The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
I wanted Ivan to stay for Dylan's sake. I hoped we could at least be friends. For that we needed to get to know each other again. I had to learn to trust Ivan. To do this I needed to stay out of his bed and that would be easier said than done.
I didn't know what Ivan wanted.
I saw Ivan fly the first time I set eyes on him. I knew it was impossible. That indicated Ivan was no ordinary kid.
For the second time in my life, Ivan did the impossible. I didn't believe he could go to Southeast Asia and come out with his brother, but that's what he did.
Like flying, it wasn't about how he did it. He did it. In spite of it, I was mad as hell. What Ivan did was between brothers. I felt like the injured party. It was probably wrong but it's how I felt.
I was happy Boris was home. I wanted to hear the story one day.
What I wanted to hear now was, 'I'm home to stay, Clay.”
No caveat and no buts about it.
Was he capable of coming back to a simple life on our beach?
I wasn't a fool. I had a son, a life, responsibilities. Ivan needed to prove he deserved to get back into my life. Even then, the last ten years had left me doubting Ivan's love for me.
In one frozen minute, Ivan came face to face with his son and because Dylan was his son, I had to allow Ivan into Dylan's life. That meant Ivan would be present in an important part of my life.
“You want a refill on that iced tea, Clay?” Mama asked.
“No thank you, Mama.”
“What I'm saying is, and don't get me wrong, we all love Ivan dearly, but we don't know him. How many years has it been since any of us saw him? He's a grown man. When he left the beach he was a boy. We have no idea what kind of man he is.”
“He was looking for his brother, Mama,” I said.
“You know that's not what I mean,” she said, moving from pan to pan as she danced over our dinner.
I wasn't quick enough to snatch one of those chicken livers on my way back upstairs.
“Got to run, Mama. Thanks for the tea.”
As I left the kitchen, I should have been at peak excitement. Ivan found his brother. He was home. He was talking to his son.
At least I hoped he was. Dylan could be a tough nut to crack, once he made up his mind to something. I didn't know how sincere Ivan was or if he even wanted to make an effort to know Dylan.
I wasn't sure Dylan was ready for his father. I wasn't sure I was.
I opened the door and stepped into an empty bedroom. It didn't take me long to find Dylan and Ivan. I saw Dylan through the open double doors that led to the porch. There Dylan was in his SCUBA gear. Dylan was giggling as Ivan checked out the brightly colored equipment I'd ordered.
“Are you really old enough to manage this gear underwater?” Ivan asked with concern in his voice.
“All fathers must have the worrywart gene. It took me years to get this equipment. Don't you two gang up against me.”
“There's a catalog of SCUBA gear now. It's all the rage in Daytona Beach, Miami Beach, and Jacksonville. They have shops that sell nothing but SCUBA gear. I can't even get Pete to fill our damn tanks at the bait shop. I offered to buy the equipment,” I said. “Every time I fill the tanks, I've got to drive to Palmers.”
“I like it,” Ivan said. “It fits him. We didn't SCUBA dive until we were almost out of high school. He's way ahead of us, Clay,” Ivan said enthusiastically. “Do you still have my tank? We can go diving tomorrow,” Ivan said. “If I pass the smell test.”
“Can we, Daddy,” Dylan squealed through the fogging face mask.
“You've got school, kiddo. It'll be a little late to go by the time you get home,” I said.
“Daddy, it can be a celebration. My father's homecoming dive. We can do it every year on this day,” Dylan calculated excitedly.
“Can we, Daddy? Can we?” Ivan asked in a little boy squeal.
He jumped up and down for affect.
Now I had two sons to raise.
Dylan giggled at Ivan's antics.
He took off the equipment, neatly putting it to one side.
I'd been outflanked. Leave Dylan alone with Ivan for fifteen minutes and they were hatching a plan for Dylan to skip school. I wasn't about to play the voice of reason and spoil their enthusiasm.
“I guess you won't fail if you miss a day.”
“Yeah but the teacher will be on her own without me there to feed her the answers.”
Ivan laughed at our son's assessment of his importance. I cringed. Ivan had been home less than an hour and Dylan was already beginning to think like him.
I still didn't know what Ivan intended to do or how he wanted to fit into Dylan's life. A dive together couldn't hurt.
We all loved being underwater.
I'd never seen Dylan happier. I think he'd been worried about what would happen when he met his father. He didn't seem to be worried now.
At dinner we were all happy. Ivan was home. No one asked any hard questions. I didn't want to go there and in spite of Mama's misgivings, she couldn't do enough for our guest.
In the middle of a dialogue between Dylan and Ivan, with Dylan talking a million miles a minute, Pop put things into perspective.
Dylan spent most of his time watching his father. His usual appetite didn't was present. Ivan had private conversations with each of us around the table. He was the center of attention.
I didn't think it could have gone better. That's when Pop put his cards on the table. It didn't matter what we thought or how we felt about Ivan.
“Ivan, you know we love you. You're like one of my boys. We're all glad to see you after so long. I have something to say that concerns all of us, and you.
“Don't, not even for an instant, entertain the idea you can take Dylan away from us. You can't. You won't. Don't even think the thought. You trust me on that, son, and we'll all get along fine.”
As Pop finished, he passed Ivan the chicken livers. Mama finished buttering a biscuit and put it on Ivan's plate.
“No, sir,” Ivan said, looking at the chicken livers as he spoke.
Dylan eyes were as wide as I'd ever seen them. His sweet, soft spoken, thoughtful grandfather had just put his foot down on Ivan's neck. It wasn't something Dylan knew how to take.
After his initial shock, Dylan looked at me for advice.
“Your chicken livers are getting cold,” I said.
“They're perfect, Mrs. O. You don't know how many nights since I've been gone I dreamed about being home. When I pictured home, I pictured sitting at this table with you guys. That's as good as it gets.”
Dylan looked from me to his father.
“Have some potatoes, Ivan,” Lucy said, digging out a spoonful for him.
The mood had changed. The luster had come off the rose. Mostly we ate and enjoyed Mama's food. It was never disappointing.
Then, after chewing on it for a while, it became Ivan's turn to lay down his cards.
“You know, when ever I was gone for any length of time, when I got back here, to this table, I knew I was home. I can't explain it. Like I can't explain what binds me so tightly to my brother. I knew if I didn't go to find Boris, he wouldn't have been found. Now that I've found him and brought him home, I know I was right. He'd have lived out his life in that Laotian fishing village if I hadn't gone for him,” Ivan said, drinking some tea..
“I needed to know what happened to Boris, but after a few months, I knew Boris was alive. I began to feel him,” Ivan said with authority.
Ivan spoke clearly and without hesitating. Every eye was on him.
“It's true, I fathered Dylan, and that's a complicated story. I didn't know I'd fathered a son until a few hours ago,” he said, looking at Dylan. “I suppose I didn't want to know.”
He cleared his throat and looked at his son.
“There's no doubt I did. I couldn't have raised Dylan. I couldn't do anything until I found my brother,” he said, taking a sip of tea. “As I said, I can't explain it. I saw how Clay took care of Dylan after Sunshine.... Even if I had known, I don't know anyone who loved his son more than Clay loves Dylan.”
“I think you're right,” Lucy said with fondness in her voice.
She patted my hand.
“Few people impress me. Dylan is an impressive young man. It doesn't surprise me. He grew up in this house with people I picked to be my family. He's right where he belongs. He's being raised by the family I never had. To rob him of that would be the dirtiest trick any one ever played. Dylan is right where he belongs,” Ivan said, indicating the people around the table.
“I'm glad I met him and I plan to get to know my son. He's being raised by the best man I know, his daddy, Clay Olson. I'd like to live up the beach and rekindle my friendship with Clay, while getting to know Dylan. I'm not leaving this beach again, unless I go somewhere with the two of them,” Ivan said, looking directly at me.
“I didn't mean to sound blunt,” Pop said. “You understand that Dylan comes first in this house. Since his mother passed, we've been responsible for him. You are a member of our family. You have been since Clay took up with you all those years ago. Hard to believe so much time has passed.”
Pop smiled at Ivan and Ivan smiled back.
“I remember Clay from when he was pudgy, uncoordinated, and he lacked self confidence. I decided he'd make a good friend. I don't like many people. Clay impressed me. Beneath that shy kid was a brilliant mind. He soaked up what I knew in no time. We had adventures, worked as men in a job few men can do. It took no time for him to grow into the bright curious adventurer he is. When he was still fifteen, people could see how intelligent Clay was. I could see it all along. I don't know he's accepted it yet. Only one thing could keep me from staying to watch Clay come into his own.”
“I left him, the beach, my life, and went to get my brother. It was exciting. I met a lot of good people. I saw the country and other countries. I found the truth in the people who fought for peace, like Teddy, and they became hunted by men who love war,” Ivan said, sipping tea.
“I got in trouble once I got close to Boris. I became obligated to men who didn't have or want friends. They'd just have soon left me for dead but Clay saved me from whatever my fate might have been.”
“That's the first time I heard that one,” I said, forgetting how quick Ivan was in a pinch.
“Your congressman became my congressman. As long as I did what I was told, I'd be fine. I did that and in turn they arranged for me to get what I came for, which was Harry's doing too. I owe him a lot but it all comes back to Clay and who he has become.”
“I appreciate that but Harry is the guy you need to thank.”
“Yes, I do. And here I am. Back home. Meeting my son and back at the Olsons' table and grateful to be here.”
“You've certainly had a time,” Mama said. “You'll have dinner with us in the evening. I won't have it any other way.”
“Yes!” Pop said. “You won't find better food anywhere and it's where Dylan is every evening.”
“I do know that's true,” Ivan said. “I won't make promises. We all know I need to earn your trust again. I don't plan to go anywhere. I've opened my house and I'll live there,” he said.
“I don't expect it to be the way it was. I love you all. You were the family I thought about while I was gone. I especially love my son and his father. They make being home the beginning of a new adventure.”
No one ate until Ivan stopped talking. It's what we all wanted to hear. It seemed like the right words for a new start. I'd be careful before I decided what Ivan and I were going to be.
Ivan had come home.
Later that night, Dylan and I read from the new book he'd picked up at the school library. It didn't take long for him to be distracted. He'd had quite a day.
“You're not listening,” I said. “Ivan?”
“Yeah! How could you tell?”
Pulling out one of his oldies, “You get very quiet when you're thinking about your father.”
“You've had a big day. Want to turn in, kiddo?”
“Yes, sir. I am tired.”
As I leaned to kiss his forehead, after he was in bed, he surprised me.
“Are you going to see my father tonight?”
“Ivan asked me to come up to talk once I tucked you in.”
“You think I should?” I asked.
“Yes. We need to give him a chance. He loves us, Daddy.”
“He's been gone a long time, kiddo,” I said.
“You don't need to tell me that. He's been gone all my life, but he's home now. He came home to us.”
“I can go up. We need to talk. We haven't talked in years. I'll know more after we do.”
“Good!” he said, surprising me again. “I know you two will be best friends again.”
“You'll be OK?” I asked, because I was always in the next room when he went to bed.
“Daddy, I'll be ten in a couple of months. I'm almost grown up. I think I'll be OK if you spend the night with my father.”
“I'll still be in the next room when you wake up, kiddo. I'm not spending the night. We do have a lot to talk about. I'll try to be here when you wake up. How's that? I'll be home in time to take you to school in the morning.”
“My father too?”
“I can't answer for him. I'll ask him,” I said.
“Cool!” he said, rolling over to go to sleep. “I'm glad he came home, Daddy.”
“Me too, kiddo.”
It was an incredibly beautiful night. The fragrance of the Gulf made for a salty perfume. I was sure I could see every star in the sky. There was no moon.
It was the first time I'd walked up that beach at night in years. As I approached the back of Ivan's house, his bedroom was lit and the house was open. I'd set the storm shutters in place shortly after Ivan left all those years ago. The house looked none the worse for wear.
I stopped walking a few dozen feet from the house. My eyes were on Ivan. His were on me. I couldn't make him out, but he was there on the deck in one of two wicker chairs.
We were but shadows in the night. I did not speak and neither did he. I resumed my walk, going into the kitchen, and up the stairs that led to Ivan's bedroom and then out on the deck where he was.
I came through the curtains onto the deck. I sat next to him in the chair where I always sat. We said nothing for a long time.
The radiance of the sky and the sound of the water tickling the beach hadn't changed. Everything about that night was mesmerizing.
Ivan was back in my life.
“I've missed this. I've been half way around the world and back and this beach is still the most beautiful spot in it.”
“It's one of the better nights we've had in some time,” I said.
“Soda? I went to the A&P,” he said. “Stocked up.”
“Sure,” I said. “What ever you have is fine.”
When he brought the sodas back he dropped a thick white envelope into my lap before he shoved the Coke at me.
“What's this?” I asked.
“It's yours,” he said.
When I opened the envelope it was filled with hundred dollar bills.
“It's five thousand. You gave me around twenty-five hundred. I don't remember the exact amount. With interest five thousand seemed fair,” he said.
“I gave that money to you. It wasn't a loan,” I said, handing the envelope back. “I don't want your money, Ivan. I don't need your money.”
“I want to make things right between us, Clay. I can never make it up to you for how I've hurt you. Let me make right what I can. I can't give the years back to you. We have years ahead of us if you want them.”
“That's nice. Put the money to work. Make us some money. Invest it in something around here if you intend to stay.”
“I told you, I'm not going anywhere. We going diving tomorrow?”
I looked at him. The voice was Ivan's but the body was larger. The voice an octave or two deeper.
“If you're still here, you can go with us.”
“I'm not going anywhere tonight, tomorrow, or for the next ten years, unless I'm with you and the kid.”
“The kid has a name. Dylan!”
“Oh good grief. Dylan told me about this magic reef of yours. You going to show me where it is? I'd like to see it. He loves it.”
“You've already been there,” I said.
“That's where you and that floating palace was parked last year?”
“That's right, you've been out there,” I said. “I was anchored a few feet off the reef. I've been studying it for three years. It's a treasure trove of species, subspecies, and specimens for my lab. You've never seen such vivid color, Ivan,” I said excitedly.
I looked at Ivan. He was smiling from ear to ear.
“What?” I asked.
“You,” he said. “You haven't changed. You even look the same. I was afraid you wouldn't talk to me. You were pretty angry the last time I spoke to you. You had every right to be. The kid told me how much that reef means to you.”
“Oh, good grief. You're going to need to cut me some slack. I've been away from real people for too long. I'll adapt.”
His hand brushed mine. I jumped to the far side of my chair.
“No! No way, Ivan Aleksa. It ain't happening. I'm not getting involved with you again. Don't even think it. You left me. Don't think you can turn up, turn on the charm, and I'll hop right into your bed. I know what you want.”
He smiled again.
“No, I'd never think that,” he said, still smiling.
Leaning back, he adroitly tossed the envelope full of money through the small opening in the curtains and onto the overstuffed down filled bed.
“Boris?” I asked, figuring that was a safe territory.
“He's not the same,” Ivan said, letting the words linger.
He drank root beer. I could smell it.
I drank Coke.
“He was in Laos all this time. He was pretty seriously wounded. He lost a lot of blood,” Ivan said, drinking more soda. “Two Laotian fishermen were on the Mekong River. They left their boat to look for food. This thing was wriggling next to the path in the underbrush.”
“Boris,” I said.
“What was left of him. He was covered in mud. They couldn't see his face. They didn't know he was a soldier. Especially they didn't know he was an American soldier. They took him straight to their village. It was a day's travel on the river. Turned him over to the local medicine man. They were sure he'd die from loss of blood, but miraculously the bleeding had stopped. The wound was clogged with mud. That's the only thing that saved him.”
“He was nursed by the medicine man's daughter. She somehow kept him alive. They'd sent for a doctor from the closest town. It was a long time before he showed up. He had the two fishermen who found Boris, and who were now responsible for him, hold him down and the doctor amputated his right arm to the shoulder. No one expected him to survive that operation, but he did.”
“Laos? That's a far piece from Vietnam,” I said.
“Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are all together on that river. Laos being to the north. It took Boris quite a while to start regaining strength. He had to learn to live with one arm. Once he began going fishing, it was obvious he knew what he was doing. They told me stories about no one catching fish for weeks on end. They were living on roots and grubs when the rice ran out, and it always ran out before the next crop came in.
“During the worst of it, they watched Boris gathering his nets in one of the dugouts. He went out alone for the first time. It was the talk of the village, until Boris came back with enough fish to feed the village for a couple of days. My brother became somewhat of a local folk legend. When the people saw him putting his nets into his boat, they knew he'd net fish,” Ivan said. “That made him an asset.”
“Runs in the family, I guess,” I said.
Somehow his hand got into mine. Our fingers were tangled together. It how it was a lifetime ago when we sat on his deck.
It felt natural. For an instant it was like he'd never been gone. For a second I thought we were as in love as ever. It had been years since we'd sat on his deck together. It would take time for me to entertain thoughts of loving Ivan again. I was still angry with him.
I thought of yanking my hand away. That would be rude. What was done was done. It wasn't going any further. I didn't trust him. It would take time for me to trust him again.
If we could become friends, that would be a good outcome.
“Once they realized he was an American soldier, they had an elaborate arrangement to alert him when strangers were in the village. Mostly they feared the Vietnamese finding out. They'd form a group around visitors, make a big fuss over them while Boris slipped away to a hiding place they'd made for him. It's what was going on when the Russian's traders came. They saw Boris getting into a dugout one time, paddling away. They got a good look at him that time. They didn't realize he was American. When the people I worked for showed the Russians a picture of me, they immediately saw the one armed man from the Laotian village. They thought he was just another villager going to fish.”
“So they took you to him?”
“They took me to him. It wasn't a direct trip. They had trading to do along the way. Eventually we ended up at the village where Boris was. No one had to tell them who I was. Everyone came to see me, wondering if Boris had regrown his arm. Then Boris came to the water's edge. He was thinner, older. They figured the rest out.”
“I'd have paid to see that reunion,” I said.
“Not what you might expect. He wasn't sure who I was. Boris is different. The blood loss cost him some brain function, I'd guess. He can do simple tasks and follow a routine. He knows who I am now, but it took some work to get him to remember home.
“Once I told him about my search for him, he remembered being a soldier but he wasn't clear on being wounded. I think the memories are in there, he just has trouble getting to them. He has a very nice wife and three daughters.”
“The daughter of the medical man?”
“Good guess. She fell in love with him. She still takes care of him. She giggles and runs away every time she sees me. She is good for Boris. They do fine together.
“He's more Laotian than American now. He lost so much of himself after he was wounded, it was easy for him to adapt to where he was rather than worry about who he once was.”
“They're at your mother's?”
“You're batting a thousand. She doesn't want him to leave. He's not as easy to bribe now. I think he might end up here with our father. That's a guess but fishing is all Boris knows now. It's how he took care of his family.”
“I don't want your mother near Dylan,” I said, staring at him, waiting for his reply. “When Dylan's eighteen, if he wants to get to know his other grandmother, that will be his decision.”
Ivan stared back at me. It was hard to know what he thought. I couldn't read his expression and he didn't speak right away.
“You call the shots on Dylan. All I want is to get to know him. All I want is for the three of us to get along, Clay. My mother has Boris' kids to bribe and pick favorites from. Like I said, Boris and his family are simple people and they'll most likely end up here.”
“I'm sorry, Ivan. I wish it had ended better for you,” I said.
“You feel sorry enough to sleep with me?” he asked, never missing a beat.
“Ivan, we don't know each other. This all feels familiar but you haven't been back an entire day yet. I'm still dazed. You're going to need to give me some time. I gave up hope you'd ever come back to our beach to live. It'll take some time to accept that you are home.”
“You knew me well enough to introduce me to the deck of your Sea Lab when I was home a few months back.”
“You were naked. You don't play fair. Do I still find you attractive? Yes. Do I still have feelings for you? Yes. Do I trust you to be here tomorrow? No, I don't.”
“If I say please? You don't know how much I've missed you. If you stay here tonight, you can hold me and make sure I'm here in the morning.”
“See, that's where you go wrong. I don't want to keep you here. I have no interest in keeping you anywhere. You've spent ten years leaving me. We're grown men now. We loved each other as boys. I cherish those memories. After ten years, what I remember is the pain you caused me and how you kept me hanging on,” I said with more hostility than I felt. “I'm in no hurry, Ivan. I'm not going anywhere. I've been right here the entire time you've been gone.”
“I can get naked if that will help,” he offered. “Your words say no, no, but your face says you aren't that opposed to the idea.”
“Don't think it,” I said. “I've got a son to drive to school in the morning.”
“No you don't,” Ivan said with confidence.
“What do you mean I don't. I do too.”
“You promised Dylan we'd go diving together tomorrow.”
“I did? I didn't. I did didn't I?” I said, remembering Dylan on the porch in his SCUBA gear. “You've been home for a few hours and I can't think straight.”
“I'll go with you to take Dylan to school when he goes. We always take a break at sunrise. The kid's going to learn we're lovers sooner or later. You don't seem to keep much from him and what you don't tell him, he seems to figure out. The kids pulling for us.”
“We're not lovers. We were lovers. I don't know what we are now. In case you haven't noticed, I've got a life, Mr. Aleksa. Whether or not you get into it depends on your actions.”
“Well, I'm your lover then. You're free to love any one you like. I'd be a fool to try to keep you to myself.”
“I bet I'm going to jerk a knot in your head, buster. I've never slept with anyone but you. I've never loved any one but you. I can't imagine loving any one the way I love you. That doesn't mean I'm Jumping right into your bed the first time you show up. It isn't likely.”
“I'll keep that in mind. Good information to have when I make my move, handsome. I love you too.”
“You make a move to get any closer to me than you are and we're going to war, buster,” I said, letting go of his hand and standing up. “You don't think you're going to wiggle your way back into my life your first day back, do you?”
“Not where we left off, no. We can take our time. Love isn't something you want to rush. Of course we've established we love each other. Making love shouldn't be out of the question, but I understand,” he said, turning in his chair to see me.
“Sit down. Relax. I'm safe. I won't try anything. We have a lot to talk about. Making love would get in the way of talking. The way we do it anyway.”
“Just don't... we aren't... kids any more. I'm not anyway. I've got a son to think about. You keep your distance, buster.”
“You aren't allowed to do anything while you're thinking about your son? That is true devotion.”
Ivan laughed, turning around to look at the Gulf. I sat back down once he put his hands in his lap.
“See that sky? All those stars. When I was being held a prisoner, I used to look into that sky and try to figure out which star you were under.”
It was a beautiful night. It felt right being there with Ivan, even if I wasn't telling him that. I wasn't that easy.