I Have a Dream
Oh, cara, life is a mysterious ride, that's certano. I always knew I would cook; my mamma, my nonna, they were both great cooks. My uncle was a chef, so I knew when I was a little boy in Pescara that I would one day work with food. I didn't know the path it would lead me down or the amore I would find.
Meeting Illya was heart stopping. He looked so dangerous and at the same time, so lost. He had no grasp of cooking, not in the least. The simplest task of merely slicing a carrot or chopping celery was new to him. The first few weeks he struggled to keep up with us, trying to assimilare, to grasp, huge amounts of information. I liked his spirit, and admired his courage. For a man his age to decide to learn to cook, that was something else.
By the end of the first month, we were friends. Illya had been living in a hotel in the Castro and when my roommate, the swine, flunked out of Desserts and skipped town, he left me with his share of the rent and a phone bill that would have made Mussolini pale. Just on the off chance he was interested, I asked Illya and he agreed.
He moved in and by the end of the week, we were sleeping together. Not having sex, just sleeping together. The sex—that would have to come later. It was okay though, I wasn't in a hurry and it proved to be well worth the wait.
It took a few months and several bottles of wine before Illya finally sparso il suo coraggio, spilled his guts. His partner had found another, a woman, the bastardo, and Illya had left. Well, sort of left, for part of him still remained in New York. It made his drive, his constant need for motion, more understandable. If he didn't stop, he didn't have to think. If he didn't think, he wouldn't remember and if he didn't remember, then he wouldn't hurt. He never suspected I knew how many nights he'd lie in bed, awake, mourning what he no longer had, the redness of his eyes the next morning the only evidence.
I tried to comfort him; I tried to love him, but Illya wouldn't have it. The sex was great, don't misunderstand me, Illya is kind and considerate in bed, but my lover, never. I knew if I pushed, I would lose him and that I didn't want. I took what he offered me and made no demands upon his heart or soul.
We progressed through the program and when the internships came up, I was delighted that Illya and I would share a team with our chef. He very nearly killed us and I still don't know how Illya lived through the experience. I barely had the stamina to keep up and I'm almost twenty years younger than my friend and, unlike him, I was getting more than four hours of sleep a night. I am still amazed that Illya never cut off a finger in his stupor. Days off, almost unheard of, Illya would sleep, only sleep, unless there was a chance of taking on an outside event. How he did it is still beyond me, even today. It's a mystery how he survived.
Yet, somehow, the gods of cuochi scioccos, foolish cooks, were smiling down upon us and we both rightly took the title of master chef and started looking for our own spot, for it was obvious that we were meant to be together. By now, we'd come to an understanding—always friends, but never a couple.
The path to Jackson is still one of mystery to me. How we came to be standing in front of the small rundown building was confounding. The price that the owner was willing to sell it and the accompanying cardboard box he called a house for was beyond belief. We pooled everything we could and somehow managed to make the down payment by mere pennies. We had our restaurant, then came the rude awakening. Now what?
This is one thing that they don't really prepare you for in cooking school—the hell Chef put us through in class—it was nothing compared to what awaited us. Of course, we didn't know that. The first year, she was brutal. We scrimped and saved on everything from going without electricity and a phone in the house to buying everything we could at thrift stores. The one place Illya refused to cut corners was the food. He bought the best we could get our hands on. It didn't matter that we were living on leftovers from the restaurant and cereal the rest of the time.
Jesus was the first one to befriend us as we came to town and I don't think we would have made it without his help or that of his lovely bride. She made it her mission to feed us at least one good meal a week, providing you could tie Chef, as we now almost exclusively called Illya, down long enough to make him eat. The man was in perpetual motion, always working, bartering, trading, doing whatever he could to save a few pennies to plow back into Taste, as we christened her. He even started entering cooking competitions; he didn't care for the glory or the title, he had his eye on the prize money.
We finished our first year in business with an unprecedented two stars—that was almost unheard of for a new restaurant. And I watched Chef push himself even harder. At the time, I thought it was because he was ambitious, or committed. Now I know it was because he was scared. Too scared to stop for fear that he'd suddenly look around and realize how empty his life really was. He pushed himself hard so that when he slept, it was dreamless, it was a necessity.
We now had the glorious Roxanne and my beloved Rocky as part of our family; we paid them minimum wages and owed them our lives. On Sunday mornings, we would feed them and we would talk, a family as strange as one you could ever assemble, none of us sharing a heritage or a common upbringing, joined only by our love for food... and, I think now, our belief in Chef. All of us saw something there, knew he was going far and would take us with him.
And we weren't without good times. Don't mistake me, il mio amico, Chef, he has a wicked sense of humor that would surface at the strangest times. He knew how to keep us content and not make our burdens so heavy. He never asked us to do anymore than he was willing to.
The second year saw our third star and our reputation continued to grow. Chef worked hard to keep the costs down and to change the menu frequently to encourage our regulars. He bartered and traded his services, meals, whatever it took to keep our money local. And Jackson showed their appreciation to us by their constant support. Our fourth star arrived soon after.
Things were getting easier now. I was even drawing a salary. Chef said he was too, but I suspected differently. I moved out of the little house to give him some breathing space, hoping he'd at least slow down enough to start dating. No such luck, Chef just pushed himself harder and all I could do was shake my head and wonder where it was going to stop.
For all of Chef's cost cutting and scrimping, he did have one weakness, his... what do you call them...motocicli... of course... motorcycles. He bought his first one for next to nothing, wire and rust holding it together. When he wasn't slaving for Taste or sleeping, Chef was with his bikes. I would be walking to the house and hear him talking to them, as if they were old friends. A light banter, pauses for imagined responses, talking in a way I never heard him speak to anyone else. I think it was because he trusted the motorcycles to not break his heart, not betray his love. Everyone, they saw him as so strong, yet inside he was vetro rotto, broken glass, all shattered and sharp edged. He no longer trusted people with his heart and soul, truly a crime against humanity.
One night a year, Chef would steal away, find a quiet corner and drink himself into oblivion. At first, I thought it was because it was the day of his betrayal, something he was trying to wipe from his memory, but he joined our school right after his breakup and that was in the spring, not late fall. It was his ex-lover's birthday that he was celebrating, if you could call it that. The next morning, he would be in the kitchen as usual, but looking so bad that it made my stomach hurt. Then and there, I swore I would make the bastardo who had hurt my friend, my cara, so much pay for his crime. It was a safe vow, for it would never happen.
Then it did. One night, he walked into the restaurant and I watched the trasformazione. We tried to lighten the mood, joking, even taking bets on how long it would take Chef to toss him out. Instead Chef took him to his bed.
The next morning, a stranger had taken Chef's spot; I saw the man he must have been before, centered, content, fresh from a night of love. Part of me hated this man even more for being able to do what no one else could; another part of me loved him for bringing the light back to Chef's eyes.
Napoleon, he's not a man you can hate for long, he is generous and giving; the whole story of what transpired between them, I don't think anyone will ever know. Chef holds such things very close to his heart, the way he does his friends, the way he does his love. It took awhile, but I know his heart is safe once again. I see the commitment in Napoleon's eyes and I know he'll never leave. I can only hope Chef sees the same thing.
ABBA rules! I just had to get that out of my system first thing. You know how it is sometimes.
When I was growing up, I was going to be the next Michael Crawford—I was going to sing and dance my way into everyone's heart. Until my big break, I'd wait tables. It was easy work, I loved to talk with my diners and the money was good. It wasn't until I hit my mid twenties that I realized that my big break was my big bust and that waiting tables was probably as good as it was going to get for me.
No trouble, I had a good job in one of Sacramento's best restaurants. Trouble was, I lived in the foothills. I was born and raised in Jackson, never wanted to live anywhere else. Is that jacked up or what? I went to the university in Sacramento and got a degree in drama—that was helpful, let me tell you! Like wings on a chair. Unless you are going to teach, don't get a degree in drama or a Master's in Philosophy, because it doesn't really help. Unless you have the look a director is going for, all the training and all the talent in the world isn't going to make a difference.
So I switched gears and started to concentrate on my career as a waiter. My mother complained a bit, but she was delighted I was out of the theatre, where there were too many temptations for a young man of my interests, as she called my homosexuality. I think she truly believed if she actually used the word, her tongue would fall out of her mouth. So she pretended I was straight and I pretended I didn't care.
One day I happened to be taking a jog and I saw some activity around the old Watering Hole restaurant. Old Man Wilson had been trying to off-load that eyesore for forever. Next thing I know, the 'for sale' sign is down and I see these two guys working on the building. The blond guy, he was good looking and all, but it was the redhead that caught my eye. Tall and lean, with this afro that stretched from one end of the state to the other. I started to run by every morning, watching these two tackle everything from painting to re-shingling the roof to re-landscaping the grounds. By the end of the summer, these two had whipped that property into shape. And when I saw the 'help wanted' sign go up, well, I figured it couldn't hurt.
That was when I 'officially' met Illya and Matthew, well, Chef and Mattie as I would eventually call them. I didn't know I was meeting the man of my dreams, all I could think of was that it would be nice to have a job close to home. The pay was abysmal, but not having the commute would be heaven. I made sure I didn't burn any bridges with my old boss, just in case this didn't work out.
What can I say about Chef that hasn't already been said? Intense, focused, talented, yes, he's all that, but he's also fair, approachable, and a loyal friend. I watched our diners feast on filet mignon and lobster while he lived on cereal. We were always paid on time, he always had a moment to listen to us, and let's be real, he was sex in a chef's coat and checkered pants—there's a visual for you.
And he was so fucking talented when it came to cooking. I was amazed when Mattie told me he'd only been cooking for a few years. I found out that Chef had gone through a rough break up and had left the East Coast for California. I didn't know the details until much later and well after Napoleon appeared on the scene. I just knew Chef was one of the loneliest guys I'd ever met. At first, I thought he and Mattie were a couple, but they weren't. Chef never dated, hell, he never even flirted. I knew that he and Matt still did the occasional horizontal tango, but I think it was more out of desperation on his part than actual desire. Something he did to convince himself that he was still alive, taking no more pleasure from it than a thirsty man did a drink of water.
So, I made it my job to make him laugh. I sang, I danced, I flirted, and I served our customers like no one else could. Soon we were on the map, stars falling into our laps and with each one, we gained a stronger foothold. When most restaurants were struggling to make the five year mark, we had four stars behind our name and tattooed onto various parts of our collective anatomy and a reservation list from here to next Thursday.
Still, I worried about how long Chef could push like that. I'd come into their house some mornings, looking for this or that delivery invoice—this was when we never locked a door in Jackson—and he'd be asleep on the couch, still wearing his clothes from the night before, too tired to do anything more than kick off his shoes. The first time, I thought he and Mattie had had a fight, but no, Chef was just too tired to make it up the stairs. He was not a man just burning his candle on both ends; he was using a Goddamn flamethrower.
It was just as we started our fifth year that everything changed and not in a bad way. One night, this good looking three-piece suit arrived and with polish and flair, I put in his order. He asked me a bunch of questions, mostly about Chef. It wasn't until I went back into the kitchen that I realized the tailspin the suit's arrival had caused back there. It was Chef's ex-lover I'd been talking to and I felt my protective side flare up. I dropped a couple of words to the guys in the back, just in case we needed to remove the guy. Who could have guessed that it would take a crowbar and cold water to pry these two apart? Reminded me of Mamma Mia with the enthusiasm that Chef tossed himself back into that relationship.
I was worried, but everything seems to be okay. They got married, well, as married as a gay couple is allowed to be married in this state, a few years ago. It hadn't been all sunshine and basset hounds, but they both seem committed to making it work. Chef still works hard, but now his heart sings. He may not speak the tune, but you can see it in his eyes, his smile, his everything. I want Mattie and me to be like that, so much in love it hurts to look away from each other for even a minute. I want to know that my heart is as safe and as cherished as theirs are. I want to hear the music that never ends and the words that never stop sounding loving and kind. I want what Chef and Napoleon have—you can't blame a guy for wishing.