Tino - A Matter of Fifty Dollars Part III- Untamed Hearts Memories
Romeo was the best to go to the bodega with. He was always good for something, toys or treats, whatever caught my eye, Romeo would get it if he had the extra cash. And the day he got paid was even better, especially if I had to walk through a bunch of New York slush puddles to get there.
Except, I wasn’t feeling like getting something this time, even with the slush puddles. I was quiet instead, putting most of my energy into preserving my new shoes, hopping and side stepping over all the obstacles.
“Come on, piccolo, you’re gonna bust your ass,” Romeo said in English. “Walk straight.”
Romeo always spoke English when we were outside.
He said it was rude not to, even if Ma did it all the time.
I leaped over another puddle, and Romeo snapped, “Valentino!”
On another day, that wouldn’t mean so much, but I started walking straight—mostly—'cept my shoes.
Still, Romeo must’ve noticed the effort by the time he was pulling open the door to the bodega, because he said, “One thing, less than five bucks. Something that’ll keep you busy.”
They had toys by the register, but I kept silent while Romeo wiped his shoes on the mat at the front of the store and said, “Hey, Vic,” to the guy who ran it.
Then Romeo started talking to Vic, and it wasn’t until he was grabbing milk off the shelf in the back that he asked me, “What’re you getting?”
I was thinking about Nova. I knew it hurt his feelings when Romeo got mad at him. If Nova was starting something on purpose, the money thing was really bad. He must’ve told me a hundred times before Christmas not to ask for anything expensive, and I was good about it.
I was taking care of the shoes, wasn’t I?
“I don’t want anything,” I whispered.
“Okay, I know that’s not true.” Romeo leaned down and looked at Tino. “Life isn’t just about math. I’m working now. Ma’ll be better soon. You can get something. We’ll make it. Five dollars won’t break us.”
I considered him for a second, before I decided, “What about ice cream bars?”
That way I could share them with Nova, and it was food, so that counted as part of whatever Nova was adding up. Only Nova never got that excited about ice cream bars like I did.
I still got them. Romeo thought I was crazy to buy ice cream in January. I announced them when we walked back into the apartment. I saw that Ma was feeling better, sitting at the table, having a cup of something warm and steaming.
Nova was sitting next to her, weirdly quiet, like they stopped talking about something the moment Romeo turned the lock.
“You want one?” I asked Nova in Italian after I hung my coat on the hook by the door.
Nova shook his head, and looked at Romeo, but didn’t say anything about the bars.
I held out the open box to Ma when I came into the kitchen, but she shook her head the same as Nova had.
“I’m good.” She set her mug on the table and reached out to me. “Did you have fun?” I happily climbed onto my mother’s lap, setting the box of ice cream bars next to her tea. Even though Romeo huffed in complaint about her health, Ma assured him, “He’s good.” She leaned down and kissed my forehead. “We’re both good.”
She began stroking my hair, long sweeping strokes that made me sleepy. Romeo started doing the dishes.
Nova got up and put the ice cream bars away, asking Romeo, “He ate them in the cold?”
“Yup.” Romeo sighed, and went on in English, “Oobatz. I wish he would’ve gotten a fucking coloring book or something.”
“Maledizione, Romeo,” Ma snapped. “Piccolo’s still awake.”
Unfazed, Romeo pointed out, “You just did it. You do it all the time.”
Hearing my name sort of jerked me out of my dreamy haze, but then my mother started running her fingers through my hair, the strokes longer, more soothing.
“Not in English. You say it here, and he’ll start saying it at school. You’re eighteen. You’re a man now. You’re supposed to be a good influence.”
“Why is it so cold in here?” Romeo countered, because he was good at changing the subject if Ma was yelling at him. “Who turned down the heat while we were gone?”
“I did.” Ma kept running her hand through my hair. “The doctor said it’s good for my health to keep the apartment cool.”
“The doctor said that? It didn’t have anything to do with Nova and math?
“Why do you think hospitals are so cold?” Ma went on without missing a beat. “Germs don’t grow in the cool.” She stopped stroking my hair to gesture in the direction of Nova. “Tell him, amore.”
“No, I don’t need him to tell me,” Romeo said dismissively. “Are you feeling better?”
“The ginger tea helped,” she whispered, one long stroke after another making me want to go to bed, even if it was only eight o’clock. I went to the kids’ gym afterschool, and that always made me sleepy.
“Really?” Romeo sounded hopeful. “’Cause I kind of promised Andrea I’d go upstairs and help with the washing machine.”
“You know how to fix washing machines now?” Ma asked with a laugh. “Take Nova.”
“I don’t need Nova.”
“Sì, you do, unless it’s not her washing machine you’re fixing?” Ma’s voice got a little harder, more suspicious. “Her husband doesn’t want you over there, amore. It’s different when she’s down here, I’m home, the kids are home. Have an alibi, take your brother.”
“She has no help, Ma,” Romeo snapped at her. “You know he’s out of town all the time, probably sleeping around on her the whole time. She never gets a break from the baby. I was going up to babysit so she could catch up on her homework and see if I can help her get the washer working, but you never believe me.”
“Bring the baby to me. I’ll watch the baby.”
Romeo laughed at the suggestion. “That’s what you need, a baby to watch.”
“Tino’ll play with him. It’ll keep them both busy tomorrow if we’re going to be snowed in.”
“That puttaniere has been gone for two weeks, he’s barely sending her enough money. She can’t keep coming down here to wash her clothes. She’s my friend. I want her to get her diploma. I’m just babysitting so she can study, I promise.”
Ma was quiet for a long time, before she asked, “Is that true?”
“Sì,” Romeo said vehemently. “That’s it. That’s my exciting Friday night. Take Tino to the store and babysit for Andrea. I told her you were sick, so I was going to skip it, but if--”
“Fine. Just go.”
“Are you pissed at me?” Romeo sounded hurt.
“No, it’s not you.” She sounded like she meant it. “I’m still recovering.”
“I can stay,” he said quickly.
“You staying won’t change it, but Tino needs a shower.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday, he can take one in the morning,” Romeo leaned down to pick me up. I wasn’t totally asleep, but I wasn’t opposed to a lift to the bedroom either. “He’s too heavy for you to keep holding him like this. It’s like having a baby elephant on your lap.”
Romeo always carried the scent of cologne and cinnamon gum and it was all over our bedroom. It was a warm smell, a nice one, something I associated with feeling safe. I curled up in the bottom bunk the second Romeo put me in it, especially since his pillow had somehow ended up there.
“That’s my pillow, piccolo, you haven’t showered.” Romeo tried to pull it out from under my head, but I held on. “Forget it. We’re washing the sheets tomorrow anyway and you’re helping this time.” He pulled off my shoes, first one and then the other, but left the rest of my clothes on, probably because of the cold. “You don’t get to be the only one in this house not helping.”
“I’m the one who has to sleep with him,” Nova reminded him from the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” Romeo said dismissively. “Did you complain to Ma about the heat?”
Nova had been oddly quiet since they got back, and he stuck with it. He didn’t answer Romeo.
“Casanova.” Romeo sounded desperate. “When you do that it worries her. She can’t heal if she’s worried.”
“I’m sorry,” Nova whispered.
He sounded so anguished about it.
Now it was Romeo’s turn to get quiet.
“I’m being a stronzo.” Romeo gave a huff of defeat, sounding a lot like Ma. “I’m stressed out. I’m taking it out on you. I’m the one who’s sorry. It’s not your fault math has it out for us.”
“Maybe we should ask him this time,” Nova suggested hesitantly.
“Ma’s still upset about her hair. She doesn’t want to talk to him,” Romeo assured him, still sounding bitter. “I know we don’t have enough. I hear you. I’ll figure it out.” I heard the sound of Romeo spit out his gum in the garage can, and knew he was probably standing in front of the mirror on the dresser messing with his hair. “I can get something to fill in for Friday nights. Not like I have a lot going on anyway.”
“Are you really going to try and fix Andrea’s washing machine?” Nova sounded concerned for the washer.
“I’ll be fine.”
“We live in this building too. That’s plumbing and electrical you’re playing with.”
“I got it,” Romeo assured him, sounding way too confident. He flipped off the light in our bedroom, walked over to kiss my forehead, whispering, “Ti voglio bene,”and then turned to Nova. “Walk me out.”
Nova walked him out.
I was almost completely asleep by the time Nova got back, but not quite. I rolled over to see Nova set Romeo’s cologne on the dresser by the mirror, like Romeo waited until he got out of the apartment to spray it and then handed it back to Nova to hide.
Nova never went back out to check on Ma. Instead he crawled under the covers fully clothed, shoes and everything, which was probably why I didn’t sleep well. I heard Romeo come in sometime a lot later, when it was extra dark in the room, and even the sounds from the city had gotten a bit quieter. I don’t know what Romeo did while he was gone, but I do know he passed out really fast once he crawled into the top bunk.
The long sleeve shirt and jeans I was wearing were irritating me. I wanted to pull them off, but it wascold. I was just really restless, and ended up lying there being extra still, trying to contain the need to jump up and do something. Ma called it the sit still game. Sometimes I still played it with myself, because if I didn’t, I forgot how, which was why I heard Nova roll out of bed and sneak out of the room.
Somewhere in the distance, a window slid up, and I realized Nova was sneaking out onto the landing in the middle of the night—which was something Romeo and Ma would beat his ass for.
I never told anyone until now that I heard him go. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop him, but I spent a lot of time since then wishing I had.