Excerpt

Chapter 1:
1973

Mary and Ross were in Rome on a junior-year-abroad program when they had their baby, Natassia, who was conceived on a dare: “Do it with no birth control,” another couple challenged. “We’ll do it if you do it.” The guys dropped acid, the girls said they didn’t need to, then both couples went to bed, in Ross’s dorm room, on single cots pushed right up next to each other. It was 1973, September, their first month in Rome. Italy was still as hot as summer, and the semester felt more like a vacation than school. The dorm they were living in was a run-down palazzo with windows too huge for screens, so, during their first days in Rome, Ross had hung mosquito netting above the beds. Now, for privacy, the two couples pulled that sheerness between them, the only thing dividing them. Mary got pregnant, the other girl did not. Every morning that hot October, Mary threw up in the cracked marble toilet before leaving for dance class. Ross, awed by her as always and now a little afraid of her, too, watched and felt helpless. Years would pass before either of them would even begin to understand why they had done this.

Mary’s power as a dancer was her ability to fly. Most of her action happened a few inches off the ground. Beautiful, this flying, but it gave Ross the unsteady sensation that Mary would one day get away from him.

“I want you to have this baby,” he told her. It was a chilly late-October night. They were shuffling through Piazza della Rotonda, past the Pantheon, kicking street trash back and forth between them. They’d been in Rome almost two months and Ross still had no desire to explore the place. He said it smelled just like home, like New York. He’d pretty much stopped going to classes. Lazy in the extravagant way of the very brightest college students, Ross spent his days in bed getting high on hash from Piazza Navona and reading The New England Journal of Medicine.

Sometimes, though, on clear nights like tonight, Mary got him to walk the streets. As they walked, they were always, always touching. In the year they’d been together, Mary’s body had become the current that connected Ross to anything outside his head. Right now, her fingers were in the back pocket of his jeans, scratching.

“I found out how I could get an abortion,” she said, “but I’d have to go to Florence for a weekend. I’d miss a couple rehearsals. They’d be pissed.”

“You’ve had two abortions already.” She’d had five, three before she met Ross, but Mary decided he didn’t need to know that. “I think we should have a baby, see what happens.” He said it casually, as if it were nothing, trying to keep the hope out of his voice and the fear out of his heart. He had no idea why he was pushing for it, he was just full of some quiet panic telling him, Do it.

But there was no way. Why would Mary do this? And why with him? Ever since Ross had known Mary, she’d been headed toward a serious career, and it was no pipe dream. She’d been performing, even soloing, with not-shabby modern-dance companies since she was fourteen. Taking up that no-birth-control dare when she knew–absolutely knew–she was ultra-fertile had been a kind of Russian roulette. For Mary actually to have a baby would make no sense.

But here she was, flattening her palm inside Ross’s back pocket to stop him. She turned him toward her. They stood in the empty piazza, and she looked up at him. She was so tiny and he so tall, six-foot-two and stooped, with width in his shoulders and baby fat around his middle. Ross’s black beard was thick enough to shave twice daily, but he got to it only a few times a week. He was just eighteen and she was almost twenty, but he felt older and responsible for her because he was so much bigger. He looked down through heavy, dark eyelashes into her hidden, lidded Korean eyes. Often when Ross looked at Mary, he tried to picture what her birth mother might have looked like–probably young and tiny and gorgeous and roughed up by war–and it saddened him deeply that nothing would ever be known about that woman. He felt the same aching frustration now, as he stood in the lit-up dark streets of Rome holding on to Mary’s shoulders, leaning over so her face was just a breath away from his. He never would know exactly what happened inside Mary the moment before she said, “Okay. Yeah.”

“Yeah?” Ross smiled.

“Yeah.”

So–they were having a baby. “You’re sure?” he asked. “I don’t want this to change things.”

She pulled her hand out of his pocket and slapped his butt. “Jesus, Ross, of course it’s going to change things. I’m going to get huge and fat. I’m going to have to dance lower, stay closer to the ground. I already found an African class. See?” she said. “Watch.”

“Ah no, come back”–but she was off, doing some hyped-up, jumpy thing across the piazza. For Mary, the only point to Rome was these big empty spaces at night, where she could move all around however she wanted. “Ma-r-r-ry,” Ross called, his voice an icy echo in the chilly night. He noticed two businessmen stop to watch her. They reminded Ross of his father, the way the men pushed the fronts of their trench coats open and shoved their hands into their trouser pockets, the way they hit that proprietary stance, watching her as if she were dancing just for them. “Mar, come back here. I was talking to you.”

“Just a sec.” Her voice came out breathy, from inside some spin she was doing in a far corner of the piazza. The Italians applauded, buttoned their trench coats, and moved on.
Yeah, sure. Pregnant, she was closer to the ground, but those African steps had her moving fast; her boots on the stones of the piazza were rattling like Ross’s teeth. It was almost November now and it was cold.

The women Mary met in the African class realized early, before anyone in any of her other dance classes, that she was pregnant. Mary and the African women spoke to one another with gestures and with the little Italian they had. The basic words of music and dance: piano, slow; più presto, faster; forte, hard. The women were impressed that Mary learned so quickly how to listen to the drums, that she understood how the drums were telling her to move. After a month, one of the women, an older woman called Mama Ci-Ci, looked a long minute at Mary’s stomach, then put her hand there and asked, “Grassa?” Fat?

Mary took Mama Ci-Ci’s wrist and pulled her hand out a couple of inches, to where the baby would be in a few months. “Più grassa ancora,” Mary told her.

Mama Ci-Ci and the others around her smiled. Mary laughed. They all laughed. Another woman took Mary’s left hand, her ring finger, and asked, “Marito?” All the women, seven or eight of them, were listening now, and Mary said the Italian words to let them know there was no husband, there was a boyfriend, there would not be a wedding or an abortion. A few of the women shook Mary’s left hand and insisted that if the man would not marry her she should not have the baby. Then Mama Ci-Ci talked fast and long in her own language, explaining to the others, it seemed, that Mary might have religious reasons–Korean reasons–for not wanting an abortion. She asked Mary this by making the sign of the cross and raising her eyebrows. Mary nodded yes. Why the hell not?

The women never guessed that Mary was American. They assumed she was like them, an immigrant, maybe working as an illegal domestic until her papers were in order, a girl just passing through Rome.

The skin of all the women was very dark. Ama was large, with hefty firm flesh on her arms; Sula, skinny like thread. Esi had hair cropped to almost nothing. Lulu and her sister wrapped their heads with big bright cloths to hold up their many braids. Mama Ci-Ci and her young niece were modest and changed for class behind a screen. All the women had tired feet. They kicked off their shoes–sandals, high heels, tennis shoes– as soon as they got in the room, and sat for a minute or so with feet exposed, toes flexing. Mary liked that. Even though they had only the two-hour lunch break, they took time for that reverent moment with their feet. Then Mama Ci-Ci called out a few loud words–Mary could never unscramble the sounds–and the drums started going, never to stop the whole time. The drummer, Ama’s brother, wore sunglasses and eased down over his drums in such a sleepy way you couldn’t tell if he was awake or if maybe his hands were moving through a dream. Even after Mary had been in the class a while, she still felt that rush with the first drumbeats, the sound of something big beginning to happen, a thunderstorm or some kind of ceremony, a parade.

This class was held in a tiny dark garage.

With the drumbeats, the feet dug down. Stomps, fast and syncopated. Knees bent, elbows bent, arms swinging, back leaning over, not straight. The movement was much like modern dance, and Mary caught on quickly. But this dance was new for Mary, too, and reminded her of being thirteen and standing for the first time in a modern class after years of strict classical ballet training, that stunning moment when she was told, “Go ahead, let your shoulders roll, let your wrists go limp. No need to point the toes, flex your feet. Looser arms! Swing! Bend! Melt! Roll up slowly– just in your own time.” Mary still remembered every minute of that two-hour master class taught by Tim Dillon Dancers, a modern-dance company from Albany; it was like finally having your straitjacket unlocked, like getting permission to rip masking tape off of your mouth. It was like food; Mary couldn’t get enough. At that point she had already been a performing ballerina for six years, but that first modern class was her birth as a dancer. Now, years later, pregnant, with the African women and the drums telling her to bend over, curl in, Mary was born into her body again. She felt her blood traveling, felt the energy moving in and out of the rooms of her heart. Mary had never had anything so lively inside herself to protect before. Rolled up, she felt as tight and compact as a nut, some perfect hard skin holding in its precious fruit.

Ross had told Mary there was a theory that you find what you need whether you’re aware of your need or not. He said it happened to him sometimes in bookstores–his eyes would catch a title, he’d pull it off the shelf, and, bingo, he’d be holding in his hands exactly what he needed to read right then. Mary figured it was by that same principle that she had come to be with the African women.

Mary had never known her own mother, a Korean prostitute whom her father, Jerry Mudd, had spent a few nights with in a village south of Seoul in the early spring of 1952. On a hunch, Jerry had gone back to the woman nine months later, toward the end of his tour of duty, and he’d found Mary, three days old. He cried the night he told Mary how easily her mother had given her up. It was just after Mary’s birthday dinner. She was five and had been asking a lot of questions about her birth. Finally, after she blew out the one candle on her Hostess cupcake, Jerry told her how much he loved her, and told her how the Korean woman had handed Mary over to him wrapped in a cotton shirt, then tossed over a necklace of braided silk thread.

“Where’s the necklace?” Mary asked.

“Trash,” her stepmother, Dorie, said, and walked out of the kitchen.

Jerry always followed Dorie when she walked out of a room.

They never worried about leaving Mary alone. Especially after the three boys were born, each fourteen months after the brother before him. Mary wasn’t in kindergarten yet when Dorie discovered a ballet academy two blocks away. For Dorie this was better than a babysitter. The more classes Mary took, the cheaper they were. Plus, the dancing kept Mary out of the house.

One Saturday morning, Mary stood in ballet class looking at herself in the studio mirrors. She was the youngest and smallest in intermediates. The class was learning rond de jambe en l’air. The teacher demonstrated how they were supposed to keep the body straight, lift the right leg to the side, bend it at the knee, and circle the bottom part of the leg, keeping the rest of the leg and the body perfectly still. This required you to pull all your strength into your abdomen. “Now you try.” The teacher came by and patted Mary’s middle and said, “For such a skinny tummy you have a lot of strength pulled up in there. Very, very good. That’s it! Pull everything up. Make yourself taller.”

You were supposed to make your middle strong as iron. Make your arms light as nothing, graceful as air. Keep everything straight. Keep your hips square. Keep your shoulders square and lined up with your hips. Pull all your energy into your stomach and up so high you created space between your ribs. With head and hips and shoulders aligned, could you raise your leg without shifting anything else? Could you keep that leg in the air? Could your leg make circles in the air? Could you keep those circles perfect and slow?

Mary saw in the mirror she was the only one in class who could do it. Everyone else wobbled. In the mirror she also saw that her features made her face different from all the white faces around her. That day, for the first time ever, it occurred to Mary that this difference was interesting.

“Now, everyone, stop,” the dance teacher said. (Because she couldn’t pronounce the woman’s complicated Polish surname, Mary never addressed the teacher directly and was always nervous when the teacher spoke to her.) “Legs down. All of you, please, turn to watch Mary. Mary, dear, would you demonstrate the rond de jambe en l’air? Class, all eyes on Mary.” With everyone watching her, Mary did the difficult step. She had no choice but to watch herself in the mirror. And though she saw she was doing the rond de jambe perfectly, she felt no pride, just a detached curiosity. Mary felt no more connection than that to the image in the dance-studio mirror. What she felt strongly, for the first time ever, was the gap between what she saw of herself on the outside and what was inside her–a landscape as bleak as the upstate New York town where the Mudds lived.


Excerpted from Falling in Love with Natassia by Anna Monardo Copyright © 2006 by Anna Monardo. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.