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It’s time for a change…

… for the name of my novel, I mean.

I thought of the name “Good People in Bad Times” as an homage of sorts to Toronto’s LGBT theatre, Buddies in Bad Times. But I’ve never really been easy with it. It just seems so cumbersome and blah. Therefore, I have come up with these alternate titles:

  1. I Deserve Better
  2. How Graziano Buonfiglio Reclaimed Himself
  3. G.T.A.
  4. The Italo-Canadian Experience as Seen Through the Eyes of a 28 Year Old Gay Boy/Man
  5. The Good Son of Toronto
  6. Family Portrait
  7. Seasons Change
  8. Three Months in the Life of Graziano Buonfiglio
  9. 28YO
  10. My Name is Graziano Buonfiglio
  11. In Bad Times Come Good Things
  12. Brawn and Bruises: A Love Story
  13. Insert Pretentious Coming-of-age Story Title Here
  14. My Family HATES Me
  15. Me vs. Them

However, in reading these, they too seem lame. I’m not really good with titles. It’s definitely harder to come up with a title than it is to write the whole story, or poem, or whatever. I suppose that’s what publishers are for. However, I’ve been in bookstores and libraries enough times to find many of the titles either too on-the-nose or just plain ridiculous. Especially books written by celebrities. This Time Together by Carol Burnett. Out of Sync by Lance Bass. Life is Not a Fairytale by Fantasia Barrino. Gag me with a spoon. Fiction titles aren’t any better. Have you read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who… series? No offense, but titles like The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest sound like episodes from America’s Next Top Model.

If anyone wants to contribute a possible title, send me a message.

Audio Post

25. Corso Italia

My old house lies on the southwest corner of Ascot and Nairn Avenues. It is two stories tall, with red brick on the lower and white paneling on the upper. A neatly manicured hedge surrounds the property, and at the front is a covered porch with windows and a screen door. To most people, this would be a perfectly normal home in Corso Italia. To me, this house is a nightmare.

I shiver whenever I think of that house. I have been known to become physically ill at the sheer mention of the words “Ascot” and “Nairn”. Whenever I am in Corso Italia, I have to steel myself whenever I am within 100 feet of that intersection. Even though the intersection lies in the western end of Corso Italia, and just a stone’s throw from Prospect Cemetery, I still am creeped out.

Sure enough, I found myself in the neighbourhood Wednesday morning. It had snowed overnight, and everything had a thick cover of the stuff on it. What was I doing here in the first place? I could have been at home, playing with Britney or working on a few other things. But I had woken up with this strange urge to head back. It was as if something from my old stomping grounds was saying to me, “Come back, even for a while.”

I took the subway and got off at St. Clair West Station. The streetcar was out of commission, as the tracks were being repaired. I hopped on the bus and rode along St. Clair Avenue West. I hadn’t been in the neighbourhood proper for some time, but it still looked familiar. Even in the snow, life was happening. A few kids, off on a snow-day, were building a snowman in front of the Oakwood Collegiate Institute. Further on, at the intersection with Dufferin, I saw two old men have a lively conversation in Portuguese, and a few feet away, two old women were having a similar conversation in Italian. I think a few swear words were on the menu.

I got off at Earlscourt Avenue, and immediately, I began to tense up. I’m used to the cold weather in Canada. I’m an all-weather person, with a special reverence for snow and ice. However, that wasn’t what tensed me up. Nairn Avenue was around the corner. I sucked it up and slowly walked up the street.

I was going at a slow pace, but it felt like a glacial one. I passed by children who were playing in the street, parents who were keeping an eye on children playing in the street, and others who were shoveling their driveways and sidewalks. Five minutes later, I stood face to face with the house at Ascot and Nairn.

I just stood there. Outside, I was stoic, but inside, my body was shaking like a vibrator. I could feel my heart beat rapidly, my pulse beat rapidly… everything was beating rapidly. This was the house that I had grown up in, and also the house that played host to a cavalcade of horrors. I could still hear myself screaming to get away from Joseph, Nadine, or Charlotte. I could still hear my cries as I hid in the closet. And then…

Scusi?

An old man came out of the house. “Scusi? Cosa fa?

I shook myself out of it. The old man looked like Giorgio Armani on crack, with an extremely weather-beaten tan. His hair was whiter than the snow. A relatively younger woman with black hair rushed out and grabbed him. “Papa!” she exclaimed, dragging him towards the house. She looked at me and asked, “Can I help you?”

“I used to live here,” I said.

“How long ago?”

“Until 2000.”

“Is your last name Buonfiglio?”

I nodded. “I’m Nadine and Joseph’s son.”

“Ryan?”

Shit. They didn’t know about me. “No. I’m Graziano.”

“They didn’t tell me about you,” she said. She managed to bring her father back indoors. “Ti prendo del tè!” she exclaimed. Turning back to me, she said, “They didn’t tell me anything about another child. They told me about Ryan and Charlotte though. Are you really their son?”

“Yeah. They don’t want to admit it, though. We’re estranged.”

“I’m Carolina,” she said, extending her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

I shook her hand back.

“I’d invite you in to look around, but my father doesn’t like people he doesn’t know. It’s the Alzheimer’s.”

I nodded. “I should be going.”

Carolina nodded back and said, “Can I have your contact information?”

I took out a card from my wallet. It had my e-mail, home address, and phone numbers on them. Handing it to Carolina, I said, “If Nadine and Joseph come by, don’t say that you have this.”

She nodded. “I should get inside. Have a nice day.”

“Have a nice day.” I waved back as she headed inside the house. Carolina seemed like a nice woman.

I turned around and walked down Nairn Avenue for the last time. I had no intention of being in the neighbourhood again. Once again, I passed by kids playing in the snow and parents watching over them. I played in the snow lots of times as a kid, but usually alone.

I walked along St. Clair Avenue West for ten minutes, and then I happened upon my paternal grandparents’ old deli. Back in the day, it used to be known as Buonfiglio’s Delicatessen. Now, it was Scavotto’s Fine Italian Meats and Cheeses. Even in the frigid weather, I could still smell the delicate flavour of prosciutto as it was being sliced. It warmed my heart.

I dropped by the deli at least once a week as a kid. Nonno Pietro would be the first to greet me, even as he sliced a ham. He always worked hard, but was never too busy to extend a warm welcome to anyone who came in, family or not. I never did learn how to process meats. I was always scared of blood. But I did develop an appreciation for the process, even though as I grew older, I preferred organically and ethically grown and processed foods. Nonna Annunziata was the cashier and an expert on cheeses. She too welcomed me whenever I stopped by, and I was usually the first person she enlisted to taste-test a new acquisition or recipe. German potato salad, Jarlsberg cheese, tripe… I hated and still hate tripe, but I enjoyed the bulk of the foods there.

This time, however, I couldn’t bear to walk in. Too many memories. But that was nothing compared to what happened a few minutes later, when I found myself at the foot of A Confeitaria Betancourt (The Betancourt Pastry Shop). Why was this important? Because the confeitaria used to be La Libreria Italiana Alighieri (The Alighieri Italian Bookstore), which my maternal grandparents ran. It was also the place where they were murdered. This was the first time in nine years that I had set foot even near the place.

I learned to read in this place. While Italian children’s books were relatively scarce at the bookstore (my grandparents dealt mostly with contemporary and classical literature), I was never bored here. As Nonna Maria Grazia attended to customers, Nonno Pietro would sit me on his lap and read me a variety of books, from the works of the bookstore’s namesake Dante Alighieri, to Italo Calvino, one of the most prolific Italian authors of recent times. Admittedly, a lot of the material went over my head, and it wasn’t until I majored in Italian Studies that I began to grasp it. But at that point, I simply enjoyed being in the bookstore.

After Nonno Pietro and Nonna Maria Grazia were murdered, it took me a while for me to even step foot in a bookstore, or even a library. I almost didn’t get my textbooks because of this.

What was once filled with books and bookcases was now a showroom for Portuguese delicacies. The walls from which posters of great Italian luminaries hung, were now dotted with pictures of Fatima and blown-up shots of cakes and cookies. The very spot where my maternal grandparents were found dead, was now the cashier’s spot.

It was too much for me to bear. I turned in the opposite direction and ran, the tears pouring down my face and freezing as they came in contact with the bitter cold. I bawled as I ran westward on St. Clair Avenue West, only to stop at the foot of Centro Trattoria & Formaggi. I let out a few deep breaths and wiped my face with a towel. I let out a sigh and entered the trattoria. It was 11:30am. I was sad and depressed, and only some pasta al forno would even temporarily calm my nerves.

It was Monday night in downtown Toronto. Outside 1 Benvenuto Place, just off of Avenue Road, a giant Hummer glided toward Scaramouche, the restaurant that occupied said address. The driver parked across the way on Edmund Avenue. The windows were tinted dark.

Soon, Joseph Buonfiglio stepped out of the driver’s seat. In a smart suit, he was sporting what appeared to be a new toupee, and he was still adjusting to it. Nadine Buonfiglio emerged from shotgun, looking demure and classy, though she still looked hung over. However, she did not smell of booze, as she usually did. She smelled fresh and clean. And their daughter, Charlotte Buonfiglio, emerged from the back. She looked like a Hollywood starlet from the 1940s, and that was the look she was going for. The weather was chilling up, and they were slightly under-dressed.

1 Benvenuto Place was only a few blocks from the Buonfiglio family’s old neighbourhood, Corso Italia. Together, the three cut an impressive set of figures. They crossed the street and walked toward the restaurant.

In the warmth of the restaurant, a waitress led them to their table in the heart of the action. On a Monday night, the place was bustling and frenetic. After they settled in to their seats, the same waitress, a tall blonde named Lisa, took their orders.

Joseph ordered the following: as a first course, a smoked salmon “carpaccio”; to follow, the elk. Nadine chose the lobster ravioli to start and the chicken as her second course. Charlotte had some difficulty in choosing her dishes, but soon took Lisa’s suggestion of goat cheese salad and filet mignon as her dishes. As for wine, well, Nadine was a pro at that. She took one look at the wine list, compared that with what she and her family had ordered, and made her decisions within five seconds. Charlotte was the designated driver for the ride back to Brampton, so she only ordered San Pellegrino.

Midway through the family meal, Nadine, after knocking back half a bottle of Malvasia, said, “I’m so glad that we went out. It’s nice to have a lovely family dinner.”

“Our old house is a short drive from here,” Joseph said as he sliced his buttery elk. “Why don’t we check it out on our way home?”

“We don’t have time,” Nadine replied. “The snow will be falling shortly.”

Charlotte produced her cell phone from her purse and dialed a number. “I have to check on Savannah,” she said.

“Who did you leave her with?” Joseph asked.

“Brandon,” Charlotte replied. Brandon was her latest suitor. “Hello?… Hi, Brandon. This is Charlotte. Just calling to say hi. How’s Savannah?… What book is she reading to her?… Goodnight, Moon? Oh, that takes me back to elementary school. Brandon, we’ll be back around 10. See you then.”

She hung up and stuck her phone back in the purse.

“Did I ever tell you of a run-in I had recently?” Nadine asked, tucking into her chicken. “You will not believe who it was.”

“Who was it?” Charlotte replied.

“Dr. Claire Breedlove.”

Joseph and Charlotte’s faces were blank. “Who is she?” Joseph asked.

“You won’t believe it, but that bitch ass Graziano is her patient.”

Dinner suddenly stopped. “He’s seeing a shrink?” Charlotte asked, the disgust thick in her voice.

“Oh, that fucking asshole,” Joseph said. “Nadine, how did you know this?”

“I hired a private detective,” Nadine responded, putting back another glass of wine.

“Well, Brandon’s a private detective,” Charlotte said. “You could have hired him.”

“I decided a more independent approach would be sufficient. After the run-in at the cemetery, I was not prepared to take any chances. Anyway, he’s been tailing Graziano and the doctor bitch for weeks now. Neither of them suspect a thing. At least, the doctor didn’t at first.”

“Good for you,” Joseph said.

“I learned from the best, darling.” Nadine took a bite of her chicken and moaned in excitement. “This stuff is really good.”

“What have you unearthed about Ass-iano?” Charlotte asked.

“He’s living along the waterfront, in one of those high-rises. Probably a ‘kept’ relationship, I imagine. He sees the doctor bitch every Friday afternoon at 2PM. And he’s also dating some Slavic faggot.”

“Any details?”

“None so far, but my private detective called me earlier and said that he’s on the brink of a breakthrough.”

“Oh, Nadine,” Joseph smiled. “You’re the best. I can’t wait for the day when we wipe that scourge of humanity off the face of the Earth. It’ll be the Christmas present of a lifetime.”

And then a sinister smile appeared on his face. “I have a good idea. Let’s kill the little fucker sometime during the lead-up to Christmas. After Saint Lucia Day.”

“What’s going to happen on Saint Lucia Day?” Charlotte asked.

“You’ll soon find out, Charlotte. It’s going to be big.”

“Oh, fabulous!” Nadine cheered. “A death at Christmas. Just the thing we need to get back in the spirit of things.”

“I agree,” Charlotte replied. “That piece of shit has held this family back for far too long. I’m glad that he’s no longer in our lives. And I’ll be even happier when he’s dead and gone.”

“It’ll be just like that summer in 2000, when we lost both of our parents, Joseph. That was tragic, but it made us stronger. And we never had to hear their overbearing asses again.” Nadine raised her glass and beckoned Joseph and Charlotte to do the same.

“I propose a toast,” Nadine said, now slumping a bit in her seat. “Here’s to life without Graziano walking the face of the earth. Cin-cin, cent’anni!”

Cin-cin, cent’anni!” The glasses of all three Buonfiglio family members present clinked gently, a contrast to the otherwise macabre statement that flowed from Nadine’s mouth.

23. Cottage Country

I had never been to Cottage Country. You notice that I put those words into upper case because, in Ontario, Cottage Country is less of a place than an event. Year round, people head off on the weekends or holidays to their cabins and chalets spread across the province. Torontonians head off to Muskoka, two to three hours to the north. Canoeing, swimming, skiing, fucking near the fireplace when it’s colder than Stephen Harper’s would-be charisma… people love Cottage Country.

As I said, I had never been to Cottage Country. My parents’ idea of getting away for the weekend involved hooking up with their latest dalliances at some swanky hotel. Plus, my father called it a “white people” thing. Italians, admittedly, are relatively darker than other fair-skinned people, but Italians are white nonetheless, and there are bound to be many an Italian-Canadian who loves Muskoka and the like. So, therefore, he’s a fucking hypocrite.

I grew up with the notion that Cottage Country was this magical, almost ethereal place only known to the intelligentsia of Toronto. So what chance did I have of going there? I was a working-class Italian-Canadian gay guy with emotional problems. I could never see myself boating, skiing, and swimming among the privileged of the Greater Toronto Area…

…and then Mykhaylo asked me to come up for the weekend.

“My parents have a cottage in Washago,” he told me on the phone Friday night.

“Washago?” Where the fuck was that?, I wondered.

“You’ve never been up there, have you?”

I shook my head. “I’ve heard of Winnebago, lumbago, Asiago bagels from Noah’s in San Francisco…”

“Yeah. You haven’t been there.”

Britney jumped on my lap and snuggled against me. She purred softly as I stroked her fur.

“I would love to go,” I said.

“Great!”

“But… it’ll be the first time that I ever went away for the weekend with someone.”

“You didn’t go with Evan?”

“No.” Britney turned over in my lap. “We kept to ourselves on the weekends. Most of the time, we just fucked. Paid bills, cleaned up the place, and fucked each other in every form imaginable.”

Mykhaylo laughed. I loved hearing him laugh. “It’ll be fun, Graz. Granted, it’ll be one winter wonderland, and it’ll be cold as fuck, but I always preferred it over the other seasons.”

I looked over at Brian, who was in the kitchenette, fixing a drink. “I’d go if I were you,” Brian said. “You could use a break.”

I resumed my phone call. “I’ll see what I have.”

The next morning, I met Mykhaylo at Union Station, a short bus ride from the apartment. We decided to take the VIA Rail because it was faster than driving up the highway and risk getting creamed in an accident.

It took us two and a half hours to get from Toronto to Washago. Along the way, Mykhaylo had his nose in a trashy gay romance novel. It had some hot guys in a passionate embrace reminiscent of Fabio and whoever the bitch was next to him. I sat next to him, occupying the window seat. I wanted to get a good look at the hitherto foreign countryside outside of Toronto that I had never seen before. Farms, forests, plains… they were covered with snow, the consistency of confectioner’s sugar. When not looking at the landscape, I kept to my iPod classic, watching episodes of Britain’s Got Talent that I had downloaded off the Internet and converted to M4V format. I never understood why the world got such a hard-on for Susan Boyle. Clay Aiken did it to exceedingly better effect on American Idol in 2003, but YouTube hadn’t been born at the time. Plus, Idol is notoriously stingy when it comes to the Internet.

At 1PM, after a train ride and a short taxi ride, we arrived at the Karbanenko cottage. It looked nice from the outside; nothing too fancy. It was tucked among a grove of trees, like it was a hideaway waiting to be discovered. A Ukrainian flag swayed to and fro from a flagpole, right in the middle of the front lawn.

As Mykhaylo inspected the outside for anything amiss, I checked out the inside. It was spacious, comfortable, and up-to-date with the latest technology. It was also more demure in its Ukrainian identity than the Karbanenko’s Roncesvalles home. Bits and bobs, really, save for the patterned rug in the living room. There were three bedrooms, one for Ruslan and Oleksandra, one for Mykhaylo, and a guest room. Each one had rather comfortable beds. I tried each one out.

As I explored the kitchen, Mykhaylo walked in. “How do you like the house?” he asked.

“It’s fabulous!” I exclaimed.

“My dad made sure that we had everything up-to-date, from the granite countertops to the flat-screen TV,” Mykhaylo said, sitting down at the table.

“Brian has a kitchenette. You could fit four of them in here,” I replied, joining him. “Who keeps up this place when no one’s around?”

“We’ve got a few friends who do it.”

“How about I cook for us tonight?” I asked.

“Ooh, a home-cooked meal from my boyfriend!” Mykhaylo’s eyes lit up. “What do you have planned?”

“I brought a few things. I can also use what’s here–” I stopped. I could not believe that Mykhaylo had called me his boyfriend. It shocked me. “Hold up. Boyfriend?”

“That’s what we are, aren’t we?”

I didn’t know what to think, so I nodded in agreement. “Yeah. Boyfriends.”

“Great!” He got up from the table. “I’m going to take a nap. Can you wake me up at five?”

“Sure,” I said, not paying attention as he left for upstairs. I sat at that wooden table, in absolute shock.

As Mykhaylo napped, I walked around the house, wondering what to truly make of what happened. Evan was my first and only boyfriend. All the guys that I fucked were simply fuck-buddies. I hadn’t even screwed Mykhaylo. Worse, I was scared to truly call him my boyfriend. Why? Because by calling him my boyfriend, I was putting a name on our relationship. And it was someone dear to my heart. I was absolutely petrified, because the only person that I had hitherto called my boyfriend was now DEAD. My grandparents were DEAD. Ryan, my brother, might as well be DEAD. The people who had cared about me were removed from my life. And what about Brian and Claire? I had grown deeply to care for them. And Britney as well. I could end up alone anytime. They could be taken away from me. And the only people in my life would be a drunk whore, a philanderer, and Little Miss Bitch From Hell, and I didn’t even hold them in high regard because THEY DIDN’T HOLD ME IN HIGH REGARD!

I retreated to the kitchen and began cooking. Within ninety minutes, I had whipped up some whole-wheat spaghetti con aglio e olio (spaghetti with garlic and olive oil), vegetable minestrone, and non-alcoholic tiramisu. The tiramisu was non-alcoholic because I soaked the ladyfingers in Diet Pepsi as opposed to rum.

As I set the table, Mykhaylo came down from his nap. “Something smells great,” he said.

“I hope you like my cooking,” I responded, filling two wine glasses with Diet Pepsi.

We sat down to dinner, and began with the minestrone. I cooked it in organic vegetable broth and added whatever vegetables I could find in the fridge: peppers, tomatoes, squash, celery, corn, and avocados. I used some leftover broth to cook the pasta for the spaghetti con aglio e olio, and dusted the dish with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and cracked pepper. The Diet Pepsi tiramisu had whipped cream and chocolate caressing the organic ladyfingers. Mykhaylo loved each dish.

After dinner, we went outside for a walk in the forest. By that time, the snow had stopped falling and the moon was peeking from the clouds.

“It’s a beautiful night,” I said.

“I’m glad the weather let up. It feels magical.” Mykhaylo picked up a handful of snow and formed a ball in his hand.

“DON’T. YOU. DARE!” I exclaimed.

“What?” he said, feigning innocence. “I like snow.”

“Me too, but–” That ball splat on the left side of my face. I wiped it off, and scooped up a ball in return.

“I can be very quick, you know,” Mykhaylo said.

I snatched off his tuque and crowned him with the snowball. We looked at each other for a few moments, and then we began to horse around in the moon-lit snow. We lobbed things at each other, and we laughed and screamed. I hadn’t felt this child-like fun in… well, ever.

We ended by falling into each other’s arms, still giddy. This was as intimate as we had ever become. He was on top of me, and I could feel my body tingle with excitement. But as his face closed in on mine, I suddenly blurted out:

“I CAN’T BE YOUR BOYFRIEND!”

I moved from under Mykhaylo and ran back toward the house, crying. I could hear Mykhaylo’s footsteps as he rushed after me. The cold of the night combined with my tears was a painful feeling, and I cried even more and ran even faster.

By the time Mykhaylo caught up with me, I was sitting on the porch swing, my eyes red and my pride dented beyond recognition.

“What do you mean, ‘I can’t be your boyfriend’?” Mykhaylo exclaimed in anger.

I didn’t have a response. Mykhaylo sat next to me on the swing. I moved away from him slowly.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m not cheating on you, if that’s what you’re getting at,” I replied. “I… I just don’t know if I CAN be your boyfriend.”

“Why?”

I stood up and walked to the porch edge. “I don’t know what you see in me, Mykhaylo. I may look like I have it going on, but in truth I’m a fucking mess. Things have gotten better in the past few weeks, now that I have Brian and Claire and… you in my life…”

“And your cat.”

I nodded. “But I’m nowhere near boyfriend material. I’m still in mourning over Evan.”

Mykhaylo stood up and put his arm around me. “I know.”

“But that’s not even the worst part. Every person that has ever given me more than a second look in life is gone. Not just Evan, but my grandparents… all of them brought so much joy into my life, at times when I needed that joy. But someone took them away. Since then, I’ve been hesitant to develop relationships with other people, other than the occasional fuck session. I’m just scared that if we… we do become… boyfriends, it would destroy everything. And it’s not just you. I’m worried that I’ll lose Claire and Brian and Britney, too. I worry that I’ll never have anyone in my corner.”

Mykhaylo turned me towards him and put his hand on my shoulders. “But, Graz, you have me now.”

The moonlight hit his face, and it was beautiful. “I know that you’re not the best person in the world,” he continued. “I know the baggage that you carry. But I also know that you mean a lot to me.”

He led me back to the swing, and we sat down.

“Graziano, do you remember when we first met?”

I thought about it for a few moments. “Yeah. It was the first day of secondary school, and I was on the subway. Late summer, early autumn, 1996. The train stopped at Bathurst, and I noticed you for the first time. Bomber jacket, dirty blond hair, high-top Keds, thick glasses that made you look like a white Steve Urkel. You came onto the train and immediately sat next to me.”

Mykhaylo put his arm around me again, and drew me closer to him. “I had been questioning my sexuality for some time, and then I met you, and… it all made sense. I remember, we talked the whole subway ride through about everything and anything: Japanese anime, the Macarena, the Blue Jays, life.”

“I had known for years that I was different. When I met you, I thought, ‘That guy’s cute, even with the glasses. I hope he goes to the same school as me.'”

“I fell in love with you that first day. I didn’t know a damn thing about you, but it just clicked. And I’ve never stopped loving you.”

We looked at each other again.

“And I never will,” Mykhaylo said. “I don’t care if you’re an emotional train-wreck. I don’t care if you have feeble mental strength. I don’t care if you eat pot brownies and listen to Whitney Houston in an Amsterdam coffee shop while you light a joint and read Highlights for Children, Graziano Buonfiglio. I love you.”

My heart began to melt at that point. Was it love? Or was it the Diet Pepsi tiramisu? Either way, I could feel a smile form on my face. And I rarely smile at that.

“I don’t want to force you to do something that you’re not ready to do. But I want you to know that there are people out there, who love you. You still have Evan and your grandparents. They’ll always be with you, as cliche as that sounds. And as for your other friends, they’ll always be with you, no matter what. But, Graziano, do you love me?”

I looked into his brown, jewel eyes. “I do love you.”

“Then don’t worry, buddy. Come here.”

And then, we kissed. I could feel a weight slowly recede off my shoulders. Mykhaylo’s skin was soft, smooth, and resilient. His touch was gentle and firm at the same time, as usual. I felt sparks. Not since Evan had I felt those. Midway through the kiss, my eyes caught a glimpse of the moonlight. At that moment, it had hit the porch swing just so. It felt magical.

Ti amo,” I muttered as we broke our kiss.

Ya tebe kokhayu” was Mykhaylo’s response. He took me by the hand and led me inside. What happened next involved deep kissing, caressing, loud screams, deep penetrations from both parties, condoms, lubricant… and a warm fire to accompany the performance.

The next morning, I woke up right next to the fireplace, with Mykhaylo’s alabaster body snug against me. The snow was falling again, but that didn’t matter to me. Mykhaylo slowly stirred awake.

Dobroho ranku,” he said, kissing my lips and smiling.

Buon giorno, principe,” I ripped off the line from that Roberto Benigni movie and kissed my Ukrainian-Canadian boyfriend back. “My ass hurts.”

“So does mine.”

“Really good,” I added. “What do you want to do today?”

“There’s a hot tub out back that I’d love to show you.”

I kissed him on the cheek. “Sounds great. What time are we leaving today?”

“Five o’clock. A friend of mine will pick us up here, and drive us to Barrie. From there we can take the Greyhound back to Toronto. We should be back in the city by eight o’clock.”

“I’ll get started on breakfast,” I said, getting up. “How do you like your eggs?”

“As hard as your ass,” Mykhaylo said.

It was at that moment that I realized I was naked. I shrugged my shoulders and walked into the kitchen.

22. Getting Involved

BEFORE GRAZIANO ARRIVES

“Claire, can I see you for a moment?” Owen Hammersmith, Claire’s boss, stuck his head into her office. She was at her desk, reviewing a few files.

“Owen, can it wait?” Claire asked.

“Immediately.”

Claire groaned and thrust her files down on the desk. She got up and walked into Owen’s impeccably clean boudoir of an office. By comparison, her own office looked positively cluttered, and it was pretty tidy and organized.

“What did I do now?” she asked as if she was a teenage child.

“Claire, I like you. You’re professional, you’re compassionate, you’re one of the best in the business.”

Claire knew that there was a “but” or a “however” coming up.

“However, this business with Graziano Buonfiglio… it’s gotten out of hand.”

“What do you mean?”

Owen leaned toward her. He was portly and a bald patch was appearing faintly through his hair. “I heard that you and his mother got into it last Friday.”

Claire groaned. “I didn’t encourage it. And I certainly did not seek her out. The bitch was stalking me. And who told you in the first place?”

“My daughter works part-time at Shoppers. She saw the whole thing go down.”

“And you chose today to tell me this, because…?”

“Because I’m concerned, Claire,” Owen said.

“So am I! You haven’t heard half of what Graziano’s gone through. He was brought up in an environment that makes The Sopranos look like Little Mosque on the Prairie!”

Owen shook his head. “That’s a terrible and nonsensical analogy.”

“Well, it’s the end of the work week. I’m not always sharp as a tack.”

Owen sighed. “Claire, I’m going to keep my eye on you. You may continue to be Graziano’s counselor, but I don’t want any shenanigans to impact your care. Otherwise, I’ll have to either fire you or put Graziano in someone else’s care.”

Claire looked at her boss dead in the eyes. “That kid needs me.”

“He’s not your son!” Owen exclaimed. “He’s your client.”

“Owen,” Claire said, getting up, “I like you. You’re professional, you’re compassionate, you’re one of the best in the business… most of the time. But he’s not just my client.”

“Just promise me that you won’t hire someone to put a hit on his family, okay?” Owen asked.

Claire nodded in agreement. “He’ll be here shortly.” She walked out, quietly defiant.

DURING THE SESSION

“I don’t know how to tell you this, Graziano,” Claire said, putting down her notepad.

I sat up in my chair. I had a feeling that something was about to go down. “What?”

Claire took a deep breath, and exhaled. “After our previous session, something… interesting happened. I… I ran into your mother.”

Oh, shit. I shook my head in disbelief. “How?” was my only response.

“After work, I drove to Shoppers, and this lady hounded me from the tampon section to the snacks section. Everything that I touched, she made a snide remark. When I confronted her, she revealed herself as your mother.”

“You didn’t tell her about me, did you?”

“No. All I said was that you deserved better.”

I nodded. “Did she reek of booze?”

“You bet.”

“That’s my mother, Nadine Buonfiglio.” I relaxed a little bit, though I was still tense. “How did she know who you were?”

“I had no idea. I can only assume that she was stalking me. This is a first, though. I’ve had some interesting patients in my day, but none of them or their relatives ever hounded me like that.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said.

Claire shook her head. “It’s okay. I’m a big girl. I can handle this. That’s why I hired a private investigator. Graziano, I’m really scared, but I consider this part of my job.”

I nodded. “I just hope you’re careful.”

“Have you ever felt like someone is stalking you?”

“Not recently, no,” I said. “My family has never put a hit out on a relative, as far as I know. When they talk about keeping things in the family, they mean it. They don’t like to ‘outsource’.”

“Okay,” Claire said. She then changed the subject. “How’s your job hunting?”

“I ran into an old friend, and he suggested that I get into modeling.” I showed her various angles of my face. “Do you think I can do it?”

“Well, yes, actually. I took art and photography classes at Concordia, while I majored in psychiatry. You have the build to be a great fitness model. Or at least a porn star.”

I looked at her incredulously. “That’s what HE said.”

“You have a great body, Graziano. You’re fit and strong. You should use it to your advantage.”

“I don’t know,” I said. I still was not comfortable with taking my clothes off for money.

“Well, consider it, Graziano.”

I reclined back into my chair, and inhaled and exhaled. “Okay, I will consider it.”

“I know it’s not sage advice, and I know I’m not your mother, but I consider you more than a client.”

My ears perked up. “Am I, like, the son you never had?”

“No.”

I felt a bit disappointed at that moment.

“Actually, yes.” She sat up in her chair and leaned toward me. “I never had children. I couldn’t even adopt. I can’t bear children, Graziano. I found that out two years into my marriage, and within six months, my husband bailed out and found some fertile bitch who could give him some kids.”

I didn’t know what to say at that point. It was such a shock to me. I couldn’t believe that this experienced woman of the world couldn’t have children.

“Anyway,” she continued, “when I met you through Brian… I don’t know. It felt like God or whoever is up there, was giving me my chance to be a mom. If not physically, then in another capacity. I’ve never felt this way with any client. To be fair, all of my clients are above 30 years of age, present company excluded. I’m glad that I’m your counselor, Graziano. And if I have to put myself through hell to see that you get better, then, I’ll do that.”

I was actually flattered and happy that she said that. “Thank you,” I said.

Claire looked at her watch. “Our session is up,” she said.

I got up and headed for the door. “See you next Friday, Claire,” I replied. But then I stopped at the door. I froze for a few moments, and then I turned to Claire, and gave her the biggest hug that I had ever given a woman. And Claire hugged me back.

We let go. And then I said something that I had never said to anyone, not even my own mother:

“Thanks, Mom.”

Claire smiled. “You’re welcome, son. See you next Friday.”

I left the building feeling strangely relieved and happy. I meant every word. Claire had, in fact, become my surrogate mom in everything but official status. It felt good having that.