Across the landing from us lived a childhood friend of my uncle's wife. She moved to California with her boy Bobby and three nieces, Erin, Aileen and Ellen and lived in the apartment across from ours.
My Uncle Ted met Marie on the cruise ship that brought him back to Italy a few years earlier, on the trip that started my journey to America. Their romance seemed certain from the start, aided by the beautiful Roman backdrop where he spent a glorious week showing her and her friend the beauty of the Eternal City.
Hollywood could not have planned a better seduction scene.
After a honeymoon in Canada, waiting for his visa, he and his bride set up household in one of the two apartments above the building he owned in Los Angeles. Her best friend Peggy moved to L.A. soon after.
Bobby was in middle school. The girls were at St. Mary's High School a block from the apartment. Erin, the eldest, worked at the telephone company in the afternoon, the same place as her Aunt Peggy. Erin was my age, and she and I hit it off right away.
She confided that she had wanted to travel, see the world, take a cruise and find romance. She worked the afternoon shift, and by the time she got back home and did homework, she had no time to date.
She was saving all her money to move out, buy a car and start dating properly. When I asked her about dating, what it was, she elaborated.
"At school, when we met boys and were interested in them, we met up with them to go to movies or gather at local drug stores for a coke and a burger. If you hook up, that was considered 'dating'. "
"I don't see any boys around here." I said.
"Exactly! In New York, we could meet and walk out to movies together, or see a live show. Here, you need a car to go out at night, or anytime actually. The bus to work? It stinks. I wish I had a car, then I could work any shift."
"I thought you took taxis to work. Yes?"
"At night, the company pays for the taxi ride to keep us safe."
"Yes. So, nobody gets hurt going home. You know that for a while, some of us got extra money for taxis and we'd pocket it, getting home somehow. Then, someone got raped right on the street behind the building. That's when the company decided to have taxis at the door waiting after each shift. It's automatic now. They submit the fare to the company directly."
"In Italy, I walked everywhere, meeting people on the streets." I responded. "Right after food, I miss those passegiate with friends."
"You could, in New York, in certain neighborhoods."
Peggy worked a late shift. She came home early in the a.m. and dropped in to visit with Marie. Only, Aunt Marie was not up at that time. She went to bed late, a habit she had from her own days at the telephone company when they had worked the midnight shift in Manhattan, enjoying the freedom of sleeping late, the leisure of having entire days to shop or run errands.
Peggy was not much older than my aunt, but looked much older. I didn’t know anything about her family, how she ended up raising her nieces as well as her boy. She was an encouraging soul, always allowing my little cousin to rummage through her purse, where she would have stashed some little thing, a small toy or a mirror to play with.
“Morning sickness, again? ” Peggy must have seen the confusion on my face. "I'm worried about you too." She said, giving me a hug. I knew nothing about morning sickness.
"Is it catching?" I asked, naively.
"She is pregnant. That's all. She's not her usual self. You have to understand and forgive." She said, as a kind of explanation to excuse Aunt Marie's bad moods.
“So, what are you up to this morning?” She changed the subject.
“We’re signed up for swimming lessons.”
“Did you know that your aunt never learned? Oh, we had occasions, when we were girls. But she never wanted to get her hair wet, always concerned about her looks. Her little brother was a real fish, he was.”
“She has a brother?”
“I didn’t know.”
“We have not heard from him since the wedding. Tell her I came by.”
“Can’t you stay for breakfast?”
“Too tired to eat. See you later.”
As soon as Bobby and the other girls got to school in the morning, Peggy took the phone off the hook, and went to bed. In the afternoon, when they all returned, she started her day. That’s when she’d come over to borrow something or other, and she and my aunt would actually talk for a while. Everybody was always coming and going.
Uncle was either working in the store or napping in front of television. I would hear them talking about this and that late in the evening, and then my name would be mentioned, and I was all ears.
“They are increasing the tuition again”, she’d say.
“Everything is going up. ” He said.
“What we need to do is send her to a public school.”
“Then we worry about other stuff. You know how teenagers are. Did you see the girl next door with those short shorts?”
He was making a point about the fashion of the day worn by Erin.
The comment about the short shorts. I distinctly heard him say that he did not like Bermuda shorts when his wife bought and wore them around the house. He teased her, saying girls look good only with short shorts. Now, he was putting Erin down for wearing shorts!
“I never agreed on an indefinite time. Just a year you said! Now, we are paying this horrendous tuition.”
Aunt's voice was harsh and strident.
I held my breath. Nothing about my American life had turned out the way I had anticipated. Nothing except the school. If I had to leave that school, I might not survive.
I quietly climbed in my bed and wept freely.