It was 11:15 at night; probably, I thought, too late to call. I stared at the phone number on the old but uncrumpled piece of paper in my hand. Fire engines sped past my building, their familiar sirens a welcome distraction—I listened to see if they stopped nearby, a habit automatic to any of us New York City dwellers. Their wails faded and I was left alone at my kitchen table, the phone number still in my hand. I heard my mother’s voice in my head: He’s probably with another woman, Isabella. I mean, hell, it’s been awhile.
I did a mental inventory of what liquor was in the apartment, left over from New Year’s Eve—a shot of tequila, yes, a shot of liquid courage might help. I poured myself some of the amber firewater, took a deep breath and downed it. The heat began in my chest, traveled down my arms and I was calmer. I dialed the number. It rang four times; he must be asleep or out. On the fifth ring a woman answered. “Hello?”
This was a mistake. I should have hung up but I didn’t. “Yeah, hi,” I said, my voice suddenly high and thin. “Is Tony there?” Click, she hung up. I dialed again. She picked up on the first ring but didn’t say anything. Silence for a few seconds. “Hello?” I said and she hung up again. I redialed quickly and when she picked up, silent, I rushed to explain. “Wait. Please don’t hang up. This is Isabella.”
“Who?” she said.
“Isabella. Tony’s daughter.”
“He’s not here.”
“Can I leave a message?” Silence again. “Can you take my number and tell him I called?”
“Go ahead, give me the number. But I can’t promise he’ll call.”
At least he wasn’t dead.
Psychedelic dreams robbed me of a restful sleep. In them I was with friends and my dog, Fanny, at a rock concert. The crowd pulsated, walls melted. Fanny ran away and I started to scream and cry but the music was so loud nobody heard me. Then I woke up to the phone ringing and reached to my side for Fanny. I felt her fur. My answering machine clicked on. “Um, this is a message for Isabella. This is Tony returning your call. It’s about nine A.M. Give me a ring when you get a chance.”
Tony. Not “Dad” or “your father” or “Pops”. Tony. Now it’s been a week since he left his message and, I don’t know why, it still makes me cry. After I was born, he packed up and left while my mother was still in the hospital. In the following thirty years I’ve seen him twice, the last visit over sixteen years ago, but the sound of his voice saying “This is Tony” stirs a sadness in me that I thought I had come to terms with and put to rest. Now what?
Fanny and I start our morning routine: I fill my coffee thermos and walk her to the park. I sit on a bench, avoiding the other dog-walkers, and watch Fanny frolic with her friends. I don’t want to return his call but I want to know the truth, at least his version of the truth. Growing up I never heard his name mentioned unless his child support check didn’t arrive, or some holiday had come and gone and then I would hear my mother on the phone with Aunt Rose: “Tony didn’t send the check again. He knows damn well that I can’t afford a lawyer to go after him so I guess he’ll do whatever he damn well pleases.” “I told Isabella that when I came home from the hospital after giving birth to her, Tony had packed up and left because he’d met another woman.” “Tony forgot her birthday. Again. Why should that surprise me, Rose?” “No word from Tony at Christmas. As usual.” Fanny runs back to me panting and, content with knowing that I’m still here, returns to her canine buddies.
We agree to meet for lunch, Tony and I, at Vito’s restaurant in the West Village. I arrive early. Vito and his wife, Maria, have been feeding me for over ten years and I’ve never been sure if I go there for the home-cooked Italian food or for the affection. I have only to walk through the door and they greet me as if they haven’t seen me in ages. “Bella Isabella!” Vito shouts.
“How’s our bambina?” Maria says, smiling. “Come, come, sit.”
Vito and Maria embrace me and lead me to my usual table. “We have your favorite today, Maria’s Linguine Bolognese!” Vito says. “Let Vito get you a glass of wine from my private collection.”
“Wait, Vito,” I say. I take my seat at the table and ask them to sit with me for a minute. “Vito, Maria. I have to tell you something. I’m meeting my father here today for lunch.” Maria squeals and starts to bless herself, rattling off something in Italian and kissing me on both cheeks.
“Isabella, that’s good, no?” Vito asks me as he pats my hand.
“I don’t know. We’ll see, I guess. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him. I don’t even know if I’ll recognize him. He should be here any minute so I’m going to wait outside.”
I stand at the curb, a few feet away from the entrance to Vito’s. The thought of seeing my father for the first time in so many years unnerves me and I welcome the late-winter air. A man in a heavy woolen coat approaches the restaurant. I can’t see his face because of the furry, Russian-style hat he has pulled down over his brow, but I’m sure it isn’t him. The man carries a shopping bag in each hand, full of paint cans with stirring sticks peeking out of the top. He puts the bags down and reads the menu posted by the door to the restaurant, his hands on his hips. I see myself in the gesture, the hands on hips when I’m thinking, and I know it’s him. Tony, my father.
“Looking for something?” I say in a lighthearted but strained voice. I can hear my desperation. Tony turns and faces me. He appears older than I expected; deep lines surround his mouth, fatigue is in his eyes.
“Wow,” he says, “this place is expensive. Don’t you have any McDonalds around here?”
“Don’t worry about the price,” I say as I pick up one of the heavy shopping bags of paint.“It’s my treat.”
Vito and Maria rush to greet us. It’s warm inside and the sweet smell of garlic roasting in the oven mingles with the aroma of fresh-brewed espresso. I fear Vito and Maria will overwhelm Tony, who suddenly seems lost and fragile. Vito puts his hand out to the strange man. “Welcome. Please come in. We are so happy to meet you.” They shake hands and Maria gives him a big hug that he doesn’t return.
“We just love Isabella,” Maria chimes in. “She’s family to us. Come sit.”
The little restaurant is almost empty, just a few customers. As we sit, Tony removes his hat and pulls his coat tighter around him. I see that while I was outside waiting for Tony, Vito and Maria were busy. A bottle of wine is at the center of the table, already uncorked, and a large basket of Maria’s homemade bread and a chunk of parmesan sit next to the wine. Maria places menus in front of us and pours wine into our glasses. “I’ll leave you two alone. Isabella, just wave when you’re ready to order, yes?” And, with a smile, she’s gone.
Silence. We stare at the bread basket and I feel my heart pound. I go first. “So, what’s with all the paint?” After all the years of forgotten Christmases, missed birthdays and ignored graduations, this is the best I can come up with. Tony meets my eyes and grins.
“I told Anna, my wife, that I was going out to buy paint for the living room. You see,” he chuckles, “I can’t even mention your name around her. She goes into a rage. Acts like you’re the ‘other woman’. How’s your mother?” he asks.
I consider telling him that after he left her she met a wealthy guy while on holiday in Rome, love at first sight, servants, jewelry, horses and vineyards at her villa. Anger stirs in me. I want to talk about us, about where the hell he’s been all these years.
“Bella, what can I get for you and Papa?”
Tony, I say in my head, my father’s name is Tony. “I’ll have your linguine, Maria.” I take a sip of the wine; it’s oakey and robust, a Super Tuscan.
“And for you?” Maria says, beaming at Tony.
“I’ll have a Sanka.”
“What is this, Sanka?” Maria looks at me, confused. “Bella, what is a Sanka?”
“It’s decaf coffee, Maria.”
“Ah, coffee. Si, si. I bring you coffee. But what to eat?” she asks him.
“Just the coffee, decaf, that’s all.”
Maria and I stare at Tony. He’s unfazed.
“You’re not eating?” I ask him.
“Just the coffee, please.”
Maria rushes to Vito and I can see the two of them in the corner. Maria is whispering and waving her hands, Vito shrugs his shoulders and winks at me. Tony drinks his coffee while I wait for my lunch.
“So how long have you and Anna been married?” I don’t sound as nonchalant as I’d like.
“Oh, let’s see, I dunno, ten or eleven years or so?” Tony fidgets, shifts in his seat and moves his coffee cup in circles. He avoids my eyes.
“So she’s not the one you had the affair with while you were still married to my mother.”
“I never cheated on your mother.” His voice is small but firm. He stops fidgeting.
“Well, she claims you did.” I take the lead point in the emotional volley.
“She’s lying.” He meets my eyes and I see the truth. He’s telling me the truth. I’m angry but at whom? I’m not so sure.
“Then what’s your version?” I ask him.
Tony takes his time, straightens in his chair. “I never wanted children. I’m sorry, Isabella, but it’s that simple. Your mother claimed that she felt the same way. We discussed it many times before we were married. She was the deal breaker, not me. We were barely married a month when she got pregnant and told me there was nothing I could do about it. Take it or leave it, so I left.”
I stare at the man, this stranger that is my father, and know, in my gut, that he’s being honest with me. I continue to test my mother’s version. “What about the other woman you were seeing while Mom was in the hospital having me?”
“There was no other woman, Isabella. It’s just another lie. I’ve always loved your mother but I couldn’t handle all the deceptions.”
The words flow so easily for him, the memory so raw, that I believe the entire story. He sips his coffee, a slight tremor in his hand. An urge to comfort him surges through me but I sit numbly in my seat. “I appreciate your honesty. I guess I’ve always suspected that my mother was lying. Sadly, I’m not surprised.”
Tony stands, still in his coat, and places the furry hat on his head. He gathers up his bags of paint. “Thanks for the coffee. I gotta go.” Cold air pushes through the door as he leaves. Maria rushes to the table.
“Bella! What happened? Did you two have an argument?” Her hands are pressed to her forehead.
“No, no argument. He had to go, I guess.”
“Maria!” shouts Vito, “Bella’s lunch is ready!” Maria places the pasta on the table and puts an arm around me. I eat. It tastes good.
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