Content Warning for: really blurry, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nudity.
It was the last assignment of his undergrad. And Franco had no immediate plans to go for his MFA.
The Bridgeport Institute of Design had each student put a final project up to public criticism. During finals week, all the seniors set up in a closed-off wing of the Bridgeport Museum of Modern Art. For some, it was their only chance to get into any MoMA. For others, it was just a start.
Franco had spent the week sometimes popping in, just to get a look at what was set up. And earlier that morning, he had to hang up his own piece himself. He sure fared better there than Fernando, who tore his canvas in a horrible transport mistake. Or than Elise, who shattered one of the glass chess pieces to her full glass chess table.
By comparison, his work seemed modest. He got Gabby: a cash-strapped, fat psych student from Clallam State to pose nude for him. The rest of his identity was uncomfortable to display on a canvas. Or too unknown to. But Franco could easily fake having strong feelings about being fat. On a normal day, it didn’t phase him at all.
When night fell, he saw professors circling around to tear some poor students a new one. Franco started fidgeting in place. He wrung his hands, hoping that Professor Fresco was assigned to someone else. Outside of critiques, he was the most pleasant of men, but changed faces when it came time to judge.
He just wanted to graduate! Art school was fun and crazy, but Franco wanted to finally be the established, boring painter he dreamed of.
And if the sound of those kitten-heels was coming from Professor Salazar, well, she wasn’t much better than Fresco.
“Hey! I didn’t know we were sharing a night.”
It was Elise after all. They studied disciplines that were media apart, but got friendly during orientation way back as freshmen.
“You worried?” she asked him.
“Is that even a question?”
“Yeah…I dunno, but they like painters better here than glassworkers. Anyways, I didn’t know you had a little sister!”
“Wait, what? Where did you hear that?”
“She’s standing right in back of you, man.”
Samira was there only to smile at Annette. Annette clasped her hands and cooed in delight. “I can’t believe my baby boy is in the MoMA! And a good MoMA and not the crappy Terrebonne one.”
“Mum, can you try not ruining my chances?” But no amount of trademark grumping around could hide Franco’s fear. It opened his eyes wide.
“Well, you have the whole family for doing that,” Annette said. “They’re just lagging downstairs…nice friend you got there.” Elise gave a small wave. “Nice. Franco never talks about his friends here.”
“Oh…well, it’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Racket,” said Elise. Annette blushed at hearing that old name. “Aww shit, it looks like I have Fresco after all. We can catch up before the ceremony, Franco!”
“Yeah, we sure can,” he said.
He really didn’t want to.
Is there something symbolic about the left side’s missing king?
…yeah, of course!
Franco crossed his fingers. It would be nice for her to pass this too.
But he got no peace. Amy and Sinbad and Hannah and Julian materialized. And he loved them all, but only when leaving his school matters alone.
“Heeeey kiddo! I can’t believe you’re doing what I only dreamed of,” said Amy, as she gave a big and excited wave. And she had a point. Franco felt bad for the art teachers of the world. Everyone needed them, but it was a job that reeked of failure.
“It’s nice,” said Sinbad.
“Some of the color choices are rather…dark,” Amy said.
“Well, she was,” Franco said.
“Skin’s tricky. Funny enough, it’s why I like painting you guys. You don’t chew me out for using too pastel of a shade of blue.”
Hannah had a loose fist balanced on her hip. She looked down the stairs and bit her lower lip. But Franco just couldn’t keep his eyes off her. She wore a draping, cut-out dress that hung perfectly on her willowy frame.
At least the kids were behaving themselves. Julian had a lot to say about the art, at least on basic terms. He hung out in Amy’s painting room to do his homework and watch his mum’s work. Samira tended to not care as much.
“Franco! You’re my last one of the night.”
He turned around to find Professor Eric Barnes, a premiere painter out of Brew City. Once focusing on the struggles and joys of Black youth in his hometown, he found something more cushy. He then spent his middle-aged years teaching privileged kids from the coasts. And out of everyone, it was a relief to have him. If nothing else, he’d have the most sympathy for a fat Black woman looking down at an array of food.
“Oh, I’m honored to be,” Franco said, smirking at looking at his work. “Anyways, this is Everything’s Gluttony, done with oil paints on canvas.
“So you tried to take a gamble with your judges and tap into that ‘Black misery’ market, huh?”
“I…just happened to find her as a model. Honest.”
“I believe you, but the deeper I find the work, the easier I’ll rip it apart. I thought you’d remember what Oils IV was like.” He chuckled. Barnes was a lot more cuddly than that, even in the realm of critique. But a lump still formed in Franco’s throat. Every other class mattered too. But this was the life-or-death, graduating-or-another-semester moment of his studies.
Though god knew where that meaty pound against a palm came from.
Professor Barnes noticed it, and turned around only to recoil as he saw Annette punching the inside of her hand.
“I see you’re the one here to mess with my son,” she said. Amy and Hannah looked on in fear, or was that secondhand embarrassment instead? “Annette Waverly Racket…Franco’s mum.”
“Oh…uh, I probably should’ve guessed. Do you fight with your fists or your teeth?!”
“I do whatever works best.”
He turned towards Franco. “You know that I’m not the hardass of the group.” He looked over towards Mr. Fresco and Elise, the latter of whom looked like she was about to cry. “And this is a peaceful event.”
“I agree,” Franco said.
“So I’ll tell you where you went right…”
The verdict was a positive one, aside from criticism of his color choices. Even black skin needed more contrast in value. But there was no warning call telling Franco that he’d only walk at graduation. Or god forbid that he have to turn his 75-dollar robe back to them.
“I can’t believe that I have my very own college grad.” Annette wrapped an arm around him. It was after the ceremony at the WS Garden Stadium. Most of the other grads and their families left for touristy shit around Clallam, or to drink. One guy proposed, which was sweet to watch. “And that I have to wait another fourteen years for your little sister to do it.”
“I’m still high over it too,” Franco said. “You ready for this to be you soon, Hannah?”
She gave a shy grin. “Just two more years…wow.”
“You’ll be a beautiful grad,” he said. “So…I guess we have to leave like everyone else. Did you have anything planned, mum?”
“I was gonna play it by ear, but I’ve kind of always wanted to rent a boat and-”
Holy fuck, have you guys tried the Brunch and Beer special?
Seng was calling out to them, and the combination of the two caught Annette’s attention.
“Wait, is this a new acceptable way to get drunk before nighttime?” she asked.
“You bet it is. Well, it’s pretty new, but I was catching up with Betty from law school last night,” said Seng. “She recommended it. They have boozy pancakes and quiche-and-wine pairings…my god.”
“Holy fuck, forget about my kids! I’m coming with.” Annette ran off as fast as her heeled-boots allowed her to.
“That’s…that’s fine,” said Franco. “I guess I still have Hannah.”
The rest of them stayed by the arena for a few minutes longer. Samira dashed up to Franco to give him a hug. He hadn’t been home much that semester, due to his final workload.
“Is it true that photo teachers make you eat the darkroom chemicals?” she asked him.
Julian pouted. “Marty told me that when I said you go to art school,” he said. “And I thought that photos were cool but that scares me.”
“If you want the truth, one of the professors here makes you lick them once. I don’t know why either.”
“Do they taste salty or sour?” Samira asked. “I wanna try now!”
“When you’re older…and if they let into the program.”
“Alright…can we go now? Sinbad told us that we get to see some cool alien shit!”
“Why did mum teach you that word?” Franco groaned. “And no! We’re not…having a blast finding out more about us.”
Sinbad took a meek stance. “But I photocopied whatever evidence I had left…like those Polaroids. And just those.”
“And leave me with the kids and piss off our wife too?” Amy asked, with her arms crossed over her breasts. “It’s just…this was supposed to be a fun trip.”
“But Franco said once that he knew a guy-”
“I don’t care about Nico!” Franco snapped.
Even when in a huff, Franco could always find a support hand close to him.
Hannah pulled him in for a semi-embrace. “You can do what you want,” she said. “I was thinking going inside Butterfly Esplanade and saying hi to the bugs. It’s weird how we’ve never done that.”
Nothing would be wrong with a monarch butterfly tickling his face. Franco held on to Hannah for what seemed like minutes. What was 30 seconds or less, but he made his decision.
“You know what? Sinbad never gets to see the city. I’m gonna show him what he wants.”
If he could help it, Franco always ignored Mr. Bramato whenever he caught a glimpse of him. So they hadn’t spoken in over a year. But he was easy to pick out in a crowd, or in a park, and was a man of habit in many ways. Every Saturday afternoon, he parked himself on the grass at Marina Park. Nico always faced the sea while taking notes. Without fail, it was always with his trusty supplies: a backpack, several notebooks and binders, and two ripe bananas for a snack.
But the time Franco and Sinbad found Nico, he had finished his bananas and disposed of the peels. He still lay engrossed in his work, full of theory that an artist like Franco wouldn’t touch. And he had his dirty, bare feet in full view.
He walked up in front of Nico. “Hi…I hope you remember me?”
Nico looked up at Franco, with his deep-set brown eyes. “How could I forget Franco Racket?”
That would have been nice, but Nico leaped up and outstretched his arms for a hug. “I see you around the city all the time! God, it’s been forever since we’ve talked. Any fresh news?”
“Please, can we not?” Franco winced as Nico’s hands came within inches of him. “And it’s not that.”
Nico pouted. “But I’ve been patiently waiting for this for over a year.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just…well, I wanted you to meet my stepdad.”
Sinbad extended a hand. His sour face hadn’t quite sweetened. “Sinbad Takasugi. I haven’t heard much about you, but you might be able to answer a question for me.”
He took Sinbad’s hand, for one awkward shake. “Of course! I’m pretty much just math and faith and fringe science, but I have those down solid.”
“Yeah…look, I don’t know much about it, but my father might have seen some of the things you have.”
Nico laughed. “So why isn’t he here asking me?”
“Because he killed himself almost two decades ago?”
“Well, that’d do it,” Nico said. He bit down on one of his fingernails. “Oh, I think I can manage without him. You probably did your work beforehand.”
“As much as I can do,” Sinbad said.
“Maybe we can take a seat and check it out.”
They found a picnic table, so as not to ruin the copy on the wet grass. Nico’s mouth hung agape as soon as he opened up the folded paper.
“Dear Christ, I wish you told me about this sooner!” Nico said, as he swept back some of his shaggy grey hair. “Someone’s seen her in the flesh. And I thought it was impossible. When did he take these?”
“He put the dates on the back, so…1996? 1997?”
“Oh…I missed my chance. I was born around then.” He rubbed some nervous sweat off the back of his neck. “You guys probably don’t even know what I’m talking about…”
“…except for you, Franco. I totally see her nose in you,” said Nico. He had a beaming, parental smile as he spoke. “Is this too sensitive of a topic?”
“It’s just been a weird day for me,” Franco said. “I graduated and could have spent the day with my girlfriend, but no.” His face scrunched into a scowl. “Instead I’m with my stepdad and some…alien fucker!”
“Yikes, did you really get that impression?” Nico asked. “I was just shocked and amazed that night. And I’m the last guy to ask about relationships. They’re just not my thing.”
“I…I’ll live without your help,” said Franco.
Sinbad looked over his shoulder. “This is normal for him.”
“Hey, I remember being that age,” said Nico. “Sort of.”
“Can we just cut to the chase on this lady, though? You inflected like you know of her.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “It’s just a lot more…indirect.”
As he mentioned to Franco the year before, Nico grew up in the deserts of Tourmaline City. And while he left to study in Clallam as a teenage whiz kid, he always paid a visit back home during breaks. That’s where mum and dad and most of his siblings lived. That’s where the sunlight and vitamin D and secluded desert roads were too.
“So, if you’re ever in Tourmaline City…it’s this gorgeous golden place. And there’s this old ‘haunted’ gem mine near a wind farm. It’s right near the ruins of the old San Bernat Calbó cathedral, and it’s where every teen in the city loved to go to get stoned or blown. And for me, I hate the both of those, so I took it up as part of my running route. I’d tag the ruins, loop around the mesa, and go back home.”
“One of the things we all just kind of accepted was that the place as clearly visited. And even I accepted it for a while!”
“So, I was 16 when I was pressured into taking a hit of LSD and seeing your race by that beacon up in the hills here. So this was a couple years after the fact. I finally took up running in Tourmaline City again, and thought about my old route. Weren’t the ruins just a really cool place?”
“There is this white statue there, not unlike those at the beacon. And we know it’s separate from the ruins because it’s so stark and white and not yellowed by the sands of time at all. The figure is that of a gorgeous horned women, holding a world in her left hand and with a triumphant smile. It’s been there my whole life, and again, we just kind of accepted it as part of the weirdness of Tourmaline City.”
“But I saw something different that day, about her. Her corkscrew horns and graceful claws, the way her nose hooked, it was all like a fleeting glimpse of another space devil that I saw in this city. I know the one I saw in real-time wasn’t the one in the statue, as a lot of details didn’t add up, but the species must have been the same.”
“And I was…aghast.”
“She’s a repeated motif throughout a lot of the world, as I learned later,” Nico said. “In ruins and mystery temples throughout the world, you see the same triumphant figure with those same memorable features. And to loop back to the topic, your dad met that same woman in the flesh. The horns are the same, the nose is…I’m just surprised she isn’t smiling there.”
“I want to get down to real questions,” Sinbad said.
“And I want to ask how your dad knew her and that recently, but I think that’s just forever a mystery.”
“He wrote it down once, and it had to do with something his ex was doing something in Sverige or The Deutschland or somewhere in Europe. He traveled a lot. But my wife…censored the details. And I’d look like a fucking fool if I told the wrong story.”
“No, I believe you.”
“Is the government involved in this?”
“If they were, my sorry butt would be in jail,” said Nico. “I work on my own, and you know how much every government dislikes rogues. And I’m a private researcher. CLIT’s Bowen Foundation is private…just in case you ever want to make a donation.”
“Yeah, I’ll pass,” said Sinbad, as he got up from the bench. “Doubt his mum would really like you…or that he likes you either.” He shot a look at a moping Franco.
“Can we not try to blame me for this? It isn’t about Nico,” he whined. “It’s just…it’s a snag in my relationship.”
“It’s not a snag if it’s over a year long,” Sinbad mumbled. “Look, Nico, thanks for your time. I at least have some stories to tell my son if he asks me.”
“It’s my pleasure, really…”
Nico and Sinbad got into a deeper conversation. Like Emma, Nico’s two older brothers were in the Army too. It’s where he got his taste for fatigues. Like Harwood, Nico had a heaping chunk of Lebanese ancestry from his mum, though her family settled in Mexico a few generations prior. And Mrs. Tarif-Bramato had a couple of nasty stories about big sister Nadine Mansour Clay. She was president of the American Druze Council for a year and was a “loathsome bitch who hated homosexuals and Hispanics”.
It could have been intriguing to listen to, but Franco got out his phone. He wanted to call Hannah and join her at last.
“…and Nadine could have been better if she didn’t use her jacked-up son as some personal attack dog. Mum met her twice and was still scared out of her pants. And guess what? Being a Mexican citizen with a lesbian daughter just couldn’t be reconciled.”
“You mean Tarek? He loathed my dad. Gave him a black eye at her funeral…or so the lore says…”
Franco couldn’t care much about that lore. So why was it still feeling like a better choice?
A/N: So, when I first made Nico, I had no intention to him to appear beyond his initial appearance in Chapters 63 and 67 (since those bleed into each other). Hence, I felt pretty unperturbed about basing his face not so subtly off some real-life people I know. One of whom is dead and deserves better tbh.
Without that, this wouldn’t have turned into the “Nico Bramato’s Exposition Hour”. Because the more details I make up about him to distance him from his IRL faceclaims, the better I feel. So he’s a Sicilian/Mexican/Lebanese asexual man in his 50’s who loves the desert sun and morning runs and eating delicious fruit. Haven’t met anyone like him yet! 😛
And does this mean you’ll see more of Nico? He’s growing on me.
Before someone says “that’s bullshit” over Nico and his mum knowing Harwood’s sister: it was established in Chapter 8 that Nadine was involved in activism on her people’s behalf (albeit also being a big fucking bigot in other ways), and the Druze population in America is tiny. 63,000 people. It’s not a complete ass-pull to say “Harwood was half-Druze this whole time!” because I never specified what his mum was in an ethnic or religious sense (and Druze is both, the more you know!), aside from that she was originally from Lebanon.
Lebanese-Mexicans exist and aren’t even that rare, but I was unable to get any stats on Druze people in Mexico. Ah well.
The “American Druze Council” is not a real organization. I’d rather not try to slander the names of real-life orgs by putting them in a story like this.
The bit about darkroom chemicals was inspired by a real-life photography professor I knew. He’s a great guy but a little infamous for being a hardass and for tasting darkroom chemicals (though him making students do it is one of those dubious rumors). My mum took him a looooong time ago and was pretty shocked to hear people saying that about him.