[Here’s an excerpt from a later chapter that sheds light on how life’s shaped Tessie and her motivations. Hold off on hating her until you read this...]
Tessie was a scion of first-generation Italian parents, who clung doggedly to an old world view that helped buffer them from the stark realities of life in Newark, NJ, which was poised on the brink of industrial decline and divisive urban renewal when she was a teenager in the early 60s. Every Saturday night, her brothers would spend hours dressing up to go out like professional sartorialists - snapping trouser straps into position, buffing cufflinks to a high gloss, applying pomade to patent-slick hair. Their raucous laughter and horseplay would reverberate throughout their parents’ little cape house. Once they were polished and prepped for an evening of gambling, wine, women and song (not necessarily in that order), the boys would spill out onto tree-lined Linden Avenue, and Tessie could hear them joking all the way to Conway Street, roughhousing as they ran.
She would stay at home in her cotton shift. Her parents, who worked ceaselessly to keep the family plastering business going, relied on her to keep house and cook. She did so without question; the race riots that came later that decade had yet to explode social conventions. She’d dutifully make the Braciole and gravy, and then serve it to her parents on TV trays. Every night religiously, they’d plant themselves in front of their Zenith’s flickering, black and white screen to watch The Price Is Right. Relieved to have temporarily stilled their chronic bickering (complete with operatic flailing for emphasis), she’d actually look forward to the main event of her evening – washing the Venetian blinds.
Hunched over the claw foot bathtub (which she didn’t know was vintage at the time), Tessie would lose herself in the pleasantly numbing repetition of this chore, submerging the barely soiled blinds in a warm, sudsy solution of ammonia and Palmolive – dipping and swirling, scrubbing and dunking. Her mother had been scandalized that Tessie insisted on performing this traditional task on Saturday evenings, when everyone knows that self-respecting girls scour the blinds first thing Saturday morning. Adjusting the schedule of her domestic drudgery was Tessie’s first act of defiance.
It would soon dawn on her, however, that there was a bigger world out there than could be contained within the disinfected parameters of her parent’s tiny home. One day, while patching the frayed damask wallpaper that lent a moth-eaten formality to the vestibule, Tessie began to wonder why she was salvaging the very walls that were closing in around her.
She had also started to notice alarming changes in her own body, which were causing her to question everything in her routine-bound life that she’d previously accepted at face value. Her once scrawny, school-girlish figure was now refusing to conform to her parents’ strict code of propriety. (Those strictures of chaste obedience that they’d drum into her “pretty” head, yet summarily toss aside when it came to her wild and worldly brothers. "After all, boys will be boys.")
Tessie would sneak away to her room just to take a private peak at her new, insubordinate body. What she saw framed in the patinaed gilt of her bedroom mirror made her feel both exhilarated and deeply apologetic - like she’d better make a beeline for the confessional booth (conveniently ensconced in the Immaculate Conception church just three blocks over).
Her new breasts, alone, cried out for atonement. Previously meager at best, they’d now burgeoned to buoyantly lush proportions. Just like that picture of Bombay Mangos in National Geographic, she’d thought.
Her hips, too, had taken on a mind of their own. Bony before, they now curved aggressively - echoing the hard, feminine sweep of the violins pictured on the jacket of that Bing Crosby LP her mother played over and over on their stackable turntable.
Her breasts and hips weren’t all that had changed. Tessie could no longer stroll anonymously to the corner market. Now she attracted attention.
The neighborhood lawn boy was the first one to notice her new image. As she passed by, he leaned back from his exertions at the push reel mower, stretching and yawning extravagantly. Tessie wondered when he’d become prone to sudden-onset fatigue. The lawn boy pulled the kerchief from around his thick, blotchy neck and mopped his forehead, staring at her from beneath his low-slung, sweaty brow. His lips pulled back in a rictus of lust, exposing both rows of nubby, stained teeth. Tessie was startled. The only point of reference she had for such an alarming grimace was yet another National Geographic article she’d glanced through, detailing the arboreal mating habits of Indonesian Orangutans.
After this eye-opening encounter, Tessie learned to more gracefully deflect the heated advances of the local boys. At first, their clammy attentions made her feel violated, as if she were complicit in some venal act. She fretted that her new status as an object of desire had somehow shamed her family, which could only result in her staunchly Catholic parents casting her out on the street. Before long, however, Tessie looked forward to such an ejection and the unprecedented freedom it would bring. She realized that her carnal appeal was her only way out and began working her bombshell bonafides with confidence. By the time she met Frank (fated to be husband number one), she was primed to press the first viable man she met into service and marry her way out of Newark.