Fall Issue 2022
"A Bow of a Moon" by Penny Perry
“A toast to your new job,” I clink Dino’s wine glass, and smile a smile I want to mean. “’How great a thing is a single cup of wine/ For it makes us tell the story of our whole lives.’”
Dino, sighs, half shuts his eyes. “Po Chu I, right?”
Dino is wearing his new corduroy, custom made suit. My husband has always been the elegant one. Tonight I’m in my usual black slacks and perennial turtleneck that rides all the way up to my pointy little chin.
“I’ll be working nights and of course New Year’s,” he says.
“New Year’s Eve?”
“We never do anything, Sara.” He waves away our twenty-five year tradition of snuggling in bed with champagne, camembert, and the movie When Harry Met Sally. “New Year’s Eve is a big night in show business. I never thought of myself as an actor. But this is so fun.”
Fun. Dino hasn’t used that word since Elizabeth our daughter left for Afghanistan.
I gulp the fancy house wine and try to stop myself from picturing my dainty, black-haired daughter killed by a roadside bomb.
“I play the godfather. I’ll wear my grandfather’s rings. Red silk handkerchief in my jacket pocket.” he says.
“Dashing,” I say. Now, I imagine Elizabeth, blue jeans, hammer in her hand, working alongside Afghan women and girls to build a school house. A sniper from a passing car aims a rickety rifle at her.
Dino’s face is soft in candlelight. In bad times he has always been my rock. Now, with his actor talk, about silk handkerchiefs, he is a feather blowing away. “Did I do something to make you change?” I ask.
“What are you talking about?”
“First Liz crossed the world to be an American aid worker and put herself in the middle of our perpetual, imperialistic war. She said our life was too boring, macaroni and cheese every Monday. Me talking about dead Chinese poets and how they loved wine and purple myrtle, you holed up in your home-office boasting you could get all your work done and never have to leave the house. Now, she’s in Afghanistan and any minute something terrible could happen.”
Dino holds his hands up to signal stop.
“You loved your solitude. Now, you’ve run off to be an actor.”
“I haven’t run off. I always come home.”
I stare at my Eggplant Norma. I always order Eggplant Norma at Scarcelli’s, but tonight the creamy red sauce is the color of oozing blood.
“Liz sent me an e-mail this morning,” Dino says. “A donor sent money to build thirty more desks. The school should be done by spring.”
“Hope the workers won’t be blown up first.”
Dino tries to stop his sigh.
“How is the new vegetarian pizza?” I ask.”
“Very vegetarian. It’s good, especially the mushrooms.” To prove his point he takes another bite.
“When can I see your play?”
His eyebrows meet in the middle, his famous Frida Kahlo frown. “It is interactive dinner theater, not something we would ever go see.”
“But I want to watch you.”
“You’re an English teacher. You’ll think the show is tacky. It’s not Shakespeare.”
“You bake your own pizza,” I tell him. “You take exquisite photographs of butterflies, and repair your grandmother’s needlepoint. You never do anything tacky.”
“There is always a first time.” His Frida frown is gone. “The play is called Carmine and Sophia’s Italian Wedding. Sophia’s old boyfriend, Tony shows up and tries to stop the marriage. The godfather, that’s me, makes him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“The godfather, offer, isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“See, tacky. You want nuance, deep meaning beauty.” Dino pours me more wine. “Carmine’s cousin tosses food at Sophia’s brother. So, I guess you could say it is Romeo and Juliet with dinner rolls.”
“Romeo and Juliet had slapstick.”
Dino smiles. “True. But Romeo and Juliet had Romeo and Juliet. We have Carmine and Sophia. And of course, Tony, and also Viola, Carmine’s ex girlfriend. Viola flirts with men in the audience. She sits on their laps.”
“I bet their wives love that.” .
”I’m right. You would hate it.”
Dean Martin’s voice singing about amore floats above the candlelight. My own Dino’s eyes get dreamy. “That song is in our show.”
“I was in my high school play,” I say. “I could try out for a part. We could do it together.”
“You’re not fat enough.”
“You think I’m fat?”
“Of course not. But the actresses are all big women. Mostly Italian. Voluptuous. Over the top. Lots of make-up. Low cut dresses.” He looks at my turtleneck. This one is blue with little black flowers.
I’m petite with light hair and probably way too little make-up. I nibble a lettuce leaf. I walk every day, eat carrot sticks and raw cauliflower and all this time I could have been stuffing myself with cheesecake and still kept my husband’s interest. What has happened to my computer geek husband? Is dinner theater Dino’s mid life crisis? He’s too frugal to buy a sports car and too elegant to start wearing tight shirts and gold chains.
He’s smiling his new, secret little smile. “A woman I was dancing with guessed I was wearing Black Suede cologne. She said I smelled like her old boyfriend Ace.”
“You dance? You wouldn’t dance with me at Taylor’s wedding. You said you didn’t want to make a spectacle of yourself.” And now I sound cranky, the kind of “poor me” woman I have never wanted to be.
Dino examines his cufflinks. “Dancing is part of the show. Women in the audience have a few drinks and really loosen up.”
“You dance with women in the audience?”
“That is why they call it interactive dinner theater.”
“I didn’t know it was that interactive.” I can see her now, some lonely blond in a black pantsuit with a low cut top. She’s come to the show with her co-workers and they tell her to dance with the handsome actor-godfather who is offering her his hand.
As if Dino has just climbed into the crawlspace I call my brain, Dino says, “There are a lot of lonely women out there. Of course I dance with the actresses too.” He sips wine, looks at me, and then looks away.
Now, in the black and white starkness of old, Italian movies, I picture a woman with big, dark hair and an enchanting mole on her cheek draped around Dino.
“Natalie asked me, ‘Do you know how cute you are?’” Dino says.
The dark haired woman with the mole is named Natalie.
“Natalie brought meatballs to a cast party. She puts in a little fennel.”
My whole body sighs. Dino has always been a huge fennel fan. My hand curls around a dinner roll. A dinner roll I suddenly feel like tossing. What is happening to Dino? What is happening to us? Is it because of me, because of my turtlenecks, my worry about Elizabeth? Will he run off with Natalie who is six feet tall, wears dangling earrings, sings arias, and subscribes to a gourmet magazine? And now I have a split screen double feature: Elizabeth talks to an Afghani schoolgirl and behind them a man with a beard is about to toss a grenade, and Dino, with his lover, boards a plane to Rome.
“I tell you how cute you are,” I say.
“I tell you how cute you are too,” Dino says. “But sometimes it’s nice to hear it from other people.”
“I know this dinner theater thing is a surprise. It’s a surprise to me too. But in these economic times extra income is good. I hope I can keep this job. I’m not sure how well I’m doing in the part so don’t take this personally. I’m not ready for you to come to see the show.”
“What could be personal about a husband’s not wanting his wife anywhere around?”
“Would you like dessert?” Dino asks.
“Cheesecake,” I say.
A sliver of a moon, the kind Po Chu I calls “a bow of a moon” gives me the light I need. A hibiscus branch slaps my face. Binoculars in one hand, cell phone in the other, I step as close as I can to the Hotel Hilton window. “What if someone spots me out here?” I whisper into the phone.
“It’s New Year’s Eve. Just act a little giddy,” Faith says. “Pretend you dropped something.”
“Wow. I can see the whole dining room. There are about seventy people. You can tell the cast members because they are the ones with globs of make-up. Most everyone is dancing.” My high heels dig in the dirt. “I see Dino.” My voice drops. “His hand is on someone’s back, her bare back. I can’t see her face. It’s planted somewhere between his silk handkerchief and his shoulder.”
“I’d kill Fletcher.” Faith hisses. “I’d fix his favorite meal, hot dogs and pork and beans with a little oleander garnish.”
“It is Dino’s job to keep the dinner patrons happy.”
“Not that happy.”
“You’re supposed to make me feel better.”
“Are you wearing the green dress we picked out?”
“And the matching green eye shadow?”
“I do look nice. But I don’t see exactly why I had to get all dressed up. I’d be a lot more comfortable in jeans.”
“You’re pretending to be a hotel guest.”
“Hotel guests wear jeans.”
“Not on New Year’s Eve they don’t. Do you have that cape with a hood in case you have to slip by Dino?”
“Yes.” Something flies out of the bushes. A bat? “I could have stayed home in my pajamas. They’re doing a Betty Davis marathon.”
“You wanted to find out what Dino is up to. So what is going on now?”
I focus my binoculars. “The audience is sitting down. A tall, gorgeous woman in a clingy red dress is walking, well wiggling across the room. She must be Viola, the soon to be groom’s ex. Yes, she’s wrapping herself around Carmine.” I rub my arms. “Did you know hibiscus leaves have sharp edges?”
“Fletcher is yelling at me from the living room,” Faith says.
I take a long, deep breath. Down the street, a car back fires. Or maybe it was a firecracker. I used to love the sound and sparkle of New Year’s fireworks. Now, the booms and flashing lights remind me my daughter is in a war zone.
“Sorry,” Faith is back on the phone. “Fletcher wanted to know when I was going to bring him the lime flavored chips and salsa.”
“This is a special night.” I muffle my self-pity sniffle. “You should be celebrating with your husband.”
“I will. Right now he’s on the couch with a bowl of popcorn. He’s watching poker on TV. Talking to you is more fun.”
“Dino came home at 3 am Saturday night. He said he and the cast were celebrating an actress’s twenty-first birthday. Don’t you think it’s weird that he’s hanging out with twenty-year-olds?”
“Did you bring Watson?”
“He’s in the car.”
Faith giggles. “He’s supposed to be in your pocket, Lil.”
“I don’t have a pocket.”
When Faith and I were in the sixth grade we pretended we were spies. Our code names were Natasha and Lillian. Watson was our faithful assistant, a big, bulky tape recorder. “We thought poor wheezy Miss Miller wanted to overthrow our government,” I say.
“It’s intelligent to be suspicious,” Faith says.
“Then, I must be highly intelligent. Were we weird?”
“We’re still weird. But in a good way.”
A leaf digs into my knee. “Think I ripped my panty hose. I fogged the window up with my breath.” I lean into the hibiscus, press my face against the glass. “You should see these guys who play the groomsmen, crisp white shirts, gorgeous, shiny black hair.”
“Ah. Italian men,” Faith says. “For tonight’s festivities Fletcher is in his maroon, paint stained sweats and mismatched socks.”
“But he’s home.”
“I forgot to ask Dino if Fennel Natalie plays the bride.” In the light from the window I can see a welt on my arm. “I think we do have mosquitoes in December. Ah, back to the show. The bride and the ex girlfriend are having some kind of cat fight, pulling each other’s hair. The bride has a tattoo on her back. Is a tattoo considered tacky or has that slid into acceptable?”
“Acceptable. This whole thing, the theater thing, the drinking thing, the ‘Do you know how cute you are thing’ is all about fathers and daughters. I read an article.”
“He wants to be a father all over again?”
“He wants to be adored all over again. Fathers take it hard when their daughters leave home. The wives have long ago stopped thinking of their husbands as gods. Even though girls hate their moms they still believe in their dads.”
“Well Dino has a roomful of worshippers.”
“It’s hard for dads in regular circumstances,” Faith says. “Liz is in harm’s way.”
Fireworks that look like pinwheels spin in the sky. I tell Faith, “I can’t stop myself from thinking horrible things. Liz’s New Year’s Eve has already come and gone. We’re not even in the same time zone. I don’t know if she’s safe. This year could be her last.”
“Remember when I was waiting to see if Fletcher had cancer?”
“You got up in the middle of the night and painted your pristine white kitchen sunshine yellow.”
“Vomit yellow. We all grieve in different ways.”
“So dancing with beautiful women, partying with twenty-year-olds is just Dino’s way of grieving?”
“Possibly.” Behind me somewhere, sparklers crackle. In my field glasses, all I see are spots. “My binoculars are wet.”
“You’ll get through this,” Faith says. “You’ll get through all of this.”
“I’m not crying.”
Water splashes my hair, drips down my neck. Fountains gush all around me. “The hotel turned the sprinklers on.”
I sip my Peppermint Mocha Latte Grande Decaf, and stare at the notebook page with the words Goal List:
1. Get dry.
2. Get warm.
3. Test Watson.
4. Learn Tai Chi.
Not sure exactly what Tai Chi is, but I am sure it’s not a drink with an umbrella.
“I know you right?”
I look up at a man with blue eyes, salt and pepper hair, a cleft on his chin, and a T-shirt with a picture of an ocean wave and a surfboard. “You teach English at South High?”
One of the drawbacks of working at a school, you have to at least look as if your life is in order even if your latest shower has been compliments of the Hilton irrigation system. I smooth my wet hair.
“My son Jason was in your class.”
A mural of Jason´s floats in front of me. Jason Ortega who likes Gary Soto’s poems, Jason Wilson who got suspended because he stole the math teacher’s SUV and drove it through a coffee house window, a long ago Jason with kind eyes, freckles, and a cleft in his chin. “How is he?”
The man brightens. “He teaches up north and writes poetry. He says you inspired him.” He glances at my still sopping silk dress, “Something about a Chinese poet and a slice of moon.”
I tell my students that Po Chu I was a Buddhist and I think his bow moon means life gives us love and war.“So Jason is safe up north?”
“I think so. What could happen in a little college town away from the big bad world? Except that the big bad world is everywhere.” The man shakes his head. “You encouraged him to be an English major, to think a line of poetry is the most important thing in the world. I told him in the big pond of things an English major is only a little sliver, not even a thumbnail. Plus it’s a great escape, reading about white birds when all around you the world is going to hell.”
“That’s what my daughter, Elizabeth, used to say. ‘Mom, you have your head in a book while all around you people are planning your destruction. She’s an aid worker in Afghanistan”
Water from my sleeve, drips on the table.
“Didn’t know there was rain in the forecast,” the man says.
“Outdoor party. Sprinklers. Long story.”
“Your party got washed out. Mine ended too.”
The young clerk at the counter calls “Ed. Peppermint Mocha Latte. Grande. Decaf.” Ed steps to the counter with long surfer dude strides.
One day a few years ago Dino and I were at the beach. He turned up the hem of his slacks and stepped gingerly on the sand. A surfer, whistling, carried his board, and sauntered past Dino. The surfer looked at home. Dino was an out of town visitor. Tonight, in the ballroom Dino was at home.
Ed steps back to my table. “Do you mind?”
I smile. “Nice taste in lattes.”
He looks at the clock. “My e-harmony date was not so harmonious. But it was better than sitting at home alone tonight.” He glances at my wedding ring.
“My husband works nights.”
He nods. “That’s what my wife said she was doing. Funny. We got through her breast cancer then she said she wanted to go out and find out what she had been missing. Pretty soon we were leading separate lives. Know what I hate most? Eating alone.”
“My friend who reads articles said I should call up someone while I’m eating,” I say. “That way I’m still sharing a meal. I tried it once but I had made myself stir fry with crunchy cauliflower and carrots.”
“Then you were afraid to chew because it would make so much noise,” he says. “Been there.”
Out the window, car horns blare, the sky streaks with fireworks. Ed and I bump our paper cups. “Happy New Year.”
“So what do you do for fun?” Ed asks.
“My least favorite word.”
“Since the wife left I’ve been bird-watching. But birders are so aggressive. They elbow and shove. Tried hang gliding. But I’m scared of heights. I still surf, but I needed something else when I wasn’t on the water. You know what I settled on?”
I shake my head.
“Model trains. I loved them when I was a kid. I love the trains themselves and their little villages.”
“When I was a kid I liked beads, glass ones, wooden ones, each a little different. I have some in boxes. But I’ve been afraid to string them together. What if they don’t look right?”
“You teach English to high school kids. Shouldn’t let a few beads scare you.” He stretches and stands. “Time for Plan B, my second date of the evening.”
“What better way to start the New Year than with someone I’ve never met before. Unless…” He tilts his head. “Plan C. Stay here and order another round of lattes.”
One question answered. To Dino I may be a boring wife, a lady of perpetual turtlenecks. But in my new dress, Surfer Ed thinks I’m interesting. “I have plans tonight, but thank you.”
“If you want you can call me when you’re chewing cauliflower. I’m in the book.” His long legs take him out the door and into the clear night air.
In my notebook I write “Beads.”
Fireworks light the sky. Car horns honk. In my cape, I walk the half block back to the hotel. I slink through the hallway. The two groomsmen from the show I saw earlier stand and talk together. No sign of Dino. In the bathroom, my foot slides on a Playbill on the floor. I stoop to pick it up. There is a picture of the bride and the groom on the cover. The bathroom door opens. The actress who plays the groom’s ex girlfriend walks in. Up close, she is even more beautiful.
“You looked good in the show tonight,” I tell her.
“I didn’t see you in the audience.”
“I sat in the back,” my first lie of the New Year.
She steps to the mirror. Standing next to her, I expect my shoulders to slump, my hair to look like an old bird’s nest. Instead some of her beauty seems to shine on me. “So how did you get started doing dinner theater?”
She wipes off make-up with a tissue. “People were always telling me I was so pretty. I was Miss San Diego a few years ago.”
“You could still be Miss San Diego today.”
I pat the thumb sized Watson in my cape pocket. My hair is dry and slightly curled from its encounter with the sprinkler.
The actress yawns. “The show ran so long. Did it seem long to you?”
“I was engrossed. The man who plays the godfather is cute.”
“He’s a doll.”
“Is he married?”
“It’s hard to tell the married ones.”
Why is it hard to tell who is married? Because the married ones are just as flirtatious as the single ones? Because the married ones are in a time warp and forget they have a little missus sitting at home? “Do cast members get involved with each other?”
“Sometimes. Well, lots of times.” She turns to me. My pocket is humming. “But it’s not a good idea.” She shimmies out of her dress, slips on jeans and a turtleneck.
A turtleneck! I smile at myself in the mirror. She steps away from the sink, opens a garment bag. I peek at the Playbill. The actress’s name is Angela Carina. It sounds like a song.
She’s back at the counter. “If you’re interested you should try out for the show,” she says.
“For what part? The maiden aunt? The bossy grandmother?”
She appraises me in my cape, tight dress and heels. “The mother of the groom is cute and in the play she and the godfather have something going on.”
“So is the cast like a second family? You tell each other things. You celebrate birthdays.”
She holds her brush mid air. “We love each other. But we keep things light. I’m divorced. I can’t let my life get too complicated.”
“My daughter is in Afghanistan,” I say.
“Then you know about complicated. My daughter is autistic.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
Angela, her chin high, her shoulders square, looks so strong. “My daughter needs a lot of help. My husband and I both did so much we had nothing left to give each other. Empty wells. Being in the show helps,” she says. “For a few hours I’m someone else. I don’t worry about anything except looking pretty and making people laugh.” She picks up her garment bag. With her back to me, she waves her hand over her shoulder. “Bye.” The door closes behind her.
Some detective I am. I forgot to ask her about Fennel Natalie.
I take Watson out of my pocket and replay Angela’s and my conversation: Empty wells. For a few hours I’m someone else. Maybe because I’m a thumbnail-in-the-pond-dreamy- English-teacher I’m too much like the Chinese poets I love. When things get tough I bury my face in purple myrtle. How many times have I left Dino and Elizabeth at the dinner table during an intense family discussion because I spotted a ruby throated hummingbird outside the window? Rooting through bushes and playing spy games like the sixth grader I once was isn’t exactly mature. Maybe Dino wasn’t the Elvis who left the building. Maybe it was me.
Dino’s car is in the garage. I tiptoe through the dark house to the computer room. I flick on the light, take a deep breath and check my e-mail. The subject line reads: Happy New Year from Afghanistan. Elizabeth has sent me a photograph of her and her friend Kayla, glasses raised, toasting the New Year.
Dino is asleep in our bedroom. I unzip my dress, and slide my tote bag with Watson and my binoculars in the closet. I hang my dress next to the godfather’s suit.
Dino opens an eye. “Where were you?”
“It’s New Year’s Eve,” I say.
“New Year’s Day,” he says.
“How was your show?” I ask.
“Fun.” He turns on the light. “What did you do until two?”
“Took myself out to dinner, had a long talk with Faith, took a stroll in a hotel garden, went to Starbucks at midnight, had an interesting talk with a woman in the restroom.” I put on pajamas, slide under the sheets. “You’re not going to fall in love with one of the actresses, are you?”
“Not planning to,” he says.
“I always thought you were an introvert and proud of it.”
“Still am. The godfather isn’t me. That’s why they call it acting. Was that a new dress you were wearing?
“Very nice. Maybe you can wear that dress when you come to the show.”
The bow moon lights a photo on the dresser, the three of us under our pine tree. Liz, laughing at her father’s joke, is looking at him with love. “It must be hard for you, Elizabeth away. You did everything right, fed her, clothed her, took her to the doctor for her shots. Did everything you could to keep her safe and now…”
“Now we live with uncertainty.” Dino takes my hand.
Penny Perry has been widely published as a poet, most recently in Lilith and the San Diego Poetry Annual. Her fiction has appeared in Redbook and California Quarterly. She was the first woman admitted to The American Film Institute screenwriting program, and a film based on her script, A Berkeley Christmas, aired on PBS.
A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee in both fiction and poetry, she was born and raised in Santa Monica, the setting for her first collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press, 2012), available at Amazon via CreateSpace.