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Theirs had been a young love, a tragic teenage catastrophe, a gut wrenching emotional whirlwind of excitement and mystery. It began when she moved to his neighborhood, across town from all she had known and loved, when she was only fourteen. But Louie was fourteen, too. She knew him from a distance, had never deigned to actually speak to him. He was from that gangster Russo family, and everyone knew what they were all about.
Officially, his mother had committed suicide when he was a young child. But everyone knew his father had actually pulled the trigger for her great sin of falling in love with another man. His sister had bettered herself by marrying a local high school football hero. But that was after her father had chased a black boy out of her bedroom window with flying bullets. And his brother, Ricky, only two years older than he, had numbed his brain to the pains of his family miseries with any drug available.
But Louie was an enigma. He didn’t speak much, content to move through the school hallways without much ceremony. She, on the other hand, had just made the cheerleading squad. She was known for her own athletic prowess, and her flair for being one of the best-dressed girls in junior high. She moved from class to class with only two or three chosen girlfriends, but was used to the constant hellos and frantic hand wavings from those who wished to be associated with her. She wasn’t a snob, though. She simply didn’t realize her own popularity.
She became very aware of Louie’s existence the morning he fell into step behind her on the way to school. Her girlfriend from across the street knew him well enough to strike up a conversation. After all, it was her brother, the football hero, who had tied the knot with Louie’s sister. Usually she was very talkative, but on that morning, she didn’t know what to say. What could she contribute to a conversation held with the offspring of a gangster? She noticed he was very cute in that oh, so Italian way, in spite of his almost too casual dress. He tended to look straight ahead when he spoke, not really looking at her girlfriend. But she saw his eyes slide a glance her way every now and then. She thought he didn’t like her. He never spoke to her. And she thought it was a shame because she was really curious to know what the gangster life was all about.
The morning walk to school became a ritual. And still he didn’t speak to her. She wondered if he was waiting for her to say something first. No, that couldn’t be it. He was a tough guy, wasn’t he? He would be brave enough to make the first move. Well, he would if he liked her. Eventually, the walk home from school took on the same characteristics. She would walk with her girlfriend. He would follow behind, looking to all the world as though he was a part of their group. Occasionally, he would speak. But never did he speak to her.
Then end of the school year was fast approaching. She wondered how she would feel not experiencing his presence each morning and afternoon. Without even trying, he had become a part of her life. She knew she would miss him. Even though he only lived down the street, their worlds were far apart.
The day she sat in the grass on the gently sloping hill of her lawn, was a day she would remember forever. The sun was just beginning its descent to earth. Warm breezes were blowing. And the subtle fragrance of spring blossoms was all around her. Louie appeared from out of nowhere, dropping down beside her with calculated casualness. She didn’t say a word. She couldn’t. Her heart was in her throat. And when he curled his hand around hers, she stared straight ahead, pretending as though nothing unusual had just happened. The hours slipped by unnoticed, until the fullness of the moon painted a landscape of silhouettes. Neither had spoken a word in the silence broken only by the chirp of crickets.
When her mother demanded that she come inside because of the lateness of the hour, she quietly removed her hand. She was heading for the back door, when she felt him touch her shoulder. He spun her around slowly. His kiss was soft, barely there. And then he was gone, as silently as he had come. She stood, still as the night, listening for the sound of Cupid’s wings.
The summer moved too rapidly for her. He came to sit with her every night. And finally he talked to her about his hopes and dreams. He talked about the pain of losing his mother. He talked about his anger at society’s need to condemn a whole family for the sins of the father. And he told her of his love for her. She was frightened of his feelings. They were too young. She was afraid of allowing her own feelings to grow, worried that their tender ages would bear out the futility of it. She didn’t want her first love to be a love that dimmed with maturity. She wanted it to be a memory to hold on to in the darkness of old age, something she could pull from the shadowed recesses of her heart to smile at with tenderness. She wanted the relationship to end as romantically as it had begun.
Her wish was granted when her mother took notice of Louie’s constant faithfulness, his never-ending loyalty, the sheer intensity that was him. She was forbidden to continue seeing him. Her mother didn’t know him, didn’t know anything about the young man he wished to become. She didn’t want to know him. He was a threat to her perfectly ordered world. He was from that Russo family.
She broke it off amidst tears. He begged her not to do it, promised to do anything she wanted if only she would still be his. But she couldn’t defy her parents. She left him standing on the corner, the bright fall sun shining at his back. Her heart was breaking. But she had gotten what she wanted, hadn’t she? The end of their love affair was as romantic as the beginning.
Thirty years later, after her divorce, while she was struggling as a single mother of four, she found him again. She was visiting friends who lived down the block from her old home. Louie came into the open garage where they had been laughing, sipping on beer. He was as handsome as ever, but more polished, a successful business owner. He didn’t take his eyes off of her the whole night. Then he regaled the crowd with stories of his never-ending love for her. In front of everyone, he told her how he loved her still. The crowd went wild, loving the romance of it all. But she felt only pain. She had hurt him, with her silly notions that true love had to die a tragic death. She had wielded the knife that slaughtered a love so pure in its innocence.
She couldn’t say no when he asked her to go for a drive with him. She rode silently until he pulled into an open field. Stars twinkled overhead; the air was filled with the scent of a warm summer night. She didn’t say a word when he took her hand in his. He told her about the events in his life, his sorrow over the break up of his marriage. He worried that he was a Catholic doomed to hell for allowing a divorce. He told her how he often thought of her and the evenings they had shared on her lawn. He pulled her into his arms, holding her against the agitated beating of his heart.
And she was afraid again. She didn’t want to risk renewing a childish romance that might only end in more sorrow for the both of them. What if he was just suffering from the loneliness, which follows an unwanted divorce? What if he was exaggerating his feelings for her because of his need to be a part of someone? But her biggest fear was that she would allow herself to feel safe with him, only to lose him in the end. What if his wife had a change of heart and wanted to renew their vows instead of tearing them asunder? In spite of her fears, she allowed him to kiss her, wanting to relive the innocence they once had shared.
She dated him several times after their unorthodox reunion. He hadn’t really changed much over all the years. His intensity still scared her. And she was too caught up in her own insecurities to see that he was offering her all she had ever claimed to want. While she was in his company, her spirits soared. He brought happiness and light into her life. But she was afraid the darkness would return when she wasn’t prepared to deal with it. So she sharpened her knife, and plunged it into her happiness.
She was visiting her mother at work when she got the news. Louie’s baby brother was filling her mother in on the sad state of affairs. She listened with horror, eyes stinging with hot salty tears. She had to go to him. But they told her he wouldn’t allow her to see him. They claimed he didn’t want anyone to see him in such bad condition. She begged for the number to his hospital room, knowing in her heart he would want her to come.
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She dressed with more care than she had on her wedding day. She wanted to be beautiful for him, to make him proud of her. She picked the perfect dress, the perfect jewelry, and shoes. Her makeup was flawless. But her heart was breaking. She practiced her smile in the mirror, wanting to bring him the happiness he had always brought to her world.
She listened to him rant and rave about the unfairness of it all. She heard his tirade against the ineffectiveness of his doctors. He showed her the horrific bruising on his torso and limbs. He made her privy to all that even his family was not permitted to know about him. She didn’t try to cheer him up with useless, meaningless words of hope. They both knew he was dying.
His condition seemed to stabilize, and he was sent home. He was forced to give up his house and most of its contents, because he was too ill to live on his own. They spoke often, calling each other at all hours of the day, and talking late into the night. She wasn’t afraid of his intensity anymore. She accepted the truth of his love for her. And though she knew he was dying, she wasn’t afraid of losing him. She finally acknowledged that which she had denied herself for so long. His love for her was something she would carry in her heart forever.
When he asked her to marry him in spite of his illness, she wanted to give him his dying wish. She knew they would meet with opposition from his family. No one knew their childhood romance had become a life long journey. They talked about ways to break the news to his family. He was afraid of hurting them, making them feel useless to him. He asked her to give him two weeks to figure it out on his own. She agreed to wait for his call. In the end, it didn’t matter. Time was against them.
She found out about his death while sitting down to dinner with friends. Someone was talking about the Russo boy’s death and funeral. She laid her napkin gently on the table, being careful not to draw attention to herself. The heaviness in her breast threatened to crush her heart. Silently, she slipped outside and looked up at the stars on that cool October evening. She listened in the still of the night, and heard the soft fluttering of Cupid’s wings.