‘THROW MY SWORD IN THE DIRT ON EIGHTY-EIGHT FRONT LINE-’
The ash from his Camel threatening to drop onto the left knee of his favourite Armani pants, Christopher Angelino fumbled with the controls of his car stereo. Fuckin’ ditsoun music. This guy sounded like a limey too. Maddon’. And these fucks called themselves gangsters...
Christopher’s tired gaze, his eyes sore from a too-long day, fell on a copy of Brides Weekly on the floor of the passenger side. The cover caught the brunt of the ash but remained annoyingly un-destroyed, even though the beaming June groom on the front seemed to have had a nasty accident with a flamethrower.
What other soon-to-be-ex-cugine had such womanly reading matter in his car? Why couldn’t Chiara leave this shit where it belonged, back at her mother’s house next to the fuckin’ candy dishes and fabric swatches, with laboriously spelt notes about the feminine wonders of antipasto and orange blossom? Why were Italian weddings always five-act operas? And why the hell was he forking out most of his sporting-bets green to go through with one?
He tossed his cigarette out of the window and yawned- Christ, he was tired!- before turning his attention back to the stereo and almost ploughing into a beaten-up van. Horns blared. The driver expressed his feelings toward Christopher through the classic medium.
‘I’ll shove that fuckin’ finger up yer ass!’ Chris yelled, secretly hoping that the driver would ignore him. He was late for The Game already, and Johnny had told him to look sharp.
The driver gave Chris a once-over, and after a cursory Jersey-accented depreciation of Chris’s mother’s sex life, sped forward. Chris felt riled but relieved, his muscles contracting so that he was almost shivering, even in his heavy suit and the heat of the day. He’d been considering a quick hit after freshening up, but he hated what that shit did to his temperature and he’d been racked with chills all day anyway.
He tensed up even more at the thought of Johnny’s words. Two years after he’d been unofficially accepted as a cugine to the Puglare family, Christopher had finally heard that mythical sentence, ‘And shine your shoes, kid.’
Chris had been playing with three alternate scenarios all afternoon.
One: After two years of being ordered out of basements to pick up coffee, he might actually become a made guy.
Two: Tonight could be a poker game like any other, with Michele coked-up and ranting about his lousy fuckin’ luck, Vic passed out under the table, the women discussing their trips to The Old Country’s best factory-seconds stores in the kitchen, and maybe an early-morning trip to a classy strip club to justify the dress code. If tonight was just another game, Chris couldn’t understand Johnny’s insistence that he wear a suit. The guys played poker in their jogging outfits, or straining Lacoste shirts and casual pants belted under middle-aged guts, and if they were going to devolve the cooking responsibilities on Chris, Matt and Tony (women weren’t allowed near the poker game, so the underlings had to spend their evenings playing with cold cuts and crabmeat) he didn’t want to get crap all down his best shirt.
Three: Chris was trying not to think about it. But what self-styled Associate had never seen Goodfellas?
He hoped Tony was shining his shoes too. Tony had been the one who’d got him into the family, but Chris knew that he wasn’t always suited to his Uncle Gino’s iron laws. Nephews in the family were privileged, as with every Pope in Italian history, but lately there had been a lot of whispers that Tony’s privileges were about to run out. Even Johnny Sacco, who said less than Gino- and Gino usually said less than Harpo Marx- had let slip that Chris should advise Tony not to shit where he ate. It was merely over-confidence, Chris had assured him. Tony would find his feet when he got his wings.
Although Johnny had taken Chris, a wayward, fatherless fourteen-year-old thug, and showed him how to use his talents, Gino still treated Chris like shit because of his lack of blood ties. Both of the men were old-school, but Gino was still operating on Medici principles. Not that this had ever done him, or his operations, any harm.
‘You’re gonna go far, kid,’ Johnny had told Chris, when he was smarting from one of Gino’s insults. ‘Tony- he’s Gino’s nephew, yeah, but he’s a fuckin’ loose cannon. You, you know where the line is. Gino don’t act like it, but he respects that in you. Besides, the man’s a fuckin’ genius.’
‘So, you gotta have the stugots to put up with him.’
End of conversation.
Chris’s family, before his father got over his head and subsequently whacked without much ceremony, had been the perfect gangsters. Nothing too hot in the brains department, not like Gino with his Caesar-like ambition, but they knew what the stakes were. Chris and Tony had played soldiers when they were little boys, stealing lobsters from the harbour and staring longingly through keyholes at their fathers playing cards, they played soldiers when they got their first sharp suits and spent their initiation years getting coffee for their fathers’ associates, and on small-time hits, they’d just kept playing soldiers. Bang, bang, you’re dead.
‘We’re gettin’ old, Gin’. We need new blood,’ Johnny had said at the close of the last poker game, face wreathed in blue smoke from the fat Romeo at his lips.
Chris had been dozing fitfully on the couch, fingers raw from dismembering lobsters. He’d been half-aware of an argument between Johnny and Gino- not a murderous spat, just the rambling observations of two old bloodhounds.
Gino usually relaxed- well, stopped twitching- with Johnny, but at these words he’d just stared back at his right-hand man, dark snake eyes unblinking as though he wanted to see that new blood all over the floor. Then he’d looked at Tony, passed out drunk next to the porn-blaring TV, with a look that Christopher couldn’t have described even if he had been better with words. Tenderness, yes, but also something else.
‘They’re still a fuckin’ pair a kids.’ Gino indicated Tony and Chris. ‘Let ‘em grow up a little.’
‘Tony’s smart as a fuckin’ whip- and Chris, not so smart but he does what he’s told. He’s the only junior soldier wit’ sense enough to know we got him by the balls. Mikey, Luca, Matt, they’re fuckin’ mezzofinooks. I’ll be turning in my grave before we make one of those assholes.’
‘Chris is a cafone.’ Eyes closed, Chris bristled at this attack on his breeding. ‘He got no initiative an’ his family’s peasants.’
‘Least he’s not like that asshole father of his, always jumpin’ mad.’
‘Nah, he’s too dumb.’
‘He’s a soldier. I know a soldier when I see one.’
‘And Tony ain’t. Thinks he’s a rebel...that boy’s gonna kill me.’ Gino sighed. ‘Fuckin’ kill me.’
‘They’re all we got, Gin’.’
‘Fuck...’ Gino sighed. ‘To be continued,’ he added, and they were quiet again.
Chris closed his eyes for a moment as the car hit a congested spot in the road, smelling Chiara’s perfume on his collar, mingled with his cologne; the same kind his father had worn. He breathed in deep to relax, and then wished he hadn’t, as he registered the tickle in his nose that he’d had all afternoon intensifying just a little more.
At first, he’d put it down to allergies, driving dust or maybe too much coke, but he knew the difference already. This was a serious tickle, a ‘you are about to get one bitch of a cold and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it,’ tickle.
As though he could stave it off by simply not allowing himself that first sneeze, Chris had been fighting the urge since lunch with Tony at their old haunt, Scatino’s Pizza, but it was catching up with him fast. He swallowed hard, and tried sniffing to stop the itch. Damn, he needed to sneeze!
An open-top Jag drew up beside him, with no less than five beautiful blonde college-girls in it, scrubbed, glistening and looking for action with their Colgate smiles and gold pendants glinting in the light of early summer. Five charm necklaces gleamed between ten perked-up breasts, ten Manolo Blahniks covered five pairs of pedicured feet. Five blonde heads- three natural, two not- shone under the unforgiving sun.
The one at the wheel, who was wearing a pornographic white halter-top, checked him out. He smiled at her, and the girls grinned and nudged each other. She smiled coolly back, checking him out- fly car, Armani suit and matching sunglasses. Six feet of tanned, chunky Italian gorgeousness. And six inches they didn’t know about.
He knew he couldn’t look for too long, so he stared away from her into the burning blue sky, and was hit full in the face by the sun. To his horror, Chris realised that he was about to be completely overcome by what Chiara had christened ‘the demon sneeze,’ due to the convulsing, gasping and enormous explosion it involved. Chris was only ever comfortable letting a ‘demon sneeze,’ out when completely on his own, and he certainly wasn’t. But it was too late now.
‘Hah...’ he gasped harshly, trying his damnedest to turn away from them as the sneeze completely took him over, ‘hah...HAHHH...
The girls stared as Chris’s hand began a slow journey up to his face, first waving slightly then drifting up to the wrinkled bridge of his nose as his bright, watery eyes slowly fell shut. Chris’s well-built shoulders heaved with small and regular hitches as the hand wafted uncertainly around his face, revealing tiny shutter-clicks of change in his expression as though he were trying to hide behind a fan, his fingers spread out tensely, the curve of his palm angled toward his immensely flared Roman nostrils.
Then it hit- Chris doubled over helplessly with an immense, bellowing ‘HAHTSCHHHOOOO!’ spraying from his nostrils, closely followed by a deep, hitching breath and another sneeze, shorter but even louder, ‘HESHSCHOO!’
The driver raised one eyebrow, making no secret of her distaste. One of the girls in the back called out ‘Bless you!’ and then they sped away. The sound of their giggles floated back to him on the thick summer air.
Chris closed his eyes for a minute, rubbing the bridge of his nose, feeling unbelievably embarrassed, not to mention shitty. Still, he thought as he began to move again, if they were about to do a Joe Pesci on him a sniffle was the least of his worries.
Chris swallowed hard, too scared to register the soreness in his throat, cold adrenalin sweat trickling down the back of his neck.
He knew what he was doing. He’d never fucked up. This was his destiny, his chance to avenge and outshine his father’s memory, to make things right.
The song on the tape- one of Tony’s compilations- changed to Eminem’s ‘Soldier.’
‘Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns, never was a gangster till I graduated to one...’
Chris smiled warily, hoping it was a good omen.
‘Got the rep of a villain, for weapon concealin, took the image of a thug, kept shit appealin...’
This was one of Tony’s patented ‘getting fucked up and going out to beat the shit out of someone,’ tapes. He had tapes for everything- dates, heists, driving to strip clubs, driving to the coast, going clubbing, going bar-hopping, and then coming down off a hard night.
‘I’m a soldier. These shoulders hold up so much they won’t budge. I’ll never fall or fumble.’
‘Shine your shoes, kid.’
He had. Nothing could go wrong.
‘I’m a soldier. Even if my collarbones crush or crumble, I will never slip or stumble...’
Theirs was a surprisingly safe world, Chris reflected, as the car began to move again. He was old-school. He was set up for life. He was fine.
He was a soldier.
9.30 p.m, La Boca della Verita Bar, Reiss Street
‘Your Chris,’ Gabby Dante said drunkenly for the sixth time, ‘he’s such a handsome guy.’
Chiara Bucco nodded proudly. He was indeed. A ridiculously beautiful example of pure Roman genes, with deep olive skin and masses of shining bluish-black curls which he occasionally had hacked into something resembling the generic man’s hairstyle Back Home whenever he remembered to go to the barber, as he didn’t have his father to smack him on the back of the head and tell him he looked like a girl any more. Nature didn’t skimp on Chris’s face- his immense brown eyes still seemed as big as a tragic poster-child’s, despite their awesome framing of thick black eyebrows which bisected his face like a child’s marker-pen drawing of a bird. Chris had the kind of profile you really only saw on Roman coins, with the traditional long, distinguished Centurion nose which began its majestic descent in the middle of his forehead and flared dramatically at the nostrils. When she wanted to annoy Chris, she called him ‘Camel nose.’
‘We’ve been wit’ the same guys since high school,’ she replied, more coldly than she’d intended. ‘Can you believe that shit?’
She’d had such power when she first saw him in that school parking lot, leaning against some stolen car or another with a bunch of other Neighbourhood Boys- the ‘cugine lean,’- they’d called it- getting fucked up on weak dope that filled the air with the smell of burning straw.
She’d sashay past to the whistles and catcalls, plaid skirt hitching up in the back, flipping her hair nonchalantly. Gabby, the most brazen, suggestively bit the end of her regulation crucifix and let its chain drip back into her cleavage, a little gold Jesus drowning in scented dark flesh.
Angela had marched by, nose and tits in the air, no eye contact- she drove the guys crazy, that body of hers. ‘Facia bruta!’ yelled the leader of the gang, one John D’Ambrosio, who had barely reached five feet tall and had been heavily thrashed with the Ugly Stick himself, so he’d had no choice but to become a psychopath. Calling Angela ugly was like calling Gino Coco the Clown, but a year later John’s short-assed status had ceased to bother him because someone had rendered him a vegetable with a seven-iron. Angela was already Gino’s consort by that time, and nobody ever said shit to, or about, her again. Except Tony, but he had more balls than all those car-leaning cugines put together.
Gabby laughed. ‘Yeah, well, you an’ Chris, no one’s ever been surprised about that. You two are soulmates.’
‘Yeesh, Gab-by. You been readin’ the National Enquirer again?’
‘Nah, it’s not that. I found this psychic...’
‘Nice Catholic girls don’t mess around with the occult. You know Vince wouldn’t approve.’
‘Vince...’ Gabby waved her hand dismissively, ‘all he knows from is fucking...’
‘Could be worse.’
Gabby rolled her dark, glitter-lidded eyes. ‘Yeah, I guess, but sometimes when I talk to him I can just see this little sign comin’ up in his eyes that says STICK IT IN.’ She laughed. ‘Guys forya. Anyway, this psychic lady, she’s for real, it’s not devil worship or nothin.’ My cousin Marie tol’ me to go ask her what to do about Tony...’
‘Leave him the fuck alone, Gabby. No woman in her right mind would wanna marry Gino’s nephew.’
‘What about Angela?’
‘Has she ever been in her right fuckin’ mind?’
‘True.’ Gabby sighed. ‘I can’t help it, Chi.’
‘Well, you better snap out of it. You got a good man already.’
‘Yeah, but...it’s just so fuckin’ predictable, marryin’ Vince,’ Gabby was going on doggedly- she only ever got a chance to talk about this with Chiara, although her crush on Tony was possibly Jersey’s worst-kept secret. ‘Don’t you ever feel like that about Chris?’
‘Sometimes,’ Chiara lied.
When he’d proposed, she’d never thought of saying no, although her mother had stopped speaking to her and Christopher’s mother had bordered on nervous prostration for two weeks. Allowing Chiara to hover around the maternal bed with badly made soul food, Mama’s beautiful boy had strolled to the casino in quest of a little more wedding-dress money, absently playing pocket pool and singing, ‘My Way,’ off-key in Italian, with no respect for his mother’s distress. For some reason she found that extremely horny and sat in the kitchen all night waiting for him to come home and fuck her on the garlic-impregnated table.
She wanted to tell Gabby that, but all that came out was the cheap fuck-you language of the men, laughing themselves stupid over afternoon beers.
‘Chris and me? We been fuckin’ like bunnies since we were in high school.’
‘No one else?’
‘Din’t want no one else. Him neither.’
‘Damn. Wha’d your mother say, you two humpin’ away under the Mary an’ Jesus in your room?’
Chiara grinned. They’d lain all night sweaty and naked under heavy sheets while the men called outside, men who sounded like her father. They’d be silent, knowing they’d have to get up in the morning, Chris in jeans and her in her best red velvet dress, which he loved on her. They knew that they’d sit at the table with her mother, eating breakfast and talking about school in polite tones while she felt the heat of his love-bites burn into her shoulders. That boy tattooed her body with scarlet letters of sin, and she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy every minute of it.
She knew her mother never believed that he just came over in the mornings for breakfast and church with them, no matter how quiet they were, but strangely he was the more pious of the two. On their first Sunday morning together, Chiara had woken to the sound of chanting. She lay cocooned in the warmth of her narrow bed, half-in and half-out of sleep so that Christopher’s figure on the other bed, sitting hunched over something he had cupped in his palm, seemed like an apparition.
Christopher was wearing a cream-coloured sweater that looked as though it had once been seriously expensive, tunic-length even on his elongated frame, with only odd hot-rock hole to prove its ownership. The sweater’s pale, delicate shade emphasised the writhing blue-blackness of Christopher’s hair, still damp from his morning shower and curling beautifully at the nape of his bent neck. Even his wild eyebrows seemed darker, his lowered lashes (of the sort they say are ‘wasted on a boy,’) extraordinarily luxuriant, and the dark olive sheen of his skin was moist-looking, as though he had been watered.
He was reciting a mantra softly under his breath in something that definitely wasn’t English, but Chiara’s quick ear managed to discern patterns in Christopher’s litany after a while and realised that he was praying- in Latin, no less. Hiding under the covers, she looked more closely at Christopher’s open palm through his slit-eyes, and saw a nestled rosary of heavy black beads, which had the comfortingly everlasting, indestructible look of museum exhibits. There was something about the aged and valued look of those rosary beads and the utter concentration in Christopher’s face that made the whole business look shockingly authentic. Chiara decided she actually wasn’t meant to be witnessing this, and wondered what to do, when Christopher solved her dilemma for her.
Raising his heavy-seeming head, the boy stared upwards as if concentrating, his eyes wide. Something about the dramatic illumination of the Sunday-morning sun and the beads, elevated in the palm of his uncurling hand like an offering, made Christopher look like a picture-book martyr, one of those homoerotic Renaissance saints that he seemed so fond of, but then Chiara noticed his expressive, sensual non-prayerbook mouth was twitching, and realised that the source of Christopher’s pose was rather more prosaic than she’d imagined.
Reluctantly, Christopher shook his head as though trying to shrug off the inexorably building sneeze, and then rubbed his nose violently with the clenched fist of his free hand, trying to knuckle the urge into oblivion.
Chiara almost groaned- she was still indolent and slippery-wet from last night, and becoming even more so as Christopher’s Roman nostrils flared hugely, his breathing harshly shortening into desperate-sounding gasps.
Then it hit, and Christopher bent over with the force of the great sneeze and his attempt to contain it. Chiara- who couldn’t help but turn to look, her eyes half-closed in a pretence of waking, saw with some surprise that he was attempting to stifle the sound, drawing his sweater-muffled hand to his nose and expelling the sneeze- a rather wet one, unfortunately for this item of Christopher’s long-suffering wardrobe- into the arch of his wrist.
The sound of the stifle was heavy, nasal and much quieter than his usual sneeze; Christopher’s mouth simply mimed the ‘oo,’ shape of the release, but it was loud enough for Chiara to pretend that it had woken her. She stirred, knowing she had Chris’s attention, and allowed her eyes to open fully, throwing in a few hopefully authentic blinks.
‘Salute,’ she said, through a manufactured yawn.
He sniffed, surprised. ‘Scusate...that worked before,’ he said petulantly, his eyes red and running from the sneeze and his abortive attempts to dam it back.
‘Stifling. I didn’t want to wake you. Fuck, though,’ he continued, clearly off-duty from prayer now, ‘I hate how that feels. But they’re so loud. I really had to sneeze in the shower an’ I thought I’d definitely have woken you, but I came out here and you were still sleepin’…’
Chiara propped herself up on one elbow. ‘Have you always got the sneezes like this?’ he asked, trying with all her might not to sound hopeful.
Christopher shook his head. ‘Just allergies. They come and go.’
Oh wow, she’d thought, I get to see this again? She didn’t know why such a strange thing got to her, but this boy’s sneezes were like a key in the split lock of her flesh, opening her somewhere private and deep.
‘Veni,’ she said, stretching out her arms with a wicked smile. ‘I’ll take your mind off ‘em.’
Their love kept her going all that year. When she could think of his dark, curly, rebellious hair or his sleeping face while standing at the sink arm-deep in suds, or hanging out sodden, colourful washing between the buildings, watching the children playing hopscotch down below our balcony, children who waved and smiled at me as though she was still one of them, she’d think of those delicious sneezy summer Sunday mornings and suddenly she’d have the patience to go on even though every fibre, every cell of her body was screaming, Love me, Chris. See me for what I really am. Rip me to pieces and put me back together however you want. Love me.
Gabby, on her fifth Cosmo, had passed the bitter stage and was getting dangerously sentimental. ‘You’re gettin’ married, I’m getting’ married...God, Chichi, we’re real women now...’
Chiara scowled like any exotic strumpet worth her Mediterranean salt. Real woman, my bubble butt, she thought. ‘Real? Us? We live in a fuckin’ dreamworld.’
‘I din’t mean it like-’
‘Me, I want a career. Not this Mafia Bride shit. Maybe doin’ some hospital volunteerin’ or startin’ a book club if I’m lucky. Sittin’ aroun’ in the kitchen eatin’ cannoli and sfogliatelle. No way.’
Gabby nodded; she was the least Real Woman Chiara knew. Nothing could induce her to trowel off her slap, to let her hard-as-nails eyebrows grow back into disarray, to venture into the world without a mouth the colour of blood and a few icy one-liners to throw at clueless shop assistants.
Angela, the real beauty of the three, had no such armour- her defences were different. They were inside her, the very fabric of her being. She was choosy anyway; the only one of the Three Disgraces- or so Michele called them, the sly old fucker- without a huge rock on her wedding finger. Angie was something else. She preferred to keep her contact with the opposite sex down to a metre radius. She liked them to look at her as though they were starving and she was medium rare.
Chiara shuddered inwardly as she imagined herself and Gabby, maybe Angie too, doing this in twenty years’ time, not perched at a bar in their skin-tight Versace jeans but at a restaurant table somewhere downtown...Zizzi’s, probably. Provolone and glorified ginzo gravy. She imagined the long painted nails that looked so brave and punky now becoming badges of bad old age, their hair shellacked into sculptures, dark pouches of worry beneath their eyes and lines of premature aging- late nights, hidden guns and jewellery, lying to the kids, late calls with women laughing and creaking leather in the background, praying to a God they sporadically believed in, voices grown hoarse and shrill with anxiety, swapping Old-Country put-downs, shut-up words- ‘Bite your tongue,’ ‘God forbid,’ ‘Oggi come oggi...’ plastering over their wounds with bullshit and jewellery.
Maybe she’d have one of those fuckin’ awful Franklin Mint collections like her mother- something to pass the time- or maybe she’d be like Chrissy’s mother instead, dark and lonely and bitter, a woman who never even came out for lunch, took no money but what she needed to pay the bills, just stayed in wearing her rosary into fragments on behalf of her not-too-bright son and his crazy friend Tony, such a sweet boy, but what can you do with a family like that?
‘Hey.’ Gabby was prodding her in the arm. ‘What’s up wit’you? You still thinkin’ about Chrissy?’
‘Nah. Just wedding stuff. Lissen, Gabby- you ever worry we’re gonna end up like our mothers?’
Gabby laughed and threw down the rest of her Cosmo, gesturing for the barman to replenish it, the tacky jewels in her bleached blonde hair lurching drunkenly forward under the light.
‘Fuck that. We’re a new generation, no? Modern women. They had I Love Lucy; we got Sex in the City. No comparison. My Vince, he ever does somethin’ stupid, I fuckin’ tell him. My mother spent too long puttin’ up with my father’s bullshit.’
Not quite convinced, Chiara drained her glass. ‘I guess.’
‘Let’s see the rock again,’ Gabby said coaxingly, hoping to cheer her up.
Smiling, Chiara held out her hand, spreading out her slim fingers to show off her Titanic-sinking diamond. The strobe light caught it for a second, almost blinding them both, as the stone seemed to throb with energy. Fire and ice.
‘Your Chris, he’s such a sweet guy.’ Gabby reached thankfully for her next drink, not noticing a few of her diamond hair clips jumping ship from the back. ‘Where the fuck’s Angie tonight?’
9.55 p.m, Cusamano Street
As Chris came down the basement stairs in front of Johnny, the tension in the small dark room shattered into an explosion of greetings and laughter.
‘Heyyyy.’ Vic turned around, his arms held expansively out, knock-off Paul Smith shirt straining over his gut. ‘Look who’s here!’
Johnny, who rarely so much as cracked a smile, was laughing. ‘You shoulda seen this kid! He was sittin’ on one asscheek all the way over here!’
Sympathetic laughter from the guys. Michele- off his head as usual- moved forward and hugged Chris with convulsive, rib-breaking joy.
‘So this is it?’ Chris asked quietly, rubbing the slightly reddened tip of his Roman nose.
Michele slapped him on the back. ‘This is it, kid.'
Chris looked around. ‘Where’s Tony?’
‘He’s being taken care of elsewhere,’ said Vic smoothly. ‘This is your night, Chris. Just for you, we’re doin’ this.’
Chris checked the room out again, saw no Gino. He must be making Tony himself, a private ceremony. Maybe even handing over the position of Boss.
‘So be grateful, you fuckin’ stroonz,’ said Michele.
Chris looked around at the guys. Fellow soldiers. Family. Grateful didn’t even cover it.
He closed his eyes as they led him over to the table. He saw his father, black curls matted with blood, an unused pistol strapped to his calf, a white sheet laid over his face. His mother’s hand on his arm, the two of them among the lilies, her white face cried-out and her mind shut down. Never the same. Rosary beads all around them, men crying who shouldn’t be, even Johnny, big hard Johnny who he’d always been afraid of, breaking down in the cemetery, shoulders heaving beneath his white, over-starched shirt, his face hidden in his hands.
He opened his eyes and looked into Johnny’s older face.
‘If you have any reservations,’ said Johnny, managing to impart all the feeling he could into this well-worn speech, ‘now’s the time to back out. No one’s gonna think any less of you.’
‘I have no reservations.’
The guys nodded approvingly around him, waiting for this to be over so they could go upstairs and get shitfaced. Sandy, as ever, had made her house look like the Ritz and the girls were out for the night playing bridge over at Francesca Gotti’s. Gianmarco’s restaurant was laying on the food, and Michele had been saying something about getting lapdancers over from the club. It was gonna be a good night.
Cusamano Street, 10.30 p.m
Chiara was slipping off again to see Chris, like she always had. She knew she could get in trouble, entering the house during this male-only ritual...so fuckin’ primitive, she thought. Tribal.
To steel herself, she thought of her wedding dress hanging in the back of Eve’s Bridal Wear, labelled with the name Angelino like the tag on a corpse’s toe. She smiled. Another ‘forbidden fruit,’ marriage. Nice Neighbourhood Girl overpowered by Lure of Wiseguy. Cash-stuffed envelopes showered on her like rice. Nights on a knife-edge.
She didn’t give a fuck. Just wanted him.
She slipped through the open patio door, almost breaking her Blahniked toe on an errant plaster angel, and saw to her relief that he was the only one in the room, fast asleep on the couch with a sheet thrown over him, a little-boy smile on his face. He was breathing heavily through his nose, almost snoring, his usually clenched dark face totally relaxed, the skin of his eyelids soft and delicate. Like his foreskin, she thought suddenly, and clapped her hand to her mouth in case she laughed. He was her general, her outlaw, her soldier. Her man.
She began to peel off her clothes. It was starting to rain, fat drops on the roof resounding through the house. Sandra stirred in the sheets with Johnny, and in the kitchen Gabby rested her head on the table and passed out next to a bottle of scotch.
‘Chris,’ she whispered, standing in the doorframe.
Half-drunk and feverish, he woke and saw her slim figure lit in a shaft of apricot light, surrounded by the hallway’s plaster Botticelli angels. She was Venus, gloriously smooth, her arms and back tiger-striped with tan-lines, breasts and belly white.
‘You really here?’ he croaked.
‘In the flesh.’ She laughed nervously. ‘You drunk?’
‘A little.’ He sniffed and cleared his throat thickly. ‘You?’
The rain on the windows stippled her body with the light of a passing car, turning her into a golden leopard, ready to spring at him. She looked admiringly at her lover. Damn, he was gorgeous; a dark, sulky Medici prince, his olive skin practically glowing with its own rainy light against Sandy’s white wedding-present sheets.
He laughed. ‘Miss June Bride, you got some nerve, standin’ here butt-naked in Johnny Sacco’s house.’
‘Fuck him. Anyway, you should talk, you wearin’ anythin’ under that sheet?’
‘Some fuckin’ nerve, you.’ He smiled. ‘Don’t know. Lemme see...’ he looked under the sheet and smiled cheekily at her. ‘Think I passed out. At least that fag Michele left my shorts on. Siddown.’
‘You don’t wamme to get under there wit’you?’ she asked teasingly, smiling sexily at him from under her eyelashes.
He shook his head. ‘Nah, not for a little while. Just lemme look at you.’ He lit a Camel and coughed on the first drag.
She obeyed him, sitting on the arm of the sofa so he could admire her in the thin streetlight glow, a mermaid on a rock. Rain fell, a broken string of pearls, rolling across the waxy leaves of Sandra’s beloved garden. He shivered in the chill from the open door.
She accepted a puff on his cigarette, inhaling deeply with her head back in a studied poster-girl pose.
‘You’re so fuckin’ beautiful, Chiara.’ His voice was thick with longing.
‘You too.’ She smiled down at him, traced the scar on his chest he’d got from his first bullet. Eighteen and hadn’t shed a tear. ‘My made man. You did it.’
‘You have a good time tonight?’
She nodded. ‘OK. Gabby’s passed out in the kitchen. She’s pretty tanked. Started talkin’ again about how much she loves Tony...it’s really breakin’ Vince’s balls, so better that she does it wit’ me, but it gets boring after a while, y’know?’
‘I thought Tony was into Angela.’
‘Who isn’t?...she’s property, though. Not marryin’ anyone unless it’s an agreement with Gino, and Tony would never do that...too proud.’ She swallowed hard. ‘Chris? Why din’t they make him wit’you?’
‘I don’ even know where the fuck he is. His phone’s turned off.’ Chris shrugged. ‘Maybe Gino an’ the other associates made him, maybe he just went down to Tijuana again. It’s not like they tell you you’re gonna get made so you can fuckin’ plan it.’
Chiara slid off the arm of the chair and hugged him hard. ‘I’m so proud, Chrissy. I love you.’
He grinned. ‘You better.’
‘Not just cause of this...I’d love you if you were workin’ at Denny’s.’
He laughed, delight trembling somewhere in his voice. ‘Bullshit.’
‘I loved you since I first saw you.’
It was true. From that first moment, she didn’t want anything but the boy leaning against someone else’s baking-hot car, staring steadily at her. Watching his tongue dart out and lick the end of the joint, she felt something strange happening inside her, deep and low. Her cunt pulsed in a pendulum-steady rhythm. He was the first boy who made her wet just by being there.
When he’d asked her out she was just sixteen and construction workers were fainting with longing every time she walked past them. Her body craved someone to look at it, worship it, make love to it while it was suspended so close to adulthood...she was like one big clock, momentarily stopped and waiting for Chris, bargaining with the powers that be to make him her lover, this beautiful, languid boy with the bedroom eyes. Whether he liked her or not, she didn’t give a damn. She was going to seduce him anyway, she vowed, as the curtains of her room rustled in a breeze from the open mouth of the window. As she shivered, she felt the Devil come into the room with her and slide her burning, black-taloned hand between her thighs, as Mary in her blue robe hung her righteous head in shame.
Suddenly, he wrinkled his nose and ducked his head away from her. ‘Shit.’
‘What is it?’
He waved her away, dark eyes mildly panicked. His face contorted. ‘...I’m gonna..huh....uh... huh-huhISSSHHHOO!’
She wondered if he could hear the way her heart was beating, strong and fast like she’d had too many cups of espresso. ‘Bless you.’ She caressed the back of his neck.
Chris sniffed with a thick, wet sound, the dazed, sneezy expression still on his face.
Chiara moistened her dry lips; he looked gorgeous. ‘You OK, hon?’ she whispered. ‘You look like you’re gonna-’
‘hahASHOOOO!’ This one was shorter, but even stronger. Her hand still on his neck, she could feel the way he convulsed with its force, shoulders shaking afterwards in a little animal-like spasm.
He sniffed again and rubbed his nose on his forearm like a little boy. ‘Scusi.’
‘Chrissy, you gettin’ a cold?’
He waved her away again, shaking his head. ‘Fuck that. Just a little too much Bolivian marching powder.’
‘You know I hate you doin’ that shit.’
He shrugged. ‘Whaddayou want me to do? I couldn’t stay awake. Felt like shit all day.’
Chiara kissed him under his ear. ‘You’re all hot an’ sweaty.’
She felt his forehead, and he shook her off. ‘Hey, I’m fuckin’ fine, OK?’
Her dark eyes were dizzy with mischief as she caressed his neck, his shoulders, moving down to touch his nipples, which he always pretended he hated, but the way he shivered against her cool hands left her in no doubt that he loved it.
‘Fuckin’ fine, hah?’ She rested both hands on his shoulders, forced him down beneath her, desire darkening her face like a cloud. ‘You don’t gotta sneeze again?’
He shook his head. She tenderly kissed his scar and then his nipple, enjoying its dark lemon-peel texture, its heat beneath her lips. ‘Sure?’ Resting on one hand, she took a handful of her dark hair, forming it into a little brush at the end of her fingers, and gently trailed it over his nose.
His face contorted immediately. ‘Chiara, you fuckin’ dare...’
She made a big-eyed innocent face, staring down at him. ‘What? What’m I doin’?’
The motion of her fingers was growing faster, rubbing the hair coarsely over his nostrils, letting it tickle the insides, feeling the bucking, writhing power of him under her.
He breathed shallowly, helplessly, his handsome face growing increasingly troubled. ‘Please, Chi...stop...you wamme to wake up the whole house?’
She shook her head. ‘No...I want you to admit you got a cold...’
‘Ah...hahh...I don’t, dammit...’ his nose was tickling horribly, the hair invading and rubbing roughly against his tender, irritated membranes.
‘Oh fuck, Chiara...’ he tried to grab her hands, but the damage was done anyway, and she lay on him flat, squashing him- he was usually stronger than her, but not tonight.
Chiara laughed softly, triumphantly. ‘Say it.’
‘hahhh...’ he sniffed harshly, thick black eyebrows rising and furrowing as he leant back against the arm of the chair, head tilted expectantly as she tickled away.
‘You givin’ up?’
He tried to glower at her. ‘Too late...hahAAHH...’
She placed one long-taloned finger under his nose and watched with satisfaction as he heaved his way back down from the pinnacle of discomfort she’d brought him to, his teary eyes slowly opening and the hitches in his broad chest evening out to deep breaths.
‘Oh you fuckin’ bitch,’ he breathed in relief. ‘Wha’d you do that for? You know how I am when I gotta sneeze.’
She did. Chris hardly ever caught colds, but when he did, his sneezes were as stubborn as him, not giving him a moment’s rest. ‘So sneeze!’
He pushed her away and rubbed his nose furiously. ‘They’re just a bit loud for this time of night! Jesus!’
‘No one’s listenin’.’
‘No they’re not, cause they’re asleep. Mother of Christ.’ He sniffed wetly. ‘Do me a favour, Chi, get me a Kleenex or somethin’. I don’t even know where my clothes are and...’ he sniffed again, ‘I don’t think it’s goin’ away.’
‘What’s not goin’ away?’
She knew, of course. When Chris had a cold, hardly anything could stop him sneezing but the force of a good strong blow; otherwise, he was liable to embark on a massive sneezing fit. She’d rather he just did that, but he clearly didn’t feel the same way.
‘The sneeze.’ He sniffed. ‘I can feel it. Please, you did this to me- get me somethin’ to blow my nose.’
She took pity on him, watching the discomfort overtake his face again. ‘OK.’ She got up and looked around the room.
‘Fuckin’ hurry up!’ he snapped desperately.
‘OK, OK, Jesus...’ hurriedly, she picked up a thick linen napkin of Sandy’s, and shoved it at him. ‘Here. Knock yourself out.’
He buried his face in it and blew his nose heavily as she came to sit next to him, rubbing the tense muscles of his back.
When he looked a little better, he fixed her with a level glare. ‘Mind if I ask what that was about?’
She shrugged, bare breasts rising and falling. ‘You’re cute when you sneeze.’
‘Jesus Christ, you’re crazy.’ He sniffed, still looking dazed. ‘You like it when I’m miserable, huh? You want me to get a cold just to please you? Lie aroun’ all day sneezin’ an’ blowin’ my nose cause you think it’s cute?’
She nodded brazenly, realising that she must be still quite bombed.
A slow, rare smile broke out on his face. ‘Well, you might be in luck, you fuckin’ crazy girl.’
Hungrily, she kissed him, feeling him shivering against her. ‘Honey, really, you not feelin’ well?’
He smiled reluctantly. ‘A little chilled, scratchy throat, been sneezin’ my fuckin’ head off all night. Embarrassin’, if you want to know. A made guy with the sniffles.’
She laughed delightedly. ‘Oh, poor Chrissy. You better let me take care of you.’ She snuggled into his broad chest.
‘I don’t need...’
‘You always take care of me.’
She tossed the sheet on the floor, eased his shorts off. Naked, he looked unspeakably gorgeous; his pallor mellowed, his edges softened, his black eyes as soft and open as the whole wide-spreading night. Beneath the downy black tiger-stripe on his flat belly and the riot of his pubic hair he was semi-erect, the eagerness of his cock contrasting with his lounging, leisurely pose, a sulky maharaja waiting for his courtesan.
‘I wanna take care of you first.’ His voice was low, caressing. She almost moaned out loud as he gently ran his fingers down her belly, tickling a little, and then...
Through the mist of lust and too many Cosmos, she realised she had to get up, sort herself out. She must be soaking. He’d know. But at the same time, she wanted him to feel her there, to know what he did to her.
Too late, anyway.
‘Jesus,’ he said softly, as he felt the tight wet satin he usually encountered there dilating at the slightest touch from his fingers, sliding right in with no pressure at all. He found a wetness so powerful it almost resisted him. He slid in deep, then traced upwards towards her shaven mound, moistening it with her own juice, his cock twitching eagerly in anticipation. ‘You’re so-’
‘Wet.’ He brushed her clit and she shuddered. ‘Say it.’
‘Wet,’ he marvelled. ‘What is it? What’s got you this way?’
‘Just you.’ She touched the tip of his reddened nose gently, gratified at the look of discomfort that crossed his face as the tickle in his nose grew and diminished at her touch. She had such power. Between her and his cold, the poor boy was helpless. Mmm...
He smiled triumphantly, black eyes gleaming in the rainy halflight. ‘You want me?’
‘With all my heart.’ She took his hand, damp, hot, pressed against the curve of her belly. ‘And my body.’
Rain fell thick and fast. As he took her in his hand, gentle but strong, she thought, This must be what we were warned about. Love is dangerous, like getting into a car with a stranger, especially when the car is a stolen metallic blue Chevrolet. Taking sweets from a hand that doesn’t just feed you, but kill you.
‘Tell me how much,’ he said.
‘More than Richard Gere.’ She laughed as he withdrew his hand. ‘OK, OK, more than anyone. So much I useta sleep wit’ your picture under my pillow.’ She had, her own personal idol, smiling a frozen forever-grin into the dark. She would wish on it as a homely young bridesmaid might prize a sweet slab of wedding cake icing, hoping for dreams of champagne and balloons, a packaged future wrapped in silver gauze.
Miss June Bride.
Hungrily, he began to manipulate her clit with his fingers, her hard, tiny little rosebud, feverishly hot and wet, inflamed by the teasing rhythm of his sneezes and tinged with a delicate straining purple.
‘Go on.’ He was rubbing softly, expertly, staring up at her face. Her cheeks were bedroom-flushed, a lush softness transfiguring her usually model-perfect features. He could scarcely wait to get inside her, but he knew how much better it would be if he played with her for a little while first, how that warm, tightening wetness would come to take him in, squeezing convulsively. He felt her muscles relax and contract in a steady, heightening cadence.
So she had thought. In her claustrophobic pocket of a room between the heavy black curtains of the night, she’d breathed air thick with hormones and thought, Chris is my only hope, my home. With him I’m perfectly balanced. With him I am the person I want to be.
She feverishly reached for him, but he was taking it slow, his eyes calm; he was getting hard and he desperately wanted her to mount him, ride him, but he loved watching her like this, melting all over him and shivering with longing. She was changing as Christopher stroked her tenderly, killer’s fingers soft as feathers, slicking her so gently she felt that she would explode. She was growing sticky like a passion fruit left in the sun, sweet juice in the scorching summer air. She wanted him helpless again, wanted to worship his dark muscled body with a snowdrift of lilies, pollen standing out livid against his olive skin, watch him, hear him, feel him sneeze, then wash him clean with her Italian honey soap, every inch of him.
He made her wait until she was slick with sweat, close to bursting, her skin damp and tight. Then suddenly, with no warning at all, he went down on her- something that he hardly ever did, something against all the rules of this masculine world. ‘If you suck pussy,’ Vic had once said profoundly, ‘you’ll suck anything.’ It was forbidden. But Chris was a master at it. Amazing how big his tongue felt against her, how rough, how fine...
She moaned. ‘Chris...I’m gonna come before you even get inside me...’
He lowered his head from her crotch. ‘No you’re not. You tell me when you’re gonna come.’
She shook her head down in bewildered, overwhelmed acquiescence, wild dark hair beaded with raindrops curling against her tanned shoulders, her creamy-pale breasts. He went back in.
Chris watched her body, soft and tempting in the dim, rainy light, the slight curve of her belly and the unbelievably soft undersides of her breasts shadowed dark, her delicate oval nipples tight and hard with arousal.
Against the sides of his face, prickly with stubble, her thighs were gentle, yielding parentheses, hot damp silk pressing against his lips and tongue. She tasted strong, debauched, powerful, like the just-fermented fruit that had made him light-headed, the kind of killer liquor he and Tony used to brew from peaches when they were fifteen.
The powdery, luscious scent of her body overwhelmed him; she was absolutely doused in the Versace perfume he’d brought her back from last month’s trip to the Old Country. She smelled like one big rain-waxed oleander flower, like the fat crop Sandy had on the back patio, their damp, heady scent filling the room, mingling with his Camel smoke and the heart-of-darkness smell of Chiara’s sex.
He gave a thick, wet, desperate sniffle, and she felt the pressure of his breath against her wet flesh, hitching, wavering...surely not...
The heat of desire bloomed all over Chiara’s body, and she knew, reluctantly, that this was going to be quicker for her that she’d thought...his sneezes had lubricated her so that she just wanted to explode, much as she was trying to stave it off. Like a sneeze, she thought vaguely, but even better.
Then, as if he’d read her mind, Chris sneezed.
Not just a sneeze- well, it was, of course, but it didn’t feel like one. It was huge, powerful, jerking his head up from the sofa cushion he was using for leverage and thrusting his mouth harshly against her soaking-wet mound, his seizing nose actually brushing her clit and enveloping her hot flesh with a deliciously tickly spray. Like the soundwaves such a sneeze would cause in a cave, vibrations of pleasure flowed and ebbed through her receptive body, smooth as the inside of an avocado, white and open as the moon.
Before she came all over him, she jumped away as if shocked, which didn’t do much for his embarrassment at losing control.
Chiara lay down on top of him, holding him close, unable to think of anything but how much she wanted to hold him inside her. She sometimes felt that was the only way she could protect him. He closed his eyes defeatedly, long lashes resting on his cheeks, erection wilting a little in humiliation.
‘S’OK,’ she whispered. ‘Really.’ She grinned down at him, her sex tingling deliciously in the aftermath. ‘Felt fuckin’ amazing.’
‘Still, though.’ He cast his eyes down, then looked frankly back up at her. ‘You think that was cute too?’
‘No...I think that was hot.’
He didn’t break her gaze, staying expressionless, but then a wicked grin broke out on his face as he squeezed her firm, beautifully rounded butt. ‘You’re so fuckin’ weird.’
‘And that’s why you love me.’
She tried not to sound desperate, needy, but that sneeze had brought on such a wave of moist warmth. Her cunt was soaking with need as she dropped a quick kiss on his raw, tender nose. He responded immediately, erupting with a massive ‘haaaCHOOO!’ that sprayed the soft flesh of Chiara’s throat.
Chris sniffed, rubbing his nose furiously. ‘Did I spray you?’
Chiara grinned. ‘A little. My fault, I didn’t move...’ she gently stroked Chris’s cheek. ‘I shouldn’t be wearin’ perfume wit’ your nose the state it’s in.’
He exhaled heavily, still smiling up, then suddenly let loose with a powerful, throat-scraping, ‘haASSHOOO!’ the spray hitting the lower curve of her belly this time.
‘Poor you,’ she cooed again. ‘Such a bad cold...I can always tell when you’ve got a cold, Chrissy, it’s different to your allergies.’ She traced her finger down the bridge of his nose. ‘You look so desperate...rubbin’ and rubbin’ at your poor tickly nose...’
‘Chiara, cut it out-’
‘It makes me so wet,’ she said slowly and deliberately, her words slurred with alcohol, ‘that I can’t fuckin’ stand it.’
His eyes widened dramatically. Then he smiled, slowly. Chris had a smile like a cat or a snake- not quite genuine, especially when he was thinking wicked thoughts.
‘But you can stand it now?’ he asked, teasingly.
She shook her head. ‘No...’
‘Too bad...cause I gotta sneeze again,’ he said quickly, words rushing together, his breath short and thick.
She reached for the peach linen napkin and gently held it to his nose. He kept his eyes closed, long dark lashes making shadows on his cheeks in the distorting light.
‘S’OK. Go for it.’
He shook his head, his voice muffled by the napkin as he struggled manfully to shake off the annoying tickle. ‘Chi, this is gonna be huge. Could you...’
Knowing what he wanted, she held her finger under his nose, holding the napkin close enough to catch the sneeze if it came. She felt the quivering of his nostrils, the powerful rise and fall of his chest, and rubbed gently, trying to ease it as his eyes squinched tightly shut, crimping into tiny, tortured black lines. He was winding up slowly, and the tickle in his nose showed no signs of easing. Chiara knew that nothing could dam this back.
‘Eh...huhhh...hehhh...hEEHHHH...’ They both felt it coming, and she reached for the napkin quickly, pressing it to his nose as he jolted up again, muffling the rich, potent sneeze, ‘AHHTSCHummM!...Ohh...’ He sniffed. ‘Thahks, Chiara, you tried.’
His nose was streaming. She held the napkin to his nose, as she’d done with her cousins’ snotty children. ‘Blow.’
He stared up at her cynically, his eyes telling her that she had to be fucking kidding. Then, surprisingly, he obeyed, discharging a thick, wet blow into the napkin. In response, she felt a sudden, squeezing pulse down below, an ominous twisting sensation. His vulnerability turned her on so much that the tingle in her crotch had become an ache. She had to be filled, satisfied. He saw the raw glint of passion in her eyes and wondered at it.
‘This really does turn you on, huh?’
She wiped his nose and tossed the napkin on the floor. ‘Feelin’ better?’
His eyes still dazed and slightly wary-looking, he nodded.
‘Then get into me,’ she said softly. Not begging, not asking, not even really ordering. Just acknowledging.
She sank down onto his rigid penis, sighing deeply with pleasure, feeling even more than the usual relief as the two of them became one. Soulmates, Gabby had said. She wasn’t too far off the mark- every time Chris entered her, she felt as though she had somehow become him, as though their sinew and bone, the vibrations and waves of their desires, had twisted into one helix of desire and need.
When he began to thrust, she felt as though he was swallowing her up with pleasure even as her slick muscles embraced his cock, their lips fused, bruised. You’re mine, I’m yours, she thought. Nothing could change that, not stashed revolvers or Franklin Mint figures or prayers.
Having him was like finally being full, full to the brim with a delicious red sweetness that made her bubble and fizz and dance on the roof in the sun. They’d never spent a night without screwing, rolling in joyful abandon, making love in homes they had grown to hate. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of their future hopes and dreams, of the wishes they prized, of their secret music. Of their parents’ world of silent dreams as they slept in the other rooms, locked and wrapped in bed sheets, in their personal odours of age and stale underwater hopes, they loved. They grabbed each other as though they were drowning.
He brought out something in her that first time. It hit her like a hammer to her mother’s porcelain plates. She’d never orgasmed before and she’d held onto him so tight he could barely breathe, shocked almost out of her skin as a thick dark spiral of pleasure rolled up in her, took her over, wrenched one long forbidden howl from the core of her heart.
‘Shhh, Chiara, your mother-’
My mother’s not here. She felt the heat and thickness of him thrusting in, filling her completely, his fingers tangled in her hair as she fell down and rested against him, completely dependent on him for her pleasure. Her dark, scented hair spread over his chest and neck, silky against his sweaty, feverish skin- and then, too late, he remembered her perfume. Well, his nose did, protesting so suddenly and violently that he could only gasp, mouth opening wide in the dark, errant strands of her hair tickling his falling-open lips, nostrils flaring hugely as the pressure built and built.
Chiara, hungry-eyed, watched his strong features contorting, thick dark brows furrowed in agonised concentration, the muscles of his pectorals, hard as peach-stones, heaving desperately.
Helplessly, he jerked forward, spraying her breastbone like a miniature ejaculation. Chiara moaned with pleasure as she felt his erection spasm inside her, muscles clamping hard and tight around him, holding him in her.
He gave her a dark, level gaze. ‘You like that too?’
She nodded uncontrollably. ‘Oh, fuck, yes...’
She was practically whimpering in anticipation. Just one more, that was all she needed...
She leaned in and kissed him, feeling him struggle not to explode all over her as their tongues met. As his breaths grew in rhythm and urgency, so did his thrusts, as he reamed her mouth with hunger and eagerness. She almost couldn’t take it, pulling back from him and staring desperately, wordlessly down.
He stared back, looking powerless and vulnerable, his watery, waiting eyes and twitching mouth at odds with the power of his shoulders, the dark legacy of that fading scar.
Chiara shuddered in pleasure, grinding into him as close and tight as she could get, the soft skin of her neck at his nose and the tangled web of her hair trailing over it. The next sneeze propelled him even deeper into her, ‘hahTSCHHHMmm!’ muffled in her neck, wet and helpless.
She almost cried out in pleasure, but forced herself not to, biting on her finger to stifle her cries.
Chris’s head was throbbing, his eyes streaming, the burning pressure in his nose not letting up. He’d give anything to blow his nose, but even through his blurred, tortured vision he could see how much he was pleasuring her, how close she was. It wouldn’t take much more, and he was relieved- his nose was starting to feel like Mount Vesuvius, long-dormant but now sputtering into loud, fiery, messy life.
Chiara shuddered on top of him as he finally gave in to the terrible cold-tickle and erupted into a huge, intense triple, ‘huRASSHOO! AhSHIOO! Ha...Ah...AHTSCHOOOOO!’
With the mighty release of his last sneeze, he jerked up, expelling the sneeze right onto Chiara’s breastbone, misting her cleavage with a soft spray that mingled with the sweat pearling her flesh. Something about his angle changed, rubbing her in exactly the right place, the delicious friction she’d been building up giving way to that beautiful spiralling feeling, ecstasy radiating out through her body as she stiffened and then unravelled, falling onto him, weightless as a rag-doll, hot and sweaty and shaking with spent passion, nipples still painfully hard, her clit so tender and raw she’d be hyper-sensitive for days...
Her orgasm raged over him like a conflagration, taking everything he had, shocked that he was coming too, filling her, ejaculating, tearing through her with his own hot spark, the struck match that set her coming again in another dizzying wave, whimpering his name again and again.
He held her close, muffling another weaker sneeze in her chest, allowing her to hug him and stroke his hair, his neck, as though he was a child that needed comforting. Secretly, he relished it. He was dizzy, exhausted, spent.
She regained her composure, sat up silently and attended to his ticklish, grateful nose with the napkin again. Chris was already half-asleep, worn out with his exertions, his breathing thick and laboured and fever misting his closing eyes. She arranged the sheet over them and lay down next to him, holding him tight.
They dissolved into each other again, this time into mutual, untroubled sleep, knee to knee, her head resting against his chest. She was in him, under the dark wings of his eyelids as he dozed, and he was inside her mouth, her heart.
‘I love you, Chris.’
He yawned, opening his eyes for one last look at her, flushed and sated, beautiful. ‘I love you too.’
That first night, she’d looked up and grinned at the movie stars on her walls.
Now she had only the darkness.
6.42 a.m, Cusamano Street
Christopher woke to the sound of crying. Still asleep, Chiara burrowed into his neck.
He pulled himself up a little, resting on his elbows, trying not to wake her as he looked into the kitchen, a pure cube of light, white surfaces, glass, punishing early morning sun. Gabby was sitting at the table, howling. She looked hysterical, ravaged, last night’s makeup melting messily on her face which was swollen like a beaten clown’s, hugging herself as though her ribs would fly apart.
Sandy was beside her, crouched down, holding Gabby’s head against her flat stomach in its clinging leopard-print. She was staring accusingly at Johnny, the stillest element in the tableau, who was standing by the door, hands held apart in the time-honoured Italian gesture of ‘Whaddaya gonna do, hah?’
‘Oh God, Sandy,’ Gabby was moaning. ‘I fuckin’ loved him. I never even told him...’
‘Shhh...’ Sandy whispered, her own eyes bright with tears. ‘He knew.’
Chris felt dizzy, feverish. She couldn’t mean Vince.
‘That old bastard Gino...’
‘Hey,’ Johnny interjected quietly. ‘A little respect?’
Gabby battered the polished table with her fists, causing last night’s bottles to judder and jump. ‘I’m not one of his hoowahs, I can say what I fuckin’ like.’
‘I’m goin’ out,’ Johnny said, and did.
‘Tony,’ Gabby howled. ‘Tony...’
Sandy knelt down and they held each other in communion, sobbing the same strange, ugly sobs.
Feeling a terrible panic grip him- fear, anticipation, despair, grief, loneliness wrenching him at once, Chris clasped his knees to his chest and began to rock backwards and forwards, something he hadn’t done since he was seven years old and he’d heard the news about his father, making a numb, senseless ball of his body as he concentrated on the rhythm.
He felt Chiara stir beside him, wake. ‘Chris...what? What you doin’?'
I’m a soldier. A fuckin’ soldier. But he didn’t know shit. Dumb-ass Tommy Angelino’s peasant son.
He rested his head on her knees and remained perfectly still, a mute, withdrawn human knot.
He didn’t even know if he was crying.