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Julie and Romeo get lucky
Ray, Jeanne.
Adult Fiction RAY

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I heard the Candyman's voice as soon as I opened the door.
"Who can make the sun shine?" he asked.
Romeo leaned in close to me, whispered against the back of my neck, "He's in there."
It was October in Somerville, Massachusetts, and fall was whipping around us with flat orange leaves cutting through the cool orange light of late afternoon. I was going into my house with the man that I loved, that man I was too old to call my boyfriend and too square to call my lover. The man I thought of always as my good fortune, Romeo.
But the Candyman stopped me cold. It was a visceral reaction. Every time I heard him, I wanted to run screaming down the street.
"Sprinkle it with dew," the Candyman sang.
I closed my eyes and panted a little, a technique I used to help quell nausea. The thought of all that candy -- which had seemed like such a charming childhood fantasy, when I first saw the movie in 1971 -- now left me feeling like a six-year-old at ten o'clock on Halloween night. But it wasn't just the candy, it was the movie itself: the insipid singing, the cheesy sets, the tired diatribe of rich and poor and good and evil. Even Willie Wonka, who had once seemed so charming in all his twinkling subversiveness, now made me queasy -- because anyone will make you queasy after you watch him eat a teacup for the sixth thousandth time. According to my sloppy calculations, that was approximately how many times my granddaughter Sarah had watched Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in my house.
Oh sure, she'd been stuck on other movies before this. It had started out with Barney's Big Adventure, then progressed through Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid, but those she only watched often, not constantly. Since the Christmas before last, when I so foolishly brought the plague of chocolate into our lives all wrapped up in red Santa paper, there had not been a day that she hadn't played the videotape.
If my mother could rise up from her grave to carp at me, she would say it was my own fault. "What business do Jews have giving Christmas presents in the first place?" she would say to me and shake her head in disgust.
And maybe she would be right. Maybe this was all a curse I brought down on myself. The video followed us like a debt, an insidious disease. There had not been a moment's respite, not even on the day that Sarah's mother, my daughter Sandy, had reached her absolute limit and yanked it out of the VCR and stepped on it again and again with the heel of her boot. Or that other day six months later when I completely snapped and pulled the tape from its casing, spooling out the celluloid like birthday ribbon. On both of those occasions we ended up racing to the video store with a wailing, hyperventilating child in our arms, as frantic as any family stumbling into the emergency room with a blue baby.
We discussed the possibility of seeing a family counselor or staging an intervention. We had been told by countless dispensers of free advice that Sarah would give up the tape as soon as we no longer responded to it, and so we trained ourselves not to respond, or to respond only behind a locked bathroom door with our faces pressed into a stack of towels.
I now repeated my mantra to myself: "It is just a noise like any other noise. It is just a noise like any other noise."
"Cover it with chocolate and collect up all the cream," Romeo sang with the Candyman, swaying me back and forth in a samba. Romeo, unlike his duet partner, had a nice voice. I told him to shut up.
"Have a sense of humor," he said. "It's a movie."
"It isn't a movie," I told him. "It's a dangerous, deadly device designed by children so that they can rule the world."
Romeo didn't live with me and therefore could not possibly understand. He thought that just because Sarah and her brother Tony sometimes spent the night at his house and she played the tape on his VCR, that meant he knew the score. But no one could understand it unless they had lived through it. Orwell and Kafka had nothing on an eight-year-old's obsession.
Cautiously, we peered past the entry hall. "Hello!" I called out. "Tony, Tony, Sarah, Sandy, we're home!" But the only living thing to amble into the room was Sarah's cat, a fat-faced orange tabby who purred and knocked against my shins. "Oompah-Loompah," I asked, "where is everybody?"
"Everything he bakes, satisfying and delicious," the Candyman replied.
We walked into the living room to see the thin man with Brilliantined hair on TV fling a fistful of butterscotch discs down onto the heads of little children, who scrambled like wolverines to get their share. He dispensed his licorice whips and egg creams even though no one was here watching him. Even Oompah-Loompah recoiled from the sugared carnage and left the room.
"Hello?" Romeo called, although no one appeared to be home.
I picked up the remote from the coffee table, aimed it at all the greedy children on television, and gave the off button a decisive stab. The sound that replaced that singing was crystalline, a silence as sweet and clear as a glacial lake. Had there been a glass of champagne at hand, it would have been quiet enough to hear the bubbles burst.
"Oh," I said, taking Romeo in my arms. "Will you listen to that?"
"What?" he said.
"Exactly."
He kissed me. "Where are they?"
"Do we care?" I kissed him back.
He nodded. "We care passionately."
We had not come home for any sort of funny business. We had come home because there was an extra case of gift cards stored in the hall closet, and we were almost out of them at our flower shops. Romeo had offered to come along because he wanted to pick up a new battery pack for the Dust-Buster.
But when you live in a house full of beloved family members, there is no aphrodisiac as potent or immediate as privacy. Youth is all about finding an opportunity to be alone with the person you want to be alone with, and once you are, you get pregnant, and from that moment on you're never alone again.
Romeo and I were sixty-three. Between us we had two houses, two flower shops, eight children, and ten grandchildren. He made me feel sixteen again, but a big part of that was our never-ending quest to sneak off somewhere.
He pulled back, kissed my nose, looked over my shoulder. "Go check the kitchen."
Part of what makes being sixteen so sexy is the stolen moment, sneaking around. Look! Mom and Dad aren't home! How much time do you think we have? For us, Mom and Dad had been replaced by our own children.
There was a piece of paper on the kitchen sink, with big letters written in black Magic Marker.
Sneaker sale at Filene's. Be back soon.
xxoo, Sandy
I held it over my head like the last find in a scavenger hunt. "God bless Sandy."
Romeo looked at the paper and smiled. "She leaves you notes. That's sweet. My boys could move to Tokyo and they wouldn't leave me a note."
"When she was a little kid, she'd leave me a note if she went to the bathroom." I wrapped my arms around his waist and buried my nose, still cold from the October wind, unabashedly into the side of his neck.
"But how do we know how soon soon will be?"
"We have plenty of time. Look," I said, holding up my wristwatch as if it were proof. "It's four-thirty now. Traffic will be at a standstill, and they couldn't have left more than ten minutes ago."
Romeo looked at the note again. "It doesn't say what time they left."
And here I smiled because finally, finally, that damn video was going to play to my advantage. "The Candyman song comes in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. If we piece the story together from the evidence on hand, I'd say Sarah turned the movie on at four-fifteen, and Sandy started to crack at the opening credits. She then told the kids she'd take them shopping. They must have left the house so fast they forgot to turn the television off."
Sarah never allowed herself to watch her favorite parts out of sequence, nor did she allow herself to skip past the parts that even she found excruciatingly boring, like Charlie's mother leaning in the miserable doorframe of the dismal alley where she boiled other people's filthy clothes for a few pennies and sang a song about how her son should keep dreaming.
Romeo put one hand on either side of my head. His eyes were brimming with love. "You're a genius."
"But what about Big Tony?" I glanced furtively at the ceiling above, as if he might be upstairs.
Big Tony, who was not an especially large man, was Romeo's son, as opposed to Little Tony, a very tall, gangly twelve-year-old, who was my grandson. Big Tony was married to my daughter Sandy, and all of them -- daughter, son-in-law, and the two children from Sandy's first marriage -- lived with me.
Tony and Sandy's marriage meant that Romeo and I were in-laws. I should point out that our love was not a crime against society or nature. There were are no laws in any state prohibiting the commingling of in-laws.
"Tony's in class. I know it because I dropped him off this afternoon," Romeo said.
Tony was studying for his degree in public health, but now that he had one year to go in the program, he was making eyes at medical school -- a financial impossibility of epic proportions seeing since he, like Sandy, was working for us in the flower shops.
Before the age of enlightenment, years ago, the families Cacciamani and Roseman had despised one another. Romeo and I were raised from birth to scowl and spit when the other one's name was spoken. This was because our parents, rival Somerville florists, had loathed one another past the point of all reason, and this was because his mother and my father had briefly, secretly been in love with each other (isn't that always the way?), though no one else was privy to this information at the time.
After Romeo and I grew into adults who hated each other, our children fell in love, and we took it upon ourselves to squash their nascent happiness like a bug beneath our heel. It took us more than fifteen years and a couple of divorces before we all came together again, and this time Tony married Sandy and her two children, and I fell in love with his father.
It was a real happily-ever-after kind of thing, except that Tony and Sarah and the two kids couldn't afford a place of their own and were living with me, just as Romeo's other son, Alan, and his wife and their three kids were living with him. It wasn't that we didn't love them and weren't glad to help them, but still, wouldn't it be lovely to see a U-Haul backing down the driveway someday? I'd gone from fearing the empty-nest syndrome to fantasizing about it, without ever having the chance to experience it.
But there was no point in dwelling on the bigger picture when there was a moment at hand to be seized. The house was empty except for the cat, who I had no qualms about scandalizing. I shrugged my coat to the floor. My purse hit with a thud. Romeo's coat exhaled in a pile of wool. Overcome by our unexpected good fortune, we started tugging at sweaters, pulling at shoes, kissing, kissing in the sheer happiness of two people who have forgotten about what we would be making for dinner or who would need homework help tonight.
In a gesture of romantic exuberance, Romeo put one arm around my back and looped the other under the backs of my knees and pulled me to his chest. The next thing I knew I was airborne, looking up into the front hallway's colonial brass light fixture, which I could now see needed some serious dusting. I let out a high laugh, so loud and girlish I did not recognize it as my own. "Put me down!"
"Someday," Romeo said, bouncing me up a half an inch to shift me in his arms.
I screamed, drunk with love, and slapped him madly on the back. "You're going to kill yourself. You're insane. Down! Down!"
He took three powerful and decisive steps toward the staircase, then, in a reckless moment that stunned us both, he started to climb the stairs.
"Romeo, don't!" It would have been so much more convincing had I been able to stop laughing from the giddy pleasure of it all. But when was the last time anyone had picked me up?
I can tell you, I was twenty-one, just back from my honeymoon and on the threshold of my new apartment. My then-husband Mort gallantly hoisted me over one shoulder like a feed sack, straightened up, said, "Oh, to hell with this," and set me down again, still on the wrong side of the door. Had he used just the slightest amount of momentum, he could have tossed me on the other side of the weather stripping, and I would have been in the living room. That was forty-two years and many pounds ago, and Mort, though tactless, was young and strong.
Before that, I was a little girl and my father was swinging me up toward the lights in his flower shop in a dizzying, carnation-scented moment of careless affection that he outgrew long before I was ready for him to put me down.
Other than that, my feet had been planted on terra firma where feet belonged, where feet needed to be right now. "Darling, really," I said to Romeo on the seventh stair of sixteen. "This is dangerous."
"I should carry you all the time," he said, a little bit of huff in his voice. "I should carry you into the store every morning."
His foot came down heavy on the ninth stair, and I felt him girding himself for the challenge of the tenth. I tightened my grasp around his neck and tried to inch myself up, to make myself lighter. I was nervous now. A little mistake had been made -- a lovely gesture, a careless acceptance -- but it had somehow gotten out of hand, and now I felt as if Romeo were trying to lug me up the side of Everest.
He wasn't going to put me down, and I knew it. We could both go straight backward, ass over teakettle to our inevitable deaths, but he wasn't going to give up midstaircase. For him that would be the same as calling me fat or calling himself weak, and neither of those two things was going to happen. So what if my daughter and his son and my two grandchildren came home to find Oompah-Loompah standing over the broken heap of our bodies, our clothes scattered lasciviously in all directions? We had lived in love and would die in love.
With enormous effort, we pushed on to the eleventh stair. I could feel the sledgehammer thump of his heart kicking against my ribs. "Almost there, my pet," he said, his voice weaker now.
We were both in our underwear, Romeo in the white briefs he favored (my ex-husband, my only prior exposure to men in their underwear, was a boxer man, and those briefs never failed to thrill me), and me in a mismatched satiny bra and cotton pants that I would not have chosen had I known where the day was headed when I got dressed.
It was not a comfortable arrangement. At this strange set of angles, an underwire from the left cup of my bra was about to pierce my sternum. Romeo's fingers, desperate for purchase, dug very, very deeply into my flesh, though I do not say this as a complaint.
Like his son Tony, Romeo was not a big man. He was not exactly short, but I was not exactly short myself. It had occurred to me on more than one occasion that our weights might be in the same ballpark. I didn't let myself think about it often, and I certainly never asked him, but I was thinking about it now. Romeo could be hefting twice his own body weight up my staircase, the kind of heroics reserved for tiny ants capable of carrying away an entire ruffled potato chip from a picnic blanket.
I did not have a single sexual thought in my head anymore. The ardor and lust that had swept me into his arms had vanished, and in their place was only the thought, Please God, let us live. Let us make it to the top of the stairs.
Thud, thud went his sock feet. Thud, thud went my heart. The thirteenth step. Unlucky thirteen. We were both silent as he pulled heroically toward the top. Romeo was gasping now, and I was taking in no air at all for fear that it might make me heavier. He went to kiss me but could only lay his damp cheek against my forehead. My rear end was slipping away from him, pulling down toward his knees, locked in a mortal bout with gravity.
"You're amazing," I said very quietly when he reached the top. "Now put me down."
"Almost there," he gasped, and again he gave me a little toss up to reposition the load, but this time I didn't toss at all. I was fixed in place, a leaden albatross nailed to his chest. I tried to pull myself higher as he trudged toward the bedroom, the very last one on the trail of tears down the hall.
We were so close. My bedroom was right there, just a few more feet. He made it through the door and into the soft autumnal light of a western exposure at sunset. I had to let him go all the way, then. If I jumped out of his arms this close to the bed it would have broken his heart, and so I stayed, my left hand clamped around my right wrist in a vise grip behind his neck. He took me to the edge and then, though I know he meant it to be a gentle settling, dropped me on the mattress.
I looked at him, still afraid to move. Was he gray? Was that grayness I was seeing? It was hard to tell. He straightened up a little, tentatively stretched down his arms to a position of straightness, and smiled.
"Are you okay?" I asked softly.
He nodded.
"That was very sweet. No one has ever done that before."
Not for me, not for anyone, not anywhere, except in the movies, which are made to fill our heads with silly romantic notions that would be impossible to live up to. They never tell you they use stand-ins: muscle men to carry; anorexic waifs to be carried; wheeling dollies wedged beneath their backsides to hoist them forward.
He leaned over and kissed me, and this time it was even sweeter. His kiss said: I would have a heart attack on a staircase for you. My kiss replied: I would gladly die with you in a tumbling crush of broken bones.
Love is passion and commitment, tenderness and endurance, but love is also memory. It is important to make a beautiful gesture from time to time, not only for the moment, but as something to hold on to in the future -- so that when we were old, really old, I'd be able to hold his hand between our twin beds in the nursing home and think, When you were merely sixty-three you carried me up a staircase.
Romeo helped me with the hook on my bra because I have some arthritis in my thumbs that makes such things tricky for me. But then we were finally there, naked and together. Romeo crawled in beside me and I crawled on top of him and he screamed.


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