New Rochelle, NY
October 2000-October 2001
i. Three Pine Trees, October 2000
There are three pine trees that grow in front of 202 Woodland Avenue. Every other house on the block is open. There are front yards more well kept than baseball fields; there are tulips and rose bushes and Italian men who get up every morning to take care of them. Their yards are like well-kept Caddies and their Caddies are like well kept yards. It’s all the same to them. But at 202 Woodland, the pine trees cover the house and there is a garden made of stone. I live here with the Russo family. They call me Razeeah.
Behind the pine trees there is a little old dwarf man, who stands at the door, and a fountain Valerio, the father likes because the little angel has got his hands between his legs. He’s the one brother in the Russo clan (there are twelve of them in all) who is a fallen Catholic, but he still loves statues. At least once a week, Leo, Valerio’s brother who lives down the street, comes over to argue. They stand on the wrap-around porch covered by the trees, their voices jumping around in the stone and fir. They smoke Winstons and yell at each other about Jesus.
Valerio says, “Fuck Jesus for what he did to Angela.” She is his daughter who’s in a mental institution.
Leo says, “God will strike you down right on this porch if you say that again.” But God never does.
And they are there almost every morning. When I walk outside, they stop arguing for a second, become pleasant, say hello, smile and ask me how I’m doing. But when I am no more than halfway down the block, I can hear their voices raised high again, cursing.
I am what you would call in the old days, a boarder, a young girl who rents out the attic of a too large Victorian house. The Russo children used to play here when they were young, but when their mother died years ago, Valerio started renting it out and the children had to grow up. When I moved in, Tony, the son, was only one who was still around. I avoided him for the first year because he reminded me of the dangerous Italian boys from my block back in Queens.
But then there was one night, when I was walking home from school. The dry autumn leaves crunched gravel under foot. I saw Tony standing under the fir trees smoking with his friends, Victor and Benny. I smelled a certain familiar smell and realized they weren’t smoking cigarettes.
“Something smells good,” I said to them. They started laughing. After that, I was a regular on the porch.
ii. Breaking Balls, October 2001
As usual they were waking up the whole neighborhood.
“Go ahead Benny. Break my fucking balls.” Tony was leaning against the railing, smoking a cigarette, his dark black hair slicked into little points. He was strikingly handsome like one of those tanned, muscular guys on the cover of Men’s Health. His face lit up when he saw me.
“What the hell are you guys doing out here?” I asked. “I can hear you cackling from my window.”
They raised their beers to greet me. Benny grabbed his fast, before Victor picked it up. Victor had a bad habit of taking sips from everyone else’s beers. “Victor, stop being a pussy and drink your own beer.”
“Hey!” Victor pointed at Benny, then Tony “Fuck you and fuck you.” He looked at me and opened his arms, “Razeeah, how ya’doin?”
I was never sure what Victor thought of me, but he was being friendly tonight, so I hugged him. He was solid muscle and smelled of cigarettes and expensive cologne. “Where the hell have you been? We’ve been out here since ten.”
“I was writing.” And I had been, but I couldn’t concentrate with them laughing outside.
Tony snorted and smoke came out of his nose.
“Razeeah. Damn you. You’re always writing.” Tony always took it personally cause it meant I wasn’t hanging with him.
“I am damned already.” And I felt it because the writing wasn’t working. It seemed pointless with everything going on in the world.
I sat down on one of the empty plastic chairs next to Benny. “Hey, I need some advice.” I pulled out a cigarette and Benny paused in his sulking to hand me his lighter. He could be a gentleman when he wanted.
“Razeeah. Is someone giving you trouble? Cause you know we’ll take care of them.”
“Kind of. I want to go to this protest in Washington, for Afghanistan, but I’m scared. I don’t know if I should go. I’d be going in a van full of Palestinians.”
Victor broke in. “Damn Razeeah. I’d be scared too.”
“No! I’m not scared of them. I’m scared we’ll all be arrested and deported.”
“Razeeah,” Tony said, “Why don’t you do what my girl Maria does?”
“Your girl Maria?” I thought of her. She was a Queens girl after my own heart. But unlike me, she was one of the sexy ones, with straightened highlighted hair, dark beautiful eyes, a golden brown tan, three inch heels and nails, and a voice attached to a megaphone. Whenever she came on the weekends, she taught me how to put on make-up.
“Maria is protesting?” I was confused imagining her marching in her stilettos.
“Yeah. Maria, she doesn’t go to Arab stores anymore. She’s boycotting them.”
I bit my lip. “Ummm. . . that wasn’t the kind of protest I was talking about.”
Victor laughed. “Tony, you idiot! It’s people like you she’s going to protest against.”
Tony looked at me, and when he did, he was smiling. “Damn you Razeeah! You’re going all the way to Washington to protest against me?”
* * *
The only thing Tony loved more than Maria was his Caddy. Valerio had found it for him for cheap, but it was wrecked. Tony and Benny spent the whole summer fixing it up. They tinted the windows, redid the interiors, souped up the engine, and put in the shiniest, fanciest rims I’d ever seen, even in Queens.
Tony spent every weekend cleaning and waxing it while I sat on the porch reading books on feminist politics. Sometimes, I looked up the block and I saw Italian men of all ages, in their driveways, their undershirts glinting in the air, slick green hoses out, cleaning and waxing their cars, the sun shining just right off the hoods.
After Tony finished, we usually went for a ride around town.
Once I was telling him about where I grew up in Queens. I took a hit and held it in, then blew it out. “It was fucked up. You never knew when you were going to get jumped by people you thought were your friends or your friendly neighbors. It was like a racist food chain. There were the Italians, the Dominicans, the Puerto Ricans, the Ecuadorians, the Columbians, the Cubans, the Koreans.”
“The Mexicans?” In New Rochelle, the ethnic war was between the Italians and the Mexicans.
“No. There weren’t a lot of Mexicans. But Pakistanis were on the bottom of the chain. We were the nerdy wimps. Everyone could beat us up. It’s worse now.”
“Where were the Italians?”
“Do you have to ask?”
“Hey!” He honked the horn in joy.
“There was a pretty girl.”
“But really, are you listening? My little brother would come home and both his eyes would be blacked out.”
“Razeeah, that’s fucked up. I wouldn’t even do that to a Mexican.”
I gave him a look. In the beginning, I used to lecture him and he had at least stopped saying things in front of my Mexican friend Cecilia.
“I’d let them keep one eye for riding their bikes to make deliveries. Hey!” He honked the horn again.
“Tony—” I passed the joint to him. My voice choked up. “You’re an idiot. You know, the boys in my neighborhood can’t even go to the masjid anymore without being harassed, sometimes jumped. One of my neighbor’s brother was just beaten so bad with a baseball bat, he’s still not conscious.”
Tony took a hit, keeping his eyes on the road. “Shit. Razeeah.” I could see he was thinking. “Is that why you’re against racism?”
* * *
Later that night, Victor brought over his bong and me, Tony and him were taking hits. Benny was over, but he was sulking in the corner. The porch topic for the evening was porn.
“Razeeah,” Tony said, “I’m not one of those sick fucks who watches porn all the time. I was just telling my girl Maria, sometimes when I can’t see her, I gotta find some way to release the pressure.”
“I don’t think it’s sick. I was in porn once.”
“You were?” Suddenly all them, Tony, Victor and even Benny sit up.
“It was this film about safe sex for queers.”
The guys seemed disappointed.
“Damn Razeeah,” Victor said and then they all start laughing and hollering.
“What?” I know they’re laughing at me.
“Razeeah, even when you do porn it’s gotta be porno for the fucking dolphins.”
iii. Bombing, October 2001
The protest happened and Afghanistan was bombed again and again. Valerio had become a news junkie and would have all three TVs on at once. When he had to leave the house for any reason, he had a news radio he kept plugged in his ear.
But still, I thanked God that out of all the Italian homes I could have lived in, I had found the one house whose patriarch was an anarchist. We were the only ones who didn’t have an American flag on the door even though neighbors regularly came by and left them in our mailbox.
Johnny, the senior, our next door neighbor, rang the doorbell and even hung around until Valerio put up the flag. But after Johnny left, Valerio ripped it off and threw it behind the bushes.
“Razeeah, those motherfuckers, excuse my language, those cocksuckers tried to draft me when I first got here.”
“They tried to draft you?” I looked at Valerio. He was in his sixties but he looked eighty because he didn’t take care of himself. He didn’t have any front teeth; his skin was brown from the sun or not bathing. And he was always drunk off Carlo Rossi.
I repeated my question a little louder because he was also slightly deaf. “They tried to draft you?”
“Yeah when I came from Italy they tried to draft me for Vietnam.”
“What did you do?”
“I told those assholes I didn’t speak English.”
I laughed. And thanked God for Valerio, who had become for me the alcoholic father I had never had.
* * *
Benny came by later at around midnight. Victor had left, but me and Tony were still sitting on the porch, joking and smoking. Benny was a seven year old trapped in a man’s body. He threw temper tantrums the whole neighborhood could hear. He spent his time playing video games or breaking things for no reason. Stringing together a few sentences was beyond him, but he was a genius when it came to fixing cars and roofs. He was over all the time, but Tony never asked him to leave. Partly because he was Tony’s best friend Johnny’s little brother, and partly because there was always a car or roof to be fixed.
When Benny started a story, me and Tony would do whatever we could to change the subject because it would be so painful to listen. But today he actually had something to say. “They’re sending Johnny.” Johnny had been in the navy for the last few years.
Tony and I both turned to him. Tony took a drag off his cigarette. “You sure?”
“No, I’m telling a fucking riddle.”
“Why the hell didn’t he call me?”
Benny shrugged. He started tearing at the branches that hung over the porch. Valerio had planted three evergreens back in the sixties. Now they loomed over the house, and covered our illegal porch activities from the rest of the neighborhood. Every other house had open well-mown lawns, tulips and roses. We had a dark evergreen wall.
“We should just nuke those fucking Arab shits and get it over with.”
I sucked in my breath. I’d gotten used to the curses and the racist jokes. But Benny wasn’t joking this time. And it hit me. I had underestimated him. Benny was an idiot, but it was idiots like him that held our fate in their hands.
“Benny, you fuck. That’s Razeeah’s family you’re talking about.” Tony was angrier than I’d ever seen him before. It wasn’t my family but it was close enough.
Benny looked at me. And maybe he was seeing me for the first time too. He spit off the side of the porch. Threw his lit cigarette in the garden and stormed off, his boots roughing up the steps. He got into his car, slammed the door, and screeched out of the driveway without warming it up.
I leaned back in my chair. Tony leaned back even further. We sat quietly, smoking. The world seemed to rotate in darkness.