My first sleepover was at Betty’s house in Little Falls, her family’s stucco and timber house on its big property. I was nineteen. I met Betty the first day of college and she became my best friend. My mother finally agreed to let me sleep over at Betty’s house though my mother believed we were safe only when we were in our own house. Since she left Italy when she was twenty-three she never wanted to go anywhere again. Our house was her country; she the absolute monarch, but this time, she said I could go so I took the bus home from college with Betty, and we had dinner with her family where I had hamburgers for the first time and no one spoke except to say, “Pass the potatoes, please.” No laughter. No political arguments. Her father stoic and silent. Her mother expressionless, her face frozen. Her brother eating and not looking at anyone. I was so nervous and uncomfortable I could hardly swallow. Later we sat together, Betty and I, in her bedroom and talked about school and boys and books and professors. When it was time to sleep, Betty pulled out the sofa bed in the living room and we climbed in. I felt awkward, uncomfortable. Every noise and creak in the house scared me, but finally I slept. In the middle of the night, her huge black cat jumped onto my chest, and I screamed, waking up the entire house. Her mother and father ran down from upstairs, her brother appeared in the hall. I wanted to hide and I kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And the next morning I couldn’t look any of them in the eye. At home again, eating the food I was used to, meatballs and gravy and macaroni and braciola, sitting at our kitchen table, my family around me talking politics and laughing, all of us part of a group we knew we belonged to. I was grateful that Betty’s family in their beautiful house was not my family and glad to have my mother hug me to her chest where I could smell the aroma of vanilla and sugar and flour, so that even today I imagine I can call my mother back from the dead and breathe her in. [End Page 112]
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is the author of fifteen books of poetry. She received the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for All That Lies Between Us (Guernica Editions). Her latest books are The Place I Call Home (nyq Books) and Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand/Guernica).