My cousin Christine lives about twenty minutes from my parents. I navigate the Garden State Parkway, Fiona Apple in one ear and my fathers navigation system droning in the other. I sigh as I catch a glimpse of her apartment complex.
When I was a teenager, Christine and her then husband Joe had the most beautiful house I’d ever seen. It was spacious and so beautifully decorated, just a few blocks from the house in Jersey I had grown up in. They had sold it to move into a much, much smaller home (something about a better school for their daughter) and after the divorce this was where Christine ended up.
Christine is 100 percent Jersey. Growing up, Donna and I would stare at her in awe for the AC/DC Whitesnake goddess that she was. We would sneak in her room, use her blue eye shadow and bright pink lipstick and Aqua Net. She had big blonde hair, big blue eyes, big…everything. She was the most popular girl in her school, and she knew it. She had a boyfriend named Danny that we never met but always heard her screaming at or about. I always pictured Danny in a black leather jacket and tight acid washed jeans.
I remember sitting in the kitchen of my aunts house one morning when Christine walked in wearing the same black dress as the night before. My aunt went after her with a wire hanger, Christine screaming at the top of her lungs, “I went out to get the newspaper!” (But recall the Jersey dialect ‘news-pay-puh’)
“Well then where’s the fucking newspaper?” My aunt yelled, batting her with the hanger. Donna and I snuck drags off of Aunt Laura’s cigarette and then went outside to play.
Christine married an Italian guy named Joe who was nice and took her shit pretty well. I visited while she was pregnant and I could not stop laughing at how they spoke to each other. Joe would go to the kitchen for something and Christine would yell,
“Bitch! Make me a sandwhich!”
“Stop being an asshole!” He would holler back. I think if I heard that now it wouldn’t make me laugh. I predicted their baby’s first word would be an expletive.
Aunt Laura killed herself a few days later. I have a memory of someone mentioning to Christine about naming her daughter after Aunt Laura.
“Why would I give my baby a dead woman’s name?” Christine snapped, her blue eyes faded and blood shot.
I went back home and a few months later got a picture of an infant with brown hair and wide blue eyes with the words “Laura Christine Castellano” printed underneath.
I open the door to the front hallway of their duplex. She told me the address was 55, but not whether it was A or B, upstairs apartment or downstairs. I stop, looking from door to door. The upstairs apartment has a pretty sign outside the door, something about friends and family and faith. The door opens and a little girl sticks her head out. I recognize the blue eyes.
“Hi.” I say, climbing the stairs.
“Helllllooooooo.” She responds.
“Is that her?” I hear Christine yell from inside. I reach the front door in time for Christine’s hug. “Look at those shoes! What are you wearing?”
“Yeah, they’re silly.” I have on a pair of periwinkle S.B Dunks that an old boyfriend got me with some skinny jeans and a gray V-Neck. Christine runs her eyes over me and I know she’s not missing anything.
“Laura, do you remember Katie?”
Laura looks me up and down. “Nope.” She grins at me, showing off a missing tooth.
“How long have you had your hair like that?” Christine exclaims, touching the blonde.
“A few years.”
“God, it’s been forever. What have you been doing?” She speaks rapidly. abrasively- but it sounds like family to me.
“Not much, this and that.”
“Have you been ice skating before?”
“Once or twice.” I make a face at Laura, she makes one back. Christine leads me into her apartment.
It's decorated well, a natural gift my cousin has. Cute knick knacks adorn the walls, and the place has a homey feel despite the cramped quarters. A large L shaped couch is against a wall to my left, a large TV in front of it. Pillows are placed decoratively, and I again remember the her previous three story house. I recognize this room as whispers of a palace.
“Come tell me about what Aunt Marleen said.” I follow Christine to the bathroom as she starts putting on make up. “Tell me all
the good stuff I don’t know.”
I smile and rack my brain. Christine is very interested in the good stuff, she asks a million questions and is very blunt. My sex life should be coming up shortly.
“She said that mom liked to argue about politics, she was smart.”
“Of course she was. What else?”
“She said that mom did coke, but she didn’t know whether or not she was an addict. She thinks no.”
“Hmmmm.” Christine puts on mascara and all of a sudden I’m six years old watching a beauty queen.
“She said mom was sensitive and weak.”
“Like me.” Christine says softly, pausing to stare at her reflection. I’m kind of taken aback. Weak is not something I would associate with Christine. She’s a ball breaker. A memory floats to mind.
A few years ago I was in a girls study group. One of the girls mentioned something about me being strong. My good friend Laiza shook her head.
“I don’t think you’re strong at all.” She said gently. “When I think of a strong woman, I think of Kristen.”
Kristen is very plain, very quiet and kind, but I knew immediately what she meant. And I knew she was right. Kristen was very strong, and I was very weak.
Christine puts down the mascara and starts washing her ‘Fridays’ work shirt. She is a waitress there now.
“She said that you and Lisa annoyed the crap out of her-”
“Oh no. Your mother loved me, I was her favorite. When my mother would go to Jersey to visit Louie, back when we were in the Bronx, I would only go if Aunt Kitty went. If she didn’t go I’d stay with her. I was her absolute favorite, until you came along and ruined it.” She grins at me and hangs her shirt in the shower.
I roll my eyes. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, whatever. So what else did Aunt Marleen say? You didn’t find out shit.” Christine is losing patience with my tepid stories.
“She said mom liked to show me off. And that she worried about money. I don’t know, I have the conversation recorded. I want to interview you, too. Later. Maybe after work.” Christine looks impressed.
“You’re really going to baby sit for me tonight?”
“Sure, I don’t mind. I can write and hang out with Laura. Let me get my laptop out of the car.”
I run down the stairs into the frigid winter cold. I grab my computer bag and run back inside, my teeth chattering.
When I open the door, Laura is crying.
“LAURA!” Christine screams, “Put on your shoes, NOW!”
I must have missed something. Laura pokes her head out of her room, tears streaking her face.
“We’re going to be late!” Christine screams. Before I can glance away I see a look of pure fury on Christine’s face. She storms into Laura’s room. I close my eyes as she begins hitting her, Laura crying, “No! Mommy, stop!” I squeeze my eyes shut.
The last time I saw a parent hit their child was a few years ago. I was driving around with my pastors wife, Christy Tyson, and her young son was screaming about something in the back seat. Christy turned to me and said very calmly,
“I’m sorry, I have to spank my child.”
She turned off to the side of the road, got out, hit Nate’s bottom a few times, and we continued on our way. She took no pleasure in hitting her son, it was just something that had to be done.
But the look on Christine’s face- I remember that look. The frustration and fury, of needing to release something through the force of flying hands on someone elses skin.
When Christine comes out she looks calmer. “She fucking does this all the time.” She mutters. Christine leaves to get the car. I follow the sound of sniffles into Laura’s room.
She’s on her bed, trying to tug on her boots. I hover awkwardly by her door. I’m really no good with kids. I take a deep breath and plunge into the room with a smile.
I reach for her other shoe and help her get it on. “Look at these big feet,’ I say, “you are going to have boats like mine.” She smiles a little. I look up into her very pale face. She has her mothers faded blue eyes, freckles like mine. I wipe away her tears.
“You can’t go out like that. You’ll have icicles on your face.” She giggles at my dumb joke.
Her laugh makes me feel very old. I don’t want kids, I think maybe because I am afraid I would be like my mother, or like Christine in this instant. But as I gaze into her little face, looking now happily into mine, I get the feeling that she is very precious and I don’t think I could. I pull her into a hug and she hugs me back, even though she doesn’t remember me at all. I wasn’t that trusting when I was her age. I hated people touching me. I hated strangers.
“Have you been ice skating before?”
“It’s my first time!”
“Come on!” Christine yells. I hold her hand and lead her out of the room.
“You’ll come skating with me?”
“Of course I will.”
My desire for children is fleeting. Laura is a terrible ice skater. An hour later and I am behind her, holding her upper chest as her feet ineffectively slash at the ice.
“I hate this! I want my mom!” Laura cries.
“You’re not even trying,” I groan. Laura’s little friend, Keirsten, smiles at me sympathetically.
“Go and skate around. I’ll stay with her.” Keirsten bounds off gracefully to join the crowd streaming around us. Laura slumps in my arms and I look like I am hauling around a paraplegic in skates.
“I want to skate on my belly!” Laura declares.
“Fine.” I drop her and she sprawls on her back. She blinks up at me.
“Flip around and skate on your belly.”
People maneuver around us and I suddenly realize that they are wearing knives on their feet. I grab her up quickly.
“Move your feet like mine. Right, then left. Right, then left.”
A few hours later Laura is cute again and cuddled in my lap. We have watched Ice Age 2 twice, broken open a Hannah Montana board game only to have me put my foot down, played hide and seek in the dark (I got scared and we had to stop) and finished the night with a few games of horsey. I fall asleep to the X Games and wake up to Christine banging on the door. I stagger out and open the chain lock.
“Hey! Oh my God! I’m so sorry! That bitch would not cut me!” Christine carries two six packs of beer. “Can you stay for a drink?”
“I don’t think so. I’m really tired, I definitely wouldn’t be able to drive.” I also hate beer, but I’ll leave that out. Bad enough that I don’t eat meat. We make tentative plans for the next day and I’m on my way home.