B&R23: What Happens in Vegas
by Dee Gilles
Benny and Ray 23
What Happens in Vegas
Ray slept in the airline seat, an arm and a leg draped in the narrow aisle, head leaning toward me. He snored gently, fingers occasionally twitching as he dreamed. I watched his eyes roll underneath his eyelids in REM, and wondered what movie was being played out before him as we smoothly sailed through the skies, bound for Chicago.
His skin was as dark as I had ever seen it, due to seven days in the intense Florida sun. It leant him an exotic look. Ray wore a white shirt, further accentuating his beautiful dark skin. It reminded me that he and I originated from very different parts of the world.
My people were from the Scottish Highlands, and tended to the fair side, with blue or gray eyes. As my father told me, many Frasers relocated from Inverness to the Red River, in Manitoba in the 1810s, lured by the free land provided by Lord Selkirk's Hudson Bay Company. Most made a decent living in the fur trade while slowly migrating toward the Arctic Circle, as though running from the joy of the sun.
I had not seen nor heard from my father lately. My daily thoughts of him had long ago ceased, and he only occasionally visited me in dreams. No longer did he intrude into my waking hours. It seemed as though parts of my father were slowly sloughed from me as I fell into Ray.
Last night, I dreamt of my mother. In this dream, I was fully grown. She stood before me, bundled in Inuit furs. Her mouth formed my name, but I could not hear her. She spoke to me, mouthing the words "Bobby", and another name, "Mowdun" perhaps, or something similar. I couldn't understand what she was trying to tell me. She reached out to me, but faded before her cupped hand caressed my cheek.
I had awakened shortly after three this morning, drenched in sweat. Next to me lay my lover, gently snoring just as he was now, his body tight against mine as we shared a twin bed in Aunt Giuseppina's beachfront home. Ray and I had been assigned our own bedrooms, he on the second floor and I on the first, but after his aunt went to bed at night, Ray snuck downstairs and climbed into bed with me. As I lay there, waiting for the hammering of my heart to slow, a ceiling fan drew a gentle breeze across my face, quickly cooling the sweat that had formed there.
I had turned by body towards Ray for reassurance, squeezing gently, and caressing him until he awakened. He knew I was silently asking to be made love to. He sleepily removed my boxers and gave me what I wanted without a word.
By the time he was done with me, it was time to rise to prepare for departure.
Although I was glad to be returning home now, I immensely enjoyed my time in the sun with Ray. Several times, we went to the beach, sometimes staying for hours. Ray had bought me a mystery novel for Christmas, and I managed to read the entire book on the beach. Ray had applied Hawaiian Tropic to his skin every day, while I shielded myself with Water Babies SPF 50 and a wide-brimmed straw hat, and still, my nose and ear tips blistered and peeled.
Our early morning lovemaking was taking its toll on me, also. I was drowsy. I put my head on Ray's, which had fallen to my shoulder, and I, too, slept.
Aunt Gigi, as Ray and Valerie preferred to call her, was the near-twin of her sister Sophia, but could not have been more different. She was a chain-smoker with a deep, gravelly voice, who talked and acted tough. After dinner, she usually treated herself to a Cuban cigar on the lanai. She would sit as solid as a stone, puffing away, glaring at the Atlantic Ocean and occasionally nodding to herself. I think even Ray was a little afraid of her.
But she could also tell a good joke, albeit a slightly bawdy one. I found myself laughing quite a bit this week.
Aunt Gigi lived alone, technically, but she had a daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren who lived in a sprawling house two blocks away. She also had two cousins who lived just to the south of her, in Deerfield Beach. They stopped in on a number of occasions while we were there, as did some friends from her bridge and gardening clubs. Her front door seemed to be a revolving door for family and friends, just like her sister's. She accepted our being there with a warm casualness, but also gave us our space; Giuseppina was a generous host, keeping us well fed if we chose to stay in for the night, and she gave us comfortable rooms, but other than that, she left Ray, Valerie and me to our own devices.
The first full day of our visit, Sunday, we toured the town. The living style of the beach community was certainly much slower than I had gotten used to in Chicago. I actually found myself getting slightly impatient with slow service lines and the drawling way people had of speaking, and even the slow ambling of pedestrians on the sidewalk.
On Monday, Valerie rented a convertible for us, and we drove to Key West, which was wonderful, but had a sense of surrealism to it. Back at the office in Chicago, I had a small umbrella plant, a Schefflera arboricola, in a small pot on my desk. In the Keys, we encountered six feet tall hedge rows of them, in full flower, no less, which struck me as very bizarre. The native flora was so different from what I was used to that I almost felt that I was on the set of a play.
We stayed in a small hut in the Big Pine Key that night, and returned to Boca Raton the next day.
Tuesday evening, Valerie and I went to a community theater production of "Romeo and Juliet" in the park, followed by a fantastic meal at a seafood restaurant. Ray stayed home with Giuseppina and watched wrestling on television before joining her lady friends in a few hands of poker. Ray won seventy-five dollars from the ladies, for which I admonished him. The ladies were all on a fixed income, but Ray said if they couldn't afford to lose the money, they shouldn't have anteed up. "And stop breaking my balls about it, Benny. I'm not giving a cent back."
Since it was my first trip to Florida, Valerie and Ray wanted to give me the chance to see everything that I desired to see. Ray insisted I choose the entertainment, as he had already `been there, done that.' So I chose the NASA Visitor Center, and also St. Augustine. "Is that all right, Ray?" I asked. Ray, Valerie, and I sat around the breakfast table. Aunt Gigi was outside weeding and watering her small garden before the daytime heat set in. Ray had only leaned forward, smiling affectionately, and kissed me on the forehead. "My Benny," he'd only said.
We returned from St. Augustine Thursday evening, in time to enjoy a New Year's Eve party that Aunt Gigi hosted. I got to meet more cousins of Ray and Valerie; Frank and Lorenzo Esposito. The two brothers, first cousins to Mother and Gigi, had come to America a year apart, and both married and raised families in Brooklyn before retiring to Florida with their wives.
Ray's cousin Carla visited, also, accompanied by her husband and her two youngest children.
I was explained to the group only as `Ray's best friend Benny, the Mountie.' I felt very special as the kids requested story after story about what it was like to be a Mountie. I found a picture of the Musical Ride in an old set of Encyclopedia that I was able to use to illustrate the uniform.
There were also many other friends and neighbors that stopped in at some point, or found a seat to stay for a few hours. The group grew noisy with anticipation as they watched television, waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. Champagne was poured and dispensed.
In all the commotion and late night revelry, no one noticed that Ray took me upstairs to his room a few minutes before midnight and locked the door behind us. He lay me down and kissed me thoroughly from 23:57 on December 31, 1998 to 00:04 on January 1, 1999. He then removed my pants and gave me oral sex while I kept a pillow over my mouth.
We spent the first day of 1999 lounging by Gigi's pool. I cooked steaks and hot dogs on the grill for Ray, Valerie, Gigi, and Ray's cousins. Carla's two oldest kids, the second of whom was also named Ray, came by also. We spent a pleasant afternoon keeping cool in the pool while temperatures soared to ninety-five degrees. It felt surreal to be in swim trunks and bare feet when every other year of my life, I have been bundled up against the cold and snow. I could understand why Ray loved it here so much, why he craved to be no place but here on a cold, snowy day in Chicago.
We departed mid-morning. Valerie, who was staying another week, drove us to the airport, where we said our good-byes.
The plane's landing jolted us both awake. Ray groaned tiredly and rubbed his eyes. I glanced out the window. The dim sun was already fading, and it was snowing.
"Shit," Ray said. "Back to reality," he said.
"Language, Ray," I said automatically.
Nonplussed, he said, "I'm going to freeze my ass off on the jet way. My coat's in my luggage."
"You'll take my coat. It's in my carry-on."
"But, you'll need it."
"I'll be fine."
Both reluctant for our journey to end, Ray and I sat and waited for everyone else to deplane. I retrieved my bag from the overhead compartment and gave him my coat.
Once in the terminal, Ray turned on his cell phone. It immediately beeped, indicating a message was waiting. Ray groaned and he dialed in as we walked to baggage claim. I saw his face fall as he listened to the message. He hung up with a scowl on his face.
"What is it, Ray?"
"That was Ma. Something's happened to Francesca." He called the house, and frowned in frustration. "It's ringing. Come on...come on, pick up... Shit, I'm getting the machine. Ma, Maria...it's me, is anybody there? Hello?" He hung up. "Oh, great, leave for a few days, and look what happens."
"Try not to jump to conclusions, Ray. It's probably nothing too serious."
"Do you know my family, Benny?"
I sighed. A deep, heart-felt, Ray Vecchio kind of sigh. "You have a point there, Ray."
I could hear arguing as soon as I climbed out of the cab. Ray heard it too. He handed me his wallet and left me to retrieve our bags and pay the driver. "Thank you kindly," I said before heading up the front sidewalk.
I walked into absolute chaos. Mother was chasing Francesca from room to room with a leather belt, screaming at her in Italian. Fortunately, she wasn't swinging the belt; she waved it above her head, but the threat was very explicit. Mother and Francesca were both crying. Francesca was fearful, but Mother seemed mostly angry. I had never seen the peaceable older woman in such a state. I didn't know she could run that fast, frankly. Ray had joined Maria and Tony in running interference between mother and her youngest daughter. "Anna-Francesca Lucia Vecchio!" Mother screamed. "You come here!"
"Alright freeze!" Ray yelled, as though he was conducting a bust. "Ma! Up against the wall! Give me that! Frannie! What did you do?!!! What's the hell's wrong with you people?"
Mother, hands above her head like a common thug, screamed at Ray. She was beside herself. I only knew a few words in Italian, but I was able to piece together something about Francesca being a cursed woman, or perhaps a `woman who cursed others.' Mother called upon Jesus Christ and several saints to help them all.
Ray had snatched the belt from his mother, which she had wrapped around her fist several times. "Give me that!" He snarled. He took a closer look at the belt. "Hey! This is mine anyway. I lost it three months ago." He wound the Italian leather in a coil around his palm and stuffed it in his pocket as he asked again. "Now, is somebody going tell me what the hell is going on here, or am I going to have to take you down the station?"
Francesca, now that she was out of immediate danger, began to calm, dabbing at her eyes.
"Little Miss Princess here went and got herself married in Vegas, that's what!" Maria yelled. "At some hole-in-the-wall by some Elvis impersonator, like some cheap floozy! To some guy she's known for all of five minutes!"
This made Mother begin to cry again. ""By Elvis! Elvis!" Ma wailed. She crossed herself and asked for God to forgive Francesca.
Ray caught my eye over Mother's head, and I knew what he was thinking- something in the lines of can you fucking believe this? Why does this gotta be my life, Benny?
For once, Ray controlled himself. He calmly asked, "Fran? Is this true?"
"Yeah, Ray. Yeah, it is."
"So what happened?"
"I met this great guy the first night I got there; Wilhelm--"
"Wilhelm?!" Ray asked, wrinkling up his nose. "What the hell kind of name is `Wilhelm'?"
"German," Tony interjected. "And get this: the guy don't even speak English, and she don't speak no German! And she married the guy!"
"So what? We're in love, and that's all that matters!"
"Francesca, how can you possibly be in love with someone that you can't clearly communicate with?" I gently asked.
"'Cause she's an idiot, Benny, that's why." Ray cruelly said.
Francesca hit Ray on his chest. He raised his open palm to backhand her, but I grabbed his wrist. "Ray, Ray, Ray, Ray!" He retreated.
"Frannie, you just gotta get an annulment, that's all," Maria said.
"Why is everybody always against me? I'm not getting an annulment!"
"Why? Two words," Tony said. "Joey. Martino. Remember him?"
"Of course, I do."
"Really?" Mother asked "You were only married to him for six months. One can't be too sure."
"Ma, Wilhelm and I are in love, and I'm going to New York with him! And that's final!"
"Excuse me?" Ray said. "Did you just say you were moving to New York with a complete stranger?"
"He's not a stranger. I've spent almost every waking moment with him for a week. I know him, alright. I know everything about him that counts. We're leaving for New York City in the morning. As a matter of fact, he's going to be here any minute to pick me up. We're staying at The Drake tonight, and then it's non-stop to LaGuardia. He has an apartment that overlooks Central Park," she said smugly. "So I've got to go finish--
The front door abruptly opened, and a man walked over the threshold.
A hush fell over the room. "'Allo?" The man tentatively said. I looked. And looked again.
There was one important detail that Francesca failed to mention about Wilhelm; that the man could have been my twin brother.
Ray looked from Wilhelm, to me, and back to him, in both dawning comprehension and disbelief.
Someone cleared their throat, uncomfortably. Other than that, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
Ray was the first to speak. "Uuuuhhhh. Frannie?"
No one could think of anything else more intelligent to say than that at the moment.
"Oh my God," Maria finally blurted, "he looks just like--
That seemed to have galvanized the group, as everyone started talking all at once. Conversations were happening in English, Italian...and German.
"Everyone!" I called, loud enough to be heard over the ruckus. "Please! Please!" I held up my hand for silence. "Francesca. I think we should talk in private."
I excused myself to Wilhelm in German and explained that I would return with his bride shortly.
Up in the quiet of her room, Francesca composed herself, but she paced nervously as I waited for her to speak first.
After two minutes, she showed no sign of attempting an explanation so I began.
"Francesca...I'm sorry. This is my fault." I brought up a topic that I thought was long ago dead and buried. "You know, when you asked me that time...at choir practice... if I wanted to..."
"Have sex?!" She said, suddenly angry. "God! You can't even say it, can you?"
"Yes. `Have sex'. When you propositioned me that first time, I should have had the courage to just tell you `no' instead of running away from you. And when you came to my apartment later, I mislead you into thinking I wasn't willing only because of my injuries. And after that, I let it go on and on, letting you hope that one day... And I was wrong for that."
"So, ummm...were you with Ray, then?"
"No. Ray and I didn't happen until I moved to St. John's Street."
"Then, why didn't you want to do it with me?"
"Because I didn't want to, Francesca!" I said, a little exasperated. "I just didn't. And that's another thing; Ray didn't steal me away from you. There's no use to holding a grudge against him."
"Fraser, I don't!"
"You do. You don't treat him the same as you did before you found out about us, Francesca. He sees that very clearly, and so do I. Let me set the record straight. You and I were never going to happen."
"So, what's so wrong with me?" She asked. Her face crumpled in pain, and tears welled in her eyes.
"Nothing's wrong with you. You're a lovely woman, Francesca. I mean that. But you are not the one for me. I'm sorry for causing you pain. And I can see I have only prolonged it I wanted to spare you from all this. I'm deeply, deeply sorry. I hope you can forgive me some day."
She looked into my pleading eyes and she softened. "It's not your fault. It's mine. I always fall for the guy I can't have. Ray warned me. Said I always did this to myself. It's some kind of machismo thing that I have."
"Do you mean masochistic?"
"Yeah," she nodded. "That."
Francesca--Frannie, collapsed on her bed like a deflated tire. She stared up at the ceiling for a long moment.
"Tell me what you're feeling now," I gently requested. I sat at the foot of the bed.
"Honestly? Love. For you. I can't help it, Benton. I love you!"
"And I love Ray!"
Fresh tears welled from her eyes and slid down the sides of her face.
After a moment, she sat up, and met my eye resolutely. "But I could love you more, if you gave me a chance. I mean, Ray? You could do better than Ray, of all people. He's cruel, Benton. You'll see in time, and he's selfish! He's dyslexic, you know; he can barely read and write! He's violent and," she made a cup shape with her hand and pantomimed drinking, "he's got a problem just like Pop had, and he cheated on Angie, and--
I sat with her while she cried long shuttering sobs, frustrated from years of unrequited love. I felt helpless against this. That she could want me so badly. That she could want me.
"You don't have to do this, you know," I said finally. "Maria's right. You could get the annulment, and each go your separate ways."
"No. I'm still going."
"Do you really love this man?"
"Because it's my chance to get out of here! I want to be somebody, Frase! I'm tired of living in my family's shadow! I'm sick of being Ray's little sister... Dr. Esposito's granddaughter...Sal Vecchio's daughter! Do you know what this feels like?"
"Yes. As a matter of fact, I do. You're talking to the legendary Bob Fraser's son," I said. "People up north used to call me that so often, as though it were my first name--`Bobfrasersson'!"
"Then you understand exactly what I mean, don't you?"
"I want to me, Benton! Me! Just Francesca Vecchio. Is that too much to ask?"
"Well now, I suppose it isn't." She was making a mistake, I knew, but it was Francesca's mistake from which to learn and grow.
"And it also helps that this gets me away from you...It's hard, seeing you all the time, just out of arm's length. I need to try to...get over you. Maybe if there's half a country between us for a while, I'll have a chance. There's been nobody serious since I fell for you, you know. There's been lots of offers...but not a one of them compares to you, Frase. Turned'em all down, for you."
We sat in silence for a minute. I stood up to pace, and stopped at her window after several measures. Fat snowflakes fall from the sky, accumulating quickly. "So what do we do now?" I asked.
"Will you help me explain to Ma while I finish packing?" Frannie smiled sadly.
"You're certain about this? There's nothing I can say to change your mind?"
She shook her head. "Benton... I'll be twenty-eight years old next week. I'm only two years from thirty! I want to start living some kind of a life. I want children. I want to see the pyramids, the Eiffel Tower. Hell, I'd even settle for seeing Niagara Falls, at this point. I mean...I love my family, Benton, but I feel so...suffocated here, sometimes. It's time for me to go, and this is how I'm going. "
I looked into Francesca's eyes as she spoke. And for the first time, I understood how lonely she was. Surrounded by a crowd of people, and she was lonely. And empty.
None of us gave Francesca credit for having ambition, for wanting more. She wasn't a child. Francesca was correct in her observation; nobody saw her as a full-grown woman, as the individual that she was. I know Ray still treated her like his bratty twelve-year-old, braces-clad little sister. And none of us were much better, including me. Francesca deserved her chance to be whoever she wanted to be.
"All right," I capitulated, "I'll go downstairs and talk to the family."
She beamed hopefully. "Really?"
"What are you going to say?"
"I'll think of something."
"Thanks, Benton. I really appreciate it. They'll listen to you."
"You bet." I stood to go.
"About what I said about Ray? I'm sorry."
"Ray's a good man."
"That he is."
"So, uh...did you have a good time in Florida?" She politely asked, dabbing at her face with a tissue.
"Yes, we did. It was wonderful."
"And isn't Auntie Gigi a scream?"
We both chuckled; a little forced, but it broke the tension.
"Hold on, let me get you some Noxzema for your sunburn. Your poor nose." She moved off the bed and rummaged through her dresser drawer. She tossed me the blue bottle. "See you around, `Bob Fraser's Son'."
"Good-bye, Ray's Little Sister". I closed the door as she turned away to begin packing. And that was the last I saw of Francesca Vecchio for quite some time.
End B&R23: What Happens in Vegas by Dee Gilles
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