Disclaimer: Thank you, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Ernest Lehman.
Note: A very happy 50th anniversary to West Side Story. This film and these characters mean more to me than I can say, and I hope I have shown that here.
[Side note: I did try to write a Tony/Maria, but as always, this ended up being about the Jets. Oops. Also, this is pretty fanon-ish, so definitely ask if you need an explanation!]
For: The above five men who created this film, as well as every actor, dancer, singer, crew member, and paper-pusher who had anything to do with this masterpiece making it to the silver screen. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.
—Don Draper, Mad Men
June 17th, 2007
"Where're you going again, old man?"
"Watch it," Action warns halfheartedly as he pulls on his socks. "You ain't no spring chicken neither, Pauline."
"So? I get around," the sixty-eight year-old says unconcernedly as she saunters through the door. "But you don't. Which is why it's so funny you're heading out now. Ain't it past your bedtime?"
Action rolls his eyes. "Even you oughta remember. Baby John called up last month, remember? Wants to do somethin' about it being half a hundred since Riff and Tony."
Riff and Tony, he thinks, getting to his feet. Action's been avoiding it all day, but where he's about to go he won't be able to forget it. He glances at Pauline,. One of the reasons that Pauline is just about the only chick he could ever stand for more than a minute is because she, of all of them, wasn't ever sentimental. Fifty years down the road, he wonders if that's still true.
Pauline just smirks. "Baby John?" she asks. "He and Minnie came all the way into the city just for us?"
"Looks like it," Action says, rummaging for his wallet, relieved that Pauline is still the same as ever. "Jesus, I don't know how they stand Brooklyn."
"Never was exciting enough for me," Pauline yawns, stretching before plopping in front of the mirror. "Then again, neither was popping out a hundred kids and I guess that does it for them. Where is this again, and who's coming?"
"Where else? The bar," he says. "I closed it for the night. It'll be just the Jets." He rolls his eyes, again glad that it's Pauline he ended up with, after all. "Girls too, so you know it's gonna be one giant sobfest."
Pauline, in the mirror, cocks a penciled-on eyebrow. "That mean you ain't gonna cry?"
Action scowls. "I ain't never cried in my life."
"Just when every single Jet kid was born, is all," Pauline says with a smirk. "And don't even get me started on the grandkids."
Actin flushes. "Don't know what you're talking about."
"Anyway," Pauline says later, darting a sidelong glance at him, "I wouldn't blame you if you started early. With the booze, I mean."
"I'll bet," Action snorts. "Might even help me out, right?"
"Maybe," Pauline allows with a smirk. "But only 'cause I care so damn much."
Action looks up at her, wary. She's putting her lipstick on like she hasn't said anything out of the ordinary, and Action thinks for a minute that it was a joke and nothing more. It would be like them, he knows. Taunting and laughing and not getting anywhere near the fact that it's fifty years later and here they are, old and never once faithful but somehow married with a grandkid and what's worse—maybe even okay with it.
"Yeah?" he asks, only half-serious. He's relieved when she lets out a loud laugh.
"No," she says, capping the lipstick and dropping it in her purse. "Have I ever?"
Action has to chuckle at that. "Good," he says, grabbing his jacket. He's just to the door when he hears her again.
"But I am coming."
Action looks back, then, sees her focusing on the clasp of her purse as she forces it shut with a click. Her hands, he thinks. He's seen them doing all sorts of things in the sixty years he's known her but this is the first time he's realized that they look old, even more than the rest of her. And he remembers that she was there, too, that night. Every night after that, too. Maybe not admitting it, but shocked and scared as all the rest of them.
"Okay," he says. He doesn't know what else to say—doesn't know how to put into words this sudden gratefulness, doesn't even think he wants to—but they understand each other. Whether that's good or bad he's not sure but he's come to accept it. "Get a move on, then."
Pauline snickers, and Action sees her grin. "Well, if I'm going to be around a bunch of saps all night, I'm going to need a head start on the booze, remember?"
Action pauses, then chuckles. They're old and tired but they can still drink with the best of them. "We got half an hour. Think you can keep up?"
Pauline smirks. "Try me."
Well, thinks Baby John with a sigh, he should have expected this.
He and Minnie have just walked up to the bar, and though Baby John definitely remembers specifying seven o'clock on the phone, the Kowalskis are the first ones there.
Minnie squeezes his arm. "They'll be here soon."
"Think so?" Baby John asks as he adjusts his glasses and glances up and down the street. "Sometimes I wonder, y'know. Maybe they're sitting at home laughing at me."
"You worry too much," Minnie says, the lines around her eyes crinkling as she smiles. "Why wouldn't they come?"
"Because it's me," Baby John says, feeling glum. "And not Ice or Action or someone else organizing this thing."
"You're too hard on yourself," she says, taking his hand with a warm smile. "Only you could've done this, you know."
Baby John doesn't feel terribly reassured. Minnie's always believed in him—it's one of the reasons he loves her so much—but all the same, even at sixty-four it's easy to remember being the youngest. The weakest. The worst of them all. Baby John. The name has stuck. Oh, sure, Minnie's always called him Johnny, and a few of their friends in Brooklyn even call him John if they don't know him very well, but no matter how old he gets, he'll always be Baby John to the Jets.
"Yeah, I guess," he says, not feeling very hopeful. "Only I'm dumb enough to."
Minnie leans forward and touches her lips to his cheek. "Only you're brave enough to, Johnny."
Baby John stares at her. Brave is not something he ever considered himself, but then, Minnie's always looked on the bright side. Still, though, he's about to contradict her when the door opens.
"Quit kissing and get in here," says Action, looking grizzled and tough as ever. "We've been waiting on you two."
"Hi, Action," says Minnie with a smile and a blush as Baby John cringes. "Have you been here long?"
"'Bout ten minutes," he says. "Everyone else's here, too."
"Oh," says Baby John, feeling more foolish than ever. "We didn't see anyone."
"That's 'cause they're inside," says Action with a snort. "Did you try the door?"
Baby John thinks about this. "Oh," he says sheepishly. "No, I didn't."
Action rolls his eyes. "Well, come on in anyway," he says, and disappears back inside.
Baby John turns to Minnie, feeling more fainthearted than ever. "See?"
"Courage," she whispers, squeezing his hand, and they go in.
As they walk into the bar, Baby John looks around at his friends. They're all sitting around the main room, and even though Doc's Candy Store is long gone, Baby John gets a jolt when he realizes how similar it all is to their old hangout. Graziella and Tiger up by the counter with Mouthpiece, Gee-Tar, and Bernice. Snowboy and Joyboy playing games in the back. Ice and Velma at a table in the corner. Big Deal and Clarice next to them. And A-Rab and Anybodys in front of the pinball machine. Just about the only thing different is that Action's behind the bar and serving up drinks. And, of course, the way they all look.
It's become a habit for him by now, figuring out how they've all changed. They all see each other a lot, except for him and Minnie out in Brooklyn, and so he thinks sometimes that he's the only one who still gets surprised by the simple fact that they're getting older, every one of them. The only one who's still sometimes scared of it, and the way when a Jet calls, there's almost always an update on how good or bad one of them is feeling. Failing eyes, gimp knee, broken hip. They're not just getting old, they are old, now, and they're all feeling it. And now as he looks he can tell that Ice has lost weight and Snowboy's got more hair on his mustache than his head and Mouthpiece's hearing is going and they're all stiff and slow but they were young once, Baby John thinks with a small smile, and they were really something. Weren't they. In the end, he supposes, that's why they're all here. To remember what they once were, and who they still are.
They haven't done this in awhile, though. Not since maybe the fortieth anniversary. You live long enough, Baby John has realized, and it only makes the day worse, thinking about friends long gone. But it's important, this time. More than anything else today, this is important, and the reason he asked them all here tonight. Riff and Tony were Jets til the day they died, fifty years ago. And so, still, are they.
Ten minutes later, after he's downed enough alcohol to make him almost as brave as his wife thinks he is, Baby John clears his throat. "So," he says, "I thought we could make a toast."
This gets their attention.
"What d'ya mean, a ghost?" asks Mouthpiece, jamming a trumpet into his ear. He has a hearing aid, his wife has told them all, only he never remembers how to use it and anyway he likes the trumpet better. Says it makes him look distinguished. "You bring one of those Ouija boards or something? My grandkids love 'em."
"No, a toast," Baby John says, saying it as loudly as he can as the Jets chuckle. "Y'know, like they do in the movies."
"Oh, I get it," Anybodys says. Her red hair is iron gray now, but her blue eyes and voice are still sharp. "You been watching Pearl Harbor again, huh?"
Another snicker goes around the room as Baby John feels himself flush. "Well—I like it," he sputters. "It's—"
"—awful," Anybodys says with a snort. "Even you know that."
"Anyway," Baby John says, trying to recover his dignity, "in the movies, they do this thing where they set up a picture and they all drink to their friend. Except one glass they leave in front of the picture. To remember him, see."
"Waste of good booze, if you ask me," says Action. Graziella, though, gets off her stool and steps forward. Her hair is still that bright orange-red but even Baby John knows by now that she dyes it.
"You got a picture?"
Baby John reaches into his pocket. "I was going through some of the stuff Doc left me when he passed, and I found this," he says, and puts it on the counter. The Jets crowd around, but he already knows the image by heart. Two boys, arms slung around each other's shoulder, mugging for the camera on a street long since demolished. Inseparable.
"It's them," Ice says, his voice sounding strange as he touches the faded newspaper cutout, smoothes it out. "The day that reporter from The Times tried to get an interview with some juvies for his doomsday article." He half-smiles at Velma's questioning look. "They stole the camera, used up all the film, and had some Boy Scouts drop it off. The next day they was all over the paper."
"Proudest moment of their lives," Snowboy says, the corner of his mouth quirking up. "Said it was like being famous, and all that."
"I think that was when they started to get the idea of being something," Gee-Tar says. "Of the Jets being something."
Big Deal shakes his head. "Nah, they always had that." He hesitates. "I never really got it, y'know. How they always thought there was somethin' out there better than what they had, because yeah, I know there was, but they really thought they were gonna get it."
"Maybe they did," Baby John offers. He half-expects a sneer or even a whack from Action for it, but tonight the short-tempered Jet just looks down. "I think so, anyway."
"Huh," says A-Rab. He scratches his head. "Y'know, I forgot all about that day. I'm getting old."
"Getting? Got," says Anybodys with a smirk. "I remember like it was yesterday."
"You weren't even in the Jets then, were you?" asks Gee-Tar. "Just hanging around."
"Might as well have been," says Big Deal with a shrug. "What else you remember, Anybodys?"
The lone female Jet snorts. "Everything. Showing around the streets, kicking people off our turf, painting the town red." She shrugs. "If you're asking what I remember about Riff and Tony, though, that's something different."
"Yeah?" Baby John asks, curious. "What?"
Anybodys leans her bony elbows back on the counter. "It's like you said," she says, glancing at Big Deal. "I hung around the Jets. You needed me and wouldn't admit it, of course—"
"Sure," says A-Rab, rolling his eyes, "like a toothache—"
"—but no matter what they said, Riff and Tony—well, they could've gotten rid of me. If they'd wanted to," Anybodys says, a faraway look on her face. "They never did."
She's got a point, Baby John realizes, and it's strange how he never figured it out before.
"I knew they was crazy," Action grumbles, but like Riff and Tony before him, he leaves it as just words.
Anybodys coughs. "Anyway I don't have to ask you what you remember," she says, turning to Baby John. "Saving your ass is all they ever did."
"No," Baby John says, then chuckles a little as more than one Jet raises an eyebrow. "I mean, yeah, but no, that's not what it'd be. It's just—" He pauses, searching his memory. "The thing I remember most when I think about Riff an' Tony is that they told me it didn't always have to be that way."
Gee-Tar frowns. "I don't get it."
Baby John thinks back to that afternoon in May, fifty years ago. "They said that if you were a Jet, you were somebody. You were who everyone else wanted to be. And sure, I hung around the Jets as much as anybody, but I didn't really know why until they said it." He takes a deep breath. "They told me I could be the greatest. Like them."
There is a silence as almost every single Jet takes a sip of his drink.
"They were the funniest, too," says A-Rab, with a little smile. "They told the best jokes."
"They were the best goddamn fighters around," Joyboy says, pointing to Action for a refill.
"They knew their stuff," Snowboy agrees, holding his hand up, too. "And they could get away with anything."
"And did," Gee-Tar says. "You remember when they painted the doors of the stationhouse shut?"
"Schrank and Krupke were mad as hornets when they got out," Big Deal says with a chuckle. "Went looking for them first thing, but couldn't pin it on them 'cause they snuck out of detention to do it and got back in before anyone figured it out."
"They were great," Tiger says, turning toward his wife. "The best buddies a guy could have." Graziella seems about to say something, but Ice clears his throat.
"They let me stay," he says into his beer. "When I didn't have anywhere else to go."
Baby John doesn't really understand this last one, but the look on Velma's face tells him it's not something to ask about. And Mouthpiece is already talking.
"They was family," the big man says, too loud, as he has been since he started going deaf. "We all knew it."
"What about you, Action?" Baby John asks, feeling almost daring as he glances over to the one Jet who hasn't said a word. He swallows another mouthful of beer before going on. "What do you remember?"
Action, slamming the pitcher of beer down, lets out a disbelieving snort. "What is this, a psych ward? Why ya need to know?"
"No one said you had to say something," Graziella sniffs. "It just might be nice if you did, is all."
"Well, I don't got nothing," Action says, picking up his own mug and downing half of it. "And that's that."
Baby John shrugs. It's not the first time he's been rebuffed, after all. "Okay," he says, and begins to turn away before he hears Minnie's voice.
"You must remember something," she says. "Please, Action." And though she has the most grandkids out of all of them, for one moment she looks just like the sweet, innocent girl she was. All of them see it, he knows. Even Action.
The old man looks torn for a full minute while the rest of the Jets wait. And then he coughs. "I guess maybe there's one thing," he says, shifting his weight. "Right after I joined up. Some Emerald jumped me behind the school. O'Malley—big guy, you remember him? Anyway I wasn't that great of a fighter yet, so I wasn't doing so hot. Busted wrist or something, I don't know. But I ended up with a bloody nose, two shiners, split lip, all that jazz."
"Good night," Big Deal says, incredulous. "You?"
Action almost smiles. "Tony and Riff caught up with me later. Said they knew I had guts, but could use a pointer or two. They asked me who did it. Wouldn't tell 'em. But the next day, there was O'Malley, fixed up even worse'n me. And Tony and Riff said they'd teach me how to fight." Action takes a deep breath. "Nobody ever had my back before then. That's what I remember."
This time, the silence is broken by the clink of a wineglass onto the bar.
"Sorry," Pauline says with a smirk. "My fault. We started early, and I forgot how sentimental he gets after a few drinks."
"Pauline," Clarice says, rolling her eyes, but there's no real annoyance behind it. Baby John can tell that it's because Clarice knows—they all do, really—that it's easier, somehow, to laugh it away than linger too long on a memory like that. Even fifty years removed, it's always going to be a little raw, a little fresh. He misses them, Baby John thinks. Even now, he misses them. He thinks everyone else is probably the same, too.
Baby John picks the picture up, studies their faces again. Riff and Tony, never growing older. It's funny, he thinks, the things they remember.
"So what do ya say?" he asks, looking around at all of them again. "How about a toast?"
After a moment, Ice takes the photo and props it up on the counter.
"Sure," he says, his tired blue eyes meeting Baby John's gaze. "Why not."
It takes time to set out nineteen shot glasses, and while Action busies himself Minnie leans over and squeezes his hand.
"You're doing great," she whispers. "I'm proud of you."
Baby John squeezes back. "One more thing I gotta do," he murmurs back. "And then you can be proud, okay?"
Minnie just smiles as Action pours the liquor with uncharacteristic care, filling each glass with exactly the same amount of gin. "Okay," he says, gesturing roughly to the line. "Take one."
And there, massed around the images of their old friends, the Jets and their girls pick up seventeen glasses. Ice moves the remaining two in front of the photo.
This is it, Baby John knows, as the Jets' eyes turn to him. His idea, his toast. And yet he can't think of anything better to say than what they just have.
"To Riff Lorton," he finally says, his hand shaking a bit as he raises his glass. "And Tony Wyzek. The best Jets I ever knew."
The Jets murmur affirmatives, lift their own glasses, drink. And just before Baby John tosses his own shot back, he says it. "And Bernardo."
Either they don't hear him or they ignore it, but Baby John likes to think that maybe it's been long enough that the Jets can agree on what they never understood then, the lesson he learned that night. That the neighborhood, the territory, was never what mattered then. That it still doesn't matter now.
Minnie meets his eyes, and by the steadiness of her gaze he knows that she, at least, understands what he's trying to say. That they're lucky, to have had this long, with a whole lifetime behind them that Riff and Tony and Bernardo never got. A half-century they never knew; fifty years without them. Water under the bridge.
Lucky, he thinks with a small smile as the others relax and Action starts pouring another round. Them. The snot-nosed juvenile delinquents from the broken homes and messed up families of the West Side, all grown up now and trying desperately not to repeat the mistakes of the past with their children, and their children's children. Trying to hold on to the world. Lucky. Who'd have thought.
As they stumble out of the bar hours later, Graziella laughs. Even when she was young she was never that great with gin and now that she's old—an old woman!—she knows what it means to be so drunk she actually can't see straight. Or walk.
"You okay?" Tiger asks her, and he isn't in much better shape but still, his hands are there, guiding her, the way they always have. And Graziella can feel the booze in her veins pushing the question free and she's scared to death but this is fifty years on and she's not some girl any more. This is the truth, and she needs to know.
"Was it worth it?" she asks, avoiding his gaze.
Tiger stops her. "What d'ya mean, Graz?"
Graziella takes a deep breath. "Me," she says, feeling, not for the first time, shame. High-school dropout, almost-single mother, the girl who couldn't face it alone. "Marrying me. Raising a kid I let you think was yours. All that."
"Why would you even ask that, Graz?" Tiger says, and though he sounds only as puzzled as he ever does, she winces.
"Because I lied to you every day of our lives and I'm sorry," she says, hating herself all the while. "I never said it, but I am. I'm sorry you got stuck with me, Tiger."
"Graz," he says for the third time, catching her arm. And when she finally looks him in the face Tiger is shaking his head. He's tired and stooped and has a bad leg and grandfather glasses but the only thing she sees now is how she never gave him enough credit for always being there when she needed him. "That's all I ever wanted."
"Can't see why," she says, looking down as the old fear comes over her. Never pretty enough, never thin enough, never deserving enough. "Not me."
"'Cause I love you, Graziella," he says, simple and honest and open as ever. "I always will."
There it is, she thinks. The reason she married him, the reason she stayed for nearly fifty years even when she despised him, thought she hated him. Because as much as she's tried over the years, that kind of true, unquestioning love isn't something you can just throw away. She's probably always known it somewhere inside her, Graziella supposes, but it's taken her this long to get to this moment of clarity: in the end, that's all she's ever wanted, too.
So even though he hasn't asked it—never has, probably never will—Graziella for once looks her husband in the eye, takes a deep breath, and faces the truth.
"He was someone I loved," she says, feeling that crushing pain all over again. "Riff. God, I loved him."
Tiger's face doesn't change. "I know."
Graziella shakes her head. "Someone I loved," she repeats, and almost smiles. "But maybe I love you, too."
Tiger does smile, then, a slow, content expression of happiness that Graziella hadn't realized she'd fixed in her memory. Their wedding. The delivery room, three times. And now.
But all he does is take her hand. As if, she thinks, he's known and never doubted all along.
"C'mon," he says. "Let's go home."
"It was weird, being there tonight. Wasn't it?"
Anybodys rolls over in bed. "What, you mean how there were only two fights and no one even bled or anything? Scared me, too."
"That ain't what I meant," says A-Rab, shaking his head as he stares up at the ceiling. What is weird, Anybodys thinks, is to see him this serious, even on a day like this. "It's like—it wasn't all good, you know? They wasn't saints, and we wasn't saints. They was everything we said, yeah, but Tony left us and Riff got himself killed and we leave that part out. It's half of what I remember about them and it's like it ain't even there."
Anybodys thinks she understands a little bit, but keeps her tone light. "You are getting old. Fat, too."
Running his hand through what little remains of his hair, A-Rab sighs. "No, it's just—damn. Sometimes it just seems so far away, y'know? And sometimes I wonder if it ever even happened. Riff. Tony. All of that."
Anybodys turns to look at him, trying to understand what he's getting at. "That true?"
A-Rab nods. "Yeah. 'Course I miss 'em, but Jesus, Any, it was fifty years ago. It's just—hard to remember, that's all."
"Tony and Riff?" she asks, blue eyes watching him.
A-Rab doesn't look at her, but he nods again. "Yeah. And—well, everything else, too." He doesn't elaborate, but Anybodys knows at last what he means.
"Some things you can't forget," she says, and reaches over to turn out the light. She can feel the cracks in the wood of a door from fifty years ago, pressed up against her back, and she can hear that insistent mambo beckoning from the radio. In the dark, A-Rab shifts on the mattress, and Anybodys digs her bitten-down nails into her palms, seeing a pair of dark, terrified eyes. Sometimes she still dreams about it.
"Yeah. Some things."
His voice is quiet, and she can tell from the stillness beside her that no matter what he says, A-Rab remembers every moment of that night and what happened just as well as she does. And it's for this reason that she rolls over and puts her arm around him.
"That was fifty years ago," she says, voice even. "Fifty years ago—God, I was fifteen. Didn't know what the fuck I was doing." She shakes her head. "Did you?"
A-Rab moves to return the gesture, and from the relaxation in his body she knows he's understood her. He laughs. "You oughta know, you told me every damn day I had my head stuck up my ass."
Anybodys smiles. Fifty years is a long time to grow up, to figure things out. To find out you can love someone through all of it, the good and the bad. "Yeah, well," she says, patting her hand on his chest, "some things never change."
"Aren't you getting a little old for this?"
Ice turns around to see his sleepy-eyed wife climb over the wall and onto the roof, wrapped in a robe. "I could say the same for you," he says, hearing his joints creak as he gets up to guide her over to his blanket. "How'd you know where I was?"
Velma gestures at the pale sky, at the first hint of dawn that's beginning to paint the sky, and smiles a little. "We've been married a long time, honey. I figured you might be out here this morning."
She doesn't say it, but she's been watching him all day and she's right: after almost forty-nine years of marriage, two kids, and five grandkids, it's not hard to read each other. Velma's worried, obviously, that much is clear, but her voice is light as she settles in next to him. "You're not going to do a runner on me, are you?"
Ice almost smiles, then looks down at his body, complete with aches and pains and half the strength it used to have. They're all old now, the Jets and their girls, but Ice, who's pushing seventy, is the oldest and he feels like it, too. "How far would I get?"
"You never know," says Velma with a sigh as she gazes out over the city. "Things've changed so much around here. Feel like I don't know where I am anymore."
She's right, he thinks. Some days it seems like almost nothing is left of the West Side he knew half a century ago. The old playground is gone. The skyline is different. The whole world is changed. To say nothing of the people they've lost.
He glances at Velma. She's just turned sixty-seven a little over a week ago, and her blonde hair has brightened to white. She's heavier, a little more lined, and always more tired than he'd like, but cliched as it is she's still as beautiful as ever to him. Velma knows him better than anyone has or ever will, and sometimes when he looks at her, he doesn't know how he would have gotten this far without her. Some things, at least, stay the same.
Velma meets his gaze. "That was some night, huh?"
Ice nods. "Some night."
It's amazing, he thinks. He remembers a hot summer night, the feeling of being invincible. He remembers Riff, bounding down the road ahead of him with nothing in his way. Tony, walking on air and reaching for the stars. Both of them his friends. Both of them his family. He remembers them, and he smiles. For forty-nine years, he thinks, the sun has dawned the morning after. It's almost up now.
Velma is silent for a long while, watching the horizon. She rests her head against his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
It's been a lifetime, he thinks. A lifetime since that day in June, fifty years ago, that changed everything. Ice reaches over, takes her hand in his. He thinks about what they have left behind, how long it has been. How far they have come, the two of them together, through the years to this moment. And he nods.
"Yeah," he says, watching the light spread over the West Side. They all are, really. "I'm okay."