The Boston trip was but a respite from the slow deterioration of our lives in Seattle. The routine—Jake followed by Alec in the morning and Alec followed by Jake in the evening—started up again. What I didn’t notice for the longest time—or maybe didn’t want to notice—was that this compartmentalized life, though okay for me, masked a growing tension between Alec and Jake. Even when we three were in the room, I realized that Jake would find a project to get him away from where Alec and I were or Alec would don his headset and listen to music, oblivious to the rest of the world.
Alec had said he would continue trying to develop a friendship with Jake, but because of their schedules, the occasions for contact were few. I even tried having a regular Sunday brunch, inviting Alec, Celly and Jake. This chance to have everyone I loved at the same table for an hour or two went on for only a few weeks, the last of them without Jake, who begged off because he had ‘work to do’. Ditto for my Taco Tuesday attempt. At least, I got Alec, Celly and me together.
I slowly realized, Jake could never let down his guard—never allow a closing of the distance between him and Alec. Jake was polite, of course, and always said all the right things to Alec, but there was no real warmth in his words. This attitude was something a child picks up on instinctively, and Alec was still close enough to being a child to do that. So in my household a 13-year-old was left to ponder why a 34-year-old man, who didn’t know him well, seemed to reject him and why he never reciprocated any of Alec’s overtures beyond gestures of mere politeness. It was too much to ask a 13-year-old to understand.
Hell, I was perplexed, too. It was a part of Jake I didn’t recognize from the person I had known. In Mississippi, he had always had young people literally clinging to him. The kids had adored him. He was so much like them. Now, he was almost intolerant and definitely cold toward Alec. Now, he was distant. The questions that Alec peppered him with were answered in monosyllables. My son, a truly wonderful kid, became more and more confused at their relationship. Because he was confused, he couldn’t understand why I could love Jake as much as he thought I did. Because he decided there was nothing in Jake to love, he must have judged at some time that I was making a mistake to love him. So, in a subtle way, he began to make known his negative feelings in his comments to me and his attitude toward Jake. And, he began to deliberately avoid any contact with Jake.
“The kid is only 13,” I said to Jake on several occasions (or words to that effect) as I rubbed his back. “He doesn’t understand why you are so distant with him.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better. Really,” Jake replied. He looked up at me with a troubled look on his face, and his eyes were glistening with the moisture of incipient tears. During the next week Jake would make an effort to attend the end of one of Alec’s ball games or performances. Jake’s hand would slip surreptitiously into mine, and he would hold it tightly, as if reassuring me was all that was necessary. I felt the warmth of his emotion and how hard he was trying—with me. But his efforts never translated to anything meaningful to Alec, so the distance between them kept increasing.
One night after I had chided—more realistically, criticized—Jake regarding Alec, I awoke about 2 a.m. and felt across the bed to Jake’s side. There was no one there, and the sheets were cold, so he hadn’t been there in a while. I rose and looked downstairs for him. I was getting worried until I noticed movement on the deck outside the bedroom. I slid open the door, and there was Jake sitting in a deck chair with his arms on the railing and his head resting on his arms. Beside him was what appeared to be a whiskey bottle. I joked with him about choosing whiskey rather than cognac, but he knew I was more bothered by finding him drinking alone. Maybe he was bothered by being caught.
“Be thankful, Robbie. In Asia, I could do a half bottle each night. Now, I only take a couple of drinks from time to time.”
I moved beside him and placed my arm across his shoulder and pulled him to me. “It’s not the job, is it?”
“No, it’s not the job.” He sighed, and his shoulders slumped.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Jake turned to me, and I could see his face in the dim glow of the city’s night lights. “Yes, but I’m not ready yet, love. Soon enough. I wish I could muster the courage, put it’s too painful. I’m slowly working on it.”
I glanced down at the bottle instinctively. I wondered how much longer this “working on it” phase would last.
“I’m sorry. I truly am getting this slowly under control. This bottle has lasted for a month, and there’s still some left. That’s an improvement. Trust me. But there are still a few times when I need something.” I realized then that my criticisms were probably having an effect. He was quiet for a minute. “Go back to bed. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” I looked at him, turned and slid the patio door open and went back to bed but not to sleep until he joined me.
Over the next few weeks, I noticed—well, I made sure I noticed—how much the whiskey-bottle level was dropping. It was only dropping slowly, and I knew Jake wouldn’t sneak a bottle on the side, so my anxieties abated. Maybe things were getting better.
Anne had asked me to lunch late in March. We were seated at a window table overlooking Lake Washington in a light, airy restaurant that had just opened to rave reviews. Baroque music was playing quietly in the background.
A few early rhododendrons and azaleas were blooming just outside the window and in plantings along the street, interspersed with tulips.
With Anne’s approval, I selected a nice Ponzi pinot gris as our white wine; the waiter opened the bottle and poured tastes for each of us—a nice equality touch by the restaurant—and we both indicated our approval. We sat for a few minutes, chatting about inconsequential things as we examined the menus and made our choices.
“We need to talk about Alec—and, to some extent, what we talk about will apply to Celly,” Anne opened. “This has been a rough year at school for him.”
“It has? Why didn’t I know about it?” I was truly surprised. “His grades are outstanding. He hasn’t said a word to me. He seems happy.”
“He doesn’t want to say a word to you, but I thought I should let you know, just so you aren’t blindsided by what’s about to happen.”
“Why wouldn’t he want to say anything?” I felt hurt. “He seems so open about everything else. I’m his father.”
At that moment, the waiter brought our appetizers. Anne used the interruption to put a temporary halt to our conversation. She nibbled delicately at her grilled vegetables. She almost always nibbled delicately at everything—a trait that drove me nuts as our marriage was breaking up but which was easier to tolerate now. I, on the other hand, dived into my tomatoes with mozzarella and basil. The tomatoes tasted as if they were fresh from the vine despite the season. Compliments to the chef.
We finished the dishes and the waiter cleared our plates before Anne came back to my question: “I’m acting like a neophyte attorney. I should have had my answer to your question sooner. Fortunately, I’m not appearing before a judge, where my words need to be chosen in advance. I can wing it a bit.” She took a sip of wine.
“Rob, I’ll be direct. Alec has been getting harassed because of your relationship with Jake.”
“What!? Why didn’t he tell me? Goddammit.” I realized that Anne had already answered the question, but I wasn’t really registering what she had said.
“Since last summer, when you and Jake got together, it has been pretty obvious what is going on to anyone who is observant.” Then she frowned. “And some people don’t understand or appreciate your relationship.
“Let me make one thing clear at the outset: The fact that you are gay doesn’t bother Alec or his close friends at all. There might be some other problems that you, Jake and he have, but not because you have a gay relationship. Also, it doesn’t bother Celly or me. We all know you love Jake. We all think it’s wonderful that you two are a couple.” Anne stopped to take a sip of water and, apparently, to gather her thoughts.
“But apparently your relationship bothers a number of people at the school—a great deal. And here’s what has happened: Several parents observed you two in the stands during the basketball game, and they drew the correct conclusion: that you two are together as more than roommates.
“Unfortunately, some that noticed didn’t like what they saw. In particular, your relationship does not sit well with a handful of the parents, particularly parents of some of Alec’s teammates. A couple of months ago somebody apparently talked about it to the basketball coach, to some of the teachers and to the principal.”
I looked at Anne as if she were talking about another world. I knew nothing of this.
“Several rather nasty things occurred,” she went on. “The coach and a few of the teachers made disparaging remarks, indirectly, about you two. Worse, they did this while Alec was present. They made comments against ‘faggots’ and used equally enlightening synonyms. The principal was told of these remarks and did nothing. In fact, he made similar comments in the faculty room. There were witnesses.
“Alec heard that the coach had made comments beyond what he had himself heard. That’s why he quit the basketball team—and so did some of his friends—which really ticked off the coach and got things riled up even more. I know Alec told you he just wanted to concentrate on baseball and that he wanted to be more active in his drama class. Right! He told you just part of the story.”
I started to burn. I was about ready to jump up and call the school board and whoever else would listen to me.
Anne held up her hand. “Hold your horses, Rob. One thing our law firm is very good at is civil-rights work. The Seattle School District has already been at the wrong end of one of our lawsuits, and they have no doubts whatsoever about what we can do to them. The administration and the school board know that this behavior on the part of teachers and principal is totally unacceptable. Totally.”
Anne paused and took a bite of bread, then smiled. “Just so you know, the principal’s resignation will be effective at the end of this month. He will resign for ‘personal reasons.’ The coach has been suspended for the rest of this season and will not be rehired for the basketball team at his high school or anywhere in the district. The assistant took over. Of course, their season went to hell after several of the best players quit along with Alec, so the coach might not have been rehired anyway. By the way, Alec and his friends will go back to the team next year.
“The teachers involved have been given the choice of an official reprimand or a sensitivity training course. They all have chosen to take the course, on their own time. I’ve observed the course, and I guarantee that it will severely dent the prejudices of any one who takes it. So, at the school district, everything’s okay.” She hesitated.
“But?” I asked on cue.
“It’s a few of Alec’s classmates. Alec came home in tears a couple of months ago because of what these idiots had said and did. He didn’t want to talk to you about it because he thought it might affect the relationship between you and Jake.
Anne took another sip of wine. “There is a silver lining, however. The crisis has passed. Since then, Alec has worked things out. There’s been a lot of testing of friends and the development of new friends. So, for the moment, I think we’re okay to leave him alone. I don’t think you need to say or do anything right now.” Anne reached across the table and gripped my hand in reassurance.
“I feel like a complete idiot for not seeing these things,” I said pounding my head with my fist.
“Don’t blame yourself. Alec didn’t want you to know, and he made sure to the best of his ability that you didn’t. And his abilities are extraordinary. Apparently, he succeeded.” Anne gave me a warm smile.
“Maybe Jake and I should cool it for a while—till Alec and Celly get out of high school.”
“Dammit, Rob. That’s exactly why Alec said nothing, because he thought you would change what you’re doing. And Celly’s perfectly okay with all of this, and she has this enormous crush on Jake, as you know. Rob, you have to promise me you won’t do anything or change anything.”
It was my turn to use a sip of wine to gather my thoughts. I was still burning. I was clenching and unclenching my fist around the napkin. It was still a shock to find out what was happening with the son that I saw nearly every day. Maybe I was most annoyed to find out how clueless I was. I felt less on top of events than I wanted to be. I was already thinking of how Jake and I could temper our behavior and make our relationship less obvious. And probably niggling at the back of my mind was how uncomfortable home life was becoming for the three of us.
“Promise me, Rob. The only reason I said anything to you at all is that I believed you could file the information away and leave it alone, even if the reason for the principal’s resignation hits the newspapers. I know you can. Don’t change anything. Promise me, please. Please, Rob!” She was pleading.
At that moment, the waiter brought our main course and filled our wine glasses. We ate for a few minutes as I thought about what she was saying. Actually Anne was more toying with her food than eating, looking up at me for my response.
“Okay, I promise.”
Anne sighed visibly, then, uncharacteristically, dug into her dish as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks. I heard a few sighs of contentment as she took a succulent morsel of food in her mouth.
“Thanks, Anne.” My eyes grew moist. “And thank your law firm for stepping up and stopping those jerks.”
It was now July of the summer following Jake’s arrival in Seattle. Alec had turned 14. The emotional distance between him and the other love of my life had not diminished—in fact, it probably had grown. Alec and Jake were still civil to each other, but that was all. The compartmentalization of my two relationships was now even beginning to wear on me. A year earlier I had enjoyed the serial life between my lover and my son. Now, it was getting less and less enjoyable to divide my life in two. And, for whatever reason, I could never get rid of the feeling that Jake was working long hours simply to avoid having to face time with Alec. I’m sure it was my imagination, but the thought nagged at me.
To top my problems off, Alec announced suddenly one evening that he was thinking about moving back with his mother for the next school year. “I’m no longer comfortable here—too much of the time,” he had said. “I’m sorry, Dad. I love you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt absolutely crushed. I felt the day-to-day existence I’d been able to work out for myself coming to an abrupt end. My feelings must have shown on my face. They certainly were apparent in my eyes, which must have shone with my incipient tears.
Alec came over to where I was sitting and put his arm around me. “Dad, I’m fine with you. I love being here with you.”
“But not with Jake…” I waited.
He wasn’t going to say why, but I understood finally how deep the rift between Jake and my son had grown despite my hopes that it could be mended and Jake’s statements that he was going to try to do better.
I knew also that Anne and I had given Alec and Celly full freedom to live with whichever parent they chose. It was an unbreakable commitment we had made to each other and to our children. So I felt I couldn’t say anything directly or even indirectly that would make Alec feel that our commitment and his freedom were anything that could be taken back. The trouble was that I was not ready to accept his decision—and probably never would be. I was becoming rapidly depressed as he sat next to me, and my sadness deepened as he hugged me to him.
Over the next few days, that depression gnawed at my relationship with Jake. I snapped at him for petty things, but I kept my feelings in until they almost boiled over. Jake looked at me, questioningly, but I would turn away and spurn his gestures toward me.
* * *
It was 10:30 a few nights after Alec’s devastating announcement. I had spent two hours earlier that evening on the phone with Jake’s mother telling her what I felt I had to do—and why. I heard her choke down a sob as I related the problem and the choice I was going to force on Jake. However, she understood fully the impact of what was about to happen. I sighed. I had thought about where all my relationships were going. I had made my decision. My talk with Sarah didn’t change anything—and she understood.
“I love you, Rob. It’ll work out.” Unfortunately, her voice betrayed her deep-down doubts. “Tell Jake I’m praying for him, and I’m praying for you.”
“He’ll appreciate that. I appreciate that. I’ll let you know what happened as soon as we get back.”
Jake had returned from work an hour earlier and was eating the reheated dinner that I had made. As I sat across from him drinking a glass of wine, he was talking about his day. Lost in my own thoughts, I wasn’t responding. I was spinning my wine glass by the stem and pondering how I was going to say what I needed to say. I don’t know if he thought I was just tired, but eventually he noticed my inattention and the silences, because he would temporarily stop talking and just look at me.
Finally at the end of one of the silences, I looked up from my wine glass and saw him staring at me. I sighed deeply. I started to speak, but my throat constricted as I tried to control a sob.
“Jake,” I began, when I finally got control of myself. Jake flinched when I didn’t use my pet name for him, much as I used to flinch when my mother would start off with ‘Robert Steven Ellis’ in that tone that only a parent or teacher could use.
“Jake! Jake! Jake! I can’t go on like this anymore. Spending half my spare time with my son and the other half with you under the same roof just isn’t working. I’m being torn apart—pulled between you and a 14-year-old boy, both of whom I love deeply. It’s become too much.” I paused and looked him straight in the eye. “Alec says he is moving back to Anne’s.” I slumped back hard into my chair.
I could see understanding and uncertainty and maybe fear in Jake’s face, and I saw the tears forming in his eyes as he started to shake his head slowly, maybe to make the problem go away. He knew how much Alec meant to me. I think he could see where this conversation was going. “I’ve gone as far as I can go, Jake, and, if nothing else happens, I will have to make a choice between you two. Do you realize how much Alec’s move would hurt me?” I had to stop to gather myself together. Had I indicated my choice?
Jake started to say something.
“No,” I waved him off, “I need to get this out before I start bawling. You’re 34-years old, Sawyer; Alec is barely 14. You’re a man-child; he’s a child-man.” And sometimes he’s more responsible than you, I thought to myself. “I think—no, I know—this is not Alec’s problem. It’s yours. Whatever it is that is eating you about Alec is destroying a vital part of my life. I can’t go on like this.”
Jake didn’t stop looking at me, his eyes still glistening. It was as if he knew this day was coming. He looked at me, then looked back at his hands, then rubbed his hands back to front on his pant legs, then repeated the cycle several times more. “You’re right. It’s not about Alec in the slightest,” Jake said. He continued to look me in the eyes but finally had to look down as he wiped the tears away with the back of his knuckles. “It’s not about Alec, believe me,” he repeated so softly that I could barely hear him.
“I know,” I said almost as softly.
He looked up at me, his eyes still wet. “It’s about me and my fucked-up life. Rob, the only things that keep me alive are you and my mom and my job—in that order. Those are the only sources of stability I have left.” We sat silently for several minutes. I kept alternating between toying with my wine glass and looking into his face.
Finally, he said: “I’ll pack my bags if you want me to go.”
Oh God, no, I thought and said. I reached over and put my hands on the back of his. “No!” I said it quietly, responding to my brain. In my heart, I felt like shouting it. “I hope we haven’t come to that yet. We need to try one last thing to mend things. I think that maybe if we three get completely away together and talk and talk and talk, we can try to straighten it all out.”
“I’d like to try.”
For some reason that set me off. I glared at him. “Like to try? For Christ’s sake, Sawyer, you’ve said the same thing over and over for the past year,” I burst out. I waited a few moments to cool down, then took a deep breath. “I’ve already talked to Alec’s baseball coach, and he said I could take Alec away next week for four days. The team has an easy schedule next week, so he was willing to let Alec go so he could get some of the younger players some time on the field. I want us three to go backpacking in the Cascades, completely away from distractions. Do you think you can get the time off?”
“I’ll take the time off. I’ll quit if I have to.”
I sighed my gratitude. The last statement sounded more positive than anything he had said to date. But, had there really been a change? Was this going to be another sincere but unfulfilled promise to do better, or was there something more… finally? This backpack trip either was going to be the worst thing that ever happened in my life—a forced march through the Cascades resulting in Jake going out the door—or he would make it succeed somehow. Jake was right: It was all up to him.
Jake left that night, packing a small bag with a change of clothes or two. He told me he had to get away—“to think.” As he left, he promised he would be back Friday night or Saturday morning.
And I was afraid, really terrified that he would never come back.
It was the night before we were to leave for the hike. No Jake. He hadn’t returned for two nights. Had he run? I hadn’t really realized how comforting his sleeping body next to me was. I missed him, and I almost regretted the decision I had made to force the issue between him and Alec. It couldn’t be that bad, I thought. I could get by until Alec graduated from high school. But I knew in my heart that the relationship between Alec and me would never be the same if Alec left. Probably for the rest of our lives.
I kept looking out the window for Jake’s beat-up Honda. No sign of him at 9 . Nor at 10. Nor at 11. I think I had worn a path in the carpet to the window. I watched the news, then turned on Johnny Carson, but I didn’t register a word he was saying, and I couldn’t even remember who his guests were. At 1 a.m., I finally went to bed. I dozed and slept fitfully.
Sometime later in the night, I heard Jake turning the doorknob. Then I heard the clink of his belt buckle and the soft whoosh of his clothes dropping to the floor beside the bed and then I felt the rush of cool air as he lifted the blanket and climbed into the bed. He slid his arm over my side and across my chest. I put my hand on top of his and pressed it to me. He kissed me on my shoulder. I rolled over and kissed him on his lips—long and hard.
What I felt then was that I needed to connect with him physically—to caress and touch every part of the body of this man lying next to me—to remember the physical part of him, possibly for the last time. I had memorized his body on that first glorious day of our sexual lives together. I needed to confirm my memory of the person who had lain next to me for a year.
I pushed Jake onto his back. I started to move my hands across his body. I wanted to touch every part of him again slowly from his head to his toes. It was like I was a blind person trying to recognize my companion, but in the most intimate sense that could be.
I wanted to feel every hair on Jake’s body. I wanted to feel all the varieties of his skin—the moist spots, the dry spots, the hard calluses and the soft velvety parts. I moved my hands and felt the softness of his curls at the nape of his neck. I ran my fingers through the long lustrous hair on his head, then felt the sharp bristle of his eyebrows. I let the very tip of my finger feel the delicacy of his long eye lashes. I rubbed the back of my right hand on the stubble of his chin, then moved both hands to caress the warm, moist hair of his underarms.
I let my fingers feel the random hairs around his nipples—all five of them, I would say as we made love when things were better between us. My fingers quieted him down—except the protuberance in the middle of his body. My hands dropped to his abdomen to feel the trail of soft hair leading down to his pubic area. Jake tightened up his stomach muscles, and I pressed and rubbed my fingers forcefully to feel the hardness of the ridges underneath. I then ran my fingers through the wiry pubic hair and then let them stray through the less wiry ones that populated his balls. Jake was moaning softly. I let the back of my knuckle run through his perineum and ass crack, feeling the softness and hardness there. More moans.
Scooting down the bed, I wrapped both hands around his left thigh. Jake raised his pelvis off the bed, his muscled legs causing his body to form an arch, with a 7-inch John Edward Cantwell IV, as I was beginning to call that part of him, as a sort of capstone. I could feel the long, hard sinewy thigh muscles, from years of bike riding as I drew my hands down his body.
As I moved my hands down his body, my left hand felt the change from smooth skin to leg hair. My right hand felt first the baby-skin softness of his buttocks. Finally, I wanted to feel the soft hair on his toes as Jake allowed his body to relax—except his bloated member, which seemed to get harder and harder.
Then, I walked my fingers slowly up his body, alternating the pressure from firm to light, dancing all around his erection, never touching it, traipsing my fingers across his abdomen, across his nipples, along his shoulders to his face. My lips went to his, my tongue to his as I kissed him deeply. Jake started to lean his body into me, but I pushed him gently back.
It was time to trace the same path with my lips and tongue as I had done earlier with my fingers. I ran my tongue through his underarms, tasting the slight saltiness there and the remains of his shower. I let the tip of my tongue tease through his treasure trail then circle his pubic region, just grazing his testicles as I pushed into his perineum. Jake was starting to writhe. From time to time, I would feel his penis brush up against me, leaving a trace of his wetness.
Next, I moved as far down his body as I could go, so I could kiss and caress his feet with my tongue. By this time, I think every nerve of his body must have been sexually sensitive, because he was moaning and ‘mmm’ing and sighing constantly. I started to rub my lips gently up the inside of his calves. Then I kissed softly up his thighs until I came to his pubic area. I darted my tongue through his perineum and grazed the bottom of his testicles, then sampled the pre-cum at the top of his cock with the tip of my tongue. Jake’s hands were gripping the sheet.
I moved up to kiss Jake on the lips again—even more passionately than before—with our tongues in harmony. He started to move his body to mine again. “No,” I said softly, as I pushed him back gently again.
I knew it wouldn’t take much longer. I think I had sensitized every nerve in his body, and I knew that all those feelings would move shortly to one place. I pecked his lips, then his nose, reached behind me to the bedstand for some lube, put some on my finger then started to move my mouth down his front. “Oh, please, Robbie!” he cried. I circled his groin with my kisses, nudging his legs apart with my nose as my hand crawled between his legs. I put my lubed finger against his rosebud and wiggled it around. Jake could not stop writhing. I kissed the back side of his testicles, where I knew he was sensitive, then slid my tongue up from his balls to the head of his penis. In an instant, I had the penis in my mouth down to my throat and my finger against his prostate. It was less than a minute before I heard, “Oh, God! Robbeeeeee! Oh, God!” and he raised his hips off the bed and erupted into my mouth. Wave after wave of cum splashed on my throat and tongue—more than I had ever felt before.
I left my mouth around his penis as it softened, to feel those pulses that seemed to foretell the inevitable end of pleasure. I wanted to enjoy the full cycle of the sexual experience—the full feeling of him—from soft to hard to soft. It must have been ten minutes before Jake came back to life and normal breathing.
Somewhere in all this I had had an orgasm, but I was so concentrated on Jake that I had barely noticed.
I moved my face to Jake’s and kissed him on the lips—softly again. Jake kissed me back, then started to move his lips to my nipples and down my body. I pulled him away, back to my face.
“No,” I said. “That was my gift to the both of us. I want you in my memory that way.” Suddenly, silent tears streamed from my eyes, pooling on my cheeks. As Jake reached over to touch my face in the dimness of the room, he felt them. He paused for a few moments, then used his fingers to spread the tears out and rub them dry. That started me gushing again. I kissed him on the end of his nose and turned my back to him, pulling my pillow to me with my arms.
Jake wrapped his right arm over my chest, and I put my hand over his, lacing our fingers together and fell into an uneasy sleep. In the night I could feel him pulling me to him—fiercely—as if I could somehow give him the energy to do what I wasn’t sure he could do. And in the night he would write “I love you” with his fingers on my naked back. I wanted so much to scream at the top of my voice “I love you back,” but I couldn’t. I wanted to turn to him, kiss him fiercely, make up and go back to the life I knew was over, but I couldn’t. I needed to have this out with Jake.
And the tears silently streamed from my eyes.
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