Inventing Melody from Melania at the House.
|I’m sure you’re asking yourself why a young girl would just walk away with a strange man. Remember that I had no outside experience of life. What I knew of a culture outside of the confines of an Italian American family came through Anna and her hidden magazines. I had just lost my mother, my last piece of family. Part of me felt that I was starting my life anew. I wasn’t Melania anymore. I never would be Melania again. And things happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to stop and protest.
Meeting Vito would be one of the best and worse experiences of my life. I hadn’t come in contact with a grown man before other than Signore Rossi, who in my young eyes was a father, an elder, someone to respect. I didn’t know anything of romance other than what my mother had told me about her relationship with Papa, and that seemed like an archaic story; a fairytale. Soon enough, I was told, Signore Rossi would find me a nice Italian man to marry. And I would be sent to live with him, to have children and do my duty as wife. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t have much time for dreaming of handsome men rescuing me from my life of weariness. I had too many responsibilities to Mama, to Signora Rossi, to school and taking care of the apartment, helping in the store. I was just one more Italian girl.
We left the dance hall through a back entrance. Waiting in the alley out back was a big long black car. Someone from the drivers seat jumped out and opened the back door. “Looks like you found another stray, Vito.” He joked as I slid in the backseat.
“Shut up Carlo or I’ll beat your head in.” Carlo stopped smirking and closed the door after us. He climbed back into the front seat and pulled out of the alley.
“ Where are we going?” I asked, really feeling the effects of the liquor on my body. “And what is your name? I don’t even know who you are…”I trailed off, not really knowing what I was saying, just knowing that getting into a strange man’s car after drinking alcohol was not what a proper girl would do. I soon learned, however, I was not going to be a proper girl for long.
I must have fallen asleep, because I opened my eyes to Vito gently shaking me and calling my name. “Melody, Melania… time to wake up.” When I finally realized where I was and who was calling my name I became scared. “Where are we? What are you going to do to me? Please don’t hurt me….” I don’t know if it was Vito’s eyes or the effects of the alcohol wearing off, but I began to cry, big tears splashing on my coat as Carlo helped me out of the car. It was dark and still raining, so I could not see where we were. Carlo helped me up the front stairs and into the entranceway of a large house. The front hall was white with lots of marble and mirrors. Fountains spurted and gurgled. Potted palms towered in corners. I looked around and was speechless. I knew this was a house of luxury, but from the look of Vito and Carlo, I knew this was not movie star luxury, but something darker.
Vito had vanished and in his place came a large black woman, wearing a black dress with a starched white apron. She smiled at Carlo, and me and said with a heavy southern accent, “Vito find another one?” Carlo glared at her, and the lady quickly became brisk and busy taking off my coat and picking up my suitcase. “Follow me,” she said as she started up a long marble staircase. I followed reluctantly, only knowing that as she was the only female I had seen in this house, I should follow what she said. I looked back down into the entry way and saw Carlo walk further into the house. Vito was nowhere to been seen.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs, our shoes seemed to sink into plush white carpeting inches thick. The lady opened a door, which was one of several and set down my things inside the door. “You’ll be staying here. They call me Nana, so if you need anything you just ask for me. I’ll send Louisa to come see you.” With that she turned and started back towards the stairs.
“Wait,” I called suddenly, not wanting to be left alone, “Where am I? What’s going on? Where is Vito? And Carlo? Who is Louisa? I don’t think I want to stay here…” my voice trailed off as Nana’s back receded down the stairs. “Louisa will explain everything.” Her voice became quieter, “I don’t know nothin’ that go on ‘round here.”
Once again, tears fell from my eyes as I closed the door quietly and began to look at my surroundings. Pure opulence glared back at me. Soft corals and white made the already large room seem larger and inviting. Not only was there a huge bed hung with chiffon, but also a large sofa was placed off to the side. A large marble bathroom could be seen through a door, with a round pink marble bathtub in the middle. A vanity sat by the settee, and a large white armoire stood in a corner. Even through my tears I could see how beautiful the room was and how it made you feel beautiful just by being in it. I sat on the edge of the bed and waited. The clock by the bedside table said it was three, and I realized I had never been up so late in my life. I felt tired, and lonely, and the heaviness of all this must have made me drowsy. I lay back on the bed and between the fluffy down pillows and the silk covered comforter, I must have fallen asleep.
When I woke, the sun was coming through the curtained windows. I looked at the clock- noon! Then I realized I was under the covers, wearing a white silk nightgown. I remember nothing about getting undressed! What was going on? Who had done this? I looked quickly about the room, waiting for something to jump out at me. I noticed my coat and suitcase were gone. I jumped out of the bed and grabbed the pink satin dressing gown lying on the settee. I quickly threw it on over the nightgown and tied it tightly. I opened the armoire expecting to see my things hanging in there, but it was empty. I went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face.
A knock at the door was followed by a woman’s voice. “Good morning, Melania. Are you awake yet?” I came out of the bathroom to see a beautiful redhead opening the curtains.
“Who are you?” I asked, clutching the dressing gown tightly to my body. “Where is Vito and why am I here?”
The woman turned to look at me. “I am Louisa. I believe Nana told you I would be in. I take care of the girls around here.”
“Where exactly is here?”
“HERE, is a place where you will be happy.” She squinted as she looked me up and down. “Well, you are pretty in your own little way, so we won’t have too much to do to you. Now, just follow me and we’ll get underway.” She turned towards the door.
“Where are we going? What are you going to do to me?”
“My, you do ask so many questions!” Louisa said over her shoulder as she led me though a door further down the hallway that was identical to the one we had just left. “We are going to the salon to do something about your hair, and then we will get you dressed. After that, we’ll see what Vito wants.”
I decided to be quiet and follow along. I realized I now was property of Vito, whoever he was. Louisa held open the door for me and I entered another room. This room was set up as a salon but also held racks and racks of clothing and shoes. Louisa led me to a large blue chair in the middle of the room facing a three-way mirror. She picked up a telephone sitting on a table nearby and talked quietly into the mouthpiece. A telephone inside the house and to call other rooms! Goodness, what had I gotten myself into?
Almost immediately after Louisa hung up the phone, Nana and another younger black woman entered the room. Nana placed a tea tray on a table by my chair and quietly left the room. Louisa introduced me to Lana, who was going to be doing my hair.
Lana barely looked at me as she picked up a pair of scissors that had been sitting on a large table facing a wall. “A bob for her, don’t you think?” Louisa said as she rummaged through the racks of clothes. “And I think she should stay dark. Don Dante likes brunettes.” She hung dresses and skirts over her arm, occasionally looking at me as Lana hacked away at my hair.
Oh, my hair! Mama had always loved brushing and braiding my long dark hair. Suddenly, it was no longer down my back, but chopped up to my chin. Once again tears came to my eyes. Lana looked at me and smiled. “All the young’ens cry the first time. You should save your tears.”
Louisa opened a door leading into what looked like a closet with a bench in it. She began to hang the garments onto pegs in the walls and placing shoes on the floor in front of the bench. “Once your hair is done, we’ll have you try some things on. You need to look good if you want to stay here. We don’t allow slovenliness here.”
“I was never slovenly to begin with.” I replied.
Louisa smiled, “No, you didn’t appear so. But Dante’s women must always look good.”
“Who is this Dante?” I looked into the mirror in front of me and saw Lana still cutting the back of hair. Louisa pulled a wooden chair close to mine and began to pour tea. She leaned back and said, “Well, I guess now is a good a time as any to let you know what’s going on.
“You are in the house of Don Dante. I’m surprised you don’t know who he is, being of Italian descent yourself.”
“I’m Sicilian.” I interrupted.
“Sicilian, Italian, it’s all the same in this house, honey. Anyways, I’m not at liberty to say exactly what Don Dante does, but I’ll tell you this, what goes on in this house stays in this house. Whatever you hear or see stays with you. Do you understand?” I nodded yes.
“You met Vito and Carlo yesterday. They work for Dante along with some others you will meet later. You will probably be working in the club, dancing with the rest of the girls, but not for money. You’ll get your directions later. Right now, you are basically under my and Vito’s watch. You do as we say.” She lifted one eyebrow as she looked at me. “Think you can handle it? Once in Don Dante’s house, you don’t leave the same way you came in.”
A million thoughts ran through my mind, most telling me to get up and run. Find the front door and run back to Mama! But Mama was no more, and this seemed like the only place I could be right now. I swallowed and nodded. Besides, I thought to myself, Vito said I could have anything I wanted, and he was so handsome…
A blush must have crept up my face as I thought that last thought, because Louisa looked at me inquisitively. “Thinking of someone special?” I tried not to smile and bit my lip. Could she read my mind?
“In Don Dante’s house the men choose you, you do not choose the men. It is best not to fall for one, because you will probably end up with another.” Louisa put down her teacup and stood. Lana brushed my hair and when she was done, of course I ran to the mirror to see what had been done to my hair. It was short, very short! It was longer in the front hitting my cheeks, but the back had been cut very short, like a boys. I didn’t know what to think of it. Louisa came up behind me and took my hand. “I’m sure you’ll get used to it. Lana knows what she’s doing. As do I. And now, lets get you bathed and made-up. We don’t have much time before dinner.” She led me out the door and back down the hallway to the room I had been sleeping in. The bed was made, and in the bathroom the tub was steaming, full of opaque bubbles.
“When you are done, just put on the dressing gown. We’ll get you dressed shortly after. I’ll be back in a few minutes to check on you.” With that Louisa closed the bedroom door behind her. I stood there, still for a moment trying to believe this was my life. I felt so out of control, but at the same time, it was nice being pampered this way. I went into the bathroom and laid the nightgown and robe on a chair. I slowly slid into the tub. The water was the perfect temperature, and I let myself relax. The small bar of soap on the side of the tub was shaped like a leaf and smelled like lemon. I always loved the smell of verbena. I began to lather the soap over my body drowsily thinking of last night, of being a dancer, of Vito…
Suddenly Luisa was in the bathroom. I was so dissolved in my thoughts I didn’t hear her come in. “My you are a hairy girl!” she said, “That’s one more thing we’ll have to take care of!” I was startled and tried to cover myself quickly. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, my dear” Louisa said, slightly laughing, “who do you think undressed you last night?”
“But no one has ever seen me without clothing before, and… what are you doing?” Louisa had pulled one of my legs out of the water and was slowly rubbing a safety razor up and down. “What are you doing!” I watched as my leg suddenly became smooth under the razor.
“This is called shaving, darling, and it’s one more thing you will have to get used to. Only men should be hairy. Having such dark hair, you’ll probably have to do this every day. Now you try.” She placed the one smooth leg back into the tub and handed me the safety razor. “Be gentle.” I took the razor and slowly ran it up and down my leg. It wasn’t very hard to do.
“Now your armpits.” Louisa said.
“You can’t be serious!” I said with eyes wide. “Is this what grown-ups do? I never saw my mother do this.”
“This is what men like, Melania. And in this house, we do what Dante’s men like. Besides, all the fashionable women are doing it these days.” I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her, but I did it just the same. When Louisa had approved, she turned to go back into the bedroom. “Rinse off, and remember what I said about the dressing gown.”
I rinsed with warm water, and used the large fluffy pink towel to dry. Wrapping myself in the dressing gown I went into the bedroom. Louisa had pulled the drawers of the vanity open and was placing bottles and tubes onto the top. She motioned for me to sit on the stool facing her. I had never worn makeup before and didn’t know what to expect. I closed my eyes as I felt Luisa using different lotions and creams on my face. “Okay, turn around and look at yourself.”
I slowly turned on the stool and looked into the mirror. What looked back was and wasn’t me at the same time. I looked older, and…prettier? Was that really me? There were dark lines around my eyes making them look big, and my cheeks were pink.
“Now, the one thing you must learn to do from the beginning is put on lipstick. Lana or I can help you with everything else for the first couple of days, but you need to know how to apply lipstick. You must always be wearing lipstick.” She took a silver tube off the vanity table and pulled off the top. She handed me the tube. I had seen women apply lipstick a few times, so I pretended to know what I was doing. I turned the bottom of the tube until the creamy red stick showed. Then, puckering, I slowly traced my lips. The result was not so bad. Louisa handed me a handkerchief, and smiling, said, “not bad for the first time.” I wiped the edges of my mouth to make the color appear only on my lips. The bright red complemented my coffee-colored complexion and made my eyes appear darker. I smiled at myself in the mirror, only to find red stains on my front teeth. I quickly wiped them away as Louisa giggled. “Another thing, you must always carry a mirror with your lipstick! Now, let’s get you dressed.”
Louisa pulled me up off the stool and back through the hallway. We went back into the room where Lana had cut my hair. I remembered how short my hair was now and self-consciously touched it. Lana came over with a brush and brushed it once again. I could feel the soft swish of hair about chin, a sensation I had never experienced before. My head felt so much lighter! “Okay, turn around.” Lana whispered. I turned to see a woman with short dark hair and red lipstick looking back at me. I was so surprised I was speechless. “I can tell you like it,” Louisa said, coming round the back of me to look at us both in the mirror. “You look beautiful.” No one had ever called me beautiful before. Pretty, maybe, but never beautiful. Was this really me?
“Okay, let’s get you dressed. It’s almost time for dinner and you’ll want to look good to be introduced to everyone.” Louisa led me over to the closet where she had hung up some clothes. She pulled out a short red dress that practically floated on the hanger. Beads and sequins sparkled all over it. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. I unwrapped the robe I had been wearing, suddenly anxious to put the red dress on. “Wait a minute,” Louisa cried, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
I looked at her blankly. “You need to wear undergarments, sweetie. We don’t just waltz around here with nothing on underneath!” She handed me a silk slip and matching panties, which I dutifully took and put on. Next she handed me a pair of white hose. So silky! “But what do I do with them?” I asked, blushing. She bent down and showed me how to roll the stocking and then pull it up my leg and hook it onto the garter. When she was done, I stood there, embarrassed and shy suddenly. I felt like a little child who had to be dressed. She must have known how I was feeling from the look on my face because she said quietly, “most girls have to learn these things when they come here, Melania. You are one of many. Don’t be embarrassed by things you don’t know yet. You have much to learn.” With this, she held the dress up and slid it over my head.
After placing a pair of white patent heels on my feet, and giving me the once over, Lana and Louisa were satisfied. “Come,” said Louisa leading me out the door, it is time to meet the others.”
As we left the room and headed down the hallway towards the stairs, I suddenly felt scared. What was going on? Things were still mysterious and I was extremely self-conscious. I still hadn’t gotten used to the new me.
Once down the stairs, Louisa led me down a hallway painted white with mosaic-tiled floors. She turned at a doorway, her hand poised above the knob. “Are you ready?” she whispered. “Who am I meeting?” I whispered back. “Oh, just some of the girls.” She replied vaguely as she opened the door.
The room inside was just as grand and luxurious as all the others I had seen, but this one was darker. The walls were painted dark red and velvet curtains covered the windows. Dark wooden benches and chairs stood haphazardly around the room. In the center, on a beautiful Oriental rug stood a large burgundy sofa. Lounging about on most of the chairs was the most beautiful group of women I had ever seen. There were blondes, and brunettes, short girls and tall girls. I guess these were the types of girls Don Dante liked.
Upon entering the room, most of the girls stood up and waited for Luisa to introduce me. “Ladies, this is Melania. She is the newest member of you, and I expect you all to greet her warmly and take her in. She will be working with some of you in the club, so I would like for those girls to show her the routine.” Looking at me she said, “I’ll give you time to get comfortable with the girls. I’ll go check with Vito on what time dinner will be.” And with that, she closed the door behind her.
A short dark haired girl about my age came over to me. “My name is Adelina. I’m a dancer too. How long have you been here?”
“I guess I just got here last night. I don’t really remember much about getting here, but I do remember Vito and Carlo. Where are they?”
“Oh, don’t worry about them. You’ll see them again. Vito’s a sweet guy, but he can get mean. You don’t want to get too close to Vito. Now Carlo, he’s one of my favorites. He’s such a joker! I like guys that make me laugh. Do you speak Italian?”
“ I learned English from my mother, so I’m better at Italian.” I replied. “Why, does it matter?”
“Well, here it all gets mixed up. It’s better if you know both.” She pointed to a tall blonde girl in a blue dress. “That’s Perlita, she’s a dancer too. We tend to stick together. The other girls, the ones in black, we don’t really tend to see much. They work at the club, but not as dancers.”
“Why do they wear black?” I asked, curious.
“Well, I think it’s because they work for Don Dante, but I don’t really know for sure. One thing about those girls, is don’t look too long at their men. They are absolutely off-limits.” By this time, two other girls had come over to where Adelina and I were standing. They were both smiling.
“This is Floriana”, Adelina said pointing to the redhead in a white chiffon dress.
“Please, call me Flora. Only Dante can call me Floriana and get away with it!” She was fair, with naturally red hair that waved down to her shoulders. She had the greenest eyes of anyone I had ever met before. “Are you Italian?” I asked, “You don’t look so.”
She smiled and rolled her eyes. “Gino found me at a dance hall and brought me here. I’m really Irish, but once I got here they made me Italian in every way except my color. I don’t speak Italian very well, though. But that doesn’t seem to bother Gino!”
“Is Gino your man?” I asked cautiously. I still didn’t really understand what that meant. “Well, not really....” She replied slowly. I could see her green eyes dim slightly. “Well, anyways, you might meet him at dinner.”
The other girl had been quiet while Flora was talking. Jumping into the conversation to save Flora, looking at me she blurted out, “I really like your dress.” She was slender and dark, just like me. She was wearing a long, straight satin dress of ivory satin. Beads sparkled as she talked. “I’ll ask Luisa if I can wear it tomorrow to the hall.” She was touching my dress as she talked, gently caressing and fingering the sequins. “We all share dresses, you know. That’s why we all look so similar. My name is Bella. It’s nice to meet you. I hope you like it here. I really do.” It seemed Bella could just keep on talking, but at that time the telephone in the corner rang. All the girls in the room stopped their conversations. The phone rang again. Finally, the tall girl named Perlita picked up the hand piece. After nodding a few times, she whispered something into the mouthpiece and hung up. Everyone looked at her.
She turned to look at the four of us grouped by the door. “The new girl is supposed to have dinner with the men. She can pick two girls to go with her. One must be a Mantenuta.” All eyes turned to me. I turned to Adelina and grabbed her arm. “What do I do?” I whispered frantically. “Who are the Mantenuta?”
“Choose Flora, she knows how to keep quiet while the men talk. And choose Delfinia. She’s the nicest of the Mantenuta.” She whispered back. “The one’s in black are the Mantenuta.”
Turning to face all the girls in the room, I replied, “ I choose Delfinia and Flora to go with me. I’m sorry I have to only choose two as I’m sure it would be fun for all of us to go.” The girls laughed and turned back to their conversations, ignoring what I said completely. A girl with blonde hair in a black dress came over towards me. “It is a privilege for you to have dinner with the men, but for the two you choose it is work.” With that she opened the door and walked out. Flora and I hurried after her.
Further down the hallway was the dining room. It was smaller than I was expecting considering the size and grandeur of the other rooms I had been in, but it was still impressive. It was a rectangular room with no windows and a swinging door at the opposite end. The walls were covered with pearly white wallpaper and dark wood wainscoting. There was a small chandelier hanging over the center of the table, which was covered in an ivory jacquard tablecloth. The chairs around the room where high-backed, of dark wood and padded with ivory cushions. There was a small fire burning in a fireplace off to the left side of the room. Seated in the chairs around the table were eight very good-looking men.
The men immediately stood as we three girls entered the room. Delfinia immediately went to the side of a tall man wearing a light-colored suit with a pale blue bowtie. “That’s Nico,” Flora whispered to me, “He’s the son of Don Dante…and Delfinia’s man.” Flora and I plastered smiles to our faces and walked to the table. Immediately I felt Vito’s eyes on me. I turned to look up and sure enough, there he was, at the head of the table across from me. Tapping his wine glass, he announced, “Gentlemen, I would like to introduce to you our newest addition to the family, Melody Tommaseo.”
“Actually, my name is Melania.” I said quietly, my eyes on the back of the chair in front of me. Hearing the name “Melody” reminded me of my Mama and cause a sharp pain in my breast. I could hear all eyes turning to me. “Not anymore you aren’t, sweetie. What Vito says goes.” Said Delfinia, who had comfortably wrapped herself around Nico. I looked up to see Vito still looking at me. “Melody, let me introduce you to some of the men you will be working with.”
“I’m sure you remember Carlo from the other night.” Carlo nodded his head. His face looked somewhat familiar, but it was nice to be introduced formally. He was wearing a long, black trench coat and the lenses of his glasses were smoky. Hanging on the back of his chair was a bowler hat. “Carlo, take off your jacket for dinner.” Vito commanded. Carlo sheepishly took off the coat and hung it on a coat tree in the corner. Underneath, he was wearing a dark grey wool suit with a black bow tie. “And Nico, you remove your hat. What a great way to introduce our new lady to the house, with bad manners.”
Nico unwrapped himself from Delfinia and hung his hat on the back of his chair. The contrast between Nico and Delfinia was striking; her in her black dress, with dark hair and dark skin, while Nico was lighter in skin and his hair was more of a light brown. He barely looked Italian. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Flora watching the couple. She was still smiling, but I could tell from her eyes, she wasn’t really happy to be here.
“Flora, come sit by Carlo.” She slowly walked to where Carlo was pulling out a chair for her. “And Melody, I want you down here next to me.” At this comment, the five men at the opposite end of the table looked up at me with surprised eyes as I walked to where Vito stood. “At the end of the table you will see five goons. They are Agostino, Matteo, Massimo, Lodovico, and Alfeo. They will sometimes ask you to do some things for me. You do what they say only if they say the request is from Nico or me. Understand?” I nodded and looked down at the men. They were good looking, but all looked similar. They all had dark hair and dark eyes and were wearing dark colored suits.
Nana entered the room carrying a silver covered tray. Behind her was Lana. “Well, let’s sit and eat.” Vito exclaimed, “but first a toast to our newest dance hall girl, and member of the family, Melody.” Everyone raised their glasses and all said, “Cin Cin!”. I clinked my glass that held red wine, with Vito’s.
The meal was mostly silent. The food was delicious and the wine kept flowing. The only things spoken were requests for more food or drink. After everyone was done eating, Nana came to take the plates away. “Thank you, Nana for such a delicious meal.” Vito said raising his wine glass to her. “Well, you should be thanking Signora Maria Greco de Luca. She taught me everything I know.” With that she left the room.
Carlo cleared his throat. “Vito, we have a meeting with Don Dante in a half-hour. Shouldn’t we get ready?” He had stood up and was walking to where his coat was hanging on the coat rack. “Ahh, lighten up, Carlo. We still have thirty minutes to spend with these lovely girls.” This was said by Massimo who had inched his chair closer to Flora and was slowly stroking her leg. She was leaning towards him and whispering something that couldn’t be heard. I looked up at Vito. Did he expect me to act this way towards him? I couldn’t tell, as he stood up and turned toward a side table. When he came back he was lighting a cigarette. “The ladies can stay for a few more minutes. But Carlo, you make sure Luca knows about the meeting. And make sure to bring some of Dante’s favorite cigars in.” Carlo placed his hat on his head and nodded. The men at the end of the table without the company of girls stood also. “Vito, is it all right if we go? No offense, but it looks like we’re not going to be having as much fun as you and Nico in here.” Vito nodded, and turned back to face me. “Melody, we have much to talk about.”
“And what is that Vito?” I asked, twirling a piece of my new short hair around my finger absentmindedly.
“ You will be working under me at the club. You will practice with the other girls to get the combinations down. I want you to go and have fun. Fat Tony runs the place and makes sure everything goes smoothly. But if you have any problems, any at all, you come to me. Understand?” I nodded.
“Carlo, Nico and I run the dance girls. We take care of you and make sure you are safe. Occasionally we will ask you to do a favor for us. Nothing big, just drop a note to a certain guy or go out with a friend of ours. I know you can do that.” I nodded again. He placed his hand on the back of my neck. I immediately tensed up and my eyes dropped to look at my hands twisting in my lap. “I think you’re going to like it here, Melody.” He looked at me and I noticed I had goose bumps. “You’re not still mad about last night are you?” I couldn’t tell him those goose bumps were from his hand on my neck. “You’ll like New York,” he said stroking my hair, “New York will take good care of you.” New York! I thought to my self. But only yesterday we were in New Jersey! How long had I been asleep in the car?
There was a giggle and a moan that came from where Flora and Massimo were sitting, her in his lap. “That’s enough Matteo, Nico.” Vito said sternly. “We need to go.” With that, he put out his cigarette and walked to the door. Both men slowly followed. As Vito opened the door, he turned back to look at the three of us. “Delfinia I hope you will explain to Melody how we act in this house.” With that, the three men left closing the door behind them.
Delfinia smirked and lit up a cigarette. “ You may know how to be pretty, but you don’t know how to treat a man.” She looked at me from across the table. “Ever been with a man before?” I blushed and shook my head. “I’ve never been married.” Delfinia laughed loudly, her head tilted back. “Married?!” Even Flora was smiling, even though she had put her hand up to her mouth to cover it. “None of us have ever been married, doll face, and I don’t think any of us ever will.”
“See in this house, we are here to please Don Dante’s men. That means Vito, Luca, Nico, Gino, etcetera, etcetera. We do what they want, we look the way they want, and we say what they want. They are big powerful men, and the way we treat them makes them feel even more powerful.”
“Prostitutes?” I asked, shocked, “Will I have to be a prostitute?” I thought of how Mama would be so disappointed in me if that was what was to become of me.
This time it was Flora’s turn to explain. “We’re not prostitutes. We’re professional dancers in a club. We go to Fat Tony’s and we dance. Sometimes the men in the house want to have a little fun. And you pretend to be having fun, too. It’s not that hard most of the time. You’ll get to like it after a while. And once you’ve done sex, you get to like that too. But you can’t choose your man, they have to choose you.”
“And some men are off limits. Nico is mine. Look at him twice and there will be problems.” Delfinia glared at Flora. “Gino is taken. So is Fabrizio. And I wouldn’t look at Luca, it seems he’s taken up with Perlita.”
“ So are you with Massimo?” I asked Flora.
“No, he just wanted someone to laugh at his silly little jokes, and I was the only available girl here. I’m pretty sure he likes Marta.”
Nana bustled through the swinging door. “You gals still in here? Well, scoot, I gotta get this place cleaned up.” She turned her back to the table and started cleaning off the sideboard.
“Well, I guess this conversation is over.” Delfinia dropped her cigarette into a half empty wine glass. “See you girls later.” With that she stood up, straightened her dress and left the room.
“Come on, let’s go.” Said Flora standing up. “Do you feel okay?”
“Well, honestly I’m a little overwhelmed. Why does Delfinia seem so angry towards me?”
Flora opened the door and we entered the hallway. “It’s not just you. She treats all the dance girls that way. I think it’s because she’s one of the Mantenuta and the top girl at that.”
We sat on an upholstered bench by a large window. The sky outside was dark, but twinkling city lights could be seen in the distance. “What are the Mantenuta?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t really know for sure. I know they work under Luca and sometimes will be gone for days, but other than that, I’m not really sure what they do. They also work at the club, but they don’t dance like us. Sometimes Delfinia or Cinzia will sing, but mostly they just hang around the guys. Don’t mess with them though. Working for Luca, Gino and Fabrizio means they have muscle on their side. If you know what I mean.”
I knew what she meant. If there was a problem there were tough guys to take care of it. “Is Vito a tough guy?” I asked.
“A what? You have to remember my Italian is very limited!”
“Oh, sorry. A…” I struggled to figure out the word. “ A muscle man, a bad guy?”
“Vito, well, he’s at the top of the food chain, so he has power. But I’ve never seen him use it. It’s mostly in what he says and the way he’ll look at you that makes you know you don’t want to mess with him.” She paused and looked at me with a serious look on her face. “Hey, you don’t have a crush on him do you?”
Being asked this question outright made me blush and squirm. “Not really…” I stammered. “But he saved me. He brought me here. And he is handsome.”
“Melody, he brings a lot of girls here. And sure, he’s good looking in his own kind of way. But you shouldn’t hold any hope of getting with him. Remember, the men choose you, you don’t choose the men.” She looked out the window and tears filled her eyes. “I should know.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Is it Gino? I remember you talking about him.”
She wiped the tears off her cheeks and nodded. “He found me on the streets. I had to sell apples on the streets to get enough money to eat. He said he liked my hair and asked me if I wanted to live a nice life. Of course, what street urchin wouldn’t want that? He brought me here and treated me real nice. He would take me out every couple of days and make sure I was treated really well. I thought he liked me. I thought I’d be his girl. But then all the nice treatment stopped and I found out he was with Cinzia. And she’s a Mantenuta, so there’s nothing I can do.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I said nothing. Flora and I turned as we heard a door open down the hallway. All the girls dressed in black were coming out of the red room we had been in earlier. They pretended not to notice us as they passed by and went to the other side of the foyer and down another hallway. As Delfinia passed by she whispered, “Isn’t it time for bed girls?”
After they had passed we both stood up. “Is it really already time for bed?” I asked Flora. She shook her head, “No, it just means we shouldn’t be out in the hallways like this. We should be doing something. Let’s go see what the other girls are up too.”