The River City Chronicles by J. Scott Coatsworth – Part Three

Sacramento author J. Scott Coatsworth has written and published a number of short stories, novellas and full-length novels, but “The River City Chronicles” holds a special place in his little writer heart.

In many ways, it is a love letter to Sacramento, one that we wanted to share with Outword’s readers. To do that we have uploaded the next installment of chapters of the book here, for you to read online.

Previously:

Previously in the River City: Carmelina and Daniele went on their first date, to Mulvaney's B&L.

Matteo and Diego have been keeping secrets from one another. Diego met with his blackmailer, and found out that Max knew about his earlier marriage - to  woman - that was never dissolved.

Marcos found out that Marissa was in juvenile detention for breaking into her parents' home, and decided to act as her guardian.

Sam and Brad shared a lazy Sunday morning breakfast, and then Sam decided to go to Ragazzi for a class as research for a book he was working on. Ben heard about the class, and planned to go too.

In class, everyone learned how to make passetelli, and experienced strange out of body memories of their pasts and futures.

Carmelina planned a dinner party to practice what the class had learned, and Matteo met with a man who he hoped would help with Ragazzi's money troubles. It turned out to be a dead end.

Will Diego and Matteo discover each other’s secrets? Will Carmelina’s dinner party go off without a hitch? And what’s up with those strange out of body experiences everyone had?

Find out next!

Major Characters:

•   Ben Hammond: 35 – Trans author and barista working on his first novel

•   Brad Weston: 30 – Runs the LGBT Center, former chief of staff for GOP senator, partner to Sam

•   Carmelina di Rosa: 55 – Semi-retired, redhead, lost her husband Arthur three months ago

•   Dave Ramos: 47 – Human resources consultant and Carmelina di Rosa’s tenant

•   Diego Bellei: 47 – The chef at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Matteo Bianco.

•   Marcos Ramirez: 39 – Web designer and gay playboy who works with the LGBT center

•   Marissa Sutton: 17 – Bisexual homeless teenager who turns up at Ragazzi for the cooking class

•   Matteo Bianco: 47 – Co-owner and host at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Diego Bellei.

•   Sam Fuller: 23 – Suspense novel writer, working on second novel, partner to Brad Weston

Minor Repeating Characters:

•   Andrea Smith: deceased - Carmelina’s daughter

•   Arthur di Rosa: deceased – Carmelina’s husband

•   Dana Pearce: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   Daniele Amoroso: 40 – Italian suitor interested in Carmelina

•   Darryl Smith: Andrea’s adoptive father

•   Ella Jackson-Cucinelli: 32 – Caucasian woman recently transferred to Sacramento from Chicago

•   Emily Stamp: P.I. hired by Carmelina

•   Giovanni "Gio" Mazzocco: Diego’s son

•   Jason Clark: One of Marissa’s friends at McClatchy High

•   Jessica Sutton: Marissa’s adoptive mother

•   Loylene Davies: friend of Carmelina’s

•   Luna Mazzocco: Diego’s Ex and Gio’s mother

•   Max Cucinelli: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   “Moms” Cucinelli: Mother to Max and Ella, trans woman

•   Rex Ward: Owner of the Twink tattoo shop

•   Ricky Martinez: One of the homeless kids from the LGBT center

•   Tristan Dayton: Marissa’s boyfriend

•   Valentina Bellei: Diego’s sister who lives in Italy


19 - Caramel

It wasn't right. Sam scrolled back a couple pages, trying to figure out where his story was going off track. He was introducing his new Italian character in his political thriller, Red as the Night, and it just felt… off. Something in the story line wasn't working. He knew what this was. He was too close to the writing. He needed a break.

He glanced up at the clock. It was a quarter after one. He leaned back in his chair, stretching out his arms above his head and considered his options. 15L for a quick burger? Coffee and a scone at the Everyday Grind? Or should he make a couple sandwiches and surprise Brad at the Center?

The front door slammed. He looked over his shoulder from his little office in the front of the house. “Brad?"

"Yup, just me. I thought I'd come grab you and take you out to lunch to celebrate. I just won the Hoffsledder grant. Can you take a break?" He popped into the room and gave Sam a peck on the cheek.

"Your timing is totes perfect.” He ignored Brad’s frown. “I'm stuck on my latest scene, and I could use a break." He closed his laptop. "Is that the one you've been working on for the last few months?" Sam ducked into the hall bath to run a comb through his hair, deciding that he looked presentable enough for public consumption.

"That's the one," Brad called from the hall. "How about the Federalist? I've been dying for a good pizza."

"Sounds good.”

Brad came up behind him and slipped his arms around Sam's waist. Sam felt the usual thrill as Brad nuzzled his neck. They’d been together almost a year, and he still felt excited by Brad’s touch.

"How hungry are you?" Brad asked with that smile.

Sam turned around and kissed him. "I could wait a few more minutes if you had something else in mind.…”

* * *

An hour later, they arrived at the Federalist, a collection of shipping containers welded together into one of Sactown's trendiest back-alley restaurants.

Brad ordered, and then they took a seat at one of the picnic tables in the ultra-casual place. "Tell me about the grant," Sam said. He was always enthusiastic about Brad’s work. That was one of the things Brad loved about him.

“It's for $100,000, dedicated to expanding LGBTIQ youth training programs. We beat out twenty other community centers for the money."

"That's amazing! I'm so proud of you."

“We can make it go a long way.” Brad realized he was so wrapped up in his own news he hadn’t asked Sam about his cooking class. “How about you? You didn't tell me about your adventure yesterday."

"Adventure?"

"The restaurant thing?"

Sam grinned. "It was great. I don't know why we've never been to that place before. It's run by a gay Italian couple."

"Really? What's it called?” Brad liked to support the gay places in town.

"Ragazzi—it means ‘guys.’ The food we made was great. And the strangest thing happened while we were cooking."

Brad frowned. "Did the owner make a pass at you?"

"No. Jealous much?" Sam laughed. “It was nothing like that. We were kneading dough for this pasta soup, and for a minute, I swear I was back in my mom's kitchen in Tucson.”

Brad snorted. "What did they put in those noodles?"

"Don't be an ass. It was a magical moment."

"Maybe your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Like you should call your mother."

"Yeah, you're probably right. Hey, are you free Thursday night?”

Brad checked his calendar. “Looks like it. Why?”

“We’ve been invited to dinner to make some of that magical pasta.”

* * *

The Grind was especially busy for a Monday afternoon. Ben wiped the counter for the nth time after a customer spilled his vanilla soy cappuccino.

“I’m so sorry,” the man said.

“Not a big deal. It happens all the time.” Ben gave him a reassuring smile. “Can I make you another?”

“Please. I need something to take the edge off. It’s been a helluva day.”

He laughed. “I know what you mean. Give me a sec.” Ben whipped up a new drink and handed it to him with a flourish. “Hope it improves your day.”

“Thanks!” He raised the cup in acknowledgement and breezed out the door. Ben grinned. There was a wonderful simplicity to his job—people came in tired, sad, depressed, and he made a little magic for them.

He made another fifty drinks, and the afternoon flew by. The line finally started to diminish. At last, there was one order left—a tall, non-fat latte with caramel drizzle. He grinned. Caramel was an underrated syrup, and he instantly liked anyone who ordered it.

He whipped it up, decorating the top with a heart in foam and caramel—yes, he was just that much of an artiste—and checked the name. “Tall non-fat latte with caramel for Ella.” He set it down and looked up. His heart stopped.

She was about his height, with long red hair and brown eyes and a kind face. She wasn’t beautiful in the cover-model sense, but she radiated warmth.

She was the girl of his dreams. Literally. The girl he had seen in his daydream at Ragazzi the day before.

She flashed him a smile as she took the drink. “Non-fat, right?”

“Yeah.” His words failed him.

“For Ella?”

“Yeah.”

She frowned slightly, and he realized he was staring. “Well, have a great day.”

She turned to leave.

“Wait!”

She spun around, still looking more amused than annoyed. “What?”

“Um… you too. Have a great day. You’re really pretty. Hope to see you again.”

“You will. I just moved in down the street. See you next time.” And then she was out the door.

Ben watched her leave. “‘You’re really pretty’? Seriously?” He was thoroughly disgusted with himself. “Ben, you’re an idiot.”

 

 

20 - Change

Carmelina pushed aside another stack of boxes, dusting off her jeans and sneezing at the cloud of fine powder that resulted. She hadn’t been out to their storage unit in Rancho Cordova in forever. I really need to clean this place out.

She and Arthur had rented the unit ten years before, when they had cleared out their garage so he could park his new Jaguar there. Where it still sat, gathering dust.

He had wanted to sell all of this stuff at the time. "When are we ever going to look at this crap again anyhow?” he’d asked.

If she closed her eyes, she could still see him as clearly as if he were standing right in front of her, his bushy black eyebrows creased, his face caught somewhere between a frown and a laugh.

She put her hand on the stack in front of her and lowered her head, sadness overpowering her for a moment. Why did you have to leave me so soon?

It wasn't fair. Other couples got an entire lifetime together. What had she done to deserve this?

She wished he were still here.

If wishes were cannoli, we'd all be Mamma Cass, her mother used to tell her.

She laughed in spite of herself and resumed her search. It had to be here somewhere.

She moved another stack of boxes, refusing to be distracted by the labels: “pie tins, spatulas, and old silverware .” She didn't need any more kitchen implements.

The headboard to her mother’s old bed, a heavy mahogany thing carved with vines and sparrows, leaned against another set of boxes. Taking a deep breath, she tugged on the weighty piece of furniture, pulling it out about six inches. Then it stuck.

Using her phone as a flashlight, she found the problem: it had snagged on pole from the metal swing set they’d stored at the back of the unit.

She kicked at the pole until it inched behind the foot of the headboard and tried once again to pull the wooden mass out. It refused to budge, but then it came free all at once, and she flew backward onto her ass on the pavement.

She stood up, mortified by her clumsiness, and looked around to see if anyone had seen her embarrassing fall, but the driveway was empty.

At last, she found the stack of once-white boxes marked “filing cabinet." They were in alphabetical order, five in all. She went through them one by one until she found the A-D box, which was, of course, at the very bottom. Her hands shaking, she opened the box.

And there it was.

The folder was labeled Catholic Adoption Services. She pulled it out and blew the dust off a stack of boxes at waist height. She lay the manila folder down and opened it carefully. The paper inside was curled and yellowed with age. She turned on the flashlight on her phone again and peered at the old form.

It was dated February 21st, 1975. And it carried her signature from when she had been just fifteen years old. She remembered the day like it was yesterday, when her mother had taken her into the offices of the adoption agency to sign away the rights to her child. The place had smelled like chalk dust, with green linoleum tile floors and sterile white walls. It had marked the end of her childhood.

And now?

Her mother was gone and her husband too. She felt all alone in the world.

She held the paper to her chest, fighting back the urge to cry. The vision she’d had in her cooking class had shaken her. It was as if her grandmother had reached down from heaven to rap her on the head. Somewhere out there was another human being of her own flesh and blood.

Now Carmelina just had to find her.

* * *

She managed to get the whole mess back into the storage unit, though she was tired and sweaty by the time she was done. She checked her watch. It was a quarter after four. By the time she got home, it would be too late to try to contact the agency—if they even still existed.

She pulled down the roll door and locked up the storage unit. It was past time to clear out all of this crap. And the Jaguar in the garage. It was time to make some changes in her life.

There was one person who might help.

She pulled out her phone and made the call. “Hey, I really need someone to talk to tonight. Are you free in about two hours? Sure. Let’s meet at Downtown and Vine at about six?”

* * *

Carmelina arrived at the wine bar promptly at six thirty, just half an hour late. She was proud that she’d cut a full fifteen minutes off from the last time she’d seen Loylene.

It was a cute little place, modern but warm, with a wine rack just inside the lobby. It was also usually quiet—a great place to talk.

“You’re fashionably late,” Loylene said, kissing Carmelina’s cheeks.

“I know. I am so sorry. I was out in Rancho Cordova looking for something.…”

“You can get better drugs in town, you know,” Loylene said with a sly smile. “Or so my kids tell me.”

“I wasn’t looking for drugs. Arthur and I have… had… well, I have a storage unit out there.”

“Marjorie’s still pissed at you for storming out during the club meeting, you know.” Loylene looked over her menu.

“I’m sorry about that too. I just couldn’t—”

“I know.” Loylene patted her hand. “The first few months are the hardest.”

Carmelina stifled a laugh. “Yes. That was it.”

“Oh, I brought you the latest Tupperware flier. There’s a really cool…”

This time it was Carmelina who put out her hand, forestalling her friend’s enthusiasm for all things plastic. “Loylene, I need your help. Didn’t you know someone in Catholic Services?”

 

 

21 - Mamma

Matteo sat in the darkened restaurant, staring out at the empty street outside. He glanced at his vintage Panerai watch, once his father’s. It was a little after one a.m. Diego was still fast asleep upstairs.

Matteo had tossed and turned for hours before getting up. He was going to have to talk with Diego and soon. He pulled the chain from around his neck and stared at the golden cross. It was tiny in his palm. The cross from his mother, the watch from his father, anchors across time.

He closed his eyes, remembering the day, twenty years before, when everything had changed.

* * *

Matteo pulled his Fiat Ritmo into the driveway of his parents’ house in Imola, a small village about twenty-five kilometers southeast of Bologna. It was a modest two-story home with a cement carport and a small, fenced-in front yard. Out back was his mother’s prized vegetable garden, where she grew her famous, delicious Cuore di bue tomatoes, often as big as his fist.

He sat in the car for a moment, staring at the door to the house. Every nerve in his body was screaming at him to turn around, to run back home. He and Diego had talked about this and had decided it was time, but he could still change his mind. He could do this another day.

Then the door swung open and it was too late. His mother, Elena Bianco, stepped down onto the bare cement of the carport in her slippers and beckoned him inside, a broad grin on her face. He took a deep breath and turned off the car. He climbed out and put on a smile, and she threw her arms around him to give him a big hug.

Mio tesoro,” she said, kissing both of his cheeks. “What a wonderful surprise. Come in! Come in! We were just about to have dinner.”

Matteo shook his head. “I’m sorry, mamma, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I can come back another time—”

She shushed him. “Don’t be foolish. There’s plenty for all three of us.” She all but pushed him inside, pulling the door shut behind them. “We hardly ever see you anymore.”

Oh my God, that smells good. “Is it…?”

She nodded. “Your grandmother’s lasagna. Here, give me your coat.”

He let her pull it off. She hung it on the old wooden rack by the door. He looked around. Nothing much had changed since the last time. The walls were the same soft yellow, the wooden window frames covered with white curtains. Photos of the family hung in the hallway—here a picture of his grandma Elsa, there a photo of Matteo and his sister in front of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, taken when he was twelve.

“Come on. Your father will be glad to see you.”

Matteo’s stomach twisted. Maybe not for long. Well, it can wait until after dinner. It was Nonna’s lasagna, after all.

* * *

Matteo finished the last piece of his mother’s wonderful lasagna, filled with meat, and eyed his parents. His mother got up to clear the dishes.

“Good to see you, boy.” His father, Pietro clapped a hand on Matteo’s shoulder. “You should come down to see us more often. Bologna’s not so far from here.”

In some ways, it’s a world away. But he just nodded. He screwed up his courage. “Mamma, Papa, I have something I need to tell you.”

His mother turned around, leaving the water running in the sink. “Is everything all right, caro?”

His father put a big hand over his. He worked in the shipbuilding trade up in Venice, and his hands were calloused and rough. “What is it?”

Matteo pushed down his fear. “There’s… something I have wanted to tell you now. For a long time.”

Elena sat down across the table from him. Strangely, she looked serene, as if nothing could faze her.

He glanced back at his father. Pietro was frowning.

“I’m… I like…” He tried to find a way to soften the blow, and failed. “There’s no easy way to say this. I’m gay.”

His father pulled his hand away as if he’d been burned. “Don’t you say such a thing in this house,” he snarled. His voice was a low growl. His mother put a hand on Pietro’s arm, but he would have none of it. “It’s not true. Tell me it’s not true.”

Matteo shook his head. “I can’t.”

“No son of mine is going to be a finocchio!” Pietro shouted, slamming his hand on the table, which shook like an earthquake.

For an instant, Matteo thought his father might strike him. Then Pietro spun around and stormed out of the house, the door slamming heavily behind him.

Matteo put his head down on the table with his hands over his forehead. “Cazzo.” He couldn’t bear to look at his mother.

He heard the chair creak next to him as his mother came to sit next to his side. She pulled his hands away from his face gently.

He looked up at her, and was surprised to see her smiling. “Mamma?” He whispered.

She smoothed a stray lock of hair away from his face. “I am proud of you, Tesoro.”

“You’re not angry?”

She shook her head, cupping his chin in her palm. “I’ve known this for a long time.”

“But Papà…”

“He knows too. It’s just… harder for him. He will come around.”

“I hope so.”

“I raised you to be strong. You never walk away from things just because they might be hard.”

He hugged her and cried softly in her arms. It would turn out all right somehow.

* * *

Matteo looked around at the restaurant he and Diego had built together in this new city. This was their dream together, and he would not let it go. Not without a fight. He would talk to Diego that night after they closed. It would turn out all right somehow.

 

 

22 - Back To School

Marissa stared out the passenger window at McClatchy High—an imposing place, like the Parthenon or the US Supreme Court, with a big banner strung up across its massive entry columns that said, “Welcome to the Lion’s Den.” She frowned, not sure she was ready. She had never fit in all that well at Bella Vista, but at least she’d had friends there.

One of the perks of being homeless, she thought wryly, was that you didn’t have to go to fucking school.

“You ready?” Marcos asked, giving her shoulder a friendly squeeze.

She glared at him. “Do I have a choice?”

He laughed. “We all do. I made mine, to try to help you. Your move.”

She did like having a bed to sleep in while she figured things out. And it wasn’t like she was chained in her room. She could take off at any time if she decided it didn’t suit her. She’d be eighteen in a month, and then she could tell them all to fuck off. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

She grabbed her new pink backpack from the back seat, wrinkling her nose a little at the color—Marcos had funny ideas what girls liked. She had added a skull and crossbones with black nail polish on the back pocket, but if he’d noticed, he hadn’t said a word about it.

She checked her hair in the car window—still spiky and blonde like she liked it. She’d applied some extra eyeliner—the only make-up she’d asked Marcos to buy. “Okay, ready.”

She turned to find him grinning at her like an idiot.

“What?”

Marcos just shook his head. He turned away, and she followed him into the new school with a heavy sigh.

Time to start her senior year.

* * *

Principal Laverne Krebbs beckoned them into her office.

Marcos smiled, happy to see the school staff was diverse. “Thanks for seeing us so quickly, Principal Krebbs,” he said, taking a seat in front of her desk, which was covered with neat stacks of folders.

She reached out her hand. “Nice to meet the two of you…” She checked a sheet on her desk. “Marcos and Marissa. Are you the father?”

Marissa snorted. “Hardly.”

“What Marissa means to say is that I’m her guardian. She’s staying with me provisionally until Social Services can approve me for permanent foster care status.”

“I see.” Principal Krebs shuffled a few papers. “You live in the district. And Marissa previously attended Bella Vista in Fair Oaks.”

“Yes. We’ve requested a copy of her transcript. She finished the previous school year there with good grades.” Well, good enough. He wasn’t sure why he felt so nervous. He wasn’t the one enrolling. But this had been his school, and the kids back then had been nasty to him as a gay kid. “I… I have a question.”

“Shoot.” She folded her hands on the desk in front of her, giving him her full attention.

“Marissa is…” He looked at her, and she nodded, keeping her sarcastic comments to herself for once. “She’s bisexual. I went to school here in the early nineties, and life was… difficult for queer kids back then.”

The principal smiled. “Well, things are a little different here now, Mr. Ramirez. For one, the school has a married lesbian principal.” She pointed to the picture of herself and another woman on the corner of her desk.

“Seriously?” Marissa picked up the photo. “That’s so cool.”

“And we have our own GSA here too.”

“GSA?” Marcos asked.

“Gay Straight Alliance. A student group for LGBT students and their allies. The Westboro folks tried to protest here a couple years back, and the kids put up a counter rally to support LGBT rights. The WBC folks never even showed up.”

Things really have changed. He remembered the time he’d had his head shoved in the gym toilet for a swirly by some of the football jocks. It still made him angry. “And if there is any trouble?”

“She can come straight to me.”

He nodded. “When can she start?”

“Assuming I can verify your address, how about tomorrow? She can meet with one of our counselors today to choose her courses.” She addressed Marissa directly. “You’re a few weeks behind, but if you apply yourself, you’ll catch up quickly enough.”

“What do you think?” Marcos asked Marissa.

She was quiet for a moment, staring down at her black-painted nails. “I’ll try,” she said at last.

Marcos nodded. “Good enough.”

“Danny, can you take Marissa Sutton here over to Guidance?”

The secretary popped his head through the doorway. “Sure. Come on. I’ll show you the way.”

She got up to follow him out. Then she turned and threw herself at Marcos. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tight.

When she let go at last, she turned and left the office without another backward glance.

Marcos stared after her, stunned.

“Kids at that age are a bundle of contradictions,” Principal Krebbs said with a smile. “You have any of your own?”

“Nope. First time.”

She nodded. “It’s going to be tough. She’s already pretty much fully formed. Are you sure you are up for the challenge?”

“I hope so.” He bit his lip. “She’s so much like I was at that age. It’s scary.”

“We can help a little. The district has a program for transfers. We’ll assign another student to shadow her the first couple days to show her where things are and to get her grounded.”

“That would be great.” He stared at his hands, wondering how he was going to manage all of this.

“And Mr. Ramirez?”

Marcos looked up into her eyes.

“I have two of my own, and they’re a handful, even without the whole foster kid issue. Do yourself a favor and get some help. A friend with kids or some parenting books.” She patted his hand. “You’re doing a good thing.”

 

 

23 - Now Or Never

Diego slammed the last of the dirty pans into the sink, earning a stern look from Matteo from the restaurant floor. Dinner service was over for the night, and his stomach was churning. He’d put this off as long as he could. He had to tell Matteo tonight.

But Matteo had been acting strangely all evening. For days, really. His responses had been curt, and he wouldn’t meet Diego’s eyes. He knew Matteo like he knew his cooktop—where all the hot spots were and where things just simmered.

Matteo was hiding something.

Diego grunted. He had his own secrets.

He set to work on the dishes. They’d sent the help home early again to save money. He scrubbed the pans with a vengeance, trying to get them perfectly clean.

Matteo popped his head into the open kitchen. “Keep it down back here—we still have guests.” He sounded more annoyed than usual.

Diego glanced out at the dining room. Two guys stared back at him, and he realized he must have been making quite a racket. He waved and flashed his best Italian smile. “Sorry!”

One of the guys grinned and waved back.

“I try the best,” he said to Matteo.

Matteo looked like he might say something else, but then he just nodded and backed out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t like him to hold his tongue. Diego was used to getting a tongue lashing, which he would return in true Italian style. But not this time.

Diego frowned, his sense of unease growing.

More than anything, he wanted to just close up the kitchen and run upstairs to bed. But he’d waited too long. It was now or never.

* * *

Matteo waited anxiously for the last couple to leave. They took their time, of course, ordering several bottles of Italian vino, for which he was thankful, along with i contorni, i primi piatti, i secondi piatti, and le dolce—a full four-course meal. It was their tenth anniversary, one of them had told him, and part of him was thrilled they’d chosen to spend it at Ragazzi.

But the other part, the one he locked carefully away behind the genteel smile and generous nature of the restaurant host, was practically screaming at them to get out.

Diego had calmed down a bit in the kitchen.

Matteo shot him a worried look. It wasn’t like him to make such a ruckus with his kitchen tools. Something must have him really worked up.

At last, the couple finished and paid the bill, leaving with a ringing of the bell at the front door. The restaurant was empty.

Matteo locked up and carried the last few dishes into the kitchen, where Diego took them without a word and rinsed them, placing them in the dishwasher and starting the cleaning cycle.

Matteo looked around. The kitchen was spotless. “Wow, you worked fast tonight.” Maybe he could manage to put this off just a little longer.

Possiamo parlare in Italiano?”

“In Italian? Sure.” There was no one around, and Diego had been practicing his English enough to earn a night off.

He sighed. It was now or never.

Dobbiamo parlare,” they both said at the same time. We need to talk.

Matteo laughed. “I guess we do,” he said in la bella lingua.

Diego’s face was grim. “Not here,” he said, looking around. “Let’s go upstairs where we can be more comfortable.”

Matteo agreed. He followed his husband to their flat, wondering what Diego wanted to talk to him about.

* * *

Diego sank into the orange upholstered couch they’d found at Naturewood. It was hard to find fashion in this country—Americans were so afraid of color.

Matteo sat next to him, hands in his lap, his mouth compressed into a tight line. At last, he asked, “What did you want to talk about?”

Diego shook his head. He needed more time. “You start.”

Matteo’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded. “I’ve been keeping a secret from you.” He sighed. “I’m sorry.… I should have told you. But I thought… I hoped I could fix it.”

Diego’s mind was racing. What had Matteo done? “Is it someone else?” he whispered, so softly that he wasn’t sure Matteo would hear it.

But the pulling back and the horrified look that crossed his husband’s face was enough of a denial. “No. Never! Is that what you thought?”

It was the first thing that had come to his mind. But Diego didn’t want to tell Matteo that. “No, of course not. It’s just the way you said it.” He put a hand on Matteo’s shoulder. “What is it? We shouldn’t keep secrets.” He kicked himself for being such a hypocrite.

Matteo looked away, his nostrils flaring.

“Come on. Tell me.” Diego put a hand on Matteo’s knee.

“We’re almost out of money.”

Diego snorted. “That’s it?” He’d expected much worse.

Matteo stared at him as if he’d gone mad. “We can’t afford more than another month’s worth of expenses at this rate. We might lose everything.”

Diego nodded. “You think I haven’t seen the empty seats? It’s only money. We’ll work something out. We always do.” He hoped that was true.

“I’ve already tried to get a loan. No one will help us.”

Diego took Matteo’s face in his hands. “Do you remember what happened in Italy, when your job was killing you?”

Matteo stared at him for a moment. “Uncle Beppo died and left us this place.”

“Do you think fate brought us here just for failure and ruin?”

Matteo looked down, his eyes closed. When he looked up, there was new determination in his eyes. “You’re right. You are always right.” He pulled Diego into a tight hug.

Diego felt a stab of guilt. He really didn’t want to tell Matteo his own secret, especially right now, when they felt so close.

“You had something to tell me too?” Matteo asked, letting go of him and staring into his eyes.

Diego sighed. It was time.

 

 

24 - Breaking Point

“Tell me.” Matteo was surprised how calmly Diego had taken his news, but he should have known Diego would figure it out. Matteo took his hand, squeezing it reassuringly.

Diego frowned. “I’m not sure how to tell you this.…” Matteo could feel Diego’s racing pulse. “I did… something bad happened. And I never told you.”

Had he…? No. Diego could never do something like that. Matteo was as sure of that as he was of his own breathing. He took Diego’s other hand. “Just tell me.”

Diego closed his eyes. Matteo saw real pain etched in his suddenly lined face, as if Diego had aged ten years in a moment. “I lied to you,” he whispered.

Matteo let go of Diego’s hands. “About what?” His voice sounded thin and tight, even to his own ears.

Diego looked away. “Max contacted me and said he had found something out about me that I wasn’t going to like.” He sighed. “I put him off for as long as I could, hoping he would give it up—”

“Max… Cuccinelli? The immigration lawyer?” Matteo didn’t understand. “What did he find?”

Diego got up and went into the bedroom. He came back with a sheet of paper and handed it to Matteo. “I met him on Saturday. He showed this to me, and this morning I found it slipped under the restaurant door.” Diego wouldn’t meet his gaze.

Matteo took it, his hand trembling. It was an Italian marriage license.

Moglie—Wife—Luna Mazzocco.

Marito—husband… Diego Bellei

He looked up at Diego. “What does this mean?”

Diego finally looked at him, his eyes red. “I was married to her. Before you.”

Matteo’s head was spinning “Okay. But that’s not—”

“We’re still married. Luna and I.”

The paper dropped out of Matteo’s hand and fluttered to the floor. “You can’t be,” he said. It made no sense. “We’re married.” The ground was shifting too quickly under Matteo’s feet.

Diego shook his head. “She never signed the divorce papers. I didn’t know.”

“So you just found out.” Matteo breathed again. “It’s only been a couple days. You were afraid.”

“I’ve known since your father died.”

Those words struck Matteo like a frying pan. Since Pietro Bianco had died—that was eighteen years ago now. Diego had been lying to him for eighteen years. He picked up the fallen marriage license and stared at it blankly. Then he held it out at Diego like an accusation. “How could you not tell me?” His voice was tight with anger. “For almost twenty years?”

Diego reached out a hand, but Matteo pushed it away. “I wanted to tell you so many times—”

“Do you know what this means?” Matteo’s voice was almost a whisper.

“I’m so sorry, Matteo—”

“It means we were never married, Diego. You can’t be married to two people at once.” Diego fell silent, and Marco knew he had scored a direct hit. But he was too angry to care.

The secret itself… that he could have handled. But the lying… “I have to get out of here. I am too angry to even look at you right now.”

Diego said nothing, just stared at him with those puppy dog eyes.

Matteo grabbed his keys from the small walnut entry table and plowed down the stairs, red tinging the edge of his vision. How could you do this to me? ran through his head on a loop. He unlocked the door and pushed it open with such force that it shattered the glass in a crash.

You can clean up the mess this time, he thought blackly, and stormed off into the darkness.

* * *

Diego watched Matteo go, powerless to stop him. All his excuses, all his rationalizations fell to dust in the face of that anger. He deserved it. Matteo prized loyalty and honesty above all else, and he had violated both. For years.

Crash.

The sound of breaking glass sent Diego running down the stairs. Had Matteo had done something stupid and stepped in front of an oncoming car? Oh God, let it not be so.

Instead, he found the front door broken into a thousand little shards, some still clinging to the frame. On the ground outside, the stickered word “Ragazzi” lay on the sidewalk, the glass behind it fragmented into pieces.

Diego stared at it for a moment, wondering how they would put it back together again. It was shattered beyond repair. Holding on to his emotions with a tight leash, he went to grab a broom and dustpan.

Diego had managed to clean up the worst of the shattered glass, dumping it into a plastic trash can from the kitchen. He wasn’t sure yet what to do about the door itself. But at least it was something tangible, something he could fix.

Who knew where Matteo was? Diego had tried calling him, but he’d left his phone in their apartment when he’d rushed out. So Diego would have to wait and put back together what he could.

He dragged the trash can to the back door to take out in the morning. Then he found a box big enough to serve as a cover and taped it over the edges of the door. He looked outside, down the street, hoping to see Matteo returning. The sidewalk was empty.

Diego locked the door with his own key, for all the good that would do. He couldn’t set the alarm. He’d just have to trust to luck until morning.

He sat up for an hour, watching the broken door, waiting for Matteo to return, and ran through what he could have done differently a hundred times in his head. It all came back to that one day, eighteen years before, when he’d withheld the truth.

Finally he gave it up as a lost cause and climbed the stairs to their empty bedroom.

In the morning, he was still alone. He found Matteo in their living room, fast asleep on the orange couch.

 

 

25 - Encounters

Marissa watched Marcos’s Prius pull away, silent as a bicycle. She wasn’t used to that. Everyone in her parents’ circles drove SUVs—big, boxy black things that made mornings in their neighborhood look like the presidential motorcade. She snorted at the thought.

She was struck once again by how imposing the grand, colonnaded school entrance was. It was intimidating but less so than the thought of all the people inside. It was so fucking unfair that she had to start over.

Had her friends at Bella Vista even noticed she was gone?

She could still run if she wanted to. There was no one to stop her. She had Nathan tucked in the bottom of her pack, where no one could see him. Nothing else really mattered.

“Marissa?”

She spun around to find a geeky guy looking at her, one eyebrow raised. “Who’s asking?”

“Jason.” He extended a hand. “Principal Krebbs asked me to find you. She gave me this.…” He showed her a picture of herself on his phone, taken at Ragazzi. Marcos must have given it to them, damn him.

“I don’t need any help.” He was kind of cute though, in a bookish sort of way, tousled brown hair and wire-frame glasses.

“Oh, I’m hoping you’ll help me. Not the other way around.” He grinned, his teeth covered in braces, sparkling in the sun. “Come on. School’s about to start, and we have to get you settled.” He beckoned her on. After a moment she followed, wondering what he meant.

What could he possibly want from her?

* * *

Carmelina went down the list of ingredients Diego had given her, working her way through the Corti Brothers supermarket. Her cart was filling up quickly with prodotti di Italia, and she started to question if this had been a good idea.

Arthur had never liked company. She had secretly wished he were more sociable. But now the grand cooking event was almost upon her, and she was picturing a ravenous horde descending upon her little kitchen.

Well, it wouldn’t be as bad as all that. They were civilized folk—Marcos and Marissa, Sam and Brad, and Ben—just six of them altogether. Diego and Matteo had begged off, as they had the restaurant to run. If things went well with Daniele again tonight, she might invite him and make it seven.

She grabbed a few cans of crushed tomatoes and some of the vanilla tea she’d grown quite fond of and crossed the last two things off her list.

She was in line to check out when her phone rang. It was a local number but not one she recognized. She almost let it go to voicemail, but the screen seemed to sparkle. Like a sign. So she picked it up. “Hello?”

“Carmelina Di Rosa?” It sounded like an older woman.

“Who’s asking?”

“This is Sister Clara at the Children’s Home Society. Is this a good time?”

This was the call she had been waiting for. “Yes. Just a sec.” She eased her cart out of line, banging the woman’s cart behind her and earning a cross look. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, her hand over the phone. “It’s an emergency.”

She found a quiet corner in the wine section. “Sorry about that. I’m here.”

“I understand,” the nun said. “You have a busy life.”

Carmelina thought she detected a note of jealousy there. “Again, I’m so sorry. You were saying?”

“Loylene Davies asked me to give you a call.”

“Yes. I hoped to find some information about my daughter’s adoption.”

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “Yes. That’s what she said. Normally we can’t provide that information, but…” That long pause again. She was making Carmelina nervous.

“Ms. Di Rosa, could you come to my office to speak about this?”

They must have some information for her. Carmelina started shaking. “I’m… Yes, of course. I can come right over—”

“I’m sorry, but I am booked until Friday. Would ten a.m. work for you?”

“Of course.” She scribbled down the information on the back of her check register. “Thank you very much. I will be there.” She hung up and stared blankly at the old, cracked linoleum tile. “Holy shit.”

* * *

Ben was late to work again. He’d gotten lost writing his latest chapter, and even though he was sitting just twenty feet from The Everyday Grind, he somehow couldn’t manage to make it in the door on time.

He threw his backpack over his shoulder, determined not to be too late. He ran down the boardwalk, twisting around a gay couple with a hurried “Sorry” and ran headlong into someone else.

“Hey, slow down there,” a woman’s voice said. “You almost made me spill my caramel latte!”

He looked up. It was her. “Ella,” he whispered.

“Um, yes?” She pushed a loose strand of her red hair back behind her ear. “Do I know you?”

“Ben. From inside.” He could have slapped himself—he felt like a total idiot around her. “From the Grind, I mean. I’m a barista.”

“Not if you don’t get your ass in here, you’re not,” Toby said, leaning out of the doorway.

“I’ll be right in.”

Ella laughed. “Oh, of course. You put a heart on my latte last time.”

“Sorry about that. I like art.”

“Me too.” Her eyes almost sparkled. “It was nice to see you.” She turned to leave.

Not again. “Hey!”

She stopped, looking over her shoulder. “What?”

“Would you… would you go out with me tonight?” He got it out, but it hurt like hell.

“I’m going to say no.”

His heart broke, and he thought for a moment he might die of embarrassment right there. He turned to go inside, head down.

“Ben.”

He looked up.

“Ask me again next time.” She gave him a sly smile, then disappeared around the corner.

Ben went to work and found himself grinning from ear to ear all day long.

 

 

26 - No Matter What

Diego pulled on his white chef’s jacket and buttoned it up, rolling up the sleeves. He had a fresh produce delivery coming in downstairs in a few minutes as well as a lunchtime rush to prepare for. Well, not so much a rush, but things had been busier the previous Wednesday. A student from a local Italian class had discovered them and had brought three or four of his classmates to order “authentic Italian food” and talk to a “real Italian.” They had promised to return with more today.

Diego smiled at their enthusiasm for the language and country he was slowly leaving behind. The students confused their pronouns and verb tenses about as often as they got them right, but their love of his native tongue was still a beautiful thing to see. If things kept on as they were though, he might find himself back in the country he had fought so hard to leave behind, and all alone at that. It was a sobering thought.

Diego didn’t know where Matteo had gone. He had been on the couch asleep when Diego had gotten up, but when he’d come out of the shower, the apartment had been empty.

He wanted to call Matteo, to sit him down and talk all of this out. But he knew his husband better than that. What he’d done was really bad. Matteo would need some time to sort things out before he’d be ready to listen to a word Diego had to say. Still, it was killing him not to make that call.

There was one good thing—his secret was out. The thing that had eaten away at him for years was no longer bottled up inside him.

But at some point, Max was going to call and demand his money. Diego had no idea what he was going to do about that.

He grabbed a little gel and ran it through his still-damp hair, styling it with his fingers. Satisfied, he headed downstairs to meet the delivery man.

* * *

It was depressingly sunny out.

Matteo wandered through the graves at East Lawn Memorial Park, not far from Ragazzi, wishing the sky would darken to match his black mood. He came here sometimes when he needed to think—it made him feel closer to his deceased parents. It was a little morbid and, he supposed, a little silly to be so sentimental. They were gone, and their spirits certainly weren’t lingering here, almost ten thousand miles from their resting place. But still, it helped him put some distance between the everyday world and his thoughts.

He still remembered that Sunday in 1997 with a clarity that was breathtaking in its intensity. His father’s body had been laid to rest in the cemetery just north of Imola. It had been a cool February afternoon, the white clouds scudding up from the Adriatic across the blue Emilia-Romagna sky, the smell of the sea carried far inland by the breeze. His mother stood to his left, all in black, sniffling behind her veil, and Diego to his right, clutching his hand tightly, as if trying to push all his own strength into Matteo. Matteo had been broken. Diego’s love was the only thing that had gotten him through.

His gaze fell to one of the gravestones at his feet.

Elena Pestrin

3/26/1903-2/17/1997

Il Cuore della Casa

Matteo knelt, astounded. Elena was his mother’s name, and 2/17/97 was the date his father had passed away. What were the odds?

He knelt down in front of the rose marble stone, brushing off the dirt and tearing away the encroaching grass. He set his hand on it, and a golden glow enveloped his hand. He yelped as it spread quickly up his arm, blocking out his sight.

* * *

Matteo sat next to his mother’s bedside, the only sound in the room the slow but steady beep of the heart machine. It wouldn’t be long now.

Her heart had been failing for years, but lately she had been weaker, barely able to walk on her own. That hadn’t stopped her from living at home and diligently preparing a Sunday meal every week for “la familia”—herself, Matteo, and Diego.

The previous Sunday, when he and Diego had arrived, they’d found her on the floor in the kitchen, a plate of fresh-cut tomatoes scattered across the tiles.

The door to her hospital room opened a crack, and Diego came in, carrying a couple of cups of steaming coffee. “How is she?” he asked softly, handing one to Matteo.

“About the same.” He took a sip and set it aside, leaning forward to put a hand on her frail arm. “I don’t think I can do this, Diego,” he whispered.

“I know.” Diego touched his shoulder. “We will be strong enough together.” His gaze strayed to Elena’s bed. “Matteo, look!”

Matteo followed Diego’s gaze. His mother’s eyes were open, and she was staring at him.

His heart leapt. She hadn’t been awake for days now. Maybe… just maybe… She opened her mouth to speak, but he couldn’t hear what she was trying to tell him. “I’m here, Mamma.” He leaned over her and kissed her cheek, taking her hand in his. “Diego is here too.”

She nodded.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to speak.”

She opened her mouth again, still trying to say something.

He leaned in.

“L—love… him,” she whispered hoarsely. “No matter what.”

Matteo pulled back, his eyes tearing up. She squeezed his hand, her eyes imploring him.

“I will, Mamma. I will.”

She smiled faintly and closed her eyes, falling back into sleep. Three hours later, she was gone.

* * *

Matteo awoke, lying on his back in the grass, the blue bowl of the sky above him. It took a moment for him to remember where he was.

He missed her fiercely.

“I do love him, Mamma,” he whispered. “I just don’t know if it’s enough.”

 

 

27 - Leftovers

Carmelina wiped her hands on the apron that Arthur bought her last year, the one that made her look like a swimsuit model. The flour puffed into the air in little white clouds.

She glanced out the window at the driveway. It was still empty. Thank Jesus to Betsy that Daniele wasn't the type to arrive early.

She wasn't sure what had gotten into her, deciding to make a full home-cooked meal for the handsome Italian. Maybe she was just feeling sentimental for the days when she used to cook for Arthur. Maybe it was the magic the cooking class was working on her newly single life. Maybe she was just a glutton for punishment.

Whatever it was, her kitchen was a certifiable mess.

The pasta she'd made was laid out and drying on the small wooden table in one corner and was almost ready to go into the boiling water.

The vegetables were chopped, and the sausage was in a bowl ready to be cooked. She still had twenty minutes. She could do this.

Oh, and the parmigiano still needed grating…

* * *

Nineteen and a half minutes later, she poured the ragu pasta sauce over the just-drained pasta. The shredded parmigiano went on top, and she smiled as it started to melt.

And there was Daniele's car, pulling up into the driveway, just on time. Carmelina liked a punctual man.

She kissed her fingers and touched the brightly colored tile mosaic on the backsplash over the stove, sending a little prayer up to Arthur in heaven. Then she stripped off the dirty apron and threw it out onto the washing machine in the garage, checked her hair in the microwave window, and went to answer the doorbell just as it rang. "Well, hello," she said in her best sex-kitten voice, though it came out a little gruffer than she intended.

He was as beautiful as she remembered, dressed in casual business attire. He smiled back at her. "For you,” he said, and from behind his back he pulled a dozen of the reddest roses she had ever seen.

"Oh, they're beautiful. Come on in! Make yourself comfortable.” She accepted the flowers, and as his hand brushed hers, she remembered his touch the other night in the car after dinner. They'd only made it to second base, or was it third? She never had figured out the whole baseball metaphor. But she was hoping for a touchdown tonight. It had been way too long.

He followed her back to the kitchen, where she found a crystal vase for the flowers. "They're beautiful."

"Drop an aspirin in the water with them, and they will last longer."

"That's right, you’re Mister Florist. You still sure that—"

"Still not gay.” He laughed, and she got goosebumps.

"Have a seat. I was a little rushed today.… It was a crazy one." She pulled out a couple of her best plates and set them on the table.

"The pasta smells wonderful."

"One of Nonna Elena's recipes." She lit a candle and poured them each a glass of red wine from the bottle she'd opened before he'd arrived. "Give me a sec."

In the living room, she turned on the Bose speaker and selected her romance playlist. She'd gotten her neighbor's son to help her with that one, studiously ignoring his uncomfortable looks. Apparently nobody wanted to think about fiftyish women having sex. She supposed she could see their point.

Soon soft jazz filled the house.

She made her grand reentry into the kitchen and slipped on something, landing squarely in Daniele's lap. She stared up at him, mortified.

And closed her eyes as he leaned down and kissed her.

His lips were warm against hers, and her heart raced. When they parted, she opened her eyes and looked up into his.

"Are you hungry?" he said with a one-sided smile.

"Not in the slightest.” Not for pasta, at any rate.

He lifted her up in his arms, and she laughed, feeling like a teenager again.

"Which way is the bedroom?"

She pointed.

"Are you sure you want to…?” he asked, looking into her eyes, searching for something.

She nodded. "I was hoping you'd ask."

* * *

An hour later, Carmelina sat against the fabric headboard, wrapped in the afterglow. Daniele’s perfect, lithe body was stretched out naked beside her, not bad for a forty-year-old. She hadn’t felt like this in… Well, she wasn’t sure she had ever felt like this.

Daniele rolled over on his side to look up at her. “Was it okay?” he asked, his eyes sparkling.

Carmelina stretched out her arms above her head. “Darlin’, it was a whole lot more than okay.” She leaned over to kiss him, savoring his masculine smell.

She had loved Arthur. She truly had. But it had never been like this.

She pulled back and looked into Daniele’s brown eyes. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with you?”

She saw something on his wrist. Curious, she lifted it up into the light. It was a small tattooed cross. She raised an eyebrow.

He grimaced. “It’s nothing.” He pulled his hand away as if it had been burnt.

She smiled. “You don’t need to keep secrets from me. I think we’ve moved past that stage, don’t you?” Was he religious? He didn’t seem to be, but then again, he was Italian.

“I should go,” he said abruptly, and got up off the bed to retrieve his pants.

“You don’t have to leave,” she said, wondering what she’d done to push him away. She got up and pulled on her own nightgown, suddenly feeling naked and exposed. “There’s still dinner. I can throw it in the microwave—”

“Another time.” He finished buttoning up his shirt and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” He practically ran out of the room, leaving her speechless.

What the hell did I say?

It looked like she’d be eating leftovers alone.

 

 

Check back in two weeks for the next part of the story – published the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.

 

Like what you’ve been reading? You can order it in book form and read the whole thing now:

 

Amazon eBook: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DCFPCGZ/

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You can also visit Scott’s webpage and join his email list at https://www.jscottcoatsworth.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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