Authors: Sandra Hill
“You’re willing to
she snapped, anger turning her voice shrill. “How dare you suggest I need your permission to do anything, you jerk?”
“Paula, just try to understand my viewpoint. I have my . . . reasons.” He gulped hard, clenching his fists against the tide of despair threatening to crush him.
“Why don’t you explain those reasons to me, Nick? For once, be honest. Tell me what frightens you so much. Tell me what it is you have buried so deep inside, that’s so painful you can’t talk about it, even to me.”
He tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Bleakly, he admitted, “I can’t. Not now. Maybe someday.”
“No!” she cried, tears welling in her eyes and streaming down her face. “Someday is never going to come for us.
I was a fool to think you were changing. A fool.” She began to weep and turned away from him.
“I can change, Paula. I am changing. Just give me a little more time. A chance to—”
“No!” she repeated on a sob, shoving away the hand he extended imploringly to her. “I have an appointment that I’m not going to miss. And I’m going to accept the job if it’s offered.”
“That’s what you think,” he said coldly. “Is your appointment with Lottie Chancellor, the social service director?”
She turned abruptly with surprise. “Yes. Do you know her?”
He nodded. “I’ll call Lottie. I’ll tell her not to give you the job.”
“You wouldn’t!” she gasped, her eyes swimming with tears of hurt.
“You bet your sweet ass I would. I’d do anything to keep you safe. Anything.”
Even if it means losing you in the process.
“You are a bastard. And I never want to see you again after our divorce hearing tomorrow.” Her face flushed with anger as she spat out the words.
Without waiting for a response, she flipped open the flap on the tent and stormed out.
Nick gazed dejectedly through the opening toward the ocean. Last night, he’d had his dreams back, within his grasp, and they’d slipped away once again, just like the sand along the shore. It was hopeless. Hopeless.
A second later, Paula rushed back through the doorway, blushing hotly.
His hopes soared.
“Your camel got loose.”
His hopes plummeted.
“There are about two dozen kids on the beach chasing that blasted camel of yours in the surf.”
She hadn’t come back for him.
“And a man named Omar said to ask if you want to keep the tent for another day. Also,” she added, looking down at her flimsy outfit, “he had the nerve to offer me a job as a belly dancer.”
Nick started to laugh then, deep belly laughs. Despite the sadness of his situation, despite their impending divorce, despite all that he loved and seemed to be losing, he couldn’t help himself.
Paula threw her chin up haughtily and wrapped herself in a soft Persian throw rug, walking out again.
But still he laughed and laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks, and he forgot whether he was laughing or crying.
Ah! Finally, she was beginning to understand . . .
PAULA’S INTERVIEW was not going well.
First, she’d arrived fifteen minutes late for her appointment with Lottie Chancellor, the head social worker of the Patterson projects, a huge complex of low-income housing.
It had taken her almost an hour to mask the marks of Nick’s lovemaking—whisker-burned face and neck, kiss-swollen lips, and hair so tangled she finally just skinned it back into a ponytail. Paula still couldn’t believe that whole Arabian Nights scenario Nick had pulled off, or that she’d willingly participated.
Oh, Lord, the things I did! The things he did!
Then she’d been unable to find a parking place within a block of the project office. Nick would have a heart attack if he could see the side street where she’d eventually left the little VW convertible.
To top it all off, Mrs. Chancellor—she’d emphasized to Paula from the start that she was
—kept asking her skeptical questions about her motives in seeking an inner city job. “Mrs. DiCello, you have a good teaching position, an important job, molding young minds. I just can’t see why you’d want to work here in the projects.”
The tall, bone-thin black woman, with tight, steel-gray curls capping the sharp planes of her face, closed Paula’s folder on the desk. Her discerning brown eyes probed Paula intently, as if looking for hidden secrets.
Paula squirmed in her seat, her eyes darting nervously about the shabby, but clean, office. Searching for words, she tried to explain. “I enjoy teaching, but it was never what I really wanted. The biggest problems the nine-year-old kids in my class have are whether their parents will buy them a five-hundred-dollar mountain bike or—”
Mrs. Chancellor gave a short hoot of laughter. “And the nine-year-olds in this neighborhood are figuring out how to steal them.”
“—or where they’ll go on vacation this summer, the shore or the mountains.”
Mrs. Chancellor’s face revealed infinite sadness. “Most of my kids will never have a vacation. They either die young or never leave the ghetto.”
Paula knew that. Surely, Mrs. Chancellor didn’t think she was an insensitive do-gooder with no understanding of the life-and-death struggle urban children faced every day. That was one of the reasons she yearned to help.
Raising her chin stubbornly, she continued to explain herself. “I always intended to go to graduate school right after college, but then . . . well, I got married . . .”
Oh, Lord! When I met Nick, it was like being hit with a Mack truck of sexual attraction. Those were the days! Nick couldn’t keep his hands off me. Heck, I couldn’t keep my hands off him. School was the last thing I was thinking about then.
She gulped and went on. “My plans were put aside for a few years. I worked and went to school at night.” She held the social worker’s eyes with a level stare. “This is my dream, Mrs. Chancellor. I want to
make a difference in young people’s lives. Children in desperate need.”
“It’s not safe here for a woman like you,” she said flatly.
Paula bristled. “If I were black, would it be any safer?”
Paula tossed her hair back over her shoulder, forgetting it was still in a ponytail. “Because I’m a woman?”
Mrs. Chancellor made a rude snorting sound. “I have just as many women as men on my staff. In fact, sometimes women do a better job reaching these children.”
“My age? I am twenty-nine, you know.”
She shook her head.
“Your background. Girl, you have no idea what it’s like to grow up in a project. To see death on a daily basis. To hunger for a better life and know it’s hopeless.”
“I can learn,” she protested. “And I refuse to accept that it’s hopeless.”
“Perhaps.” Mrs. Chancellor smiled at her vehemence and tapped her pencil thoughtfully on the desk. “Nick would never forgive me if I hired you.”
Paula gasped. So that was the reason for Mrs. Chancellor’s attitude. “Nick called you?” she asked incredulously.
“Oh, yes, Nick called. Threatened to have me arrested for breaking some law or other. Challenged my morals for even considering your application.” Mrs. Chancellor chuckled. “Said he’d stop volunteering for the youth basketball program.”
“Nick threatened you? Oh, this is too much! How dare he?”
Mrs. Chancellor waved Paula’s indignation aside. “I’ve known that husband of yours since he was five years old. He doesn’t scare me one bit.”
Paula thought of something else. “Nick plays basketball with the kids? How long has he been doing that?”
Two years? Before she’d left him. How was it possible that she’d never known? So, all those nights she’d thought he was playing one-on-one at the gym with Skip, he’d actually been down here in the ghetto. Why wouldn’t he talk about such an admirable activity?
The answer came to her immediately. He knew she’d want to come along to the projects, and he’d spent years trying to prevent her from doing just that.
“Mrs. Chancellor, Nick and I are getting a divorce. He had no right to call you or—”
“He’s worried about you. Don’t blame him for caring about your welfare,” Mrs. Chancellor chastised her sternly. “Ninety percent of the women in this project have no husbands. What they wouldn’t give to have a man—anyone, for that matter—who wanted to protect them! So don’t knock the protective instincts of a good man to me, girl.”
Paula stiffened. “But Nick goes too far. He—never mind, I didn’t come here to discuss my personal problems.” She picked up her purse from the floor and stood. “I can see now that this interview was doomed from the beginning. You’re never going to hire me with Nick breathing over your shoulder.”
“Now, I never said that,” Mrs. Chancellor interjected quickly with a sly smile. She pulled a set of keys out of her drawer and stood, towering over Paula. “C’mon, I want to show you something.” Without waiting for Paula’s agreement, she led her through the door of her office, making sure to lock the three dead bolts. Then she walked briskly down a corridor to the stairway, bypassing the elevator. “Half the time the elevators don’t work,” she explained, “and the smell inside their close confines is enough to gag a maggot.”
The smells were pretty bad in the halls, too, Paula thought, recognizing spaghetti sauce and urine and God only knew what other odors. Graffiti marked the walls, and the sounds of crying children and arguing adults echoed through the thin walls of the units.
She felt like crying.
Hurrying to catch up, she followed the energetic woman up one flight of stairs after another, till they got to the fourth floor.
“This apartment is empty right now,” Mrs. Chancellor told her as she inserted a key in the door and entered, motioning for Paula to follow.
Paula looked around at the small combination living room and kitchen. The two windows overlooked the dumpsters on one side and the brick walls of the next building on the other. Sun would rarely brighten these drab rooms.
In the single bedroom, two double beds took up almost the entire space except for a dresser with a cracked mirror. The grimy bathroom had only a sink, a toilet, and a tub with no showerhead.
Coming back to Mrs. Chancellor, Paula raised an eyebrow questioningly, unsure what her prospective employer wanted her to see.
“This is the apartment where Nick grew up with his mother and four brothers and sisters.”
Paula clasped a hand to her heart, and tears welled in her eyes.
Oh, no! Oh, God, no! Such a dismal place!
“Actually, they weren’t as crowded as most families here,” Mrs. Chancellor went on. “You know, of course, about Lita?”
Paula nodded. Nick had told her his little sister had died when she was a baby.
“Lita passed on when Nick was only five years old. That’s why the authorities called me in. Too bad the little one had to die to bring about any change here.” She shook her head woefully in remembrance.
The fine hairs stood out on Paula’s neck. She knew the little girl had died, but apparently Nick had left out a few facts. “How did her death bring you here?”
Mrs. Chancellor looked surprised at Paula’s question. “You don’t know how Lita died?”
Paula hesitated, not sure she wanted to know.
“Rat bites,” Mrs. Chancellor informed her bluntly.
Paula exhaled loudly with dismay and sank down to the sofa, realizing immediately that it had a broken spring, and moved to the other side. “Tell me.”
“The old superintendent—Wilson—was skimming money out of the projects for years. One of the areas he stole from was pest control. His idea of rat eradication was to bring in cats, dozens of the rat catchers, which, of course, weren’t sufficient to curb the rodent population.”
Cats? So, that’s why Nick hates cats. They remind him of the projects. And rats.
She laced her fingers together in her lap to stop their trembling.
“Lita was only one year old, sleeping in her crib. Her mother was out somewhere. Drinking, no doubt. And Nick was in charge of the younger children.”
Oh, poor Nick! And only five years old.
Even the hardened Mrs. Chancellor seemed shaken then as she recalled the past. “That summer was especially bad here in the projects. Unrelenting heat. A sanitation strike. And rats.” She sighed deeply. “The bottom line is that Lita was bitten repeatedly by rats. Nick didn’t understand the seriousness; he was only a kid. And his mother was negligence personified.”
“No!” Paula resisted what she suspected was coming next.
“Yes. A rampant infection set in, which wasn’t treated for days. Lita died within a week of blood poisoning.”
Paula gagged and rushed for the bathroom. When she emerged a short time later, Mrs. Chancellor appeared apologetic. “I shouldn’t have told you all that.”
“Yes, you should have. Actually, Nick should have told me himself, but—”
Mrs. Chancellor patted her shoulder. “You have to understand the shame, my dear.”
“Shame? Why should he feel ashamed? It wasn’t his fault.”
“I know, I know. But he’s a proud young man. The last thing he would want is pity.”
Yes, Nick was proud. And stubborn.
“And he felt guilty.”
“Of course. He’d failed to protect the ones he loved.”
Understanding rushed over Paula in a torrent. Now—now when it was too late—she’d been given a reason for Nick’s overprotectiveness. A clue to his obsessive behavior. He’d never lied to her about his past, but, oh, he’d omitted so much.
“What about his brothers and sisters?”
“Teresa died of a drug overdose when she was thirteen. Anthony was killed in a gang fight. And Frankie is in prison for grand larceny.”
“Nick has a brother who’s alive?” Paula didn’t know if she could take any more shocks like this today.
Mrs. Chancellor nodded slowly. “You really should talk to your husband.”
“No, Nick really should talk to me.”
And he would. Oh, yes, he definitely would.
After that, Mrs. Chancellor showed her around the rest of the projects, including the youth activity rooms where Paula would work if she was hired. Her heart wept as she pictured a young Nick in this setting, scrambling about the makeshift gym after a volleyball game, playing checkers with one of the counselors, fighting off the encroaching decay and evil that hovered outside—and within.
Mrs. Chancellor finally told Paula, “We have a desperate need for help here, Mrs. DiCello. If you want the job, it’s yours. But think about it for a few days. Talk to Nick—now, now, don’t get your hackles up—he’s in a position to give you good advice. Listen to what he has to say. Then call me.”
As Paula walked toward her car, she pondered all she’d seen that morning. She put her fingertips to her lips, still bruised from Nick’s many kisses. Her body, as well as her emotions, had been battered the past week. The upcoming divorce. Her job search. Nick’s refusal to accept the end of their marriage. His persistent, endearing efforts to woo her back.
Through the mist of her tears, she had to smile, picturing the impossible erotic fantasies he had created for her. Who would have imagined Nick going to the trouble of making an Arabian Nights oasis on a New Jersey beach? Or the Senior Prom dream—come-true? Or the Highway Sex Scene?
A pattern began to emerge in Paula’s mind. What was the big lug up to here? Was it merely seduction, trying to get her back? Or something more?
Well, she had more important things to discuss with him now. How dare he call a prospective employer and try to undermine her job efforts? The interference reeked of his obsessive protectiveness. And she planned to put a stop to it
Obviously, their divorce was the only way to convince him of her seriousness.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Mrs. Dickhead—I mean, Mrs. DiCello. I saw that asshole cop driving this bug . . . uh, car off the lot last week.”
Paula was jarred from her deep thoughts by the drawling remark of a youth with a red bandanna tied around his head, gang style. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen years old, but the deadness of his dark eyes bespoke no youthful innocence.