Thirteen year-old Christina Falcone plunged her hands into the murky water. The squid bodies massed around each other like alien extras in a science fiction movie awaiting instructions from their director. She held her breath and pulled off the first tentacled head. Christina shuddered. The tentacles were a vivid purple color and matched the speckles on the opaque white bodies of the slimy creatures. The squid’s guts were yellow and held together in a membrane, like mustard in a see-through packet. Christina had volunteered to stand at the sink and separate squid heads from their bodies. She was sick of herself, sick of brooding in her room, sick of not answering the phone when Rose or Patsy called, even sick of listening to Joan Baez sing “Silver Dagger” over and over until her mother, Rita, screamed that she had a splitting headache, what was wrong with her, Christina was pazza, she was taking her to the doctor, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and on and on, her high notes outdoing Joan’s. Christina hummed to herself at the sink, the words to Plaisir d’amour in her head punctuating the squoosh and rhythm of the squid decapitations.
“Joy of love is but a moment long
Pain of love endures the whole night long”
Christina was hands-deep in squid guts as an offering to whatever gods or saints or guardian angels had prevented her mother from breaking in on Christina’s shameful lapse into babyhood last night. She winced when she even thought of it now: she had actually barricaded her door after supper, dug deep into her closet, retrieved her Ginny dolls and played with them. She hadn’t played with them, not really. She felt sorry for them, tucked away in the closet. She wasn’t playing with dolls. She was way too old for that. Freed from the recesses of the closet, the dolls came to life. Nurse Ginny had taken Valentine Ginny’s pulse and diagnosed her as sick with love. Bride Ginny was hanging around like a ghoul waiting for Valentine Ginny to die and asking the other Ginnys if they liked her dress. Cowgirl Ginny called her a fucking show-off and a snot. Cowgirl Ginny began stomping Bride Ginny, calling her a dipshit for wanting to marry some neighborhood divya and start having one kid after another and being so stupid, so incredibly stupid and ignorant. Christina realized suddenly that her voice was getting loud. She felt like she was coming out of a trance. She flung the dolls one by one back into her closet, then buried them under some old pillows. She could just picture Rita if she could see her now. She would stand with her arms folded, shaking her head.
“Oh, madonn’ now she’s goin’ backwards. What are you, fifteen? (Rita often pretended Christina was older when she yelled at her). Playin’ with dolls? I dunno whatsa matter with you. When I was you age….”
But today Rita was thrilled with signs of life from her long-dormant daughter. Christina had moped around the house for the entire summer, except for the family vacation in Green Harbor. She had made everyone miserable there, not even going to the beach with Rose and Patsy, whose parents rented cottages nearby. Instead, she remained in her hot, stuffy room reading stacks of books and listening to the same dreary music she played at home. Christina’s discovery of folk music was another station of the cross for Rita, who liked rock n’ roll and had a secret crush on Elvis. Now all she heard from Christina’s room was the same high keening voice singing songs of death. And Christina never left her room, except to go to the library. She had refused to go to the christening of Aunt Connie’s baby girl even when her father, Joe, yelled so loud the neighbors heard. Now it was the Friday before the first day of school, and Rita was ironing Christina’s uniform. She allowed herself to hope that this new, compliant Christina was here to stay. This was how it was supposed to be, a mother and her daughter working together in the kitchen, the daughter happy to help, happy to be with her mother, to learn what she could teach her.
“Good, good, mamarella, you doin’ a good job.”
Rita left her ironing and stood beside Christina at the sink. She put her arms around her. Christina squirmed away, but Rita kept talking, determined to be cheerful, even though her daughter had become enchanted by demons over the summer and she had to be careful of her evil snake tongue, la lingua di vipera. Rita had performed the anti-malocchio in secret on her daughter’s behalf. Late at night, after the whole house was quiet and she was sure everyone was asleep, she had poured the water and the oil and the salt into a bowl and murmured the ancient chant in dialect, moving her left hand in a circle over the bowl. Then she plunged her fingers into the oil and it broke up into a million tiny eyes, proving that her daughter had been cursed. But the spell hadn’t lifted the evil eye. Her daughter was still miserable. Rita wondered if she should see Mingucc’, who everyone said was a strega and knew even stronger spells, but Mingucc’ also had a big friggin’ mouth and might tell everyone that Rita’s daughter was pazza and talked fresh to her mother and that Rita was a bad mother.
Cursed or pazza, her daughter was unhappy and it hurt Rita’s heart. A memory came to taunt her, of baby Christina giggling and clapping her hands when Rita sang to her. She would make Christina smile again.
“We gonna have a big birthday party for you an’ we have alla you friends…”
Christina interrupted her.
“I want to go to Club 47 in Harvard Square and hear Joan Baez for my birthday.”
“Oo? Oo’s that?”
“Joan Baez, the folksinger.”
“That mezzo-mort’ sounds half-dead alla time?”
“To you. Because you’re ignorant.”
Vipera. Rita stilled the urge to slap her daughter, to remove that smirk from her face and replace it with the mark of her five fingers.
“Don’ let you father hear you talk to me like that. He’s gonna give you an election when he gets home.”
Christina smiled, a demon grin that never reached her eyes. Rita felt her heart pound. “Diavoletta,” she thought, not without fear.
“An election?” Christina placed the last of the decapitated squid bodies into a colander by the side of the sink.
“I think President Kennedy is in office at least until next year,” Christina said, wiping her hands on a dishrag. Rita went back to her basket of clothes, banging the iron harder than was necessary on Christina’s brutta uniform. Rita saw herself, groggy and desperate for sleep, keeping baby Christina happy; Christina, who wanted to play at two o’clock in the morning after Rita had been on her feet all day cooking for her husband’s cafè. Rita, her eyelids like lead weights, wiggling her fingers through the bars of the crib so that la principessa could be amused. She slammed the iron down on the uniform as if she were branding it.
“Anything else you want me to do?” Christina said, making it sound somehow like a challenge.
Rita put up her iron and stared at her cursed daughter.
“No. Go read you books, you so smart. You so smart, you stupid!”
Christina left, fighting back tears. Her mother’s words stung, even though she was the stupid one, not even knowing the difference between election and lecture. Rita went back to her ironing, allowing her tears to spill only when she heard Christina’s heavy footsteps on the stairs.
The phone rang, and Christina heard her mother answer it. She paused on the stairs, eavesdropping. She heard her mother sniffling and murmuring to someone.
“I dunno, Rosa,” Rita said. “Whatsamatter with her? She make me cry…”
Rita was talking about her to Rose! Now her mother was taking over her own friends! Christina ran upstairs and picked up the extension.
“Hello, Rose,” she said, her voice flat. “Hang up, Mumma.” Her mother slammed down the phone.
“School starts Monday,” Rose said.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Christina replied.
“Well,” Rose said, in a breathless rush of words, “Patsy and Mary Agnes and I are all goin’ to Grover Cronin’s tomorrow and we’re all getting’ madras blazers and saddle shoes for the first day! We decided we’re gonna be colleege! Wanna come?”
“I dunno,” Christina replied. She was thinking of her new book from the library, Jane Eyre. She was working her way through the Brontes and was now on Charlotte. Maybe Jane Eyre was like her, stuck in a strange place with unenlightened former friends who were now strangers, people who actually gave a shit about being colleege, whatever that was.
“Well, if you don’t come you’re gonna be the only one in our crowd who isn’t colleege.” And we’re gonna be the only ones. Everyone else will be rats.
“I dunno. Patsy says it’s not dressing rat, no teased hair an’ stuff. She read about it in Seventeen. Oh, an’ we’re all gonna iron our hair on Sunday so it’ll be flat for the first day. You comin’ or what? Ten o’clock at the bus stop.”
“Yeah, okay.” Maybe she could find a black turtleneck like Joan Baez wore. And blue jeans. She didn’t even own blue jeans. She didn’t want to be colleege. She wanted someone to listen to Joan singing Silver Dagger with her and mourn the tragedy of the girl in the song sleeping alone for the rest of her life. She had to get out of Precious Blood and go to the public high school. The public high school was huge and had to have people who listened to Joan Baez and read the Brontes and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. But she was afraid to go to such a big school. She was a coward. She would wear the madras blazer on the first day and walk into Precious Blood High School in a protected colleege phalanx of friends who weren’t really her friends. She hated herself.
“Wanna walk up the park with me?” Rose was saying.
“Nah. I’m helpin’ my mother with the squid,” Christina said.
“That’s a first.”
“I know. I decided to be good.”
They both snickered, a brief return to their old closeness. Christina hung up the phone and dived onto her bed. The park. The place where Dennis Dempsey, the Worst Boy in School and the love of her life, had dumped her the day after he bought her an ice cream cone at Brigham’s and then clumsily kissed her. She would never go to that park again. Never. She opened Jane Eyre and read the first words.
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day…”
No shit, Charlotte.
Marianne Leone is the author of JESSE (Simon & Schuster) and MA SPEAKS UP (Beacon Press). Essays in the Boston Globe, Lithub, Solstice, Coastal Living, Bark, Post Road, and others. She had a recurring role on HBO’s “The Sopranos” as Joanne Moltisanti (Christopher’s mother),and acted in films by John Sayles, Larry David, Martin Scorsese, Nancy Savoca and David O. Russell.