“And now, because there are two grooms,” the Rabbi continued, “the customary symbolic breaking of the glass that seals the marriage will be done by both men. We’ll wrap the glass in a napkin and place it under this rather hefty slab of stone,” she added as she placed the glass on the ground and then placed the slab over the glass, leaning against it. “And it makes it easier to break the glass, such that there’s no need to use an old-fashioned lightbulb in place of the glass as we used to.
“Gentlemen, on the count of three, you may stomp on the slab and break the glass… one… two… three!”
Jake and Ken brought their feet down simultaneously, hard onto the stone slab, and the sound of breaking glass was unmistakable and the whole crowd shouted, “Mazel Tov!”
Because the Rabbi was from a nearby congregation that combined traditional observances with liberal beliefs and an emphasis on nature, what happened next was like something out of a movie, in which the bride and groom are hoisted up high on chairs and paraded around while the guests dance in circles around them. Only in Jake and Ken’s wedding, there were two grooms, and because the wedding was held under a canopy in Wave Hill Gardens, a large public garden overlooking the Hudson, there wasn’t enough room for all the guests to dance in concentric circles. Instead, the grooms were carried high up on chairs as they led a parade through the entire garden, the guests following behind in a kind of chain dance, based loosely on the traditional Jewish dance, the Hora. Everyone sang and danced between rows of budding and blooming roses, lilies and other, more exotic, plants and flowers. For a moment I thought we were gonna dance into and through the greenhouse, but the leaders seemed to think better of it, as they might have decapitated the grooms trying to get them through the door. Instead we paraded around the greenhouse and among the rows of plants and statuary.
We ended up at the Wave Hill House, a stately mansion where the reception was to be held. The grooms wisely dismounted and led us all into the mansion, where we entered a stately banquet room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a rounded, circular projection that overlooked the Hudson and the New Jersey Palisades. I knew Jake and Ken had had a tough time deciding on an indoor reception versus an outdoor reception under a tent or inside the greenhouse. They ended up compromising on both, holding the rehearsal dinner under a tent at our home, and the wedding reception itself indoors at the Wave Hill House. Late June in New York is unpredictable, and is just as likely to be too cool as too hot, with rain being common. As it turned out, it was an uncomfortably hot, humid day, and the air conditioning inside the Wave Hill House was very welcome.
As we entered the reception hall and I saw the circular tables arrayed before us, at first I feared Ky and I would again be seated with the relatives from Brazil. That would have been about as much fun as running naked through Central Park, which is to say, nothing I’d ever voluntarily do. Fortunately, there were many more tables this time, as more guests were in attendance, and there were enough Brazilian guests to fill a pair of tables by themselves. Kyle and I found ourselves seated at a table with Kyle’s brother, with Ashe and Seth and with our three cousins from California. I couldn’t have been happier with the seating arrangements.
After a brief ceremony to welcome the Jewish sabbath, dinner was served. The conversation at dinner was a free-flowing mix of academics and sex as might be expected of a group of precocious teens and pre-teens. We talked about our favorite music, movies and books. We discussed politics, but with all of us coming from liberal backgrounds, there was very little disagreement. With biologic parents who were billionaires, I had perhaps the most conservative views, followed closely by Asher, but we both agreed that the rich should pay a larger share in taxes. In New York City, the top percentile of income earners actually do contribute half the state and local income tax collected, and everyone at the table agreed it should be that way for the nation as a whole.
What started out as a brief comment on climate change led to a very spirited discussion of the merits of different proposals for coping with rising sea levels. Although both our house in Riverdale and our Ky’s cousin’s house in Berkley were well above sea level, both are a part of very affluent, yet vulnerable metropolitan areas. Both the financial district in New York as well as that in San Francisco were barely above the water line as indeed, much of Lower Manhattan flooded during Sandy. My parents’ condo building suffered extensive damage and although Asher and Seth escaped the worst of it, both were without power for nearly a week.
I was a particularly strong critic of New York’s plans for a flood barrier around half of Manhattan. Although designed to hold back six feet of sea level rise and predicted storm surges, there was little question in my mind that it was too little, too late. The barrier wouldn’t even be completed for years and until completed, it’d do more to hold flood waters in than out, making flooding worse.
“Of course, it might be more practical to build dykes across the Verrazano Narrows and across Long Island Sound, maybe at Throgs Neck or even between Sands Point and Pelham Bay Park,” I explained, “but then you’d have to deal with the Hudson… either pumping water out or damming it and diverting it through incredibly rich suburbs of Westchester. Unfortunately, the cost would be high and the benefit only temporary.
“A better approach would be to harden buildings that can tolerate perpetual flooding with saltwater, raise street levels, relocate infrastructure above ground and create flood buffer zones by bulldozing older structures and creating parkland.”
“You mean older structures, like Asher and Seth’s co-ops,” Roger had to point out.
“Actually, the co-ops can be saved, but at a cost,” I countered. “The first floor would need to be reinforced with concrete and second-floor residents would need to be bought out so the lobby could be raised. The residents would have to decide if it’s worth spending millions on saving their homes rather than simply accepting a buy-out. The low-lying projects and what’s left of the tenements should be turned into parkland, with new high-rise affordable housing built to replace them. The worst would be Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, which are in a flood zone and already nearly insolvent. The city’s responsible for the residents in the projects but middle-class renters would be shit outta luck. There’s nothing left that’s affordable in Manhattan.
“Infrastructure’s a much bigger problem, though. After Sandy, my dad’s company was without dedicated high-speed internet for more than a year. How can a brokerage survive without a communications link? They had to rely on microwave towers on the rooftop, which seriously limited their bandwidth. Nearly all of New York’s infrastructure’s underground, and damn little of it can tolerate flooding with saltwater.”
“You’re really into this sustainable architecture thing,” Jason commented.
“I’ve been reading up on it ever since I got an interest in it last Christmas,” I replied. “I’ve decided it’s gonna be my life’s work. If humanity has any hope of survival in the future, we’re gonna hafta adapt to a very different world. Chris Nolan can make a movie about us finding a new home among the stars, but the reality is that it’s far easier to adapt to the one we already have. We may hafta build climate-controlled, high-rise hydroponic farms, but everything we need to survive is right here and short of the resolve to reverse the damage already done, my architecture is what’s gonna save us.”
“And my music that’ll keep us all sane,” Jason added.
“So where do you plan to go to college?” Steve asked.
“Well, Ky has always wanted to go to MIT, and it turns out that MIT has the best architecture school in the world,” I noted. “In fact, they have a dual degree program in combination with civil engineering that’ll be perfect for me. We both got perfect scores on the SAT, so it’s very likely we’ll both get in, but none of it matters unless they’re willing to let a couple of underage boyfriends room together.”
“Yeah, it’d really blow if they didn’t let you be together,” Jason agreed.
“We wouldn’t do it,” Kyle responded. “Freck and I agree on this. We’re engaged to be married, by the way, when I’m sixteen and he’s eighteen. My dad’s already given the OK if we’re still together, and we’re gonna be together.”
“For sure,” I agreed.
“But if MIT won’t let us stay together as roommates until we get married, then we won’t go there,” Kyle went on. “No dream’s worth it if I can’t be with the boy I love… the man I intend to marry. If it comes down to it, we’ll go to Columbia and commute from home. Columbia’s a fine school with a top-notch reputation, and for Freck, it’s still in the top ten for architecture schools. So Columbia’s a potential backup, with Cornell a possible third.”
“There are definite advantages to living at home when you’re in college,” Steve noted, particularly when it comes to laundry, dining and entertainment,” he added with a laugh.
“Yeah, but what do you do when you wanna bring a girl home?” I asked.
“That, my friends, is the one major disadvantage to living at home,” Steve replied. “It’s not that my parents don’t accept that at sixteen, I’m old enough to be having sex, but how many girls are willing to undergo an inquisition by their boyfriend’s parents before things get serious?”
“Isn’t having sex kinda serious?” Asher asked.
“Well, yeah, but you know what I mean. You meet someone, you go out a couple of times and maybe you’d like to get to know her a little better, but taking her home to your place means meeting the rents.”
“You’d take a girl to bed with you after only a couple of dates?” Seth asked.
“So how many dates did you guys go on before you became intimate,” Steve asked.
“Well, actually one,” Seth admitted, “but that was different. We’re both guys.”
“Actually, it wasn’t even really a date,” Asher added. “We met when I was trick-or-treating on Halloween last year, and Seth was giving out candy, and we ended up talking all evening until his parents came home in the early morning. Then we came out as boyfriends the next day at school, and after we got home…”
Boy, was Seth blushing when he admitted, “Yeah, well, okay. I shouldn’t say anything about jumping into bed after only two dates, when Ashe and I were intimate less than a day after we got together for the first time.”
“They fucked each other silly,” I responded.
“Come on now,” Ashe replied. “We did not do that our first time.”
“No, they did it their second time,” Ky suggested. The deep blush on both boys’ faces pretty much said it all.
“So how has it worked, when you bring girls home?” I asked.
“Steve’s still a virgin,” Phil replied, “Whereas I’ve had experience with both girls and boys.”
“I am not a virgin!” Steve responded, a little too loudly.
“Oh yeah?” Phil asked. “Then who’ve you done it with?”
“None of your fuckin’ business,” he replied. “And who have you done it with, at your young age?”
I think we were all shocked when he threw out several names of both sexes.
“Jesus,” Steve responded. “Can you even come?”
“You don’t need to squirt to come,” Ky threw in.
“Damn right,” Phil agreed. “So who’ve you done it with, Steve?”
Sheepishly, he admitted, “Well, I’ve been focusing on my studies.”
“So I was right,” Phil went on. “You’re a virgin.”
“I wasn’t aware it was a race,” Steve replied.
At that point, thankfully, our dinner conversation was interrupted by Ken’s brother, who offered a series of toasts to the grooms, followed by several other family members offering their own well-wishes. Even we kids were served real Champagne – enough that I was starting to get a bit buzzed.
Finally, the band started playing a traditional Jewish melody, Hava Nagila, I think, and the dance floor filled with people in concentric circles with hands joined, dancing the Hora. Once again, the grooms were hoisted high on chairs, each one forming the focus of a set of circles. It was kinda cool to watch, especially when the outer circles broke at their closest points and formed an ellipse around both groups, and then the process repeated with each smaller circle until the grooms were united in the center of all the combined circles. Still, I felt like an outsider.
I knew I wasn’t the only one there who wasn’t Jewish by a long shot, but like a lot of the people present, in a way I was marrying into the religion. Not that Kyle was any more religious than his dads were, or than I was, but he seemed to have a strong cultural identity that I lacked. His whole family did. I, on the other hand, came from a father whose grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated from Italy, Germany and Ireland. He was raised Roman Catholic but hadn’t been to church since he was a boy. I didn’t know nearly as much as my mother except that her father came from France and her mother was in fact Jewish. I guess that technically made me Jewish too, but I knew next to nothing about the Jewish people. Ironically, I could read, write and speak Hebrew better than anyone in my boyfriend’s family, yet I didn’t know any of the prayers that they knew by heart.
Aside from his cultural identity, however, Kyle was an unabashed atheist. He was absolutely convinced there was a scientific explanation for everything, including the origin of the universe and the origin of life. One might say he had faith in atheism, which sounds kinda funny, but it truly is an act of faith to believe our origin is strictly a matter of chance. I, on the other hand, am not so willing to dismiss out of hand things that defy explanation. The origin of the universe can never be known because we can never examine what existed before the so-called big bang. But there are examples much closer to home as, for example, when one identical twin knows when the other has been hurt, even when they’re separated by miles. Or the commonality of premonitions and the belief in fate. Not to suggest that there are ghosts or any of that paranormal shit, but every civilization on earth has at its core a belief in a deity or deities. Is a belief in God an evolutionary trait in humans, and if so, what could be the possible survival advantage of such a belief? It certainly hasn’t kept us from killing each other – if anything, religion has underlain some of our worst wars.
Or perhaps it was presumptuous of me to equate religion and a belief in God. As far as I was concerned, religion was no different than mythology. Wasn’t the Bible, after all, just a series of stories? How did it differ from Greek or Norse mythology, other than that it was our mythology? Did Jesus really walk on water or was it a mistranslation? After all, the Hebrew expression for walking on water is the same as that for walking by water. And if Genesis really was the story of creation, why didn’t God mention the dinosaurs, or the comet that wiped them out? Why does the Bible suggest the earth is only thousands of years old, when we know it’s billions of years old? There’s scientific proof!
No, religion and God are two different things entirely, and if there really is a god, they must have come from somewhere. In other words, who or what created the god that created us? And why is belief in a god or gods universal. Do we as humans share some sort of connection outside of our physical existence? How could we ever know? Perhaps a better question would be whether or not we have a soul, as the belief in a soul and an afterlife is also a universal human trait. I once read that perhaps our sentience stems from a symbiotic relationship between a physical living entity and an entity from outside our space and time, a soul. But if that were true, where did the soul come from? It just seems that the human mind is too finite to grasp a reality that is infinite.
I guess I could be considered an agnostic, but even that term connotes an indifference that doesn’t really describe how I feel. It wasn’t that I don’t care whether or not there is a god or if there is something that connects us outside of our physical existence. No, I do care about these things, but the reality is that some things are just unknowable and hence, there is no point to trying to understand that which can never be understood. We have to make the best of the existence we know and to find meaning in our own way. Beyond a doubt, nothing was more meaningful than love… the love between two dads that was being shared with all of us tonight, and the love I shared with the wonderful boy seated next to me.
The band started to play some popular tunes, mostly pop shit from like the eighties and nineties, from when the dads were kids. Kyle and I were interested in music, which this was not, and not so much in dance, but hey, it was a wedding and so we danced as the sun set over the Hudson. One thing about a June wedding was that the sun didn’t set until around 8:30 and it didn’t get dark until around 10:30 at night. But even after it was pitch black outside – not that it’s ever pitch black at night in New York – the wedding reception was still going strong. Finally, the grooms cut the cake and we got to taste it. It was a chocolate Kalua-based cake that was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Needless to say, we loved it, especially Kyle.
The reception finally started to wind down after midnight as the guests departed. It was after two in the morning by the time the last of the guests had left and we finally walked the short distance to our home. Ky and I crashed almost as soon as our heads hit the pillow, but time for sleep would be short. In a matter of hours, we’d hafta get up to finish packing and then head to the airport for our overnight flight to London.
My biological parents might be billionaires but I’d never been outside of New York or New Jersey before. They traveled extensively all over the world by private jet, but they never saw the need to take us with them and so this was the first time I’d ever flown at all, let alone overseas. I was shocked at how early in the afternoon we left for the airport. I realized that traffic is unpredictable and so we needed to leave time for that, but even if it ended up taking two hours to get to Kennedy Airport, rather than the 45 minutes Google Maps said it should take by Uber, that still left us more than three hours until our flight left. We’d already checked in with the airline and with the Global Entry program, it seemed to me there was little reason to leave so early. Jake even brought a notarized copy of my guardianship papers with him.
Traffic wasn’t a problem, but when we got to Kennedy, I saw why we’d left so much time. The International Terminal was pure pandemonium. The cars out front dropping people off were lined up three and four deep and it took close to an hour to get near enough to the curb for our driver to drop us off. Once inside the terminal, we were confronted by huge crowds of people and long lines. We already had our boarding passes, but we still had to check our luggage.
Jake and Ken had gotten all of us brand new luggage, and it was insanely expensive, but guaranteed to last forever. The dads each had a mid-sized spinner, ’cause they had to carry shit for all of us. Roger, Kyle and I each had an international carry-on piece and even though it was regulation for cabin luggage, the limitations for the number of pieces carried on meant they all had to be checked. Fortunately, first and business class had their own line for checking their luggage, but even still it took more than a half-hour to get to the head of the line and get the luggage checked through to Heathrow. The lines for economy were unbelievable, and everyone had so much luggage! Hell, even the lines just to use the check-in kiosks were several people deep.
With the luggage check behind us, I’d assumed that with Global Entry, we’d need to do little more than show our passports at the gate. Boy, was I wrong about that. When we got to Security, the lines were unbelievable. Although Global Entry could mean shorter lines and no need to remove shoes, or computers or the like, some passengers are still subjected to extra scrutiny. I guess there was something worrisome about a couple of men traveling with three boys, but the TSA agent decided we should go through regular screening procedures and she routed us to one of the longer lines. At least she didn’t make us go to the very back of the line, but it was still quite a while before we got to the screening area.
We all had to remove our sneakers and belts, and any laptops or tablets. Because of the length of the trip, we all had MacBook Airs that had to be removed for screening. That still left a lot of electronics in our carry-on luggage. None of us made it through x-ray to the satisfaction of the screening agents and everything ended up being inspected by hand, especially all of Roger’s camera equipment. Apparently, it wasn’t unheard of for terrorists to hide explosives inside of large camera lenses, so they took time to examine each lens to make sure it was functional. It took more than an hour to get through Security. Boy, was I glad we’d left so early!
When we finally got out of security, we found ourselves in the midst of Duty-Free shopping. We couldn’t even get to the gates without passing through aisles of Duty Free. Even once we were through it, it was like being in a large enclosed shopping mall. Jake asked us if we’d like to grab a quick bite to eat, to tide us over until they served dinner on the flight. He cautioned us that in business class, we’d be well-fed throughout the flight, but that it could be some time before they served dinner. When doesn’t a kid like to eat? When they ate a huge meal at a wedding reception, followed by a large brunch the next day before leaving for the airport. That’s when. We all decided we should wait until we were in the air.
We had about an hour to kill, so we browsed through some of the shops on the way to the gate. As I would have expected, everything was way overpriced, but it did give me some ideas of things to order from Amazon, once we returned to the States. When we got to the gate, every seat in the waiting area was taken and tons of people were milling around. Teenagers were sitting on the floor, texting on their phones or with their laptops open and plugged into any outlet they could find. Fortunately, we didn’t have long to wait until business class was called for boarding.
Our flight was on a Boeing 777 and although I had concerns about how Boeing ran their business, I wasn’t convinced that Airbus was any better. The 737 Max was one of the worst examples of corporate greed and it really cast the FAA in a bad light. Truthfully, Boeing mislead the FAA and they’d never had reason to question Boeing before. The Max was a flagrant attempt to recycle a very old design to compete with more modern models from Airbus. By adding larger jet engines, however, the plane was inherently unstable and relying on software – hidden software – to compensate for the instability was a disaster waiting to happen. The design process had been so fragmented that no one realized that it lacked even the most basic safeguards. I wasn’t an aeronautical engineer, but even I could see the problems with the design and the process. I’d sure as fuck never design a building that way.
We boarded the plane between first class and business class. In first class, seating looked more like an office than an airplane, with no more than four seats in a row and individual cubicles with seats that could be laid flat. In the main cabin, which was behind business class and included economy and economy plus, there were nine seats in each row, separated by two aisles, and with hardly any room between rows. We had much more room, with just eight seats in each row and enough room between rows to stretch your legs, yet not enough to lean back all the way. One less seat across might not seem like much, but it made all the difference. There were four seats in the center section and two on either side. I had a center aisle seat, with Kyle and then Roger next to me, and with the dads across the aisle. Seated on the other side of Roger, in the other center aisle seat on our row, was a teenage girl who I guessed was maybe sixteen or seventeen. It appeared her parents were across the aisle, on the other side of the plane.
It seemed to take forever to board the plane, during which we could do little more than sit in our seats as an endless stream of passengers made the way down the aisles. No wonder they allowed practically an hour for boarding. Finally, they closed the doors to the aircraft and our flight attendant came around and offered us snacks and drinks while we waited to take off. Kyle and I both selected cookies and water. I was surprised that the water was served in real glass goblets. Something told me the folks in the main cabin had to settle for plastic cups. The wait on the tarmac was interminable as we slowly taxied into position and waited our turn. Then suddenly we were rushing down the runway and just when it seemed we’d run out of runway, the plane was airborne. Being in the center, I couldn’t really see much out the windows, so I settled in for the flight ahead. Only then did I realize I’d been holding Ky’s hand throughout takeoff.
There was a really cool entertainment system built into each seat. However, the touchscreen was small and the response very sluggish. Roger suggested that we get started watching a movie right away, as it would still be a while before they served dinner and there was little point going to sleep before dinner. Unfortunately, with only about five hours until we’d be starting our approach to Heathrow, that meant maybe three or four hours for sleep if we were lucky. We’d only gotten about five hours sleep the past two days, so we were gonna be beyond exhaustion by the time we got there. I flipped through the selections of movies and although the list was extensive, there really wasn’t anything I hadn’t already seen or that I wanted to see, and I had no interest in watching mindless TV shows. Kyle seemed to reach the same conclusion at the same time.
Sighing, he said, “More than fifty choices of movies, and not one I want to watch. But if I listen to my music or try to read a book, I’ll just fall asleep while we wait for dinner.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?” I asked
“Maybe not, but sometimes it’s worse to sleep only a few minutes at a time, you know?” he replied.
“Trust me,” Ken responded from across the aisle, “even a few minutes of sleep is better than none when you’re sleep deprived.”
“He’s right, boys,” Jake chimed in. “You might feel like crap when you first wake up, but every little bit helps when it comes to sleep. You learn that pretty quick in medical school.”
“The voice of experience,” I replied.
The server came by and handed out menus with the evening’s dinner selections, as well as the morning’s breakfast. It seemed like such a waste, to print up such a beautiful menu on heavy, glossy paper when it would be thrown away in the morning. It was especially wasteful in our case, as we’d taken advantage of the airline’s on-line ordering service to make our selections in advance. On the other hand, air travel itself was a major contributor to climate change. The rest of the world used high-speed trains for travel on land, but Americans were too impatient for that and used air travel for everything. We needed to change if we were gonna survive.
Although it was Roger who insisted we get started watching a movie, he hadn’t even extended his entertainment system from where it was stowed, let alone turned it on. He was talking up a storm with the teenage girl sitting next to him.
Kyle and I each got out our A&K music players along with our A&K IEMs, which we stuck into our ear canals. I saw that Kyle selected the classic rock album, Tommy, by The Who. I felt more like listening to a little Pavoratti, and chose the Verdi opera, La Traviata. I closed my eyes for just a minute, the better to enjoy the music.
The next think I knew, I was being handed a hot wet towel with which to wash up for dinner. Dame Joan Sutherland was already singing “Follie! Delirio vano è questo!”, which meant I’d been asleep close to a half-hour. Looking to the side, I saw that my boyfriend was also just waking up. How’d that happen?
After pulling out our IEMs – what everyone else called earphones, Jake explained, “I told the flight attendant not to disturb you with refreshments, so you’ll have to ask them to bring you something after they serve dinner. I grabbed a bottled water to tide you boys over in the meantime,” he added as he passed the plastic bottle over to me. I hated the use of bottled water from an environmental standpoint, but it was welcome under the circumstances.
“You boys both ordered the pasta?” the flight attendant asked as she came up to me and Kyle.
“Yes sir,” I replied. “The beef sounded wonderful, but my boyfriend and I are trying to reduce our carbon footprint.”
“My, you boys look so young!” the attendant said as he handed us our trays. “I didn’t even come out until I was eighteen. Could I ask you how old you boys are?”
“I’m twelve-and-a half,” I replied, “and Kyle’s ten-and-a-half, but we’re both seniors at Stuyvesant High School.”
“That’s incredible,” the attendant responded before moving on to the next row.
The dinner was surprisingly good, bordering on gourmet. I was expecting something along the lines of a Stouffer’s frozen dinner, but the dinner was way better than that.
Before we left, Kyle and I had talked about maybe becoming vegans. Kyle had tried it once before but chose last Thanksgiving for his first day. Needless to say, his being a vegan lasted only a few hours if that. This time if we do it, we’ll do it together and we’ll stick to it. If we’re to survive as a species, we have to practice sustainable agriculture and nothing would have more of an impact than eliminating the raising of animals for food.
Before the flight attendant had even come to collect the dinner trays after the meal, Kyle and I leaned our chairs back and I closed my eyes. The next thing I knew, the cabin was filled with the scents of breakfast. There was no choice this time, I guess because we’d be landing soon. The interactive map on our entertainment systems showed we were already flying over Ireland. Breakfast consisted of a cheese omelet, a biscuit and fresh fruit with, of course, coffee. The food was excellent, but the coffee was pretty vile. As Kyle put it, it’d do until we had a chance to get some of the real stuff.
Getting through immigration control was surprisingly painless, as they used a system similar to our Global Entry, but that worked with any compatible passport. After retrieving our checked luggage and making a cursory pass through customs, we were on our way to our hotel and the U.K. portion of our European vacation, or holiday, as the Brits would call it.
London seemed very similar in size to New York, but more spread out as there are no physical constraints the way there are in New York, which is built on a series of islands. Just as New York is largely defined by the Hudson and the East River, London is largely defined by the River Themes and just as New York is an agglomeration of boroughs, London is an agglomeration of cities including the cities of Richmond, Westminster, London, Lambeth, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and many more. Our hotel was a rather modest guest house in Westminster, near Victoria Station. There is no grid in London or any other old-world city, for that matter. Cities in Europe grew as a conglomeration of multiple small settlements along a major waterway and so the streets of London radiate out from a number of central squares, circuses and gardens, with crisscrossing grids of streets in between.
I was a bit surprised at just how modest our accommodations were in London – not that they were shabby by a long shot – they were modern and attractive, but not exactly luxurious. I thought that perhaps we’d stay in a suite in one of the better hotels, with one room for the dads and one for us kids, but that would’ve run us over a grand a night and with ten weeks ahead of us, that kind of money could have bought a decent luxury car. We weren’t in that league. Our lodging in London was costing less than three hundred pounds a night, with a full English breakfast included.
Although I grew up with parents who were rich by any standard, even with two physician salaries, the dads were at best upper middle class by New York City standards. For what we could probably get for our house in Riverdale, we could get something like Seth’s renovated four-bedroom top-floor apartment in the co-ops on the Lower East Side, or perhaps a studio apartment in one of the better buildings on the Upper East Side. Affluence was relative in New York and although not many could boast a house overlooking the Hudson, an indoor swimming pool or a ten-week European vacation, we couldn’t afford that vacation except by staying in hotels on the cheap side of the equation. Traveling in business class was truly a spurge but, as the dads put it, it was the difference between sleeping and not sleeping on the way over. We’d be in economy plus on the way back.
Our hotel was more of a guest house, and we had two tiny rooms. For the kids, there was a small room with three twin beds and bathroom that was barely big enough for the shower stall, toilet and sink it contained. The dads’ room was even smaller, with a double bed and similar-size bathroom. It quickly became apparent why we were traveling with so little luggage, as finding room for even three small carry-on suitcases plus our cabin bags and backpacks was a challenge. We had enough luggage packed for the first week, which would be in London, but not for the second week, which would be traveling around England. As the dads explained, we’d need to find a laundromat every seven to ten days or so.
Naturally as it was still early morning when we arrived at the hotel, our rooms weren’t ready and we had to leave our luggage at the front desk. London was five hours ahead of New York and although the clock behind the front desk read 9:00, our biologic clocks kept telling us it was only 4:00 AM and we should go back to bed. This being a Sunday morning, not much was open yet either. The first order of business was to purchase transportation passes for the week, and so we headed up to Victoria Station, a half-mile away and an easy walk. Because we weren’t familiar with London, we headed to the tourist office, where we waited in a long line to speak to an agent. We already knew that Londoners used something called an Oyster Card for both the underground and city buses, and so the first order of business was to purchase one of them for each of us. New York was in the process of adopting a similar system to replace its MetroCard system and as in London, certain credit cards could also be used in the tap-to-pay system, but as kids, we didn’t have these and unlike with the new system in New York, London had not yet implemented the use of smart phones to pay for transportation.
One of the other significant differences between the London system and New York’s was the use of distance to determine fare. In New York, one could travel anywhere by subway, from the Pelham Bay in the Bronx to the Far Rockaways in Queens, all for a relatively modest fare. In London, bus routes and the underground were subdivided by zones and one paid more to go farther. As such, it was necessary to tap to exit the underground as well as to enter, much as was the case in Washington DC with its Metro. We could get a discounted flat rate by paying by the day or the week, but we still had to pay extra per trip for travel between zones. Therefore, it was a bit complicated to figure out the optimum combination of weekly, daily and per-trip fares we would need to pay. On top of all that, there was a fee to purchase the Oyster Card itself, but we could use them indefinitely, no matter how many times we visited London in the future.
Once the dads figured out what we needed to purchase, with the help of the agent, and purchased the oyster cards, they handed one oyster card to each of us, which we slid into our wallets. When we asked the agent for a bus route map, however, he gave us a hardy laugh and told us a route map would require something the size of a book. He explained that there are hundreds of bus routes, but they went virtually everywhere. In time we would come to appreciate that one could take a bus from nearly anywhere in London to anywhere else in London, with perhaps only one change needed. I’m sure the Londoners appreciated they’re extensive system, but it was almost impenetrable to outsiders, which was why we almost never saw tourists on London’s buses. In New York with its simple route structure, however, there were very few days when we didn’t run into travelers from overseas. I kinda preferred keeping it simple, yet extensive as we did back home. In any case, the agent recommended a few apps for our phones that could guide us wherever we wanted to go.
By the time we finished our business at Victoria Station, we were all dragging from jet-lag, but it was barely noon and there’d still be a wait before we could get into our rooms. We were also beyond starved and so we set out to find a place to eat. There were many eateries and kiosks in the station itself, but it would have been a shame to settle for train station food when we were in London. The Brits are known for their pubs and so with the aid of our phones, we went in search of a traditional English pub. I was surprised that children would be allowed in a pub but in the U.K., pubs are a combination of neighborhood bar and family restaurant, where food is ordered and paid for at the register and then brought to one’s table. It didn’t take long to find one of the better ones and, of course, we all ordered the national dish, fish and chips. I already knew that what we call a potato chip, the Brits call a crisp, and that what they call a chip is what we’d call a fry, so I wasn’t surprised when the food arrived in paper-lined baskets. I don’t usually eat fried foods but for this I’d make an exception. The fish was way better than any fried fish I’d ever eaten before and the chips were delicately seasoned and succulent.
I was stuffed by the time we finished our Sunday lunch – we all were, and I figured we’d probably pack it in early with only a light snack before bed. We weren’t all that with-it, so the dads suggested we stick with some light outdoor sightseeing. We were already right by Westminster Cathedral, which we soon learned was not the same as Westminster Abbey, and this being Sunday, it seemed only natural to start there. We went inside but didn’t stay long, as there was much to see in the area. From there we headed up to Buckingham Palace, but for some reason the queen didn’t know we were coming and was at Balmoral in Scotland for the summer. Not only did the dads forget to arrange an audience with her, but there wasn’t even a changing of the guards, so we didn’t stay long. Buckingham Palace is surrounded by public gardens – the Palace Gardens to the west, Green Park to the north and Saint James Park to the east – with several miles of walking paths and trails among them. There was no way we could see all them, but the idea of circling around the palace by way of the three parks and gardens was appealing, and so that’s what we did, passing by the Queens Gallery, the Palace Gardens and the Memorial Gates and Monument, where we found a kiosk for renting Santander Cycles. The smiles on our faces when we saw those bicycles just waiting for us was enough to wake up the dead, which pretty well described us before we found the cycles.
Riding our bikes, we saw the Wellington Arch, the Royal Artillery Memorial, the Wellington Statue, the Equestrian Statue and the New Zealand Memorial. We crossed over into Hyde Park with its famous rose garden, and then we came to a holocaust memorial that we hadn’t even realized was there. It was the first of many such memorials we would be seeing during our time in Europe, culminating with a tour of Auschwitz itself and for the first time, I truly felt my Jewish roots. I was only one-quarter Jewish and had had no exposure to that part of my heritage while growing up, but now I was with my boyfriend and his two dads who were Jewish and I was slowly realizing that this would be a major part of my life from now on.
Turning to my boyfriend, I said, “I never told you this, but my maternal grandmother was Jewish. I guess technically that makes me Jewish too.”
“Funny, but you don’t look Jewish,” came Kyle’s smiling retort.
“That is so lame,” I replied. “I’ve never really thought of myself as Jewish before, but now that I’m marrying into the faith, so to speak, it really changes things.”
“Do you think you might want to be Bar Mitzvah’ed?” Ky asked.
“I never thought of it before,” I replied. Then turning to Roger, I asked, “Were you Bar Mitzvah’ed?”
“Freck, it’s not a verb,” he responded. “Bar Mitzvah means ‘son of the commandments’. You become a bar mitzvah. It’s not something that can be done to you. You have to study and the ceremony is merely a ceremony for you to demonstrate that you are worthy of becoming an adult member of the community… worthy of participating in sacred prayers as part of a minyan.”
“Actually, a mitzvah is an act of righteousness,” Kyle countered. “The word is often translated as referring to the 613 so-called commandments in the Talmud, an ancient treatise on Jewish law, but it encompasses so much more than the literal interpretation arrived at by scholars whose universe consisted entirely of the eastern Mediterranean.”
“Are you planning to become a bar mitzvah?” I asked my boyfriend.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” he replied, “and it’s rather late to be starting Hebrew school, but I already know most of what’s required and I could learn the rest in no time,” he added. “Yeah, I’d definitely like to do that, but I’ve got time. I won’t turn thirteen for another two-and-a-half years. On the other hand, you, my boyfriend, will be thirteen the day after Christmas this year, and there’ll be damn little time for study before then, and even less when we’re in college.”
“I can already read, write and speak in Hebrew,” I pointed out.
“Yes, and you can do the same in Arabic, but I don’t think you’re prepared to walk into any mosque and pray either,” Kyle countered. “There’s a lot to learn before becoming a bar mitzvah, not the least of which is to memorize all the prayers and your Torah portion and your Haftorah portion, including the musical inflections to use in chanting them. You need to learn and understand the history of the Jewish people, which is more extensive than any history of any people alive today. There’s no older written history than that of the Old Testament, as the Christians call it.”
“It’s a lot to think about,” I replied. “I’m sure I could do it, maybe by next summer rather than my thirteenth birthday, but it would be an undertaking unlike anything I’ve done before.”
Squeezing my shoulder and looking me in the eyes, Kyle countered, “You don’t have to do this for me Freck. I didn’t fall in love with you because you’re Jewish. Hell, I didn’t even know you’re a quarter Jewish until now. I grew up with the culture, but I’m not doing it because of my religious beliefs. It’s just a part of who I am… and I wouldn’t mind getting all those presents,” he added with a chuckle.
Looking down, I responded, “As much as I love you, I wouldn’t be doing it for you either, Kyle.” Then looking up into his eyes, I continued, “I’d be doing it for me. This is a part of me that suddenly seems relevant. Very relevant to my future.” It was a lot to think about.
There wasn’t more to say, and so we didn’t. Recognizing just how huge Hyde park is, particularly when combined with the adjacent Kensington Gardens and the Sackler Gallery, we decided to see them on another day, in conjunction with Kensington Palace. So we headed back into Green Park and then Saint James’s Park, stopping to see the monuments and statuary along the way. We ended the day at Saint James Café, located on Saint James’s Park Lake, within the park, where we had what the Brits would call a lite afternoon tea consisting of small sandwich of roast beef and greens, followed by a dessert of spotted dick. No kidding, spotted dick. It was a kind of pudding made with dried fruit and custard. We rode our bikes back to Victoria and turned them in at a kiosk about a block from our hotel. For a family of jet-lagged tourists, it had been a surprisingly full afternoon.
The week we spent in London went far too quickly. London is a city very similar in size to New York, but with a history that spans millennia. There are so many gardens in London and with a temperate, oceanic climate that’s similar in many respects to that of our Pacific Northwest, the profusion of flowering plants is unbelievable. There are rose gardens everywhere and they’re all so perfect. I’ve heard that roses are among the most difficult plants to grow, and yet here they were thriving. New York has it’s Kew Gardens, but the Royal Gardens at Kew in Richmond were something else entirely. One of the coolest things we saw was the City of London Cemetery, located on the outskirts of the city. It’s not that any of us is fascinated by death, but Ken has a particular interest in historic cemeteries. This one was actually more of a crematorium with very few burial plots, but what distinguishes it is the memorial rose gardens, in which a rose bush is planted in memory for every person cremated there. How cool is that?
Just as New York is a city of museums, museums are a big part of London. The British Museum is world-famous, with artifacts stolen… err, collected from all over the world. At one time, the Brits had ‘acquired’ territory that spanned the globe – they called it the empire on which the sun never set. Seriously, to the peoples they conquered, the British literally plundered their most precious treasures, many of which are in museums all over the world, but nowhere more so than in the British Museum. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has one of the most extensive collections of decorative arts in the world. I could have spent days there, but we only had a half-a-day to spare. I was definitely gonna hafta go back someday.
There was the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery and the Tate Museum. Then there was the Museum of the City of London, the Transportation Museum, the Postal Museum, and the Charles Dickens Museum. Of course, no visit to London would be complete without a visit to Madame Tussaud’s and then there was perhaps the coolest one of all, the Spy Museum. There was Kensington Palace, Royal Albert Hall, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster with the famous clock tower of Big Ben, which unfortunately for Roger and his camera, was enshrouded in scaffolding. We saw the Tower Bridge and went up in the London Eye, one of the largest Ferris Wheels in the world.
There was Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Wimbledon and the Isle of Dogs. ’Course I was especially interested in the architecture of London, and we saw a lot of it. There were many places from which to see the city from the highest of vantage points, including the Sky Garden, the Gherkin, which looks like a giant suppository or maybe a dildo, and the tallest building in London, the Shard. Although the inventive designs were impressive, none of them came close to being sustainable, which was a shame. Although the situation isn’t nearly as dire as in cities such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Miami or New Orleans, climate change is already having a major effect on London and the future is not unlike that in New York.
London is inland, but the River Thames passes right through the heart of the city and is responsible for the drainage of most of southeast England. An ingenious accommodation, the Thames Barrier, has been in operation since the early 1980s, preventing storm surges from the North Sea from inundating central London. As climate extremes have begun to take a toll, however, the barrier has been needed much more frequently and in the 2013-14 season, it had to be closed fifty times. With sea level rise, there will come a point where it needs to close once or twice each day to prevent inflow of tidal waters, and it’s not really designed for that. The prediction is for increasing rainfall too and, hence, the barrier’s effective days are numbered. Even if the Brits were to use a series of dams, and reservoirs, flooding hundreds of miles of farmland, and even if they construct massive pumping stations to deal with getting rid of excess water, there’d still be the problem of dealing with massive storm surges.
Of course these problems had solutions, albeit very expensive ones. New York was projected to have to spend 2.5 billion dollars per year mitigating sea level change by 2050. We could afford it. London could afford that kind of money too. The cost of saving Boston, however, would be much higher, and for all intent and purposes, no amount of money could save Miami or New Orleans, in spite of their most sincere efforts. In the third world, some of the most populous cities of all were destined to face serious flooding, and they were ill-equipped to deal with it. It looked like I was gonna be busy.
Our time in London came to an end on Sunday, one week after we’d landed there. We didn’t have time to catch a play or musical during our time there, which was kind of a shame, given how London’s known for its theater, but then there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be seen on or off Broadway in New York. London was an extraordinary city with a profound sense of history that New York could never match. There were stunning palaces, world-class museums and beautiful gardens throughout the city. The modern architecture was amazing, but far from sustainable. Both London and New York were much alike in that regard.
On Sunday morning we checked out of our hotel and rented a Range Rover for the next week. It was a bit large for the narrow roads that predominated in the villages of the British countryside, but it was barely big enough to accommodate the five of us and to stow all our luggage securely, such that it couldn’t be seen. Our plan was to make a grand circle encompassing most of the major cities in England and sites of historic interest. We took off heading east to an area known as East Anglia, a picturesque region of gardens, castles and the North Sea. We spent the night in a small bed and breakfast in Norwich, pronounced NOR-itch, and took off the next morning to the north for Lincoln, which had one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’d ever seen. Roger went nuts trying to photograph all the statuary and stained glass inside. We spent the night in a guesthouse in the town of Chatsworth, in the center of what the Brits referred to as ‘The North’.
After a cholesterol-laden full English breakfast, we spent the morning at Chatsworth House, a sprawling English estate with beautiful gardens and a mansion filled with world-class art and marquetry. Once we finally managed to pry Roger away and back to the car, we headed up to York, from which New York got its name. We spent the afternoon sightseeing in York – York Minster was even more spectacular than the Lincoln Cathedral and again, Roger went nuts with his camera. The next morning, after another huge breakfast, we drove to Manchester, where we spent the next two nights.
Manchester had some really nice museums, and a cathedral that was surprisingly modern inside, but the real highlight was in nearby Liverpool. I’d always heard Liverpool was gritty and industrial – at least that’s the story from the Beatles growing up there. What I wasn’t expecting were world-class museums, an open-air pedestrian mall taking up half the downtown, extensive parkland and gardens, and redeveloped docks with high-end shops and restaurants. Of course the legacy of the Beatles could be felt everywhere. I would have liked to have spent another day there, but there was still so much more to see.
Come Friday morning, after another humongous breakfast, we headed to the heart of industrial Britain, Birmingham. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was very nice and I loved the older architecture of the place, but there was very little time to be spent there as we had to make tracks. From Birmingham we drove down to Oxford, which not only was the home of the world-famous university of the same name, but the home of Rover, the car company that made the car we were driving. In fact, Rover makes a full line of sedans and other types of vehicles in addition to the high-end SUVs that they sold in the States.
We took a tour of Oxford University in the evening – they aren’t generally given that late in the day, but apparently the dads made arrangements for a private tour, based on the possibility that Kyle and I might apply for the following year. Not only was Oxford thrilled with the possibility of kids of our ability going there, but clearly they were interested in milking my rich and famous parents for all their worth. They’d have no problem with Kyle and me sharing a large dorm room together. We’d even have our own personal servant to clean up after us and iron our clothes. The tuition for American students would be on the order of 35 thousand dollars each per year, servant not included. That was a bargain compared to tuition in the states, where tuition at M.I.T. would be over fifty grand. The bottom line is that, like it or not, as young as we were, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for us to study overseas until graduate school. Besides which, Oxford doesn’t have a program in architecture.
On Saturday morning, after another huge full English breakfast, we set out for Stonehenge. I’d heard it was a bit of a tourist trap, but it was Stonehenge, after all. When we got there, however, it was exactly like the pictures I’d seen of it, which was to say that it was so iconic that it was almost as if I’d seen it before. Worse still, calling it a tourist trap was being overly generous. The souvenir shops sold just about anything one could imagine with the likeness of Stonehenge on it. There was even Stonehenge toilet paper. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something mystical about using it after taking a big dump. The place was crawling with tourists, all of them taking their selfies, that it was just about impossible to take a picture of the formation by itself. Roger tried though, and ended up taking hundreds of repeated shots from different angles. He explained that he had software that could eliminate things that weren’t consistent from frame to frame and thereby eliminate all the people. Cool.
Finally, it was time to return to London and turn in the car, which had served us well. We then took a taxi to the International Terminal at Saint Pancras. We had a little time, so we checked our luggage and went exploring. The train station and attached hotel were wicked cool, with some of the most outstanding neo-gothic architecture I’d ever seen. There was an amazing sculpture in the station that was several stories high and showed a man and a woman about to kiss, I think. The base of the statue told its own story, with several panels in bas relief. It was incredible.
Realizing that the British Library was nearby, we decided to take a look and were blown away. The building was modern, yet functional, with tables and conversation areas that looked more like an eatery than a library. The tables were filled with young people – high school and college students, in sharp contrast to the much more geriatric population in the main library in New York. There were special exhibits including a showing of some of DaVinci’s original manuscripts. There wasn’t time to see the exhibit before our train left, but I did buy the book associated with the exhibition. It was my first major purchase of the trip. The single most incredible feature of the library, however, was a giant glass cube filled with books. The library was organized around a multistory atrium and within that atrium was an enormous glass cube, through which could be seen stacks of leather-bound volumes representing the library’s enormous collection. I was sure glad we stopped to see the library. It was a major highlight of the trip for me.
Finally, the time came to head back to the International Terminal to board the Eurostar Express train to Gare du Nord in Paris via the Chunnel. It would take us a little under two-and-a-half hours to get there and even though we were in Standard Class, the accommodations were still quite nice. Indeed, the primary differences between Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier were in terms of amenities. Indeed, of most significance, were the meals, with both premier classes serving a meal and in the case of Business Premier, a better selection of meals with wine and drinks included. As we’d already started the day with a large breakfast and eaten a light lunch when we first arrived at Saint Pancras, a meal on the train would’ve been superfluous. Besides which, what could be better than eating our evening meal at a sidewalk café in Paris?
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.