a split-second quiver quaked in his jaw. As he drew near, two brawny arms engulfed me.
“You goofball.” He spoke with his chin on my head. “I’ve missed you.”
His protective clasp became a stitch closing the lapse of time between us. He took a step back, and I gave him a playful poke. “So you did it. Congratulations.”
“Luce, thanks for showing,” his tone on the verge of apologetic.
“So, where’s Dianne?”
Bob pivoted. “Over there. She’s dancing with Teddy.” The misty smile on Teddy’s face conveyed his affection for his daughter. Spotting us, Dianne whispered in her father’s ear and hurried over.
We embraced with parallel smiles. “You look beautiful and happy,” I said. “Just as it should be.”
“Thanks, Luce.” She scanned my face. “God, I’m so glad you came.”
“I know things haven’t been easy.” She lowered her voice, moving closer. “I want you to know, Bob and I always think about you. Bob loves you, so do I. He’s been sorting things out.” A surge of words slipped through her lips. “We know Ronald’s a good man.”
I reached for her hand. “Give me a hug, and go enjoy yourself. We can talk about this some other time.”
Nodding, Dianne gave me a squeeze and took off.
Ill at ease, I was contemplating a way to fit in when Paul, just a year older than me so an easy sibling companion, materialized in the crowd. Always within reach, he appeared whenever I was on the brink of trouble.
I embraced him, clinging longer than normal. “Where were you?”
“Mixing with the crowd at the bar. You did good when you came in.” He winked. “Hey, I’ll give you fifty bucks if you go up to Uncle Rocco and kiss him on his bald spot.”
Snorting, I bumped Paul with my hip and rolled my eyes.
“Oh, yeah.” Paul reached in his suit jacket. “Ronald said to give this to you.”
He passed me a crumbled dispenser napkin. “We got something to eat at the diner after his UPS shift. Don’t blow your nose in the thing.”
Standing at the bus stop early in our relationship, Paul came down the street surprised to find my arm linked through Ronald’s, a former co-worker of Paul’s from his years at UPS. Following this revelation, the two reactivated their friendship and it grew strong.
Glancing to the side, my posture stiffened. “Mom’s leaving the table. This is my chance.”
Paul placed his hand on my shoulder. “You sure?”
“Yes, I want to do it.”
Shoulders back, corsage pinned to her chest, my mother rose from her seat and strode towards the vestibule. Cutting across the room, I hurried to catch up. Ahead to my right, my cousin Claudette twitched a forced smile. I zig-zagged to avoid the charade of exchanging pleasantries while a second conversation about race played in our heads. When I entered the lobby, my mother had vanished. I dashed to the lady’s lounge and pressed my ear to the door. I deciphered a few isolated clicks cross the floor, and then there was silence. Steadying myself, I pushed the door open.
Running lipstick along her bottom lip, she held the tube motionless when she caught my reflection in the mirror. The open stalls confirmed we were alone. Shunning the real-life me, my mother stuck with the mirror reflection that pushed me further away. She faltered and rested her hands on the marble vanity top.
“Hello, Mom.” It felt peculiar watching my two-dimensional image, as the living me spoke. Attempting to catch my mother’s eye in the mirror, I entered an odd three-way conversation. A landslide of despair slid down her face.
I spoke softly. “How are you?” The silence that followed hung like a heavy curtain. My mother gave her head a quick shake, lifting the back of her hand to her eyes.
“You stupid kid.” She straightened up. “You’re throwing your life away.” Her gaze drifted off to nowhere in particular. “God, if I could do it all over.”
The ache in her eyes spoke of my father. Now, my presence doubled her losses. A familiar brittle anger returned to her face.
“Mom, I’m still me. I sleep with socks on and have a row of books running across my bedroom windowsill.”
“You’re not my child anymore.”
Her eyes raked over my reflection and a locked-down sadness jabbed my gut.
“You don’t have an ounce of respect for yourself or the family.”
“That’s not true. I know in Sicily the family suffered from poverty and corruption. I get that the only thing trustworthy or deserving of loyalty was family. Your lives were unpredictable, but you stuck together and survived. I respect every bit of that.”
Her face soured and she let out a huff. “You’ve shamed everyone. I can’t even look at you.”
“Ronald’s a warm-hearted person who I respect. He attends Rutgers Law and works part-time. Where’s the shame?”
“I don’t give a good God-damned what he does. This mixing stuff is sickening. Only a trashy person would do it.”
My mother’s sharp eyes dragged her disgust across my face. Sadly, she already had a poor track record as a parent. It wasn’t her nature to carry a secret stash of love for when the going got rough between us. I composed my body in an effort to clear my head, because somewhere in this mess the truth had to be told.
I anchored my gaze to her eyes in the mirror. “The real problem is that you and I never have to think about race. If you have brown skin you can never put it aside.”
“Shut your mouth with your crazy talk.”
I continued. “You feel you’re superior. It’s because things come easy for you and me. It’s like breathing in the air, and it happens because we were born white.”
“You sicken me.” Scowling, her tone seethed. My mother scrambled to place her lipstick and comb back in her purse.
My voice quickened. “You and your family encountered discrimination, and I’m sorry for that, but you were always protected by the law. Right now, everyone in the family is living and working pretty much where they hoped to be. Not so, when you have brown skin.”
My mother spun around. Her hand pitched towards my face. My forearm sprung up, blocking her strike.
“You disgust me.” Hate welled in her eyes, a sharp hawkish gaze set to strike deep. What hurt inside me remained hidden. The clamp of my fist tightened, and I cast my mother a low, swinging glance.
She moved several paces and cracked the door open. “I’m going back to celebrate my son’s engagement with my family and younger son. My daughter is gone.”
She wasn’t wrong. My compass was already set in the opposite direction.
Giving her a head-start, I exited and passed through the bulky double doors into the chilled air and sat down on the stoop.
Nothing had changed and nothing would. Alienation and resolve slumped alongside me. I pulled the wrinkled napkin from my bag, turning it sideways.
Each night your name is the last word I mumble before falling asleep.
Susan Dashiell is a middle school teacher living in Bloomfield, New Jersey who enjoys writing, collaging and gardening. Her work has appeared in The Write Launch, Uncomfortable Revolution, and Burnt Pine Magazine, among others.
Featured image courtesy of lgh75.