I want a cigarette. She swayed clumsily and plopped herself down onto her apartment building steps. Two beat-up Hondas flashed by, blasting a mix of Meek Mill and old school Biggie as people drunkenly headed home or to their usual booty calls. The smell of marijuana swirled out of the first floor apartment window next to the steps she was sitting on. The smell of her failed rebellion. She prayed for the wind to kiss her warm and sticky skin. Sweat trickled down between her breasts, bestowed on her from all of the crowded bars and bodies she left behind. God. What an anticlimactic night.
She didn’t even smoke cigarettes. They disgusted her. She thought the last time she had one was probably senior year in high school—about ten years ago now, that late June evening she was drunk off her ass and Marco Del Vito was trying to get his hands down her pants. Her hair had been blonde then, she had just gotten three new tattoos, and she had been wearing a tight, short red dress she stole from Target. Now she was a brunette, hid all of her fading “works of art” as her mother sarcastically called them, and wore a slimming black Givenchy number that complimented her thighs.
She was still pretty drunk. She scowled. The irrational need for nicotine poked at her. Maybe if she worked up the energy she would go knock on her hipster neighbor’s door for one.
Her body jerked, startled. Her heart clanged uncomfortably, heat pulsing through her body as she stared at the man in front of her. He threw his hands up in the air immediately as if surrendering.
“Whoa, it’s just me.” He said quickly. She blinked, soaking in the crisp suit, the coffee-with-cream colored skin, the hazel eyes and that familiar look of concern dashed across his face.
“Isabella?” He repeated hesitantly. She clapped her hand on her forehead and looked down between her legs at the pavement, trying to breathe. He could not possibly be standing in front of her. He’s in the Dominican. Or he’s with her. He isn’t here. He can’t possibly be standing here and seeing me like this.
“Isabella, are you okay? What’re you doing? It’s 3 a.m.” Leo bent down to be at eye level with her. She looked at his shoulder, irrationally afraid to look him in the face. “Are you drunk?”
“What are you doing here?” She croaked. God, her voice sounded horrible. This was not happening. She blinked before asking, “How do you know where I live?”
“I looked you up.”
“And you couldn’t just call?” Isabella was dumbfounded. For the first time, she looked him in the eye. Leo.
“I’ve been trying. I literally had no way to. I can’t find any of your information online, I knew you moved to Boston. I looked you up, found your address. I sent you a letter but you didn’t answer. I don’t know where you work, and I only know Sarah’s last name and I couldn’t find her either. Apparently nobody has Facebook anymore. I had to do it the old school way…Isabella, you’re drunk. Let’s go in.” He rushed through this quickly, shakily.
She digested this. “So you came at 3 in the morning?”
Leo rubbed his face and moved to sit down next to her. She inhaled his cologne and had a violent urge to hug him. She hugged herself instead. He said, “I came during the day yesterday and today. I was drinking at the hotel before and I couldn’t sleep, and I had to see you. So I walked over, thought if anything, you’d be home in the middle of the night. I couldn’t wait anymore.”
“What is it, Leo?” His name felt strange on her tongue. It had been so long since she had used it out loud.
Isabella’s heart stilled. Her muscles squeezed painfully, and Isabella wanted desperately to breathe but her lungs wouldn’t move. The whys, hows, are you okays, what can I dos floated through her mind quickly, as did the same question that had risen in her mind the moment she saw him. Yes, but why are you here? Why are you coming to me, out of everyone in your life, and telling me this now?
Marianna was dead. Isabella quickly thought about the last time she saw Marianna. It had to be that day outside Café Amici—that sunny, sunny afternoon in Morristown where everything erupted in her face. Marianna yelling that Isabella was a puta and Leo was a tramposo, Leo running after her, and Isabella, like now, sitting frozen in her chair, her salmon and greens left untouched. Anxiety and morning sickness had made her throw up right there, in front of everyone. She hadn’t had a reason to ever see her again. Except when she occasionally stalked her Facebook for a few months after that, but then Isabella stopped using social media all together. It was easier to hide her pain that way.
The pair sat in silence for a while. Isabella steadied her breathing by listening to his. She felt lightheaded, almost sober, but still hazy. It was as if this news shocked the alcohol out of her. The cool September wind poked at her cheeks and she sucked them in, trying to find the right thing to say.
“I’m sorry.” She felt the words fell a little flat, and she flushed, fearing she offended him. Leo nodded a few times. She whispered, “When did you find out?”
“Last week. My brother called and told me. His wife is friends with her cousin.” Leo was talking to his hands. She was glad he was not looking at her.
“Did you go to the funeral?”
“Yeah. I went. It was Tuesday.” Leo looked down the street and then at her. She inhaled sharply.
“And what about her baby?” Isabella pictured Marianna’s mini me—except she wouldn’t be a baby anymore. She would be – what? Ten? Jesus.
“She was there. Marianna’s husband was there too.”
“She got married.” Isabella searched Leo’s face for pain at this news, but he looked away again. Marianna was married.
“Yeah. She had two more children. A girl and a boy. I said my condolences to them as well. Jez didn’t even recognize me.” The last sentence was said quietly, almost as an afterthought.
“Did you keep in contact with her?” Isabella was too scared to ask what happened. Was Marianna sick? Was she heartbroken after all this time? Driven to this? Was this their doing? No, certainly not. What a selfish thought. She hated herself for thinking it, but guilt rushed the question through her mind before she could stop it.
“No. She stopped talking to me for a while after everything…you know, happened. I talked to her after you and I lost…” Leo trailed off. Isabella’s stomach contracted, and he continued. “But she didn’t want to have anything to do with me, as you can imagine. Marianna was there for me as ‘a friend’ after the memorial you and I held, I guess. She heard about the death from someone. Didn’t say goodbye when I moved Santo Domingo, but maybe we contacted each other once or twice more. I heard she got married. Carlos, I think—he was on my baseball team back in high school. But I didn’t know about the kids. It’s one of those things, you lose touch.”
Isabella thought bitterly to herself that Leo and Marianna were not the only ones who lost touch. Isabella pictured herself screaming at him in their apartment—begging him to talk about it, fix it; pictured Leo’s retreating back as he grabbed his keys and slammed the door. She thought about how much she had loved him, had wanted him to wave his hand and like a kaleidoscope, switch everything back to the way it was. Instead he had bought a one-way plane ticket and signed over the lease.
“How did she die?” Isabella’s words fell like leaves quietly on the ground, fearful of their own sound. The street around them was so quiet, so deserted, that she felt like two stoop kids in an alternative universe with the world in their hands. It was almost as if they were twenty-one again, before everything, before he even met Marianna, sitting outside after Dark Horse’s last call, talking shit. Seven years. It sounded like a long time and at the same time it didn’t. She felt old at twenty-eight. Marianna died at twenty-nine. Isabella shivered.
Leo didn’t answer right away. Isabella looked up and wanted to touch his wrist, his suit sleeve, or his slender face. Did he need comfort? Was he sad? He must be. She would be upset at any of her ex-boyfriend’s dying. If it had been Leo…If it had been Leo.
Leo inhaled deeply. His voice was barely above a whisper, and his eyes pierced her. She wanted to look away. His eyes always seemed to undress her, expose her. “I can’t believe it, Belle.”
“I’m sorry.” She moved closer to him, mussing her dress slightly. He closed his eyes and she kissed his clean-shaven cheek. He smelled like home. How had she forgotten what he smelled like? She wished she was more presentable for this, quicker to respond, prepared. “I’m so sorry.” She meant it. Sorry for Leo, sorry for Marianna, sorry for Jezebelle, sorry for herself, sorry for all of the babies.
Leo suddenly wrapped his arm around her, encircling her waist and almost pulling her onto his lap. Isabella’s heart pounded painfully and her hands shook at his embrace. He buried his face in her hair and said, “I don’t know why. I had to see you. I just thought…”
Isabella didn’t say anything. Leo never needed prodding. He always said exactly what he wanted to say, nothing more, and nothing less. It was one of things she loved and hated about him—he always gave the bare essentials of what you needed so you were never lost, but never gave what you really wanted to be truly satisfied.
“I thought about the last time I saw you, saw Marianna. It was so fucked up. It broke me.” Leo’s voice was ragged as he pressed his lips against her hair. “You don’t know how sorry I am.”
She focused on breathing instead of answering him. Her knee-jerk response of it’s okay could not release itself from her lips. It wasn’t okay. You should be sorry. I was broken too.
“I want you to be happy. Are you happy?” He gripped her arm tightly.
“I’m doing okay, yeah.”
“Are you married? Boyfriend? Kids?” Leo’s voice fell on the last question. She shook her head. No, no, no. They sat in silence again. Minutes passed. The wind kissed her skin again, replacing the sweat with goose bumps.
“Do you think about her?” Isabella whispered. She thought of the newborn baby’s big blue eyes, just like Isabella’s…and her tan skin, so unlike Isabella’s creamy complexion and just like her fathers, that signature coffee-with-cream tone. Isabella thought of the pink and white flowers she hated at the funeral, and returning all of the boxes from her baby shower that Leo’s own mother organized. Isabella wondered, morbidly, what color flowers decorated Marianna’s funeral. His body tensed.
“Honestly?” Leo paused. “I realized how much I still think of her when I realize I haven’t thought of her in awhile. It’s like I’ll be at work and something will trigger it, and then I’ll realize it’s been a week or more since I thought of her. And then I think about her obsessively for days after. Then I go on with my life and it happens again. She was my daughter too, Belle. She was my daughter too.”