Visiting Renaby Denise Tolan
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Each Thursday, the women made their pilgrimage to Rena. They carried offerings like salami or a new cheese, pictures of children or grandchildren, a letter from abroad or a recording of an old Italian song.
Whoever got to Rena’s first would open the cabinet where the cards were stored, then stack the rubber-banded decks on tray tables around the room. After everyone arrived, the women would spend hours playing briscola, taking breaks long enough to dance together when a song they loved was played.
My mother came home on Thursday evenings looking like she’d been with a lover. Her cheeks were red from the food and the dancing and the wine, but her eyes were sad, like Cinderella when the carriage finally disappears.
During the school year, I never thought about my mother and her Thursdays. But in the summer, before I could drive, I strategically used Thursdays as a way to get from my house to somewhere else. Having grown up in Italy during World War II, my mother was not one to waste anything. Gas, especially, was not to be squandered on frivolous trips. If I wanted my mother to drop me off at a friend’s house during the summer, I had to pay the price by going wherever she went first – the grocery store or the thrift shop or garage sales. On Thursdays, it meant spending the afternoon at Rena’s.
“Did you call Lisa?” my mother asked. “Tell her I’ll drop you off after Rena’s.”
I nodded and watched as she gathered things to put in her purse – coffee-flavored candies, a Kleenex, some pictures.
“Who are the pictures of?” I asked.
“Christine.” My six-year-old niece. “She is taking swimming lessons. Rena might laugh when she sees the little bathing suit.”
“She won’t know you have pictures, Mom.”
She closed her purse and picked up her keys. “How do you know what she knows?” She looked me over then put her hand on the door. I smiled, knowing I must have looked good. If not, my mother would have ordered me to change my clothes or fix my hair. When the women at Rena’s played cards, they threw down stories about their daughters to trump each other. Since I would be there in the flesh, my mom wouldn’t be able to bluff. Looking good was one of the bargaining chips I had to use for the ride.
Rena’s house was a ten-minute drive from where we lived. Turning the corner onto her street, I recognized most of the cars already parked in front of the house.
“How was she last week?” I asked my mother as she parked next to a navy blue Le Baron.
“The same,” she said nonchalantly, as if I’d asked how our neighbor was doing. “Pina thought she saw her move her shoulder, but that one always thinks she sees something.”
Pina. The name made me wish my brother had come with us. We always sang the names of my mother’s friends like an incantation: Lena, Rena, Pina, Tina, Nina, Gina, Dina, Nerina. It made the group seem less powerful somehow – their vigil less of a force.
“How long do you think they’re going to keep her at home?” I asked, locking the car door before I shut it. My mom had been about to shut her own door, but looked over the top of the car at me instead.
“What do you mean keep her at home? Where else would she go?”
I rolled my eyes, as if I knew something about the world she might not. It seemed odd to me that the family left Rena, who was in a coma, on a bed in their living room like she was some kind of queen lying in state.
“Stand up straight,” my mother said right before Rena’s husband Rodrigo answered the door.
“I saw you coming from inside,” he said, hugging my mother. Rod was a big, brown man with a short, military-like haircut. He looked like most of the men my mother’s friends had married.
Rod stepped aside, and the noise from inside the house grabbed me like someone pulling my hair. As I walked by, Rod awkwardly shook my hand and said, “Aren’t you growing up?” I had just seen him a few weeks ago, but I nodded anyway.
Rena and Rod had three children. Two of them were grown and gone, but one son, Bruno, still lived at home. He was my age. He was also fat. Terribly, terribly fat. It was like he’d opened the worst of the teenage packages – acne, stretch marks, and greasy hair.
“Bruno’s upstairs,” Rod said. I hated to go up those stairs, but it was either sit with the women around Rena or go find Bruno. Still, I hesitated.
There were no couches in the living room. Instead there was a king-sized bed with a mauve and sea-foam green floral headboard in the center of the room. The women sat in a semi-circle around Rena like an unorganized Greek chorus. Chairs of various kinds flanked the bed. My mother took her position in a dining room chair next to her best friend Marie, the driver of the Le Baron we’d parked next to. I went from chair to chair, kissing each woman hello and collecting compliments like candy at Halloween. This was the one part of the ritual I enjoyed.
My mother took the pictures of my niece out of her purse and walked to the head of the bed. She kissed Rena on both cheeks.
“Guarda questa foto,” she said, holding the picture in front of Rena’s face.
“Vedere,” Pina said to Tina, watching my mother. “Her eyes moved. Did you see? Tutti hanno visto?”
While the women took turns speaking to Rena, shuffling cards, eating, and singing, Rod silently went back and forth from the living room to the kitchen, delivering cups of coffee and plates of food and bits of information to the groups.
“The doctor said she is the same,” Rod told the group of women seated to the right of Rena.
“She’s insane, Rodrigo?” someone from the group on Rena’s left yelled back.
“No, no – the same,” he said. “Everything is good. Her blood pressure, her heart – all good.”
“Pray, Rodrigo,” someone else offered. “You never know what God can do.”
He would nod, hold his hands together like a prizefighter, shake them toward the ceiling, and return to his chores.
On the edges of the bed, wooden trays held food, drinks, and cards. In the center of the bed, looking like a tiny sleeping mannequin, Rena served as an awkward centerpiece to this feast.
“Go say hello to Rena,” my mother whispered, pushing me toward the head of the bed. I leaned over and kissed her forehead. Rena was warm and smelled like freshly applied hairspray. She had been tiny when she was still awake, maybe reaching 4’11”, but I remembered her as a petite tornado. Now she looked like a small child with an old face dressed in a pink robe with ruffles at the neck.
“Oh, no no no,” Marie said, spitting something out into her napkin. “Rodrigo! Rodrigo!” she shouted. I stepped back from Rena, certain Marie’s loud voice would wake her at last.
“What is it, Marie?” Rod said, coming out from the kitchen.
“You must go to the commissary this week. The prosciutto is in from San Danielle. I don’t know what you gave us, but it is not the good prosciutto. I cannot eat this. Mi dispiace.”
“No,” Rod said. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I’ll go to the commissary later. Next week you will have the good prosciutto.”
Marie patted Rod’s hand.
Rod looked around the room for an empty plate he could fill or a question he could answer. I saw how he might have been handsome as a younger man. He had a crew cut, but it was solid hair not in danger of falling away. His lips were a bit larger than perhaps they should have been, but otherwise he looked normal, not like a man who could render someone half-dead.
The circumstances of Rena’s coma were a bit beyond my interest level back then, but I had heard the story. In spite of his current role as the perfect husband and host, Rodrigo had been a player. For several years, Rena and Rod had taken in young girls from Rodrigo’s village in Mexico to help them around the house. That was not unusual, according to my mother, but the last girl they took in became the one who ended up helping Rod a little too much.
“Poor Rena,” I heard my mother say into the phone when a friend called to tell her about the stroke. “It was because of Rodrigo and the girl, you know. The shock almost killed her.”
“Mom,” I said in that tone I would never lose, the tone that meant she understood nothing about America or people or the world. “People can’t make you have a stroke. There must have been something going on in her body. Did she have high blood pressure?”
She looked me in the eye. “When Rena saw Rodrigo and that girl in bed, she fell right on the floor. That girl washed the family sheets. Imagine.”
I looked her back in the eye, but I wasn’t sure then why sheets were important. Later, I wondered if a shock like that could cause someone to have a stroke.
“Did you find Bruno?” my mother asked.
“Do you see him here?” I replied.
She looked at me like I had been hidden under a sheet and suddenly revealed to her.
“You were born three days after him in the same hospital,” she said to me. “Rena is like my sister.”
“Well, Bruno is nothing to me, Mom. Nothing.”
She cupped her hand as if to say she’d like to slap me, but then turned back to the cards. I walked toward the stairs. Bruno was up there somewhere.
When I was thirteen, Rena’s sister came from Italy to visit the United States. Tina threw a party to celebrate the sister’s arrival. There was a pool at Tina’s house, and all the kids gathered there. While we were swimming, a cute boy, older than me by a few years, swam in circles around me. He must have been the son of Rena’s sister. We made small talk in Italian; then he asked me if Bruno was my boyfriend.
“Niente da fare,” I said. No way. My face reflected the disgust I felt for the question.
Bruno, just emerging from underwater, looked my way and ducked back in. I was sure he’d heard me. The boy who asked the question looked at me as if I’d stabbed someone.
“Solo per chiedere,” he said. “I was just asking.”
I got out of the pool and sulked in the shade until we left. It bothered me that anyone would think I could possibly be interested in Bruno.
I knocked on the door at the top of the stairs.
“Go away,” Bruno said.
“It’s me,” I said. I heard some rustling; then the door opened. Bruno stood in front of me wearing an Italian t-shirt and basketball shorts. The light from the hallway landed on the pimples on his arms.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey.” He motioned for me to walk into the upstairs hallway. I followed him to the TV room and went to sit in the beanbag chair I normally sat in. As I went to sit, Bruno pushed me, and I fell to the floor instead.
“What the fuck?” I said.
He laughed and threw himself onto the couch.
We watched a baseball game in silence. I’d almost dozed off when I felt a kick on my shin. Bruno was standing in front of me, laughing.
“What’s wrong with you? Quit kicking me.”
“You don’t like this,” he said, kicking me again, harder this time. “Do you like this?” he asked, slapping me on top of the head.
I tried to stand up, but he pushed me back down. “Show me your tits,” he said.
“Let me up, Bruno.”
He had his foot on my lap, holding me down. He began to use his toe to pull my top up.
“Stop it,” I said, scratching his leg with my fingernail.
“Come on,” Bruno said. “You like this.”
I managed to get up and walked toward the hallway. Bruno grabbed my arm.
“What’s wrong with you?” I yelled.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said. “Your dad hits your mom, right? I thought you might be into that, too.”
For a moment, all I could see was the inside of my eyes pulsing with red. I tried hard not to move my face – not to reveal anything.
“Well, at least my dad didn’t make my mom have a stroke.”
Bruno backed away. “That’s not true,” he said. “My dad didn’t do that.”
“Really? Because I heard your mom caught your dad fucking the maid. I heard your mom collapsed right then.”
“You heard wrong,” Bruno said. “My dad made a mistake, but he loved my mom. He never hit her.”
“No, he never hit her, he just pretty much killed her. Everyone says so.” Bruno looked pained, like he was about to cry.
“Just go away,” he said. “You’ve never liked me, anyway. Why do you even come up to see me?”
I had the advantage now, and I was going in for the kill. The secrets in my family had been around longer than the ones in his. I intended to keep it that way. “Because what else am I going to do when I come here? Sit around the bed and wait for your mom to wake up?”
Bruno bit his bottom lip and scratched his chin. “I heard the women talking before you got here,” he said. “They were saying how your mom was so nice, how she didn’t deserve a man as mean as your father. I was just messing with you, trying to find out if it was true. But now I know it is. You must be just like him.”
Whatever happened after that only served to prove Bruno’s point. He sat down heavily in the beanbag chair while I kicked him and called him names. I acted out a brief scenario involving the maid and his father. I showed him my tits and told him his father would love them. Then I left.
I saw Bruno four years later at his mother’s funeral. He was fatter with less acne, but otherwise unchanged. He gave a brief eulogy about his mother’s work with disabled children, then walked away from the podium. Right before he sat next to his father, he stood and faced us all.
“When she looked at me,” Bruno said, “she never saw anything but love. Now I’ll never know that feeling again.”
I avoided him after the funeral, even after my mother prodded me twice to go give him a hug.
When I went to the parking lot to get the car, Bruno was there smoking a cigarette.
“Hey,” I said. I was in college then, slim and pretty.
He nodded, then flicked the cigarette behind his back.
“I’m sorry about your mom.”
He smirked. “You think you’re so smart,” he said, “but you’re so stupid. All I wanted that day was to see your tits. All that stuff about your dad was bullshit. And guess what? I saw your tits. So who won?”
I got in the car and went to collect my mom.
“I saw Bruno,” I told her as we drove home.
“He loved his mother,” my mother said.
“He sure did.”
“Such a nice boy.”
I decided to leave it there because at that point, I had no idea what winning even looked like anymore.
Denise Tolan’s “Visiting Rena” appears in Flock 24.
Denise Tolan‘s work has been included in places such as The Best Small Fictions 2018, The Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, and was a finalist for both the 2019 and 2018 International Literary Awards: Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.