About The BookLaila Levin enjoys a successful marriage and a thriving career as an I.T. executive in Austin, Texas, but she can’t quite shake her lifelong sense of not truly belonging anywhere.
When her company announces a major layoff, Laila finds herself caught between an unscrupulous CEO and her promiscuous boss. Then news of her college roommate’s suicide stirs up a dark secret involving three devious friends from her past. One has betrayed a vow, another wants to rekindle their romance, and the third is out for revenge.
Suddenly for Laila, it’s 1969 again. She’s only seventeen, and she’s left her sheltered home in Long Island for college in Connecticut. Amid protests of the Vietnam War, she’s tempted by the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that rule her generation. Laila gets swept up in a deceptive love triangle with two older locals and initiated into their unethical hippie family. Too late she realizes her search to belong has led to tragedy.
Laila must now juggle the demands of her perplexed husband and her baby boomer past forcing her to make choices that endanger her survival and challenge her conscience.
She learns that the lines between right and wrong are often blurred, and sometimes you have to risk everything to be true to yourself.
Get Up To SpeedMEMOIR MEETS THRILLER: Set against a 1969 psychedelic love-in backdrop, The Girl From Long Guyland is shared through the eyes of Laila Levin when decades later, an unsolved murder pulls her reluctantly into her past. A dramatic collision of then and now – entwining family, marriage, profession and ethics.
An exciting tale of past crimes and dangerous friendships.
CHAPTER ONE – Lost in Texas
Austin, Texas, 2012
A couple dozen stars and the eye of a yellow moon pierce light through a sky filled with smoke. I look out the broken window to the ground below. Crumpled in the weeds is a lifeless body with red-flecked eyes, a bushy mustache, and sweet smile.
Vapor seeps into the room. I can barely breathe. Ben wraps his arms around me sobbing. Denise lies in a catatonic state perched on the bed. Why is she only wearing her bra and panties?
Chris stumbles inside the room. His eyes glow like diamonds. He cranes his head out the window. “We gotta do something, man.”
“I’ll call for an ambulance,” I say.
Ben gulps, “That’s not a good idea.”
“We have to,” I insist. “For Godsakes.”
“He’s dead, Laila,” Chris says.
Tears sting my eyes.
WITH A JOLT, I awake whimpering. The nightmare has infested my dreams for years. It may be time to see a shrink.
The anxiety subsides when my husband Eduardo arrives with a cappuccino and the morning paper. “Are you okay? It sounded like you were crying.”
I clear my throat. “No, no, I’m fine. Just a dream, I guess. I’ve never discussed these recurring nightmares with him. Eduardo’s got his own problems. He was recently laid off in a corporate downsize and refuses to talk about it. There’s lots of tension in our home right now. Maybe we should both see a shrink.
From our king-size Tempur-Pedic bed, I sip the mug of coffee and stare at a cloudless sky and the sapphire water of Lake Travis. The serenity of the moment is interrupted by the sound of NPR news blaring from my alarm clock. Time to go to work. I shower and dress for a managers’ conference forty miles away.
AN HOUR LATER, I enter a pavilion filled with mounted animal heads and good old boys, and wonder how this counter-culture Long Island girl ended up in Texas. Yes, it’s Austin, home of tree huggers and music lovers, but I’m mystified by the path my life has taken.
The Hobbs brothers, proud owners of the Burnet County Landfill and Exotic Park where LBJ Electric holds its annual manager retreat, greet me with toothy Texas grins and matching Stetson hats. “How y’all doing today, darlin’? Welcome to our home.”
I flash a smile but it pains me to know these men are the proud hunters of the dead animals in the hall. It gives me pleasure imagining their heads mounted next to the trophies.
As I head to a long pine table and retrieve my white-sticky badge with the letters LAILA LEVIN printed in magic marker, Darlene McIntire, dressed business-gorgeous in a navy suit and cleavage-leaking blouse, approaches me and waves. Darlene is an upper-level manager who advocates for women in the company and played a key role in my promotion from Database Analyst to I.T. Solutions Manager two years ago. “Meet me in the little girls room at break, hon,” she whispers. “There’s something I want to share with you.”
During the morning two hundred LBJ managers and I feign interest in long-winded corporate presentations. One of the executives reminds us that DIVERSITY is one of our company’s “Foundation Values.” Right. As one of only twelve women in the room, I try to look at the bright side: short lines to the ladies room.
A bald guy grabs the microphone and informs everyone it’s time for a break. Conversations revolve around Longhorns and Aggies, and of course, the beloved Cowboys. Go Tony Romo!
With nothing of substance to add to these discussions, I dash to the ladies room where I find Darlene at the mirror applying a fresh coat of mascara. She smiles at me. “Nice outfit.”
“Thanks.” My reflection reveals a contrast of wild curly hair with the Ralph Lauren suit and high-heeled boots I bought at Dillards yesterday. Like most in I.T., my preference is jeans and sneakers.
Three coats later, Darlene pops the mascara back in her purse and turns to face me. “Can you keep a secret?”
“John is going to announce his retirement.”
John Bell is the LBJ general manager. Rumors of his impending retirement have been rampant for weeks. “I’ve heard talk.”
“That’s not the secret. Bob E. is the heir apparent. Not to be announced today, but it’s pretty much a done deal. And he’s promised me V.P. of Corporate Services.”
I look away hoping she didn’t see my eyebrows jump to my hairline. “Congratulations.” Darlene is important, but not that important. This promotion is a big leap from Human Resources Manager. Certainly not done often in a company like LBJ. “Wow. Didn’t realize you had the seniority.”
Darlene blushes. “Succeeding in the boardroom is not the only way to get ahead.”
Oh my God! She’s sleeping with Bob Englewood, a.k.a. Bob E., the biggest flirt alive. Darlene has a great-looking husband and two kids. Makes no sense to me. But then I’m not that ambitious.
I’m trying to think of a good response when the buzzer goes off over the building’s loud speakers indicating the end of the break. I produce a weak smile and head back to the conference area with images of Darlene and Bob E. spinning in my head. Why did she share this with me?
I take a seat at my assigned table. John Bell, a short, stocky man sporting a bolo tie and a fine pair of ostrich boots, stands onstage tapping the microphone. “Good morning, LBJ managers. It’s good to be here at our annual meeting. I have some important announcements to make today. Before I do, I want to point out the emergency exits, and ask y’all to make sure to turn your cell phones off.” John delivers his big retirement announcement then drones on about the accomplishments of the company under his watch.
I doodle with colored pens trying to digest Darlene’s news, wishing I were anywhere but here.
John pauses, takes a sip from his bottled water, and clears his throat. “While I can’t promise there won’t be another layoff . . .”
The news jolts me to attention. I look around at my compadres who clearly are thinking the same thing. Brace yourself, it’s going to be a big one, and it could be ME this time.
Everyone sits in stunned silence as the sound of a cell phone chimes the Beatles’ song “Yesterday.”
Damn, it’s mine!
My neighbors smirk at me as I rummage through my purse. This cannot be happening. I could swear I turned it off.
Finally, I locate my iPhone, press a couple of buttons, but the melody plays on. Oy vey, my troubles don’t seem so far away. I just switched to the phone from my tried-and-true Blackberry last week. Vainly, I attempt to locate my reading glasses but after endless seconds, I bolt from the room. My face feels red and puffed like a ripe tomato.
On the patio, damage done, I finally locate my glasses and glance at the display, which reads “PRIVATE NUMBER.” Could it be Human Resources calling already?
The voice on the other end says, “Hey Laila, it’s Katie.”
It takes a moment to recognize the New York intonation behind the affected English accent. “Katie, how are you? Gosh, we haven’t spoken in ages. You sound so British.”
“I lived in London for a couple years but I’m back in L.A. now. You better sit down.” Katie B., always the drama queen.
I sit in an antique rocker and stare at the pale blue Texas sky.
Katie clears her throat. “Denise committed suicide yesterday.”
I try to speak but my mouth feels like it’s full of marbles. Finally, I gasp, “My God.”
“She was never right after—”
“Don’t say it. Remember the pact,” I whisper.
“I remember it.”
I suck in my breath. “It’s kept us safe.”
“We’re gonna have to talk about it. Denise left a suicide note,” she whispers.
Fear fills the membranes of my eyeballs. “Oh, Jesus.”
“I just got off the phone with Chris. A private detective showed up at his house in Tucson.”
“I can’t believe that son of a bitch lives in Tucson. My sister has lived there for years.” It’s been four decades since I’ve seen or heard of Chris, yet his name causes goose bumps to parade up my arms.
“I’m surprised you’ve never run into him,” Katie says.
“Tucson’s a big place.” Would we even recognize each other now?
“He googled me and found my phone number. He and Ben think we should go to the funeral.”
“Ben. You spoke to him, too?”
She laughs. “Yes, Jesus still lives.”
I blush at the sound of his name. “What is he like?”
“I don’t know. Same old Ben, I guess.”
“Did they find . . . ?”
She swallows. “No one knows what they’ve found or what she wrote in her note.”
To think just five minutes ago I was worried about my job, trophy animals, and Darlene and Bobby E. doing the deed.
Katie takes a deep breath. “We could all go to fucking prison.
CHAPTER TWO – Joey, the Hash King
Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1969
Sailboats floating on the blue water of the Long Island Sound filled the cover of the University of Bridgeport brochure. False advertising and a full academic scholarship offer had lured me to the mediocre Connecticut school against the advice of Mr. Cosco, my guidance counselor. He’d argued I should go to Wellesley or Johns Hopkins, two excellent academic colleges where I’d been accepted. But the schools hadn’t offered me near the amount of grant money as Bridgeport. Mr. Cosco was used to working with all the rich kids that attended West Meadow High, and seemed clueless that the daughter of a NYC fireman could not afford private school tuition.
A pre-college visit to Bridgeport would have told the real story: trashed beaches, a dismal gray sky, and the stench of factory smokestacks. But I didn’t really care. Playboy Magazine rated Bridgeport as one of the top ten party schools. My folks wouldn’t let me go to Woodstock last summer. Now was my chance to have fun.
Accompanied by my parents, I arrived at Bodine Hall, a red-brick-building on the corner of University Boulevard. The dormitory bordered a tough Puerto Rican neighborhood where a gang of bikers loitered in front of a diner. My mother, a tall woman with bouffant hair, pointed at them and clutched her hand to her chest. “What type of school is this?”
Pop ran his fingers through his wavy salt-and-pepper hair then shifted his eyes. “This is nothing like I expected.”
Inside the Bodine lobby, girls dressed in Levis and U.B. sweatshirts smiled at me as they lugged suitcases down the hall. Right then I knew the pleated skirts and loafers in my bags would never see the light of day. Thank goodness I’d brought along a pair of old Wranglers.
We rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and ambled down the hall with my overstuffed suitcase and duffle bag. LAILA LEVIN and DENISE MANELO were posted in bold lettering on the door of room 423.
My mother pursed her lips as she read my roommate’s name out loud. “Good lord, sounds like she’s Italian.”
I looked up and down the hall thankful that no one was within earshot. “Who cares, Ma?”
My mother spent the next hour unpacking the suitcases. She insisted on organizing all my clothes. “Underwear and socks should be in the first drawer, hang up your sweaters–”
“Ma,” I began, and then gave it the kibosh. They were leaving soon enough. I decided to set up my new Panasonic all-in-one stereo instead.
Pop checked his watch. “We better get going Ethel. We don’t want to get caught in rush hour on the L.I.E.”
My mother dabbed her eyes with a crumpled Kleenex. “You’ve always been a good girl, Laila. Remember, we trust you.”
I hugged her. They hadn’t let my older sister Rachel go away to college because of what Ma called her “wild ways” in high school.
Pop drew me into a bear hug. Then he pushed me away like he recognized the new phase beginning in my life. A tear slid down his cheek, which he quickly wiped off with his thumb. “Now don’t forget your old Dad.”
I’d never seen Pop teary-eyed before. “Of course, not.” I felt so mixed up. While I loved them a lot, it was time to leave the nest.
I walked them to their Chevy Impala, hugged each parent again, and waved when they drove off. Pop tooted the horn as he pulled out of the parking lot into the street traffic. For some reason that honking made me cry. Our final goodbye. I took a couple of deep breaths, wiped away the tears, and squinted at the sun peeking through the smog and clouds.
The new Laila Levin marched down the street in search of student orientation. I spent the next two hours listening to b-o-r-i-n-g speeches given by the college administrators, professors, and a couple of alumni.
Exhausted, I headed back to Bodine where I skipped the crowd at the elevator and marched up the four flights of stairs. When I reached my room, the door was open and it smelled like cinnamon incense. A small girl with granny glasses, and this totally cool auburn hair that flowed to her waist, stood thumbing through my record albums.
I lingered in the doorway unnoticed as she read the artists’ names out loud. “Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joan Baez, Traffic, The Band, Van Morrison.” She pulled out my new Grateful Dead album and placed it on the turntable. Who was this girl rummaging through my stuff? Ef-n nervy of her.
I cleared my throat.
My new roommate peered at me over thick glasses. “You’re okay, Laila.”
“Your taste in music is right on. I’m Denise, by the way.”
I decided against my first inclination to tell her to stay away from my things. “Thanks.”
“Music is fucking everything. I saw the Dead at the Fillmore last year.”
“I almost saw the Beatles at the Paramount, but they ran out of tickets and we ended up seeing the Dave Clark Five instead,” I said.
Denise tucked one leg under her other. “Who the hell are they?”
“Sort of Beatle copycats but more clean-cut. They like disappeared.”
“You’re from Long Island, aren’t you, Laila?”
“What of it?” I didn’t want to be stereotyped as a girl who came from there.
“Nothing. Seems like there’s a lot of you rich girls around.”
I laughed. “I may be from the island but I’m not part of that crowd. My father’s a fireman.”
“No shit. Mine was a cop.”
“Bummer. I was hoping my roommate would have expensive clothes I could borrow,” I said.
She grinned. “Hell, I was hoping for the same thing.”
We both laughed.
“You said your father was a cop. What does he do now?”
She gazed out the window. “He’s dead.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s okay. I mean it’s not okay, but it was a few years ago. He was killed at a crime scene. The NYPD has been good to our family. They gave me a full ride to Bridgeport. And helped my brother Danny, who’s been in and outta different type of facilities.”
“Jail, loony bins, drug rehab, you name it.” She slapped her hands together. “How ‘bout we take a walk down by Seaside Beach. I’ve heard we can cop a lid there. You do get high?”
My one experience at Camp Alamar probably didn’t count for much, but at least I’d tried it. “Who doesn’t?”
IT WAS LATE AFTERNOON as we strolled along the beach littered with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans (apparently a local favorite), Coca Cola bottles, toilet paper (yick), A&P grocery bags, a peanut butter jar, and other trash.
Denise pointed at something that looked like a synthetic jellyfish. “Ugh, look at that.”
“What is it?”
She raised her eyebrows. “You’ve never seen a condom before?”
I looked away. “Guess not.”
“My boyfriend Marco carried one in his pocket all the time. He used to say, ‘Just in case I get lucky.’”
I murmured, “Did he get lucky?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course.”
The wind blew grains of sand in our faces. The smell of salt-water mingled with smog and miscellaneous trash until another pungent aroma attracted our attention.
Denise pointed at several sand dunes about ten yards away. “Look over there.”
Three longhaired guys and a hip girl in a halter-top and maxi-skirt sat huddled on a wool blanket passing a metal pipe around. The guys appeared enamored with the wavy-haired brunette. One lit the pipe for her, while another held her hand on his lap. The third just looked desirously in her direction.
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The scene reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara surrounded by all the southern gentlemen in Gone With The Wind.
Denise gave me the high-five. Then she stopped to pat her hair and yank her V-neck sweater down to reveal more cleavage. When we reached the sand dunes, she produced a big smile. “Mind if we join you?”
They all looked up at us with bloodshot eyes. “Shit yeah!” said one, a burly guy with wild kinky hair. He pointed at Denise. “You, sit next ta me.”
“I’m Katie,” said the girl. “Which dorm do you chicks live in?”
It turned out that Katie not only had a room in Bodine, but she lived just down the hall. She told us she’d grown up in Westchester.
Denise sat next to the husky guy and he passed her the pipe packed with black rock. “I’m Joey, by the way. Joey Costello. Everyone knows me as the Hash King.”
Denise took a hit and handed the pipe to Katie. “Good shit.”
Joey put his arm around Denise’s shoulders. “What’s your name, gorgeous?”
One of the guys doubled up with laughter. “Manelo and Costello, you two are meant to be.”
Joey watched Denise’s every move and handed her a chunk of hash to take back to the dorm. I pulled out a ten-dollar bill but he waved his hands. “Don’t insult me, honey. Just give me her phone numba.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon gossiping, giggling, and gagging on the hash pipe with Katie and the guys. They all lived at North Hall, the boys’ dorm across the street from Bodine. Two of them, Jack and Hal, were freshmen, while Joey was a sophomore.
At one point we saw a couple of guys in leather jackets walking in the distance along the shoreline. Their hair was long and slicked back in ponytails, and they looked somewhat tougher than the guys I knew. More like hoods than hippies.
Joey stood and formed his hands into a foghorn. “Hey, Ben, Chris. Over here.”
“You know those townies?” Hal said.
“Where ya think I score my dope?”
The townie dudes apparently hadn’t heard Joey as they continued to walk along the beach.
Katie stood and said she needed to head back to get ready for a dinner date with a senior she’d met at orientation.
Hal’s face looked glum.
She bent down and kissed him passionately on the lips. “Call me later, okay?”
Hal looked puzzled. “Ah, sure.”
Jack poked Hal in the side as Katie sprinted away. “Nice way to get dumped.”
“She said to call her. That’s not getting dumped,” Hal insisted.
“He’s a senior. You’re just a dumb freshman, idiot.”
Joey grabbed Denise’s hand and led her away from us.
I remained on the beach with the two freshmen. They finally quit arguing and relit the hash pipe. “I’m done,” I said, when the pipe got passed to me. This was only my second time. I was already quite buzzed.
The three of us sat talking about how orientation sucked and what classes we each were registered for. The conversation turned to the war in Vietnam and the guys said how relieved they were they’d scored high numbers in the draft lottery.
Denise and Joey returned a half-hour later holding hands. Joey had a hickey the size of a half-dollar on his neck.
We all stared at the inky water and the star-filled sky. I felt a sense of euphoria as the sun set over the Long Island Sound. The night sky sizzled with purple and speckled red. Shades of pink-orange and bits of yellow reflected in the water. I was part of something big, the group, the beach, the sky. Of course I was totally shit-faced.
Then suddenly the euphoria ended. A police siren wailed and someone yelled, “RUN!”
CHAPTER THREE – The Feast
Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1970
We scattered down the beach and hid behind the sand dunes as two cops rushed out with a bullhorn yelling, “Stay where you are.”
I was panting like a Saint Bernard as I huddled with Denise, Jack and Hal.
But Joey, the Hash King, was nowhere in sight. Then, we heard the cops shout, “You. Stop right there!”
The four of us crouched together behind the sand dunes. Tears streamed down Denise’s face as they read Joey his Miranda rights. Jack started to get up, but Hal pulled him down and whispered, “It won’t do him any good.”
We didn’t see Joey again for weeks. Cute boys flirted with Denise all the time but she remained faithful to Joey. He had gained a sort of cult status around campus as the cool “Hash King” dude who’d been busted the first night of school.
Denise didn’t care much about her grades and dropped two of her classes. I, on the other hand, didn’t have the luxury to screw up. In order to keep my scholarship I needed a 3.5 cumulative average. That meant all A’s and B’s or back to Long Island. The thought of going home to my parents kept me hightailing it to the library.
Everyone was talking about the war in Vietnam. Peaceful anti-war protests became a weekly event on campus. Radical groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) gained popularity. In November, a half-million people participated in an anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC.
Our dorm room became a major hangout. We’d get stoned and talk about how we felt the world was out of control. A girl on the next floor got pregnant. We all helped raise money to send her to Puerto Rico for an abortion.
Denise became friends with Katie Birnbaum, the rich girl from Westchester that we’d met the first night of school. Katie drove a new Saab with heated seats. She had the grooviest outfits and the largest record collection in Bodine. Katie received more phone calls from boys than the rest of us put together.
ONE NIGHT I LEFT DENISE with some girls in our room to go get a six-pack of Cokes we’d bought from the refrigerator in the hall. I was headed back to the room with the sodas in my hand when someone grabbed my shoulder.
At first I didn’t recognize the dude standing behind me in an oversized tie-dye T-shirt, and a pair of aviator shades.
“Do you remember me?”
He’d lost a lot of weight. “Joey?”
“I’m back in action, baby. Is your foxy roommate still available? Please tell me she doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
I took Joey back to our dorm room. Denise screamed and raced into his outstretched arms. They’d only known each other that one night but something special had taken place.
The next night Joey invited Denise to his dorm. She insisted I tag along but I told her I needed study for a Biology test.
She grabbed my navy peacoat and handed it to me. “Can’t you fucking study later?”
I threw my coat on the bed. “What’s your problem? You know how much pressure I have to keep up my grades.”
She swallowed. “Okay, I admit it. I’m afraid to be alone with him.”
“Really. Why is that?”
She adjusted her granny glasses. “Have you actually . . . you know, done the deed?” Should I lie? I so wanted to shed that prude reputation from high school. But could I bullshit my best friend? “No, well, almost, with Tommy Abrams at Camp Alamar. But I got scared at the last minute, bolted from the counselor cabin, and ran down the hill.”
She chuckled. “He must have been pissed.”
“Hell, yeah. Didn’t take but a day before he found some fast little number. It broke my heart.”
“This may shock the socks off of you, but, well, I haven’t done it either.”
I was confused. “But what about Marco? You said he used the condom, remember?”
“Yeah, after he dumped me he used it all right. The bastard.”
Holy shit! Denise shared my virgin status. “I never would have guessed.”
She smiled. “Have you ever thought of the irony that our mothers had to keep it a secret if God forbid they got deflowered.”
“Or no one would marry them, is what my mother always said. She told my sister Rachel that when she discovered her in bed with her high school boyfriend,” I said.
“And here we are the first generation in women’s history, embarrassed by our virgin state.”
I felt more connected to Denise now that she had shared her secret. We hung out together in the lounge listening to the Bodine girls brag about their sexual escapades and wink at each other. Rarely did we join in the conversations other than to nod. I mean what could we add? How do you follow stuff like, “Oh, my boyfriend gives the best, you know, shit with his tongue?” Or, “Jimmy’s got the biggest cujones I’ve ever seen.”
A few days before Christmas break, Denise went to visit Joey alone. She didn’t come back all night. The next morning, I knew what had happened the second she walked through the door. “You did it!”
She cocked her head to the side. “I think the whole sex thing is overrated.”
“Shit, yeah, no big deal. He kisses you a while and his hands wander down your bra. Then he rubs your boob with one hand, slips the other in your pants. Next thing you know, he’s got his thing inside you and he’s jerking up and down. Bada-bing, he’s done, and lights a cigarette.”
“Did it hurt when you got your … you know, hymenijiggie broken?”
“Do you love Joey?”
“I-I don’t know. Just glad to have gotten the damn thing over with.”
I thought Denise’s reaction was really strange. It shattered the childhood fantasy I had from watching romantic movies like West Side Story or Gone With the Wind. Denise made it sound about as exciting as getting your teeth cleaned.
WHEN I RETURNED HOME to Long Island for Christmas, I felt alienated from everyone there. My parents were on my case for staying up late, talking long-distance on the phone to Denise, and refusing to go to synagogue with them on Friday night.
One day, my mother barged in my room as I was dressing, and caught a glimpse of me in my bra and panties. “Looks like you’ve gained a few, honey.”
“Well, maybe I have,” I said defensively. Cafeteria food choices were limited. I’d been eating more than I should have of comfort foods like macaroni and cheese and pizza. Ma had kept my sisters and me on portion-controlled diets all our lives.
She reminded me that I’d never find a husband if I got too fat. Especially a Jewish doctor or lawyer. They could afford to be choosy.
I was five foot seven and weighed about one hundred twenty-five pounds. “I’m not Twiggy,” I said, but she made me feel self-conscious even though everyone else said I looked slender. I began to worry every time I ate and avoided looking at myself in full-length mirrors.
My sister Rachel had married a pompous lawyer who bragged about all the money he made. She was only three years older than me but living in a world of china patterns, bridal chests, and baby maternity clothes. My old high school friends had changed too. One of them asked me if hippies ever took baths. Had I ever really fit in with these girls? Maybe it was me who had changed.
While I was home, we received news that a neighborhood boy, Billy Klafter, had been killed in an offensive on Saigon. He was a gangly kid with red hair and freckles and a discolored front tooth. As children, we had played tag and chased fireflies on balmy summer nights. In high school, Billy and I hung out together at the bus stop playing dumb games like Twenty Questions. It pained me to think I’d never see his freckled-face again.
In deference to Billy, I peeled off the American flag sticker my father proudly displayed on his Buick. At dinner that night Pop brought up what had happened to his sticker. “Who would do such a thing?” he wanted to know. “So disrespectful to our country.”
It was clear he didn’t suspect Amby or me were the culprits as he lectured us about all the crazy anti-war protestors in the news.
Ma added that she’d read in Life Magazine about these kids smoking LSD and losing their minds.
Finally, I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of it all and confessed that it had been me who had torn the damn sticker off from his car.
Pop raised his hand and for a second, I thought he was going to slap me across the face, something he’d never done in my whole life. But he put his hand down and locked eyes with me. “I fought for this country for four years and I won’t tolerate a daughter of mine defacing a flag. Is this what they’re teaching you at school?”
“We don’t belong in Vietnam.” I shrieked. “It’s not like World War II. And now Billy’s dead.”
“If you don’t like the war speak your voice in the voting booth,” he said. “You’re turning eighteen in April. That’s how we do things in a civilized society.”
“You just don’t understand,” I said then raced up the stairs to my bedroom. I grabbed my knapsack and began throwing my clothes inside feeling desperate to leave Long Island before I suffocated. But where could I go?
Just then the phone rang. My mother yelled from the kitchen that Denise was on the line.
After I told Denise what was going on with my folks, she suggested I come visit her in Queens. “Hell, I can’t wait to get outta my house too. I’ll get Joey to pick you up tomorrow,” she said. “You can come to dinner at his parent’s house.”
“Joey’s not gonna want me to tag along when he introduces you to his folks for the first time.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “He’ll be thrilled for you to join us. Joey’s always saying what a good influence you are on me.”
“Really.” I’d never have guessed that. “Okay, then. ”
She took a drag on a cigarette. “And then we’ll all drive back to Bridgeport in time for the demonstration Saturday night.”
JOEY AND DENISE ARRIVED Friday afternoon in Joey’s Ford Falcon station wagon. Denise was dressed in torn Levis and a green Army-Navy jacket. She peered at my mother through John Lennon glasses perched low on her nose.
As I made introductions, Ma narrowed her eyes like she was inspecting a rotten apple. Pop shook Joey’s hand then asked him if people mistook him for a girl with his long curly hair.
“All the time,” Joey said with an impish smile. “Sometimes they think I’m a homo.”
My father’s eye twitched a few times. Then he excused himself from the room.
I was freaked out by my parent’s behavior and couldn’t leave fast enough.
On our way to Joey’s house in Far Rockaway, we made a pit stop to pick up Denise’s mother in Flushing. A short bosomy woman with classic Italian features, she couldn’t have looked more different from the willowy copper-haired Denise. As we sat together in the back of Joey’s station wagon, she patted my hand and thanked me for taking such good care of her daughter.
We were greeted at the door of the Costello’s redbrick duplex with big hugs. When Joey introduced his mother to Denise, she squeezed her cheeks then turned to Mrs. Manelo. “I prayed for Joey to meet a nice Italian girl. Jesus has listened to me and brought Denise to us.”
I smiled thinking how Ma might say something like that , (omitting the part about Jesus), if I ever brought home a nice Jewish boy. Chances of that were slim.
Denise’s mother helped Mrs. Costello deliver endless platters of food from the kitchen. First they brought out olives and cheese, green salad, and fresh Italian bread. Next to arrive were lasagna, veal cutlets, and rigatoni. Last, but not least, came an array of desserts including chocolate cream puffs, biscotti, and cannoli stuffed with ricotta cheese.
I took a small portion of rigatoni and salad.
Mrs. Costello piled on a big slice of lasagna smothered in cheese and three huge meatballs on my plate. “Eat, eat, honey,” she said. “You could use a few pounds.”
“No, I need to go on a diet.”
“What? You a beautiful girl. If I had another son, I’d fix you up with him.”
I grinned. “But Mrs. Costello, I’m not Italian.”
“Okay, if I had another son and you was Italian, I’d fix you up.”
Everyone laughed and I stuffed my face with the delicious food unconcerned about the calorie count. It was by far the most memorable meal of my lifetime.
As we prepared to leave, Mrs. Costello gave each of us a bag of leftovers wrapped in tin foil. She hugged Joey then clung to him like he was headed off to war.
He tried to pull away but she held him fast. “Mama, what’s the matta?”
Tears sprung to her eyes. “I love a you so much.”
Joey’s ears reddened in embarrassment as he tried to extricate himself. “I’ll be home for spring break, I promise.”
She reluctantly loosened her grip. “You’re my favorite boy.”
Joey smiled. “I’m your only boy, Mama. Your only child.”
She kissed him on each cheek. “That’s why you’re my favorite.”
After hugging Denise she turned to me. “Italian or no Italian, you’re a nice a girl.”
The Costellos made me feel right at home. What a contrast they were to Ma and Pop who had made my new friends feel unwelcome. I felt more and more disconnected from my parents.
On the drive to drop Mrs. Manelo back home, she clutched my arm. “Too bad my son Danny’s not around,” she said. “He’d love to meet you.”
Denise turned around from the front passenger seat. “Yeah right. Big brother doesn’t get released from the pokey until tomorrow.”
Mrs. Manelo gritted her teeth. “He’s not in the pokey.”
“Okay, rehab. I can’t keep his schooling straight,” Denise said.
“Why do you bring up our dirty laundry?”
“Why do you pretend that my brother is normal?”
Mrs. Manelo squinched her eyes shut. She didn’t speak the rest of the ride.
CHAPTER FOUR – Eduardo
Austin, Texas, 2012
I snuggle in a lounge chair on my deck sipping my third glass of Sauvignon Blanc as a red-orange sun descends over Lake Travis. Unfortunately, my attempt to anesthetize myself has failed to block out Katie Birnbaum’s phone call. My stomach is in knots. Could we really go to prison for something that happened decades ago? I toss a rubber ball to my Jack Russell Terrier, Willow, as I ponder the situation. She returns it ten or twelve times before I tire of the game.
Having agreed to meet Katie in New York for Denise’s funeral, my immediate dilemma is what to tell my husband. In all the years we’ve been married, I’ve never told him about my roommate Denise. In fact, I’ve never mentioned that I spent my freshman year in Bridgeport, Connecticut, either. With good reason. I graduated cum laude from the University of New Mexico and Eduardo assumes I did all four years of my undergraduate degree there.
Would Ed understand and forgive me for stupid things I did as a seventeen year old? He was serving in the military while I was getting high and protesting the war in Vietnam.
What’s wrong with me? Denise is freaking dead. How bad had her life been that she’d choose to end it? Why did we never talk to each other again after–?
“Dinner will be ready in five.” Ed shouts from the kitchen.
I head to the computer and check my e-mail. There’s an appointment for tomorrow morning in my LBJ Outlook from Darlene. I decline the meeting and explain I have to go to New York for a funeral. My Gmail account has five spams and an e-mail from my sister Amby. Her daughter just got engaged and she’s attached pictures. After checking out the photos, I pull up Facebook. One new friend request from Katie Birnbaum Gold.
Message: Still love you like a sister. xxxooo Katie.
I accept her as a friend and respond on her wall. “Love you too. Laila.”
Katie is doing okay. Soccer mom, successful kid. Hello, a post from Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Oh, and twelve hundred sixty-two friends. I have, like, thirty-three.
Ed’s voice booms from the intercom. “Dinner’s on the table.”
I put my iMac to sleep and stroll to the kitchen. Should I tell him the truth?
Ed is squeezing lemon into a dish on the counter. His skin is bronze from gardening. At sixty, my husband remains good-looking, muscular, curly hair gone silver. He places a plate of grilled salmon with dill sauce in front of me. “How was your day?”
“You know how I hate those damn manager meetings. Hours and hours of the same b.s. How was yours?”
“Not bad. Finally got the rent from Marcus. Fixed a broken window at the vacant Frontier Trail house.” Ed spends most of his time puttering around some rental properties we own while he’s studying for his real estate license.
Why don’t I just tell him? We’ve had a solid marriage for over twenty-five years. Our two boys are grown, compassionate human beings thriving in their chosen careers. Not that all is perfect. Besides my husband losing his job, I suffer from occasional migraines and a herniated disk. Eduardo’s nephew just got busted for drugs after we paid for his rehab.
“Honey, I’ve, ah, got to go to New York for a couple of days.”
He meets my eyes. “Something wrong with the folks?”
“No, no, an old college friend died, and I want to attend her funeral.”
“I’m sorry. Who died?”
“Denise Manelo. You don’t know her. Katie Birnbaum called today to tell me about it. She’s flying in from L.A.”
“Did she live with you and Katie in college?”
“No, well, sort of.” I’m such a lousy liar. I should just come clean with it.
He reaches across the table, pushes a loose strand of hair back from my forehead. “How come you’ve never mentioned this Denise to me?”
“She dropped out after freshman year. We kind of lost track.”
He studies my face. “She must be someone pretty significant for you to fly all the way to New York.”
Once again, my iPhone interrupts. A 303 area code pops up and I assume it’s my sister. I haven’t had time to program my contacts in yet. “Hi, Amby.”
“Not Amby, sweetheart, it’s Chris. I’m calling from Tucson.
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