This Is Different
By Maura Candela
Antoinette came flying out to the curb. She was wearing that look on her face that he recognized and hated, but which could, after all these years, get to him. The look that said she knew what he really was, the things of which he was capable. It was the look Phil felt he’d been born to defy.
While he had the chance he should have made his getaway, but he had unwisely dallied in front of his ex-wife’s house. He’d been rummaging for a CD that he wanted to play for the ride home now that he’d dropped off his son Rocco. And there at the passenger side window, rapping angrily with her knuckles, was Antoinette. From an upstairs window, Phil thought he saw a blind wink a signal. That would be their bedroom, his ex-wife’s and her husband’s. He saw that the husband, that gutless wonder, was spying.
Phil let the passenger side window drop. Antoinette’s face was framed there. Her big breasts, which aged her, rested on the door.
“I want to talk to you about what you told your son so you don’t have to pay.”
The fury in her eyes, which he could never stand up to, made Phil look away, but he answered with patronizing weariness. “I have no idea what you’re talking about so let’s cut to the chase. What’s my crime this time?”
“Rocco, uh, sometimes when you don’t know what you want to do, uh, it might be wiser to leave school for a while…” She mimicked Phil speaking pedantically to Rocco. She got Phil’s hesitant but deliberate phrasing down pat. Phil stumbled over words only when he spoke to his resentful son, Rocco. He stumbled to a lesser degree with Anna, the eldest. Anna was now living with her boyfriend, an arrangement of which Phil did not approve. Anna didn’t listen to him, but she still assumed he would cough up money for the wedding.
“Rocco, traditionally, the military has provided structure…”
As Phil watched his ex-wife’s performance, he realized that he must now be one of her stock characters. When they were married so many years ago, she used to regale him with impressions, culled from a roster of ridiculous relatives and friends. Then Phil had laughed helplessly, but now he had to defend himself.
While she was mocking, Phil thought about how he was late on both mortgages, particularly on the summer house, but he could always sell if the unexpected decline in his income continued. But these setbacks were, he believed, only temporary and had no bearing on their son’s consideration of a military career.
When Antoinette took a breather and Phil could begin, he pointed out that Rocco had always been attracted to the military. The kid brought up the idea to Phil and not vice versa. That bent hadn’t come from Phil’s immigrant family; that was for sure. It was Antoinette’s father, a veteran of WWII, who’d always talked up the military. He was the one who gave Rocco a dead German’s helmet to play with. So she should go talk to her father.
Despite the fact that Phil felt he had won the argument, Antoinette still managed to push out her lips in contempt. “You made Rocco feel there was no money. He feels bad to take your money for college.” She shook her head. “Always crying poormouth, that’s you, Phil. After I put you through law school.”
After all these years, the claim had no teeth for either of them. Still in all their fights, it needed to be revived. The thing that made Phil feel worse than any ancient accusation was hearing his name on Antoinette’s lips. As if they’d made a pact, neither he nor Antoinette addressed each other by name if they could help it. When she did, like now, it brought Phil involuntarily back to their Brooklyn street where Antoinette, in her younger incarnation, sat on the stoop in the dark waiting for him to come. Antoinette was nearsighted and too vain to wear glasses so his name was always a joyful question in her mouth before he got there.
“Tell Ryan and Devon to join the military,” Antoinette pronounced the names of his sons with Linda with ironic emphasis, as if those American names were somehow not as legitimate as the names of their children. Phil had forced her to name their children after his parents, Rocco and Anna, who were alive then and would have taken grievous offense had Sicilian tradition not been upheld.
“If either one expresses an interest as Rocco does, I will explore it as an option with them when the time comes.” Even to his own ears, Phil felt he might sound disingenuous, but he was really being sincere.
Antoinette snorted dubiously. “I bet
you will.” Suddenly on an impulse, Antoinette ran around the car to
the driver’s side. He felt he didn’t have to, but Phil obligingly
lowered that window, too. He had a morbid interest in hearing out her allegations.
Her face was right next to his.
“Phil, war is coming so you recommend a military career! And for some crazy reason, the kid cares what you think.”
“We’re not going to war. And if we do, we’ll be in and out.”
“We’ll be in and out,” Antoinette repeated. “So now you know the future. You’ve got access to the corridors of power.”
“What do you want me to say, Antoinette? That Rocco shouldn’t become a pilot if that’s what he wants. Our children come through us. We are the vehicles only…”
“Fuck you, Kahlil Gibran,” Antoinette almost screeched. Her teeth were starting to chatter. She’d been standing too long in the street without a coat. The erect nipples on those breasts she shoved into the window commandeered Phil’s glance. She really should lose weight.
“OK, OK, it’s the same old story. You get to decide everything. Only you.” The street was decorated for Christmas. An oversized blow-up snowman rocked uneasily in the next garden. He concentrated on its seesawing.
Antoinette pulled a strand of hair from her chattering teeth. Phil was moved to pity for her, or maybe to its facsimile. He wanted to get away in the worst way and she was blocking his exit.
“Go inside; you’re freezing. I’ll talk to Rocco tonight. I’ll call him. Are you happy?”
“Call during the week. Otherwise he’ll know I talked to you and he warned me not to.” Her tone, which had become conspiratorial in the old way, instantly warmed both of them. She stopped shivering.
“What are you allowing me to say?” Phil’s smile was almost the one he used to produce when it had been his pleasure to fall in with Antoinette’s schemes.
“He can join the military, but only after college graduation. That’s fair to everybody. And hopefully, he’ll grow out of this insanity that you promoted.”
“I didn’t promote anything, but, OK. Good bye. You’re in the way.” There went the possibility of financial relief.
Antoinette had gotten her way, but she wasn’t done. She pointed her finger in Phil’s face. “You should be more like your father. Then you wouldn’t have to ask people what to say. I remember what your father said to you when you were nineteen. He told you to go to Canada. He was trying to get money for you. ‘Figlio mio, whatever I have is yours.’ I was standing in the doorway when you lost your deferment. Your father would have done anything for you, but what have you done for your son? Phil, even if you hate my guts, he’s still your son. He’s an Aiello.”
Unfairly she’d resurrected his father, a good man whose memory often weakened Phil. Her words could still shame him, damn her!
“OK, first of all, you’ve got to get over the whole evil military-industrial complex thing. Especially if Rocco becomes a pilot or whatever. And I would never have gone to Canada so get that straight. My father was a prisoner of war, a soldier on the losing side. How did you think he’d react? But I wouldn’t have run…”
“Oh my God! Now he’s a patriot!” Antoinette slammed her hand against the car and half-turned, appealing to the street that grew steadily darker. Someone switched on Christmas lights, illuminating a face on a house; window eyes and door nose blinked in surprise at their activation. “The way I remember it, you were comatose with fear. You got drunk every night, but then, lucky bastard that you are, you got 341 in the draft pick so you could stand here tonight and rewrite history.” She paused. “My cousin died in Viet Nam, not yours.”
Phil shook his head at her spite. She knew Joey Di Cesare had been Phil’s best friend. Phil had more legitimate claim to the dead boy than Antoinette, who was a very distant cousin of Joey’s and had only become acquainted with him through Phil. News of Joey’s unreal death was the reason Phil’s father had panicked, urging Phil to go to Canada, a nice-a, bigga country that mind-a her own bus-a-ness.
Phil prided himself on being capable of
staying on track during an argument and not veering off into tangential
asides and false analogies, even with someone as distressingly vile as Antoinette.
“Of course, I’m not denying that I didn’t want to go to Viet Nam, but this is different. We’ve been attacked. If I was a young man, I might feel the same as Rocco.”
Antoinette wanted to scoff at that claim, but she found that she couldn’t respond. The man down the street had been killed. Incinerated, really. He’d lived next door to the house where the blow up snowman rocked. The hulking thing drew her eye. Just now it was menacing an innocent passerby with its candy cane hook.
Phil thought his ex-wife was holding her tongue until the neighbor passed, but Antoinette was stunned. She told herself she could understand the need for vengeance, but she could not believe her son felt required to take up that ugly burden.
Meanwhile Phil was saying things he’d said to others. He was also saying things he’d heretofore only said in the privacy of his own heart. It was folly to fall into confidences with Antoinette and he knew it, but somehow she extracted them from him through some kind of power that he wanted to resist. No matter how many times he swore he would tell her nothing, he succumbed to the need to make a case. Now he was saying that perhaps they were wrong to condemn the use of force. A whole generation, a whole naïve, spoiled generation. It was time to give the military a new look. There were ancient virtues to be passed on - all the things they had rejected out of hand. Now that we’d been attacked, Phil argued, he saw it differently. He was not so inclined to dismiss Rocco’s yearnings. What if Rocco were to become an officer? Wouldn’t she be proud? The idealism and the manly virtues that Rocco embodied – who were they to turn a jaundiced eye on those things? Phil admitted that those virtues had skipped over him in his youth, but maybe they’d been passed to Rocco from her father and his own, who, though fighting on opposite sides of a war, had been the repositories.
Antoinette’s mouth contorted. Her brown eyes nakedly searched Phil’s face. OK, he thought, she needs to hear that this time it is different. He understood how necessary his explanations had always been for her. A restoration was in progress; she would get answers from him as she once had. He felt a certain vanity at his current generosity because that restoration was for him a stultifying one that he must ultimately subvert. He let Antoinette examine his face until he grew uncomfortable. Just for a moment he felt himself, eerily, to be under his mother’s pressing study. A few seconds passed, and then he knew why he felt unnerved. He was witnessing that fanatical mother love that bordered on hysteria, his mother’s trademark pose. Thank God he’d escaped all that with Linda, the one for whom he’d left Antoinette!
“Antoinette!” he took pity, perhaps for his mother’s sake, and he blurted his ex-wife’s name for the first time in what felt like years. “Antoinette, just say what you want to say and stop being so dramatic!” He spoke more kindly than she deserved, but Antoinette stumbled back from the car as if repelled by his baseness.
“Antoinette! Oh, fuck you. It’s impossible for anyone to talk to you!” In his rearview mirror, he saw Antoinette run into her gate.
Despite the cold, Antoinette couldn’t go back into the house yet. Her knees gave out in the space between the two houses. She sank down against the stucco bottom of her house, letting its prickles score her back, broader now than when she was young but not so broad as to bear such profound disappointment. By some trick of time, the same despair she had felt when Phil left so long ago was washing over her anew despite the intervening years and the husband upstairs whom she loved and to whom she would soon have to give an accounting, preferably light-hearted, of her latest argument with her ex-husband. But she couldn’t do it just yet. She couldn’t reaffirm that Phil was just an idiot, as they’d definitively determined. The original betrayal snuck up on her, the one that had left her with five year old Anna asking questions about Daddy’s whereabouts, and Rocco, her darling baby, studying her face fixedly as she nursed him and cried, her tears dripping on to his sweet-smelling scalp. She was back again in a place where there was no way to reverse the knowledge of Phil’s big shot coke-snorting at parties he said he had to attend with clients and where there was no way to deny the existence of the girl who would soon win his heart. The girl Linda, the summer intern for whom Phil had set up a studio apartment. Antoinette had found the cancelled check. Confronted, Phil had lain on the bed crying about his predicament and wanting sympathy for falling in love!
Antoinette waited for those feelings to pass. Feelings dredged from the past, she had learned, were never helpful. And the events that had once caused her such pain she regarded now as scenes from a familiar, badly written comedy. She wanted to tell someone who would understand what her despair was really about. If there was a person like that. Then maybe she would understand its sudden reemergence. It was about her revulsion to the phony idealism espoused, to the transported expression she saw on Phil’s middle-aged face as he said things other people were saying. All of it seemed to her the most cynical chicanery. Yes, it was! No one could ever change her mind. She had to find a way to live in the world where it was an accepted practice, a practice that seemed to shock no one but her, that a father could so readily dispatch his own son.
When Phil got to the corner, he found he couldn’t manage the escape he’d planned. He drove back, something he’d never done in all the years of fighting at the curb on his ex-wife’s block. He was surprised when he saw Antoinette slumped between the two houses like a crazy person, her white blouse catching his eye like a flag of distress. But the way she stood up when she realized it was him, back again, alarmed Phil. She bolted towards the car. On an impulse, Phil kept driving. He wasn’t going to stop when she behaved like that, shouting like the backward person she was. She’d learned nothing in all these years! She was as backward as his mother had been, but at least his immigrant mother had an excuse for her ignorance.
After several blocks, Phil had to pull over to the curb. He realized what Antoinette had been saying as she approached the car. And he’d been wrong. Antoinette hadn’t been shouting as he had first falsely represented to himself.
No, upon spotting him, she had risen quickly but calmly. And what she’d mouthed to him was only now sinking in. Through the window he had read her lips. He was sure of what she had said as if he’d distinctly heard each word as she pointed at him from her front yard. He knew after all these years what it was Antoinette would say. You should die. You’re the one. You! You go fucking die!
And, ridiculously, he had never felt more