TO THE MOON, SANTINA
Seven hot dogs, dressed in mustard and relish and studded with sport peppers crowded side by side at one end of the sturdy cardboard box Santina Prosperino carried home from Butch’s over on Fourteenth. Paper packets of fries pointed up from the other end of the box, like a wave. As she hurried from up Lake and around the corner to Twentieth, the smell of her food rose from the box and fell away behind Santina, layering with all of the other smells of Melrose Park: donut grease from Dunk, fully leaded gasoline from the corner station, diesel from the buses roaring away to Chicago and Oak Park and Maywood. Johnny Prano drove by and waved at her—The Beatles’ “She Loves You” drifting from his wide-open windows. Everyone knew Johnny Prani sat on phone books so he could see out the windshield of his ’57 Ford, and everyone understood those phonebooks made it harder for him to reach the brakes with his short legs. Santina waved back and stepped further into the sidewalk. She wasn’t about to be run down by Pewee Pranzi, especially not today when carried not just a box of hot dogs and a book bag but three very official envelopes–in her coat pocket. Her lips mumbled words designed around those envelopes, designed around convincing her parents to allow her to make her own way. The words left her lips in time with her footsteps— a march, a waltz, a march again. She rubbed her throat to push her heart back down from where it had flung itself, high and nearly bursting.
Late May opened in rumbles and chirps and roars all around her. Santina was a child of her neighborhood and had never lived anywhere else, and so she moved deftly, with a certainty that was altogether ignorant of any other state, though she often fantasized about leaving and then immediately recoiled in fear at the very same thought. She frowned as her book bag knocked the back of her knee over and over again. It was heavy with Mead notepads and big gummy erasers, triangle-folded letters from her girlfriends, a chain of bobby pins— all the things she cleared out of her locker as the school year ended. It also held the big flat yearbook filled with signatures and warm wishes.
The last few weeks of high school had been hard for Santina. Not because of her term paper or because all the reading that had to be finished in order to write that paper. Certainly not hard because of the math—she loved math. What had been hard for Santina Prosperino was that she felt just like she was crouching at the ledge of the John Hancock building, high above the city and surrounding towns, and that fastened to her narrow shoulders were wings she’d made carefully using math and physics, steel and fiberglass. She longed to soar from the ledge, and yet she longed to remain there as well—in a row with all the pigeons— calmly surveying the landscape. But most of all, she didn’t want to be either prevented or pushed. She often dreamed that very thing early in the mornings, in that last dream before waking, and she savored it, lying very still under the heavy crocheted blankets her mother piled in layers until it was time to rise.
Santina was one of those rare students who adore school, and so her mourning and hesitance about leaving were practical as well as sentimental. From the first grade to the last, she’d completed every task and made every grade. She’d befriended each teacher and all the classmates she could. Even during the race riots, she’d held tight to both her black girlfriends and her white, which was no small feat. Had it been possible, Santina would have remained a senior at Proviso East for the rest of her life. But, of course, only if her friends could have remained there with her, her teachers, too, everyone moving up and down the waxed tile floors, like limbo. Not for forever, just for long enough to fully prepare to do the important things. Very important things. But on this particular afternoon, before Prano had sped by, before she’d handed in the term paper on DaVinci’s Moon Lakes, in those few seconds as she had carefully paper-clipped her lined note cards—in order—to her meticulously typed work, she’d decided. It was time to leap.
Santina bent her thin elbow at an impossible angle and lifted a fry from a packet, popped it into her mouth without slowing her steps. It was salty and greasy and wonderful—its brown skin left intact to prove its freshness. She chewed as she walked. In the pocket of her lilac cotton spring coat nestled her three envelopes–three acceptance letters from three colleges—full scholarship.
Hands full, she banged the metal storm door of home with her knee, taking care hit it just hard enough to be heard without aggravating her parents. This she did without spilling a single fry, and nearly losing her balance only twice. When her tidy mother pulled open the door, Santina stepped over the threshold, out of America and into another place altogether.
It was some kind of minor kingdom or principality of Naples, and it was ruled by her father—King Raffaele Prosperino. He sat at the kitchen table, a long stalked bunch of finocchio his scepter, a shining white cup of black coffee his chalice. He needed no crown. Anyone would know Santina was the king’s daughter—she wore his hawk’s nose high in the middle of her face, just like he wore his. And he greeted her with paternal joy. But they were different as well—Santina tall and fluid, with a neck everyone thought swanlike and a head like a delicate egg—Raffaele square as the sponge that rested on the countertop, his big head simply more of his overall square. He was the squarest king in the land. Yet, a king need not be graceful, and what Raffaele Prosperino lacked in grace he made up for in dogged affection and protection, which he heaped generously upon his family, saving them from countless mis-steps over the years. Of this, he was quite certain. His children were only half-convinced, but of course they didn’t mention that.
Raffaele smiled to see Santina home from school, and he rubbed tiredness from his eyes. He still worked nights at American Can, keeping the books—maybe in a few years, when Herbie Rosenpflatz retired, he’d get the first shift spot. Or maybe not. There was no way to know. Neatly wrenching an arm of finocchio from the rest, he took a shining little knife from his pocket, and removed the fibrous threads. Then he sliced off shrimp-shaped pieces against his thumb, not all at once—this would have been eating like an animal. No, he sliced one, chewed it with his thick lips shut, swallowed it, made some conversation with his wife who was working at something in the corner, and then sliced the next. He piled the fibrous threads on a paper napkin with care. He wasn’t the kind of man to leave a mess for his wife to clean up. The finocchio soothed his stomach, and so he had some every afternoon when he woke—with a cup of thick black coffee, two lumps of sugar, no milk. His routine made him content.
Now, here was Santina with pink American sausages. He might have a bite or two, but he was better to avoid these types of food. His daughter put the box down on the table, like an offering. Raffaele pronounced they would wait for the others, Santina’s two older sisters—both at work—and her younger brother, still at the school, probably being kept late for being a dunce. Her mama nodded in agreement with the edict and laid two clean dish towels over the box to keep everything warm.
Santina wondered if this might be the perfect time, while it was quiet in the house. She hesitated and glanced down at her coat pocket, the white of the envelopes peeping at her. The muffled roars of busses seeped through the thick walls into the kitchen making Santina painfully aware of the world’s pace. Mrs. Robinson, her guidance counselor, had said to be matter-of-fact about it. All the work had been done, and those offers were too good to refuse.
Santina Prosperino wanted, in her heart of hearts— more than anything— to go to University of Illinois and to become an astronaut. Yes, she wanted to become an astronaut, not as a fantasy or a dream. As a reality. And for a thousand reasons—Martyred Kennedy, the Russians, angles and trajectories and Mathematics, exploration and invigoration. But mostly for that reasonless reason. It was, she believed, her destiny. Under her bed, in a Buster Brown shoebox, was the model of the solar system she’d constructed in the eighth grade, and beside it, the special glasses for watching a solar eclipse as well as her sketches on graph paper of various rockets she’d read about. In the ninth grade, she’d listened on radio, as if enraptured, when her handsome president spoke of the moon, and of the means to get there. She’d felt, and still did feel, the giddy impatience alongside the solemn knowing. It would happen. Mankind would travel to the moon and beyond. Now, Santina Prosperino was no fool; she knew it was a longshot that they’d ever let a woman go, but like Mrs. Robinson said, why not? And even if they wouldn’t let her at first, maybe later. She was a whiz with numbers and with physics—if she had to bide her time designing rockets and spaceships, so be it. She’d still be part of the race.
Mrs. Robinson had helped her write the submissions to colleges. Explained the various necessary degrees in hallways and from behind her solid desk. It was real. Yes, it was very real.
So she went for it there in the roomy kitchen that smelled of coffee, mustard, and fennel. Santina smiled at her father and accepted a curve of finocchio from his short fingers with her long ones. The fennel smell was her father—all her life—and now he was in her hands, maybe. She prepared to shift the direction of the conversation in the room, away from weather and when to plant tomatoes—before or after Memorial Day— to herself and the moon and colleges. She knew full well that to this man, his black stockinged feet flat on the linoleum, the moon and colleges were approximately equidistant from the kitchen in which they now sat, each leaning forward toward the other on the plump vinyl seat of a chrome kitchen chair.
“Papa,” she began, “I’ve done really well in school all these years. I’m at the very top of my class, you know…”
He nodded, beaming.
“I’m even valedictorian.”
He nodded again. This is so nice, he said, to have such a daughter.
“And so, well, Mrs. Robinson thought, well I thought, well we thought, and even the principal said…I should go to college.” She traced a seam in the kitchen table with her fingertip.
He sat back and closed his eyes.
She continued: “I wouldn’t even have to leave home. Here, look, there are three colleges right in Chicago I could go to—only a short trip on the bus! And look, even better, it’s free—they want to give me a scholarship! Isn’t it wonderful?”
Santina could tell by the way his eyes were pinched shut that it wasn’t wonderful. It was the same way he had pinched his eyes when she’d asked to have a beagle from the Basso litter, and the same way he’d pinched his eyes every time she’d asked to sleep over at a friends’. But she kept saying the word: –wonderful, wonderful, wonderful– as if she could convince him that it was.
Her mother, now on the other side of the kitchen near the percolator, wiping spilled sugar off the edge of the counter and into her cupped hand, said nothing. She looked in Santina’s direction, though, flatness in her eyes, wire- rimmed glasses perched high on her face.
Santina carefully fanned the three envelopes on the table, each addressed to Mrs. Robinson’s office. It felt for a second as if her teacher were standing there with her. Oh, if only she had been.
Raffaele opened his eyes, “Mama,” he said, “Brioschi, per favore.”
The tall clear glass arrived with the spoon still in it. He stirred the antacid, swallowed, sighed. Rising from his chair, he drew his suspenders over his shoulders. “Mia, figlia,” he said as he took Santina’s slender face into his hands, looking up at her for she was quite a bit taller.
“Mia figlia, college is not for girls. Not for the girls. Now, listen. I’m not unreasonable. I’m not saying you need to marry. I’m not saying you need to stay in the kitchen with your beautiful mother.”
Mama dropped her dishrag into the sink sat down to pour herself a coffee. She wasn’t a quiet woman, but there was no need for her to speak right now. Raffaele would handle it, and they would talk about it later, before they went to bed. Santina didn’t even look her mother’s way. She sensed the firm fingers on the coffee cup and the wall of refusal within.
“I’m not saying any of this,” her father went on, “in fact, you can go to school, but just not to college” Raffaele held out both hands, as if he had a bird in each.
“ I give you choices. You, mia figlia can go to Beauty School or Secretary School. And then you will have a trade that is useful and proper for you.”
Santina had never told either of her parents about her need to go to the moon because she knew they wouldn’t understand, but now she gripped the underside of the Formica table and shouted about the moon.
“Moon? Moon?” Raffaele shouted back. “What do you want to do? Kill your mother? Moon? You want to see the moon, go out in garden. It’s there almost every night.”
“What, you don’t even…”
“Listen, Santina, no moon. That’s the end of it. You are not allowed to go to the moon. And no crazy college either. I gave you your choices.”
“Secretarial School and Beauty School! Those will never get me to the moon!! Mai, Papa, mai!” Santina’s forehead hit the table as she flattened herself.
“Put your head up when I talk to you.” He looked at her with real sincerity, “Hey, I see you wearing the lipstick all the time. You will like Beauty School. You will see.”
“But I don’t wanna be that!”
“Wanna? Don’t wanna? No, wanna don’t matter. You aren’t going to college. You think I don’t know what goes on at those colleges? I know! I know! What kind of a father would I be to send you into one of those places?”
“Nothing goes on.”
“EVERYTHING goes on! If you try to go to these colleges, you hear me. Listen to me. If you do this, you cannot be my daughter anymore.
“I mean it. YOU CANNOT BE!”
Raffaele reached for his daughter’s head again and kissed her on her sore forehead, bending it to him like one pulls the branches of a willow to cut a switch. She seethed and bent all at the same time.
“Heart of my heart” he whispered, I will pay it. Beauty or Secretary. Your sisters, they will be jealous.
“But,” Santina croaked, “It’s not fair. I worked so hard.”
“Not fair, not fair? Your sisters, I only sent them to work, but they were not as clever as you. Never with the As, only Bs. You work hard, and so I reward you. Remember this and be kind to your sisters.”
Santina said nothing more, not aloud anyway. She was afraid of what she might say if she let even one more word out, and besides, there was no convincing her father—there had never been. His mind was made up about everything before his children had even been born. He had the map for life in his head and he would never deviate. To do so would have meant chaos to him. Santina knew this in her bones though she had no words for it—so familiar it was. There was nothing for it. She’d have to either run away or go to college or she’d have to listen to her Papa. And she knew she could do neither without dying. Fat tears dragged the mascara from her eyes to her chin and then along her neck. The letters still held their own, fanned on the table top with an air if ridiculousness about them. And Santina stood up from her chair, her mouth opened and silent. Raffaele pulled a white kerchief from his pocket and dabbed Santina’s face. She flinched.
“Yum,” he said, “what’s here in this box? Hotdogs, from my youngest daughter? I must have one! I cannot wait for the other children, those slow-pokes.” He lifted a hotdog, cradled it for a moment, and then munched it loudly, making a great show of it. Smacking his fleshy lips. He even ate a fry, cold as it was. It stuck in his throat a little and he coughed it up. This was still foreign food to him, but he did his best to make her believe he liked it. Santina didn’t’ care whether he liked it or not anymore. She wished an enormous pit would open, a specific-purposed sinkhole, in the middle of the kitchen and suck her down into the bowels of the earth where there was magma. Her and the letters and the hotdogs. And then the hole would close back up as if nothing had happened. She knew this was impossible, so she went to her room and sat at the edge of her bed.
Outside Santina’s window, old Rosaria Millefiore shuffled almost imperceptibly along the sidewalk pushing her black baby buggy as she made her way home from the grocery. She used one hand to push and the other to paddle back a white chicken with a small red comb that wouldn’t ride peaceably with the other shopping goods—cans and sacks of cornmeal and flour. Despite her great sad fury, Santina watched the scene passed before her, glacially. The chicken’s beady eye looked at Santina and made her cry harder, such was the chicken’s predicament. The old woman tried to stuff it back into the buggy with both hands, now pushing the buggy with her middle and bending precariously. The chicken disappeared from sight for a moment, and all seemed well. But then the tiny head emerged with new vigor. The nervous bird struggled and the woman shuffled inch by inch along the sidewalk until finally Rosaria threw up her one hand that wasn’t battling the chicken and halted in the warm May sun. She grasped the chicken’s bony head with her bony fingers, and swung the uncooperative bird in a great figure eight, snapping its neck. Santina screamed softly into her hand as Rosaria put the chicken into the buggy where it lay quietly.
She watched the chicken and the old woman process out of sight, removed her hand from her mouth, and wondered how she might proceed. Only Anglo girls ran away. Maybe secretarial school wouldn’t be that bad. No, no, it would. It would be horrible! She had to figure something out. But she had no idea how to do that. Santina plucked at her chenille bedspread, making a small hill of plucked out threads. She sobbed and rocked and hatched impossible plans. But none of those plans could live.
In the end it was beauty school, though for no other reason than Santina’s best friend from first grade on, Vanna Millefiore—granddaughter of old Rosaria— was going to beauty school. The girls registered at the Continental School of Beauty and Aesthetic Design, which sounded much fancier than it was. And their fathers paid in monthly installments. Santina and Vanna each walked out of their father’s houses and met on the sidewalk in between each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And then they hurried the six blocks over to Continental. Continental was where they learned it all: shampooing, coloring, bleaching, tinting, frosting, teasing, teasing, and more teasing. They memorized the pressure points on the human skull and the many conflicting causes of dandruff. They sanitized combs in glass jars of blue Barbicide and swept hair into great piles, triple bagging it before putting it into the dumpsters to keep the rats out. As they learned, they experimented on each other’s heads, and their hair grew higher and higher and more and more vibrant in color. Often with the help of pieces, but there was no shame in extra help.
By spring of 1965, Santina’s glossy black hair towered above her and swirled like an ice cream cone at the top. When she sat down in the red vinyl booths at Butch’s people often gathered to look in and admire what was Santina’s head and Vanna’s art, for there’s always an artist’s hand at work in such a hairdo. Often a friend. Two flat tendrils swung in front of Santina’s ears, these she’d sculpted herself. Her were eyes rimmed with black liquid eyeliner, and her eyelashes, they were false and lush. She looked a lot like Cleopatra, everyone said. In return, Santina did Vanna’s hair, double processed (honestly, triple processed) it to some kind of blonde, shiny and brassy and gleaming. Santina excelled in her beauty classes. The course took her mind off the loss of college and the moon. A distraction but an insufficient one. The moon followed her whenever she went out at night, big or small, waxing or waning. It tailed her. And Kennedy’s words grew more urgent in her dreams. Santina Proserpino knew others were taking her place—the race would be run without her. She pulled her chenille blanket hairless, and had to hide it under her bed. By day, she studied the molecular workings of bleaches and permanent waves and kept moving—halfheartedly trying to convince herself that this was good enough. At night she mourned until finally she resigned to convince herself to forget it.
She was getting closer to convincing herself when she and Vanna completed beauty school and landed jobs at the Pink and Pine beauty shop, run by Ms. Marcella, who had a hair-do even taller than Santina’s— and long blood-red fingernails. Ms. Marcella was the height of fashion in Melrose Park, and divorced to boot. Of course, Santina’s father did not know about Ms. Marcella; had he known such a woman was instructing is daughter, Santina would have been trundled off to Secretarial School immediately. Vanna’s father did know all about Ms. Marcella, but that’s another story for another time.
Miss Marcella was demanding; sometimes she shrieked and sometimes she snapped but never in front of customers. Despite the woman’s temperament, she paid well and, well, she was the best hairdresser in town. She had a knack with mixing color that was part art, part chemistry, part magic. Miss M. gave a new lesson each morning, and taught them the finesse beauty school could not. She taught with the fastidiousness of a woman who had somehow earned her own shop, despite her great sin. But Ms. Marcella hogged the best clients. The girls spoiled to try out new styles on new heads, and once in a while they did. But the clientele was predominantly ancient and Ms. Marcella herself would snatch up any younger clients. Santina and Vanna were left rolling sets on elderly women who came in once a week to be “done” exactly the same way there were “done” the week before. If the old women left looking exactly how they looked when they had entered three hours before, they were content. And it was important to keep them content.
This was the pattern of life for Santina and her friend for quite some time: meeting on the sidewalk, walking to work, sets, comb outs, spraying, collecting the tips, sweeping the floors, going to the shops or out for a Coke, going home. They had pocket money for whatever they wanted—within reason– and they met boys from high school at Skip’s Drive In—those who hadn’t enlisted to fight in Vietnam, anyway. They went to movies in Oak Park and picnicked in twin sets at the forest preserve in River Forest. They each bought 12 piece settings of what claimed to be fine china on layaway at Woolworths and stuffed their hope chests. After they’d collected the place servings, they bought the completer sets, and then the crystal. Santina liked to ping the rim of her champagne flutes and listen to the note ring out—when she was alone in her bedroom, which was often now that her sisters had both married and moved to the next street.
Santina gave half of her paycheck to her mother each Friday—she left the money under the infant of Prague on the entry table—but her tips were hers to keep. She and Vanna took up smoking cigarettes and penciling-in strong eyebrows high on their foreheads. They began to feel quite independent and decided between themselves and two other girls at the Pink and Pine that they would pool their money and rent a flat. Everyone was in. It would be wonderful!
But, of course, when Santina came home lugging a big brown sack of sopping beefs topped with sweet peppers and hot oily gardinera all the way from Carm’s over on Cicero, her father said “no way in hell.” Rafaele said, “you leave this house when you get married, no sooner. What do you want people to think of you? What do you want people to think of this family? I know what goes on in those apartments! I know!”
This time he did not pull her face down to kiss her or wipe her tears with his kerchief. Instead he slammed his fist on the table and then slammed it again to make certain he was understood. He was, as always, understood. Santina’s mother was sorting the bill money into marked envelopes at the corner of the table, and Santina harbored no silly thoughts that her mother might stand up and intervene, that she was secretly enjoying her own fantasy of what it might have been like to live in a flat as a young woman, surrounded by friends and free to come and go as she pleased. Santina knew her mother thought none of these things. She simply counted and sorted her envelopes: gas bill, light bill, water bill, food.
Back at the Pink and Pine, the other girls encouraged Tina to do it anyway. To move to the apartment with them. They gathered around her in a ring out by the dumpster behind the shop, patting their own flushed faces and French-inhaling in the cold, still air of their first winter there. They all talked tough.
“So what if you are ‘dead to him’? Just do it. He’ll get over it” Carmella spat. “Dead to him” like this? She laughed and bit her knuckle in a furious mimicry of her own father.” Like this?”
“Dead to me! Dead to me!” they all shrieked in unison, nearly falling to the snowy ground laughing.
“You know, they’re all talk, these sons-a-bitch fathers,” Vanna sighed. “So boring.” Santina nodded, but they all knew it would never happen—the moving out. They all knew the father would never get over it. Never. And in the trade, Santina would have her friends and a lovely flat and her own key to a door of her own choosing for a while. But for how long? How long before life moved them on? Family was forever, and if she defied her father she’d lose not just him but her mother, her brother, her sisters, her old nonno, her aunts, her uncles, her cousins, and all the neighbors over the age of twenty-five. And then who would she even be?
So she didn’t defy, but this time, Santina did keep asking for the permission she needed. She even jumped up and down and screamed at Raffaele, who was quite taken aback and dropped his glass of apricot nectar on the floor. She towered over him now with that hair, and she glittered with earrings and flashed with lipstick, but still she could not overpower him. “You will thank me,” he assured her, “and you will realize one day that I saved you from the evils of this world. It wasn’t easy, Santina, but I did it.”
Santina wondered how satisfying it would be to knock him over, but only for a split second. She pushed the thought from her mind and went loudly out the door to Our Lady of Mount Carmel where she lit a candle, but not before she had fully envisioned her papa flying backwards into the metal kitchen cabinets like a bowling pin, a very surprised bowling pin—a thirty degree angle. At church, the candle sputtered as the yellow wick caught fire, and Father Picatto, who hadn’t seen Santina Prosperino much since her confirmation nodded at her in approval. He patted her on the bouffant as he swished by in his robes in a way that communicated his main thought: she looked a bit overripe. Santina remained before her candle praying to Mary to make her father see the light just long enough to possibly do some good. But she was a pragmatic young woman, and so she gave up soon, went to the restroom to check her bouffant for damage.
In time, the girls grew tired of Pink and Pine, of Ms. Marcelle, of standing for hours shampooing and snipping and teasing old, dry heads. They suspected they might be setting themselves up for unsightly varicose veins on that hard tile floor day after day. And their necks hurt. Everyone was trapped at the Pink and Pine—and at home—all because Santina couldn’t move out. This is what they griped about back by the dumpster and when the patrons couldn’t hear them over the hot-breathing hair dryers. But in truth, neither could they—move out, that is. For all the provincial fathers of all the kitchens in all the land of Melrose Park had said “No!”
The girls were dejected and their eyes became somewhat hard, but they were looking fine, plump on fries with red sauce and Coca-Cola from Butch’s and coiffed with care. They toted patent leather clutches well-stocked with Juicy Fruit, rat’s tailed combs and jingling change, striding up and down the streets of town in a mist of Aqua-Net and semi-confidence that left a wake. Young men noticed, and one by one, the girls of Pink and Pine married away. New girls replaced them, and Miss Marcella just kept on initiating all those girls who really wanted to be astronauts and doctors and lawyers and marine biologists, painters, writers, inventors as well as those who really wanted to be hairdressers. She didn’t even know the difference, and sometimes, neither did they.
When Santina married in September of ’66 her father marched through the church in his dark suit looking a lot like deck of cards with its King of Clubs on top. The spread for the reception—waiting in the dark church basement— was impressive by any standards. He’d made all the choices: cold cut sandwiches, taralli, potato chips, pickles, and dishes of hot peppers and plates of cheese, olives, and bowls of fruit salad. And a cake, of course, not homemade, but from Palermo’s bakery and topped with a tiny bride and a tiny groom. White cake with white frosting. Purity. A good wedding would ensure a good marriage.
Everyone could see Raffaele Prosperino in the very throes of marrying off his last daughter. And everyone could see Santina, the happy bride. She blushed and adjusted the long sleeves of her lace gown. Her enormous dark eyes were solemn and quiet as they noted the movements her father made movements with his hands, like a man shucking the earth from them. Finito.
Everyone was there. Neighbors, friends, her little brother Ralphie who’d come in on the train from college and everyone knew he was close to flunking out, not for lack of trying. Poor kid. She almost felt sorry for him over there in his wrinkled suit picking his teeth and leaning against the wall with the other groomsmen. Almost.
Her mother was already in the pew, sitting quietly in a dark blue dress, a little net veil attached to her pillbox hat down over glasses. Santina thought absently about her own veil, about her family, about the cake in the basement, and about her handsome fiancé who waited at the altar. She felt grown up—like a woman. It was all fine the way it was. Beautiful. Good.
Santina turned to admire her lengths of ivory silk with the train pooling behind her, and the matching slippers that peeped out— no heel so she wouldn’t stand taller than her husband. He was handsome; he really was—rakish almost, but with sensitive eyes—and he was adopted, so no one knew if he was Italian or not. She secretly hoped he wasn’t
Santina’s future spread out unknown before her and her father, along the carpet to the altar—unknown but likely safe enough. Father Picatto cast his eyes over the crowd and amplified his air of religiosity as if by will. He spoke the words, and the bride and groom did as they were asked—repeating carefully. Old women cried loudly, lifting their embroidered handkerchiefs to their pink noses, and little girls and boys held tightly to bags of rice— so very tightly—ready to get this part over with and move on to the throwing.
A communal exhale, and then it was done. The couple kissed, politely. Santina thought, pulling the high neck of her gown away from her throat, yes, all was right in her world. No one could say it was not. She looked over at Vanna in the pew, sitting beside her own husband, too pregnant to be the maid of honor and smiled. Vanna smiled back and tried not to vomit. They were twenty years old and ready to use their china sets and stemware.
On June 20th, 1969, the black and white television in Santina’s living room hummed. Her husband, Harry, moved the rabbit’s ears this way and that, searching for a signal until he got it. The broadcast wouldn’t start for a few more hours, but he needed to make sure all was ready. Santina knelt on the shag carpeting in front of the massive ornate coffee table her Uncle Nemo had sent from Naples. It was hideous and beautiful at the same time, but she tried to think of it as beautiful because it was too expensive to ever get rid of. Though as she spread out the canapes and crudités she’d made so carefully on her gold and white platters which rested on that table, she couldn’t help but gasp when it showed her its various uglinesses. The scrollwork reminded her of slow-moving snails clustered upon one another, and it dripped with gold edgings and shone with a high gloss finish. She tucked her long feet under her and continued to arrange the food in concentric circles.
Santina and Harry had moved out of Melrose Park, a good many towns over, to Palatine. She felt strange but interesting in this WASPY neighborhood. She wasn’t certain what to make of it most days, but she knew this for sure: no one was snapping chicken necks in front of her window and her parents didn’t drop by every day, nor did they expect her to do so. She saw them when she went back to the old neighborhood for sausages or doctors’ appointments or special visits.
They would come this afternoon, though, all of them, to watch the moon landing because she had the biggest living room and the best TV in the family. After she laid out the canapes and chilled the white wine, Santina vacuumed the carpet, and then she raked it. The baby, all round dark eyes and thick little feet, banged about in her walker, getting stuck in corners. She’d a sniffling nose but was otherwise clean and pretty in a yellow sundress and pantaloons—fresh and pretty for the party.
Santina’d baked a cake in the shape of the moon for dessert, cream cheese frosting sprinkled with coconut, indented areas to mimic the surface lakes. And she’d laid out waxy paper plates, red and blue cartoonish rockets streaming across them. What the heck? Why not? She thought, she was over all that now.
The air-conditioner in the living room window hummed at a different frequency than the one in the bedroom, but she could hear them both, and they sounded like engines. Rocket engines, she thought, but then she dismissed herself—she’d never actually heard a rocket engine, had she? She wiped the baby’s nose with a fresh tissue and took a breath. Ten minutes before the guests would arrive; it was time to put out the shrimp platter.
Santina wore pedal pushers and a sleeveless blouse, pale yellow to match the baby’s dress. On her feet, strappy leather sandals, her toes painted red—she thought of Ms. Marcella but could hardly conjure her face anymore. It had been so long—the three years. She sniffed and was reassured by the smell of her cologne. Santina smelled of Heaven Sent cologne and chopped parsley. She liked the smell.
When her Papa stepped through the door, followed by her mama and her sisters and her brother and Harry’s people and their friends and a handful of neighbors, Santina was ready. She kissed him and took his hat. He went on his way into the house. Raffaele wore a pressed shirt and slacks despite the heat–he’d never worn shorts in his life—and tight black shoes. Santina could hear him telling everyone how proud he was of America, showing those Ruskies what was what.
“Look at this house of my daughter and my son-in-law! What a great place, no?”
Raffaele passed through the house to the back patio, the train of guests following him. People milled. Had she invited this many? Apparently, she had. They devoured the canapes and shrimp; she put out her back-up plates which she’d stored in the old round fridge in the garage.
Out on the patio, Harry, brushing a forelock of hair out of his eyes, fanned the greying briquettes and, on went the dogs and burgers and hot Italian sausages, the marinated flank steak. Out went the potato salad, the cole-slaw, the macaroni salad, the fruit ambrosia with shreds of coconut. Down went the wine and 7-Up, Kool-Aid for kids. The air smelled of firecrackers, Coppertone, and Cutter. Kids ran through the sprinkler near the stature of Mary, who was getting wet in her blue cement cape. The people waited in the sun for what would come of the moon. Expectant.
At the appointed hour, as the sun moved notably to the west, everyone gathered around the set, and the room burgeoned. Mothers put the small children in front so that they would see and never forget—even the toddlers, who took it seriously but weren’t at all sure about what was happening. They hoped it was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom about to begin. Babies who cried were taken from the room, but when her baby cried, Santina did not move. Vanna, who was there, of course, put down her umpteenth cigarette of the day and picked up the baby for her friend, bouncing the fat little thing rapidly on her hip, her own preschooler safely cross-legged in front of the set. Raffaele, still going on about the Russians, had long ago forgotten that his daughter ever wanted to be an astronaut in the same way he’d forgotten the all the other foolish inclinations his children brought home, inclinations he’d had to stem. He waited eagerly and impatiently for the thing to happen and held his wife’s hand. He squeezed it. “The moon,” he whispered. “Can you imagine?”
All became silent except for the hiss of static, and then from the set, very calm men’s voices: Cronkite, Schirra, Mission Control, and Aldrin. A bubble of something swallowed seemed to be in their throats, the throats of those speaking and of those listening.
In the living room, the television volume turned all the way up, the only person who truly understood what was happening was Santina. The others understood the basic gist, but she, she comprehended the hows and the whys on many levels, and there was no one there to share that with. No one.
The parents and children and neighbors and wine spilling onto her new carpeting all receded behind her as she leaned forward to see, moving two toddlers aside. She watched the altitude, angle of descent, range to go superimposed across the broadcast. The rocket’s tail flashed and flared in the dark of the screen. White hot. Pulsing. Alive. Long minute after long minute.
And then, slowly, Apollo II landed. The children on the floor clapped. Cronkite in his tie, removed his glasses and rubbed his nose as if to stop himself from crying. Every hair on Santina’s arms stood up, and on the nape of her neck, too. She rubbed her own nose to keep from crying. “…and there’s a foot coming down the steps,” Cronkite said. She rubbed her nose hard, but she cried a little anyway, even with all those people there. Lots of them were crying, too all for different reasons. Some for pride, others for relief, some from sheer elevation. Even Raffaele sniffed and dabbed with his pocket kerchief. But Santina, her cry was the only one like a howl. She wept for all the regular reasons, but she howled behind her hand for the never-ending tension between the life she led and loved and the life she never got to try— for the shoebox under her childhood bed, her three letters, and the glassy eye of the white chicken, its small red comb wobbling as it found itself swinging in an orbit devised by another.
Christina Marrocco, writer and professor of English at Elgin Community College outside of Chicago explores class and ethnicity and gender complexities in her research, poetry, and fiction. Her poetry and short story work has appeared regularly in Ovunque Siamo, The Laurel Review, and Silverbirch Press. She recently read creative work at the IASA 2018 conference and is currently working on a collection of mid-century short stories set in a Little Italy outside Chicago.