Kenny D’Ambrosio and his father owned D’Ambrosio Meats. In the big front window of their store Ida could see them cut ham with their large hands and pack it into neat, white paper. They smiled with one side of their mouths, as if there was a secret joke between them and their customers. The secret could be about cold cuts, but it hinted at something else.
Ida took the long way home from her father’s shoe store where she worked, so she could pass by and watch Kenny. From outside she could see behind the counter where father and son moved smoothly around each other. They never looked at one another, just seemed to know where each other’s bodies would move: who needed the slicer, who needed to take out the chicken breast.
Ida wanted a reason to go inside. She could get a sandwich. But the men scared her, and she was afraid they would know that she had come for something else, and she would have: Ida’s new stepmother, Janet, had left Kenny for Ida’s father. Ida had never been interested in the butcher — had never gone there except when she was small with her mother, until Janet. Suddenly Kenny D’Ambrosio was connected to her: still a whiff of him somewhere on her stepmother.
When Ida was twenty she still wasn’t married. She had a beautiful older sister who was married and lived upstate. Ida lived at home with her parents and walked to work with her father every day.
Ida wore the most fashionable shoes for women. She would stand up tall next to her father, a man everyone liked. He wore a hat with a maroon ring around it, and everybody knew him and called him "Mr. Boots." In a town that did not have many Jews, this was better than Mr. Feinstein. "Mr. Boots" was like a funny character, and Ida was his frail, sad daughter who had none of her father’s charms.
Still, she made sure the shop was clean and the books were correct while her father flirted with the customers out front. After Ida finished high school and was able to work full-time, her mother stopped coming to the store. Before she died, she preferred the couch in the living room more than the chair at the shop.
All day long Ida was silent in the back of her father’s shoe store — speaking only to her father when she had to. She did the books and then left after some time in the bathroom where she looked in the mirror and picked at her face.
In the back of the shoe store, Ida organized the receipts, did the books and the orders, and looked in the shoe mirror, at her small ankles in her heeled, tie-up shoes. They were the most expensive shoes in the catalogues.
"I have perfect ankles," she thought.
Wouldn’t she have been blessed if her whole body was as sleek and smooth as her ankles? Instead she had acne that her father took her to the doctor for. There, they flashed her face with radiation, a new technique that was supposed to help her skin. They turned off the lights and Ida squeezed her eyes shut while the doctor held the switch. She wished it hurt when the radiation was on, so that it would feel like something was happening. But it felt like nothing. And when the doctor turned the lights on again and she opened her eyes it was
At night, she rubbed her feet together and thought about the men she knew.
like she had been there for no reason. The doctor would always pat her back as she was leaving, reminding her to leave her face alone.
In the back of the store Ida lay on her stomach so that she could see her face in the shoe mirror. There she scratched the red spots on her cheeks. She pinched and squeezed until she became blotched. Then she went to the bathroom and splashed her face. She had pancake makeup that she scooped up to hide where she had picked. She sat on the toilet and waited until everything stopped bleeding.
Safe in the back, she continued with the books and wondered if it was like stashing chocolate, the way she hid what she did with her skin. She knew it was one of the reasons no one liked her in synagogue. If only, she thought, I could have perfect skin.
At twenty, the skin on Ida’s belly was smooth and clear. At night she rubbed her feet together and thought about the men she knew. There was the rabbi who was still unmarried. There was something about him: the way he held the yad when reading from the Torah that made it look like the instrument was too fragile. It seemed far more fragile — it being metal — than it really was. But she also looked forward to seeing the Rabbi read. It felt good, in a way, to be disgusted by him. She did not want to be the Rabbi’s wife.
Almost all of the other men were married to girls she had gone to high school with. She would see them with their children; if they had more than one they would dress their children alike.
In the pews she would imagine what she looked like to them. She understood: she would never want to marry herself.
Janet was the kind of woman you could see with anyone. She had two pairs of silk stockings, and the dresses she wore never let you forget her breasts. She had honey-colored hair and red lips that she painted into a small bow. She belted herself in at the waist so that you could see the way her hips went out in two bumps like a layer cake. Ever since Janet moved in, Ida ate in the den on the couch while Janet and her father ate in the kitchen. She refused to eat Janet’s food (meatballs and thick spaghetti, chicken piccato, which Ida didn’t like the sound of). Ida ate oatmeal for dinner each night. She sprinkled cinnamon and sugar on her oats, then made her way to the couch.
At first her father protested, "Oh Ida. Why can’t you eat with us? We miss you."
For a while he called from the kitchen, "Head-dyyyyyy," in a singsong voice, "my sweet."
Three months in and both her father and Janet ignored her. Ida would listen to their conversation (which consisted of their day the weather shoes co-workers nothing nothing nothing) and sometimes she yelled something in.
"That is a great dress on you," she heard her father say to his wife.
"It’s ugly and cheap!" Ida yelled in.
In the beginning her father would yell back "Ida, if you want to speak to us, please come in here and sit down. Otherwise, stop it."
Three months in and Ida had become a ghost.
"I heard that Kenny D’Ambrosio is thinking of buying another store," Ida yelled in one day after walking by the shop. It wasn’t true — Ida had not heard anything. Ida liked to say "D’Ambrosio" even if Janet wasn’t around.
Janet and her father ignored her — none of them had ever mentioned Kenny before — and Ida made smacking noises with her mouth while she ate oatmeal. She thought of the teeth on Kenny — the two eyeteeth that stuck out a bit and looked a little like a vampire, a little like he’d bite.
Tomorrow, Ida decided to get up her nerve and buy some meat. She couldn’t decide what kind but then dreamed of capicole. She liked the word — it sounded tasty and had two ways of being pronounced. She had never tried it, and wanted a taste.
Ida wore her navy blue lace-ups with the heel and her matching navy-blue wool skirt-suit, even though it was warm out. She walked to D’Ambrosio Meats to order capicole.
She had looked it up in the dictionary. The way to say it was with the "e" at the end, it said. It was from a pig. She would throw it out before getting back to the house.
Ida took a breath and then opened the door to the shop. Above her a bell rang. Her hands in the gloves were sweaty and gross. They were gloves her mother used to make her wear
Kenny leaned against a wall, blowing smoke. Ida stared at him.
so she wouldn’t pick her skin in the night.
Kenny’s father smoked a cigarette with his elbows on the steel counter.
"Hello, young lady," he said, "How are you doing on this lovely day?"
He smiled at her with his half-smile.
Ida looked at all the meats. They looked clean, the way they were sliced down the middle; they were shaped in odd ways and she wondered what parts of what animal each one was.
"I’ll have a half pound of capicole, please," Idea said.
"Capicole, coming right up," he said, pronouncing it like "soul," without the "eee."
Ida wondered if he had said it on purpose to correct her, but then he smiled in that way again, and Ida could see where the son came from. When he bent down in the case to get the meat, Ida stood on her tiptoes to see if Kenny was in the back.
"Would you like it thin?" Mr. D’Ambrosio asked. Ida didn’t know.
"No. Thick please. Very thick," she said.
"Okay, young lady," he said, slicing three thick pieces on the machine. He wrapped them up for her in white paper, folding it a certain way that looked special. He popped open a paper bag and handed her the package like it was a present.
Ida paid, and began walking out the door.
"Have a nice day," Mr. D’Ambrosio said, and Ida smiled and looked behind her for Kenny once more.
Her money was wasted; there was no Kenny in sight. But she had enjoyed buying the food anyway. Perhaps Mr. D’Ambrosio thought she had a family who liked to eat capicole with green beans. Perhaps he thought that beneath her white gloves there was a heart-shaped ring with lots of karats. Perhaps he thought someone loved her, and she was buying food because she loved them too.
She looked back in the window at Mr. D’Ambrosio, who had his elbows back on the counter, smoking a cigarette. He looked like he wasn’t thinking at all.
She began to walk away, then heard the sound of a bottle drop in the alley between the butcher’s and the cleaner’s. She looked down at the long thing aisle where Kenny leaned against a wall,
Ida ran down to the mailbox at the end of the block in bare feet, before she lost her nerve.
Ida stared at him. He picked up the bottle, and shook it in his mouth trying to get the last drops. It was alcohol, Ida smelled. Kenny turned and saw her.
"Hey," he said, and Ida started to run. She ran as fast as she could in her pencil skirt and shoes. She ran, hoping she wouldn’t rip the stockings she had stolen from Janet’s drawer. Ida ran, holding the ham in her hand, and dropped it on the street before her own. She ran until she got to her house, then went inside it to bolt the door and stand against it, panting, like she was being chased.
First Ida spritzed the perfume on herself, and then on the paper and in the envelope. The paper was pink. Ida didn’t know why her sister Anita had given her this stationery last Hanukkah.
Ida had written a thank-you note for the stationery on the stationery that she had given to her. Then she had put the rest of the paper in her desk drawer and had not used it since. After the paper was dry from the perfume, Ida wrote at the top of it:
March 4, 1946
I know that I am married now, but I still hold you in my heart. I made a huge mistake that only now I can see clearly. You are the most beautiful man I have ever met. I miss your voice, your smell, your arms and legs, your chest, your lips, etc. Kenny, you are a real man even if you didn’t go to war. Will you meet me next Friday evening outside Berdick’s at six? I really need to speak with you.
Ida wrote softly, without digging into the paper the way she usually did. She sprayed the paper one more time, and then addressed it to Mr. Kenny D’Ambrosio. She put in her own return address without Janet’s name, and put two stamps on it, just to make sure. Then she ran down to the mailbox at the end of the block in bare feet, before she lost her nerve.
Ida sat in the living room and picked her face. She took the small hallway mirror down with its metal circular frame that showed her small circular reflection, and stood it against the window frame in the living room. Then, opening Janet’s ugly new curtains only a bit, she let the light in.
The sun was Ida’s worst critic. It saw her even worse than she saw herself. It pointed out things she never would have noticed. It was scary, sometimes, to open the curtain. Things were always coming up a surprise.
Ida clapped when she squeezed her face too hard, waiting for the pain to go away. When she was younger, she made a friend from grade school take two handfuls of ice and slap either side of her face. All the tricks Ida knew to divert her one pain always caused another.
Ida always thought she wanted to be home alone more than she actually did. Without Janet to make fun of and her father to bother, there was no one to pick on but herself.
In the living room, her face turned red. She watched the skin that had been fine before turn into a mess. She clapped her hands, then put the mirror back and washed her face. She looked up in the mirror and then went back to the couch.
Ida looked out the window and saw a man coming up the front porch.
She tried to look at his face but he was already in the doorway, ringing the bell, and the wood pillars on the porch blocked her view. She ran to the bathroom and quickly patted her cover-up on. The doorbell rang again.
"Coming," Ida yelled, running to the door in her new gray shoes. She no longer asked her father if she could order shoes for herself, she simply signed his name and bought herself what she wanted. Sometimes she opened her closet just to look at them.
Ida looked through the front door window. The man wore a butcher’s bloody apron and a tight T-shirt. He waved at her through the door in a sarcastic way — swift and stiff. It was Kenny D’Ambrosio, and he had come to the wrong place.
Ida opened the door.
"Can I help you?" she said, the way she did when her father went to lunch and she had to wait on the customers.
If I could be inside his head, Ida thought, I would know exactly what to do. I would pick up my ankles and comment on their perfectness.
Kenny’s armpits were half-yellow from old sweat and half-gray from new.
"Where is Janet?" he asked, walking past Ida inside the house without asking.
"Janet!" he yelled up the stairs.
Kenny was sweating. His eyes were wide and blue. When he looked at Ida, he did not see her.
"She’s at work," Ida said. "She works all day."
"Ha!" he said. "A fucking working girl!" He lit up a cigarette and held out the pack to Ida. She took one and he lit it for her, cupping the flame with his hand like there was wind.
Ida tried not to look at the scars on his arms. They had been covered with a tattoo on the inside of each wrist. One was a gun shooting out of an American flag and the other said "D’Ambrosio and Sons" with a roasted pig below in the outline of a heart inside another pig in the outline of a heart.
Ida sat down on the couch and put an ashtray out on the table from the drawer.
"Thanks," she said. Kenny was in her house and she was not scared. She knew what was next. She realized that she had no idea when Janet got out of work, and when she did not work at all.
She sat on the couch in the living room where the slats of sun made their smoke look delicate and complex.
Kenny sat down next to her and put his head in his hands, "I went yesterday to wait for her outside Berdick’s. She sent me a note to meet her there, and then she didn’t show."
He looked up and took a drag of his cigarette. Ida looked at the veins in his upper arms and wanted to touch them.
If I could be inside his head, Ida thought, I would know exactly what to do. I would pick up my ankles and comment on their perfectness, then kiss the bone on the inside, gently pulling up each perfect toe.
Kenny looked at Ida.
"What?" he asked. "I guess I shouldn’t tell you any of this." He laughed, "What are you, her fucking step-daughter?"
He laughed again and took out a flask that he drank from and then gave to Ida, who drank too. The taste was bad but the cigarettes made it better.
"I guess so," she said. "Don’t worry, though. I won’t tell anyone you were here."
"Like I give a shit. She’s the fucking whore. Trying to get me back while she’s still married to the old man. Fucking Jew!" he said, making a mean face that did not suit him. She
"Look at your thick hair," he said, putting it up to his nose and moving closer, "It smells so good."
had not known he could be mean.
He looked at Ida, whose face must have shown all these things.
"Sorry," he said, leaning back on the couch, "I’m fucking sorry," he said, looking at her, "I’m just mad. Really. I’m sad," he said, putting his hands over his eyes.
Ida did not know what to say.
"Do you forgive me?" he asked.
"I know it’s not your fault."
Because it was Ida’s fault, she forgave him for calling her father a "fucking Jew." Because he took her hand then, and traced the veins, she forgave him. Because he put out his own cigarette, and then pulled the cigarette from her mouth and took a puff from it, she no longer cared. Because he put her cigarette out and unclipped her dark brown hair, she would let him call her father anything.
"Look at your thick hair," he said, putting it up to his nose and moving closer, "It smells so good."
Kenny smelled like meat and liquor. He smelled like a Thanksgiving dinner that forgot the cranberry sauce. Kenny’s skin up close was as nice as it was far away. He leaned in to put his stubbly cheek to hers, then rocked her back and forth with him on the couch, petting the back of her head.
"Can I braid your hair?" he asked, and she turned around and let him as if she always let him do that. His fingers were so gentle, and she especially liked when he pulled the hairs up from her neck. She wondered how he had learned to braid. The whiskey had gotten to her, and when she turned for him it felt like she was sitting on a diner stool.
"You have Jewish hair," he said. "I like it."
He kissed her on the back of her neck and pulled her back so she was lying on top of him, her back to his chest. On her mother’s couch, she let the butcher touch her from behind.
How did he know exactly how to touch her? she wondered. It seemed like a secret that he had found out. Suddenly, Ida felt a pain on her scalp.
"Ouch!" she said, and it happened again. Kenny was pulling her hair out, she realized, and it distracted her in a way that she liked. It felt good after a while.
"I could make a rug with this," he said, pulling out more and more hair and placing it on her chest.
When he stopped, he touched her scalp, then dug his fingernails in. Ida wondered how crazy he really was. She always thought his craziness must be sad and confused. He did not seem like a man to her until she was lying in his lap.
"Turn around," he said, "and lift your skirt."
Ida did this. The light in the windows shone through on one part of his face.
Kenny sat on the edge of the couch, Ida in front of him with her hairy legs. She had never bothered to shave them. She had pictured and dreamed of herself in this position, but her legs were smooth and brown.
Kenny took one finger and peeled her big white panties aside from her crotch. The tip of his finger touched her and he pulled her toward him.
She would never speak again if he would keep his fingers inside her.
"Now don’t make any noise," he said, looking up at her for the first time, "or I will stop."
Then he put his tongue in between Ida’s legs and Ida looked down, holding onto his shoulders. She gasped and he looked up.
"You new down here?" he asked her.
She did not know what to say. She felt old everywhere.
Then Kenny pushed aside his apron and she looked down to the bulge in his crotch.
"So you’re the stepdaughter," he said, unbuckling his belt with one hand, keeping his finger steady inside her with the other.
She did not say a word, afraid he would stop. She would never speak again if he would keep his fingers inside her.
He pulled her down upon him and she gasped again.
"You’re new," he said, smiling, and she rocked against him, holding on, the newest girl in the world. n°
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The First Hurt: Stories
©2006 Rachel Sherman and Nerve.com.
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|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
||Rachel Sherman is the author of a short story collection, THE FIRST HURT (Open City). Her short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Open City, Post Road, Conjunctions, n+1, and Story Quarterly, among other publications, and in the book Full Frontal Fiction: The Best of Nerve Anthology. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University.