How to Love
There wasn’t any reason to hide, at least not at first. But I crawled inside my tiny closet anyhow, me and my red plastic piggybank. Inside the squared-space that was layered in frilly dresses and the smell of cedar sticks, I would hold tight to my piggy and pretend.
At first I could imagine Father was back; and not just once or twice, but all the time. In my thoughts he’d hold me tight, bounce me up and down on his knee; and then he’d stand up, grab hold of my hands, and twirl me so fast I’d fly up off my feet. And we’d laugh, giggle so hard the tears would pearl at the corner of our matching oval eyes, his with the amber light, mine with the deep ebony.
Inside the dark of the cramped space, I’d travel back to my silver-haired nana’s adobe-style house, the one with the red-clay roof tiles and the white stucco face, that sat on a steep hill on Washington Street, a one mile hike up from the barking sea lions basking on the rocks at Fisherman’s Warf in Monterey. I’d breathe in and remember a time before, a time before I understood how homes, and heads, and hearts could break.
There in my memories, my petite nana scooped me up effortlessly and dotted me in tangerine-orange kisses, while my smiling Aunt Rose Marie squished and rearranged my cheeks. And stout Nano, after leaning over and flashing his bald spot, winked and pulled on my earlobe, offering out a kindly, “We love you, Little Sam.”
Father was there, too, moving in his own cautious way, inching forward and offering everyone his one-arm embrace. I’d tried to make him different in pretending, make him hug me tight and kiss my cheeks, but the truth always had a way of winning out.
I’d see us all napkin-bibbed at our seafood feast, so that it seemed with the salty air we were all fisherman sailing the ocean waves. As we cracked open crab legs and peeled tiger-shrimp, Nano stitched together grand fisherman tales in an Italian accent as thick and refreshing as homespun ice-cream. Afterwards, with bellies filled, we all helped with the dishes, me with my very own floral dishtowel, and my wide smile still swathed in pizza sauce.
Nano took his leave soon, snuck out to the back porch with a big platter of scraps. Two minutes later, when Nano reentered the house with a lick-cleaned plate, looking more satisfied than he let on, he muttered, “Damn cats. I hate cats,” and then held onto his belly, gave me a wink, and chuckled.
Sometime after seven, when all the plates were stacked neatly back in cupboards, the plastic tablecloth wiped clean, and the eight-track tape of Italian music drifting through the room, we gathered round the table for a game of penny poker. Holding the cards proved somewhat cumbersome, but somehow I managed to win every single hand, and in doing so compiled a stack of pennies: ten-high and ten-long.
“One hundred pennies; look how great you did,” Aunt Rose Marie would laugh.
I smiled with eyes of pride, and then reached down and yanked at my stockings. It was possible, I found out, to stack the pennies the height of my mug of hot chocolate before they tumbled down. Nana leaned over and braced herself against the edge of the table, saying softly to my father, “You need to bring her more often. We miss her. And we miss you.” Then she looked over at me. “We have a surprise.”
My dark-haired aunt came forward carrying a plastic piggybank loaded with coins. Though it was only a smidgen bigger than the palm of my little hand, I was amazed. For the next several minutes everyone watched, as I cradled the plastic piggy.
“Now you save that. It’s not to open. Put it in a special spot.” Nana turned from me, pulled down her silver-framed glasses, and eyed her son. “You’ll bring her again soon, won’t you?”
Father nodded and stood up to retrieve my small wool coat from the back of my chair. “Yes, I’ll bring her soon,” he answered, as I slid into my coat, holding my piggy tighter.
Mother would arrive long after supper, all done up—the fair Audrey Hepburn—her curves hugged by a linen suit of strawberry-milkshake. “Hello, Beautiful,” she would say, fussing over my blue-silk hair ribbons. I would gaze up at Mother, then, with my deep brown eyes and tug on my braid. I savored the word beautiful much like I did Nana’s hard taffy candies which left my tongue all purple and sweet.
As children do, with the passing of days, I adapted quickly to my uprooting and replanting. Like a newly transplanted tree, I had wilted some in the beginning but within weeks I was once again flourishing. One fall evening Mother was kneeling at my new stepfather’s side, when she pulled off a pale-yellow towel from a moving lump inside a cardboard box. “His name is Justice,” she announced, pushing the box forward and widening her dark eyes.
I jumped up and down in the air, forgetting for a moment where I was, while Drake said with a wink, “We named him Justice Black, after the Supreme Court Justice of the Peace.”
I didn’t understand anything Drake said, but nodded anyhow. “Can I keep him?” I asked.
“Of course,” Mother chuckled.
Plopping down, right next to Mother, I inched my way towards the box, and examined his clumped fur mottled in mud. “He’s dirty,” I whispered, cupping my hand so the black dog wouldn’t hear.
“Yes,” Drake laughed.
“And he’s shaking,” I said.
Mother placed the towel across the dog’s back. “He’s scared,” she said. “I don’t think he was treated very well.”
“Oh,” I said. I stared into his liquid-brown eyes.
“Your mother found him in the alleyway,” Drake said. “He was in the corner trembling in the rain. She couldn’t help herself. She has a soft heart for things that need rescuing.”
Mother guffawed and playfully slapped Drake on the knee.
The dog, shivering more, let out a whimper.
“What should I do?” I asked.
Mother scooted in closer to me. “You just have to love him. That’s all you have to do.”
I smiled then, big and wide. I knew how to love.