Even in the womb, Mother said, Giula and I twined round each other like fish in a barrel. Born just thirteen minutes apart, we slept heart to heart in the same bed, warming our feet between each other’s calves.
Her face was mine, except for the scar above her eyebrow from when she fell on the fender as a baby. We wore our hair in the same long braid so no-one on the Bowery knew which of us was which.
Everything we did, we did together. Dripping hot candle wax on our fingertips to harden them for the sacks full of garments Mrs Leventhal brought every day. Scratching our names with a pin on the side of the mantel when no one was looking. Sent out to the fire escape to peel potatoes, we’d drop the eyes onto the horses’ heads and talk about who we’d marry, craning to stare at the Russian boys with the wide black hats and long dark curls down their faces.
Whatever happened, on the street, in the family, we knew it all. We knew Mother was done after having Santino, Rosetta, and Angelo in five years. When Papa came home from building mansions on the Upper East Side, she’d turn her back as he washed his bare chest in a basin by the stove. Sometimes he’d go out late and not come back all night. We were sure he had another family over by the bridge, till we saw him coming out of Ma Rozzoli’s whorehouse. When he’d scratch himself through his breeches, we’d bend our heads over our sewing, red-faced with hidden laughter.
Nothing ever came between Giulia and me till Vicenzo Romano. Vic. Yellow-haired, green-eyed, full red lips. He was the stock boy at Benedetti’s Delicatessen where I worked behind the counter. Behind the towering wheels of parmesan, he kissed me, his mouth dusty with the peanuts he liked to chew, splitting them at the seam with his thumbnail.
Giulia was working in a loft shop up near Washington Square Park. On my days off, I waited for her under the sooty trees, pigeons pecking round the toes of my boots. Sometimes Vic came with me and he’d walk us both home. When Ma invited him for supper, I saw Giulia bend to smell his hair as she took his plate. That night under the quilt she asked, “Do you love him, Fina?” but I turned away blushing in the dark.
When Vic bought me a red velvet ribbon, we were as good as engaged. We’d roam the streets at dusk, stopping to kiss just beyond the light cast by store windows. Giulia went about with her friends from the factory. I’d leave the lamp burning for her and wake as she slipped into bed and turned her back to mine.
One night when she came home, I waited up and gave her my ribbon. I knew how much she’d wanted it, how she’d touched the velvet with one wary finger when she thought I didn’t see. She took it without a word. When I woke the next morning, she’d already left for work, leaving it coiled loosely on the dresser, a splash of flame in the dim brown room. Leaving it for me. Running the soft velvet between thumb and finger, I made two loops of it and tied them in a bow.
Later, Vic and I walked to meet Giulia from her shift, weaving through the almost evening crowd, dodging the soft green turds dropped by the dray horses, breathing the vegetable stink of the gutter. As we strolled the pathways of the park, March rawness made me clutch Vic’s arm close. A clatter of heels and a woman ran by us, then a patrolman wheeled his horse towards thick black smoke pulsing across the skyline. From the building where Giulia worked.
High above us, faces crowded the blazing windows, mouths open. Fire horses skittered, eyes white, a hose slithered across the asphalt and a ladder cranked up and up, with a great groaning, then stopped – “Too short!” – and women wailed and screamed and covered their eyes. Girls clinging to window frames launched like a flock of birds, raining down on the asphalt in a drumroll of moist thuds.
A girl balanced on a sill, up on her toes. Even from afar, I saw the red circle round her neck. Arms raised high, muscles of fire arcing from her shoulders, she leaned gently forward and fell, sparks cartwheeling from the ends of her hair.
Wrenching myself from Vic’s grasp, I ran, seeing nothing, hearing nothing but Vic behind me calling “Fina!” Up the tenement stairs, past women leaping to their feet in an avalanche of cloth, I raced to our cold dark bedroom, snatched the ribbon from the dresser and fell to my knees. “It wasn’t her, it wasn’t her!”
But when I turned to look at Vic, when I saw his mouth twitch and his eyes dart, I knew that Giulia had her own ribbon, as red as mine and just as soft between the fingers.
I’m 90 years old now and the people here are very kind. They move the mirror with me from the chair to the bed and back. They know I like to talk to Giulia. It’s like it always was for us, there’s no one else we need. I no longer see her scar. It’s sunk into the fretwork of our ancient face, those lines I trace all day and night, my finger on the cold unyielding glass.
Fiona J. Mackintosh is a British-American writer who has been widely published in both countries. Her stories have been shortlisted for the 2016 Exeter Story Prize and longlisted for Plymouth University’s 2015 Short Fiction Prize, the 2016 Bristol Short Story Prize, and the 2017 Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, and her flash fictions have been published most recently in Spelk, the Nottingham Review, and the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology. She is a proud recipient of a 2016 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Award.