I entered the lecture hall as I had entered lecture halls a thousand times before. This was familiar turf. I’d been teaching for close to forty years and spent the last dozen of them making the circuit as an invited, distinguished guest lecturer. Winning a Nobel Prize will do that. I didn’t do it for the money, mind you. Not that I didn’t take it when it was offered, but nearly all of it went to a private foundation I’d established to nurture the next generation of scientists. But that was not the primary reason I was always on the move – always traveling to university after university, high school after high school – inspiring those I now considered ‘kids’ to dedicate their lives to the future, to seek a better understanding of the universe of which we are a part and the planet on which we live.
Looking out at the audience assembled, I thought about how it seemed like yesterday that I was a part of that group, listening to the famed James Van Allen giving a talk at the University of Iowa. I was but a high-school student then, attending a summer science program for ‘exceptional youth’. Dr. Van Allen was truly inspirational but in a quiet, unassuming way. He was a great man whose pioneering work earned him not only recognition for the radiation belts around the earth that bore his name, but he was Time’s man of the year in 1960, earned a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1978, the National Medal of Science in 1987 and NASA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. The one trophy he never won was the one I had, the Nobel Prize in Physics. But then the Nobel Prize is so much a matter of timing, politics and just plain luck. I certainly was no more qualified to win the Nobel Prize than was James Van Allen.
Today I was giving a lecture at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s elite public high schools. Tomorrow I’d be at Bronx Science, which had the distinction of having graduated more Nobel laureates than any other high school in the world, which was an incredible feat for any school let alone a public city school. After Dr. Epstein made the introductions, I stepped up to the lectern and began my talk. “You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here,” I began, I’m sure surprising most in the audience. A few smiles told me that at least some of the students were aware of National Lampoon’s Deteriorata, a 1972 parody in song of the early twentieth-century poem, Desiderata. At my signal, the song started playing, and then there was genuine laughter.
As the song faded out, I continued. “In many ways, we are a fluke of the universe. Like me, many of you I’m sure grew up with science-fiction stories of fantastic space voyages and aliens galore and wars fought in a galaxy far, far away. The universe was filled with Klingons and Romulans and countless other intelligent species that happened to speak flawless English and whose level of technological development was equivalent to our own. And wasn’t it magnanimous of the Vulcans, who’d been exploring space for centuries before their first contact with us, to defer to humans to establish the United Federation of Planets?” Of course, my audience laughed as they always did.
“The reality,” I resumed, “is that if and when we encounter other intelligent life, it will be so far advanced beyond us that trying to understand their technology will be about like a lemur trying to comprehend how an iPhone works. Much more likely is that intelligent life is separated by so much time and space that we may never encounter it. There are many known planets around stars similar to our sun that have the right conditions for life to occur. The probability of a protein arising on a planet, purely at random, that is capable of transcribing DNA, along with the random occurrence of DNA that codes for a similar protein, is far less than the number of stars that have ever existed in our galaxy or ever will.
“Evolution is a fact – that much we know. Religion should conform to scientific fact and not the other way around, but I’m not here to challenge your own beliefs. Few scientific theories have so much supporting evidence. The process of natural selection has been observed both in the laboratory and in nature, and the fossil record demonstrates a clear progression of life on earth. Abiogenesis – the process by which life arose from nonliving matter – is the true miracle of life. There are many theories of how self-replicating organic molecules arose from nothing. Most scientists believe that abiogenesis occurred in stages, but so far we’ve only been able to demonstrate two forms of self-replication – that of nucleic acids as with strands of DNA and RNA, and that of the lipid bilayers that serve in cell membranes. If there were any intermediaries, they were long ago cannibalized when life began, if they ever existed on earth in the first place. Many believe the seeds of life evolved elsewhere and were carried here by meteorites or space dust. But that begs the question, why didn’t we find traces of those seeds on the moon? Why haven’t we found evidence of past life on mars?
“It’s probably not a coincidence that life evolved here on a planet with such a large moon, as the tides undoubtedly played a substantial role in the evolution of life as we know it. However, unless some of the cells ejected from the earth in events such as the collision with the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, manage to survive transit through space and happen to land on a planet capable of supporting them, we’re the only advanced life form that we know of that has ever or will ever exist in the Milky Way. So other than a planet of the dinosaurs somewhere out there, we may be it.” After the usual laughter died down, I continued, “Don’t laugh. It’s been proven that some of the meteorites that have landed on earth actually did originate from other planets outside our solar system, so while it’s highly improbable, it is in fact possible that life from earth has been carried to other planets in the Galaxy – much more so than the probability of life originating on a planet de novo. It’s also possible that life on earth actually originated elsewhere in the galaxy and was carried here on a meteorite. However, most scientists agree that if there were a place in the galaxy ideally suited to the development of life, it was on earth.
“Of course, that is not to say there couldn’t be life and even advanced civilizations in other galaxies, but with hundreds of thousands of light-years between them, travel beyond our own galaxy would amount to a one-way ticket to the distant future and probably won’t occur in this millennium or the next. Not that there isn’t plenty to explore within our own Milky Way. Just don’t expect to find any little green men – or women, for that matter.
“But, you may ask, could a virus carry enough basic DNA and ribosomal enzymes to carry life from one planet to another? Yes, it’s possible, but why would such a virus exist? Viruses on earth exist because they can replicate in cells and spread to other cells, repeating the cycle that makes their survival possible. For a virus to successfully carry life from one planet to another, it would have to survive a trip through space and survive a trip through the atmosphere of another planet, and then it would have to find a favorable environment for replication of its code, and unlike on earth, it wouldn’t be able to commandeer the cellular machinery of existing life. No, it would have to replicate itself from the primordial ooze it finds there. Although the probability of that happening is orders of magnitude greater than that of life arising de novo on most earth-like planets, it’s still incredibly rare.
“So, what have we done with this planet of ours, the only one in the galaxy that we know of that supports life? We’ve denuded it of natural resources and altered it in ways that are only now becoming evident. Temperatures are rising, sea levels are rising and ecosystems are changing faster than life can adapt. Some will say that God will save the worthy, but what will the worthy find when we are already in the midst of global ecosystem collapse? Current crop yields are unsustainable. Already migrants are streaming from Africa and the Middle East into Europe and from Central America into North America in search of food.
“The problem is that ecosystems adapt over time. Humans are uniquely suited to migration. We can adapt to virtually any environment, but the plants and animals upon which we depend cannot. Trees can’t simply uproot themselves and move north, and so entire forests will die and along with them, all the animals that depend on the forests. The same is true of the kelp forests in the ocean, and the coral reefs. The fish that depend on them won’t be able to move north because their food source cannot, and hence they too will die. Even in agriculture, plants, soil and pollinators have adapted to each other over hundreds of years, and it will take hundreds of years to establish productive farmland with crops that used to grow hundreds or thousands of miles to the south, by which time there may be no pollinators left.
“What will happen when the fish are gone, when seafood is gone, when the trees are gone and when crop yields are a fraction of what is needed to feed the population of the earth? Will we go to war over food? Might we even face the threat of nuclear war? Or with mass starvation, might nature find a way to save the planet by sending a new plague to reduce our numbers? Or will we save ourselves by eliminating the burning of fossil fuels and switching over to renewables? Most people expect scientists to give us a last-minute reprieve by developing new, miraculous technologies that will allow us to continue our flagrant waste while averting disaster. Yes, and it’ll be delivered by Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.”
After the laughter died down, I went on, “Worst of all are those who claim the cost of switching to renewable energy is unacceptably high, that it will cost jobs worldwide. That includes a lot of people who ought to – and probably do – know better but are unwilling to make personal sacrifices in the name of saving the planet. What they forget is that there’s no amount of money that can resurrect a dead planet and that all that wealth won’t do their children any good when food becomes more valuable than gold.
“The reality is that the investment in the infrastructure needed for renewable energy will be the biggest job-creation measure in the history of the planet and that once the infrastructure is in place, the cost of generating energy will be a fraction of what it is today. We can’t afford not to make such an investment. What is needed is the political will to do so, and that can only be accomplished when the people of your generation march in the streets and vote for change at the ballot box once you are old enough to vote.
“I believe the future of humankind is truly in the stars and that we are destined to colonize the galaxy, but none of that will happen if we destroy our birthplace in the here and now.”
I’d deliberately made my remarks short in anticipation of a question-and-answer session that would likely extend well beyond the hour. The initial questions were very insightful, and I thoroughly enjoyed answering them. But then a boy stood up to ask me a question, and for a moment I had heart failure. His likeness to a boy from my past was so striking. At first, I swore it was Paul, my first love and the only boy I’d ever dared to love. Just like Paul, the boy standing had an unruly mop of golden curls and vivid green eyes that seemed to sparkle as emeralds in the sunlight. He had such striking good looks that it was almost impossible to look away or to focus on anything else. I had to force myself to concentrate on his question but, even then, had to force myself to look away for a moment so I could formulate an answer.
His question was actually a very good one about what types of cells could survive a prolonged voyage in the vacuum of space and then survive the fiery passage through another planet’s atmosphere. He was alluding to the material ejected from earth’s atmosphere by the collision of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, and I framed my response in terms of plants, fungi and bacteria that were common in that era. I cited studies done by NASA, augmented by observations in hostile environments such as at the South Pole and in deep-sea submersibles. Further, I pointed out that a primordial planet’s atmosphere would contain almost no oxygen, making the survival of reentry much more likely. After I finished my answer, the boy thanked me and sat back down, but I couldn’t get his face out of my mind, and it made it very difficult to think during the rest of the session.
Finally, Dr. Epstein brought the session to a close and invited anyone who had further questions to send them to an e-mail address I had set up for that purpose. But because I got so many questions such as these, it was really my graduate students who answered them. Several of the students came up to the lectern anyway, though, as inevitably some always did, usually to ask a quick question or to ask for an autograph. My heart just about stopped when the boy with the golden curls and green eyes was among them. He was with another boy who had a mix of African American and Asian features and looked a lot like Tiger Woods did in his younger days. I made sure to talk to the other kids first, so I might have a moment longer with the boy of my past dreams.
It was actually the Tiger Woods boy who asked the question, and apparently the dream boy was just along with him as a friend. Again, the question was an excellent one that revealed extraordinary intelligence for someone so young. As they started to turn away to leave, I took fate into my hands and asked the boy with the golden curls and green eyes, “Young man, you both asked such excellent questions, but you remind me so much of someone I knew in my youth that I have to ask your name.”
With a shrug, the boy answered, “My name’s Seth Moore, Dr. Franklin.” Was it possible that this was his son? No, Paul would be far too old to be this boy’s father by now, but maybe…
“Are you by any chance related to Paul Moore?” I asked.
“Paul Moore is my grandfather,” the boy answered. “Frank Moore, his son, is my dad.”
“Not to belabor the point but in the summer of 1972, when I was only sixteen and just a bit older than you I think, I attended a summer science-training program at the University of Iowa. In fact, it was called the SSTP. Most of us in the program were sixteen or seventeen, but there was one exceptionally bright boy there who was only thirteen. His name was Paul Moore, and he and I became best friends.”
“That was my grandfather,” the boy named Seth replied. “I’m sure of it. Grandpa told me about his summer in Iowa City, about meeting James Van Allen and about the flood that summer.”
“Ah, yes, the flood,” I related as vivid memories came back to me. “I almost forgot about that. The Iowa River crested at three feet above flood stage, flooding all of downtown. Many of the university buildings, including the university hospital, suffered significant damage. Fortunately, our dorm buildings were up on a hill, well above all the flooding.”
Then on a whim, I asked, “Listen boys, would you be interested in being my guests for dinner? Not to impose, and I promise not to spend the whole time reminiscing about my youth, but I’d love to talk with you further.”
“I have an even better idea,” the Tiger Woods boy interjected. “Would you be our guest for dinner at our place. We’d have much more privacy to talk – and much more time. Seth’s parents are up in Albany for the legislative session, so we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly impose on you,” I replied. “It would be my pleasure to take the two of you to a nice restaurant if it’s okay with your parents.”
“Believe me, it’s not an imposition,” Seth answered. “My boyfriend’s a fantastic cook. Both his parents are professional chefs, and Asher’s cooking is some of the best I’ve ever tasted.”
“Boyfriend?” I questioned with what I’m sure was a bemused expression.
“That’s not a problem, is it?” Seth asked.
“Of course not,” I replied. “I probably shouldn’t say anything, but your grandfather and I were more than just best friends.”
“I wondered if that was you,” Seth responded. “When I came out a few years ago, Grandpa mentioned that he’d had relationship with a boy named Jeff during the summer he was in Iowa. He made it sound like he was just experimenting, but the look in his eyes said it was much more. Being gay was so much more difficult when he was a boy…”
“You have no idea,” I interjected.
“I know a lot of gay boys got married to women back then just because it was expected by family, and it was so much easier than living as a gay man.” Asher commented. “So, will you let me prepare dinner for you?”
“Well, with an offer like that, I can hardly refuse,” I replied.
“Would you be willing to let me invite two other couples that go to Stuyvesant?” Seth asked. “They were at your talk, and I know they’d love to meet you – if that’s okay.”
I really didn’t want to attend what had become a teenage dinner party, but as their guest, I thought it would be rude of me to refuse, and so I answered, “Of course, that’s okay.”
Seth whipped out his iPhone and demonstrated unusual proficiency in using it as he sent text messages to his friends in a matter of seconds. “It might take a while to get parental approval, so we might as well get started. The 22 bus goes right there, so they can meet us there later. I’ll arrange for a car to pick us up.”
“I can take the bus,” I countered. “Just because I’m a Nobel laureate doesn’t mean I’m too good to take public transportation. As you may have gathered from my talk, I firmly believe in energy conservation, and public transit is a big part of that. I came here by subway today,” I added.
“Okay,” Seth replied. “Then let’s go.”
As we were walking out of the building, a couple of boys who looked far too young to be in high school called out to Seth and Asher and ran up to us. “I was just about to text you,” said a boy with red hair and copious freckles on his face. He had the voice of a teenager, but he looked to be much younger – maybe eleven or twelve. “Kyle’s dad gave his approval, so we’re good to go.”
Turning to me, Seth said, “This is Francis, but we all call him Freck because of all his freckles.”
“Nice to meet you, Freck,” I responded as I shook his hand, practically staring at his very young face.
“Since you’re too polite to ask,” Freck began, “I’m twelve years old – twelve years and four months actually. And you’re probably wondering about my boyfriend, Kyle, too.” Kyle was also an unusually handsome boy with longish black hair and a very boyish face. I would have thought he was also around eleven or twelve and was shocked when Freck said, “Kyle is ten years, four months old.”
As I shook his hand, I couldn’t fathom how a ten-year-old boy could be in high school, and he was Freck’s boyfriend? I couldn’t help but ask him, “Isn’t ten a bit young to have a boyfriend?”
He answered with, “Why do adults keep saying shit like that. Look, I’ve been out since I was eight, but I knew I was gay for a year before that and suspected I was gay since I could read, when I was around three. Now, I’m reading at a twelfth-grade level, and I’m taking a course in advanced calculus at City University across the street. Freck and I are both juniors, and after we graduate, we hope to go to MIT together. Freck lives with my family and me up in Riverdale, and we sleep together. Mostly I like to bottom, but we’re versatile.”
“Here comes our bus,” Seth announced as a blue-and-yellow city bus approached a bus stop across from the school. We crossed over to meet the bus, and I got out my Metro Fare Card and slipped it into the card reader as we boarded. Just as we finished boarding, a couple more boys ran up behind us and boarded.
“Great. Glad you could make it,” Seth greeted them and then introduced them to me as the bus lurched forward, and we barely had time to make our way to some seats. One of the boys was exceptionally tall and lanky, and he had a thin mustache. He went by Carl and looked to be Hispanic, and his bulging biceps gave me the impression he was an athlete. The other boy, Clarke, had reddish-blond hair and was a bit stocky but not at all overweight. If I had to guess, I’d have said he was Irish.
As the bus made its way east and passed through Tribeca and by City Hall, it soon became crowded, and I was impressed that all six boys gave up their seats to people with more of a need for them. The bus continued into China Town and then passed through a series of housing projects before coming to a series of high-rise, brick apartment buildings right next to the East River and the Williamsburg Bridge. We got off at the last stop and literally walked right into one of the apartment buildings.
Taking an elevator to the twentieth floor, which was the top floor, I noticed it was Asher who took out a key and unlocked the door to Seth’s apartment. Passing through the door, a large formal dining room was directly ahead, furnished tastefully in what I would have considered a cross between traditional and contemporary styles; I think they refer to it as ‘transitional’.
Asher led us down a short hallway to the left that was lined with built-in bookcases on both sides and into a large living room with a stunning view of virtually all of Lower Manhattan. The World Trade Center was directly ahead, with the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges to the left and Hudson Yards, in Midtown, to the right. It was a view of New York unlike any I’d seen before. Walking up to it, I noticed there was a narrow terrace that ran the entire length of the living room. Unbelievable.
Turning away from the view, the living room was furnished similarly to the dining room, but perhaps in more of a mission style with light oak and textured cushions. The overall effect was very cozy, with a central grouping of two facing sofas, a pair of reclining armchairs and a futon. I noticed Asher was already hard at work in what was a very large and modern kitchen, fully open to the living room. He moved with purpose as he got items out from a very large, built-in refrigerator and pulled other items and implements from cabinet after cabinet. Turning to me, he asked, “Are there any food allergies or dislikes I should know about?”
“I get sick as a dog from eating eggplant,” I replied. “Otherwise I’ll eat anything.”
Smiling, he responded, “I hardly ever use eggplant in my cooking, so we’re safe. Are spicy foods okay with you?” he asked. “My specialty is nouvelle Cajun, often with Asian touches.”
“Asher’s mom is Chinese-American, and his dad is Creole,” Seth explained as he put one arm around his boyfriend. “They met at the Culinary Institute of America, and they own a Chinese takeout restaurant on Grand Street.” Seeing the boys interact, it was hard for me to remember that it was Seth and not Paul. He looked and acted so much the way I remembered Paul, I kept having to stop myself from calling him Paul.
“This place is so cool,” Clarke announced as he emerged from somewhere – perhaps the bathroom, I guessed.
“I forgot, this is your first time seeing the place,” Seth responded.
Pulling his boyfriend into a hug, Kyle added, “Freck designed it. He did a fucking awesome job.” That boy sure had quite a mouth for a ten-year-old. It fit with his personality though.
“Whadayamean, Freck designed it,” Carl asked.
“Seth and Asher had a group of us over for Thanksgiving last year,” Kyle explained. “Asher’s parents were busy with their restaurant, and Seth’s were invited for Thanksgiving with the governor, so they decided to do an authentic Thanksgiving feast.”
“Except Asher made an awesome Cajun turkey,” Seth interjected.
“I made a traditional roast turkey, too,” Asher clarified.
“Actually, he made it on a rotisserie, and it fell off at the end,” Seth noted.
“Yeah, and we went to bed and left the stuffing in the oven and were woken up an hour later when the smoke detector went off,” Asher added. “Dad had to rescue us by making a batch of cornbread stuffing at the restaurant the next morning.”
“Anyway, we had just served ourselves the turkey and all the fixings…” Kyle tried to continue.
“Except you wouldn’t eat any at first because you’d decided that morning to become a vegan,” Asher interrupted.
“Hey, I was trying to be a responsible citizen and give up eating meat,” Kyle clarified. “It didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to change my mind though. It’s just that raising meat is horrible for the environment.” Then turning and looking at me, asked, “Isn’t that right, Dr. Franklin?”
“Not only do ruminants such as cows produce copious amounts of methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but it takes roughly ten pounds of feed to produce one pound of meat,” I answered. “With climate change, we can’t afford to waste valuable resources in order to eat meat – not that I adhere to being a vegan…yet.”
“Glad to hear it,” Asher commented from the kitchen.
“So, we were just getting ready to eat Thanksgiving dinner,” Kyle continued, “when Asher remembered that he’d forgotten to heat the pumpkin soup he’d made. He got up to heat the soup in his Instant Pot, and while he was at it, Seth started up the coffee maker for some desperately needed coffee, and then all the lights went out.”
“Of course, we all assumed the coffee maker and Instant Pot were on the same circuit and we’d overloaded it,” Seth chimed in.
“But it turned out that two circuits had blown,” Kyle explained.
“To make a long story short,” Seth took over, “The contractor who did the initial renovations didn’t realize the building doesn’t have 220-volt service. His electrician put in a bunch of so-called Edison circuits, with a shared neutral, and over time they overheated, and the insulation melted. All of the wiring had to be torn out, but then we bought the apartment behind us when it came on the market, so we decided to gut the place and combine both apartments.”
“And it was Freck who came up with plans for how to combine the two apartments,” Kyle added as he again pulled his boyfriend into a hug and kissed him on the lips.
The bantering of the boys continued as Asher prepared the dinner. In a way, it was fascinating to watch them interact. All three couples seemed to be unusually tight for pre-teens and teens, and it was evident that all of them shared a close bond of friendship. I picked up a lot of information on the boys from listening to the conversation. Asher, I knew, had parents who owned a restaurant. And I discovered that Seth’s father, Paul’s son, was a state assemblyman and one of the most powerful men in the state government, next to the governor himself. His wife was trained as a physician but acted as his fulltime assistant.
Freck’s parents were absurdly wealthy and owned a penthouse condo right by Goldman-Sacks and the World Trade Center. His father in fact was the CEO of one of the major brokerages, and his mother owned one of the best-known designer labels in the world. Because his parents were never home, however, he lived with his boyfriend’s family up in Riverdale. Kyle’s father was a retina specialist in the Department of Ophthalmology at New York Presbyterian, and he was gay and engaged to marry a neurologist who also worked there. Kyle also had an older brother who was a freshman at Stuyvesant.
Carl was raised by a single mother whose boyfriend was killed in a gang shootout. They both now lived with Clarke’s family on Staten Island, and his mom served as a live-in nanny, cook and maid. As I’d suspected, Carl indeed was an athlete, and he was the leading scorer on the Stuyvesant varsity basketball team. Clarke’s story was perhaps the most tragic, as he’d endured severe abuse at the hands of his father for most of his life. His parents had worked for the mayor’s office and were involved in bribery, kickbacks and outright embezzlement; hence they were now both in prison for a very long time. In addition to Carl and his mamá, as they called her, he lived with four sisters and an older brother. Another brother and two sisters were away at college.
All of that I learned as they bantered back and forth, withholding nothing about their personal lives. I kind of faded into the background and tried to remain unobtrusive, but I became decidedly uncomfortable when the conversation turned to talk about sex. I was just about to say something when Carl noticed me sitting there and asked me, “Dr. Franklin, I’m curious. You hear so many stories about how people are surprised when they win the Nobel Prize, and I wondered if it’s really like that. I’d like to know for when I win mine.” All of the boys laughed at that.
“No, it’s not like that,” I explained. “Because most of us are university professors and because universities thrive on the reputation earned from having a Nobel laureate on their faculty, there’s actually a fair bit of lobbying that goes on. It has to be done carefully, because it doesn’t look good for institutions of higher education to be self-serving, so presidents talk to other presidents and deans talk to deans, and department heads talk to all of their colleagues in the field. So, when a university has someone on the faculty that they think might have a shot at winning a Nobel Prize, they begin a heavy lobbying effort on behalf of that candidate, but they lobby their counterparts at other institutions rather than lobbying the Nobel committee directly. If enough colleagues of the candidate nominate him or her for the Nobel, the committee will be more likely to look at the candidate as a serious contender for the prize in their field.
“Although it’s not overt, everyone knows which institutions are involved in lobbying for which candidates, so it usually does get back to the candidates themselves, so they usually do have an inkling they’re in the running for a Nobel Prize.”
“Wow, that’s way different than I thought it would be,” Carl responded.
“It’s always about politics,” Seth interjected.
“If I could have your attention,” Asher interrupted, “dinner is served.”
The food Asher served was absolutely some of the best I’ve ever had, and it was all prepared on a moment’s notice. I’ve enjoyed meals at various functions, prepared by some of the best chefs in the world, but Asher could have easily gone head-to-head with any of them. The appetizer was a seafood gumbo that was out of this world, and the main course was a shrimp and scallop creole over saffron rice that was unlike any food I’d ever tasted. Asher served it with a vegetable stir-fry that tasted so fresh, I’d have thought it freshly picked had I not been with Asher the entire time. And there was a second starch consisting of a twice-baked sweet potato – a dish I’d never before encountered. Needless to say, it was excellent. I was absolutely stuffed by the end of the meal.
During the meal, conversation turned back to the substance of my talk that afternoon. I was amazed by the depth of knowledge the boys had when it came to the subject matter. We got to talking about science fiction, and Asher and Seth let it be known that they were avid Star Trek fans. Freck and Carl, however, were die-hard Star Wars fans, and Kyle, not surprisingly, was much more cynical, preferring the Ender’s Game series and other writings by the likes of Orson Scott Card. Clarke was the real surprise in the group, being an avid fan of classic sci-fi, preferring authors such as Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark and Michael Crichton. However, Asher was quite insistent that most science fiction was unrealistic, and he agreed with my assessment on the state of the evolution of life in the universe – or the lack thereof. In fact, Seth noted that they’d discussed the theory at length when they first met and that he’d come around to Asher’s way of thinking. Kyle, on the other hand, rolled his eyes and stated that if intelligent life had ever arisen before in the galaxy, that it had long ago been replaced by artificial intelligence. What a cheery thought.
All in all, it was an incredibly enjoyable evening in which I had the opportunity to have an intelligent conversation with a group of teenagers, all of whom were destined for greatness. Not to sound conceited, but they reminded me of me at their age. And I couldn’t get over Seth’s resemblance to Paul. Remembering that Seth referred to his grandfather in the present tense, however, I had to know more.
“Seth,” I began, “when you spoke of your grandfather, you made it sound as if he’s still alive.”
“He is still alive,” Seth answered. “He’s the Director of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. He couldn’t make it here in time for dinner tonight, but he said he’d be here later. Actually, he should be here any minute now.”
“He’s coming here?” I asked in surprise.
“Any time now,” Seth confirmed.
“I can’t believe that after some forty-something – close to fifty years – I found Paul’s grandson in a lecture hall,” I related. “And now I’m going to see Paul after all these years. Amazing.”
“Pretty fucking cool,” Kyle agreed.
“Kyle,” Freck interrupted, “You know it’s not polite to use the ‘F’ word in mixed company.” Then turning to me, he added, “Kyle has the intelligence of someone twice his age, but sometimes his maturity leaves something to be desired.”
“But this isn’t mixed company,” Kyle complained. “We’re all guys here and as I understand the situation, we’re all gay, so what’s mixed about it?”
“He’s got you there, Freck,” Clarke chimed in.
“It’s nothing I haven’t heard,” I responded. “I have sons too, and my graduate students’ language is at times even worse.”
We were interrupted by the sound of a door chime, and suddenly I felt extremely nervous. Paul had truly been my first love, and in many ways, I never stopped loving him, but that was more than forty years ago. I fell in love with a thirteen-year-old boy – not a sixty-year-old man.
Seth went to open the door, and when he did, on the other side was a man who could only be Paul. His unruly mop of golden curls was now a bit more silvery than golden, but his eyes were that same deep emerald shade of green that shone with brilliance, even in artificial light. They were the same eyes his grandson had. I rose to greet the man who was my first love.
“Jeff, you look exactly the same,” he said as I approached.
“We’ll, it’s been nearly fifty years, and we both have a few more wrinkles and gray hairs now,” I replied before we engulfed each other in a tight hug.
“Shall we go inside?” Paul suggested and then led the way to the living room. He’d obviously been here before. I was hoping he’d sit on one of the sofas so I could sit next to him, but he was being cautious as was I, and when he sat down in one of the armchairs, I sat in the other one. Seth joined us while the other boys helped clean up the dinner mess.
“Just look at you,” Paul said. “I always wondered what happened to you, but keeping in touch was not an option. Long distance was expensive, the Internet was just an idea back then, and letter writing couldn’t replace being with you. It would have been painful to even try.”
“As I recall, you were going to remain at Iowa after the summer,” I replied.
“And I did,” he went on. “I was thirteen and what some called a genius, and when I found that I could actually remain at the University of Iowa and start college at the age of thirteen without having to finish high school, I jumped at the chance. Iowa City was home of some of the brightest astrophysicists in the world, and I was so impressed with Dr. Van Allen that I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It only took me three years to get my bachelor’s degree in physics, and then I went on to get my PhD, and that took another four years. So, at the age of 20, when I couldn’t even buy a legal drink in most states, I had my PhD and was looking for a job – and I was starting to think about finding a partner and starting a family. Being from the Midwest, the possibility of finding a male partner never even entered my mind.
“I was accepted for a post-doc at Berkley…”
“I went to Stanford!” I interrupted.
“What do you know?” he replied. “We were both in the Bay Area at the same time and didn’t even know it. Anyway, after finishing my post-doc, I was offered a position as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, which was where I met my wife. I rose through the ranks of academia there and was a full professor by the time I was 30, and by then we had two wonderful children, Frank and Marissa. And then everything changed.
“Julie – she was my wife – started stumbling, and then her speech became slurred and she began dropping things. We went to see a top neurologist at Northwestern, and he ordered a bunch of tests. When we found out it was M.S., we were devastated.”
“It must have been so hard on you and your children,” I interjected.
“Frank and Marissa were old enough to understand the significance of their mother having M.S. The worst of it was that treatments were so ineffective back then. We tried IV steroids and plasmapheresis, but more modern treatments such as the use of immunoglobulins weren’t available yet and the immunosuppressive drugs they have today just didn’t exist back then. The steroids bought us some time, but the M.S. always came back and worse than before. The Rehab Institute of Chicago became our second home.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“It was difficult to see her going downhill, but there was very little we could do about it. Eventually, we decided we had nothing left to lose and that the only hope for my wife was through experimental, but risky treatments. The best hope for us was to get her into a protocol at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, which we did, and when the treatments showed promise, we decided to move to Washington permanently. I hated to ask my children to move during their teenage years, but both Frank and Marissa were fully on board with it. The directorship of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was open, and so I submitted my CV and interviewed for it, and I got the position.
“For a time, Julie did much better and we thought we might actually be looking at a cure, but the thing with experimental treatments is that it can be years between the initial trials of a promising new drug and FDA approval for general use. If an experimental drug seems to work well, once the protocol ends you can petition for compassionate use and continue to get a supply of the drug, but it’s up to the manufacturer as to whether or not they honor compassionate use. In more than one instance, a drug that seemed to work for Julie didn’t work as well for the study population as a whole, and the pharmaceutical companies chose not to pursue FDA approval. Then, no amount of petitioning could get a further supply of the drug.”
“That’s the way research works,” I lamented. “It’s possible your wife was part of a subset for which the drugs were effective, but the statistical power to prove it just wasn’t there. In any case, the numbers probably wouldn’t have been sufficient to justify bringing the drugs to market, anyway, so they would have been orphan drugs.”
“Exactly,” Paul agreed. “So, we enrolled her in protocol after protocol, hoping for a miracle that never came. It’s been ten years since she passed away, and even though it had been a long time since we were intimate, I loved her very much nonetheless.”
“I understand precisely what you mean, because I lost my wife to breast cancer at about the same time. At least she lived long enough to see me win the Nobel Prize, but barely.”
“Which brings up a question I’ve had ever since Seth sent me a text to tell me you were in town,” Paul asked. “I would have known it was you when the Nobel Prizes came out if the winner had been Jeff Lindsey. Why’d you change your name?”
“I’ve gone so long as Jeff Franklin that I almost forgot you knew me as Jeff Lindsey,” I answered. “You may remember that my father was killed in an industrial accident when I was twelve. It’s tough when you lose a parent at any age, as our kids know first-hand, but I think it was especially rough on me at that age. I was already going through puberty and I was confused as hell that I boned only around boys.” A snicker from the sofa reminded me that Seth was sitting with us and listening in on the whole conversation.
“So, while I was in Iowa, my mom started dating my chemistry teacher from school,” I continued. “By the time I got back to Indianapolis, she told me they were engaged. I was thrilled. Mr. Franklin was one of my favorite teachers of all time. I know it was kind of shitty of me, but when they married, I asked to change my name to Franklin so I’d have the same name as my mom. The real reason was that I desperately wanted a dad. Getting a new dad didn’t change my feelings toward boys, though, and eventually I started signing my name ‘Jeff Lindsey Franklin’, and I still do.”
“Do you have any children or grandchildren, Paul?
“Children, but not grandchildren,” I answered. “Twin boys… well, they’re middle aged now. I’m actually staying with them while I’m in New York. They both teach at NYU. Brad’s the chairman of the economics department, and Lyle is the dean of the business school.”
“You must be proud of them,” Paul said.
“Very,” I replied.
“And neither of them had children?” he asked.
“Neither of them ever married.” I answered. “They’ve always lived together,” I added.
“Are they gay,” Seth asked.
“Well, I’ve never asked them, but they live together in The Village, so I think it’s likely. You know, the odds of one twin being gay if the other’s gay is fifty percent.”
“Actually, the statistics are more significant than that,” Kyle chimed in as he approached. “The incidence of homosexuality in the general population is said to be between five and ten percent, but for the sake of argument, let’s call it x. The probability of each kid being gay is then x and the probability of them being straight, bisexual or something else is 1–x. The probability of monozygotic twins both being gay is then just x(1–x)… that’s just from rewriting Bayes’ Theorem. Hence, the probability of monozygotic twins both being gay compared to that of heterozygous brothers both being gay is that divided by x2, which is (1–x)/x. Hence if x is 10%, it’s nine times more likely that monozygotic twins will be both be gay than it is for heterozygous brothers. If x is 5%, that figure jumps to nineteen times. Or another way of looking at it is that the probability of twins both being gay is nearly the same as that of having one child who’s gay.”
“Somehow it just didn’t seem right for that explanation to come from a ten-year-old kid,” I noted.
“He lost me when he said, ‘monozygotic twins’,” Carl chimed in.
“That just means twins that come from a single egg – i.e. identical twins,” Kyle explained.
“And what’s so complicated about that?” Freck added.
“Said by one genius about another genius,” Asher added with a laugh.
“Do you think they’re having sex with each other?” Kyle asked.
“Get your head out of the gutter,” Carl admonished him.
“But it’s not uncommon for twins to experiment with each other when it comes to sex,” Kyle continued. “You know, identical twins share an unusually strong bond and even straight identical twins sometimes have trouble living apart. There are cases where twins insist on living in the same household, even after they marry.
“You know,” Kyle went on, “a lot of guys get off on having sex with twins, whether they’re gay or straight. I’m not saying Brad and Lyle are prostitutes or anything, especially with their jobs, but maybe they like having sex together with other guys.”
“Whatever they may or may not do in the bedroom, it’s their business and theirs alone,” I interrupted. Actually, I’d long thought it likely that Kyle was right – that my sons enjoyed having three-ways with other gay men, but I wasn’t about to tell Kyle that. I didn’t even want to think about it myself.
“So, where’d you end up, Jeff?” Paul asked.
“I started out at Cal Tech while doing work for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is also in Pasadena. After my Nobel Prize, I was offered an endowed chairmanship at UCLA for substantially more money, and of course I took it. I still do occasional work for JPL, but the position at UCLA gives me a lot more freedom. On top of all that, I give a lot of lectures to the public – well, like today’s at Stuyvesant. A lot of them I do for free, but for private schools and universities and organizations with money, I charge a hefty fee and donate the proceeds to a foundation I established to give scholarships to promising students.”
“That sounds wonderful, Jeff,” Paul responded, causing me to blush. Thankfully, Asher brought out a tray with fruit tarts on it that were obviously homemade, and Clarke brought out a tray with coffee mugs, followed by Carl with a tray that included a coffee pot, a pot of hot water, a creamer, various sweeteners and an assortment of teas. Kyle wasted no time grabbing the coffee pot and filling a mug, then drinking it black. The boy had a serious caffeine addiction – and he was hyper to begin with.
I grabbed the hot water and a tea bag of Earl Gray, and Paul did the same. I smiled, as Earl Gray had been Paul’s favorite, even back when he was thirteen. Taking a bite of the tart, it was wonderful, just as everything else Asher served had been.
“Do you live in L.A.,” Paul asked.
“Right near the university,” I answered. “It’s a lovely neighborhood but as much as I travel, I might as well live on the moon.”
“I hear that lunar real estate’s expensive,” Kyle interjected with a straight face, “and the commuting cost’s a killer.” I couldn’t help but chuckle at Kyle’s humor. When I met him, I’d wondered why a group of teens would befriend a ten-year-old, but intellectually he was their superior. What amazed me was that he was not only brash, but he had a great sense of humor, and he had wit. Anywhere else he might have languished and become suicidal, but in this environment, he was thriving.
“With your kids living here, did you ever think of living in New York?” Paul asked. My heart leapt at the thought of living in the same city as Paul, but I’d lived in L.A. most of my life.
“I’ve been on the West Coast all of my adult life,” I answered. “Moving to the East Coast would be such a change, and of course I have a plum position at UCLA.”
“Did you remarry or do you have a significant other that’s holding you to California?”
“Not at all,” I replied.
“With your background, you could be assured of virtually any open chairmanship or deanship in astrophysics in the world. There are plenty of institutions that would hire you, even if they didn’t have an opening. Having a tenured Nobel laureate on faculty in and of itself can bring in a lot of grant money to a department.”
“Yes, this is true,” I responded, “and I’ve had plenty of offers, but after Laura died, well, the thought of picking up and moving my whole life away from where we lived together is daunting.”
“But your sons are here,” Paul challenged. “Your life outside of work is here. Don’t you think it’s time for a change?”
“And maybe you two could get back together,” Asher added, stating aloud what I’d been thinking. I think Paul and I both blushed with that.
“A lot has happened in both our lives since we were teens,” Paul responded, “and we’ve undoubtedly changed quite a bit, which is inevitable. However, I’d definitely like to get to know Jeff again…”
“The feeling’s mutual,” I interjected.
“And I’d be lying if I said the possibility hadn’t crossed my mind,” he continued with a deep blush.
“Definitely,” I agreed with a blush of my own.
“You know, Jeff,” Paul went on, “There are many fine universities back East, including nearly all the Ivies, but the American Museum of Natural History has one of the most extensive astrophysics research programs in the world. We’re about so much more than the Hayden Planetarium. We work closely with NASA, and our research projects get top priority when they launch space probes. Our scientists interact with astrophysicists all over the world, as I’m sure you do now, but we’ve cultivated long-term relationships with top facilities all around the globe. And when it comes to facilities, we have the best supercomputers on-site and equipment you’ll find nowhere else. We don’t have our own graduate students, but we do have a constant supply of students, interns and post-docs from several universities, giving you eager research assistants without the burden of teaching.
“The museum is always looking for top talent, and although I don’t have an open position right now, it’s likely someone will leave within the next five-to-ten years or so. The pay probably isn’t as much as what you’re getting at UCLA, but with your foundation, I suspect that money has never really been the issue, and the pay is sufficient to live in Manhattan, which means it’s decent. Even before I knew that Jeff Lindsey Franklin was the same Jeff Lindsey that I knew in Iowa, I would have tried to recruit you the next time we have an open position.”
Laughing, I replied, “In less than ten years, I’ll be seventy and probably thinking about retirement.”
“I’m curious,” Seth asked. “if the two of you both went into astrophysics, how is it that you two didn’t bump into each other at scientific meetings during all those years?”
“That’s because the role of a museum director is very different than that of a university professor,” I explained.
“Exactly,” Paul agreed.
“While I was conducting research, serving on committees and going on site visits and to scientific meetings, Paul was hobnobbing with snobby rich donors.”
“Sad but true,” Paul agreed.
“Speaking of snobby rich donors,” Freck interjected, “does your program have endowed chairmanships?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Paul responded. “It’s much easier to sell potential donors on funding specific research projects, buying new equipment or building new buildings that bear their name. Universities do all of that too, but recruiting big-name professors is much more important to them, and donors are more than willing to support that. Further, universities are always scrambling for research grants – not that we don’t, too – but being able to recruit top professors to an endowed chair means having top scientists who don’t have to spend so much time scrambling for a limited pool of research funds.”
“If a wealthy donor were to offer, say, five million dollars,” Freck asked, “would that be enough to establish an endowed chair?”
“For five million, I could not only endow a chair, but furnish a lab for them and hire staff. But people who donate that kind of money would much rather have their name on a building than after an asterisk as a footnote after a chairman’s name.”
“Not if their son talks them into it,” Freck countered. “I may now live with my boyfriend’s family, and even before, I never saw my parents, but I still have contact with them, and I know they’ll listen to me if I tell them it’s important. My parents are worth billions – both of them – and they give millions away every year to charity. It’s good for their reputation – and it’s a tax write-off. If I ask my dad to give five million to the Museum of Natural History to recruit a Nobel laureate, as long as his name’s attached to everything Dr. Franklin publishes, he’ll do it. He knows I wouldn’t ask unless it’s worth his while.”
“You’d do that?” Paul asked.
“Consider it done,” he replied. “Someday, I’m gonna be one of the best architects in the world, and my specialty will be sustainable architecture. I may even design or redesign entire cities, but none of that will matter if there isn’t enough food to feed the residents of my cities. I can design for rising temperatures and rising sea levels, but I can’t save a dying planet. Bringing the eminent Dr. Jeffrey Lindsey Franklin to New York is something I’d have wanted to support, anyway, but if there’s a chance I can play matchmaker for one of my best friend’s grandpa…”
“It would be sooo fuckin’ romantic,” his boyfriend chimed in. That was Kyle. Paul’s face turned beet red, and I suspected mine did, too.
We all spoke quite a while after that, discussing Freck’s generous offer and what an endowed chair position at the museum might look like. Paul and I were also adamant that the boys not assume we’d automatically get together, although we were certainly open to the possibility. At one point, Freck even called his father’s CFO’s administrative assistant, who agreed to run it by his boss and by Freck’s father and to put it in the budget. Apparently, five million to them was in the category of discretionary spending!
As it was getting late, I worried about the boys going home – a couple of them to Staten Island and a couple of them to Riverdale, but they’d already planned for a sleepover in Seth’s apartment. I was astonished to hear they had four bedrooms, thanks to the ingenuity of Freck’s design for the place. I, on the other hand, had to get back to The Village and my sons, and Paul had to get back to his apartment on the Upper West Side.
Paul and I left together with the intent of sharing a car. Asher called a car service his family used and trusted rather than leaving us to fend with Uber or Lyft on our own. As Paul was about to press the elevator call button, he turned to me and said, “It was really wonderful to see you again after all these years. A lot has happened in our lives, but I feel as if I’ve known you all along.”
“I feel exactly the same way,” I responded.
After a moment of awkward hesitation, Paul leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. I kissed him back. We both had smiles on our faces.
“I’m going to have an interesting talk with the twins tonight,” I almost giggled.
As Paul pressed the button to call the elevator, he asked, “So how long will you be staying in New York?”
This story was originally published as part of the Gay Authors 2019 Spring Anthology – In The Stars. The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing my stories, as well as Awesome Dude, Codey’s World and Gay Authors for hosting them.
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay preteen and teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. Some of the locations described are real locations, and some of the characters and organizations described may bear a strong resemblance to real individuals and organizations; however, this is a fictional story and should be taken as such. The author retains full copyright.