I wondered what my mother would think of Cinzia… and what Cinzia would think of my mother. I could tell as soon as she arrived that things wouldn’t be smooth. There would be trouble. My brother’s new wife was not like the other brides from Italy.
There were four of them on our street. Sometimes they congregated on the front porch of the house across from us, where one of them lived. If I happened to be on our front porch, reading, they would call me to go over and sit with them. They said why would I want to sit alone when I could be in the company of grown women. But when I got there, they usually forgot all about me, and I would have to pretend to be examining the split ends at the bottom of my braids. They all had big bosoms, and they talked very loud. The things they said made me blush so much sometimes that I would get up and go lean over the railing and watch the bees sucking on the sweet buds of the purple and white holly hocks that grew between the driveway and the porch.
Only one of them used to be kind of quiet. I knew she loved her husband because she would never talk about him, about what they did in bed at night. She said they were happy, and that was all she needed to tell. But the others all jeered and said she was being stuck up. They laughed when they said that, but still I knew there was a lot of meanness and jealousy behind it.
I wondered if Cinzia loved my brother. But I guess she didn’t, because not even four months later, she started having an affair with a Russian fellow who lived behind us. The man was not married and lived with his mother, who was very old. He started talking to Cinzia along the fence, where she spent a lot of time patiently breaking up the earth around the flowers she had planted. She wanted to make sure they didn’t die, for she had planted them against my mother’s advice… my mother who was convinced nothing could survive in that kind of soil. It was hard like rocks.
One day Cinzia was seen going across to the man’s house. Two women on our street, who had been watching, immediately came to report everything to my mother. They had a very good reason to keep a close eye on things they said, since there was a lot to suspect already. How could a girl as beautiful as Cinzia, who also had the start of a good education to her credit, be happy in a simple household like ours? There was no doubt in their minds that she had used her marriage to my brother as a passport to Canada – Cinzia’s father had suddenly died the year before, leaving his wife and three daughters to figure out how best to survive. Cinzia was sixteen at the time, and the oldest of the daughters. Yes, there was bound to be unfaithfulness on the part of this young woman… and what’s more, the Russian was very handsome.
The next day my mother demanded to know from Cinzia why she had gone to the man’s house. Cinzia looked the other way and said he was helping her with English – the man could speak several languages, even Italian.
“You’re lying,” my mother said. “Puttana. That’s what you are. You don’t deserve to be a mother to my son’s children.” Cinzia didn’t say anything; she just stared out the window. I wished she would say something to defend herself, but I guess she couldn’t, and the next day she went back to the man’s house again. After that, she went there almost every day. When I got home from school, around four o’clock, she was usually coming back across the yard – the Russian worked nights and was always home in the daytime. I tried to cover up for her whenever I could, but it wasn’t easy. Happening to be at home during a religious holiday and caught lying about where Cinzia had been that afternoon, my mother was furious, tempted to slap me. “Protecting a whore,” she accused. “Why do you do it? Why?”
I had no answer to give her. No answer that I could give myself either. I just liked Cinzia, and that was all. I could have never done anything to hurt her. Maybe it was the way she had put her arms around me and held me close to her one day, after fixing my hair, pinning it all up in pretty curls.
“Here,” she whispered, letting me hold the silver-handled mirror she had brought with her from Italy. “Turn around and look at the back. You look like a little princess.”
“But I’ll never be as beautiful as you.”
That’s when she held me tight and cried on my shoulder, little sobs coming and going, the scent of perfume, like violets, from her neck, her breasts…
“Piccolina,” she cried. “You’re the only one I can tell. I miss my little sister. I miss my family…”
“But you’ll go back to see them soon,” I said. “Or they’ll come to see you.”
“Yes, I wish that,” she whispered, her cheeks gleaming with the wetness of huge tears.
I didn’t know Cinzia was going to have a baby, until her belly was big enough to tell. We had always been a quiet family, but now there were hardly any words spoken at all around our place anymore. Just the necessary things, and even then there were gestures and sign language.
“Jesus Christ, I don’t understand you,” my father said to my brother one morning. “How can you just sit back and do nothing?” My bedroom was next to the kitchen and I could hear everything. “If she were my wife, I’d kick her with my boots and send her flying down the street. And she wouldn’t be coming back, either. Not even if she begged on her knees!”
My father had a right to be angry, but suddenly I knew I never wanted to sit close to him anymore. I’d never want to sit on his lap again, as I always did… and feel the roughness of his beard when he hadn’t shaved for a few days. I couldn’t bear the thought of his arms around my shoulders, as he pulled me close to him… the gentle kiss he always planted on my forehead just before he pushed me back down… What my father wanted to do to Cinzia was terrible. I never wanted him to touch me ever again.
Joe’s lunch bucket was made of steel, and I heard him snatch it from the table. “You think I’m crazy?” he shouted. “You think I want to end up in jail and ruin my life for a woman? This is Canada, not Italy.”
“And what about your honour…how can that change from one country to another? Tell me that!”
“Are you coming or not?” My brother was a carpenter like my father, and they both worked on the same construction site. “If you don’t hurry up, I’m going.”
“Go then. I’ll stay home. And I won’t need you anymore. I’m going to buy my own car.”
“Oh, now you’re going to buy your own car. What’s that going to do?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s going to do. I won’t have to ride back and forth to work every day with a fool.”
“Well, it’s your goddamn fault I married her.”
“Oh, now it’s my fault. What next?”
“And Mom’s… ”
“Oh, your mother’s fault, too.”
“That’s right. Think about it.”
About a month later, Cinzia stopped going over to her lover’s house. His mother was very ill, and he was spending all his spare time at the hospital. I wondered what was going to happen to Cinzia; I worried about her every day. I hoped the old lady would hurry up and die so that her son could take Cinzia away. I was afraid of what would happen to her if she stayed in our house. My parents never spoke to her anymore, and my brother pretended she didn’t even exist. I was too afraid to be nice to her in front of them in case they would get really angry and beat me up.
“We were a decent family, and look at us now,” Mama said one day. “Where can we hide our faces?” But actually my mother was stronger than my father; gossip didn’t humble and subdue her at all. She would walk down the street with her head held high, eyes straight ahead. At home, she almost took pride in cursing the people she imagined to be rejoicing in our terrible disgrace.
“Maledetti,” she cursed. “I hope God will strike them blind for their vipers’ tongues.” And with that, she proceeded to give a mock spit over her shoulder in defiance.
But with my father it was different. He couldn’t handle the way people stared at him and talked behind his back, the pity from his friends. It got so bad that he stopped going to Mass on Sunday, and he never went near the Sicilian club to play cards with his paesani anymore. Except for work, he stayed home all the time.
The tension in our house was unbearable… yet, strangely, Cinzia grew more beautiful every day. Her skin was soft and pink as that of the child I imagined she was going to have. Sometimes, completely lost in thought, she would stand in the middle of the kitchen, and loosely join her hands below her stomach, white fingertips opening and closing like petals…
“So, I see you have made up your mind to support another man’s child,” my mother said to Joe one night, while Cinzia had gone for a walk. I was sitting there doing my homework.
My brother picked up the kitchen scissors and began cutting his nails.
“Not quite,” he replied.
“Well then, what are you going to do?”
“I’m leaving… going away.”
My mother stopped rolling out the pasta she was making for our next day’s meal. She lifted her head and stared.
“And who is going to take care of Cinzia and the baby?” I cried, worried. Afraid.
“It’s none of your business, little girl. In fact, you shouldn’t even be listening. But since you asked, I’ll tell you,” he said, a strange smile on his lips. “Mom and Dad are the lucky people.”
My mother blinked, as if a handful of dirt had hit her eyes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she cried.
“It means that I did my part. You wanted me to go back to Italy to get a wife… so I went back to Italy and got a wife. And now our beautiful Cinzia is all yours.”
My mother stared at him with her mouth open. But then she put her head down and started rolling out the pasta again. I could tell from her expression that she had to do a lot of thinking before she could bring herself to speak again. But I couldn’t wait, I just couldn’t.
“You’re terrible! Don’t you care about her at all?” I cried, my eyes suddenly filling with tears. “How can you just go away and leave her like that?”
My brother lifted one of my braids, and brushed the tip of my nose with it – one of his teasing gestures, now almost turned mean by anger and resentment. “How can I, you say? Very easy. I don’t love her, and she doesn’t love me.”
“What’s love got to do with it? Cinzia needs someone to take care of her. She’s going in the hospital to have the baby in a month, and nobody will even go see her. It’s awful. You’re all so mean! You’re evil!”
“Well, if you feel like that,” Joe said, throwing the scissors on the counter, “maybe you can look after her. How is that?”
“Well, I will,” I shouted, running outside sobbing. “I will!”
– – –
It was dark and they had not found me. I would hide from them forever. I would make them hurt the way they were making me hurt. I would show them how horrible they were, the terrible things they were doing to poor Cinzia. Hours passed and night fell. It was Cinzia who found me.
“I knew you were in the tool shed all the time,” she laughed. “But they wouldn’t tell me anything. They wouldn’t even ask me to help look for you. I had to figure out on my own what was going on, what was happening.” She gave a deep sigh. “Like all the rest… like everything else since I came here.
They don’t like anything about me, anything I do. They don’t want me to be smart… have brains of my own. Anyway, what’s the use. But you… do you want to stay here, or do you want to come out?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ve got to make up your mind sometime.”
“Well, I won’t.”
I was sitting on the floor, and I looked up. I could hear her breathing. I could smell her violet perfume… In the shadows, her belly was like a mountain above me. What if the baby would drop out of her now? What would I do? I didn’t know anything… I didn’t understand anything about women giving birth. The baby could die!
I wanted to ask her if it was true about the Russian; I wanted to know. After all, it could be a lie… a lie that had spread until it was too large to take back, a lie that was everyone’s lie and nobody’s lie, like chains and circles all tangled up… a falsehood no longer possible to deny. But somehow the words that finally came out of me had nothing to do with her lover: they had to do with us, our family.
“Why did you come to Canada,” I blurted out angrily. “Why did you have to come and ruin everything in our lives?”
There was complete silence for a long time. Then after a little sigh, she took her sweater off and dropped it down over my knees. “Don’t get chilled… it wouldn’t be a good time to get sick.” And I listened, as her slippered feet padded back toward the house.
I began to hit the floor with my fists, letting the rough cement rip my flesh over and over again, until I could feel the blood, like thick juice, around my fingers… my palms, wrists. The pain was dull. I touched my face, rubbed it.
I was told later that it was my brother who carried me inside… and what I remember, like a dream and only like a dream, is my mother tearing a clean white pillow case, to make bandages… and my father holding the bowl of water for Cinzia, who kept sponging me with her velvet hands.
Delia De Santis’ first collection of short stories Fast Forward and Other Stories was published by Longbridge Books in 2008. She lives in Bright’s Grove, Ontario.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 15.