Juliana knew more about her husband’s past than he thought she did, although not as much as she believed. She’d grown up with cousins and uncles that had experienced the revolving door of the prison system: out just long enough to realize that cons didn’t have options other than falling back into the game again. In college, she’d personally suffered through a two year long cocaine binge and only barely kept that addiction from ruining her life. Alcohol and peer pressure had pushed her into more than a few inebriated shoplifting experiences. She knew the signs of a guilty conscience,of a man trying to pretend his way into being better, of someone trying to cut off a part of their past.
What she couldn’t know, she guessed at or crowd-sourced. Many conference calls had been spent tossing ideas around, discussing “hypothetical” scenarios with her girlfriends and trying to piece together the parts of her husband’s life that he refused to discuss. Her family thought she was writing a screenplay, as if she could possibly commit any more to the role of “dedicated, but ultimately bored housewife.” But the truth – that Alex was lying to her, possibly lying to her quite a lot – would invite too many questions, too many unasked for opinions, and too much scrutiny of her relationship.
The simple truth was this: she loved Alex and he loved her. Hell, Jules even loved Ally, his daughter from another marriage…most of the time. Sure, Alex sometimes seemed to drift away mid-conversation, as if his thoughts had suddenly become unmoored. And sure, there were other times when he looked at her with such intensity that it was like being looked through. And sure, sometimes he wept in his sleep and murmured the name Johannah like a mantra.
But they were happy, most of the time. Everyone, even Johannah herself, had a little darkness in their past. No one lived like a saint forever. If Alex wanted to keep those secrets to himself…if that was the price she had to pay for nine good days out of ten…well, it was hardly a choice at all.
That was how she comforted herself and soothed her own concerns in the past. Now, however, it had been a full week since Alex’s abrupt departure and it wasn’t love she felt rising up into her throat like lava. It wasn’t affection that gripped her heart like a vise. Alex was gone and, for no reason she could name, Jules wasn’t sure if he was coming back.
On the morning of the eighth day, she realized that she could no longer keep her emotions safely contained behind the stormwalls. Instead of collapsing into a heap of tears and sobs, Jules did the next best thing: she called her mother.
Sofia Bianchi, matriarch and undisputed ruler of the Jersey Bianchis, answered the video call on the third ring. Despite the distance, the connection was rock solid. Jules could see that Sofia was trying something new with her makeup, that her steel gray hair was shorter now than it had been, and that she’d lost a worrying amount of weight.
That last bit was more concerning than anything else, but she kept the thought to herself. If there was anything that would set Sofia off, it would have to be anything that could possibly be construed as pity. She’d been a strong enough woman to make her way to America from the Old Country and to tame the wild stallion who had fathered her children. A little weight loss wouldn’t even have factored into her mind as something to be concerned about.
“Honey!” Sofia puckered her lips and blew an air kiss across the airwaves. “What are you doing? I thought we weren’t scheduled for another one of these video chats until…uh…”
“Next Friday,” Jules said. “Yeah, Ma, I know. But I just needed to clear my head about some things. You aren’t busy, are ya?” It didn’t take long for the Jersey to creep back into her voice.
‘Someone threw a football at full speed from off-camera. The projectile came within an inch of some precariously placed glassware before Sofia snatched it from the air with the speed of someone half her age.
“Aldo!” Sofia shrieked. The tone of voice brought back painful memories of wooden spoons. “You better get your little friends out of here, or there’s gonna be hell to pay, ya hear me?”
Jules shuddered. She remembered being on the receiving end of similar tongue lashings and was all too familiar with the “hell” that might follow after it. “I can call you later,” she began, “if you’re busy.” Even as she said the words, Jules felt like her chest would explode or cave in if she didn’t unburden herself twenty minutes ago.
Sofia dismissed the suggestion with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Nothing more going on here that I can’t take care of by myself. Not like I’m not used to doing everything around this house, after all. You go on, tell me what’s on your mind.”
Now that the opportunity had gone, Jules found that she couldn’t quite figure out how to start. Years of half-truths and misdirection, deflected questions, and late nights spent wondering what her husband might possibly be hiding after so many years…it was just too much to dump on one person. Especially if it turned out that Alex had a perfectly legitimate reason for keeping his cards so close to his chest. It wouldn’t take much for Sofia to turn against the German; she hadn’t liked Alex to begin with, simply because he’d taken Jules away from Jersey and her family.
She decided to approach the problem from an oblique angle. “How’s Dad? He can’t help you out with the boys?”
Sofia rolled her eyes, deliberately exaggerating the action for effect. “Your father left for work about an hour ago, allegedly.” She made very large air quotes around the last word.
“Where do you think he really is?”
“The bar,” Sofia said. “He’s been working at the docks for about a year today, so the boss probably took him out to get good and drunk. Bet he’ll come stumbling back in here around midnight, smelling up the whole house and stumbling into anything not smart enough to move out of his way.”
“You aren’t mad?”
“Why would I be mad?” Sofia glanced at something off-screen for an instant and, without a single word, managed to convey an entire world’s worth of danger. Whoever had been the target of the look fled the scene, judging from the slamming door that Jules heard a moment later. “He works hard to put a roof over my head and he damn sure didn’t have to take in Donna’s kids when she split. If he wants to take some time to blow off his steam, I’m sure as hell not going to get in his way.”
Jules pondered that for a moment. In the beginning, she had asked Alex where his money came from. He wasn’t wealthy, in the sense of private jets and yachts, but they lived extremely comfortably. He had explained that he’d come into quite a bit of money and made several wise investments. From those investments, he’d made others and, eventually, developed a healthy nest egg.
She hadn’t believed a word of that, but she’d smiled politely and resolved to find out the truth of the matter eventually. Only she’d fallen in love and, after the marriage, the matter ceased to be as important to her as it had once been.
Was Alex just tired of working so hard to take care of a family? Had he just needed some time to blow off steam?
Or was he simply tired of taking care of this family?
The insecurities made no sense, of course. He’d been willing to give up his entire life to be with her, save his daughter. The fact that they’d moved to Germany had been her decision. But knowing that she was being irrational didn’t actually make her feel any better.
“Is something going on with Alex?” Sofia asked.
Jules’ surprise jolted her out of her darkening thoughts. “What? What makes you say that?”
“Three things,” Sofia said, raising a corresponding number of fingers. She lowered them as she made her points. “One, you got that thousand-yard, wistful stare as soon as we started talking about your father who I know isn’t your favorite person. Two, I normally can’t get you to stop talking about how wonderful your German is, but you haven’t said a thing about him since we started talking. And three…well, I know my girl. So why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you? What’d he do?”
“He didn’t do anything, ma, it’s just…” Jules struggled momentarily to put her thoughts into words. “You ever think that there might be more to dad than you know about? Like, maybe he lived a whole ‘nother life before you two met?”
Sofia snorted. “Mario Bianchi never did anything except drink too much and knock up yours truly one night. I’ve known him since I came over here on a boat and he’s never changed.” She paused. “Why, do you think Alex is keeping something from you?”
“Ma, I know he’s got his own secrets. He’s got a nineteen year old daughter that grew up without a mother, but no one ever talks about what happened to her? Of course he’s not telling me everything. That’s not the problem.”
“What is the problem, then? What’s got you so bothered?”
This was going to be delicate work. If she said too much or even implied too much, Sofia would almost certainly demand that Jules come home. As vulnerable as she felt, Jules would probably go. “Do you think people can change, ma? Like, really change?”
“Your father only drinks two or three times a year now,” Sofia said. “That was a hell of a change from his weekly binges. And I never would’ve thought that you’d leave us all to go overseas with someone you met at the market. Seem like pretty damn big changes to me.”
“Not like that,” Jules said. “Something bigger than that. Like…not just change what you do, but change who you are.”
To her credit, Sofia didn’t rush to an answer. She gave the question a good bit of thought before replying. “I think they can,” she said, “but only if they really want to. It’s always easier to keep doing the same things than it is to really look at yourself in the mirror.”
“But if you had…something worth changing for? Then it might be possible?”
“I guess so.” Sofia lowered her voice. “This is about Alex’s past? Whatever it was that he won’t talk about? You think it’s got something to do with how his first wife died?”
Jules hesitated before nodding, just once. She could feel the tears building and she tried to keep them from falling onto her cheeks.
“You don’t think he did it, do you?”
“No! Ma, of course I don’t think that!” Jules shook her head, glad that the action gave her an excuse to look away from the screen for a few heartbeats. ‘That’s crazy, ma, you’ve gotta know that. Alex is a good man.”
“I think that…I think that maybe he used to run with a bad crowd,” Jules managed to say. “A dangerous crowd. Not by choice or anything like that. But it feels like he might have been involved in some stuff that might…it might not have gone away. It might not be over.”
Jules didn’t say anything for several long seconds.
When it became clear that her daughter wasn’t going to answer the question on her own, Sofia gave her some gentle prompting. “Do you think he didn’t let that part of his past go?”
“I don’t think his past has let go of him,” Jules said in a whisper. “I don’t know if it’s ever going to.”
Sofia lit a cigarette. “Let me tell you something, honey,” she began, “and you listen good.”
“Now, you know I never liked that Alex with his fancy clothes and his accent and all that. Man comes to Jersey just long enough to sweep my baby girl off her feet, then he flies across the world with you in tow?”
“Ma, I told you that’s not what -”
Sofia raised her hand to cut off any further explanation. “And you know I wish you came home more. Lord knows your father misses you. Hell, you haven’t found the time to visit with the boys since they started school and you know how much they look up to you. I’d love it if you came back here, set down roots with your family instead of going so far away. But I’m gonna put all that aside, because I know when my girl needs her ma, okay?”
Jules pushed back the tears for the second time as she prepared herself for whatever rebuke Sofia was preparing for the absent Alex.
“Do you still love him?” Sofia asked.
Jules blinked. “Do I…what kinda question is that, ma?”
“Well? Do you?”
“Of course I do!”
“Good. Because I’ll tell you this much. No matter how I feel about him personally, I can promise you one thing: Alex for damn sure loves you. Now, I don’t know what he might’ve been into in the past. Hell, he might have been a whole different person back in the day. But the man I met? That man would walk over broken glass if it’d make you smile. If he’s got to choose between his past and coming home to you, it wouldn’t even be a question.”
It was the longest string of praise Sofia had ever spoken about Alex. It might well have been the only nice thing she’d ever said about him at all.
Jules felt the tears coming for the third time. She would’ve let them fall, and been glad to do so, if the front door hadn’t opened downstairs.
Sofia Bianchi needed reading glasses to help the kids with their homework and she used a cane to go up the three steps to her front porch, but her hearing was as keen as it had ever been. “Were you expecting someone?”
Before Jules could answer, she heard the voices. A booming male voice, cheerful and boisterous came first, saying something in German; a moment later, a voice with a much higher pitch responded in the same language. She would’ve known the voices anywhere.
“Ma, I think that’s him. I…I gotta go, alright?”
“You sure, honey? You gonna be alright?”
“I think so,” Jules said. She nodded twice; once for her mother and once for herself. “Yeah, I think so. Thanks, ma.”
“You want to thank me?” Sofia asked. “Find the time in your busy schedule to visit your aging mother. You know I won’t be around to dispense the wisdom forever.”
Jules smiled. This, too, was familiar: the patented Bianchi guilt trip. “Yes, ma, I hear you. I love you, you know that?”
“You wouldn’t know it from how you act,” Sofia said. She smiled a little, softening the rebuke into something more like gentle needling. “I love you too, baby. Give Ally my love.”
One corner of Sofia’s mouth turned down slightly. “I know what I said. Now get out of here!”
Jules terminated the connection and sat in the room for a few seconds. She didn’t head downstairs until she was certain that she wasn’t going to burst into tears at a moment’s notice.
She saw Ally first. Alex’s daughter had entered the pubescent phase of “you’re not my real mother” at twelve and decided to stay there for the next seven years. The relationship between stepmother and stepdaughter was supposed to be difficult, according to the self-help books Jules had read, but the animosity Ally threw her way hadn’t appreciably weakened in almost a decade. She readied herself for some veiled insult or disrespect.
Ally practically chirped when she saw Jules at the top of the staircase. “Ah! We thought that you might have been out on the town.”
“I was just using the computer,” Jules said. “Your father told me that you went out on vacation with your friends. You’re back already?”
“The trip was…not as much fun as you would think,” Ally said. Jules heard the hesitation in her voice and almost asked for more information. The memory of her own activities at nineteen stopped her from poking that particular bear. “So Papa came to get me.”
“Oh? Well, it’s good to have you back home.”
“It is good to be home.” Ally opened her mouth to speak, closed it after a second, then opened it again. “I realized something while I was, uh…away.”
“I have not been fair to you, have I?”
Jules stared at Ally for a long time. “What?”
“You have been nothing but good to my father and me. And I have been…” She paused and considered her words. “I have been a bitch. And I am sorry for that.”
First, Sofia had praised Alex’s dedication to his family; now, Ally was apologizing for years of teenage angst?
“It’s, uh…it’s okay,” Jules said, even as she privately wondered whether or not she was in a dream.
“It is not okay,” Ally said. “But I will try to be better.”
Before Jules could say anything else, Ally bounded up the stairs and planted a kiss on her cheek. Then, she ran off to her room and closed the door behind her.
Jules remained where she stood for about thirty seconds before she shook her head and filed the incident away for later examination. Something must have happened on Ally’s “trip” to account for such a drastic change in personality, but Jules wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She headed downstairs to find her husband.
She found him in the kitchen, tying his favorite apron on and checking the fridge at the same time. He was so engrossed in the search that he didn’t hear her enter.
Jules cleared her throat. “I just had the weirdest talk with Ally. Did she tell you what happened wherever she -”
She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Alex jerked his head out of the fridge, blinked, and then bulldozed across the room to sweep her up into a tight bear hug. Alex was a big man and he hadn’t let the passage of years rob him of his strength. He lifted her as easily as if she didn’t weigh anything and spun her in a tight circle.
“Jules! Oh, it is good to see you again!”
Jules tried to wriggle her way out of the hug without any success. Failing at that, she tried another tack and managed to extricate herself enough to speak. “It’s only been a week,” she said, between gasps for oxygen. “You have business trips that last longer.”
“Ah, but it felt like so much longer,” Alex said. “And I missed you, my love. I missed you so much.”
He lowered her to the floor again. Jules smoothed an invisible wrinkle out of her shirt before speaking again. “What brought that on?”
Alex looked like he might pick her up again, although he restrained himself. “I saw a few old business partners when I went to pick up Ally,” he said. “And I learned some things that reminded me how lucky I am to have you.”
He wasn’t telling the whole truth. That much was obvious. Jules didn’t know everything about Alex, but she knew enough to tell when he was evading.
Instead of letting the deception pass without comment, she stepped closer to him and lowered her voice. “Is it over?”
Alex went completely still. His smile withered and died on his face. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. But whatever it is…whatever it was…is it over now? Finally?”
For a second, Jules was certain that he was going to lie again or that he’d tell a half-truth. He surprised her by taking a deep breath and visibly steeling himself. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it is over.”
She didn’t bother to stop the relief from flooding into her expression. “Will you ever tell me about it?”
“One day,” Alex said. “Maybe, if you really want to know. But not today.”
“Why not today?” Jules asked. She didn’t really care about the answer anymore. Alex had come home and, if he was to be believed, the ghosts of his past hadn’t come home with him. She loved him and he loved her. That wasn’t the only thing that mattered, but it did count for a lot. The rest, she was willing to give him on faith.
Alex clapped his hands together. “Because today we celebrate!”
This time, when he picked her up, Jules squealed in delight and allowed herself to enjoy the moment.