The River City Chronicles by J. Scott Coatsworth - Part Nine

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 in the River City: Marcos and Marissa had the talk, and it didn't go like he planned. And Marcos and Dave took in a play that really hit home for Marcos.

Marcos and Marissa met with a lawyer about her upcoming court date, and Marissa celebrated her "weekiversary" with Tris.

Sam went out with his ex, with Brad's blessing, and got his revenge. And Brad then proposed to Sam at temple Coffee, and got a resounding "Yes!""

Diego arrived in Italy.

Carmelina took over cooking at Ragazzi for a night, and loved it. Then she met the man who knew her granddaughter when she was a little girl, and learned her name - Mary.

And Ben got the job at Zocalo.

What will happen when Luna dies? Will Diego find a way to connect with Gio, the son he never knew he had? And will Marissa get lucky?

Find out now.


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


83 - Moonset

Diego stared at Luna’s apartment door, shivering in the predawn cold, his breath coming out in visible puffs tinged yellow by the old porch light.

Valentina squeezed his hand. I’m here.

He nodded and reached up to knock on the door.

He was still half asleep. Valentina had woken him at two in the morning, telling him someone had called her from Luna’s number and had urged that they come to Bologna posthaste. More of Luna’s usual drama, he supposed. And yet…

The door cracked open.

“Come in.” The man looked like he was in his mid-twenties and was wearing a priest’s collar. “Diego?”

“Yes.” Could this be his son? The age was about right. Fate was a cruel mistress sometimes. “I was told Luna wanted to see me.”

“Come with me. I’m Father Roberto.”

“Are you… Why are you here?” He followed the man down the hallway, and his sister trailed after him, looking as confused as he was.

“I’m her priest. She asked me to come administer the last rites. It won’t be long now.”

Diego stumbled. “What?”

“She’s in her bedroom. Here.” The father opened the door at the end of the hall.

A woman lay on a small bed, comforters piled up over her and a nest of pillows behind her head. The skin on her arms was yellow and bruised, and she seemed to be asleep.

“What’s wrong with her?” he whispered to the priest.

The man stared at him. “I’m so sorry. I thought you knew. She has end-stage liver disease.”

There was someone else in the room too. A boy, maybe sixteen or seventeen, sat in a chair in one corner, staring morosely at Luna. The boy looked up at him briefly and looked away.

Did she have a second son? Odd. “So what am I supposed to do?”

“I’m told she wanted to see you before…”

Diego swallowed and nodded. “Thank you.” He sat in the chair next to the bed, taking in Luna’s face. It was lined as if with great age, her skin almost transparent, a sickly yellow. She looked so old.

His anger and resentment toward her faded away like melting snow.

Luna must have heard him. Her eyes opened, and she fixed her gaze on him. “You came.” Her voice was thready, much reduced from the lively one he remembered.

She was a faded copy of her own life.

“Ciao.” He brushed the back of his hand across her cheek. “You look as beautiful as ever.”

Her lips pursed in an attempt at a smile. “Liar.”

His own smile was lopsided. “Never.” He leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “Luna, I’m so sorry I didn’t come sooner. I didn’t know.”

She nodded and closed her eyes. For a moment, he thought she’d drifted back to sleep. Then she opened them again with apparent effort. “I want…” She pursed her lips again, and then licked her lips. “I want you to take care of Giovanni.”

“Giovanni?”

Luna nodded. “Your son.” She pointed across the room, and he turned to meet the youth’s angry gaze.

“You’re not my father.” The boy stood, pushing the chair back against the wall with a screech. “I don’t care what she says.” He ran out of the room.

He’s my son? Diego watched him go, his mind spinning. It wasn’t possible. He and Luna had been together more than two decades before, and the boy was clearly still in high school.

Oddio. That one night.

Luna had come back into his life, eighteen years before, demanding money to keep quiet about their marriage when Matteo had been beside himself over the death of the father. When Diego had tucked his lover into bed and gone out to get badly drunk.

He’d dreamed about Luna, how it had been when they had been together.

He thought it had been just a dream.

Diego looked down at her, a mere shadow of her former self.

She nodded, seeing it in his eyes. “So sorry, Diego.” She reached a frail arm to him, resting her hand against his cheek. “Should have told you.”

He’d been preparing himself to meet his adult son, to see his wife, and to insist she finally give him a divorce. To yell and rage and shout, if he had to, until he got what he needed to fix his life with Matteo. But this…

What the hell was he supposed to do with this? How could he rage at someone who was dying?

He said the only thing he could think of. “It’s okay, Luna. It’s okay.” He lay her hand back on the comforter and brushed back her hair behind her ear. It was brittle and sparse.

She smiled this time, her eyes saying what her lips couldn’t. Then they closed, and she slipped away into sleep once more.

Diego sat there for a long time, watching her chest rise and fall, his mind numb. How was he going to tell Matteo about this? How was he going to raise a son?

His sister tapped him on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow her.

The priest took his place, watching over Luna.

Valentina led him to the apartment’s small kitchen, all gray cabinets and white tile. She’d prepared tea and had set up two cups on the wooden chopping block. “Pull up a stool.”

“Thanks.” Diego sat and picked up the cup to drink some tea. It was warm and strong.

Valentina sipped from her own cup, watching him over the rim. “I spoke with the priest while you sat with her. He filled me in.”

He nodded. “How long does she have?”

“Hours. Maybe.” She closed her eyes. “These things are never certain.”

He shivered, trying to process the finality of it all. “How did this happen to her? She’s so young.”

“She has hepatitis. She’s apparently had it for a long time, and she’s been sick these last few years.” She took another sip. “Diego, I have to ask you something.”

“Giovanni?”

Valentina nodded.

“I didn’t know about Giovanni until you texted me two weeks ago. I swear it.”

“So you think he really is yours?”

He knew what she was asking. He hated having to answer it. “The last time I saw her… when she demanded money to keep quiet. I was very drunk that night. I think I… It’s certainly possible.”

Valentina looked away. “He looks like you. He has your eyes, and the fire there reminded me of you when you were that age.”

“She wants me to take care of him.” Diego closed his eyes, picturing her aged and tired face again. “I don’t know if I can. And Matteo, how do I tell him?” His eyes teared up, and his nose started to run. He hadn’t asked for any of this, and the boy already hated him. He’d already put Matteo through so much. “I don’t know what to do.”

Valentina set down her cup and hugged him. “Oh, Diego, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” She rocked him back and forth and kissed his cheek. He rested his head against her chest, tears running down his face. “It’s ok, Polpetto. We’ll figure it out.”

God, he hoped she was right.

Someone cleared their throat.

Diego looked up to see the priest standing at the doorway. “Sorry to interrupt, but I think it’s time,” he whispered.

How does he know? Diego stood and followed the man out into the hallway.

Luna’s crazy life was drawing quickly to a close.

For some strange reason, he’d been called here to watch her moon set for the final time.

 

 

74 - Tell Me When

Carmelina looked around the P.I.’s office. It was neat and impersonal, with standard Ikea furniture in soft wood tones and grays. A lone ficus stood by the window for color, where vertical blinds let in a diffuse light through the mottled amber glass.

She picked up the sheet of photo paper once more. It was already well worn, despite the fact that she’d printed it out just two days earlier. She couldn’t stop looking at it. A baby’s face stared up at her with beautiful brown eyes, a little child named Mary. Her granddaughter, a little piece of her own life, cast out into the cold, hungry world. She had a beautiful smile.

Darryl had been true to his word. The professor had sent over a few baby pictures, including this one, and the name of the agency that had handled the adoption, a place called Happy Homes in Rancho Cordova.

Carmelina sighed. That had been a dead end. She had no easy way to prove her relationship to the child, and the adoption records were sealed, in any case. Zondra, the woman she’d talked to at the agency over the phone, had been unmoved by her tale and had refused to provide any information about the adoption.

Maybe the universe was trying to tell her to give the whole thing up, to just let it go before someone got hurt. Maybe her intrusion into Mary’s life, whatever it was like now, would only bring the girl confusion and pain.

And yet, Carmelina had to know. Arthur, what would you do?

Her dead husband’s spirit was uncharacteristically silent on that point.

“Mrs… Di Rosa.” The private eye was nothing like she would have expected. She was young, professionally attired in a tailored suit jacket and skirt, her blond hair pulled back in a neat bun. “I’m Emily Stamp.” She held out her hand, and Carmelina shook it.

Emily sat down behind her desk.

Carmelina grimaced. Emily had a firm handshake.

“What can I help you with today?”

“I’m trying to find my granddaughter. And I suppose it’s Ms. Di Rosa now. My husband passed away a few months ago.” She handed over the manila folder with copies of everything she had collected so far.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Ms. Di Rosa.”

Carmelina thought she heard a hint of admiration there for her choice to move on. “No one gives you a course in how to handle these things once they’re gone.”

Emily nodded. “So did she run away? Your granddaughter?” She leafed through the documents.

“No. Not exactly. I gave up my daughter Andrea for adoption in 1975.” It still hurt to say that out loud. “I’ve just learned that she was killed in a car accident some years ago and that she had a daughter before she died.” Her stomach hurt.

“Ah.”

“Her daughter was also given up by her family. It seems to be a sad fact of life in my family.”

“You’re adopted?”

“No.… I just meant… sometimes I think I started Andrea off down a difficult road, and her daughter has paid for my mistakes.”

Emily put the file on her desk. “I was adopted too, Ms. Di Rosa. My mother was a drug addict, and giving me up was probably the best decision—maybe the only good one—she ever made. Don’t beat yourself up.” She sat back, considering Carmelina. “These adoption agencies can be hard to crack,” she said at last. “I presume you’ve already contacted…” She leafed through the folder. “Happy Homes?”

Carmelina nodded. “They were less than helpful.”

Emily snorted. “I’d imagine. Listen, I’ve dealt with these kinds of cases before. Getting information through official channels can be expensive, time consuming, and difficult.”

“I understand.”

“I’ve had more luck in these cases with less… orthodox means.”

“I don’t want you to do anything illegal.” But if it meant finding Mary…

“I said unorthodox, not illegal.”

“Do I want to know?”

Emily grinned. “Probably not.” She lifted the folder. “May I keep these?”

“Of course. What will it cost me?”

“Hmmm. Give me five hours, ninety dollars an hour?”

“I can do that.” Carmelina shivered. Mary, I’m going to find you.

“You won’t be able to use this information in court, and I can’t advise you to make contact based on what I will provide to you. That decision, and any consequences that may follow, are yours and yours alone.”

“I understand. How long will it take?”

“A few days. I’ll contact you when I know more. I’ll just need your credit card. I charge a $250 retainer for cases like this.”

It was worth it. It was all worth it if it meant Carmelina would find the missing piece of her heart, if she would have a chance to give to this girl what she had stolen from Andrea.

She handed over her Visa.

“Give me just a moment.” Emily disappeared into the adjacent room.

Carmelina’s cell phone buzzed.

It was a text from Daniele.

Can we talk?

Carmelina closed her eyes. She wasn’t ready to see him again. She wasn’t sure if she would ever be. The man who had killed her daughter. If only I hadn’t given you up, Andrea.

There was more than enough guilt to go around over Andrea’s death.

I can’t. Not yet.

She wanted to hate him. She wanted to burn with righteous wrath when she saw his name. She wanted to want to rip his eyes out, to claw at him until he bled and hurt like she did.

Instead, he only made her feel empty and dead inside, especially when she thought of the now that had come to be because of the then that she had chosen.

“Okay, that does it,” Emily said, returning her Visa to her. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Di Rosa. I’ll be in touch in a couple of days.”

Carmelina stood and shook the woman’s hand again. “Thank you. I’ll wait to hear from you.” This was going to be the hardest few days she’d spent in a long time. She wasn’t good at waiting.

Emily showed her to the door. As Carmelina descended the steps to the ground level, her phone buzzed one more time.

Tell me when.

 

 

75 - Alone With A Boy

Marissa followed Tris into his dad’s house. School was over, and she had a couple of hours before she had to be home. She was supposed to be at the internship at Ragazzi, but she’d called in sick for the afternoon.

The house was a brick mansion on 46th in the Fabulous Forties, set back from the street by a wide lawn with a gorgeous old elm tree. Marissa had never seen such a big home. “It’s really beautiful.” A pair of grand staircases led up from the open foyer to the second floor.

“Thanks. When my dad bought this place, it was half this size. He and my stepmom tore most of it down and built this instead. Just a sec. I’ll grab a couple of sodas, and we can go up to my room.”

“You don’t live with your mom?”

“I go back and forth.”

“Is your stepmom home?” she called after him, looking around. The floor was tiled in white marble, and there were four large gray vases filled with white lilies placed at intervals around the edge of the entryway. Mirrors reflected back the colorless room, making her feel like she’d stepped into a black-and-white film. She hadn’t realized that Tris’s dad was rich. Or that the home would feel so cold.

“Sorry. She’s out with her friends at some cultural event or other. She’s hardly ever here.” He kissed her and handed her a Pepsi and then beckoned for her to follow him upstairs. “Come on.” He smelled good, like really good—some strange combination of soap or cologne and… What was it? Whatever it was sent a shiver down her spine. She hesitated at the base of the stairs.

Was this it? If it was, was she ready?

“What are you waiting for?” he called from the top of the stairs. He grinned, his floppy black hair framing his face, his tattoos making him a work of art.

If this was it, maybe she was ready. She wanted to kiss him. To have him hold her. To do things to her she wasn’t ready to admit to herself. Calm down, Marissa. “I’m coming.” She tried to look casual. If Tristan was going to get lucky with her today, there was no sense in letting him know ahead of time. She’d make him work for it.

Tris opened the door to his room like a gentleman. She went inside and found it wasn’t at all what she expected after the chilly entryway.

One wall was filled with albums. Not CDs but actual honest-to-goodness record albums. Her dad had a few of them. Something about the music sounding better on vinyl. She’d never been able to hear the difference herself.

The room was cozy. The windows were framed by earth-toned curtains, the hardwood floor half covered by a thick, shaggy rug just calling out for the touch of bare feet. His bed, neatly made, had the thickest comforter she had ever seen, with an African pattern that added texture to the general decor. The room was warm, like Tris.

“Have a seat,” he said, patting the bed. “I want to play something for you.”

She sat on the bed and slipped off her shoes, luxuriating in the soft rug.

He flipped through his albums, pulled one out, and freed the album from inside. He handed her the cover. It had a seductive picture of a woman with eyes like drops of turquoise set against a lush red background. It said “Diva.”

“You trying to tell me something?” she asked, admiring his arms as he put the record on a turntable and lifted the needle.

“You don’t know Annie Lennox?”

Marissa shook her head.

“That’s one of the best records ever. And it sounds so much better—”

“—on vinyl. I know, I know. My dad’s a true believer too.”

He laughed. “Marcos?”

“No. My real… my adoptive father.” She still missed her parents sometimes. Missed what they had been like together as a family.

The music started. It was rich, earthy, enchanting.

Tris took her hand and mouthed. “Whyyyyyyy.”

She laughed. “It is beautiful.”

In response, he kissed her.

Her heart pounded.

She put her hands around him and pulled him closer, and they fell back on the bed together, his warm body on top of hers. He kissed her neck, making her shudder again.

“Do you want to?” he whispered in her ear.

The world stood still as he waited for her to answer. The room was filled with music and expectation.

Oh God, she wanted to.

She wanted Tris more than she’d wanted anything since… well, since she’d begged her parents to buy her the little teddy bear she’d named Nathan.

They were all alone. No one would know.

Her phone chirped in her pocket.

Tris frowned.

“I’m sorry. It might be Marcos.” She pulled herself out from under him awkwardly and took out her phone. It was a message from Meghan, one of her friends from the LGBT Center youth group.

Ricky’s in the hospital. Beaten pretty bad.

“Oh shit.”

Ricky. She’d almost forgotten about him since she’d gone to stay with Marcos. They only ever saw each other anymore at Ragazzi. Ricky Martinez, the guy who was always her ray of sunshine and bullshit. Who’d found himself a sugar daddy. Who thought he was invincible.

“What happened?” Tris lifted the needle, and silence returned to the room.

“One of my friends is in the hospital.…” She messaged back to Meghan. Where?

Sutter on L Street.

“Are they okay?”

“I don’t know. Listen, I have to go.” She pulled on her shoes. “I’m sorry, Tris, but I have to see if Ricky’s okay. I don’t know how I’m going to get there. I can walk, I guess. It’s not that far.…”

“Hey, slow down.” He took her hand. “Let me take you.”

“You don’t have a car.”

“Yeah, but my dad does. Lamborghini or Porsche?”

“Are you sure?”

He nodded. “Dad’s gone back East for a conference.”

“Okay.” She kissed him. “I love you.” She meant it.

 

 

76 - Bring Him Home

“I’m here to see Ricky Martinez,” Marissa told the nurse on duty in the emergency room.

“Are you family?” The woman frowned at her over thick-rimmed glasses. She looked more like a librarian than a nurse.

“No. He’s a good friend.”

“Family only. Sorry. Wait over there.” She pointed to a bank of green chairs.

Marissa glared at her but decided against making a scene. For now.

She sat with Tris, staring at the door to the treatment rooms. She texted Meghan.

Here. Where r u?

Be there soon.

“I can try talking to her,” Tris suggested, shooting a glance at the nurse. He was being such a gentleman.

She squeezed his hand. “It’s okay. Let’s just wait a little bit.” Maybe once Meghan got there, they could tag team her.

“Sure.”

Tris went to get them something to eat from the vending machine.

Marissa glanced at her phone. It was almost five o’clock. Marcos would be expecting her home soon.

“I’m here to see Richard Martinez.”

Marissa perked up. There was a man at the nurse’s station with his back to her.

“And you are?”

“He called me. I’m his emergency contact.”

The nurse checked her screen and nodded. “You can go right on in, Mr. Weston. Dana here will take you back.”

“Mr. Weston?” Marissa called.

Brad turned to find her standing there. “Hey, Marissa. What are you doing here?”

“Meghan texted me. I needed to come see him.”

Tris returned with a packet of powdered donuts and two cups of coffee. “Best I could find on short notice.” He gave her an embarrassed shrug and kissed her cheek.

“Mr. Weston, this is Tris, my boyfriend.”

“Call me Brad. And nice to meet you, Tris. Marissa, you want to come in with me to see him?”

“Is he okay?”

“He will be. But he got beaten up pretty badly. I talked with him on the phone for a few minutes before I came over.”

She sighed, relieved. “Okay.” She remembered how hard it was on the street.

“Let me go in and see him first, and then I’ll send someone out for you if he wants to see you.”

“Thanks!” She gave him a quick hug.

He disappeared behind the door.

Marissa stuck her tongue out at the nurse when the woman wasn’t looking.

“That’s good news, right?” Tris said, handing her a coffee and a donut. “That he’s awake and talking?”

“I hope so.” Marissa wondered who had done it. Why Ricky hadn’t called her.

Why she had almost forgotten about him.

Two minutes later, Nurse Dana returned to take her back to see him.

* * *

Brad watched the two kids—that’s what they were, as much as they tried to pretend otherwise—reunite.

Ricky was a mess. His cheek was bruised, he had a black eye, and apparently a couple of broken ribs too. The kid seemed deflated.

“What the hell happened to you?” Marissa asked with all her usual tact.

Brad cringed. Ricky was in bad shape. “Marissa, maybe we shouldn’t…”

“It’s okay,” Ricky said, managing a slight grin. “She’s right. I was stupid.” Some of the life seemed to flow back into him.

“Did your sugar daddy do this to you? I’ll fucking kill him…”

“No. He dumped me a couple of weeks ago.” He wheezed, having a little trouble breathing. “Found someone younger.” He sighed. “Been back on the streets again.” He looked up at her, his left eye half opened above the dark bruise. “What about you?”

“Tell me what happened.” Marissa sat on his bedside, taking his hand.

Ricky sighed again. “I needed cash. I heard there was a cruising spot down in Land Park. This guy picked me up." He paused for a painful breath. “We did it in the bathroom. When I asked for my money, he… wasn’t happy. He did this.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t report it to the cops,” Brad said.

Marissa shot him a look.

Ricky shook his head. “They don’t care about street trash like me.”

That broke Brad’s heart. These poor kids had nowhere to go, no one to help them. Sometimes he wanted to kill the parents who kicked beautiful kids like these out.

The Center did everything it could to support them, but there were limits to what they could offer—an afternoon hangout, food and a hot shower, and help connecting with other services.

Sacramento desperately needed more housing for its homeless youth, especially the queer kids like Marissa and Ricky. We need to get these kids off the street. This kid.

He had to do something. “I’ll be right back.”

Marissa and Ricky nodded.

“Tell me about you,” Ricky was saying as Brad stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him.

Nurse Dana called him. “Mr. Weston, there's someone else here to see Richard. His… her name’s Meghan. Can I send her in?”

He nodded. “Please. Ricky will be glad to see her.”

She nodded. “Understood.”

“Call Sam at home,” Brad told his phone. He almost hung up. This was too much to ask, especially right now.…

“Hey, handsome.” Sam’s voice sounded bright and cheerful.

“Good writing day?”

“Yeah, so far. Just got off the phone with an officiant. I can tell you about her when you get home. What’s up?”

Brad took a deep breath. “Look, I know this is a big ask. With the wedding coming up, and our lives being already complicated enough—”

“What’s going on?” Sam sounded suspicious. “You’re not getting cold feet, are you?”

“Of course not! Being married to you is all I think about.”

“Then what?”

Brad hesitated. “There’s this kid. His name’s Ricky. One of the Center kids.”

“What happened? I know that tone.”

“He got beaten up pretty bad.” He was shaking with anger. “Oh God, Sam, you should see the poor kid. How can anyone…” He stopped himself. Getting emotional wasn’t going to help matters. “I can’t save them all, Sam. I wish I could, but I can’t.” His eyes were wet, and his chest felt hot. “I know it. I know I can’t save them.”

“It’s okay, Brad. Bring him home.”

“What?” Surely Sam couldn’t be okay with this crazy plan.

“If you can work things out with foster care, bring him home.”

“But what about the wedding? Your writing?”

“We’ll figure it out. Bring him home.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

Brad sniffed. “Okay. I’ll do some checking and let you know what happens.”

“Okay.”

“Sam?”

“Yeah?”

“This is why I want to marry you. I don’t think I’ve ever loved you more than right now.”

Sam was quiet for a moment.

“You still there?” Brad thought he heard a sniffle on the other end of the line too.

“Sorry. Just getting myself together. You got me crying too.” He laughed softly. “You’re the one with the big heart here. I’m just along for the ride.”

“Sweet and self-deprecating.” Brad smiled. “In two more weeks you’ll be stuck with me for good, you know.”

“Can’t wait.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Brad hung up and reentered Ricky’s room to find Meghan and Marissa both sitting with the patient. “You guys doing okay?”

Ricky nodded. “Marissa was just telling me about her run-in with the ’doptermonster.”

Marissa grinned.

“I don’t even pretend to know what that means. Ricky, I’m going to make some calls to see about getting you a place to stay, okay?”

“I can’t stay here?”

“Maybe for the night.”

“Okay. I don’t want to go back to foster care.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Back in a bit. You guys take good care of him, ok? I’ll let Tris know you may be awhile, Marissa.”

“Thanks Mr. Weston.”

“Call me Brad.” Jesus, these kids made him feel old.

He ducked out of the room again to make a few calls. He had a lot to get done if Ricky was going to be their houseguest.

 

 

77 - The Aftermath

Diego knocked gently on Giovanni’s bedroom door.

“Leave me alone.” The boy’s petulant voice set Diego on edge.

Diego took a deep breath. He’d spent the morning and early afternoon with the priest and his sister, mapping out funeral plans for a woman he’d never expected to see again in his life. The ceremony was planned for Sunday, just four days away—which was pretty fast by Italian standards, but there was no family to worry about other than his son, and Diego needed to get home.

My son. He was having a hard time accepting it, especially the fact that the boy was still in high school. Matteo was going to have a fit when he found out, and rightly so. And how was he going to take care of another human being? He knocked again, more forcefully this time.

“I said go away.”

“Sorry. I can’t. I need to talk with you.” He opened the door and stepped inside, looking around at the boy’s room. It was small, with a simple wooden desk and chair against the wall under a dirty window and an armoire and double bed with a threadbare white bedspread taking up the rest of the space. A couple of tattered Bologna FC posters graced one wall, handsome, athletic soccer players in striped blue and red jerseys staring down at Diego in disdain.

Not too different from the glare Giovanni was giving him from the bed.

The boy wore white ear buds, a matching Bologna jersey, and his knees and gangly legs stuck up out of a pair of board shorts. He was reading the Sports Gazette.

Sports. Diego shook his head. Could they have any less in common? He sat down on the bed.

Giovanni closed his eyes and ignored him, bobbing his head to the music.

Diego frowned. He reached forward and plucked the ear buds out of Giovanni’s ears.

“Hey! I was listening to those!” Giovanni grasped for them, but Diego set them on the desk out of reach.

“I need to talk to you. You don’t have to talk back, but you do have to listen.” Was I this much of a pain in the ass when I was his age?

Giovanni crossed his arms and glared at him again.

“Look, I am so sorry, Giovanni. Your mother and I knew each other a long, long time ago. I had no idea she was sick—”

“Gio.”

“What?”

“I’m not Giovanni. Everyone calls me Gio.” As if that should have been obvious to anyone besides a total idiot.

Good to know. “Okay, Gio, then. I’m so sorry about your mother. She was… unique in the world.” He looked away, not sure what to say next. “We’re planning a beautiful ceremony for her, on Sunday.”

Gio didn’t respond, staring back at Diego blankly.

Diego tried another tack. “You don’t have to like me.”

Gio snorted. “Good thing.”

“Hey! Enough!” He looked Gio right in the eyes. “Look, I didn’t want this any more than you did. I had absolutely no fricking idea I had a kid. You think I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to have some snot-nosed teenager in my life?’ Nevertheless, here we are. I’m stuck with you, and you’ve got no one else but me. Luna’s gone.” He regretted it as soon as he said it, seeing Gio’s bravado crumble and tears fill the boy’s eyes. “Oh Gio, I’m sorry. That’s not how I wanted to say it.”

He tried to pull the kid in for a hug, but Gio pushed him away. “I hate you!” He ran out of the room.

Diego jumped up to go after him, but his sister met him in the hall and held him back gently. “Let him go, Diego. He’s upset. He needs to get some of it out of his system.”

“I guess.” He heard the front door slam. “I hope he comes back.”

She patted him on the shoulder. “He will. Come into the kitchen. I’ve made us some lunch.”

He was starving. “I will. But I have to skype with Matteo first.”

She nodded. “Have you told him?”

“About Gio? Weeks ago, when you texted me.”

“I meant about the boy’s age.”

He shook his head. “I have to. I thought he’d be older. I didn’t realize—”

She hugged him. “Forza. I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready.”

Diego wandered back to the living room, pulling out his phone. It was about three in the afternoon in Italy, so it would be six in the morning in California. Good thing Matteo was an early riser.

Matteo answered after a few rings, shirtless with a towel around his waist, still dripping from the shower. “Ciao, bello! Come stai?”

“I’m fine. It’s been a rough twenty-four hours.” Diego sank down on the old leather sofa, which creaked in protest, and stared up at the photos of Luna and Gio that adorned the mantel. “Luna’s gone.”

“What happened?” Matteo ran a hand through his hair, as he did whenever he was agitated.

“She’s been sick for a long time. That’s why she wanted to see me.”

“Ah.” Matteo sat on their bed. “Oh my God.”

“I know.”

“When? How?”

“Last night. Her priest called us to come over.”

“I’m so sorry, Diego.”

Matteo’s eyes narrowed. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“I met my son. Gio.”

“Is he nice? You’ll have to invite him to come see us.”

“He’s seventeen.”

There was silence as Matteo worked out what that meant. “Cazzo.”

“Yeah. Matteo, I’m so sorry—”

“Not now.” Matteo’s expression hardened. “We can discuss it when you get home. Are you bringing… Gio?”

Diego nodded. “Luna got him a travel visa.”

“Smart. When?” He was all business now.

“The funeral’s Sunday. I hope to be home early next week.”

“Let me know. I will pick you up.” His hand made repeated passes through his hair. “I have to go. I have a lot to do today.”

“Okay.” Diego felt queasy. “I love you.”

“Talk to you tomorrow.” Matteo cut the connection.

Diego sat staring at the blank screen for a long moment. “Cavolo!” He had a mess to sort out when he got home. He went to find Valentina in the kitchen. With his stomach tied up in knots, he didn’t feel like eating, but he did need a little sisterly love and advice.

 

 

78 - Always Right

Matteo set down the phone.

He stared out the window at the street below for a while, his emotions in turmoil. He’d just started to get past the news Diego had given him a few weeks before. That he had married a woman. That he was still married. That he had a son.

All of that was understandable. Digestible. He even accepted why Diego had waited so long to tell him.

But this…

The boy—Gio—was seventeen.

The only time Diego had seen Luna, after he’d met Matteo, at least as far as Diego had told him, was that one week when she had come back to blackmail him for money.

The week of Matteo’s father’s death.

Matteo closed his eyes. He slept with his ex. He exhaled heavily. How was he supposed to deal with that?

The phone rang, the business line for the restaurant. “Ragazzi. How can I help you?”

“Matteo?”

“This is Matteo.” The voice sounded familiar.

“Hi there. It’s Sam. From the cooking class.”

“Sam! how are you?” Matteo smiled despite his uneasiness. It was good to hear a friendly voice.

“Good. Hey, I need to ask a favor.”

“What’s going on?” Matteo was proud of his mastery of English idiom.

“Brad and I are getting married!”

Oddio, that’s fantastic! When?” They seemed like such a sweet couple.

“On November 1st. It’s our anniversary.”

“Anniversary?”

“Of the day we first met.”

“Got it. So what can I do for you?” Matteo closed his eyes, remembering again the day he and Diego had married on the beach in Hawaii. How little he’d known then.

“We’d like to hold the wedding at Ragazzi. It’s about the right size, and we’ve made some good friends there. I think it would be perfect. And to be honest, most of the other venues are already booked. Do you guys ever do weddings?”

“Here?” It wasn’t something they’d ever really contemplated, but why not? “Sure. I think we could arrange that. How many people?”

“About twenty-five.”

“Yeah, we can accommodate that many.” He’d have to check the reservation book and figure a few things out, but it was doable. “You wanna come in and talk details?”

“Sure. When?”

“Sunday? After class?” Class. Cavolo, he’d forgotten about the next class. Three days. He had three days to prepare.

“Perfect. See you then. Brad will be thrilled.”

“Glad to be able to do it for you.”

“Thanks, Matteo!” Then he was gone.

Matteo sat back in his chair, bemused. A wedding. Here.

For a moment, he’d even forgotten about his problems with Diego. He sighed again. They’d have to have a long talk when Diego got home.

In the meantime, he had some interns arriving downstairs to corral.

* * *

Diego stirred the gnocchi in the big pot on his sister’s stove.

She was busy making the sauce, and the crushed tomatoes and fresh-cut basil were sending up a heavenly smell.

Gio was in the living room, attached to his phone.

“Thanks for letting him stay here with us until we go home,” Diego said, peeking out to make sure the boy—his son—was still there. That was going to take some getting used to.

“Bianca!” Valentina called.

“Yes, Mamma,” the girl said, presenting herself.

“Get Dante and set the table. Dinner will be ready in about ten minutes.”

“Yes, Mamma.”

“You have them well trained.”

His sister laughed. “They’re on their best behavior. There’s company for dinner.”

Diego smiled. “I remember how Papa would talk to us before the guests came over. ‘If you two do anything to embarrass me in front of the company, I’ll spank you so hard you won’t be able to sit down for a week.’”

His mother chuckled. “Diego’s just like you, Dante.” She was grating parmesan cheese at the table.

Diego and his sister shared a look. Mamma had been more and more forgetful, but only lately had she started confusing him for Dante Sr., his late father. “I’m Diego, Mamma.”

She squinted at him. “Of course you are. That’s what I said, Diego.”

Diego sighed under his breath. “Of course you did, Mamma.” One more thing to worry about.

His sister stirred the sauce next to him. “So how’d it go with Matteo?”

Diego pulled out one of the gnocchi and nibbled on it. Almost. “Boh… okay? He’s angry.”

“He has every right to be.” She gave him the look, the one that said he knew she was right.

“I know. I’ve screwed everything up. Thing is, I don’t even remember sleeping with her.”

“Sleeping with who?” His mother looked confused.

“Luna, Mamma.”

“Ah.”

Valentina set the sauce on the back burner and wrapped her arms around him from behind. “It will all work out, Polpetto.”

Diego nodded. “I hope so. I don’t know if I’m ready to be a father.”

She snorted. “No one’s ready for it. I sure wasn’t, and yet here we are. But you don’t have much of a choice, do you? You’ll do okay.” She kissed him, and he got a whiff of her perfume. It was the one his mother loved, too—Roberto Cavalli.

We really are becoming our parents.

“I just hope Matteo doesn’t throw me out when I get home. Or before.”

“Matteo loves you. He’ll get past this. Is the pasta ready?”

“I think so.”

“Drain it and put it in here.” She pulled down a big ceramic dish from the top of the refrigerator, one that was covered in hand-painted lemons.

He poured out the water in the sink and then parceled the pasta carefully into the bowl.

Valentina covered it with her marinara sauce and then sprinkled on some fresh basil leaves and a bit of the parmesan Mamma had grated for them.

“It looks delicious,” he said, taking in a deep breath. “I may have to steal it for Ragazzi.”

“I’ll email you the recipe.” She kissed him on the cheek and whispered, “Everything will work itself out. You’ll see.” There was a little shock where her lips touched him, and Diego saw a sparkle in the air around her. Then it was gone.

She picked up the bowl and swept into the dining room with it, calling out, “Mangiamo!”

Diego followed with the salad, comforted by her words.

Valentina was always right.

 

 

79 - First Day

Ben’s shift at Zocalo started at four.

“The tables here are all numbered. When the food comes up, get it out to the guests as quickly as possible.” Carlos showed him the floor map. “We want food to arrive at the table hot and fresh.”

“Got it.” The map was a swimming jumble of colors and numbers. Not for the first time, Ben wondered if he was dyslexic.

“You’re the eyes and ears of the restaurant,” Carlos was saying. “In between expediting, you should be circulating through the floor, refilling drinks, and bringing fresh chips and dips. If we do our job right, our guests should never be looking around, wondering where their food is.”

“Okay. Makes sense.” Ben was nervous. He’d never done this before. At least at the Everyday Grind, he had a counter and an espresso machine between him and the clients. Here, he was totally exposed.

He took a deep breath. You can do this. “Where do I get refills?”

“Good question.” Carlos showed him where the chips, dips, and drinks were. “You’ll be working with Luis tonight.”

One of the waiters looked up from behind the bar and waved at him.

“Luis, this is Ben. Ben, Luis.”

“Nice to meet you.” Luis shook his hand. He looked about Ben’s age, with a shaved head and a serious demeanor. He had tattoos on both arms. “You work hard, you’ll do well here.”

“I always work hard.”

“Good to hear. Just follow my lead. Got it?”

Ben nodded. “Got it.”

Luis grinned. “Hey, relax. You’ll be fine, man.” He handed some glasses and a pitcher of water to Ben. “Take these to that table—number four.”

Ben consulted the map. “Four. Got it.”

He hustled over to the table by the big garage-door-style windows. The afternoon sun slanted down into his eyes.

There was a party of four women there, probably in their thirties. If he’d had to guess, he’d say they were taking an early day off work together. They already had a pitcher of margaritas on the table, and from the raucous conversation and laughter, they’d gotten the party started somewhere else before they’d come in for dinner.

“Water?”

“Yes, please,” said the woman closest to him, a blonde in a lime-green strapless. “Hey, you’re kinda cute.”

“He is cute,” said one of the other women, a brunette in a white blouse and jeans. She blew him a kiss.

“Water, ma’am?” he asked the third woman, trying to ignore the first two.

“Yes, please.”

“I think we have a newbie here, ladies,” the blonde said, whistling.

“He must be.”

The blonde batted her eyelashes at him. “We come in every Thursday, and I don’t ever remember seeing you here.”

He overextended, trying to reach one of the water glasses, and the pitcher flew out of his hands, soaking the redhead in the blue blouse and slacks seated by the window.

Ben blanched. “I’m so sorry.…” What had he done?

“You spilled it all over me,” she said, frowning. She was soaked from head to toe. “That better be water.” She sniffed her soaked blouse.

He backed away from the table, hands out in front of him. “I’m so, so sorry. Let me get you a towel.”

“Ladies… I am so sorry. Ben’s new.” Luis inserted himself smoothly between Ben and the table. He handed the redhead a towel.

“He needs more training.”

“Yes, we’re working on it. He literally just started five minutes ago. What if I get your drinks tonight for the table, and Linny, I’ll pay for your meal tonight?” he said to the redhead.

“I suppose that would help,” Linny said. “Thank you.”

“Done. It’s so sweet of you to cut the guy a little slack. That’s one of the things I love about you ladies: your kindness and generosity.”

They looked at each other, and then the table exploded in laughter.

“Don’t worry. I’ll have words with our new expediter here.” He turned to Ben. “I’ll see you in the kitchen,” he said ominously.

Humiliated, Ben almost ran to the back, grateful to be away from the women.

How had he managed to fuck things up at his very first table? He needed this job. I’ll do better next time.

Luis came through the double doors a minute later. The waiter’s grim expression shifted almost immediately to amusement. “First time out, man. That’s rough. You okay?”

“What?” Ben was confused. He was expecting to be dressed down. But this?

“First days are always rough, and that group can be a little rowdy. I had to put on a show to make them happy. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. You got the touch, man.”

“Wait. So you’re not pissed off at me?”

Luis shook his head. “You’ll learn. Next time just go a little slower.”

“I thought you were going to have me fired.”

“You’re all right, Ben. Why don’t you shadow me for the next hour, and I’ll give you the lay of the land?”

“I’d appreciate that.”

He followed Luis out into the dining room.

“First thing to remember,” Luis said as they approached the next table, “always keep the customer happy. You do that, and you’ve got it made.”

The rest of the evening passed in a blur. By the time he was ready to go home at midnight, he’d learned what times were busiest, how to tell when a client was going to be a pain in the ass, three ways to defuse a tense situation, what the hell ceviche de guaymas was—cold fish soup—and how to keep ’em smiling.

That last skill came in particularly handy with a table of gays who called him over at the end of the night to personally give him a ten-dollar tip.

He left happy.

Ella had taken to staying at his place. He slipped into bed at a quarter to one, snuggling next to her warm body.

“How’d it go?” she mumbled.

“Good. Go back to sleep. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”

He breathed a happy sigh of relief to be home. To be with her.

He had survived the first day.

 

 

80 - Weird

Marcos glanced nervously at the clock.

His kitchen was a mess, filled with mixing bowls and cutting boards and piles of chopped peppers and sliced onions. The stove was crowded with pots and pans, and there was flour everywhere, dusting the kitchen as if someone had slaughtered the Pillsbury Doughboy. Why in the hell did I decide to make homemade tortillas?

His abuela used to make them for him, shaping the dough by hand into perfectly formed circles before cooking them to perfection on the comal—she always called it a plaque—the flat, wrought-iron skillet she used bare-handed with a breathless skill. He still remembered her warm, fresh tortillas with great fondness.

He looked at his with genuine regret. They were lumpy, misshapen things, more like Dali’s melted clocks than the puffy, perfect circles of his grandmother.

Still, they tasted good.

He dipped his thumb into a glass of ice water again to cool the burn he’d sustained on the comal. Apparently he didn’t have Abuela’s dexterity with it. At least he’d managed not to slice off a finger preparing this meal.

Marissa would be home in about half an hour. He’d have to hustle if he wanted to have things ready for the Big Meeting. Marcos wished Dave were here, but he’d begged off at the last moment. Something about a “work emergency.”

He jerked his thumb out of the freezing water, pulled on his ‘Ove’Glove, and threw the vegetables into a hot skillet. A comforting aroma filled the room, and he was once again in Abuela’s house when he was seven years old.

* * *

Marissa pulled Tris away from the door to the condo building and into her arms. She leaned back against the rough brick, and he leaned in to kiss her.

He pulled away and searched her eyes. “What’s wrong? Your… Marcos is waiting for us.”

“I know.” She shrugged. “I’m not ready to go inside just yet.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re not ashamed of me, are you?”

“No!” She startled herself with her vehemence.

“Well, okay.” He frowned. “Then what is it? Did you wanna vape first?”

“Nah. I’m kinda sick of that stuff.”

“Well?”

She frowned. “It’s just… He’s gonna get all weird with me about you. About this.”

“About us?”

“Yeah. And the whole sex thing.”

“But we haven’t—”

“I know. But he gave me ‘the talk’ last week. Well, he tried to.”

Tris laughed. “Seriously? Doesn’t he know about Sex-Ed class?”

“Yeah. I guess he feels responsible for me. It’s sweet. But I ended up giving him some tips.”

“Ewwww.”

“Yeah. So weird.”

Tris rested his hand on the wall above her shoulder. “Listen. He’s your parent now. Basically, right?”

“I guess.”

“Parents are supposed to be weird. It comes with the position.”

“You promise you won’t let him freak you out?”

“Scout’s honor.”

“You were a boy scout?” She had a hard time picturing it.

“Yeah. Five years. I still have the uniform.”

“Ooooh… the possibilities.” She snaked a hand around his neck and pulled him close for one more kiss.

“Um, no. It hasn’t fit me since I was thirteen.”

I could try it on.” She winked at him. “Come on. I’m hungry.” She pulled him toward the door.

“Oh my God, you’re… you’re…”

“Perfect?”

“Yeah.” He grinned. “Sure. Let’s go with that.”

Tris was smart. She liked Tris.

* * *

Somehow Marcos managed to pull it off. When the door opened, thankfully five minutes late, he had a dinner on the table his mother and grandmother would have been proud of:

Calabasitas, a delicious cheese-and-zucchini dish his mother had always made him when he was down. Fajitas—chicken and steak—served with a heaping side of sautéed vegetables. A big bowl of homemade pico de gallo he’d made the day before, so all the flavors could combine properly with one another. A bowl of Spanish rice. And finally, his pièce de résistance: the stack of crazy-shaped tortillas tucked away in a ceramic warmer.

“We’re here!” Marissa called from the doorway. “Ooooh, something smells amazing.”

She was followed by a boy who was at least a head taller. “Hi Mr. Ramirez. I’m Tristan.” The boy held out his hand.

Good manners, at least, but Marcos couldn’t help but stare at the tattoos running up and down his arms. “Tristan. Do you have a last name?” It came out a little sharper than he intended.

“Dayton, sir.”

Marissa glared at him.

“Well, great. Come in. I just put the food on the table.”

“It smells wonderful,” Tristan said. “Are you a trained chef?”

Marcos turned away and rolled his eyes. The boy was a flatterer too. “Nope, just learned how to cook from my mother and grandmother. Have a seat.”

They passed around the dishes, and soon everyone’s plate was full. Marcos heaped some rice, veggies, and fajitas on one of his little tortillas and folded it over, taking a bite. It was really good. He wondered why he didn’t cook more like this. Mexican food was one of his favorite things. His grandmother would have been proud of him in spite of the tortillas. “So, Tristan… Marissa’s told me almost nothing about you.”

“Well… I just moved here with my mother from Santa Cruz.” Tristan looked at Marissa, who nodded. “My dad lives here too… over in the Fab Forties.”

Marcos whistled. “Must be rich.”

Marissa took his hand and squeezed, her nails digging into his palm.

“He does all right.”

“Nice tats.” Marcos winced as Marissa’s nails threatened to draw blood, but he couldn’t help himself. Any boy who wanted to date her better be worthy.

Tristan didn’t seem to notice. “This one symbolizes my Sioux heritage,” he said, holding up his left arm. “It’s a wakinyan, or thunderbird. I’m one-quarter Sioux.”

Marcos pried his hand away from Marissa to take a closer look. It was a beautiful piece of art, and it said that the kid respected his ancestors. At least some of them. Marcos’s respect for him went up a notch. “What’s the other one?”

“It’s a tree. When my grandmother had breast cancer, she lost one of her breasts. She had a tree of life tattooed over it. When she passed away, I had the tree tattooed on my own arm.” He held it out for Marcos to see.

The roots started at the base of his fingers, and the tree itself wound up from his wrist to his shoulder. So the kid had respect for his elders too. “What are your plans after high school?”

“I’m hoping to get into USC. They have a great engineering college there.”

Marcos grinned. “I like this guy,” he said to Marissa.

She rolled her eyes.

“I think you’re supposed to disapprove of me,” Tristan whispered.

Marcos laughed. “Sorry. Too late. If you want to date him, you’re gonna have to do it knowing you have my full approval.”

Marissa shot Tristan a look that clearly said I told you so.

Marcos grinned. “Get used to it. I only get more embarrassing from here.”

 

 

81 - Normal

“Okay, so that takes care of the photographer. Jenni and Sarah say they’ll do it for free.” Sam grinned. “Or at least in exchange for a pizza and small donation to WEAVE.”

“Sounds fair.” Brad frowned. “Are we sure about these invitations though?” He held up one of the RuPaul Signature Edition invites from the pile on the kitchen table. “I mean, I love me some drag queens as much as the next guy, but Sharon Needles is some seriously scary shit.”

Sam laughed. “She does have a certain unique aesthetic. But they’re fun. And we love Pandora Box, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” He went back to addressing the invitations by hand, another thing Sam had insisted upon. At least the guest list was blessedly small: twenty or so of their closest friends and family. Sam’s mom was even coming up from Tucson. “Just so we’re clear, I’m not dressing in drag.”

“Yeah, about that…”

“Not going to happen.”

“I had an idea.”

Brad had started to get a little wary of Sam’s wedding ideas. “What?”

“My friend Kate… you met her last month at her wife’s birthday party?”

“Yeah, I remember. Short dark hair, cute smile?”

“That’s her wife, Catie.”

“Kate and Catie? Ah. Okay.”

“Anyhow, she’s a licensed officiant. And she does this really cool drag king thing.”

“I don’t know—”

“Here, I’ve got some pictures.” Sam held his phone up so Brad could see it. Kate was wearing a suit. Her blonde hair was cut short, and she was holding a wine glass. She looked like Niles from Frasier.

Brad pushed the phone away. “Why can’t we just do this like everyone else?”

Sam put his phone down. “What do you mean?”

Brad couldn’t help himself. This had been building for days. “Oh, come on. We have rainbow carnations, pink bowties, and drag-queen invitations. And now a drag-king officiant? Next you’ll be putting me in fairy wings and setting the wedding march to ‘I Will Survive.’”

“I was thinking ‘Born This Way,’ actually.” Sam took his hand. “Where’s this coming from? You didn’t complain before.”

Brad sniffed. “I don’t know. I just wanted to have an elegant, normal wedding.” He regretted it as soon as he said it.

Normal?” Sam’s voice was cold.

“Yeah, you know, like my parents had.”

“So you want me in a wedding dress?”

“No. Come on. You know what I mean.”

Sam shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t.”

Brad forged ahead. “You know, matching tuxedoes. Solemn wedding vows. A minister to lead the ceremony, maybe in a church or a boring reception hall. I just…”

“What?”

“This all just feels so… gay.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

Sam sighed. “When my mother married my father, they did it in a church, with a minister, and a tux and a white dress. And you know what? They were divorced in three years.” He squeezed Brad’s hands. “But this isn’t really about the wedding, is it?”

“You’re from a whole different generation—”

Sam laughed. “Yeah, right. You’re only seven years older than I am. You mean to tell me that you Reagan babies didn’t have drag queens or rainbow flags?”

“Of course we did. But I’ve always been more on the conservative side of things. I left the party when I realized how they fought against LGBT rights, and when I realized how much many of them loathed me personally. And I love the Pride Parade as much as the next guy. But it’s still hard for me. I just want to fit in. Sometimes it feels like we go out of our way to be different.”

Sam surprised him, leaning forward to kiss him. “Hey, I get it. You’ve made some big strides this last year.” He sat back and put his hands behind his head. “Thing is, there is no such thing as normal. Everyone is different.” He closed his eyes. “I remember the first time I went to San Francisco Pride. I was eighteen, and it was my first time in the City. I was there with my friend Jack, and we found a place on Market Street, just in front of one of the BART stairways.”

Brad nodded. “That’s a good spot.”

“Right? No one right behind you. And in the shade until noon.” He opened his eyes, but they were focused somewhere in the distance. “There were so many people there, so many kinds of people. Black, white, Asian, Latino, lesbians, drag queens, bisexual folks, leather, people in animal costumes—you name it, they were there. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where I felt normal. Where I wasn’t the odd kid out, the sissy, the faggot.”

“I guess I can see that. I didn’t come out until I was twenty-three.” Brad tried to imagine what it must have been like to be openly gay in high school.

“In school, kids would rough me up, or sometimes they just shut me out, which was even worse. Every single day, someone reminded me I was different. That I didn’t fit in. That I wasn’t normal.” His eyes focused on Brad. “Then one day, it hit me. No one really fits in. They all pretend, but everyone is different. Anna Ortiz was bulimic. Jeff Handler was dyslexic. One of the Cooper twins had an affair with the band coach. Being gay wasn’t the problem. Being in high school was.” He took Brad’s hands again. “So I get it. You want to be normal. Like everyone else. But I didn’t grow up being like everyone else. I didn’t get to be normal until I found my community. Until I wrapped myself up in the rainbow flag.”

Brad stared at him for a long moment. It had never occurred to him that all these things that Sam suggested for their wedding were anything more than gay props—Sam’s way of giving the rest of the world a not-so-subtle fuck you. Instead, they were part of Sam’s normal.

Sam looked away. “I gotta remind myself, this wedding is for both of us. If you want something a little more toned down, I’m okay with that. I just want to get married to you. I don’t care how.”

Brad squeezed Sam’s hands. “Hey, why can’t it be both? Elegant and over the top? We’ve both got the gene, right? Why can’t we make it both beautiful and gay as hell?”

Sam’s eyes lit up. “Really?”

“You made a good case.” Brad chuckled. “Besides, I bet you’d look great in a white wedding dress.”

Sam burst into laughter. “Sorry. Not gonna happen. Two tuxes, or you’re coming home a single man.”

“I can live with that. On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

Brad held up the invitation. “Ms. Needles has to go.”

“Deal. I think there’s an extra Jujubee at the bottom of the box we can use instead.”

Brad grinned. “So we’re getting married.”

“Looks like it.” Sam leaned forward and kissed Brad again for a long time.

Brad really was the luckiest boy in the world.

 

 

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/

Amazon Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1732307504/

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/1128593446

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/the-river-city-chronicles-1

iBooks: https://geo.itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-river-city-chronicles/id1381215078?mt=11

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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