Authors: Genevieve Gannon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
James stretched his arm behind his head. His shirt lifted a little to reveal a band of bronzed skin.
‘Well, this weekend I’ve got my brother’s fortieth. He and his wife have had a pretty tough year.’
Dani remembered him mentioning that his niece had had to have surgery. There had been a three-month period during which he had constantly been coming into her office asking things like ‘Little girls like ponies, don’t they?’ and ‘Do you think a nine-year-old would appreciate a bouquet of roses, or should I just get her some chocolate?’
‘So she’s throwing him a big bash,’ he continued. ‘Do you want to come?’
Dani had been studying the pink drink in her hands, but now her head snapped up to look at James.
‘Ahm — everyone’s welcome,’ he added quickly. ‘The more the merrier. They want it to be a real celebration. Melissa starts back at school next week.’
‘Oh that’s wonderful news, but I wouldn’t want to crash your celebration,’ Dani said, picturing the startled looks on friends’ faces when they were exposed to the full catastrophe of family functions at her parents’ house. ‘What about Friday night? When we’re not doing work drinks, what sort of things do you and the guys get up to?’
‘I don’t know, Dani. I’m taking my bro out for a steak this Friday. We’re gonna watch the footy before his weekend is hijacked by arranging food platters and then scrubbing the remnants of those platters off of his carpet. Why all the questions?’
‘Oh, you know, I’m just interested in how you spend your weekends.’
What she was actually doing was gathering data for husband-hunting missions.
James took off his hat and rubbed the back of his skull, the way he always did when he didn’t understand something. It made the curls on the top of his head stand to attention.
‘If you’re looking for something to do how, ‘bout coming for a beer after work? I know it’s Monday, but the guys and I thought we’d toast the end of Emerson’s freedom.’
‘What? Emerson’s getting married?’
‘Yeah, and we couldn’t be happier. No more Tuesday night blinders, no more strip clubs on Wednesday nights.’
‘Someone agreed to marry Emerson?’ Dani asked. ‘David Emerson? The duty manager who has had two written warnings from the OHS officer for humping the cement mixer?’
‘Yeah,’ James smirked, as if reading her thoughts.
‘I can’t come tonight, sorry. I’ve got family commitments.’
‘The famous DeLuca dinners?’
‘Shame,’ he said. ‘Next time, hey?’
Nine hours later she was on her way to her ma and pa’s. Ever since her youngest brother, Joey, had moved out, their mamma, Gia, had insisted on weekly sessions of family time. This quality time took the form of long pointless drives involving grown adults being squashed into the back seat of their parents’ station wagon. On their last trip to the zoo, Gia had gotten upset because the attendant had refused to give them a ‘family ticket’ on the grounds that the three children she was trying to get in at the reduced rate were in their thirties.
children,’ Gia had argued. ‘And we’re a
The girl had given in. When they passed through the barrier she gave Daniela and her brothers a pitying look that told them she felt they deserved discounted zoo tickets for having to put up with such a mother.
After that, the kids had put down their collective foot about the outings. As a compromise, Dani and her brothers, Joey and Silvio, had promised their mamma they would have a family dinner every week.
For Dani, it always felt like dinner and a show. For starters, Gia would serve garlic bread and day-to-day quibbles. ‘Why haven’t you returned my phone call?’ ‘That shirt doesn’t suit you.’ ‘Have you had that mole on your arm checked out?’
She’d just be getting warmed up. Then would come the entrée: typically a pasta dish accompanied by a side of career complaints. ‘What are you doing out on a site all day with those men?’ ‘Why don’t you get an office job like a nice girl?’
This would segue into a main course, osso buco or ragoût and a hearty dressing-down over the fact that her daughter was still single: ‘Why aren’t you married yet?’ ‘It’s because you don’t act like a normal woman. Men don’t want their wives to be like other men, they want a woman.’ ‘You should have married Giovanni Portelli when you had the chance.’
All this dovetailed into a ‘you’re-a-disappointment’ wrap-up in time to accompany dessert, where Dani’s life choices would be picked apart over cassata or semifreddo. If Gia hadn’t run out of steam, she would remind Dani that she was not getting any younger as she served biscotti and coffee.
Daniela felt that being an engineer somehow didn’t cut it. Even though Joey worked behind the counter of Budget car rental at the airport, and Silv had cut back to twenty hours a week since he got married to the heir to the Franco Pazzalo furniture chain, Dani still felt like her mother wasn’t proud of her.
The sight of her admittedly unfeminine work clothes always sent Gia into hysterical cries that perhaps her daughter was a lesbian. She would pick up Dani’s steel-capped boots by their laces and whimper about never getting any grandchildren from her only daughter.
‘They’re so I don’t drop cinder blocks on my toes, Ma,’ Daniela would try to tell her. ‘No one wants to marry a girl with smashed toes.’
‘They used to do that in China. Bound feet. They were mad for it,’ Joey piped up once, driving Gia into a fit of wails and palpitations.
Dani reached the concrete porch knowing that night would be no different. Her mamma would probe her for details of Mirabella’s wedding, which would give rise to a diatribe about how she would like to see her only daughter married, too. So Dani had come prepared. She had picked up some cannoli on the way over, and a bottle of Chianti for Pa, to get him on-side. But when she took the bakery box into the kitchen and cut the string, all Gia could say was: ‘Ah, store-bought. If you were married and didn’t have to work, you’d have time for making perfect cannoli in your own kitchen.’
Then she charged at Dani with an open lipstick. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘put this on. Joey is bringing someone tonight. You need to make an effort.’
It was the same colour that stood out in the faded pictures of Gia from her youth. She had been a great, exotic beauty, and Dani felt her mother took particular offence from the fact Daniela had not allowed her to bask in reflected glory by being equally beautiful. Gia had wide, near-black eyes, whereas Daniela’s were almond in shape and a nutty-brown colour. Gia’s nose was unobtrusive and her mouth full and generous. Dani’s nose was long and her lips small.
‘You never have pride in how you look!’ Gia cried, releasing Dani’s hair from its ponytail.
Gia’s hair had suggestive kinks and curls. Dani’s was as straight up-and-down as a city skyscraper. Just like her figure. Her body showed little evidence that it belonged to a woman: very small hips, very small breasts, and no bottom to speak of.
She busied herself by laying the pastries she had brought on a serving plate. Her pa came in and deftly picked one up, using the only remaining digits on his right hand: thumb and pinkie.
‘Don’t spoil your dinner!’ Gia wailed, smacking the buttery cylinder from his grip. Vincenzo had lost his middle three fingers in a workplace accident, ending his career as an architect. He was now a consultant at a property development firm.
‘This friend of Joey’s is a very nice man. He runs the rent-a-car place at the airport,’ Gia said, pushing Vincenzo out of the kitchen.
‘What? His boss? Why is Joey bringing his boss to family night, Ma?’ Dani put her hands on her hips.
‘Ah, it’s good to please your boss.’ Gia brushed past her daughter to get to a pot bubbling on the hotplate. The doorbell rang.
‘Get that, will you,’ she said, indicating that she was dealing with a sauce crisis.
‘Joey?’ Dani answered the door. ‘Where are your keys?’
Her brother rolled his eyes as he leaned forward and kissed her.
‘Ma thought it would make a better impression if you greeted our guest at the door,’ he whispered. Dani suppressed the urge to heave a sigh.
‘Dani, this is Richard Taft, my boss,’ Joey presented an apologetic-looking man in his late forties. He had lank, colourless hair and wore a grey suit. But his greyness went deeper than his clothes. He had an aura of grey; even his voice was flat and drab.
‘Hello, Daniela,’ Richard said, giving her hand a firm shake. ‘I’ve heard an awful lot about you. I hope this isn’t too awkward. Let me just say, there’s no pressure. Joseph here has been quite insistent that I meet you, though.’ Dani shot her brother a glare. He held up his hands as evidence of his innocence.
‘Nice to meet you, Richard,’ she said. ‘Come through.’ As her brother passed, he received a swift kick to the shin.
‘Whaaat?’ he cried.
‘You know what,’ Daniela said, dealing him a betrayed-sibling death stare.
Richard was polite and attentive over dinner, praising everything that was put in front of him. Gia asked him questions about his job history and his parents. Disguised as pleasantries, what she was really doing was running a background check. Daniela tried to take an interest in his monologue about car air-fresheners, but the only really likable thing about Richard was the fact that by being at dinner he was robbing Gia of the opportunity to lambast her. Unfortunately for the dreary but eager Mr Taft, Dani looked for more than mere signs of life in men.
Her mamma, sitting opposite her, didn’t think so highly of her prospects. It seemed she had taken the view that a penis and a pulse was all her spinster daughter could hope for in a partner. After coffee she announced that she needed help with the washing up and shooed everybody bar Daniela and Richard into the kitchen.
‘You know I live in one of the apartment complexes you built,’ he said. ‘My sister and I bought it together early in 2008 just before the economy took a dive.’
He looked very pleased with himself. Joey had come around for games night, Richard told her. He and his sister were famous for them and unbeatable at Boggle. After being convincingly beaten by the Taft brother-sister team, Joey had remarked that
sister had helped build the very arena the games were being played in. The apartments were in a repurposed Campbellfield porridge factory.
‘He was very proud,’ Richard said. Daniela felt a glow in her chest.
‘Do you like living there?’ she asked.
Richard furrowed his brow. ‘Well, I don’t like sharing a bathroom with my sister. Also, somebody keeps stealing my
magazine. I have a subscription, but I never get it. The letterboxes lock, but the magazines don’t go all the way in. See, the ends always stick out through the mail slot, and nearly every month somebody steals my
Dani murmured that his situation sounded unfortunate, but could hardly be categorised as a building design fault. She was about to say that what she had meant was did he think it was a comfortable, well-constructed home, when he blurted out that he hated the open-plan kitchen and living area. ‘How are you supposed to concentrate on the telly if someone’s fussing around in the kitchen?’
‘Yes, well, it’s getting late. I’ll walk you out,’ Dani said.
‘Perhaps we could have dinner, just the two of us, sometime?’
‘Perhaps. Actually, Richard: look, I’m sorry, you seem really nice, but I’m just not looking to get involved with anyone right now.’
‘But when the right person comes along, you have to seize the opportunity,’ he argued.
‘No, really — I just want to be single right now.’
Richard seemed very put out by this. ‘Oh, well. Perhaps in a few months when you’re ready you could give me a call. If I’m still available, that is.’ With that he turned and left.
The second the lock clicked into place, Gia leapt from her hiding spot behind the hallstand.
‘What is wrong with you?’ she cried.
‘I would like to be able to have a family meal without having to perform for men you’ve deigned suitable to be potential sons-in-law,’ Daniela said.
‘You’re too picky!’ she yelled. ‘He was a nice man.’
Dani took refuge in her car, where she turned up the heater and plugged in her iPod. Glenn Frey’s raspy voice sang The Eagles’ ‘Take It to the Limit’. She leaned back and savoured the solitude.
After a minute she picked up the drawings that were sitting on her passenger seat. James had stickered them with Post Its, pointing out possible problems that would arise when they moved the vents, as planned. She traced her fingertip over the letters he had scratched in the notes with his biro.
When James had first walked onto her site last May, she almost hadn’t recognised him from their university days. Gone were the shaggy traveller’s locks and the yards of leather and twine that he’d always worn wrapped around his wrists. His stubble was banished, and the spray of adolescent acne was nowhere to be seen. He was a more refined version of the guy she had pined over at Sydney Uni. But his smile was unchanged.
‘Bella Daniela DeLuca,’ he’d said, appraising her in her jeans and boots. ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’
She had felt disappointed that she apparently hadn’t undergone the metamorphosis from gangly youth to attractive adult the way he had.
They caught up over a ‘welcome to the company’ wine.
As they made steady progress through their second bottle of bottom-shelf Moscato, Daniela found herself leaning closer to James across the table. She played with her hair and the little gold crucifix on the chain around her neck, suddenly very aware of herself.
‘I was devastated when you hooked up with Tom Massey,’ James blurted, referring to a boy from uni.
Dani arched her brow. ‘Why? You weren’t interested in me.’
He looked at her with sorrowful eyes. ‘It’s true: devastated.’ He leaned forward and touched the back of his index finger to her top button.
‘Liar,’ she said, catching her breath as he slid his finger down the seam of her shirt, applying more and more pressure as his hand dropped. He stopped when reached the spot where the cotton disappeared into the thick denim.