Connie’s heart had always belonged to her Papa. From the time she could first remember, he had always been the strong one, the one who made her feel safe, the one who could always be depended upon to make things work out right. When she had caught measles in third grade, it was Papa who assured her she would be well soon, strong and beautiful, that the ugly marks would fade away and leave everything as they should be. He’d read fairy stories to her, his raspy voice and Sicilian accent as deeply embedded into her memories of Cinderella and Snow White as glass slippers and apples. When she was at long last all better again, he let her go to see a traveling carnival with Mama and her brothers. Business had kept him away, as it almost always did, but it was Papa who had made it possible for her to see the tigers and lions roaring under the dark circus tents, the bars of their cages looking as frail as dry sticks. She loved the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster and the glittering lights of the midway, but it was the big cats that held her attention.
“Don’t get any ideas, sis,” Sonny had said, pulling one of her pigtails impishly as she watched them, fascinated by their raw power. “The house isn’t quite big enough for those pets.”
She’d smiled up at him as the lions roared. They already had one of those in the house, after all. Maybe, she thought looking at her oldest brother, just possibly, two of them. She loved Sonny almost as much as she loved Papa.
“Come on, kiddo,” he said, throwing an arm around her and leading her out of the tent and back to the lights and confusion of the carnival games. “Let’s see if I can win my sister, the recovering invalid, a stuffed bear at the shooting gallery.”
They left with the biggest teddy bear Connie had ever seen.
Years passed, and it turned out that funny little Connie turned into an awkward teenager and then, quite unexpectedly, a pretty teenager. Mama worried. Connie was fairly certain Mama was always worried, though she never said a word about it most of the time. Still, Connie knew that in the old country, most fifteen-year-old girls would already be engaged at the very least, or so Mama had told her endlessly. Mama didn’t give any opinions about what her brothers did, and Connie was pretty sure that Sonny at any rate really was doing some things that entirely justified Mama’s worry, including Gina Larusso if the gossip was anything to go by. But where Connie was concerned, Mama usually found her voice. Today was no different.
“Stanzie, that dress, it’s not good,” she said, shaking her head in protest. To Connie, it seemed she had the same reaction over anything that wasn’t fit for a nun. “Go back inside and put on the white one with the flowers.”
“But I don’t like the white one with the flowers, Mama,” she said, throwing in a pout. “It makes me look like a little girl.”
“And if you wear this, you look like what, an old lady?” Mama said, temper flaring. “I know what I know! Go change now.”
Connie flounced back inside the house in a silent rage, knowing that if she didn’t do as Mama asked, she’d be in for it but it good. As usual, Santino happened to be standing at the top of the stairs, shaking his head at her, his arms folded but a grin plastered on his handsome face.
“Told you she wouldn’t let you wear that thing,” he said. “Not ladylike enough.”
“Yeah? I’ve seen what your girlfriend calls a dress, and it makes this look like one of Mama’s frumpiest ones,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“Hey, you leave Gina out of this,” Sonny said, suddenly serious, his voice a full octave lower and his hand on her arm a little too tightly. “You don’t talk about her like that, yeah?”
“Okay, okay,” Connie said quickly, pulling away and smoothing the skirt of her dress. It was a brilliant shade of red, which was probably why Mama hated it. “Sorry.”
“That’s better,” Sonny said, nodding. “Now change.”
She had known she was crossing the line, but wasn’t that the fun in living with a lion, seeing how far she could dance towards him without getting the sting of his claws? And if sometimes they slashed, she thought, rubbing her arm where the red imprint of his hand remained, that was only the price to be paid for living with power.
Connie returned five minutes later in the white dress with the pattern of yellow daisies Mama had wanted her to wear. Sonny was gone. In a few hours, his fingerprints would start to fade, and not long after that so would Gina Larusso.
A year came and went. Connie was being directed none too subtly in the arts of the kitchen by Mama, the real training for her life in a way that history, geography, math, and biology weren’t, and thank goodness for that. In another year, Connie would be free forever from St. Martha’s High School, and if she never saw a plaid skirt again it would be too soon.
Still, the school did have one advantage. Just across the way was St. Isidore’s, the all boys school that was the match to St. Martha’s, the same one Michael had just graduated from. He and Tom had been model students, of course, but she was sure most of the teachers there were still in shock from some of the trouble Sonny and Fredo had caused, including at least one incident involving a cow that had mysteriously wound up in the principal’s office, munching on that week’s attendance lists. Papa had actually had the principal to their home over that one. Connie had stared at Brother Oliver from the shadows. He was a thin little wisp of a man who seemed to be at least eighty and jumped at every little noise. She’d had to fight to keep from giggling at him, but he was no fool, she supposed. Fredo and Sonny had been in the wrong, but only an idiot would ever go into Papa’s office without being scared. By the time he left, St. Isidore’s could suddenly afford a new gymnasium, but Brother Oliver looked like what he really needed was a month-long stay in a sanatorium until his nerves recovered.
It was St. Isidore’s that also provided Bobby O’Donnell. He was handsome in a way that reminded Connie of Johnny Fontane, but with a distinctly Irish twist in his blue eyes. She’d caught him smoking outside one of the mixed dances the schools took turns hosting.
“Going to rat me out to the sisters?” he asked, but his smile told her he knew she wasn’t any tattler.
“Not if you give me one too,” she said, and with a pleased grin, he’d passed her a cigarette and lit it for her.
To her everlasting relief, she had managed not to cough when the smoke hit her lungs, but if it hadn’t been so dark he could have see her eyes watering from it. All she had to do after the first exhale was hold the cigarette at a properly sophisticated angle and laugh at his jokes. She felt very grown up. He asked to see her again next weekend to go to the movies, and Connie probably answered “yes” a bit too quickly to seem entirely blasé about the attention.
It did not end well. Connie still wasn’t sure who told Sonny about her impending date, but word traveled fast in the neighborhood, and nothing anyone thought was secret really was. She suspected it was her friend Lucy, who never did seem able to keep her mouth shut about anything, particularly around Sonny, but she couldn’t be certain. All she knew was by the time she got home from the dance, Sonny was waiting outside her room, looking furious.
“Bobby O’Donnell? Seriously, Con?” he said, taking her by the wrist.
“What? What’s wrong with Bobby?” Connie asked, jutting her chin defiantly even as she let him pull her back into the deserted living room.
“What’s wrong with him? He’s an idiot, you idiot,” he said, shaking his head in a way that made him look disconcertingly like Mama. “You’re just a kid. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
“I am not a kid,” Connie said with as much dignity as she could muster, barely remembering to keep her voice down so her parents wouldn’t hear her. “I am sixteen years old. As Mama is constantly reminding me, she was married by my age.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t like that boy, and you’re not seeing him again,” Sonny said, and the finality in his voice meant that she didn’t even question that she was most certainly never going to lay eyes on him again, or if she did, he’d probably be covered in bruises later.
“What are you gonna do, lock me up in convent?” Connie said, folding her arms.
“I’ve thought about it,” Sonny said, giving her an exasperated look, “but I don’t think I could do that to the poor nuns.”
Connie rolled her eyes in disgust, but before she left, Sonny spoke again.
“Look, I know, you’re not a little kid anymore,” he said, his voice almost pained, and she turned back to look at him. “But don’t go flirting with somebody we don’t know, okay? There could be trouble.”
“Is there an approved list or something I need to follow?” she asked, still angry.
“Maybe,” Sonny said, tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear in a suddenly affectionate gesture.
It was in December of that year when Sonny brought around Carlo Rizzi. Papa’s birthday party hadn’t exactly been the most romantic of venues, and Sonny had all the subtlety of a dump truck about exactly why he’d brought his friend Carlo to meet Connie. About the only thing Sonny hadn’t done was drive them to their first date and pick up the tab. Actually, Connie found out later that he really had done the second one, giving Carlo the money for dinner at the tiny Italian restaurant where they went the following night.
They kept seeing each other, and Sonny seemed pleased, at least at first. Carlo was eventually drafted into the war, and despite Connie’s pleading, Papa didn’t arrange a deferment for him as he’d tried to do for Michael. She could tell Papa disapproved of Carlo, which she found strange since Sonny had picked him by hand. But Papa did not forbid their relationship. In fact, he said nothing at all. There was something terrifying about that, like there was an invisible line she had crossed, and one minute she was inside the family, but the next she was rocketing away, becoming someone else’s responsibility. There was a sense of finality about it all, as though she wasn’t making the choice but that it had all been made ahead of time. The same thing seemed to occur to Sonny, and that was when he stopped smiling at the two of them together. Connie thought maybe he hadn’t realized that birthday dinner would turn out to be so permanent. Neither did she.
Connie waited for Carlo to return from the war. It wasn’t exactly difficult not to see anyone else while he was away. Practically every boy over eighteen was gone to Europe or the Pacific. No one knew how long the war was going to last, but a year passed, and then two. They wrote back and forth, though the letters were strangely polite and distant. Connie began to realize that despite the fact they had been technically together for a long time, they didn’t really know each other at all. In December of ’44, Carlo was shipped home because of a wound to his shoulder that left him unable to perform his duties. Connie was grateful he was alive, but she knew things were bound to be awkward.
In none of Carlo’s letters had he ever mentioned getting engaged. Mama would ask her about it every time a new letter arrived, and Connie was tired of repeating over and over, “No, Mama. He’s busy with other things, like staying alive.” But now there was no more excuse. He was home, and while they were still seeing each other, he hadn’t said a word despite their embarrassingly long courtship.
What had changed was he had insisted that she sleep with him two weeks after his return, and she had agreed, though somewhat miserably. Time crept by, and every month she was terrified she was going to turn up pregnant. She suspected that the worry alone was enough to make her late sometimes. Carlo swore he knew what he was doing and he could make sure she wouldn’t get in trouble. At first she had believed him, maybe in part because if Sonny had said he was alright, he must be. Now, though, she had doubts. She wasn’t sure what would happen to her if she did get pregnant. She knew in the old country the usual thing was either a fast wedding or someone getting shot, occasionally both, and she wasn’t sure things would be any different in New York. It would be the worst possible shame on the family, and if he didn’t marry her, she would be ruined forever, if she ever saw daylight again.
Even more embarrassing, she thought Sonny might know what was happening, and Papa and Tom and maybe Michael did as well. Frankly, Connie suspected random people walking down the street knew she had done “bad things,” and that was why the only Corleone daughter was still unmarried at twenty even though she’d had the same boyfriend for years. Finally, as it had to, something snapped.
“Con, I need to talk to you,” Sonny said one Saturday, pulling her into Papa’s office. It was dark, even in the middle of the day, but it was empty because Papa was out on business. For once she was glad he was gone.
“Yeah?” Connie asked.
“Look, I—" he broke off, rubbing his hands through his hair in frustration. “Damn it, I made a mistake.”
She hadn’t been expecting that particular statement, but she held her tongue, waiting.
“Let’s quit kidding around, okay? I didn’t know Carlo as well as I should have before I went setting him up with my kid sister, and I don’t like what I’m seeing,” he said, pacing over to the front of Papa’s desk and sitting on the edge of it. “He’s not doing right by you.”
“No, no, h-he’s doing fine,” Connie said in a tone that didn’t sound fine at all, and she cursed herself for the stammer in her voice.
“Does he, uh,” and now she knew he suspected from the uncomfortable pause before he went on, “does he need to do right by you?”
Connie blushed right to the roots of her hair.
“Con, you know what I’m talking about,” Sonny said quietly, putting his hands on her shoulders and getting her to look up at him. “This is serious. You need to tell me the truth here.”
“Not exactly,” Connie said, unable to meet his eyes.
He put a hand up to his face and rubbed it tiredly as though it were soft wax that could be molded, a gesture he’d picked up from Papa, one that said he was being confronted with something he didn’t want to deal with. Her denial had been all the confirmation he needed.
“Yeah,” Sonny said. “Almost four years and he’s said nothing to Pop.”
“Three and a half,” Connie corrected quickly.
“Because that’s so much better,” Sonny said, sighing. “He’s embarrassing the family, he’s embarrassing you, and if this keeps up, that ‘not exactly’ is going to turn into a ‘definitely.’”
“I can’t do this right now. I-I’ve got to go,” Connie said, more embarrassed than she’d ever been in her life, but Sonny’s other hand was still on her shoulder.
“Is he hitting you?” he asked, looking at her hard. “Has he ever hit you?”
“No,” Connie said, shocked. Carlo did have a bad temper, and he yelled at her sometimes, sometimes even scared her a little to the point that she thought he might be just about to hit her, but he hadn’t.
“At least there’s that,” Sonny said, letting go of her. “He’s done some things with… I wouldn’t have introduced you two if I knew him then like I do now.”
With who, Connie thought. What’s he done? Why won’t someone just give me a straight answer for once in my life? But she knew why. Straight answers weren’t a Corleone trait.
“It’ll be okay, Con,” Sonny said, giving her a kiss on the cheek. “It’s gonna be fine.”
Carlo very abruptly proposed two days later, and if Connie saw her father’s hand in any of it, she shuddered a little, but said yes. There were worse men than Carlo Rizzi, and she’d sealed her own fate a long time ago. It was a fairy tale wedding with a beautiful dress and dancing with Papa and Sonny and finally, finally, no more crossing her fingers every month. She was safe now, she told herself.
Except she was anything but safe. The women on the side were probably nothing new, but the beatings started two months later. She was out of Papa’s control now, and Mama had told her she belonged to her husband, that what went on between husband and wife was nobody else’s business; no one would interfere. Connie became very good with make-up. Sunday dinner with the family was excellent practice, and if anyone suspected, they said nothing.
Then one day in the middle of the afternoon, Sonny showed up with no warning at all, and there was nothing she could do as he pounded on the front door.
“I know you’re in there, Connie!” he yelled, and probably half the block could hear him. “Con, open this door or I’m breaking the hinges! Right now!”
“Okay, okay, fine,” she said, undoing the lock and letting him in. “See, I-I just had a little accident and…”
When she turned to look at him, Sonny shoved his fist into his mouth as though he was fighting not to scream. She knew she looked bad. Her lip was split, and there wasn’t anything hiding her black eye. Carlo had been particularly brutal after whatever happened on Tuesday night to set him off.
“An accident?” he said. “That lousy husband of yours is the accident! I’ll give him a damn accident! He does this to my sister? That excuse for a human does this to you? Nobody does this to… nobody, Con!”
She was crying now, but he was already gone, tearing down the street on foot, strangers getting far out of his way. Connie discovered ten years later that Sonny had found his old girlfriend Gina laying in a pool of blood in an alley earlier that day, half-alive, and rumor had it Carlo was the one who had put her there. Apparently when his temper flared, Connie was only one of a string of women he used as a punching bag, though he’d been discrete enough not to draw Sonny’s eye to it before. She'd known there had been other women, but she really hadn’t known what he’d done to them.
Carlo came home the night after Sonny’s discoveries barely able to walk. He said nothing at all to her, just went to bed. There was no discussion of what had happened, but for a few months things were blessedly quiet.
It didn’t last. It happened again and again, sometimes Sonny finding out, sometimes nothing happening at all. Not until she was pregnant did she become truly terrified. But the call from the girl, the stupid, childish sounding girl who had the nerve to call Carlo in his own home, speak to his wife like she was his secretary, it was too much. She exploded. So did Carlo, and this time she thought for sure that she or the baby was going to die.
When it was over and she found that she was still somehow alive and conscious, she waited for the slamming door that meant Carlo had left again. She managed to grasp the phone with a hand that felt like something had been snapped inside it and dialed the number she’d promised herself she would only use in the worst emergency, the one when she would leave forever. She called for the only lion who could save her from the tiger in her own house. Mama answered, but she couldn’t hear her. Some tiny corner of Connie’s mind laughed; Mama had never really heard her. And then Sonny’s voice came over the line. The moment she heard him, she began to shake with sobs of pain mixed with relief, feeling that things might actually be alright now.
“Listen, you wait there,” he said.
“You’re not supposed to leave. Just send a car or…”
“No, no, you wait there!”
Sonny, who had always made things better for her ever since she was a little girl, had already run to his car, racing to save her.
But Sonny never came that night. He would never come again.