Chapter 25: “Inside, my body was shaking like a vibrator.”

WEDNESDAY, 25 NOVEMBER, 2009

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 panelling 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”, even if they’re not linked in any conversation. In the rare instances that I have visited Corso Italia since 2000, I have had to steel myself within 100 feet of that intersection. The house is a stone’s throw from Prospect Cemetery. The cemetery is downright pleasant compared to that.

Sure enough, I found myself in the neighbourhood on 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 something inside me had woken me up that morning. It was as if something from Corso Italia was saying to me, “Come on back, even for a little while.”

I was still glowing from my weekend fuck-fest with Mykhaylo. We arrived back in Toronto Sunday night with huge grins on our faces, and people were a little perturbed. When Brandon interrogated me upon my arrival at the apartment, I could only say to him, “I have seen the Promised Land… and it is good.” Monday and Tuesday had been busy days for me. On Monday night, I attended a volunteer orientation at the 519 Centre, and on Tuesday, I had a romantic dinner with Mykhaylo at his apartment. It was smaller than Brandon’s, and more rustic, if you will, but the neighbourhood was pretty safe and Mykhaylo had this fucking comfortable sofa that made our post-dinner snuggling ten times more pleasurable. P.S., he makes a mean meat loaf.

Anyway, I took the subway and got off at St. Clair West Station. The streetcar was out of commission, as the tracks were being repaired. Instead, I got on a bus and rode along St. Clair Avenue West. It had been some time since I had last been in the neighbourhood, 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 Dufferin intersection, I saw two old men having a lively conversation in Portuguese, and a few feet away, two old women were having just as lively a conversation in Italian. I detected a few swear words.

I got off at Earlscourt Avenue, and I tensed up immediately. It wasn’t the weather; I love snow and ice. Nairn Avenue was around the corner. I sucked it up and walked up the street, albeit at a positively glacial pace. There were children playing in the street, parents who were keeping eyes on children playing in the street, and others who were shovelling their driveways and sidewalks. I ended up at the house at Ascot and Nairn after five minutes of slow and nervous walking.

I just stood there. Outside, I was stoic, but inside, my body was shaking like a vibrator. My heart, my pulse, they were beating rapidly. This was the house that I had grown up in, and also the house that played host to a cavalcade of domestic violence. I could still hear myself screaming to get away from Joseph, Nadine, and/or Charlotte. I could still hear my cries as I hid in the closet, bleeding and sore and tipping close to death. And then…

Scusi?”

An old man, looking like Giorgio Armani on crack, came out of the house. “Scusi?” he snapped. “Cosa fa?” If you’ve seen Giorgio before, you’ll recognize his tanner-than-tan skin and his whiter-than-white hair. A relatively younger woman with black rushed out and grabbed him. “Papa!” she exclaimed, dragging him towards the house. She looked at me and asked, “Posso aiutarLa?”

Parla inglese?” I replied.

“Yes,” she said. “Can I help you?”

“I apologize. I used to live here.”

“How long ago?”

“Until 2000.”

“Is your last name Buonfiglio?”

I nodded. “My parents are Nadine and Joseph.”

“Are you Ryan?”

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

“Oh. 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, “Yeah, they didn’t tell me anything about another child, apart from Ryan and Charlotte.”

“I am their son. We’re estranged, though.”

“I’m Carolina,” she said, extending her hand. “Piacere.”

I shook her hand back. “Piacere.”

“I’d invite you in to look around, but my father is very particular about who he lets in. He barely lets me take control, and I’m his daughter.”

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. I handed it to her and said, “If Nadine and Joseph come by, don’t tell them about me.”

She nodded. “I should get inside and make my father some tea. Have a nice day.”

Buona giornata.” I waved back as she headed inside. She seemed like a nice woman. I turned around and walked down Nairn Avenue, toward St. Clair Avenue West. I had no intention of being near my old house again, at least not unless I had some nervous pills. I passed by those same kids playing in the snow. I played in the snow lost of times as a kid, but usually alone.

I walked eastbound along St. Clair Avenue West for ten minutes, and then I happened upon my paternal grandparents’ old deli. Back in the day, it was known as Pete and Nancy’s Place: An Italian Delicatessen. Now, it was Scavotto’s Fine Italian Meats, Cheeses, and Meals. Even in the frigid weather, I could still smell the delicate aroma 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, otherwise known to customers as Pete, would be the first to greet me, even as he sliced a ham. As hard a worker as he was, he was never too busy to extend a warm welcome to anyone who came in, family or otherwise. I never did learn how to process meats. I was and still am scared of blood. But I did develop an appreciation for the process, even though I grew to prefer organically and ethically grown and processed foods. Nonna Annunziata, or Nancy, was the cashier and an expert on cheeses. She too welcomed me with enthusiasm, and I was usually the first person that she enlisted to taste-test a new acquisition or recipe. German potato salad, Jarlsberg cheese, tripe… well, I hated and still hate tripe, but everything else was delicious.

This time, 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 pastry shop stood where La Libreria Italiana Alighieri (The Alighieri Italian Bookstore) used to be. Nonno Raimondo and Nonna Maria Grazia ran this place and died in this place. This was the first time in years that I had set foot even near the place.

The bookstore was where I learned to read. While Italian children’s books were relatively scarce at the place (my grandparents dealt mostly with contemporary and classical literature), I was never bored here. While Nonna Maria Grazia would attend to customers, Nonno Pietro would sit me on his lap and read me a variety of books in both English and Italian, from Dante Alighieri to Italo Calvino. Admittedly, a lot of the material went over my head, and it wasn’t until I majored in Italian Studies that I got some of it. After the murder in the bookstore, it took me a while to step foot into a bookstore, or even a library. I almost didn’t get my textbooks.

What was once filled with books and bookcases was now a showroom for Portuguese and Brazilian sweets. The walls from which posters of great Italian luminaries hung, were now dotted with blown-up pictures of Fatima, of Aparecida (a pilgrimage site in Brazil, not the stripper), and various cakes and cookies. It was too much for me to bear. I turned around and ran, the tears pouring down my face and freezing on contact with the bitter cold. I bawled, running 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. After I collected myself, I entered the trattoria. It was 11:30 AM. I was sad and depressed for the first time in days, and only some pasta al forno would calm me down, even for a little while.

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