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I heard the screen door slam shut against the wooden doorjamb and the crunch of Al's work boots on the conch-shell fragments that surrounded our cottage a quarter mile from the Chaguaramas airfield on Trinidad. It was 5:00 a.m. The tanagers that nested in trees beyond the field where we enlisted men's wives hung our laundry had just begun their morning song.
I rolled away from the empty hollow on the bed where Al had been sleeping only fifteen minutes before. The sheets were damp with his sweat. Nothing stayed dry in that climate.
I figured I might as well get up, too, put on a pot of coffee, start cooking before the temperature climbed. Thanksgiving Day and it was already seventy-five degrees outside. It would rise to one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade before the day was over. Al had hung a thermometer for me outside the bedroom window so I'd know as soon as I opened my eyes how hot it was. I'm not sure why it mattered so much, but it helped. Gave me a little piece of knowledge that let me feel some control over my life. Hah!
I wrapped myself in the navy blue embroidered kimono Al brought me last year when he was on furlough at Christmas and managed to get back to Boston for ten days. It seemed like a ridiculously impractical gift at the time, the middle of winter in the Northeast. I was wearing flannel nightgowns and wool socks to bed, for God's sake.
But then he'd asked me to marry him. Al Dante and I had been keeping company since we were in high school. He was a year ahead of me, one of my brother Carmine's friends.
The ring was in the pocket of the gown.
"What's this?" I asked when I felt something hard and lumpy against my heart. I'd just put the kimono on over my powder-blue sweater set in my parents' living room.
I slipped my hand into the pocket and retrieved a velvet box.
"Open it, Rose." He was sitting on the edge of his chair. He had his uniform on, the petty-officer stripe he'd earned a couple of months before neatly displayed on his arm below the Seabees construction insignia. He looked sharp, my Al did.
I held my breath as I lifted the hinged top of the small box. Inside was a diamond sitting high on four silver prongs. I let out a quiet gasp and my eyes filled up—for all the nights I'd lain awake, wondering how he was doing so far away, building an air base as the world descended into war. Trinidad. Al told me the U.S. Navy had leased territory there from the British because of its strategic location in the Caribbean, a base for planes that escorted convoys and patrolled the sea lanes. I had to go to the library to look up where it was.
My nose started to run. I was a mess. Tears streaming down my cheeks, me sniffling. Who knew this was what love does to you.
"Will you marry me, Rose?"
We didn't have much time. But I wasn't going to let him go back to Trinidad for God knew how long before we could walk down the aisle at St. Leonard's. Neither of us wanted to wait. We talked to my folks that very night. They were wary about the rush.
Mama got me alone in the kitchen for a few minutes.
"Rosa, be honest with me. Are you gonna have a baby? Is that why you gotta go to the priest so fast?"
"No, Mama, no! I swear on Nonna's grave that I'm as pure as the snow that's falling outside. It's just—I can't bear for him to go away again. The navy will let me go with him if we're married."
"He's gonna take you away to that island! Your papa will not agree to that, Rosa. You belong here, with the family. It's too far. Too strange. Another country."
"Mama, you left your parents to go with Papa to another country when you got married. America was a lot farther from Italia than Trinidad is from Boston. Please, Mama. Understand. I love him. I've waited already, worrying about whether he'd come back alive. I don't want to wait any longer. Talk to Papa. Give us your blessing!"
Mama put her hands on her hips and looked at me, measured me. She was from the old country, but she'd been in Boston a long time—thirty years.
"I didn't want to leave back then. It broke my heart to say goodbye to my family. I was pregnant, don't forget, with your brother Sal. But the last thing I wanted was to be separated from your papa. I'd seen too many men leave the village on their own and get lost in America, find another woman, forget the family they left behind. I was scared, but I knew I had Papa to depend on, protect me and the baby. With his skill as a stonemason, he knew he could find work in America. But when we left, my mother cried and cried as if it was my funeral. I won't do that to you, figlia mia. I'll talk to Papa."
She made the sign of the cross on my forehead and went to talk to my father.
We got married on New Year's Day. I wore my mother's veil and my sister-in-law Cookie's dress. My best friend, Patsy, stood up for me. It snowed the morning of the wedding. Huge flakes came in off the harbor and by the time we went to church there were three or four inches on the ground. I had to put on galoshes and hold my skirts up as we walked the two blocks to St. Leonard's. Fortunately, Father Giovanni had gotten somebody to shovel the front steps. My cousin Bennie, with the voice of an angel, sang the Ave Maria. Instead of his overalls covered in granite dust, Papa had on his good black suit and waited in the back of the church while I changed my shoes and Patsy fixed my veil. She licked her thumb and wiped away a fleck of soot that had settled on my cheek. I peeked into the sanctuary through the little glass panes in the doors and could see Al up at the altar in his uniform.
I bit my lip, squeezed Patsy's hand, then took Papa's arm. I stepped across the threshold and headed into my new life.
After the Mass, we went to a restaurant on Salem Street that had closed for our private party. The meal wasn't elaborate; after all, this was still the Depression, and the rest of the world was at war. But they did a nice job for us—escarole soup, man-icotti, a cacciatore made with rabbit, fagiolini and broccoli rabe on the side. The wedding cake came from Caffe Vittoria, but the cookies Mama baked herself. It took her three days. Mosta-ciolli, anise cookies, pignoli cookies, honey fingers. She even managed to find sugar-coated almonds, and I sat up with Patsy two nights before the wedding and wrapped the pastel-colored nuts—blue, green, pink, lilac—in circles of white netting that we tied with thin strips of white satin ribbon as wedding favors.
Al and I spent our wedding night at the Parker House. They brought us a bottle of champagne and a fruit basket on the house because Al was a serviceman. I'd never had champagne before. It was New York State, not French, of course, because of the war. It wasn't what I expected. But then, most of what's happened in my life wasn't what I expected.
The hotel wasn't far from the North End, but it might as well have been a foreign country. Very old Boston, with a snooty bell captain and a dowdy lounge. Not that we wanted to spend any time there. It was all we could do to get up to our room and get the key in the door, we were so excited. I was nervous, with a lot of butterflies in my stomach. I'd hardly eaten anything at the reception. I'd been busy moving from table to table, kissing and being kissed, thanking everyone as they slipped their envelopes into my hand and I put them carefully into the satin-and-lace borsa Mama had carried on her own wedding day. We didn't count the money until the next morning. We had other things on our minds that night.
Although she'd given birth to seven children and therefore must have known something about the sexual side of marriage, Mama had offered me nothing in the way of preparation. Her only advice to me was, "Don't ever go to bed angry. When you fight, make up before you fall asleep."
But right then, I couldn't imagine fighting with Al. I'd known him since we were kids and never in all those years had we ever said a sharp word to each other.
My sister-in-law Cookie, in addition to handing down her dress, had given me a smattering of advice, although I tried to avoid the image of my brother Carmine doing to her what she was trying to describe.
"That was the first time I'd ever even seen one," she said of her wedding night. "You'd think, growing up with five brothers, that sooner or later I'd have caught a glimpse. So it was kind of a shock. Try not to react too strongly when you see it, 'cause men are very sensitive about that. And try not to worry or build the whole experience up into something that's got to be perfect the first time. More than likely it won't be. But it does get better." And she smiled this knowing, secret smile and patted her belly. She was just starting to show.
So we made it into the hotel room with these goofy smiles on our faces. We looked at each other and then Al swooped in, picked me up and carried me to the wing chair by the window and sat down with me on his lap. We looked out at the city, coated now in a thick blanket of snow that softened the edges of everything and hid the shabbiness.
It was magical, that whiteness. The world seemed fresh, unmarred by weary footprints. A good omen for us, I thought.
Al nuzzled my neck in the spot he'd discovered when we were sixteen and he first kissed me. He'd begun with my lips, but then moved to cover my face with his kisses—my eyelids, my cheeks, my earlobes and, finally, right below my ear. It had sent shivers through me then, and he'd known ever since that was how to make me melt.
He lingered there for a few minutes and I leaned back against his chest. All the nervous energy that had gotten me through this frantic week dissolved into his tenderness and strength.
"Oh, Rose," he whispered.
And then he began to unbutton the twenty satin-covered buttons that ran up the back of the dress from below my waist to my shoulder blades. I knew he wanted that dress just to slide off me like the waterfall in the middle of the island he'd described for me—heart-stopping ice-cold water plunging from cliffs so green you thought they'd been colored by a child-giant with a box of crayons.
But there were so many buttons! Not only up my back, but on the sleeves, as well, marching up to my elbows. Painstakingly, one by one, he slipped the loop fastener over each button to release it. While he unbuttoned, he continued to nuzzle my neck, his breath hot and urgent against my skin. Finally the buttons were all undone and he drew the bodice off my shoulders. I stood and let the whole thing drop to the floor and turned to face him in my bra and slip and panties.
I had a negligee in my suitcase that I'd bought at Filene's the day after Al proposed, all filmy white nylon with pale blue flowers embroidered around the neckline. But I could see from Al's eyes that I wasn't going to put it on that night.
Those eyes swept over me from head to toe and back again, coming to rest on my breasts. He broke into a broad grin.
"You're beautiful, Rose!"
It brought tears to my eyes, how adored I felt at that moment.
He picked me up again and carried me to the bed. Nothing Cookie had told me prepared me for the rest of that night— for how I felt lying against the pillows, watching him undress; for all the revelations about my body and his that followed; for the absolute peace of sleeping in his arms.
As he stood by the bed, undressing, the stiffness and formality of his uniform gave way to the soft curl of black hair against the smooth browned muscle of his arms and chest. The work he'd been doing on that tropical island had given him a sleekness and a strength I'd never seen in him before, not even when we'd gone to Revere Beach during the summers we were in high school. He wasn't a boy anymore, not in his body, not in the way he wasn't embarrassed to have me watch him, not in the way he touched me when he got into bed next to me. I wondered—fleetingly—if he'd gained that confidence from being with another woman. But he dispelled any doubts I had about being the only one in his life from that moment on by his tenderness and his passion. His patience with the buttons had only been the beginning of his willingness to take it slow for me.
We didn't sleep much that night. It was as if we had to fill ourselves up with each other, fill that emptiness that had gnawed at us all the time he'd been away. We didn't fall asleep until early morning, the sheets twisted around us. I woke up first, disoriented by the strange bedroom. I eased myself out of the bed to wash. There was a bit of blood, but not as much as I'd thought there would be. I looked at myself in the mirror over the sink. The bride who'd anxiously bitten her lip and walked with nervous hope down the aisle was still there. We still had a lifetime of unknowns ahead of us. But one question had been answered for me during the night. I had the certainty—don't ask me where it came from—that if things were okay in bed, a couple could weather whatever else life threw at them. We were going to do all right, Al and I.