FRANKIE AND JOHNNY


The first time Johnny and I made love I was twelve and he was thirteen. Neither of us liked it very much. It didn’t hurt, but it was awkward, dry, embarrassing. We really didn’t know what we were doing.

Later I was scared that Johnny wouldn’t have anything more to do with me after I’d let him do that. Especially when Miguel Rojas tried to get me to drop my panties for him, too. “What’s the big deal? You were a whore for Johnny.”

“Yes, I was,” I said, because my mother taught me never to lie. “But Johnny’s the only one I’ll be a whore for.” I picked up a brick and he ran.

Johnny heard about it and beat the crap out of Miguel. Then he came to me and said, “Don’t ever use that word again. You’re going to be my wife.”

But there were years I was afraid we never would get married. In high school I almost never saw him. I spent my dances and football games with the other fiancées, waiting for our men. Johnny, he was chasing women up and down and left and right and sometimes right in front of me. When I caught him he would be angry or sad or embarrassed or whatever worked.

Once I caught him with Caroline Chavez, who was old enough to be his mother. They were in the back seat of Johnny’s car, and he was banging her like his life depended on it. I ran away crying and wouldn’t speak to him for days.
He sent Paul Cho to talk to me. Paul told me that Johnny had said it didn’t matter if he cheated on me. “’We’re going to be together forever, so my fooling around doesn’t count.’” Yes, but… But what if Johnny was right and we were going to be together forever?

After high school Johnny went to vo-tech. He got a job right after he graduated and we got married.

Ah, those first years: playing house until it becomes home. The guilty thrill of sleeping together every night; the volcanic fights; the miraculous make-ups; the weeks that crawled and the weekends that were one long blur ending in the head-pounding shock of six AM Monday. The first baby barely changes anything: you take the baby everywhere, and your friends all want to pass him around and hold him. By the second, the third, the thrill is gone. Baby sitters make a fortune. And then one day there are more children than adults and who goes out anymore?
I lived in a world of women and children. The men were almost never home: the bad ones were down at the bars, the good ones in someone’s basement or family room watching the game on TV.

We complained a lot, but we managed pretty well. We never used baby-sitters any more. They had to move on to younger women, women still burning to dance in public. We stayed home, in someone’s basement or family room, eating and watching movies that made us cry. Sometimes we had a drink or two. We’d take it in turns to go upstairs and check on the kids, fast asleep.

And then one day the men were back home, and they were very quiet. I remember Johnny, sitting on the lazy-boy and watching TV for hours and hours and hours, or out in the yard, watering the lawn by hand so it took hours and hours and hours, or in the garage, cleaning it out, one piece at a time, so it took hours and hours and hours. I wasn’t used to him underfoot and didn’t know what to do.

He wanted a lot of attention, but he wanted it impersonally, if you know what I mean, without demands in return, especially demands of love. This didn’t bother me: I had learned to like it okay, but okay is okay, and I didn’t want any more children. And sometimes, with the youngest underfoot, the oldest almost gone, and him in the middle, it seemed it had all been more trouble than it was worth.

My mother told me to snap out of it:

“Get a black lace nightgown, pack the kids off, slather on the perfume, and hit him hard. He’s taking a breather. When he comes out of it, if you’re not right there, he’ll run off again.”

So I did. I felt ridiculous. But it worked. Johnny never did go crazy, never ran off.

You go years where everything is the same, day after day, and then one day it’s different. It was after dinner, and as Johnny watched TV I realized I was feeling… frisky, like spring was coming. Eager. Ready to go out and try new things. Why not? The children were all grown and gone. But there was Johnny, who’d settled in years ago and wasn’t coming out.

So again I was in a world of women. A group of us, middle aged, true, but not yet iced over and done, gathered at the local bar. We were hard to miss. At our table the laughter got louder as the hour got later. At our table we flirted with each other. At our table moments of silence hung like funeral wreaths. Our husbands were home, asleep in front of the TV set.

One night, Louis Mancini came in. He was twenty, and he’d been dating Cindy Nelson, my best friend’s daughter, for years. When she crept in, she found Louis at our table, flirting with all of us. Her eyes were scared and tired and blurred with worry. She winced every time we roared with laughter.

I got up to go. Louis, his eyes warm, tried to talk me into staying. No. But as I passed Cindy, I thought, “Poor little thing. Sure, some night, it will happen. One of us… maybe me. But it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry so much. You’re going to be his wife.”

THE END