Private

by Laura Mason

"I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy."

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Thanksgiving, 2000:

"We're thankful today that the whole family is healthy and together here, with enough food to eat and a warm roof over our heads. Amen." Uncle Vito's voice was weaker this year, but as the eldest Vecchio man he still said grace on holidays and sat at the head of the table. On Thanksgiving, that was a very full table. There were 25 Vecchios eating at the family house today, the children at their own table and 18 adults in the dining room.

The first plate was about a third of the way around the table when Aunt Ro started. "So, Francesca, this is the new boy friend. I sure hope he doesn't turn out to be like Johnny."

Fraser was grateful he wasn't the focus of attention this year. Last year the holiday had been spent blushing in discomfort. Ray moved in with him in October, and almost two months later they'd still been the hot family discussion topic. The comments had been rude though not hostile, outlandish, embarrassing -- and terribly funny once they were home and alone, in some cases. Ray predicted that night that they'd never again face such a family gauntlet.

Evidently Ray had been right. Today everyone was focused on Doug and Frannie, and even the one question that made Fraser blush wasn't really about him. "So what does Doug think of our family's gay couple?" Cecilia asked, and was instantly reassured that Doug didn't have a problem with Benton and Ray. Evidently, none of them felt compelled to disapprove of their relationship. True, some of them probably believed Ray and Fraser were headed straight to hell, but they didn't bring it up at dinner. Then again, no one discussed politics or religion at Thanksgiving, either. Except, of course, to find out if Doug was a Catholic.

Fraser still couldn't believe how many family stories were told and re-told at every gathering, and how very direct the Vecchios could all be in asking questions. When he was young he'd envied some of the large families his schoolmates took for granted, and wished he wasn't an only child. But listening to the Vecchio cousins and Ray's siblings rake up old memories, he thought perhaps the privacy of his own upbringing -- which he'd never really valued at the time -- was priceless. He'd had his own room, his own books. He'd never had to hide a journal from a baby sister, as Maria said she did.

"Of course, back then I thought Maria was interesting. That's before she became a professional mother," Frannie laughed.

"Yeah, well I remember when you thought you were a combination of Greta Garbo and Meryl Streep, Frannie," Maria replied. The table laughed and Uncle Sol asked for more stuffing. Frannie looked at Doug, who'd stopped eating for the moment. He sat back, going into his storytelling mode.

"Fran is dramatic. On our second date, she was more interesting than the movie." Doug launched into the tale -- he was great with jokes -- and Frannie thought it was wonderful that he could laugh at himself.

***1981: The costume was lovely, though Frannie wished it were a little sexier. She was an actress now and she should look the part. God knows Ma wouldn't let her wear anything halfway normal. Well, Pop was responsible for that, too. He hated to see her wear makeup, and that time she stuffed her bra he really went crazy.

But now that she'd been cast in this play, the whole school -- the whole neighborhood -- would see how glamorous and mature she was. Pop would have to let her behave like a grown up. She touched her hair one last time, then gathered her props and went to wait for her cue.

Being the maid in "Curse You, Jack Dalton" wasn't a great role -- the melodramas were funny, not dramatic. But Frannie was only a freshman, and she'd managed to get a speaking role. There would be bigger and better roles each year, and musicals. The kids in the drama clique would all come to admire her, too.

The future -- well, Ray said she should go to college like he was doing. Maybe, but she'd rather be in Hollywood earning lots of money. She imagined again how great it would be to have her own apartment, where she wouldn't have to listen to her father and Ray fighting, or put up with sharing the bathroom with Maria. She'd buy a bigger, newer, nicer house for Ma and Pop, maybe someplace warm. They'd be so thrilled to have a famous daughter. She'd be loved by everyone -- all the kids who weren't so nice would wish they'd been her friend.

Frannie stepped out onto the stage carrying a tea tray with four cups and saucers, a pot, and the serving pieces. The tray was plastic, painted to look like silver, so it wasn't too heavy. And the teapot was empty; the audience wouldn't be able to tell everyone was just pretending to drink.

As she approached the table where she was supposed to set down the tray, Frannie's shoe caught under the edge of the rug. She lost balance and fell, her tray flying all the way forward, into the empty orchestra pit, and everything on it was scattered and broken. She was lying flat on the stage floor, her maid's outfit now dirty and her stockings ripped.

The audience, ready for a comedy, roared in laughter.

She made it through her scene and the five lines of dialogue she had to recite. Then Frannie was in the girls' restroom, crying, for most of the show. By the time Ma found her at the end of the night, she'd managed to wash her face and change clothes. The whole family complimented her performance, and she couldn't confess that her clumsiness hadn't been a planned part of the show, done for laughs.

That night, in her bed and out of tears at last, she realized her Pop was right. He'd always pinch her cheek, then say "Get married young while you're still pretty, Fran. You need a man to take care of you." She'd thought she could take care of herself, despite her average grades. She thought she could be loved by everyone. But it wasn't true. ***

"So I sat there, sticky and covered in Coke, for the rest of the night." The table rumbled with laughter for just a moment, and Frannie smiled at Doug, who was once again shoveling down food just as fast as the rest of the family. "So, I figured if he didn't let ice down his pants bother him, then meeting this family wouldn't drive him away either." The table laughed again and Doug winked at her.

Maria cut up more turkey and carried her plateful over to the kids' table. Only seven kids -- she must be crazy, but she really looked forward to the day there'd be some kids of Frannie's. Doug seemed like a nice enough guy. Then Maria wouldn't be the only one repeating all of their mother's advice, sounding more like her every day. Maria wouldn't be the only one struggling to work part time to keep the kids in shoes and decent clothes, and still have time for library trips and class projects.

Maria thought of how much baby furniture and clothing she still had in the attic for Frannie's kids, and she sighed again at the unfairness of being the older sister. She'd always got the short end of everything. She'd had to mother Frannie as they grew up. It was always "take your sister along." While Maria had only older brothers, Frannie had a sister to show her how to put on makeup, give her advice about dating and guys, someone to help her get birth control pills.

***1985: "I now pronounce you man and wife."

Maria smiled at Tony as he kissed her, but her heart was breaking. She'd spent years imagining her wedding day. Not standing at City Hall like this, in the only dress that fit her ever-growing body. No flowers -- of course Tony wouldn't think of flowers; Tony hadn't given her flowers for prom, something she thought everyone knew you were supposed to do.

Why had she continued dating him? Maria liked Tony well enough, she supposed. They'd known each other a long time now. Sleeping with him wasn't the brightest thing she'd ever done, but after dating for almost four years it seemed stupid not to have sex, really. And they'd been really careful.

Ma was going to cry. Pop would kill her if he could. In a flash of gratitude she realized she no longer had to live under his roof. At 22 she would finally have her own home. Okay, so it was just Tony's little studio apartment. Still, it was better than going home. Since Ray's marriage her father's drinking hadn't improved, and he was evil-tempered whether drunk or sober now as his health failed. Every weakness just angered him more.

She thought about poor Frannie, left alone with Ma and Pop. But Fran was going to junior college now, and she had a job. She might even be able to find a girlfriend to share an apartment. Maria would talk to her about it.

Tony did help her into the car and she kissed him again, grateful. He'd been the one to offer to marry her. He wasn't some slimebag who'd make her get an abortion. He had an okay job, and he'd find a better one now that he had a family. She'd help him.

"Maria, I got to get back to work now. You wanna go home?"

"Sure, Tony. I've got to pack up my stuff, and tell Ma what we've done. Might as well face the music."

She packed two bags while her mother sobbed and her father ranted. Then her mother brought her the "hope chest" items she'd made and set aside years ago -- embroidered pillowcases, a crocheted baby set, and a crocheted comforter. And Maria sat down on her bed and cried, too.

When she found out Tony lost his job for leaving in the middle of the day to get married, she had no tears left. They spent that night at his apartment, and the next day she helped him pack his clothes and move into her room at the Vecchio house.

Even when she lost the baby two months later, they stayed there.***

Maria moved back to her place at the dining room table and squeezed her mother's shoulder as she passed her. Ma was a saint; it wasn't so bad to sound like her.

Myrna Vecchio smiled at her eldest daughter, then at the whole table of happy, talkative, very hungry relatives. She'd refilled the gravy boat twice now, and the stuffing was all gone. But they'd slowed down now, so she knew there was enough food. She moved into the kitchen again to start the fancy coffee maker Raimondo and Benton gave her.

Francesca looked happy with Doug, and she prayed that her baby had finally found the right man. She still worried about Maria and Tony, though she thought their marriage was stronger now than ever before. As for Raimondo -- well, Benton was a lovely man, so honest and hard-working. She knew if either of her daughters had brought him home, she'd be overjoyed. And she could see their happiness.

Still, she worried. About whether it was a sin or not, and about their safety when so many people hated homosexuals, or anyone different.

***1958: "I forbid you to see that boy!"

Myrna cried a little harder at her father's shout. She didn't understand why it was so terrible that Kevin wasn't Italian. They'd never even dated. She was only 16 and her father wouldn't let her go out alone with a boy yet. So they'd only seen each other at school, and then at the party at Sally's house tonight.

She knew she couldn't marry a non-Catholic, but the Potockis were good Catholics. She didn't understand why it mattered that his grandfather came from Poland, while her father came from Italy. They were Americans.

And she loved Kevin. He was smart and funny and so good-looking. Like someone from the movies. Though she'd been named for a movie star, Myrna knew she didn't look like one. She was dumpy and her nose was too big. But Kevin was so handsome. Fair haired, not like the Italian boys. With eyes that were bright blue, so lovely.

Kevin offered to walk her home, and she didn't think that anyone would mind. It was dark out, after all, though it was only five blocks from Sally's house.

When they crossed Ashland she saw the boys hanging out in front of Vesuvio's, but she didn't think anything of it until they started yelling at her and Kevin. Myrna had never heard such foul language used in front of her, though she knew her father sometimes swore. Someone threw a rock at Kevin and he fell down.

Myrna ran to the nearest house, screaming for help. No one was home, but a window went up next door. When she asked for help, the window slammed down. The group of boys were taunting Kevin, whose face was bleeding, and then they started kicking and hitting him. Myrna ran over to try to stop them, but they easily pushed her aside. She tried again and was shoved hard, so that she fell into the street and hit her head on the pavement. She never heard the police car when it pulled up.

Her father and mother both came to pick her up at the station. Her mother cried over the bruise on her face, but her father was calm. Until they arrived home safely. Then he shouted at her for half an hour, saying it was all her fault for getting involved with a Polack.

Kevin was out of school for a month. When he came back, his face still had scars. Myrna met Sal Vecchio that month while Kevin was gone. Her whole family liked Sal, who was charming and very attractive, though he didn't compare to Kevin. Still, they began dating regularly, and if Sal drank every time they went out that didn't seem odd to someone who grew up with wine on the dinner table every night.

After graduation Myrna worked for six months in the neighborhood bakery. Sal was the only bright spot in her weeks, and when he proposed she was happy to accept.

She didn't find out her father had arranged their meeting until they'd been married ten years.***

Ray laughed at something Tony said and Myrna smiled. Her beloved son was happy, and she knew Benton would do everything possible to keep him safe. His blue eyes, so different from Kevin's, turned toward Ray.

"Benny's even got me watching hockey now on the television set we got last Christmas." Ray was talking with Tony about their apartment, Fraser realized. He'd been listening to Aunt Ro's inquisition of Doug and lost track of the other conversations. Well, there weren't that many. The children's table was still quite loud, but the adults were pretty much full and drowsy. The men at the far end were openly watching the television in the other room, leaning back in their chairs and ignoring everything else. Uncle Vito and Auntie Edie were dozing, or close to it. Maria, Francesca, and even Mrs. Vecchio looked like they were daydreaming.

"The best thing is there's always hot water, and no one barging in to brush their teeth, get linens, or ask me to taste the meatballs," Ray concluded, and Fraser smiled. He remembered the lack of privacy in this house when Ray was showering. Growing up, he'd never had to share a bathroom. Of course, now Ray climbed in the shower with him most mornings. But that was different, truly. He didn't mind sharing his day with Ray. Or his thoughts, dreams, ideas...

Maybe that was the point. Ray didn't mind sharing with him, either. Unlike children in a family, they'd made the choice to share their lives.

"Hey, Benny, you ready to go?" Ray's voice was fairly soft, and conversation continued around them.

"Yes, Ray, if you are." He rose and began saying goodbye to the family. After last year's commotion, it was reassuring that no one questioned their decision to work at the shelter again this year. After all, as Ray had pointed out, if Fraser had family in Chicago they'd have to split the holiday between households.

"Raimondo."

"Yes, Ma." Ray and Fraser both kissed Myrna.

"I expect you boys to be here tomorrow for leftovers."

"Aw, Ma, we've still got pasta from Sunday in the 'fridge." Ray was pulling on his long coat as he spoke, and his mother grabbed him and kissed him again before he was done.

"Tomorrow. I'll have everything packed and frozen for you to take home."

"Certainly, Mrs... Ma." Benton stooped to kiss her again, too, and had his cheek pinched softly. "Diefenbaker, it's time to go." The wolf climbed out from under the children's table, still licking his lips, and followed them out the front door of Ray's house. The house where Ray no longer lived but still paid the taxes, the insurance, and other living expenses for his mother.

Once they were on the road and the car was warming up, Ray removed his right-hand glove and reached across the seat to Fraser. "Happy Thanksgiving, Benny." The only reply was a tighter grip on his hand as they moved through the darkening streets.

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