The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
The summer of '68 was one of celebration and perfection on our beach. My life was perfect. I'd just graduated from high school and I turned eighteen and I did it beside Ivan. He went everywhere and did everything with me.
Our futures were laid out straight ahead of us. I was already training under Bill Payne to be the Sanibel Island Conservancy's marine biologist. I'd start academic studies in the fall to acquire my degree in five years. Ivan would fish with his father and remain at my side when he wasn't at sea.
Ivan was also troubled by the condition of the Gulf of Mexico and we talked about him being part of my studies, while he worked as a fisherman for his father on the Vilnius Two.
Ivan and I had a lot of time together the summer we graduated from high school. Studying with Bill Payne, diving, working at the conservancy had me reducing my fishing days to three a month. Once my academic courses began in Fort Myers, I'd give up fishing and devote myself to becoming a marine biologist.
After school let out, we dove together every day for two weeks. We were celebrating finally having lives of our own. I bought identical SCUBA gear for both of us, using the money in the jar on the fridge in the kitchen.
Harry McCalister, my benefactor and candidate for the U.S. Congress, gave me unconditional use of the fourteen foot runabout for diving. He'd moved it to a slip his father had rented at the marina for convenience. It was a convenient summer for my lover and me.
We drove a lot that summer in Teddy's 1956 Chevy. Fort Myers, the Glades, Miami, and two trips to Key West.
No one was in a rush on the beach. I could leave Pop to mind the shop and my lab without a lot of notice. The summer you graduated from high school was filled with laughter and excitement, not to mention love. Ivan and I were doing it together. We expected to spend the rest of our lives together.
There was talk of a trip to Tulsa. I could look up my old friends. When I realized I felt no connection to Tulsa, we settled for Key West. It was closer.
I was free as a bird. My future was in the bag. Life was good. I never saw a reason why I couldn't hold up my end.
At eighteen, in love, and without a care in the world, Ivan was my priority. We talked about my future. We didn't know what came next. Life was a piece of cake for us.
That summer we came and went as we pleased. The world was our oyster.
Lucy was my little sister, cheerleader, best girl, and confidant. She gave good advice. At fourteen she was already smarter than anyone I knew. Luckily she liked working in the lab, cleaning up after me, and dotting every I and crossing each T.
Lucy was the first one to know Ivan and I were lovers. Her biggest regret, once she knew this bit of news, was she gave up her plans to marry Ivan. Lucy was in my corner and she stayed there.
No one else figured out that Ivan and I were in love. The fact we were inseparable was a clue. My future was falling into place. If you were in the right place at the right time, and I was, life unfolds in front of you.
Ivan's future wasn't as clearly defined as mine. Fishing for his father was cool but he didn't see it as his career. As smart as Ivan was, he could do anything he decided to do, but he wasn't in a hurry. Life didn't move all that fast on our beach.
Learning from Bill Payne wasn't anything like going to school. He taught me things I wanted to know and our classroom was the Gulf of Mexico. Our studies took us underwater and Bill knew where to go to give me the maximum benefit from his knowledge. After a dive, Bill and I talked for hours and then I wanted to know when we could do it all over again.
Even the English, history, philosophy, and sociology classes two days a week would be a breeze. Much of the studying was done at home and the classroom work was primarily discussion.
Gone was the confinement and regurgitation of facts in high school. While I had some pretty good teachers who cared about their kids, many of them could have doubled as prison guards. The exercise of complete control was obsessive at Madison High, but I looked at it from a students perspective..
Why the need to tamp down originality? We were kids. Give us courses meant to do nothing more than tickle our fancy. One or two classes meant to do nothing more than excite us and didn't require us to memorize things we were destined to forget.
Kids needed to be stimulated and offered a view of a world they could be passionate about. Filling our days with memorizing facts we were required to regurgitate on demand was a good way to lose the attention of students
We lived in a mass produced society that demanded cookie cutter results. We were on the assembly-line of life. Each of us got the same education, like it or not. We lived in the time of mind expanding drugs and education did its best to keep minds tightly confined to the government prescribed education.
We did have the same opportunity as everyone else. If you didn't respond to the cookie cutter approach, you could figure out for yourself what you wanted to do, if you didn't want to find yourself tangled in the wheels of the machine and it didn't stop for road kill.
I couldn't be sure if my mind worked or not at sixteen and seventeen. I was happiest when I was at sea. I wasn't sure what school taught me, but I was in the right place at the right time. Being a fisherman didn't require much schooling, but being a fisherman put me where I needed to be; in the Gulf of Mexico.
I stumbled into Harry McCalister at the right time. The rest was as easy as following my nose. My career choice was never in doubt once I met Harry. My future wasn't on the Gulf, it was in it.
I got an education that inspired me on the Vilnius Two. In the best classes, with the great teachers, you were all ears, wanting to soak it up, because it was rare. The sea was such a teacher for me.
Most days that summer started with Ivan and me doing trash pick up on the island beaches. When we were done with our day, we went by Pop's shop to give him a hand with whatever he was doing.
Somehow it all got done without an over abundance of planning. It became a model for how it would be done as my future became clear. It was still summer and there were sea oats to sow.
This was my life directly after high school and before the news about Boris came. If it was possible to enjoy being underwater more than I did, Ivan was your man. We were both excited by the prospects of getting out in the Gulf for a dive.
We were excited by everything that summer. We had a good life together and no one seemed to mind. I bought matching SCUBA gear and we went diving a lot. We had the world by the tail and nothing got in our way, until something did.
That summer turned hard about the time Ivan and I had to separate for the week. He'd be going fishing with his father and I'd be going to the conservancy to work for mine. It was time to get serious.
Mr. Aleksa had hired Arturo to replace me on the six day trips. No one had to say hiring Arturo was Kenny's idea. On the last Friday of each month, I went fishing. Mr. Aleksa scheduled the trip from Friday to Sunday, so I was away from work the least amount of time. He insisted on doing it and it kept me in touch with fishing.
Fishing was good that summer. There had been no major storms and the tropical storms churned things up enough to make fishing better than usual without keeping the Vilnius Two off the water. The fishing that kept Ivan and me together for years, now separated us as July was ending. My fishing days were numbered.
I'd been captivated by another facet of the Gulf.
Once Ivan was on shore, he knew where I'd be, and it didn't take him long to show up at the conservancy. Because I knew when they docked, I was waiting and ready to take off when Ivan showed up.
In early August that year, on the Thursday I took off before the Friday fishing trip, I took Ivan to play Goofy Golf, get pizza, and go to the movies. We were still celebrating what a wonderful life we had.
Ivan won at Goofy Golf. He always did. We got a sausage and mushroom pizza. We went to see The Detective with Frank Sinatra. Ivan said it had a gay theme of sorts. Since there was nothing gay anywhere in our world, we decided to see it.
The story was set in New York City. Probably made it easier for Frank to get to work. I heard he was from Hoboken, New Jersey. Frank Sinatra had been out front on civil rights, which I liked. His music was OK. I didn't know anything about his acting.
I'd seen Von Ryan's Express a couple of years before. It was set in World War II. Every time Sinatra appeared on screen, I waited for him to break into song. He never did and I never did figure out what the movie was about.
As far as I was concerned, we could have skipped the lesson on being gay in New York City. It didn't appeal to me and Sinatra still didn't sing.
In one of the scenes the cops raided a trailer depot with trailers lined up side by side. The trailers were full of people. One gorgeous fifteen or sixteen year old kid stood out. The crowd surrounding him were older and more threatening.
The camera stayed on the youngster as arrests were made. Shame was administered, names taken, and the patty wagon was loaded. It was off to the pokey on the way to humiliation and ruin. Frank looked troubled as his fellow officers made queer jokes.
Gays were the lowest of the low in New York City, and that took some work from what I'd heard about New York. Gay people are being murdered. The cops are worried about the city's image.
Who knew there were gay people?
Good old Frank arrests the prime suspect. This is one crazy dude. He didn't know what day it was, but Frank knows he has his man when he giggles and laughs over the murders.
By the time Frank is done, the suspect is confessing to all the murders back to Lincoln and he's on the way to the chair.
'The devil made me do it,' isn't a good defense.
Frank's satisfied, promoted, and the darling of the press. The fact the murders continue is perplexing, but Frank's the only one that notices that little factoid. Until he follows up with one of the witnesses in the first murder. He knew the latest victim as well.
“You must admit that knowing two of six gay victims is something we need to follow up,” Frank tells him.
“Certainly, I understand. I had to kill them, you know. They wanted me to kill them.”
Who could have figured on two nut jobs in the same gay murder investigation? Frankly, Frank, I didn't even care. I was glad when it was over. The first mention of gay people in any media I consumed didn't impress me. The fact I was one created a quandary. There was one hot fifteen year old surrounded by drooling forty year old men and two gay men nuttier than a fruit cake. There seemed to be a theme in the depictions.
I wasn't impressed with Hollywood's version of being gay. We didn't see many movies and The Detective was a good reason why I wasn't in a hurry to return.
I understood my love for Ivan was forbidden. People hated that Ivan and I loved each other. After seeing my first depiction of gay people, I think I'd hate me too if I didn't know myself so well.
“That was the biggest pile of crap I've ever seen piled in one place,” Ivan said. “They make gay men look like psychopaths and I haven't wanted to kill anyone all week.”
“When's the last time you heard anything about anyone who is gay?” I asked.
“You mean we aren't the only ones?” Ivan asked. “Do you think we might be a figment of someone's imagination?”
“Exactly! We're a rumor someone is spreading,” I said.
“I don't need a name for what I feel. Why call it anything but love? And where were the gay women? Aren't there gay women?” Ivan asked. “If men are gay aren't there gay women? Biologically speaking, there should be a balance of some sort.”
“One would think. Where do drag queens fit?” I asked, not sure.
“Aren't they men who dress up?” Ivan asked. “There should be a class on this stuff. That movie confused what I thought I knew. None of those people were normal, especially the cops.”
“We're nothing like any of those people,” I said. “Maybe we aren't gay?”
“We're in a gay relationship. We're guys. I suppose we'd be called gay by people who keep track of such things,” Ivan explained. “Doesn't seem to cover much. The only thing gay about me is the fact I sleep with the most incredible man I've ever known. I could be prejudiced. You are the only man I've slept with.”
“I don't know gay describes us. I've never been in the back of a trailer. Nothing in that movie made me feel particularly gay.”
“I agree,” he said.
The movie sucked big ones but that was the first time Ivan and I talked about what to call what we felt for each other. What it might mean. I feared talking about my feelings. I wasn't sure what to say. If that movie was supposed to say something about Ivan and me, boy was it way off base. So maybe we were a different kind of gay men.
Teenagers aren't that well informed about feelings or sex. We were advised to avoid both until we were old enough to understand. At my house, when it came to sex, the overriding opinion was don't do it if it can be avoided.
My parents had six kids. That meant they didn't avoid it. I don't know what Mama thought John-Henry was doing with all those girls he brought home, I have no idea. In spite of the blackout on information imposed on us, I knew why John-Henry brought all those girls home. He was hoping to get lucky. I Knew the mechanics in the deal but what I knew I picked up by trial and error.
What I knew didn't tell me much. Ivan and I figured out we loved each other without any trouble and it was too late on the having sex deal. That boat sailed the year before. I didn't know if we were doing it right but neither of us had any complaints. If there was something we didn't know, or weren't doing, I hadn't noticed. Ivan and I figured the sex thing out without any coaching. That was good because I was bashful.
We'd been forced to take a look at ourselves and we discovered we were OK. We weren't so sure about the people who made that movie. There was no welcome mat for Ivan and me but we created our own support. Whatever that movie was about, it wasn't about us.
I didn't know how Ivan and I fit into the larger picture. We knew we didn't fit into the picture we saw.
Ivan held my hand as I drove toward home. He knew I was made uncomfortable by the movie. I tried to keep my eyes on the road. I resisted the idea of pulling over and practicing our technique.
By the time we'd sorted through the complicated look at some very unhealthy people, we were pulling into Ivan's driveway. I had to pull over and park between the trees. His father's truck was there, which was normal for Thursday before going fishing on Friday.
There was a large red Buick convertible, top down, parked in the middle of the driveway. I'd have blocked the Buick in if I parked in the driveway. That sucker was a rolling roadblock.
Ivan was out of the car and standing beside the Buick when I caught up with him.
“It's my mother's new car,” he said. “She just bought it.”
“You're mother's here? At the beach she hates?” I said, thinking I was finally going to see Mrs. Aleksa.
Ivan was gone. I crossed the basketball court and Ivan was no where to be seen. What was his hurry? I had to practically run to catch up with him and he was faster than me.
What did he know that I didn't know? I didn't think he liked his mother all that much.
The door to the kitchen shut as I reached the steps. That's when I thought something might be wrong. Why was his mother here?
I didn't hear anything. I hurried through the door and nearly knocking Ivan down. He'd stopped two feet inside. I didn't know what was going on. I stepped to Ivan's right, coming face to face with Mr. & Mrs. Aleksa, who stood on the opposite side of the kitchen table.
No one said anything. It was like a standoff.
Ivan was looking at his mother and then he turned his head to
look at his father.
I stood there like a dork, still taking it all in.
Mrs. Aleksa was all in red. It looked like something she might wear to work. I figured that's who the woman was. I'd never seen her. Her red jacket topped off a tight red skirt that ended just above her knees. She had a white silk blouse with ruffles down the front. There was fine black piping on the tip of the ruffles. There were black buttons on the blouse. Mrs. Aleksa did not shop at Sears.
Her face was without any expression I could read in the five seconds I looked at her, and I looked because it's where Ivan was looking. I took an extra second because I'd never seen her before. She looked past Ivan at me. She didn't look happy, mad, sad, glad, or anything else I could identify, which surprised me. She'd never seen me before. I'm sure she knew who I was.
She stood on one leg, the right, her left knee was bent slightly. She had on glossy black high heels. They went well with her outfit.
'How the hell do you walk across the sand in high heels?' I wondered but didn't ask.
I'd call her posture stern. If they'd been fighting she hid it well.
That's when I looked at Mr. Aleksa. He came into focus for the first time. His face was drawn, having closed in on itself. His eyes were tiny slits, almost closed. If I didn't know better, I'd say he'd taken a recent beating.
His weather beaten face showed ten extra years of wear since I'd seen him that morning. If I hadn't known him I wouldn't have recognized Mr. Aleksa.
Had he been crying? It was then I saw the tracks where tears had run on his cheeks. There were heavy lines that ran from his forehead, right across each eye. I'd never seen a sadder face.
I'd been in the kitchen ten seconds and I'd seen more than I usually picked up in a week. What was going on?
When I heard Ivan, I nearly jumped out of my skin. The sound began in his stomach and climbed into his throat before bursting out of him. The scream was primordial.
There was only one word as he shrunk in front of me. His fists tightened. His head moved forward on his neck at an impossible angle. Every muscle in his body was part of his scream.
“No!” just kept erupting from him in a word that was a river.
He was gone by the time I realized that the noise came from him. I was frozen by the scene, trying to understand what was going on. I wanted to go after Ivan. I was paralyzed with confusion.
I couldn't put the pieces together. I'd been there all of fifteen seconds. Ivan shot out of there like a wounded animal.
I was looking at Ivan's mother again. She looked back at me. I looked into Mr. Aleksa's face again, fearful of what I was about to learn. I felt the fear without having a reason to be fearful.
“Boris,” he said in one agonized word that may have been a prayer.
It's all it took for everything to fall into place.
Boris was one of the most beautiful guys I'd ever seen. The fact he was identical to Ivan explained it, but why would anything happen to someone with so much going for him? He had his entire life to beguile the world in which he lived.
I wasn't so much thinking about it as I was struck dumb by what happened in that room. With nothing being said the lives of the Aleksas would never be the same.
I was out the door a half second after I knew what the meeting was about. Ivan must have suspected even before he entered the kitchen. It took a couple of seconds for his suspicions to be confirmed.
I knew Mr. and Mrs. Aleksa had no use for each other. I'd never seen them together. At least she'd come to inform him about their son. He'd taken it hard.
It wasn't difficult to track Ivan. His shoes were just outside the door, one than the other, one sock, the other, his shirt and then his pants. The clothes led to the point of sand beside the river.
I went to where he sat rocking, holding his knees to his chest.
He sobbed softly as he rocked.
I sat, putting my arms around him. He collapsed into me and he cried for a very long time.
My legs were completely covered by the water by the time he stopped crying and sat up. It was dark and we sat looking into the blackness. There was no moon and not a single star. I put my arm around him and he turned his head to look at me.
He said nothing. What was there to say?
What could I say to him? I wasn't going to say something lame. I was there and I'd stay there as long as he needed me.
Ivan stopped talking. He had nothing to say at all. I would talk to him. He said nothing. I'd never seen anyone in so much pain. I wasn't sure where we were going but I held him and stayed beside him, and when he cried I comforted him as best I could.
Two weeks after the news about Boris came to the beach, Mr. Aleksa wanted to go find his son. Boris was an MIA. He wasn't KIA. The difference might have been semantics, but no one could prove Boris was dead of his wounds. He had been wounded in a firefight in northwestern Vietnam.
In a move that shocked me, Mrs. Aleksa brought a letter to the beach that came from the boy Ivan thought was in love with Boris. Boris brought him and another boy home to Tampa before they left for Vietnam.
“Thank you, Mother,” Ivan said, and they hugged.
“When you're ready, come to Tampa. Or call me. I'll come for you, Ivan.”
“Next week, Mother. I'll come next week. Clay will bring me.”
Ivan had spoken. He said nothing before that.
He'd be going to Tampa next week. I'd be driving him. There was nothing said about when he might return from Tampa. There was nothing else said. Ivan had nothing else to say.
We sat together watching the Gulf.
Later, when Ivan was ready for it, he handed me the letter.
“Do you mind reading it to me, Clay?” he asked. “It'll be easier if you read it.”
We stayed on the deck. I sat to his right and opened the letter. It was addressed to, and the letter began, “Dear Mrs. Aleksa.”
“You may remember me. Boris called me Big Boy. I came to your apartment with him after boot camp,” the boy explained.
The wording indicated he was writing about someone he had a special attachment to. Only someone deaf and blind would miss the affection he had for Boris. The letter took him some time to write. It was nine handwritten pages. Luckily he had good penmanship.
The letter told about the day they were out on patrol, engaged in a firefight, and they were eventually overrun by North Vietnamese troops in Quang Tri province, fewer than ten miles from the DMZ and not far from Cambodia. The area was known to be hot, and I didn't think he was talking about the weather.
Boris was wounded during the initial exchange of fire. It was estimated a third of the American force was killed or wounded in the first ten minutes. We'd walked into a well coordinated ambush and a force more than twice the size of ours.
The writer of the letter tried to reach Boris to drag him to safety, where he could receive medical help. The NVA made a charge and overran the American position and Big Boy was wounded without being able to reach Boris.
Boris had been wounded in the right shoulder and right arm. He could see that Boris was breathing but he was unconscious.
The American force withdrew, putting the entire North Vietnamese force between them and Boris. Withing in a few hours the American force regrouped and retook the ground they'd lost, but the NVA had faded back into the bush, which is how they fought. Boris was never seen again. He wasn't among the bodies or the other wounded taken out by helicopters.
The rest of the letter was about the writer's hospitalization and discussions he had with his buddies about what happened to Boris. No one could answer the question. Of all the wounded and dead from the firefight, Boris was the only missing man. Everyone else had been accounted for.
Several of Boris' friends searched for him without being given permission to undertake such a mission. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Some of Boris' buddies volunteered to mount a larger search, fearing he'd crawled off and was lying somewhere in the nearby bush. They had no success either.
Boris' company was reassigned out of the area the following day.
Boris was officially listed as an MIA.
“He was wounded, probably seriously,” I said. “I didn't read anything that indicated his wounds were life threatening. It's possible he's out there somewhere.”
“He's in Vietnam, Clay. Vietnam is life threatening,” Ivan said.
The letter offered hope that Boris hadn't been killed. His whereabouts were a mystery. His friends thought he could still be alive. For Ivan's sake, I hoped they were right.
Should a greater effort be made to find him by the people who sent Boris there? Is there a responsibility to return a man to where he came from? Does a simple shoulder shrug suffice?
I had no answers to my questions. I doubted our government did either. The letter said that an effort was made to find Boris by the people who knew him. They left the area without making contact with Boris.
That had to be enough. It's all there was.
I took Ivan to Tampa the following week. He said nothing about when he would return. He said nothing. He didn't invite me in.
Mr. Aleksa left the slip at the marina on the Vilnius Two the day I took Ivan to Tampa. Kenny and Arturo went with him. He didn't return. His eldest son had been taken from him. I couldn't imagine his pain. Mr. Aleksa's refuge was the sea. He retreated into it.
Captain Popov would tell me all I'd ever know about where Ivan's father went.
My life was on track and my future was assured. In less than a minute in Ivan's kitchen it all changed.
I was left bewildered.