In the student lounge of St. Mary’s College in Brooklyn, Marietta’s friend Linda pirouetted in front of the mirror, evaluating her attire for the spring dance that evening. With the point of her comb, she parted her shiny black hair in the middle and tied back the sides with two silver clips. Her chestnut-colored eyes gleamed, as though she awaited a wonderful surprise.
“Are you going to the dance?” Linda asked as Marietta swung in through the heavy wooden door.
“Not this time. The last one was a dud. Anyway, I’m not dressed for it.” She pointed to her lab coat that smelled of formaldehyde. She’d dissected a female frog that very morning.
“That’s no excuse. You live only four blocks away and you have two hours in between classes to go home and change. You’ve got to come. I can’t sit home another Friday night,” said Linda. Her body turned rigid at the thought.
Marietta felt sorry for her friend. In fact, she’d felt sorry for her for a year and a half, from that very first Monday in September when they first met and she innocently asked how Linda’s weekend had been. The question was meant only as a conversation starter but Linda had burst into tears.
“My father drinks a lot,” she began. “Every Friday night he stops at the local bar to cash his check and have ‘a few’ with the boys. ‘What’s wrong with a man relaxing with his buddies when he has the next day off?’ he says. Well, there’s plenty wrong,” Linda moaned. “His paycheck shrinks and, with five children to feed, Mom needs the money to pay the bills. But that’s not all. He staggers into the house three hours past dinnertime bellowing Christmas songs for the neighbors to hear. When he’s finally inside, he retches all over the front hall. It’s disgusting! And as the oldest, it’s my job to herd the younger children to another room and shield them from seeing what I see while Mom tries to steer him into bed to sleep it off.”
Instinctively, Marietta hugged her. The unexpected touch both surprised and warmed the girl. From that day forward, Linda confided in Marietta as if they’d been friends from childhood. At unexpected moments, in bits and pieces, Linda unraveled her life. Today was one of those moments.
“My father had another episode,” she said, speaking into the mirror. “I’m so angry with my mother. Why can’t she admit he’s an alcoholic and force him to get help?”
“Your mother doesn’t want to believe there’s anything wrong. Some mothers are like that,” Marietta said, trying to console her friend, knowing how empty the words sounded. What did she know about mothers? Only that they can hurt you when you least expect it.
“I have to get out,” Linda said, adjusting the skirt around her waist so the zipper fell directly in the middle of her left side. A child studies major, she felt she had all the qualifications to be a good wife and mother. She would choose carefully and not settle as her mother had, marrying the first man that came along in order to get away from her own alcoholic father. For Linda, every school dance provided the potential to meet Mr. Right.
Marietta had a different vision. She was majoring in chemistry and biology, pre-med to be precise. After medical school she’d establish a practice in cardiology or pediatrics. That’s how she’d leave home and the ghosts that haunted her. Having spent the last eight years in a house devoid of children, of laughter and frivolity, Marietta vowed that as an adult, her life would be different. She’d put the past behind her and not remember that day in Italy eight years ago when her mother, Stella, put her on a plane to travel to New York alone and be adopted by an aunt and uncle she had never met.
To be cut off from her large, close-knit Italian family that included her grandparents and a parade of aunts, uncles, and cousins she loved was hard to bear. Knowing that it was her own mother who sent her away was worse. How does a mother give up her own child, she asked, and why at 10 years of age? She felt totally abandoned and rejected — betrayed really — by the one person she thought she could trust.
Landing on American soil, Marietta resigned herself to life as the only child of adoptive parents who monitored and restricted her every move. When she wanted to join the school chorus, Paul and Teresa said practice ended too late. When she asked to meet her classmates at the local ice cream parlor for an hour of fun on Friday afternoons, it was denied because it might be dangerous. Even after she started college, her activities were limited mostly to attending class.
Still, Mr. Right never entered Marietta’s mind as a way of escape as it did for Linda. Yes, she’d dated a little in high school, even went steady with Ben, a freshman from St. Francis College. She’d met him at a friend’s Halloween party during her senior year.
Ben was tall and lanky, with a crop of thick red hair. More significantly, he was not Italian, an aspect that both pleased and relieved Marietta even as it frustrated Paul and Teresa. On their first date he had surprised her with a corsage of gardenias, but she was attracted more to his piercing green eyes that hinted of the darkness he harbored. His parents were divorced, Ben said. With no extended family nearby, he and his mom had only each other to lean on. He talked about his dad a lot and how much he missed him. Marietta understood. She yearned for her mother Stella in the same way.
But as the winter turned to spring, Marietta noticed a big change come over Ben. His eyes dulled and his face grew distant. He hardly talked about his dad anymore. Sometimes he’d let several weeks pass without calling, but then the phone would ring and he’d apologize. He’d been busy, he’d say, and would she like to go to the movies?
One April day, as they walked home from a date, he asked to have a heart-to-heart talk. Marietta beamed. Perhaps he’d snapped out of his gloom and the old Ben had returned.
“I’ve changed,” he said. Well, Marietta knew that. “You wouldn’t like my new friends,” he acknowledged. He promised to take her to the senior prom, but after that, he said, she’d be better off without him. Oh well, Marietta thought. She had enjoyed his friendship, but she had not been in love with him, and she certainly had never wanted to marry him. No, the key to her freedom, she believed, would be a career in medicine sometime down the road. Clearly, her focus was on her studies, which is why tonight’s dance did not interest her.
“Well, what do you say?” Linda snapped, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I mean about the dance.”
“I’d like to . . . but I have a big anatomy test on Monday.”
“If anyone doesn’t need to study for a test, it’s you. The dance committee needs people to set up. Come on, volunteer with me,” Linda pleaded. “If after one hour, the dance looks like the ‘old same-o,’ we’ll call it quits and go home. What do you say?”
On her way home to shower and change, Marietta smiled. Linda had a wonderful gift of compromise. She’d make a good wife to some lucky guy, she thought. She wished he’d hurry up and come along and make her friend’s life less miserable.
“Wow! The auditorium looks like a garden in bloom,” Marietta said as they hung the last paper Eiffel Tower across the ceiling. The theme was “Springtime in Paris” and the room reflected it. “Now all we need is Prince Charming to arrive.”
“You’re a true romantic. Tonight may just be your night,” Marietta vouched. Linda swallowed the words whole, hoping they’d come true.
A few classmates trickled in, holding hands with their boyfriends, positioning themselves in the middle of the dance floor since as couples they could take advantage of every dance. Linda eyed three or four single guys in sports jackets already settled at the food table. They were munching on pretzels and potato chips while ladling scoops of tropical punch into paper cups. The room soon filled with single girls who congregated in groups of twos and threes, their hands and heads bobbing gracefully in conversation, smiling, waiting for some single guys to ask them to dance. An hour passed and no one had yet approached Linda or Marietta.
“Something tells me you were right,” Linda said. “Another dud of a dance.”
“Oh, who needs men anyway? Let’s have some fun and dance by ourselves before we call it a night,” Marietta said.
Reluctantly, Linda agreed. They danced to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” Surprisingly, one of the young men from the food table neared and tapped Marietta on the shoulder. She smiled. Finally, she thought, someone has spotted Linda. She stepped aside, leaving him room to face her friend.
“No,” he pointed. “I’d like to dance with you.”
“The Dance” is an excerpt from “Orange Peels and Cobblestones,” a recently published novel by Rose Marie Dunphy set in Italy, New York, and California, which is being sold at local bookstores.