Dancing With Frankie Delgado by Ana Moreno
The Comfortable Couch
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Chapter One

As I settled into a maroon velvet-covered seat in the beautiful Ohio Theatre, I wondered what I was in for, never having been to a professional ballet before, much less under these circumstances. Thumbing through the program, I finally found a name I recognized, though it had changed quite a bit in the ten years since we had last seen each other. "Romeo........Francisco Delgado" it read. A far cry from plain old Frankie (diminutive for plain old Frank) Rotondo. In fact, the surnames were Spanish for opposite adjectives--"Rotondo" meant "round" (which as a child he had been--the reason he began ballet lessons) and "Delgado" meant "thin" (which I assumed he would now be, having danced professionally for eight years). The program had a biographical sketch of each performer, and I saw from the picture beside his that Frankie had changed more than his name. His hair, which had been long enough when I knew him to form a pony-tail and bangs that hung in his eyes, was now of a more moderate length and swept across his broad forehead thicker and more glossy than I remembered; the barely-visible, ragged mustache he had begun to cultivate at seventeen was now full and beautifully trimmed to frame his lips. The lips had not changed, though--they were still as voluptuous as when he had first kissed me. And his huge eyes were still as unfathomably deep and dark as on that day...

I was fourteen and it was my first day attending ninth grade at the Columbus School for the Arts, a special high school for students who showed promise in dance, drama, film or visual arts, vocal or instrumental music, or any combination. I was going to participate in both vocal music and drama, as well as the program for the academically gifted. I was feeling so much pressure that I barely spoke to anyone as I got on the bus that first morning, not even the people I knew from junior high. Mine was one of the last stops on the route, but even after my stop there would be a drive of nearly an hour because the school was just inside the city limits on the other side of town. The only empty seat was next to a slightly round-faced young man with a long dark ponytail and sparse mustache whom I had never seen before. I sat down on the very edge of the seat beside him and looked out the window on the opposite side of the aisle to avoid looking at him. After a while I heard him singing softly to himself. The song was familiar, but I couldn't place it, so despite my nervousness around strangers, I finally asked, "What are you singing?"

I must have sounded as if he was disturbing me, because he replied, "Oh, I'm sorry, was I bothering you?"

I shook my head, "No, it's not that, it's just that I recognize the song but can't quite think what it is."

A small smile played on his full lips, "It's 'Somewhere' from 'West Side Story'."

I returned the smile almost without meaning to, exclaiming a bit too enthusiastically, "Oh I love that show, and that's my favorite song from it!"

The young man's smile became a toothy grin and he nodded, "Yeah I do too! The show and the song." I found myself picturing him in the role, not of the romantic lead Tony, but of Maria's brother Bernardo, for his features were clearly Hispanic. I was caught up in studying his face and deciding it was handsome when I realized he was still speaking, "...but my favorite dance is the one at the beginning, to the song called 'Cool' --I love dancing to that one!" I had never even been in the chorus for a production of "West Side Story", so I just nodded and turned away again. My seatmate resumed his song, but now he was leaning over toward me and singing right into my ear: "There's a place for us, somewhere a place for us..." I couldn't help but be swept up in the melodious sound of his tenor voice. The next thing I knew his long arm was around my shoulders and he was pulling me closer. Strangely enough, I was no longer nervous, just grateful that it was still relatively dark outside so that none of the other kids on the bus could see this--especially since I was beginning to enjoy it and knew I was grinning like an idiot. I found myself relaxing against his shoulder as he finished the falsetto phrase at the end of the song:

"Somehow...someday...somewhere...", this last nearly at a whisper. Then his head came to rest on top of mine.

For some reason this finally snapped me out of my romantic fog--I raised my head and blurted, "Hey, wait a minute! We haven't even been introduced!"

I looked up to see him rubbing his jaw, as I had apparently bumped it on my way up. He continued to rub with long, tapered fingers as he answered, "My name's Frank...uh, Frankie Rotondo."

I apologized, "Sorry about your chin!", at the same time thinking, And such a strong chin it is, too! "My name's Katrine Rousseau--Kati."

My nickname was pronounced like "catty", and Frankie picked up on this, joking, "You're not, are you? Catty, I mean." He made a gesture like striking with claws as he meowed, "Rowrrr!", like an angry cat.

"No," I laughed, "not that I know of!" He laughed, too--a laugh as melodious as his singing voice that brought impossibly deep dimples into his cheeks.

"That's good to hear, mami," he said. I misunderstood, "Mommy?"

Frankie laughed harder, "Not 'Mommy' like your mother, 'm-a-m-i'--it's a Puerto Rican term for a pretty girl!" I could feel myself blushing; I had never considered myself pretty. My hair was stick straight and a flat dark brown, my eyes a muddy grey under thick black brows. I was always the tallest girl in any class, and I had a slight roll of "baby fat" around my middle that seemed to me bigger than my budding breasts. But I could see in Frankie's huge brown eyes that he had meant to say that I was pretty.

Even so, I suppose I wanted to actually hear him say it, so I asked, "You mean me?"

His laugh was down to a chuckle as he answered, "Of course--do you see anyone else sitting next to me?" Though I was disappointed that he hadn't actually said I was pretty, I tried to smile my most attractive smile, after which I put my head back on Frankie's shoulder and once again felt his head lean on mine. We were silent the rest of the way to school.

When the bus stopped, Frankie had to shake me awake. I wasn't used to being up this early, but he obviously was, since he fairly danced up the front steps, pulling me by the hand as I stumbled and tried to protest. But before I could say anything we were in the lobby, and I asked Frankie where my homeroom would be located. He walked me there, and since we had a few minutes he backed me up to the wall and stood at arm's length in front of me with one hand resting on the wall beside my head, the other holding his books against his cocked right hip. We talked about our classes and he told me where all the rooms were. Then, when the bell rang, Frankie lowered his head and gave me a quick kiss on the lips before running smoothly down the hall and around the corner. I stood there stunned until the teacher poked her head out the door and ordered me and two scruffy looking boys inside.

The morning's classes dragged worse than I had ever experienced in my school career, not only because of the newness of it all or the boredom of administrative details, but because I was praying I would see Frankie again. I saw him, all right--it turned out that we had one class together because I was in the academically gifted program and he was not. It was a course on Shakespeare which concentrated on one play each semester. This year we would be studying "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Romeo and Juliet", two plays which concentrated entirely on tragic lovers. For a brief moment I hoped this was not an omen of my relationship with Frankie, then stopped myself and realized that we really didn't have one yet and probably never would, which made me fleetingly sad. But when I entered the classroom and saw him, I instantly felt better. Frankie sat on the teacher's desk surrounded by a crowd of his fellow seniors, most of them female, but with enough males present to make it clear that his appeal did not rest solely on his looks and charm. He obviously also had a sense of humor, for every time he stopped speaking the whole group burst into laughter. I hurried around them to a seat in the back of the room, torn between wanting Frankie to notice me and hoping the other seniors would not. Then the teacher entered the room and they all scattered from his desk like cockroaches from a bright light. Frankie flew into the seat next to mine with such force that the metal post holding the backrest to the chair seat dug against my thigh. I tried not to cry out, instead letting out a small yelp from behind my hand. Frankie realized what he had done and after he moved his desk reached over to rub my leg. A shudder went through my whole body at his touch, and I prayed no one--especially not the teacher--would see what Frankie was doing and cause a scene. But no one seemed to, and even after I gestured to him to stop, Frankie would every so often reach over and touch the same spot gently as if to make sure the pain would never return, a questioning look in his beautiful eyes.

Frankie walked me to my next class, where we checked our schedules and discovered we would be having lunch at the same time. I hoped he would ask me to join him, but he made no such invitation. Instead he kissed me goodbye beside the door as he had done before homeroom. As I watched his tall, graceful form trot away from me, I again prayed for another opportunity to sit beside him. But when lunchtime came, I found Frankie once again surrounded by a guffawing crowd of seniors and chose not to embarrass him with the intrusion of my freshman self. I went to the opposite end of the cafeteria and sat alone staring out the picture windows. It wasn't long before I felt a presence behind me and a hand reached in front of my face holding out a cup of chocolate ice cream. I turned and looked straight at Frankie's belt buckle, into which his other thumb was tucked. I raised my eyes quickly to see his face wreathed in a grin. He sat down backwards on the bench beside me and asked, "Whatsa matter, doncha like chocolate ice cream?" in a phony Spanish accent. I giggled and nodded, taking the cup and setting it on my tray, then continued eating my lunch. Frankie leaned back on his elbows to look directly at me as I was putting a bite of beefaroni into my mouth. He watched me chew and swallow as though fascinated, and I felt very uncomfortable.

But through supreme effort I ignored him until I was ready to open the ice cream, then turned back to him and asked, "Where's the spoon?"

Frankie jumped up and stood ramrod straight for a second before bowing and replying in a British accent, "Forgive me, m'lady, for my gross negligence! I shall return shortly with the appropriate utensil!" He then jogged toward the kitchen, drew a spoon from the bin and brought it back to me. He sat as he had before while I ate the ice cream, backwards and staring at my every bite.

When I was finished, I thanked him as he stood and bowed again, taking my tray to the back door of the kitchen where the trashcans and sinks were. When he returned he extended his hand to me and offered, "Will you walk outside with me while I have a cigarette?" I hated cigarettes, but I was becoming attached to Frankie, so I took his hand and we went out the double doors at the end of the cafeteria hallway which led to an alley where there were dumpsters behind which all the kids who smoked would hang out. We didn't stay with them, however--instead we went for a walk around the block, which wasn't strictly allowed but which Frankie assured me he had done many times without incident. He held my right hand with his left and his cigarette in his right. I watched him smoke with as much fascination as he had watched me eat. I also listened to him in much the same way--Frankie loved to talk, especially about himself, and his life seemed to have been very eventful for a seventeen-year-old. He had been born in a poor area of New York City and, like me, was an only child. His parents were of Puerto Rican descent and he had spent every summer and Christmas there since babyhood. He had begun to study ballet at the age of six, and played the piano and the guitar as well as singing.

Listening to him talk, I got the impression that Frankie probably could have been placed in the academically gifted program at Columbus Arts, but he had decided early on that being very smart made him miserable, what with the teasing he endured from the "cool" kids, so he had become the class clown of every grade up to now. It was this clowning, in fact, that had landed him at Columbus Arts, because the High School for the Performing Arts in New York had expelled him for disrupting classes by doing comedy routines in the boys' room and kicking over desks while dancing ballet in classrooms when he was a sophomore. His parents and the administration of Performing Arts had searched for another school east of the Mississippi to take him, but only Columbus Arts had agreed, on condition that he never disrupt another class. So far he had kept that bargain, only telling jokes before class and in the lunchroom. "Would you tell me one of your jokes?" I asked tentatively.

"Why don't you join my 'gang' when I'm telling them?"

Frankie put his arm around me, but I looked at the sidewalk and replied, "Because I'm only a freshman, and they're all seniors!"

He stopped in his tracks, dropping his cigarette on the ground and grinding it out under his black dress boot before placing a hand on each of my shoulders, looking me in the eye and asking, "So what? Age is just a case of mind over matter--if you don't mind, it doesn't matter!" He chuckled at his own joke (which even I knew wasn't original), and I had to giggle too, just looking at him with his bronze skin lit from within by the pleasure of having an audience--even if it was composed only of a single awkward freshman girl. But then it occurred to me, "Won't the seniors mind, though?"

Frankie shook his head, "Not if I tell them you're my friend and they should just let you be."

I was impressed--what kind of influence did this young man have over his peers? I decided to take him up on his offer, just to see if the seniors would do as he said. So when we came back around to the school grounds and a bunch of them met us on the front lawn, I didn't excuse myself but stayed at Frankie's side. He once again had his arm around me, and no one seemed to look askance at the fact. In fact, as he introduced me, all the boys shook my hand and all the girls smiled sweetly. "This is Kati, she's new here," Frankie said simply, then launched into his line of patter. Everyone laughed heartily until the bell rang, then I discovered that I was not the only one privileged to have Frankie kiss her goodbye. He went around to each girl in turn and planted a quick kiss on her lips before saying "See ya later!" It was just his way. But there was a difference--I was the only one he walked to class. We checked our schedules again and found that we had our last two classes of the day in common as well--choir and acting. I was so excited to be able to sing and act with Frankie (even in groups) that I had trouble sitting still in the rest of my classes until then.

In choir, those of us who were freshmen had to sing a piece to find out if we could sight-read the music and to place our vocal range. I was embarrassed enough singing in front of all these strangers (most of whom were older) but then there were the added stresses of Frankie being there and the song being "People Will Say We're in Love" from "Oklahoma." A couple of the girls who had been outside the school with us at lunchtime began to giggle, but Frankie shot them a threatening look that silenced them. Then his eyes locked on mine as I sang, and his lips moved to the parts of the song which were meant to be sung by the male lead. With this help I made it to the end of the song pretty well, finding myself assigned to the altos. The rest of the class was devoted to introductory vocalizing and sight-reading, as well as an overview of the songs we would be performing. The teacher concluded her remarks by saying, "...and the spring musical this year will be 'West Side Story'." I gasped and turned to look across the room at Frankie, who was looking straight at me, winking and smiling. After choir we walked to acting class, and even though we were not parting there, Frankie backed me against the wall and kissed me, longer this time.

"Te amo, Anita," he whispered as he broke away and looked me in the eye, calling me by the name of the alto female lead in our spring musical.

"What did you say, Bernardo?" I asked, calling Frankie by the name of secondary male lead, Anita's boyfriend.

"I said I love you," Frankie replied. I was stunned, but said nothing, grateful when the bell sounded and we had to go inside.

The bus ride home was similar to the ride that morning, Frankie and me sitting close together, holding hands, our heads touching and voices blending as we sang quietly. No one disturbed us, and after a while I fell asleep as I had on the ride to school. When I woke up, I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood still sitting beside Frankie. "Where are we?" I inquired as I rubbed my eyes.

"Almost to my house," Frankie answered. I bolted up and exclaimed, "My mom will kill me!" Frankie patted my head back down to his shoulder, shushing me.

"Don't worry, I'll call her and explain that you fell asleep and missed your stop, so I let you come to my house until she could pick you up."

I knew I would be in big trouble, but I had no choice, so I just sat in the crook of Frankie's arm until the bus stopped down the block from his house. We walked past several identical little two-story houses, whose only exterior differences were that some were covered in stucco and others, like Frankie's, in clapboard. The house was yellow with black shutters on the two small front windows on either side of the door. There was no garage, but under the carport sat an old but very shiny black Mustang convertible. Frankie saw my incredulous gaze and asked, chuckling, "You like the car?"

I nodded, "Is it yours?"

He returned the nod as he walked up the three front step and unlocked the door. "We can maybe go for a ride if your mom says it's OK." I looked at Frankie motioning me inside the house, knowing my face probably still registered disbelief--it would be bad enough in my mom's opinion that I was at Frankie's house, much less riding around with him in that car! But maybe if he offered to save her the trouble of picking me up and used it to drive me home...?

"I'll need your phone number so I can call your mom, Kati," Frankie was saying. I wrote it on the pad of paper next to the phone on the kitchen counter, then returned to the living room, which encompassed the whole front of the house. There was a stairway to the left as you came in the front door, which I supposed lead to the bedrooms, as the living room and kitchen with a half bath to the right of its doorway were the only rooms downstairs. "Hello, Mrs. Rousseau," I heard Frankie saying in a deeper-than-normal voice as I sat down on the couch, "This is Frank Rotondo, from Columbus Arts High School. What? Oh, no, Katrine is fine. No, she isn't in any trouble! She just fell asleep on the bus and missed her stop, so if it's alright with you, I thought I would drive her home." He was evidently trying to make my mother think he was a teacher or something, and apparently she bought it, because the next thing Frankie said was, "Oh, I ride the bus on rotation with the other teachers--you know, just to keep things under control." I tried not to laugh until after Frankie hung up the phone, for fear my mom would hear and be suspicious.

Even though I was getting what I wanted, when he came into the living room and sat beside me on the couch I chided him, "You shouldn't have lied to my mom like that!"

Frankie laughed and leaned back into the couch, pulling me back by the neck of my T-shirt until I was right next to him. "I didn't lie," he replied, "the teachers do ride the buses to help the drivers control the students, and sometimes I end up doing the same thing before we pick up the assigned teacher, because the other kids know I don't put up with nothin'!" At that I let the pent-up laughter inside me come out, only to be stopped by Frankie leaning around to place his lips on mine. His arms went around me and he pulled me as close as he could, and I reached to hold him as well. I had never been kissed by a boy in my life, and here I was being kissed several times in the same day--by a tall, dark, handsome and talented senior, no less! But I soon discovered that there was one more new thing I was to experience on this magical day (aside from the anticipated ride in Frankie's cool car), for now Frankie's tongue gently forced my lips open. I wasn't sure if I liked that, so I started to try to squirm away. Frankie immediately backed off and stood up, reaching for my hand and saying, "We better get going," as if nothing had just happened.

I decided that I would follow his lead and let the matter drop. We went out and got into the Mustang and headed for my house. On the way we talked some more--again, mostly about Frankie. "Are you still taking ballet?" I asked.

"Yeah, every Saturday I spend almost the entire day at the Columbus Ballet's studio, and I'm studying modern dance at school too."

"Well, I thought, I guess that means we won't see each other on the weekends!" That thought quickly gave way to another--I hope I get to see you dance sometime!" I was surprising myself with how interested I had become in everything about this boy I had only met this morning, but Frankie was magnetic, I had to admit. Even the way he held the steering wheel--or rather, rested his large hands against it--was graceful. And his legs were so long that he had the front seat pushed back until it almost touched the back seat. When the wind began to blow the rubber band out of his ponytail, he pulled his hair loose and it blew back like a river rippling at midnight. Put it all together, I decided, and this was a very attractive person. There was one other thing I needed to know, though, because I had seen no evidence of a family in his house.

"Do your parents both work?" Frankie looked sideways at me,

"Yes, but that's not why you didn't see anyone else at the house." He drew in a deep breath before finishing, "They're both still in New York."

I was shocked, "You live all by yourself?"

Frankie nodded, "Yeah, I petitioned to be emancipated after they sent me here."

I could tell from his tone that he didn't want to say any more about it, but my curiosity had often gotten me into trouble before, so I plowed ahead. "Why?"

Frankie didn't answer for what seemed like miles, and I never took my eyes off him as I waited. His strong jaw worked as if it was an effort to open his mouth and respond to such a question. Finally, he said, "It was just easier, that's all. I had a scholarship and a part-time job lined up, I didn't need their money anyway." Once again I knew it was time to let the subject go, and we fell silent.

It wasn't long until we arrived on my block. "I better stop at the corner and put the top up so your mom can't see I'm just another student," Frankie said. When this was done I directed him the rest of the way to my house, and he dropped me off in front, giving me a quick kiss before reaching across me to open the passenger door from the inside. I got out and stood on the sidewalk as Frankie pulled away, waving out the window. I watched until he was out of sight, then bounced up the porch steps into my house. My mother was in the kitchen, and after asking me how my first day of high school had been, she looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Who brought you home, really?"

I looked at the floor to hide the tears welling up as I replied quietly, "Frankie Rotondo. He's a senior."

Mom raised her hand as if to slap me and I reared back as I had so many times before. But when I looked up, I saw a little smile playing on Mom's face and her hand resting on the counter. "He sounded very nice on the phone." I knew then that the counseling she had been getting at AA since the divorce from my father was having its effect.

"Yeah, he is," I told her, returning the smile. "I think he likes me." Mom motioned for me to sit at the table and busied herself getting me a snack.

"I can see you like him!" she chuckled. As I started on my cheese, crackers, and juice, I watched Mom sit down across from me and saw the smile fade as she looked out the window and cautioned, "Just you be careful, Kati--some boys his age only want one thing from a girl your age!"

I shook my head, "I don't think Frankie is like that--he does the cutest thing!"

Mom looked at me and asked, "What's that?" I felt my face flushing as I replied, "He kisses all the girls goodbye!"

Her face suddenly clouded with anger, Mom exclaimed, "You too?!" I just nodded and braced myself for what I was sure was coming. But instead of hitting me, Mom just walked across the kitchen and went to the living room. I finished my snack before following her. I could see from her expression that the subject was closed, so I went up to my room to do my homework.

I got the chance to watch Frankie dance a few weeks later when the school held a fall festival and the seniors were honored with the opportunity to perform solo in their respective disciplines. Frankie picked me up after his ballet class that Saturday, his car already almost full of fellow Columbus Arts students who were in the same class, but the middle of the front seat saved for me. I snuggled between him and a boy named Ted as we drove across town to the school, then watched while he kissed the three girls who had been in the back seat as he dropped them off. Then he and I went to park the car and walked into the school arm in arm. He kissed me at the double doors of the auditorium and went to get ready. I looked around at the festival exhibits of fall-themed paintings, drawings, sculpture, and photography in the lobby and got myself a hot dog and pop before going in to wait for the program to start. The program indicated that Frankie would be performing about halfway through, to a piece of music he had written himself called "Flamenco Funk". I couldn't wait--it sounded so like him, totally out of the ordinary yet traditional. And I wasn't disappointed when Frankie came out on stage. His costume was composed of a black bodysuit with flared legs and a rusty-orange satin bolero jacket, black platform boots, and around his ponytail a black satin ribbon. Over that he wore a matching orange "apple jack" hat with the bill slung low over his eyes. The music and dance were very much like flamenco, with castanets and a lot of hand claps and stomping, but every so often the music became more like disco and Frankie would break into some very modern, long-limbed, hip-swiveling moves. I was enchanted, especially when in the middle of the piece Frankie threw off his hat and jacket and I saw his handsome face more clearly, as well as being able to see his well-muscled arms because the bodysuit had a tank top. When the dance was finished and the audience burst into applause and whistles, I knew I was in love!

After the performance I pushed my way backstage and looked for Frankie. He was in the boys' dressing room, but several other boys were as well so I waited outside the slightly open door until I had counted all of them and, by checking my program, was sure no others would be in there. Then I quietly peeked around the door and found Frankie sitting before the bank of lighted mirrors, taking off the eyeliner that had been his only makeup besides a little pancake. He smiled broadly at my reflection and gestured for me to come in sit on the stool next to his. He was finished removing the eyeliner and about to start on the pancake when I had an inspiration. I took the towel from Frankie's hand and, standing to face him, began to stroke his cheeks with it. His arms went around my waist and his lovely eyes closed as I worked, a small guttural sound rising from his throat. When I was finished, I kissed him (we were at eye level because of the height of the stool), then sat down.

Frankie opened his eyes and smiled again, saying, "Thank you--that was nice!" As he stood up and went behind a screen to change, he asked, "How did you like the show?"

I averted my eyes, embarrassed even though I could see nothing, replying, "It was great! But you were wonderful!"

Frankie's strong laughter rang out from behind the screen, causing me to turn around, and after another minute he emerged wearing a black V-neck pullover sweater and black jeans, his hair loose to just below his shoulders. He came to me with something in his hand--the ribbon he had been wearing around his ponytail. "Here, I want you to have this."

I turned back away from him and asked, "Would you tie it around my hair?" Frankie's long fingers tucked my hair behind my ears, and I giggled at the tickle. Next he took a boar bristle brush from a drawer and ran it quickly through. Then he stroked and pulled and brushed some more, until he held all my hair in one hand, wrapping the ribbon around it with the other. When the ribbon was securely tied, Frankie spun the stool around and exclaimed "Mira! Muy bonita!" I gave his reflection a puzzled look, and he translated, "Look, very pretty!" I saw my face flush, then Frankie held out his hand and helped me down off the stool, chuckling as he put an arm around me. My ponytail got stuck under it, so he reached behind me and pulled it out with his other hand, fluffing and smoothing it. Then we went outside to take in the rest of the festival.

Behind the school, at the bottom of the low hill on which the complex of buildings stood, there were piles of leaves to jump in--or across, if you had legs as long as Frankie's and were studying ballet--and a haywagon awaiting sunset for its departure. After the hayride there would be a bonfire. Frankie left me alone just long enough to help throw some scrap wood on the pile. I watched with admiration as he picked up more in each armload than most of the other boys could. When he apparently thought he had done has share, Frankie returned to me and gave me a quick kiss, brushing the dirt from his hands before taking both of mine and asking, "What do you want me to win for you at the games?" I hadn't even noticed them, but Frankie pointed to the front lawn of the school where booths with ring toss, basketball, and various other carnival games had been set up.

"Basketball!" I immediately decided, sure that with his height, long limbs, and natural grace Frankie could win with ease. We hurried up the hill to the front of the main building and Frankie paid a dollar for three chances. It took five dollars--and gave me plenty of opportunity to watch the fluid movements of his body--but he finally won me a huge stuffed Brutus Buckeye, the mascot of the Ohio State University. We took it to his car and got back just in time for the hayride. I had never been on one before, and wasn't sure I liked being squeezed in among so many other kids on such a high pile of cold straw, until I realized that I could overcome these difficulties by sitting on Frankie's lap. The wagon drove out into a cornfield adjacent to the school and went around and around for about an hour. All the while Frankie held me tight and most of the time had his face buried against my neck. I had to wonder if he was also afraid of heights and just didn't want to admit it. Or did he just want to steal kisses without being too obvious? Either way, I enjoyed feeling the warmth of his breath and lips on my skin and of his body close to mine.

The hayride was over much too quickly, and then came the bonfire. I looked at Frankie's bronze-skinned face in the firelight and the reflection of the flames in his dark eyes and couldn't contain myself--I stood on tiptoe and planted a kiss on his cheek, in front of several of his friends who had gathered with us. A few of the girls looked angry, but I didn't care--he might have a habit of kissing them goodbye every chance he got, but I knew in my heart that Frankie Rotondo was going to belong to me.

Chapter 2

The house lights in the Ohio Theatre were dimming now, and I closed my program and laid it in the lap of the dark red dress I wore. Frankie's entrance was greeted with a standing ovation, and after a minute he had to break character and come to the front of the stage, holding his long elegant index finger to his sensuous lips in a request for silence. This gave me a good opportunity to take in the opulent costume he wore and how much leaner and more muscular the body beneath it had become. He wore a flowing white "poet's shirt" with a long pointed collar, bell-shaped sleeves that covered his hands to the first knuckle, and rows of ruffles on either side of the half-open front. Over this was a dark blue velvet doublet trimmed in silver braid and laced over his smooth chest with silver cords. His long, graceful legs were covered with white tights. The performance not only reminded me of the first time so long ago that I had seen Frankie dance, it also brought back to me the first time I had worn a burgundy-colored dress for him and had seen him in velvet--as well as the times we danced together...

We spent the fall avoiding the school bus by Frankie picking me up in his Mustang every morning and sometimes taking me to his house after school, with my mother's grudging assent--except on Thursdays, when he had a piano lesson. He would always have me home by six so I could have supper and he could get to his job--two hours every weeknight (as well as a total of ten over Saturday and Sunday) busing tables in a restaurant--"A typical starving actor's job," he would joke. In school we were almost always together or trying to be, reading Shakespeare out loud with our desks pushed together to face each other; winking at each other across the room in choir and cutting up in acting class. I had even begun to be a part of the crowd that surrounded Frankie to listen to his jokes when the lunch hour started. (They knew to disperse and leave us alone when he fell silent and began to eat his lunch.) The Christmas dance was fast approaching, to be held the Saturday before winter break started. But Frankie and I had been too busy to notice, for it was also almost time for auditions for "West Side Story". We spent every possible evening over the next two weeks at Frankie's beat-up old upright piano rehearsing our chosen songs, which by the rules could not be from the planned show itself. As we sat side by side on the bench with our thighs barely touching, Frankie played "I Don't Know How to Love Him"--Mary Magdalene's solo from "Jesus Christ Superstar"--for me and "Luck be a Lady Tonight" from "Guys and Dolls" for himself. To me, these two songs spoke perfectly of the contrasts between our personalities--I was shy and introspective, Frankie gregarious and outspoken. These differences had not dversely affected us, however. In fact, the more I sang my song, the more longingly Frankie looked at me, until at the end of the two weeks he was never taking his eyes off me (having memorized the music by then anyway), and I could tell he saw it as my song about him. I had to admit it spoke to my confusion about our feelings for each other. Frankie continued walking me to every class, kissing my lips and whispering, "Te amo, Anita," to which I always responded in kind. But while I felt sure I was saying those words with sincerity, about Frankie I was not so certain. I knew I was young and he seemed much older to me than he really was, perhaps because he was able to hide behind the mask of his many talents, while I let my numerous insecurities come to the surface with every performance. I prayed nightly that this audition would not be just another example of that tendency.

We still spent half of every lunch hour walking outside together while he smoked a cigarette. Now that winter was setting in, however, our walks were less frequent and I took the opportunity one particularly frosty early December day to broach a sensitive subject with Frankie, "Since we can't really go outside anymore, maybe you should just forget about smoking." He looked at me with wide eyes over his carton of milk and after he swallowed replied, "So, you do have nerve, huh?" I lowered my gaze to my lunch tray, afraid I had injured his considerable pride. Then I heard Frankie's raucous laugh and looked up as he continued, "Maybe you're right! But you have to do something for me in return!" I was almost afraid to ask what that might be; the look in his eyes vaguely suggested that of seduction to my fourteen year old mind. "What?", I finally ventured. Frankie smiled sweetly, dimples twinkling, and asked, "Well, would you go to the Christmas dance with me?" I tried not to betray my excitement, first taking a bite of my cheeseburger before simply nodding my head without looking at Frankie. "Excelente!" he exclaimed, throwing his arms around me and kissing my cheek before I had even swallowed. "Of course," he went on, "you must have a red dress--it is the Christmas dance, after all!" I was incredulous at his enthusiasm about me going to the dance with him, much less his interest in what I should wear. "No," he was still talking excitedly, "not just red, burgundy!" Frankie took a strand of my hair between his fingers, held it out at full length and let it go, nodding. By now I was staring unbelievingly at him and he just kept going, "Yes, with the color of your hair and eyes, burgundy will be just right!" He paused to eat some more, but he wasn't finished talking yet, "We have got to go shopping--how about right after school today?" I protested, "But what about getting ready for our auditions?" Frankie waved his hand, "Nah, we're ready, we don't need to rehearse anymore!" I was disappointed--that would probably mean I wouldn't be going to his house for a long time--but I said nothing. I had no chance to--Frankie was still pressing me about shopping, so I shrugged, which he took as a yes. No one could say no to Frankie Rotondo, especially not me.

I called my mother after school and got her permission for a trip to the mall. On the way out of the school building, Frankie handed me his cigarettes and motioned to the nearest trash can. I ran over and tossed the pack in, then ran back and threw my arms around him and kissed him. This time--unlike many others--when his tongue entered my mouth, I made no move to break away. I knew that from now on, without the taste of tobacco, I would love doing this anytime Frankie wanted to. But it was too cold to stand outside much longer, so we ran hand in hand to his car and headed for the mall, singing along with every song on the classic rock radio station. When we arrived, the parking lot was already crowded with Christmas shoppers, so we had to walk a long way on icy asphalt. Frankie held me tightly to keep me from falling, and once we were inside suggested that we first get some coffee. I had never had coffee before but I didn't want him to know that, so I agreed. We went to the food court and found the espresso bar. I ordered something with "mocha" in the description, since I knew that would mean it tasted at least a little like chocolate, which I loved. Frankie ordered a large regular coffee and we found a small table as isolated as we could manage in a packed mall. After several minutes, I sipped carefully at my coffee and found it just the right temperature and very chocolatey. "Mmmm," I murmurred almost involuntarily. Frankie smiled just before taking a sip of his coffee, and after he had swallowed he said, "Sounds good!" I nodded, and he leaned toward me and kissed me with his tongue probing as if to taste what I had tasted. "Yeah, I like that!" he exclaimed as he broke away, and I wasn't totally sure if he meant the coffee or the kiss or both. We continued sipping and kissing until our cups were empty, then wandered around the mall looking for a shop with formal dresses.

We first tried every department store but found nothing to our liking--or rather, to Frankie's liking, since I had no opinion and considered this all his idea. Next we began to scan for shops that dealt exclusively in clothes for young women, and found two. In the second one Frankie stopped dead in his tracks right in the middle of the store and pointed to a dress hanging high on the wall as part of a display.

I looked for it in the racks and finally found it in my size It had a very full skirt and long tight sleeves. The material was very stiff, in a plain maroon-mixed-with-black iridescence with a dull sheen. Frankie took the dress from me and held it up against me, nodding and smiling. "This is the one, chiquita!" (he often called me that, and had told me it meant "little girl.") I wasn't so sure, but I went into a fitting room and tried it on just to appease him. The bodice was very tight, the scoop neckline low in front and lower in the back, and the waistline dipped below mine to come to a point just under my stomach. I had to admit it was a beautiful dress, but didn't think I did anything for it. Nevertheless, I came out of the fitting room and twirled around as if dancing, while Frankie whistled softly, then took my hand to spin me around once more. "I love it!" he fairly shouted, "We're buying it!" I stopped spinning and faced him, "No, YOU'RE buying it!" We laughed as I went to change, then Frankie took the dress to the cash register near the exit and paid the clerk. She put a long plastic bag over the dress and hanger and we left the store. I thought we were finished until Frankie said, "Now we need to get you some shoes to go with it." I hated shopping for shoes, even with my mother, and in the presence of this boy I wanted to impress, there was no way I was going to show my huge feet! But Frankie was insistent as usual, so we made the rounds of shoe stores as well, until I found a pair of black patent leather dancing Mary Janes that fit. Then we left the mall to find Frankie's car in the gathering winter darkness and headed for my house.

When we got home, my mother had a big pot of spaghetti and a pan of garlic bread unexpectedly ready for us. This would be the first time Frankie had met her, and I was nervous. I was just glad that he was wearing some of his most attractive clothes--a loose off-white Shaker sweater with a dark blue turtleneck under it and his light blue jeans. Now that the weather was cold Frankie let his hair hang loose, and just before we got out of the car he took a hairbrush out of the glove box and touched it up. Then as usual he reached across me and opened my door, getting out and following me up the porch steps at a short distance. As we came into the house and the odors from the kitchen assailed us, Frankie yelled, "Smells wonderful, Mrs. Rousseau!" My mother came out, wiping her hands on a dish towel and smiling. Frankie's right hand shot out from the pocket of his brown distressed leather jacket (he never wore gloves, even in this weather) and he shook Mom's heartily, grinning. "How do you do," he said, "Frank Esteban Rotondo y Granado at your service!" He bent and brushed his lips against Mom's hand and she actually giggled. I did too--not just at the gesture, but at the fact that he used his full name, which I had never heard before. "Please sit down in the living room, won't you?" Mom was saying, "Dinner will be ready in a minute." Frankie thanked her and put a hand against my back, ushering me to the couch. "Frank Esteban?" I whispered as we walked. "Yeah," he replied, sitting down heavily and sighing, "'Frank' because my father's name was Franco and they wanted to distinguish between us and give me a more

American name, 'Esteban' because 'Steven' means 'crown' and my mother had such a difficult time carrying me that my folks decided I would be the only one--she called me her 'crowning achievement'!" Strangely, Frankie wasn't smiling as he told this sweet story, but I chose not to press the issue. I had learned that whether Frankie wanted to talk about something or not, there was no changing his mind.

"By the way," he was saying, "What's your middle name?" I leaned back onto Frankie's shoulder before answering, "Joanne, for Joan of Arc." Frankie rolled the full name around on his tongue, giving it the proper French pronunciation, "Katrine Joanne Rousseau...hmmm...un tres joli nom!" I knew that

meant "a very pretty name" in French, but I hadn't known Frankie knew any languages besides English and Spanish. "Do you speak French, too?" Frankie nodded, "Un peu...a little. Studied it in school in New York; the foreign language requirements here are different and were waived because I could prove I was bilingual." Frankie fell silent for a long time, and I wondered if maybe he was through talking about himself for a while and would like to hear more about me. He hadn't let me say much about myself these first few months. As I was thinking this, I felt Frankie's breath on the top of my head and heard him whisper, "Je t'aime, Katrine Joanne!" I chuckled, "You mean you're trilingual!" I could feel Frankie smiling as he laid his cheek on my head. I turned serious again and answered, "Je t'aime aussi, mon cher Franchot Etienne!" (That was the closest I could come in my limited French to "Frankie Steven".)

"Mmmm, I like that!" Frankie kissed my hair and snuggled closer, asking after a minute, "What kind of French are you?" I sat up and looked at him, having no idea what he meant. He must have read my puzzlement in my expression, for he quickly clarified, "Cajun or Canadian?" This was hard for me to talk about, but I replied, "Canadian. My father was the son of a French-born Mountie who worked north of sixty and a Dene Indian woman." Now Frankie looked puzzled, "North of sixty?" I nodded, "North of the sixtieth parallel, in the Northwest Territory." We settled back against the couch again and I went on, "In fact, some of his family lived in upstate New York, and he stayed with them before coming to Cleveland for a job on a Lake Erie iron boat after he graduated high school up there. Then he went to college at Ohio State, which is how he ended up here and how he and Mom met." Just then Mom called us into the kitchen to eat. I was glad, because I really didn't like talking about my dad. He had left us to return north of sixty when I was eight, and Mom had begun to drink as a result. Over supper we talked about our shopping trip and I promised to model the dress and shoes for Mom after Frankie left. I didn't want the time for his departure to come soon, but he had to go to work, so he only had time to eat and talk a little. I walked Frankie to the door, and he went to his car to get our purchases. He returned and handed them to me, kissing me briefly; then he was gone.

Auditions for "West Side Story" were scheduled to take place a week later. Frankie and I had managed to squeeze in a couple more rehearsals over that weekend. Each time I sang "I Don't Know How to Love Him," I continued to think about us. It was true that I was having a hard time deciding if I could possibly love him as a woman loves a man, but I was sure I loved him deeply in some way--as more than a friend, totally differently from a brother. I was also convinced now that Frankie loved me; what was uncertain was how, and in what way he expected me to love him. He kissed me every chance he got, and away from school he always put his tongue in my mouth. But at school he never made any more attempts at physical contact than to put an arm around me or hold my hand. Not that I was dissatisfied with these things, but I had to wonder if he was. I had no idea how to broach the subject, though, and was worried that if I did I would lose what we already had. So I kept silent and went to the auditions with all these concerns swirling in my brain. By the time it was my turn to stand on the stage and perform this song that had become so special to both of us, I was more nervous than usual because I was afraid I would burst into tears over my confusion.

Frankie walked hand in hand with me to the wings and kissed me--parting my lips briefly with his tongue because no one could see us--then I went out onstage and stood frozen for what seemed like forever before I felt ready to nod to the accompanist. I wished it were Frankie playing the piano, but he sat in a seat a few rows from the front and never took his eyes off me as I sang. "I don't know how to love him, what to do, how to move him..." I began too softly, I was sure, but when I reached the crescendo, "I never thought I'd come to this, what's it all about?", my voice was stronger than I had ever heard it. It was as if Frankie's kiss had touched my vocal cords and his gaze was sending strength to my body. When the last notes of the song faded away, he leaped to his feet and applauded, whistling and shouting, "Brava, Anita!" All the other students present were nearly rolling on the floor with laughter, and as I came down the stage left steps I could tell the drama teacher and choir director were having a hard time maintaining straight faces. When I sat down beside Frankie, he turned to hug and kiss me with a passion he had never shown in public before. Oddly enough, I was not embarrassed, but proud that with Frankie's love I had made it through my first real audition. I sat waiting for his turn with my head on his shoulder, and he was saying, "I knew you were singing just for me, and I want you to remember when I go up there I will be singing just for you, too!" I didn't understand how a song like "Luck be a Lady Tonight" could be for me, and I asked him what he meant. "I mean that you are my lady, and you will be lucky for me when I go up there, and every other time I step on a stage." Now all the pent-up emotions of auditioning with thoughts of how Frankie and I loved each other in the back of my mind came bursting out, and I began to cry.

Frankie quickly ushered me up the slanting aisle and out of the auditorium to a dressing room. I sat on a high stool and he stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders, massaging and handing me tissues from a nearby box until I regained my composure. "Que pasa, chiquita?" Frankie asked when I was calmer. "I just can't believe you said that!" was all I could manage to say. "Said what?" Frankie spun the stool around so I was facing him, taking another tissue from the box and wiping the last traces of tears from my cheeks. He truly seemed not to realize the importance of his words about the song he was

going to sing. "That I am your lady and your luck!" I replied. "You mean you don't know by now that I love you and want us to go steady?" I hoped my shock didn't register on my face as Frankie reached into his pocket and took out a long, heavy gold chain, from which hung his class ring. He spun the stool back around and pushed my hair over my left shoulder, then fastened the chain around my neck. I caressed the ring and held it up to look into the smooth lavender stone--his birthstone, alexandrite for June. "I didn't want to give this to you until after you sang--I didn't want to make you more nervous!" Oh, Frankie, I thought, if you only knew the thoughts I was having up there anyway! Just then another thought intruded upon this blissful moment. "Hey," I exclaimed, "it must be your turn to sing by now!"

Frankie helped me down from the stool and took my hand. I struggled to keep up with his long-limbed stride as he ran back to the auditorium. I held the ring tight in my other hand, both to keep it from bouncing against me and to assure myself that it was really there. Everyone else had already auditioned and left by the time we returned. The drama teacher and choir director were gathering up their things in preparation to leave as well. Frankie let go of my hand and hurried up to them, calling out, "Wait! I haven't sung yet!" It was a measure of his influence with even the teachers that they both dropped their book bags and sat back down as Frankie bounded up to the stage. The accompanist got her music back out and returned to the piano bench, while Frankie blew me a kiss and stretched his arms to loosen up. I blew a kiss back, still fingering the ring as I took a seat and waited to hear for the first time Frankie singing solo from a stage. "Luck be a lady tonight..." he began with such force that I wondered how he could sustain it throughout the song. But he did, winking at me when he came to the line, "Stick with me baby, I'm the fella you came in with!" And when he was finished and took a flourishing bow, I found myself applauding as he had done for me, though I managed to remain in my seat. Frankie remained on the stage until the teachers and accompanist had left, then motioned for me to join him on the stage. We stood with our arms around each others' waists and I knew we were both imagining the same thing--standing here together before an enraptured audience, portraying Bernardo and Anita. "Te quiero, Anita!" Frankie was whispering, his voice thick with emotion, and I felt his head come down even though I was looking out over the auditorium. I turned to face him and saw his lips parted for a kiss, to which I gladly obliged. As his tongue gently explored my mouth, it occurred to me I wasn't sure what he had said a moment ago. So when we broke the kiss I asked him. "I said I love you, but in a different way," Frankie replied as he led me off the stage, "the way a man loves a woman when his whole being longs for her!" I felt in danger of crying again, so I leaned against a backstage wall to collect myself.

Frankie took the opportunity to press his whole body against mine as I stood there, and his hands went behind me and caressed my backside. I suddenly understood what he had meant by longing for someone, as my whole body cried out for his hands to touch it. Frankie now put his hands behind my thighs and lifted me until I could wrap my legs around his waist and he could hold me tightly, kissing all the while. I ran my hands up the gentle curve of his spine and into his lustrous hair, then stroked from the nape of his powerful neck all the way back down to his firm backside. We never broke the kiss during all this sweet exploration, and at last it was my turn to explore his mouth with my tongue for the first time.

He tasted of the lemon drops he was always sucking on since he quit smoking, and I felt intoxicated by that taste and by everything that had happened this afternoon. I was so faint I had no choice but to try to get my feet back on the floor. I disentangled my legs from behind Frankie's back, but when they were straight again and I tried to stand, their numbness made me almost fall, and we had to break the kiss at last. Frankie reached to steady me, his fingers brushing against my breast as he did so. I didn't stop him as he continued down to lift my shirt and caress my breasts over my bra, nor when he reached behind me and unfastened it. He began to kiss me again, all over my face and neck, as his large hands spread over my breasts, fondling until he stopped kissing me long enough to murmur in my ear, "Tus pechos son tan blandos, me gusta tocarlos!" I leaned away from Frankie. "Are you OK, mi amor?" he asked as we left the backstage. I just nodded, unable to speak for the hypnotic feeling I was still having from being this close to Frankie. But as we walked across the lobby I found voice enough to ask him what he had said. "I said, 'Your breasts are so soft, I love to touch them!'" Then he hung his head, "But maybe I shouldn't have done that?" I looked up and replied, "Why not, I loved having you touch them!" We smiled and headed arm in arm to his car. On the drive home, Frankie now and then stroked my breasts over my shirt.

When we arrived at my house, my mother was in a fury that I had not called. I could tell from the slurred words that alcohol was fuelling her tirade. "But Mom," I reminded her lightly, "Auditions just ran a little late!" Frankie took over, explaining, "It was my fault--I had a present for Kati after her audition, and giving it to her made me late for mine." Mom turned her glare on him, her susceptibility to his smooth charm gone. "Present?! What present?!" Frankie reached inside my jacket and pulled out the chain, the ring dancing and sparkling in the fluorescent light of the kitchen. Mom's mouth dropped open and she lashed out, "Do you realize that Kati is only fourteen years old?" I stepped between her and Frankie and protested, "But Mom, my birthday is less than a month from now!" She yanked at the ring until the chain snapped, letting it drop to the floor with a sickening clatter. Then she raised her hand and slapped me across the mouth, hard enough that I felt blood trickling from the corner. I burst into tears and ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs to my room, where I threw myself on the bed and sobbed. I must have fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew I awoke to the sound of someone knocking on my bedroom window. In the dim glow from a streetlight I could make out a silhouette which I knew was Frankie's, kneeling on the porch roof. I looked at the clock by my bed--it read 11:00. I assumed Mom was probably in bed by now, especially if she had been drinking, so I got up and opened the window.

He was covered in snow from climbing a porch post, so when I had helped him climb through the window and over my desk, Frankie took off his jacket and shook it out the window, then hung it on the chair. After closing the window, he turned on the desk lamp and came over to me, took my chin in his hand and turned my face so he could more clearly see the left side. "Ay Dios mio!" he breathed as he leaned in to kiss the corner of my mouth, "such a bruise she gave you!" I began to cry again, so he gathered me against his broad chest and held me tight, stroking my hair until I calmed down. Then he let me go and said, "Go get a wet washcloth and let me clean you up!" I obliged, the sorrow in Frankie's lovely eyes compelling me to move. When I returned he was sitting on the bed and patted the spot next to him, saying, "Come here to me." I sat down and gave him the cloth. Gently he again held my chin and wiped the dried blood from it and my mouth, then gave me the cloth to get rid of. Before I left the room, Frankie suggested, "Should I stay until you are ready for bed and then tuck you in?" He was smiling with all his even, sparkling teeth and huge dimples showing, but his eyes still held a look of concern. I nodded and went into the bathroom. I came back to find Frankie rummaging through my dresser. "What are you doing?" I hissed through closed teeth, trying not to wake Mom. "Looking for your pajamas," he replied, still opening drawers. I crossed the room and pulled the bottom drawer open, getting out a nightgown and going into the closet to change. Frankie had pulled down the bedclothes when I emerged, and was still holding them up. I climbed into bed and watched contentedly as he pulled the covers up and tucked them all down my body, from my shoulders to my feet. Then he stroked his way back up, stopping where my breasts were covered and caressing for a moment as he leaned down to kiss me goodnight. "Te quiero, Katrine Joanne," he whispered before turning off the desk lamp, putting on his jacket and climbing back over the desk and out the window. I drifted back to sleep feeling more loved than ever in my life.

All that weekend I tiptoed around my mother and dealt with the nerve-wracking caused by both this and the wait for a look at the callback list on Monday. When Monday finally arrived, Frankie got to my house early and climbed up to my room again to let me know he was there, fearing that if he rang the doorbell my mother would answer and refuse to let him in. I agreed this would have been a distinct possibility, so I went downstairs and let him in myself. Mom was in the kitchen doing the dishes that had been piling up all weekend and didn't hear us sneaking out. When we got to the end of the block where Frankie had parked just in case, he reached into his pocket and drew out the ring, now wrapped with yarn so I could wear it on my finger. He slipped it on me and gave me a kiss, then we drove to school with big grins on our faces. The first thing we did when we arrived was of course to check the callback list. Our names were both on it, and we hugged and kissed more passionately than we ever had at school, oblivious to the stares and giggles all around us. After school we had to audition again, so Frankie held my hand as I called my mother to ask for her permission to stay. As usual after one of her drunken tirades she was apologetic and agreeable, so we headed to the auditorium to find out what parts we were to read for. We were briefly crestfallen to discover that the drama teacher was not considering us for speaking or solo singing roles, but rather for chorus parts as one of the members of the Sharks--the Puerto Rican gang--and one of their girls. As we sat waiting to do a dance audition, we tried to convince ourselves that this was probably better. "No lines to learn!" Frankie offered. "Yeah, just songs," I replied, "and then you have the rhythm of the music to help you remember the words." We said a brief prayer that we would at least be partnered in the dance numbers. When the time came for potential members of the chorus to get up on stage for a group dance like the scene in the gym where Maria and Tony first meet, we heard our names called at the same time and hugged again before Frankie bounded down the aisle and hoisted himself up the front apron of the stage, then reached down to help me up. By the time the callback was over, I was cast as Francisca (ironic choice of name, I thought), and Frankie was Luis. We immediately started calling each other those names

Let's go celebrate!" Frankie exulted as he waltzed me out through the lobby to his car. He suggested that since he would need to go to work soon anyway, we should have dinner at the restaurant where he worked. I saw one problem with that--"If you have to stay and work, how will I get home?" Frankie replied, "You can call your mom when we get there." The restaurant was called the Griller, not too fancy but not fast food. Frankie introduced me to all his co-workers as his girlfriend, then told the cook to bring us two cheeseburgers and a basket of fries, and two Cokes--diet for me, regular for him. While we waited I called my mom to tell her the news of our casting and to ask her to pick me up in an hour. Then I put Frankie on the phone to give her directions. When he hung up, he remarked, "She apologized to me just now!" By this time our food was ready and we sat and ate in silence for a while until Frankie suddenly exclaimed, "You know, this is our first real date!" We both laughed and continued talking excitedly about the play until we were finished eating and he had to go change for work. When Frankie returned in his uniform of a short sleeved white shirt and black slacks and sneakers, I tried hard not to laugh at the hairnet covering his ponytail. But he noticed my trembling lips and grabbed me to stop their trembling with a big kiss. "Hasta luego, mi amor," he called over his shoulder as he headed back to the kitchen, blowing me a kiss. I blew a kiss back and turned to the door just in time to see my mom entering. On the drive home I overwhelmed her with nonstop chatter about the callbacks, our being partnered as a Shark and his girl, and the dinner we had just had--our first date! Mom just said, "He seems like a fine young man," then smiled indulgently all the way home. She didn't even seem to notice the ring on my left hand.

That Saturday night finally brought the Christmas dance. I curled the ends of my hair with a curling iron--Frankie had made me promise to tie it up in the black ribbon he had given me--put on just a tiny bit of eyeshadow, blush and lipstick, and slipped the shimmering deep-red dress up over my non-existent hips to avoid ruining those efforts. I was just buckling my second shoe when I heard the doorbell. Mom let Frankie in and sent him upstairs. He knocked on the door but let himself in before I said anything. I stood up from putting on my shoes and twirled around for him to admire. He whistled softly and came toward me to take my hand and spin me around a couple more times. I was almost dizzy already as he caught me in his arms and kissed me hard and deep. Then he whispered in my ear, "Tu eres tan linda, mi amor!--you are so beautiful!" As if that were not enough to send me spinning out of control, when he broke away and held me at arms' length I got my first good look at his appearance. His hair was fuller and shinier than I had even seen it--he had obviously labored over it for a long time with a blow dryer and round brush. It hung loose over the shoulders of his dark brown velvet jacket and his bangs curved across his forehead, out of his eyes for once. He wore an off-white shirt that looked like silk and a brown and tan tie. His slacks were an almost golden tan close to the color of his skin. I could think of no other words to convey how very beautiful he looked, so I just did the best imitation I could of the whistle he had just given me and echoed the Spanish he had used. Frankie chuckled and gave me another, quicker kiss. He gestured broadly to the door with his left hand and placed his right hand at the small of my back to usher me out. As we came down the stairs I saw Mom standing at the bottom with the camera, and before I could protest she had snapped our picture. I was borrowing her faux fur jacket for the evening, and as Freddie helped me into it I noticed it was the same shade of brown as his velvet sportcoat. I was just glad that if it shed all over him it wouldn't show! I kissed Mom goodbye and she told us to have a good time and be home by midnight.

In the car, Frankie reached in the back seat and brought up a small square box. He handed it to me with a flourish and inclined his head, saying, "Para ti, mi amor." I looked into the plastic window on the top of the box and saw the most beautiful corsage I had ever seen (not that I had received very many--more like none!). It was made up of dark red sweetheart roses (the very smallest ones) with baby's-breath and ferns. "Oooh, Frankie, it's gorgeous!" He grinned, "You like?" Opening the box and holding the corsage out to him so he would pin it on me, I nodded and opened my jacket. Frankie awkwardly leaned across the seat and tried to pin it on my left shoulder, but the angle was wrong and his fingers too large. "Forget it for now," I assured him, "we can do it when we get to the dance." Frankie put the corsage back in the box and I held it on my lap as we drove to the school. The dance was held in the dance rehearsal room, since there was no gym. The floor to ceiling mirrors on two of the walls were covered with paper snowflakes and spray-on snow, and reflected a floor covered with silver glitter, with quilt batting simulating mounds of snow in each corner. White and silver streamers were twisted together and hung from a mirror ball in the center of the ceiling like drooping spokes of a wheel. Along one wall was a table with punch bowls and small sandwiches, cookies, and cakes arrayed on trays between tiny decorated Christmas trees. In the middle of the room was a Christmas tree which reached to the ceiling and was decorated all in white and silver. The band, made up of music students at Columbus Arts, stood on the platform which surrounded the tree.

Frankie and I put our coats on the rack beside the door, then tried again to pin on my corsage. Frankie still couldn't do it, so he finally just stuck it in the neckline of my dress, leaning to whisper in my ear, "Perfecto! Entre tus pechos lindos!" I shook my head to let him know I didn't understand, and he leaned in even closer, putting his lips right against it before replying in a murmur, "I said, 'Perfect! Between your beautiful breasts!" and kissing my earlobe. We grinned conspiratorially at each other and I got the giggles so badly that we had to go sit down on the folding chairs in the corner until I calmed down. It was difficult because Frankie insisted on continuing to whisper sweetly in Spanish (followed by an even more secretive English translation) about how lovely my hair was, how my makeup accentuated my delicate features, and how the dress fit my graceful figure so well. Embarrassed even though not many people were there yet and no one else was listening, I tried to divert him by suggesting that we go to the table and get some punch and food. We sat watching people arrive and waited until several other couples were dancing before we started. I rested my cheek on Frankie's chest and listened to the steady beating of his heart under the smoothness of his velvet jacket. The first song we danced to was "Color My World" by Chicago, and Frankie sang along, "As time goes on, I realize just what you mean to me..." We held each other tightly and barely swayed, just enjoying the closeness. There hadn't been much of that since the night Frankie climbed up to my room, because ever since then he had become more cautious about displaying his affection in public, as if our feelings were too special to share with the world. He still kissed me between classes, but just on the cheek, and would only hold my hand as we walked--no walking arm in arm or hugs. Not only that, but with Christmas break coming there had been midterms to study for and papers to write, and we hadn't seen each other outside school--except for driving to and from my house--for the past week. But we did have plans for the next two weeks--we were going to try to spend part of every day together when Frankie wasn't working (he had taken on a few hours every day during the break to make money for Christmas shopping), and each of us had applications to fill out. I was applying for a summer theatre workshop and private voice lessons through the Ohio State University. Frankie was reapplying to the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City; he had applied there just before being kicked out of the High School for the Performing Arts, so his application had of course been rejected. He was going to try again now that he had a spotless record from another respected school, as well as making excellent progress in the Columbus Ballet's dance classes. Plus he would have his high school diploma in hand by the time the Joffrey summer program started. He planned on applying for a position in the company once he proved himself.

This last thought jolted me out of the reverie which had engulfed me as I suddenly realized that it would probably not be "our future"--something we would experience together--but "our futures", separated by his graduation and move to New York. The idea was so overwhelmingly sad that I began to cry. Frankie didn't notice at first--he was whispering in my ear, "Te quiero, Katrine Joanne," which only made me cry harder, because I could imagine the day when I would hear those words for the last time. Now Frankie seemed to realize what was going on, for he shushed me, saying, "Calmate, querida mia, estoy aqui." As the song changed to "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues, he began to stroke my hair, singing softly with his lips right next to my ear again, his hands travelling under my ponytail to caress my bare neck and back: "Beauty I'd always missed with these eyes before, just what the truth is, I can't say anymore, but I love you, oh how I love you..." His lips ran down from my ear to my neck and he latched on there until I felt faint. "Frankie, please...." I meant for him to stop, of course, but instead he kissed his way up my neck, across my cheek, and finally met my lips with his. I didn't know how much more I could take before I would melt onto the floor, so I clamped my mouth shut and wouldn't let his tongue in. He broke the kiss and released his hold on me, looking bewildered. I made my way through the dancers and went to sit down. Frankie went down to his haunches before me, eyes moist, asking, "Que pasa, mi amor?" and stroking my damp cheek. I couldn't think where to begin--with how much I loved him, how afraid I was of losing him, what? So I put my arms around his neck and, so close that my corsage brushed his chin, said into his ear the only thing I seemed able to say: "I want you to make love to me tonight!"

Chapter 3

Frankie was so surprised at my bold request that he lost his balance and seemed in danger of falling over backwards. I still had my arms around his neck, so he was able to steady himself, after which he was trying to stand up, so I let him go. He took one of my hands and pulled me up with him, leading me quickly back through the dancers and out the door of the rehearsal room. Wordlessly, he led me down a corridor lined with individual, soundproof practice rooms, stopping at the last one and trying the door. It was locked, so he reached up to my hair and removed one of the pins holding it up above my ear and used it to jimmy the door open. Then he returned the pin to me, scanning the hallway as I put it back in my hair, then grabbing my hand and pulling me into the room and quietly shutting the door. Without turning on the light, Frankie reached for me and pulled me into a breathtaking embrace, kissing me harder than he ever had before. When he finally released me I had to fumble around in the dark for a chair before I lost my balance. Sitting down gracelessly, I felt Frankie kneel before me as he had been just a minute earlier, this time putting his large hands on my knees and clearing his throat before he said, "I wanted to do that first, so you would understand that what I am about to say does not mean that I dont love you just as much as ever." What was he getting at? It seemed like I waited forever as Frankie stood, found himself a chair and moved it so he could sit facing me, holding both my hands. "OK...now," Frankie finally continued, "I need to tell you that what you asked me to do has completely blown me away! I have to be honest, the thought has crossed my mind more than once since that time backstage, and a bunch of times just tonight!" I felt myself blushing and silently thanked heaven that the lights were out. "But," Frankie was saying, and I sensed that what would follow would leave me disappointed, "I just dont think its a good idea right now!" I tried not to let the tears that were already stinging my eyes fall down my face, but there was no stopping them. One must have fallen onto Frankies hand, for he reached that hand up to wipe my cheek and said, "No, please dont cry, Kati! I told you I love you very much, and that is the reason I dont want to do this tonight. We only have a few months until I will be leaving for New York and the Joffrey school, you know. If I make love to you tonight, and other times before I have to go, how will you feel being left all alone by the man you gave your virginity to?"

I had to admit, at least to myself, that Frankie made sense, but to him I protested tearfully, "I would feel that we had shared the best of ourselves and proven our love, and that we could be sure because of it that we would never forget each other!" Frankie let go of my hands, standing up, and I was briefly afraid he was going to walk out. But instead I felt his strong arms encircling me again, lifting me to stand with him, his face coming to rest against mine and his voice barely a whisper as he replied, "Oh, Kati, I wish I could make you understand! I promise you I wont forget you no matter whether we make love or not! You are so special, it will be the hardest thing I have ever had to do, leaving you here when I go to New York! No amount of lovemaking could make me love you any more than I do already!" I could tell by the shaking of his shoulders that Frankie was also crying now, and I moved my head just enough to kiss his cheek, tasting the salt of his tears there. "OK, babe," I whispered in his ear, "I wont ask again!" Frankie released me, and even in the darkness I could see his large, even teeth flashing a grin. "Hey, I didnt say you couldnt ever ask me again--just that I am going to do my best not to give in to the temptation!" We both laughed, and Frankie whispered in my ear, "Confidentially, hearing you say those words every now and then would make me feel sooo good!" I whispered back, "OK, then...I still want you to make love to me, but I can wait!" Frankie grabbed me tighter and kissed me with unrestrained passion, so that I thought maybe I had already weakened his resolve. But all too soon he broke away and, in a voice thick with emotion, murmurred, "Lets go home." We sneaked hand in hand back to the dance to retrieve my coat, then left without saying anything to anyone.

The drive was quiet for a long time, apart from the occasional singing along with the radio, until finally Frankie spoke again, "What are we going to do for Christmas?" The holiday was only a week away, but I realized when he asked that I hadnt thought about it--I hadnt even gotten him a gift yet! I remained silent for some time before telling him I had no plans. "Well, then," Frankie wondered aloud, "Should I come to your house or will you come to mine?" This was a difficult decision--if he came to mine, my mother would be hovering over us every moment and there would be no chance for so much as a kiss; but if I went to Frankies, the temptations I had opened up this evening would be right back at the surface and very easy to indulge. Then again, what more meaningful gift could I give Frankie? "Whatcha think?" Frankie was saying, jolting me out of a fantasy of us lying together in a languorous embrace on a bed. "Huh?" I looked over at Frankies bemused expression and was afraid he had read my mind. "Kati, where were you just now?" he asked. "With you," I answered, as honestly as I dared. Frankie chuckled and reached over to rest a hand on my shoulder, "Good, bebe, thats where I always want you to be...." his voice trailed off and his smile faded as he concluded, "at least for as long as we still have." The thought of his leaving crowded all others out of my mind and I struggled not to cry again. I tried to think of how sweet it was going to be to spend Christmas together, no matter where, but it was no use--tears were running down my face before I knew it. Frankie didnt seem to notice, as he pulled onto my street and parked in front of my house. But when he went to kiss me goodnight on the cheek, he reared back at the taste of salt. "What is it, chiquita?" I wiped my eyes and replied, "Im sorry, Frankie, I just keep thinking of the day you leave for New York!" He reached across the seat and drew me to him, kissing me deeply and for so long that I ran out of breath. After coming around to open the car door for me, Frankie walked me up the porch steps and waited as I unlocked the front door. One last time he took me in his arms and kissed me, whispering against my lips as he broke away, "Just think about Christmas for now, mi amor!" Shifting his head to place his lips against my ear, he concluded, "I will call you tomorrow about where we should celebrate." One last kiss on the cheek and he was gone.

When I woke up the next morning the phone was already ringing. I bolted from bed and grabbed the receiver, carrying the phone into my room and closing the door quietly before I threw myself back onto the bed and answered, "Hello?" Of course it was Frankie. "Buenos dias, chiquita!" he greeted me with a lilt in his voice, "What do you want to do today?" I hadnt really planned on seeing Frankie that day, as it was Sunday and I usually didnt go anywhere. But something about the question made me think he already had something planned, so I said, "I dont know--what did you have in mind?" Frankie laughed heartily, "Well, to be honest, something like what we were discussing last night, but I know we promised to try and not think about that!" I didnt know whether to laugh or cry about that subject, so I tried to change it, "OK, then what should we do instead?" I was right, Frankie had something in mind, "Well, why dont we go Christmas shopping? I can show you what I might like, and you can show me!" Good, I thought, that will help give me ideas about what Frankie might want, since I have none of my own! "Alright," I agreed, "what time?" He was silent for a moment, then said, "Well, the stores dont open until 11 today, so why dont I pick you up then?" I got off the bed and started across the room, anticipating that I would be hanging up the phone soon. "OK, Ill be ready!" I opened my door just in time to see my mother coming out of the bathroom, and to hear Frankie saying, "Bueno, hasta luego, mi amor--te quiero!" I couldnt respond to his endearments with any of my own, or say "I love you" in front of my mother, so I just said, "OK, see you soon! Bye!", hastily returning the receiver to its cradle and the phone to its table. Greeting my mother with "Buenos dias, mama!", I brushed past her into the bathroom and closed the door. I could hear her clucking her tongue as she headed down the stairs and could just imagine her shaking her head and wondering what was wrong with me. After a shower, I dressed quickly before coming down to breakfast, which was silent and tense for a long time before my mother finally asked, "Did you two have a nice time last night?" I just nodded, trying not to grin at the thought of Frankies body close to mine as we danced. "Was that Frankie that just called?" she was asking. "Yeah," I answered, not wanting to volunteer any details. "Do you two have plans for today?" I didnt like the way she always called us "you two", but I couldnt quite decide why. I guess I wondered, you two what--juvenile delinquents? "Yeah, Christmas shopping," I replied with food in my mouth, then hurried from the table to go back upstairs to my room.

Mom didnt follow me as I had expected, and I sat at my window watching for Frankies car while I listened to my stereo. He arrived precisely at 11, and I ran downstairs, grabbed my coat and was out the door, yelling, "See ya, Mom!" over my shoulder as I slammed it. I could see her looking out the living room window as I buckled my seatbelt, and as Frankie leaned over to kiss me I inclined my head in that direction. He looked up and saw Mom, grinned and waved before pulling away from the curb, then at the corner stopped for the Stop sign and leaned over again to kiss me passionately. "Ay, its been hard waiting since last night to do that again, mami!" Frankie laughed. I nodded, thinking that I had never been so happy in my life--at least not since the night before! When we arrived at the mall we stopped as we had done the first time to get some coffee and warm up. It was even harder to find a secluded table this time, since it was only a week before Christmas, but we didnt care--we alternately sipped and kissed as we had done when we came shopping for my dancing dress and shoes. Then we strolled leisurely arm in arm through the entire mall looking in all the windows and entering whatever stores seemed to have items either of us might be interested in. As we passed a jewelry store, Frankie stopped and took his arm from around my shoulders, lifting my left hand and looking at his class ring wrapped in what seemed like miles of yarn. "This must be very uncomfortable for you," he commented casually, "Maybe the first thing we should get is a new chain for this." I tried not to look shocked as Frankie dragged me into the jewelry store and flagged down a clerk. It seemed only minutes later we were walking out of there with his ring dangling from a long, heavy gold chain around my neck. I absently fingered it as we continued window-shopping. We didnt come to another full stop until we were passing a temporary shop set up just for the Christmas season, full of leather coats, purses, luggage, and other items. Frankie almost skidded to a stop and pointed to a dark brown bomber jacket in the window. He looked down to the jacket he was wearing--its deliberately distressed finish beginning to look worn and dated, its car-coat length hiding his muscular backside and firm waistline--and then at me, simply winking. I just smiled and made a mental note.

On the drive home, Frankie and I decided to get together to exchange gifts the following Friday, the day before Christmas Eve, so that I would be free to go to midnight Mass with Mom. This made me wonder, "Dont you go to church, even on Christmas?" Frankie shook his head, "No, I got enough of that at home, and the hypocrisy just turned me off!" He said no more about it, and once again I could tell from his demeanor that I should pursue the subject no further. Besides, we were pulling up in front of my house and there was no time, since Frankie had to go to work. He kissed me quickly, reached across me to open the car door, and was gone before I had reached the front door. Mom had a late lunch ready for me and sat watching me eat, making me very uncomfortable. I knew she was staring at the chain peeking out from under my sweatshirt and the bulge the ring made between my breasts. But she said nothing and I diverted her attention by saying, "Mom, can you take me back to the mall tomorrow so I can buy Frankies Christmas present?" She looked startled at the sound of my voice in the silent house, then collected herself and asked, "What are you planning to get him?" I wiped my mouth and cleared my throat, stalling for time because I knew she was going to be angry that I wanted to get Frankie something so expensive. After what seemed like several minutes I finally replied, "Well, Frankie saw this leather jacket in the mall and I could tell he wanted it real bad!" Just as I had thought, Mom looked horrified, but the look passed quickly and she turned to stare out the window. Her words came slowly, "And where are you going to get that kind of money?" I had to admit, at least to myself, that I hadnt really thought about that. "I dont know, I thought maybe you could give me a loan and let me work it off?" Mom turned back to me, "Well, there are alot of things that need to be done around here that I dont have time for because of work, so maybe..." Mom trailed off and I leaped up from my chair and came around to hug her. We had never been "touchy-feely" with each other, but being in love with Frankie had made me much more physical. Mom peeled my arms from around her neck, pushing me to arms length so that I could see the embarrassment on her face. But a small smile was playing at the corners of her mouth as she said, "Youll need to clean the entire house and put up the Christmas tree, so if you want to go first thing tomorrow you better get started now!" We gathered up cleaning supplies and went into the attic for the artificial tree and its decorations, then I set off to work humming "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" to myself.

The morning of Christmas Eve was grey and snow fell heavily enough that I was concerned about Frankie. He had promised to pick me up just before dark to go to his house so he could give me my Christmas present and get me home in time for midnight Mass. But the sky was already dark enough with clouds at three oclock that I worried he wouldnt be able to drive to my house. I was even more worried that Mom wouldnt allow me to go with Frankie if he did make it. I was up in my room throwing clothes everywhere trying to decide what to wear when there was a knock on my door. Mom let herself in, carrying a big, not-yet-wrapped box. "Here, honey," she said, holding the box out to me, "I was going to give you this in the morning, but I think it would be nice if you had it tonight." I sat down on the bed and she handed the box to me, lifting the lid and pulling aside the tissue paper to reveal a dark red turtleneck sweater that looked like cashmere. I lifted it up and, holding it against myself, went to my dresser and looked in the mirror. "Oh, Mom, its gorgeous! Thank you so much!" My eyes teared up--I knew how much cashmere cost, and I realized that Mom must have scrimped for weeks to afford this sweater. "Yes," she was saying, "I had decided to get you a cashmere sweater this year, but I couldnt decide what color. Then I saw you in the dress Frankie helped you pick out for the Christmas dance, and I knew this was your color!" I had to chuckle, "Thats just what Frankie said!" So they did agree on something!

Just then the doorbell rang, and Mom went to answer it. I took off my robe and slipped the soft, delicate sweater over my head, folding the collar down under my chin. Then I rummaged through the pile of clothes on my bed and found my black jeans. When I was dressed, I went to my jewelry box and got out Frankies ring on its new chain and fastened it around my new sweater, then took out the black ribbon he had given me the first time I saw him dance and tied it around my hair like a headband. Just as I was standing back to admire the picture I presented, I saw in the mirror Frankie peering around my half-open bedroom door and heard him whistle softly. "Ay, mami, you look...." he broke off and strode quickly across the room, sweeping me into his arms and kissing me, long tongue parting my lips and exploring my mouth until I was breathless. I broke away and went to my closet for my black boots, then back to the dresser for some socks, asking as I bustled around, "Did you have any trouble getting here in all this snow?" Frankie shook his head as I sat on the bed and put the socks and boots on, "Nah, no prob!" He sat down beside me and stroked my back as I bent to zip the boots, "Mmmm, this feels nice!" I straightened up and replied, "Yeah, Mom gave me an early Christmas present! Isnt it fabulous?" Frankie nodded, then stood up and offered me his hand, "Speaking of which, we need to get to my place so you can have what I got you!" We went downstairs and I kissed Mom good-bye and watched bemused as Frankie followed suit, saying, "Feliz Navidad, Senora Rousseau," as his lips left her cheek. She wished us both Merry Christmas and then gasped, "Oh, Kati, we almost forgot!" Mom went to the tree to get the huge box containing Frankies jacket, handing it to him. Frankies huge brown eyes went enormous at the sight of it. "Wow, I cant imagine what this might be!" he grinned. We waved good-bye to my mom and struggled out to the car in the blowing snow.

The drive to Frankies house was a harrowing experience, with snow swirling around the car and a high wind whistling by us. But we made it in a reasonable length of time, arriving just as the sun was setting. Frankies house was undecorated, and there was no Christmas tree. I decided not to ask any questions since he had already told me he didnt go to church and I had an idea why not. Besides, in the corner of the living room that would have been perfect for a tree, there was instead a beautiful, obviously hand built and carved cedar chest. I knew immediately that it was my present, not only because it was light cherry wood like my bedroom furniture and had a maroon velvet cushion on the lid, but because my initials, K. J. R., were carved into the front, encircled by a heart fashioned of an ivy vine with leaves painted a dark green. I burst into tears at the sight of it and hugged Frankie before either of us had taken our coat off. "Oh my God, Frankie," I sobbed against his shoulder, "Its wonderful! Thank you so much!" Frankie peeled me off of him and looked into my eyes. "Im so glad you like it, mi amor!" He lowered his head and looked down at my lips before bringing his in to meet them, so delicately that my whole body ached for more. But the next moment he had backed away and was taking off his coat. I did likewise and we sat down on the couch, arms around each other. All I could do was stare at the cedar chest, and finally Frankie said with a laugh, "Dont you have a present for me?" I looked up, startled at the sound of his voice, and Frankie winked as he got up to retrieve the huge box from beside the front door. He tore the wrapping off with one sweep of his large hand, lifted the lid, and rose from his knees with the bomber jacket at arms length. "Oh, bebe, its perfect! You remembered!" He slipped it on over the slate blue V-neck sweater and white dress shirt he was wearing and spun around for me to admire how it stopped just above his perfectly shaped backside, snug as it was in his dark blue slacks. He was soon too warm wearing it in the house, though, and went to the closet to hang it up. Then he turned on the TV just in time to catch the six oclock news.

The weatherman was onscreen, warning of an impending blizzard. Frankie went to the window and looked out, then turned back to me with alarm on his face. "I dont think its on its way," he said, "I think its already here!" I jumped up to see for myself. Frankie was right--under the muted glow of the porch light the little houses tiny yard was indistingishible from the street, with snow almost up to the low windowsill, and the wind was picking up. I shivered just looking at it, and Frankie wrapped his arms around me from behind. "Come on, bebe, lets go cuddle up on the couch!" I turned to look sadly up into his smiling face, "Dont you think you ought to take me home?" Frankies smile faded, and he replied, "No, mi amor, I dont think we would make it! You may have to stay here tonight." His moustache began to twitch at the thought. I started to panic at what my mother would say, but I knew I had to call her. I told Frankie as much and went into the kitchen to use the phone. Mom was surprisingly understanding, and said she wouldnt try to go out to midnight Mass either. I promised to call her again before we went "to sleep" (I didnt think I should worry her any further by saying "to bed", considering the implications of that phrase). We then wished each other "Merry Christmas" and hung up. I joined Frankie back on the couch, where he was lying wrapped up in a plaid afghan. He opened it for me and I snuggled up next to him. We watched the national news and an entertainment magazine show in silence, Frankie occasionally stroking my hair or kissing my cheek.

When we tired of watching TV, Frankie turned it off and asked me if I wanted something to eat. I was starved, so I nodded. He went into the kitchen and came back with sandwiches, chips, and sodas for both of us on a tray. After we ate, we laid back down on the couch and were quiet a while longer. It suddenly occurred to me that Frankie had never mentioned going back to New York for the holidays, nor having his parents visit. I shifted around to face him and asked, "Why arent you getting together with your folks?" Now the silence became awkward, and it was a long time before Frankie answered, "Because I dont do Christmas!" There was an edge of anger to his voice, so I tried to calm him by stroking his cheek and whispering, "But you are going to see them while were on break, right?" Frankie bolted up to a sitting position and glared at me. "I dont want to talk about them tonight--or ever!" He stalked off down the hall and I started to follow him, until I realized he was heading for the bathroom. When he came back, I watched him for several minutes before trying to broach the subject again. He turned the TV back on and flipped through the channels restlessly before settling on a movie with a Christmas theme. We sat on opposite ends of the couch for such a long time that I thought Frankie had forgotten I was there. But I had decided in his brief absence that any attention was better than none, so I asked, "What happened between you and your parents, that you got yourself emancipated, and wont talk about them?"

Frankie snapped off the TV and turned to face me--anger now obvious in his beautiful face. He was breathing hard and struggling to control himself as he finally spat out, "You really want to know? OK, Ill tell you!" He paused, wiping his mouth with his hand, then continued, "It started as soon as my mother enrolled me in a ballet class when I was six. She thought I was getting too fat, and I had asthma so I couldnt play any sports. Dance seemed like the only alternative. But for my dad it was like she was trying to make a sissy out of me, and he began to slap her around because of me!" I could see Frankie was near tears, and I moved closer so I could stroke his back as he went on, "When I was big enough--about ten--I started trying to come in between them when Dad beat up on Mom, and eventually he started hitting me instead of her." Now Frankie was sobbing, and I took him in my arms and rocked him as he cried. But he wasnt finished telling his story, and after he had collected himself he straightened up, moving arms length away but still close enough that I could rub his back. "Then when I was fifteen, I decided I had had enough and I fought back! Broke the old mans nose, bruised his ribs!" At this memory, Frankie suddenly grinned, jamming his fist into his palm. I didnt know this young man who sat next to me at that moment, and it scared me. Inching away, I sat hugging my knees as Frankie indulged in his reverie. At last he turned to look at me, and I must have registered my disbelief in my face, for he said, "Ay, querida, I didnt mean to frighten you!" He slid over and put an arm around me, saying gently, "Theres more to the story--do you want to hear the rest?" I nodded hesitantly, and Frankie went on, "Well, my dad pressed charges against me, and the whole sordid story came out in court--how he beat my mom and how I was only defending her until that particular incident. But since, in that one fight, I had done the worst damage between the two of us, I was looking at juvie hall until I turned 21; my dad was only facing a couple of years probation because most of the abuse couldnt be proven." I gasped, asking, "How did you stay out of jail then?" Frankie smiled softly, "My mom went on the stand and pleaded with the judge for me. She told him everything, how my dad had started it years before..." He trailed off, and I jumped in, "Oh my God, Frankie! How do you say, poor thing in Spanish?" Frankie didnt look at me as he breathed, "Pobrecito," then was lost in thought for several minutes. Finally he turned back to me and smiled again as he quickly concluded, "So my dad and I both got restraining orders against each other and I petitioned right then and there to be emancipated."

Frankie sighed heavily and kissed my cheek. He then looked into my eyes again and, winking, asked, "Still love me?" In answer, I turned my face to his and kissed him back, parting his lips with my tongue. We lost ourselves in kissing and caressing each other, sliding down on the couch until we were lying side by side, pressed as close together as we could manage. Frankie seemed enamored of the softness of my new cashmere sweater, for he spent most of the time stroking my back. Then, when I moved slightly and the sweater parted from my jeans, I felt his warm hand on my bare skin, travelling under the sweater until he reached my bra and unhooked it. Frankie moved away from me slightly and brought his hand around until he was caressing my breasts, all the while kissing me harder. I felt myself becoming weak, and began to worry that we would not be able to honor the vow we had made to forget about making love. After all, we were going to be stuck here all night, and I was sure Frankie would ask me to share his bed. How could I resist if, once we were lying there all warm and snug, he also asked for a Christmas gift of my virginity? I started to squirm away, and Frankie broke from kissing me and looked into my eyes. His large brown eyes were so full of longing that I almost decided to make the offer myself, but instead swallowed hard and admonished him, "Hey, remember what we promised each other at the dance?" Frankie smiled indulgently, "Of course I do, mi amor, but dont worry, I know when to stop!"

He looked so sincere that I believed him and cuddled back up to him. I listened to his heart through his shirt (he had long since taken his sweater off), then started to undo the buttons. When his broad chest was exposed I began to kiss it gently, and Frankie moaned softly. I ran my hand over his shoulder and arm as he wriggled completely out of the shirt and tossed it past me onto the floor. My arms went around him and I rubbed his bare back as we began to kiss again. Frankie was trying all the while to pull my sweater over my head, but I became afraid again and pushed his hands away. Once again he broke the kiss and looked longingly at me, asking, "Dont you trust me?" Of course I did, and I told him so. We smiled at each other and I raised my arms, shifting around so he could remove my sweater. Then I took my bra off and put his hand against my breast. But Frankie had other ideas; he slid down and put his mouth around one of them. I tried not to stiffen up, but I had never experienced such a sensation in my life, and I was soon filled with apprehension again even as I became lost in ecstasy. Frankie turned me onto my back so that he lay half on top of me, moving his head to take my other breast in his mouth. I tried to get up, but his weight against me wouldnt allow it, so I finally decided to just lie there and enjoy the sweetest feelings I had ever had. I ran my fingers through Frankies long wavy hair and over his strong shoulders. The pleasure was turning painful, though, and I raised my head and whispered, "Please, Frankie, its starting to hurt!" He rolled off of me and held me close, stroking my hair and apologizing. We went back to kissing and touching, until at last Frankie leaned away from me and said, "I think its time to go to bed." I must have looked scared, for he smiled, adding, "Just to sleep, I swear!"

Frankie led me by the hand across the room to the stairs, stopping on the way to pick up his shirt and our sweaters from the floor. The stairs themselves were too narrow for us to walk hand in hand, so he went ahead of me and showed me into the cramped little room where he slept. It was nothing more than a loft, the walls following the pitch of the roof, and Frankie was able to stand completely upright only where it peaked. There was no furniture but a double bed and a chest of drawers, both old and dark and not matching. I sat down on the bed and pulled off my boots. Frankie sat beside me and stroked my back as he had done at my house while I was putting the boots on, only now my back was bare. I was starting to get cold, not being wrapped in Frankies arms anymore, and his touch was making me shiver. As if he read my mind, Frankie went to his chest of drawers and got out some of his pajamas. He handed me the top and went into his closet, emerging a minute later wearing the bottoms. I pulled the top on, rolled up the sleeves several times, and buttoned it before slipping out of my jeans. As I was doing this Frankie was pulling the covers down and getting under them. When he was settled he patted the bed beside him, and I hesitantly sat down again. Frankie grabbed hold of the hem of the pajama shirt and pulled until I fell backwards across his chest. We both dissolved in giggles as he reached for my legs and pulled them under the covers until I was lying close beside him with my head on his shoulder. In spite of myself I relaxed into the warmth of his body, and after a few kisses and whispered "Te quiero"s we were asleep.

Chapter 4

I woke several hours later to the howling of the blizzard, not really sure where I was. But the warmth beside me soon reminded me that I was with Frankie. I had turned onto my side and he had rolled next to me and draped his arm across me at some point, so that I was almost uncomfortably warm. The clock on the dresser glowed 4:17, much too early to get up, but I needed to move so I gently took Frankies arm from around my waist and swung my legs over the side of the bed to sit up. I was momentarily surprised to realize that my legs were bare and that I was wearing a shirt that was much too large for me. When my brain again focused on the sound of the wind and registered the sharp contrast between the warm bed and the cold air in the room, I was at last able to understand that this was not a dream. It certainly seemed like one--waking up next to the boy I loved so much, safe in his embrace.

I was recalling all this as I watched a Frankie I no longer knew playing a role on stage that I had known in our past reality--that of a lover dancing with his beloved. I couldnt help but think how the darkness of the theatre where I now sat contrasted with the darkness in Frankies room that night so long ago. There I had felt secure and happy; here I was tense and afraid. How would Frankie react if I managed to find my way into his dressing room after the performance? After all, he did not know I would be here and we were at such different places in our lives now. As if the universe wanted to give me a glimpse of what I would face after the ballet tonight, the first act ended and, as the applause thundered around me, the house lights came up and blinded me. I wondered if this was a prediction that Frankie would flash that huge, dimpled grin at the sight of me, or that his large dark eyes would send out lightnings of anger at being reminded of his past. Lost in these apprehensive thoughts, I wandered aimlessly out to the lobby. I couldnt help remembering how, the night of the blizzard, I had wandered through Frankies little house. Ending up at the bookshelf in the living room, I switched on a table lamp and looked for a book to read. Since Frankie was partial to Shakespeare, Greek myths, and science fiction, I couldnt find anything light enough to suit me. But I did find something that caught my interest--a scrapbook bound in well-worn maroon leather, bulging with clippings, programs, and photos.

Although I realized this was an invasion of Frankies privacy, after the revelations of the previous night about his family, I was overwhelmed with curiosity and sat down on the couch to wade through the huge, stuffed book, first pulling around me the carelessly tossed afghan we had used last night. Spread across my lap was a record of a young life in dance and theater, beginning with glossy eight by ten color photos of a chubby-cheeked boy, all eyes, with a thick shock of unruly black curls, dressed for recitals in simpler versions of the kinds of costumes he would wear in his later career. His pudgy knees and "baby fat" were obvious in tights, but there was self-assurance in his gaze and bearing even at such an early stage. His dramatic arm gestures in each picture showed off his already impossibly long fingers to great advantage, and as he reached preadolescence the legs lengthened as well, but the torso remained somewhat rounded right up until the last portrait, from when he was about fourteen. In that one Frankie appeared to be almost as tall as he was now at seventeen, his hair had reached his shoulders, and only his face retained the child-like roundness (which still remained to a certain extent) of the earlier pictures.

Another difference was the costume--similar to the one he had worn the first time I had ever seen him dance, it consisted of a black jumpsuit with flared sleeves and legs, a red sequined vest, and a red scarf tied around his long neck. The length of his fingers was especially obvious, as he was tipping a black bowler hat with a red sequined band. Also obvious was the fact that the tension in Frankies life was at its worst by this time, for his eyes seemed haunted and sunken, and the always-serious set of his full lips was more of a frown. I even thought I noticed a bruise under his right eye, poorly hidden by makeup. But most telling was that after this picture there were no more of Frankie in dancewear. From there on I found only pictures taken presumably taken by his parents, or those associated with newspaper coverage, of him appearing in school plays and talent shows, the latter always as a singer. Apparently his fathers cruelty had broken Frankies desire to study ballet and he had tried to replace it with modern dance, but the violence had continued. His pursuit of theater as such, however, seemed to have been tolerated.

These pictures and clippings occupied only about half the scrapbook, then there was nothing but empty space where pages had evidently been removed. In their place I found a large, worn manila envelope. I could feel that the contents were about the size and shape of snapshots. Curious, I opened it (for the first time, it turned out) and was shocked to find that the pictures were all of Frankie and his parents in various combinations, locations, and stages of life--all with a sticky residue and fragments of heavy paper on the back indicating that these had been on the missing pages at one time and might have been torn out in anger. I then noticed that the envelope had been addressed to this house in a large, looping hand, with a return address in New York and a postmark from over a year ago. Just as I was starting to form an idea in my mind as to what all this meant, I heard Frankies footsteps on the stairs. I wanted to gather up and replace the scrapbook and envelope quickly on the shelf, but a dancers lightness on his feet got Frankie to the couch before I had a chance. "What are you doing?" he asked, not in anger but softly, out of curiosity. "I--I couldnt sleep so I came down here to find a book," I stammered, suddenly afraid of Frankie because I thought the condition of the scrapbook was evidence of a volatile temper. But as he sat down close beside me and started to stroke my back, I knew I had nothing to fear. Frankie slid the book off my lap, letting the photos and envelope fall between us without looking at them. He turned the scrapbooks pages for a while, chuckling every so often at the memories they stirred.

My curiosity about the photos in the envelope was getting the better of me, so after several minutes I finally had to ask, "Whats up with the envelope full of pictures? How come you never opened it?" Frankie snapped the book shut and looked into my eyes, a brief flash of anger crossing his. I could see he was struggling to control it and form a reply, but after a moment he just lowered his head and stared at his clenched fists. Now it was my turn to rub his back, which was covered with goosebumps because he was shirtless. I pulled the afghan off my lap and went to wrap it around him. As I did, the photos and envelope went tumbling to the floor. I bent to pick them up, but Frankie abruptly stood and ordered, "Leave them!" I looked up at him, stunned and a little afraid, as he grabbed my hand and pulled me off the couch, dragging me back upstairs and into his room. Once were sitting on the bed Frankie put his arms around my neck and looked sadly into my eyes, then nestled his head against my shoulder and began to shake with sobs. "Im sorry, querida," he whispered, "I didnt mean to frighten you!" I put my arms around him and continued stroking his back, trying to ease him into the bed. When he was lying down I stood up and smoothed the covers the way Frankie had once done for me, then lay down again myself. Frankie rolled over to put his head on my chest, and I tousled his hair until he stopped crying.

Thinking he was asleep, I tried to roll onto my side the way I usually slept, but as I did so the arm Frankie had laid over me moved and his hand traveled down from my waist to my hip, then across my belly and down to rest between my legs. For a long time he made no further move, and I still thought he was sleeping and that his hand had just slid there involuntarily. I turned my back to Frankie and his hand remained where it was, his whole body turning along with mine and snuggling close. It was only when he began to kiss my neck that I realized he was still awake, and at the same time his hand slipped into my underpants and began stroking my most private place, filling me with both apprehension and a pleasure I had never felt before, much more intense than that which had coursed through my whole being that afternoon backstage after our auditions. Just when I thought I couldnt feel anything more wonderful than the touch of Frankies long, warm fingers in this sensitive spot, coupled with the tenderness of his lips on my neck, I felt myself beginning to shudder and knew that I was about to lose control. Regretfully I took Frankies hand from between my legs and turned to face him. In the moonlight I could see the puzzled expression on his lovely face, and I thought he was going to cry again. "Didnt you like that?" he asked gently. "Oh Frankie," I replied, kissing him quickly and putting my arms around his neck, "of course I did--it felt so good!" I saw the flash of his perfect teeth as he smiled. "Im glad, mi amor," he murmured as his lips touched mine again. But when he broke the kiss Frankies dark eyes were clouded once more, and his voice was trembling as he continued, "Then why did you stop me?" I had to admit to myself that I wasnt really sure why, but to Frankie I just said, "Im sorry, querido," as I partly unbuttoned the pajama shirt I was wearing and guided his head down to rest between my bared breasts, "I guess I am just too tired...tomorrow...I promise." His beautifully disheveled hair lulled me with its warmth, and we were soon both asleep again.

The next morning was Christmas, and the sun streamed blindingly through the small window beside Frankies bed as I opened my eyes and saw him, head propped on his fist, watching me. "Feliz Navidad, Kati mia," he said, leaning in to kiss me softly. I turned to press myself against him and we laid there for a long time with our arms around each other, just enjoying this comforting feeling. I could still hear the wind outside, howling with almost as much force as the night before, and I wondered if I would be going home today. But of course I didnt really care--I was right where I wanted to be. Frankie shifted slightly and kissed the top of my head, murmuring against my hair, "My back is getting stiff, bebe, I need to get up." He sat up and stretched his long arms over his head and behind his back, then started to crawl over me because the bed was up against the wall. When he was on all fours above me Frankie grinned down at me and lowered himself until he lay full-length on top of me, hands cradling my head and lips against my neck. Part of my mind hoped he would try something more, but most of it cried out for him to just kiss me and go--Frankie was heavier than his tall, lean-muscled frame made him look. I squirmed a little and turned my head so that his kiss just grazed my cheek, and my voice came out in a whine as I protested, "Youre too heavy for me, Frankie!" He immediately rolled off me, crashing to the bedroom floor. Laughing, Frankie pulled me by the arm and dragged me down on top of him. We wrestled all across the floor, kissing and tickling until we were breathless.

The rest of the buttons on the pajama shirt I was wearing had somehow come undone, and my arms were tangled up in the sleeves. Frankie pulled the shirt off me and I went with it, landing on the floor next to him in nothing but my panties. He kissed my lips, then his mouth trailed down my cheek to my neck and his body slid down mine until his head was level with my breasts and he took one of them in his mouth as he had the night before. I turned over onto my back and let Frankie continue, still struggling in my mind with when and how I would tell him to stop so that we would not break the promise we had made to each other the night of the dance. My body, however, didnt want him to stop, and when I felt his hand between my legs again, I found myself sliding my panties down so that he could reach inside them. Frankie went from one breast to the other with his lips and tongue at the same time as his fingers explored my secret place, until finally I was writhing in ecstasy and release. When it was over I had no idea what to do or say, but Frankie just kissed me quickly and smiled, saying, "Thank you for the wonderful Christmas present--I knew you would keep your promise." I understood that by "Christmas present" he meant not the leather jacket but what he had just done. "Ill be back soon," he was saying. I stood up and looked around for my clothes as Frankie went across the small hallway (really more like the stairway landing) and into the bathroom. I heard the shower running but for some reason I didnt think I would want to use it myself--maybe I was afraid that if I were completely naked in Frankies house we wouldnt be able to stop. So I got dressed and went downstairs.

The scrapbook and loose photos still lay strewn on the living room floor, and I did my best to put everything back as it had been, then put the scrapbook on the shelf. With that taken care of I turned on the TV and laid down on the couch. The morning news show went to its local segment a few minutes later, and the weatherman indicated that the snow was deep enough that people were being asked to stay home. I thought I had better call my mother and make sure she knew. I went into the kitchen and dialed my home number. Mom sounded groggy, like she was hungover, but seemed to understand once I explained to her that the weatherman was the one saying travel was unsafe, not my hormones (I couldnt help but blush when she said that, though, remembering what Frankie had just done to me upstairs!). As I hung up the phone I could hear Frankie coming down the stairs. He entered the kitchen wearing a forest green velour pullover with a half-zipper up the front and tight jeans. His long lustrous black hair was wet and pulled back from his broad forehead. He crossed the kitchen in slippered feet and kissed me. Tasting toothpaste on his lips, I suddenly realized I hadnt brushed my teeth. "Honey, do you have a toothbrush I could borrow?" Frankie smiled, "Sure, bebe, come on." We went back upstairs to the bathroom and he gave me a new one he had in the medicine cabinet. He then left me alone and I did what I had to do, all the while thinking back on how this morning had begun and wondering if I was strong enough to keep my vow not to even mention making love to Frankie. I had never felt warmer than when I lay beside him, and I had never before experienced the sensations his fingers brought forth in my whole body with just a few delicate strokes to one small spot. As young as I was, I knew in the moment that I reached a climax what it meant to feel the unbridled fire of lust. Even now as I went about these routine activities, that fire was still running through my veins, and it frightened me a little. I came to the difficult decision that I had to tell Frankie he couldnt touch me like that anymore.

When I went back downstairs I found Frankie in the kitchen fixing eggs and toast. Watching him before he noticed my presence, I realized how graceful his movements were even in such a mundane situation. He could crack an egg with one hand, and he glided around the room from the stove to the toaster to the cupboard for some plates as if his feet were not touching the ground. I knew it was going to be nearly impossible for me to forbid Frankie from using those gentle hands (to say nothing of his entire lean, muscular body) to give me pleasure. But I had to stop us before we went too far, so I crept quietly up behind him and touched his arm. Startled, Frankie nearly dropped the plates. "Ooh, bebe, dont sneak up on me like that!" he teased, grinning. My resolve nearly left me completely at the sound of his gentle, slightly breathless voice and the brilliance of his smile, but I straightened my shoulders and began, "Frankie, I need to talk to you." He put the plates down on the counter and went to the sink to wash his hands. The toast popped up just then and I jumped, but the eggs were still in the bowl waiting to be scrambled, so after he had dried his hands, Frankie took one of mine and led me wordlessly to the living room. We sat down on the couch and he looked deeply into my eyes, almost melting my determination once again. "Sure, chiquita, what is it?" I drew in a deep breath, lowered my head, and responded softly, "I dont think you should do what you did this morning anymore." God, I thought, I could have said that better and less abruptly! But Frankie just continued to hold my hand in both of his, stroking my knuckles with his thumb and looking straight at me. I lifted my eyes again and saw that his were sparkling with tears. "But...I thought you liked that?" His voice broke and I touched his full lips with my free fingers, nodding and answering, "Oh yes, Frankie, I did--it was so wonderful! But I am afraid it will lead to more, and we promised ourselves we wouldnt do that!"

Frankie stood up and started to pace. "Well, if you trust me so little," he began after a minute, stopping directly in front of me and looking down at me with what seemed like contempt in his eyes, "then maybe after we can get out of here today I should just take you home and we shouldnt see each other anymore outside of when we have to at school!" My mouth dropped open, tears sprang hot and stinging into my eyes. I drew my legs up, put my arms around them, and sobbed with my forehead against my knees. It finally hit me, how little I really understood about this young man whom I loved so much and I had thought loved me. When he had told me about his familys legal situation, I got the idea he had a temper. Last night the photo album, the loose pictures he had so obviously torn from it in anger, and his reaction to them had given me another indication. But now I became convinced--he was more volatile than I had ever imagined, and for the second time that morning, I was afraid. I raised my head, wiped my eyes with my sleeve, and replied, "OK, Frankie, if thats what you really want." To my surprise, Frankie shook his head, his long damp hair sending iridescent droplets of water flying through the room and onto my clothes. "No, bebe, it is not what I want!" he answered, his whole demeanor softening, "But I can tell that we are headed for something you may not be ready for--thats obvious if you think you have to tell me when to stop--and I am willing to give up being so close to you in order to avoid hurting you even more than breaking up would. I am very sorry I scared you, and that this hurts, but I think it would be best." He sat down and took me in his arms, but I barely felt his embrace. I was once again stunned--hearing him say the words "breaking up" made me think I had made a terrible mistake being so concerned about what he had done to me. After all, we were both sensible, we could go so far and no further, couldnt we? I stopped before voicing this question to Frankie, because deep down I knew the answer: I had felt the desire for more, and I was sure he had as well, and we both knew what a powerful force that desire was. Of course he was right--we had to let each other go.

We said no more about the subject, and little about anything else. Breakfast was nearly silent, then we went back into the living room and lay down on the couch, watching TV until late in the afternoon, when the local weatherman interrupted the show we were watching to say that travel was now possible. Frankie got up and looked out the front window, shaking his head. "Not here it aint," he chuckled, "they wont be plowing this little side street until all the main highways and streets are plowed--could be tomorrow morning by then." I felt a wave of panic--how would I explain to my mother that I needed to spend another night with Frankie?--she had no idea what street he lived on and how low on the list it would be for the snow plow crew. And how would I endure sleeping in his arms knowing that after tonight I would never feel them around me again? Frankie answered the second question by saying, "I think tonight I better sleep on the couch and you can have the bed." My heart sank, but in a strange way I was grateful--I knew it would be hard for him too, as physical as he had always been with me. So I just nodded and went into the kitchen to call my mother. Fortunately, she was sober and had seen the weather report on another channel, which went into more detail as to what areas would be plowed first; she knew the area of town where Frankie lived and it had been mentioned as a low priority. So she understood, and we said our good-byes for yet another night. A couple of hours later Frankie and I did the same, with kisses on each others cheeks.

The lights in the Ohio Theatre lobby blinked, letting me know it was time to return for Act II of "Romeo and Juliet." As I settled into my seat, I went back to remembering that night alone in Frankies bed, cold despite the covers, unable to sleep for the loneliness I felt closing in around me. I knew that in the morning I would be going home to my mother and the life I had always lived--from now on Frankie would only dance on the edges of it. I also knew that I had to leave behind the beautiful hand-carved cedar chest he had given me the night before. Having such a reminder of his love at the foot of the bed he had once tucked me into (and in which--if I were honest with myself--I had to admit I had always wanted to make love with him) would just be too painful. As I watched the ballet resume and saw Francisco Delgado once again, I had the same feeling I had had the morning after Christmas so long ago--fear that my thoughts would make me burst into tears at the sight of the man I loved. And sure enough, both on that morning and tonight, I found myself fighting back sobs. As the heart-rending second act neared its end and Romeo lay dead, I recalled coming down the stairs of Frankies little rental house, crying at seeing him asleep on the couch, he was so beautiful. Just as on that day, the hair crowning the perfect body (now limp on the stage) lay like waves of a sunlit black river against his flushed cheek and rosy lips, which were parted ever so slightly and inviting the ballerina dancing the part of Juliet to kiss them.

I had struggled not to kiss Frankie that morning as I watched his broad, well-muscled chest rise and fall with the steady breathing of sleep. I had found myself wishing I could just run away, and tonight was no different. But I knew I had to try to get backstage and face Frankie--no, Francisco--in order to settle things in my own heart once and for all. Just as that thought formed in my mind, I knew the time had finally come, for the ballet was over and thunderous applause was shaking me from my seat to join in the standing ovation.

I had a brief flash of irrational panic that in his position at the front of the stage Frankie might be able to see me. He didnt, of course, so when he had taken his final bow and the curtain had gone down for the last time, I gathered up my coat and purse and let myself be swept into the crowd exiting the theatre. Now that I was faced with actually attempting to get backstage, I began to shake uncontrollably. Just as seeing Frankie sleeping long ago made me dash back up the stairs to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face to cool the fire in my body, now I headed for the ladies room to try to calm down. Standing there before the mirror in the company of a few other, better-dressed women, I had to wonder if Frankie would still find me attractive. My dark hair was still long the way he liked it (and I still tied it back with the ribbon he had given me), but a few strands of premature grey were scattered through it. My eyes had long since lost any spark he might have seen. As I tried to put on some lipstick the shaking of my hands made it nearly impossible to do a presentable job, so I dug back through my purse for the small pot of strawberry lip balm I always carried. I told myself I was only using it because it made the flaky skin less noticeable; I didnt want to admit to myself that I was hoping Frankie would actually have a chance to taste it tonight. Leaving the restroom I stopped to take a drink from the water fountain--I felt like my mouth was filled with cotton. I heard a commotion, and as I straightened up and looked at the people milling around the lobby I noticed some in costume. Apparently the cast had come out to greet the audience. Terror swept over me, and I stumbled in my unaccustomed high heeled sandals. I fell against the person in front of me and ended up on my knees on the thick wool carpet. My purse spilled, and as I was scrambling to pick up the contents, I heard a lilting voice above me--"I would know that ribbon anywhere!" I started to shake even more, so although I had gathered up all my things and closed my purse, I hesitated to try to stand. I raised my eyes only slightly and saw a hand reach down to help me up. The long, almost delicate fingers were the same bronze I remembered, and in spite of myself I took hold of them. They were warm and slightly damp, the grip which closed around my hand strong but gentle. I felt the muscles of his arm tensing to lift me, and without any effort on my part I was soon staring dumbly at the man I had been seeing in my dreams all these years.

Chapter 5

"Good evening, Katrine Joanne," Francisco Delgado said simply with just a trace of an accent. I couldnt speak for the lump in my throat as I studied his face. It was thinner and even more beautiful than I had thought at a distance--his high cheekbones and square jaw made much more obvious by the tightening of his skin. Though it was covered with a thick coating of pancake makeup, I could see that it was still smooth and the beard light for such a dark-complexioned man. The eyes, rimmed with liner and highlighted with blue-grey powder, were still sparkling and intense. I became more embarrassed than ever at the directness of his gaze, and lowered my head. For the first time I realized that Frankie was still holding my hand. As my eyes followed it, he raised it to his still-rosy lips and kissed it softly, his mustache wiry against my skin unlike the silky one he had had as a teenager. My knees threatened to give way, and I faltered so that my shoulder brushed Frankies chest, glistening with sweat under his doublet (the laces of which were now undone) and open ruffled shirt. Stupidly I looked down at my sleeve as I tried to back away; seeing the damp mark there I put my hand over it. "Oh, Im so sorry," Frankie said, holding me by the shoulders at arms length, then making me spin around, "I remember that dress too--I bought it for you, didnt I?" Now I had to find my voice, to tell him that yes he had, but I still couldnt speak so I just nodded my head. He smiled indulgently, and I could see that his large, naturally white teeth had been enhanced by veneers of an even more brilliant whiteness. It struck me then that even though I still knew him on sight, everything about this man seemed to be artifice. I briefly wondered if I really wanted to get acquainted with such a person. That was when he asked, "Why dont you come with me to my dressing room and we can talk?" Hearing his breathy voice was like going under hypnosis, and I had no choice but to follow him.

Frankie had a dressing room all to himself at the end of a long dimly lit hallway beneath the Ohio Theatre. Since the walls were lined with racks of costumes and boxes, I had to stick very close to him, and I couldnt help casting my thoughts back again to the time when walking arm in arm had been routine for us. Even his smell was embedded in my memory, the same scent I had smelled after every rehearsal for and performance of "West Side Story"--a semi-sweet, not-unpleasant combination of a light sweat and stage makeup. As we reached Frankies dressing room, that thought caused me to utter the first words I had spoken to him in years, and they couldnt have been more inane: "This sure brings back memories, doesnt it?" As soon as I had said it I blushed with embarrassment, and Frankie laughed in that melodious way of his--that at least was still genuine. "It certainly does, chiquita!" He even recalled the endearment he had so often used back then?! I couldnt help but giggle at the sound of it. I knew, of course, that after that first (and last) Christmas together, our memories must diverge to some extent; for months after that all we had in common were some classes, rehearsals and choir concerts. We never kissed, and only touched when dancing in "West Side Story" required it. I began to eat lunch alone, not even joining the group that crowded around Frankie to hear his jokes. On my fifteenth birthday that January and on Valentines Day all he did was drop a handmade card on the cafeteria table in front of me, but each time I looked up after reading, tears in my eyes at the sweet words, Frankie was still standing over me, longing on his breathtaking face. That April, with the performances of "West Side Story", we reached common ground again--singing and dancing, smiling and laughing until the end of each show, when we both stood in the wings and cried, arms around each others waists. Then came the cast party...

"Do you remember the cast party?" Frankie was saying, as if reading my thoughts. Startled, I just stared at him for a moment before responding simply, "Yes." Of course I remembered--we had been the last ones to leave after an evening of dancing, singing, and laughter in the cafeteria. Though we had interacted politely all evening, just before the party broke up Frankie suddenly grabbed my hand and led me across the school lobby to the boys dressing room. There for the first time in months we gave in to our feelings, both knowing that under these circumstances we could not go too far. We had gone as far as we dared, however, lips and tongues and hands exploring everywhere they could without taking off too much of our clothing. I even gave Frankie the same pleasure with my touch that he had given me back at Christmastime and he gave it to me again as well. Thinking back to that night, I had to struggle not to run to him now, throw my arms around him and kiss him with all the old passion. It didnt help matters any that as I reminisced Frankie began to take off his costume, without benefit of a screen between us. First he removed the blue velvet doublet, then the flowing white shirt, tossing them carelessly on the couch where I had come to rest. Intoxicated by the smell still clinging to them I tried not to reach out and touch them, but knew I had to do something to avert my eyes from the bronze god (in nothing but tights) standing across the room from me. So I went over to the wall to my left and removed the thick pale blue terrycloth robe hanging from one of the hooks there. Hesitantly I walked toward Frankie, holding the robe in such a way that he could put his arms in the sleeves easily--which he did without a word, though the smirk on his face told me he found this amusing.

I turned away to sit back down on the couch, and when I had seated myself I looked up to find Frankie with his back to me, bending to struggle out of his tights, the robe hitched up to his waist so that I had a fabulous view of his bare backside. I didnt know whether to laugh or cry at this point. It seemed as though Frankie was trying to pick up right where we had left off by bringing up the cast party and undressing in front of me. But so much had happened after that party--not the least of which were Frankie not asking me to his prom (though he didnt go either), then graduating (again without asking me to be there) and going to New York. I did see him off at the airport with a hug and a kiss--and about twenty other people! But his letters were few and far between, full of his excitement at being a "real dancer" but asking little about how I was, then stopping altogether. In spite of all that I was becoming enraptured with Frankie all over again, but still couldnt relax in the presence of Francisco Delgado. When he turned around, my discomfort must have shown, for he said, "You OK, Kati?" Even now, he didnt entirely drop the accent, and I found myself mildly annoyed by it. "Yeah, Frankie, Im fine," I lied. Inexplicably, I saw a flash of what I thought was anger cross his face, now reflected in the mirror as he sat and started to remove his makeup. "Please," he snapped, putting down the towel and turning to look straight at me, "my name is Francisco!" I was shocked--he was still going to keep up the facade?! The shakiness I had felt upon first seeing him this evening returned with a vengeance--this time brought on by anger--as I walked over to look him in the eye. But my resolve to tell him exactly what I thought of all this pretense melted as our eyes met, and tears sprang up instead. At the sight of me starting to cry, Frankies face softened, and he held out the towel to me. I took it, thrilling when our hands touched, but instead of wiping my eyes I began to gently wipe his cheeks with an unsteady stroke as I felt his arms go around my waist. I tried to ignore it, but his steady gaze was making my knees go weak again and I finally began to relax into his embrace. Maybe this would be like old times--perhaps even better?

Just as suddenly as he had taken hold of me, Frankie let me go and began to pull the hairpins from the blue velvet cap he still wore. I couldnt help myself--I wanted so much to touch that fabulous hair once again that I pushed his hands aside and did it for him. As I laid the pins and cap on the vanity with one hand, the other remained on his head, stroking the damp black waves tenderly. Frankie reached up and took that hand, raising the palm to his lips and holding it there for an eternal moment. I bent to kiss the top of his head as I felt Frankie reaching to pull me onto his lap. When I was settled there, our lips met as if no time had passed, parting almost immediately for tongues that couldnt wait to explore each others mouths. The robe slipped, and his hands mimicked mine as I stroked his shoulders and he tried to push down the neckline of my dress. Failing that, he rested his head on the fabric covering my breasts, and I could tell from the tension in his fingers, as they fondled me there, that he wanted to touch my bare skin almost desperately. I stood up and turned around to let him run the zipper of my dress down, but to my surprise Frankie also stood, pressed against me from behind and whispered in my ear, "Not here--weve waited so long for this, it needs to be as perfect as we can make it! Let me get dressed and well go to my hotel." I sat back on the couch and watched entranced as the robe fell away and Frankie stood naked before me. Unabashed, he continued talking, "Have you ever been to the Southern Hotel? Its just beautiful--Queen Anne furniture, all in dark green and burgundy. Youll love it!" I wanted to scream that I didnt care where, I just wanted to make love to him. But I just waited nervously as Frankie pulled on a navy blue V-neck cashmere sweater and a pair of dark grey pleated dress slacks. When he sat beside me on the couch to put on his socks and shoes, it was all I could do to keep from touching every inch of him. When he had finished dressing, Frankie got our coats from the hooks on the wall--he still wore the leather jacket I had given him!--and helped me into mine. I took my purse from the couch and followed him out, then waited as he switched off the lights. Again we walked arm in arm down the cluttered hallway, but this time Frankies nearness was sending me into an agony of desire.

Through the lobby and out to the parking garage we walked hand in hand, and once seated in his car (still the same black Mustang, perfectly preserved) we turned to each other and embraced and kissed for several more minutes before finally leaving for the hotel. On the way, an obviously nervous Frankie started to make small talk: "So Kati, what did you end up doing with your life?" I was also beginning to have another attack of nerves, so I said the first thing I could think of, "Well, after you left for New York I cried alot for a while." And thought of you every day since, I thought to myself. Frankie chuckled and I chattered on, "Then that summer I went to Ohio State for the theatre workshops and voice lessons I had signed up for, remember?" He nodded, and I fell silent, thinking of what had happened while I was at OSU, afraid to reveal it to Frankie. I wondered if he would be jealous that I had met someone who helped me get over him--though he would have no cause to be, because it had only worked temporarily. This young man had been all wrong for me--a tall, gangly nineteen-year-old business major named Ted who was working his way through college as a farmhand--and I knew it. He saw me struggling alone to move some sets from one building to another and volunteered to help. Surprisingly strong for someone so skinny, he also impressed me with his easy humor, ready smile--which revealed that he had only recently gotten braces on his teeth--and self-assurance about his future in spite of a humble small-town past and present. His lack of interest in theatre, plus the fact that he had straight blond hair and blue eyes, made me tell myself that I was over Frankie, since I could be attracted to someone so completely different from him. Ted took me out for pizza several lunchtimes that summer, then asked for my phone number and kept in touch when I went back to school. Every so often he would ask me out and I would go, at first for lack of anything better to do, later because my longing for Frankie finally transformed itself into love for Ted. But by the time of my prom and graduation, Ted had graduated from Ohio State and gone to Cincinnati to work for a large company headquartered there. I never heard from him again.

"Kati? You in there?" The sound of Frankies Hispanic lilt jarred me after thoughts of Teds Midwestern drawl, and I nearly hit my head on the ceiling of the car when I jumped. Frankie laughed and asked, "Did you end up going to OSU?" Did I ever!, I thought--I would have felt silly admitting that I had kept him, but Brutus and I had moved out of my mothers house to an off-campus apartment and never looked back Aloud, I just replied shortly, "Yeah, majored in English." I hesitated to tell him I had minored in Spanish, so I concluded, "Spent the last couple years teaching ESL." Frankie looked puzzled at me and I explained, "English as a second language." He nodded, "Oh, yeah." After a long silence, he ventured, "Married?" I shook my head. "Never?!" He seemed shocked. I shook my head again--how could I have ever actually entered into something so intimate with anyone else when my first taste of love had been with someone so beautiful in every way? And now I was about to taste it again--everything we had ever done or wanted to do was about to happen for us after such a long time apart. When Frankie had parked the car and helped me out, we stopped again to kiss and fondle each other, right there on the sidewalk in downtown Columbus. Then we went through the grand lobby of the Southern Hotel to the elevators. Once behind closed doors, Frankie pushed the "Stop" button and we returned to making up for lost time with our mouths and hands. In a moment we were on the floor of the car and Frankie was on top of me, trying to take his jacket off and get my coat off of me at the same time. The weight of his body didnt bother me the way it had that Christmas--it allowed me the pleasure of feeling just how much he wanted me. Frankie gave up on the coats and simply went on kissing me with uncontrolled hunger, until suddenly the elevator doors slid open and there stood the desk clerk, a gangling young man who blushed at the sight of us and stammered, "Oh, Im so sorry, Mr. Delgado!" before pushing the "Close Door" button and running away.

Laughing hysterically, we got up off the floor and let the elevator take us to Frankies room. He fumbled at finding the key and unlocking the door, and I chuckled to myself at the never-before-evident adolescent awkwardness this situation was bringing out in the dignified Francisco Delgado. Once the door of his room closed, however, all that vanished as we kissed and tore at each others clothes in the darkness, first standing, then on our knees as we lost our balance in the rush of passion. When his sweater was off, my dress was around my waist and my bra across the room, Frankie stood back up and unzipped his trousers. I remained on my knees, and once his pants were tossed aside I took into my mouth what had been pressing hard against my private place as we lay in the elevator and which would soon be completely engulfed in it. We had only shared this pleasure for a few moments before Frankie touched my hair and cautioned, "Take it easy or we wont have a chance to...." He broke off, shuddering; I understood and let him go. My dress slid to the floor as I stood up, and while I stepped out of it Frankie went to turn back the covers on the bed. Then he came back to me and led me by the hand, helping me into the bed and pulling the covers over me. I felt just as I had that night in my room when he had done the same--warm, comforted, safe. Of course this time was different, for a moment later Frankie climbed in beside me and our naked bodies were pressed so tightly together that I almost couldnt distinguish the exact moment when they became one. The long-awaited dance we began in that moment was one of transporting sweetness, and the ending that came at the same instant for both of us seemed too wonderful to bear. We wiped our tears of rapture with lips and hands that didnt want to move from each others skin, until at last we fell asleep tangled up in each other.

When I woke in the morning the room was dimmed by thick Colonial-style draperies, but I immediately knew where I was and whom I would find beside me as I turned over. Frankie lay a few inches away in the huge king-sized bed, bathed in sweat and sound asleep. I didnt want to wake him, for fear that all the dancing last night, both onstage and in this bed, had exhausted him. But I need not have worried, for a moment later Frankie was stirring to face me and in the next moment the dance began again, with no sign that his great strength had been in any way diminished. I, however, did become exhausted and fell back to sleep when it was done. The next time I opened my eyes I was alone. Fear swept me when I discovered a note on the pillow where the impression of Frankies head was still visible. Had he taken all he wanted from me and slipped away, leaving behind a cowards goodbye? As I sat up and switched on a light I berated myself both for letting such a thing happen and for calling the man I had always loved a coward, even in my mind. The note was in the nearly illegible scrawl to which Frankies handwriting had always been reduced when he hurried, but I could make out that I needed to look at the foot of the bed for something he had retrieved from a storage locker this morning while I slept again.

Pulling the sheet from the bed to wrap around me, I went to see what Frankie had left for me. I nearly fainted when I saw my cedar chest for the first time in so many years--he had kept it for me all this time?! On my knees in the puddle the sheet formed when I dropped it in my surprise, I ran my hands all over the chest as if I were still caressing Frankie. Tears ran onto the floor as I laid my forehead on the burgundy velvet that covered the lid, thinking it was almost as smooth as his skin.

I was still kneeling like this when I heard the key in the door. Jumping up and grabbing the sheet, I wrapped it around me as Frankie entered the room--though of course it was a bit too late for modesty. He was carrying a bag from a bakery and a cardboard holder with plastic cups of coffee and juice. "Ah, bueno," he said as I rummaged in the bag, suddenly realizing I was starved, "you found my surprise!" Swallowing my first bite of pastry and sipping some coffee, I gestured toward the chest and replied, "Oh, Frankie, why did you keep this all these years?" He grinned and leaned in to kiss me before saying, "Well, what was I going to do with it--who else do you know with the initials KJR?" We both laughed, then suddenly something occurred to me. When I knelt down and lifted the lid of the chest, I was so shocked that I let the sheet fall from me again. There inside the chest, exactly where I had left it just before Frankie took me home that day after Christmas, was his high school ring. I couldnt believe it was still there, or that it still had the yarn wrapped around it. "You never knew this was here? You never opened this again?" I asked, taking the ring from the chest and handing it to Frankie. He knelt beside me and slipped it on my finger as if in a fog. Looking from my face to the ring on the hand he still held, with a faraway expression he replied, "I just always thought you had kept it--I know that doesnt make any sense, because we had broken up and I never saw you wear it again." He shook his head at his own thoughtlessness. "No--I couldnt have even if I had kept it," I said softly, then asked, "Didnt you even wonder why I never asked for the chest back?" He nodded, "Yes, I suppose I did at first, but after the cast party it dawned on me that you didnt want the chest because it would remind you of things like what we did that Christmas. That was also why I didnt ask you to the prom or graduation. I didnt think you wanted anything to do with me or the chest again. But having it around was hard for me too--I left it right where it was in my living room until it was time to leave for New York, then I stored it." He broke off, and I lifted his chin to see that he was crying. Shaking his head once again, he corrected himself, "No, that isnt entirely true--after a while just knowing the chest was waiting back here for me was a comfort. I knew that even if I never saw you again I would still have something to remember you by." Now crying myself, I brushed the tears from Frankies cheeks and kissed them gently. "Mi amor, te quiero muchisimo!" we kept whispering in each others ears as he ran his hands over my naked body and I tangled mine in his magnificent head of hair, our mouths meeting for kisses in between. After a few minutes the fact that he was dressed and I wasnt suddenly began to bother me, so after one last lingering kiss I headed for the bathroom. When I had showered, I put on one of the two complimentary robes hanging on the back of bathroom door and came out to find the curtains open and Frankie sitting in one of the two wing chairs beside a round table, eating and reading the newspapers Arts section. I figured he was searching for the review of his performance the night before, so I didnt disturb him. Sitting in the other chair, I resumed eating the breakfast Frankie had moved from the dresser to the table for me. Glad it was Saturday and I didnt have anywhere else I needed to be, I hoped Frankie would ask me to spend the day with him. Even as I was thinking that, he looked at me over his pastry and said casually, "What would you like to do today?" My mouth dropped open. "How is it that you can still read my mind after all these years?!" I blurted. Frankie put down his pastry and paper, looking steadily into my eyes. "Listen, Kati," he began earnestly, his affected accent deserting him, "if we are going to resume our relationship we have to stop talking about it as if it were entirely in the past." Resume our relationship?! I had to struggle to keep my mouth from gaping again. I did let it open so I could wonder aloud, "How can we do that, when you are on the road so much?" At this, Frankie stood up and wandered aimlessly about the room, but when he was facing me I could see a smile twitching the corners of his mustache. He finally came to rest standing in front of me, then got down on his knees and took my hand before speaking. "Chiquita, I have never forgotten you or the hurt and confusion I know I must have caused you back then, and I always promised myself that if I ever came back to Columbus I would try to find you again." I began to ask why he hadnt called me when he arrived then, but Frankie laid his fingers on my lips to silence me just as I had done to him that Christmas when I needed to talk seriously. "But then something came up and I didnt want to contact you again until I knew if it was going to pan out. I decided that if it did, I would call you, but if it did not I would not intrude upon your life again." Intrude? How could he ever intrude?

Once again Frankies hand was on my lips, and I took it in mine and kissed the tip of each long lovely finger. He watched me do this, smiling gently, then concluded: "I found out just before last nights performance that what I had been hoping for had finally happened! You cannot imagine the struggle I had within myself not to just sweep you up off the floor of the lobby, tell you my news, and carry you away to make love to you right then!" Oh yes I can, I thought. What I was thinking must have been betrayed by my expression, for Frankie grinned with dimples flashing and began to laugh as he stood up again. I looked all the way up the fullness of his graceful height and implored with an answering grin, "What had you been hoping for? What has happened to make you so happy?" Frankie bent down and kissed me hard, then leaned back to look at me and ask, "Besides seeing you again, you mean?" I nodded, giggling like a little girl. Frankie lifted me from the chair and held me close, still looking deeply into my eyes, and went on, "Some things had been happening in New York such that I had thought my life as a dancer was nearing its end..." Nearing its end? I sure didnt see that in his performance last night! Frankie didnt elaborate, but looking away over my head as if overcome with emotion and searching for words, he went on softly, "...and that I might never find anyone again who would love me just for myself, but now..." I almost jumped up and down with impatience, but he was holding me too tightly for that. Frankie looked down at me again and concluded excitedly, "Katrine Joanne, mi amor eterna, I was hired by the Columbus Ballet as a principle male dancer! I have come home, and I will be staying!" I almost didnt hear this last part--my heart was still listening to "mi amor eterna (my eternal love) ". But even without his words, I knew it was true that Frankie had come home to me and the love we had shared. He lifted me up and went spinning around the room, face buried against my breasts as the robe dropped open. As he kissed them I threw my head back and shrieked with utter delight. Frankie Rotondo--Delgado--was still mine, and maybe we would be dancing together like this forever! "I know what I want to do today," I panted after he finally set me down. "Whats that?" he asked as he sat back in his chair. I settled into his lap and tousled his hair one more time before putting my arms around his neck and murmuring in his ear, "Well, lets just say we wont have to leave this room!"