I find myself at midtown Manhattan. The tarot store on the street corner has blue lights that seem to resemble the shining color of the waves. They form the name Midnight, a black hole with one white eye. I walk into the store and dig my hands into my pockets. A woman stands behind a counter, playing mindlessly with a deck of cards. She is dressed in large coats and golden necklaces. It wouldn’t surprise me if the gold was real. She flips them up and lets them fall onto the table in perfect order. “Something wicked this way comes.” She mutters, “May I help you?”
“Yes.” I run my fingers through the hanging beads as if I were interested in buying them. “I’m looking for a potion.”
“What kind of potion?” The woman walks out from behind the counter and approaches me.
“A handful of forget-me-nots.” I reply, “Something wicked this way comes.” I pull out a card with my name and flash it to the woman. The woman smiles at me. She walks over to the curtain covered wall and sticks her hand in between two cloths. I hear a door unlock.
The wall between the curtains moves back. “Welcome to Midnight, Ms. Cavallaro.” The loud jazz blasts through the door. I step into the hallway. A young girl smiles at me as I leave my coat over the counter. She hands me a token with the number 37 before she starts to fold up the coat. I start to strut down the corridor. I’ve never liked Midnight much compared to the other speakeasies. The walls are covered in nothing but a rustic wall of bricks. The yellow lights hurt my eyes as I try to stare into them. The black marble floor makes each step I take sound like marbles bouncing off concrete.
The curtain at the edge opens up as I am about to go in. A couple stumbles out of the speakeasy, the smell of harsh gin all over their clothes. They ignore me and pass by without a second hesitation. I hold the curtain open and step in.
The booths are different here. They are not pushed off to the sides but rather dug into the lower floor as if they were small rooms of their own. The ladies and men dance on the marble floor. The scandal is deafening. The heels and the laughs and the trumpets and the voices are too much. I can barely hear my own thoughts. I spot a familiar sight in the middle of the booths. Her black bob could be easily confused, but the way she holds the drink, her fingers touching it as if it were made out of fire or ice, lets me recognize her. It is no surprise Mariella is in this speakeasy. She lives close by, a frequent client by what I’m told.
I slide my way over to her. She’s got two emptied glasses in front of her. A boy is sitting by his side and loudly throwing his head back. I invite myself into the booth and slide next to her without even asking. “Valentina.” Mariella exclaims as she throws her arms around me, “What brings such a goody-two-shoes to the bad part of town?”
“That I don’t take every man I meet home with me doesn’t make me a goody-two-shoes.” I steal a sip from her cocktail. The punch in my mouth is soft and camouflaged by the bitter taste of fruit peels. I look up at the boy. He’s just a tad younger than Mariella and shares the same black hair, but his features are a lot rougher. I smile, “Hello, Emilio.”
“Good afternoon, Valentina.” He smiles back, “It’s been a while.”
“Why didn’t you come to my party last month?” I ask.
“Got grounded.” He grits his teeth.
“Aw, baby.” Mariella mocks. He is the only friend that’s still two years too young to qualify as an adult.
“Look who’s talking. Your parents took away your car when you didn’t go home one night.” I mention taking a drink.
“But I still could do what I wanted.” She argued.
“If it didn’t require a car, that is.” I mumble. She shoves me playfully.
“Well, I was just leaving anyway. It’s late.” Emilio comments.
“Bedtime yet?” I joke. Emilio scowled. “I’m just kidding, Emi. It’s fun to mess around with you. And you owe me one for not coming to the party.”
Emilio gives a soft smile, “Fine, I’ll let it slide. See you around, Mariella. Bye, Valentina.”
“Good bye, lovely.” Mariella waves as Emilio walks out of the speakeasy. She turns to me, “It’s been a while since it’s been just you and me and some limoncellos. Tell me, how’s gangster life treating you?”
“It’s a lot of work and not enough play.” I steal another sip. “You can’t imagine the headaches I get from getting those drinks to this place.”
“That happens when you’re drunk during the day and hungover during the night.” She grabs the drink from my hand and takes a sip, “But there must be some fun. Guns and blood and all that show.” I snatch the drink back and take a long sip. The bitterness burns my mouth. I keep drinking until the glass is almost empty. “Not so fast. I want some too.” Mariella pulls down the glass from my mouth. I want the heartbeat under my dress to stop. I want these voices in my head worrying and yelling to stop. I want life to stop just for an instant. I look away from her, evading the question. “Is something bothering you?”
I know I can’t tell Mariella. She beats her gums about anything and everything people say to her. “A lot of stress.” I reply, “We’re looking into a speakeasy that just opened up nearby. If it is an actual competition to us, we may have to take it down.” I finish the drink, “They’re talking about putting me in the frontline.”
“And?” She insists.
“I’ve never done something like this.” I confess.
“You’re gonna kill.” Mariella wraps her arm around me. “And you need something stronger. Stay here. I’m gonna got get a little treat.” Mariella stands up and walks toward the bar. I play with the remaining drops of alcohol in the glass, forming bigger and bigger groups of liqid.
I look up and my heart drops. “Are you stalking me?” I hiss at Martino.
“You seemed distressed.” He commented.
“Unlike when you are around.” I snap, “What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same.” He puts his hands in his pockets, “I live three blocks away, but you are far from your area.”
“The whole city is my area.” I reply.
“Forgive me, I expressed myself wrong.” He acknowledged. He seems a lot less intrusive today. He might have been drinking. Or maybe he’s sober. I’m not sure I know which one has more of an effect of him.
“I went for a walk.” I mumble.
“You must have been walking for a while.” He comments, “Is something in your mind?” I don’t look at him. I keep playing with the drops of alcohol in the glass. “May I sit?” I shoot a glance at him in silence. I don’t know if I should. No, I shouldn’t. But the nod comes involuntarily to me. Martino sits in front of me. He folds his hands on the table and leans it. I can’t help but let myself fall back onto the seat. “It’s the job, isn’t it?”
I just look at him without saying a single word. “Valentina, I know it’s hard. You know what it did to me.” I still fail to see what happened to him as his job’s fault. But the idea that it might be always linger in my mind. I play with my ring, still without saying a word. “You know what you should do?” He sighs, “Take the edge off. Just have one of those moments where the past fades, the future doesn’t exist, and it is just right then and there.”
“It’s easier said than done.” I mumble. The song ends and the tune changes. Now it is a slow, beautiful song as soft as silk that simply seems to whisper.
“A dance perhaps. It helps.” I turn my head to the side. Something wants me to take his hand. Something inside me is so desperate for any escape that will even take him. I don’t know why I do it, but I look at him and nod. He stands up and offers his hand. I take it.
He leads me through the black floor and to the middle of the dance floor. He places his hand over my waist in such a familiar manner. I put my hand on his shoulder. Our two hands meet on the left side as he begins to take a step forward, then backwards, then forward again. Swaying motion, soft hands, fading smile. His eyes are concentrated in my face but I don’t even dare to look at him. I don’t want to become more conscious of what I’m doing.
Martino lifts his hand from my waist and touches my chin. I look at him. His hand returns to its position. His eyes are that same tanned brown that I missed and I loved. I don’t know why I expected them to look more like red. I hate to admit it, but he is right. Just a moment, just a second of stillness with his arms around me is enough to make me stop. I think I might just have needed this more than ever.
“Valentina.” He breaks the silence, “I’m sorry about what I did back then. I’m sorry I hurt you. I promise I will never hurt you in that way again.”
“Martino,” I sigh. My mind is telling me to step away or do anything but to talk to him. Yet I can’t manage to listen to my head when every thought is frozen in place. “Do you think we could give it another try?”
Martino smiles softly. “I’ve been waiting for you to say that.” He spins me around and pulls me just a bit closer. I can feel his breath on my lips, his heartbeat against mine. He is pulling me closer and I know I should fight back but I fail to see a reason why.
Mariella pulls me from the arm. “Am I interrupting?” She exclaims. I don’t have time to answer before she continues, “Good. Vale, I need your help with a little something. Martini, stay.” She pulls me away from the dance floor and back into the booths. She walks me to the door and grabs both of my hands. “What the hell do you think you are doing?”
“It was just one dance.” I mutter.
“Just one dance?” She exclaims, “What was in that limoncello that’s making you lose your mind? Did you drink those homemade liquors?”
“I just thought-“
“No, you didn’t think.” Mariella argues. I shake my arms away from her hands.
“Who are you to tell me how to live my life.” I hiss.
“Who am I?” She yells, “I’m the one that sat through the sobbing, and the moping, and the calls at four in the morning, and the night at the hospital wondering if you were going to make it out alive. I don’t want you to go through that again.”
“I won’t. I know how to defend myself.” I argue.
“I trust you. I just don’t trust him.” She replies, “You want to do this? Fine, but really think about it. Remember how he made you feel, what he did to your life. Consider it before jumping into this.”
“It was just one dance.” I repeat.
“It is never just one dance with you, Valentina.” Mariella replies, “Sober up and think about it.” I nod. With all the things I have to think about, adding one more might just give me a headache. I walk out of the speakeasy and into the store once again. I don’t even think as I unstrap the bottle of alcohol from my boot and empty it in one sip. One by one, the thoughts hush themselves. One by one, they go out until only one remains. Fear.