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i & love & you

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November 1999

 

“Who the fuck are all these people?” Q demanded, enough of a slur in his voice that everything he said made Sal laugh. “Staten Island’s supposed to be the Forgotten Borough.”

“Not at Thanksgiving,” Sal replied as he cast a slightly overwhelmed look across the crowded bar. “Everyone remembers us at Thanksgiving.”

“Ah yes,” Q said, raising his glass. “At Thanksgiving we’re the redheaded stepchild of New York City.”

Sal laughed as he wiped down the bar where Q had sloshed his seventh beer. “Is that so?”

Yeah,” Q insisted in his incredulous philosopher voice. “No one wants to come home and visit us but they have to because their mom says so. Whiskey please.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Sal told him, flipping his towel over his shoulder and putting his hands on his hips as he looked at his drunk friend with stern apprehension. “Mallory’s going to kill you if you come home like this, you idiot.”

Eyes locked on his, Q flicked his empty shot glass closer to Sal.

“All right,” Sal sighed, and poured the shot of whiskey. Sometimes he fought Q on this, sometimes he didn’t bother. Ever since Sal had gotten this job, Q had been a regular fixture on this stool at the bar, where he spent most of the night making Sal laugh and the rest making him sad. Their twenties hadn’t been kind to his friend, but at least this way Sal knew where he was. “I’m not giving you any more fucking peanuts though.”

“You’re a villain,” Q said with a wink before he knocked back his shot. “Oh hey. Speaking of redheaded stepchildren.”

“What?” Sal demanded, giving Q a baffled look as he wandered over to take a patron’s order. He poured the jack and splashed in the coke and slid it across the bar to the drunk frat boy, nodding his sarcastic thanks when he left a dime as a tip. He went back to Q. “What are you talking about?”

“O’MALLEY!” Q bellowed, standing up and knocking his stool askew. “I haven’t seen this son of a bitch in years. GRIFF! Over here, buddy!”

Sal’s eyes scanned the bar and fell on a tall ginger loping across the room to crash into Q, the very sight of it sending them all back five years to high school.

Griffin O’Malley was as redheaded as they came, but he and his siblings were all full-blood. He came from pure Irish Catholic stock, his parents a big fan of the pull-out method as a form of contraceptive, made evident by the fact that they had seven goddamn children, all girls except for Griffin. He’d gone to school with Q and Sal at an all-boys’ Catholic school, which he always said was a nice break from all the estrogen at home. And as if a kid named Griffin O’Malley with six sisters couldn’t reinforce the Irish stereotype any more, he’d practically been born with a bottle of Guinness in his hand. In high school, the O’Malley house was the place to be. It was Griffin’s bathroom Sal had puked all over after getting drunk for the first time, Griffin’s basement he’d had his first kiss in, and it was Griffin’s father’s roast beef and mashed potato dinner Sal had pulled out of the fridge and eaten while high on edibles (his own father had gotten a call about that one). Griffin O’Malley was synonymous with fun. And judging by how drunk he was now, nothing had changed.

“It’s been fucking forever, man!” Q told him, releasing him from a bear hug. “What are you up to?”

Griffin’s grin was still as cheeky as ever. “Oh, you know, a lot of this,” he said, miming jerking off. “Got a job at a fish market in the Bronx, so as you can imagine, I have tons of girlfriends. Couldn’t decide on just one to bring home for Thanksgiving so that’s why I’m here with my sisters tonight. ”

“Hey man, I love fish,” Q said, giving him another hug. “Pull up a seat, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“Still a peach, Quinn,” Griffin told him, perching on the stool next to Q, and then lit up when he saw it was Sal on the other side of the bar. “Sally! Look at you!”

“Hey Griffin,” Sal said, trying to measure what level of tipsy he was. “What’s your poison?”

“Whatever Brian’s having,” Griffin said, settling in happily. “Jesus, it’s good to see you guys are still friends. You were two peas in a pod in high school.”

Q smiled at Sal. “Who, this asshole?”

“Fuck you,” Sal smiled back at Q.

“Nothing’s changed,” Griffin laughed.

Sal passed a Guinness and a shot of whiskey across the bar to Griffin. “Which sisters?”

Griffin took a slug off his beer. “What?”

“Which sisters are you here with?”

“Oh,” Griffin replied. “The little ones.”

“Excuse the fuck out of me,” a little redhead demanded, sidling up next to Griffin, who was unmistakably her brother. “I’m still your big sister, you stupid sasquatch.”

“Ellie!” Q cheered, his welcome for Ellie O’Malley as warm as it had been for Griffin. She went to Q’s open arms and hugged him, and Sal smiled to see she was more or less exactly how he remembered her: small and round and happy with a laugh that punched you right in the heart. She was older than them by two years, and usually served as their designated driver, so she’d seen them all at their worst and still managed to harbour some affection for them. She was the kind of girl you were always glad to see.

“Hey Ellie,” Sal said, waving when she grinned delightedly at him. “I’d come hug you but they’ve got me shackled back here.”

“Weird, I’m not used to you being the one serving drinks,” Ellie told him, matching his dorky wave with one of her own. “Most of my memories from Griffin’s parties are of you on the floor.”

“Mine too,” Sal laughed. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Just a coke if you could, I’m DD,” she said. “Gotta cart these idiots around.”

“Where’s our other idiot?” Griffin asked, leaning around his sister to look around the bar.

“Probably terrorizing orphans,” Ellie replied.

Sal barely heard them, too busy pouring Ellie’s drink and keeping an eye on Q and musing about how silly it was that “What is Love” by Haddaway was playing and thinking maybe he should watch Night at the Roxbury when he got home tonight and deciding to be nice and put a lime in Ellie’s coke before he slid it over to her because he remembered that was how she liked it. And she deserved something extra if she had to spend the first night of her Thanksgiving weekend carting around idiots --

“There’s our idiot,” Griffin said, cutting into Sal’s thoughts and pulling him back to the situation in front of him.

The situation being none other than Tatum O’Malley, rolling her eyes like it was her job and she was the best in town. Sal’s heart stopped.

“Quinn, I don’t know if you ever met my little sister,” Griffin said, presenting Tatum like he was Vanna White and Tatum was the grumpiest prize package ever.

“Yeah, Tatum, of course I remember,” Q said, picking up on Tatum’s mood and opting to shake her hand instead of hugging her. “Last time I saw you, you were crying because the New Kids on the Block broke up.”

Griffin cackled and Ellie’s heart melted as she put an arm around her little sister. “You took that so hard!” Ellie said. “You were very difficult to share a room with for awhile.”

“She was 16!” Griffin exclaimed. “It was ridiculous!”

“Pardon me for loving things, asshole,” Tatum replied dryly.

“So stupid,” Griffin said, and then looked at Sal, who hadn’t said a peep since Tatum had shown up. “Hey Sal, you ever meet Tatum?”

Sal stared at her, a deer in headlights, while she arched an eyebrow back at him in a way that said I fucking dare you. It had been years since he’d seen her, and with everyone staring at him, he didn’t know what to say. Sorry? Or sometimes I miss you and it’s okay that you hate me, or maybe the thing he meant most: I hope everyone you’ve met since me has been kind to you . He should probably just start with hello.

“Idiot,” he blurted instead.

“Oh ho ho ho,” Tatum brayed, putting her hands up in surrender and backing away. “Goodbye.”

Q booed Sal while Tatum’s brother and sister laughed, mostly out of confusion, but neither took her seriously. Tatum frowned at them and said, “I’m going to find a table.”

Sal leaned across the bar. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that, that was really stupid,” he babbled. “Do you want a drink? On the house?”

“I’ll order it from the waitress,” she said, plucked the lime from Ellie’s coke, and left to find a table on the other side of the bar.

“Hmm,” Ellie said, giving Sal a look he’d never seen from her before, before she elbowed her brother. “Coming, Griff?”

“Nah, I wanna catch up with Quinn,” Griffin said, knocking his pint glass against Q’s. “Closer to the drinks this way too.”

“Okay, well, take it easy, will you?” Ellie asked. “I promised Colleen I’d pick her up at 11 at Bootleg’s, so don’t get so drunk Tatum has to carry you out of here.”

Griffin was already pretty sloppy, but he tried to hide that fact from his older sister as he slugged her on the shoulder and promised he was fine.

“Keep an eye on him?” Ellie asked Sal, inching closer backwards in Tatum’s direction.

“Got it,” Sal told her, because he didn’t know how busy it was about to get.

“Thanks.” Ellie smiled at him before she turned away. “And Sal?”

“Yeah?”

“Call my sister an idiot again and I’ll snap your idiot neck.”

Sal grimaced but gave her an apologetic nod. “Got it.”

+

Before the New Kids on the Block had broken her heart, there was Sal Vulcano.

It wasn’t something Tatum thought about anymore, except when anyone tried to get close to her (especially the ones who tried to get closer to her by making her laugh). It had been six years since that lapse in judgement, and she was twenty-two now, and she didn’t care. Maybe sometimes when she had too much to drink at parties, she’d wind up talking about him to strangers, but that didn’t count. She didn’t go to many parties.

“What was that?” Ellie asked, sitting down beside Tatum on the same side of the booth, instead of across from her, like a normal person would. “Since when do you not jump at the opportunity to sass someone back?”

“I’m not about to get into it with some bartender I don’t even know,” Tatum scoffed. “I mean, normally I would be happy to paint the walls with him, but I don’t get to see you very often, so I decided I didn’t have time to waste on a random dickhead.”

“He’s not a random dickhead,” Ellie said. “He’s not even a dickhead. That was Sal Vulcano. He went to Farrell with Griffin. You don’t remember him?”

Tatum smiled before she could stop herself. “Vaguely,” she said, then aimed her smile up at the waitress who stopped by their table, and ordered a pint of Blue Moon and a large plate of nachos. She avoided eye contact with Ellie when the waitress left. “I’ll share my nachos with you if you get off my dick.”

“I assure you I was never on it,” Ellie replied. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“What lady?”

“You, lady.”

“About what?”

“Oh my God. Sal.”

“Who? Hal? I don’t know a Hal.”

“I’ll strangle you, Tatum.”

“Wouldn’t be an O’Malley Thanksgiving without some friendly fratricide,” Tatum said, giving her older sister a charming smile that said drop it.

But older sisters don’t take hints, and Tatum should’ve known that by now, especially since she had five of them. “You should have told me,” Ellie said, taking a chance, as well as a sip of her coke.

Tatum shrugged. “It wasn’t the end of the world.”

Ellie didn’t say anything; she never had to. She had a way of looking at you that made you spill your heart.

So Tatum sighed and took a sip of her sister’s drink and said, “It just kinda felt like it at the time.”

Casting a look across the bar at Sal, who now had his hands full with a giant lineup, Ellie could hardly imagine him being anyone’s apocalypse. She remembered him funny and eager-to-please, as happy to laugh as he was to entertain, always sweet and polite and maybe even a little neurotic. When Griffin had a party, Ellie had always made sure Tatum was out of the house, sleeping over at a friend’s (because God knows their parents didn’t care) so she didn’t know how their paths would’ve even crossed. But now that she thought of it, out of everyone, sweet, funny Sal Vulcano would’ve been Ellie's first pick for her sweet, funny Tatum.

“Well,” Ellie said, turning back to her sister. “You know what they always say.”

Tatum smiled. “What do they always say?”

“The best form of revenge is having a gosh darn blast with your super hip big sister in front of the guy who broke your heart.”

“Well, in that case, count me in,” Tatum said, then thanked the waitress, who had returned with her beer. She clinked her glass against Ellie’s and lied, “But he didn’t break my heart.”

+

Thank God for Thanksgiving. Normally Sal hated busy nights like this, because he was easily overwhelmed and also because his feet hurt, but if it weren’t for the holiday and all the college students who’d come home to visit their families and get drunk with their high school friends, he’d be stuck remembering what it was like to watch Tatum O’Malley laugh from across the room.

It was him and his cousin working the bar tonight, and somehow the two of them managed to avoid crashing into each other as they tackled the ten o’clock rush. He didn’t have time to babysit Q and Griffin and he didn’t have time to think about silly high school bullshit. Maybe there was a song or two that came on and tried to send him back in time to memories of her treehouse and that crackling radio and their summer, and maybe he had to ask a couple of people to repeat their drink orders, but that didn’t mean anything. He kept busy and he kept his eyes off her.

As hard as he tried not to, he still caught glimpses of her red hair when she got up to dance with her sister, and when Ace of Base started playing, he couldn’t help but notice her light up the same as she always had over “The Sign.” But everyone probably noticed that, so that didn’t mean anything either.

He didn’t, however, notice until there was a break in customers around midnight that, all of a sudden, she was sitting at the bar. When he looked over and saw her perched on a stool next to her brother, Sal nearly dropped the glass he was holding.

Tatum noticed. “Nice catch, spilly hands.”

Sal took that as an invitation. He swallowed hard and wandered over. “Hey, O’Malley.”

“Vulcano.”

Her cheeks were pink, just like when they were in high school and they snuck beer into the treehouse. It had never taken much for her to get tipsy, and her flush was always her giveaway. “How many’s that?” he asked, gesturing to her mostly-empty pint glass. “Judging by the rosy cheeks, I’d guess two.”

Tatum finished her drink. “Three.”

Sal grinned. “Look at you.”

She kept her expression neutral. “Don’t you have a job to do?”

“I’m doing it,” he said. “Where did Ellie go?”

A sour look crossed over her face. “She left to pick up our other sister at another bar.”

“She still doesn’t mind being designated driver all the time?”

“Not really,” Tatum said. “She likes picking the music.”

“So, uh,” Sal said, trying unsuccessfully not to get his hopes up about anyone’s motivations for being here. “Why didn’t she take you with her?”

Tatum jerked a thumb next to her at her drunk brother, who was now passionately belting along to Oasis with Q. “Griffin didn’t want to leave.”

“Ah,” Sal said. “So you still get stuck babysitting your big brother, huh?”

“Excuse me?”

“Back in the day, I remember you were always the one cleaning up his messes,” Sal said, and then, despite his nerves, dropped a gentle smile on her. “Of which he had many.”

“You really want to start talking about back in the day, Sal?”

Sal flipped his hand towel over his shoulder. “I mean, I would,” he said. “If you wanted to, I would.”

“Why would I want to?”

Apparently there was at least one thing Sal had forgotten about Tatum: how goddamn intimidating she was. She was scrappy as fuck, pure Staten Island and the youngest of seven, and she’d always had to fight not only for what she wanted but also for what she needed. Tatum wasn’t afraid of anything -- or at least nothing that Sal had ever seen evidence of. And he’d always found that more than a little scary.

“Because --” He shrugged, offering up a helpless smile. “You’re mad at me?”

Tatum smiled. “Am I?”

He laughed nervously. “I feel like you’re giving me a test here and I’m failing miserably.”

“You failed it a long time ago,” she told him.

“Yeah, I figured that out when I was 17,” he said. “I never knew what the hell happened, though.”

“I have to pee,” she said. “And you have customers.”

Sal looked down the bar, where a short line was forming. “My cousin’s got it,” he said. “Do you want a drink?”

“No, I don’t,” she said, slipping off her bar stool. “And stop serving them to my brother.”

Sal glanced at Griffin and Q, now engaged in a very serious heart-to-heart, both of them swaying. “Okay,” he told her, knowing he’d catch hell from them when they asked for their next drink. “I'll cut them off.”

“Thanks,” Tatum muttered, and slung her purse over her shoulder.

“Hey, O’Malley?”

Tatum turned around, exasperated. “I gotta pee, Vulcano.”

He smiled. He couldn’t help it. Her adorable annoyance in his hometown accent just got to him. “I’m off in fifteen,” he said. “You wanna go for a drink after?”

Her expression softened, but only for a second. Then she shook her head. "My memory's not as short as yours, Sal," she said, and walked away, disappearing into the girls’ bathroom.

+

Tatum stood at the sink, wishing she would have given at least one fuck about her appearance before she’d left her apartment tonight. Then she wished she didn’t give a fuck about giving a fuck. Ridiculous. She dug through her purse for something resembling lip gloss or even some chapstick, and then gave up, pissed off.

This was horse shit. Sal was right about one thing: she was still stuck on big brother babysitting duty. She was Griffin's little sister, the only one he had, and yet it was always her goddamn job to look after him instead of the other way around, her job to make sure he didn’t screw up. And when he did, it was her job to cover for him. She was so mad she wanted to leave him here and let him fend for himself.

The little moron would just end up sleeping in a dumpster or getting murdered. Tatum scowled, her bad mood catastrophic, and pulled her hair back to see if she’d look any more human with a ponytail. Nope. Now she was mad at Ellie for leaving her here alone with him. She was mad at everyone, Griffin, Ellie, their parents, Sal, and why couldn’t she at least carry a hairbrush in her bag? She wanted to go home. She’d pull Griffin home by his hair if she had to.

“Oh my God, hey!” A girl teetered out of a bathroom stall on heels she was too drunk for, and hugged Tatum like they went back. “I haven’t seen you in forever!”

“I haven’t seen you ever,” Tatum said, her body freezing inside the hug.

“Erin! Right? Erin O’Malley?”

“She’s my sister,” Tatum sighed, for the millionth time in her life.

“Holy fuck, you all look exactly the same,” the drunk girl laughed. “You’re like creepy clones. Which one are you? Wait, let me guess!”

“No.”

“Kerry!”

“No,” Tatum groaned, pulling out of the hug with considerable effort, and then escaped the bathroom. She needed to get out of here. She’d bribe Griffin with McDonald’s to get him to come with her. Plus, she could go for some McNuggets too. Those and maybe a vanilla milkshake might make up for this whole shitty night.

But when she walked back up to the bar, someone else was sitting on Griffin’s stool.

“Goddammit,” she muttered, looking around, not ready to panic yet. Was he playing foosball? No. Darts? No (which was good, he’d probably put his eye out in this state). Maybe he was just in the bathroom, puking his stupid guts out. She hoped so.

But then she noticed that Q wasn’t there anymore either.

Fuck. Tatum had no choice, her bad mood going from catastrophic to implosive as she got in line at the bar.

When it was her turn, Sal’s cousin smiled at her. “Hey, what can I get you?”

Tatum tried to smile back, but she was going to cry. Like a stupid little sister. Goddammit. “Sal?”

The cousin looked taken aback, but quickly recovered and walked over to Sal, giving him a gentle elbow. He pointed at Tatum waiting for him, and then shrugged when Sal asked him something.

Sal approached carefully, like he didn’t want to scare her away, and didn’t sound nearly as casual as he wanted to. “What’s up, O’Malley?”

“Do you know where Griffin is?” she asked.

Sal looked over, startled when he saw that he didn’t recognize the people sitting where Q and Griffin had been all night. “He was right there a second ago.”

Tatum didn’t care about a second ago. “Did he say anything to you about going somewhere else?”

Sal had always worn his worry so openly, and seeing it now made Tatum’s throat hurt. “He wasn’t happy when I cut him off,” he said. “Neither was Q.”

“Shit,” she said. “I should have told you to wait till I got back to cut him off. Could you check if he’s in the bathroom for me please?”

“Yeah, of course,” Sal said, dropping his towel and coming out from behind the counter. He moved like his feet hurt, and that made Tatum sad too. She watched, arms folded over her chest as he crossed the bar and walked into the men’s room, then right back out. “Nothing,” he reported.

If she cried in front of him, she’d never forgive herself. Instead, she did the next worst thing. “Will you help me find them?”