Copyright is held by the author.
THE TWO women might have been smudged carbon copies of each other although no-one would ever mistake Anne Fothergill and Wendy Worsley for sisters, for Anne was petite, fair haired and precise of movement whereas Wendy was tall, dark haired and uncoordinated.
Born only months apart, Anne and Wendy grew up as children in the same north Toronto neighbourhood in the mid-1930s. They had been bridesmaids at each other’s wedding the same summer when, at 22 each married a man 10 years her senior, grey-suited, rising executives in their respective companies. Four years of marriage had produced two children each and, having by now outgrown their starter homes, they moved into their new, ‘Forever’ homes on Warren Road in south Forest Hill around the same time.
Their substantial brick houses sat on the west side of the road, a stone’s throw from Spadina Village, and truth be told, just a little closer to the squeal of tires and the screech and clank of the streetcars on St. Clair Avenue than either woman would have liked. Between their two homes, which came complete with oriole windows, stone porticos and clipped box hedges, lived Mrs. Palumbo and her husband, Rico whose dirty pick-up truck bore the legend PALUMBO PAVING in large letters on the driver’s door, and in smaller letters beneath, ‘& Construction’ to indicate his priorities.
Which side of 60 the Palumbos occupied neither Anne nor Wendy could tell. The Palumbo children had all married and moved away, leaving the pair alone in their house, at least whenever the two were home together which, to the enquiring eyes of Anne and Wendy, seemed infrequently. For her part, Nonna Palumbo appeared unperturbed at her husband’s absences.
“He’s home, I see,” Anne said one spring morning as she passed the Palumbo’s house on her way to Wendy’s for coffee, the pick-up in the driveway providing the essential clue. She had little Derek in the stroller and Valerie clutching her hand. She did not want to linger, but she could hardly pass by and ignore her neighbour. “Rico, I mean.” At a glance she took in the blossoms dropping from the ornamental cherry and the large saucer petals from the magnolia littering the lawn. “I see you have the fountain working again. I missed hearing it during the winter.”
Mrs. Palumbo eased herself up off her knees and adjusted the broad brimmed summer hat with the veil, “to keep the bugs off,” she had explained one afternoon a couple of years earlier. The veil and the large sunglasses she wore this morning failed to hide the latest bruise, which Anne noticed on her swollen cheek and around her left eye. Still, Anne had decided that it was the Palumbos’ business how they behaved towards each other, and although she refused to enquire, it nevertheless bothered her.
“Having him around the house on week-ends,” Mrs. Palumbo confided to Anne, “can be quite tiresome at the best of times. Thanks God he prefers the company of his friends at the Café Sicilia.” She lowered her voice. “They have an unlicensed bar at the back of the café where they can play cards for money. But don’t tell anyone.”
Anne winked at Nonna Palumbo. “I won’t say a word,” she said.
Mrs. Palumbo glanced at the pick-up truck. “Today, I don’t know why he’s not at work. He’s acting like a bear with a toothache. That’s why I’m tidying up the garden,” she said. “I’m keeping out of his way.” She glanced up and down the road then lowered her voice to a whisper, as if the sidewalk had ears. “I value my space,” she said. “We have separate bedrooms. It is better that way when you reach a certain age.”
Anne did not know what to say so she pretended to ignore it. “The garden’s looking lovely this spring,” she said breezily. “The azaleas and rhododendrons should be out any day.”
“Any day,” Mrs. Palumbo echoed, and touched the brim of her hat.
“’Bye, Nonna,” Valerie said gaily as she skipped the remaining few steps to ‘Auntie’ Wendy’s house.
“You’ll never guess what Nonna Palumbo told me just now,” Anne said breathlessly as she took her jacket off and dumped it on a chair. “It’s in the strictest confidence, you understand, so don’t go spreading it around.”
“What did she say?”
“That she and Rico don’t sleep together anymore. They have separate bedrooms.”
Wendy absorbed this information with a straight face.
“Well? What do think?” Anne said.
“Rico must be a very accommodating husband, that’s what I think. I don’t think Andy would put up with me sleeping in my own room.”
“And I can’t think Grant would either,” Anne said.
“Not that I haven’t thought about it,” Wendy said.
“Me too,” Anne said, sipping from her mug of Maxwell House. A wistful note had crept into her voice. “It’s not like it’s every night anymore. Or even every week.”
Wendy kept a deadpan face.
“More like once a month,” Anne said over the rim of her mug. “At most. I wouldn’t mind so much if he left it to birthdays and Christmas. He won’t use anything. He leaves it up to me to make sure I don’t get pregnant again. There’s nothing spontaneous about it, not like it used to be, wherever and whenever we felt like it.”
“Then the children arrived,” Wendy said with a light laugh.
“Don’t remind me,” Anne said.
“The doctor told me at my last check-up,” Wendy said, “that there’s a pill on the market that provides birth control. He asked me if I wanted to try it. I told him I didn’t trust it. It’s too new. I didn’t want to tell him with my sex life I didn’t need it.”
“Sounds like mine,” Anne said. “Not that I’m complaining. Having Grant getting all amorous once a month is a pain. With these two I’m exhausted by the time I get to bed. All I want is a decent night’s sleep without him climbing all over me.”
“Amen to that. You have to wonder how Mrs. Palumbo managed with six kids.”
“She moved out of the bedroom,” Anne said. They laughed at the shared joke.
“Another cookie before we take the kids over to the park?” Wendy said.
“I don’t mind him going to the café in the evenings,” Mrs. Palumbo told Wendy a few days later when Wendy stopped in front of the Palumbos’ garden to exchange greetings. “It keeps him out from under my feet. And I like my peace and quiet.” She slipped her pruning shears into her apron pocket and gathered some deadheads off the bed which she dropped into a wicker basket.
“I know what you mean,” Wendy said. “There are times when I wished I lived alone. I’ve never done that.”
“I lived at home until my wedding day,” Nonna Palumbo said.
“Me too,” Wendy said with a bleak smile.
“Perhaps if I spent some time on my own first I might never have married.”
Wendy nodded. “I’m beginning to understand what I missed,” she said.
“But with Italians . . . ,” Nonna said, and glanced away. She waved her arms. “Shoo!” she shouted, scolding a black cat digging in her rose bed. The cat gave the woman a malevolent stare before slinking away. Nonna returned her attention to Wendy. “A husband, children and grandchildren are expected, whether you want them or not.”
“But you love your children, surely,” Wendy said.
“Certainly. And my grandchildren even more. Any grandmother will tell you that.” She adjusted her hat and tightened the veil under her chin. She did not wear sunglasses today, Wendy noted, and almost breathed a sigh of relief. All that remained of the bruise the Anne had seen was a slight yellowing of the skin around her eye.
“We’re going to play in the park with Derek and Valerie,” five-year-old Brenda said. “’Bye, Nonna. Come on mommy, we’ll be late.”
“We have to make the most of it, Nonna,” Wendy said. “She starts school in September. It won’t be long before Scott starts. I’m coming,” she called after her daughter and took little Scott’s hand.
“The bruise has almost gone,” she told Anne while the children played on the slide and in the sand. “I wonder how often he hits her.”
“I never see her in the winter, but this time of year, when she’s outside more, she often wears those sunglasses, even on cloudy days. Once a month, maybe. Who knows?”
“It’s not fair,” Wendy said. “It’s not right.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Anne said a bit too emphatically.
Wendy would have nothing of it. “Has Grant ever hit you?” she said, looking sternly at Anne.
Anne looked away without replying.
“I’m guessing ‘yes’ is the answer,” Wendy said. “Am I right?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Anne said. “It won’t do any good.”
“Andy hit me once,” Wendy said. “Before I had Brenda. He came home drunk one night. I refused to have sex with him. That’s when he hit me. I slept in the spare room that night. He was all apologetic the next morning, but that was when I realized I didn’t know the man I married, that perhaps he was showing his true character when he hit me. I’ve been afraid of him ever since.”
“But you still sleep together, don’t you?” Anne said.
“That’s pretty well all we do, sleep. The way we behave in public is all for show. He has a girlfriend. Maybe more than one. As long as she keeps him happy and away from me, that’s all I ask. I don’t want to know who she is or anything about her.”
“It’s not me, I promise,” Anne said hurriedly.
“I think I’d know if it was. You can’t keep a secret to save your life.”
“Yes. The answer is yes, if you must know. More than once. And I know he’s been unfaithful. The first time he hit me was when he came back from a convention in Las Vegas. I told him I wasn’t going to let him touch me until he had a clean bill of health from our family doctor.”
Tears pooled in Anne’s eyes and trickled down her pale cheeks. Wendy reached out and touched her hand. “There must be something that can be done,” she said.
“I try to put Grant off, but it doesn’t always work. He doesn’t buy the excuses.”
“So you lie back, close your eyes and do your matrimonial duty?”
“No. He won’t force himself on me anymore, but when he gets really persistent I have to satisfy him some other way. You know.”
“That’s gross,” Wendy spluttered.
A puzzled expression crossed Anne’s face for a second, then lifted. “Oh. God,” she said, pulling a face. “No, not that. That would be really barf-type gross. I mean . . . ” She flicked her wrist a couple of times.
“Oh,” said Wendy. “Still . . . ”
They sat in silence, watching the innocence of children playing and listening to the hum of traffic on St. Clair, wondering how long it might be before their daughters became wives and mothers with the same future unfolding.
Anne next saw Mrs. Palumbo in her front garden several days later, dressed in black with her arm in a plaster cast in a sling and a black veil covering her battered face. “What happened to you?” Anne said. “Another beating?” she wanted to say, but bit her tongue.
“It was an accident,” Mrs. Palumbo said, her voice trembling and her hands shaking. Anne’s face must have registered her disbelief because Mrs. Palumbo continued quickly, “They called me from the bar. ‘Rico is too drunk to walk home,’ they said. It was almost two in the morning. I got up and put a coat over my nightdress and drove to the bar. Rico never spoke to me, not even to thank me for picking him up. We were nearly home. I turned left onto our street. I never saw the street car. Rico blocked my view. I broke my arm when the street car hit the side of the truck where Rico was sitting.” The tears were not far away, but she held them at bay.
Anne gasped. “Oh, my God!”
“The funeral is on Friday at Holy Rosary Church.”
“I’m so sorry, Nonna,” Anne said and hugged her. “I’ll tell Wendy. We’ll both be there. Is there anything we can do to help?” Mrs. Palumbo said there was nothing that her daughters could not do, and thanked her. At the funeral, Anne and Wendy stood near the back of the church, watching as Mrs. Palumbo, stony faced behind the black veil with her sons and daughters trailing behind her, followed the casket down the aisle to the main door and the waiting hearse.
“She seems to have recovered from the shock at least,” Wendy whispered after the procession had passed by.
“She seems steady enough,” Anne said. “She’s tough. In control. I’m sure she will manage all right once the plaster comes off her arm.”
“We’ll keep an eye on her, just in case,” Wendy said. “Maybe Andy will cut the grass for her if I ask him nicely.”
Anne glanced at the card printed for the funeral. “I didn’t know Nonna’s name is Pasqualina,” she said. She looked around furtively to see if anyone in the empty pews around them might be listening and held the card against the side of her mouth as she turned to Wendy. “I think Nonna took a big risk,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “If it wasn’t an accident, she must have timed the turn perfectly.”