September 2005, Giancarlo’s, Manhattan, NYC
“Stay by me,” Daddy tugged and directed seven-year-old Gianna’s hand through a throng of smartly-dressed corporate zombies. The men and women of New York marched as if they were off to save the world, not ingest five to seven cups of coffee and hate their fellow co-workers all day. Gianna appreciated Daddy in his worn jeans, button-up red flannel shirt, and Mets baseball cap. Her little legs pumped hard to walk as fast as him. She was almost sure that the excited butterflies in her stomach would lift her up and fly her away at any moment.
The duo made a right and walked up Broadway until Daddy came to a halt in front of building 2450. The restaurant’s smooth glass took up a small space the size of a traditional storefront, with Giancarlo’s painted in gold script across the door. Despite its initial size, the inside entry was grand and magnificent, with fine, polished cherry red wood. The wood was specifically chosen for Giancarlo’s by Uncle Artie. The restaurant itself was named after Gianna’s grandfather, who had been an accomplished carpenter and chef; cherry red wood had been Grandpa’s signature mark in his work.
A massive painting of him hung on the right faux-stone wall inside of the restaurant, and Gianna could see it through the window now. At this angle, if she stood on her tip-toes, with her reflection enlarged in the glass, her blonde hair and blue eyes seemed to be floating right next to Grandpa’s painted face. Mommy and Daddy always said Grandpa had been a special man. Only one picture existed of Gianna and Grandpa. He was holding her swaddled in a pink blanket on Nana Maria’s front porch. He had died a few days after the photo was taken.
Daddy peered in through the entrance window and smiled down at Gianna. The lights inside of Giancarlo’s were on. Waiters in all white were setting up silverware on the tables. Daddy handed Gianna the keys, and her small fingers put the big gold one into the brass doorknob. Her stomach growled at the idea of eating antipasto and the best vodka sauce in the entire world.
“You ready, kiddo? Uncle Artie should be here today.” Daddy laughed as Gianna squealed. They stepped inside together, out of the sunlight, and were both immediately hit with delicious scents of oregano, basil, and garlic wafting from the kitchen. Gianna sniffed the air audibly.
She was excited to eat. At home, Mommy didn’t know how to make Nana’s Italian recipes quite as good. Here the meatballs were tastier, the vodka sauce was thinner but not too thin, and the pasta was always al dente, the way Daddy preferred.
The food was one of the best things about coming to Daddy’s restaurant, but there were many magical things about the place that bewitched Giancarlo’s young granddaughter. Gianna loved to watch the customers ooh and aah over the family style dishes that arrived in deep, long red bowls for them to share. She liked following Daddy and Uncle Artie around, walking importantly through the tables like a mother hen tending her flock. She enjoyed hiding in the loud, bright kitchen when it was busy and tasting everything Chef Fernando, her third cousin, crafted at miraculous speeds. She also liked the funny waiters and waitresses, mostly young adults and college students, who flirted with each other and called Uncle Artie Mussolini behind his back after he yelled at one of them. The waitresses would do her hair in French braids and ask her if she had a boyfriend yet (in second grade!), which always made her stick out her tongue. Daddy would sometimes let her color in the back office, and Uncle Artie, who knew about her big appetite, would always sneak a little dessert in for her even if Daddy told him not to.
“How come no one’s here yet?” Gianna asked as they walked through empty tables. Two of the bus boys greeted Daddy and smiled at her. She didn’t remember them. She hadn’t been to the restaurant in a few months now.
“It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning, sweetie. We open in an hour.”
“Tony! You’re early.” Uncle Artie pushed through the black kitchen doors and headed towards them at a brisk pace. Gianna ran for him, jumping in his arms. Uncle Artie was like a big teddy bear who always smelled like wine, cigar smoke, and garlic. He was dressed in the signature Giancarlo ink black dress pants and white button-up that Gianna had seen Daddy come home in countless times.
“We have that party coming in at eleven, don’t we? I wanted to make sure I was here before Brian Donnelly showed up. He’s Dad’s old lawyer friend.”
“I remember. Everything’s set. They ordered ahead. Fernando’s got the guys prepped.” Attitude laced Uncle Artie’s voice, but he continued smiling as he put Gianna down.
“Good. I’ll have to change before they get here too.”
“Why do you have to change?” Gianna asked. She looked down at her jeans and her new sparkly, pink sneakers that she and Mommy bought at the mall yesterday. She liked her outfit and hoped Daddy wouldn’t make her change too.
“I want to look important when I’m at work. Like Uncle Artie does. Are you hungry, kiddo?” Daddy ruffled her hair. Gianna nodded. Uncle Artie chuckled.
“This one’s always hungry, aren’t ya? But not a piece of meat on them bones. You don’t have school today, missy?”
Gianna stood up tall and squared her shoulders. “Mommy said I didn’t have to go today, because it was a half day. And Daddy works late a lot, so now I get a Daddy-and-Gianna day.”
“Daddy’s been working late,” Uncle Artie repeated, and he glanced at Daddy.
“Mhm,” Gianna nodded. Daddy looked away. Uncle Artie stared. A sudden bang sounded from behind them and the trio jumped in unison, as though a puppeteer tugged violently on their strings at once.
A dropped tray was responsible for the jarring noise. Three white plates lay broken on the floor about five feet away. The fragmented ceramic pieces stood out against Giancarlo’s dark wooden floors, like a million pieces of broken moon. Gianna stared as the two bus boys rushed over to help the waitress who was slowly reaching her hand around the fragmented glass.
“Everything okay?” Uncle Artie yelled. The waitress stood up as one of the bus boys grabbed a broom.
“I’m sorry, Artie. I tripped over the chair.”
“Alright, just be careful. The day hasn’t even started yet,” Uncle Artie shook his head. The young woman’s face turned pink.
“It’s alright, Art. It was a mistake.” Daddy’s voice carried through the restaurant—the peacekeeper, always.
Gianna watched as the waitress helped pick up the glass and put it in a black bag that had been brought over. The young woman’s hair was tied in a bun on top of her head, with loose ebony stray hairs falling delicately over her olive skin.
The waitress picked up the black bag when she was finished and walked towards Gianna’s family. The bus boys swept the remaining shards. Gianna stared at the young woman’s big, chameleon green eyes, and curvy figure. She reminded Gianna of JLo, the Puerto Rican pop singer that Mommy played every Saturday afternoon as she scrubbed the house. Effortlessly beautiful and exotic.
“I am sorry about that, Artie,” the waitress said, once she was standing in front of the two men and little girl. Her hands were bundled together, holding the black bag tightly. The young woman was wearing ruby red lipstick that looked shiny against her skin, giving her plump lips a wet look. The vibrancy of the lipstick stood out brightly against the rest of her face. She bit her lip nervously as Artie looked down at her. Gianna wondered if Uncle Artie was going to yell.
“Don’t apologize to this grump,” Daddy laughed. “He’ll live. He’s broken a thousand plates.”
“Margo, don’t believe a word this man says. I’m perfect,” Uncle Artie snickered. The tension lifted and the young woman’s shoulders relaxed. Artie wasn’t morphing into Mussolini just yet.
“This is my daughter, Gianna.” Daddy touched Gianna’s back and pushed her forward slightly, so she was right in front of Margo. Gianna looked at Margo’s manicured fingers, cut elegantly with a light salmon color. She wore a few gold ring bands on multiple fingers, and Gianna noticed a small black cross tattooed on her wrist.
“I’ve heard all about you. I’m Margo. I love your sneakers,” Margo smiled. Gianna flushed.
“What do you say, G?”
“Thank you,” Gianna mumbled. Daddy and Uncle Artie smiled.
“Why don’t we go see what the boys in the kitchen are doin’? Maybe Fernando has some of that mozzarella cheese waiting for your approval, little one.” Uncle Artie reached out his hand for her. She took it eagerly, mouth already watering.
“Don’t fill her up too much, Art. She’s got the whole day ahead of her before we go home.”
“Don’t worry so much, Tony.” Uncle Artie and Gianna beamed at each other as Daddy sighed. She reached for Uncle Artie’s hand as they walked away. Gianna wondered if it was too early to ask for some pasta. She turned back once to look at Margo and Daddy, who was taking the bag of glass from Margo’s hands. Margo caught her eye and waved.
November 2005, Home, Staten Island, NY
Gianna pushed the peas around her plate, looking down. A Ford commercial played on the TV in the background. It was seven o’clock. The sun was down and the windows to the backyard remained black, darkening the white marble kitchen. Mommy and Daddy were eating in silence. Gianna fought the tears that stuck to her eyes. The screaming about Daddy being late again had finally subsided, but now she didn’t want the potpie Mommy had spent all afternoon making.
“Do you want to get some dessert after dinner? We could go to Baskin Robins, your favorite,” Mommy asked her. Gianna wanted to say she wasn’t hungry, but she didn’t want to hurt Mommy’s feelings. It was too cold for ice cream. She could barely eat her dinner.
“I thought you said she had dessert after lunch,” Daddy snapped. Gianna flushed.
“Well, Tony, I’m offering,” Mommy’s voice warbled as she failed to maintain the calm tone. Her plate, like Gianna’s, remained full.
“And I’m saying she already had dessert. Haven’t you been on my case about her stomach lately? Weren’t you saying just the other day that we need to watch it? Hasn’t she been getting sick?” Daddy’s questions felt like slices in Gianna’s skin. She wanted to kick herself for throwing up yesterday.
“I just thought everybody could use a little something nice today,” Mommy said pointedly. Daddy scoffed.
“Maybe she hasn’t been getting sick and you’re just trying to make me feel bad for working so God damn much.”
“Tony, if you’re going to be like this all night, maybe you should go. Really. I am tired. I don’t want to get into this. Just go.”
“I think I should.” Daddy stared at her for a long moment and put his fork down.
“It won’t be the first night you’re not home,” Mommy’s voice was rising now. Gianna’s stomach started doing that thing it did every time they began fighting—cartwheels, fireworks erupting, painful ballerina twists. She wanted to throw up. Her legs started shaking.
“Give it a rest, Maureen. I’m just going for a drive. I don’t know where you think I’m always off too.” Daddy stood up and put his plate in the sink. Mommy said nothing, remaining in her seat. Gianna wanted to ask to go with Daddy, even though she didn’t want to be around him. She just wanted to be anywhere else. She thought about the math homework she still had to do, and how Daddy said he would help her. She wondered if he would remember, if he would find reason in that to stay.
But within a few minutes, Daddy grabbed his keys, threw on his leather jacket, and walked out the side door adjacent to the kitchen. It gave a loud bang and then everything was silent. The engine of his car roared. The screeching of his tires echoed throughout the kitchen, loud enough for them and every neighbor to hear. Mommy cringed as though a disgusting offense had been said. The tears Gianna had been fighting all evening were streaming down her cheeks, and when she looked up, Mommy’s eyes looked watery too.
“It’s okay, sweetie. Mommy and Daddy’s fight sometimes. Why don’t you clean up and maybe we can go get that ice cream—shit, Gianna!”
Hot bile spilled under the table.
January 2006, Giancarlo’s, Manhattan, NY
“I don’t think you should be here.” Uncle Artie’s voice floated over the few tables that stood between him and Gianna. She glanced up, watching Artie’s face sag as Mommy whispered to him. Gianna knew Daddy wasn’t here and that was a problem. She swung her feet as she sat in the seat at her empty table. Four or five families were here for lunch, along with some important looking businessmen in their fine suits. The plan had been to surprise Daddy for lunch. Gianna hadn’t seen him in about a week now.
“Art, if you know where he is…”
“….something about errands…”
“We came all this way.”
“…order some food…sit…”
“I can’t sit here when my husband’s not here! I will not wait around for him!” Mommy’s voice was shrill, too loud. A teenager from one of the tables looked up, glanced at Mommy, then glanced at Gianna. Gianna felt her face flush.
“Maureen, please keep it down…”
Mommy turned her back on Artie and walked over to Gianna. Her blonde hair lay in waves on her shoulders, and she was wearing heels, it seemed to Gianna, for the first time in a long time. Mommy had on a new dress they had bought at the mall earlier, and new pink lipstick. Despite Mommy’s outburst, Gianna felt a strange surge of pride knowing how pretty her Mommy was. Uncle Artie followed at a distance and shot Gianna a reassuring smile.
“G, we’re gonna go, okay? Daddy had some work errands to run. Do you want to take something to go?” Mommy forced a smile.
“Why can’t we stay and eat here? With Uncle Artie?”
“Uncle Artie’s busy,” Mommy spoke in quick, clipped tones.
“I’ll come over soon, sweetie. Maybe Sunday. I’ll bring you some of that penne vodka you like.” Uncle Artie ruffled her hair.
“We’re trying to stay away from rich foods, Art. G’s stomach hasn’t been doing well. Maybe some pasta with fresh cheese, a little butter.”
“How does that sound, baby? I’ll bring that on Sunday. Come visit you and your mom.” Uncle Artie leaned over and kissed her forehead. As he stood back up, he grabbed Mommy’s arm and clenched it. Mommy stared.
“If you need anything, Maureen, just call.” Uncle Artie’s eyes held Mommy’s for a few seconds before she looked away. Mommy cleared her throat.
“C’mon, G. Let’s go.”
“I’ll tell Tony you came by.” Uncle Artie smiled at them again, but it strained his face. Gianna swallowed hard as she took Mommy’s hand. Her stomach was uneasy.
March 2006, Home, Staten Island, NY
Gianna grabbed a red crayon from the kitchen table and pressed hard down on the paper as she drew a lopsided heart. She bit her lip and retraced the left side, trying to make it fuller.
“You really didn’t have to come over today, Maria.”
“I want to see my son too. Plus, I had to bring some rice over for my poor baby.”
“We’re going to the doctor again this week. They don’t know if it’s anxiety or an allergy.” Mommy’s voice dropped a few octaves. Nana Maria whispered back, but Gianna couldn’t make it out. She grimaced, put the red crayon down, and searched for a pink one to fill the heart in.
“…after everything that’s going on, it’s only imaginable that could definitely be it…when Tony was a boy every little thing that upset him made him ill…Is he really coming today?”
“He’s supposed to. He was supposed to come last Sunday, but didn’t.”
“Does she ask…”
“…it means a lot to her when she sees you and Artie…”
A loud rap on the door broke Gianna’s eavesdropping and caused her to start, the pink crayon making an ugly line against the page. She furrowed her eyebrows, annoyed. Glancing up, Daddy’s face filled the side door window. He smiled and waved. Gianna jumped down from her seat and thumped over to unlock the door. Mommy and Nana’s footsteps came closer to the kitchen.
“Hey, kiddo!” Daddy yelled. He leaned down and lifted Gianna up around the waist and hugged her. He kissed her cheek before putting her back down.
“Nana and Mommy are here,” Gianna announced for the sake of something to say. Daddy nodded, and Gianna saw Nana’s shadow appear over her.
“Hi Mama,” Daddy said, walking passed Gianna and fully entering the kitchen. He kissed his mother on the cheek as his wife stood by the counter. When they made eye contact, a strained smile passed between them. Daddy rubbed his head awkwardly and looked back at Gianna.
“Are you ready for the park today, kiddo? We can get some ice cream.”
“No dairy, please. Not yet,” Mommy said. Daddy didn’t respond but continued waiting for Gianna’s response.
“Have fun, sweetie,” Nana swooped down and kissed Gianna’s cheeks.
“Will you be here when I get back?” Gianna asked.
“I don’t think so. But Uncle Artie and I will come over for dinner this Sunday, okay? Just like last week.”
“Okay,” Gianna whispered. She hugged Nana and then Mommy goodbye. Daddy remained silent, waiting. Gianna put on her pink, sparkly sneakers in the quiet kitchen, the silence growing so much that she felt her heart pounding in her ears. Daddy cleared his throat.
The silence followed Gianna and Daddy as they walked outside and into his new, two-door red Honda. He lifted her up into the front seat and fastened her seatbelt. He started the car but left the radio off. Daddy eased out of the driveway slowly, leaving Mommy’s Toyota looking lonely on the pavement. He circled the neighborhood once, cutting through back roads until they were behind Gianna’s school playground. A few fourth and fifth graders could be seen playing baseball on the muddy fields. Other kids Gianna’s age crawled over and under the blue and yellow Monkey bars.
“I want to go on the swings,” Gianna said, breaking the silence. Daddy nodded. He got out, took Gianna out of the car, and slammed the door behind them. They walked briskly to the swing set as if walking quicker would help brush off the silent tension that seemed to cling to their very skin.
“So what’s up, kiddo? How’s school? Are you still having trouble multiplying?” Daddy pushed Gianna’s red, rusted swing that creaked loudly whenever it pulled back. Gianna closed her eyes for a moment and imagined she was flying.
“No, Mommy helped.”
“What about homework? Been handing everything in on time?”
“Nana’s been coming around a lot, hasn’t she?”
“Yeah. And Uncle Artie.”
“That’s good,” Daddy replied softly. Gianna glanced back and saw him rub his right eye. The other looked incredibly shiny. Her heart sank somewhat as she looked away. Her stomach began rattling. The silence returned for a moment, drowning them.
“Mommy and I stayed up and watched Rugrats.”
“Why did you stay up late?”
“I couldn’t sleep. My tummy hurt,” Gianna’s feet scraped the ground as Daddy pushed on the swing, slowing herself down.
“Is Mommy taking you to the doctor for that?”
“Mommy told Nana we’re going this week.” Daddy stopped pushing and sat in the swing next to her. She pumped her legs twice before digging the pink sneakers into the dirt again, staining them and stopping simultaneously. A gust of wind brushed passed them, and the empty swings around them creaked softly.
“Are you hungry? Do you want to get something to eat before I take you home?”
“Are you coming home, Daddy?” Gianna blurted. Her heart fretted in her chest, and she felt like she was going to throw up. She hated throwing up. She was always embarrassed, always cried after. She was sick of eating bland food. And she was sick of it being all Mommy talked about.
Daddy’s eyes grew wide as his face turned fully to her. His dark brown eyes looked just like Nana’s. He took a deep breath.
“I think Mommy and I need to have a talk with you when we go back to the house, baby.”
By the time they reached the car, Gianna was sick.
July 2006, Daddy’s Apartment, Manhattan, NY
Gianna lay on her pink comforter in shorts and a tank top. The fan Daddy placed in the window blew hot air onto her sweating back. She wasn’t sure if it was making her any cooler. The beeping horns outside and grumbling of city life mixed with the hot, dense air made her eyelids sleepy. The morning sun shone through the top of the window and illuminated her box of a room. She closed her eyes as she listened to Daddy clamoring in the kitchen, turning the coffee pot on, and the morning news anchor speaking softly from the small, grey television set Nana had given him.
“Gianna?” Daddy called. She buried her face in her pillow.
“Yeah?” Her response was muffled.
“G, do you want to go to work with me today?”
“Yeah,” Gianna yelled. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her little arms stretched over her head and her three-second yawn took up her entire face for a moment. Gianna rubbed her eyes one more time before placing her feet onto the cold, worn wooden floor. She padded into the kitchen to see Daddy placing pancakes on a little pink plate and a large, white plate for himself.
“Want some pancakes? I think you can have a little syrup.” Gianna nodded. Daddy smiled and placed the plate in front of her, along with a glass of ice-cold apple juice. Gianna picked up the glass and sipped, feeling her skin break out into goose bumps. Daddy sat down across from her and poured himself some coffee. Gianna looked around the tiny kitchen, bare and without any pretty paintings like her kitchen back in Staten Island.
This was her second full weekend alone with Daddy. Mrs. Jennings, the doctor who Mommy made Gianna talk to every Thursday after dance class, had agreed that Gianna and Daddy should spend more time together. Especially since he moved out. It was her first time in his apartment since he had her room finished, and while she hated everything about it, she was glad to have Daddy to herself for the first time in a long time.
“Do you have to work? It’s Saturday,” Gianna pointed out. Mommy never went to work on Saturdays. Gianna took a few bites of the pancake, which Daddy had made into lopsided hearts. Her stomach was rumbling, and she was nauseous when she had woken up earlier, but the juice had calmed it down.
“I just have to pick a few things up,” Daddy said. He switched off the television with the remote on the table and reached for the newspaper in front of him.
“Who’s gonna be at the restaurant?”
“Saturdays are Uncle Artie’s days to walk around during dinner, so he will be. And Fernando, of course.”
“Mommy was saying she misses Nana’s chocolate cake. Maybe I can make some with ’Nando while I wait.”
“We’ll see, sweetie. It’s probably going to be busy.”
The two sat in silence for a few moments more as Gianna picked at her food. Daddy finished quickly, telling her that they would have to hurry up to get to the subway. Gianna liked the subway. She liked the speed of the trains, the different people that crowded the streets. It was like an alternate underground universe in the big city.
“I’m done,” Gianna announced. Half of the food was on her plate, and Mommy had been forcing her to finish everything lately. Mrs. Jennings said that was important too. Daddy didn’t push it though and Gianna was glad.
“Put your dish in the sink like a big girl,” Daddy said. Gianna nodded, slid off her seat and walked over to the sink that was piled in dishes. Mommy hated when dishes were piled up. Gianna dropped her plate nosily in the sink and looked at all of Daddy’s mugs – her favorite gift to give him – dirty on the counter. A white one with the saying “I love Mom” caught her eye.
“Daddy, that’s Mommy’s mug. You took it.” Gianna turned. Daddy didn’t look up from the newspaper.
“I’m sorry, baby. You can take it back to her if you want.”
Gianna glanced back at the mug and lifted it from the handle. Her eyes grew wide for a moment as she stared at it, and she put it back down quickly, not saying a word.
Red lipstick stains painted the top of the mug, right above the word “love.”
Dried, ruby red lipstick.