Isabelle decides to break up with her longtime boyfriend Oyster, who works in a pawnshop. She’s tired of being put in the awkward position of having to deal with the discarded detritus from the lives of others. Oyster always gives her other people’s belongings on special occasions and all the minor occasions in between. On their seventh anniversary, Oyster gives Isabelle a narrow gold band—simple but elegant. The ring still smells like its previous owner, holds a certain warmth. As Isabelle holds it, she sees clearly that the woman who wore it for 57 years was loved, though perhaps not as well as she would have liked. Oyster gives Isabelle this ring, says, in his heart, they are already married. He makes this gesture having avoided the marriage question for the entirety of their relationship. Isabelle snaps. She throws the ring in Oyster’s face, then pauses, holding herself perfectly still as her anger cools into something she can manage. She stares right at Oyster and stands so close she can feel the nervous energy from his body against her skin. She presses her hand against his breastbone, firmly, knows she will miss the shape of his body beneath her hands. She says, “You listen to me, Onofredo Passiglia. You will regret the day you didn’t do right by me.” Isabelle takes a step back and points her long, perfectly manicured finger at Oyster. Her anger has grown so cold, so overwhelming that her entire body shakes. She curses Oyster, his mother, his seven aunts, five sisters and his grandmothers on both sides. She rifles through her purse for the picture of the two of them at Coney Island, a happier time, and marks a heavy red lipstick X over Oyster’s likeness, then crumples the image of their smiling faces, arms wrapped around each other’s waists, and crushes it beneath her boot. She spits on the floor and covers her ears while Oyster demands she lift the curse. He believes in that sort of thing.
Oyster believes in curses because of Vincent Franchetti. Upon discovering her husband’s penchant for Staten Island whores, the wife of Oyster’s neighbor, Vincent Franchetti, laid a curse on him so powerful his hair instantly became a shock of thin, brittle white. Vincent has also since walked with a stiff limp. Oyster has a head of thick, black hair. He is known for his hair. He spends a great deal of time maintaining the lustrous, enviable quality of his infamous hair. He grabs his head instinctively, tries to ignore the chill winding around his spine. The phone rings and he holds a hand up, a plea for a cessation of hostilities. Isabelle pauses, lets her indignation fester silently. It’s Oyster’s mother on the phone. The strangest thing has happened, she says. His sister Teresa has broken out in hives and, perhaps because of Teresa’s fondness for drink, she is crying tears of red wine. Oyster needs to come home immediately to take his sister to the hospital, his mother says. As Isabelle leaves the pawnshop, Oyster’s body is covered in a terrible sweat. There’s a tightness in his heart. He finds it difficult to breathe.
Isabelle is no stranger to disappointment—she has only been with three men: two boys and one man, really. She lost her virginity to Rocco Santini when they were in the 10th grade at St. Margaret’s. He always stared at her, smelled like sweet garbage on the New Jersey Turnpike and had a glandular problem. Isabelle would walk behind him in school and see tiny sweat creases on the back of his corduroys. When she asked Rocco about it, he instantly turned red and stammered, “It’s my knees. They sweat.” Isabelle thought about what Sister Mary Louise had told them in Catechism about charity and goodwill. She told Rocco she would be his girlfriend. They dated for a month and a half, had sex seventeen times and broke up in front of her locker minutes after Michael Bonaventura, who had perfect hair and manicured fingernails, asked her out. Sister Mary Louise’s lesson was long forgotten. Isabelle and Michael Bonaventura didn’t last long because he was largely uninterested in sex, but he introduced her to Oyster. Michael is now dating a man named Danté Contini, who is also Isabelle’s mechanic. Isabelle still sees Rocco around the neighborhood once in a while. He works in his father’s corner store and spends most of his time sitting behind the counter, his feet propped up, reading magazines. He still smells like sweet garbage and his knees sweat against the creases of his jeans. He pretends he doesn’t know her.
When Isabelle tells her dearest friends, Maria Monteverde and Giovanna di Cosimo (also Isabelle’s cousin), about the breakup, they laugh. Then they worry. They are sitting in the food court at the mall, keeping Giovanna company while she is on her break. Giovanna works at Dog Gone It, a hot dog restaurant carrying fifteen different kinds of hotdogs and sausages. Giovanna has to recite this fact when she greets a customer, so she prefers to work in the kitchen and take her chances with the hot grill even though she goes home on those nights smelling like pork and grease. The women are eating free hot dogs and sharing a large basket of French fries. Isabelle carefully lays out her rationale for dumping Oyster. Maria rolls her eyes because Isabelle is always reading self-help books and looking for answers in the wrong places. Maria is deeply religious. She believes that the Bible and the Ten Commandments provide the only answers a woman needs. She reminds herself to pray for Isabelle before she goes to bed. After twenty minutes of listening to Isabelle dissecting the minutia of her relationship with the pawnbroker, Giovanna pushes her chair away from the table and says she has to go back to work. Maria makes her excuses too. She presses her rosary into Isabelle’s hands before she leaves. She knows Isabelle needs it more.
Frankie Fats asks Isabelle out on a date when he hears that she and Oyster have broken up. His last name is Fatone, but he goes by Fats because he is extraordinarily thin and has never been surrounded by original people. He has been called Frankie Fats since the seventh grade. Frankie sells cell phones from a kiosk in the same mall where Giovanna works. He finds out about the breakup while getting lunch from Dog Gone It. Giovanna recites her spiel about the fifteen different kinds of hotdogs and sausages and adds, “By the way, Oyster and Isabelle aren’t together anymore,” because she knows how Frankie feels. She grins at him as she hands him his food and Frankie’s hands shake while he covers his hotdog with extra onions, relish and two thick lines of ketchup. When Isabelle agrees to go out with Frankie, he buys a new shirt. He brings a dozen pink carnations to their first date, dinner in Manhattan, at a restaurant where the bill will cost nearly an entire week’s pay. Isabelle is impressed by the gesture and beguiled by Frankie’s awkward attempts at charm during dinner. He orders lobster and she orders a steak because she doesn’t care for seafood now that she’s no longer seeing Oyster. They drink a bottle of red wine and pretend to enjoy it, even though they both find the taste bitter. Isabelle forgets the flowers when they leave. Frankie’s heart breaks a little.
On the train back to Queens, Frankie and Isabelle make out. He is a sloppy kisser but so is she. There are three other people on the car—an old man wearing a fedora and holding a newspaper in his lap and a young couple dressed from head to toe in black clothing; they all stare at Frankie and Isabelle kissing and groping and making wet, happy sounds. Frankie still lives with his mother, so they go to her apartment above her parents’ garage. When Frankie tries to turn on the light, she tells him to leave it off. Her parents stay up late and will call if they see she’s up and then her mom will want to have coffee and talk about her date and the last thing she wants to do, Isabelle says, is see her mother right now. She stares at Frankie, his narrow face and his wide gray eyes. She pulls her blouse over her head, lets it fall to the floor, walks toward her bedroom. She doesn’t look back but she reaches behind her and Frankie leans into her hand. They stumble through the darkness until they fall on her bed. Just as they’re about to have sex, when they’re both naked and trembling beneath the covers, Frankie admits that he doesn’t have a condom with him because he’s not an optimist. Isabelle groans and fumbles in her nightstand, hoping Oyster has left an unused condom behind. When she finds one, she says yes under her breath. Frankie Fats comes as she tries to slide the condom on him and they are left paralyzed in that awkward moment, Frankie biting his lower lip to keep it from trembling.
Frankie offers to leave, would really prefer to skulk back to his mother’s basement to have a stern conversation with his cock, but Isabelle kind of likes him. She tells him two things: he can call her Izzy and he can stay the night. He smiles and quickly falls asleep. Isabelle puts on Frankie’s new shirt and goes to the bathroom where she washes her hands, then her face. She stares at the water as it disappears down the drain. She wants to look up and see Oyster standing behind her in the mirror. She wants to see his lazy smile, feel his lips on her shoulder, his hands on her waist, between her thighs. When she looks up, all Isabelle sees is herself. She looks away because she doesn’t like what she sees. She shakes her head and returns to bed, where she tries to get comfortable with the sharp angles of Frankie’s body taking up space that doesn’t belong to him.
In the morning, after they successfully consummate their relationship, Frankie leaves. He has to open his kiosk. There are cell phones to sell. He sends Isabelle a text message telling her how much he likes her. When she wakes up and reads his message, she finds it charming, though she is underwhelmed by Frankie’s eager but timid exertions. She takes one of Oyster’s t-shirts into the backyard, digs a shallow grave, spits in it and buries the shirt after inhaling deeply so she can better remember his scent.
Flush with the success of fornicating her way through the initial sorrow of breaking up with Oyster, Isabelle goes to his pawnshop and leans on the glass counter near the cash register because she knows it annoys him. She crosses one foot over the other and presses her fingers against the glass, the oils creating random patterns. Oyster sits on a stool behind the counter, arms crossed over his chest. She pretends not to notice the muscles of his forearms. She has a weakness for a well-toned man. Oyster begs Isabelle to remove the matrilineal curse. His voice shakes as he makes his request. When the bell rings announcing a new customer, Oyster waves them away. He has to direct his full attention to the troubling matter at hand. He realizes that he should have never doubted his mother’s assessment of Isabelle as a strange girl with a Mal Occhio, an evil eye, who should never be crossed. In the tense hours since the breakup and the foul curse, Oyster has spent most of his time in church or the hospital chapel, on his knees, praying that the women in his family come to no further harm until he can make things right.
Isabelle steps behind the counter and reaches into the case, pulling out a display of necklaces. She twirls a thick rope of gold around her finger and says, “You shouldn’t worry so much about my curse, Onofredo. If I were you, I’d be worrying about the curses lingering in all these things that have been separated from their rightful owners.” Oyster frowns. He hates when Isabelle uses his given name. “Everyone that comes into my shop gets a good fair price,” he says, his face bright red. Isabelle laughs, traces the fine line of muscle along Oyster’s forearm. She leans in and bites his cheek, enjoying the sensation of his flesh between her teeth. “Keep telling yourself that,” she says. She spits on the floor again and leaves, her heart pounding painfully. She licks the ridges of her teeth, hoping to taste Oyster.
As he watches the door shut behind her, Oyster buries his face in his hands and wishes he had married Isabelle after she graduated from beauty school. He wishes he hadn’t found her so beautiful when Michael Bonaventura introduced them. He wishes he hadn’t been so cheap and had instead bought her a new diamond from one of the brokers he knows in Manhattan. Oyster keeps on wishing until the phone rings. It’s his mother, on the verge of hysteria, telling him his aunts Alessandra and Anastasia, the twins, have been involved in an unfortunate incident at morning mass involving incense, an altar boy, and a young priest who has now locked himself in the rectory. Oyster’s stomach churns. He promises his mother that he is on the way to the hospital. He wishes he had never met Isabelle di Cosimo.
That afternoon, Isabelle receives an increasingly urgent set of messages from Oyster, solicitous at first, then increasing degrees of irate. In the final message, Oyster’s voice cracks as he details an incident involving his sister Gina (named after the Lollobrigida of the same name), a vacuum cleaner, and an unexplained water leak. Isabelle is at her salon, doing her mother’s hair as she does every Saturday afternoon—wash, blow dry, curl. Her mother is irritated that her hair is taking so long because Isabelle has to stop every few minutes to press some buttons on her phone, once twice three times. Oyster calls her names that make her blush. When the messages finally become somewhat pathetic, she briefly considers relenting and removing her curse. Then she considers Oyster’s disproportionate ratio of actions to words. She remembers the used necklace Oyster gave her for their third anniversary, and how the necklace’s owner accused her of grave robbing when Isabelle was spotted wearing it at a local bar; how the woman, much larger than Isabelle, tore the necklace from her neck, leaving an angry red cut she nursed for weeks. Isabelle remembers the toaster Oyster gave her parents that only worked to warm bread and never actually converted it into toast. She remembers the used exercise bike with the broken seat he gave her because he thought she would look even hotter if her ass was a little more toned. She yanks her mother’s head back and brushes furiously.
Isabelle is also receiving text messages from Frankie Fats. She had nearly forgotten about their date and the awkward incident with the condom, followed by their vaguely satisfying sex that morning. She finds his messages equally troubling. He wants to see her again. He gets off work at seven. He wants to meet her parents. He says all the things that good Italian boys are supposed to say. While most women would find it endearing, the newness of Frankie is hard for her take—her body is plagued by the memory of the only man it has known for years. Frankie’s overtures make her almost nostalgic for Oyster: his bulging physique, his ineptitude at navigating a relationship with a woman. Nonetheless, she can’t help herself. She is still angry with the pawnbroker, so she agrees to meet with Frankie later that night after her parents have gone to bed. It’s too soon to get serious, she tells him, but they can hang out in her apartment and get to know each other a little better (where “hangout” is “have sex” and “get to know each other” is “drink lots of wine, preferably from a box”). Frankie, so happy that Isabelle is even acknowledging his existence, is willing to agree to any set of conditions that will facilitate more time with her. This time, while Frankie is inside her, Isabelle squeezes her eyes so tightly her head starts to ring.
At mass the next morning, Isabelle can feel Oyster glaring at her from his pew across the aisle and several rows ahead. Next to him, his aunts, the twins, are sitting perched on the edges of their seats, their heads wrapped in thick bands of gauze. Anastasia, younger by eleven minutes, has her arm in a sling. The twins are no longer identical. On the other side of them sit three of Oyster’s five sisters. Teresa and Gina are nowhere to be found. The church is filled with a strange, burnt smell and the priest refuses to make eye contact with anyone. Oyster’s mother sits in front of him. She too glares back at Isabella during appropriate pauses in the mass, her eyelids twitching furiously. Just before the homily, Oyster’s mother points a bony finger at Isabella and makes a wide sweeping motion across her throat. Isabella gasps then reciprocates the gesture, adding her middle finger.
After mass, Isabelle convenes a panel with her friends. The three women, each bearing two bottles of wine, meet in Isabelle’s apartment. The alcohol will be needed to assist the work ahead. Similar panels have been convened during crises over the years—when Maria contemplated entering the convent because she spent two weeks having sex with a nameless but stunning Italian girl with dark hair and blue eyes, while visiting her grandfather in Palermo; when Giovanna got pregnant and wasn’t sure if the father was a black guy from Brooklyn or a Puerto Rican from Jersey; when Isabella thought Oyster was cheating on her with Maria LaGuardia, the girl his mother wished her son would marry. Isabelle quickly drinks two glasses of wine then explains the silent death threat she received in church. Maria fumbles in her purse for her new rosary beads, quickly rushing through a series of prayers to balance the sinful behavior that took place in the Lord’s house.
“I don’t know what to do,” Isabelle says sadly, as she drains her first bottle of wine and then stares down the narrow green glass neck for answers or absolution. “I can remove the curse, but then Oyster won’t have a reason to think about me and his mother will get what she wants. I can refuse to remove the curse and live with the guilt if something truly terrible happens. The incident with The Twins was bad enough, but then there was the thing with his sister.” Isabelle’s cell phone rings and when she looks at the display she sighs, then shoves the phone under her thigh. She opens a second bottle of wine, drinks straight from the bottle and then cradles it in her arm like a baby. “And of course, there’s Frankie Fats, who doesn’t understand what’s really going on.”
Maria performs two signs of the cross in rapid succession. “What are you doing with that poor boy?” she asks, then brings two fingers to her lips and shakes her head. “Don’t answer that question.”
Hours later, Isabelle, Giovanna, and Maria are slumped together on the floor. Little has been resolved, but Isabelle is comforted by the presence of her best friends and their unwavering support in the wake of her inability to effectively manage her personal life. She goes to the bathroom and splashes some water on her face, scribbles a note that she sticks to Maria’s chest, and then walks slowly, ignoring the throbbing beneath her skull, to Oyster’s pawnshop. She tries to reconcile herself with being in love with a pawnbroker: a man who deals in the broken lives of others, who has no respect for another man’s treasures and is only concerned with the cents on a given dollar.
When she arrives at the pawnshop, Isabelle sees Oyster sitting on a stool behind the counter tinkering with some kind of electronic device, his long dark hair falling into his face. His beard is longer than usual, unkempt, and he looks tired. For a moment, Isabelle feels like the viscera binding her heart might come loose. She knocks on the glass door. When Oyster looks up she stares at him until he stands and slowly makes his way toward her.
Inside, Isabelle sits on the counter next to Oyster’s workspace, one leg crossed over the other. He stands in front of her, his arms wrapped tightly over his chest. She gently traces his forearm muscle. “I deserve new things,” she says.
Oyster nods. He is willing to concede most anything to succeed in encouraging Isabelle to lift the curse she has thrown so effectively. He thinks about his mother and his aunts and his sisters and cousins and all the women he has ever known, who are now depending on him to do the right thing. He thinks about the statue of Saint Monica, the patron saint of mothers, buried in his mother’s backyard, and how that gesture hasn’t helped—just that afternoon his mother had been attacked by a swarm of dragonflies appearing out of nowhere. When he came upon this calamity, the dragonflies had somehow taken hold of his mother, as if to carry her away. He ran through the swarm, waving his arms wildly. He grabbed his mother around her waist and pulled her back to the ground. She whispered mournful things in Italian, spoke so quietly he could hardly understand her. Any time he let go of his mother she started to drift upward, so Oyster filled her pockets with gold coins until he could come up with a better solution.
In his pawnshop, Oyster takes a deep breath and holds Isabelle’s hands in his. He explains that he hates how people bring him their used things, items containing everything that has ever gone wrong in their lives, how they expect him to make it all better. Oyster tells Isabelle how every moment with her, even when she makes him crazy, feels new and clean and free from all the sorrows of the world. He says that he doesn’t know how to talk to her about this kind of stuff, so instead he gives her things like Mrs. Costella’s wedding ring, which she sold to Oyster after her husband of 57 years passed away because she could no longer bear to see the ring on her finger when she woke up alone each morning. Oyster says it wasn’t about giving her something used but, rather, giving her something with an interesting history.
“I slept with someone else,” Isabelle says quietly, studying Oyster. “It meant nothing and I’m sorry for it.” He clenches his jaw and the muscles in his forearms ripple. She says, “I’m used now. Maybe you’ll love me better.”
Oyster tries to clear his throat—something large and bitter is lodged there. “Please don’t do that again. I will love you as best I can.”
Isabelle smiles, though she is filled with something like sadness. Suddenly, she wants to take back every cross thing she ever said to or about Onofredo “Oyster” Passiglia. She lifts the curse, even though she doesn’t really believe in such things. She apologizes for her rash behavior in recent days, though when Oyster tells her what has befallen his mother, she is secretly thrilled. Isabelle also wishes she could undo the things she did with Frankie Fats; she doesn’t want to know his intimate failings, and regrets breaking his heart by getting back together with Oyster. In a few days, Frankie Fats will have an unfortunate encounter with Oyster’s right fist, and will then fall in love with Maria because she is a good girl who won’t break his heart —until she does when she decides to return to Palermo to find the stunning Italian girl with dark hair and blue eyes who she always remembered abidingly, fondly.