My parents told me that when I was born, they argued about calling me Manuel or Jose. They told me that I cried when they said ‘Jose’, so they decided Manuel was safer. And that was that.
They also told me that Latinos and Italians don’t mix, like burritos and lasagna. Bad combination. For that reason, they never let me cross South 5th Street into the Italian block. I didn’t mind too much, until the one reason to change my life drove into my garage during late April, last year. Maria.
After that I got to thinking. Manuel and Maria. Kinda has a nice ring to it. At least I think so. See, up till a year ago, I was the short, brown guy on the corner who went to the gym on weekends and spent the rest of his time working in his father’s car garage.
Then that morning, in drives this polished Mercedes. A nice car. The sparks from my brother’s grinder reflect off the fender like fireworks. The guys all pick me to go say hi, and so, rubbing an oily cloth on my greasy hands and arms, dripping with sweat from the hot sun, I go.
The window rolls down, and there’s a girl driving. Well, not a girl. A young lady. Mama always tells me to think about women with great respect, and this girl…well, she makes you respect her with the little smile, and the curling, black hair, and the glowing black eyes. She says she’s ‘Maria’.
I don’t know what I did after that. Something to the front tyre. And then the emissions. Before I know it, she’s inside chatting with Mama – who told me she never talks to Italians – and I’m lying on my back under the car, greasing the gears and checking bolts. I don’t think I was even thinking. In the end, I just charge her for a tire change. Her smile would have made me forget the bill if I hadn’t seen Papa driving in just then.
Anyway, I didn’t see her again for a month. She came back, saying something was wrong with the fan belt. I don’t remember anymore. All I do remember is asking her out for a date that weekend. And her saying yes. Then I really did forget the bill. Someone told me afterwards that she left a really nice tip, and they always said it was to pay for Mama’s tea.
But I’m rambling. So I start seeing Maria, and before you know it, our families are rethinking things. It’s like it finally clicked that we’re third generation Americans, and we all go to St. Joe’s anyway… just at different times.
So, after about five months, we start seeing Fall and the air turns colder. Maria and I are on a date, just walking through downtown, and we see this poster in front of the bookstore. It had a picture of this flashy, young Italian jerk with his long dark hair combed just perfectly this way, and his eyebrows sort of up and sort of down this way, and his Armani suit unbuttoned down three buttons so the world can see his scrawny, hairy chest.
So. My reaction? I’m disgusted. I don’t need to see anymore. I get enough machismo from the gym rats back home. I don’t know much about him, except that the magazine racks love sporting his pictures on page one, and every girl stops to look at him. I don’t get what they see in him.
And then Maria, with her arm through mine, stops for a moment.
This sick feeling hits my gut like a broken socket wrench. I stop too. I look at her. Does she think he’s handsome? Should I… drop three buttons?
But I see sadness in her eyes. So I shoot a quick look back at the poster. Why sad? There’s the idiot, with his idiot, ‘charming’ smile above his name, Nicolo Pareschi. Even the name sounds like a wimp trying to be a man.
Maria points at the words toward the bottom. It says that Nicolo is inviting people to nominate their prettiest neighbor to model his new line of Italian winter coats.
Maria shakes her head. “I wonder how many silly airheads will jump for this.”
I blink. “What do you mean?”
“This kind of beauty competition draws the saddest girls, who think they have nothing to live for but their next manicure appointment. And the people watching it are even sadder; they never get off the couch.”
“Much less cut their nails, right?” I grin, and she smiles too.
Feeling a little better, I look at the poster, trying not sneer back at Nicolo. Somehow he’s able to sneer and still look…what’s the French word? Debonair? Sound’s right. It’s as if he’s telling me ‘I’ve got it all’. Yeah right.
Maria tosses her head and starts walking again. She has a distant look in her eyes. “What’s most sad about it all, is that Nicolo has been doing this for years, and it’s become like a reality show. Now he’s hitting the smaller towns looking for new faces.”
Glancing at her perfect profile, I say “Well, why don’t you enter? You’d win hands down.” Oops. Did I just make a big mistake?
She laughs and lays her head on my shoulder. “Manuel, I’m not stupid. I don’t need to go on national television to be told I’m pretty.” She glances at me coyly. “I can call you anytime.”
With the evening sunshine turning her black hair and black eyes a maroon blue, all I can do is smile. “You bet you can.”
We keep walking. Then, as we reach the door of the Olive Garden Restaurant, she stops and says, “You know what gets me most?”
“The girls think that being kissed by Nicolo in front of a thousand cameras is Cloud Ten.”
* * *
I forgot the whole conversation until she calls my cell a week later, just as I’m sliding on a new tire. “Manuel, I… I want you to recommend me for the competition.”
I freeze. “Umm…what competition?”
“The one with Nicolo.”
My stomach turns to used grease-slop, and my mouth goes dry. You know the feeling. “Why?” I whisper.
“You trust me, right?”
“I’ve got a feeling about this.”
And that was all. She wouldn’t tell me any more. So I make the call.
Maybe she’s got a good feeling about this. I just feel like a load of dog meat.
That weekend, I’m sitting backstage with her at the City Opera house, with something like fifty thousand other girls and their mothers and their girlfriends. No serious Catholic man would be caught dead in a place like this. And yet here I am. For Maria. Sitting in between two Koreans, trying to read a magazine and look like I belong. I don’t think it’s working.
I’m glad to God we had a cold snap that day, because everyone came in dressed warmly against the weather. I try to ignore that kind of thinking and focus on Maria. I don’t think she ever looked as beautiful. I don’t know what it was. I’m no beautician like Mama, but I know what makes a pretty girl. I don’t think she was even wearing makeup. Just this cream-colored dress that would have made el santePadre Pio proud. Elegant.
One of her hands is holding mine. The other one is praying a rosary. We’ve been here for something like two and half hours, and she’s still praying. I don’t know what to even think. Maybe I should pray too…
A high blabbering comes through the PA speakers. I can’t make out any words. I don’t think people ever do, especially in a room full of fifty thousand women and their fifty-thousand different perfumes. Okay, fine. Maybe there’s only two hundred. Same difference. Anyway, everyone seems to know what was said, except for me, and they all get up and head over to the doors leading to the judging rooms.
Maria tenses her fingers around mine. I glance down at her hand, pale against mine, delicate against my five thumbs.
I brush my lips on her forefinger. “Maria-” I try not to sound like I’m begging, “-talk to me. What are you doing?”
She doesn’t open her eyes. “Manuel, you trust me, right?”
I swallow. All I can think of is Nicolo plastering his soft, Italian lips on hers… “I…” I grit my teeth. “Sure.” Do I? Do I really? Then why do I feel like St. Lawrence grilling like a human tamale?
“Alright then. Wait for me.”
She gets up and starts to walk toward the line. I’m still holding her hand, my whole insides screamingdon’t let her go! I’m not going to let her go. Not in a million years. Not for a thousand dollars. She’s my girl. She’s my beating heart. Our names are scratched inside a heart on the end of the pier out by the beach. Manuel and Maria. It has that ring to it. I want her wearing my ring.
My fingers separate and her hand pulls away from mine.
Now I feel like I need a fix. I’ve never felt this way in my whole life. Well, maybe once, when I was eight and I wanted that bike…but this is different. I’m looking at the most beautiful girl in the world walking towards a beauty contest, and I’m terrified she’s going to win. Terrified that she’ll like Nicolo. Terrified that he’ll corrupt her.
Then she turns and gives me this quick smile, like she’s saying “I know what I’m doing,” and she disappears through the doors.
Everything goes quiet inside me. The room around me is empty and silent, a few fans pushing empty candy wrappers, hair curlers and some newspapers across the linoleum floor.
I think I sleep-walked out the back doors and in through the front. There was only standing room, so I was stuck standing in the aisle, with crowds of faceless faces all staring at the stage, waiting for the curtains to rise, and for the judges to finish judging.
Half an hour goes by, and I’m starting to get cramps in my legs. Cramps in my heart too. What if she loses? Will that affect us? Will she lose her self-confidence? Can anything I say convince her that I still think she’s my million-dollar girl?
And what if she’s doing this because she thinks that she can make money for us? I feel even sicker at that idea. Am I prepared to let her go? If she wins, and gets kissed by that jerk in a black suit, will I even drive her home?
I start praying that the Sante Madre de Dios does something. I don’t understand what Maria’s thinking. But I’ve dated her long enough to know she doesn’t think stupid. She’s the most Catholic girl this side of the Vatican, that I know. But would such a Catholic girl do this?
I think I’m going to have a stomach ulcer. I need to trust her. I love her, don’t I?
Then the music starts playing, a dramatic something that doesn’t make any sense. I’m listening for voices, maybe her voice. I’m half expecting her to come out of nowhere and place her hand on my shoulder, and tell me “I didn’t make it”. In fact, I wish she would.
Then the crowd starts cheering. The curtain is going up. The stage is covered with a massive winter scene of white styrofoam and cloth, tinsel and bubbles shooting out from bubble-bath machines in the wings. It looks all so…plastic. Colored lights blast in and shine on the slim, perfect suit of… Nicolo Pareschi.
Smiling his easy smile, he grabs the microphone like it’s a hot dog, and walks easily across the stage, waving at the hundred thousand girls in the audience like he’d just bought them all wedding rings.
Then a line of girls come walking in, wearing his exotic winter coats. The music plays louder, and the crowd stands up screaming. I can hardly see who the girls are for the fountain of bubbles and silvery tinsel boiling through the air.
There’s… about twenty, I think. Out of all the number I saw go in? Then my eye catches sight of one of two television screens hanging above the stage. How didn’t I see that before? The faces of the contestants are huge, smiling, coyly batting their eyelashes at mainstream America, hands clasping their collars tight against their throats and posing this way and that to show off the coats’ long lines. At least everything’s modest.
Nicolo waves the crowds into silence. His oily, Italian voice purrs from the speakers. “Welcome to Season Ten, of ‘From Pareschi, With Love’!”
The crowd screamed again. Someone’s going to make a fortune in cough drops.
Nicolo bowed. “As you can see this lovely line of ladies here…” The line titters, and he continues. “The judges have struggled, and striggled and stroggled… wait this isn’t English, is it?” And the crowd laughed back.
I study each face to see Maria. I can’t find her. She didn’t make it. My heart relaxes, and goes into overdrive. Now what? What will the long drive home be like? What am I going to say? I don’t think I could take it if she breaks down and starts cr–
Nicolo’s face dominates the screen, and he does his idiot eyebrow-thing. A ‘dashing wiggle’, some might say. Girls around me collapse against each other. I’m seriously missing something.
“You can see the beautiful coats our contestants are wearing tonight. All of them are original designs handmade by our special team in Austria.”
The crowd oohs. I try to copy his idiot eyebrow-thing.
“And now, the time has come for me to make the greatest decision of the evening! Who is the most beautiful girl? Who will grace the front of Pareschi’s advertizing for the next season, and travel to Italy to market these gorgeous winter designs?”
Suddenly I think I’m going to be sick. Really sick. I should have brought binoculars.
I think I see Maria standing second from the left, her head down, one hand in her pocket. I can guess what she’s holding…
A cameraman scuttles out from the wings hefting a huge, black camera and follows closely behind Nicolo as he stops and says a few words with each girl. Their faces fill the screen for several seconds. Each one looks like they’ve gone into trances as soon as he flares a nostril.
Silly airheads, Maria had called them.
And then her face fills the screen. Nicolo actually pauses for a full two, arrogant seconds in silence, and then moves on to the last girl.
That’s it. Maria’s picture will be all over Italy in forty eight hours. She’ll be Nicolo’s new advertizing puppet. I’ll go back to the gym. I’ll never date again.
Nicolo swings back to the audience. “Our time is almost up. So, now, with heartfelt sorrow at having to choose a beauty from among the beautiful… I invite…”
I’m going to have a heart attack.
“…the stunning and glorious…”
I’m a broken jackhammer.
Maria’s calm eyes stare into the awed stares of thirty million people around the world. The crowd is even quiet too, for about two seconds.
I don’t think my heart is even beating. How can she be so calm?
As the crowd starts cheering and yelling, Nicolo walks over to her, arms outstretched like he’s saying‘Come good and faithful servant into the glory that has been prepared for you’.
Maria? My mouth is so dry it’s starting to crack.
I know what’s coming next. Nicolo is going to walk her to the front of the stage, show her off to everyone, and then in a quick, daredevil move, will spin her around into his arms and… Right in front of all the kids, too.
But then something changes. I blink.
Maria hasn’t taken his hand, she’s walked to the front herself. Trying to make things look natural, Nicolo’s followed her right up and is standing close behind her, on her right side.
I’m getting so mad at his big, pink, fleshy lips. I’d have no problem throwing him out of a chopper over the Rio Grande.
The line of ignored contestants standing behind look like they’d probably accept my offer of a bazooka.
Someone else from the show, maybe it’s one of the judges, takes another microphone. He starts speaking as if it was a circus. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the most special moment of the evening!”
Nicolo does his little move. A smooth slide to the side, a quick tug on her left hand and she’s lying in his arms.
Seven cameras all zoom in like flies to honey.
And thirty million people, and me, watched her turn her lips away from him.
My heart surges. Was this her plan?
Nicolo pulls himself together, trying to laugh it off easily.
“What’s the matter?” He asks. “Don’t you want to kiss me?”
Instead of answering, she took the microphone from him. Her wonderful, beautiful, glorious voice echoed through the auditorium. “I wouldn’t kiss you, Mr. Pareschi, not for a thousand dollars.”
The crowd falls silent.
Nicolo stares at her.
I grin. That’s my girl. He’s feeling like jerked meat right now. In front of all those cameras too. What a great idea–
Nicolo gestures for another handheld mike and smiles. “A thousand? That’s a lot of money. I’ll tell you what,” and he reaches into his back pocket, pulls out his four-million dollar wallet, and fishes out five, one hundred dollar bills. I swear someone added a glow-effect on the money when the camera zoomed in.
He hands it to her.
She looks away, shaking her head.
He takes out another hundred and holds it out.
She ignores him.
He turns and grins to the audience, nodding approvingly, as if it was all his idea. He pulls out another four hundred dollars, and waves a whole thousand dollars at her.
I understand now. It’s personal. He’s lost his honor. He has to regain it…on international television. This is brilliant.
She pauses. And stares at it. She looks like she hadn’t expected him to actually pull out a whole thousand dollars. A lot could be done with a grand, given free like that…
My stomach churns. She’s not changing her mind, is she?
She glances up at him. Whoever is filming this really knows his stuff. She looks stunning.
“I…” she begins.
Nicolo smiles easily. “Here. To the girl whose kiss is worth a thousand dollars.” He turns to the public. “The most expensive kiss on the show!”
The crowd laughs, and waits.
Maria stretches out her hand.
“Wait–” I whisper, the blood draining from my face. I look around for something I can climb on to shout something, anything–
Her fingers rustle the glowing bills of money.
And push them away.
Nicolo and I both freeze.
“You don’t understand,” she says. She turned and faces thirty million people. “You can’t buy a kiss. My lips are the key to the deepest parts of my heart. I only want the man of my life kissing me.”
I swallow. Can she see me? Somewhere, in some distant part of my forgotten mind, I think about lifting my hand and waving. Or maybe whistling. Or jumping for joy. Or maybe just listening to what’s happening next.
Nicolo smiles. “Maria, it’s just a kiss.”
She turns and frowns. “No. It’s a promise. A gift. It’s all of me. It’s all I have.”
He blinks. “I’m offering you a thousand dollars. You can walk away from here with this, and it’s all yours.”
She shakes her head sadly. “A kiss doesn’t cost anything. And it costs more than all the money in yourfather’s empire.”
Then she hands him the microphone and turns away.
One girl in the audience stands and starts clapping. And then another. And then fifty surge up. And then the whole opera house is yelling and whistling and cheering as Maria walks calmly offstage and vanishes into the wings.
I…don’t know what to think. Much less feel.
* * *
It rains on the drive back. Maria stares out the window in silence, pressing her hand against her mouth. I just wait for her to say something. The wipers crank from side to side. The water swishes and marbles across the windows.
“Did I do the right thing?” she whispers.
I perk my ears. “What?”
She turns and looks at me slowly. “That was a whole thousand dollars right there.”
I glance at her, and then back at the road, and then back at her. “Are you serious?”
I throw on the brakes and slew the car off the highway onto the shoulder, over the rumble strips and to a stop. Keeping my hands on the wheel, I stare at her hard. “Yes. Yes you did. I just wish you’d told me.”
She smiled. “Would you have let me do it?”
“There you go then.”
“Why did you do it?”
She cocks her head. “I wanted to… redeem women in the eyes of the media. Nicolo won’t be able to use us anymore like china dolls.”
I smile slowly. “How did you know you were going to win?”
She pulls out her rosary and wiggles it under my nose. “Never doubt the Blessed Mother when she inspires you to do something.” She smiled hugely. And then she started, “Manuel,” and stopped.
“You could never buy a kiss from me. Ever. That’s why I’m going to give you this one…”
“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.” Marilyn Monroe