This is the second part of a three-part story. Read the first part here. Come back tomorrow to read the third and concluding part. Copyright is held by the author.
YES, LOVE is many things. No one is likely to say that Danny’s love is of the same sort that causes grown men to bend their knees to grown women and turn up moist trembling eyes and speak moist vulnerable words and offer up diamonds. But nor is it merely a hormonal affliction as described by those who may have forgotten what it is to be inspired by a schoolboyish flux of the endocrine system and require some other basis for comparison: a bout with a spastic colon that lasts a few hours or maybe a month and is quite painful, and then spontaneously clears.
He’d learned everything he knew about love, the standards of manhood, from his father, and through the natural process of observation and deduction, the standards of womanhood from his mother.
A mechanic by trade, a football player in high school, a man who still favours the sleeveless white t-shirt in medium size, Republican politics in measured doses, TV courtroom dramas, and supermarket sales on lite beer, Danny Sr. not only shared with his son a squarish head, the black hair, and a taste for classic rock and sports cars, but he established certain ideas with Danny that lasted from a very early age. Danny was an impressionable boy, and he paid particular attention to his father’s teachings, in large part because the conveyance of ideas was always punctuated by an affectionate slap in the back of the head when he was little, or a mock-slap in the face as he got older, usually just on the penultimate syllable of whatever piece of aphoristic or speculative wisdom was being imparted. “You little sonuvagun,” Danny Sr. would say to his only child. “Lookatcha, five years old. I hope you don’t turn out to be a Faggot.” A soft slap to the side of his little-boy skull. “Hey kid. Don’t you have a girlfriend yet? Lookatcha 16 years old and no girlfriend. You’re a good-lookin’ kid, you take after me. Don’t be a Pussy.” A mock-slap across the face.
Unfortunately, Danny Sr.’s standards of manhood also included a certain possessiveness, and a tendency to tell Danny’s mother, Donna, to stay away from this guy or that guy, the perceived rivals for her affections, to which she mostly just rolled her eyes and smoldered in silence, smoking her cigarettes. It was explained to young Danny that, once, his father had driven out to Donna’s place of work, a bakery, and attacked one of her male coworkers, whose name she’d mentioned one too many times, with a bat, after which he was arrested for assault and battery, and for which he spent a short time in prison.
“Now that’s love, Danny,” his father told him, recounting his deeds. “That’s love.”
Danny knew the story well. And being an impressionable boy, he was duly impressed. It was clear that his mother disapproved of Danny Sr.’s behaviour, though she never actually said so, and in fact almost never volunteered anything about herself to her husband, and even less to her son, so Danny only ever knew his father’s side of things. Naturally, he looked up to his father, though he sensed there was something askew, something destructive about the elder Danny’s behaviour, and he strongly suspected from a very young age that he was being challenged to live up to the standards that were being set, but would never be able to.
His mother was beautiful: dark-haired, blue-eyed, young — and silent. Her beauty only heightened the mystery. She had a number of beautiful tattoos, on her arms, her ankle, and on her back: Danny was very proud of this when he was little. None of his friends’ moms had tattoos. She’d sometimes looked at him with fondness, though other times with a hint of misgiving, as if there was something about him she wished she could take back. He was delighted whenever something caught her off guard, and made her laugh. He was amazed and overjoyed on those uncommon occasions when she might stroke his hair, or tuck him into bed, leaning over him to kiss his forehead. He remembered each separate time she had taken him anywhere, just the two of them, to the zoo or to the mall, though he clearly recalled that, no matter where she was, she often seemed distracted, her thoughts somewhere else.
Not long after his eighth birthday, she disappeared.
“She’ll be back, I’m gonna get her back,” Danny Sr. would say, looking agitated, beads of sweat forming on the fore-spaces of his large, square head. He was out driving around town a lot at this time, looking for her. But he always came back without her.
“She’ll be back, Danny, goddammit, I know where she is.” Except he didn’t. When driving around didn’t seem to help, Danny Sr. was on the phone every night, asking many questions, to whom Danny was not sure, though he was sure it was not his mother, because his father was always asking where she was, and there was a lot of yelling and threatening. One night, after getting off the phone, Danny Sr. tore up part of the house, throwing a few chairs against the wall along with a few framed photographs and a small potted plant.
After that, however, things calmed down and went on more or less the way they had. There wasn’t much discussion between father and son about what had happened, or how they would proceed next, if only because it seemed to them both self-evident. Besides, Danny Sr. had a way of summing things up succinctly in response to the one question his son ventured to ask: “She took off with some fuckin’ guy.”
It’s true, given time, that things have a way of settling back into their natural states, despite a tragedy, though what was routine will often develop one or two new and telling variations. Danny Sr. went to work at the autoshop every morning, and came home and sat on the couch in front of the TV in his grease-smeared auto-shop jumper pants and his sleeveless white T-shirt, just as he had before his wife had gone, only now he tended to mutter to himself a lot, and he usually fell asleep on the couch, with the TV happily blaring to itself through the night, which he never used to do when his wife was certain to be in the bed with him. And he still told the same stories, stories Danny had heard before, an astonishing number of which concerned romantic dysfunction resolved by baseball bats:
“So your Aunt Gina,” Danny Sr. would say to his son, lite beer in hand, “I love her to death, you know, my sister, but she’s got real bad taste in guys. Always has. Anyway, she’s been with Vinny about four years now, and you and I both know Vinny’s an asshole. But there’s something I never told you about me and your Uncle Vinny. See, he was hittin’ her, hittin’ Gina. She’d call me all the time saying ‘it’s nothin’, it’s nothin’, he works so hard, bla bla bla bullshit’ but the freakin’ guy was gettin’ drunk all the time and beatin’ up my sister. You know I’m not gonna let this asshole get away with that, right? So one night they invite me out to dinner at their house. And, well, you know they live way out in Jersey, and it’s a long drive, so when I go out there Gina sometimes puts me up for the night. So we have a good dinner, some drinks, and we’re all laughing and I’m smiling with Vinny like I don’t know nothin’, you know. Finally it’s bedtime and I get the guest room. Now, I had noticed Vinny has a baseball bat in the house, a nice aluminum one. Perfect, right? So I wait, and, like, two in the morning, I go and get this bat. I hear Vinny snoring so I go into their room, real quiet, and go right up to their bed. They’re both asleep there. I touch Vinny with the bat, real gentle. He wakes up and he looks up at me, and I tell him, ‘You see this?’ and I’m holding the bat so he can see it. ‘If I ever hear you hit my sister again, I’ll fuckin’ kill you in your sleep with your own bat, Vinny. You understand me?’ Vinny pretended like he wasn’t really awake or something, like he didn’t know what I was saying. Gina slept through the whole thing. Me standing there with a bat. But you know, after that, Gina didn’t complain about him hitting her anymore . . .”
As for the impressionable young Danny, the first time his father had told him he’d been conceived in the 1989 black Camaro, Danny hadn’t been old enough to understand. Nor had he been particularly curious about the manner or location of his conception until one day when his father happened to mention it again in his mother’s presence, and Donna, much to his surprise —quietly, almost in a whisper — confirmed it as fact.
After she’d gone, young Danny would sit in the driver’s seat, hands on the wheel, as if he meant to drive after her, the car parked in the driveway, pointed at the house. At eight, if he wasn’t pretending to drive, he might read his comic books or play his hand-held game. As a teen, he might talk on the phone with his pals, or listen to his music on the iPod. He even brought his guitar into the Camaro, and practiced his power chords, unamplified, in the passenger seat. It’s not that he was really thinking of going anywhere — at least, not before he heard Dina laugh.
He’s been to the donut shop, each of the last three weekends — that is, since we first saw him standing in the driveway — because it’s the one reliable place he can find her without her friends being around. He’s stood at the counter each of the last three Saturdays, and asked for a box of a dozen donuts, picking out flavours one or two donuts at a time, and he expects, each time, that he’ll work up the courage to make some kind of small talk with her or introduce himself, which might in turn present some opportunity to ask her for a date. But the atmosphere in the shop, though it inspires love, is paradoxically not at all conducive to its facilitation: His own voice rings in his ears like it’s someone else’s. The few customers, normally engrossed in their own business, seem to perk up their ears and wait, expectantly, for him to make his move.
Danny knows, shy though he may be, a love like his, hopeless and well-warmed, demands more decisive action, demands a real risk taken. He feels he can’t catch a break. But the truth is, he’s about to catch one. It won’t be long now.
Unfortunately for Dina, who has never been kissed, her mother tends to err on the side of overprotection and would rather she didn’t go to any parties. So Dina has to lie and say she is having a girls’ Saturday night out as usual.
Her mother suspects nothing, and tells her to not come home too late. So she puts on her cute jeans and her favorite shirt and her jacket and gets pleasantly packed into a small car with Monica, Julie, Karen, and Sarah and a couple of their boyfriends and they drive in the cold evening air across the modest span of dim suburban Landesdownesville to the house of the absent and entirely unsuspecting parents of one of their fellow Landesdownesville High School students, Guardi by name, where a party is just getting underway.
Mark is there as they arrive. Now, it’s become known to Dina’s friends that she’s interested in him, because she confessed as much to Monica, though her friends have very mixed feelings about her hooking up with Mark because they know his reputation and they know Dina is a sensitive sort, and they are not, as Danny suspects from afar, cruel and judgmental, but are loyal friends, though in their collective heart of hearts they do want her to get laid because she’s long been the only virgin among them — so they give her their warnings and let her make her own decisions and stand back, so to speak, to watch what happens, because she seems to have her mind set on him.
Well, it’s perhaps fortunate that Dina remembered, not long after she arrived, why she never liked parties to begin with. If it wasn’t for the stereo being too loud, and there being too much yelling, and too much smoke, and the keg making people behave stupidly, and the shoving match breaking out, and the incredible mess, and her friend Julie somehow learning that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and the very public drama that followed, and that she’d lied to her mother about being there when she was usually very honest with her mother, things might have gone differently when Dina found herself on a couch, in the Guardis’ living room, side by side with Mark. Mark was talking to her, and just as beautiful and as self-confident as she wanted him to be, and the more they talked the more she very much wanted to kiss him, but not right there on the couch with some of her friends in the room, and so, as if understanding her requirements, he suggested they go up to one of the bedrooms. She’d had just enough beer that she agreed without thinking, but not enough that she couldn’t still feel Monica’s eyes on her as he took her by the hand and led her upstairs toward what turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Guardi’s master bedroom. He seemed to know the way.
But by now, as he closed the bedroom door, which had no lock, and on the other side of which the sound of the party downstairs did not diminish quite as much as she would have preferred, and as they stood by the Guardis’ pristinely made bed, on which shone a prim table lamp, and just as he reached his hands toward her again and leaned to kiss her, she was already deciding that this was not how she’d wanted things to go. She barely knew him, and that mattered. She wasn’t sure how much he expected of her, but she had the sense it was a lot — but she was only interested in making out. And even as he pulled her to him and began to kiss and lick and nibble her lips — all of which, despite her growing reservations, made her delirious with delight — she heard several people come up the stairs, and right up to the unlocked door, laughing. Almost involuntarily, she recoiled. Without a word, she pulled herself away, opened the door, shouldered her way through a few surprised, stoned kids who had probably come up to use the bathroom, fled back down the stairs into the midst of her friends, and the night was pretty much over.
She was, naturally, quite disappointed. In some ways, she was annoyed with herself. In other ways, she was proud she’d held herself to such a high standard, and so were her friends. But if hooking up at a party was not the way she imagined things going her first time, she found she still had, more than ever, a furious interest in hooking up, in the most fundamental sense of the term. And though she could see that Mark was not the right guy for her, there just wasn’t anyone else she thought of in such a fundamental way.
And so, in the days that followed, he remained in her thoughts as something of an ideal. An icon, or a representative — an avatar, if you will — of her inward desires. And her desire for him manifested itself in words: she started writing them down. Alone in her room on her bed in her pajamas of a Tuesday or a Friday evening — very likely the same Tuesday or Friday evenings during which, at the exact same time, poor Danny was presumably sitting on his own bed, pining away for her many parts including her very kissable, nibbleable lips, which tended to silently form the very words she was writing as she wrote them — and by the intimate light of her reading lamp, she wrote out her fantasies in a small-sized book, a specific book designed specifically as a “diary,” which with its gracefully textured and outwardly wordless hardbound cover inspired a sense of tasteful anonymity and thus seemed ideal for keeping feminine secrets, and which inwardly collected description after description of an idealized Mark and various elaborately conceived situations in which he would approach her — and her fantasies were consistent with her concept of her own virtue in that, in every case, it was he that must come to her — such as the one where he pulls up next to her in his black sports car as she walks along the icy suburban Landesdownesville sidewalk back to her house from work on a freezing cold Saturday afternoon, and he rolls down the shaded passenger-side window and smiles (which she has to invent, because he rarely actually smiles) and he doesn’t even have to say anything, but she rushes to get into his warm, shiny black car.
Or the one where, in the dead of night, she’s writing by candlelight in that very same diary and Mark, now desperately in love with her, has set a ladder under her window and climbs up with the intent of knocking at the window and ravishing her with his lovemaking even with her mother asleep in the next room, though he stops when he sees that she’s writing, and that she hasn’t noticed him at her window, and he manages to read over her shoulder and through the window that she is writing about him placing a ladder under her window, and climbing up to look in . . .