My name is Nico Tortorella, short for Nicolo Luigi Tortorella—a real mouthful of prosciutto. Although my birth certificate says Louis, not Luigi, Mom’s always said my middle name is Luigi. She wants to make sure everyone in the world knows we’re Italian, but my grandma is the only one in the family who’s actually set foot in Italy. Well, I went to Milan once for fashion week, but that doesn’t really count. Someone I used to date once told me I’m about as Italian as the Olive Garden. But my mom definitely isn’t having it when I try to correct her by saying we’re Italian American. Shut the f*k up, Nico, you’re 100 percent Italian. Don’t ever forget it.
Nico is not a family name. My mom was eight months pregnant and watching the classic Hollywood film Above the Law, a story of a native Sicilian detective in the Chicago Police Department played by the one and only Steven Seagal. The Legend. (This was his first movie and pre-#MeToo.) His name in the movie was Nico Toscani.
Between the ponytail, tinted glasses, and martial arts training, that was it: my mom had decided my name. I still like to believe she was really into the Velvet Underground in the seventies and named me after the real Nico of the century, but as the story goes, my mom was a disco queen and Steven Seagal was her one and only source of baby-name inspiration.
I moved out of my family’s house in the northern Chicago suburbs when I was pretty young, only seventeen. The North Shore is about as white and privileged as you can get—if you’ve seen any John Hughes movies, then you’ve seen my high school. My best friends were some of the richest kids in the country, but my family lived on the other side of town. Our house was a pretty modest working-class kind of place that my parents had bought with my grandmother’s help when they were still together.
The performing arts were taken very seriously at my giant school of four thousand students. Every year I was in at least three different choir classes and two acting classes, which took up most of my days. I guess I was what you might call a stoner intellectual artist thespian. There was some speculation about my sexuality in high school, but the theater department was insanely insular and provided an environment where it was socially acceptable for me to be relatively queer while still maintaining a veneer of heterosexual masculinity. Ever since high school, I have always been able to play this masculine heartthrob role while also being a flamboyant thespian, which I think is a foundational aspect of my gender—I can be on Youngerand also one of the queens.
I took myself pretty seriously, but at the same time had a Ferris Bueller air about me; I took time to stop and look around and enjoy life, no matter how fast it was moving. And I always tried to make sense of my life through art—it really does have the power to alter reality. For instance, all the seniors at my high school had the option to take the last quarter off to do an elective thesis project of some sort. Most kids went off to do internships or philanthropic “life experience” expeditions that would look excellent on college applications or other typical upper-class, privileged activities. But somehow I persuaded my teachers that proper learning, for me, would be to construct a twelve-by-twelve-foot mixed-media mural in my garage (while smoking a ton of weed). My cousin lived across the street and helped me build the wooden structure on which to paint; it ended up weighing over four hundred pounds. I mapped out what I wanted the piece to look like on a small scale, and split that into sections before I started working on the real deal. I was always working on paintings and had even sold some, but this was my first large-scale endeavor.
I called the piece Free Will. It was a larger-than-life representation of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, split between the binary divides of the world—the physical and the spiritual, the city and the country, nature and nurture. Ever since I was a kid, I had been obsessed with positive thinking and the mystic writings of Ram Dass, Dan Millman, David Wolfe, Napoleon Hill, and other modern spiritual folk my aunt and uncle had introduced me to at a very young age. The mural had a geometric component to it, and running across the entire lower quarter was a metal fence that the charcoaled Vitruvian Man was reaching for, begging to cross over, desperate to reach the other side and be free.
I worked on the piece for six weeks, and it was truly f*king epic. We’d built it to fold in the middle so we could transport it, but still needed an eighteen-foot flatbed truck to move it to school. My mom had a guy (my mom always had a guy), and it took six of us to get it into the auditorium, where it towered above all the other exhibits. It was such a proud moment for me, standing in my high school for the last time with something substantial to show for my efforts.
At that point in my life, I was an actor through and through. Half my school days were filled with acting and choir classes, leaving no time for anything else. I’d been acting on the stage since middle school, but in the auditorium in that moment, I realized what I really wanted to do was make art that was a tactile and visual manifestation of my internal thoughts. Art as change. That mural was the beginning of something so much bigger than I realized at the time.
Once the presentation was over, I had to get that dude out of the auditorium and figure out what the hell to do with him. I couldn’t take him home; I had nowhere to store a piece that colossal. I could have left him at school, but I couldn’t bring myself to let someone else decide his fate. There was only one thing I could do—destroy him.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to my real dad—I hate the way that sounds, excuse me—my birth father in a long time, but I knew he was the only person for the job. But before I tell you about the demolition, let’s back up for a minute so I can tell you some more about Pops.
My mom and dad split when I was four and my little brother, Rocco, was two. My parents have kind of a hopeless romantic love story. My dad was already married and his first wife had just had a baby not long before the night he walked into my mom’s bar, where she was making drinks behind the bar, being her beautiful, brash, Italian American self. If the story Mom tells is true, Pops never went back home after that.
The earliest memories I have of my daddy are from right before he and Mom divorced. Even now, it’s like it was yesterday that I was standing between the two of them in the kitchen while they were arguing about God knows what. Actually, I do know: my grandma had just moved in with us. If you ask my dad, that’s the real reason they split; they stopped sleeping in the same bedroom when Grandma started living with us. My brother and I had bunk beds in the room adjacent to the master bedroom, and there was a third bedroom, which was also an in-house tanning salon that doubled as a guest room. (Yes, my mother had a tanning bed in our working-class abode. Classic Mommy.) That room became my dad’s bedroom, and though my brother and I usually slept with our mom and had literally since we came home from the hospital, I would sneak off to my dad’s room as much as I could. I can still smell the perfumed concoction of coconut tanning lotion, beer, cigarettes, and distinct man musk that would fill my nose as I nestled my way into the crook of his arm to fall asleep. I loved it in there more than anything—the bedroom, the nook, the safety. I remember the day he left, the first time his bed was empty, never to be filled again—at least not in the same way.
If you were to ask my mom today why they got divorced, she would probably say something like, “I married your dad for the Italian last name and because he looked like Kurt Russell. I wanted beautiful Italian babies with Italian names, but I wanted a lifestyle he couldn’t support. I wanted an upper-middle-class life instead of a working-class one, and that just wasn’t your father.” Her actual words would undoubtedly be a lot funnier and less PC.
It’s true, what she says about Pops. He’s never really cared about the material world or making more money than he already has. I mean, my dad was a garbage truck driver when we were really little. I remember him taking me to school in a garbage truck, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. My mom says she’s the one who actually got him that job; that she had to force him into going to the public works facility because he didn’t have any drive of his own. I obviously don’t take after him in that way, but my dad is a lover through and through, and I’m really thankful he gave that to me.