Very valentine, p.1
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       Very Valentine, p.1

           Adriana Trigiani
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Very Valentine


  Very Valentine

  —A Novel—

  Adriana Trigiani

  In memory of my grandfather,

  Carlo Bonicelli,

  a shoemaker

  Contents

  1 Leonard’s of Great Neck

  2 166 Perry Street

  3 Greenwich Village

  4 Gramercy Park

  5 Forest Hills

  6 The Carlyle Hotel

  7 SoHo

  8 Mott Street

  9 The Hudson River

  10 Arezzo

  11 Lago Argento

  12 The Isle of Capri

  13 Da Costanzo

  14 58th and Fifth

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Other Books by Adriana Trigiani

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  1

  Leonard’s of Great Neck

  I’M NOT THE PRETTY SISTER.

  I’m not the smart sister either. I am the funny one. I’ve been called that for so long, for so many years, in fact, that all of my life I thought it was one word: Funnyone.

  If I had to die, and believe me, I don’t want to, but if I had to choose a location, I’d want to die right here in the ladies’ lounge at Leonard’s of Great Neck. It’s the mirrors. I look slimsational, even in 3-D. I’m no scientist, but there’s something about the slant of the full-length glass, the shimmer of the blue marble counters, and the golden light of the pavé chandeliers that creates an optical illusion, turning my reflection into a long, lean, pale pink swizzle stick.

  This is my eighth reception (third as an attendant) at Leonard’s La Dolce Vita, the formal name for our family’s favorite Long Island wedding factory. Everyone I know has been married here, or, at least everyone I’m related to.

  My sisters and I made our debut as flower girls in 1984 for our cousin Mary Theresa, who had more attendants on the dais than guests at the tables. Our cousin’s wedding might have been a sacred exchange of vows between a man and a woman, but it was also a show, with costumes, choreography, and special lighting, making the bride the star and the groom the grip.

  Mary T. considers herself Italian-American royalty, so she had the Knights of Columbus form a crossing guard for our entrance into the Starlight Venetian Room.

  The knights were regal in their tuxedos, red sashes, black capes, and tricornered hats with the marabou plumes. I took my place behind the other girls in the procession as the band played “Nobody Does It Better,” but I turned around to run away as the knights held up their swords to form a canopy. Aunt Feen grabbed me and gave me a shove. I closed my eyes, gripped my bouquet, and bolted under the blades like I was running for sane.

  Despite my fear of sharp and clanging objects, I fell in love with Leonard’s that day. It was my first Italian formal. I couldn’t wait to grow up and emulate my mother and her friends who drank Harvey Wallbangers in cut-crystal tumblers while wearing silver sequins from head to toe. When I was nine years old, I thought Leonard’s had class. Never mind that from the passing lane on Northern Boulevard it looks like a white stucco casino on the French Riviera by way of Long Island. For me, Leonard’s was a House of Enchantments.

  The La Dolce Vita experience begins when you pull up to the entrance. The wide circular driveway is a dead ringer for Jane Austen’s Pemberley and also resembles the valet stand at Neiman Marcus, outside the Short Hills mall. This is the thing about Leonard’s: everywhere you look, it reminds you of elegant places you have already been. The two-story picture windows are reminiscent of the Metropolitan Opera House, while the tiered fountain is strictly Trevi. You almost believe you’re in the heart of Rome until you realize the cascading water is actually drowning out the traffic on I-495.

  The landscaping is a marvel of botanical grooming, with boxwood sheared into long rectangles, low borders of yew, privet hedges in cropped ovals, and bayberry sculpted into twirly ice-cream-cone shapes. The manicured shrubs are set in beds of shiny river stones, an appropriate pre-motif to the ice sculptures that tower over the raw bar inside.

  The exterior lights suggest the strip in Las Vegas, but it’s far more tasteful here, as the bulbs are recessed, giving the place a low, twinkling glow. Topiaries shaped like crescent moons flank the entrance doors. Beneath them, low meatball bushes serve as a base for the birds-of-paradise, which pop out of the shrubs like cocktail umbrellas.

  The band plays “Burning Down the House” as I take a moment to catch my breath in the ladies’ lounge. I’m alone for the first time on my sister Jaclyn’s wedding day and I like it. It’s been a long one. I’m holding the tension of the entire family in the vertebrae of my neck. When I marry, I will elope to city hall because my bones can’t take the pressure of another Roncalli wedding extravaganza. I’d miss the beer-battered shrimp and the pâté rillettes, but I’d survive. The months of planning this wedding nearly gave me an ulcer, and the actual execution bestowed on my right eye a pulsating tic that could only be soothed by holding a frozen teething ring I bogarted from cousin Kitty Calzetti’s baby after the Nuptial Mass. Despite the agita, it’s a wonderful day, because I’m happy for my baby sister, who I remember holding, like a Capodimonte rose, on the day she was born.

  I hold my martini-shaped evening bag covered in sequins (the wedding-party gift from the bride) up to the mirror and say, “I’d like to thank Kleinfeld of Brooklyn, who knocked off Vera Wang to strapless perfection. And I’d like to thank Spanx, the girdle genius, who turned my pear shape into a surfboard.” I move closer to the mirror and check my teeth. It ain’t an Italian wedding without clams casino dusted in parsley flakes, and you know where those end up.

  My professional makeup job provided (at half price) by the bride’s best friend’s sister-in-law, Nancy DeNoia, is really holding up. She did my face at around eight o’clock this morning, and it’s now supper time but I still look fresh. “It’s the powder. Banane by LeClerc,” my older sister, Tess, said. And she knows: she was matte through two childbirths. We have the pictures to prove it.

  This morning, my sisters, our mother, and I sat on folding chairs in front of Mom’s Golden Age of Hollywood mirror in the bedroom of their Tudor in Forest Hills, pretty (almost) maids all in a row.

  “Look at us,” my mother said, lifting her face out of her neck, like a turtle. “We look like sisters.”

  “We are sisters,” I reminded her as I looked at my actual sisters in the glass. My mother looked hurt. “…and you…you’re our teen mother.”

  “Let’s not go that far.” My sixty-one-year-old mother, named Michelina after her father, Michael (everyone calls my mom “Mike”), with her heart-shaped face, wide-set brown eyes, and full lips glazed the color of a terra-cotta pot looked smugly into the mirror. My mother is the only woman I know who arrives fully made up for the makeup artist.

  The Roncalli sisters, minus our eldest sibling and only brother, Alfred (aka the Pill), and Dad (called Dutch), are an open-all-night, girls-only club. We are best friends who share everything, with two exceptions: we never discuss our sex lives or bank accounts. We are bound together by tradition, secrets, and our mother’s flat iron.

  The bond was secured when we were small. Mom created “Just Us Girls” field trips; she’d schlep us to a Nettie Rosenstein retrospective at FIT, or to our first Broadway show, ’night, Mother. As Mom hustled us out of the theater, she said, “Who knew she’d kill herself at the end?” concerned that she’d scarred us for life. We saw the world through Mom’s elegant opera glasses. Every year, the week before Christmas, she took us to the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel for holiday tea. After we filled up on fluffy scones smothered in clotted cream and raspberry jam, we’d take our picture, in matching outfits, including Mom’s, of co
urse, under the portrait of Eloise.

  When Rosalie Signorelli Ciardullo started selling mineral powder makeup out of her trunk, guess who Mom volunteered as traveling models? Tess (dry), me (oily), and Jaclyn (sensitive). Mom modeled for the thirty to thirty-nine age group, never mind that she was fifty-three years old at the time.

  “All great artistes begin with a blank canvas,” Nancy DeNoia announced as she applied pancake makeup the color of Cheerios to my forehead. I almost said, “Anyone who uses the word ‘artiste’ probably isn’t one,” but why argue with the woman who has the power to turn you into Cher on the reunion tour via the tools in her hand?

  I kept quiet as she patted the sponge on my cheeks. “We’re losing the schnoz…,” Nancy said, exhaling her spearmint breath as she applied small, deliberate strokes to the bridge of my nose. It felt exactly like the firm pressure applied on an ice bag by Sister Mary Joseph of the MASH unit at Holy Agony when I was hit by a line-drive baseball in seventh-grade gym. For the record, Sister Mary J. said she never saw so much blood come out of one person’s head in her life, and she would know, as she had a hitch as a nurse in Vietnam.

  Nancy DeAnnoying, like an architect, stood back and surveyed my face. “The nose is gone. Now I can salvage.”

  I closed my eyes and pretended to meditate so Nancy might take the hint and stop the play-by-play of my crap features. She picked up a small brush, dipped it in ice water, and swirled it around on an inky chestnut brown square. I felt my eyebrows tingle as she painted on tiny hairs. I grew up on Madonna, and when she plucked, I plucked. Now I’m paying for it.

  My face felt cold and painterly until Nancy dipped a Kabuki brush into the powder and buffed my skin in small circles, like the wax-finish feature at Andretti’s car wash. When she was done, I resembled a newborn puppy, all big, wet eyes and no nose.

  In the ladies’ lounge, I’m taking one of many lipstick timeouts because I actually eat at weddings. After weeks of dieting to fit into my dress, I figure I deserve a round of pink ladies, all the passed hors d’oeuvres I can throw back, and enough cannolis to leave a dark crater on the lazy Susan in the center of the Venetian table. I’m not worried. I’ll work all this food off dancing to the long-play version of the Electric Slide. I fish the tube of lipstick out of my purse. There is nothing worse than bare lips with a suction-cup tattoo of plum pencil around the rim. I fill in between the lines where the color has faded.

  My sisters and I have played a game since childhood; when we weren’t dressing up as brides, we played Planning Our Funerals. It’s not that my parents are morbid, or that anything particularly horrible happened to us, it’s that we’re Italian, and therefore, tit for tat, it’s the law of the Roncalli universe: for every happy thing, there has to be a sad thing. Weddings are for young people and funerals are the weddings of old people. Both, I have learned, take long-term planning.

  There are two unbreakable rules in our family. One is to attend all funerals of any known persons with whom we have ever come in contact. This mandate includes people we are related to (blood relatives, family by marriage, and cousins of family by marriage) but also extends beyond close friends to encompass teachers, hairdressers, and doctors. Any professional person who has rendered an opinion or given a diagnosis of a personal nature makes the cut. There is a special category for those who deliver, including “Uncle Larry,” our UPS man who went quickly on a Saturday morning in 1983. Mom pulled us out of school the following Monday to drive us to his funeral in Manhasset. “Respect,” she said to us at the time, but we knew the real reason. She just likes to get dressed up.

  The second rule of the Roncalli family is to attend all weddings and dance with anyone that asks you, including icky cousin Paulie who was kicked out of Arthur Murray for groping the instructor (the case was settled out of court).

  There’s a third rule: Never acknowledge Mom’s 1966 nose job. Never mind that her remodeled nose is a dead ringer for Annette Funicello’s, while we, her biological children, have the profiles of Marty Feldman. “No one will ever guess…unless you tell them,” my mother warned us. “And if anyone asks, you simply say that your father’s nasal gene was dominant.”

  “There you are!” My mother bursts into the lounge like a frapped tangerine, all chiffon and feathers, as though someone stuffed her ensemble into the blender and hit Crush. “Aren’t these mirrors amazing?” Mom turns away from the mirror and then looks over her shoulder to check the back of her dress. Satisfied, she says, “I’m a sylph. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, Jenny Craig works. How’s your table?”

  “The worst.”

  “Oh, come on. You’re at the Friends’ table. You’re supposed to”—and I hate when she does this, but she does it anyway, makes two fists and egg-beats them—“liven things up.”

  “Mom, please.”

  “That toxic attitude is holding you back. It’s spilling out of you like offshore oil.” My mother looks at me as she applies her lipstick without looking in the mirror. She snaps the silver cylinder shut. “You should have brought a date if you didn’t want every couple we know offering up their single sons to you like meatball skewers.”

  “The Delboccios want to set me up with Frank.” I lean against the wall and cross my arms because God knows I can’t actually sit down in this dress. The Spanx would crush my spleen.

  “Fabulous news! See, it was kismet to seat you at the Friends’ table.”

  “Ma, Frank is gay.”

  “Oh, you girls. You use that gay card every chance you get. So what if the man’s forty-three and never married and takes his mother’s entire mah-jongg club to the islands every spring? That doesn’t automatically mean he’s gay. Maybe he’s just a straight man who happens to smell good, knows how to dress, and talks to old people like they matter. Do me a favor. Date Frank. Go dancing! Go to museums! Restaurants! You’ll be dressed up and out on the town and having fun with a good-looking fella who knows how to treat a woman! Party hearty—now that’s the true meaning of the word gay.”

  Mom looks at me, and whatever expression she sees on my face melts her heart, and it has since I can remember. She’s on my side and I am always aware of that. “You have so much to offer, Valentine. I don’t want you to lose out. You’re a winner! You’re funny!” My mother gives me a big hug. “Now, let me look at you.” Mom puts her hands on my face. “You’re a total original. Your big, beautiful brown eyes are set just far enough apart. Your lips, thank God, take after my side of the family. The Roncalli lips are so thin they need Velcro to chew. And your nose, despite what Nancy said today—”

  “Ma, I’m okay.”

  “She was rude. But I bit my tongue because there are two people you should never argue with: makeup artists and plumbers. Either can ruin you. And your nose is perfect. You’ve got a sleek bridge, which is lovely in profile, and it’s straight, whereas mine had a bump.”

  I’m stunned that my mother refers to The Operation. “It did?” I’ve never even seen her old nose. There’s only one photo of Mom’s face with the old nose in existence, but it’s a group shot of her high school French Club and her head is so small, it’s hard to see.

  “Oh yes, there was a hideous bump. But you know, I looked at that bump for exactly what it was. A glitch I could fix. There are things in this life that you can fix. So fix them, then move on.”

  “Are you saying I need a nose job?”

  “I wouldn’t touch it. Plus, a tall person can carry a nose. So be grateful that you got all the tall in the family.”

  “Thanks, Ma.” In the general population, five foot eight is hardly tall, but in my family, I’m a giant redwood.

  Mom opens up her sequined martini purse and takes out an atomizer of Dolce & Gabbana red cap and sprays it on the back of her neck. “Want some?” she offers.

  “Nah. I think I’ll go with my natural musk at the Friends’ table.”

  Mom raises her arm high and spritzes above her hair, a croissant-shaped upsweep dotted with coral sequins, which, depen
ding upon your latitude and longitude under the dance floor lights, could blind you for life.

  When I was little I’d watch her transform in front of the mirror before a night out with Dad. Efficient and organized, she stood at her makeup table and surveyed her tools. She’d snap open compacts, unscrew the tops off tubes, and shake vials. Then she would think as she twisted the eyeliner pencil in the sharpener. Eventually, a waxy chocolate brown S would fall into the wastebasket. She’d take the pencil and smudge it under her eye in preparation for the broad strokes. She would select a brush and dip it into a palette of powder, and then, as if she were Michelangelo painting the eyelash of a saint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, she’d make tiny brushstrokes on her brow bone.

  “Is something wrong, Valentine?”

  “No. I just love you. That’s all.”

  “I can’t wait—,” my mother begins, then stops to think. “You know what, if you’re my only child who remains single until old age, I will stand proudly with you all the days of your life. If that’s what you want.”

  This might be what I like most about her. Mom believes being single is an infirmity, the equivalent of missing a hand, but she never makes me feel I have to agree with her. “Mom, I’m happy.”

  “You could be happier.”

  “I guess that’s true.”

  “Aha!” She points her finger at me. “You can reinvent your life on your own terms. You don’t have to live with my mother and make shoes.”

  “I love my job and I love where I live.”

  “I’ll never understand it. All I ever wanted to do was move away. And I never wanted to be a shoemaker.”

  Mom and I walk arm in arm back into the reception, looking like two asteroids, one pink, the other bright orange, skimming through this Tiepolo-blue sky. Then I realize that’s not why the guests are watching us. It must look like I’m holding my mother up—therefore she’s either had too much to drink or, God forbid, she’s old enough to need assistance. I can practically hear the gears in my mother’s brain spin as this realization dawns on her, too. Mom lets go of my arm with a flourish, and does a full 360-degree pirouette in the center of the empty dance floor. I bow from the waist as though we planned the move. Mom gives me a youthful wave as she sashays over to the Parents’ table, leaving me to return to the tyranny of the Friends.

 

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