Chapter 2 – Julia

Hello Beautiful

december 1978–july 1981

Julia was i the back garden, an eighteen-by-sixteen-foot rectangle hemmed by wooden fences, watching her mother dig up

the last of the season’s potatoes at the exact time William was due at the house. She knew he’d be punctual and that one of her sisters would let him in. William would probably be flustered by her father, who would ask him if he knew any poetry by heart, and by Emeline and Cecelia, who wouldn’t cease moving or talking. Sylvie was working at the library, so he’d be spared her inquisitive stare. A few minutes alone with her sisters and father would help William to get to know them—Julia wanted him to see how lovable they were—and, as a bonus, he’d be extra-thrilled to see her when she walked inside. Julia was famous within her family for making an entrance, which really just meant that she thought about timing, whereas no one else in her family did. As a young child, Julia would twirl into the kitchen or living room, calling out, Ta-da!

What would William think of their small house, squeezed in next to identical squat brick houses on 18th Place? The Padavanos lived in Pilsen, a working-class neighborhood filled with immigrants. Colorful murals adorned the sides of buildings, and in the local supermarket, you were as likely to hear Spanish or Polish as English. Julia worried that William would find both the neighborhood and the inside of her family’s home shabby. The floral couch covered in plastic. The wooden crucifix on the wall. The framed array of

female saints next to the dinner table. When Julia’s mother was frustrated, she named them aloud, her eyes fixed on the women’s faces as if imploring them to save her from this family. Adelaide, Agnes of Rome, Catherine of Siena, Clare of Assisi, Brigid of Ireland, Mary Magdalene, Philomena, Teresa of Avila, Maria Goretti. All four Padavano girls could recite these names better than the rosary. It was unusual for a family dinner to conclude without either their father reciting poetry or their mother reciting her saints.

Julia shivered. She wasn’t wearing a coat; it was forty degrees out, and most Chicagoans refused to consider it cold until the temperature dropped below freezing. “I like him,” she said to her mother’s back.

“Is he a drunk?”

“No. He’s a basketball player. And an honors student. He’s going to major in history.”

“Is he as smart as you?”

Julia considered this. William was clearly smart. His brain worked. He asked questions that let her know he was interested in understanding her. His intelligence didn’t register in the form of strong opinions, though. He was interested in questions and uncertain in his answers; he was moldable. William had studied with Julia a few times at the Lozano Library, which was only a few blocks away from the Padavanos’ home. Sylvie worked at the library, and everyone in their neighborhood used it as a meeting place, but studying there meant that William had to commute an hour back to his dorm late at night. When making weekend plans, he always said, “Let’s do whatever you want to do. You have the best ideas.”

Julia had never considered the idea of physical intelligence until she’d attended William’s recent basketball game. She was surprised by how exciting she found watching William compete with his team. She’d seen a more forceful side of him than he exhibited off the court: yelling commands to his teammates, using his strong, tall body to block an opponent from the basket. Julia had no interest in sports

and didn’t understand the rules, but her handsome boyfriend had sprinted and leapt and spun with such pure physicality, and such intensity of focus, that she had found herself thinking: yes.

“He’s a serious person,” Julia said. “He takes life seriously, like I do.”

Rose climbed to her feet. A stranger might have laughed at the sight of her, but Julia was accustomed to her mother’s getup. When she gardened, Rose wore a modified baseball catcher’s uniform, topped off with a navy-blue sombrero. She’d found all of it on the street. Their end of the block was 100 percent Italian, but many of the streets in the neighborhood were filled with Mexican families, and Rose had plucked the hat out of someone’s garbage can after a Cinco de Mayo celebration. The catcher’s equipment she’d picked up when Frank Ceccione, two doors down, got into drugs and quit his high school baseball team. Rose wore his huge leg guards and had sewed large pockets for her gardening tools onto the chest protector. She looked ready for some kind of game—it was just unclear which one.

“So, he’s not smarter than you.” Rose lifted the sombrero up and pushed her hand through her hair—wavy like her daughters’ but laced with gray. She wasn’t nearly as old as she looked, but starting years earlier Rose had forbidden any celebration of her birthday, a personal declaration of war against the passage of time. Julia’s mother trained her eyes on the dirt rows of her garden. Potatoes and onions were all that remained to be harvested; most of Rose’s work now was devoted to preparing the garden for winter. The only sections of non-growing soil were reserved for a narrow path between the plants and a white sculpture of the Virgin Mary, which leaned against the back-left corner of the fence. Rose sighed. “It’s just as well, I suppose. I’m smarter than your father by a million miles.”

Julia could see how “smart” was a tricky term—how did you quantify it, especially when neither of her parents had gone to

college?—but her mother was correct. Julia had seen photos of Rose, pretty and tidy and smiling in this same garden, with Charlie at the beginning of their marriage, but her mother had eventually accepted and donned marital disappointment the same way she strapped on her ridiculous gardening outfit. All of her considerable efforts to propel her husband toward some kind of financial stability and success had died in their tracks. Now the house was Charlie’s space, and Rose’s refuge was the garden.

The sky was dimming, and the air growing colder. When freezing temperatures arrived to stay, this neighborhood would quiet, but tonight it chattered as if trying to get in its final words: Distant kids shouted laughter; the older Mrs. Ceccione warbled in her garden; a motorcycle coughed three times before starting up. “I suppose it’s time to go inside,” Rose said. “Are you embarrassed by your old lady looking like this?”

“No,” Julia said. She knew William’s attention would be on her. She loved the hopeful look William directed at her, as if he were a ship eyeing the ideal harbor. William had grown up in a nice home, with a professional father, a big lawn, and his own bedroom. He clearly knew what success and security looked like, and the fact that he saw those possibilities in Julia pleased her immensely.

Rose had tried to build a solid life, but Charlie had wandered away with, or kicked over, every stone she laid down. Julia had decided, halfway through her first conversation with William, that he was the man for her. He had everything she was looking for, and as she’d told her mother, she just really liked him. The sight of him made her smile, and she loved fitting her small hand inside his large one. They made an excellent team: William had experienced the kind of life Julia wanted, so he could direct her endless energy while they built their future together. Once she and William were married and established in their own home, she would help her family. Her solid foundation would extend to become theirs.

She almost laughed out loud at the relief on her boyfriend’s face when she entered the living room. William was seated next to her father on the squeaky couch, and Charlie had his hand on the young man’s shoulder. Cecelia was lying across the old red armchair, and Emeline was staring in the mirror hung beside the front door, adjusting her hair.

Cecelia was saying, in a serious voice, “You have an excellent nose, William.”

“Oh,” William said, clearly surprised. “Thank you?”

Julia grinned. “Don’t mind Cecelia. She talks that way because she’s an artist.” Cecelia had special access to the art room at the high school, and she considered everything in her sightline to be source material for future paintings. The last time Julia—intrigued by the focused expression on Cecelia’s face—asked her sister what she was thinking about, Cecelia had said, “Purple.”

“You do have a nice nose,” Emeline said politely, because she’d noticed William blush and wanted to make him feel better. Emeline read the emotional tenor of every room and wanted everyone to feel comfortable and content at all times.

“He doesn’t know a word of Whitman,” Charlie said to Julia. “Can you imagine? William didn’t get here a moment too soon. I gave him a few lines to tide him over.”

“No one knows Whitman except for you, Daddy,” Cecelia said.

The fact that William didn’t know any of Walt Whitman’s poems was additional validation for Julia that her boyfriend was different from her father. She could tell from Charlie’s voice that he’d been drinking but wasn’t yet drunk. He had a glass in his hand, half filled with melting ice cubes.

“I can reserve Leaves of Grass for you at the library, if you’d like,” Sylvie said to William. “It’s worth reading.”

Julia hadn’t noticed Sylvie, who stood in the doorway of the kitchen. She must have just gotten home from her shift at the library, and her lips were the kind of deep red that meant she’d been kissing

one of her boys in the stacks. Sylvie was a senior in high school and spent her free hours working as many shifts as possible to save money for community college. She wouldn’t earn an academic scholarship like Julia had, because she hadn’t matched her older sister’s determination to get one. Sylvie aced the classes she was interested in but got C’s or D’s in everything else. Julia had operated her determination like a lawn mower and mowed through high school with the next step in her sights.

“Thank you,” William said. “I’m afraid I haven’t read much poetry at all.”

Julia was sure William hadn’t noticed her sister’s lips, and even if he had, he wouldn’t know what they meant. Sylvie was the sister Julia was closest to, and she was also the only person who stymied Julia, who left her at a loss for words. Her sister had read hundreds of novels—it had been Sylvie’s only interest, and hobby, for their entire lives—and out of those books she’d plucked a life goal: to have a great, once-in-a-century love affair. It was a child’s dream, but Sylvie was still holding on to it with both hands. She was looking for him—her soulmate—every day of her life. And she made out with boys during her shifts in the library to practice for when she met him.

“It’s not right to practice like that,” Julia would tell Sylvie, when they were lying side by side in their dark bedroom at night. “And the kind of love you’re looking for is made up, anyway. The idea of love in those books—Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina—is that it’s a force that obliterates you. They’re all tragedies, Sylvie. Think about it; those novels all end with despair, or death.”

Sylvie had sighed. “The tragedy isn’t the point,” she said. “We read those books today because the romance is so enormous and true that we can’t look away. It’s not obliteration; it’s a kind of expanding, I think. If I’m lucky enough to know love like that” She went quiet, unable to put into words how meaningful this would be.

Julia shook her head at the sight of her sister’s red lips, because this dream was bound to backfire. Sylvie cared too much and lived

too much in her head. She would be branded a slut and eventually marry a good-looking loser because he stared at Sylvie in a way that reminded her of Heathcliff.

Emeline was talking about her homeroom teacher, who was on probation for smoking marijuana. “He’s so honest,” she said. “He told us how he got caught and everything. I’m worried he’s going to get in more trouble for telling us about it. He doesn’t seem to understand the grown-up rules for what to say and what to keep to himself. I kept wanting to tell him to shush.”

“You should also tell him not to smoke pot,” Cecelia said.

“I suppose we should eat?” Rose had come out of her bedroom, clean and wearing one of her nicer housedresses. “It’s lovely to meet you, William. Do you like red wine?”

He stood, unfolding his long body from the low couch. He nodded. “Hello, ma’am.”

“Sweet mother of Mary.” Rose tipped her head back to look up at him. She was barely five feet tall. “You didn’t think to mention that he’s a giant, Julia?”

“He’s a marvel, though, isn’t he?” Charlie said. “He’s got our Julia soft around the edges, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. Look at her smile.”

“Daddy,” Julia said.

“What position do you play?” Charlie asked William. “Small forward.”

“Ha! If you’re the small forward, I’d hate to meet the big one.”

“I wonder what the evolutionary explanation is for that kind of height,” Sylvie said. “Did we need people who could peer over walls to see if the enemy was coming?”

Everyone in the room, including William, laughed, and Julia thought he looked a little teary in the middle of the action. She made her way to him and whispered, “Are we too much for you?”

He squeezed her hand, a gesture she understood meant both yes and no.

Dinner wasn’t delicious. Despite the fact that she grew beautiful vegetables, Rose hated to cook, so they took turns battling dinner onto the table. The vegetables weren’t intended for them, anyway— they were sold by the twins each weekend at a farmers’ market in a nearby wealthy neighborhood. It was Emeline’s turn to cook, which meant they had frozen TV dinners. The guest got to choose his TV dinner first; William selected turkey, which came on a tray with small compartments for mashed potatoes, peas, and cranberry sauce. The family members chose carelessly after him and started eating. Emeline had also made Pillsbury crescent rolls, popped out of the tube and baked in the oven. Those elicited more enthusiasm and were gone in ten minutes.

“My mother made this same brand of dinner when I was growing up,” William said. “It’s nice to have it again. Thank you.”

“I’m glad you’re not appalled by our entertaining,” Rose said. “I’d like to know if you were raised Catholic.”

“I went to Catholic school in Boston all the way through.” “Will you go into your pop’s line of work?” Charlie asked.

This question surprised Julia, and she could see that it startled her sisters too. Charlie never mentioned work, never asked anyone about their job. He hated his job at the paper plant. The only reason he wasn’t fired—according to Rose—was that the man who owned the company was his childhood friend. Charlie regularly told his daughters that a job did not make a person.

“What makes you, Daddy?” Emeline had asked a few years earlier in response to this comment. She’d spoken with all of her little-girl sweetness; it was commonly agreed that she was the gentlest and most earnest of the four girls. “Your smile,” Charlie had said. “The night sky. The flowering dogwood in front of Mrs. Ceccione’s house.”

Julia had listened and thought: That’s all nonsense. And useless to Mom, who’s doing strangers’ laundry every week to pay the bills.

Perhaps Charlie was trying to ask the kind of question he believed other fathers asked their daughters’ boyfriends. After the words left his mouth, he finished his drink and reached for the wine bottle.

“Daddy looked frightened,” Sylvie would note to Julia later that night, in the dark. “And did you hear Mom use the word appalled? She never talks like that. They were both showing off for William.”

“No, sir,” William said. “My father is in accounting. I—” He hesitated, and Julia thought, This is difficult for him because he doesn’t have the answer. He lacks answers. A shiver of pleasure climbed her spine. Julia specialized in answers. From the time she was old enough to speak, she’d bossed her sisters around, pointing out their problems and providing solutions. Sometimes her sisters found this irritating, but they would also admit that having a “master troubleshooter” in their own home was an asset. One by one, they would seek her out and say sheepishly, Julia, I have a problem. It would be about a mean boy, or a strict teacher, or a lost borrowed necklace. And Julia would thrill at their request, rub her hands together, and figure out what to do.

William said, “If basketball doesn’t work out, I might…” His voice stopped, and he looked as lost as Charlie had a moment earlier, suspended in time, as if his only hope was that the end of the sentence might magically appear.

Julia said, “He might become a professor.”

“Ooh,” Emeline said approvingly. “There’s a nice-looking professor two blocks over, and the ladies follow him around. He wears excellent jackets.”

“Professor of what?” Sylvie said.

“No idea,” Emeline said. “Doesn’t matter, does it?” “Of course it matters.”

“A professor,” Charlie said, as if Julia had said astronaut or president of the United States. Rose talked about college all the time, but her education had ended after high school, and Charlie had

dropped out of college after Julia was born. “That would be something.”

William shot Julia a look, part thanks, part something else, and the patter at the table continued around them.

Later that night, when they went for a walk around the neighborhood, William said, “What was that about me being a professor?”

Julia felt her cheeks flush. She said, “I wanted to help, and Kent told me you were writing a book about the history of basketball.”

William let go of her hand, without seeming to notice. “He did? It’s not a book—it’s more notes at this point. I don’t know if it will ever be a book. I don’t know what it will be.”

“It’s impressive,” she said. “I don’t know any other college kids who are writing a book in their free time. It’s very ambitious. Sounds like a future professor to me.”

He shrugged, but she could see him considering the idea.

William was tall and shadowy above her. A man, but young. Pilsen was muted tonight under a navy-blue sky. They were on a smaller side street. She could see the spire of St. Procopius, where her family attended Sunday mass, a few blocks to the right. Julia thought of Sylvie being kissed against a row of science-fiction novels under the bright lights of the library. She reached over and tugged on the front of William’s coat. Come down here.

He knew this signal and lowered his head. His lips met hers— gentle, warm—and they pressed together in the middle of the street, in the middle of their romance, in the middle of her neighborhood. Julia loved kissing William. She’d kissed a couple of boys before him, but those boys had approached kissing like it was the starting pistol in a sprint. Presumably, the finish line was sex, but neither of the boys had expected to get that far; they were simply trying to cover as much ground as possible before Julia called off the race. A cheek kiss veered into kissing on the lips, which escalated rapidly to French kissing, and then the boy was patting her breast as if trying to

get a feel for its measurements. Julia had never let anyone go further than that point, but the whole endeavor was so stressful that she’d only been able to experience kisses as wet and reckless. William, though, was different. His kisses were slow and not part of a race, which allowed Julia to relax. Because she felt safe, different parts of her body lit up, and she pressed her soft body against his. With William, she wanted more for the first time. She wanted him.

When they finally pulled apart, she whispered into his chest, “I’m going to leave this place.”

“Where? Your parents’ house?”

“Yes, and this whole neighborhood. After college. When”—it was Julia’s turn to hesitate—“when my real life starts. Nothing starts here; you saw my family. People get stuck here.” She pictured the soil in Rose’s garden: rich, pebbly, sticky to the touch. She rubbed her hand against William’s jacket, as if to wipe off the dirt. “There are much nicer neighborhoods in Chicago. They’re a different world from here. I wonder if you’ll want to go back to Boston?”

“I like it here,” he said. “I like your family.”

Julia realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting for his response. She’d decided William was her future, but she wasn’t sure he felt the same way, though she suspected he did. “I like them too,” she said. “I just don’t want to be them.”

When Julia crept back into the house later that night and into the tiny bedroom she shared with Sylvie, she found all her sisters waiting there in their nightgowns. They offered her triumphant smiles.

“What?” she whispered, unable not to smile in return.

“You’re in love!” Emeline whispered, and the girls pulled Julia onto her bed, a celebration of the first of them to take this step, the first of them to hand her heart to a boy. The twins and Sylvie collapsed onto the single bed with her. They’d done this countless times; it had gotten trickier as their bodies grew, but they knew how to tuck their limbs and arrange themselves to make it work.

Julia laughed with her hand over her mouth, careful not to make noise and wake up their parents. She was surprised to find tears in her eyes, wrapped up in her sisters’ arms. “I might be,” she said.

“We approve,” Sylvie said. “He looks at you like you’re the bee’s knees, which you are.”

“I like the color of his eyes,” Cecelia said. “They’re an unusual shade of blue. I’m going to paint them.”

“It’s not your kind of love, Sylvie,” Julia said, wanting to make that clear. “It’s a sensible kind.”

“Of course,” Sylvie said, and kissed her on the cheek. “You’re a sensible person. And we’re so happy for you.”

william proposed whe they were juniors. This had been the plan, Julia’s plan. They would marry right after graduation. She’d shifted her major from humanities to economics, after taking a fascinating organizational-psychology course. She learned about systems, how every business was made up of a collection of intricate parts, motivations, and movements. How if one part was broken or out of step, it could doom the entire company. Her professor was a business consultant who advised companies on how to make their workflow more “efficient” and “effective.” Julia worked for Professor Cooper during the summer between her junior and senior years, taking notes and drawing business-operations charts on architectural paper. Her family made fun of her navy pumps and skirt suit, but she loved walking into the air-conditioned chill of office buildings, loved how everyone dressed like they took themselves and their work seriously, even loved walking through clouds of cigarette smoke on her way to the ladies’ room. The men looked how she thought men should look, and she bought William a crisp white button-down shirt for his birthday that year. She planned to add a corduroy blazer at Christmas. William had decided to make Julia’s suggestion that he

become a history professor a reality. Julia appreciated the elegance of her plans: engaged this summer, graduation and wedding next summer, and then William would enter a PhD program. Julia loved living in this moment, with her life directly in front of her instead of off in the distance. She’d spent her entire childhood waiting to grow up so she could be here, ringing all the bells of adulthood.

William was spending his last full summer at Northwestern in basketball training camp, and Julia would often meet him at the athletic center at the end of the day so they could have dinner together. She ran into Kent on the quad occasionally, when he left practice early for his summer job at the college infirmary. Julia liked Kent, but she always felt slightly uncomfortable around him. It seemed like their timing was off, to the extent that they often spoke at the same moment. When they were with William and he said something, they both responded and ran over each other’s words. Julia respected Kent—after all, he was planning to put himself through medical school—and thought he was a good influence on William. Part of her discomfort was a desire for Kent to like her. She wasn’t sure that he did. In his presence, she flipped through possible conversations in her head, looking for one that would put them on solid ground.

“Good evening, General,” Kent said, when he saw her that evening. “I hear you’re burning it up in the corporate world.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said, but she smiled. It was unthinkable to take anything Kent said as an insult; his tone and ready smile didn’t allow for that possibility. “How’s basketball?”

“Joyful,” he said, and the way he said the word reminded Julia of when Cecelia had answered a question with an excited purple.

“Our boy was feeling himself at practice today,” Kent said. “He’s having fun this summer. It’s good to see.”

This had a note of chiding to Julia’s ear, but she couldn’t see what Kent would be chiding her about. Did he think she didn’t want William to have fun?

When Kent said goodbye, she sat down on a bench to wait. She shook her head, annoyed at how she allowed William’s friend to fluster her. She pulled a compact out of her purse and reapplied her lipstick, then stood up when she spotted her handsome fiancé leaving the gym in the middle of a flock of tall, gangly young men. She’d run into an acquaintance from her freshman biology class on the street recently, and the girl had said, I heard you were engaged to that tall boy with the beautiful eyes. He’s very cute. Julia held tight to William’s hand while they walked to a café for dinner.

William was slow-moving and unable to hold a conversation until he’d eaten a thousand calories and the color returned to his face. Julia, on the other hand, was rattling with excitement, unable to stop talking about every moment of her day.

“Professor Cooper says I’m a natural problem-solver,” she said. “He’s right.” William cut his baked potato into a grid and then ate

a square.

“I was wondering, have you been working on your writing?” She’d learned not to call it a book. “You could use it as your senior thesis.”

“It’s a mess,” he said. “I haven’t had much time for it lately, and I can’t figure out how to focus the material.”

“I’d love to read it.” He shook his head.

She wanted to ask, Has Kent read it? But she didn’t want to hear William say yes. She wanted to read the book because she was interested and so she could have a sense of how good it was. Whether it had the potential to build a career around.

“I’m going to start this year,” he said. “Coach said my playing has taken a leap.”


“Start every game. I’ll be part of the best five. When NBA scouts come, they’ll see me play.”

“That’s fun,” she said. “I’ll cheer for you.” He smiled. “Thank you.”

“Have you told your parents about our engagement yet?”

He shook his head. “I haven’t. I should, I know. But”—he hesitated—“I don’t think they’ll be interested.”

Julia gave a smile she knew was too tight. He’d been avoiding telling his parents for weeks. She believed it was because he was embarrassed to tell them that he’d asked an Italian American girl from a poor family to marry him. He’d told her enough about his upbringing that she knew his father had an impressive job and his mother didn’t need to work. They probably had airs and expectations for their only child, but William wouldn’t admit this, and she wouldn’t state her fear outright. Now she said, in a tight voice to match her tight smile, “Don’t be ridiculous. They’re your parents.”

“Listen,” he said, “I know it would be strange not to invite them to the wedding, but I don’t think we need to invite them.” He saw her face and said, “I’m just being honest. I know it’s unusual.”

“You’ll call them tonight,” she said. “And I’ll be on the phone with you. I’m charming. They’ll adore me.”

William was quiet for a moment, and his eyelids drooped in a way that indicated he had gone far away from her. When he looked up, he regarded her as if she were a problem he needed to solve.

“You love me,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, and the word seemed to settle something inside him. “Okay, let’s do it.”

An hour later, sharing the hard wooden stool in the old-fashioned phone booth in his dorm hallway, they called Boston. William’s mother answered the call, and William said hello. The woman sounded surprised to hear from him, though she was polite. Then Julia spoke—her voice sounding overamplified to her own ears, as if she were speaking through a megaphone—and William’s mother sounded far away. She said she had something in the oven and it was nice they were getting married, but she had to go now.

The entire call was finished in less than ten minutes.

Julia gulped for air when she hung up the receiver, winded from trying to reach, to touch, the distant woman on the end of the line.

When she could speak, she said, “You were right. She doesn’t want to come.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know that’s disappointing to you. Your vision of the wedding had everyone there.”

Julia was pressed against William on the tiny seat. The hallway booth was warm. The temperature and the disappointment and Julia’s sympathy for this boy rose inside her—this boy who deserved parents who kissed his cheek the way her parents kissed hers. They had planned not to have sex until they were married, though they had come close to breaking that resolution once or twice. The remote woman on the phone had handed William off to Julia in a way that felt as significant as a wedding vow. She needed to take care of him; she needed to love him, with every part of her. In fact, she had to, right now. She was flushed, her skirt was twisted around her waist because of the seating arrangement, and she needed to be closer to him in order for anything to be all right.

She said, “Can we have privacy in your room?”

His roommate was gone for the summer. William nodded, a question on his face.

She took his hand and led him down the hall, into his room, and locked the door behind them.

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