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Archive for October, 2009

Toronto General Hospital

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Wednesday, 7th October, 2009

When I woke up, all I saw was white. And I was feeling groggy and tired. Had I died? I had no idea where I was.

“Where am I?” My first words came out the same way I was feeling.

“Heaven”, a female voice said.

I lifted my head up, and then I realized I was in the hospital. A tall nurse with a big afro stood at my bed, clutching a clipboard.

“Since when did heaven become a hospital room?” I asked.

“While you were sleeping.”

I glared at her. I was not in the mood for jokes.

“I’m just humoring you,” she said, patting my arm. “You could use a laugh.”

I lay back on the bed, trying to find a comfortable position. “The last thing I remember,” I said, trying to fit a pillow in the small of my back, “was me falling into that sand trap. And then, nothing.”

The nurse, whose tag showed that her last name was Lightbourne, wrote something down on her clipboard. “So, what number is this?”

“Huh?”

“On top of hypothermia, we found excessive amounts of Tylenol in your system. How many times have you tried to kill yourself?”

The pillow finally fit perfectly. “Too many to count. How did you guess?”

“I could tell. You have the look. I’ve seen it too many times – the look of a failed suicide victim.”

I nodded knowingly.

“And, I have a condensed medical history,” she added. “You know, one more failed suicide attempt, and you get a toaster oven.”

I chuckled. It was inappropriate, but I needed it. Nurse Lightbourne smiled. “There’s a good boy,” she said.

“I feel like such an idiot. I tried to kill myself because I didn’t want to go to my niece’s cotillion.”

“That’s unusual.”

“It was also my birthday. I was conscripted to attend by my parents. The whole party reeked of nouveau riche bullshit.”

Nurse Lightbourne walked over to the monitor to check my vital signs. “Did you have plans?” she asked.

“I had dinner reservations at North 44.”

“I got engaged there. You’d have loved it.”

“I even had my order planned out beforehand. For the appetizer, pink snapper tartare with ruby grapefruit and avocado. For the main course, grilled U.S.D.A. rib-eye. And for dessert, a tart of chocolate peanut butter marquise, burnt caramel, crisp feuilletine, lillokai parfait, and crisp meringue.” My stomach growled, deprived of that sumptuous meal.

“You’re making me horny,” Nurse Lightbourne said, out of the blue.

“Don’t you mean hungry?”

“What’s the difference? Anyway, the doctor will be in to check on you later. I’m sorry that you missed out. It sounds delicious.”

All of a sudden, my parents and Charlotte entered the room. They were PISSED OFF.

“Nurse,” my father said, “please excuse us.”

“Are you family?”

“No, they’re my parents and sister,” I chimed in. “And I wasn’t being sarcastic.”

Nurse Lightbourne glared at him. “I hope you’re happy,” she said. “You robbed him of lillokai parfait.” She stormed out.

I had no intention of being in the same room as the posse that had come in. But I couldn’t get out. I had tubes in my arm and I was still in some pain, though the drugs diluted it a scooch. Still, I wanted to make a run for it.

Charlotte sat down next to the window, my mother sat to my immediate left, and my father was at the foot of the bed. They had me trapped.

“So, this is where you’ve ended up,” my father said.

“Why did you have to make such a scene last night?” my mother asked. “Why did you have to embarrass us like you did?”

“Would you have preferred that I embarrassed you some other way?” I retorted.

“This is not funny, ASSIANO,” Charlotte snapped.

“Listen, bitch, it’s GRAZIANO!” I snapped back. It took a lot out of me, and my body hurt. Charlotte looked steamed. Her head looked like it would explode into smithereens. “Anyway,” I continued, “I could have been painting the town red last night, instead of enduring three and a half hours of nouveau riche bullshit.”

“Nouveau riche bullshit?” my mother screamed. “That was your cousin’s coming-out party!”

“As what? A stupid, spoiled whore? She didn’t need a party for that.”

My father stomped on the ground. “How can you be so proud of yourself, young man?” he roared.

“How could I not?”

“Dammit! It was NOT your place to do that!” Charlotte stood up in her chair like a lawn dart.

That was rich, coming from someone who thought it her place to sick her boyfriends on me.

“I only said what I was feeling,” I said. “It wasn’t as if I pissed on the 18th hole.”

My mother closed in on me. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?” she said. The stench of liquor came from her mouth, of course. “You think that you can get through life as some smart-aleck faggot. The world doesn’t work like that!”

“Is that a forty I smell on your breath?” Having been around a drunk for a mother, I’ve gotten used, against my better judgment, to the smells of various wines and spirits. She didn’t respond and retreated back to her seat.

“You know what Ashley said to me last night?” Charlotte paced around the room, glaring at me. “She said that if you hate this family so much, why don’t we just excommunicate you?”

“Excommunication!” my father exclaimed. “A grand idea, one of the best in all of Christianity.”

“For your information,” my mother said, rather proudly, “it’s not a forty. It’s Colt 45!”

“They make them in 40-ounce bottles,” I replied.

OH SHUT THE FUCK UP! JUST SHUT YOUR GODDAMN FAGGOT TRAP, YOU GODDAMN KNOW-IT-ALL FAGGOT!” My mother could not take it anymore. Frankly, this was an unimpressive display. I had seen her act a whole lot worse. She centered herself and sat down again.

My father walked over to my right and shook his head. “Do you see what you put your mother through? Me? Charlotte? The whole family?” he asked. “What would your grandparents say?”

I looked at him and said, “Good on you. That’s what they would say. They and Ryan were the only people in this family who had my back. They made me feel like I was worth something. They made me feel like a human being. And they’re gone. Ryan moved away and my grandparents are dead.”

“BOO FUCKING HOO!” My father’s livid level was on the rise. “They’re gone for good. Get over it.”

I was horrified. “I can’t. I miss them, and Evan too. Sometimes I wonder if God hates me–”

“You’re damn right he does,” Charlotte interjected.

FUCK YOU, YOU GODDAMN HARLOT!” I screamed. “FUCK. YOU.

Charlotte fell back into her chair. That scared the shit out of her.

“As I was saying,” I continued in a calmer voice, “sometimes I wonder if God hates me. The people who I loved more than anything in the world are gone. Is it fate? Is it my punishment?”

“Save that shit for when you die,” my father said. “Hopefully, that will be soon. Now, you listen to me, young man. As soon as you get released from the hospital, I want you to get all your belongings and get the hell out of my house. As of right now, you ARE excommunicated from the family. You are not to contact us in any way, shape, or form. I don’t even want to know where you are. I hope that you never find a home. I hope that you die and rot in the streets. I hope that they will bury you in a pauper’s grave. And I hope that some dog will shit on it.” He turned to Charlotte and my mother. “Come on; let’s go home.”

They followed him out. I could hear my mother ask, “Why do they call it Colt 45 and sell it in 40-ounce bottles?”

“Because your son is an asshole, that’s why,” Charlotte replied.

I heard their steps in the hallway fade. It was at that moment that I realized, I was by all accounts homeless. I began to cry; this time my tears and cries were softer, but no less profound. I had just turned 28, and I had nowhere to go. To make matters worse, Thanksgiving was a few days away. Home no longer existed. I finished crying, and thought, “Dear God, what am I going to do?”

I sat up in my bed for hours, thinking about the next step. I knew this much: cliché notwithstanding, my life was never going to be the same.

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I just want to tell anyone who visits this blog for the first time that this blog novel is a work of fiction. The events mentioned in this book did not, as a whole, happen to me in my life. I admit that I have had some bad stuff happen to me, but not to the extent that Graziano Buonfiglio endures in this book. Some of the events mentioned are events that happened to me, but not the murdered grandparents bit. I just want to explain that. I do hope that you continue to follow the story. Thank you.

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Glen Abbey Golf Course
Clubhouse
Oakville, Ontario, Canada
6th October, 2009

I had to ride the entire route to the Glen Abbey Golf Course in my parents’ car. My mother was in shotgun, putting on makeup. She looked like a drag queen. No, scratch that. Drag queens would never look that messed up. My father had the radio on. Big band. He loved Glenn Miller and his ilk. No Brian Setzer Orchestra for him. Charlotte was on her cell phone, talking up a storm. She has a prominent Canadian accent, but she can say “Oh my God!” and “Whatever!” and whatever affectations with a pin-point American accent, and this is a woman who had never even been to California.

I looked out the window and saw everything pass by: trees, houses, buildings, more trees, more houses, more buildings. I hated it. Life was passing me by. I was stuck at home, no prospects of ever breaking out, enduring abuse on a near-constant basis, and on this night, I couldn’t even celebrate my birthday.

The trip, all told, took a half-hour. It was raining. It would have been to everyone’s advantage had they held it on a weekend. But technically, it wouldn’t have counted because Ashley would have been 17 still. And Uncle Michael could afford to hold it on a relatively inconvenient night. He had the money and influence. So, when we pulled into the clubhouse parking lot, it was next to filled to capacity. People were not going to let a little rain dampen Ashley’s big night.

We got out, and already I could tell it was going to be a long and boring and ridiculous night. Next to the entrance, Ashley’s recent homecoming queen photo was present at both sides. And yet she looked like Kristen French, one of the victims of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo from back in the day. I know that it sounds crazy, but I would have rather spent the night with Karla and Paul than attended this shit. Of course, if Paul attacked me, I would have whooped his Scarborough Rapist ass and thrown him into Lake Ontario, but still.

I maintained a distance of 10 feet behind the rest of my family as we made it across the wet, cramped parking lot. And then they came towards us: Uncle Michael and Aunt Denise. They looked considerably better than my parents, but even then they still looked ridiculous. Uncle Michael had a garish purple suit on. All he needed was a fedora, an ermine coat, and a walking stick and he could bitch-slap you if you didn’t make any money. Aunt Denise, whose stylized facial expressions screamed “CUNT“, had on a Gucci dress. I never knew much about Aunt Denise, other than the fact that she openly despised me and worked for the federal government… giving blow jobs to Conservative MPs, I imagine. No. I would credit them with more taste.

“Joe, Nadine, Charlotte,” he said, “great to see you.” He ignored me, that bastard. I wasn’t surprised, though.

“Is the birthday girl here?” my father asked.

“She’s on her way with her friends,” Aunt Denise replied. “In a stretch limo.” Jesus Christ on a wheel, the bitch was coming in a fucking limousine. “So, Charlotte, how’s little Savannah?”

“My boyfriend’s mom is babysitting her. She’s fine.” I never was allowed to touch Savannah, not even give her a hug. Charlotte had been rearing her to hate me since birth, just like Michael and Denise Buonfiglio had been rearing Ashley.

“Hey, you!” Uncle Michael yelled at me. I bristled.

“Don’t ‘hey, you’ me!” I snapped back. Like Charlotte, Uncle Michael never addressed me by my first name. It was bad enough that my bitch sister called me Assiano, but my uncle calling me “Hey, you” was especially worse.

“Shouldn’t you be out doing steroids?” Aunt Denise retorted.

“Shouldn’t you be screwing Stephen Harper?” I asked.

She had no response. She looked like someone had slapped the taste out of her mouth. “I’m going to check on the hors d’oeuvres,” she said in a low voice and scurried back inside. It was for me a minor victory, but a victory nonetheless.

“Any more bons mots, you smart-ass fag?” Barney the Guido Dinosaur snapped.

“It’s my fucking 28th birthday!” I roared. “I shouldn’t be here.”

“Tough. You are here. And you’re going to behave yourself or this will be your last birthday.” He motioned for my family to come inside. I stayed outside, away from the soft shower outside. I sat on a bench and watched people file in, all friends and family of Ashley. I took out a stress ball from my pocket and squeezed it for ten minutes.

When those ten minutes were up, I got inside the clubhouse and slowly made my way towards the banquet hall. Upon entering said hall, I was immediately horrified. If you thought that the creepy homecoming photos at the clubhouse entrance were too much, you hadn’t seen anything yet. It was a virtual celebration of all things Ashley: blown-up pictures of her were on tasteful, silver-painted stands throughout the hall; Ashley at birth, Ashley’s first crawl, Ashley’s first Communion, pictures of her winning awards, pictures of her scoring the winning goal in a championship soccer match… ugh. Every banquet table had a bouquet of her favorite flowers: daisy and periwinkle. Each bouquet had a card outlining the meaning of said flowers: daisy representing the Virgin Mary, and periwinkle as the Virgin Flower. Even the color scheme of the garish crepe-paper decorations reeked of Ashley: virgin white. Virgin, virgin, virgin… the irony was that on this night, Ashley was omnipresent to fame-whore levels, and she wasn’t even in the building at that point.

My parents and Charlotte sat in the far end of the hall, near where Ashley and her coterie of cohorts would hold court. Ashley’s seat was less of a seat and more of a throne. A virgin white throne, of course. Aunt Denise and Uncle Michael were there as well. They were chatting up a storm and drinking.

I tried to stomach as much as I could of the atmosphere and walked towards the buffet table. I filled a paper plate with manicotti, some slices of beef with gravy, and mixed vegetables. If I couldn’t have my dinner at North 44, I would be damned if I didn’t at least have some grub here.

I sat down at the extreme opposite end of the hall, close to the exit. For the next 40 minutes, I saw people drinking, eating, and looking at the various photos. I swear, they could have had pictures of Ashley buck naked riding Lady Gaga’s disco stick on a burning bed of coals and no one would have given a fuck. And yet, none of the people even noticed me. Not the cousins and aunts and uncles that I knew, not even the people who I didn’t know at all. Even in the events when I had to go to the washroom, no one looked my way. I didn’t want them to all throw themselves at me, but it would  have been nice if someone had acknowledged me.

And then, the lights dimmed. And then, the booming voice of Uncle Michael spread across the hall:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the friends of Ashley Buonfiglio!”

Her 18 friends were paired into nine boy-girl pairs, and they came out in 1-minute intervals. They all came from the same high school: Our Lady of I Don’t Give a Shit. And I didn’t give a shit about this shit. The boys were not that cute, in my opinion, but I could see why girls their age thought of them as cute. They looked like the road company for The Zac Efron/Robert Pattinson Experience. And the girls had curly hair and billowy gowns, as if this was Toddlers & Tiaras. They came out to Pachelbel’s Canon. That was so classless.

“Ladies and gentlemen, escorted by her boyfriend, Marvin Tagliaferro, please welcome my baby girl, on her 18th birthday, Miss Ashley Mercedes Buonfiglio!”

And then, the DJ played Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” as the over-coiffed, over-made-up woman of the night, Ashley Buonfiglio, and her Canadian Army boyfriend (he was in full regalia) sashayed in with precise, perhaps terrifying, precision. Had I been at the booth, I would have said “Fuck it” and played “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks, because I’m classy. The procession sickened me, especially when they began some formal ballroom dancing bullshit. It looked classy, but in all truth, it was trashy.

While the buffet food was delicious (the one thing that they got right), the night continued to worsen. Uncle Michael made a speech, Aunt Nadine made a speech, the Monsignor of the Church of Our Lady of I Don’t Give a Shit said an invocation, and there even was a slick DVD presentation of Ashley’s greatest moments. It was more pornographic than anything Jenna Jameson could have mustered. It couldn’t have been more pornographic if the backing track had been “Bow chicka wow wow”.

Around 9:30 that night, Ashley addressed the audience for the first time. This is how her speech went:

“Thank you, everyone. Tonight is a special night, because it marks my passage from a little girl into a woman.”

Didn’t she lose her virginity in the back of her boyfriend’s truck?

“I know that the weather has been abysmal…”

No, bitch, this celebration is abysmal.

“… but not even the biggest rainstorm in Canada could have made this night a disaster. I feel so humbled and honored to have you all here, celebrating my 18th birthday.”

Bullshit.

“I look back on my life, and I realize how much I have accomplished in the world. I also realize how much I still have left in me. I realize how lucky I am to have parents who love me, who cherish me, and who are there for me when I am down.”

Fuck that shit. My mother and father never acted like a mother and father.

“Tonight, I would like to thank the Glen Abbey Golf Course for allowing us to celebrate my birthday on the course of champions…”

Because you need to mention the joint if you want to have another shindig here again.

“… thanks to my family…”

I had enough. I got up out of my seat and headed for the exit, and then the following words flew out of Ashley’s mouth:

“EXCUSE ME! NO ONE WALKS OUT ON MY SPEECH!”

I turned around, and for the first time that whole night, at least one pair of eyes were on me. Everyone inside the hall glared at me. I could feel their icy stares piercing at me, like I was a pin cushion. Even from 30 feet away, I could tell that my father, my mother, Charlotte, CUNT Face and Barney the Guido Dinosaur were pissed. I hadn’t done anything but get up and head for the exit.

That was all I needed. I walked, nay, stomped a straight line toward Ashley. STOMP. STOMP. STOMP. The rest of the audience could feel it. Something was about to go down.

I looked at Ashley with a sneer. She dropped the microphone, and I caught it before it hit the polished wood floor. “I’ll be done in a minute,” I growled.

Ashley stepped back, as did everyone in her posse, even her military boyfriend Marvin. I took the microphone and began MY speech:

“My name is Graziano Buonfiglio. I am Ashley’s cousin, and the alleged black sheep of this family, even though I have a college degree and never had a conviction. Okay, I had a few run-ins with the law, but that’s neither here nor there. Tonight is not only a big night in this family, but it’s also my 28th birthday. Yeah. Tonight, I could have been at a restaurant in midtown Toronto, dining on the best that the GTA has to offer. I could have gone out and had someone fuck my brains out. I could have been on top of the world. But NO. I had to be conscripted into joining the rest of the Buonfiglio clan and forfeit the numerical elegance of celebrating my birthday on my birth date. In my whole life, I never had anything like this. My parents never threw me a party or gave me presents. My grandparents tried, but they couldn’t, because my parents would intercept them and take what rightly should have been mine. Frankly, this is a fucking travesty. For the first time in my life, I feel ashamed to be a part of this family.”

No one applauded. Not even one clap. Just dead silence. I handed the microphone back to Ashley, and I said, “Happy Birthday, you fucking whore.”

I promptly stormed out of the hall. I heard Ashley break down into tears. I heard whispers from the other party guests. I even heard the Monsignor of OLOIDGAS say a prayer or two. But I didn’t turn my back for one second. I headed out of the clubhouse and into the rain. I knew that Charlotte still had my keys, but I didn’t care at that point.

I marched onto the golf course, as the rain came down. I heard thunder rumbling in the skies. I was getting wet with every step. I didn’t care. And then I tripped and fell, face first… in a deep sand bunker. It felt like crashing onto the wet part of the beach: technically soft but still hard enough that it hurt like a bitch.

I began to cry into the sand. Of course, the sand couldn’t tell the difference between rain and my tears. I sobbed for five minutes. The emotions began coming out again. I hated my family, I hated my place in the world, I hated the whole world.

My tears temporarily subsided. I took out a bottle of Tylenol and opened it. Ten capsules fell into my hand and softened with the rain. I thrust them into my mouth, swallowed, and cried again. My cries became howls. My howls became screams. The screams seemed to be in concert with the rain and the thunder. And then, I blacked out.

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Brampton, Ontario, Canada

6th October, 2009

When it comes to domestic birthday parties, I have historically gotten the short end of the stick. I never got a birthday cake. I never got birthday presents. No “Happy Birthday” for me. No parties. My parents would say to people that they couldn’t afford to give me even the most rudimentary of celebrations, because they didn’t have enough money. Yet we never went hungry  or became destitute. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Ryan got the best of everything, and especially on their birthdays.

When Ryan turned 18, my parents had his birthday party at their summer getaway near Niagara Falls, and they spared no expense to celebrate his coming of age. They even had Celine Dion send a video message, and Ryan wasn’t even that big of a Celine Dion fan. And yet I have every album that she did, even the French-language ones. When Charlotte hit the big 18, she had a cotillion, marking her entry into society. Long gowns, gloves, a buffet dinner… it was a feast fit for a spoiled, bratty whore.

And how did I celebrate my 18th birthday? I spent it holed up in my room, eating Haagen-Dazs and crying and listening to Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair album. To this day, I still lose it when I hear the opening raindrop-like notes to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. And Haagen-Dazs is still my friend, my bodybuilder build notwithstanding. I never even got a birthday present from my grandparents. Not that they didn’t give me any, but they were always intercepted by my parents. They even snapped up cash gifts and spent them on even more booze and shit.

The only times that I had a birthday party were from 2000 to 2003. My dorm advisor, a friendly if physically intimidating bull dyke from Manitoba named Marie-Lourdes, took me out for a night of bowling with her queer friends. I can’t bowl for shit, but it was one of the most fun times in my life. 2001 was the first time that I had a proper birthday cake. I bought it myself: a Sacher torte, the ones made of chocolate and apricot jam whose master recipe is kept under lock and key in Austria. I partied alone in my dorm room, and I did that on my own accord. Even though 9/11 had happened and everyone was reaching out to each other, I refused to buy into the hysteria and the aftermath. I still believe that 9/11 was less of a terrorist attack and more of a carefully orchestrated opportunity for Dubya to begin his reign of terror. 3,000 people died that day, and for absolutely nothing, IMHO.

Evan took me out on my birthday in 2002 and 2003. The first one was atop CN Tower, which in all truth neither of us had been. The food was decent, but being with Evan and having a gorgeous view of Toronto and Lake Ontario was more than enough. The next year, I had the best birthday of my life. We had dinner at Byzantium, near Church & Wellesley. Dinner was great, but that wasn’t exactly what made the night so special. Back at his apartment, Evan gave me the best present ever: a Teddy Ruxpin that he got off eBay. It was a little worn out, but it was still a Teddy Ruxpin and worked great. It was ironic that I never got to experience the joy of that little bear when I was a kid and Teddy was in his heyday, yet after so many years, and at an age when stuff like that is collected for nostalgia and kitsch purposes, I could finally enjoy it without feeling guilty. I totally fucked the stuffing out of Evan that night.

Since moving back home, my birthdays went unnoticed as usual, with the exception that they were some of the very few days that I not once got assaulted or berated. And as ever, my parents splurged on other people’s birthdays. Even my niece Savannah got the royal treatment. I was left to make my own birthday celebrations, this time with neither Evan nor my grandparents in my life. Even if I couldn’t have a party, I always made sure that I got some birthday cake, and it was always something with chocolate. I can’t imagine having anything else on a birthday.

My 28th birthday began like most days, as of late: I woke up around 7 o’clock in the morning. My parents were sound asleep, and wouldn’t be up for some time. They usually would get up around 10, usually nursing a hangover from the previous night. I had some breakfast and rushed off to work. Work, in this case, was the latest in a succession of temporary gigs: a clerical assignment at HSBC in downtown Toronto. I liked the work, but in truth, I’m not really a suit-and-tie business-class guy.

When I came back home, I showered and got dressed. I had reservations that night at North 44, a restaurant in midtown Toronto, if not THE restaurant. I had even planned my menu, right down to the dessert. Everything was going to be so perfect, so wonderful…

And then I went downstairs. I was near the front door when I heard a booming voice from the kitchen:

“WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?!”

I turned around, and I saw my father emerge from the kitchen into the foyer. He, too, was all dressed up. He had a navy blue tie on to go with his ghastly blue suit. Coincidentally, my father was a Conservative. I’m a progressive Liberal. Every time my father wore that blue suit, he looked even more disgusting than before. To put it another way, a pimp in Compton would be hard-pressed to look even that atrocious. Flavor Flav wouldn’t have looked that stupid, and that’s a guy who walks around with Viking horns and a giant clock on a necklace.

“I repeat!” he said. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

I didn’t care to look in his direction. “Tonight’s my birthday,” I muttered. “I have plans.”

“Not tonight, you don’t.”

“What? Have you decided to acknowledge my birthday?”

He laughed for ten seconds, and then: “Hell no.”

“What’s going on?” I sensed that something was up.

My mother came out of the kitchen, holding a glass of wine. She, too, was dolled up for a night on the town. She always made an effort to look good and fashionable, even if she was inebriated. “It’s your cousin Ashley’s 18th birthday,” she said.

I was ten feet away from her, and I could still smell Sauvignon Blanc on her breath. I hated Ashley and her side of the family. Uncle Michael and his wife, Aunt Denise, were rich bitches who were just as fervent in their hatred of me as my parents were. Ashley was 10 years younger than me, and already had an advantaged life in Oakville: a GPA in the top 0.1% of all secondary school students in Canada, offers from every major university in North America, and a bevy of friends and acquaintances who bowed at her feet and kissed her rings as if she were the fucking Pope.

“What does that have to do with me?” I asked my mother.

“We’re all invited to her cotillion at Glen Fiddich.”

“Don’t you mean Glen Abbey?” I corrected her.

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” she grumbled as she went back into the kitchen.

“Well, I hope that you two have a lovely evening.”

“Not so fast!” my father bellowed. “Your stupid ass is coming with us. The whole family is invited.”

I had no intention of going. “Well, I decline the invite, but you can go along. I’ve nothing for Ashley, and her family has nothing for me.”

“You’re going and that’s final.”

I refused to be cowed. “Why?” I asked, no hint of whining in my voice. “You don’t drag me to other family events. What’s so special about this one?”

“I SAID YOU’RE GOING AND THAT’S THAT!” my father roared.

I glared at him and thrust the front door open. And coming towards me was my whore of a sister, Charlotte. She looked every inch like a glamorous whore. I stormed out and was all set to pass her when she grabbed my lapel and stopped me.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she growled.

“Charlotte, he’s coming with us to Ashley’s party,” my father said, now dominating the front entrance.

“Yeah, and he had better not embarrass the fuck out of us!” I could hear my mother cackle like a witch on crack from the kitchen.

Charlotte thrust her hand into my jacket pocket and snatched my car keys. I grabbed her wrists and tried to force her to let go, but she wouldn’t. She put them in her Louis Vuitton knock-off purse and slapped me so hard that it sent me to the ground.

I got up and looked at my parents and Charlotte. They were loving this, seeing me fall on my ass. I realized at that point that I was trapped. Dinner at North 44 would have to be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely.

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I didn’t have anyone at home to help me through. By this time, Ryan had left the nest and gone to Notre Dame University. I was sad that he left. Ryan and I never really spent a lot of time together, as he was always busy with school and extra-curricular activities. But when we did spend time together, I treasured it. He helped me with schoolwork, and also didn’t judge me for being gay. He always looked out for me, but was powerless when my parents beat me up. Charlotte continued to hurt me, even though I was a year older than her. She continued to terrorize Bishop Allen Academy and get away with it.

The new millennium brought out even worse changes in my parents. My father decided to go into semi-retirement and spent his free time with a succession of strippers. My mother had discovered herbal Ecstasy and the fine art of mixing drugs with alcohol. They still managed to put up a front of respectability, but inside, it was bedlam. And with my grandparents out of the way, they were free to do anything that they wanted, including repeatedly beating me up, never mind that I was already of age.

Fortunately, I had one advantage. While I wasn’t the most stellar student in school, I did get a full-ride scholarship to the University of Toronto. It covered tuition, books, and housing. I took full advantage of it, and by the time school started, I had moved the bulk of my belongings into my dorm. I put the rest in a public storage facility.

At the University, I began to come into my own. I no longer was in mortal fear of getting my ass kicked from family and students and teachers. I no longer would have to put up with my family’s bullshit. I could get a good night’s sleep without crying. I actually looked forward to going to class. As a tribute to my grandparents, I majored in Italian Studies.

When I wasn’t studying, I was working out and preparing for competition. My competition weight was 210 lbs, with 8% body fat. Out of competition, I weighed about 230 lbs. I admit that I did take steroids, but by the grace of God or Goddess, not once did I have a case of ‘roid rage. I worked my way up the ranks of the Canadian bodybuilder scene, while balancing school and various short-term gigs. It wasn’t long before I won competition after competition. Because I wasn’t at the pro level, I had to supplement my burgeoning bodybuilding career. I never worried about my financial status at school, but I still wanted to make some money.

I did a variety of part-time jobs throughout school: security work at conventions, data entry, promotional gigs at gay pride events, and even gigs as a stripper. I mainly did bachelorette gigs. Even after gay marriage was legalized in Canada, I didn’t get a single gig at a gay bachelor party. That really disappointed me.

I had a number of sexual liaisons when I was in school, but all of them were with guys that I knew for a fact were gay or bisexual. I never slept with a straight guy. That’s just wrong. One spring, I went to the Arnold Classic (it was my first time in the United States), just to get a taste of what to expect in the event that I decided to go whole hog and vie for a pro card. I ran into two hot black bodybuilders, who shall remain nameless for the protection of the really satisfied. They were really friendly and fun, and I ended up getting fucked at both ends by them. They even let me fuck them, and they usually never took it up the ass. I was no longer a virgin when I met them, but that was the first major sexual encounter of my life. I still keep in contact with them.

All this time, I wanted a boyfriend. I enjoyed casual sex, and yes, I did play safe, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want to end up lonely. That changed one spring day in 2002, when I met Evan Smart. He was a year ahead of me, and majored in communications. We met at a Tim Horton’s by chance, and we both ordered the same thing: Boston cream donuts. Evan was a nerd in everything but physical appearance from the neck down: he wore thick glasses and had sandy blonde hair, and he knew a lot of things about a lot of things, but he was also a dancer. We didn’t live in the same residential halls, and we never shared a class, but we always saw each other. I fell hard for him the first day we met. There was a je ne sais quoi about him that seduced me, that intrigued me.

One night, I was, against my better judgement, visiting my parents. They were living in Brampton, having sold the old home in Corso Italia. By this time, Charlotte had moved out and was pursuing a modeling career in New York. I thought that some time apart would finally make my parents realize how much they treated me badly. Wrong. My mother, drunk as ever, and my father, still an arrogant bastard, lambasted me for everything. The final straw was when they both expressed indifference over the death of my grandparents. It almost seemed that they were happy that they were gone.

I stormed out of the house and headed back to campus. My heart was broken again. On the way there, I called Evan. But Evan was going through his own shit. His parents, devout Mormons who lived in Utah and never approved of him being gay, had cut him out of their will. They also banned any relative from coming in contact with him, and Evan, who had tried to reconcile with them for years, was crestfallen. I went over to his apartment, and we commiserated together. It was a night of tears, tantrums, and trash-talking about our families. The next morning, we woke up in each other’s arms. The rays of sun had hit his face and it set it aglow. It was a beautiful sight. The game changed after that.

Evan graduated in 2003, and got a job working at the CBC. We still made time for each other. I continued to flourish at the University of Toronto. In addition, I had won the junior title at the Canadian bodybuilding championships. I also got more stripping gigs. Evan didn’t mind that I was a bodybuilder or a stripper; in fact, he got turned on by it. By the same token, it wasn’t just Evan’s brain and sweet nature that turned me on – he had a disproportionately huge dick. I am 5 feet 10 inches tall; he was six inches shorter than me, but his endowment was almost the same size as mine.

In 2004, I received my Bachelor’s degree in Italian studies. No one from my family showed up. Evan was the only one close to family that attended. I moved into his apartment near his workplace. Everything was going well for us, professionally and personally. I even began having dreams of marrying Evan, and adopting children like Angelina Jolie had been doing.

And then, it happened. Evan and I went to see a play at Buddies at Bad Times, a queer theatre near Church & Wellesley. Afterwards, we were headed for Pizza Pizza. Suddenly, a bunch of gay-bashers jumped us. We both fought them, but then one of the assholes whipped out a pipe and bashed Evan in the head. Repeatedly. And then, they disappeared into the night. Evan was on the ground, lying in a pool of blood. His face was unrecognizable for what amounted to a relatively quick beating. I tried to revive him, but it was too late. Evan was dead. It was even worse than when my grandparents were murdered, because I had to see it for myself.

The Smart family didn’t even bother to fly to Toronto and bring his body home. Amid a sea of friends and colleagues, I was the only loved one at his funeral. He was only a few days away from getting permanent residency in Canada. Per his will, he was cremated and I spread his ashes at the waterfront, where he liked to go to clear his mind. I stayed in our apartment for a few months, and then the Smarts begrudgingly came to claim everything. I was, by all accounts, homeless.

I didn’t want to go back to my parents. But no one else would take me in. I was estranged from every one of my relatives who still lived in the area, and I no longer could go to my grandparents for support. Regretfully, I had to move to Brampton.

As soon as I moved back, the abuse resumed, though it was limited to once-a-week physical beat-downs and daily verbal lashings. I tried to resume some form of sanity with work and bodybuilding competitions, and I tried to stay clear of my parents and relatives. But it still continued. Soon, Charlotte returned, this time pregnant and unrepentant about her hatred towards me. She gave birth to a daughter, Savannah, and soon after resumed her life as the most notorious party girl of the GTA. She joined my mother in her Bacchanalia, often taking trips once a month to the nearest casino and smoking, drinking, drug-taking, and partying up a storm.

My father continued to do law, and also every woman who crossed his path. He also used his connections in the legal world to get every one of his clients off the hook, even if the evidence suggested otherwise. Basically, he did everything short of murder and baby-eating that would have jeopardized any other lawyer’s license. And yet, not once was his license threatened with being revoked.

I began abusing over-the-counter drugs to ease the pain. Tylenol, Advil, whatever generic pills I could find at the nearest Shoppers Drug Mart as long as it dulled the pain and as long as I could afford it, I bought it. I overdosed on Tylenol once and had my stomach pumped. I would also have nervous breakdowns for no reason whatsoever, in even the most random of places. One night, I performed at a bachelorette party in front of a wild crowd of women. They were so randy, that they jumped me just as I was about to complete my routine. I started bawling my eyes out, and in front of a bunch of liquored-up twenty-something women, that’s really embarrassing. I just couldn’t take the stress of life anymore. I quit stripping afterwards, even though I was one of the most popular strippers in the company. I also stopped competing in bodybuilding competitions, because the scars on my body were getting more obvious, and tanning cream and makeup can only cover up so much.

The yelling, the beatings, the suicide attempts, the pain that my body and soul was going through – I would not wish that on my worst enemy. For years, I worried that this would be my fate: to suffer at the hands of my horrid family, to not have anyone there for you, and to die unloved and unnoticed to the world. On the 6th of October, 2009, I finally decided to stop the cycle of abuse. It was my 28th birthday, and in the end, it would turn out to be more than just that.

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And as hellish as home was, school was equally bad. My parents made the decision to put Ryan and Charlotte in Catholic schools, and sent me to public schools. From kindergarten onwards, school was a nightmare. I tried to hold up my end of the bargain and was pretty successful grade-wise, but that could not make up for the abuse and harassment that I suffered at the hands of the other classmates… and a few of the teachers. I was called every name in the book and I received every implement of torture on offer: being shoved into lockers, beat-downs in the hallways, wedgies in the washroom, and chases before and after school. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay had nothing on Regal Road Public School, and there was nothing regal about it.

I got suspended twice at Regal Road, and both times I was grossly overcharged. The first time was merely retaliation after some  jerk named Hershel Bender called me a “fag” – I slapped him and slapped him good. It wasn’t as serious as the times when Hershel bashed my face in my locker, but while that bitch got away with it, I was sent home and got royal beat-downs from my parents. That was the first and only time when my grandparents managed to prevent it from going further than it did. Hershel is now some wannabe rapper hawking  his CDs outside of Eaton Centre. The second time, this giant cunt named Sissy Vandenbroucke, who rivaled Charlotte in everything that being a giant cunt entailed, claimed that I had thrown a rock at her. I did no such thing. I merely kicked a pebble at no one in particular. Kids do it all the time at school. It didn’t matter to them that the security camera was on and clearly showed that I did not throw a rock at that whore. And if anyone deserved to be stoned, it was Sissy. I got suspended again, and got beat up at home again, and Sissy walked away as if her shit didn’t stink and the South would rise again. Last time I heard, she was still causing trouble and getting away with it: she fucked the married preacher at some mega-church in Oakville and no one in the community batted an eye.

Secondary school wasn’t any better. Once again, Ryan and Charlotte went to the same place, this time Bishop Allen Academy, which was only a short bus ride from home. I could have gone to Oakwood, the nearest public school to my house. But no. My parents decided to send me clear across town to Earl Haig Secondary School, the one with the biggest student body in the Greater Toronto Area. Before 1998, the present-day city of Toronto was made up of the independent municipalities of Toronto, York, North York, Etobicoke, East York, and Scarborough. Earl Haig was located in North York, and I lived in Toronto proper.

I never enjoyed one single moment at Earl Haig. It was worse than I imagined. Every day was a constant battle against everyone else. The bullies were more numerous, they were bigger in size, and the torment increased a million times over. My lone ally was a cute boy named Mykhaylo Karbanenko, but the only time we shared together was on the subway ride to and from school. None of the teachers were sympathetic to my cause, the administration couldn’t be bothered, and not even the janitors took an interest. I begged and pleaded for help, but they turned away. Often, my pleas would be rewarded with variations on the same theme: “Just do your schoolwork and don’t bother us”.

My grades were not as good as they could have been. I was not a bad student by any stretch of the imagination, but the environment had prevented me from operating at my full potential. I skipped school at least once a week for four years. When I skipped school, I didn’t hang out at the nearest corner and smoke and drink and bash other people. I hid in the library, I hid out at parks; I even took the bus and went all the way to Barrie. I didn’t even bother looking out the window during the trip. I didn’t do anything in Barrie other than walk around. My parents never caught on to what I had been doing. In fact, they never bothered showing up at school events or parent-teacher conferences.

During this time, I began to explore my sexuality in full. I had known since I was a kid that I was gay. I never questioned it, and never had any negative thoughts about it. I never even prayed to God about it; I rarely prayed at that. I had crushes on a lot of guys in high school, and sadly, some of them were the very people who hurt me, either physically or emotionally. I started going to gay youth groups, and I expected to be welcomed unconditionally. To my shock, I  was barely tolerated. I tried to mesh with the other kids, but it never worked. A lot of them were homeless. Oh sure, I could say that I had it lucky having a place to go home to, even if it was a bastion of hell. But I can’t say that. I would have preferred living on the streets and whoring myself out for $20 or so, than going back to Corso Italia and being the family’s punching bag. I didn’t make any other gay friends until I was 18 years old and out of secondary school.

The abuse that was going on at school and home was so bad that I attempted suicide at least once a month. I would toss myself down the steps, try to throw myself in front of a bus, overdose on Tylenol… everything except self-mutilation. I hate seeing blood. I was hospitalized many times. I begged to stay longer so I wouldn’t have to go home, but I couldn’t. Once again, I had to go back home and just pray that my parents and Charlotte wouldn’t hurt me. But they did anyway. I mentioned Charlotte because she never called me by my real name. She called me “Assiano” or “Grabassiano” or, as she preferred to call me, “Fucking Faggot-Ass Bitch”. She would even get her latest boyfriend to beat me up. In truth, she had no reason to talk such shit – the middle six letters in her name spell out “harlot”. She never really understood that.

When I entered Grade 11, I decided that I wouldn’t take their shit any longer. I became more assertive. At school, when I felt like I was being wronged, I would fight back. I remember one time in French class, my teacher, Mademoiselle Bergeron, asked me to conjugate the verb se souvenir (it means “to remember”) in both the present and the past tenses. I did it in front of the class, and I got it right. One of the classmates, this snotty bitch named Mandy Manriquez, scoffed and called me a faggot. I turned around and glared at her. She said, “What are you looking at, faggot?!” Mademoiselle Bergeron told her to stop it. I tried to ignore her, but Mandy slapped me on the back of my head. Immediately, I bitch-slapped the cunt. And it was not a wimpy bitch-slap, but one that would rival  what Joan Collins did on Dynasty. I then screamed, “DON’T EVER CALL ME A FAGGOT, YOU STUPID IGNORANT FULANA!” I had learned that fulana is a standard Spanish word for “whore”. Mandy was among the biggest skanks at Earl Haig. Needless to say, we got into a fight right then and there. I was almost suspended. Of course, I still got beaten up, but I would no longer take it lying down. I began to give as good as I took.

One day, when I was hospitalized for another suicide attempt, a nurse dropped by with some magazines to read. One of them was the latest issue of Muscular Development, the bodybuilding magazine. Being a gay guy, I found the material to be quite titillating, even if some of the guys looked like absolute monsters. But I also found the advice on building muscle equally stimulating. I was hooked. I began to read up on bodybuilding and weight training. I never was an athletic person until then, but I wasn’t a couch potato either. Just after my 18th birthday, I got a gift certificate for a free membership at a local gym. This proved to be my ticket out. I worked out at least two hours a day after school, often combining my workout with whatever studying I had to do. I found it to be therapeutic and helpful. As my body became more muscular and defined, I became more aware of other guys checking me out. I didn’t go to the gym to cruise, but it didn’t hurt either.

My parents never approved of me either being gay or having designs on being a bodybuilder. They were vociferous in their homophobia, and didn’t think of bodybuilding as worthy of even past-time status. My grandparents were very encouraging and supportive, and even though they were devout Catholics, were very progressive and supportive of gay rights. They didn’t have much to say about bodybuilding, other than Nonna Annunziata asking me not to turn into Lou Ferrigno.

I finally graduated in 2000. Once again, my parents were not there to witness me getting my diploma, and once again, my grandparents showed up to keep the family from disrepute. Later in the evening, we had a great dinner at Jack Astor’s, and it was one of the best times that I ever spent with them.

A few days later, Nonno Pietro and Nonna Annunziata drove up to Vaughan to visit friends. They never returned. A drunk driver crashed into them at an intersection. It was swift and brutal. That day, I lost two of the people that mattered the most to me. I had such a nervous breakdown at the wake, that I was banned from attending the funeral, lest I cause an even bigger scene. That was wrong. They were there for me when no one was; it would have been tasteless NOT to have caused a scene. To top it off, the driver got away with it.

Then, someone stormed into the bookstore that Nonno Raimondo and Nonna Maria Grazia ran, and shot both of them dead. When I heard about it, I lost it. I couldn’t take it anymore. I fled Toronto and drove hundreds of miles to Ottawa, for no reason at all. I cried the whole way there, and the whole way back. My grandparents, within a span of weeks, were gone. Not of natural causes, but murder. And even worse, the gunman disappeared and the case went unsolved.

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My full name is Graziano Giancarlo Marcello Buonfiglio. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I am a second-generation Italo-Canadian, and have lived in and around Toronto my whole life. My parents are Joseph and Nadine Buonfiglio, a lawyer and a secretary by trade respectively. I am the middle child in my family; my brother Ryan is a year older than me, and my sister Charlotte is a year younger. With the exception of Ryan, I don’t consider any of the aforementioned my family.

I cannot discuss my family without mentioning my grandparents, who filled the role of parents when my birth parents couldn’t, and that was 99.9% of the time. Pietro and Annunziata Buonfiglio are my paternal grandparents. They were from Palermo, albeit from different neighborhoods. Raimondo and Maria Grazia degli Angeli are my maternal grandparents. They were from Naples, or Napoli, and they too grew up in different areas of the city. All four of them came to Canada as Italy was losing World War II and Benito Mussolini was getting close to being hung in a public square.

The Buonfiglio and degli Angeli families initially settled in Vaughan, bordering Toronto to the north. They soon moved to what is now Corso Italia, along St. Clair West. Nonno Pietro and Nonna Annunziata set up a deli, and Nonno Raimondo and Nonna Maria Grazia opened an Italian bookstore. Pretty soon, both families welcomed children: Joseph, Michael, and Tatiana Buonfiglio; and Nadine, Kendra, and Romulo degli Angeli.

My father attended Harvard, and after living in the United States for a few years, moved back to Toronto in 1976 and started a law practice. My mother, on the other hand, stayed put in the area and considered being a nun for some time. Then she met my father at a Catholic singles’ outing. They were inseparable, and they got married in 1978 at St. Clare’s Catholic Church, which for our family was the religious central point of our lives.

As far as I can remember, my parents’ marriage was never consummated. Not even on their honeymoon, which they spent on the isle of Capri. My grandparents, on the other hand, managed to keep the passion alive for their entire lives. Sometimes, you’d have to hose them down just to get them off each other. Literally. One time, Nonno Pietro and Nonna Annunziata had a little too much Chianti and were found making out at Nathan Phillips Square… and it was December 1989, and the pond had frozen over and people were skating.

The closest that my parents ever came to intimate relations with each other was when me and my siblings were conceived. They dispensed of the romance of conception, and instead planted the seeds at an insemination clinic. One would think that even for being devout Catholics, they were quite progressive to go to a sperm bank. Wrong. They never saw each other naked, though I would learn as I grew up that they thought nothing of being naked in front of other people. Their marriage was less about love and keeping the family alive into the 21st century, and more of a partnership. They married for the financial and legal advantages of marriage.

Ryan was born in June 1980, and by all accounts it was a truly blessed event. They were so overjoyed when Ryan came into the world, there was dancing in the neighborhood streets. Ryan was the first child to come from our part of Corso Italia in a decade. It was a wonderful day for all… and a year later, I showed up.

Notice that I didn’t pepper that with romanticism. I was born on October 6, 1981. That was the day that the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated. That was the time that “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie ruled the music world. And at Toronto General Hospital, at 7:45 a.m., I came into the world. My grandparents were there, along with every other relative in the family. My mother had opted for a drug-fueled childbirth rather than experiencing again the pain of a child crawling out of her vagina or being taken from her stomach.

When she came to, she took one look at me and said, “Fuck this shit”. My life was never the same after that moment. My homecoming was a muted affair, no matter how much my grandparents wanted to celebrate it.

A year later, my mother was beaming with pride at the birth of  Charlotte. She was absolutely ecstatic, and could not wait to show off her latest creation. Now, you’re probably wondering why my siblings had relatively common first names, and I got stuck with Graziano. My parents never named me. And this was only the beginning in a great line of incidents where I was not considered in the slightest. Nonna Maria Grazia named me after her maternal grandfather, Graziano Lambruschini. My parents simply went along with it, but they never referred to me by that name. Not to me, and not to anyone. It would be up to me to introduce myself. When I did so in the presence of my parents, they would utter a half-hearted “Yeah, what he said.”

In one word, I would sum up growing up with my family as: HELL. In Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”, there are nine circles of hell: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, Wrath/Sloth, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treason. The tenth circle of hell might as well have been my house.

Ryan and Chelsea were the apples of my parents’ eyes. They were the sun, the moon, and the stars. Ryan was the all-American boy – well, the Canadian equivalent. He did it all: hockey, lacrosse, Canadian football, and basketball. He was incredibly intelligent and did extremely well in school. He had strawberry blonde hair and could easily have passed for Zack Morris from “Saved by the Bell”. He was also an altar boy at St. Clare’s, and this gave him even more prestige in the family and in the neighborhood.

Charlotte was spoiled beyond compare. Whatever she wanted, she got, even if it meant getting it illegally. As a child, she competed in beauty pageants. I’ve nothing against beauty pageants; in fact, I follow Miss Universe quite religiously, but the child version is scary as hell. Charlotte, a brunette, wiped the floor with the competition those days, and that only added to her bratty behavior at home and at school. As she grew up, she traded the giant crowns of yesteryear for the even bigger crowns of high school popularity. She was captain of the cheer-leading squad, even as a freshman, and had the distinction of being prom queen at both Grade 11 and Grade 12. She never made any secret as to how she attained those accolades: she was banging people left, right, and sideways.

While my siblings were treated with love and respect, even at their very worst, I was pretty much the family’s whipping boy. I tried to please my parents in every single way whatsoever, but no matter what I did, I always got hit. Not a day went by that my parents and even Charlotte got their kicks off physically hurting me. The first time I remembered getting beaten was when I was five years old, and wanted a Teddy Ruxpin for Christmas. I was in the toy store with my mother and Nonna Annunziata, and I saw Teddy Ruxpin on the shelf. I pointed it out to my mother, and she responded by slapping me across the face and dragging me out. Nonna Annunziata did get me the toy for that Christmas, but I never got to play with it. My mother intercepted it and donated it to Toys for Tots.

My mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict. Substances and libations were her lovers, her friends, and her confidantes. She started after breast-feeding Charlotte. As the years passed, I would see her go to work all polished and clean, and I would arrive home to see her passed out on the sofa, a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in her left hand and a joint in the other. When she wasn’t in her stupor, she would be screaming and slapping and throwing bottles at me. One day, I got fed up and poured the contents of every bottle of booze down the kitchen sink. My mother found out about this and beat me up in the wine cellar, which was in the basement.

My father was just as worse. He would come home from a hard day at work, or fucking one of the many girlfriends he had throughout the Greater Toronto Area, and just wail on me. I would be studying and doing my homework and he would storm into my room, grab me, and beat me until I was black and blue. It wasn’t until I went to college that I didn’t close out the night in my bedroom closet, huddled in the darkest crevices, crying and bleeding. There were nights that I didn’t bother spending at home. One night, in 1999, I sneaked into the same toy store from which a Teddy Ruxpin had been deprived from me, after being beaten up by my father for, once again, no reason whatsoever. I hid out in the teddy bear section, clutching a revamped Teddy Ruxpin, and fell asleep. Security guards found me the next morning, and I pleaded with them not to report me. They were kind enough to let me go, and no charges were ever filed.

At my darkest hours, my grandparents were there to help, and for that I will forever be in their debt. Nonno Pietro and Nonna Annunziata were fun-loving, feisty, and colorful. Even when life threw them curveballs, they never failed to keep their spirits up. I learned Italian through them; strangely, the rest of my family never really picked up the Italian language. They also taught me how to cook; whenever I was home alone, I may not have been the happiest person on Earth, but I was never hungry. Nonno Raimondo and Nonna Maria Grazia were the cerebral, intellectual, and reserved grandparents. I never was bored at their house, though. They exposed me to art, classical music, and literature, and always strived to make it enjoyable as opposed to a bloody dirge. I was happy to have two sets of grandparents from opposite extremes; I would not have been exposed to the world had they both been either zany or intellectual.

One thing that they mutually agreed on: they loved me. They were always encouraging me to do my best in school. They always offered constructive criticism and never believed in sparing the rod and spoiling the child. They were the ones who took me to the doctor. Had they had their way, I would have called them my legal guardians. They very well would have, had my father not managed to thwart their efforts. My grandparents were not perfect people, but as Grace Jones sang, “I’m not perfect, but I’m perfect for you”. I know that talking about them may sound hokey and romanticized, but you have to understand that when I was not in their presence, life was hell.

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