It was late in the afternoon of the next day. “Dad, we’ve got to talk again,” Alec said at the other end of the telephone.
“Sure, come on over.”
“Is Jake there?”
“No, he’s working late.” I said. As usual, I said to myself. Too usual.
“Good. I’ll be over in 10 minutes.” This time I did take that shot of brandy, fussed around the kitchen a few minutes and finally moved to the living room couch.
He breezed through the door 10 minutes later, tossing his bike helmet on the chair. Alec always breezes through doors. Maybe that was the 13 going on 10 part of him. He was dressed in navy-blue shorts, a grey t-shirt with sweat down the middle, tennis shoes without socks and a baseball cap with the bill bent into an exaggerated curve. Typical teenager. He either ran or rode his bike over. He never just walked. God, I wished I still had his energy.
“Let me get something to drink,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” Alec went into the kitchen and brought back two glasses of lemonade. He set one down in front of me. It was a role reversal from the previous day—a signal that he was in charge of this conversation.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking in the past day,” Alec said after he settled in. “About you, about me, about us, about Jake. When you and Mom divorced, you said we could move back and forth freely between your condo and Mom’s house. That promise has been an important part of my relationship with you and Mom. I don’t want to give up that freedom and flexibility. It’s really important. Do you understand?”
“Which gets me to the reason I wanted to talk to you. I’m going to come back to my room again.” It was an announcement with the hint both of defiance and question, as if he was daring me to deny him. “It’s my room and I want it to stay that way. If things don’t work out, I can move back to Mom’s.
“I need to say something else—a bit more personal.” He paused. “I’ve tried to like Jake, and I do—I guess. He’s a pleasant enough person, and I know you’ve been happy recently, which is really important to me, so I promise to be tolerant.” He paused. “But I don’t feel I ever fully communicate with Jake. We get close and then he backs off as if I were a leper. I can’t figure him out, and I can’t break through his shield, Dad. I’ve tried. And I’ll keep trying—for your sake.”
“Thanks for laying things out, Alec. Jake will only be here for another week or two, so keep your cool for that long. Will you?” Alec nodded his assent. Of course, this was a white lie, because Jake was going to be coming back to Seattle. I’d decided to deal with that problem later, but I didn’t realize the other problems that were to come.
Jake moved the rest of his things out of Alec’s bedroom and into mine for the remainder of his stay in Seattle. I called Alec and told him his room was free; he was more than ready to move back in. We managed to adapt to sharing the condo with Alec, with little effect on the intimate part of our lives. The condo is blessedly well sound-insulated.
At the end of the week I took Jake to the airport for his plane to Boston, wondering what this interlude would do to our relationship. We went to the Northwest Airlines gate. They announced the boarding of his plane, and he came up to me and kissed me quickly on the lips. That caused me to look quickly around to see if anyone else had noticed. Then, he gave me a big hug. “Settle down, lover,” he whispered, chuckling. Nobody came up to us pounding the Old Testament, so I assumed that if anyone saw it they didn’t care. But, I still wasn’t ready for everything a longer-term relationship required, much as I thought I wanted it.
But my thoughts were diverted, and I laughed to myself once again as I saw him wrestle the overstuffed ancient knapsack down the runway, bringing back memories of his arrival in Mississippi.
Jake and I talked every night on the phone. The first days’ conversations seemed formal and constrained, but as the weeks went on our talking grew more relaxed, then intimate until, at the end, we were like two sex-crazed teen-agers. It was really disgusting—and really fun. Ultimately, we talked about almost everything: business and world affairs and movies and miscellaneous and sex and sex. We never got down to the issue of what was to happen when Jake came back to Seattle, of our relationship. We both understood, I thought, that that decision was mine.
What I realized as his stay in Boston lengthened is how much I missed Jake, partly because of him and partly because I enjoyed an adult relationship—and intimacy—not just the sex, but the closeness, the touches, the bumps in the day and night. I missed the after-work bike rides, the dinners and the movies. I missed him—his quirks, his grins, his smiles, his laughs, and I even missed those brief moments of haunting sadness that came upon him at times I could never predict and his subsequent struggles to hide his eyes until he regained his composure. I missed this extraordinarily good looking, sexy person beside me at night. I guess I really did miss the sex.
My conclusion of what to do was daily becoming evident to me—I wanted him to move back in with me—and I would have to learn to deal with the world, and he and Alec, I’m sure, could get along. Whether it was love or sex or a combination of the two I did not know. What I didn’t know, also, is how long I wanted our relationship to go on or how I would deal with Alec, but I decided I would cross that bridge when I came to it. I did know my short-term fling, my short-term fantasy was over.
So one night, at the end of one of our phone calls, I said: “Sawyer, I have something to say.” There was a long pause as I gathered my courage to say it. “I want you to move back in with me when you get back to Seattle.” There was a long silence at the other end of the phone. I held my breath. I couldn’t see his face or gauge his body language, so I had no clue as to what response I was likely to get. I started to get nervous. I didn’t have to.
He responded, simply: “You don’t know how much I want and need that. I love you, Robbie. God, how I love you.” I heard what I thought were sobs at the other end of the telephone line.
* * *
The talk with Alec went better than I would have thought. “Whatever makes you happy, Dad. That’s what I want. By the way, I’m not surprised.”
“Thanks, Alec.” I called Anne to tell her what was happening as well. She sounded happy for me, or maybe that is what I wanted to believe.
One night a couple of weeks later, I heard pounding on the door. I looked at the clock, and it was 3 in the morning. Alec had been on his way to bed the last time I saw him, and I hadn’t heard him go out. However, I felt a momentary trepidation. It was the same feeling that one gets when the phone rings in the middle of the night. Is it terrible news? Has somebody died or been injured, or is it just a wrong number? Thankfully, it’s more often the latter. I realize the pounding at the door was probably too insistent to be a bearer of bad news; the police, after all, must be given sensitivity training, and surely knocking politely is one of the rules. I thought maybe somebody needed help.
I jumped out of bed, pulled on some pants, skipping the underwear, and went to the front door. I opened Alec’s bedroom door on the way down, but he was still asleep as I expected, apparently not hearing any of the pounding. I flipped on the porch light and opened the front door carefully, not knowing what was on the other side. On the other side was Jake—disheveled, with a two-day growth of beard. I had talked to him on the phone only ten hours before. He had been 800 miles away, on the Wyoming border. I did the easy miles-per-hour calculation.
“I am madly in love, I need you and I’m horny,” he said.
“I trust it’s in that order.”
“Yes, in that order. I couldn’t wait a day.” Looking at him all sexy from travel, I might have reversed the order at that moment. I was growing happy to see him, as Mae West might have said—and he noticed the pistol in my pocket.
He came up and kissed me on the lips, pulled me to him and crushed his pelvis against mine.
“What about the madly in love and needing me and the rest of the platonic parts?” I asked.
Jake ignored me. “I drove like a maniac to get here—not for the platonic parts. I had to talk my way out of only one ticket.” He had averaged 80 miles an hour, with a stop for a ticket. Hmm!
Jake’s car was parked in the driveway—a gray Honda Civic a few years past new—stuffed with, apparently, most of the rest of Jake’s worldly possessions. I noticed Jake had lost some of his burnished color during his Boston stay, and a haircut had removed the sun-lightened hair. He must not have gotten much bike riding done in Boston.
“Let me take a 30-second shower and let’s go to bed,” Jake said. “I’ll unload in the morning.” Actually, I expected us both to unload shortly but I didn’t say anything. Jake pushed me up the stairs to my bedroom, flipping off lights as he went by, and I undid his headband on the way, dropping it on the stair. He popped into the shower and was out before I could get a clean pillowcase on. I didn’t think it was possible to take a 30-second shower, but I guess it was.
Well, we solved the horniness problem pretty quickly, and then we solved it again, a bit more languorously, till we fell asleep—just before the alarm went off, alas.
With Jake’s return to Seattle permanently, the course of my love life was sealed—at least for the near future. I had loved the Jake of 14 years earlier. Could I still love this person of today with that dark side that arose from time to time? Did I have the will or the courage or the energy to make our relationship last? As I drove to work the next morning, I concluded that I didn’t know and that I needed to let time take its course.
So began a strange year in my relationship with my lover and my son. Jake’s work schedule saw him leaving the condo at 7 in the morning and returning after 9 at night—usually six days a week. Alec rose at 7:30 for school and was in his room studying by 9 at night. The result was that there was virtually no time for any significant contact between Jake and Alec.
I was the bridge—the conduit—between them, but direct contact was limited. I realize now that maybe that was for the better. In the mornings, I would wake with Jake, have coffee with him, then make breakfast for Alec and myself before heading off to an early start at work. I would make (or buy) dinner for all three of us, but Alec and I would eat at the normal time, and Jake would eat microwave-warmed food later. When we watched television, Alec would sit on the floor between my legs, and I would massage his shoulders and back, until he went to his bedroom to do homework. An hour later, Jake would be sitting in the same place, me massaging the tension from his back and shoulders and untying one of the batik bands he used to keep his hair in place so that I could run my hands through his hair. Often—too often—he would fall asleep against my leg from exhaustion, and I would lead him up to bed.
I didn’t think about it until later, but this life was lived as if I was turning on the television in the morning to the Jake Channel, then turning to another channel for Alec. In the evening the process would be reversed. I realize now that my relationships were almost perfectly compartmentalized. At the time, my only thought was that I regretted only that my son and Jake never really had a chance to really know each other.
I heard Jake’s key scrape in the door one evening in late October.
“Hi! How was your day?” he asked as he came over and kissed me before flopping down on the easy chair across from me. I was expecting the ‘hi’ and then his normal state of exhaustion.
“Fine. You’re home early.” It was 7:30 instead of 9, so that qualified as early. Alec was at his mother’s. “How was yours?”
“Can I get you a glass of wine?”
“Please. I’d love one.”
I went to the kitchen and poured us each a glass of chardonnay from the bottle in the refrigerator. I returned to the living room and handed Jake his glass and then sat down opposite him.
Jake had pulled an envelope from his shirt pocket and was tapping it on its side on the coffee table between us. “We’re caught up enough at work for me to take a long weekend off,” he said. The prospect of going someplace for a weekend sounded appealing to me. Maybe we could go to the wine country in Oregon, I suggested. I raised my eyebrows Groucho Marx style and put my mouth around an imaginary cigar—or, since I didn’t smoke, something that might resemble a cigar. I already had all the arrangements made in my mind. Alec could stay with his mother. We would get out of town early Friday afternoon, drive to Portland, etc.
Jake shook his head, laughing, and continued to tap the side of the envelope on the table nervously. Then, he handed it to me, dropping it quickly the minute I had my hands on it as if it were radioactive. I opened it up. Inside was a packet of airline tickets—for both of us. Destination Boston, leaving on Friday and returning on Tuesday. I looked at the tickets, then up at him, a questioning look on my face.
“I want you to meet my mom,” he said.
I waited for him to continue.
“You’ll probably have to take some time off or call in sick for a day.”
“Of course, I’ll take the time off.” I waited again for him to continue.
“Mom suspected something when I spent so much time on the phone when I was back there. She started to get curious and began to ask a lot of questions. I had to admit to her that I’ve met the love of my life. That was how I phrased it: the love of my life.” Jake smiled sweetly at me. “I told her I am unbelievably happy. She wants to meet this love of my life. She senses how serious this relationship is. She has been pestering me since about meeting my love. I want to introduce her to you.” He looked at me with a look of determination.
“But she doesn’t know who ‘the love of your life’ is, does she?”
Jake looked down at his hands and rubbed them back and forth on the top of his pant legs. “No.”
“Does she know it is a man coming?”
“No.” More rubbing on the pants leg.
“So this is the great coming out at home?”
“Look, Rob, you haven’t told your dad, either.”
“Sawyer, angel, I’ve barely spoken to him since the divorce, which he and my mom opposed vociferously and religiously and every which way. They abandoned me. They don’t deserve anything. They opposed the divorce because of what they assumed the Bible told them, and they weren’t too happy when I married a pregnant woman. Then after Mom died, my dad said I had broken her heart. Can you imagine how much guilt Dad would try to foist on me if he found out about this relationship? I’ll let him find out on his own and react when he reacts.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“I can turn in one ticket and get a refund,” Jake offered.
“That’s okay. You just took me by surprise. I overreacted.” I leaned across the table and kissed him for reassurance. Then, I grinned. “I suppose I’m as nervous about coming out officially as you are.”
He grinned back. “I’m terrified. I’m 34 years old. I’ve been away from home since college, but I’m terrified of my mother.” I formed this image of an overbearing ogre of a mother in my mind despite the fact that she sounded nice on the phone when she had called and asked for him. Oh well, a trip to Boston was the least I could do for Jake.
We boarded the plane at 8 am on Friday, changed planes in Detroit—the ugliest airport in the world, by the way—and boarded the plane to Boston. I pulled a blanket down from the overhead bin and laid it over our laps so I could hold Jake’s hand—at least until the final approach to Boston.
“Are you worried?” I asked. “You’ve been pulling at the edge of the blanket like you wanted to shred it into small pieces.”
“Scared shitless.” He looked over at me for moral assurance. I squeezed his hand harder. “My family is old New England. They were abolitionists before the Civil War. But accepting us is going to strike a lot closer to home. I just don’t know how my mother will react.”
“Don’t worry about it. Everything will be just fine,” I said. Jake raised his eyebrows and looked at me skeptically. I just shrugged.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking,” the squawk box came to life. “We’ve been put into a holding pattern because there are some thunderstorms going through the area. Sorry for the delay.”
“Everything will be just fine,” Jake mimicked my tone perfectly. I laughed and shrugged again. He grinned back nervously. I squeezed his hand again.
After half an hour, the captain announced that the plane was ready for its final approach. I felt both relieved and apprehensive shortly thereafter as the tires screeched on the runway and we moved up to the gate.
We were among the first passengers off the plane. We walked up the ramp toward the crowd of greeters. Standing directly in front of us was the spitting image of Jake, though female and, of course, older—the same soft curls of light auburn hair, but longer and down to her shoulders and tinged with gray, the same hazel eyes, the same fine facial features, and best of all the same smile.
Jake ran ahead to his mother and hugged her warmly, leaving me with the remaining debarking passengers. I lingered uncertainly in the background. His mother kept searching the passengers surrounding Jake, looking for his companion, looking past me as she scanned the crowd. Jake turned around, grabbed my hand and pulled me to his mother.
“Mom, this is Rob.”
“Pleased to meet you, Rob.” She looked me in the eyes politely, assuming, I suppose, that I was an acquaintance from the plane, and began to scan the crowd again.
“Mom, Rob is, um, the love of my life.”
Way to be direct, Sawyer! I thought to myself.
His mother looked at me, then looked at Jake, then looked back at me, then had a totally inscrutable look on her face for a full 20 seconds, her lips making the strangest movements. I became scared that this trip was all a mistake. I was expecting an embarrassing outburst of anger and shouting and was figuring on how I was going to get the next plane back to Seattle. I looked around to see where the airplane we had just gotten off of was going next. Just in case.
Then there was an outburst. Jake’s mother burst out laughing, her warm, rich laugh and the way she threw her head straight back so much like her son’s. Jake and I looked totally perplexed, which caused her to laugh even more. She started to say something, but her giggling was too much for her to speak any coherent words.
Eventually, she got herself under control, sort of, and put her arms around me and pulled me to her warmly. “I’m sorry. I was ready for just about anything from the Left Coast—a black woman or a Vietnamese, or a Chinook Indian. The last thing I expected was a white male.” She began laughing again as she pulled away and looked me in the eye. “Jake announced he was bringing the ‘mysterious’ love of his life to meet me. It didn’t occur to me that it was going to be his roommate—his incredibly handsome roommate, now that I see you.” She took hold of both my hands in hers and kissed me on the cheeks. “Welcome to Boston. I’m happy to finally meet you.” I fell instantly in love with Jake’s mother as I had with her son 14 years prior.
“Thank you for having us, Mrs. Cantwell.”
“Call me Sarah.” And she burst into that most warm wonderful laugh again. The laughter was infectious, and Jake and I joined in.
Jake’s mother handed her purse to Jake and put her arms around his and my waists and led us to the baggage-claim area, but she was unable to fully control her giggles. I was glad Jake had to carry the purse. After our bags arrived, we loaded them in her station wagon and drove off to Newton. Actually Jake drove. Because it was in Boston and because he was a native there, I noticed he turned into another crazy-mad Boston driver. I was secretly glad that I had made Sarah sit in the front seat, just by offering to ride in the back. I don’t think Sarah noticed anything. On the other hand, I cinched up the seat belt, then cinched it up again as we moved into traffic. I finally just closed my eyes and kept them that way until we got to the suburbs—alive, I think.
Jake’s house was a typical, white-painted New England clapboard house with green shutters on a leafy street—the leaves still showing the last of their autumn color, many in the gutter alongside the street. We carried our bags up to the wide porch and let Sarah unlock the door. The interior was old-fashioned New England--braided rugs and simple hand-made antiques in beautiful woods—but the kitchen was as modern as could be.
“Would you like anything to eat or a glass of wine or a beer or a drink?” Sarah asked, as she showed us to the chairs at the kitchen table. “I have one of Jake’s favorite dishes later for dinner.”
“I’d love a glass of white wine, but only if you have some open,” I said. Jake said he would do the same.
Sarah opened a fresh bottle of white Burgundy that had been in the refrigerator chilling—oh well, so much for my attempt at politeness—and poured us all a glass. She came over to the table and sat opposite Jake and me. She reached across the table and placed her hand on top of mine and put both our hands on top of Jake’s. “I’m so happy to meet the mystery woman, finally.” That started her giggling again, and Jake and I couldn’t help but be caught up in her mood. I felt a growing bond with the mother of the person who was becoming the love of my life.
The weekend flew by quickly. We drove—actually I insisted on driving—into the country and bought some cheese and cider. We went out to dinner at Locke-Ober. We toured the sights of Boston, Concord, and Cambridge. We went up to Gloucester and had lobster. We had a grand time.
Over the weekend Sarah managed to get me to tell my life story, sort of grilling me as if I were Jake’s intended. Whenever we were both alone, she would ask about Anne, Celly and Alec. She pumped me about my job, my hobbies and my politics. I never felt threatened, though, or that my privacy was being invaded. I felt that I wanted to let her know all about my life. Strangely, it was only she and Jake who were able to open me up so intensely into my inner feelings.
* * *
On Tuesday morning of the day we were supposed to leave, I had gotten up before Jake, and after relieving myself, went to the kitchen. Sarah was reading the New York Times with a cup of coffee on the table in front of her. She started to get up when I said good morning, but I told her to stay seated, and I could get my own coffee. She pointed me to the cupboard next to the refrigerator for cups, and I poured myself some coffee.
“There’s cream in the fridge, and there’s sugar if you want.”
“No, thanks, I’ll take it black.”
We sat and read the paper. Sarah got up and poured two orange juices and set a glass in front of me.
Then there was silence as she started to say something and stopped—start then stop, the same mannerisms as her son when he had something difficult to say. My tactic with her was the same as with her son. I just waited. Eventually, she worked herself up to speak: “I want to talk, Rob. I’m really glad you got up before Jake. We’ve both got an interest in that boy upstairs.” She gestured with her head towards Jake’s bedroom. “I’ve been really worried about Jake these last years. I don’t know what happened in Vietnam, and I don’t know why he stayed in Asia, but something awful must have occurred. Awful enough to have him reject everything in his past—including his relationship with his father. The rejection was so hard on Jake Senior.
“Did you know that Jake only came home to Boston once in all those years? And that stay was tense. He would call from the Far East once a month and promise to call more often, but it never happened. We—mostly I—would talk to him for about 20 minutes. He never said anything about what was troubling him.” She paused, apparently hoping that I could help her out on that score.
“I wish I could help you there, but he’s never opened up to me, either, about Vietnam. And I’ve offered to hear him out.”
“Let me tell you something I think you would like to know,” Sarah continued. “About a year ago, Jake’s father came home extremely agitated and insisted on talking to Jake—without me on the extension phone. They had talked together at most thirty minutes total on phone calls in all of the previous years. This time they talked for an hour and a half on a single call. I think they must have sorted out a lot of what was between them. Jake Senior came away from that call with his eyes all red.
“He sat me down then and told me the doctors said he had at most six months to live.” Sarah was weeping quietly now, dabbing at her eyes from time to time with the crumpled napkin in her hand. “He died just two months later. In his last few days, he told me that he could see no other way to make sure Jake came home than for his memorial service. He knew, after their long phone conversation, that Jake had to make sure I was okay. He told me it was up to me now to keep Jake alive. That was all he would say about what he and Jake had talked about even when I asked him.
“Strangely enough, I sensed that Jake was relieved when he got back to the States for his father’s service despite the sorrow of that moment. But I could see he was deeply troubled. I asked him—no I begged him—to stay with me for a few months until I could get on my feet. That was a bit of a lie, but I was desperately worried about him, and I think that was what Jake Senior would have wanted. Jake agreed, and then he got lucky with his job—and then he got lucky with you.” She reached across the table and grasped my hand in both of hers.
I chimed in. “I know this isn’t going to be a relief to you, but let me tell you what I know and saw. The minute he got off the plane in Seattle last May, I had this sense of a dark cloud that seemed about ready to engulf him. It was such a difference from the Jake I’d known 14 years earlier. I chided him about not sending me even a postcard between Mississippi and now—half in jest and half serious. His response was that he couldn’t send a postcard from hell.”
Sarah moved her hand to her mouth and gnawed on her knuckles.
“Jake hasn’t opened up to his problem,” I continued. “I’ve hinted at counseling, but he says that won’t work. I’ve offered my own ears to hear his problem, but he keeps putting it off.”
Sarah closed her eyes tightly to avoid the tears. “That only confirms what we suspected. Something extremely traumatic must have happened.”
“However, I hope things are on the mend,” I tried to say reassuringly. “The dark clouds are still there, but not as pervasive. It’s such a contrast. When we were in Mississippi he was almost never troubled. He was joy and spontaneity all the time. Now I see those qualities sporadically, but, I’m glad to say, gradually more often.” I paused for a moment. “But these moments occur often enough to make me love him as he is today rather than only as I remembered him.” What was nagging at me, though, was that I wasn’t sure how long I could keep going on this sporadic basis, especially if we had a rocky period in our relationship.
“I think and hope things are on the mend,” Sarah said, “after he went to Seattle and got together with ‘the love of his life.’” She smiled quietly to herself. “When he came back to Boston from the West Coast, he was changed. I also could see glimpses of the boy and young man that I remembered before he went into the Army. And then he had those long phone calls with his ‘girlfriend’ in Seattle.” She started to laugh again. “I’ll never forgive him for letting me believe you were his woman.
“But I do have to confess something to you, Rob. His father and I had almost lost hope for grandchildren—Jake was 33 and adrift when we admitted it to ourselves—so I probably wanted the love of his life to be his girlfriend. I was seeing things that I should have been more perceptive about—like who those long-distance phone calls were to. Forgive me.”
“Nothing to forgive.”
“Thanks, because you’ve totally won me over. I’m not sure how his father would have taken to your relationship. He was a stern man—in the old New England school.” She paused for a few moments, ruminating, then nodded her head. “He would have come around eventually because he cared so much for Jake, and you’re a wonderful person for him.”
She took my hands in hers again, and looked at me. Tears started to form in her eyes. “Promise to take care of him for me. I know he’s 34 now, but he’s still my boy, and he’s still a boy, and he’s troubled. Don’t leave him.”
I matched her tears with my own. “I promise I will do my best. I don’t know what demons haunt him, but eventually we’ll get rid of them.” I said that with more conviction than I felt, however.
We sat quietly for a while in our separate universes, drinking our coffee and juice, holding hands. We were comfortable with ourselves as if we had known each other for decades.
A bit later we heard Jake’s footfalls upstairs as he started to come down to the kitchen. Sarah let go of my hands, dabbed her eyes and took another sip of coffee.
Jake padded into the room, barefoot in pajamas. I had never seen him in pajamas, but they must have been lying in some drawer in his bedroom when he woke up. I decided he looked better naked, but I didn’t say anything.
“Well, I see you two have been conspiring against me,” Jake said.
“No, I was just asking your mother to pass me the comic section.”
“Ha! You’re a terrible liar. It’s the New York Times.”
I just grinned.
We ate a nice homemade breakfast, packed our bags and headed for a noon plane West. As we had our final hugs before getting on the plane, Sarah whispered to me: “Stay in touch, please.”
“I promise I will.”
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