I used to get into so much trouble as a teen. My mom had her work cut out for her, I tell ya. And I was the youngest of seven so you’d think she’d have had it all figured out by the time she got to me. But, no I wasn’t anything like my sisters, they were all proper and stuff. I was more like my brothers. Curious and mischievous and into everything all the time.
When I was thirteen and in the seventh grade at a rough and tumble middle school, I fell in with the wrong crowd, I guess you’d say. It was the 1970s and everyone was smoking pot and making out in the park, even at that age. One Saturday, my mom found part of a joint rolled up in a note from my friend Carly in my jeans pocket when she was doing laundry. How stupid of me was that, right? Leaving that kind of thing in my jeans for my mom to find.
The note said something about meeting up with my friends after school under the bleachers at the Friday football game to smoke a cigarette and “maybe something even better.” Oh, damn, my mom didn’t know what to do with that, being that she grew up on a small farm in upstate New York and was 40 when she had me so there was a huge generation gap there. She didn’t understand anything about the things I was interested in at thirteen.
When she was that age it was 1932 and she was milking a cow, so we were worlds apart, my mom and me. Well, after that I was strictly forbidden to see any of my friends once school let out for summer the next week and I cried all night about that.
The next thing I knew, well a month or so later I guess, it was June and we were moving out of the city and into the suburbs, and I would be going to a new middle school with rich kids, kids I never met before. I knew that move was all about me. Getting me away from those bad influences, in my mom’s mind. My dad, he never said a thing to me but this was my punishment, I just knew it. Who the heck wants to change schools in the eighth grade and never see their old friends again?
I didn’t have any choice but I was real worried about it. I mean, my dad is 100 % Italian, so I look it too, swarthy they say, and kinda different from most kids especially in the suburbs, like I’m from somewhere else far away, you know what I mean?
Our new house on Dewberry Court was smaller and everything in it seemed newer, not creaky and old like our place in the city. It was just different. I liked it ok, I mean, we had a big back yard that trailed off into a woodsy area. And a basketball hoop on the backyard patio and a big shed to store lots of junk. But it just felt sort of hemmed in and like I was under the microscope all the time. My dad bought me a new ten-speed Schwinn bicycle that summer.
Green, real pretty. I think he felt bad that I was lonely without my old friends and wanted to be the good cop in the situation. Wanted to be my one friend.
That bike was all I had, really. Besides being allowed to tag along with my older sister Marie and her friends to go shopping at the mall once in a while which I found boring, by the way. Every day I’d go out on my bike and just ride around the neighborhood to see what was up, see if there were any other kids my age around. There was a group of four kids that I used to see sometimes on their bikes too and they always whistled at me when I rode by like they knew I wasn’t from around here.
One day I stopped and talked to them for a minute. Lori, David, Jeff and another Jeff. David was real, real cute but kind of sassy and he made me nervous I think because he was so cute so I didn’t talk very long and made some sort of excuse about having to get home.
One afternoon, I was riding up the hill around the corner from my house and had to get off and walk my bike because it was so steep and I was all out of breath all of a sudden. As I passed the house at the end of the street before it curved into another block, a girl called out my name. I stopped and looked over at her not recognizing her or even sure she was talking to me.
She was holding a baby in her arms, sitting on the grass crisscross style in her front yard in front of a cute house with a nice porch.
“Hi, Bella,” she yelled out again. “I’m Donna. I heard you met Lori and the gang.”
“Oh, hi,” I said. “Yeah, I just met them the other day. Um…how did you know who I was?” I asked her, rolling my bike closer up onto the sidewalk to get a better look.
“Oh, I dunno, I just figured it was you. I’ve seen you ride by on your bike a few times.”
I’m thinking it’s probably because of how I look and whatever Lori said about me. “You baby sitting or something?” I asked.
“Yeah, this is my nephew Timmy, my sister Sharon’s kid. She’s ten years older than me. I watch him sometimes for her in the summer. You like babies?”
I shrugged my shoulders and dropped my bike on the curb to sit down with her and Timmy on the grass.
“You going to North this fall?” Donna asked.
“Yep. Yep, my parents moved us so I would go there this year, didn’t like me in the other school. You go to North, right?”
“Yeah. It’s not a bad school. The kids are ok and the teachers are pretty nice. Unless we get Mr. Johnson for history, I hear he’s mean. Throws chalkboard erasers at the kids when they act up,” she warned with a little laugh. “Hey, I can introduce you to some of the kids, if you want. I’m gonna have an end of summer BBQ in the backyard this Saturday afternoon, can you come?”
Suddenly my whole world changed.
“Papa? Mama? I met this girl today and she invited me to her house for a backyard BBQ on Saturday. Can I go?” I broached at the supper table that night when the plates were being cleared by my mom and Marie to make room for dessert. My brother Danny looked over at me, snorted and rolled his eyes. He was still mad at me about the joint and us having to move from the city. He was gonna be a senior that year and had a girlfriend downtown and no car so he was real put out by all the changes.
“A girl? What girl,” my mom asked standing there looking at me with a downward cast through her bifocals. I only called my parents mama and papa to their faces but never used those words around anyone else. It sounded so old country to me and I wanted to be “cool city” and modern. All us kids did that. Well, except for my oldest brother Antonio, but he wasn’t around anymore, was married with a kid already and living in South City and I felt like I barely even knew him anyway.
“Her name’s Donna, mama, she lives around the corner on Woodley Street, there at the end of the block? She’s real nice. I met her when I was out on my bike. It’s just a small thing and her parents will be there and all. Just a BBQ. To meet some of the other kids that go to North. Can I go? Please?”
“We’ll see,” she said, her usual reply to everything as she disappeared into the kitchen to dish up the ice cream. Neapolitan. My dad’s favorite.
“Donna, huh?” my dad suddenly chimed in from his post at the end of the table, sitting there bare chested in the end of summer humidity, which my mom hated, by the way. “I think it would be ok, mama, don’t you,” he yelled towards the kitchen. “She’s starting school in a week, it will be good-a for her to meet some of the kids, no?”
He always said “good-a” instead of good, my dad, leaning into a vestige of his Italian-ness though he mostly did strive to be as American as possible and not sound like he just got off the boat from Rome. Worked hard at it in fact. But certain words? That accent of his just slipped right through the cracks every time. He was often a little bit on my side and I was grateful that he did manage, through his charms of persuasion with my mom, to convince her to let me go.
Saturday came around and I spent a good hour figuring out what to wear and what to do with my hair and all that stuff. I wanted everyone to like me right away, to fit in with the new crowd, ya know? Finally, I decided on my cut-off jeans and a green tank top that brought out the color in my eyes. That’s what my dad said anyway with a smile as I was getting ready to walk over to Donna’s that day, slipping on my favorite strappy sandals in the living room as he watched TV. And I wore my hair in a high ponytail and some hoop earrings and my favorite turquoise ring to pull it all together.
“Come here, my Bella, give your papa a kiss-a goodbye before you go off to meet your new friends, my precious daughter,” my dad said as I stood up and grabbed my purse. And then I was out the door.
That was the best day for me since we moved to Dewberry Court and it made me feel excited for once about my new school. I met Joni and Patti and Kim and of course Lori, David, Jeff and the other Jeff were all there, acting like we were old friends already just because they met me before anyone else. I was sort of the centerpiece, the new girl. Something different. Someone to talk about. A couple other older boys came by later to act cool and stuff but I didn’t really talk to them. I think they were Donna’s sister Pam’s friends anyway and I was not so interested.
The next week, I got a ride to school the first day with Donna and we got there early too so we could hang out with our friends before first bell. I met a few more of the kids and then said goodbye to Donna to go to first period English while she had Science class on the other end of campus and luckily neither of us got stuck with Mr. Johnson for history! We didn’t have any classes together that first semester but we spent all our time together, meeting for lunch, walking home from school and singing songs, listening to music in her bedroom.
Joni Mitchell. Steely Dan. The Doobie Brothers. We were inseparable and her popularity made me popular too with all the best kids right from the get-go. She was like a golden key that fit into every lock and because I was her best friend, I always got in the door.
The next summer Donna was over at our house and my dad came outside where Donna and I were working on our tans, “laying out” we used to call it. My dad loved the sun and he’d bring us some iced teas with lemon and honey and a bowl of Spanish peanuts and joke around with us a while before going back inside the air-conditioned house. My mom, she hated the sun. Was as lily white skinned as they come and always stayed indoors all summer long. I had my dad’s skin and could stay in the sun for hours.
“You girls, you are thick as thieves you two since you met last summer, huh? That’s-a so good-a, that makes me happy to see that. Bella and Donna,” he said handing us each our drinks through a bright smile. “Ahh!” he said as if an epiphany was suddenly bestowed upon him. “You know belladonna? The flower? Beautiful Lady it means in Italian. But it’s deceiving, no, this name? Do you know it is so potent and can be fatal? Yes, yes, it’s true,” he went on as we sipped our cold drinks, crunching ice cubes in our teeth.
“But there is a magic to it, you see. A little bit is good-a for you, makes you calm and a little sleepy. But too much? Is poison,” he said.
We just laughed and I said, “Oh, papa. Donna and I are magic together. Everyone loves to have us around a lot, never just a little bit.” He laughed at that and ran his fingers back through his greasy hair to get it off his face in the heat. “Ok, you two beautiful ladies, then I go back inside to cool down with mama. You are good-a friends. Good-a, good-a friends,” he trailed off as he reached the screen door and disappeared inside.
From that day forward, we were known as Belladonna to our group of friends. We told my dad’s story to our friends at the park the next night and everyone thought it was so funny and it stuck. That summer and the summer after that and the summer after that it was belladonna. We did everything together and everyone fell under our spell of fun and laughter and good times. We rode our bikes all over and knew a secret network of pathways through the neighborhood to get to our friends’ houses.
Out my back door, I could wander through that woodsy area at the edge of our back yard and end up across the street from Donna’s house in five minutes. It was like a little secret adventure every time.
And when Donna got her dad’s old Buick for her 16th birthday, we’d go to the city and to concerts and parties and everywhere in it. My parents had complete trust in her and most of the crowd that became my friends even though, really, we got into just as much stuff as my old crowd. I just knew Donna was gonna be my best friend for years. That I would always think of her as the best girlfriend I ever had. Things change, I mean, that woodsy area behind our house has been filled in with a new subdivision of houses. But friendships, well, ones like Belladonna, they don’t change. Ever.
We were potent together. Still are. Not at all like poison, though, but a perfected blend of two secret ingredients that made everything better.
© 2020, Mary Corbin.
Belladonna is from the “Life Lines” collection. Featured artwork: “Fascinating Fruit” – Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission.