“I was protecting your eight-year-old mind!” Theresa said.
“Wait,” I said. “You were talking? In the closet? Did he hear you?”
“We were in the tunnel by that time.” Theresa wiped a tear away, then seeing what must have been a quizzical expression, she said, “There are moveable panels in the closet. All the kids knew about them. The carriage house used to be a speakeasy. There are tunnels under it that go across the street. From prohibition.”
“Ah.” I said. “So you got away?”
“Yeah,” Theresa said. “There’s one spot where it bent to a grate under the parking space outside, and if you stood one kid on top of the other, you could open it. I have no idea if those panels are still there. I’m sure they’ve been sealed during a renovation or something.”
“They closed the connection between the carriage house and the grate,” Jonathan said. “I was trying to lose my virginity a few years later and ran into a wall.”
“It has to still be there,” I said.
“It’s all still there. Trust me. But the grate’s not connected to the house any more. And that was the best escape route, too. Landed across Gate Avenue.. Remember?”
“All right!” Sheila called out from the kitchen. “We’re not waiting for Mom. So if you all want to eat, the caterer is here, and we’re ready to go!”
We ate like kings and queens, princes and princesses. I didn’t taste any of it. I was memorizing Leanne’s slovenly ponytail, Sheila’s lilting singsong, Margie’s clipped wit, Deirdre’s errant curl and sober scowl. Jonathan said nothing of importance, deftly avoiding any meaningful, personal subject matter as if he were in some sort of pain he didn’t want discussed over dinner. I wanted to corner him and ask what was happening. But then he told some joke and got a witty rejoinder from Margie. He laughed. I smiled at my brother and wondered how I would make it through the rest of my life without hearing his laugh.
Antonio put his hand on my knee and squeezed it. I put mine on top of his, and we looked at each other. I felt a third hand on my knee. It was smaller, softer, and slick with grease.
“I wanna hold, too!” I peeked under the tablecloth. It was Kalle. She had a turkey leg in her hand and poultry bits all over the front of her sequined dress. She had a lump of Play-Doh in the other hand. It smelled of dry bread dough.
“Can you wash your hands first?”
“No! I don’t like to wash my hands!” She left a big stinker of a three-year-old’s handprint on Antonio’s pant leg.
For some reason, when she giggled at the shape of the grease stain, a lump rose in my throat. I smiled through it and excused myself. I got myself together in the bathroom. I had to choose between my family and Antonio, and I loved this family, at least my siblings, but I didn’t want to be without my Capo. Not for a month or a year. Too much of my life had ticked away while I’d been doing things that made me unhappy. I’d settled for the wrong choices, followed the wrong people, and betrayed myself for too long. I was doing what I wanted, no matter how much it hurt.
Sheila was waiting for me on the way out.
“Theresa? Are you all right?” Her lilt, as if she spoke to a hurt child, would have driven anyone else crazy. It might have had that effect on me, but at that moment, I needed it.
“This guy? He’s not hurting your feelings is he? Because I’ll be happy to rip his spine out.” Even when making death threats, her voice was gentle as a lullaby.
“Him? No. He makes me very happy. I think I’m just tired, and I had too much wine.”
I hugged her tightly. I couldn’t let it go too long. I couldn’t cry on her shoulder. If I did, she’d know something was wrong. But in my mind, I said goodbye to her and to all of them.
Antonio didn’t ask me anything until the car ride back.
“Do you need to back out?” he asked. “I won’t mind. I’ll understand.”
I ignored him. I knew I could back out. “Are you supposed to propose to this girl or something?”
He pressed his lips together as if he didn’t want to answer. I waited.
“After the Bortolusi-Lei wedding.”
“How soon after?”
“Very soon. There’s all kinds of formalities. I have to ask Donna Maria first, then have chaperoned visits… and on and on. But they won’t suffer the power imbalance too long.”
“I think we should die at the wedding,” I said. “I think everyone should see it. I mean there are easier ways, for sure, but they’ll be questioned.”
“What did you have in mind?” he asked.
“We don’t need to just die,” I said. “We need to be obliterated. Let me finish working it out, but I think the wedding is the place to do it.”
He nodded, as if understanding the gravity of what I was saying. As if he saw me shaking, he said nothing more on the drive to the little Spanish house.
I had given no thought to death, unless I wanted to be paralyzed with fear. I was afraid of neither pain nor hell. But death? Death crippled me.
It was the thought of non-existence that took my breath away. This idea, and it was only an idea, that we ceased completely, was no comfort. Only terror, because I wondered what my life had been in the first place, if it could be snuffed so utterly of my consciousness. And in those moments that I allowed myself to feel and thus fear my nonexistence, the shattering vulnerability of my corporeal self overtook me, until my skin crawled at the thought.
Was my consciousness made of carbon and electrical impulses? And was I more than that consciousness, or less? Contemplating death made me question life. Consciousness was all that I valued, and if I ceased to think when I fell into that infinite sleep, what, exactly was the living me?
I would go with him into death, into that deepest of vacuums. It had been agreed, but we hadn’t worked out how it would happen. Our death was a birth into a new life, something afforded a select few. Everyone else went into blackness alone, to hold up the earth or fuel a fire.
And that’s when it came to me, in the middle of the night.
“Antonio,” I whispered, turning and finding his eyes already open.
I caressed his cheek with the backs of my fingers, and he kissed them.
“Fire and tunnels.”
The answer was fire; that had never been in question. But there was always the matter of an escape route, and it came to me on the drive home on Thanksgiving.