Before I had a chance to say hello, my mother’s voice shot through the phone. “You will never guess who called me.”
“Indovina,” she said in Italian. Guess.
I settled the phone between my shoulder and ear and waited.
“Non puoi indovinare,” she said. You can’t guess.
My interest was piqued, but only slightly. There was a remote possibility the call could somehow involve me – news about an old boyfriend or some gossip she’d heard about a friend – but more likely this was about her.
“No guesses,” I said, looking around my apartment making sure it was clean, even though there was no way my mother could possibly see through the phone.
She sighed in the exasperated way only I could make her sigh. “You never want to have fun,” she said. “Come on – guess.”
I sighed back – loudly and dramatically. “Just tell me, Mom.”
“Giuseppe,” she said, in a voice usually reserved for repeating the Our Father at mass.
I’d heard stories about Giuseppe for so long now, it was like hearing that a character in a book was coming to dinner.
“Giuseppe? How did he find you?”
“Oh, now you want to ask questions,” she said.
At sixteen, I was crazy in love with a fellow high school thespian. Paul, older than me by a few critical years, was already planning a future where my name would be nothing more to him than an old listing in a playbill.
Over bowls of lukewarm queso and glasses of sweet tea, Paul told our regular group about his plans to leave San Antonio the week after his high school graduation. As he spoke, his blue eyes looked clear and fresh, like he’d just taken a long swim in a cool pool. My eyes looked toward the ground, as if I’d lost something everyone else had given up finding. Our friends nodded, in awe of Paul’s news. I tried not to give away how all of this was a surprise to me.
Back in my parent’s driveway, I reached for the door handle. “Wait,” Paul said. “I want to tell you something.”
I waited to hear how hard it would be for him to leave me. I waited for him to ask me to go to Europe with him. I’d have settled for an ‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you this earlier because it made me too sad.’ I took my hand off the door handle.
“Once I land in Italy, I’m taking a train to Genoa to visit my grandfather. He’s been really sick, but imagine when he sees me. I haven’t told anyone yet. I want it to be a surprise.”
I nodded and looked out the side window. This was a guy who had never even planned a date night without my help. How had he done all of this on his own?
“You got nothing?” he said.
“Is this your grandfather who was in the circus?”
“Yep,” he said.
“He’s going to be really happy to see you.”
I walked into the house, ran straight to my mother’s bedroom, and began to cry.
“Cosa non va,” she said from the bathroom? What’s wrong? Half her face was covered in Pond’s cold cream.
“Paul’s leaving in June and I’ll never see him again. He made all these plans I didn’t even know about. He told everyone tonight. Before he told me.”
She got into bed and covered us both with the bedspread. I put my head on her chest and listened to her heart beating calmly and gently, as if she’d wound it just for me.
“I know, I know,” she said over and over kissing the top of my head. “This feeling is terrible. Did you know I was in love with someone before I met your father? I was. And I never forgot him. We never forget the first hurt.”
The sound of the word we made me feel like a woman for the first time in my life.
“His name was Giuseppe,” she said.
“He called you today?” I stretched out the phone cord so I could reach for my cigarettes on the coffee table. “Out of the blue?”
“Yes,” my mother said. “Out of the blue. He called me on Monday then I meeted him at Sizzler.”
“Wait,” I said, trying to light the cigarette as far away from the phone as I could. “Meeted him?” My mother’s third language was English and her tenses were never quite right. “You are going to meet him or you already did meet him?”
“Yesterday,” she said. “For lunch. Nadine came with me.”
Nadine. That this was the friend my mother chose to accompany her to Sizzler bothered me. Nadine and my mother became friends in Europe when I was six weeks old. Years later, Nadine’s husband and my father were both stationed in San Antonio, Texas.
Nadine was French in the way Bridget Bardot was French. She was elegant and glamorous and a little dangerous. Hours of my life had been spent eavesdropping while my mother talked to Nadine about her newest lover. Nadine was married to the same man she had been married to for years, and she had three daughters, but Nadine was not tame like my mother and the rest of her friends. My mother was no Nadine.
“What did he want?” I asked, purposefully not saying the name Giuseppe. I exhaled the smoke from my cigarette while covering the phone.
“Ascolta tua madre,” she said. Listen to your mother. “Don’t smoke so much.” And then. “He wants my mother to break the curse she put on him.”
In bed, with the lights off, I played with my mother’s wedding ring, twisting it around and around her finger.
“Was he handsome? Giuseppe?” His name was a new taste on my tongue.
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “He had dark hair and green eyes. I never met anyone with green eyes before that. And he was tall with big shoulders. I was so skinny that he could put me on top of one shoulder and carry me across the torrente in front of all his friends.”
It was easy to picture my mother serving as arm candy for a nineteen-year-old boy to carry across a creek. She had been beautiful with long wavy hair and perfectly curved lips.
“Ecco!” she said. There you go! “You should have seen everyone laughing seeing me on top of his shoulder like a bird. Can you imagine if he tried to carry me today?”
I leaned onto my shoulder and looked at my mother. Her eyes were lit by the bathroom light. They were a light brown with so many specks of gold I used to think something had broken in them.
“You’re still beautiful, Mom.”
“Come un porco,” she said, patting her stomach.
“You are not like a pig.” She put my hand on her stomach moving it along the curve of her belly, as if that would prove her point.
“I see who I am,” she said flatly. “No one will carry me on one shoulder again.”
I twisted her wedding ring again. “Did Nona ever meet him?”
Her mother, my nona, was a large, imposing woman who could have easily carried my mother over a creek on her own broad shoulders. While we lived out our lives in San Antonio, my nona was a heavy presence from Italy, looming in the background like the Pope.
“He came to our house once,” my mother said. “My parents were rude to him.”
“My father didn’t like that he was an American who might take me away. My mother hated him because she already knew he would break my heart.”
“How did she know?”
“Because mothers know these things.”
“Will Paul break my heart?”
“He already has,” she whispered.
“A curse?” I said, in a voice as loud as the one my mother had used when she first called me.
“E’ una lunga storia,” my mother said. It’s a long story. “I told you Giuseppe wanted to marry me, ‘e vero? In those days the Americans made soldiers who were younger than twenty-one get permission from their parents to marry foreign girls. Giuseppe went to California to get his parents to sign the papers. He never came back for me, recordi? I told you all this.”
“What I didn’t tell you was that I had a nervous breakdown when he didn’t come back for me. I cried every day. I couldn’t eat for months. I got skinnier and skinnier and then my hair started falling out. My mother was mad at Giuseppe. She told Maria Santo she was putting a curse on him and his family. Maria Santo had a daughter who worked at the army base and the daughter told a soldier at the base about the curse and when that soldier went back to America he contacted Giuseppe and told him about the curse.”
“Why would Nona want to put a curse on his whole family?” I asked. “It seems like this was all Giuseppe’s fault. Even if his parents didn’t want to sign the papers, he could have told you the truth.”
“Your nona had some idea that when Giuseppe got back to America his parents said no to the marriage because they thought our family was trash – poor people. All she could think was the Americans believed we were using him for money. The longer he stayed away, the sicker I got, and the madder my mother was. She wanted Giuseppe’s family to suffer like we were suffering.”
“But a curse? Does anyone really believe in curses?”
“Di sicuro,” she said. Of course. “Malocchio is a powerful thing. You know how people want to find something to blame when things are not good. Giuseppe had bad luck after he returned to America. His brother lost his leg in a car accident, his father had a heart attack, and his sister’s baby died right after it was born. Giuseppe decided all these things happened because of the curse. For a long time he didn’t have the money to go back to Italy, but a few years ago, after more and more bad luck for him and his family, he flew to Italy to look for my mother. Nona had already moved to Udine, but he found Maria Santo still in our village. Because he wore a nice suit and gave her some cash, Maria Santo told him where my mother lived. He went to Udine to beg her to call off the curse.”
“Did Nona remember him?”
“She said she knew him right away. He got on his knees and begged her for forgiveness. He brought her candy from the nicest store in Udine and a beautiful shawl from California.”
“That was pretty brave of him to go find Nona. That took some nerve.”
My Nona stood as tall as most men. I imagined her opening the door dressed in her usual black outfit with eyes as dark as her clothing. This was a woman who walked out of her front door and snapped a branch from a tree every day before she walked down her street. She claimed the branch served as a switch to keep the flies away, but in truth she wielded it like a weapon so no one would get in her way on the sidewalk. I hoped Giuseppe had been scared when she opened the door.
“Did she put a curse on his family, Mom?”
“Forse sì, forse no,” she said. Maybe yes, maybe no. “But it doesn’t matter what is true – he thinks she put the curse. That’s enough.”
“Mom,” I said. “I’ll never see Paul after he leaves. I just know it.”
“You can’t know that. It’s too soon in your life to know what will or will not be. Niente viene da niente. From nothing comes nothing. Today, you know nothing about tomorrow.”
The phone rang in the living room. My mother’s leg jumped a little, like she wanted to run and answer it.
“It’s probably Nadine,” I said.
“She always calls to say good night. Sometimes we fall asleep while talking.”
I laughed. I’d come home many nights to find my mother on the couch with the phone between a pillow and her ear, snoring. I snuggled closer to her. “I don’t know how, but you always make me feel better, Mommy.”
“Temporary,” she said. “You feel better now, but it’s going to hurt again tomorrow and the day after that and after that. But you are strong and beautiful and you have a good momma here to help you, va bene?”
“Yes,” I said, feeling sleepy.
“You are a better daughter than I was,” she said, looking up at the ceiling. “I understand the first boy – the first love. I take your feelings seriously. Okay? When I was hurt and crying, my mother called me putana. She said Giuseppe left because I was a whore.”
“What?” I said. “Nona is so mean.”
“It’s true, she can be mean, but she can also be right. If I’d listened to her in the first place I wouldn’t have been so hurt when he left. I did bad things with Giuseppe. I let him have sex with me in the fields behind our house. After, he said he still loved me, but we had more nights in the field so what else was he going to say? He went to San Francisco and I never heard from him again. Not a card, not a letter, niente. Like I was no better than a whore.”
We both stared at the ceiling. “I still believe he loved me in some way,” my mother said. “But now that I have your brother I understand how Giuseppe’s mother felt. A poor Italian girl was trying to come to America by trapping her son.”
“Wasn’t Giuseppe’s family Italian too?”
“Yes, but they were American first. His parents had never even been to Italy. They called him Joe. We called him Giuseppe. He said he liked it.”
I had never considered the difference between an Italian-American and Italians before. All of my mother’s friends had been born in Italy, except Nadine. They’d all married American soldiers. I hardly knew any Italian-Americans. Even Paul’s parents had come from Italy.
“My mother said that because I gave him sex too soon, Giuseppe thought I was not good enough to be a wife. I guess she was right in a way. If he wanted to find me again, he would have – mother or not.”
“How did Nona know you had sex with him?”
“I told her,” my mother said. “I was always so stupid. I even told your father before I got serious with him.”
“What?” I said, sitting up.
“I did. I thought he should know. E’giusto, no?”
“Well, sure. I mean I guess that’s fair, Mom, but what did Dad do when you told him?”
“He was mad,” she said. “He slapped me until I bled from my nose. When I went home with blood on my shirt my mother turned her head from me and made the sign of the cross. Colpa tua. My fault.”
“That is messed up, Mom. Dad hitting you was never your fault. Not now. Not then.”
“Easy to say now,” she said. “But I was young then. I didn’t think anyone would take me after I had sex with someone else.”
I kissed my mother’s hand over and over, but kissing her hand reminded me of earlier that night when Paul had been unwrapping the plans that didn’t include me. To get his attention I’d reached under the table and rubbed between his legs. He’d moved my hand away and continued talking.
When I walked to the bathroom, Paul followed me. As soon as the door closed, he locked it and grabbed me by the shoulders, slamming my back into the wall and into the bathroom hand dryer. While I was pinned by his body, he grabbed my breasts roughly.
“Is this what you want?” he said. “Is this the kind of attention you want from me?”
“Stop it,” I said, trying to push him back. My shoulder was aching from the dryer vent.
“Don’t act like that in front of people,” Paul said, pushing me into the wall with each word. “You’re better than that. You’re not a stupid whore.”
And though it should have been the opposite of how my mother felt about Giuseppe, it didn’t feel that way.
“The curse was just an excuse,” I said. “He went to Italy to find you. He wanted to see you.”
“No,” my mother said. Her practical nature was so annoying. “All those years before, he could have found me if he tried. He went to Udine almost two years ago, but he just called me this week. He said he couldn’t call before because he was in the middle of a divorce. He has had a lot of bad luck with women. He’s been married and divorced four times. Can you imagine?”
“Stop,” I said, lighting another cigarette, not sure what I should unpack first. “Two years? You’ve known for two years he was looking for you?”
“Certo che no. Of course not. Nona told me a few months ago when I went to Italy. She would never put something like that in a letter or say such a thing on the phone. Can you imagine if your father found out?”
I wasn’t sure what to think of a family matriarch who could keep a secret like this for two years.
A few weeks earlier I had flown from Dallas to visit my mother after she returned from her trip to Italy. While she got ready for bed, I sat on the toilet and waited.
“Hey,” I said, as she pulled her nightgown over her back. “What’s this?” There was a bruise the size of piece of bread below her shoulder.
“What happened?” In years past she might have kept her secret. She’d have told me she bumped into the wall, or something had fallen off the shelf and hit her, or she’d slipped getting out of the tub.
“Cosa importa?” she said, pulling her nightgown down. Why does it matter?
“It matters to me,” I said. “What did he do?”
“The night I came back from Italy, your father was tired when he picked me up from the airport. The traffic was bad and then when we got home there was nothing for me to cook him for dinner. He was upset and hit me with the back of his shoe.”
“Mom. You told that story all wrong. There was no reason for him to hit you – not that he was tired, not that the traffic was bad, not that there was no food.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I should have thought before I left to have a little something ready for when I got home. He was nice enough to let me go to Italy for six weeks. Your father works hard.”
This was a version of the same conversation we would have forever. My father had an issue, he hit her. In her mind, if she had done one thing differently, she could have prevented the whole thing.
“You don’t have to stay with him anymore,” I said, over the sound of the toilet flushing so he couldn’t hear us. “We’re all out of the house. You can go.”
“I can never go,” she said. “You don’t understand. If I ever leave, he will kill me. He will never let me be happy. Never.”
“How do you know?”
“He told me years ago and he reminds me still today. If I leave, he will kill me. You’ve seen what he can do. So I am staying here and making the best of it.”
“You never told me,” I said.
“What could you do?”
“Did you hear me?” she said on the phone. I put my cigarette out and reached for another.
“Yes, I heard. Was he still handsome? Giuseppe?” I added his name as a gift to her after remembering the bruise on her shoulder.
“Yes. He is as tall as I remembered and he still has all his hair. It’s gray now, but distinguished, like Ed McMahon.”
I rolled my eyes. For some reason my mother thought Ed McMahon was the epitome of class.
“What did he think of you?”
“He said I needed to lose weight. He said I looked the same except I have a stomach.”
“I don’t like that.”
“Eh,” she said. “It might not be nice, but it’s true.”
“What did you do after he said that?”
“We were at the salad bar at Sizzler when he told me I shouldn’t put dressing on my salad because I had the stomach. Well that was it. There was no way I was going to let another man tell me what to do. So I took the white dressing that looks like glue – what do you call it?”
“Si. Ranch. I took a big cup and poured it on my salad.”
“You hate Ranch dressing.”
“I decided I hate people telling me what to do more than I hate Ranch dressing.”
I put my cigarette out and tried to cough to hide the weird hiccupping noise coming from my gut.
“Are you crying?” my mother asked.
“I’m proud of you.”
“For putting dressing on my salad?”
“You stood up to him, Mom.”
“Ah – but that’s easy. I don’t owe him anything,” she said. “I will eat what I want in front of him.”
“What did Nadine think of all this?”
“Right before she dropped us off at his hotel, she winked at me. She thought he was handsome.”
“You went to a hotel with him?”
“Allora, cosa ne pensate.” What do you think? “He wanted to talk in private about the curse, so I went.”
“Mom?” I said. “I wasn’t better than you. I had sex with Paul”
“I know you did. I read your notes to Lisa.”
I thought about what I had put in writing. “Are you mad?”
“No,” she said. “I wish you weren’t so young, but I understand. You just have to be careful, you know?”
“Of course,” I said. “I’m not stupid.”
“Everyone is stupid sometimes,” she said. “Are you sorry you did it?”
I was sorry tonight had happened. I was sorry I’d grabbed between his legs. I was sorry about the bathroom. I was sorry I had taken it.
I was also sorry I couldn’t tell my mother the whole story. She had enough in her life to worry about.
“A little,” I admitted. “But only because he’s leaving anyway. I’m sad I’m not enough to keep him here.”
“See?” my mother said. “That was a stupid thing you said. Paul is young. He wants to try on life. He knows you fit him, but everyone loves new clothes. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the old ones.”
“That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, Mom.”
“It might be dumb, but it’s right. I would never tell you not to enjoy being with a boy. Just be careful. With your body and your heart. You are young and people make lots of mistakes when they are learning. Look how many accidents you had when you started to drive.”
“Maybe Giuseppe made a mistake when he left you, Mom. He was young too.”
“Maybe yes, but maybe no. There is a thin line between what we do and what we let happen.”
We got quiet. My mother’s breathing got louder. I thought about Paul and the bathroom and how I’d left feeling shamed. I’d let it happen to me. My shoulder throbbed and I figured there would be a bruise in a few days. When people asked me how it got there, what would I say?
I made a fist and held it against my forehead. I was not going to be my mother. I was never going to let anyone pin me against a wall again.
Without realizing it, I began building walls of my own.
I wasn’t sure what to say to my mother next. She had gone to a hotel with a man she had once loved. She was married to a man who abused her and threatened to kill her. How could she put herself in danger like this?
“What did you say to him about the curse?”
“I said I would tell my mother to break it off.”
“And did you?”
“No. I’m not going to ask her if she put a curse. That would be rude.”
She had been in his hotel room. All they did was talk about the curse?
“Listen,” she said, before I could think. “Nadine took some pictures of me and Giuseppe at Sizzler. I want to mail them to you. Will you keep them so your father never sees them?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Your sister will lose them or I would ask her.”
“It’s no big deal,” I said. But it was such a big deal. If my father found out, what would he do? All of these years she had put her love into her children and now someone could take that away – either my father or Giuseppe. I felt like such an ass for wanting things to stay the way they were. We knew the rules – all of us. It made no sense to change things.
“Are you going to leave Daddy?” I never called him Daddy. Why had that come out?
“You know I can’t.”
“Would you if you could?”
“Yes,” she said. “Giuseppe is so much fun. He likes to dance and drink wine and he enjoys having people around. We could have a full life together. That’s all I ever wanted.”
“Well, I’m glad you had fun then,” I said. I’m not sure it was very kind. “Send me the pictures. I have to get ready for work now.”
“Va bene. I love you,” she said. She wanted to say more. I could feel the words waiting in the air like dust after you’ve polished wood.
I should have asked her how it felt to be back in the arms of a man she’d loved so much she had lost her hair because of him. I wish I’d asked her how often she’d thought of him over the years. But I didn’t. I was too afraid to lose the only world I knew. It was all shit, but it was what I knew.
The pictures came in a box packed with the coffee flavored candy my mother knew I loved and a leather wallet. When I looked at the pictures, I was surprised by how small my mother looked next to the tall man with broad shoulders. He held her as if he could still carry her across a stream with one arm. In another picture, they stood in front of the Sizzler bull with his arm around her waist. She leaned into him like she knew exactly where to go. They looked like a couple. They looked happy. They looked natural, like maybe it was meant to be.
When I call my sister, she answers on the second ring.
“I’m so sad,” I say.
“Why?” She yawns, as if she couldn’t be less interested.
“Do you remember those pictures of Mom and Giuseppe? Water got into my garage and now they’re ruined.”
“Mom is dead,” she says. “She won’t care.”
“But I do.”
“When was the last time you looked at those pictures?”
I had never looked at the pictures after my mom mailed them to me. A few times, when my mother came to visit me, I’d given her the leather wallet and watched as she went to another room with them.
“Did Mom have an affair with Giuseppe?”
“Of course she did,” my sister says. “Are you that naïve? I met him a few times too.”
“She never told me.” The sun went behind a cloud and I opened the blinds.
“Why would she tell you? She knew little Miss Perfect didn’t want to know.”
When my mother was eighty, I took her to the grocery store one afternoon.
“Guess what? I found a picture of your old house in Ciseris on Google Earth. I’ll show you later.”
“Oh,” she said. “You can do everything with that computer. Can you find my cousin Bruno in Belgium?”
“Where in Belgium, Mom?”
“I’m not sure.”
“We can try later. Would you ever want to look for Giuseppe?” My father had been dead for three years.
“Giuseppe is probably dead,” she said.
“What if he’s not?”
“He would be my age. Eighty-years old. What would we do?”
“Did things get better for his family after he thought your mother took away the curse?”
“He thought so, but the same things happened anyway. His mother died, his sister was in a bad accident, and he lost his job – that’s life. It’s normal for bad things to happen, curse or no curse.”
“Did he ever tell you he was sorry he never came back to marry you, Mom?”
“I didn’t ask,” she said. “No answer would have made me happy. Think about it.”
I put my hand on hers, imagining we were having a moment.
“You made me feel like my mother did when Giuseppe came back,” she said softly in Italian.
“Nothing,” she said. “I was just thinking out loud.”
I let us both pretend I hadn’t heard her.
Denise Tolan’s work has appeared in journals such as Lunch Ticket, Hobart, Storyscape, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. Her flash fiction, “Because You Are Dead” was included in 2018’s Best Small Fictions and she was a finalist for the 2018 International Literary Awards: Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.