You are warned against drinking and dating older men, especially those dark-eyed ones from New Jersey. Upon meeting Frank for the first time, your Virginia gentlewoman of a mother calls him swarthy. Being the son of Italian immigrants is not a crime, you cry, reminding her that The Godfather is just a movie. The second time she meets Frank, your mother throws a vacuum cleaner at him, which is something a Daughter of the Confederacy would never deign to do. You remind your mother that First Families of Virginia do not act in such a way, and she slaps you. Hard. Sweet Briar College awaits you in the fall. Why do you want to get mixed up with that type?
Perky and efficient, you are the perfect part time summer receptionist at your uncle’s law firm in Richmond. Frank is an office furniture salesman who spies you the second he walks into the reception area. He’s cold-calling clients but loiters in the lobby, looking at you in a way that makes you pleasantly shift in your ergonomic office chair. When you first plumb his depthless dark brown eyes and wonder at his full, rich mouth, it makes you angry to think of all the thin-lipped pasty pallid boys who stole kisses from you at the high school dances and later numbly fumbled with complicated bra enclosures.
You go out to lunch with him, listening to him talk about selling wood grain reversible L-shape credenzas and growing up in the Tri-State area. Yes, he tells you, New York City is everything you’ve always dreamt it is. Yes, the food is much better up north than anything sold in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia. You nod when he complains how he cannot find one decent deli south of Philadelphia. Just ham. Everywhere they sell a lot of ham and boiled peanuts, for some reason. You do not tell him you are partial to ham and biscuits and sausage gravy and tart cherry pie, but you are quite certain the foodstuffs from his delis-back-home are more delicious, even if you cannot properly pronounce their names: prosciutto, capicola, soppressata. He laughs at your attempt to say sfogliatelle like you are a precocious toddler.
You overhear him on the phone talking to his friends-from-back-home about the babe in the woods he is dating in the middle of Civil War country. You hear him try to quote Esophagus or Phlegmalion when he refers to how young you are, and you silently correct his mythological malaprops, finding them utterly charming. He tells his friends-from-back-home he is falling in love with the statue he wants to chisel out of marble. He clearly wants to shape you into his own in-a-gadda-da-vida, capisce? You have no idea what he says half the time, but the lure of his worldliness makes the claustrophobia of your innocence all the more suffocating.
You still live at home, so Frank picks you up every time he wants to see you. Your parents are those religious types who don’t drink or curse or watch cable television. He notices the crosses everywhere in your childhood home, especially positioned over your bed. These are actual size crosses you could hang people on, he says sarcastically. You have a 12:00 o’clock curfew because nothing good happens after midnight, says your mother. But what does she know? She mops the floor wearing high heels and pearls and hasn’t shared a bedroom with your father in years. Frank drops you off regularly just before dawn.
Frank and you make love in his apartment on the other side of town for the second time that night. A box of pizza lays on the floor, as ravaged and splayed as you are on his couch. He tells you he is in love with you and wants to bring his little southern belle, his little slice of Dixie, his Miss Ham and Boiled Peanuts up to meet his parents for the holiday.
He wants to marry you.
Frank quits coming to the front door to pick you up because it is becoming a problem. Your parents hope you come to your senses about that boy. Instead, you pack for the weekend to meet Frank’s parents, your future in-laws, and politely ask your mother for a bottle of her homemade strawberry jam to give to Frank’s mother for a hostess gift. Your mother cuts a little square of red gingham fabric to tuck under the canning ring to make it look more festive.
You sit in the passenger seat of Frank’s car, riding shotgun as he calls it. It’s a five-hour drive directly north on a congested interstate, and you notice Franky’s accent grows thicker with each passing mile. You jump at first when he randomly yells fungule or giamope out the window at another driver or slaps his head, uttering a disgusted marone at cars that are blockin’ the box. The traffic, the crowds, the noise — you are secretly thrilled with his bravado and burrow into his side like a small woodland creature while he drives.
Franky tells you about his father Vincent who still drives the bus back and forth to Atlantic City. His mother Carmella will certainly love your peaches and cream face since she does not like the local girls with their loud mouths and backtalk and attitudes, just like Franky’s cousin’s wife Gianna. You ask Franky how will you know if his mother likes you. He replies that she’ll invite you to the flea market or the dog track on Saturday afternoon. You find this information helpful.
By Friday night, Franky’s mother Carmella lets you try on her old fur coat that she swears is mink. You take one look at that pelt and know that it is not from a mammal, but you are too gracious to say anything. For dinner, Carmella serves you a single meatball the size of a dinner plate. Though you try, you can only eat about a quarter of it. On Saturday afternoon, you attend a flea market with Carmella who ferries you around by your elbow like a parade float princess. Sure, you tower over her by at least a foot, but together you and she gleefully sift through mounds of gee-gaws and knickknacks piled on folding tables. She buys you a crystal toothpick holder that you cherish. Upon returning home, Carmella drags out Franky’s scrapbooks and newspaper clippings from high school. Carmella lights an endless stream of cigarettes while she recounts Franky’s athletic achievements in her gravelly voice. You sit at her feet and listen to every word.
That night, Franky tells you to wear something classy because he’s taking you to Atlantic City. You’ve never been to a casino, which sounds deliciously decadent. On the way, Franky points out Atlantic City’s Monopoly streets. You don’t want to walk down Pacific Avenue, Franky says. Trust me. He turns at Boardwalk, pulls up to the Tropicana’s valet, and you are dazzled by the young men in shorts who whisk Franky’s car away. Entering the casino’s whirlwind of lights and sound and excitement, Franky explains why you want to avoid 6-to-5 blackjack tables, credit card cash advances, and being colored up by the dealers. You ask Franky a million questions, which he normally likes. But he wants to drink and he really wants to gamble. You feel your value dropping with every hand of cards he loses.
As he becomes more frustrated both with his luck and your dumb doe eyed stare, he decides to shut you up with a Long Island Iced Tea. This seems to solve his problem for the moment as you quickly down three Long Island Iced Teas before Franky loses his entire bankroll. On the way back to his parents’ house, you don’t say a word to each other. He is mad at losing so much of his office furniture commission, and you aren’t very capable of speaking at this point.
Franky literally has to walk you into the guest bedroom to help you change. He makes meanspirited comments about your floor length flannel nightgown trimmed with ribbons and bows and lace. It’s like wrapping a Christmas present for fuck’s sake. He has quite a time wrestling your nightgown on. Franky sleeps on the couch in the living room for propriety’s sake, and you tousle his thick black hair before staggering down the hallway to the guest bathroom in the middle of the night.
The next morning, you wake up alone and completely naked. You locate your suitcase and find some suitable clothing to put on as a low foreboding feeling creeps into your shoulders and up your neck. You finally up? Franky comes in and asks. You are frantically looking around the guest bedroom, appearing more and more concerned. What’s wrong? You tell him you cannot find your nightgown. He shrugs and goes into the living room to talk with his father.
How do you like your eggs? Carmella peeks in, holding a spatula, smiling and smoking.
Franky says he never saw anyone turn that green before rushing to the toilet. All three of them, Franky, his father, and his mother, hear you throw up for about fifteen minutes. Carmella figures scrambled eggs might be best.
When you finally come out of the bathroom, you cautiously sit down at the small kitchen table while Carmella serves you up a plate. Franky’s father is reading the paper, oblivious to your discomfort. You are growing increasingly distressed, picking at the pile of scrambled eggs with your fork. Carmella asks you what’s the matter. You flat out tell her you can’t find your nightgown.
And then you remember.
Really, the house isn’t that big. It’s a single story post-war Cape Cod brick box. Carmella gets up and walks down the hallway past the guest bedroom and past the guest bathroom. She enters her own bedroom. A minute later, Carmella returns to the kitchen, holding up your slightly damp, wadded up ball of flannel. Is this it?
Franky says he never saw anyone turn that white, as you realize in the middle of the night you had walked down the hallway, past the guest bathroom, and right into Carmella and Vincent’s bedroom to relieve yourself at the foot of their bed.
You’d taken your nightgown off to clean up after yourself, just like your mother taught you.