Never Two Without the Three
When my mother moved from Italy to the United States, she remembered to pack her superstitions with her. “Be careful,” she would tell young mothers in the New Jersey grocery stores near our new house. “When you think about a food don’t touch your baby’s face or it will leave a mark.” My mother would pat the women’s shoulders and smile like she had given them a treasured gift they could take home and put in their china cabinets.
Her sayings were gifted to her family as well. If I bumped my elbow on the barstool in front of the kitchen where my mother spent so much of her time, she’d raise an eyebrow. If I hit my elbow on the same barstool again, she would stop whatever she was doing to look me in the eye.
“Attenzione!” she’d say. “Never two without the three.”
I’d walk around the house for a while, hyper-aware of the stupid stool, because more than anything else I wanted to prove her wrong. But if I took the corner too fast and hit my elbow on the stool again, I’d hear her voice from across the sink. “See? The three. ’E vero.” It’s the truth.
The truth is, I bought into her superstitions completely. I still dread things happening in twos. When my son was six a teenager slammed into our car as we were turning onto our street. The next week, a block away from our house, a teenage driver ran a stop sign and hit my husband’s car. We had been the two. After a week passed, I was almost giddy when my mother told me her neighbor had been hit in the parking lot of the grocery store by a kid who lived on their street. The third!
The year I got married I also got pregnant. It was a heartbreaking ectopic pregnancy that began with a joyful visit to the doctor to hear the baby’s heartbeat and ended with an emergency surgery to remove the fetus growing inside my fallopian tube.
I was depressed after the surgery. I hadn’t been sure I was ready to be pregnant, but I was sure I wasn’t ready to lose a baby either. So a few weeks later, as my mother was getting ready to fly to Italy to visit her mother, I decided to fly from Dallas to San Antonio to say goodbye to her and get away from my thoughts.
“I don’t like you flying so soon after surgery,” my mother said. I ignored her and ignored the cramping I felt as well. I spoke to my mother on the phone every day, sometimes two or three times a day. But in Italy, her mother didn’t have a phone. I would be lucky if we were able to speak to each other once while she was gone.
As soon as I saw my mother at the airport, I could tell things were not going well. She looked tired and her hair was flat in the back like she had slept on her pillow all night without moving once. She was usually very self-conscious about our genetically flat heads.
“Io so,” my mother said, hugging me and trying to fluff up her hair at the same time. “I know. It’s been a bad day.”
We held hands while we walked to get my luggage. A bad day, in my house, meant my father was in one of his moods.
When we left the airport my mother turned right instead of left. “Mom?”
“Your brother is in the hospital,” she said. “We need to see what the X-rays say.”
I was afraid to ask much more. If someone was in the hospital and my father was in a mood, the dots were not hard to connect. In the days before cell phones, we drove to the hospital not knowing what we would find.
In the meantime my mother told me how my brother had bought a motorcycle to replace the car my father had taken away from him. “Your brother needed to get to work,” my mother said. “All he could afford was a motorcycle, so he bought one.”
“Why did dad take his car?”
“Who knows?” my mother said. “He was mad because your brother was at a place and some people splashed two of his tires.”
“You mean slashed? Like cut them?”
“Yes,” she said. “Your father said your brother was not taking care of things and so he sold the car.”
“But wasn’t Greg paying him every month?” I asked.
My mother waved her hand in the air and sighed. That meant there was no use trying to explain why my father did the things he did.
“So the accident?” I prodded.
“When your brother came home with that thing I was so mad at him. Why would he scare me this way?”
“You just said - he needed something to get around with, Mom. He’s nineteen. It’s probably all he could afford.”
“Yes,” she said. “But every time he drives now I have to worry. And he does this right before I go to Italy. I got mad at him.”
“You should have gotten mad at Dad when he took away the car,” I said.
She was silent. I wasn’t sure if she thought I was right or wrong.
“Anyway,” she went on, “I was yelling at your brother and your father came home. He saw the motorcycle and saw I was upset and then he got mad at Greg. I guess your father tried to throw the motorcycle on the ground and your brother wanted to get away. Greg doesn’t know anything about motorcycles and he ran into the mailbox. His knee hit the bricks and he fell and hit his head too. Dio, there was so much blood. Charles from next door took Greg to the hospital so I could come get you.”
“Where did Dad go?”
“Who knows?” my mother said, shrugging her shoulders as if I’d asked her what was on sale at the grocery store that week. “There was so much confusion.”
By the time we got to the hospital, my father was there. He gave me a hug and told us that Greg was getting stitches in his forehead. The doctor said his knee was swollen and badly cut, but he would heal just fine.
“That kid better take some motorcycle lessons,” my dad said. I noticed a long, ragged streak of dried blood on the sleeve of his shirt.
“Where’s Charles?” I asked.
“Who?” he said. My mother pinched me so I would shut up.
When they called my dad back to wheel my brother out, I turned to my mom. “Why do we let him get away with this kind of crap?”
“He’s being nice now,” my mother said. “Lascia stare.” Let it go.
We always let it go.
“You look so pale,” she said. “I’ll make you some good sauce for the gnocchi tonight, yes?”
And just like that, I let it go too.
Back at the house, my mother began to boil potatoes for the gnocchi. It was always my special welcome home meal. I watched her cook while I sat on the barstool I had bumped into so many times as a kid. My brother was on the couch, ice on his knee and heavy meds in his stomach. My dad paced the concrete patio in the backyard like a dog in a cage – never a good sign.
I went back to my mom’s bedroom and dozed on her bed, trying to focus on anything other than the cramping in my stomach. Soon I heard raised voices and the sound of a pot hitting the wall and I knew there would be no good sauce for dinner.
My brother walked into the room, shut the door, and sat at the edge of the bed.
“Beppino,” I heard my mother say before Greg shut the door. It was her pet name for my father. It was always a last ditch effort to stop the inevitable.
“He’s mad because she let Charles take me to the hospital,” Greg said.
My face burned with shame. “Shit. I shouldn’t have said anything about Charles at the hospital.”
My brother sighed. “He’s been this way all day. If it wasn’t that, it would have been something else.”
I nodded. I was twenty-three and my brother was nineteen. We still blamed ourselves for our father’s behavior – still tried to figure out what we did right and where we went wrong – still didn’t dare say out loud that there was something wrong with him.
We listened to the shouting and the sound of objects being thrown and tried not to look at each other. I heard a slap and knew it would never come from my mother. I stayed on the bed. My brother stayed on the edge of the bed. I knew we were both thinking, just let this be over soon.
At some point, we fell asleep. My mother woke us up with cups of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
“You two eat,” she said. “Everything is fine. Your father is taking a nap on the couch and I am going to take a quick shower. We will start the day over, huh?”
I looked at the clock by the side of the bed. Seven pm. My brother and I nodded, like puppets being manipulated from somewhere else.
My brother ate, then left to go get his medicine. I drifted back to sleep until I heard my mother calling my name. When I got up, I felt a rush of warm liquid run down my legs. I ran to the toilet in my mother’s bathroom afraid to look between my legs to see what happened. When I looked up, I saw my mother in the shower with the water turned off, blood spurting from her leg like a sprinkler in the front yard.
“My varicose vein,” she said. “I hit it on the spout.”
We started laughing then – her naked in the shower and me on the toilet. Then I started crying and she went into action.
“It’s going to be okay. You get a towel, a dark one, and put it in your underwear. There are pads in your old bathroom. Give me a towel for my leg. When you have the pads on, go get your father to take me to the hospital. And don’t forget to put your towel in the sink with cold water.”
“No use to ruin a good towel.”
I took a towel and threw it between my legs, then grabbed a towel for my mother’s leg. The bathroom looked like a scene from a gruesome Halloween movie.
“Oh my God,” my mother said, looking at the toilet after I got up.
“It’s just a heavy period from after the surgery,” I told my mother. “I’m fine.”
While my father took my mother to the hospital, I went back to bed. I thought about a trip we had taken to Canada to visit Italian relatives on my mother’s side. My mother, who always had awful, heavy periods, was having an extra heavy flow one day on the trip. She asked my father to stop at rest areas more frequently than usual so she could check her pads, but he grew more and more annoyed at the slow-downs as the day went on. When we finally stopped at a rest area for dinner, my mother held me back.
“Go to the bathroom and get some paper towels. Put cold water on them and a little soap. When your father is not looking, pretend you have to go to the car for your book and then wipe the seat for me.”
I was nine and nervous. When I opened the driver’s side door instead of the passenger door to get my book, my dad’s suspicions were aroused. I saw three spots of blood on the car seat, forming an almost perfect triangle. Two of the spots were the size of quarters, but one was the size of an Oreo cookie. Before I could even touch the seat, my father was there.
In the end, some people in the rest area called the cops. The cops took my father for a walk to cool him off and my mother scrubbed the seat while they were gone. No matter how many times over the years my mother tried to clean the seat, faint circles of blood remained like a design never repeated. My father reminded us whenever we got in the car how much money he would lose when we sold it because my mother was a filthy pig.
I had at least six pads in my underwear and two towels folded underneath me, but I got up every ten minutes to make sure I didn’t get any blood on my mother’s sheets. When my parents came home from the hospital, my father stopped short when he saw me.
“You have a temperature of one hundred and five,” my father said, shaking the thermometer. “Back to the hospital.”
“Never two without the three,” I said to my mom.
She cocked her head, “Cosa sai fare? What can you do? What’s true is true.”
I put five towels on the seat before my father drove me to the hospital. The doctors in San Antonio told me I had toxemia from placenta left behind after my surgery. They gave me the choice to have surgery that night in San Antonio, or to fly back to Dallas first thing in the morning and have the surgery there. I opted to fly back to Dallas.
By the time we got to my parent’s house it was after three am. My flight to Dallas was scheduled for six am. The hospital had given me drugs to slow the bleeding and stop the pain, but I could not sleep.
My father came to check on me often. When he reached for my forehead, I saw blood in the shape of a crescent moon stretching from his pinky finger to his wrist bone.
How ironic, I thought, that out of all of us today, he was the only one with blood on his hands.
About the Author: Denise Tolan graduated from the Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University. She has been published in places such as Reed, Apple Valley Review, The Great American Literary Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing, and Sleet Magazine. Denise's creative nonfiction recently won the grand prize in SunStruck magazine. Her work was also nominated for 2015’s Best of the Net Anthology. You can find more information here.