Jake stopped me as I started to pull out of the driveway with a car full of backpacking gear at 10 the next morning. “I forgot something,” he said and ran quickly back into the condo before emerging about three minutes later. I drove to Anne’s place, and Alec loaded his stuff in the back before climbing into the back seat.
It was obvious from his body language as he climbed into the van that Alec was still miffed about missing his baseball games and maybe about being forced to take a trip with Jake, but I also knew he missed our hiking trips when he was tied up with baseball, so maybe things would turn out all right. With Jake forgetful and Alec miffed, this trip was starting off on the wrong foot.
I figured the backpack trip wouldn’t hurt Alec too much, though; throwing him into a hike was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into a briar patch. However, to demonstrate his immediate enthusiasm for the trip, he curled up into a corner of the back seat and went to sleep. I noticed that Jake and Alec did not exchange a word after the ‘good mornings,’ and I wasn’t sure they even had exchanged those.
We drove to a campground just over the pass, found a site for the night and set up, planning to take off in the morning for four days and three nights in the Cascades. This first night of car camping, though, would be luxury living compared to the next few days, and I intended to enjoy it. This night we would eat real, non-freeze-dried food on real plates with real silverware and wine glasses made of real glass. We would sleep on soft thick pads and not be poked by every twig and bump on the ground. This last night would be heaven of a sort. Unfortunately, it might also be the calm before the storm.
Alec made a huge salad and garlic bread. I grilled some steaks over the campfire after roasting baked potatoes in the coals. We had a tablecloth for the picnic table and had ice for our drinks and a bottle of cabernet from Robert Mondavi. I’m such a wine buff (snob, Jake says on occasions) that I almost would carry wine glasses on the backpack trip—the larger and thinner the glasses the better.
Jake washed up the dinner dishes and pans as Alec and I finished packing and checking our gear for the hike. We sat around the campfire drinking Grand Marnier—I gave Alec a small glass—till we started to droop, which wasn’t too long. Then, we climbed into our sleeping bags and fell asleep.
Sometime during the middle of the night I realized Jake wasn’t across from me in his sleeping bag. I reached for my jacket and pants and crawled out of the tent to see where he was. He was sitting at the picnic table in parka and boxers, staring at the stars.
“Anything wrong, Sawyer?” I asked quietly. Of course, there was something wrong, but I had to ask.
“I’m okay. I’m just thinking. Go back to bed.” He was obviously in some turmoil.
“Are you sure?”
He reached over, pulled me to him and gave me a kiss. “Yes. I just need the time—quiet and alone, Robbie.”
I crawled back into the tent and fell back asleep. Some time later I felt and heard Jake slip back into the tent and sleeping bag and felt a light kiss on my cheek, but it must not have been too long before dawn.
* * *
After breakfast we packed the car trunk with what was left over of our “luxuries,” which we wouldn’t see for a few days, then parked the car at the head of the trail and began our ascent from pass level to timberline. We climbed slowly through scented forests toward the crest of the Cascade Range. The dark and light greens along the trail were punctuated by brilliant electric greens where shafts of sunlight would reach the ground or strike the moss on the trees. This steep and unrelenting climb normally took Alec, Celly and me about two hours from pass level to the open meadows at timberline. With Jake in good physical shape, the two-hour figure was a good estimate for this hike.
We hiked single file, spread out over about 100 yards of trail, Alec well in the lead, Jake in the middle and me bringing up the rear. The wind whirred through the tops of the trees sounding like distant freeway traffic. There was the occasional chirping of birds, surprisingly echoing through the greens and browns of the forest, and, from time to time, I would hear the gurgling of water in the creeks we had to cross before I could actually see the creeks. But mostly we heard our steady footfalls on the soft, fir-needle carpet of the trail, the occasional scuff of boot against rocks and the nylon rustle and soft clank and “thwap” of our packs as we climbed higher and higher toward the crest. The morning was cool, particularly in the deep forest, and the sun patches that struck the trail from time to time were a warming relief.
Though Alec, Celly and I had hiked this trail many times, its beauty still never ceased to amaze me. These ancient forests were a temple to be visited over and over again. Jake, too, must have felt the religious feeling of the deep forest. He was looking around in awe. His head spun on his shoulders, craning up at the enormous trees that towered hundreds of feet to the blue sky above, then around at the dense lighter green undergrowth of ferns, huckleberry bushes and moss amidst the cinnamon-colored bark.
Every once in a while, though, he would stop, lace his hands on the top of his head and stand still—pondering as he caught his breath. Though at those times I would seek to comfort him when I caught up to him on the trail, he would always wave me to go by, not wanting his privacy interrupted. Whatever it was that was disturbing him, he was not yet willing to open up.
Alec would stop from time to time to let us old men—Jake and me—get a chance to catch our breaths, take the backpack loads off our backs, sit on a log and slake our thirst with our canteens. Alec stayed on his feet the whole time. Oh, to be 14 again.
Subtly, the forest started to change from huge Douglas fir and hemlock trees to the heartier, smaller and wirier alpine firs, their trunks bowed by the forces of winter snows that had probably only finally melted in July. The trail from time to time would open up to cross rocky talus slopes decorated here and there with wild flowers.
We were nearing the crest of the Cascades. There were now snow patches in the shady places. The trees were getting smaller and sparser, yielding to small openings of scrub heather and wild flowers. I knew we were nearing a viewpoint that would wow the hardest heart, and I hoped it would perk Jake up.
Just over the crest and around a bend, the enormous land form that is called Mount Rainier would arise white and craggy, looming across a valley, the mountain’s bulk consuming half the horizon to the west. And in the meadows on this side of the valley would be a small lake near the trail, fringed with extraordinary wildflowers, reflecting the image of Mount Rainier. The sight was a picture postcard. It was just ahead. And at this elevation the trail would be surrounded with the reds, purples and yellows of paintbrush, lupine, penstemon and buttercup turning more dense around the lake.
Alec and I knew this section of the trail well. I signaled to Alec to hold back. He understood. “Jake, why don’t you go on ahead. We’ll catch up to you in a couple of minutes. I need Alec to fix a strap,” I said. Jake looked a little hesitant. “Just follow the trail,” I continued. Jake nodded and started over the crest as Alec pretended to adjust my strap. In a minute Jake was out of sight, and we took up the trek again.
As we rounded the bend, there was Jake, standing stock still under this mountain and in front of the lake, ogle-eyed. A small stream ran alongside the trail, gathering clumps of wildflowers along its bright-green mossy shore. Jake stood, drinking in the scenery for a full two minutes. “You let me go ahead on purpose,” he said. “You didn’t need to have a strap adjusted.” Jake looked at me, then at Alec until Alec had to avert his eyes. “I don’t deserve this.”
Jake then knelt down, amid this field of brilliant red and orange paintbrush, purple lupine, cream colored cat’s ear, asters and the last of beargrass in the shady places. He bowed his head, sat still for a long while, and then he started to weep—first softly and then uncontrollably in huge sobs, his arms reaching out to brush back and forth through the a patch of crimson paintbrush. I came up to him and put my hand on his shoulder, but he waved me off again. “Go on ahead,” he said, in a croaking voice. “I’ll catch up.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’ll be okay. Strangely enough, I will.” He put his hand on my arm, squeezed it with warmth then pushed me gently down the path.
“We’ll set up lunch down by the lake.”
Alec and I went quietly past him and around the lake and found a large, flat rock outcropping that we could all sit on and still have plenty of room to lay out our lunch. We sat awhile, looking at the mountain and enjoying the late-morning sun. But Alec was getting restless, kicking the heel of his boot against the facing of the rock, and he was probably hungry. Well, ‘probably’ is probably an understatement.
I turned my head to glance at Jake. He was now lying down on his side on the grassy meadow, his elbow crooked to hold up his head. He was facing our way and his fingers passed through the wild flowers as if through a lover’s hair. His shoulders still shook from the sobs. I stood up and started to go to him, but he again waved me off when he noticed me coming. I turned away, tears in my eyes, sensing that there was nothing I could do to help except wait. I sat again, turned toward Mount Rainier and threw my arm over my son’s shoulder, and we sat, admiring the view.
Alec was visibly uncomfortable with the wait. “Hey, let’s get lunch ready,” I said. He smiled at me in relief at having something to do. We got out fresh fruit and cheese from the pack--heavy things we didn’t want to carry long distances—and utensils. It didn’t take long, but it gave us something to do, and I noticed that Alec would steal a nibble from time to time of what we were putting out. I sat down again and pulled out the map, and we traced the trail that we both knew so well by heart.
After about 10 minutes I felt Jake’s arms wrap around me from behind and hold onto me hard as if he was pulling me again into his life through sheer physical strength. I turned my head back at him. He put his chin on my shoulder and continued to hold me. Then he sighed, said “Whew!” and broke off, heading to a boulder on the other side of the trail from our “table rock.” His hand brushed through some nearby flowers as he composed himself.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been terrible company today.”
“Today?” I quipped, and instantly regretted what I said.
Jake flashed a sad smile, then shrugged his shoulders. “I was overwhelmed by the mountain and the wildflowers and my happiness and my sorrow and my fucked-up life—sorry for the language, Alec. I was transfixed. My last 14 sorry years have been flashing before me this last week. When I hit that spot on the trail, everything came apart before I could stop it. I’m sure I spilled 14 years of tears.” He laughed ruefully. “Maybe, 13 and a half. I’ve got a few more to go.”
“Take your time,” I said.
“Thanks, Rob. And thank you for being patient, Alec. You’re a good kid.” Of course, Alec hadn’t been patient, but he was a good kid, and he was politic enough not to say anything. For the first time in months, Jake faced Alec without seeming to shy away—at least it seemed that way. Alec smiled a bit, guiltily, dropping his dark eyes to his lap.
“Well, at least I worked up an appetite,” Jake said, trying to change the tone. “How about them Mariners?” He tried a smile to go along with the try at banter, but at some point banter fails to substitute for true communication that was really needed. That was one of those times. Jake and I were guilty of bantering in the past, sometimes when true communication would have been better. This was one of those times. I rolled my eyes at him, and he just grinned a sad grin and shrugged again.
Alec stood and started to pass cheese, bagels and fruit to each of us. He started to take out the water bottle, but I said, “Pass the canteen of chardonnay,” I said. “I think we all need it.”
We ate and drank quietly, sharing the canteen of wine, sitting in the warm summer sun, Alec and I on the large flat rock outcropping that served both as a bench and a table, with Jake across from us on the grass.
As we were eating I was trying to gather my thoughts. I didn’t know what was going through Jake’s mind, and I didn’t know what I could do, but I thought some words might help break some ice. “The summer when Anne and I were breaking up—the true breakup some years before our official divorce—I used to climb that trail to this very spot. I would sit for hours in the sun, reliving our lives, reliving my life—thinking often of you, Jake—trying to figure out what went wrong and what I needed to do to make it right. The place, the view, the beauty drew every drop of emotion from me.
“It is the most humbling place I have ever been at. This ridge is my temple, my closest approach to God, if there is a God, my place to confess my sins and, maybe, celebrate my good deeds. Each time I have come around that bend I have had the same sense of awe, and each time my thoughts turn to how small I am in this planet and this universe and what I have done wrong and what I have done right.”
“You’re babbling, dad,” Alec said, with an impish grin.
I noticed a grin on Jake’s face also and an exchange of glances between the two loves of my life. At least there was communication between them.
But maybe what I said had some effect. Jake grew quiet and seemed several times on the verge of saying something before backing off. This stop-and-start pattern was so common with him and his mother that I concluded it must have been a genetic trait. Finally he looked at me—no, he pierced my soul with an agonized, fearful look with the eyes of a colt about to be broken—then he looked at Alec and said: “It’s time! Oh God help me! You both are going to have to listen to my story for awhile.” I nodded, but somehow I knew this next hour or so was intended for Alec as much as me. Alec nodded. I’m not sure he realized what was at stake.
“I’ve never been able to relate what I am going to tell you to anyone—not my family, not my lovers, not my psychoanalysts--nobody, except a little bit to my dad,” he continued. “It is too awful a story. But I need to get it off my chest. I have been living with this blackness for far too long. Alcohol wouldn’t cure me. Years roaming Asia couldn’t stop these thoughts. A year of happiness with your father, Alec, couldn’t make me assuage the guilt and shame I feel.”
Jake stood and crossed the path to the rock that Alec and I were sitting on, climbed up on it, sat down between Alec and me and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. He took in a deep breath and expelled it, turned toward Alec and leaned his back onto my right shoulder and lifted his feet up on the rock and wrapped his arms around his calves and pulled his knees toward his torso. I turned and straddled him from behind, putting my hands on his shoulders. I kneaded them lightly.
“I love your father as much as any person can love another human being. I realize he is a male, as I am, but our gender has nothing to do with my relationship to him. I know deep down that he loves me in the same way, though we’ve never expressed our love in just this way—as one human being to another human being. Am I right, Rob?”
I couldn’t muster a word without risking a sob, so I just nodded my head. Without looking at me, Jake knew I had agreed with him.
“The problem is that he loves you as much as any father can love any son. But it doesn’t stop there. I can see already that as you grow older and into a man, your father will love you also as much as any person can love another person. I see you two being that close. Am I right again, Rob?”
“Will you get on with it? You’re babbling.” It was a bad try at repartee. Jake apparently rolled his eyes as his head tilted back, because Alec flashed a quick grin. “Of course, you’re right, damn you.”
“The problem for him, and therefore for me, is that one or the other relationships will have to be sacrificed—either him and me or you and him—if we, no, if I, go on as I’ve been doing.
“Alec, your Dad gave me an ultimatum a few days ago—he didn’t call it that—and he came near to saying good-bye to me, probably forever, in the process. Maybe that’s what you want, Alec. I probably would if I were you.”
“No. Dad’s happy, and that’s what matters,” Alec said somewhat defensively.
“No, for your dad, that isn’t enough, which makes it not enough for me. You need to accept me too—freely, without reservation, and not because you want to please your dad. If you’re not happy, your dad won’t be happy, and that would hurt me more than anything else in the world.” Jake rubbed his fingers nervously across the surface of the rock.
“I can’t apologize enough to you. Your dad reminded me that you are a 14-year-old boy going on being a man and I’ve been acting like a 34-year old going on being a boy. It’s up to me to fix this.
“I’ve been cold to you, I’ve been standoffish and haven’t given myself a chance to truly get to know you or you to get to know me. I have carefully constructed a wall between us. Now your dad tells me I have to tear it down—or lose him.”
“Jake, you…” I started to interrupt.
“No, Rob, love, let’s be honest. You were absolutely right to force the issue. It’s time. This is what I have to do.” He paused and took a deep breath.
“What I am going to tell you is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.” Alec stopped fidgeting and looked Jake in the eye.
“A boy your age died in Vietnam because of me—a kid that I loved like a younger brother,” Jake said, his voice almost breaking. “I killed him.” Jake closed his eyes and seemed to drift halfway around the world. But his statement really got Alec’s attention as well as mine. “Well, I killed him, but I feel I did even though he was really caught in a war that killed too many.
“The boy’s name was Tran. He was 14-years old. Like you, he was a truly wonderful, beautiful kid.”
I was moved by the compliment, and I could see a softening in Alec’s demeanor.
“Tran had the same mannerisms as you do—the same quick smile, the same quick mind, the same bright attitude toward life. He was always pestering me with questions, as you do with your dad and which I let you do with me —for about a day.” Jake turned and gazed at Mount Rainier, his eyes glistening. “God, Tran was a wonderful kid.”
“It is uncanny, no scary, that the son of the man I love was so much like this boy I caused to die. Do you remember that day when I was adjusting your bike for the first time?”
Alec nodded. Jake continued. “You lay across from me, propped your head up with your hands and asked a question. I was looking at you through the bicycle spokes. You had the very same tilt of the head, the same expectant look on your face as Tran did 14 years ago. I freaked out. In my mind’s eye, you were converted into a young Vietnamese boy. The more I saw of you, Alec, the more I couldn’t remove my guilt about Tran and my thoughts of him.
“I would look at you and I would see in my mind this 14-year-old Vietnamese boy as if I were looking into some kind of trick mirror. I simply couldn’t handle those memories that reflected off of you. You remember how I stood up and left your garage. That was my way of handling my problem—the way I handled problems for 14 years until now—by walking away.” Jake reached across his chest and put his hand on top of my fingers rubbing his shoulder and just held on for a few moments until he got himself under control.
He took a deep breath. “So what I did was dodge my guilt by avoiding you, Alec. I was running away from some awful memories. It wasn’t you, Alec. It wasn’t anything you did or said. Believe, me, it wasn’t you. The problem is that I was reminded too much of this kid in Vietnam that, in reality, I killed. I just haven’t been able to face up to my problem.” There was a pause. “Until now.”
Jake squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed hard. “Bear with me.
“It all started when I was in Mississippi. Your dad and I were so idealistic then. We changed the world. I know that’s how he feels, and, deep down, that’s how I feel.”
Somehow, that admission boosted my spirits.
Jake went on: “A year after Mississippi, I graduated from college and was drafted immediately into the Army. It was in the middle of the Vietnam War. I thought about going to Canada after I got my notice, but my dad felt strongly that I should serve my country, as he had done in World War II. His unit had liberated one of the concentration camps, and it left a searing impression on him about what we Americans were doing and could do for the world. He believed that the Vietnam War was a way to stop the spread of an evil totalitarian state, the USSR, from doing what Germany had done. He may have been wrong, or the cost may have been too high, but that is what he believed and what he taught to a young impressionable me. I finally decided to do my duty, distasteful as it was, and I was sent to Vietnam.
“So I arrived in Vietnam to live in a totally unreal environment. Most GIs lived in the American enclave—a small American city in reality—with nothing to do except go to Saigon’s whorehouses and GI bars when we weren’t making forays into the countryside to kill Viet Cong. For most guys it was okay. It was sheer hell for me. I was miserable.
“That’s when I read in Stars and Stripes about a program that was similar to what the Peace Corps might do. The Army would send unarmed soldiers out to villages to help the residents build things like water and sanitary systems and teach up-to-date agricultural practices and the like. I knew I wasn’t an engineer and knew diddly about agriculture, but I did know a lot about bicycles, and the Vietnamese used bicycles a lot. Plus, I had a business degree, so maybe helping a village to set up a bicycle shop was a way I could help.
“So I hunted down the program’s office and offered my services. I convinced the colonel who ran the program that I could teach the young people in the village some rudimentary skills that would benefit them all their lives. The skill I had to share was my knowledge about bicycles and bicycle repair and my training in inventory and ordering and running a business, and there were lots of bicycles in Vietnam. Teaching these people how to repair bicycles and run a shop was to be my objective for the rest of my stay in Vietnam. Besides, I told the colonel, I knew French.
“He was persuaded, but he cautioned me that the program was designed to be done by GI volunteers in their spare time. That was fine with me. We had a lot of spare time.”
Jake unscrewed the cap from his canteen and took a drink.
“Two days later I was sitting in a Jeep with four buddies going to a village about 10 miles from Saigon. The other guys had already been there, so they knew what was happening. I was new.
“I had to convince the village elders that I was serious and I could help. I started by picking out one of the most decrepit bikes, which an old man of about 70 was riding. I told them to bring the bike to me the next week when we returned. I bought some parts for it in Saigon for a few cents and repaired it on the following visit. The villagers thought I had performed a miracle. I was overjoyed. My next step was to set up a bicycle repair shop.
“We set up a bicycle-repair shop in a tin-roofed lean-to. At first, a few young boys came to look and help out, but later, as I gained the people’s trust, even some older men came to learn how to repair bicycles, to read repair manuals, and, with lots of hand gestures and pointing to pictures on the pages of the manuals, to learn how to prepare lists of parts to order and have in stock and to keep books. God, to go from the battlefield to the peace field was such a contrast. I loved going to that village.
“There were a few young boys who became so adept at tearing a bicycle down and putting it back together that they could do it faster than I could. Your dad would recognize the blow to my ego when they could do it faster than I could.”
I grinned and kissed him on the back of his head.
“One boy in particular was named Tran. He was quick to learn and thorough in the way he approached mechanics. And he had a wonderful personality. He asked a million questions. He picked up English quickly. I became like a big brother to him and would bring him things from the base. He was the younger brother anybody would love. I brought him this bracelet that one of my Navajo buddies in the army has asked his grandmother to make.” Jake reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a bracelet and put it on the rock in front of him. It was a stunningly beautiful silver and gold bracelet.
“Our visits went on for several months, with new soldiers replacing those that left—or were killed in battle.” Anguish showed on his face as his eyes darted from side to side nervously. I wondered if he was going to stop or whether he had the strength to go on. Jake continued, “I felt I was truly doing something good for the world—in a small but meaningful way. Finally, it was getting near the end of my tour, and I wanted to show the colonel what I had been doing.”
Jake sighed again, and then went on, to my relief. “I had told the villagers that I would be leaving after the next weekend. They asked the five of us soldiers in the program to stay for tea; the colonel was invited as well. The young people that I had been teaching and working with—they were just teenagers—asked us to sit down at a low table under a tree in the plaza in the center of the village. It was just a dusty small area—almost a field—about 25 yards square with this one huge tree in it. Several young girls brought us an enormous wicker basket of brilliant flowers—gardenias, orchids, bougainvillea, I later learned—and set it down in front of the six of us. We took the flowers with us in the Jeep as we left. If the other guys at the base didn’t appreciate the flowers, then, pardon my English, fuck them.”
Jake stopped, glanced over at Alec, reached for the canteen, took a swig of wine and wiped his lips with the sleeve of his flannel shirt. While he was doing that, I picked up the bracelet, realized how exquisite it was and returned it to the rock as Jake started in again.
Jake grew silent. “I’m going to have trouble going through the rest of this.” Jake swallowed hard and took another large swig of the chardonnay.
“We weren’t scheduled to go out to the village for several days. It turned out that I had some spare time the next day, so I thought, what the hell, I could ride my bike out to the village on my own. It would only be about an hour’s trip.
“I was nearing the village when I looked up and braked suddenly. In the dusty field where we had had tea were about 100 Viet Cong sitting peacefully among the village people—at least, some of them.
“I was paralyzed. I was conflicted. Here were the same people that we were seeking out to kill, and they were doing the same to us. Yet I thought we had made friends in the village—but maybe that wasn’t enough—and they should be friendly with us.
“Suddenly, there was a noise at my side. It was Tran. He had seen me. ‘Go! Go!’ he said. ‘Go before they see you.’ I turned to Tran, and he had tears in his eyes and the most forlorn look on his face. ‘I’ll be okay.’ His look haunts me today. I turned away, and then I was gone—and it was to be forever.”
“He saved your life,” Alec said, almost pleadingly.
“Oh, no question. The Viet Cong could have spotted me at any time. He could have alerted them. Tran saved my life, but he couldn’t save my soul.
“Anyway, I turned my bike around and rode away at far too fast a speed, tears streaking from my eyes. I never looked back—but of course when I close my eyes I’ve always looked back and probably always will—but mainly to that sweet farewell that we got from the villagers and the brilliant colors of the flowers that they gave us.”
Jake shifted on the rock to make himself more comfortable, keeping his eyes from Alec. It was as if he feared that Alec too would disappear from his life if he turned his gaze to him.
Jake then looked down at the bracelet and began to speak again: “The story doesn’t end there, however. I reported what had happened to my base commander. He said he would take care of it. I didn’t want to know what he did.
“But I found out. The colonel in our outreach program announced that the week’s visits had been canceled. Then, a few nights later, I was drowning my sorrows in beer after beer at the PX, getting pitifully drunk, just waiting for my plane to go home. I looked across at one of the tables and noticed what looked like Tran’s bracelet on one of the GIs’ wrists. He was a burly guy with a crewcut and rough features. I will never forget his face.
“I deliberately walked by him to verify what I had seen. It was the bracelet I had given Tran—that’s it on the rock in front of me”
Alec looked down at the bracelet, started to pick it up, then thought better of it and set it back down.
“I almost fainted from shock when I saw that bracelet. And then I became really angry—at myself, at the war, at everything. I walked over to his table and stared at the bracelet, tears streaming from my eyes. I lost my cool. Bawling, I demanded that he give it to me. I started to shout and act belligerently, telling him somewhat incoherently, I’m sure, why it belonged to me. ‘Hell,’ he said, finally, ‘It’s just a trinket I took off a gook,’ and he gave it to me. I ran out of the PX, holding the bracelet.” Jake picked it up. His knuckles turned white as he clasped it hard. “I walked around the base all night long, shedding tears for what had happened, shedding tears for the world. My plane left in the morning for the States.
“I realize now that this all was just part of the hell of war. But it was as if I had killed my 14-year-old brother.” Jake hung his head and wept a few more tears. “It was not ‘as if’. I had killed my 14-year-old brother. I felt an enormous guilt—a guilt that still lives with me buy maybe now I can face.
Jake looked at the silver bracelet in his hands. “This is what I went back to the house to get as we left. I didn’t forget it. I haven’t forgotten it for 14 years. I decided I needed to get it as far away from me as possible—maybe to throw it over a cliff never more to be found.” Jake rubbed his hand over the bracelet and the memories that it held. Jake put the bracelet back in his shirt pocket, put his hand over the pocket and held it there as if he were stanching the blood from a wound to his heart.
“I went home and got out of the Army. Then I caught the first flight from California back to the Far East. I didn’t even go home to Boston. I couldn’t face my dad in person. I couldn’t face anyone I knew from the past. I wanted to forget what happened. For years, I drifted from Singapore to Hong Kong to Jakarta, chasing women and drink, finding odd jobs—mostly in construction, trying to chase away the demons. I never found love—or maybe love never found me, sour as I was. I would start relationships but when they turned serious—to consideration of marriage and children—I was never ready, and I moved on to the next city and the next woman. I would turn my back on anything of beauty—to punish myself, I think.
Jake then looked up directly at Alec. “I know it’s irrational, Alec, that you reminded me daily of Tran. You’re not Tran. You’re not even Asian. You’re a wonderful, wonderful boy, and you’re alive, and he’s dead. But when I looked at you, I was forced to remember what I had been trying to forget since Vietnam. I couldn’t cope.
“Alec, you smile like Tran, you move like Tran. I should love you for it—and I do—but until now I have been unable to handle the memories.
“Your dad is the only reason that I’ve been able to come to grips with my problem. His ultimatum has forced the issue. I don’t want to lose him—ever. This cloud on my memories has ruined every relationship I’ve had since Vietnam. But I have to get on with my life and put the blackness behind me. I now have a reason to make a change: The reason is your dad and, yes, you Alec.
“It was never you that frightened me, Alec; it was all the guilt that kept coming back. You are such a wonderful, warm young man. I don’t know how I could have treated you worse. For that I am unbelievably sorry.”
Jake turned his head to me. Tears were streaming down his cheeks again. I saw them on Alec’s cheeks as well, and I was unabashedly weeping. “I couldn’t look at those flowers across the meadow—in such a peaceful, almost holy place—without conjuring up that last tea with the villagers and the gift of the flowers—and Tran’s forlorn look.” He turned his face down and sobbed—maybe close to the last of the tears that he had started an hour or so ago. Alec moved over and put his hand gently on Jake.
A few minutes later Jake sat up straight again and said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Two years ago I found myself truly getting to the end of my rope to the point where calling an end to my life was a growing option. It was then that I got this call from my dad. He told me he had a terminal illness. We talked in detail about what was happening to him, then I told him some of these things I’m telling you today, and I told him how miserable I was and how badly I had fucked up my life and that maybe it was too much to handle. Dad then went on to what I needed to do to help my mother after he was gone. It was a morbid conversation, but we were communicating after a decade of nothing but stiff superficial telephone conversations between us.
“As I think back on it, we sort of raced each other to the ultimate deadline—him by disease and mine by my own hand. Dad won. He died before I could bring myself to do, well, what I really wanted to do. I think now Dad did it to force me to come home. No, I know in my heart it was that way. He knew I would have to go back to Boston for his service and for my mother. He was right. It was the first time in over a decade that I had been in the States.
“After Dad’s service, Mom asked me not to go back to the Far East and to stay with her for a few months till she adjusted. I agreed. I was really lost. So I looked for a job in the Boston area. There was really nothing for me in Asia anyway—except more running from my memories. From Boston I came to Seattle.” Jake sighed deeply, as if an enormous burden had been lifted from his shoulders. “You know the rest.”
We three sat in a shared silence, listening to the warm wind and the buzz of the bees on the tufts of wild flowers. I started to massage Jake’s shoulder again. He leaned his head over, pulled my right arm to his lips to give it a light kiss. Alec asked to see the bracelet. Jake pulled it from his pocket, then gave it to my son. Alec examined it, turning it in his hands, held it and gave it back to Jake to put back in his pocket.
“It’s fantastically beautiful,” Alec said. He looked at it for a while then finally stood. “I want to go ahead alone, Dad” he said. “I need to think.”
“That’s fine. You know where we are going to camp tonight. We’ll see you there.”
He came over to me and embraced me—hard and fiercely. He went over to Jake, hesitated, then gave him a hug and started north along the trail. Jake and I sat quietly finishing up the chardonnay, him leaning against me, letting the sun dry our tears and, I think, cleanse our souls.
In silence, we picked up our gear and hiked for the rest of the afternoon, subdued, apart, each of us immersed in our own thoughts.
Alec had started our camp in a small grove of scrub trees on the west side of the crest. Mount Rainier was the backdrop—with the sun about to move behind it now, and bright lines of light soon to trim the ridge lines below the crest.
I made dinner as Alec and Jake set up tents, strung the cord for a clothesline and found a spot to eat. We had a gourmet, freeze-dried dinner—the term gourmet being an oxymoron—but it was filling. We consumed our second canteen of wine—a fine 1978 pinot noir from Oregon--quietly. We didn’t say much to each other, just absorbing the enormity of Jake’s emotional outpouring at lunch.
Jake and I crawled into the tent with a light buzz from the wine, pulling off our clothes and climbing on top of our sleeping bags and pads.
We made love slowly and sweetly that night. It was not strong, masculine sex with a violent press of body against body. Rather, it was sex almost without sex. It was soft foreplay, with gentle breeze-like caresses along the flats and curves of our bodies. It was light kisses, with long and gentle brushes of the lips. It was our breaths wafting against each other’s skin and hair. It was sexual pressure building up slowly but with no rush to achieve climax. It was light contact on every part of our bodies, hair grazing lightly against hair, fingers tracing circles across each of our bodies, toes locking against toes then moving in caresses of feet and calves. It was passionate short kisses with lips but not with tongues. It was silent love. No words were spoken. Tears would rise between us—tears of relief. From time to time, our erections touched each other, but only inadvertently, charging each other with sexual electricity. Until the end, it was with the totality of our bodies that we made soft love. We drew our arms and fingers and legs against one another and made sure every part of our bodies was brought into play. And finally when we were ready for our climaxes, it was soft mouths and gentle contact that brought final release.
Afterwards, on top of our sleeping bags, limbs entwined, I held Jake as he wept again. I don’t know why, but I think the weeping this time was for the years that he had lost since Vietnam, not for what happened there. I held him tightly until he fell asleep. I had similarly held Alec when the tragedies of childhood had hurt him. I held Jake to comfort him, to transfer some of my understanding to him. Somewhere in the middle of the night the cold chased us back into our individual sleeping bags.
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