Authors: Ginger Voight
VANNI: A Prequel
Book 4 of the Groupie Saga
© 2015 by Ginger Voight
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I know it’s been a long time since we’ve been together. Honestly, it feels like it’s been too long. Truth be told, I’ve missed you. A lot, in fact. We’ve been through a lot, you and me. And deep down I knew that our time together wasn’t over. I’ve just been waiting for the right moment to tell you some things that I’ve never had the courage to say before.
The scary question, for me at least, is… are you ready to hear them?
You should know that I’ve been thinking about you and all the time we shared together, when you took time out of your life to follow along with me as I rose to superstardom as the lead singer of the world-renowned rock band, Dreaming in Blue. I couldn’t have made it through all that stuff without you. I truly enjoyed that time we spent together, though I know that I drove you crazy more than once. I could be a bastard sometimes, and you were right to hate me. (Confession, I kind of hated me too.)
But what would you say if I told you that was only half of my story? That there was a lot that happened in my life that you never knew?
Truth is the story of how I became “Giovanni Carnevale, The Rock Star” started years before I first sang for you in that bar in Philadelphia. And I know you have plenty of questions of how I got to be the guy I was. After all this time, and after all the love that you’ve shown me over the years, I think I’m finally ready to share this side of myself with you. I feel like I can trust you. And I sure hope that you can trust me, too.
It’s not a pretty story, but you know me. I can’t make any promises that it will be a pretty tale, or a happy one. That’s not how it usually works with me.
What I can promise is that I will tell it honestly and unflinchingly. In the end, I hope that we will be closer than ever before.
So get comfortable, baby, right here in the crook of my arm. Let me share some things I’ve never had the courage to share. Because of how much you’ve believed in me and you’ve cared about me, I finally feel like I can.
See you at the end… which will take us right back to the beginning where we first met all those years ago. Maybe then you’ll understand why I did the things I did… and why I needed you as much as I did.
Bad boys aren’t born.
Brooklyn, New York
December 21, 2004
The loudly barked words attempt to rise above the din in the small but crowded Italian restaurant. Cynzia’s is a local landmark around Bensonhurst, a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn. The voices within those narrow brick walls often rise in a chorus of boisterous laughter and conversation, but Santino Amichi had never been shy about letting his voice be heard, particularly when he calls out for his indolent employees. “Joe!” he hollers again.
I chuckle to myself as I shake my head. That crusty old coot would never get it right. “How many times do I have to tell you, Santino? I won’t answer you if you don’t call me by my real name.”
The robust Italian leans over the window to glare my direction. “I did call you by your name,
,” he says, yet another installment of our long-standing argument how to properly pronounce my name.
I simply flash a brilliant white smile. “Call me that all you want. I’ll never answer to it. My name is Gee-oh-vah-nee. You might want to get it right, considering it’s going to be famous one day.”
Santino grunts as he pushes a couple of plates towards me. They’re overflowing with tantalizing pasta, with meatballs as big as a fist, steaming hot and covered in ooey, gooey cheese. “Famous. Right. Let me know when you can get an order right and we’ll talk. And put on your hairnet. I’m not telling you again.”
“I’m almost off,” I say, blowing off the criticism like I always do, with a disarming smile and good humor. These two things have been my saving grace through the years, particularly when I was a hell-raising teenager. I got into more trouble than I knew how to handle, and charm was often my greatest currency to get back out again. A guy’s got to have a good time, right? My philosophy has always been if I couldn’t find one, I’d make one.
Not a lot of fun can be had in the presence of a hairnet, I’m just saying. If my charm gets me out of trouble, my long locks often get me into it. The girls always love playing with each silky strand within their fingers, and I have never been one to deny the request. I started growing my hair in the fourth grade, to mimic all the popular rock bands I grew up listening to. Girls have always been a fan. Since I have always been a fan of girls, I decided to keep it long after the hair phase had passed.
Santino doesn’t understand this, which is why he constantly threatens me with his clippers. “I’m gonna give you a proper haircut one day, Joe-vanni,” he’d say.
These are empty threats mostly. I’ve worked at Cynzia’s for almost five years, with my hair intact, thank you very much. It’s a small victory and I’ll take it.
I mean, sure. I could be depressed about working at a minimum wage job, serving at a restaurant in the neighborhood, living from paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes not even then. But I have plenty of dreams to keep me warm at night. The way I see it, a boy named Gee-oh-vah-nee was born to entertain big plans and even bigger dreams.
So what if I haven’t gotten as far as I wanted by the time I turned twenty-six? It’s a late start for someone trying to break into the music industry and I know it. A star needs a hook, a gimmick, something that makes him stand out from the crowd. I just haven’t found mine yet.
Truthfully, I haven’t had much of a chance to look for one. Life doesn’t always leave a whole lot of room for dreams, especially the older we get. I’m just like any other guy, just trying to pay my rent and survive from one day to the next. I’ve done the garage band thing. I’ve done the bar singer thing. It didn’t pay for shit, and I couldn’t find anyone to share my groove.
Sadly this means more time spent on Plan B. People always tell us to have a Plan B, since only a small fraction of folks can make Plan A happen for real. People who tell me to have a Plan B rarely understand how painful Plan B really is. The harder I work to make ends miraculously meet, the more out of reach these big dreams seem, and nothing depresses me more than that.
But I’m undeterred. Something way deep inside me drives me to keep chasing that dream, even when all odds are stacked against me that I’ll never make anything of it.
Frankly that’s part of the appeal.
Let’s face it. Statistics are not my friends. I’m not the first boy who fancies himself a rock star. Bars across the country are filled with frustrated singers and musicians who will probably never see the light of day. Only a scant percent ever make it. I know that. All evidence suggests that I’ll still be schlepping hot plates for bupkis well into the future.
But the dream won’t be denied. It pesters me like a splinter under the skin, especially on my birthday of all days. This isn’t just a reminder of where I’ve been. It offers a glimpse of where I’m was going. I’m still young and still primed to grab life by the balls. And no grumpy boss, no restaurant full of demanding patrons, and certainly no hair net, is going to dampen my enthusiasm.
I’m in good spirits when I clock out that evening. Santino still yells at me as I unwind the dirty white apron from my hips and head towards the back to change. My coworker, Alicia, catches up with me near my locker.
“Happy birthday, Vanni,” she says with that sweet, hopeful smile she always wears when I’m around.
I can’t help but indulge her with a smile of my own. It gives her a thrill and I know it, and it’s a pretty harmless way to make her day. “Thanks.”
“Big plans tonight?”
I’m still grinning as I sit down on the bench to change out of my ugly, slip-resistant work shoes. “Yeah, sort of. My aunt always throws me a big surprise party, though it stopped being a surprise by the time I was seventeen.” My voice catches somewhat. “It’s the first one without Mama, so I’m sure she’ll overcompensate.”
Alicia sits next to me on the bench, closer than proper manners might dictate. Immediately I’m on guard. I know that Alicia Amichi has had her eyes on me from the minute we met five years before. She was only twelve then, so her instant crush was a lot harder to hide. In the years since, her hero-worship of me has been the well-known secret of Cynzia’s, which often includes an endless line of teasing at my expense. Thanks to my well-known philandering ways, the words “shotgun wedding,” have been uttered more than once.
Personally I think that’s why old Santino never misses an opportunity to bust my balls. His passionate daughter grows lovelier and bolder by the day. I figure I’ve got a year left before I’m either betrothed or Santino will find a brand new use for that nasty old hairnet, namely tying up my junk and whacking it right off with his trusty meat cleaver.
I certainly can’t blame him. I can tell by the look on her face that her nerves are on fire just sitting next to me. If I were a different man, one who might take advantage of a seventeen-year-old girl, then Santino would be well within his rights to deal with it. If a guy like me got next to my daughter, I’d break out the meat cleaver too.
“Maybe I could stop by or something,” she suggests with that same hopeful, doe-eyed stare.
I cock my head to the side. “Your dad would have my balls.”
She shrugs off my concerns. “You know Papa. His bark is way worse than his bite.” I laugh at the visual. “Besides. I’m almost eighteen.”
I lean close to run a fingertip along the curve of her slender nose. “Almost,” I agree. It’s a very important word. I haven’t dated anyone under eighteen since I’ve been able to drive, and I have no plans to start now.
“Besides,” I add with a smirk I can’t control, “Lori is going to be there.”
Alicia immediately makes a face, which makes me chuckle. I kiss her forehead. “See you tomorrow, kiddo,” I promise before hopping up from the bench and heading out the back door.
Cynzia’s is roughly six blocks from the brownstone I share with my great aunt, Susan Faustino. The house itself was built in the 1930s, in a neighborhood that became home to many Italian-Americans throughout the early 20
century. Susan has lived in that cozy, three-bedroom, two-story home from the second she was born, and every tiny detail is a proud testament to her long life there. From the tchotchkes on the mantle to the lovingly embroidered doilies on the furniture, every square inch of the place is an extension of my dynamic great-aunt Susan. Since she has never married, there has never been any need to move. Instead she took care of her parents there until they both passed away by the 1990s. When my mother, Rose, and I hit hard times in Philadelphia eleven years back, she was the first to offer us a place to stay.
We had been bouncing around in rat-trap apartments and tenement housing back in the day. Strangely, the minute I walked into Susan’s cozy brownstone, I knew for the first time in my whole life, I had a home.
Some things you just know in an instant.
Aunt Susan has always been just as welcoming as her old house. We’re talking about woman who has watched the neighborhood change and grow around her for seven decades, which makes her a cornerstone for our community. Even at seventy-one, she is still active in the church she’s attended since birth. I always thought she was a frustrated nun at heart, though she had dropped that particular pursuit at seventeen. No one knows why. It’s a secret she’ll take to her grave. But it is safe to say that no one I know is as devout as Susan Faustino. Her passion has never been for a man, or even another woman. No, her only true passion was and is music. She has taught generations of kids how to play the piano and sing in the choir, right in her homey front room.
I’m blessed to say that this includes me. When I showed up at her door in 1994, six feet of gangly attitude at the ripe ol’ age of fifteen, she used music to turn me around before I could happily traipse down the one-way road to ruin. Thanks to the crowd I was running around with at the time, that was a legitimate concern.
I knew within an afternoon that she’d never put up with my shit, which was a revelation. My mother, Rose, was a saintly woman who had given her all to be both mother and father to me after my father skipped out on us. I was just a toddler then, so there’s no question that her burden had been heavy for a long, long time. I knew that she carried a lot of guilt, both for picking the wrong kind of man to father her child, as well as the inability to make him change or stay once I was in the picture. She hadn’t been much of a disciplinarian as a result.
Susan changed all that. There are rules to live in Susan’s house. I went from running around the Philadelphia streets at all hours to having a curfew. I couldn’t cuss, which I learned the hard way after boldly using the worst curse word I could think of to back her down. She promptly washed my mouth out with the worst tasting homemade soap she could concoct.
I also learned to contribute to the household almost immediately. She had me mowing lawns and walking dogs from the moment we moved in. These are usually favors for the members of her church who are old or infirm to do some things for themselves, things she still does to this day.
By the time I was old enough to get a “real” job that paid, I was already in the habit of spending huge chunks of my time in the service of other people. As a result I think I’m a better worker than most, no matter what old Santino might say. Sure I am prone to daydream, but I think that’s true of most people who long for a day we don’t have to work menial jobs just to keep a roof over our heads.
Fortunately Susan’s brownstone was paid off even before she took possession of it, so our needs have always been relatively few. Then Mama got sick and everything changed. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, much like my grandmother before her, we scrimped and saved every penny to get her the best treatment we could afford.
That was the day I went to Cynzia’s for a job. I’m proud to say I haven’t missed one day since.
I credit Susan entirely for that work ethic. Hell, I credit Susan for just about everything. My mother, God rest her soul, was the heart of me, who taught me compassion and selflessness and unconditional love.
Susan is my spiritual mirror through and through.
I wear a smile as I take the concrete steps two at a time to reach the front door. The narrow entryway is quiet and dark. I have to laugh to myself. We go through this ruse every single year. The non-surprise of it is more of a tradition than the party itself. I had legitimately feigned surprise the first few years to humor her, but eventually it became the running joke. I have to get creative with my surprise faces now, because every single time they jump out at me, someone snaps a photo. Susan has kept every single one of those shots in a photo album that she always threatens to show my kids someday. I tell her I may not have any kids. She in turn threatens to once again wash my mouth out with soap.
I head to the homey kitchen in the back, where Susan and members from her church, neighbors and my new girlfriend, Lori, lay in wait. The minute I hit the light, everyone pops out from their hiding places, cheering, “Surprise!” as loud as they can.
By no surprise at all, the room instantly fills with love. Who am I to complain?
I offer my shocked face for the obligatory photo, before holding up my arms like a champ. Thereupon I get passed from one pair of arms to another. There are more people at this party than there had been a year ago, and I have a pretty good idea why. This is my first birthday without my mother, and my beloved aunt has clearly enlisted the help of her entire community to fill the gaping hole left behind.