The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Bears & Bees
Somehow it was getting daylight when I opened my eyes. I was in the sumptuous overstuffed down bed I loved. I'd had this dream a thousand times.
I watched as the drapes blew gently into the bedroom at Ivan's house.
I was so comfortable. I fell back to sleep.
When I opened my eyes, it was daylight. I never had the dream of sleeping in Ivan's bed twice in one night before.
The bed at Ivan's house!
He'd done it again. I couldn't believe I fell for it. What was wrong with me? What was I thinking? I wasn't thinking. That was obvious.
“Shit! Shit!” I said, leaping out of bed. “I've got to take Dylan to school. I'm late. I'm late.”
“Hey! Cool it, hot stuff. It's fifteen to seven. Unless your kid has the keys to the joint, we got time.”
His arms were around me, pulling me back toward him. He kissed my shoulders, my neck. Our lips did what lips do. Our bodies did what they always did at a time like that. There was no way to stop it once it started. I'd have regrets later. I was busy right now.
Love was on the morning breeze. I knew I couldn't let this happen but I didn't know who would stop it. Who was I kidding?
“No, Ivan! I don't want to start something we can't finish.”
“I'll go with you so you don't lose your place. Besides, Dylan isn't going to school today. We're going diving. You promised, Daddy!”
“We're going diving. He'll already be up. He loves diving.”
“So I gathered. He couldn't wait to show me his SCUBA gear.”
“Yeah, how'd he know the Chevy was there? I said I was taking Mama to get chicken livers,” I remembered. “The gear was in my trunk.”
“You couldn't smell the chicken livers cooking? You didn't fool any one. We knew you were giving us time to get acquainted.”
“I'm that transparent?”
“He knows he's going diving. Quit worrying about the past. We'll walk down there together,” Ivan said. “He needs to see us being together.”
“You go with me and he's going to know what we did last night.”
“Clay, you need to lighten up. You don't think he's going to figure it out if he hasn't already? We do have our arms around each other in that picture on your nightstand. Our son is no dummy.”
“He knows we're best friends,” I said, as if that explained two men showing affection for one another.
“I've known a lot of guys, Clay. None I put my arms around but you,” Ivan said, kissing me again. “Dylan knows men don't have a photograph taken in such a pose unless there is a good reason.”
I kissed him back. Maybe Dylan did know or suspected that best friends was code for a couple. At first he didn't understand, but at ten, Dylan knew plenty.
“We've got to go,” I said, worried about Dylan now.
I didn't want him to have anymore time to think about what his fathers were up to.
“Your son loves you, Clay. I hope, in time, he'll love me too. He'll have to learn to accept our love for each other. He already knows love isn't as cut and dried as he learns in school. It's not fair to him to hide our love. He needs learn many good people don't turn out the way society prescribes.”
“What I'd like is for him to be a kid for a little longer,” I said. “He'll tell us when he's ready to know more. He'll ask us the question he wants answered.”
Having a perfect day for diving in April was no surprise. Taking Dylan out of school and having Ivan along to go diving was. We had clams and hush puppies at J.K.'s before loading the SCUBA gear onto the Sea Lab and heading southwest after leaving the cove.
I didn't take precautions to hide my route. I'd been diving my reef for over three years and no one had ever shown up while I was there. I did look over my shoulder every now and then, check the radar for blips, and the water ahead from time to time. As always the coast was clear.
Once we were on site and anchored the usual distance from the reef, we worked our way down the ladder and into the sea. I went first. Ivan went last.
We took our place in the trench a few dozen feet from the corner of the newest outcropping of the reef. In the excitement surrounding the dive with Dylan and Ivan, I forgot to stop to get my camera.
I didn't leave it on the Sea Lab, because it would be an invitation for thieves. What a thief could take, he couldn't get loose from the boat. What they could take, I kept at the lab, except when I planned to use it.
As soon as we settled down to see what we could see, the most beautiful purple fish I'd ever seen swam within ten feet of us. As if to snub his nose at us, he stopped swimming, looked us over, and swam lazily away,
Maybe he'd be there when I came back on business. We were there to have fun and enjoy that beautiful place.
I'd forgotten that Dylan had used air while showing off for Ivan. Way too soon the buzzer on the regulator sounded. It startled Ivan. I wasn't expecting it and it startled me. Dylan gave the thumbs up to indicate he was surfacing. It's what he was taught to do and he didn't question how his air ran out so quick.
“That's a neat gizmo. Your Daddy's idea?” Ivan asked Dylan as the engines idled while I raised the anchor.
“Captain Popov gave it to me for my birthday,” Dylan said. “When Daddy gave me the SCUBA gear, Popov thought a regulator with the warning buzzer was a good idea.”
“Smart idea,” Ivan said.
“How is Popov?”
“Great!” I said. “I see him often. Dylan and I go with him twice a year. I keep an eye on what's going on where he fishes. There was a bad year in '75. We cut back on how much fishing his fleet does and I go with him to measure water temps, take water samples, and watch to see the condition of the fish he's catching. Dylan loves to go along.”
“Popov owns everything in the cove, you know,” Ivan said. “Popov is worth a piece of change,” Ivan said.
“He is?” I asked. “Cutting back on the fishing didn't panic him at all. He wanted to do what was best in the long run.”
“He had money in Russia. His grandfather was the right hand man of the Czar early this century. Popov built the marina and he put in the bait shop. Once his fleet was fishing for the Fish Warehouse, they had to enlarge it. Popov paid for that. He owns J.K.'s for the most part. I think he left J.K. With a piece of it when he'd have gone out of business if Popov hadn't put up the money he needed. The cove and everything in it runs on Popov's dime. He's a smart business man.”
“I knew he owned J.K.'s. I didn't know any of the other stuff,” I said. “No one talks about it. I never asked anyone who owned it.”
“Dad knows all about him. Popov loved Pop Pop, my grandfather, and after my grandfather died, he took Dad under his wing. Good man, Popov. He used to bounce me on his knee,” Ivan said with a smile.
“Me too,” Dylan said.
We talked about what we'd seen the rest of the way back to the cove. Ivan agreed they were no doubt the most beautiful colors he'd ever seen and he admitted he'd missed diving with me.
Once I backed the Sea Lab into the slip, Dylan and Ivan tied her lines off. When we walked our tanks down the dock to the car, Ivan stopped to look in the window of the Bait Shop.
“It's a crime to let this place go,” Ivan said. “I bet Pete hasn't washed this window since Popov hired him to run the place.”
“Not like anyone's beating his door down to get bait for fishing.”
“No, they wouldn't. Take one look at this dump and they'd immediately be heading for Palmer's. A good business man presents his product in the best light possible. No light get in here,” Ivan said, trying to rub a spot clean so he could look inside.
“Never thought of it that way. Most people who have slips here are successful at what they do. The Bait Shop wouldn't be where they'd want to do business.”
“Except for J.K.'s, there's nothing to attract customers to the marina. It could use an upgrade,” Ivan said.
“When I was talking to Harry about the cove, I told him that charter boats and diving are big in Tampa and Miami Beach. Pete could have a compressor to sell tanks and sell some fishing tackle and SCUBA gear. If there was something here, people would come here. It's quiet and no one is in a hurry. Just the place to vacation.”
“What did Harry say?” Ivan asked.
“Something about no one building a hotel here. He's not wired to what might attract tourists. He's wired to men who run businesses that attract tourists, but I still think charter fishing and diving are going to come to this cove one day.”
“You could be right,” Ivan said, walking away.
There was nothing unusual about the Bait Shop being closed. It was always closed these days. Pete opened when he was in the mood.
“It's why no one fishes here,” Ivan said, as he set the tanks in the trunk. “They get their bait at Palmer's and they fish from there. I'm going to talk to Popov. Maybe he needs to consider a new plan.”
“Someone should buy it and put in some SCUBA gear, a surf board or two, and fill my damn SCUBA tanks,” I said, as I backed onto the road. “I waste a lot of time driving to Palmer's and back and I eat too many of his wife's burritos.”
“I thought you'd picked up a couple of pounds,” Ivan said.
“Shut up! My pounds are fine. What I'm saying is someone with half a brain could bring this place to life. Get a little commerce going to upgrade the cove. Make Popov some more money.”
“Surf board. Where's the surf?” Ivan asked.
“Storms,” I said. “Kids go out when a storm is passing. We can get five or ten foot waves. The kids surf during storms. I thought it was too dangerous, but no one has ever drowned near here.”
“Never would have thought of that,” Ivan said. “I bet you could pull some fisherman into the cove if there were a few charter boats. People don't like crowds. We're not that far out of the way if you want to go fishing for a day or two.”
“SCUBA diving,” I said. “I might teach SCUBA diving when I get tired of fighting the assholes to keep our water clean water.”
“You think you're going to give up what you've accomplished, Clay?” Ivan asked.
“I've been at it ten years. I love what I do but, one day, I'll get tired of the fight. I'm not a fighter. I want to keep the Gulf clean. There may come a day when I can't. Once I can't, why fight a losing battle? The time to clean up the environment is now, before it's too late.”
“I'll help you, Daddy,” Dylan said.
“Now if I could recruit five million Floridians, we'd have it made.”
“People don't care,” Ivan said. “They want it to be nice when they get someplace. If it isn't they'll go somewhere else, tossing their KFC boxes and Taco Bell wrappers out as they drive. I can see where it might become a losing battle, Clay.”
“I know those people,” I said. “I pick up after them every chance I get.
“Me, too,” Ivan said. “Ugly Americans. We're everywhere.”
“Hemingway was a journalist?” Dylan asked as we finished our nightly chapter of The Sun Also Rises.
“He was a writer. Many writers wrote for magazines and newspapers. Writers from Hemingway's era were quite socially aware. They worried about the condition of the world, not simply America.”
“That was before World War II?” Dylan asked.
“And right after World War I, which was The War to End All Wars,” I said facetiously.
“Why are there so many wars, Daddy?”
“Too little love, I guess, kiddo. Everyone wants something someone else has.”
“Do we believe in war, Daddy?”
“War says more about the men who start them than it does about the men who end up fighting them. I think that talking to each other would work fine. It beats killing each other, but I believe in peace and love.”
“You going up to my father's tonight?” he asked, finally getting to where we were going when he asked the first question.
“Not if you don't want me to, kiddo,” I said, mussing his hair.
“I want you to, Daddy. If you two talk to each other, there won't be any wars,” he said, cocking his head and glancing at my face. “I don't believe in war.”
“I'll be back in time to get you to school,” I said, floating it out there for him to consider.
“Cool! Couldn't we go diving instead, Daddy? We had a wonderful day. We should go diving every day.”
“Can't blame a guy for trying,” he said, and he got up to get ready for bed.
“I love you, Daddy,” Dylan said from his bedroom.
“I love you too, son.”
“I think I love my father too,” he said, uneasy with those words.
“As you should. He's a good man. He's trying,” I said.
“We are giving him a shot then?” Dylan asked.
“We are. We're doing OK at the moment. He's only been back a couple of days. I hope he plans to stay.”
“Me too,” Dylan said, as I tucked him in.
I sat on the porch looking toward the Gulf. Things were moving very fast. If I was smart, I'd apply the brakes.
I was with Ivan all day.
I should stay home tonight.
What Dylan knew was hard to say, because we couldn't come right out and say we were in love and way out of sync with everything Dylan would be learning was acceptable.
It was safe for the time being. Dylan hadn't begun to ask questions yet. That's when I'd know what was on his mind. Having his father in his life for the first time was good for Dylan.
What about the things that didn't require a decision? Like my feelings for Ivan. I could say anything I wanted about what I felt for Ivan, but I loved him. When push came to shove, I still loved him.
Was I waiting to eventually wake up to an empty bed?
It was too early for me to think Ivan was home for good.
I walked up the beach to the house next to the river. I was going to Ivan's, because I couldn't stay away from him.
I wasn't fifteen any more and Ivan really couldn't fly. I was a grown man with a lot of responsibility. I learned to live without him. That took next to forever.
Now Ivan was home.
Once I would have dashed into the house, up the stairs, and into Ivan's arms. We'd grown up and things weren't as clear as they once were. Maybe we were getting a second chance at love. That's what it felt like.
I stopped at the fridge on my way upstairs. I got a root beer and a Coke. I headed for the deck, handing Ivan his soda. I sat in the chair beside him. It's like I'd done it a thousand times, because I had.
Being with Ivan wasn't as easy as it once was. My doubts lingered. The fear that I'd one day come to his house and he'd be gone again persisted. No matter how many times we slept together, it was too early to accept that Ivan was home to stay.
We sat sipping our sodas and enjoying another spectacular night. As a boy, there were times I'd have been satisfied to sit on that deck with Ivan forever. Life was far less complicated then.
April on the Gulf is when the sky is at its best at night. You might get a storm or two in February and maybe in March, but April started a string of marvelous months.
“You remember I used to ask, 'Have I ever told you that I love you?'”
“Yes!” I said, feeling his hand seeking out mine.
I didn't resist. We had a shot. I knew I couldn't stay out of his bed but sex was only part of being in love. For my own well being, I needed reassurance and only time would provide it.
Why fight feelings that I obviously couldn't change? It wasn't smart, but that's the way it was.
“I was just thinking about it. All those nights I was gone, I wanted to say those words to you. It's nice to be home, Clay. Thanks for a wonderful day. Thanks for letting me get to know Dylan. Thanks for coming up tonight. I wasn't sure you would.”
“I did it for Dylan as much as I did it for you. He's really happy you're home. He wants you to stay. I want you to stay.”
“I've had that feeling but I don't want to put the cart ahead of the horse. I know you have doubts. This is a lot for me too, Clay. I want it to be right.”
“As long as you've been gone, being here with you, it seems like yesterday when we did this every night. It's like time stood still at the house next to the river.”
“I thought the same thing last night. In spite of your resistance to the idea. We are meant to be together, Clay. I can't make up for the lost time but I can give you all the time you want from now on. I left because I had something to do. This is what I have to do now.”
“That would be good, Ivan. Don't think I'm just going to forget what you put me through, but if you try I'll try. In time we can get beyond the last ten years.”
I wanted to move slow enough so things didn't get out of control. I didn't know that I could. I didn't know how things could simply go back to the way they were before he left.
“Just loving you isn't enough now. I realize that. By leaving you I was letting you go, Clay. I knew that. I hated myself for doing it. I was sure you'd take up with someone else.”
He was looking at me as he spoke. I could see his dark eyes up close in the starlight. They were very close to my eyes.
“I'm not stupid and I don't expect things to be the same. I'd like for you to believe me when I tell you, I'm not going anywhere, Clay. I'm home. You don't know how many nights I wished I was here. How many nights I've imagined us on this deck together,” he said, sipping from his root beer and turning to look into the night.
“Our son is worried about us going to war,” I said. “I wouldn't like that.”
“I'm worried about it. I don't want to say or do the wrong thing. I respect who you are and what you've made of yourself. I merely want to be as close to you as you'll allow. I'm in no position to ask you for anything else. Give me a chance. You won't regret it.”
“I don't know what I can handle right now, Ivan. Just being close to you has turned everything upside down. I don't know if we can get back to where we were but it's starting to feel like we have a chance.”
“I've put you through a lot, Clay. When it was over.... Once Boris was at my mother's, I had to come here. The only thing I wanted was to be with you. To find a way to make it up to you. It's the one thing that kept me going. I intend to make it up to you.”
“It's not your fault I'm a basket case, Ivan. I know better. I know we lost what we had. It feels like we might recover some of it. Then I think of how many times you left me. That's when I have doubts. I had to learn to live without you. Now, here you are,” I said, trying to make sense.
“You know how long it took to learn to do that? Every time you came home, you ripped my heart out again. I need to keep things under control. If we move slowly, I'll manage. I can't cut you out of Dylan's life, so we've got to see each other. If we're seeing each other, there's no way we can keep our hands off each other. I know this.”
“Today was good,” Ivan said. “I mean we all enjoyed ourselves.”
“Yes, it was,” I said, not having thought about it much.
We both sipped soda.
“I'm glad you found Boris. I'm glad he's alive. I'm glad you're alive. I know you did what you had to do. I always knew that, Ivan. Every lonely night I spent, I knew why I was alone. It still hurt.”
“I didn't like leaving you. I hated it. Knowing you were there was the best thing I had.”
“I know,” I said. “You always came home.”
“I was safe here. We were in love. Our entire lives were ahead of us, but once Boris was lost, it didn't mean anything. I had to find him. Everyone said I couldn't but I did.”
“So much has gone on. You've been gone for so long. What makes you think you can be happy living on a beach in the middle of nowhere, Ivan?”
“It's the only place I've ever been happy. That's why.”
“I believe that too, Ivan. That's not the problem. Trusting you is the problem. Trusting you with my son. Today was a good start.”
“My life is tied to this beach, to you. I am no one without you. I was in the wind for ten years. I was always on the way home to you.”
“You're home. The longer you stay the easier it'll be for me. This is the second day. We'll see.”
“A rolling stone gathers no moss, makes no friends, and puts down no roots. I found Boris and I came home to be with you.”
He was looking at me again. I looked back, listening carefully, hoping to hear something to build on. My heart pounded.
“Dylan was quite a bonus. You can't imagine what I felt when I came face to face with my son for the first time. He's the best reason we have for sticking together. Two fathers are better than one.”
“You are his father and he deserves a chance to get to know you. I will give you this warning: pull a disappearing act on Dylan, and he'll turn his back on you. I know that much. He lost his mother. His father never gave him the time of day. Now that you have, he expects you to be in his life. I expect you to be in Dylan's life. He's willing to give you a chance. Don't fuck it up. Don't hurt my son, Ivan.”
There was no answer to that.
Ivan knew the ice was thin where he stood. Ivan was home. Only one thing would convince us he intended to stay home.
“I never thought that you might like Sunshine. She was sweet. I just had to go.”
“I hardly remember her. She was in my life for such a short period of time. I went from dealing with losing you to dealing with taking care of her. Didn't leave much time to feel sorry for myself. I grew up fast after she died. I was all Dylan had. That's responsibility.”
“You've shouldered it well, Clay. You are somebody.”
“There's one other thing I know, Mr. Aleksa. I'd never have done any of it if you hadn't been my friend, Ivan. All that I've become came through doors you opened for me. I may not act like it but I know it's true.”
“That's nice to hear, Clay. You were something when I met you.”
“I've done OK. I'll take you with me when I campaign for Harry. You can't imagine campaigning with a politician. It's a hoot. He's going to be a senator, you know. He'll begin campaigning late this summer. Over the next year he plans to stop everywhere there are voters in Florida.”
“He told me,” Ivan said. “He seemed pretty sure of himself.”
“You talked to Harry?” I asked.
“Let's not go there. He made some things possible that helped me get back here sooner. Without Harry, I might not be here, or anywhere else.”
“You're right. Let's not go there. He's my boss. I wouldn't want to have to give him hell for holding out on me. Harry's a good man.”
“Funny!” Ivan said. “When I hear him talk, he makes you sound like the boss. He has a lot of respect for who you are and what you’ve become, you know? You'd never have done it with me here to distract you. You do know that, don't you?”
“I'd like to have tried,” I said. “I suppose I wouldn't have gone as fast as I did with you gone, but once I began studying the Gulf, I was pretty sure of what I wanted to do. Harry made it all possible. It fit right in with what he does and we've made the conservancy a preeminent force for the Gulf of Mexico.”
We were holding hands again. It was natural for us.
“According to Harry, you are the conservancy.”
“No, I'm a big part of it but Harry is the conservancy. He'll be there long after I'm gone. It's his baby. I just change the diapers.”
“I'd never have left the beach if it wasn't for you, you know.”
“You don't remember what you told me?”
“You told me that if I didn't go to find Boris, no one would. You said that to get me to sober up. You were right.”
“So you went because I said that?”
“I'd probably have gone sooner or later, but you put the idea in my mind. Even then, I could barely feel Boris. I wasn't sure he was alive. That was when he almost died. Before they amputated his arm. Then he began to get stronger and I felt him growing stronger when I focused on him.”
I looked at him while he spoke.
“I'm not saying you didn't do a good job. Harry said he didn't know another human being who would have done what you did. I told Harry you could fly.”
“I'm not confined by things other people let confine them. If I decide I can do something, I do it. By the way, I've decided we're going to love each other for the rest of our lives. We'll die on this beach on the same day. I'll die first because I couldn't imagine being alive in a world without you in it.”
“Now you're really playing dirty. I hope your right. I'd like believe that. Maybe in a few years I will. It's only the second day.”
His hand squeezed mine as he looked into my eyes.
“I've got a long way to go before I can think about dying, Ivan. You're the only man I've ever loved. I knew at fifteen, I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. Give me a little time before I'm convinced you're home to stay.”
“Had I not gone. Had we gone about our business, a piece of me would have always been missing. I'd have been left to wonder what happened to Boris. We are connected. As long as we're both alive, that connection will be there.”
“It's good that you went then.”
“I'll love you the best I know how and as often as you'll let me”
“We've never had any trouble there, Ivan. We can't be together fifteen minutes without eyeballing each other in an unmistakable way. Sex isn't enough to hold us together. I need more than that now.”
“It kept us together last night,” he said.
“I need another soda, babe. You want one?”
“Yes, please,” I said.
He let go of my hand and stood up. He leaned to kiss my cheek before heading for the kitchen.
My heart pounded inside my chest. His smell, his touch had me wanting more.
Ivan came back through the curtains onto the deck. He didn't say anything and he didn't hand me my soda. I turned to check to see where he was. I felt his hand under my arm. i was suddenly standing. One thing had changed. He was way stronger than he used to be.
Once I was facing him, our lips were together and apart and together. He held me close. The night took on a white hot urgency. Making love to him was the only thing that would cool things down.
We did what we'd always done at times like that. It was natural.
There was no resistance and nothing to be said. Only a solid male body pressing against mine. I knew what to do. I knew the body, the man, and all that had passed between us.
If that wasn't love, I don't know what is.
We sank into that deep down bed. I melted into Ivan until we were one, as we'd once been. As we were always meant to be.
I could have fought my feelings a while longer. I could have found a dozen reasons why we shouldn't fall in love again. None came to mind as we merged into a single motion and mind.
His lips, his touch, the music playing in my head, I didn't want it to end. Life would go on and we'd decide how to move cautiously at some later date.
We'd need to stop making love to do that, but not right now.