Chapter 30: “And I won’t take no in the form of a question.”

FRIDAY, 4TH DECEMBER, 2009

It had been a busy week by the time Friday came around. Mykhaylo and I did make love at his apartment on Monday night, and then we had dinner at Jack Astor’s. On Tuesday, I did my first four-hour weekly shift at the Centre. I was a Centre Host (the 519 term for a front desk staffer/receptionist) from 12PM to 4PM. It proved to be quite fun. On Wednesday, Mykhaylo took me out to see some Ukrainian Christmas folk dancing. Seeing those dancers make me miss Evan even more. On Thursday, I revisited some of my former University of Toronto professors, including my favourite Italian professor, Diana Quintavalle. Diana is this petite but feisty lady from upstate New York with red hair. You’d swear that she was Estelle Getty if you met her.

I had just woken up when my cell phone rang. The area code on the caller ID was 902, meaning that it could have been from either Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia, since they share the same area code. Why that is, I have no idea. The 902 is the only area code in North America to be shared by two states or provinces. No one from that part of the country had ever called me, not even Uncle Wayne. But sure enough, the name Wayne degli Angeli appeared above the phone number.

“Hello?” I answered, still groggy.

“Graziano?” a thick accent greeted me.

“Uncle Wayne?”

“Yeah.”

I slowly sat up in my bed, stunned even though it was early in the morning. “Hi. You got my message, right?”

“Mm-hmm. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“No, I just woke up.”

“Well, your aunt Elfi and I are in the city now–”

“Wait a minute. You’re in Toronto?”

“Yeah. So is your aunt Kendra.”

My eyes widened. “What are you all doing in Toronto?”

“That’s the thing. We came to see you, buddy. No one knows we’re here, not even your parents. Can you meet us for dinner tonight?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“Kendra and I thought we’d give Elfi a tour of our hometown beforehand. We’re staying at the Fairmont Royal York, and dinner’s going to be at EPIC, which is also in the hotel. Does 6 PM sound good?”

“That’d be great.”

“Okay, Graziano. We’ll see you then.”

“Bye.”

As I hung up, I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy. I hadn’t seen Uncle Wayne and Aunt Kendra and Aunt Elfriede in ages. I peeked under my bed and pulled out a shoebox filled with old photos, all of which I had been meaning to get digitized. None of the photos included Joseph, Nadine, Charlotte, and all the other bitches and bastards in my family. Each photo had been labelled on the back with the location and date that it was taken. I pulled out three photos: one of Aunt Kendra at Niagara Falls in 1999, one of Uncle Wayne at Canada’s Wonderland in 2000, and one of Aunt Elfriede (or Elfi, as Uncle Wayne called her) in Stratford in 1998. Those were the most recent photos that I had of them.

Kendra had her back to the falls, and she was wearing dark sunglasses and a pink pashmina, and her chocolate-brown hair had been swept up by the winds, and the blast of the picture made it look dramatic and beautiful. Wayne, the chubbiest of the three degli Angeli children, had thick glasses and thinning hazel hair, but you wouldn’t know it from the picture of him jumping with an ice cream cone in his hand. If I remember correctly, after the photo was taken, he stumbled and fell on the pavement, but saved the damn ice cream from falling. Elfriede, his Austrian wife, was in Shakespearean drag and beaming as if she won an Oscar. In my few encounters with her, she was a nice lady, but a little too straight-laced, and her hair also was straight. This photo was one of the few occasions where she let her hair down and had a sense of fun.

As Britney jumped onto my bed and snuggled in my lap, I felt waves of regret wash over me. I regretted not being a part of their lives, and I regretted that they weren’t part of my life. Well, technically, they were, but time and distance (apart from the obvious familial reasons) made us practically strangers. I had no idea what they looked like, or even if I had fallen into some sort of trap. For all I knew, Joseph and Nadine had gotten them to cross over to the dark side.

Later that morning, I went downstairs to fetch the mail. Whenever I get the mail, I make it an imperative to divide the mail into their appropriate addressee piles before bringing them in. That day, the mailbox was particularly full. Brandon’s latest issues of TIME and Maclean’s, coupons, bills, but it seemed that there was nothing for me… until I came across an envelope from Niamh Woodside! My cheque had arrived! I rushed back upstairs, all the pieces of mail firmly in my grasp.

I stood at the kitchenette counter and used Brandon’s envelope opener, and within moments, the cheque was in my hands. My first non-temp-work pay-cheque since I worked at the Petting Zoo, and for a few hours of standing in the cold autumn air buck naked, I earned $1,000. Niamh also enclosed a written note saying how much she enjoyed working with me and that I should contact other photographers and have my friends and family take photos of me, so I could develop a portfolio. I was so excited that I almost forgot that, along with the cheque, there was a manila envelope also from Niamh in the mail. My pictures!

I opened that envelope and pulled out twelve black and white photos. Oh my Goddess on a wheel, they looked fantastic. No, I take that back. It wasn’t just the photos that looked fantastic; I LOOKED FANTASTIC! It was not exploitative at all, but gentle and tender. Against a brutally cold backdrop, Niamh had brought out something in me that I didn’t even know existed. It was as if, for the first time, someone had validated my presence on Earth. At that moment, I wished that I could clone myself so I could make hot, passionate love to myself. Mykhaylo sure as hell would have approved.

And then, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting company, but I went to answer it. “Who is it?” I asked.

“Graziano, it’s Claire!”

What was Claire doing here? I normally saw her on Fridays, and today wasn’t a Friday at all. I opened the door, and there she stood, in a heavy black coat, looking like she had been ridden hard and wet. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she replied, dusting herself off. “I’m sorry for the sudden visit, but I need to speak with you. Is it a bad time?”

“No. Come on in. Can I take your coat?”

Claire shook her head. “I’m good.” She walked in, and took a glimpse at the living room. “I haven’t been here since Brandon’s Canada Day party.”

“He has a party on Canada Day?”

“Yeah. He’s been hosting one ever since he got this apartment. Everyone shows up.” Claire sat down on the sofa. “What do you usually do on Canada Day?”

“I go to the beach and pick up some guys for sex,” I replied. “Well, not really. I do go to the beach.” I joined her on the sofa. “Why did you want to speak to me?”

Claire let out a loud sigh. “It’s about our sessions, honey.”

“What? Was it something that I did?” I asked nervously.

“No, Graziano. You didn’t do a thing wrong. It was me; at least, that’s what this letter says.” She produced a letter from her jacket. “This is from the Ontario Psychiatric Association. Someone caught wind of me and the private detective that I hired to spy on your family. I also got a similar letter from the Ministry of Health. They’ve advised me to temporarily close my practice.”

My jaw dropped. “Wait a minute…” I saw myself packing up and leaving the apartment with Britney long before Brandon came in and threw me out.

But then, Claire put her hand on mine and said, “Now, before you say anything, Graziano, I called Brandon earlier this morning and told him all about it. He won’t kick you out. You can stay with him as long as you like.”

I took a deep breath in and exhaled. That was a relief. “Okay,” I said.

“I’m so sorry, Graziano,” Claire continued. “Luckily, I made a referral for you with CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), and you can see someone there in the meantime.”

I nodded. “Claire, I’m sorry that I put you in this position. I never intended for you to lose your job.”

“Thanks, honey.” We then hugged. No tears.

“Ummm…. Claire?” I asked. “What did you find out about my family?”

Claire sat up on the sofa. “Do you really want to know?”

“Yeah.”

She then stood up, and paced around the living room for a minute. I had no idea what was about to happen, and nothing could prepare me for what she said next.

“Graziano,” she began, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but according to my investigator… your parents and Charlotte… are murderers.”

Everything stood still at that moment. I could only utter an “Excuse me?” in a very weak voice. Claire walked back to the sofa.

“He overheard Charlotte talking to her friend. Charlotte said that Joseph and Nadine had some people kill each other’s parents, and they made those deaths look like accidents. And then she said that while she was in New York, she hired some people to kill Evan.”

My blood didn’t just boil. It was positively volcanic. The people that I loved more than anyone else in my lifetime: Nonno Pietro, Nonna Annunziata, Nonno Raimondo, Nonna Maria Grazia, and Evan… all five of them were dead, and it was MY FAMILY’S FAULT! I slowly got up and, as calmly as I could, I walked into my bedroom. I took Britney off the bed and put her in the hallway. I closed the door, walked up to the window, slowly opened it, and let out the LOUDEST SCREAM OF MY LIFE. You could hear my scream in Buffalo. It took all of 30 seconds, and then I sunk to the floor, hysterically crying. It was as if I was being killed. Claire came into my room, followed by Britney, and as I bawled into her coat, she hugged me. “It’s okay,” she whispered over and over and over.

It wasn’t okay.

Claire stayed with me for an hour, calming me down. She left around 1:30PM to meet with her attorney. By then, I had calmed down significantly, but I was still upset. Five years after Evan died, and nine years after my grandparents died, I had learned the most horrible truth. Worse, I was to have dinner with my uncle and aunts later that night! What was I going to tell them? The next few hours were some of the most nerve-wracking of my life. I couldn’t even get dressed without shaking and trembling.

The Fairmont Royal York, as it turned out, was only a short ride by streetcar from my apartment. It was across the street from Union Station. I had never been in the Fairmont before, or any hotel of considerable glamour and stature before. Still reeling from what Claire had told me, I steadied myself and entered the hotel, eventually making my way up to the EPIC restaurant, 15 stories up. There, a meticulously-style receptionist greeted me with a curt, almost rude, “Do you have a reservation?”

“I’m with the degli Angeli party,” I replied.

She scanned a list. “Graziano, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Go on in.” She sounded as if she was not passionate about her job. Nonetheless, I walked into the elegant, contemporary restaurant. I immediately felt like a fish out of water. This was worlds apart from North 44. I scanned the place and couldn’t immediately find Uncle Wayne, until I saw a rather thin man with thick hazelnut hair wave and gesture at me. I slowly walked toward him, and it WAS Uncle Wayne, albeit a thinner one with more hair on his head.

“Uncle Wayne?” I asked.

“Graziano, you’re almost 30,” he said. “You can call me Wayne!” He stood up and gave me a big hug. I had forgotten how much of a hug aficionado he was.

“Wow, you look great!” I exclaimed.

“Thanks! I’ve lost a lot of weight since I last saw you. And you look fantastic! How much do you weigh these days?”

“Last time I checked, 220 lbs.”

“Well, that weight looks great on you! It didn’t on me.”

We sat at our table, with me on Uncle Wayne’s right. “By the by, your aunts will be coming along shortly. They’re just getting dressed,” he said.

“How’s everyone in Charlottetown?” I asked.

“Great. You don’t know much about my side of the family, don’t you?”

“Not really.”

“Well, Scott, Natalie, and Martina have gone through some interesting changes. Scott has a girlfriend, and her name is Michelle Blackmon. They run the café part-time, and they just had twin boys: Reagan and Tyson. Natalie’s at medical school in Newfoundland, and Martina is a dancer in Montreal.” I had only seen my cousins Scott, Natalie, and Martina once in my life, and they were nice enough.

“What do Scott and Michelle do in their spare time?”

“Scott plays the drums in a band, and Michelle sells Avon.”

Just then, Aunt Kendra and Aunt Elfriede walked up to our table. Aunt Kendra was just as I remembered from that shoebox photo: dramatic and elegant, only without the dark sunglasses. She had jade-green jewel-esque eyes. And Aunt Elfriede looked like she could roll with the Fake Housewives (of whatever location) any day of the week, with her obvious fake breasts that came in ten minutes before she did, and her magic blonde hair. After a round of greetings and hugs, we all sat down to dinner.

Uncle Wayne ordered the Thunder and Romaine salad, followed by some Organic Chicken Breast. Aunt Elfriede ordered the Ontario Beet Salad and East Coast Salmon. Aunt Kendra went even more sensible and chose Sleger Greens and Fine Herb Salad, followed by Diver Scallops. I chose the Prix Fixe: Grilled Summer Asparagus, Flat Iron Steak, and Wild Ginger Crème Brûlée. I needed some beef after the day I had.

“How long are you guys staying in Toronto?” I asked.

“A week,” Aunt Elfriede replied. “I’m having such a wonderful time in Toronto. Don’t get me wrong, Charlottetown is home, but I’ve never understood why people hate this city so much.”

“What is Charlottetown like?”

“Quaint, rural, slow,” Uncle Wayne said. “Great place to raise kids, though.”

“You should come see Vancouver, honey,” Aunt Kendra said, sipping some wine. “The whole city is agog with Olympic fever. Yours truly managed to snag tickets to not only the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, but to all four figure skating finals and the men’s ice hockey final.”

“I’d love a pair of those red mittens everyone’s talking about,” I said.

“I’ll send you some in time for Christmas.”

“So, Graziano, how do you like living away from your parents?” Aunt Elfriede asked. “It must be a huge change for you.”

“It is,” I nodded. “But things are getting better every day. Brandon’s been so good to me, and I don’t know where I’d be without Britney.” And then I stopped for a moment.

“Is anything wrong?” Uncle Wayne asked.

“Why didn’t you guys help me?” I responded, a hurt feeling in my voice. “I mean, you knew that they were beating me up. You knew what was going on. And you didn’t do anything to help.”

The whole table went quiet for a few moments. And then Aunt Kendra said, “Straight to Final Jeopardy, isn’t it?”

“And I won’t take an answer in the form of a question,” I said.

“Okay,” Aunt Kendra replied. “Graziano, believe me when I tell you that I wanted nothing more than to get you out of there. We all wanted you out. We saw how painful your life was. It hurt us to see you cry, to see you not be allowed to join the family for Christmas, parties, everything.”

She took another sip of wine. “I know you heard that I left Toronto because of what your mother said to me about me being a single mom and having a career of my own. But that was only part of it. The truth is, after I tried to sneak in some Christmas gifts for you, she banned me from the house. I haven’t even been to their new house in Brampton yet.”

“Me too,” Uncle Wayne said. “Me and Elfi, we wanted you to stay with us. But we already had kids, and Elfi’s parents wouldn’t hear of it. Plus, your parents knew people throughout the province. It was pervasive, buddy. Even if we or your grandparents tried, legally there was no way for us to get you, and that hurt us.” He took my hand. “I’m sorry that we let you down.”

After a few moments, I nodded. “Okay.”

“But we’re here now,” Aunt Elfriede said. “If you ever want to call us to say hi or to vent, you’re more than welcome to do so.”

“Thanks. I miss my nonni.”

“I do, too,” Aunt Kendra said. “I still can’t believe that they’re gone. It’s been nine years since, and I haven’t made peace with it. I keep feeling that we don’t know the whole story.”

Uncle Wayne nodded. Just then, I shook my head, and soon all eyes at the table were on me. “Graziano?” he asked me.

“You don’t know the whole story,” I replied. “You don’t.”

Uncle Wayne moved closer to me. “What is it?”

I sighed and sat up in my chair. “Earlier today, my psychiatrist visited me, and she said that she’s closing her practice, because the powers that be found out about a private detective that she hired.”

“What does this have to do with everything?” Aunt Kendra asked.

It was becoming too painful for me, but I vowed to press on. “She hired him after she found out that… my mother had hired a private detective to tail her. Anyway, my psychiatrist’s private eye unearthed some evidence about what happened to my nonni and Evan.”

“What evidence?”

“Before I say anything, please don’t tell a soul.”

All three of them gave me their word. And then I calmly said, “My dad killed Nonno Raimondo and Nonna Maria Grazia, my mom killed Nonno Pietro and Nonna Annunziata, and that BITCH Charlotte killed my Evan. And Charlotte told all this to her friend!”

Their mouths and eyes were open in shock, as if a sudden wind had blown through the restaurant. Moments later, I then threw my head on the table and sobbed.

“I KNEW IT!” Aunt Kendra exclaimed.

“What?” I asked, in between sobs.

“I knew that Nadine and Joseph were up to no good. Those fuckers seemed almost too calm at the funerals. They looked practically as happy as pigs in shit.”

“Graziano, are you sure that that’s what you heard?” Uncle Wayne asked me.

“Would I be bawling if it wasn’t true?” I sobbed. “Those fucking bastards took away the people who loved me the most. Besides, the guy Claire hired was certified!”

“And Claire is your psychiatrist?” Aunt Elfriede asked.

I nodded. I took my dinner napkin and wiped my eyes. “I’ve been seeing her for about a month. I would be dead without her.”

“Graziano, you should tell the police,” Aunt Kendra said. “Even if it’s hearsay, it could re-open the cases and we could get justice.”

“I agree with Kendra,” Uncle Wayne replied.

“I just need time to process this before I tell the police,” I said.

“Take all the time you need, buddy. We’ll stand behind you.”

We just sat at the table for a few minutes, in silence, thinking about what just went down. It couldn’t have been easy for Uncle Wayne and Aunt Kendra to know that their sister and brother-in-law were involved in these crimes. Even Aunt Elfriede, who barely spoke to Nadine and Joseph over the years, was upset.

And then, the waiter came over with our first courses. For the rest of the evening, we temporarily put aside talk of the familial crisis, and concentrated on good-old dinner conversation over steak, salad, lobster, and salmon. The steak was delicious.

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