Chapter 3: Italian Restaurants
I am unsettled by the past. Not a generalized, conceptual, or theoretical past, but three very real and specific events. All of them, deaths. All murders, of a sort. The first was undeniable, even if it remains unpunished and its perpetrator, Paul, at large, and possibly present at this reunion. The second was the inexplicable and abrupt death of my first love.
Although no one died, the end of my relationship with Jeremy occurred with the force and expediency of a well-timed blade. The third murder was of my brother, Henry, who died in the most infuriating way one can die—at the hands of a shapeless, invisible system. One that works slowly and surreptitiously, and leaves the victim blaming himself until the bitter end.
A thick velvet barrier hangs between the party and me. I push the black curtain aside and discover another of these soft walls. After it, there’s an anteroom with a shin-high oblong coffee table. Name tags sheathed in soft plastic snake along its wooden surface; on its legs are tied red and white balloons—our school’s colors. Overhead hangs a banner: Welcome St. Iggy’s Class of 1997. The cloistered space is festive but also sinister and perfunctory, like Twin Peaks.
This is, in a way, purgatory. Silence behind me; entwined, indecipherable murmurs up ahead, growing louder. An inexorable, consuming din.
“Hi. Alumni or spouse?” A clear voice emerges from behind another curtain altogether.
“Are you an alumni or— Andy?”
I consider asking if she means alumnus. I nod instead.
“Nicole,” she says and points to her badge: Nicole Scifelli. Cheerleader. National Honor Society. Chair, Alumni Planning Committee. Small font.
Her silvery eyes and pinched nose are familiar. Her hair, however, is something recent, an unnatural color—an indecisive blend of blond, red, and brown.
Nicole was the first kid I ever met with divorced parents. I served detention in third grade for lifting her skirt. In seventh grade, I kissed her, mouth closed, during a game of spin the bottle. In high school, we barely spoke, but a few times during senior year she drove me to school. I recall that she steered almost exclusively with her kneecaps throughout the entire fifteen-minute ride, while peering into the sun visor’s mirror and applying makeup. It was as impressive as it was bone-chilling. Nicole and I got along just fine, but she suffered greatly for having small breasts—sunken-treasure jokes, surfboard jokes. I’m sure I contributed.
She’s no longer flat anywhere. Currently, her cleavage is threatening the flimsy button of her negligee-like black blouse. I feel an urge to apologize, to explain that we were all vile and clueless and that our parents didn’t teach us any better; neither did school or society. I’m sorry, Nicole. Your family was falling apart, and we were all too busy ridiculing you for not meeting impossible, unhealthy, and boringly binary standards. I’ve seen enough coming-of-age movies to know that you cried yourself to sleep more nights than the rest of us. It didn’t help your case that you were bossy as hell, but even that might be history through a misogyny-frosted lens. Maybe you were just being proactive or a born leader.
“Nicole? Wow. You look amazing,” I say, hoping to repair in shorthand what I helped over many years to break.
“Oh, gawd. No way. I didn’t even have time to go to the salon today,” she says, and tosses behind her the hard, crimped hair that had been resting on her shoulder.
“You know, Mister, I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for almost twenty years! You’re not an easy person to track down. I didn’t print a badge for you.”
“No problem,” I say.
“Before we leave, I want you to fill out an updated contact form. For now, you’ll have to make yourself your own name tag.” Nicole hands me a sheet of adhesive rectangles and a purple marker. “Do you remember what clubs and sports you were a part of?”
I ran cross-country and track and field. I was in the student government. And the honor society. I wrote for the paper, The Deacon’s Beacon. “I’d have to give it some thought,” I say.
“You were brainy. Just put National Honor Society. And then hurry up and get in here. It’s a good turnout. Sixty people so far, but a hundred RSVP’d. Haven’t had this many people since the five-year reunion. The complimentary food is going quick, but you can order whatever you want and pay separate.”
Nicole slips between the velvet drapes. The curtains part briefly, and I catch a glimpse.
Nine years ago, I ate at this restaurant for the last time, after my brother’s funeral. My mother chose Joe’s because it was nearby and because it was one of Henry’s favorites—the baked ziti, which he ate at least twice a week for most of his adult life, had the perfect ratio of cheese to tomato sauce, he always said. Mostly family came to the lunch that day—two aunts, two uncles, three cousins, their children, my brother’s wife and children, my parents—and our neighbor Patty. The meal was quiet except for some ruckus from the kids—batches of second cousins meeting for the first time. Henry would have never permitted his children to make noise. Somewhere before the appetizers, he’d have raised an eyebrow or a tense finger and, without uttering a word, effectively threatened them into submission. On that day, we all ignored it because they weren’t particularly loud or annoying—they never were—but I recall filling up with an urge to discipline them nonetheless, if only out of respect for my brother.
Today, I don’t recognize the dining room. The soft lamps, white tablecloths, and red wainscoted walls have been replaced with blue-filtered lighting, black tabletops, and a perimeter of crushed velvet. It looks like the template for a nightclub lounge. The wall behind the bar is a mirror of prodigious height and width. The rows of liquor bottles are bookended by large wooden Buddha statues. The staff are all young, a mix of Indian Americans and whites, probably in their last year of high school or first of college. I can no longer decipher if the white is Italian, Irish, or Polish because almost no one remains one or the other anymore. The workers are all dressed in cummerbunds, black bow ties, tuxedo shirts, but no jackets: my father’s lifelong uniform. Scattered strategically around the large room are stands with half-eaten trays of hors d’oeuvres—deviled eggs, small slabs of salmon, flaky miniature quiches. Although this remains an Italian restaurant, there is nothing distinctively Italian about the food. A dozen or so bar-height tables without stools are clustered near the center of the space. Atop the tables are crumpled cocktail napkins and tall glasses filled with limp cubes of ice. The event is well attended, but the wall-to-wall mirror gives the impression of a much more crowded room.
“Excuse me. Class of 1997, I would like your attention.” Nicole’s disembodied voice crackles through the speakers, interrupting Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper.” She informs the room that I’ve arrived. Late, but I’ve arrived. Resurrected, she says. “Let’s hear it for Andy!” she concludes after the overwrought introduction.
The room claps softly and begins to search itself. I put my head down to avoid eye contact and walk sixteen paces to the bar. “Two gin martinis, straight up, a touch of dirty, three olives.”
“A touch of—?”
“Just a splash of olive juice.”
“I truly don’t care.”
The bartender’s eyes expand. “Okey dokey.”
“Sorry, I’m Andy”—I gesture vaguely into the air, toward wherever Nicole’s voice reverberated—“and I haven’t seen any of these people in almost twenty years.”
“No explanation necessary,” says the handsome boy. “This is the fifth reunion this month. They all go the same: Everyone gets wasted. Things get
messy. The bright side is, you’re either going to have fun or you’re going to forget.”
I like this advice. Murderer. I’m the lyrical gangster. “You’re wise for your age,” I say. “Don’t waste it by staying in this place. Get out while you can.”
“Huh?” The bartender gives the ice and gin a vigorous even if brief shake. “This is just a summer gig. I start med school in the fall.”
This boy has a square face, dark hair, thick eyebrows, and brown skin darker than mine. Maybe he’s the owner’s son or nephew. Maybe not. Before I moved away, I didn’t know of a single Indian family; now, there are a couple of Indian restaurants—as well as non-Indian restaurants owned by Indians, Indian shelves in the supermarkets’ ethnic aisles, a sari boutique in a nearby strip mall, and, according to my mother, several Catholic Indians at 10 a.m. mass on Sundays.
“Wish me luck,” I say, but the future doctor has already moved on to someone else.
I eat one broken olive, slug down the first martini, eat a second, sturdier olive, and plop the third inside of the other, untouched martini. I remind myself that I once cared deeply for many of the people here. Don’t be nervous, I think. Worst case, I won’t remember anything tomorrow.
I scan the crowded room. Everywhere are clusters of two and three memories in human shape. A few groups of five. The room is overwhelmingly white, whiter than high school was. Everyone looks as old as I expected. Older than they should. My brain can’t help but apply a public health layer to everything—it’s what I do for a living. I don’t see people in this room; I see chronic risk factors. They pop up over each person, like thought bubbles in a comic strip: drinking, smoking, sedentary living, stress, low self-efficacy, distrust, shame, resentment, low wages, poor food options, trauma, violence, debt. It occurs to me that instead of submitting to tonight’s time-travel charade, I could ask Nicole to give me the mic, so that I might present on the harms of capitalism and income inequality. I could explain how chronic stress speeds up wear and tear of the body, and how it makes self-care untenable—the lecture I give to my graduate students on the first day of Introduction to Population Health 301: What Does the Future Hold? Afterward, I could field questions from the audience. But I’d be lucky to get out of this restaurant alive. Everyone here is either a cop or related to one, they’re at least one generation removed from union work (except, ironically, the cops), at least half the room identifies as conservative, another half thinks socialists and Nazis are the same thing, three-quarters would agree with the notion that race is a biological construct, four-fifths care more about lowering the price of gasoline than lifting the minimum wage, and all of them are pro-choice Catholics who don’t want to talk about it. The only things we have in common are an affinity for fried appetizers and the nook in our frontal lobes reserved for the Goo Goo Dolls and Biggie Smalls.
My pocket buzzes. “Babe, going to bed. Went out with the team for dinner, drinks. Hope your parents are okay. Love you. M.”
Marco and I agreed not to talk this week in order to, as per our couples counselor’s advice, “think about our individual needs and how they conflict with each other’s needs.”
I knew Marco would give in first. He didn’t want to take a break at all. In fact, on the way to the airport, he offered to cancel his trip and join me at my parents’.
“Your conference is significantly more important than my dad’s shrunken colon,” I said.
“But you’re more important to me.”
“Thank you. Maybe though, a week apart will be good for us,” I responded, knowing full well that amor de lejos es amor de pendejos. Long-distance love is for idiots.
“It’s ten days.”
“Don’t be like this, baby. We’ll be okay. It’s only a rough patch.”
It is only a rough patch, but it’s the first one in a long time, and it’s left my emotions scrambled. I feel half myself, and the half that remains is only two-thirds invested in us.
“You have your boarding pass?” I asked him, when we got to the airport.
“Orejas, chill! I have to write and rehearse a speech for my team and find a way to turn three hundred slides into a twenty-minute presentation. I don’t need any more stress.”
Ears. That’s what he calls me because my ears are somewhat big. At the risk of sounding defensive, I don’t think they’re exceptionally large, but they do stick out a bit, giving the illusion that they’re larger than they are. And the lobes are above-average floppy.
Irrespective of our marital troubles, Marco hates planes and goodbyes, which is why I never accompany him to the airport when he travels without me. I don’t want to be an audience for his discomfort—the beads of sweat at his brow, the subtle way he nibbles his lower lip. On this occasion, however, I thought a kind gesture might compensate for the kindness I wasn’t feeling.
“Sorry for snapping at you,” he said, before setting his carry-on on the ground and grabbing me by the waist.
I placed my hand on his chest and exerted a delicate pressure.
“I don’t give a fuck about these people,” Marco said playfully, knowing how I am about public displays of affection. “I’ll fight every last one of them.”
I knew he was joking, but a flex in his shoulders told me there was an intemperance too. More proof of his travel anxiety.
“Come here,” he said. “Kiss me, and then go.”
And I did.
Marco is six hours ahead and intoxicated enough to forget that we agreed not to message each other. He’s had two beers. Or two margaritas. Or one of each. But no more than two drinks. He doesn’t drink as much as I do. In fact, he’d be appalled at my having just chugged a martini. And he’d be right. There’s no reason for me to be this nervous or to, as my therapist says, “submerge my insecurities in gin.”
I don’t respond to Marco’s text.
The Spin Doctors play.
A short, round-faced woman with long brown hair and frosted tips approaches. I know her. We met in elementary school, and she was often my ride to high school. A Honda Accord. Her grandfather was senile and Sicilian, and he once forgot to lock the gate to their yard, and their Doberman puppy got out and was struck by a school bus, and I had to help her carry the bleeding carcass back to her house.
What is her name? If I blurt out Lisa or Nicole, I have a 40 percent chance of getting it right. Where is her name tag? She’s wearing an inch of makeup, just as she did back then. She was a massive Billy Joel fan—everyone was. Her mom worked at the local supermarket, could smoke a pack of cigarettes in an hour, and adored Meat Loaf, the singer—everyone did. Her family was kind to me in no particular way except that I always felt welcome. When their house burned down in seventh or eighth grade and they were forced into a trailer on their front lawn, my dad brought them dinner from Friendly’s. He did this once a week until their house was rebuilt, which astonished me because my parents had never said anything more than Hello and Peace be with you to her mom. “When is your father going to bring us that good arroz con pollo?” she used to ask when I’d come by after their house had been rebuilt.
“I guess when Friendly’s adds it to the menu,” I’d respond, pretending that she wasn’t joking—I’ve always been inept at engaging with that type of middling ethnic humor. Besides, I knew nothing of rice and chicken. As a kid, I assumed it was less typical of Colombian or Salvadorian cuisines because my mother didn’t prepare it, which in retrospect was completely in character for my mother, who’d never bother with the dish that united all Latin Americans in the eyes of Americans.
Marie! That’s it! Of course!
“Marie, how are you?” I say.
“ ‘Marie, how are you?’ Give me a break, Andy. It’s been almost twenty years! Where the fuck have you been? My mom asked your parents a million times to tell you to give me a call. What the fuck?”
There’s a tinge of rancor in Marie’s voice and in her fluttering violet eyelids and extended eyelashes, but there’s no sincerity to her anger. This is merely recrimination as icebreaker—even if it is true what she says about my not keeping in touch.
“How is your mom?” I ask Marie.
“She died. Last year. Cancer.”
Marie’s eyes fill instantly with thin tears that, through a combination of surface tension and rapid blinking, remain motionless on her eyes. She taps three fingers onto her chest to let me know what type of cancer it was. Without giving it much thought, I reach for her hand, the one that isn’t holding a Corona Light. “Shit. I’m sorry, Marie. Your mom was the best. I’ll never forget her Bat Out of Hell dance parties.”
Marie clears her nose with a few inhalations and wipes it with a wrist. “Thanks. You were, like, her favorite, you know. She was happy you never came back. ‘What the fuck for?’ she used to say. ‘Leave that boy out there in the world.’ ”
Marie’s mom surely knew I was gay. She wore eyeliner like a raccoon and poured schnapps into her coffee. She was a suburban drag queen. Certainly, she had gaydar before I knew what gaydar was.
Marie lives one block from where she grew up, she explains. She moved back from Florida when her mother first got sick a few years ago.
“Remember this?” she says, and rolls her eyes.
“MMMBop” plays. Hanson, the blond boy band comprised of science-fearing Christian brothers. Marie’s head moves side to side in rhythm with the song. Her waist, too, shifts complicity. She laughs at herself.
Marie recently remarried the father of her two kids, both of whom attend the public schools that we all avoided. “It is what it is,” she surmises. Her face contorts into a rictus of underachievement.
According to my parents and the church’s monthly newsletter, the Tea of Galilee, most of the people I grew up with still baptize their children, but very few send them to Catholic schools. They go instead to catechism classes on the weekends. A mix of fourth-generation white Catholics and the over-achieving children of over worked immigrants fill the parochial seats.
Marie and I exchange numbers because she gives me no choice. Then she flings her hand in the air toward Janna, who in turn calls over Lizzy, who’s standing in a circle with Vanessa, Adam, and Chris. Monique pops over briefly on the way to the bathroom. Because she’s Black, I want to make a joke about how endangered we non-whites are in this space, but maybe she doesn’t appreciate that sort of camaraderie. She shouts that she’ll be right back. I’m buzzed and less reticent about interacting with everyone than I was thirty minutes ago. With each successive encounter, I am freer. After a dozen conversations, I make my way back to the bar. Steven, Stephen, Megan, and Meghan part, making space for me to join. One of them reaches back to the bar and hands me a beer. It takes everyone a wide-eyed, open-mouthed moment to remember me. “Wow!” and “Holy shit!” are repeated. Over and over. As are the condolences about my brother. Some don’t react much to seeing me, but their eyes narrow into something suspicious. They all tell me about their jobs and children. Everyone has children. Erin has four, LaTeisha three, Monique three, Irene two, Dominic four, Alex four, Greg three. Nicole D. is a nurse, Nicole T. a loan officer, Nicole S. a third-grade teacher and gymnastics instructor, Dina runs a catering business with her sister, Gina makes jewelry, Gino teaches algebra and coaches high school basketball and lacrosse, Jake’s a cop, Reggie’s a cop, Nicole C. is a cop, Michael L. is a cop, Michael R. is a cop, Colleen is a physician’s assistant, and Margaret stays at home with her kids. Some of them see each other regularly, some at events like this one, some at the supermarket, some at church, most only on Facebook.
Of the more than two hundred students in our class, nearly half are now here. But there is no sign of Simone.
Simone was that rare adolescent with unabashed confidence, humor, kindness, and athletic abilities, who occupied the overlapping space between best friend and partner in crime. She lived on the Irish side of town and went to public school until sixth grade. Her parents were professors. History, I believe. She and I were in the same homeroom in seventh grade. In eighth grade, we’d go to an all-ages night at a club in the industrial part of town, where each room represented a different genre of music. Simone only ever wanted to be in the dim, exposed-brick space where they played grunge rock and ran a fog machine. She’d spend the entire night whipping through the mosh pit like a boomerang on fire. After my first busted lip, I took to watching the spectacle from the sidelines. In high school, Simone wore hemp necklaces and was in love with Eddie Vedder. During our freshman year, I roped her into my short-lived racket of supplying alcohol for all the cool kids.
“We just stand outside of 7-Eleven and wait for someone nice to do it for us. The seniors on the volleyball team do it all the time,” Simone explained.
Over the course of a few weekends, we filled up our backpacks with Olde English forties and clanked our way to wherever everyone was gathered. Since kids from two counties attended St. Ignatius, sometimes Simone
and I would have to travel by bus or train while lugging around nearly fifty pounds of glass and malt liquor.
Once, one of the bottles broke, and the liquor leaked all over the train’s vinyl seats, eventually dripping onto the floor and making its way down the aisle.
“Why are we doing this?” Simone asked, as she rushed to pull the fractured forty out of her backpack, while I used notebook paper to sop up the mess.
I shrugged, and she shook her head, half forgiving and half exasperated. I’m sure she thought I was a fool, but she never said so.
When Simone turned sixteen, her parents bought her a used Civic. After that, we were ungovernable, taking secret trips out east, to towns where we were unwelcome but too ignorant and confident to notice. A few times, we drove into the city, parked somewhere downtown, and walked as far north as we could before taking a train back down. But typically, Simone and I would stay nearby, drive to the beach after school, smoke pot.
Simone was nearly six feet tall at thirteen. Her favorite sport was basketball, but she wouldn’t try out for the high school team because she didn’t like other people’s expectations. “Imagine: a tall Black girl playing basketball. How original.” Instead, she became St. Ignatius’s greatest lacrosse and volleyball player. No one outscored her. During our junior or senior year, she changed her mind, joined the basketball team, and outscored everyone there too. We didn’t hang out as much near the end of high school, but it was always happiness and comfort when we were together. In retrospect, we probably fit so well because we were both queer and closeted. Butterflies trapped under glass. One time, we got real drunk and she told me as much—“We’re gays in the making,” she said. I didn’t know what she meant exactly, but I loved the turn of phrase, even if I hated to hear it. “Shut up,” I responded. Then I laughed as if she were joking and changed the subject. A couple of years later, in college, I came out to her over the phone. All she said was, “Duh, Andy.” There were a few phone calls after that one, but we never saw each other again.
The restaurant couldn’t possibly fit any more people, or their memories. My streak of twenty years of avoidance ends at a clip. I get passed around like a team trophy, and frankly, it feels as alien as it does good. In high school, I was a popular kid, but it was a tireless campaign on my part. Always striving to be in the right place, to make people laugh, to be a good dancer, to throw the best parties, to drink more, to smoke everything being passed around, to drop acid, to befriend the beautiful girls so that I might be mistaken for a ladies’ man, to keep my grades up, to say yes to everyone, always. I don’t know if I was aware of how hard I was trying, but somewhere in me, I sensed that if I ever stopped performing, even for a moment, the audience would leave; so, in a way, I left first. It never occurred to me that they’d remained in their seats.