OTHERWISE

I gaze into space until the static in my head slows down, but when I pull the covers off I jump out of bed in surprise.  I’m bleeding.  Blood smears my pajamas and sheet.  I open and shut my eyes in disbelief and stand, a quivering shape in the shadows of my room until I feel blood trickling down my leg.  Quick, quick, I remove my pajamas and stuff them under my bed as if I had committed a crime and was trying to hide the evidence.  I carefully strip the sheet from the bed and am wondering how to get rid of it when my grandmother shouts from an upstairs window where she is shaking out a rug.

“Betty Loooouuu, come.  Help you Nonna.  I’m make ravioli.”

“In a minute, Nonna.”  In a minute in a minute in a minute I repeat as I rip the sheet into strips.  I put a piece between my legs and throw the rest under the bed.    I smell old, as if I held the blood inside me for a long time,  afraid to let it flow, afraid to become a woman.

It’s a week before Thanksgiving and the sky is gloomy, as if it is about to snow, and in the dim light my grandmother will rub her thumb along my neck and sniff my hair to make sure I am clean so I rush to the bathroom and wash.  When I get upstairs my Grandmother licks her finger and rubs my neck and sniffs my hair before she urges me, “Sit, sit.”

A pan filled with rum cake made with real rum liquor is in the middle of the table.  Yum.  My favorite cake, but I eye it – and her with suspicion; such a treat must mean she is buttering me up for something.  She slices me a small piece, smells it before she puts it in front of me and sits down.  She leans forward and folds her arms on the faded blue tablecloth and silently admires my eating.   Smiling her toothless smile, she leans across the table, stretching until her face is almost to the tip of my nose.  Her breath smells like anise seeds.

“I’m make cake good, no,” she asks.

I nod my head and eat slow, trying to stall before she begins to launch into questioning me, but before I can lick the plate she whisks it away and brings a wooden bowl to the table.  Thumping the dough down, she kneads it as if she loves the feel of its soft, silky texture and hums “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” to herself.  Not until she has rolled out the dough does she clear her throat.

“So howa issa you?”

I shrug my shoulders, “Good.  I guess.”

“No mal occhio?”

“No Nonna, nobody gave me the evil eye.”

“Bene.”  She pats the dough and then pats my hand, “Betty Lou, I splain you.  You mama make idea in her brain you be woman now.”

Her words stun me.   How could my mother know?    She can’t.  It’s impossible.  I just got my period.  Maybe she snuck in my bedroom last night and I looked different or she smelled me.  My hand automatically slips between my legs.  I must smell.   No.  I washed.  She can’t know.   I know my mother and grandmother.  If I say anything, even a hint, they’ll make a big deal about it, announce it to everyone and my Uncle will know and ….I don’t let myself think of my Uncle.

My stomach growls for another piece of cake, but I know another piece will encourage me to talk, so I ignore the sweet smell of rum and sugar and stare at my grandmother’s hands as she folds the papery dough over the spinach and ricotta cheese filling.  Nonna

“You Mama say to you, no go swimming when you bleed.”    She gives me the once over, trying to see if I’ll admit to anything.   I hold my breath and keep my eyes on her raw, red hands.
Just like my mother to retreat behind my grandmother when she is uncertain about what to say or do.  I suspect this is coming up now because my father said I was turning into an “Italian Bombshell,” and that made my mother squint her eyes and look at me as if she was losing her little girl.

Just back from California yesterday, he pulled up in his 1950 yellow Cadillac convertible as my cousin and I were sitting on the front porch cutting paper snowflakes to hand out at Thanksgiving.

“Betty Lou. Come here.   Say hello.  You want to ride in my new car?”

My father loved showing what a good father he was when other people were around and even though I knew he only paid attention to me when he could show off, I told myself to take what I could get.  Happiness at seeing him made me want to run over and jump in his arms but I pretended I didn’t miss him by walking slow, as if we had just seen one another yesterday instead of six months ago.  Walking tough, with my hands in my pockets, I caught my father staring at my breasts and heaved all the air out of my chest, trying to make them appear smaller.

“Since when you start wearing a bra,” he asked in a rough voice.

I hunched my shoulders and buttoned my coat.

“Where’s your mother?”

I shrugged.

“Get in the car.  I’m driving you home.”

“But I thought we were going for a ride.”

“Naw.  Now I wanna see your mother.”  His glance told me not to object, and then he laughed, his fake ha ha laugh and his breath smelled like the peppermint gum he always chewed.
“So, how did you get old enough to develop new shoes?”

“New shoes” is what males in my family call a young girl’s breasts.  Uncles peer down our blouses and laugh, “See you went and got some new shoes today.”

My father kept glancing at my breasts, grinning, and I tightened my arms around my chest wishing he wouldn’t.  It reminded me of my Uncle, and I wanted my father to be different, not like his brother.

He laughed and shook his head, “Hell, I’m too young to have a kid your age.”

After that we both just stared at the road.

“What grade you in now?  Eighth?  Ninth?”

I wanted to scream, “I’m in ninth grade and I wish I had a father who knew what grade I was in.  I wish I had a father who could protect me.”  Childish tears filled my eyes and I bit the skin around my thumb to keep them from spilling out.  “Going into high school,” I mumbled.

“High school huh?  I knew that.”

Steering the car with one hand, he hung the other out the window and tapped a tune on the door while I shivered with cold.  Driving slowly, he smiled and nodded at people who waved and called out, “Hey, Nick, when you get back in town?”  He loved attention and before he got out of the car he slicked his thick hair back.  As people walked around the car to admire it my father nudged me, “So whaddaya think of the old man?”

When we got upstairs my mother kissed my father on the cheek, “Ciao, Nick.”

My father hung back, looked my mother up and down and whistled, “Still a babe,” he said, moving his hands in the shape of a woman’s curves. “And speaking of babes,” he dragged me over and twirled me around, “Better keep an eye on this one or mark my words, she’ll be pregnant by the time she’s sixteen.”

My mother frowned.

“Looks like she’s gonna be an Italian Bombshell,” my father said, poking my mother in the ribs, “like her Mama.”

Suddenly, my grandmother pokes me in the ribs, “Betty Lou, wake up.   Alora, alora,” she says shaking her head and pinching the dough, “Always you day dream.”

The smell of rum cake is fading as the smell of oil and cheese takes over and I ask my grandmother if I could cut the dough into little squares.

“Like a dis.”  She rolls the cutter along the dough and I like watching it curl into tight- ridged edges, sealing everything inside.

My grandmother hands me the cutter and watches over my shoulder until she is sure I’m doing it right.  She dusts her hands off and sits down with a sigh and tiny bits of flour dust float in the air simmering in the sunlight like a halo around her head.

“The day my bleeding came,” she says half in Italian, half in English.  “Your great grandmother was proud.  When she saw I got the terrible pains she sat me next to an olive tree and made chamomile tea like we do in Italia for the pains.  You great grandmother was a high-up midwife and knew about women pains.  She sprinkled sage and oregano she had dried in the sun and told me because I have power to bring life into the world, I am like the earth.”

My grandmother leans forward in her chair and shakes a finger in front of my nose,  “No be la merica girl,” she warns me in English.  “La merica girl bleed but no one give her – ah – how you say – happy time?   Only give pads.  Big box.  Gesu Maria.”  She flicks her thumb between her teeth, “Bah! Scema s’ta donna,  I no like foolish women.  When you bleed,   I be proud and celebrate new way.”   She pats my hand again, “You capisci?”

I nod my head but remain silent.  My face is hot and a lump in my throat prevents words from getting out.  Try, try to tell her, I chide myself.  Nonna, I practice in my head, I got my period today, but the thought of my Uncle finding out terrifies me and I don’t say a word.

As long as I remain mute and un-protesting, I feel safe, even happy – as people are happy in a dream.  When I’m awake I pretend my Uncle is a kind man.  He looks a little like my father, but more like my grandmother, who I love more than any one in the world.   When I dream, I hear my Uncle calling me and as I run from him, my body begins to change.   Outwardly, I am still a fourteen- year old girl, but within, I am already old.  In my dreams I am terrified of death and hell and men and getting pregnant, and believe only the church can save me and keep me safe.

After I leave my grandmother, I go to church and sit with old women and pray like a child, “Please Madre, help me be a good girl.  Forgive me for tempting my Uncle.  Please, please make me good.  Help me be nice to him so he won’t tell anyone and please, Madre, if I am doomed to get pregnant, help me be a good mother.”
I kneel until the light over the confessional turns on and then I wait some more.  Don’t want to be the first to go in and it’s only after I hear the fuzzy sound of whispering come out of the little wooden booth that I move to stand in line.  The whispering adds a solemn mood to the church and as I wait I stare at the neck of the man in front of me and hope he has something bad to confess.
The confessional is dark and cool and I smell the sour scent of the man who just left.  When the priest slides the door to the confessional open I am quick to begin. “Bless me Father for I have sinned.  My last confession was seven days ago.”

The priest slumps down until his chin is touching his chest, “Go on my child.”

I begin a litany of sins: I lied to my grandmother.  I have bad thoughts.  I swore.  I stole two-dollars from my mother’s purse and I let a man touch me without my clothes on.”

“How many times did he touch you?”
I make up a number, “Ten.”

“Did he just touch your breasts or did you let him do more?”

I can’t answer and just nod my head, but that makes the priest look at me and I begin to cry.  His breath stinks like boiled cabbage and I am reminded that he is not Italian.   Because there are no Italian priests no one in my family goes to confessional, no one will confess to “some Lithuanian who doesn’t understand Italians.”  But I no longer let this stop me because I need to confess.  I need to confess every week since my uncle, my uncle-  –   I need to confess because I’m afraid of hell.

“It is normal, my child, for the man to want to touch you.  Do you tempt him by dressing and moving a certain way?”

“I don’t know father.”

“You must not let the devil tempt you like Eve tempted Adam to sin against God.   Are you sorry for your sins”

“Yes father.”

“For your penance pray to the Virgin Mary.  Five Hail Mary’s and make a Station of the Cross.  Go in peace.”

The priest’s words take on the sound of unkind voices in my brain and the voices follow me as I walk out of church towards the Cicero Avenue overpass.  As I stand and watch the cars speeding beneath my feet, nothing matters, nothing except for what I didn’t tell the priest.   I didn’t tell the priest it is my Uncle who touches me.  I didn’t tell him I want to throw myself off the bridge into the ongoing traffic because I sometimes like the way it feels when he touches me.

The voices have taken residence in my psychic and gnaw at me with rat like persistence, “Jump.  You know you’re doomed to get pregnant.   Jump.” I hesitate.  I’m afraid, but the voices persist, “ Jump.  Your Uncle won’t be able to touch you.”  Out of all the voices in my head, one grows louder than the others and calls me Betty Lou.   My grandmother’s voice is what finally urges me away from the bridge.  Swaying a little I feel her great strength, strong as a ship, pulling me back.  I leave the overpass and walk into the blowing snow, coming down now in flakes that fly in my face and feel like gentle slaps from my grandmother’s hand.

When I arrive home, my mother knows my steps and shouts to me before I even get in the kitchen, “Betty Lou, get the good glasses down from the cabinet and use the ones without chips.”

My Aunt Leona comes into the kitchen and everything begins to spin and hum as my mother and Aunt toss the lettuce, cut the bread, fry zucchini and pour gravy over the ravioli.   Sparks fly as they move back and forth from kitchen to parlor, leaving no time to ask me questions about where I’ve been.

My Aunt bounces out of the kitchen with the meatballs and my mother follows with the ravioli and I bring the bread and zucchini.  My father pours the wine as my grandmother sits down with a cry of “mangiamo” and everyone salutes the meal in my father’s honor.

During supper my Uncle watches me, watches me with half closed lids and when my grandmother tells me to bring in the rum cake he follows me into the kitchen and whispers, “Don’t forget, I taught you to be a woman.”  His breath is hot and garlicky and I want to slam it back into his mouth but all I do is cross myself and he smiles like he got what he wanted.

“I’ll clean the table,” I shout.  Everyone turns and looks at me in surprise and my Uncle sits down as I gather some dishes.  I bang the dishes on the sink, wanting to break something but I only break my mother’s patience as she yells, “Quit the theatrics in there.”

After the dishes are done I hide in the pantry, where the air is filled with the scent of sugar, yeast, coffee beans and the faint odor of floor polish.  My Uncle’s voice floats into the pantry, rough and fragmented, “ — ripped off — that Maxwell Kike — sold me — shit–.”  I want to run from his voice and am glad when the men go outside to look at my father’s car.   I pass the time writing dirty words in the floury dust on the floor until my mother and aunt enter the kitchen.

I’m supposed to resemble my aunt.  She’s my mother’s younger sister and when she visits, our house rings with her cries of “Madonna Mia” – whenever something pleases her or Dio Mio when she’s upset.  My aunt’s husky voice has a touch of contempt in it,

“I’d ring his neck, but not you.  You gonna take Nicky back aren’t you?”

“I’m tired, so don’t tangle with me now Leona.”

There is a tinkling sound, like setting cups on saucers and my mother asks, “Want more coffee?”

“Hmmm, okay.”

“Where’s Mama?”

“Taking a nap.”

Although it’s not yet evening, my aunt sounds sleepy.

“Me, all the time I was crazy about movies.  Remember how I used to sneak out after supper and then I’d run to the Garlic and watch the same movie over and over and run home thinking if I had a husband I would never be able to stay out late.”

“I remember being stuck with the dishes. ”

“I didn’t want to do this and that, everything to please a man so he’d allow me go to the movies.”

I wait, holding my breath, listening to hear what my mother will say.  She is silent for a long time and then says in a soft voice,
“Never able to escape like you or imagined not being married and having children.”

I hear a chair scrape.

“American marriages seemed modern, more romantic and I wanted to be a good woman, an American woman.”

“So what am I, a dago puttana?”

My mother sighs, “The kid, she needs a father, and – – it sounds dumb, but – – Nick loves to eat.  He’d come home and smell the sauce on the stove and go out to buy bread and butter and…”

My aunt teases, “Other women complain about having to cook. ”

My mother laughs and I hear her run the water in the sink, “Truth is I’d cook a good meal and he’d usually be late or not come home at all.”

“A real coogootz.”

My aunt and mother giggle like young girls.

I am drowsy from eating two pieces of rum cake and listening to their soft voices, listening to hear how it’s done – this being a woman.   And I sit quietly, an untidy girl, and my heart wants to belong to their female lives.

With winter outside and voices in the cozy kitchen, I hope as hard as I can I’ll grow up to be a woman who can cook like my mother, and be independent like my aunt, and maybe I’ll be the first woman in my family to go to college, but what ever I do, I know the young girl who wished it might have been otherwise will always be a part of me.

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Betty Herself

Betty LaSorella

was born into an Italian family in Cicero, Illinois. After a lot of rabble-rousing and kid-raising, she now writes books and cooks up mischief and good food in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Kenyan Journey

I spent a month in two small villages working in the schools in Kenya. To read more about my adventure and to see how you can help bring clean water to the schools, watch this space for stories and ways to help.
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