It had taken me a while, that morning, to decide what to wear, but I was accustomed to being concerned with my own clothes, even though I didn't care about them much, not like Bobby's mother, who was forever seeking discount silk and cashmere, trousers cut perfectly to her tiny frame, jackets and skirts with good linings and labels. Much of the time I wore my nurse's uniform, the white washing out my thin freckled skin and making a garish orange of my hair. But let me change into anything snug, or short, or low, and I would see Bobby's eyes go narrow and bright.
Although it was always hard to tell exactly what would offend until the moment when he put his head to one side and looked me up and down until my pale skin flushed. "Jesus Christ," he'd say in that voice. "You wearing that?" And I would feel like a whore, me, plain Frannie Benedetto, who had been up half the night with her little boy who had a stomach bug, who had been on her feet all day carrying syringes and gauze pads and clipboards and pills, calming down the drunks and hysterics, stopping to talk to the children, placating the doctors. Fran Benedetto, who had never been with a man other than her husband. But let her wear a blouse whose fabric suggested the faintest hint of slip strap, and all of a sudden she was a slut. Slip strap over bra strap, of course, for if I wore a skirt and didn't wear a full slip, the way Bobby's mother always had, there was no telling what Bobby might do.
It was funny, after a while: I could tell you what Bobby liked and didn't like, what might set him off and how much. But I couldn't have told you as much about myself. I was mostly reaction to Bobby's actions, at least by the end. My clothes, my makeup: they were more or less his choice. I bought them, of course, but bought them with one eye always on Bobby's face. And his hands.
But Beth Crenshaw I would create myself, without reference to Bobby. I started to create her even before I found out her name in the waiting room at Thirtieth Street Station. Beth Crenshaw wore a loose, long flowered dress I'd found in the back of my closet from two summers before, the sort of dress that Bobby always said made women look like grandmothers. Bobby's own grandmother, his father's mother, always wore black, even to picnics and street fairs. "C'mere, Fran," she'd yell across her daughter-in-law's white-on-white living room, where she sat like a big blot of ink on the couch. She'd fold herself around me and cover me in black, make me feel small and safe. "Aw, God bless you, you're too thin," she'd say. "She's too thin, Bob. You need to make her eat." She'd died just before Robert was born, Bobby's Nana. I missed her. Maybe it would have happened anyhow, but I think Bobby got harder after that.
"The reason you hooked up with me," I said to Bobby once, when we were young, "is because my red hair and white skin look good next to your black hair and your tan."
"That was part of it," he said. That was a good day, that day. We played miniature golf at a course owned by a retired narcotics guy in Westchester, had dinner at that Italian place in Pelham, made out in the car at a rest stop on the Saw Mill River Parkway. Both of us living with our parents, he in the Police Academy, me in nursing school: we had no place else to go. The first time we had sex it was in a cabana at that skanky beach club his mother liked; a friend of his from high school who vacuumed the pool let us stay after closing. It didn't hurt, I didn't bleed. I loved it. I loved how helpless it made him, big bad tanned muscled Bobby Benedetto, his mouth open, the whites of his eyes showing.
Use of this excerpt from Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright© 1998 by Anna Quindlen. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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