by Andrea Lena DiMaggio
Turn down the lights Turn down the bed
Turn down these voices inside my head
Lay down with me Tell me no lies
Just hold me close, don't patronize
Don't patronize me
Brandon Middle School Guidance Department, Virginia Beach, Virginia….
Donna slipped behind her desk and sat down; tired and frustrated. Another night of fitful sleep that included reaching over to hold and be held; only to be thwarted by the empty space next to her. She stared at the picture on the desk and sighed. Had it already been two weeks? Was she really as crippled as Kate had said? Was she as paralyzed as Kate had cried? Surely it couldn’t be all her fault, but the more she thought about, the more her own thoughts pushed past any excuse to add to Kate’s objection. If Kate had only pled in sadness; her thoughts instead screamed accusation after accusation.
“You can’t…. you don’t even care enough to fight…”
“Just like every other time. You don’t even know how to love!”
“After what you did, you don’t deserve to be loved….”
At the last words she turned her attention to the picture on the bookcase behind her. The girl in the picture seemed to smile, belying the feelings that surged through Donna like a lightning bolt of condemnation. She would have lapsed into tears but for the urgent need to stay together and for the sound of shouts outside her window…..
(From Ain’t No Easy Way Out)
Kim lay almost prostrate on the sidewalk; her arms akimbo and her books lying in the gutter in a muddy, leaf-filled puddle. Water streamed down her face, but as much as her tears flowed, it was more from the steady rain falling on her. She lifted herself up on her left elbow, wincing. In a moment she was sitting on the sidewalk, leaning forward with the same elbow on her knees.
Two boys stood just off the sidewalk in the driveway by the entrance of the school. They laughed, looking for support from the other kids. No one laughed along with them, leaving the boys only a bit disappointed, since the girl’s tears were enough to satisfy their middle-school ‘blood lust.’
The taller of the two motioned toward Kim with a shake of his head and the other boy walked and leaned over the girl, extending his hand to offer a help up. She reached out and he slapped her arm hard enough to evoke a second wince. Ignoring her pain, he turned to his partner-in-crime and chortled; failing to see a delicate looking hand grab his.
“Owwwwww!” the boy screamed as Kim’s nails dug into his wrist. She pulled him down and punched him once in the face, leaving his nose bloody and pushed a bit sideways. The other boy took one step toward the girl but felt a firm hand grip his shoulder. Spinning around, he came face to face with a very stern looking woman.
“I think it might be prudent for you to stay put, don’t you, Mr. Brunetti?”
“Aw …we …we were only having fun,” he protested. The other boy jumped up and ran…or rather…walked slowly to her.
“Did you see what she did to me?”
“Yes I did, Joey….Yes I did.” She grinned and looked up, enjoying the rain .
“Whatya gonna do about it?”
“I suppose I can accompany you and your colleague here to the nurse’s office and then perhaps a stroll down the hallway to mine?”
“Well then, let’s just go straight to my office and write up your in-school suspension right now, shall we?” The boy looked at her with pleading eyes before resigning himself to his fate. As the two were being led away, the woman turned back to watch a couple of girls and one boy help Kim to her feet. She brushed herself off and looked over and saw the woman shaking her head with a half-frown while giving her the thumbs up before she walked the girl’s brothers through the front door and away.
Cause I can't make you love me
if you don't
You can't make your heart feel
something it won't
Here in the dark
in these final hours
I will lay down my heart
And I'll feel the power
but you won't
No, you won't
Cause I can't make you love me
if you don't
“You okay?” The boy rubbed Kim’s back as he helped her over to the cement wall by the front entrance. A tall, stern looking man ushered kids past the group of friends who had surrounded the girl in support. A few boys stopped, but the man tapped one of them on the shoulder and pointed to the front door.
“Keep moving, Gentlemen,” he said in a vague accent.
“The show’s over, move along,” he added, sounding like a Dublin Gardo. The boys looked at each other; forming a spontaneous committee of fools.
“I’m sorry, please forgive me? I thought I made myself clear.” He laughed before his expression turned stern once again.
“Unless you’d like to join me for some in-school suspension for bullying behavior, fellows, I strongly suggest you depart post haste!” One of the boys looked askance. The man smiled warmly before raising his voice just a bit.
“Get moving before you end up with me all day for the next month, yes?” The boys looked at each other nervously before quickly joining the queue entering the school.
“Thank you, Mr. Farrell,” a girl said. Kim barely lifted her head in acknowledgement. The man waved the remaining kids in line into the school and stepped closer to the small group of friends. He leaned closer and spoke.
“Hang in there, Kim. We’ve got your back.” He used his hand to point to the circle of friends that surrounded the girl. His gesture did nothing to staunch the girl’s tears, but his warmth and encouragement made it safe for her to continue as she buried her face in the shoulder of the boy sitting on the wall next to her. He winced slightly; more out of an awkward ‘I’m not ready for girls’ feeling than any embarrassment. The girl to his right stared at Kim and blushed; being quite ready but feeling just as awkward as the boy.
“Let’s go inside, okay?” Mr. Farrell offered his hand to Kim. After a moment she grabbed his hand and stood up.
“I think we need to talk with your Mom, Kim, okay?” The voice came from over Mr. Farrell’s shoulder. Donna Andrucci smiled and put her arm around the girl’s shoulder as the group walked to the entrance. Kim looked up at the woman and shook her head.
In a few minutes they were at Donna’s desk. Kim’s mother was on the way from work and would arrive shortly. Donna looked at the girl sitting in the chair catty corner to the desk and smiled a knowing smile but Kim wasn’t convinced.
“You don’t understand, Ms. A. They’re….”
“I know, honey. Maybe more than you know, but I understand.” She smiled weakly and recalled a time from her own past.
Virginia Beach Virginia, years before...
“Mario? You home?” Donna called from the front door as her mother stood behind her. She peered down the darkened hall and saw the glimmer of light coming suddenly from her brother’s bedroom door. She turned and took the bag of groceries from her mother and shook her head.
“I can get dinner started, Mom. Why don’t you grab the couch for yourself, okay?” She walked into the kitchen as her mother sat down and put her feet up on the couch. Nodding in relief, she walked to the front door and closed it as she began singing, ostensibly to herself, but she looked back down the hall to see her brother standing in his doorway; a mask of relief mixed with anxiety over yet another ‘close call.’ She walked back into the kitchen and found her mother standing by the fridge; her arms folded in demand, but with a grin on her face.
“I think you two can come up with something a bit more subtle,” she said as Mario walked slowly into the kitchen; his face sporting the expression of a condemned man.
“Mio figlio? No.” Bettina nodded at Mario and held out her hands. Mario put his head down, but she stepped closer and lifted his chin softly.
“Mia figlia, si? Le mie due figlie dolci!” She motioned to Donna and the girl sighed.
“But…Mom?” She shook her head in wonder as her mother laughed.
“Si, mie figlia,” she said with a nod of her head.
“Tua madre sa sempre…, si?” Donna shook her head again.
“A mother always knows, my sweet girls.”
Tallwood High School...
Donna was sitting in seventh bell Geometry when the phone on Mr. Pawlkowski’s desk rang. He picked up the receiver and listened intently before standing up. He walked over to Donna and spoke softly.
“Donna…. The front office just called. Your mother is here to pick you up. Don’t worry about homework; we’re going to review for the test tomorrow, okay?” She looked at him quizzically and he half smiled as he gently ushered her toward the door. Moments later she walked into the office. Bettina stood at the tall chest high desk; talking to one of the secretaries.
“Mom?” Donna put her hand on Bettina’s arm and her mother turned around. Donna could see that she had been crying.
“Your br….Mario is in over at Norfolk Children’s Hospital. We need to get over there, okay?” She was moving to the door; Donna almost in tow. In a few moments they were in the car headed up Kempsville Road.
“What happened? Mom?”
“Mario was in a fight. He’s …okay.” Her words sounded convincing and doubting at the same time. Donna leaned closer.
“A fight? He doesn’t fight? What’s going on?” Bettina pulled the car into the 7-11 lot and stopped and turned to her daughter. Her eyes had filled with tears and she was shaking; certainly in no condition to drive.
“I got my permit, Mom….let me….” Donna was already out of the car, walking to the driver’s side. She opened the door and helped Bettina up and out, and her mother nearly collapsed against the open door.
“It’s okay…I’ll be alright,” she managed to say between halting sobs. She walked around and got in the car.
“What happened?” Donna hadn’t meant it as a demand, but her voice raised in anger. Bettina turned to face her and spoke; again through halting sobs.
“He was in the hallway headed for his first class and a couple of boys jumped…..they beat him. B…b…”
“It’s okay….I sorta knew already by the look on your face.” She bit her lip and leaned closer. Raising up just a bit over the console, she kissed her mother on the forehead.
“We’re going to be okay, Mom….we have to be okay.” She shook her head twice before starting the car, and they were back on the road to the hospital.
Norfolk Children's Hospital...
“Hey….” Donna said softly. Mario peered through swollen eyes and past the tube coming from his nose to a respirator on a wheeled pole next to the bed. His face under both eyes was discolored and a bandage covered what was probably a cut next to his left ear.
“H…” He gasped. Bettina had regrouped on the elevator up to his floor. She sat down and held his hand.
“Mi figlia. Mi figlia.” She practically whispered. In spite of the pain he shook his head no.
Donna tugged at her mother’s coat sleeve and shook her head in mirror to her brother’s gesture. Bettina stared at Donna and realized the protest that her son displayed went beyond mere physical injuries. Whatever the boys had done to him must have been accompanied by words even more painful. He turned his head to the side and began to cry into his mother’s arm. She stroked his arm and she was tempted to bless him with another endearment from her native tongue, but that would be too specific and painful as well. She smiled weakly at him and said ‘my baby’ before her own sadness overtook her and she joined him in weeping over the hatred the boy had just endured.
Donna looked upward and mouthed a few words in prayer before she stepped next to her mother; reaching out to place her hand on top of her brother’s head as she joined in crying over the hurt that had been inflicted on Mario for the second time in six months.
“Ms. Andrucci?” The sound of her name being spoken brought her swiftly back to the present. She smiled at the girl.
“You said… you knew wh…what I was going through?” The girl spoke with a slight stammer; still feeling very insecure and afraid. Donna nodded. It had gotten easier over the years, but it was still hard not to cry; she had given up trying and just let things flow and ebb for the benefit of the girl sitting in the chair next to her desk.
She reached back and pulled the medium sized picture off the bookshelf. Pointing to the photo; she half-smiled.
“She looks a lot like you, Ms. Andrucci. She your sister?”
“Yes, Kim. This is my sister Maria. She….” Donna began to tear up at the memory.
“What’s wrong?” Kim’s eyes grew wide in a dread. Donna pursed her lips and looked away for a second before answering.
“My… Maria was a lot…maybe almost exactly like you, Kim….she….” At the words, the girl looked down at herself; a habit borne of shame and fear. Without another word, Kim had completely understood Donna’s meaning…at least most of it. She tilted her head slightly as the dread grew.
She…she was…. Oh…Ms. Andrucci…I’m so sorry.” The girl’s eyes filled with tears as she took the picture from Donna’s hands; almost reverently as she stared at the girl’s picture. It was true that Maria did closely resemble Donna, but the photo brought home the reality that in so many ways Kim resembled Maria Andrucci as well. Donna half-smiled; an odd sense of relief that came from understanding that Kim knew she wasn’t alone in her struggle to be herself.
“I didn’t mean to make you cry, honey. I’m so sorry…”
Kim handed the picture back to Donna and smiled through the tears at the words before replying.
“Guess what my middle name is? Mom and I picked it out....and maybe now I know why.” She didn’t really need to repeat the name as her bright smile told Donna everything.
“You…. You don’t mind, do you? I mean I don’t have to keep it. I can pick another…okay?” Kim put her head down slightly. Donna stood up and then knelt down in front of Kim; softly lifting her chin. She bit her lip and held back the tears long enough to speak,
“Oh Kim, honey? It's your name. I wouldn’t have you change it for the world. And somehow I think she’d be honored, okay?” Donna held it together long enough to see the girl grin broadly even as she leaned forward with open arms. She pulled the girl into awkward embrace and patted her on the back, eliciting a relieved sigh followed by more crying as Kimberly Maria Brunetti took one more step on the road to being herself.
I'll close my eyes then I won't see
the love you don't feel when you're holding me
Morning will come and I'll do what's right
just give me till then to give up this fight
and I will give up this fight
To be continued...
I Can’t Make You Love Me
Words and music by
Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin
As performed by Sarah Bettens
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