Chapter 17: “Have you ever seen Suddenly, Last Summer?”

TUESDAY, 10TH NOVEMBER, 2009

It finally happened. For the first time in a month, I had a nightmare. And not just any nightmare: if it were a piece of art, it would be hanging in the Louvre or the Guggenheim or in some rich Chinese bitch’s gauche drawing room in a high-rise apartment overlooking the Pearl River in Shanghai. That is how monumental and beyond it was.

The day had started out fine. I went to Toronto Animal Services and filled out an application to register Britney, because that’s the law in Toronto. If I didn’t register her, they’d fine me $240 and could sue me for up to $5,000. For the record, Britney is not only a healthy cat who gets check-ups every year, she has also been spayed.

A quick lunch at Pizza Pizza and another workout session at the YMCA followed. I worked out so hard that, by the end of the day, I was too tired to do anything else. So, I headed back to the apartment and plopped onto my bed.

And that’s when it happened. But it didn’t start out as a nightmare. This is how it went down:

I was in this trattoria, not in Corso Italia, not in Little Italy, but somewhere. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But the trattoria was clean, the music playing on the P.A. was authentic Italian opera and not the Andrea Bocelli pap of today, and I was sitting at a table, enjoying a plate full of spaghetti carbonara. The sauce was silky and smooth, the peas were fresh from the garden, the bacon was savoury and spicy, and the pasta was tender, resilient, and sexy.

As I was eating, a man and a woman approached me. “Graziano?” I heard the woman say. All of a sudden, I stopped. I recognized the honey-sweet voice. I looked up and I saw Nonno Pietro and Nonna Annunziata right at my side. Pietro had short blond hair, tanned and weathered skin, and was a few inches shorter than me. He also smelled of Brut Classic by Faberge, the kind of stuff that Roger Moore wore as James Bond. Annunziata was a tall, fiery red-headed goddess whose skin was not as tanned and weathered, but still had a southern Italian character.

This was the first time since they died, that I was experiencing them. I slowly got up, and they embraced me. I could actually feel them embrace me. Tears began to well up in my eyes. Annunziata kissed me on the cheek. Pietro rubbed my shoulder. They always did that when they were alive.

Nonno,” I asked Pietro, “where am I?”

“My dear boy,” he said, “you’re in heaven.”

“Heaven is a trattoria?”

Annunziata laughed. “No, darling. The trattoria is part of heaven. Up here, everything beautiful and magical is present.”

“Why am I here?” I asked. “Am I dead?”

Pietro laughed, too. “Oh, Graziano. You’re not dead. We wanted to check on you.”

“Darling, we saw what happened on your birthday. What they did, it was terrible. But you’ve bounced back, clearly.”

“I don’t know if I have bounced back, nonna.”

“You’ve still got a long way to go, my boy,” Pietro said, “but you’re on the right track.”

Grazie,” I said. “Where are Nonno Raimondo and Nonna Maria Grazia?”

“Why don’t you come with us and find out?” Annunziata asked.

I looked at my plate of spaghetti carbonara, unfinished. “What about my meal?”

“Don’t worry,” Pietro said. “It will still be there.”

They led me out of the trattoria, and suddenly, we ended up in a massive piazza, filled with people coming and going and lounging. I was beginning to wonder if heaven was in fact an Italian town. I had been to Italy with my grandparents a few times in my life, and everything seemed familiar but it also seemed so strange.

And then I saw Nonno Raimondo and Nonna Maria Grazia approach us, just appearing out of nowhere. My knees began to buckle. Raimondo was tall, with a thick mop of black hair and a bushy moustache. Maria Grazia was short and had curly brown hair, similar to Estelle Getty out of Sophia Petrillo drag.

Orsacchiotto!” Nonna Maria Grazia called to me. Orsacchiotto means “teddy bear” in Italian, and for reasons already established in this story, that was her nickname for me.

I ran up to them, and they too embraced me warmly. And I could feel them embrace me, as well.

Come stai, campione?” Raimondo asked me, gently tugging my cheeks. He used to do that when I was a kid. “How are you, champ?”

Bene,” I said. “How’s heaven?”

“Fabulous. Just the other day, we ran into Patrick Swazye, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson at the vegetarian buffet.”

“No, Raimondo!” Maria Grazia said. “Graziano, he’s a little star-struck.”

“You didn’t try to do the Moonwalk for Jacko, did you?” I asked Raimondo.

“Actually, I did. He was quite impressed and gave me some pointers.”

And then I heard someone call out my name. “Graziano!” At that moment, time stood still. I recognized the voice, and soon, Evan was in front of me. Evan was handsome as ever, and he looked damn good. My knees buckled even more, and I found myself having to steady myself.

Evan kissed me on the lips. It was like it was yesterday. “I’m so glad to see you,” he said, holding my hands. I could feel how soft and gentle they were.

“Me too.”

“Graz, it’s not your time yet. You’ve got a lot of living to do for all of us. You’ve only just begun.”

I didn’t want to let go. I honestly did not want to let go, but I knew that he was right. My grandparents nodded in agreement.

“Okay.”

“We love you, orsacchiotto. Make us proud!” Maria Grazia cheered.

“I love you all. Vi amo tutti.” With tears spilling out of my eyes, I let go of Evan and I walked in the opposite direction. And this is where things began to change. Every step forward, I noticed that my surroundings got darker. And then, I suddenly fell down into what seemed like an endless abyss. I was screaming and screaming, and then… darkness.

The darkness lasted for only one second, and suddenly, I found myself lying in the snow, along a frozen stream. It was night-time, and I was surrounded by trees, snow, and an eerie silence. I slowly picked myself up, and walked away from the stream. I had no idea where I was. All I knew was to keep walking, and keep walking, and keep walking.

I soon came across a narrow road. I didn’t have a compass, so I couldn’t tell whether it was a north-south or east-west road. So, I turned left and walked along the road. I was scared and frightened, and with each step, my fear grew exponentially bigger.

Just when it could not have gotten any worse, guess who showed up? Nadine. Joseph. Charlotte. Sissy. Uncle Nicholas. Aunt Denise. Ashley. Even Mandy Manriquez, that slut. They led a motley cast of bullies, tyrants, and bitches. Virtually everyone in my life who had said a cross word toward me, virtually everyone in my life who had committed an act of violence toward me… it was a lynch mob like no other. Not even the mobs in Beauty and the Beast or Suddenly, Last Summer could have compared. Their faces did not hint at rage, they defined their rage. They wielded clubs, torches, pitchforks, placards calling for my head on a platter, etc.

“There he is!” Joseph roared. “Let’s get him.”

I promptly ran in the opposite direction, but the mob was never more than fifteen feet away. For some reason, “The Mob Song” from Beauty and the Beast began to play, and everyone was lip-synching to it. I don’t know how long I ran, but then I saw them marching towards me FROM THE OTHER SIDE! They had multiplied in number and were swarming wherever the hell I was. And they, too, were lip-synching to “The Mob Song” and wielding the very same accoutrements.

I soon noticed a path that didn’t seem to have a mob approaching along it. So, I ran as hard and as fast as I could until I found myself at the edge of a cliff. The mob was closing in on me. And down below, an even hungrier mob was awaiting me potentially falling off the cliff.

As the mob to end all mobs descended on me, lip-synching “KILL THE BEAST!” and with hunger in their eyes not seen since Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, I suddenly channelled my inner Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer and screamed, “HELP!” over and over and over at full volume plus one.

Joseph extended his arm, grabbed my collar, and I let out the loudest scream that I had ever let out.

“GRAZIANO!!” Brandon yelled.

It was over. I was back in my bedroom, sweating profusely, and Brandon was trying to shake me back into my senses. “Graziano!” he said, turning the volume down.

I looked at him, and I just lost it. I collapsed into his arms and bawled like I had never bawled before. I felt my body shake violently and steam up like a hot dog in the microwave. Brandon hugged me back. “It’s okay, honey,” he whispered. “It’s okay.”

A few minutes later, Brandon escorted me to the dining table, where he had spaghetti carbonara and garlic bread laid out for us. The spaghetti carbonara immediately made my knees buckle. Nonetheless, I composed myself again and sat down. Britney walked over and lay down, nuzzling at my feet.

“What happened?” Brandon asked.

“Have you ever seen Suddenly, Last Summer?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Do you remember the scene where Montgomery Clift gets attacked by a mob in Greece, and Elizabeth Taylor screams in horror?”

Brandon looked at me mysteriously. “Yeah.”

“Well… throw in the mob scene from Beauty and the Beast, and Ola Ray being chased by Michael Jackson and a bunch of zombies in the Thriller video, and… that’s what happened.”

“So, the reason why you were crying is because you were being chased by a mob of zombies singing Disney tunes on a Greek island?”

“No,” I replied. And then, my tone got more serious. “They were lip-synching. Anyway, I was crying and screaming… because I had a nightmare where my family and everyone else who hated me… tried to kill me.”

Brandon held my hand. “I’m sorry, Graz.”

“I never had a nightmare like that before. It didn’t even start out like a nightmare. I dreamed that I was in heaven, and heaven was an Italian town. I saw my grandparents, and I saw Evan. I could actually touch them, feel them, and smell them. It was so beautiful. And then, I found myself in some forest, and all of a sudden… they showed up. Pitchforks, placards, torches, clubs… I’m too scared to sleep now.”

Brandon hugged me again. “Graz, I want to tell you a story,” he said. “Do you remember when I told you that we had more in common than you thought?”

I nodded.

“Well,” he continued, “this is it.” He let me go, and went back to his seat. “Don’t let your food get cold.”

“Oh.” I tucked into my plate of spaghetti carbonara as Brandon began his story.

“I was born and raised in Regina. I loved living there; it was safe to roam about, there was a great sense of community… it was paradise. But, home was hell. My father was a cop, and my mother was a secretary for our church. My father drank and beat the shit out of anyone and everyone. My mother screwed anyone and everyone.”

“What church?” I asked, slurping a noodle.

“Lutheran. I had an older brother, Craig, and a younger sister, Melody. Craig still lives in Regina, but Melody’s somewhere in Nova Scotia. My parents treated them like royalty. They wanted for nothing. I got shit.”

“Did you get beat up?”

Brandon nodded. “Every day. There were times when I didn’t come home from school. I would hide out at school, at the library, even at the movies. When I did come home, the first thing that would happen was my father beating me so bad.”

“Didn’t you have anyone in your corner?”

“That’s where you and I differ, buddy. You at least had grandparents who loved you. Mine died before I was born. And forget cousins or uncles or aunts. They hated me, too.”

I could feel that this was not an easy thing for Brandon to say.

“How did you get out?” I asked him.

Brandon inhaled and exhaled heavily. “On my 18th birthday, my father beat me up. I didn’t get a birthday party, or even a cake. By the end of the night, I had finally reached my limit. While everyone slept, I packed everything that I owned into several suitcases. I had $750.32 in my piggy bank, most of it from working part-time jobs. I took the money, took my suitcases, and sneaked out in the dead of night. I got into my car, and I left Regina for the last time.”

He poured himself a glass of juice. “I drove east along the Trans Canada Highway almost non-stop. Less than a week later, I found myself at Cape Spear in St. John’s. There I was, at the edge of the continent, scared, crying, and all alone. Worse, my car had overheated and exploded.”

“What did you do next?”

“I gathered my belongings, and the next day, I was on the ferry to North Sydney. I decided that I would start fresh in Toronto, so I hitchhiked, took buses, and even walked long distances until I arrived in Quebec City. From there, I stowed away on a train and ended up in Toronto.”

He sipped quietly from his glass. “I didn’t know a soul in this town. For the next six months, I slept in abandoned buildings, in subway tunnels, and even in parks. I didn’t want to check into a shelter, or live with anyone else. One day, when it was snowing, some cops found me crying alongside the Don River. I ended up in a shelter that very night. But, as it turned out, I began meeting people who loved, cared, and supported me. And slowly, I got my life together. I went to university, got a degree, and that’s what led me to become a professor at UT. A few years ago, I even won $20 million in the 6/49 Lottery.”

My head shot up. “$20 million?”

“How else do you think I got this apartment?” Brandon chuckled. “Educators don’t make that much, you know. Anyway, despite where I came from, I’m living my dream now. I have a wonderful home, I have money in the bank, and I have a career. I don’t have a husband or an adopted child from South Korea, but I’m not complaining.”

And then, he took my hand in his hands. “Graz, as bad as your life has been, it can and will get better. I knew you were something special when you first stepped into my classroom. I could tell from the look on your face. You’ve been on my mind every day for over nine years, buddy.”

“Do you honestly think I can make it?” I asked him, unsure.

“Yeah. I believe you can. With me and Claire and even Mykhaylo to cheer you on, as it were, you can.”

I put down my fork and gave him the biggest hug that I could ever give a person. He responded in kind, and for the first time in a long time, I felt good. Not in relative terms, but actually good. Brandon kissed me on the cheek, and I liked that kiss. After we let go, I asked him, “Can I ask you one question?”

“Sure.”

“How did you make this carbonara? This is great!”

Brandon laughed. “It’s prepackaged. I hope you’re not offended.”

The spaghetti carbonara really did taste great, its being prepackaged notwithstanding. Everything about it reminded me about the pasta that I had in that little trattoria in heaven. When I went to bed later that night, I felt that even though I didn’t plan on it, I had made a major breakthrough with Brandon. I felt closer to him. He wasn’t just my former English professor or my roommate: he was my friend.

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