Florida Days: the teen years

Driving from the airport

to a new winter retreat –

a 20 story high-rise in Pompano Beach –

it’s clear things aren’t as they have been.

Gone are the Mid-Century neighborhoods

with small, tidy bungalows

and pastel-colored apartment complexes.

Gone are the small, neat streets

crammed with big, American cars

and the quiet, inland canals

with their 90 degree curves.

Modern high-rises now loom along the coast,

casting long shadows over these old ghosts.

Smothered by “The Strip”,

a popular stretch of beach –

and the only way to their new place,-

Nonna and Papa are forced to face

nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking youth

balanced precariously between child and adult

unkempt,

half-naked –

all god-forsaken.

But Gina and I crave this uncharted world,

which we’re slowly cruising past

in the back seat of a tightly sealed Cadillac,

filled with the sounds of Perry Como

and the smell of Jean Nate.

The closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s,

the older the demographics begin to slant,

until beers and bikinis are soon replaced

by beer bellies and Platex bras.

The upside to the new zip code

is a bigger abode –

and a separate door to the outside world –

or at least to a corridor,

and an unused stairwell.

To Marlboro Lights

and poorly rolled joints,

and late night escapades with girls from New York.

Gone are our grandparents’ halcyon days

of minding their ways.

These are the carefree days of youth.

Of baby oil and B-52s.

Getting stoned in the sauna.

Drinking beers on the beach.

Somehow convincing Nonnie

to hand us the keys.

Of cranking up the radio

and rolling down the windows

to inhale the salty air

and the sweet smell

of being newly licensed.

Of boys on the beach noticing us

and Nonnie –

from high above –

noticing them, noticing us.

These are the Florida days

of pushing boundaries,

especially ones so poorly guarded.

Well past our very strict curfew.

Nonna is waiting and bleak.

She’s worked herself into such a state,

she’s lifted off her bunioned feet.

She cross-examines,

reprimands,

and threatens to send us home;

then leads us in to Papa

in the unlit living room,

Leaden and pacing.

My heart is breaking.

When all is said –

which isn’t much –

he turns his back

and sends us to bed.

The first thing we see in the morning

taped prominently to the fridge

is a newspaper clip with a giant headline,

“Girls Found Charred on Beach”,

and Nonnie,

with her back to us.

Sighing and tsk-ing,

but not saying anything.

Until behind closed bedroom doors,

on an all-day call with her sister, Rose,

we can hear her tell of all her woes;

heralded, at times, in a pitch so high,

dogs throughout the high-rise begin to cry.

This leads to quieter Florida days,

of shorter visits

and solo stays.

Now more observer than the observed;

studying Nonnie and Papa

in their Florida world.

In their well-aged routine of marital malaise.

Wondering if I know what a happy marriage is?

Hours of watching old ladies by the pool;

with their sun hats and cigarettes

and bad romance books;

their games of Canasta,

and over-tanned skin…

wondering if any

were ever really young?

When Papa leaves to tend to the store,

it’s hours of Gin Rummy,

and little more.

Alone with Nonnie,

playing round after round

on the windy, high-rise balcony,

sixteen floors from the ground.

Where 8-track cassettes

of Liberace and Lawrence Welk

teach me tolerance,

and the importance of a wickedly good game face.

Happy to see the rainy skies.

Happy to stay indoors

and in our nightgowns.

The condo is especially quiet.

No washing machine

or television

reminding us of other things.

Other lives.

No dinner out

or big meal in.

We barely move.

Rarely talk.

Occasionally, Nonnie disappears,

returning with something powdery and sweet

or cheesy and crusty

and hot from the oven.

Such deliciously quiet moments

of simply doing nothing.

Oh these my Florida days.

Within Close Range: Florida Days – the early years

It’s a small, but airy, two bedroom

built at the corner of an inland canal;

brightly decorated in yellows, greens, blues and whites,

and perpetually shaded from the Sunshine State.

A peculiar land of tropical scents

and strikingly unfamiliar sights.

Far removed from the only place I know at night,

home.

Put to bed too early,

I lie in the sitting room-turned-my-room,

tossing and turning on the lumpy sofa-bed

for what seems like hours and hours on end.

Listening intensely to the sounds of apartment living

made especially audible by the glass-vented door

opening onto the curved building’s exterior hall.

My slatted portals to an unknown world.

To the sounds of the apartment people

returning from the pool,

the shops,

the grocers,

dinner out.

Of doorbells ringing

and little feet skipping,

and hugs and kisses

and friendly greetings.

Of moist, briny winds

carrying the scents

of jasmine and orange blossoms,

and parking lot asphalt.

And the ladies’ perfumes

as they stroll past my door.

The echo of laughter in the nearby stairwell,

and their happy words

which disappear

with the sudden click of a heavy car door.

Murmurs from the living room TV

add to this strange symphony,

with familiar sounds

and flickering lights

that seep through the bottom of the door,

casting short, cryptic shadows

on the thickly carpeted,

recently vacuumed floor.

Comforting is the knowledge

that Papa is in the room next door.

Feet up,

arms folded high across his belly,

and a large RC Cola at his side.

Grinning at Clem Kadiddlehopper,

or growling at the Chicago Bears.

When Papa finally turns the television off

I lie in the still and unfamiliar dark.

The inland water’s slow, buoyant motion,

lulls me into a deep and scented slumber.

until the morn.

When I linger on the lumpy mattress

and listen to the apartment people

begin their days.

Wooed by the sounds of others stirring,

I stretch toward kitchen utensils clanking

and the smells of breakfast cooking

on the other side of the wall.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Of sand slipping away beneath my tiny feet,

and seashell hunts as the sun dips low;

of Nonnie’s curled and bunioned toes

and skinny, seagull legs

dipping into the foamy waves,

but never past her knees.

These early days of sunset walks

along a stretch of beach

that leads to a lighthouse

and a creaky, tottering wharf

where Papa likes to take a walk.

And I like to walk with him.

Where fishing boats have funny names

and a tiny gift shop,

in a weather-beaten shanty,

sells orange gum-balls

packed in little, wooden crates.

Which Papa buys for his little, Pie-Face.

Of bright, green lizards

skittering across pastel walls,

and pats on the head

by terrycloth clad men

playing cards in the shades of umbrellas.

Where suntanned women

with the giant bosoms

and ever-blooming swim caps

wade in the shallow end,

with big, dentured smiles

for the little one

visiting Lenore.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Within Close Range: Candied Abandon

Something scrumptious always simmering

in an old enamel pot.

Looks to have cooked a million meals

one hopes will never stop.

But as delectable to me as these savory delights,

Nonna and Papa’s home is a sweet-tooth paradise.

A candy-coated, chocolate-covered, fantasyland,

with countless confectionaries ever at hand.

Coffee candy, toffee bits.

Circus peanuts, caramel nips.

Cookie tins with crescents that melt on my tongue,

leaving powdered-sugar fingerprints wherever I’ve gone.

In nightstands, TV stands, and cabinets, wall-to-wall;

in boxes, and pockets, and purses in the hall.

I scan all the shelves for a glimmer of color

through crystal candy dishes in a glass-front cupboard.

On a table right next to the velvety green couch,

I find a lidded coffer that has gone untouched.

Chasing my greedy reflection over the mirrored table top,

I see no misgivings, as I reach for the box.

Those would come later,

when at the dinner table,

Nonna pressed me to eat,

but I simply wasn’t able.

Which is simply

not

done.

Within Close Range: Whiplash Willie

Barely able to see over the dashboard of the ample sedan, toes stretching to reach the pedals, Nonnie is an Italian force on four wheels navigating the gridlock of suburban Chicago.

Her style is unique – driving with more emotion than convention,

more conversation than paying attention – usually resulting in last-minute lane changes and unpredictable turns, and me sliding (pre-seatbelt laws) from one side of the Cadillac’s bountiful back seat to the other.

When the story she’s spinning is a doozy and Nonnie gets roused – which it usually is, and she usually does – up goes her pitch and its volume, and down goes her tiny, bunion-ed foot on the gas pedal, causing the great, lumbering beast of a car (and all its passengers) to lurch forward.

To compensate for accelerating while accentuating, Nonnie then braces herself against the massive steering wheel and brakes!

Throwing her progeny back against the pristine upholstery.

Repeating this action with each grand inflection.

It’s how she got the nickname, Whiplash Willie.

And why, when I see her begin an earful of a tale to whomever called “Dibs on the front seat!” first, I know what’s coming…

We all do…

Buckling up, I pray the story is short.

And my neck is strong.

Within Close Range: The Great Chicken Debate

Whether going out or eating in, food either consumes Nonnie’s thoughts or busies her hands for hours each day, managing laborious feats and four-course, Italian feasts – piping hot dishes of handmade manicotti or tender, breaded cutlets, garlicky vegetables, hot rolls, vinegary salads and sweet desserts.

Second helpings are always encouraged at Nonnie’s dinner table and praise for the cook, expected – as well as a little too vehemently rejected.

The three greatest mis-steps at this Italian table?

One: cutting spaghetti. Either twist it or prepare for a gentle cuff on the back of the head from Papa.

Two:  if all diners are not seated at the table while the food is still visibly steaming… Nonnie will burst several blood vessels.

And three:  never…EVER… say you’re not hungry. Utter blasphemy.

We like to rattle her with unexpected visits and ravenous appetites, watching her forage through the refrigerator and freezer, brimming with outwardly unidentifiable, but doubtlessly delicious leftovers, sealed inside ancient Tupperware and old Cool Whip containers. Happy to see us, but perceptibly agitated that she can only offer what she sees as barely acceptable fare, each serving is dished up with a generous dollop of misgiving.

I’ve never known anyone as good at cooking as Nonnie, who complained about it more.

So it’s little wonder that while visiting in Florida, the moment Papa announces we’re having dinner out, a palpable – near frenetic – excitement  electrifies the apartment.

Following the proclamation, Nonnie spends most of the day in her housecoat, in a walk-run, making sure everyone’s dress clothes are pressed precisely, her hair is maintaining its proper “do” beneath a sea-green hair net, snack intake is severely monitored, and her sisters, Camille and Rose, are consulted and updated (via long distance) on EVERYTHING.

For Nonnie, dining out is the equivalent to an audience with the Pope.

For me, such an event proves far more predictable than papal. More “Holy Cow” than Holy Spirit.

And it most definitely means Italian – old school – with its enticing smells and curtained nooks, smartly dressed waiters with thick accents, and an animated maitre d’ who greets everyone like family. It means trompe l’oeil walls of rural Tuscan scenes, rich, red fabrics draping doorways, and rolling dessert carts filled with cannoli and tiramisu.

From well below the mouthwatering chaos, I watch the loaded serving trays — piled high with pastas and soups, roasted chickens and fresh seafood — pass deftly overhead, with a “Scuza, Signorina!”, until a hand on my shoulder gently guides me out of the busy traffic and into a chair in front of a round table covered in linens and complex table settings.

A fast-moving figure from behind casts a well-aimed cascade of ice water into one of the two stemmed glasses set at eye-level before me.

Tempted and tormented by big baskets of breadsticks and freshly baked rolls, my hand’s gently spanked away from a second helping.

“You’ll spoil your dinner,” Nonnie scolds. (When what she secretly has in mind is a bakery heist for tomorrow’s breakfast.)

Excitement rises with the arrival of the menu which ignites imaginations and appetites.

Wherein the problem lies… with inexplicable regularity, when presented with an abundance of choices, Nonnie almost inevitably orders veal.

The choice seems harmless, but it’s enough to make family members cringe and Papa’s blood boil – not because baby cow meat is one of Nonnie’s favorite things to eat, but because every time she orders veal (whether Marsala or Picante, upscale joint or neighborhood favorite), she usually ends up taking only a couple of bites.

One for eternal optimism.

The other, raging cynicism.

Then raising her head from her plate and, wearing utter disappointment as a mourning veil, complains meekly but unmistakably.

“This isn’t veal… This is chicken… I’m sure this veal is chicken.”

And like clockwork, another battle in Nonnie’s tireless crusade to unmask poultry dressed in calves’ clothing begins, prompting children to slip lower in their seats and adults to start commenting about the day’s weather; while Papa bows his head and sighs with exasperated disbelief.

He and his wife then begin a short-lived, but emotionally escalating and frustrating exchange that will end with Papa vowing to never take Nonnie out to a restaurant again, and Nonnie looking self-righteous, misunderstood and miserable, as she rummages through her dinner-roll-filled-handbag looking for a tissue.

The drive home is what I imagine floating in space is like.

Silent. Solitary. Dark.

Except for the lights emanating from the dashboard (most particularly, the green turn signal arrow which Papa habitually leaves blinking) which let me know other life forms still exist.

A few days pass, then Papa announces we were going out to dinner.

Again. (Sigh.)

Nonnie’s excitement rises anew…

Until the waiter approaches her with his pen and pad in hand, and with all eyes anxiously upon her… she orders the veal.

And Papa ends up swearing that it’s the very last time he’ll ever take her out to dinner.

A vow he’ll repeat until the day he dies.

Nonnie, however, will work tirelessly in her quest for veal for decades more.

Within Close Range: Stanley

Having had enough of Florida’s winter fun and sun for the. day, I’m sitting in front of the television in Nonnie and Papa’s 18th story living room, when the doorbell rings. Papa’s back at his store in Chicago and Nonnie’s in the kitchen making lunch, so I shuffle across the plush wall to wall, to the large double-doors.

And there, on the other side, stands a tall, slender figure with short, blonde hair and frosted highlights; impeccably dressed in a pastel pink shirt, a flowered, silk kerchief, and crisp, white linen pants.

The stranger asks if Lenore is in.

I turn toward the kitchen and holler, “Nonnie, there’s some lady here to see you!”, before scrambling back to the television.

It’s the first time I’ve met Stanley, Nonnie’s friend (and hairdresser), who also happens to live in the same building with his boyfriend, Roger. I would have felt embarrassed after learning of my gender mistake, but according to Nonnie, he was never more complimented.

Not only is Stanley Nonnie’s most colorful and lively Florida companion – by far – but he can make her giggle more than anyone (besides my great aunts) I’ve ever seen. Even more intriguing is that Nonnie astonishingly and unreservedly gives Stanley center stage. (It’s hard not to.)

In return for stepping back from the preferred spotlight, Stanley showers Nonnie with adulation for her fashion sense, culinary skills, and interior design flare.

It’s a match made in heaven. (Even though Nonnie has to whisper a lot when it comes to talking about her new friend.)

At Stanley’s invitation, we visit their little slice of beach-side paradise two floors up.

It has the same exact layout as Nonnie and Papa’s, in reverse. But that isn’t what disorients me.

It’s the feeling that I’ve just entered another dimension where Nonnie’s alter ego is given free rein. Where, with unimpaired power, her better dressed Doppelgänger has adorned every nook and cranny, every floor and piece of furniture, with textile and tactile expanses of purple.

With chintz and animal prints.

Golden cupids and satin pillows.

Velvet love-seats and silk bed sheets.

And endless yards of draped chiffon.

Where opulent silk flower arrangements sits on every gilded credenza and a colorful porcelain dog, cat, or bird resides around every corner.

As Stanley sweeps from room to room with measured grace and exaggerated ease, Roger – a dark, quiet man (who left a wife and kids, and a lie behind) – stands in the background, smiling contentedly. Proud of his plush and private paradise, where he and Stanley are completely free.

Even though, to me, Stanley seems as free as he can be; floating ahead of us into the newly wall-papered kitchen.

Stepping in behind Nonnie, I first think the effect of the sun streaking through the large bay window overlooking the Atlantic is playing tricks on my eyes, until I realize the walls are choked with make-believe flowers of reds and yellows, oranges, pinks and whites, splattered against a dark purple backdrop – as if the Spring, or perhaps the Easter Bunny, had exploded.

It’s absolutely glorious.

And so is Stanley.

Within Close Range – Shattered

It’s a new found freedom, riding a bike through my cousins’ neighborhood, unattended by an adult, or an older sibling.

The streets are busier and much bigger than what our secluded, little subdivision has to offer and Gina, Mary and I are headed, unattended, to Nonnie and Papa’s apartment a few miles away.

The furthest I’ve ever ridden my bike is two blocks over.

Hopped up on sweets (following multiple raids of Nonnie’s unrivaled candy stash) and the even sweeter taste of pedal-powered independence, it’s little wonder why, when Nonnie tells me she has something to give me for my birthday and shows me a beautiful, porcelain doll, I want to take possession of it.

Immediately.

Nonnie refuses, at first, insisting that she bring it to Aunt Ar and Uncle John’s when she and Papa come later.

But as an obvious and well-chosen favorite, my sugar-induced swagger wins her over and she wraps the doll in an old towel, puts it in a thick, white plastic bag.

Hesitating before handing it over.

With a frown.

She follows me out the apartment door. Her tiny, slippered feet shuffling at my heels all the way to the elevator. As the automatic door glides shut, I hug the plastic bag and lower my eyes, avoiding Nonnie’s last pleading look.

Seeing her watching from her living room window three stories up, I carefully place the reluctantly released gift into the metal basket of the bike I borrowed from John, grab the handlebar and, with an air of overplayed nonchalance, attempt to kick my leg OVER the center bar that boy’s have on their bikes for no apparent reason.

I fall short.

Brutally kicking the bike to its side.

Launching the fragile contents out of the basket and onto the cement sidewalk.

Mary and Gina, both straddling their bar-less bikes, each with a foot on a pedal and a look of fleeing in their eyes, are slack-jawed. Stunned silent. Like they’ve seen a terrible accident at the side of the road.

Neither can look away from the body in the bag.

Even though the sight of it is truly dreadful.

Yet nothing compared to what my eyes are about to search out: Nonnie, three floors up, bearing witness to it all.

Witness to my fall.

My failure.

Her eyes never once leaving me, refusing to budge from the window of her velvety world of gild and glass, of lacy figurines, candy-filled cabinets, and porcelain dolls.

Less one.

Of obvious favorites and grave disappointments.

Of which I’m now the latter.

With my sugar-buzz busted and my confidence shattered like the small, doll’s head, the procession home is silent and somber.

Nonnie never utters a word about it to me that evening.

(Helped by the fact that I avoid her like a tiny, Italian Plague.)

But her silence is deafening.