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Archive for May, 2010

“Hey, Graziano. Mykhaylo here. I don’t know if you are up to this, but here goes: every other Sunday, my parents have a big dinner, and the family shows up. I know that you haven’t had a family-style dinner in… ever, but I would love for you to come over. I’ll fill you in on what to bring over, too. Ukrainian food is really good. It’s not just borshcht and… varenyky, or piroshkis as ignorant sons of bitches call them. Oh, there will be those. Anyway, it’s not only a chance to have a good family meal, but my parents have known about you for years, and they want to match a name to the face. You have my number. Call me.”

Mykhaylo left that message for me on Friday night. I was doing my laundry at the time. When I got the message, I didn’t know what to think. I had never been to a family dinner… at least, one that my parents threw. My grandparents had us over every Sunday night, and it was the only time that my parents didn’t throw one bad word my way. They were never good at cooking family dinners. My mother never ate a damn thing and my father was too busy eating out with someone… or vice versa.

Still, the opportunity was too rich to pass up. I wondered who Mr. and Mrs. Karbanenko were. Would they like me? Would they patronize me? Would they be the Ukrainian version of Joseph and Nadine Buonfiglio? I called Mykhaylo the next morning and acquiesced to coming over. I spent the rest of the day boning up on anything and everything Ukrainian. My knowledge of the language was almost non-existent. I didn’t even know how to say “Fuck you”! I went over to the World’s Biggest Bookstore and bought two Lonely Planet books: a phrasebook and a travellers’ guide to Ukraine. I went over to St. Lawrence Market and asked the folks at the Dnister delicatessen for advice. They were so helpful, and hooked me up with an assortment of Ukrainian delicacies for my own benefit.

I finally decided to make dessert, and settled on nalysnyky. They’re like crepes, only a bit lighter. Being Italian, I jazzed them up with Nutella, which is some of the best shit ever created. I swear, I can’t live without the stuff. One time, in a moment of passion, I slathered some on Evan and licked it off. We were on top of our apartment building at the time. I called Mykhaylo and asked him if there were any dietary restrictions in the family. I didn’t want to serve Nutella-stuffed Ukrainian crepes and have someone nearly die of nut allergies. He assured me that everything was on the up-and-up.

Brian tried some of the Dnister deli goodies, and was very impressed. As I cooked the nalysnyky, I learned a handful of Ukrainian words from the phrasebook, from the generic phrases of “Yes” and “No” (Tak and Ni) to “I speak Ukrainian” (Ya rozmowlyayu ukrayins’koyu movoyu). It should be noted that I’m fluent in English and Italian, semi-fluent in French (you don’t get much opportunity to use the language in Toronto), and know bits and pieces of Spanish, Portuguese, German, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even Tagalog. I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my language skills.

And then, Sunday night came. My nalysnyky tightly covered in a Rubbermaid big enough to cover my lap, I hopped into Mykhaylo’s Kia and we drove a fairly long distance to his parents’ neighbourhood: Roncesvalles. It wasn’t as Ukrainian as I thought it would be. It was mostly Polish, with some Vietnamese and Chinese thrown in. Mykhaylo explained to me that the rich heartland of Ukrainian Toronto was around the High Park area, but that his family liked Roncesvalles. Mykhaylo himself lived near Ryerson.

We pulled up to a two-story house on Sorauren Avenue, not unlike the others within earshot and eyeshot. It was getting dark outside, and my nerves were starting to kick in.

“Are you ready?” Mykhaylo asked.

I nodded, nervously.

“It’s going to be fun!” Mykhaylo tried to reassure me.

I looked at him and held his hand. The temperature was dropping outside; I could feel it. I could also feel how warm and comforting Mykhaylo’s grip was. I let a nervous smile form on my face, and promptly got out of the car, gripping my Rubbermaid like it was a prized possession.

“Did you forget something?”

I looked behind me, and there was a bouquet of tulips and a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling apple juice on the car floor.

“I’ll get them.” Mykhaylo picked them up and closed the door. We walked up the steps to the front door. As I gave the neighbourhood a quick glance from relatively above, Mykhaylo opened the front door, and in we went.

The first thing that I noticed was how artful the house was. It was a mish-mash of paintings and sculptures, old and new. Some of them didn’t quite go together, and I say that as someone who knows art through grandparents and not through seasoned professionals. And the second thing I noticed was a smell of beef sizzling in a pan of onions and shallots.

Mamo!” Mykhaylo said. “It’s us!”

And then a woman who could have passed for my mother, had she been a blonde as opposed to a brunette, walked in. “Hello, darling,” she said, in a sweet, almost diabetic, voice. She looked at me and said, “You must be the world-famous Graziano Buonfiglio.” She got the last name down pat.

Dobryy vechir, pani Karbanenko,” I greeted her good evening.

“Please, call me Oleksandra!” She gave me a kiss on the cheek. It felt strange, but good. “I’ve heard so much about you, you’re practically one of the family!”

I nodded sheepishly and motioned for Mykhaylo to hand over the apple juice and tulips.

“How lovely!” she exclaimed. “Mykhaylo…” And then she said something in Ukrainian that was too fast for my comprehension.

“Would you like to see my bedroom?” he asked me.

“Shouldn’t we have dinner before we fuck?” I whispered.

He looked at me in shock, and chuckled.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that!” I said.

He smiled and walked me upstairs. I realized that I still had the nalesnyky in my hand, so I went down to the kitchen and handed it to Oleksandra. “I forgot; I brought dessert.”

“Thank you, darling,” she said. “And if you’re going to fuck my son, wear a condom and try to be as quiet as you can. This is a very quiet neighbourhood.”

I chuckled and headed upstairs. Mykhaylo brought me into his old bedroom, which was about the same size as my old bedroom back in Corso Italia: big enough to hold one person and one’s mod-cons, but still small. It was now the guest room and it looked like the Toronto Ukrainian Festival had exploded all over it: bright embroidery, paintings and posters of icons (religious, literary, and otherwise), and framed family pictures.

Mykhaylo showed me his baby picture, which stood atop the television set. He had ruby cheeks and sandy blonde hair, and was in a sailor suit of some sort.

“I thought you didn’t live near the sea,” I said.

“No, it was my mom putting me in a baby version of a Young Pioneers outfit,” Mykhaylo replied. “When the Soviet Union was in existence, every young kid had to join the Young Pioneers. The Communist party wanted the children of the USSR to learn about being a whore before they could properly think for themselves. This was cutting them off at the pass even if the kids didn’t know if there even was a pass. In retrospect, I looked absolutely ridiculous.”

“You still look cute.”

“Well, the outfit aside…” He laughed.

I looked at the photo more pensively, and then I asked, “Do you ever want to have kids?”

Mykhaylo sat down on the edge of the bed. “Someday. My mother wants to be a babusya so badly. You?”

I joined him on the bed. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s not like I have the best reference points.”

“Well, my parents aren’t the most perfect people in the world, but they raised me and my sister well. I don’t care if I have to go across the ocean and bring a baby home. I don’t care if I have to go to a sperm bank.” Mykhaylo wrapped his left arm around me and brought me close.

“On some level, I could have an advantage,” I opined. “I could do the exact opposite of what my parents did. On the other hand, if you can’t have a manual, you should have some guidebook to refer to. I do know this: if I ever had a child, I would never treat him or her the way that my parents treated me, no matter what.”

“Because you’re a great guy, Graziano,” Mykhaylo said, kissing me on the forehead. I smiled back.

“Guys, dinner’s ready!” Oleksandra’s voice rang from downstairs. We got up and headed that direction.

In the dining room, Oleksandra was putting the finishing touches on the layout. A thinner version of my father, and with more hair on his head, entered. “Hello, Graziano!” he cheerfully said, extending his hand.

I shook it firmly. “Dobryy vechir,” I said.

“I’m Ruslan, Mykhaylo’s father.”

Duzhe pryyemno (Pleased to meet you),” I responded. “Did I get it right?”

“Right first time, son,” Ruslan smiled. “Please, have a seat.”

Mykhaylo and I sat next to each other at the round table. Oleksandra and Ruslan sat next to me, leaving two more seats. “Oksana and Taras will be here any moment,” Oleksandra said as she carefully placed a serving bowl of borshcht on the table.

I could hear the front door open. “Mamo! Tate!” It was the voice of a girl. Soon, a very flashy Oksana sashayed into the dining room. She was wearing what I thought was a fur coat. For her sake, I hoped that it was synthetic fur and not fur classified as fake, but made from dogs and cats. She was too overdressed for a Sunday dinner.

“Hello, darling,” Oleksandra greeted her daughter.

“Where’s Taras?” Ruslan asked.

“He’s parking the car.” She slid her coat off and placed it on one of the two vacant chairs at the table. She looked my way. “You must be Mykhaylo’s man of the hour. I’m Oksana Karbanenko-Mel’nik, his sister.”

“Graziano Buonfiglio. Pleased to meet you.”

I looked at Mykhaylo with a “What the fuck?” expression.

“Well, she can be a bit… bougie… but she’s really a great lady,” Mykhaylo tried to defend his sister’s honour.

Taras Mel’nik, a tall guy with dark brown hair and a rather skinny build – he looked like a male model – was the last one to enter. “Good evening, everyone,” he said. “I parked around the corner.” He sat down next to Oksana and suddenly jumped in his seat, looking my way.

“Hey, I know you!”

“Uhhh… what?” I was confused.

“Didn’t you perform at my cousin’s bachelorette party in 2004?”

I did perform at many bachelorette parties in that time period, but I couldn’t remember him from Adam. “Which cousin?” I replied.

“Anastasiya Mel’nik.”

Now it came back to me. Anastasiya Mel’nik’s party was the first one that I had stripped at after Evan’s murder. It was three weeks after the funeral, and I was trying to rebuild my life after the fact. “Yeah, I performed there.”

“I knew it! After seeing that big dick, I could never forget you.”

WHAT. THE. HELL? I blushed immediately and lowered my head. Everyone else glared at him. Taras acted like he didn’t do anything wrong. “What?” he said.

“What were you doing at a bachelorette party anyway?” Oksana snapped.

“Anastasiya’s not only my cousin; she’s a friend, and she asked me to watch over things so that no one got hurt. Her friends couldn’t afford security!”

He sat down. There was a dead silence for fifteen seconds before Mykhaylo broke through and said, “Okay. Let’s say grace.”

We bowed our heads and linked hands as Mykhaylo said a Ukrainian blessing. It reminded me of my Nonno Pietro, who always said grace at family dinners. When Nonno Pietro said them, he had a gentle, soothing tone to his voice. 99.9% of the time, he was loud and boisterous. Mykhaylo also had a soft approach to saying grace.

It was the most delicious Sunday dinner that I had ever had. I don’t know what magic Oleksandra worked in the kitchen, but I was glad that there WAS some magic. The borshcht was velvety smooth and went down great. I don’t even eat anything with beets. They’re good, but they stain. The main courses were holubtsi (cabbage rolls, which were juicy and tender) and chicken in orange sauce (I thought the chicken was delicious, but the orange sauce was too strong).

Dinnertime discussion revolved around mundane topics, but were pleasant enough. I learned that Taras was a substitute teacher and working on  his master’s degree in art. Also, Oksana worked at Swarovski at Eaton Centre, which explained her love of luxury and her flair for… well, flair. Oleksandra worked at a bank with a large Ukrainian clientele, and Ruslan was a hot dog vendor. I filled in the Karbanenko family on what I had been up to in the past month, as well.

And then, as Mykhaylo cleared the plates in preparation for dessert, Oksana asked me: “HOW big is your dick?”

I could hear the clatter of forks and spoons thrust to the table in exasperation around me, a la Dorothy Zbornak. I sheepishly sunk lower in my chair. Embarrassment flowed over us like a river.

“Oksana, not in front of company!” Oleksandra snapped.

“We’re all adults here,” the daughter retorted.

“That doesn’t mean that I have to whip it out!” I said.

“Hey, if Taras saw it, I want to see it too!” Oksana exclaimed. “I want to know what kind of man my brother is dating.”

“Did Mykhaylo have Taras whip his out when he was dating you?”

Oksana looked defeated at that moment. “No,” she said. “Could you at least give us a rough estimate?”

I sat back up in my chair and took note of the bread-sticks near the center of the table. Individually, they were thin, but their length more or less matched mine. I took one and looked at Oksana, bread-stick in my right hand. She immediately dropped her napkin on the floor, got up, and stammered, “I’ll get the coffee.”

The nalesnyky proved to be just as big a hit as my penis was.

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Tell me about Evan,” Claire said during our Friday session.

I took out my wallet. “Can I show you a picture?”

She nodded. I flipped through my wallet, and suddenly I had a change of plan. “I actually want to show you a few things,” I said. I took out three wallet-size pictures: one of Evan and me in a photo booth, one of Nonna Annunziata and Nonno Pietro at a party, and one of Nonna Maria Grazia and Nonno Raimondo with the Amalfi Coast behind them. They were the only pictures that I had in the wallet. I handed them to Claire.

Those are the most important people in my life,” I said, “even though they’re dead.”

Claire studied them. “Your grandparents pictures… they remind me of my own.”

Where are you from, originally?” I asked.

My maternal grandparents are from Wales. My paternal grandparents are from Michigan. They both came to Canada before World War I. I’m originally from Cornwall.” She raised her head. “They were so good to me.”

She handed my grandparents’ pics back to me, and looked at the last one. “Where was this taken?” she asked.

Canada’s Wonderland,” I replied. “In 2003. It was his birthday. We rode every ride there, and we ate funnel cakes. Before we headed back, we piled into the photo booth and made out. This was my favorite from the set.”

Claire smiled and handed me the photo. “What was Evan like?” she asked.

I sat back in the chair. “He was… everything. He was everything that I could have asked for in a person.”

I looked at the photo again. His eyes were deep and green, and his hair was softly mussed and brown, which considering he was dirty blonde, I attributed to questionable lighting. “Whenever I had a problem, even if he didn’t know how to fix it, he was still there for me. When I got sick, he would make chicken noodle soup from scratch. The only things that he would use that were pre-made, were the noodles. He always bought those No-Yolks noodles. He would take three hours to roast the chicken, cut the vegetables… and when it was all done, it tasted so good and… I’d feel better the next day.”

Claire nodded. “He must have been something special.”

He IS. Sometimes, I think of him in the present tense. Since he died, I’ve slept with a pillow. It has a royal blue case, and the inside is made of buckwheat hulls. He always looked good in royal blue, and he loved Japanese food.”

I began to tear up again. Claire offered me a tissue, but I took out one of my own from my pocket. As I dabbed my eyes, Claire asked me, “What was it like, after Evan died?”

I couldn’t function,” I said. “Everything just shut down. I stayed in our apartment for months. I made sure that the rent and utilities were paid, but I barely went out. Eventually, Evan’s parents came from Utah and collected everything. They didn’t even attend his funeral.”

What were his parents like?”

Assholes,” I replied. “The biggest assholes to come out of Utah ever. They never accepted Evan being gay. They never accepted me. They never even accepted that he wanted to be a dancer.”

Claire put her hand on my knee. “Do you think that you’ll ever find love again?”

I let out a deep breath. “There IS someone in my life, now. I think.”

What do you mean, you think?”

His name is Mykhaylo Karbanenko. We went to Earl Haig together. We reunited a few weeks ago after nine years apart. He’s a really sweet guy, but…”

But, what?”

I like the guy, and he makes me feel so good. But I’m kind of scared. After five years of meaningless sex, it feels good to have someone in your life who isn’t a booty call. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. Will we break up? Will we last a few years and then HE dies?”

Claire sighed. “Honey,” she said, “as cliché as it sounds, there are no guarantees in life. But I encourage you to see where this relationship takes you. It could be the best thing you’ve ever done. Besides, with your history, you deserve a break.”

I nodded in agreement. And then, I said, “We reunited at my gym, in the locker room. His dick is as big as mine.”

Claire’s eyebrows raised. “Really?” she asked.

I’m not showing you!” I exclaimed.

Then why did you say it?”

I looked around and chuckled. “Levity, I suppose.”

AFTER THE APPOINTMENT (not narrated by Graziano)

Claire left the office at five o’clock. By then, the sky had darkened, and the sun had dipped halfway under the horizon. With another work week in the books, Claire walked to her Kia and sped off.

As she drove towards Yonge Street, with CBC Radio One playing on the car radio, Claire felt guilty. She had only known Graziano a few weeks, but there was something different about him. Graziano was one of her many clients, but she felt especially drawn to his story. In the shotgun seat was an assortment of case files and other papers. Graziano’s manila folder topped the pile, and had more in it than the others. His surname, Buonfiglio, was on the tag in bold red marker, upper-case.

This was unusual for Claire. In her many years as a psychotherapist, she had developed attachment to her clients. But with Graziano, she felt the need to go above and beyond her role. “What can I do?” she muttered over and over, turning the corner onto Yonge and heading south.

She stopped at a Shoppers Drug Mart. Every Friday afternoon, right after work, she would pop in to the same Shoppers at 728 Yonge Street, across from The Second Cup to the north and Payless ShoeSource to the east. Often, she would jettison to The Second Cup for coffee. She almost never went to Starbucks, which occupied the northeast corner of Yonge & Charles Sts. It wasn’t that she held ill will towards the company; she preferred Canadian-owned businesses.

After parking nearby, Claire walked in and began perousing the store for necessities. She stopped in the personal care aisle. Claire took a pack of Kotex U tampons (the ones marketed to younger women) and put them in her basket.

Aren’t you a little OLD for those tampons?” a woman asked in a thick snide.

Claire turned around. A short, blonde woman in her 50s wearing a blue pantsuit and smelling of booze stood in the aisle.

That’s none of your business,” Claire said. She left the personal care aisle and walked to the hair color section. The same woman followed her.

Claire found a box of Healthy Essence hair coloring that fit her shade, and as she put it in her basket, she heard the same voice:

You WISH you looked that good.”

Claire growled and stomped toward the snacks section. She picked up a few tubes of Pringles, her favourite snack.

And you won’t look good eating that junk food shit,” the same voice rang.

WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP?!” Claire roared.

There was dead silence in the store. Even the music playing on the PA abruptly turned off.

Claire glared at the woman who had been accosting her for all of one minute. “Who the hell are you?” she asked.

You may not know who I am, but you’ve heard of me,” the woman said, rather proudly. “I happen to be the mother of one of your clients.”

Claire thought for a few moments. Short, blonde hair? Stinking of alcohol? Oh, shit. It was Nadine Buonfiglio, Graziano’s estranged mother.

You must be Nadine,” Claire said. “No, I take that back. You HAVE to be Nadine.”

Yes,” Nadine continued in her proud, bordering on smug, fashion. “Yes, I am.”

I won’t reveal anything concrete, due to doctor-patient privilege,” Claire said. “But let’s say that you leave a lot to be desired.”

Nadine pointed her right index finger at Claire. “You just watch yourself, bitch. You mess with me, you mess with my whole family.”

How very original.” Claire was not buying this shtick. “Clearly, you’re Mother of the Year material. Have you ever washed yourself? You smell like a rotten combination of Grand Marnier and grappa.”

Claire turned around and walked toward the cashier.

I’m warning you, bitch!” Nadine screeched. “If you dare try anything, I’ll have your barren ass tossed in the Don River!”

Claire turned back toward Nadine. “Listen, Carmela. You may think that you’re a slick bitch, but you don’t want to mess with ME. I may look Bohemian, but I know krav maga. You, Tony, Big Pussy, Paulie Walnuts, even your dead mother-in-law Livia, whoever you dare throw at me, I will bust your motherfucking asses!”

Nadine glared at Claire and threw a slap toward her. But Claire deflected it, prompting Nadine to fall on her ass.

Graziano deserves MUCH better,” Claire said.

After Claire paid for her Pringles and hair colouring and Kotex U tampons, she immediately got into her car and drove off. When she arrived at her Kensington Market home, she took out her iPhone and Google’d “Nadine Buonfiglio”.

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