POSTALL Writing Contest – Winning Story – EVIL EYES

I recently submitted a short story for one of POSTALL’s contests and WON! Postall is a literary magazine who publishes photography, writing and visual arts from around the globe.

Check out the story below or on POSTALL’s website!

Evil Eyes

BY VANESSA GRILLONE

Whenever I’m asked about my childhood I have to pull memories from the depth of my soul. I know I had a good childhood. I can feel it. I always felt safe and protected, there was always food on the table and a roof over my head but nothing sticks out in my mind. 

My mom remembers everything. She will often tell me stories about the time we went to the beach and I ran around naked; throwing my diaper in the water while she trailed behind me feigning embarrassment. Or about the time that my dad bought her a camera for Christmas, I was four years old. I made a huge fuss to hold the camera and immediately dropped it, scrunching my face and saying oh shiiiiiittttt in my Minnie Mouse voice. Or about the time they signed me up for skating lessons and I cried the entire hour, while they laughed from behind the bleachers. 

But you were so cute! That’s why we were laughing, my dad said on the drive home  when I refused to talk to them. 

That doesn’t make any sense! I screamed before I fell asleep in the car, all of them falling and crying had tuckered me out. 

I don’t remember any of this. I didn’t begin writing in my diary until I was twelve so I can’t confirm nor deny how true my mom’s stories are. To me it’s like one minute I’m learning how to tie my shoes and ride a bike. The next minute, my dad is teaching me how to drive. I can see him out of the corner of my eye making the sign of the cross over and over as I take a risky left-hand turn as the light changes to yellow.  Next thing I know, I’m twenty-eight and walking down the aisle watching my dad make those same signs out of the corner of my eye. This time a little more slowly and with a little less fear in his eyes. 

Now I have a husband, a mortgage, and a line of credit that paid for our huge Italian and Portuguese wedding (don’t get me started on the midnight fish buffet). We had to book three adjoining halls for this wedding. We invited everyone. My immediate family, my mom’s aunts and uncles, my dad’s aunts and uncles, their cousins, their cousins’ kids, old neighbours, old friends, and my friends’ parents and siblings. We even invited my parents’ dog’s dog walker – and the dog died two years before I got engaged. That added up to 150 people, just on my side. 

When most brides think of their wedding, they often transport to the moment they see their almost-husband at the end of the aisle. They remember his face, his smile, and whether or not he shed any tears (Brian did not). They remember what song was playing as they walked in tandem with the music, one arm linked with their father’s and the other holding a beautiful bouquet of expensive-out-of-season flowers. 

When I think about my wedding day, the first image that comes to mind is the moment just after I slid on my dress. I had a full face of natural-looking makeup; my hair curled in a way that was reminiscent of a 1950’s Hollywood actress. My mother, Nonna, and Avoa walked into my childhood bedroom. Avoa began to cry immediately while Nonna did the sign of the cross so swiftly and repeatedly, her arms became a Catholic blur. 

Over the flash of the photographer’s camera my mother whispered, I wasn’t so sure about a blush coloured wedding dress but you look like an absolute princess. She pulled me in for a hug then helped me put on my earrings, the same pearl studs she wore on her wedding day. Avoa walked into my closet with a satin jewellery bag mumbling under her breath, while Nonna put a tiny packet of salt (that she stole from the local coffee shop) into my dress. She sewed a little pocket where my left breast sat, just for it. She patted my breast with a smile, Now you’ll be protected. Make sure you’re wearing red mutandine. 

I watched the photographers exchange looks but none of this seemed odd to me. I grew up surrounded by this kind of thing. We had to ward off the Evil Eye somehow, right? I grew up hearing you have a headache because someone gave you the malocchio or watch out for the cornies or I told you to put salt in your pockets before the dance. 

The sign of the cross and whispered incantations followed me around the house – especially when my grandparents came to visit. I was not allowed to leave the house without tiny plastic red peppers dangling from my rearview mirror, or my Baptismal necklace with a pendant of a hand, the middle finger and ring finger tucked down into a fist while the other three remained erect. Again, we needed protection from malocchio. 

As a teenager I’d walk into my parents’ closet, looking for a sweater or something to borrow from my mom when the scent of garlic would slap me in the face. I was so used to it that I didn’t think it was weird until my best friend asked me why my sweater smells like garlic. 

One night over dinner, I asked my mom about it. Oh, you know that little satin jewelry sack that’s behind my night robe? It’s filled with garlic. If it’s starting to smell I’ll have to change it and get Avoa to come over to bless the house again. 

But WHY is it filled with garlic? Is there some kind of vampire apocalypse that I should be worried about? How does Avoa know how to bless a house? 

Catia, how do you not know this yet? It’s meant to keep the malocchio, the Evil Eye away.  To keep it outside of our house. At that, my dad nearly choked on his wine. Oh, stop it, Roy! It’s your mother who put it there! 

But you believe it! He was laughing so hard my mom threw a piece of bread at him. 

This coming from the guy who does the sign of the cross every time I get in the driver’s seat, my mom spat. 

How else am I supposed to get to the store alive? He laughed so hard he snorted. 

All I’m saying is that the energy people give you rubs OFF on you! Sometimes they don’t even do it on purpose. If someone tells you that they like your purse, and then thinks to themselves oh I wish I could have that purse, that bad energy affects you. This is why I keep telling you to stop posting your life on-the-line.  You post a picture of you and your boyfriend and the next day you have a headache and I have to call BOTH of your grandmothers just to get rid of it.

My Dad and I locked eyes, mouthing SHE’S CRAZY in unison.

Neither of you has to believe me for it to be true. Remember when you were eight and Sarah bullied you at school? She pushed you around, called you fat and you came home crying? Well, you might also remember that she broke her arm the following week. That was Nonna – she gave her the malocchio. 

A shiver ran down my spine. How could I forget about this? She had an accident on the monkey bars and broke her arm in two places. I signed her cast during recess since we both had detention for teasing each other and using the Lord’s name in vain. I drew a few hearts and butterflies on it with the words I’M SORRY in the middle. That’s all it took to become friends again. 

I didn’t want to believe any of this but there were so many times in my teenage life that this would prove true. I started connecting the dots between my posts on Instagram, compliments from friends and all of the negative things that were happening in my life – even things as minor as headaches. 

When the headaches came I would call one of my grandmothers and listen as they pulled out a big bowl, filled it with water, and grabbed olive oil from the cupboard. All the while they would be reciting incantations. I would picture them pouring drops of oil in the water as they prayed. If the oil separated into large dots it meant you had big malocchio, if there were a lot of dots it meant you had a LOT of malocchio. My grandmother would tell me to pray while she worked tirelessly to get rid of them. 

Within hours my headache would be gone. 

After the whole garlic-in-the-closet fiasco, I started paying more attention to my thoughts. If someone could give me malocchio, I could just as easily give it to them. 

In a world where all we do is compare ourselves to one another, I understood how hard it would be to keep positivity flowing. To be proud of my friends and even strangers that I see on the Internet instead of feeling jealousy. I would watch closely while friends of mine got married and then quickly got pregnant before me. I would tap the ‘heart’’ button on photos of women who shared their workouts and healthy meals. I would do the same for my friends from high school who celebrated landing their dream jobs. I would recite to myself their accomplishments don’t detract from my own. I am happy for them. Our lives are different; there is no comparison.

The more I said it the happier I felt for other people and myself. Until Sarah (yes THAT Sarah) got a book deal. I know what you’re thinking, WHO CARES. Well, for someone who has been writing for years, getting articles published under a pseudonym, watching her get a deal was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. On top of that, I helped edit the stories that would become her book. Occasionally we’d edit each other’s work and give feedback. 

She never had anything good to say about my work and would call me a baby when I confronted her about it. There’s a difference between constructive criticism and being a goddamn bitch, I texted her. After that we stopped sharing our work, blaming it on busy schedules and busy lives.

While she posted photos of her laptop in a coffee shop, I was working my dead-end job as a receptionist. While she had a book signing, cover reveal, and insane social media coverage – I was at home, the excitement from my wedding day disappearing like a summer morning fog. I stopped sharing so much on social media after that, my life didn’t feel important enough to post about. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t find the time to scroll mindlessly on Instagram before bed.

I went through depression as I watched her success. My mantras no longer worked and neither did I. I stopped writing. I stopped trying. When I received one of the mass invitations to her book signing, my husband encouraged me to go. What’s the big deal? She wouldn’t have invited you if she didn’t want you there. Plus, you could network and get your face out there. Maybe it’ll inspire you to start writing again.

Brian was always doing this, encouraging me to put words on paper because I was a different person when I wrote. He said I was more relaxed, happier, and open to doing new things. It was his idea to turn our spare bedroom into my writing room; a place where I could go for a few hours every day and write. If the door was open he’d bring me an espresso or rub my shoulders. If the door was closed, he wouldn’t talk to me until I emerged; a tired and empty mess. 

Sarah held her book signing in a coffee shop in downtown Toronto, one with a rooftop terrace covered in plants and flowers. The champagne flowed as freely as the conversation and a little later on the coffee was poured in the same fashion. I stood with a girlfriend from college and oohed and awed at the number of people in attendance. Trying to piece together who people were in relation to Sarah. It was easy to spot the bookstagrammers and I recognized some of Sarah’s family but that was it. 

Just after Sarah cut the cake shaped like her book,  she gave a speech about all of her rejections, her hard work, her imposter syndrome, the long nights and early mornings. As she blathered on I read a few pages of her book. It took me a minute to remember that our writing styles were completely different, so were our voices. How could I compare myself to her? On top of that, she was putting in the work. Building her brand. Trying to be SEEN. There I was, hiding behind a screen and my fear. 

At the very back of the book, she had several pages of acknowledgements. My name popped out:  to the first woman who read my book, Catia, this book wouldn’t be what it is without your first edits thank you.

I read the line over and over again, convinced that I had misread my name. My hands and armpits became soaked and clammy as I stood in line to get my book signed. What do you say to someone you haven’t talked to in years? Someone who thinks that YOU helped them get to where they are NOW?

Catia, Sarah screamed as she stood up to pull me into a hug,  I’m so glad you made it!

Me too! Congratulations on the book, I am so proud of you and can’t wait to read it. 

Thank you, honestly, it’s been a crazy ride. I never thought this day would come. 

We fell into a deafening silence as she flipped to the title page of her book, crossed out her name and signed below it. I recognized the signature – the huge S and miniature arah – a signature she’d practiced over and over again when we first started sharing our work. 

I know you’re probably busy with work and marriage and just life in general but would you want to grab dinner or a drink next week? I’d love to catch up, Sarah asked apprehensively. 

I would love that; let’s meet at The Bar on Tuesday night, say 8:00? I replied, but first, we need a selfie.  I walked behind the table and put my arm around her. She held up her book and we smiled like teenagers. 

Is your number still the same? I’m going to send you an invite for next week, just so we don’t forget. I asked her, she nodded and handed me my book. 

Looking forward to it! 

When I got home that night, I opened my office door for the first time in months. I sat down in my chair and posted our selfie on Instagram. The caption read When we learn to lift each other up, great things are bound to happen. In absolute awe of this woman! Congratulations on your book; you inspire me! 

I put down my phone and pulled open one of my desk drawers. Staring back at me was a manuscript I’d finished over a year ago. The same manuscript that Sarah was helping me edit. I picked it up slowly and carefully like I was trying not to wake a newborn baby. It was heavier than I remember; I called it 250 pages of garbage  when I finished it. I’d even thrown it dramatically into the garbage bin while Brian tried to console me. He was the one who took it out of there and put it back on my desk.

Just in case, he said with a wink. 

As I flipped through the pages, I read Sarah’s markups and noticed that they weren’t as bitchy as I had made them out to be. A lot of them made sense. I took out my favourite pen, a fire truck red Tiffany pen that my parents bought me for my birthday, and a stack of lined paper. I searched for a work-from-home playlist on Spotify and spent the rest of the night lost in a book I had written, getting to know the characters again, and adding my new voice and perspective to the pages. 

Brian walked by the office at 5:00 AM, ready for his morning run. I guess seeing Sarah got to you, huh? I could hear the smile on his face without looking at him. 

Can’t you see I’m busy? I smiled back. He walked over and kissed me on my head. 

I’ll bring you some coffee on my way back, I love you. 

I waved him away and kept going; spent my entire Sunday breathing life back into my story. That evening I called my mom to tell her about the book launch and my newfound excitement toward my book. To which she replied, I wish you had told me last night. I called your Nonna and told her about this girl, how she bullied you when you were young, how she was mean to you about your writing  – she…well, she took care of it. 

Mom, what are you talking about? What do you mean she took care of it? 

This girl was always jealous of you, always giving you malocchio, so Nonna just gave her a taste of her own medicine. 

She said it so nonchalantly that it took me by surprise, Ma, that was years ago. Call Nonna and tell her to get rid of it. I’m meeting her for drinks on Tuesday. She thanked me in her book. We’re… friends.  I was pleading at this point. 

Okay, okay. I’ll call her and see what she can do. Maybe next time you tell me that you’re friends before you start complaining and crying to me? I was just trying to help. I mean really, this is ridiculous. I rolled my eyes and said goodbye, all I could do was hope that Nonna could reverse the malocchio in time.

Even though I worked late, came home and then changed my outfit four times, I was still early for my drinks with Sarah. I sat at the bar with my back to the entrance so that if she happened to stand me up, at least it didn’t look like I was waiting for someone. 

By the time I heard Sarah call my name, I was three Aperol spritzes in and finally feeling at ease. Until I turned my head and saw Sarah limping into The Bar on crutches. She wore a black A-line dress that stopped just above her knee. Her dress had spaghetti straps and a straight neckline that barely covered her cleavage. Layers and layers of dainty gold necklaces fell across her chest. Her hair was up in a messy bun that somehow still looked perfect. On her right foot was a cast and on her left a white Converse sneaker. 

Heartburn seeped up from my stomach and right to my throat. I stood up and met her halfway, with my drink in hand. 

Sarah, what the hell happened? I asked as I helped her onto a chair.

Honestly, it’s so silly! She made herself comfortable and picked at the chips sitting in the center of the table. I was walking to my car after the book launch and didn’t realize that the sidewalk was uneven. I ended up spraining my ankle and took a pretty hard fall. 

My stomach was completely in knots, I looked at her feeling guilty and stupid, Oh Sarah, I am so sorry. Let me buy you a drink. 

Sorry for what? It’s not like you pushed me, it happens. She smiled her perfect, toothy smile. 

Well…I thought…not exactly. 

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