Chapter 9: STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK (Part 4 and 5)
Richard is with Bobby. They are leaning against Bobby’s Belair and jerking around, laughing, punching each other playfully. I am cradling my books in my arms staring at the pair as I walk. Richard is so animated with Bobby. He seems free, unafraid, wildly expressive, none of which he is with me. Oh, he is very nice to me. He treats me well. He takes me places. He doesn’t complain, even when I stop him from doing what I know he wants to with me. But approaching the two I understand his friendship with Bobby is different. Maybe it is why I passionately dislike Bobby: He has captivated Richard, as I can’t seem to. It is like Bobby loves Richard and that Bobby and I are rivals for Richard’s attention. The oddness of the idea lingers in my head. Richard and Bobby are friends, boyfriends, but not boyfriends in the sense Richard is my boyfriend.
I am nearly disgusting myself as I step to Richard’s side and he sweeps an arm over my shoulder and pulls me close. I almost drop my books, but Richard notices and grabs the pile and hefts them with one hand, feigning to drop them, lifting them to his other side and smiling and winking, as if to say, Fooled you, Babe.
“Gotta run,” he says to Bobby.
Bobby replies, with a barely detectable sneer, “Don’t let me keep you from the missus.”
Richard nudges me along and we stroll up the street. I glance back. Bobby leans against his car, arms folded, staring at us; or maybe at just me, maybe threatening, How dare you steal Richard from me. I shiver.
“The movies Friday?” asks Richard, though it is more an assumption than a request for a date. We’re beyond him asking for dates. We are dating. We are a couple. The only question now is: what will we do together on the weekend?
I nod, but I ache to ask, “Why don’t I come over to your house and spend a little time getting to know your family?”
“Something bothering you, Babe?”
“Something,” I answer.
“What?” he asks, stopping us and turning to face me. “What? I do something?”
“You like me, Richard, don’t you?”
“Babe,” he answers, hoisting my books higher to strengthen his hold, and pulling me close with the arm that’s been around me since we linked at Bobby’s car, “I adore you.”
“People who like each other—adore each other, they share things.”
A big smile breaks across his face and his eyes narrow, and behind them I detect smoldering, as if his brain is on fire. “Babe, that’s all I want to do, share with you.” He has me tight against him now and lays a kiss on my lips.
I swing a hip against him. “Not in public, Richard.”
He backs off. “Sorry, Babe, but I can’t resist you.”
“Who are my parents?” I ask him.
“Your parents?” He’s puzzled, as if I’ve asked a trick question. He thinks for a full minute and then names them.
“What does my father do for a living?”
“Do?” He tells me.
“What meal does my mother call her specialty?”
He names it without hesitation.
He’s waiting for another question. Instead, I watch him expectantly.
“What, did I miss one?”
“Ask me if I know what your father does, or what your mother likes to cook for you and your father.”
He releases me and shifts my books so he is holding them with two hands. He studies the books, as if reading the text through their closed covers. He shuffles, and he is silent.
“Richard, what I’m trying to get at is I don’t know a thing about your family. All I know is you moved up here because your father got a better job. That’s it. And you know practically everything about my family. My parents’ names, what my mother likes to cook, everything.”
He maintains his silence, continuing to examine my books.
“I don’t think it’s normal, Richard, me not knowing a single thing about your parents. Or meeting your parents. It makes me feel …” I hesitate, afraid to venture further. But I swallow and plunge ahead. I’ve begun and I don’t know when I will have the courage again. “It makes me feel like you really don’t care for me. I know you care, Richard, I do. But it’s how I feel. Do you understand?”
He moves next to me, transfers the books to one arm again, and slides an arm around me.
“My family is different,” he says.
I search his eyes, expecting a revelation, reluctance perhaps, or hurt, embarrassment, anything, but they are private.
“Different how?” I ask.
“You really need to know?”
“Yes, I do, Richard, if I’m important to you.”
He takes a huge breath. “Okay. But I don’t want this to get around.”
“It’s between you and me,” I reassure him.
“We had to leave Staten Island.”
He pauses, and I’m afraid he won’t continue. I’m compelled to prompt him. “Why?”
“My mother demanded we leave. She wanted us far away from … she called it ‘the scene of the crime.’”
“Your father’s a criminal?” I don’t mean to gasp, but the idea he is the son of a criminal, a thief, or worse, I can’t bear it.
“Not really a criminal,” he says, smiling weakly.
I find myself temporizing a bit. Maybe I don’t want to know. I consider stopping Richard from telling me more, urging him to keep whatever the secret is to himself. Before I can, he says, “My father was involved another woman.”
Adultery is relief, but only because it is mild in comparison to the alternatives. “He was cheating on your mother?” I whisper. I’ve read about unfaithful husbands. But in Creek Falls, husbands and wives don’t cheat, not usually. I could not imagine my father cheating on my mother. He would never enter his mind; they love each other. Even if I thought he might, which I would never think except at this moment and only because Richard introduced the idea, whom would he do it with? How could he manage an affair without somebody discovering? In Creek Falls, there are no secrets. There can’t be. The town is too small; Peyton Place was a metropolis by comparison. Here, everybody knows everybody else. Everybody watches out for everybody else. But Staten Island, now there, it’s a big place, and lots can happen in a big place.
“It was worse than cheating,” he says.
“Worse?” I clip the word to prevent myself from shouting.
He nods. “My mother is a nurse. Nurses work all the time. At least my mother did. She doesn’t now. Not anymore. Not after … We came here and she said she would work days, and only if my father worked days at a job, too. She didn’t care what kind of work he did. But it had to be a daytime, all-day job, where he left before her and came home after her.”
“What does he do?”
“Drives a truck for CF Gravel. Leaves at six and isn’t home until six. Makes good money, working lots of overtime. It’s the first decent job he’s had. He didn’t have a job when we lived in Staten Island.”
“That’s a good thing,” I say.
Richard shrugs. “I suppose. But it doesn’t make up for what he did.”
“The cheating. He hung around. He’d go up to St. George and hang around. He drank. He stood on street corners. He sat in bars. He fought with my mother when she pushed him to get a job, to do something with his life. She harped him about his drinking, his laziness. I don’t know. Maybe it got to be too much for him. Not that she wasn’t right. But I guess he got fed up with her.”
“And he took up with another woman?”
“Right, he did. We didn’t know, of course. My mother was a nurse, like I said. She worked daytimes. But something happened at the hospital. I don’t know what. Her schedule changed. One day she was home and on the night shift. He didn’t know about the change. He’d been out all night. He didn’t know when he came home in the morning because she wasn’t home. She went shopping, food shopping. Like I said, he didn’t work and didn’t do much of anything else either. When she came home, she found them.”
“Them?” I’m a little thrilled, a little intrigued, a little ashamed.
“My father and his … I don’t know what to call her, girlfriend, or whore, like my mother did. I wasn’t there. I was in school. I heard about it the next day, in the morning, when she got in from the nightshift. She said I was probably curious that my father wasn’t home last night. I didn’t tell her I wasn’t. He didn’t come home lots of nights, not a whole lot of nights, but enough for me to know he stayed away, that his absence that night wasn’t anything extraordinary. But I told her I guess I was wondering. She said she didn’t want to have to tell me this but there was nothing she could do. She said my father has taken up with another woman and she, my mother, had kicked him out of the house. Good riddance, she said. I didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. I mean, I wasn’t shocked or anything. Lots of guys’ fathers ran around with other women. It wasn’t anything special. I didn’t think my father was the type. But I guess most guys are. No, I don’t mean that, Babe. Not all guys. I’m not the type. My father taught me a lesson. He showed me how you can really screw up people by being selfish. And she was pretty hurt, too. Crazy hurt. It really drove her around the bend, him running around on her. Every morning when she came home she’d make me breakfast and she’d be a different woman each time.”
He’s quiet. His eyes grow distant eyes, eyes no longer set on a street in Creek Falls, but looking back, way back.
“What do you mean ‘different’?” I ask.
“Different like in the guy who was good sometimes and bad other times. Day and night different.”
“Jeckel and Hyde.”
“That guy, except she was hardly ever good. One day she’d walk in. Her head would be down. She’d be dragging. Before she got her coat off, she’d start crying, and she wouldn’t stop, and the only way I wouldn’t hear her or see her crying was to leave. I’d leave because, well, Babe, I just couldn’t stand seeing it or hearing it. She’d complain about doing everything for him, putting up with his nonsense, his shiftlessness, his irresponsibility; and her warnings to me to not be like him, to be a man, a real man, to live up to my commitments.
“Then another day I’d really know she was home. The door would slam. She’d really throw it into the jamb. The place would shake, shake like in a storm or something. My mother’s not a curser. But those mornings she’d come pretty close, and I could she it in her face; oh, she wanted to cut loose. He was a no-account, a backstabber, deceitful, a liar, traitor, on and on. Now, Babe, I knew my father was wrong, but still I couldn’t listen to her. Out I’d go as fast as I could. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.”
“But your father’s back,” I say.
“Yes, he came back. He was gone maybe two weeks, then he was back.”
“Your mother took him back. She sounds like a forgiving person,” I say, sad for him and his mother, but heartened by her strength, understanding, and capacity to forgive. I didn’t know her, yet, but found myself admiring her nonetheless.
“She took him back all right. She had conditions, though. No going out ever without her. He had to get a steady job, and come straight home from it. She didn’t trust him. Still doesn’t. I guess I don’t either, not after what he did to us.”
Richard’s eyes are on me, reading me for a reaction. “You really want to meet these people?”
I smile and I kiss his cheek. “Yes,” I say. “I love you, and they are your parents.”
He shrugs and says, “Okay, I’ll ask my mom.”
Today Richard tells me his mother is excited he has a girlfriend, a serious girlfriend, and she wants to meet me. Not just meet me, but to have me for dinner. I am taken aback. I assumed we’d stop in, he’d introduce me, we’d chat for a while, and after we’d be off on our date. But dinner, I don’t know how to feel about what it implies.
“Don’t worry,” he reassures, “she’s nice. He’s okay too, just a little quiet. And she’s a pretty decent cook, though you’d never know it looking at me.”
I don’t know how to act, after what he has told me.
My mother is perplexed when I tell her I will be having Sunday dinner with Richard and his parents. She mutters and putters for an hour. She’s prone to having conversations with herself; I get it from her, these internal discussions that help us work through situations.
After ruminating, she sits me down at the kitchen table. “This thing with Richard sounds serious.”
“I don’t know if it is serious,” I say, “not the way you think. I am happy with Richard. He makes me happy. He’s thoughtful and considerate. We have fun together. We say we care for each other in a special way. But if you’re worried Richard and I might sneak away and get married, don’t. Richard has ambitions and they don’t include marriage, at least not anytime soon. And I have my own plans, college and all that.”
“But Sunday dinner,” she frets. “Sunday dinner is serious. When your father and I had our first Sunday dinner with your grandparents, well, it pretty much meant we were getting married.”
She could continue for hours; however, I have homework and daydreaming to do. I end the discussion by informing her I have already accepted. To back out would be the worst kind of rudeness. My mother has nothing to say, since discourteous behavior ranks in her top five things to despise, along with no-account boyfriends who break up family traditions, though the boyfriends are well down the list.