December 21, 2006

The Insidious Riptide of Doubt

Almost as soon as Frankie and I get out of the Volvo at Strands, we are confronted with the swirling cloud of chaos that is the De Luca twins, a phenomenon that I am not unfamiliar with, but which I instantly worry Frankie is totally unprepared for, Italian heritage or not. I’d last experienced the craziness of Richie and Donnie in the seventh grade, when their poor mother thought I was the only responsible friend they had.

“Roy! Been a while, man!”

“Roy, who is this you’ve brought us? Since when do you hang out with amazingly hot women?”

“Tactless as ever,” I say quietly to a smiling Frankie as the twins approach in startlingly abrupt fashion. “Gentlemen,” I greet them each in turn. “Meet Francesca Rossettini. She followed me home from Santa Barbara.”

“Ah, an Italiana!” says Donnie. Or Richie. I can’t tell anymore.

“Si, certo” laughs Frankie. “Pleased to meet you”.

“Oh no no,” says Richie (yes, I remember now, that’s Richie- the polite one), “the pleasure is ours”. Well shit, we just got here. Two hours of traffic and now I have to deal with these weenies.

“So what’s up, Roy?” Richie continues. “How you been?” Yep, here comes the flood. I start walking toward the stairs and Frankie follows. The twins keep up like pros.

Richie: “How’s UCSB?”

Donnie: “How’s Isla Vista, dude?”

Richie: “Is this your girlfriend?

I think that’s a record. “I should be so lucky,” I say. “To her vast and unflappable credit, Frankie lets me follow her around while she plots her next moves against liars and fakes everywhere.”

“Not everywhere,” she corrects me. “Only in the publishing and fashion industries.”

“Frankie? You let him call you Frankie?” Donnie this time.

“Sure do,” she confirms. “Be nice to me and I might let you do that too.”

“Ah, I see.” Donnie again.

Richie cottons on a little quicker. “Hey, you two wanna come back to Creek with us?”

“Creek?” I say. “What for?”

“Oh, there was a sweet set about an hour ago,” says Donnie, catching up. “Thought it might be the same down here but there’s nada. We’re on our way back right now. Jake’s up there too- come on, come and chill with us a while.” He says all this while keeping his eyes on Frankie. I feel myself falling off the twins’ plane of existence at a blinding clip.

We are, or rather I am, soon able to shake them off, but not before they unfortunately, enthusiastically and probably not unconsciously conform to every ethnic stereotype about Italians, in addition to every first impression any fearful parent ever had when dealing with Donnie and Richie at thirteen. I say no thanks to the sets at Creek, lock elbows with Frankie, and pull her toward the stairs.

“Sorry,” I say. “Haven’t seen them in a while”.

“Oh forget it,” she replies. “They weren’t so bad. Almost cute, even”.

“You’ve never seen them throwing rocks at passing cars, Frankie.”

“No,” she laughs again, “and I don’t plan to. Relax, Roy. Let’s just lay out for a while, okay? I’ve been in that car too long and I need some fresh air to mix with all this goddam heat.”

We end up staying down on the sand for quite a while, and the sun only gets hotter, but I don’t feel like jumping in the ocean right now. Frankie’s fallen asleep, and I lose track of time while watching the tiny, perfect blond strands of peach fuzz on her belly suddenly rise and fall with her short, sharp, clear breathing. Her skin is very white against her bikini, but not in an unhealthy-looking way. She’s on her back, so I can’t see if there are scars of any kind there. Couldn’t on the way down the steps, either; she didn’t take her shirt off until I was doing the same, and she did it faster and was laying down before I could remember to look. She’d been careful, or so it seemed, to only face me this whole time as we talk about next quarter’s classes or my new band or other random crap in a valiant effort to deftly dispatch our time together.

The waves crash a little louder. Some kids down the beach scream like banshees, but Frankie’s still out like a light. I need to know. I need to know if I’m being lied to- a little white lie or a creatively elaborate monster. I’m tired of being lied to- it’s all that’s happened to me this year. Nadia did it, Ally did it, my own fucking dad did it, and I’m sick to death of being continually body-checked by the awful truth every month or so. A lazy Saturday in sunny southern California is slouching its way across the cosmos, but I’m becoming more and more compelled to just up and flip Frankie right over- “sorry babe, musta freaked out a sec, dunno what came over me,” just to find out if she’s really been scarred by heroin like she said she was. Her arms are clean. Her fingers are perfect. Knuckles smooth. Am I really that gullible? That trusting? Why would my unerring suspicion, my utterly reliable fear of anything remotely risky or sneaky, choose to abandon me at this crucial moment?

Then, just as suddenly, I don’t care if any of it is true or not. Hell, I think- even if she offers to tell me, I decide I don’t want to know. All her next-door nemeses’ catty little accusations and late-night insinuations about Frankie wound their way through my brain during the entire drive down to South OC. All their superficial-suburban-Christian-virgin morality kept knocking over each argument propped up by my impulsive but weakening goodwill, and though I really, really didn’t want to cave, I was running out of common sense. You nasty, creepy little vipers, I thought. You’re killing her for no reason. You don’t care about truth- you just wanna see the freaky-deeky chick with supermodel looks go down, and go down hard. Why? Another notch under your envious little belts? I had to forcibly stop my runaway paranoia when I drove three off-ramps past my exit and had to exhume some long-dormant local geographical trivia in order to get to Strands.

So no, I never thought to bring up any of it when we were at her parents’ place, and now it occurs to me that maybe it’s better I didn’t. Why ask her dad if they really lived in Manila for eight years? I mean, I’ve seen Frankie eat lunch with all the Filipino guys all the time, so when she told me she could speak Tagalog I believed her. When she told me about their Saigon-embassy-like escape from Marcos’ thugs, I believed her. Because of our trip to see the church choir downtown, and her friendliness with the singers, I never questioned the whole lapsed-Catholic Italiana thing either, despite the inescapably WASP-ish vibe of her family’s home in Fullerton. I never once doubted the veracity of her worldy-Persian-boyfriend-from-Glendale story, even though I spent most of May in her dorm room and I never met the guy, ever. He never stopped by accidentally, never happened to call while I was there, never left her little gifts or anything. What the fucking fuck, Frankie?

Which comes back to the Mafia-ex-boyfriend-heroin story. No one abandoned you, Francesca. Nobody spied on you while you slept. No one forced you to inject yourself with junk for their own sadistic reasons. And I believed it! I accepted it all, uncritically, because this girl Frankie, whom I’d just met a few months ago, whose roommate had just moved out, then dropped out; she had her own room and let me come in and whimper like a child when I got dumped by Nadia and then Ally back-to-back and then again after I walked away from Olivia, who actually wanted me- for no reason! Frankie listened to all my shit, no matter what, let me in, no matter what- if I was bored, or if my roommate had a sock on the door, or whatever. Let me hang out when she went to bed, let me sit there in the dark listening to her music, and not once did she ever say no. I realize I could have asked this person for anything.

I go around and around like this for what must be a few hours and lose some more daylight. The tide starts rolling in and the wind picks up. The beach is quieter; most people have gone home. I notice my left arm stretching out to her, only inches away. My fingers are twitching like a gunfighter’s. I’m a split-second from preposterously rolling over a sleeping girl, a split-second from arguably harassing her in public, when her small breathing catches slightly and she shifts her body a bit. My friend Frankie sleeps on as she rolls her head, in my direction, off her towel and onto the sand, and all I can do is carefully brush, strain, and pick the grains out of her thick blond bangs. I turn away to rub my sandy hands on my own towel.

“Well hello there, sir.” I look around and she’s awake, but only just. Her eyes are heavy crescents and she smiles sheepishly. “Sorry, I think the sun put me down for the count.” It’s nearer the horizon now and the mercury drops another fraction of a millimeter. I smile back and watch her in silence as she looks around for her shirt. It’s on her right, picking up more sand. Slowly, she reaches her left hand over to pick it up, her back to me.

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