FRIDAY, 13TH NOVEMBER, 2009
“Hey, Graziano. Mykhaylo here. I don’t know if you’re up to this, but here goes: every Sunday, I have dinner with my parents. The whole family shows up. I know that you’re not big on family dinners, but I would like it if you came over. I’ll fill you in on what to bring over. Ukrainian food is really good, if you haven’t tried it yet. It’s not just borscht and varenyky, or piroshki’s as some ignorant sons of bitches call them. Of course, my dad makes great varenyky, and my mom makes great borscht, but then ask any Ukrainian worth his or her salt and they would say similar things. I’d like for you to come over not just because of the food, but my family would like to meet you. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Good night.”
Mykhaylo left that message for me Friday night, while I was doing my laundry. When I got the message, I didn’t know what to think. When I was growing up, my family had Sunday evening dinners… at my grandparents’ houses. They were the only times of the week when Nadine, Joseph, Charlotte, and everyone else did not even dare to physically or verbally assault me. During the rest of the week, it was up to me to get my own dinner. Nadine never ate a damn thing, and Joseph usually ate out with someone, or vice versa, if you get my drift. But I was more concerned with how I would fare in front of Mykhaylo’s family, who had never seen me before.
SATURDAY, 14TH NOVEMBER, 2009
I left a message on Mykhaylo’s cell phone confirming my RSVP for Sunday’s dinner. The rest of the day was devoted in large part to all things Ukrainian. Since my knowledge of the language was non-existent, not even knowing how to say “Fuck you!”, I wanted to brush up. I headed to the Toronto Reference Library (I wasn’t too keen on buying books this time around) and checked out two items: Teach Yourself Ukrainian and Lonely Planet’s Ukraine. After that, I went to St. Lawrence Market, where I consulted with the people at the Dnister delicatessen. I left with an assortment of Ukrainian delicacies.
Later, I settled on making dessert: nalysnyky. They’re like crepes, only lighter. Being Italian, I jazzed them up with Nutella, which IMHO is one of the greatest inventions of all time. I fucking love that shit. One time, I slathered it all over Evan’s chest and licked it off. I was initially worried about any potential dietary problems, because Nutella does have hazelnuts, and I’ve heard of people who are allergic to chocolate. When I called Mykhaylo later, he assured me that everything was okay.
Brandon acted as my taste tester while I prepared the nalysnyky. He too was a virgin when it came to Ukrainian food, but he loved it. After I finished the batch and put them in the fridge, I brushed up on my knowledge of the Ukrainian language. Now, I’m fluent in English and Italian. I also can speak French very well, but it could be better. You don’t hear much French in Toronto outside of radio and TV, you know. Living in and around the GTA, I’ve picked up some words and phrases in a variety of languages, from Tagalog to Korean to Spanish to Tamil. Where the Ukrainian language is concerned, I’ve still got a long way to go, but that day, I got a good start on it.
SUNDAY, 15TH NOVEMBER, 2009
“You fucking bitch! If I ever see your face again, you’re going to end up at the bottom of Lake Ontario. And that’s not a threat; that’s a promise! Burn in hell, faggot!”
I turned off my cell phone and put it in my pocket.
“Who was that?” Mykhaylo asked.
“My aunt Denise,” I said. “She’s married to my dad’s brother. Not only did she take his last name, she took their mutual hatred of me and absorbed it into her body.”
“What a bitch.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
I was in Mykhaylo’s car, and we were driving through Roncesvalles on Sunday night. It was already dark and cold. The Rubbermaid with my nalysnyky were tightly pressed against my lap. I had just checked my phone messages, and Denise Buonfiglio had seen fit to leave a message of equal vitriol, just like I did a few days earlier.
Looking out the window, I noticed a lot of Polish institutions as we drove along. Not many Ukrainian ones, though.
“Where are all the Ukrainian stores and stuff?” I asked.
“Roncesvalles is mostly Polish,” Mykhaylo said. “If you want to know the real Ukrainian community in Toronto, check out the High Park area. My family likes it here, though.”
Mykhaylo himself lived near Ryerson University. A few minutes later, we pulled up to a small, red-brick, two-storey house on leafy and narrow Sorauren Avenue, with a yellow fire hydrant in the front yard. “Welcome to the Karbanenko home,” Mykhaylo said. “Are you ready?”
“It will be fun!” He took my hand and squeezed it gently. I squeezed back and we exchanged smiles. Soon, we were out of the car, and I had my Rubbermaid and a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling apple juice with me. Mykhaylo carried a bouquet of tulips. Within moments, we were inside the house.
The first thing that I noticed was how art-crazy the interiors were. It was a mishmash of paintings and sculptures, both old and new. I learned about art from my grandparents, and even though they weren’t professionals, I learned a lot from them, and what I saw in the Karbanenko house was just a bunch of stuff that didn’t go together in the slightest. And the second thing that I noticed was the smell of beef sizzling in a pan of shallots and onions.
“Mamo! My tut!” Mykhaylo called out. (“Mom! We’re here!”)
And then a woman who could have passed for a cleaner version of my mother walked in. “Pryvit, darling,” she said, kissing Mykhaylo on the cheek. Her voice was sweet enough to induce diabetes. And then she turned to me. “This must be the notorious Graziano!”
“Dobryy vechir, pani Karbanenko,” I greeted her good evening. (“Good evening, Mrs. Karbanenko.”)
“Please, call me Oleksandra!” she exclaimed, kissing me on the cheek.
Mykhaylo handed her the tulips. “Vony prekrasni!” she said. (“They’re beautiful.”) Oleksandra turned to me and asked, “Did you bring me anything?”
I handed her the nalysnyky and sparkling apple juice. “Ooh, nalysnyky… you should know that I make fabulous nalysnyky, so prepare for some competition, young man,” she chided playfully. And then she looked at the juice. “What the hell is this?” she asked.
“I don’t drink alcohol, Oleksandra,” I asked.
“Why? You’re Italian, aren’t you?”
“Yoho maty alkoholik,” Mykhaylo said to Oleksandra. (“His mother is an alcoholic.”)
Oleksandra nodded. “That’s all right, then.” And then she asked Mykhaylo something in Ukrainian that I for the life of me could not understand.
“You want to see my bedroom?” Mykhaylo asked me.
“Sure,” I replied.
“We’ll eat in thirty minutes. My yimo w trydtsyat’ khvylyn,” Oleksandra said, heading back into the kitchen.
We went up the stairs and into Mykhaylo’s former bedroom. It had been converted into a spare room, but all over the room were photographs of Mykhaylo and other mementos. On top of the television was a picture that caught my eye: Mykhaylo wearing a white shirt, blue pants, and a red kerchief around the neck.
“That was during my Young Pioneer days,” Mykhaylo said.
“It was a youth organization in the Soviet Union. Basically, the breeding ground for future Communist leaders. Pretty much every Soviet kid from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk was in the Young Pioneers.”
He took the picture from the television and looked at it. “I remember this like it was yesterday: 1st of November, 1991. We were in the Carpathian Mountains, and I had just joined the group. I hated it so much, but I didn’t let anyone know. We didn’t know then, that in two months time, the Soviet Union would be gone. Four months after this photo was taken, my family moved to Canada.”
He sat on the edge of the bed. “The first thing that I said to my parents, after we were allowed into Canada, was that I hated being a Young Pioneer,” he said. “It turns out, when they were my age, they hated it too.”
He put the photo back and lay back on the bed, and I joined him. “Do your parents know you’re gay?” I asked.
Mykhaylo nodded. “I’m the only fag in my family, as far as I know,” he chuckled. “I came out to them after I came back from Hungary. They didn’t force the issue; I told them myself.”
“You didn’t show them your porn movies, did you?”
He chuckled again. “That came a few months later. They’ve never said any bad things about gay people, but it wasn’t until I came out that we began talking about it. And they’ve been extremely supportive. They’ve joined PFLAG, they’ve attended the Pride Parade, and they’ve tried to open up dialogue in the Ukrainian community. It hasn’t been easy, especially since a lot of people that they’ve tried to discuss this with are immigrants themselves, and to them ‘gay’ is something that they’ve never really thought about.”
“I wish I had parents like yours,” I sighed. “Nadine and Joseph are not only a pair of abusive jerks, but they’re incredibly homophobic. My grandparents weren’t, thank Goddess.”
“I want to have kids, though,” Mykhaylo said. “I don’t care if I have to adopt one. I’ll go back to Ukraine and get a kid from there, if it means my parents won’t have to worry about being grandparents.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think that I’ll ever be a parent. I don’t even want to be a parent. I’m barely fit enough to take care of my cat.” I looked at Mykhaylo. “Have you thought of a name?”
“For a future kid?” he asked.
“No, for the SkyDome.”
Mykhaylo laughed. “Obviously I want to give him or her a Ukrainian name. But I wouldn’t object to a more Western name. I’ll tell you one thing: there is no way in hell that any child of mine is going to have a surname for a first name. No Taylor, no Madison, no Bowen, no Carter, no way, no how.” He sat up. “I have some pictures of my family and me in our first years in Canada. You want to look?”
Mykhaylo picked up an album from below the television, and opened it. For the next twenty minutes, he walked me through a pictorial display of life for an immigrant family in Canada, especially one that had just fled Eastern Europe and Communism. He showed me pictures of him and his sister, Oksana, at school. He was pretty cute as a kid, even before I initially met him. Then there were pictures of him and the family in colourful Ukrainian attire, dancing and feasting. All the while, I had images from my youth in the back of my mind, and they were horrid in and of themselves, but compared to the excitement and intrigue of Mykhaylo’s youth, they were decrepit.
Later, we found ourselves in the family dining room. Oleksandra was putting the finishing touches on the layout. A thinner version of my father, and with more hair, entered. “Hello, Graziano!” he cheerfully greeted me, extending his hand.
I shook it firmly. “Dobryy vechir,” I replied.
“I’m Ruslan, Mykhaylo’s father.”
“Uhhmmm… duzhe pryyemno,” I said. (“Pleased to meet you.”) “Did I get it right?”
“Right first time, son,” Ruslan responded. “Please, have a seat.”
Mykhaylo and I sat next to each other on one side of the table. Oleksandra and Ruslan sat on opposite ends, leaving two other seats on the opposite side. “Oksana and Taras will be here any moment,” Oleksandra said.
I heard the front door open. “Mamo! Tate!” It was the voice of a young woman. Soon, Oksana sashayed in. Her blonde hair was in a tight chignon bun, and she was wearing what I hoped was a synthetic fur coat. Goddess help her if she had chosen a fur one. Underneath her dress was a glittery, silver dress. Where the hell did she think that she was having Sunday dinner? Tiffany’s?
“Pryvit,” Ruslan greeted her.
“De Taras?” Oleksandra asked. (“Where’s Taras?”)
She looked at me, as she took off her coat, and switched into English. “He’s parking the car.” She extended her hand. “Hi. I’m Oksana Karbanenko-Mel’nik, Mykhaylo’s sister.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m Graziano Buonfiglio.”
“Charmed, I’m sure.”
She seemed weird. I turned to her. “What is up with her?” I asked.
“Okay, she can come across as bougie, but she’s a really nice woman,” he responded, trying to defend his sister’s honour.
Taras Mel’nik, Oksana’s husband, waltzed in. He was tall, had a mop of black hair, and could pass for a male supermodel any day of the week. “Hi, everyone,” he said. “I was trying to get some homeless person away from the Lexus.” He sat next to Oksana, who had taken her seat already. And soon, he stood up.
“I know you!” I looked up and he was talking to and about me.
“What?” I was confused.
“I saw you five years ago at my sister’s bachelorette party.”
I didn’t remember him from Adam, but I did remember doing a few bachelorette parties that year.
“Who?” I asked.
“Anastasiya Mel’nik,” he replied.
Now it was clear. I had done Anastasiya Mel’nik’s bachelorette party three weeks after Evan’s funeral. It was one of the few times that I had gone out of the apartment. “Yeah, I did her party.”
“I knew it. You had the biggest dick that I had ever seen on a man!”
OH, JESUS H. CHRIST ON A FERRIS WHEEL ON FIRE. I sheepishly sunk into my chair as the exasperated clinking of silverware and plates on flat surfaces abounded. Everyone else glared at Taras.
“What?” he asked. “It’s the truth.”
“What the fuck were you doing at her bachelorette party ANYWAY?” Oksana roared.
Taras shook his head. “She needed help with security. You know how rowdy women get at bachelorette parties. Alcohol and hormones raging… it was either me or letting Anastasiya and her friends do something that they would regret. And don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, Oksana. On your bachelorette night, wasn’t it you who wanted to ride Ginuwine’s pony?”
There was an awkward silence for thirty seconds. Oksana looked like she wanted to rip Taras’ head off his body. After the thirty seconds were up, Mykhaylo said, “Okay. Let’s say grace.”
Mykhaylo said grace, in Ukrainian of course, as we all bowed our heads. I was the only one who didn’t understand fully what he was saying verbatim. It did, however, take me back to the Sunday dinners of my youth, when either Nonno Raimondo or Nonno Pietro (depending on whose house we were dining at) said grace in Italian.
Dinner was delicious, let me tell you. It was the best Sunday night dinner that I have ever had. There must have been magic in the kitchen when Oleksandra was preparing dinner. The borscht went down smooth and easy, and I don’t even eat anything with beets. They stain like a bitch. The main courses were stuffed cabbage rolls, or holubnitsi, and chicken in orange sauce. The chicken was tender and the skin was crisp, though for my taste the orange sauce was too strong. Were there flaws in the meal? Yeah, but what compensated for the flaws, was the fact that my presence was welcome by all parties. They could have served me ramen noodles and I would have thought it was the best meal ever.
Dinnertime discussion revolved around mundane but pleasant topics. I learned that Taras was from Saskatchewan and was a substitute teacher. He was also getting his masters from York University, where Mykhaylo was studying. I learned that Oksana worked at Swarovski in Eaton Centre, which explained her love of extravagance. Oleksandra owned a bank that had a large Ukrainian clientele, and Ruslan was a former hot dog vendor who had since become the head of the meat and poultry department at Whole Foods Market. I shared part of my life story with them as well, including what I had been doing in the past month.
And then, as Mykhaylo cleared the plates in anticipation of dessert, Oksana had the gall to ask me: “HOW big is your dick?”
The same Dorothy Zbornak-style exasperated thrusts happened again, and once again I sunk lower into my chair. And dinner had been going so well.
“Oksana, not in front of company!” Ruslan snapped, in English.
“Why? Chomu? We’re all adults here!” Oksana whined.
“Oksana, do you have any tact?” I asked.
“Yes, I do!”
“I’m not going to whip it out!” I sat back up in the chair.
“Well, if Taras got to see it, then so do I. I want to know just what kind of man my brother is dating.”
“Did Mykhaylo ask Taras to whip it out when you were dating him?”
That shut her up. She tightened her earrings. “Point taken. Okay, you don’t have to show me exactly. Could you at least give me a rough estimate?”
“I’m interested in knowing, too,” Oleksandra said.
“Why are we so interested in this man’s private parts?” Ruslan asked rhetorically. “Okay, Graziano. Show them how long it is, so we can close the subject and have dessert.”
I sighed and got up. “Does anyone have a tape measure?”
“There’s one in the drawer next to the dishwasher,” Oleksandra said.
I walked into the kitchen, where Mykhaylo was stacking the dishwasher. “They all want to see how big it is,” I said.
“I don’t know how big it is, either,” Mykhaylo said, closing the dishwasher door.
“If you’re lucky, one day, you’ll find out.” I opened the drawer and took out some measuring tape as well as some Scotch tape. I wrapped it around the exact measurement of my penile length (note that I know it by heart), and walked back into the dining room. I put the measuring tape in front of Oksana.
“There. Are you happy now?”
Oksana’s mouth dropped. She stared at that for a few seconds, and then handed the measuring tape to her parents, whose mouths dropped as well.
“For the record, I didn’t whip it out and measure it with the tape. And furthermore, I’m circumcised,” I added, proudly.
Oksana slowly got up. “I’m… I’m going to get the coffee…” She hurried into the kitchen.
For the record, my nalysnyky proved to be just as big a hit with the Karbanenko family as had been the size of my penis. By the by, it’s 14 and ½ inches. Circumcised.