The First Man in My Life
It’s no joke that I married my father. Anthony Marco was, like Joe Gorga, a Leo, in the construction business, Italian, and from Jersey. He and my mother raised my two sisters and me in a comfortable house in Toms River. My father’s job was investing in properties, and building and selling them. We were the first family to get a Lincoln Town Car on our block, in 1989. I’ll never forget the Christmas that my father surprised my mother with his and hers Rolex watches. I thought it was so sweet and romantic. We always had new clothes, plenty of food to eat, and some luxuries. But I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth by any stretch of the imagination.
My parents got together when they were seventeen years old, and kept that teenage, obsessive love going for all their years together. Anthony was Donna’s one and only, her first and only. They had a traditional marriage. He went to work, and she stayed home with the three girls. My sisters Kim and Lysa were ten and twelve years older than me. I was the baby, their doll. They’d dress me up and play with my hair. I’d stand on the coffee table in the living room and sing. My father loved it when I sang, and always broke out the Camcorder to make a video. By the time I was eight, my sisters were eighteen and twenty. I always felt like I had three moms. My mother and father treated me like an only child. I was their baby, and they fussed over me.
This idyllic life came crashing down when I was a freshman in high school. I tried out for the freshman cheerleading squad. The coach posted the final list, and my name wasn’t there. All my friends were on it, though. I was devastated. I congratulated them, and they took pity on me.
Then, the coach put up the final list for varsity. My name was up there. I was as shocked as everyone else. This was unheard of, for a freshman to make varsity. My friends—so consoling when they thought I’d been cut from the freshman squad—were now sharpening their claws.
The older girls on varsity hated me, too. They screamed at me, pulled my hair, threatened me in the locker room and humiliated me in public. The school mascot was a pirate. They forced me to wear the smelly ridiculous pirate costume and run around the field all season.
I know, I know. First-world white girl problems. “The cheerleaders were mean to me!” story might not trigger much sympathy. The hazing was relatively mild. They didn’t cut me, or put me in the hospital. But they did humiliate and torment me for no apparent reason. I hadn’t done or said a thing to any of them, and yet they despised me with blazing irrational fury. The cheerleaders were my teammates. They were supposed to have my back. Instead, they were behind it, with knives. The rejection stung.
The cheerleader thumping, however, was a mere taste of what was to come. When I was a junior, my parents decided to move to Boca Raton. I was thrilled when I heard the news. I spontaneously broke out into a cheer. Gimme an F! Gimme an L! Gimme an O … you get the idea. I didn’t know much about Florida, but any change would be great. And, year-round sunshine was a bonus.
Day one at Boca High, my new classmates sized me up as a freak. I had curves and wore a jean jacket. My dark skin and hair were marks of the devil to the pastel-draped skinny blue-eyed blond Florida girls. They viciously mocked my accent (can’t say I blame them). The boys, meanwhile, were licking their chops and telling me how exotic I looked.
According to the Boca Bitches, my being Italian and from up North could mean only one thing: I was a slut. The opposite was true. I hadn’t so much as kissed a boy. In Jersey, I was considered a prude. I bit my lip and put on a brave front no matter what was said about me, and waited for things to change.
About a month into the school year, one of the Boca Bitches called me at home. “Hey, Melissa. We want to take you to a party,” she said.
I was psyched. Finally, they like me, I thought. Poor gullible, needy me. If I could go back in time to that phone conversation, I’d smack myself in the head and say, Don’t trust her! Instead, in my excitement, I volunteered to drive her and two other girls to the party.
They said the party was outdoors in a neighboring town. I had no idea where it was, or where I was driving. I was new to the area and it was pitch black out. I just followed their directions.
“This is it,” said the leader of the pack. I pulled into a driveway. We all hopped out of the car. As quickly as I thought I had “arrived,” instantly, thirty girls surrounded me. What the … I turned to ask the girls who had invited me, and they looked back at me with a blank stare.
These girls wasted no time. One quickly rushed up to me and punched me. Bam. Full force, right in the nose. Instantly, it started bleeding.
I was so shocked, it didn’t even hurt at first. About an hour later, my nose started throbbing and didn’t stop for days.
This maniac girl rubbed her knuckles and accused me of sleeping with her boyfriend. I barely knew the kid. We’d spoken two words to each other. When did saying “Hey” to a guy in the hallway mean that you were having sex with him?
“I’m a virgin,” I said to defend myself. It was the embarrassing truth. Yes, despite growing up at the corner of Whore and Skank Streets, or so they thought, I hadn’t done the deed. Not even close. The girl didn’t care. She already made up in her mind that I was to blame for her problems, even though I’d done nothing but be nice. (An interesting foreshadowing, as seen on RHONJ.)
The thirty girls were now slamming their fists on the roof of the car. It was like a scene from a gang movie that ended with me slumped and alone in the car. Desperate to flee, I hopped back in and started tapping the gas, hoping the girls would move out of the way. But they kept beating on the roof, the hood and the doors.
Fearing for my life, I stepped harder on the gas, making the car lurch forward. They finally cleared a path, and I floored it—right into a dead end. I had to turn around and drive through the pack again. This time, they threw rocks at me as I sped by.
Crying hysterically, I could barely see as I drove. It was a miracle I found my way home at all without crashing. My mother was horrified when I burst through the door with a bloody nose and red swollen eyes. When I finally stopped sobbing, I begged her to take me back to Toms River. I’d seen enough of the South to last the rest of my life.
My mother got on the phone to call my father. He’d stayed back in New Jersey, tying up loose ends. She told him what happened. He said, “Look, I’ll be finished with my business in a month. Just hang on until I get down there.”
A total Daddy’s girl, I was instantly comforted. As soon as he arrived, he’d protect me and make it better. He’d keep me safe. No one would mess with me then. I sniffed back my tears. One month seemed like an eternity to wait for him. But I knew it wasn’t really that long. I stayed focused on how incredible it would be when he finally walked through the door. I’d throw my arms around him, and never let go.
I counted the days, which made the wait harder and easier at the same time. I turned seventeen during that month, on March 21. Traditionally, my father bought me jewelry for my birthday gift. I don’t know why, but that year, he sent me a card. I remember thinking, This is weird. He’d never given me a card just from him. Usually, a card was attached to my gift, and signed by both of my parents. As weird as it seemed, I loved it and immediately called him to thank him. “Daddy, I love my card. Thank you so much. It means the world to me.” His handwritten note read as follows: “Melissa: Even though you are growing up, you will always be my little girl. And, no matter what, I will always love you and be there for you no matter what. I will always love my baby girl. Love, Daddy.” Thank God I didn’t pull a classic seventeen-year-old move, and toss the card. I still have it, in fact. It was as if I knew I should keep it and my father knew he had to tell me something and make it tangible for me to hold onto.
Eight days later, on March 29, I was at my girlfriend’s house for a sleepover. My mother called very late at night on the phone. She was screaming and crying. “Melissa, your father was in an accident. He hit a tree and he died,” she said. I dropped to my knees, and started howling. I threw the phone.
My friend asked, “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
I couldn’t speak. I was in complete shock.
My aunt came to pick me up, and brought me back to my house. My grandmother and uncles were there. My mom was in the corner crying. We booked flights back to New Jersey. Tissues were everywhere, everyone in a panic. It was a sad scene.
My mother had been alone when she got the news. I pieced the story together later on. It was a rainy night. He was driving around a corner, and hit a tree. He died alone on the road. He was only forty-nine years old.
It took me a while to believe it. The shock knocked me out of my body. I felt like I was standing next to myself, looking with sadness at the girl who just lost her father. The trouble I’d had with the mean girls, which I had thought were huge problems, shrank to the size of a grain of sand. I did not know what pain really felt like until that moment. And, it got much worse as the days wore on.
Every morning was painful. When I opened my eyes, I wanted to immediately shut them again. I prayed that it was all a bad dream, that I would wake up and my father would still be alive. I remember going back and forth between feelings of complete and utter despair and terrible anger. There were many times I wished I could scream at him and ask him why he didn’t have his seat belt on. If he would have had it on, he could have met my children today. It was hard not to be angry at him, but I missed him so much that most of my days were filled with tears.
In the fog of grief, my mother and I found out that we were dead broke. All of my father’s money was tied up in the properties that he had bought to develop. After he died, the men he was in business with continued it and paid us nothing. Since the business was done on handshakes, not contracts, my Mother had no proof of my father’s investments. They refused to give us a penny. There was no life insurance. No college fund. Hardly any savings. All we had in the world was our possessions, still in boxes on the floor of our Florida rental.
In an instant, the half a second that wheels spun out of control on the wet pavement, I lost my father and my future. My mother was equally devastated. She had been with my father since she was seventeen years old. She did not know a life without him. Nor did my sisters and I. Every next move we made seemed like walking in quicksand. Even breathing was hard. He was our anchor. We did our best to comfort each other, but we were overwhelmed. I must have radiated misery. Even the Boca Bitches took pity on me and left me alone. By then, it didn’t matter what they said or did. I wouldn’t have felt it anyway. Grief was my only emotion. A hole had replaced my heart.
I wanted all my memories of my father to be the good ones. I replayed over in over in my head the many times he took me to the Jersey Shore and put me on rides on the boardwalk over and over again. And, all the times he would take out his big Camcorder and video tape me singing and dancing on my living room table. He always told me I was his star. I will never forget the 34-foot Silverton boat that we spent so many weekends on. I can still see the bold rose-colored script on the back of the boat. He named it: My 4 Girls.
At the funeral in New Jersey, my father’s brother and my godfather, Uncle Johnny, gave me a tight hug. He said, “You have a great future ahead of you, Melissa. I won’t let this tragedy ruin your life. I’m your godfather. It’s my responsibility to step up. I’m going to help you go to college.” I heard his words, and appreciated his offer. It was a long time before I could wade through my depression and accept it.
We went back to Florida. My Mother had some prior experience in nursing, and she got a job to support us.
At this time in my life, I kind of rebelled. One day, my friend and I were out shopping. I put on a $19 sweater at a store. Even though I had enough money to cover it in my wallet, I walked out with the sweater on. The store clerk busted me. He pulled me into the back room and called my mother. She was furious, but she also understood that I was a little out of control then after my father’s death. We got a court date. The judge asked us to pay a fine and the shoplifting charge was expunged.
I also made some rocky choices about men. I was attracted to the bad boys. I had this urge to control them and turn them into something good. My OCD kicked in, and I wouldn’t let up until they’d transformed. My bad boys were like my own personal sociology project. By sheer force of will, I wanted to change them into nicer, sober, non-cheating non-douche bags. Yes, I had crazy love-hate relationships. The “I can’t live without you, I can’t stand the sight of you!” type that define the young, stupid era of life. You have to go through that period to know what you don’t want, and definitely the kind of man you would never marry. The man I did choose to marry was the exact opposite. My bad boy projects failed. Assholes don’t change. If I had known that at eighteen, I’m sure I would have made a lot of different choices about the men I hung out with.
I pushed on, too, and made it through my classes. Most of my emotional energy went into my schoolwork and my mother. Eventually I was accepted into a four-year college in Jersey City to study elementary school education. A pinhole of light penetrated the fog of grief. I was moving on. I would have a future.
True to his word, Uncle Johnny, God bless him, helped with tuition. I found an apartment with roommates and worked three jobs while attending classes in order to pay the rent. I might have started out the spoiled baby of the family, but any bratty sense of entitlement was gone. I was my own woman now. I had only myself to fall back on.
I was envious of girls with daddies to turn to. They could make a call, and their fathers would swoop in to fix their car brakes, give them a loan, or make them feel treasured and special. I missed that closeness. I found myself drawn to a certain kind of man, a father figure who made me feel protected and would tell me right from wrong. They weren’t older than me per se. It was the authoritative and instructive personality type—someone who could take charge—that attracted me. I know a lot of women wouldn’t like that. But I responded to it.
Between work and school, though, I didn’t date a lot. Oh, I managed to kiss my share of frogs along the way. But no one guy held my trust. My goal was to become an elementary school teacher. Without family money or a business to fall back on, I was responsible for my own livelihood. Losing my father made me realize that you can’t rely on a man to take care of you. You have no idea what might happen down the road. He might toss you over for another woman. He might bust out. Or, as I knew only too well, you could turnaround, and he’d be gone. I vowed that that would not happen to me. I was not going to put my security in the hands of a man.
When I went to college in Jersey, it felt like a fresh start. Despite my desire to connect, I had only one “serious” boyfriend during college. Looking back, it’s laughable to call it serious. I didn’t know what “serious” really meant in terms of commitment and intention until I met Joe. Neither did that boyfriend! He cheated on me.
It seemed like I met only frogs for a long time. No princes. I always held onto a glimmer of hope though. I’d been raised to be independent and a realist, and although I knew that fairy tales and unicorns didn’t exist, I held onto a vision of what a great love could be. I was in love with the idea of being in love. For all its flaws, my parents’ marriage was based on mad passion and deep-seeded love. I wanted that intensity—but only the best parts of it—for myself. I wanted to feel swept away.
I looked for potential in a thousand faces. If I noticed something in a man’s eyes or smile, I’d test my feelings. I kept it fun and light. Yeah, I was a bit of a flirt. But there never seemed to be a real spark or true connection. Reality could never measure up to my fantasy vision of what love should be.
Besides, the men I met didn’t want what I was offering. They were after hookups and one-night stands. I was only interested in a long-term romance. At parties and clubs, if a guy hit on me hoping for a one-and-done, he found out, but quick, that he’d get nowhere with me. If I went on a first date with him, I’d keep the conversation rolling, but I’d size him up in my head. Could this man be my future husband? What would our babies look like? How about his relationship with his mother? Close and affectionate, or too close and creepy? The mental checklist took the length of an average meal to get through. But usually, by the end of a single glass of wine, I knew if he’d get a second date. Just a handful of men did. It just seemed like a waste of my time—time away from studying and working to pay my rent—to go out with a man I knew I didn’t want to marry. Only the fairy-tale romance would do. If you can’t get through one date with a man, you’re certainly not going to spend the rest of your life with him.
On the weekends, my girlfriends and I used to go into New York City. Jersey City/Bayonne is only a few miles away from Manhattan. I’d save up all week long to go dancing on Saturday nights. I loved it. Every part about it. Most of all, planning my outfits. I was always into fashion. I tried every look out there. We would always go to the club that was the “spot”—sometimes the Limelight, the Sound Factory, or the Tunnel—whichever club had the longest line that was wrapped around two city blocks, we were at it. We would walk right up to the red velvet ropes, past the line, and somehow manage to maneuver our way in.
We were pretty and young, having a great time, and men flocked around us. At first, they flirted and treated me like a possibility. But then, after only a few minutes of talking, they’d say, “You’re a girlfriend type.” I had that air about me. Maybe it was because I was sober and not dressed like a slut. The message was loud and clear. Guys instinctively knew that if they wanted to get lucky, it wasn’t going to be with me.
I’ll never forget, this one guy said, “You might as well have ‘Wifey’ tattooed on your forehead. Why are you even here?”
Strange question. Why does anyone go to a club? I said, “I love music and love to dance.”
He laughed and gave me a patronizing pat on the shoulder. “You should go home.”
I wasn’t playing hard to get. I was hard to get—nearly impossible.
Why so careful about men? I had my reasons. There was the other half of the story that I have not yet told about my father. It’s very hard to tell it. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to do so in this book. It is just so personal, and for many years, I buried any negative memory of my father. It didn’t seem right to think about the bad. I did not want to remember him like that. He was so good, and I felt guilty tainting his memory with the hard truth. But I realized that if I do not tell the whole story, then I’m not telling the whole truth and my relationship with Joe won’t make complete sense. I want all of you to know my true experiences (even the ones that are extremely painful to share), because I do believe they have molded me into the wife I am today.
I heard someone say once that the story of your death was the story of your life. My father died driving in the middle of the night on personal business that my mother and I knew nothing about. He died suddenly, like he had disappeared. He left us alone, afraid, confused, and devastated. The fact is, my father had left us alone and afraid before. He had disappeared before. Many, many times.
Anthony was a man of his time, his generation, and his circumstances. Nowadays, high school sweethearts, however obsessive they are with each other, usually go their separate ways after graduation. They go off to colleges to see how their relationship holds up with a little distance between them. Well, in South Jersey in the mid-1960s, most of the kids didn’t go off to college. They didn’t have a sense of a bigger world out there, or unlimited possibilities. If they were madly in love, like my parents were with each other, they got married, moved into a starter house or in with her parents, and began making babies.
My parents’ mad love swept them into marriage at eighteen. That passion never waned, throughout their twenty-seven years of marriage. They graduated high school, got married, and she got pregnant. Within two years, my sisters were born. By the time my mother was twenty, her own childhood was miles behind her in the rearview mirror. She was a kid. Then, she blinked, and she was a grown woman with two babies.
My parents were both raised with the strong Italian Catholic beliefs that marriage is forever. No matter what went on between a husband and wife, it was their obligation and responsibility to forgive and forget, especially if children were involved. Sometimes, my father tried my mother’s ability to forgive. He tried her strength as a wife and as a woman. In my memory, he’s a huge presence, like my own personal hero. But I also remember him as a human being with flaws.
Like all young men, my father liked to party. But, he didn’t want to do it with his wife. A wife was supposed to stay home, care for the kids and make dinner. A good woman didn’t run wild. So, when the urge to run wild hit my father, he went elsewhere to chase it.
As young as six or seven years old, I remember nights and days of anxiety, of not knowing or understanding what was going on. Dad was home, and then he was gone. Mom fretted and cried. She called her sister and talked, upset, panicking. I was mainly confused. Where is he? I thought. He can’t still be at the store getting milk.
He’d always come home, after a day or a weekend. Or a week. His homecoming, for me, was a disquieting combination of relief and terror. My mother’s tears would turn into anger. I have seen hairbrushes fly across the room, coffee tables cleared with the sweep of an arm. When it was over, both my parents would apologize to me. My father would sit me down on the couch, hug me and say, “You know Daddy loves you. It’s okay. Don’t worry. I just went to work for a while. I’m home now.” My mother would watch with her lips tight. As angry as she was at him, she would never drive a wedge between my father and me.
Even as a child, I understood the bargain she made with him, and with me. To keep our family whole and together, to make sure that her three daughters had a father to hug them on the couch and tell them everything would be okay, she would put up with his disappearances. Like all mothers, she made sacrifices and justifications for the sake of her kids. She chose her battles, and accepted the things she couldn’t change.
A few times, my mother couldn’t take one more minute stewing at home for my father to return. She told my sisters and I to throw clothes in our hampers, and we’d take them to my grandmother’s house in the middle of the night. When we came home from those short stays, we’d find my father waiting for us in the living room. He’d hug us all super tight, kiss my mother, and we’d start over fresh.
Going to my grandmother’s house was as far away as my mother would ever go. No matter what, she would never have left him. And he never, ever, ever, would have left her. Okay, he did leave the house. But he’d never leave the marriage. There was never a doubt that he would eventually return home to her.
My father was my only male role model. I didn’t have any brothers. As a father, he was incredible, which on many levels made him a walking contradiction. He was very strict and impressed strong family values and morals upon my sisters and me. He wanted us to walk a straight line. And, we always did. We were not allowed to have boys call the house or walk to the mall without a reason or to buy something. He expected a lot from us, but he was always front and center at every play, concert, and cheerleading competition to support us. He was loving, strong, always in your corner, and would literally die for any one of us. He was a great provider and a great teacher. As a husband—not so great.
Adult children look back at their parents’ marriage to define with they want—and don’t want—in their relationships. What I learned watching my parents’ marriage was the value of loyalty. No woman was more loyal to my father than my mother. I learned that there is no pride in marriage, and that personal flaws and weaknesses have to be accepted on faith. I also learned that men aren’t reliable. Even when you love them as hard as you can, they cannot always be trusted.
I have the utmost respect for my mother. She stayed with my father because that was what you did back then, but also because she was madly in love with him. Even if she had found the strength to make a change and get out of an unfaithful marriage, she would have stayed single afterwards. She used to say, “I have three girls. I wouldn’t bring a strange man into the house. You’ll always have your father.” Until we lost him. He died when she was forty-seven. She cried over him for years. It tore my heart out to watch her sit on her bed and sob. After several years of that, my sisters and I pushed her to get out there and date. My sisters were both married with babies. I was in my twenties. She’d made enough sacrifices, and was still a young woman, in her early fifties. Finally, she agreed to try. Through mutual friends, she met Frankie. I was sitting in her kitchen when he came to pick her up for their first date. He wore big, bad crocodile boots, and drove her in his Caddie to Atlantic City for a night on the town. They had a good time, and that was that. Mom is not one for change. She met Frankie, dated him, liked him, and has basically been living with him ever since. They’re devoted to each other.
Meanwhile, while my mother was getting back in the saddle with Frankie and finding love again, my focus was school and work. I always was a go-getter and never afraid of hard work. Life was happening, and I had goals.
I also prayed a lot. I had been raised religious, and grew up thanking God for my blessings. Despite my many conversations with God, though, I didn’t feel a true connection with Him either. Praying often felt like I was talking to the ceiling. What was next for me? I felt unsure and afraid. I asked God again and again for comfort and guidance, but felt more confused than ever. Rudderless, I called a priest and met with him to discuss my doubts.
I said, “I want to thank God and believe that he hears me. When I pray, I don’t feel a connection.”
The priest said, “This is why it’s called faith. Even if you don’t feel a connection, you have to have faith that it’s there. Don’t worry about whether God hears you or approves of your prayers. Just speak to God from the heart. Use prayer to understand your own feelings.”
I took his advice, and stopped worrying about whether God was listening. I searched my soul for my deepest desires, for what I wanted more than anything else in the world.
“Thank you, God, for my health and my family. For a strong body and mind,” I said. “Please God, send me a good man. Someone who will make me feel safe. A man who would make me miss Daddy a little bit less. A man I’m attracted to, who is attracted to me. He doesn’t have to be rich, but let him be a hard worker and have goals in life. Let him be a man who will fix my car brakes, and knows what it means to love unconditionally. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.”
I made the same prayer every night for two years.
And, then God sent me Joe Gorga.
Copyright © 2013 by Melissa Gorga