Captain Bernard Chalfin was twelve years older than me. My mother said, you must hold on to him, and perhaps he will take us all to America. Do anything he asks. So I had sex with him. We were good Catholics, and before life turned upside down during the war, I would never have done that. Pleasing one man seemed to all of us less of a sin than prostitution. Many other girls did the same, were left behind by the men, and became whores anyway. Two other girls I knew married Americans. One of them married a black soldier. Today, she lives with him in Seattle, Washington.
I enjoyed it. I was one of those virgins who trembles when touched, who aches with desire. I had never been with a man, and he was a little bit kind to me at the beginning. It didn't take much, after all the hunger and fear and the roar of all of the guns, for me to fall wildly in love with him. Within a week or two, he was the only man for me. I couldn't wait to be touched by him, to feel my own pleasure and give pleasure at the same time. I fell asleep every night praying to God he would take me to America.
He did. We were married in Sicily. He said we couldn't take mom or Laetitia at once, but would send for them later. It was the first time I knew he was lying to me, because he wouldn't look me in the eye. Momma was in a rage. She spit and cursed him and asked, what was to become of her and sister? She said, you must refuse to go unless we come too. I lay awake a whole night praying for guidance and then, God help me, I decided to go without them. I had my reasons: we were already married, and it was my duty to go with my husband. In the morning, I gave momma all the money I had, and went with Bernard. Momma wouldn't look at me.
It was a confusing time. What with one thing and another-- military red tape, travel, and being among strangers in Brooklyn when I couldn't speak the language---three months went by before I was able to send momma any money. She didn't write for a long while. Finally, a letter arrived saying that she was all right but that, two months after I left, Laetitia ran away. Momma woke one morning and she had gone without leaving a note. In those terrible times, many people just disappeared. We never heard from her again and don't know if she is alive. Momma is certain she was murdered. I am not so sure.
Whatever happened to her was my fault. I could have saved her, but only at the price of becoming a whore myself. Should I have done it? Would God want me to? I have never prayed since, never asked that question.
Within the year, I feared and hated my husband. He hit me for the first time a few weeks after we arrived in Brooklyn. I was always spirited, and the first time he struck me I went for his eyes, as I would have done fighting another girl back home. But Bernard was a head taller and sixty pounds heavier. He had no hesitation to hit a woman. In a moment I was pinned under him on the floor, and he was slapping me.
Today, eighteen years later, Bernard is not much changed. He has gained twenty pounds, and has grey in his hair. He still is the handsome man I married, but everything about him now repels me. I swim in a sea of disgust and fear. Every day I must manage him, not to be beaten, not to be harmed.
In the early years, I couldn't leave him because I had no money, I knew no-one, and I didn't speak English. Today, I speak well enough, but I still have nowhere to go, no way to earn money, and one additional reason: our son John .
I watch Bernard sleeping now and imagine killing him: I remember a story from childhood about a scorpion placed in a man's ear.
He wakes up. He sees me watching him, and sneers, as if to say: I know you want to kill me, but you are too cowardly to do the job. He checks his watch on the nightstand: the thick Rolex he bought after I crushed its predecessor beneath the wheel of the car. What a beating I got, but it was worth it. He moves around the room, checking his hair in the mirror. It is thinning: soon he will wear a bad toupee, I think with malice and glee. He turns to me and says, Do you know you are turning into your mother? You look just like her. He lets momma come to visit every other year, but always sends her back. She wears black for Laetitia, and never speaks when she is here. The only thing that makes her smile a little, is John.
Bernard says, I'm not going to the beach with you today. I reply: Good, I didn't want to go to the beach anyway. I want to add, with you, but can't, because it may earn me a slap.
Bernard answers, Oh, you're going, all right. The boy needs some sun.
One can't oppose him. He either hits you or wears you down. I tell him we'll go, but I'm already making other plans.
I think of John, and curse my miserable life. He is a beautiful boy, everyone tells me so, but I cannot love him, because he looks like Bernard. When I think I love him anyway, I imagine him, a grown man, beating a girl. What are the odds he will not? Bernard is the moon and the sun to him, just as he was to me once. He worships his father as a god, and will be just like him. A brute fathered another brute on me. When I have been beaten and am angry and low, I think, I would have done some girl a favor if I smothered John in his crib.
It is remarkable that my son does not seem to know I don't love him. I rarely touch him, I never call him by endearing names. I am a horror, but his eyes are always on his father, never on me. We live like strangers in the house together. I take him where I am required to, make sure he is fed, clothed and clean, and leave him alone in his room or in the park to play. He has an endless ability to entertain himself, on the floor with his soldiers or his dinosaurs, and does not seem to need me.
My heart went out to him for a moment some years ago. He came in the house crying and I asked him what was wrong. He said, Mommy, Ava is sad. Ava Littman lives down our street. I went outside and saw Ava and her mother, Adele. God forgive me, but I asked, Adele, did John hurt your daughter? She said, No, Trina. Ava was fighting me, and she ran out of the house crying. When your son saw her, he started to cry too. You have a gentle boy, Trina. He's always very lovely to Ava.
I thought, if he is a gentle boy, I could love him. But I don't know.
Now he is almost thirteen, getting tall and broad, like his father. I remember bulls that were like cows when young, coming to the hand eagerly to be petted. When they grow up, they change, become angry and hateful.
Perhaps he would cry if he knew Bernard beat me, but no-one knows. Bernard is careful about when and how, and he never leaves any marks. He has sent John out of the house to play and then ambushed me in the living room, an hour after a remark I don't even remember.
Bernard leaves the house. I am certain he is going to women but I haven't any proof. I live like the other women I know, stuck in a mass of pink cotton candy, the disgusting sweet stuff they sell on the boardwalk in Coney Island. My wrists and feet are stuck to the floor, my eyes are glued shut. We are all trapped; the difference is that many other women are imprisoned in a sweet dream, and I am having a nightmare. Outside the cotton, the men strut in their larger world, their swollen penises sticking up in the air.
I ask everyone I know, do you think he has other women? And everyone says no, but some people won't quite look me in the eye when they say it.
I think Bernard smells of a woman sometimes when he comes home, and often the same one. I have come to know her perfume. If I asked him about it, he would hit me, or say it was the soap from the lavatory in Battista's resturant. I know that soap.
It is nine o'clock. Not too early on a Sunday to call Belle. Charlie will not be home; he is in Washington today, meeting the President.
I dial the number and Belle says, hello, Trina.
How did you know it was me?
You are the only one who calls at nine in the morning on a Sunday. Charlie never calls me so early.
She is happy and playful. I feel ashamed I do not like her more. She is always nice to me.
Belle is simple-minded, almost stupid. She loves her husband, my husband's twin. Charlie is a little shorter, softer and less mean than Bernard. Otherwise they are two of a kind. They sit in my kitchen and plot while their cigar smoke twines in the air. I hate them both.
Belle is a china girl. If Bernard had her, he would have smashed her to bits long ago. Charlie is slower, but I am certain that one day he will break her to pieces as his brother would.
I sit with Belle on her porch sometimes, and I want to tell her that her husband does not love her, that he is not faithful. I cannot prove it, any more than I can prove my own husband's infidelity. But I know it must be so. Bernard is the mastermind, and Charlie is led by him in all things. If Bernard goes to women, so will Charlie. Bernard won't let it be any other way, and Charlie after all is a Chalfin.
John is a Chalfin.
I have thought of writing my friend, and asking if I can come live with her among the black people. The man she married is very kind. But she writes me every year and it seems that with three children now, her life is very hard.
Bernard says: If you fight me, you will be right back lying on your ass in the Sicilian mud. You can return to turning tricks for a living.
I wanted to be an American citizen. And for years he promised I would. He said, you don't know enough English to take the test yet. He claimed it was very complicated. Then Mrs. Lamotta went for it and told me how easy it was. Bernard said, next year, when there's more money. The next time I asked, he hit me. I stopped bothering him about it. I knew that this way, he controls me more. He says, if I divorce you, you're going back to Sicily.
Bernard says, Leave if you want. You're not taking John. I'll make sure you never see him again.
And sometimes, he won't speak at all. You say a word, the next thing you know you're on the floor and his fists are raining down on you.
It is true, I am turning into momma, a black frowning ghost in his house.
I say to Belle: Could you do me a very big favor? Would you think about taking John to the beach?
I explain that Bernard wants John to have some sun, and that I am not feeling well.
Belle says, Trina, that's so strange. I was just thinking of going to Jones Beach today. I'd be thrilled to take John.
Belle is alway nice to John. Nicer than I am. He wrote a composition in school three years ago in which he said, I wish Aunt Belle was my mom. Bernard saw it and showed it to me. Bernard looks every day at his homework; I never do.
I said, I'll bring him over in half an hour. Then I go look into John's room. He is lying on the floor with all his plastic dinosaurs arranged. There are hundreds, of all colors and sizes. He knows all their names, stegosaurus, allosaurus, and has nicknamed them all too. The allosaurus, his favorite, is Junior. The dinosaurs are in rows and he lies on the floor, touching them one by one, whispering to them. I wonder, is he not a little old for this?
Is he a lonely boy, or is he self-sufficient? If I was not a monster I would know.
Monsters make more monsters.
I say, John, we are going to the beach. Please get ready.
Okay, mom. He gets up immediately. At least he is obedient. Bernard hits him too. Not nearly so often as me, or as hard. John doesn't require it, he says. I just have to tune him a little. You I have to rebuild.
I go to the bay window and peer through the curtain. Twitch it aside an inch. Soon Morris will be walking his elderly, piebald dog.
Morris is my neighbor. He is a very good-looking Jewish man, about fifty-five, with silver hair and a very straight back. He has a big Jewish nose, and kind light brown eyes. He is a gentleman and very nice to me.
He comes out of his house across the street with his dog and I take the garbage out. I meet him as if by accident at the curb and he says, Good morning, Katrina.
I'll walk a few steps with you, I tell him.
As we go towards the corner, I say:
You remember what you suggested?
Did you mean it?
I'll do it today, if you want.
His son and daughter are both in college but he has a little niece he takes to the playground. I meet him there often when I take John. Morris is retired; he had a factory in the garment district in Manhattan.
When we had been seeing each other by chance for three months in the park, I knew we were friends. He was the only one who took an interest in my life. He drew me out and over time, I told him everything.
One day, he said, I've fallen in love with you, Katrina.
This was not a great shock because I had already seen it in his eyes. I knew that he had not slept with his wife in many years. She was a hypochondriac who sometimes was really sick. They had separate bedrooms. She was not a bad woman; I had been friendly with her, though she didn't often come out of the house any more.
Morris put his hand lightly on top of mine. The children were on the swings at the far end of the playground and couldn't see us.
I like you very much, I said, but I don't see what we can do about it.
But I looked forward after that to the playground. It was very sweet just to sit with him for an hour. He gave me something I had been thirsting after for eighteen years.
Soon we had secrets together, nothing serious. Appointments to meet in the playground. Little gifts we had given each other.
I was afraid of Bernard's rage. Morris could not allow anything to hurt Dora. I knew he could never leave her, and I resolved I would not ask him to. He was so kind to me, and I didn't want him to be any different than he was. I decided I will not be a monster, for once.
Morris thought this wasn't enough. He said, I feel very cheap to ask you and I will understand if you say no. But I want you so much. Would you consider going to a hotel with me?
I had been expecting it, and I answered, Do you know one that would be safe?
There is a place we pass when we come back from New Jersey. It is just the other side of the bridge. It is set back from the road, and very discreet.
I told Morris I would think about it. Now, three weeks later after much thought I say yes.
He is trembling with excitement, so that he almost cannot speak. He continues: At twelve o'clock, I'll tell her I'm leaving to catch the afternoon fluke boat from Sheepshead Bay. She won't expect me back until six or seven.
I say, I only drive my car on roads I know, mostly in Brooklyn. I'm not comfortable going over the George Washington bridge.
I'll take you, he answers. We just have to figure out a place to meet where no-one will see us.
We agree I will take the subway two stops, to Avenue J. He will be right under the train station. If I see anyone I know, I can walk by his car and go into the clothing store on 15th street. He will wait for me.
I feel very excited, about to start trembling myself. I am not sure I will be able to go through with this.
This will be the third time I disobeyed Bernard on a Sunday. On the other two, I sent John off and did innocent things.
Last time, I went to the movies in the afternoon. I had never gone without a man. Bernard won't go to theaters, so I hadn't seen a movie in ten years. Except on television, of course.
I was frightened to go in by myself. I thought someone would molest me in the theater, that I'd be helpless. I saw some girls, only ten or twelve, buying tickets for the matinee, and I asked if I could sit with them. They hesitated, then looked to the oldest one, a tall girl with wavy blonde hair who seemed two or three years older than the rest. She said, "You're welcome to." We sat and during the trailers, I asked if the other two were her younger sisters, or was she baby-sitting? She giggled and said that she was ten like the others. I was amazed because she was so much bigger.
It was a silly American family comedy. Elderly Cary Grant and Sophia Loren alone on an island during World War II. I looked at her beautiful Italian face, and thought: are you happy here? Or are you all alone like me? The girls giggled during the kissing scenes, except the wavy-haired one, who watched attentively.
I got a slap from Bernard that night but it was worth it to have escaped the cotton candy for one day.
I return to the house. John has put his bathing suit on under his shorts and packed a towel and some of his toys in a bag. I drive him to Belle's . You're not dressed for the beach, he says.
I'm not going. Belle will take you.
Oh. He is surprised but not disappointed. He is looking forward to a day with Belle, who is so much sweeter than I am.
Belle is jumping with excitement to be taking John to the beach. She kisses me on both cheeks. She is wearing a bathing suit cover in a sunflower pattern and sandals.
I want to tell her, you are a fool. You have nothing to be happy about. Your man does not love you. Believe me, I know.
Why would it please me so much to hurt her? I must be very jealous. I am not so much a monster as to be mean to Belle. She is ten years younger than me. Let her live a little longer in the pink cloud.
She invites me in and I say no, I have errands to run. John looks uncertainly from me to Belle and back again. Have a good day, mi caro, I say. I am showing off for Belle, and feel sick. I kiss John, which I never usually think to do. As I drive away I see in the rear view mirror: Belle takes his hand.