The summer before he went away to university Lorenzo got a phone call that made everything clear. The call actually wasn’t for him, but he answered it. No one else was at home.
“Pronto,” he said, in his deep voice, which sounded nothing like a teenager’s.
“Are you alone?” the caller asked.
“I can’t stop thinking about last night.”
“What about it?”
“What about it?” the caller replied, indignantly. “We fucked three times! It was incredible!”
“Oh,” Lorenzo calmly said. “You must want my father.”
The line went dead.
Lorenzo hung up and stayed seated at the little round table where his parents kept one of their two telephones. He was astonished by what he’d said to the caller. With those words, he said out loud, and to a stranger, what he had long suspected about his father but had kept to himself. The man’s voice sounded familiar, but he couldn’t identify it. He considered whether it might belong to one of the men who either worked for his father Gaetano at the home furnishings store or hung around there hoping for work. The ones his father hired, whom he called his picciriddi, to the annoyance of his wife Maddalena, who hated even ironic and humorous Mafia allusions, were all so similar. Young, no older than mid-twenties, dark-haired and well-built but slim, and clean-shaven.
The current picciriddi included Fabio, a sweet-natured fellow from a nearby village who worked in the storeroom; Ninuccio, a curly-haired “classic Greek type,” as Gaetano put it, who was good with the women customers; Alfredo, a son of one of Gaetano’s cousins, who made deliveries; and Salvatore, a ceramicist whose talent allowed Lorenzo’s father to expand his product line beyond the pottery he bought from his suppliers. Gaetano had balked at the cost of the kiln and all the other tools and equipment Salvatore requested. But his designs, which rendered folkloric images and themes in a variety of modern art styles, were well conceived and beautifully executed and Gaetano knew they’d appeal to his clientele, the middle and upper bourgeoisie of their small city in eastern Sicily.
But no, Lorenzo thought, the caller wasn’t one of the picciriddi. For one thing, he sounded older than they. Maybe the huskiness of his voice on the phone was an affectation, a sex voice meant to excite Gaetano. Nonetheless Lorenzo was certain the caller was an older man.
A week later, the family had a dinner guest, a friend of his father’s whom Lorenzo vaguely remembered having met years earlier, when he was in elementary school. His name was Gerlando, and he had just returned to Sicily after years of living in the United States. “He came to his senses and left that inferno America,” Gaetano excitedly announced to Maddalena and Lorenzo. “He made a lot of money there, though, and now he can live here like a king.”
“But he still is going to work,” Gaetano added, with evident admiration. “In fact, he is taking a very important position that I’m sure he will tell you about.”
Gaetano and Gerlando had been close friends when they were in the liceo, both excellent students with mildly left-wing politics and similar senses of humor, bawdy and irreverent toward the Church and scornful of priests. Their friendship cooled a little when they went to different universities, Gaetano to Catania, to study business, Gerlando to Rome to study mathematics at La Sapienza. But when they returned to their city during school holidays, the old intimacy was quickly reestablished. After he graduated, Gerlando decided to hitchhike through Europe; Gaetano got married to Maddalena, a schoolteacher who was as devout as Gaetano was irreligious. Her personality, reserved and sometimes severe, was so unlike her husband’s that their parents doubted that the marriage would work. Maddalena would even refer to her husband’s family as “those crazy Vitales.” But it endured because, as Lorenzo understood, they had their own worlds, Gaetano his business, his picciriddi, and his friends, Maddalena her students and her volunteering with her church and its charities.
What they shared, besides a compatibility based on their tolerance of each other’s separate spheres, was their love for their intelligent, scholarly son and their pride in the elegant home they had created. Their large apartment, in the center of town, overlooked its main piazza and the family often took their meals in the spacious kitchen, rather than the dining room, so that they could observe what Gaetano called “la vita quotidiana,” the town’s daily life, while they ate.
The day before Gerlando was to come for dinner, Gaetano’s excitement was getting on Maddalena’s nerves. He kept pestering her about the food—How many courses? Will you make fish? No? Well then, what about your wonderful braciole—what do you mean, it’s too hot for braciole? Alright, alright, pasta alla Norma, but what else? Some capunatina? How about….”
“Basta!” Maddalena exclaimed. “What do you think this is, a restaurant? You’ll have what I make and you’ll like it!”
Lorenzo, who had heard her use this tone with her students, started to laugh.
“And what is so funny?” Maddalena snapped.
“Nothing, Mamma, whatever you make will be great.”
“Of course it will,” she said, slightly mollified.
When Gerlando arrived for dinner, promptly at eight o’clock, Lorenzo became certain that his voice was not that of the caller. It was, to his dismay, not sexy but squawky and a bit irritating, especially after he’d had a couple of glasses of wine. While Gerlando and his parents talked, he tried to imagine Gerlando making dirty talk with his father with that voice while they fucked, and he burst out laughing.
“What?” a puzzled Gerlando asked.
“Ah, he always has his private little jokes,” Gaetano said, smiling affectionately at his son.
Lorenzo picked at his pasta while his parents and their guest talked, or rather, while the men talked, with Maddalena occasionally joining in. Lorenzo noticed that they would acknowledge his mother’s comments with a polite nod and then resume speaking to each other. After they’d reminisced about their school days, Gaetano said, “Now I want to hear all about your life in that wretched America!” Maddalena excused herself and went to the kitchen to make the coffee.
After Gerlando had seen enough of Europe, he decided to resume his studies. He investigated a new discipline called informatica—computer science—and decided that it was mathematics’ future, and his. He had always wanted to visit America, and when he found out that a university in New York, actually New York University, offered a doctoral program in computer science, he applied and was accepted. The course work was difficult, and the fact that all instruction was in English, of which he had only a tenuous grasp, made the program all the more so. “At times, I was so discouraged I almost gave up,” he told Lorenzo and Gaetano. But after five years of study and research, he received his doctorate. He got his first job, as a software applications developer, for a video game company in New York. After a few years of that, he left to set up his own business; when he found he no longer enjoyed being a boss, he sold it, making a substantial profit. He returned to Sicily rich, and, Lorenzo assumed, single. His ring finger was naked.
If Lorenzo found Gerlando’s voice off-putting, the look of him was much more pleasant. He was Lorenzo’s father’s age, about fifty or so, but he seemed younger. His hair, though slightly receding, was still a rich dark brown; his olive skin was smooth, except for some lines around his eyes, and he wore a neatly trimmed goatee. He was taller than his father, and, Lorenzo noticed, in better physical shape.
“I have a surprise,” Gerlando said. “I think you will like it.”
Lorenzo realized from his father’s expression that the surprise was meant for him; Gaetano already knew it. Gerlando had returned to Sicily, he explained, to direct a new informatica program at the university in Catania within the mathematics department. He said he would be a combination of administrator, researcher, and professor— “It’s a lot to take on, yes, but they are giving me a nice budget and excellent staff.”
“But that is fantastic!” Lorenzo exclaimed. “I am going to study math at Catania in the fall!”
“He was a genius at the liceo scientifico,” Gaetano said. “The best in his class.”
“Papuccio, don’t exaggerate,” Lorenzo demurred.
“Papuccio?” Gerlando laughed.
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, Tano, it’s…sweet,” Gerlando said. “But Lorenzo is almost a man now…”
“Yes, that is true.”
“And a handsome one,” Gerlando added, smiling at Lorenzo. “Like his papuccio.”
Maddalena returned, carrying a tray with four cups of coffee and a sugar bowl.
“Mamma,” Lorenzo said, “Gerlando has some fantastic news! He is going to run the new informatica department at the university! He came back here from America to do it!”
“Oh? Well, that is good news. Congratulations, Gerlando.”
“Thank you, Maddalena. Maybe Lorenzo will be one of my students.”
Maddalena’s expression changed, quickly and almost imperceptibly, but Lorenzo caught it.
“If that happens, I hope you won’t treat him any differently than the others,” she said, unsmiling.
After coffee, Maddalena’s homemade biscotti, and a few rounds of amaro, Gerlando rose from the table and announced that he had to leave. He thanked Maddalena for the meal and headed for the front door, Gaetano and Lorenzo following. The three embraced, and as Gerlando hugged Gaetano, Lorenzo heard Gerlando whisper something into his father’s ear. Gaetano laughed, but Lorenzo sensed his embarrassment.
Lorenzo followed Gerlando to the stairway of the palazzo and down to the front door. They paused at the door. They regarded each other for a moment, each sensing the other’s awkwardness. Then, Gerlando said, “It was wonderful to see you again. You have become a man. A real man.”
The way he said it —maschione—thrilled Lorenzo. And he said it in a voice different from the one Lorenzo had found squawky, and, well, a bit effeminate. Deeper, huskier.
Lorenzo looked directly in Gerlando’s eyes, and said, “Come padre, come figlio.”
“Look, we love you, but you must be discreet!”
Lorenzo bristled. “Discreet? You mean hide, don’t you, Mamma? Hide in the closet for the rest of my life, right?”
Maddalena sighed. She paused a moment, gathering her thoughts.
“Look,” she said softly, almost sotto voce. “Your father was…that way. When he was young. But he got married and had a family.”
Lorenzo was dismayed to be having this conversation, again.
“Not only papa, as you well know,” he said. “Let’s see, there was Zio Francesco and Zio Filippo. It’s a family tradition with us Vitales.”
“Alright, you refuse to be serious. Do what you want, I know you will. But try not to become a public spectacle—again.”
By “public spectacle,” Maddalena meant Lorenzo appearing on local television to talk about gay rights. A news show had reported an attack against two gay men by some youths who had marched in the Sant’Agata procession. Evidently fueled by religious fervor, or so they claimed when they were arrested, the four young men, described as residents of a “crime-infested” neighborhood in Catania, said they were disgusted by the presence of homosexuals in their city and their brazenness in showing up at the procession honoring the city’s patron saint. The TV station asked the local gay center to put together a group of people who would be willing to go on camera to talk about the attack, and what it was like to be gay in Sicily. Four volunteered, two lesbians, Lorenzo, and another man. Once the cameras rolled, Lorenzo ended up dominating the discussion; he was the least reticent and the most articulate of the four, and the angriest. The host of the show was impressed that a university professor would come out publicly on TV (even though Lorenzo actually was a ricercatore, a researcher with a light teaching load, and not yet a full professor). He directed most of his questions to Lorenzo, addressing him as professore.
“Lore,” Maddalena pleaded. “Please be careful.”
“Yes, Mamma, I will, don’t worry.”
“Will you come home for the weekend?”
“Ah, no, I will be with…a friend.”
“Oh. I see. Well, call me when you can. When you have a free moment.”
Maddalena was using that pity-me tone Lorenzo found irritating. He thought, she’s guilt-tripping me, an American expression he liked.
But he couldn’t get too angry with her. The poor woman had married a homosexual, and one whom she believed had given up men and no longer was “that way.” Her two brothers-in-law, Francesco and Filippo, also had been gay, although they differed in almost every other way. Francesco, who had been a wild, headstrong boy, grew into an impetuous and volatile man with a predilection for racing his sports cars on narrow and treacherous mountain roads. He smashed up two but survived with minor injuries; a third accident, when he’d had too much to drink, ended his life, at the age of thirty-eight, and that of Carlo, his lover at the time. Filippo, by contrast, had been shy and dreamy, drawn to art and fashion. After graduating from university, he moved in with his widowed mother and helped her with her millinery shop. While she was alive Filippo never brought men home, and, in fact, largely abstained from sex. After her death, he became an habitué of cruising spots on the waterfront and in city parks, and bars frequented by hustlers. One evening he violated his rule to never bring his pick-ups home; an alluring young fellow, a blond with green eyes, wanted to do it “in a real bed,” not in the dunes or behind a tree. And once they were in Filippo’s bed, the man smothered him with a pillow and stole whatever cash and jewelry he could find.
Gaetano was bereft, inconsolable really, at losing both of his brothers, and within less than a year of each other. Maddalena did her best to comfort him. But Gaetano and Lorenzo both knew that she believed that the deaths of her brothers-in-law, if perhaps not divine punishment, were the consequences of their having flouted God’s will and the demands of their Sicilian culture, which to her were the same thing. Lorenzo understood that her discomfort with his sexuality, which he had disclosed to her the summer before he went to university, had a lot to do with her fear that he, her only child, would end up like Francesco and Filippo.
Maddalena could be surprising, though. In his first year of teaching at the university in Catania, Lorenzo met Fernando, the black sheep son of a rich Palermo family. Fernando had returned to Sicily after living in Paris for several years but he chose to live in a small town outside Catania, not even telling his family that he had returned. Fernando, a few years older than Lorenzo and far more experienced, was honest with Lorenzo from the first: “I have that damn virus,” he said, “so if you want to be with me, you will have to deal with that. I’m OK now, but who knows what will happen. Can you handle it?”
Lorenzo wept at Fernando’s news, but he suppressed his tears when he saw Fernando’s frown.
“Yes, yes, I want to be with you regardless. We will be safe, right?”
“Of course,” Fernando smiled. “Although I hate those things, we will use them. Always.”
Lorenzo hesitated before asking the question that had been on his mind.
“You came back here because you wanted to be home, didn’t you?”
Fernando laughed. “Yes, Paris is great but the Parisians can be so fucking insufferable. I… didn’t want to die there with them.”
At the mention of dying, Lorenzo nearly started to cry again but he managed not to.
Fernando did sicken; he had the misfortune to become ill before the arrival of the wonder drugs that made it possible to coexist with the virus, in a chemically-induced truce. In Fernando’s body, the pathogen proliferated, and in a matter of months wiped out its overmatched defenses. During his illness, Maddalena set aside her judgments, her discomfort with her son’s sexuality and his relationship with another man, and took care of Fernando. She brought him food, read to him, and comforted him as his health declined. As the ugly purplish lesions erupted on his face and torso, as he lost his appetite for her excellent cooking, as he became less coherent and finally, uncommunicative. The fact was, she had come to love Fernando, despite her disapproval. She liked his intelligence, his mordant humor, and she could not deny his obvious feelings for her son. Lorenzo was deeply moved and grateful for her efforts.
“I know this is hard for you, Mamma,” he told her.
“We are all sinners, Lore,” she replied. “But God wants us to show compassion. We can never abandon the sick, that would be a worse sin than…”
She caught herself.
Lorenzo felt a twinge of anger and then let it pass.
“Thank you, Mamma, for everything.”
After Fernando’s agonizing death—in his final days, he was, like so many afflicted with the modern plague, emaciated, demented, and unable to see or speak—Lorenzo decided to leave Sicily. He found the social hypocrisy—which he had come to see as embodied in his beloved father’s life—unbearable. There were other reasons. Lorenzo would remain a ricercatore until he had gotten his doctorate. The university at Catania did not yet have a doctoral program in computer science, just in mathematics. He saw only one solution to his personal and professional concerns: leave Sicily to study in America. To him, the choice of schools was obvious: New York University, where his father’s friend Gerlando had studied and earned his doctorate.
Gerlando applauded Lorenzo’s decision.
“It will be good for you to get out of here, at least for a while, and you will love New York, I am sure.”
He also offered what Lorenzo wanted but was unsure whether to request: a reference that attested to his qualifications for the doctoral program.
Lorenzo devoted the summer before he left for New York to studying English. Most of the language schools in Italy taught British English, but Lorenzo managed to find a course in American. He supplemented the class instruction with his own reading —he subscribed to the New Yorker and the Herald Tribune— and listening, to American music, pop tunes with simple, even banal lyrics that were easy for him to follow. (All the TV shows and movies from America were dubbed into Italian, a practice he saw as yet another example of his society’s parochialism.) There also were opportunities for conversation with actual Americans—tourists he met at a local gay bar and sometimes took home. By August, Lorenzo felt he had acquired a decent enough command of the language that he would not be at sea when he began his studies.
The day before he left for New York, he had dinner with his parents at a Catania seafood restaurant he liked, and which he hoped would impress Maddalena and Gaetano. He should have known that his mother, who indeed was a maestra of cucina siciliana, would find fault with everything. His father sometimes agreed with her judgments— “Yes, the saffron flavor is too strong”—and at other times disputed her— “What are you talking about, the bucatini are perfectly cooked.” Lorenzo realized that their exchanges about the food were a diversion from the subject they didn’t want to discuss, or, as the English expression he’d recently learned put it, “the elephant in the room”—his departure.
After dinner, Lorenzo walked his parents to their car. As they said their goodbyes, Gaetano wept and hugged Lorenzo tightly. Maddalena, dry-eyed and stoic, admonished him: “Don’t forget us. I expect a call from you at least every week.”
The next morning, a few hours before Lorenzo’s fight was to depart, Gaetano called Lorenzo for another goodbye, and to tell him that Maddalena had cried all through the drive home.
As Gerlando had predicted, Lorenzo loved New York. The immensity of the city that was made up of many small cities, with an astonishing mix of people and cultures unlike anything back home. His favorite part of Manhattan was Greenwich Village, where he studied, lived (in a spacious studio apartment provided by New York University), and cruised the bars on Christopher Street and the waterfront. He quickly realized that he had considerable currency in the sexual marketplace: dark, handsome, and hairy of face and body, with a stocky physique, he fit perfectly in the new gay subculture of “bears.”
“You have the hairiest ass I’ve ever seen,” one of his bedmates told him, admiringly. “You should enter the contest at the Spike.”
“What? A hairy ass contest? What do you win?”
“Oh, a little trophy and free drinks, that’s all. But it’s fun.”
The next Saturday night, Lorenzo, along with a half-dozen other men with hirsute hindquarters, was standing on a small stage at the Spike, wearing only a red jockstrap. The bar’s owner, a tall, burly black man with a beard that reached his chest, interviewed each contestant, making lewd comments to the ones he particularly liked. And Lorenzo was clearly his favorite. The interview, though, nearly spoiled the night for Lorenzo.
When Oscar, the bar owner, heard Lorenzo’s accent, he said, “Ooh, we have a visitor from—where you from, stud?”
When Lorenzo said “Sicily,” Oscar recoiled in mock fright.
“Sicily? Oh my, you hear that, everybody?” he said, turning to face the patrons.
“How’s the Godfather?” he said, turning back to Lorenzo.
“I wouldn’t know,” Lorenzo said, scowling.
“Aww, come on, baby! Don’t tell me you’re from Sicily and you don’t know no godfather!”
Laughter from the crowd.
“No, I don’t. My father is a businessman. An honest businessman.”
“OK!” Oscar replied, winking broadly at the crowd.
Lorenzo was angry now, but he also felt absurd, to be defending his family’s honor while standing on a stage in a bar wearing nothing but a jockstrap.
Oscar sensed Lorenzo’s mood and changed course.
“Just messin’ with you, baby! Tell us what brings you to the Big Apple.”
Lorenzo put his hands on his hips, puffed out his hairy chest, and said, “I am studying for my PhD at NYU!”
“PhD! NYU! I’m impressed!” Oscar said. He paused for effect and then said to the crowd, “He made NYU an offer they couldn’t refuse!”
“No, other way around!” Lorenzo replied, and the crowd whooped and cheered.
“OK!” Oscar said. “Now show us that furry butt!”
Lorenzo won the contest, and the tacky little trophy. Oscar said he would have Lorenzo’s name engraved on it if he wished but Lorenzo declined. He wasn’t going to display the thing, anywhere, and he imagined what might happen if, upon returning to Sicily, his bags got searched and a customs officer found a trophy engraved with “Lorenzo Vitale, First Place, Hairiest Ass, the Spike 1990.”
Oscar’s jokes had gotten on his nerves. But Lorenzo had realized, early in his New York sojourn, that being Sicilian made him appealingly exotic to Americans, and to American gay men. Some had foolish notions about his homeland and its people, mostly acquired from pop culture. The Mafia associations, of course, but also “Are Sicilians the same as Italians?” “Are there gay people in Sicily? “Do you have the internet in Sicily?” They also assumed—correctly, in Lorenzo’s case—that Sicilian men were highly sexed and had big dicks. Which meant that they always wanted Lorenzo to be the top. He obliged them, although he much preferred oral sex and mutual masturbation to fucking. “They have their fantasies, so why disappoint them?” he wrote in an email to a gay friend back home.
Lorenzo had finished his course work and was well into his dissertation when he met Mark and Joe. Mark contacted him through a listserv for gay “bears” and, once it was established that they were simpatico, sexually and otherwise, Lorenzo suggested that he, Mark, and Joe meet for espresso in the Village. Mark, Jewish and born and raised in Brooklyn, was more outgoing than his partner, Joe—actually, Mark’s chattiness was his way of compensating for the anxiety he felt when meeting a new potential playmate. Joe had to be drawn out, but once Lorenzo asked him about his family background, he opened up. His maternal grandparents, he told Lorenzo, were from the province of Ragusa, in eastern Sicily. He didn’t know exactly where in Ragusa; his mother always had been vague about her family’s origins. When he told Lorenzo that his paternal grandparents were from Naples, Lorenzo exclaimed, “Ragusa and Napoli? You are italianissimo!”
When Joe took his shirt off at Lorenzo’s apartment, and Lorenzo took in his muscular chest and arms, he mouthed a silent “thank you” to Mark, for having arranged their date. A three- way with two good-looking New Yorkers was an experience he felt he must have before leaving the city, like seeing the Statue of Liberty or going to the top of the Empire State Building. He was not disappointed.
After Lorenzo received his doctorate—Maddalena and Gaetano flew to New York to attend his graduation, to his great surprise—he told Mark and Joe that he would be returning to Sicily. Gerlando had informed him of a new position at the university in Catania and that he would do all he could to ensure Lorenzo got it. Lorenzo hated the raccomandazione, the long-standing practice of using connections, social or professional, to pull strings, to gain advantages. Lorenzo felt that Gerlando’s helping to secure an academic post for him in Sicily was of a different order from writing a reference for graduate school in New York. But Gerlando assured him there was nothing wrong with it if the person being “recommended” was qualified, as Lorenzo certainly was.
Before he left New York, Lorenzo invited Mark and Joe to visit him in Catania. His apartment, he said, was right in the center of town and they would have their own bedroom. Joe had been to Italy once, after he graduated college, on the typical tourist itinerary of Venice, Florence, and Rome, but not Naples or Sicily; family background notwithstanding, he decided to avoid places that everyone said were “dangerous” and “backward.” But at thirty-nine, he regretted having let stereotypes and northern Italian prejudices influence him. It was time, he thought, to see the places from whence his forebears had come. Joe had been reading about Sicily for years, histories, and essays and fiction, Pirandello, Sciascia, Bufalino, Verga. He had learned how to cook Sicilian food, dishes his mother had made and others that he found in cookbooks. When Lorenzo said, “Wouldn’t you like to get in touch with your roots?” he replied, “Assolutamente.”
On the drive from Catania to Palermo on the autostrada, the highway that cut across the island, the Americans were stunned by Sicily’s interior. Sicily had been the granary of the Roman Empire, but now the vast open fields were mostly denuded of vegetation, rocky and arid. Yet the landscape had a harsh beauty, with its craggy hills, deep gorges, and, amid the deforested terrain, there were plots of farmland, some large, that produced grapes and olives. After they’d been driving for an hour or so, Lorenzo pulled the Land Rover off the highway to stop for gas and use the public toilets.
“Why are we leaving the autostrada? We can get gas and use the bathrooms there,” Joe asked.
“I want to show you guys something you won’t see in those nice modern rest rooms.” Once off the autostrada, Lorenzo drove a short while on a local road before stopping at a low, one-story building with a couple of gas pumps out front. A man, elderly and grizzled, came out of the building and stared at the Land Rover and its passengers. Lorenzo got out and instructed the man to fill the tank.
“Go pee,” he told Joe and Mark, pointing to a side door in the building.
They were astonished by what they found inside. Once their eyes adjusted to the semidarkness, they saw walls covered with crude drawings of huge, erect, and ejaculating penises and obscene graffiti. There were phone numbers, many accompanied by explicit descriptions of what callers could expect if they used them. “I will be your tight hole all night long.” “I give the best blow jobs in Sicily.” “For the best fucking and sucking, call Massimo.” The doors of the toilet stalls also were covered with obscene drawings and graffiti. When Joe opened one of them, he saw that the toilet itself was just a hole in the floor. He was glad he only had to urinate; the thought of squatting over one of these foul-smelling holes made him queasy.
“How did you like the Turkish toilets?” Lorenzo asked, grinning maliciously.
“Che schifezza,” Joe said, using an expression he’d heard a lot since he and Mark arrived in Sicily. “How disgusting.”
“Yes,” Lorenzo laughed. “But the action is hot! So many truck drivers from all over Sicily that want a good blow job.”
“You come here? Aren’t you worried about cops?”
“The cops like blowjobs, too.
“What? Don’t tell me cops cruise this place!”
“That’s what I am telling you.”
“Matri santa!” Joe said.
“If you are here at the right time,” Lorenzo said, “you will hear a lot of ‘Matri santa.’ And many other things too.”
The year before Mark and Joe took Lorenzo up on his offer to visit Sicily, the Mafia assassinated Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two prominent magistrates whose investigations had resulted in the trials, convictions, and imprisonment of hundreds of mafiosi. In response to Cosa Nostra’s extraordinary challenge to the Italian state and to legality itself, the government dispatched soldiers from all over the country to Sicily to patrol certain neighborhoods and guard the homes and offices of magistrates and politicians, those who were not, as they said, in odore della Mafia, with the Mafia’s stink on them, but courageous—some said foolhardy—public servants who despised what organized crime had done to their country. Not only the corruption it spread, to business, politics, and even the Church; the endless, grotesque violence; the scarring of Sicily’s beautiful landscapes from shoddy and illegal construction; but also the mix of fear, cynicism, and resignation that had infected so many Sicilians from living so long with this pestilence.
As they pulled into Palermo and drove toward the city center, Joe noticed the trucks full of soldiers driving slowly through the city, as well as the uniformed and armed men stationed outside of buildings. Most of the soldiers were just youths, and they were cradling very big weapons.
“Those are the soldiers I told you about,” Lorenzo said. “The ones the government sent here after the Mafia killed Falcone and Borsellino.”
“Are people happy to have the soldiers here?” Joe asked.
Their first stop was the home of Lorenzo’s friend Michele, an architect who lived with his elderly mother in an apartment that occupied an entire floor, with a wrap-around terrace that afforded a magnificent, 360-degree view of the city. Michele’s mother, heavy set, with short gray hair and wearing a floral-patterned house dress, had prepared lunch for her son’s guests, various antipasti, veal cutlets, spaghetti al ragu, salad, dessert. As they ate, Joe felt her watching him.
“Occhi siciliani!” she exclaimed.
Michele laughed. “Well, mamma, his nonni came from here, so that’s why he has Sicilian eyes.”
“Ah,” she said. She asked Joe about his grandparents, where exactly they were from, when did they leave for America. Joe understood enough Italian to follow her questions, and with some help from Michele, he answered them.
“So long ago, when your grandparents left,” she said. “Do Italians in America care about Italy?”
When he answered, in Italian, that “we of the third generation do, and we are returning,” she stroked his cheek.
“You were a big hit with Michele’s mother,” Lorenzo later said to Joe. “She never met any Italian Americans before.”
“I hope I made a good impression.”
“Oh, you can be sure of that.”
Joe and Mark piled into Lorenzo’s Land Rover for the drive to visit Georges, Lorenzo’s boyfriend. Georges, Lorenzo told them, was born in Aleppo, Syria and raised in Lebanon. He fled Beirut during the civil war. His family were Francophone Catholics, and Georges believed that if they were to become exiles, Palermo would be their most congenial destination, a Mediterranean city dominated by Catholicism that had an Arab past, or rather, an historic Arab presence whose traces remained, in architecture and art, food, the local dialect, and the faces of the palermitani. Since his arrival in Sicily six years earlier, Georges had gotten a job as a nursing assistant in a Catholic hospital and an apartment in the Palermo outskirts. He had applied for Italian citizenship, and once he received his documenti, he intended to bring his widowed mother, brother, and two sisters to Sicily.
Georges lived, Lorenzo said, in a part of the city called Zen. The two Americans had the same question about the unusual name.
“No, it has nothing to do with Buddhism,” Lorenzo said. “It means Zona Espansione Nord. It was built in the Sixties. It is not a nice place. Very poor and a lot of Mafia.”
Joe and Mark exchanged uneasy glances.
“Don’t worry,” Lorenzo said. “You’ll be OK. But Mark, don’t show off your video camera.”
As they approached what Lorenzo said was Georges’ block, the Americans gazed out at one of the ugliest urban areas they’d ever seen. Boxy, nondescript buildings arranged in what was supposed to evoke, Lorenzo said, an old walled city. The design of the housing units, he added, was considered “very postmodern” at the time they were constructed. Some of the buildings were in considerable disrepair while others looked habitable, if unappealing. Joe noticed that there was hardly any green space, few trees, little grass anywhere, no public spaces, and the dumpsters overflowed with garbage. “Sicilia bedda” — “beautiful Sicily,” as the title of a popular song went, this was not.
Georges lived in one of the better buildings. Though as drab as the others surrounding it, the structure looked solid, not dilapidated; the garbage was contained in the dumpsters, and there was no graffiti. Joe asked Lorenzo why the place where Georges lived seemed in better shape than many of the others.
“Some Mafia guys live here.”
“And they don’t live in the other ones?”
“These Mafia guys are, how you say, more pignolo…”
“You mean, fussy?”
“Yes, fussy,” Lorenzo laughed.
He pressed a button on the intercom at the external door and Georges buzzed them in. The lobby, though dark and shabby, was clean. The elevator, slow and noisy, was functional. When they got off at the fourth floor, the sound of Arab pop music greeted them. Lorenzo rolled his eyes.
Georges was standing at his open apartment door. “Ciao, ciao, ragazzi!” he yelled over the music. He kissed Lorenzo on his cheeks and extended his hand to Joe and Mark.
“Come in, come in,” he said to them, in French-accented English.
“Ma dai,” Lorenzo said to Georges. “La musica…piu piano, per carità!”
Georges turned down the music.
Tall and slim, Georges walked with the elegant assurance of a fashion model, which he had been for a while in Beirut. He was very handsome, with reddish-blond hair and mustache, and aquamarine eyes.
“Are you ready for the beach?” he asked the Americans.
“Beach?” Joe turned to Lorenzo. “But we didn’t bring swimsuits.”
The plan Lorenzo had told them entailed staying overnight with Georges but there had been no mention of the beach.
“You won’t need them,” Lorenzo said.
“The beach we will go,” Georges said, “is, how you say, Lore?”
“It is a place called Barcarello,” Lorenzo told Joe and Mark. “Very beautiful. You will love it. There is a part where you can be naked and have sex.”
As the Americans considered this, another man appeared. Dark and muscular, with a black beard and a mustache that covered his upper lip. Curly chest hair poking out of his partly unbuttoned short-sleeve shirt. He was wearing tight designer jeans and, as Joe and Mark noticed, he filled them out quite nicely.
“Sono Giuseppe,” he introduced himself to Joe and Mark. His voice was rough, a bit raspy. They all shook hands.
Lorenzo said something to Giuseppe in what Joe recognized was not Italian but Sicilian dialect. Giuseppe answered in the same lingo.
“Giuseppe is coming to Barcarello with us,” Lorenzo told the Americans.
Georges wanted to speak with Giuseppe and Lorenzo took advantage of the moment to take the Americans aside. Giuseppe, he said, was Georges’ “fuckbuddy.”
“Oh?” Joe said, surprised.
“Well yes. Georges and I have an open relationship, as you say.”
Lowering his voice, he added, “Giuseppe is so hot. And as you see, he is very butch. Wait until you see him naked!”
Lorenzo said that Giuseppe worked for the corpo forestale, the forestry police.
“He’s a cop?” Mark exclaimed.
“Yes, sort of, but he has a low rank. He wears a uniform. Georges likes him to wear it when they have sex.”
As Georges and Giuseppe continued their private conversation, Lorenzo said that because being a low-level forestry cop didn’t pay very well, Giuseppe sometimes hustled tourists. Last year, Lorenzo said, one of them, a middle-aged British guy, became infatuated with Giuseppe and started to behave as if they were lovers. Acting jealous. Making demands. He wanted to meet Giuseppe’s family. Giuseppe, who hid his sexuality from his widower father and two brothers, broke it off with the Brit. But the Brit found out where he lived. When Giuseppe’s father answered the door, the Brit, who was more than a little drunk, told him, in less than perfect but good enough Italian, that he was Giuseppe’s lover and that he, his father, must talk Giuseppe into taking him back.
“I’m rich,” he told Giuseppe’s father. “I can give him a better life.”
At first Giuseppe’s father wasn’t sure he had heard the foreigner correctly. But as he babbled on, the old man became enraged and started cursing. He called for Fabio and Rocco, Giuseppe’s brothers, who came to the door scowling because their father interrupted the calcio match on TV. (Palermo was ahead.) When their father explained what the stranger on their doorstep wanted, they started cursing him. When the Brit heard Fabio hiss, “maledetto frocio,” he turned and ran.
“Holy shit,” Joe said. “What happened after that?”
“Giuseppe denied that he was gay,” Lorenzo said. “He told his father and his brothers that the English guy was a just a tourist who came up to him in a bar and wanted to pay to give him a blowjob. And that after that the guy wouldn’t leave him alone.”
“They believed him?”
“Sure, why not. And anyway, what can they do? The old man is retired, the brothers don’t work, and Giuseppe supports them.”
“The best part,” he added, “was when Giuseppe said the British guy paid him and Rocco said, ‘how much?’”
Barcarello, a strip of coastline west of Palermo, lies between the better-known beaches of Mondello and Sferracavallo. Lorenzo parked at the far end of a near-empty lot. Michele, who had come in his own car, parked next to them. (He would have to leave early, he said, because his two brothers, their wives, and their children were coming for dinner and he had to help Mamma.) From the boot of the Land Rover Lorenzo removed towels and a beach bag. Georges, Giuseppe, Michele, and the Americans followed him as they walked along the coastline. The path narrowed and became rocky, with dizzying cliffs to the right and the sea to the left. A light breeze stirred the wild rosemary and fennel bushes along the path, sending their mingled aromas into the warm air.
After hiking for ten or so minutes, they reached their destination. It wasn’t really a beach, but rather a section of massive rocks whose surfaces were wide and flat enough to accommodate sunbathers. Men, alone and in groups, reclined on the rocks or were climbing among them, seeking partners. Most were naked; a few wore skimpy bathing suits. Lorenzo found a rock large enough for six and spread out the towels. Everyone stripped except Michele.
“Too hot, the sun is very strong,” he apologized. He added that he hadn’t slept well the night before and wanted to have “un bel riposo,” a little nap, and headed for a rock shaded by a tree. He spread his towel under it, took off his shirt but kept his jeans on, and lay down, his arms crossed over his bare chest.
The naked quintet on the broad flat rock lay still for a few minutes. Then Georges started kissing and fondling Giuseppe. Soon, the five bodies were intertwined; hands stroked cocks, mouths closed around them, lips and tongues meshed and probed. The Sicilians, Mark thought, smelled musky. He normally found the Italian male aversion to deodorant off-putting; he’d noticed it when he and Joe first had sex with Lorenzo in New York. After that, he would sometimes tease Joe about “his people” and their hygiene, to Joe’s annoyance. But here, in the open air of a wild, primeval place, as they took part in what, in Mark’s imagination, was a pagan phallic rite, the body odor seemed as much a part of the natural environment as the fennel and rosemary, just sharper.
The quartet’s activity attracted the attention of the other cruisers and soon they were surrounded by naked and near-naked men, some masturbating, others just watching. No one spoke; the silence was broken only by the crashing of the waves on the rocks below them and the sporadic cries of “Sborro, sborro”—I’m coming.
When it was over, the five men lay on the rocks, spent and happy.
Michele, fresh from his nap, came over and asked, “Did I miss anything?”
“Georges is quite an operator,” Joe remarked.
“Cosa?” Lorenzo asked.
“Your boyfriend. He’s been cruising our waiter since we got here. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice it.”
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t,” Lorenzo said. “Georges can be subtle.”
Joe laughed. Georges’ interest in their waiter couldn’t be more obvious. From the time he seated the four men to taking their orders to bringing the food, Georges had been checking him out, and more than once Joe saw them make direct eye contact. They were having dinner at a Tunisian-Sicilian restaurant Georges found, a family-run place on Via Judica. Joe said that the one specialty he hadn’t yet had was cous cous, or rather cuscusu, as it was called in Sicily, a dish that melded North African and Sicilian flavors. Georges had asked one of his coworkers at the hospital, whose father was Tunisian, for a recommendation. “My friend said the cuscusu is the best here,” Georges told the Americans. He, Joe, and Mark ordered it; Lorenzo chose grilled swordfish in samorigghiu, a sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, fresh oregano, and mint. The cuscusu, the Americans agreed, was wonderful, with its mix of fish, mussels, and shrimp, in a light tomato sauce redolent of cinnamon and saffron, garlic and bay leaves, and topped with toasted sliced almonds.
When Georges returned to their table from the men’s room, the waiter reappeared. He asked if everyone enjoyed their meal, if they would like coffee and dessert, maybe an amaro? Full from their dinner, they accepted only coffee. Georges said, “tutto benissimo,” stressing the “tutto” while he gazed openly at the waiter.
Georges explained that the American friends wanted to taste real Tunisian-Sicilian cooking before they returned to New York.
“And you brought them here, how nice,” the waiter answered, smiling at the visitors. “We thank you.”
“You are from New York?” he said to Joe and Mark, in lightly accented English. “Where?”
When they answered “Queens,” he said, “Oh, I have some relatives who live there. Astoria—you know it?”
“Yes, of course,” Joe replied. “Have you ever been?”
“No, but it is my dream to go, someday.”
“I too have a dream,” Georges said, smiling at the waiter.
Jesus, Joe thought. The guy is shameless. But he could hardly blame Georges; the waiter, who was probably in his early thirties, indeed was a beauty, with tightly curled black hair, deep olive skin, full lips framed by a lush mustache, and hazel eyes.
“Don’t we all?” the waiter laughed.
He introduced himself as Mehdi, once again thanked the four men for having chosen the restaurant, and went to get the check. After Lorenzo paid, the four got up and headed for the door. Outside, Lorenzo led Joe and Mark to the Land Rover, while Georges held back. Joe turned and saw Georges and the waiter outside the restaurant entrance; the waiter slipped Georges something that Georges put in his pants pocket.
Once in the car, Georges retrieved it and showed it to his companions. It was the restaurant’s business card, and on the back “Mehdi” was scribbled, and a phone number.
Joe had no idea what time it was when he was awakened by the noise from outside. He sat up in the sofa bed while Mark slept, undisturbed. The room still was dark, he could see only the outlines of the heavy, lacquered furniture that Georges had brought from Beirut and which Lorenzo called, with not a little disdain, “oriental.” That, and the silver frames that held Georges’ photo collection of Disney characters. The noise, which Joe realized was of amplified voices, sounded like singing, or chanting. It could be, he thought, Arabic. He listened for a while, then went back to sleep.
When he woke, the living room was full of sunlight, and he could hear Georges and Lorenzo and Mark talking in the kitchen. The amplified chanting from outside continued. He got out of bed and joined them in the kitchen, where they were at the breakfast table drinking espresso.
“What is that noise?” Joe asked Georges.
“Did it wake you?” George said as he poured Joe a demitasse of coffee. “I am sorry. You see, we have our own little souk here on Saturday morning.”
He explained that vendors set up a market in a small lot near his building, selling everything from street food to knockoff designer jeans to household supplies to bootleg cassette tapes and CDs. The chanting Joe heard was the vendors touting the quality and prices of their wares.
“Are they Sicilians or Arabs?” Joe asked.
“Both,” Georges replied. “But who is who, sometimes it can be hard to say.”
Lorenzo, who had planned the group’s Palermo stay with an exactitude that Mark called “Germanic,” reminded them that they were having lunch at his parents’ home. Since it was a two-hour drive to their town on the southeastern side of the island, they had to leave soon.
“Go make caca, take your showers, and get ready,” Lorenzo instructed them.
When they hit the autostrada, Lorenzo tuned the radio to a station that played American oldies. The voice of Bonnie Tyler came on, screeching about a “total eclipse of the heart.” They all sang along at the top of their voices; when Tyler sang “turn around, bright eyes,” Lorenzo turned from the driver’s seat and batted his eyes at Joe and Mark in the back.
“Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart,” they chimed in with Bonnie. Later, when recalling the moment, Joe said to Mark, “There must be something to this gay sensibility thing,” noting that all four of them—two Americans, a Sicilian, and an Arab immigrant to Sicily—all connected with the camp melodrama of the song, laughing at it and loving it at the same time.
It was nearly one in the afternoon when they arrived at the home of Lorenzo’s parents. The day was ferociously hot, but in their town, built on a mountaintop many centuries ago, and rebuilt in the seventeenth century after a massive earthquake, the late summer air was much less oppressive. They parked in a municipal lot and walked up the hill that led to the Vitales’ palazzo.
Maddalena met them at the door and ushered them in, with a formality that extended to her son. She accepted the kisses he planted on her cheeks and then shook hands with Georges, whom she was meeting for the first time, and with the Americans. Joe saw her glimpse the gold hoop he wore in his left ear, and her slight frown.
“How are you, Mamma?” Lorenzo asked, in English.
“Alright,” she said. “Same as usual.”
Then she asked him, in Italian, why he was speaking to her in “American.” Lorenzo explained that Joe, whose grandparents were Sicilian, knew Italian but that his “friend” Mark didn’t.
“We are going to mix the languages a little bit today, if you don’t mind. You studied English, so now you can use it.”
Maddalena shrugged. She looked mildly interested when Lorenzo mentioned Joe’s Sicilian grandparents but didn’t ask about them.
“I no speak-a da Eeenglish!” a jovial voice cried.
They all turned to see Gaetano, smiling as he strode toward them.
“Papuccio!” Lorenzo exclaimed. Father and son hugged. Maddalena excused herself and went to the kitchen to check on the food.
“Your mother is preparing a fabulous pranzo,” Gaetano said. “Tell your friends they are in for a big treat.”
Lorenzo translated for Mark, who said, “No vetto la hora,” mangling the Italian for “I can’t wait.”
Laughing, Lorenzo said, “Almost, baby, almost.”
Joe and Mark both were struck by the resemblance between their friend and his father—the same stocky physique, the same large brown eyes, the same broad, almost African nose. Although Gaetano was clean-shaven, it was evident from his five o’clock shadow that he could grow a beard as thick as his son’s. The five men chatted amiably in the spacious salotto of the Vitales’ sprawling apartment. Joe complimented Gaetano on the beautiful home. He surmised that the decorative pieces came from the family’s store and Gaetano proudly confirmed that some of them did. When Joe expressed particular admiration for a brightly colored, fish-shaped ceramic bowl filled with candy, Gaetano explained that one of his workers, a “very talented boy,” had designed and made it.
Gaetano turned his attention to Georges. He told him it was a pleasure to finally meet his son’s “friend.” He asked about his health, his job, and how he liked Sicily.
“It must have been terrible to have to leave your beautiful country,” he said.
“Yes, it was,” Georges said solemnly. “I still have some of my family there. I hope to get them out and bring them here soon.”
Gaetano squeezed Georges’ shoulder.
Maddalena announced that lunch was ready and they followed her to the kitchen, where a long table had been set.
“I hope you don’t mind eating in the kitchen,” Gaetano said. “The dining room is too formal.” Pointing to the window, he said, “You can see the town square from here. The people, coming and going…”
“La vita quotidiana,” Lorenzo said.
Gaetano sat at the head of the table, with Maddalena to his left, Lorenzo to his right, Georges next to Lorenzo and Mark and Joe seated together on the left, Mark closest to Maddalena. A young woman suddenly appeared, carrying a silver soup terrine.
“This is Giulia,” Lorenzo said. “She helps my parents in the house.”
“Ciao, Giulia,” he said.
“Ciao, Giulia,” Georges, Joe, and Mark said.
Giulia smiled shyly and set the terrine on the table. “Ciao,” she said, in a near-whisper.
The meal began with zuppa di cucuzza, a soup made with the long, mild-tasting green squash beloved by southern Italians, cooked in a delicate chicken broth.
“Do you American Italians have this?” Gaetano asked Joe.
“Yes, my mother makes it.” In his family, the vegetable was called “ga-gootz,” and he decided not to tell his hosts that.
After the soup came spaghettini, with fresh cherry tomatoes, sautéed red onion, and shredded basil, with grated caciocavallo on top. That course was followed by roasted chicken that had been marinated in olive oil, the juice of blood oranges, rosemary, bay leaves, and a hint of garlic. There were contorni, side dishes, as well—potatoes pan-roasted with garlic and anchovies and sprinkled with chopped parsley, and the green cauliflower that Sicilians called vruccoli, with briny black olives. Everything was delicious; Lorenzo certainly had not exaggerated when he praised his mother’s cooking to his American friends.
Throughout the meal Gaetano was expansive, joyful; he joked, laughed a lot, and got louder the more wine he drank, while Maddalena, though polite to her guests, remained reserved and watchful. Joe imagined her regarding her students the same way, alert to any potential misbehavior that she would have to correct.
When they finished, Giulia cleared the table. She returned with coffee and a tray filled with cannoli.
“Oh my God, Mamma, you made cannoli, too? With the fresh sheep’s milk ricotta?”
“Yes. That’s how I always make them.”
The cannoli disappeared in a flash, with Lorenzo, Gaetano, Joe, and Mark each eating two. Georges declined a second helping. “My figure,” he said, which earned him what Joe thought was a disapproving look from Maddalena. Like the one she’d given his earring.
When they finally got up from the table, Gaetano said that he wanted to show the guests his library. They followed him into a high-ceilinged room that was a bibliophile’s dream—four walls of dark wooden bookcases crammed with leather-bound volumes, a ladder on wheels for reaching the upper shelves, and Gaetano’s writing desk, a five-drawer, wood piece that looked to be a very well preserved antique, set in the middle of the room. A map of Sicily, with the place names in Latin, was inlaid on the top of the desk.
The books covered a broad range of subjects reflecting Gaetano’s varied interests—history, philosophy, the natural sciences, and literature. He was particularly proud of his first editions of books by Sicilian authors, Verga, Capuana, Pirandello, Pitre, di Lampedusa, Bufalino, Vittorini, Sciascia. When Joe said that he had recently read Il Gattopardo— in English, he added, apologetically—Gaetano gently removed di Lampedusa’s novel from the shelf, and caressing the cover, showed it to him.
“You must read it in Italian someday,” he told Joe.
“Have you seen the film?” Gaetano asked.
Joe said that he had.
“A botch,” Gaetano said. “Visconti didn’t film the entire novel and he was more interested in décor than history.”
Joe didn’t agree but he nodded anyway.
Gaetano then turned his attention to Georges.
“I have something I think will interest you.”
He pulled a slender volume from one of the shelves and opened it.
“Look,” he said to Georges, gesturing to him to come closer.
“Do you know about Sicilian Arabic poetry?”
Georges, registering surprise, said he did not.
“Oh, my dear,” he said to Georges, wrapping his arm around his guest’s shoulder, “let me tell you a little about it.”
“Sicily, as you may know, was an Arab country for more than two centuries. Everyone talks about the Greeks and what they left us. But I find the Arab history just as interesting. Maybe even more.”
“These poems,” he told Georges, looking at him intently, as if there were no one else in the room, “were translated by Michele Amari, in the Ottocento. Before that, hardly anyone knew about them.”
“The greatest of the Arab Sicilian poets,” he continued, “was Ibn Hamdis, who was from Siracusa. Or possibly Noto, no one knows for sure. But definitely this part of the island. He went into exile while he was still young, when the Christians conquered Sicily, but he never forgot his homeland.”
Gaetano paged through the book until he found what he was looking for. Then he began to read aloud.
I remember Sicily, as agony
Stirs in my soul remembrances of her.
An abode for the pleasures of my youth, now vacated,
Once inhabited by the noblest of people.
For I have been banished from Paradise,
And I long to tell you its story.
“Beautiful,” Georges said. “But very sad.”
“Yes, as poetry of exile always is,” Gaetano replied.
“And here you are,” Gaetano said to Georges. “An Arab who has ‘returned’ to Sicily.”
“Do you miss Lebanon, like Hamdis missed this island?”
“Yes,” Georges said, his voice suddenly tremulous. “Beirut is like a paradise. Or it used to be.”
Gaetano nodded sympathetically, closed the book, and hugged Georges.
Joe and Mark exchanged looks.
“I wish I had another copy so I could give one to you,” Gaetano said. “It’s a rare book, and it’s precious to me. But maybe the next time you come, you can spend more time and read it at your leisure. We could do it together, you read the Arabic, so I can hear you speak that wonderful language, and I will read the Italian, which is lovely but I am sure not as beautiful as the original.”
Gaetano, Joe and Mark noticed, actually batted his eyes at Georges, like Lorenzo had done, but in a camp way, in the Land Rover, when they were singing along to Bonnie Tyler. Gaetano really was being flirtatious. Joe had been skeptical of some of Lorenzo’s stories about his father, including the one about the phone call intended for Gaetano that he had answered. And two gay uncles? But after watching their friend’s father flirt with his son’s boyfriend, all doubts were dispelled. Joe even felt a little sympathy for Maddalena, and he wondered how many Sicilian women ended up in arrangements like hers. But at the same time, he couldn’t help feeling some malicious satisfaction as well. Because he knew what she really felt about gay men—the quick disapproving look she’d given his earring paled in comparison to her remark, which Lorenzo had ill-advisedly passed on to him, when he told Maddalena that Joe and Mark had been together fifteen years: “Schifoso.” Disgusting.
Lorenzo had meant well; he wanted his mother to understand that being gay didn’t mean being condemned to a lonely life, an empty existence devoid of the pleasures and comforts of a good marriage. But why did he have to tell Joe that his and Mark’s relationship disgusted his mother? Did he actually want his friends to dislike her? Or, did he believe, at some unconscious level, that maybe she was right? Lorenzo and his motivations could be puzzling, even mysterious. He claimed not to be devout. He said he was Catholic, but “not in the way the Pope would approve.” Yet his apartment was full of what Mark called “Catholic tchotchkes”—holy cards, crucifixes, figurines, images of the Madonna and various saints. He admitted that he had accompanied Maddalena on a “pilgrimage” to the shrine in Puglia dedicated to Padre Pio, the long-deceased priest beloved among southern Italians for his purported miracles. When Joe called Pio a “fraud” and his following a “reactionary cult,” Lorenzo got angry and told Joe, “There’s more in life than your Marxist rationalism.”
“Maybe,” Joe replied. “But I’ll take it over Catholic irrationality.”
Disagreements between Lorenzo and Joe, mostly about religion and politics, would occasionally flare up. But at this point, early in their friendship, they were not as sharp as they would become. He was grateful to Lorenzo for introducing him to Sicily, to the island’s splendors, to his friends, to places and experiences he and Mark might never had had as ordinary tourists. On this trip, Lorenzo had been their Virgil, their guide to Sicily’s gay sexual underground and to its tiny, embattled gay community. They both respected him for his courage and integrity, for his coming out in a hostile culture and refusing the hypocrisy that culture demanded of him: you can be “that way” but….
A few days before the lunch with Lorenzo’s parents, Lorenzo took Joe and Mark on a day trip to Siracusa. They found a hill with a spectacular view of the ancient city and spread out a blanket. They ate the panini they’d bought in Catania, and, after eating, sprawled out on the blanket, surrendering to the lassitude of a hot summer afternoon. After a while Lorenzo got up, took his camera from its bag, and started shooting. Joe opened his eyes and saw Lorenzo aiming the camera at him.
“You really blend into this landscape,” he said. “I really think you belong here!”
Joe was flattered. But he knew it wasn’t true, and he thought maybe Lorenzo did, too. Joe might look like he fit in Sicily but he doubted he ever could. He was too much of a New Yorker, a left-wing, atheist New Yorker, and, as he admitted to himself, much too American. Now, while he and Mark spent an afternoon with Lorenzo and his parents, that feeling recurred. The Vitales presented a perfect picture of “traditional” Sicilian family life, la famiglia cristiana, the long-married, loving husband and wife, house-proud yet unpretentious, and their dutiful son. That image reminded Joe of what Springsteen, in that woeful song about the breakup of his first marriage, called a “brilliant disguise”—but an unconvincing one. Gaetano flirting with his son’s lover exposed its falsity; it was embarrassing, even pathetic. And another word came to mind: schifoso. Then, as soon as that thought occurred to him, he reproached himself for being as harshly judgmental as Maddalena.
They said their goodbyes in the early evening. Gaetano wanted to show Georges and the Americans his store but Lorenzo begged off— “Another time, papuccio, we have a long drive.” Gaetano was disappointed but didn’t argue.
As the four walked to the parking lot, Joe asked, “Lorenzo, does your father cruise all your boyfriends?”
“He was flirting with Georges like crazy!”
“No, don’t be silly, that’s just his way, he is a friendly and affectionate guy.”
Mark laughed. “Please! He was coming on to him!”
“Okay, yes, you’re right,” Lorenzo said. “It was so obvious?”
“Yes!” Joe and Mark said, in unison.
Lorenzo unlocked the doors of the Land Rover, turned to Joe and Mark, and said, “Come figlio, come padre.”
George DeStefano is an author, journalist and critic living in Long Island City (Queens, NYC). He has contributed features, reviews, essays, and opinion pieces to a wide range of print and digital publications including The Nation, Film Comment, Newsday, Gay City News, The Advocate, Cineaste, In These Times, The Italian American Review and Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and online publications PopMatters, The New York Journal of Books, Rootsworld, and La Voce di New York. He is currently researching a book about the Sicilians of New Orleans, whose importance to the history, culture, and unique flavor of my second favorite American city isn’t fully appreciated outside the Crescent City.