When I wrote the initial draft of a story that originally was called Passover Pathos, reports were starting to surface of a new coronavirus emerging in China. At the time it seemed far away, and I had no inkling that Covid-19 would emerge as a dominant force of nature that would forever change our way of life. With the New York Story series, I’ve tried to limit references to external events but there was no way to avoid the effects of Covid-19, which threatened to upend the observances of Passover and Easter entirely. I therefore moved up the timing of the story and brought the full force of the viral pandemic to bear on the characters that lived in the New York City of my imagination.
How the pandemic will affect their lives in the coming months and years is still being written by the events occurring in our own lives today.
“I can’t believe you’re moving, Joshy,” Dimitri said as we walked around Manhattan Beach Park. It was a blustery winter day with overcast skies and angry swells on the Atlantic Ocean. The park was pretty much deserted, as there wasn’t even a beautiful view of the ocean today to attract runners and skaters. Nearby Brighton Beach was a better place for those things anyway.
“First, you got into Stuyvesant,” he continued, “and now you’re moving to The City. You’re gonna live in Manhattan, man.”
“You can always come and visit me,” I countered, “or I can visit you. Fuck, I commute from here to Stuyvesant every day, so there’s no reason either of us can’t make the trip to see each other. To be with each other.”
“But isn’t that the reason you’re moving in the first place?” Dimitri asked. “Your old man doesn’t want you and your sisters schlepping into Manhattan every day, ninety minutes each way, every day.”
“But surely my dad’ll understand my coming back here to the neighborhood to visit with my friends,” I countered.
“You think he’ll go for weekly sleep-overs once you’ve moved?” Dimitri asked. “Don’t you think he’ll get suspicious when the only one you go to visit is me?”
“Well, you are my best friend,” I responded.
“Sixth grade,” Dimitri challenged. “We’ve been together since sixth grade. Just about three years now since we finally got the balls to come out to each other. You can’t live your entire life in a closet, Joshy.”
“What choice do I got, Dimitri,” I countered. “My dad’s a very traditional Russian Jew. He’ll never accept having a gay son. I’ve still got three-and-a-half years to go before I can go away to college. Maybe even more than that if dad insists I go to community college first. After all, college’s expensive and we don’t have a lot of money. Mom died when I was only four and she brought in more than half the money, and dad never lets me forget that. With four of us heading toward college in quick succession, Dad can’t afford much on a college instructor’s salary.”
“I get it Joshy,” Dimitri responded. “A lot of our parents made sacrifices to make a better life for their kids in America. Your mother was a doctor in Russia, but Russian doctors are a dime a dozen over here, so she got her nursing certificate and then became a nurse practitioner. It musta killed her to go from bein’ a doctor to taking orders from them, but she made good money… until she got sick.”
“It’s more than that, Dimitri,” I went on. “Manhattan Beach might be the ‘rich’ end of Coney Island, but we could barely afford the house on two salaries as it was when Mom was alive. My parents bought it after the 2008 financial crisis, when it was in foreclosure and they got it for a song. Even so, it’s tiny.”
“Yeah, but it’s a detached house,” Dimitri noted. “Ours is part of a quadruplex, with neighbors on both sides.”
“And a garage,” I pointed out.
“What do you need with a garage? You guys don’t even have a car. Still, I don’t see how anyone in Brooklyn can live without a car, Josh,” Dimitri countered.
“Same for lotsa people,” I replied, “but because it’s so close to Kingsborough, Dad can walk to work, so we don’t need a car.”
“Yeah, but this ain’t Brooklyn Heights,” Dimitri countered.
“And don’t I know it,” I replied.
“It was good when we were in middle school,” Dimitri went on. “We went to the same school and we shared a lot of classes, and after school, when the ’rents were still at work and I had the house to myself, you and I’d schtupp all afternoon long. Now, by the time you get home from Stuyvesant, maybe we got five minutes to hook up before my old man gets home from work. With you movin’ to Manhattan, we’ll never get together.”
“It won’t be easy, but we’ll make the time, Dimitri,” I replied.
Dimitri grabbed my shoulder, stopping me in my tracks and he turned me to face him, eye-to-eye. “It ain’t gonna work, Joshy. It just ain’t. You’ll be there and I’ll be here, and it’ll be a three-hour round trip, just to visit with each other either way. How’ll we ever have any kinda life together? We gotta end it, Joshy. There are a lotta boys in Brooklyn. A lotta boys way closer to home. And fuck, you’ll be in the heart of the action where you are. You got The Village and Chelsea. I bet there are a lotta queers that go to Stuyvesant —”
“Most of the boys that go to Stuyvesant are Asian and live in Queens,” I countered, and then the gist of what Dimitri was sayin’ started to sink in. “You breakin’ up with me, Dimitri?” I asked. “Is that what this is about? You breakin’ up with me?”
“It’s for the best, Joshy,” my obviously ex-boyfriend replied. “It’s really for the best. We gotta get our own lives now. We gotta find boys from the neighborhoods where we live. I gotta find someone in Brooklyn and you in Manhattan. That’s just the way it’s gotta be —”
“You know what? Fuck you, Dimitri,” I shouted. “Fuck you!”
I took off running as the tears streamed down my face. I ran through the parking lot and by the tennis courts. I crossed Oriental Boulevard and ran up MacKenzie Street, ’til I got to Shore Boulevard. I ran across the footbridge at Exeter Street and ran along Emmons Avenue, by all the boat docks with the boats, most of them berthed for the winter. I ran and I ran and I ran. I ran past the Comfort Inn, or the Come Fart Inn, as Dimitri liked to call it. I ran alongside the Belt Parkway and across the Gerritsen Inlet bridge. I ran all the way down Flatbush Avenue, ’til it became the Marine Parkway Bridge. I ran down Rockaway Point Boulevard ’til it ended at Breezy Point in the Gateway National Recreation Area. I ran until I was surrounded by water at the very tip of the Rockaways, with nowhere else to run.
I was out of breath. I had a leg cramp. I had a cramp in the pit of my stomach. I was gasping for breath. I’d lost track of time, but I’d run a distance that normally took over three hours to walk at a brisk pace. Getting home was gonna take me over an hour on two buses. I could see Manhattan Beach from where I was, but I was now in Queens and literally an ocean away.
I stopped to catch my breath, listening to the seagulls squawking and the sound of jets landing and taking off from Kennedy nearby. Hell, I heard that from home, but it was just background noise, but not now. I just stopped and listened as I let the sound of the jets drown out my thoughts. But even that couldn’t keep me from thinking of Dimitri.
Life sucked. Big time.
Moving has got to be right up there with getting a root canal when it comes to the joys of life – not that I’d ever had a root canal. Let’s just say it’s not something I would have ever chosen to do, but when you’re a kid, you don’t get ta say in these kinds of things.
So, I grew up in Manhattan Beach, a small community of mostly affluent Russian Jews on the eastern end of Coney Island. Sayin’ it was affluent was a bit of an exaggeration. Now Dyker Heights – that was affluent. People came from all over to see the lights at Christmastime in Dyker Heights. People spent a fortune to have professionals decorate their houses for Christmas in Dyker Heights. Can you imagine that? Not that anyone in my neighborhood decorated their house for Christmas, but even a tiny house in Dyker Heights was worth a small fortune.
My mother was a doctor in Ukraine and my father was a professor of Russian literature in Moscow, but things never were good for Jews in the Soviet Union and they only went downhill when the Soviet Union was no more, so they emigrated to the United States, seeking a better life. They both came to New York and settled in Brighton Beach, where a lotta Russian Jews settled and formed their own community. Russian remains the dominant language in Brighton Beach, even more than English or Yiddish. Mom and Dad met in Brighton Beach, fell in love and got married.
I guess it didn’t take mom long to realize she couldn’t work as a doctor in America. Well, she could have, but she’d’ve had to repeat much of her training and then would’ve ended up in a job in a godawful place like Tupelo, Arkansas, or maybe worse. On the other hand, nurses were in demand and it didn’t take long for a Russian-trained doctor to get a nursing certificate, and not that long going to night school to become a nurse practitioner, so that’s what she did.
Dad, on the other hand, had a skill that was even less in demand in America. How many people wanted to study Russian literature in America? Not only that, but a Russian doctorate doesn’t rate much more than an American masters degree. Still, dad had published articles in English language journals and was considered one of the more knowledgeable people in his field, and with so many Russian-speaking people in Brighton Beach, Kingsborough Community College was more than interested in him. With his background, he didn’t qualify for a professorship, not even at the assistant professor level, but he was hired as an instructor at a pretty decent salary.
Kingsborough was located on the eastern end of Manhattan Beach – in fact, it took up the entire eastern end of Coney Island. It was a bit of a walk from Brighton Beach, but it was mere minutes on foot from the house we bought in Manhattan Beach. Mom, in the meantime got a job at the nearby Menorah Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care. It was only a nursing home, but it was within walking distance of home. With four hungry mouths to feed, it didn’t hurt that we didn’t need to spend money on a car or even on public transit.
We had a tiny house on Oxford Street, and by tiny, I mean tiny. I guess it was good that we had a single-family home when most of the houses were duplexes or even quadraplexes, but those all had single-car garages at street level. Our house had off-street parking in the form of a driveway wide enough for a couple of cars – not that we needed it, but in Brooklyn, a detached house with any off-street parking at all is worth a good deal more. The house itself, however, was only eleven or maybe twelve hundred square feet, with three small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a dining room and a small kitchen, all on one floor. And there was a tiny back yard. I think it was the tiniest house on the street. All the other houses the size of ours had been torn down a long time ago and replaced with two- and even three-story houses. The people who bought ours bought it sight unseen, planning to do exactly that.
For a lot of people, the house would’ve been plenty adequate, but there were four of us kids in the house – three girls sharing the master bedroom and bath, and me with the smallest bedroom all to myself, but sharing the other bathroom with my parents. It was our own little patch of paradise, but then Mom got sick. It was something called adrenal cortical carcinoma, and she was gone in just four months. I was only four years old and couldn’t understand why Mommy didn’t come home. Even after I threw a tiny shovel of dirt on her coffin, I still didn’t understand why she wasn’t coming home. Only now am I beginning to understand what a blessing it was that she didn’t suffer that long.
But Mom was barely thirty. Who the fuck thinks about things like life insurance when they’re thirty? Well, some people do, but when you’re pretty young and you have four hungry mouths to feed and money’s tight in general, life insurance seems like a luxury. Health insurance is a priority and thank God my parents both had jobs that provided it. Whatever hers didn’t cover, Dad’s did and so we had no major out of pocket expenses. Otherwise, her illness coulda bankrupted us for sure. Both their jobs also provided basic life insurance – it wasn’t much, but between what my mom’s plan paid and what Dad’s paid for the death of a spouse, there was enough to cover the funeral and to pay off a chunk of the mortgage. So we refinanced the house and we all tightened our belts and we got by on dad’s income alone.
School’s important and I’ve always been a good student in spite of the crappy New York public schools. My sisters and I were fortunate in that P.S. 195 was much better than most and one of the main reasons Mom and Dad decided to move to Manhattan Beach. I studied hard for the specialty high school entrance exam, but even I was stunned when I got into Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant’s one of the best fuckin’ high schools in the world. It’s the elite of the elite. Graduating from Stuyvesant could mean a free ride to an Ivy League school. I couldn’t turn that down, even if it meant commuting three hours round trip every day.
I figured it was worth it, but it sure as fuck ate into my free time. It’s not like I could do my studyin’ on the subway. Most of the time you have to stand, but even if you do get a seat, you end up giving it up to an old person who needs it more. A lotta kids don’t, but I do. So studying’s pretty much out of the question on the subway and even reading’s pretty difficult. Internet and cell service are spotty when the train’s underground, and usually only work near the stations, so anything you read hasta be on your phone. Forget about answering email or texting, ’cause it never finishes going out before your phone loses service. Yeah, three hours of commuting is pretty much three hours of wasted time. It wasn’t just me either, ’cause all three of my sisters got into schools in Manhattan or distant Brooklyn. Dad saw what it was doing to us and so he put in for a transfer to Manhattan Community College, and it came through, so now we’re moving.
Sometimes I have this dream that a giant simply picks our house up and moves it to Battery Park, right by my high school. If only it were that easy! Can you imagine just picking up a whole house and movin’ it? Not that we could afford a lot to put it on in Manhattan. The good news is that our new apartment is nearly as big as our house – maybe even a little bigger, so everything will fit right in. The bad news is that there’s no storage space at all, and so everything we have stored in the basement will have to go. Everything. We’re not about to pay to store a bunch of stuff we never use anyway. Mom’s been dead for a decade now, so it’s high time we give away her clothes. We’re certainly never gonna have a need for a crib, a stroller or any of the other baby things. There are boxes and boxes of clothes that are too worn or too small to fit any of us, an old boombox that no one listens to anymore and even an old television set with a picture tube that I can’t even remember seeing in use. Those can all go to Goodwill.
All the sport stuff dad bought because he thought a boy should be involved in sports can go too. I never even used the baseball bat and glove, the basketball or the football. We won’t have space for a ping pong table or a back yard for a croquet set, so those too can go to someone who can use them. And much as Dad loves his workshop, there won’t be room for it in the new place. His workbench, table saw, lathe, drill press and band saw will all hafta go. The one thing he insists on keeping is his tool chest, which is a huge motherfucker of a beast that’s taller than I am. It’s gonna take up a whole closet. He spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on it and on the tools inside, but we used them to build all our furniture, so in a way, the tools paid for themselves.
With five of us including Dad, you’d think we could make quick work of the move, but there’s just so much stuff to go through, to sort through and to decide if it’s worth keeping and, if so, deciding where we can put it. Even the stuff we know we’re keeping has to be carefully boxed up and labeled. You’d think that with moving within the same city, we wouldn’t need to be so careful, but Dad’s rented a U-Haul and with three teens, two of them girls and one a smallish boy, and a pre-teenage girl, maybe we could do it alone, but someone hasta drive the truck, and that someone was Dad. We still needed someone to do the heavy lifting, so Dad hired a couple of college kids, but they weren’t insured and bonded the way professional movers are and you couldn’t trust them not to drop things.
There’s no place for a large moving truck to park or even stand illegally in Manhattan, let alone pull up in front of an apartment building. One thing I discovered right away is that the M14A-SBS, the M21 and the M22 buses all terminate at the corner of Grand Street and FDR Drive. That’ll be great for our future, ‘cause it means we’ll always get a seat on the bus, but there are always buses parked or standing on Grand Street, leaving precious little room for cars to pick up and drop off passengers, or for deliveries. The loading dock for our building is actually located off Cherry Street, which is one-way and narrow, with cars parked on both sides. Because there are buses constantly driving down it, double parking or standing to unload a moving truck is not an option. There’s a very short driveway in front of the loading dock but it’s almost always occupied by contractors’ vehicles. However, Dad had the brilliant idea of getting there early and placing orange traffic cones across the entrance to keep contractors and delivery vehicles from using it. Everyone who saw them just assumed they were placed there by the co-op management.
Because the driveway only accommodated a very small truck, we could only transport a small fraction of our stuff with each trip. The drive between our house and the apartment takes just over a half-hour when there’s no traffic, but it can take double or triple that with ordinary weekday traffic. Since the co-op rules didn’t allow us to move in on a weekend or a holiday, we had to move in on a weekday when we’re off from school. The holiday of Hanukkah took up the entire winter recess, however, right up until December 30, so the one day that was available for the move was December 31, New Year’s Eve. It also happened to be the day after my fourteenth birthday, but there’d be no time to celebrate this year. Too much had to be done for the move!
Dad had it all down to a science though. The two older girls, Stacey and Sarah, worked with one of the college boys at our house to move everything out of the house to our driveway, and then to help Dad load the stuff into the U-Haul. Robin and I worked with Eric, the other college boy, to help Dad unload the truck to the loading dock at our apartment building, and then when Dad was in transit, Eric and I moved all the stuff upstairs to the apartment, assembled it and put everything in place while Robin stayed with the rest of our stuff below.
The co-op had strict rules about work hours, and so deliveries had to occur between 9 AM and 5 PM. We started very early, with Robin and me as well as Eric taking the F-Train from Coney Island to Delancey at 7:30 AM. Delancey and Essex was a major hub and the public market at Essex Crossing was brand new and very nice. Since we had a little time when we got there, we stopped for a quick breakfast before walking to the East River Cooperative apartments, where we were moving. Eric, like me, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He was eighteen and was attending Kingsborough while he tried to figure out what to do with his life. His parents liquidated the college fund they’d started for him when they discovered he’s gay. They were ‘generous’ enough to let him live in their house while going to college, but they weren’t about to support him going to an Ivy League school when he’d chosen to ruin his life by following the gay lifestyle. Naturally, his story piqued my interest, but there was only so much I could ask with Robin right there.
Although we were Jewish, we weren’t very religious and I could count on my fingers the times I’d been inside a synagogue, and very few of those were to pray. Oh, we did go to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but that was about it, and I never was bar mitzvahed or anything like that. We didn’t keep kosher, but we avoided mixing meat and dairy, we didn’t eat bread during Passover and we never ate pork or shellfish. Hence, I was more than surprised when little Robin ordered a breakfast bagel sandwich with Canadian bacon, eggs and cheese. Robin was twelve and was in middle school, in the seventh grade. WTF? Since Eric ordered the same thing, I wasn’t about to ask her, but was she merely curious, was she testing the waters or was she making some kind of statement? Well, now my own curiosity was piqued and so I ordered the breakfast bagel sandwich too. We all ordered coffee – even Robin. I’d never seen her drink the stuff, although I’d been drinking it since I was her age too, so I didn’t give it much thought.
We went upstairs and sat at a table overlooking the market below us. I started to eat my breakfast sandwich and it was actually quite good. Delicious even. The bacon was a bit saltier than I was expecting, but not nearly as salty as lox would have been. The coffee was good too, but what really blew me away was when Robin drank it black. When I raised my eyebrows, she responded, “You seem surprised that I drink my coffee black. Maybe you’re surprised that I drink coffee at all, or that I’d order a sandwich with bacon in it? There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Joshua. I’m not so innocent as you think.
Then turning to Eric, she asked, “So Eric, does our dad know about you being gay?” Talk about being direct!
“Well, I certainly don’t make it a point to tell everyone, but I’m not hiding it either. I’d never find a boyfriend if I stayed in the closet and now that my dad knows, there’s little point,” he said with a snort. “Yeah, he’s known since I started at Kingsborough. You know, some of the greatest Russian poets were gay and wrote about gay themes. There was an LGBT renaissance until Putin rose to power and quashed it.”
Tilting his head to the side, he added, “But I digress. After the first lecture, I got into a discussion with your father about one of the gay poets… I don’t even remember which one it was now, and your father actually asked if he could ask if my interest was personal. I told him he could and it was. He then blew me away by telling me my dad had called him and asked him to look out for me, but that he wouldn’t say why. He said he figured it was something like that and that I could always come to him if I needed help or advice. He’s been great too. He got me a job at the college and he’s helped me delve into gay-themed Russian literature, both classic and current.”
“Given your experience, Eric,” Robin asked, “Do you have any advice for teenage boys who haven’t come out to their families?” Where the fuck did that come from? Could it be she knew?
“What a loaded question!” Eric replied. “Well, every gay kid’s fear is being rejected by their families and ending up on the street, and I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t have to. A lot of kids end up being thrown out of their homes when their parents find out their gay, and a lot of them end up homeless and on the streets of New York, but most of them come from religious families in the Bible Belt. My parents are about as conservative as they come… they watch Fox News and voted for Trump… but they still love me. They may never understand me, but they’d never throw me out of the house. I just can’t picture that happening in New York, even in the more religious of communities. Well, you’re probably forced to marry a girl if you’re Hassidic, but that’s a whole other story.
“The bottom line is that your parents will never change and that if they’re gonna react badly to your being gay, it won’t make a difference whether you come out at twelve or twenty. Parents are not allowed to send their kids for conversion therapy in New York, and there are services for gay kids who need help in New York, so there’s an excellent support system here. The thing is - that by staying in the closet, you miss out on all the normal things high school kids are supposed to experience. It’s a time in your life you’ll never have again, and it’s a damn shame if you spend it sitting alone in your room, figuratively if not literally.”
“Food for thought,” Robin responded. Was this all about me? Did my sister set me up?
“Shit, we gotta run to meet your father,” Eric suddenly exclaimed. “We gotta ghost!”
Before leaving Essex Market, however, we picked up some rye bread, cold cuts and cheeses to throw in the fridge. There wouldn’t be time during the move to stop and eat, but there was always enough time to fix a quick sandwich as a snack.
We got to the loading dock behind our new building just as my dad pulled up in the U-Haul. We quickly unloaded the truck and then Dad headed back to the house to pick up the next load.
Among the first batch were a large dolly and a hand truck. Robin stayed with our belongings on the loading dock while Eric and I started to carry our things inside. Dad had given me a set of keys, one to the building, one to the apartment and one for the mailbox, and so I used them to get inside. Starting with some rolled-up area rugs that were particularly unwieldy, we took the back hallway to bypass the lobby and went directly to the elevators for our apartment’s wing. As per the instructions, we had to wait for the elevator that had been padded for us, since there were no freight elevators in our building. Our apartment was on the sixth floor.
The door to our apartment was directly across from the elevators and I used my key to open it. There was a surprisingly large foyer leading to a decent dining room and a large living room. A picture window revealed a spectacular view of the East River. It nearly took my breath away, but there wasn’t time for gawking.
We were gonna need to buy more rugs, ‘cause the co-op requires it. Eighty percent of the floor area had to be covered. The floors were wood parquet on top of concrete, and there was no dead-space between our floor and our downstairs neighbor’s ceiling. We had large rugs in the dining room and living room in our house and Eric and I started to unroll them, but they were threadbare and would need to be replaced as soon as we could afford it. There was a nice rug for the girls’ room and so Eric and I struggled to carry it down the bedroom hall, past a small eat-in kitchen, past the tiny bedroom that would be mine, past the tiny bathroom I would be sharing with Dad and almost into what would be Dad’s bedroom. At the end of the hall, we turned right and entered the girls’ bedroom, which was the master bedroom. It was a decent size and it had its own small bathroom with a shower.
As Eric and I unrolled the rug, I noticed that the view out the window was of a large courtyard and beyond it, a parking lot and another apartment building that looked like it could be a housing project. We were maybe one floor shy of bein’ able to see over the top of the housing project, which probably made a huge difference in what we paid, but even so, I could see several of the taller buildings of Lower Manhattan. More importantly, I could see nearly all of New York Harbor, with the Manhattan bridge in the foreground and the Brooklyn Bridge behind it. My sisters were gonna have a phenomenal view from their bedroom window. In the house, we might as well have been in Plano, Texas for all the view we had. Now, you could tell we lived in New York!
Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed since we left the loading dock by the time we got back down there, yet even that was too long. Much of the furniture had to be disassembled to fit in the truck, and if we spent too much time transporting it, there wouldn’t be enough time to reassemble it before the next load arrived. “You run into any trouble waiting for us,” I asked my sister, who was reading a book as she diligently waited with our stuff.
“Not so far,” she responded.
Dad had obviously planned the order of what needed to go in each load, and first up was the tool chest, which we’d need to reassemble all the furniture. Since it was already on wheels, Eric could roll it around by himself while I opened and held doors for him. With the tool chest safely in place in the girl’s bedroom, we went back downstairs and brought up the disassembled components of the bunkbed and the twin bed frame from their room. Now the fun began. Unlocking and opening the tool chest, I got out the gyroscopic cordless screwdriver for Eric to use and the quarter-inch impact driver for myself, sliding batteries into both. I got out a set of driver bits that would fit both power tools.
“Do you know how to use this?” I asked Eric as I handed him the screwdriver.
“I guess you just push this button, right?” He responded.
“Try pressing it and see what happens,” I suggested.
“Nothing happens,” he responded in frustration.
“Hold the bit and turn the handle to the right or left,” I told him and as he did so, the bit turned in the direction he turned the handle. The more pressure he applied, the faster it turned.
“That’s so cool,” Eric exclaimed. “It’s very intuitive. Very natural.”
“That’s the idea,” I replied with a grin. Dad didn’t skimp when it came to the tools he bought.
Dad loved to build things himself and he’d been teaching me since I was six. At times he recruited the girls for his larger projects, but I was the only one to really take an interest. At that age I couldn’t put much power behind a hammer, but I could hold the end of a tape measure or use a power screwdriver. I was a fast learner, but then I had to be. We couldn’t afford to pay someone to repair the damage from Hurricane Sandy.
We gathered up the parts for the bunkbed and all the associated hardware, and Eric and I went to work putting the bed back together. Dad designed and built it himself and everything fit so well that it only took ten minutes to set the whole thing up, including the built-in drawers and cabinets for storage. Sarah’s twin bed took even less time. Eric and I headed back downstairs and grabbed the girls’ dresser, followed by their large desk with three chairs, and a chest of drawers. We reattached the mirror to the dresser and reassembled the desk. Even though the furniture was designed for the master bedroom back in our house, it all fit well in the new place with room to spare.
By the time Eric and I finished setting up the girls’ room, we both had our shirts off and I barely noticed the cold each time we went to the loading dock for another trip, although we did get some weird looks from the people we passed in the back hallway. Just as we picked up the last of the furniture for the girls’ room, Dad pulled up in the U-Haul and we had to stop what we were doing to help him unload it. What we unloaded was the bedroom furniture for both his and my bedrooms. Cool.
We got to work assembling the furniture in Dad’s room first, and we were both sweating profusely. The temperature was really warm in the apartment, even with the windows open. It took a while to realize that the valves on all the radiators were open all the way and the heat was going full blast. By the time we figured that out and closed all the valves, it took hours for the place to cool down. In the meantime, we put up with the heat and the sweat. It was difficult to keep from staring at Eric. Not only was there sweat glistening on his skin, but unlike me, he had muscles. At one point I had to go into the bathroom to adjust myself so he wouldn’t see my boner. That would’ve been embarrassing.
Looking out the window of Dad’s bedroom, I noticed that he and I both had a view of the East River, the Williamsburg Bridge and of Brooklyn across the way. I also noticed the continual noise from traffic on FDR Drive below. I guess that was gonna be our replacement for the noise of the jets from JFK. Other than that, it was pretty quiet. Dad and I both had a dresser, a desk and a double bed with built-in storage under the mattress, in the headboard and in the integrated night tables. My bed was a thirteenth birthday present, and it sure beat the old twin bed and chest of drawers I used to have. Both bedroom sets were a lot more complicated than the furniture in the girls’ room though, so Eric and I were getting further and further behind.
At one point, Eric caught me lookin’ at him and he smiled at me. After a few minutes, he told me, “Your father knows, Josh.”
“What?” I exclaimed.
“Your father knows, or perhaps a better word would be that he suspects,” he elaborated.
“You mean he suspects that I’m gay?” I asked in a near panic.
“Don’t worry about it, Josh,” Eric continued. “He’s okay with it. More than okay with it. I think he’s known for a while. When I came out to him, he told me he thought his son was gay and it didn’t matter to him. He loves you, Josh, very much.”
“He outed me to you?” I was incredulous.
“You can’t out someone if they haven’t told you, you know. Your dad was just being supportive… of both of us,” Eric replied. “And there was the stuff your sister said. She all but said her brother’s gay.”
Smiling – smiling, I agreed, “Yeah, she didn’t leave much to the imagination, did she? I can’t believe she did that. I can’t believe she knows!” And with that, I’d come out to Eric.
“I’d be willing to bet that all your sisters know,” Eric responded. “It’s a pretty good bet they do.”
Dropping down to the floor and sitting with my legs crossed and my head in my hands, I said, “I guess the only one I was fooling was myself. I just don’t understand how they found out. I’ve been so careful —”
“If the way you’ve been acting around me is any indication, you’re not all that careful,” Eric interrupted. “I’m flattered and if you were a little older, I might even be interested, but I’m in college and you’re in high school. I’m eighteen and you’re fourteen and while four years won’t mean nothing someday, right now it’s not legal. As an adult, I can’t touch you ’til you’re seventeen, but you’re a great guy and anyone would be lucky to have you.” Then after a brief pause, he asked, “You gotta boyfriend, Josh?”
“I had a boyfriend, but he dumped me when he found out I was moving. It really pissed me off, ’cause we’d been together since we were like, twelve, but I’ve come to realize it’s probably for the best. We might be in the same city, but it wouldn’t be practical. He told me that and I got angry. It hurt and I ran all the way from Manhattan Beach to Breezy Point —”
“Shit, that’s like what, ten miles or somethin’,” Eric interrupted.
“Eight miles,” I corrected him, “but I did it in like 80 minutes, which may not sound like much to a marathoner, but it’s six miles an hour, which is crazy fast for someone who’s not in shape like me. Man, I hurt for days afterward. Served me right too. Last night I said my goodbyes to Dimitri and wished him well.”
“The voice of maturity,” Eric responded.
“I don’t know about that —” I replied, but then my phone rang and I answered it.
“What’s taking you boys so long?” Robin shouted into the phone.
“Sorry Sis,” I replied. “Eric and I got to talking about how you and Dad and Sarah and Stacey all know about me being gay.”
“Well it’s about time you admitted it,” Robin agreed, “but Dad’ll be back here any minute now and the loading dock’s pretty full. You boys need to get crackin’.” And crack we did. After we finished assembling all the furniture in Dad’s bedroom and in mine, we carried up three twin mattresses and two double mattresses and placed them on each bed. They were memory foam and man, they were heavy! Placing the mattress on the top bunk was especially difficult.
We assembled the kitchen table and chairs and set them up in the tiny kitchen, and then helped Dad unload the dining room and then the living room furniture and proceeded to assemble them and set everything in place. The final furniture run brought all the lamps and small appliances, as well as everything that was in our fridge in the house. After that, Dad brought load after load of boxes, each one labeled not only with the room they should go in, but also the specific closet, cabinet or drawer where they belonged. Dad had it all figured out in advance, and for the most part, everything fit. Eric and I had to work furiously to keep up with Dad’s deliveries.
Dad picked up the last load of boxes from the house just shy of 4:30, which didn’t leave enough time to empty the truck by the 5:00 deadline, let alone to carry everything inside. Fortunately, no one seemed to take notice when we went over, perhaps because everyone was getting ready for New Year’s Eve. We finished unloading the truck and took the last of the boxes upstairs, then packed up the dolly and the hand truck and secured them back in the U-Haul. Dad pulled away at 6:03 and headed back to Brooklyn to return the truck and to attend the closing on the house. It went without a hitch, as there was no inspection or walkthrough. The buyers were simply gonna tear the place down and build a narrow, three-story house on the lot. In the meantime, Sarah and Stacey along with the other college guy, Rick, took the F-train and arrived at the new apartment.
By the time the older girls and Rick arrived, we were all starving. Eric and I were still shirtless and with the help of Robin, busily unpacking boxes, putting the contents away and breaking the boxes down, but even the mention of food made us realize just how famished we were. After a quick call to the doorman in our building, I ordered delivery from an Asian takeout restaurant on the next block of Grand Street. The doorman said they had the best Chinese food north of Canal Street, and he was not wrong. The food was outstanding and we all dug in.
When Dad finally showed up a couple of hours later, we fixed a plate of food we’d saved for him and nuked it in the microwave. Poor Dad hadn’t eaten at all since the early morning, so he was more than grateful that we fed him. The college boys needed to get back to Brooklyn and Dad paid them, adding a generous tip. Before Eric left, I thanked him for talking to me, and said goodbye. He texted me his cell number and told me to be sure to call him if I had any questions or needed help or advice.
There were still a lot of boxes that needed to be emptied, but we were all beyond exhaustion at that point, so Dad decided the rest of it could wait until the morning. We all made up our beds and Dad and I took turns in the shower. The bathroom had all the original fixtures from the mid 1950’s and the plumbing was crap, but we weren’t in a position to do anything about it. Freshly clean and with my teeth brushed, I slipped on a fresh pair of boxers and joined the rest of my family in the living room where, among the boxes, we watched the ball drop on our phones and welcomed in a new year. Returning to my bedroom, I pulled down the window shade, which appeared to be barely adequate, slipped off my boxers and got into bed.
Although my bed felt familiar, the sounds of traffic on FDR Drive and the light from the moon filtering through the window shade made it hard to ignore the fact that I was in a different place. I tossed and turned for quite a while at first, but the next thing I knew, sunlight was streaming in through the translucent window shade on my bedroom window. A much better window shade would definitely have to be one of my first purchases. There was a Target down the street and I could probably pick one up there. I put it on my mental ‘to do’ list and turned over and went back to sleep.
The smell of coffee was the first thing I noticed as I woke up. Looking at my phone, I saw that it was already after ten o’clock, which almost made me panic until I remembered it was still school break. I didn’t have to be anywhere. Then I noticed how bright my bedroom was and I remembered that yesterday we’d moved. I definitely needed a better window shade. Obviously, my bedroom faced east and got the morning sun.
Getting out of bed, I stretched my arms high above my head and arched my back, but then I noticed how fuckin’ freezing it was. Remembering where the valve was, I turned on the heat full blast. Pulling on my boxers, I plodded across the hall with my boner leading the way. Hearing a giggle from down the hall told me one of my sisters has seen me, and so I raised my middle finger in her direction without even looking her way. In a house with four kids and one parent, modesty was an impossibility. They’d all seen me with boners before, with my boxers on and even without. I’d seen them and their boobs in the altogether too.
Closing the bathroom door behind me, I lifted the toilet lid and reached for my fly, only to realize that my boner was already sticking out. No wonder my sister had giggled. Pulling back a bit and aiming downward, I let loose my stream. After flushing the toilet, I stood in front of the sink and looked in the mirror. I had a new zit and the peach fuzz on my upper lip was getting to be more than peach fuzz. There was even a fine dusting of hair visible on my cheeks, and so I realized it was time. It was kinda exciting, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I added asking my dad about getting a shaver to my mental ‘to do’ list. Being Jewish, my dad always used an electric razor and I guess I would too. It had something to do with Leviticus, I think.
I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then headed for the kitchen and poured myself a mug of coffee, adding a little milk and sugar to my taste. Robin and Stacey were already at the kitchen table, each eating a couple of toasted cheese sandwiches. It was already too late for breakfast and the smell of the sandwiches made me realize how hungry I was.
“Is there any more of that,” I asked.
“Enough for you,” Stacey answered. “The fry pan’s still on the stove and you can have the pleasure of washing it out when you’re done.” I responded by giving her a middle-finger salute. Grabbing some of the cheese we’d bought at Essex Market yesterday from the fridge and four slices of rye bread from the counter, I turned on the gas under the fry pan on the tiny 4-burner stove and heated the sandwiches ’til they were golden brown on both sides and the cheese was nicely melted. There was already enough grease in the pan that I didn’t need to add any more butter. Turning off the gas, I slid the sandwiches onto a plate and carried the plate and my coffee to the table, sitting down with my sisters. Only then did I realize how quickly I’d found the coffee mug and plate. Dad really had organized things perfectly, so we knew where to find things, just as in the old place.
I also realized how nice and warm it was in the apartment. I was only wearing boxers and yet I was comfortable. Robin hadn’t been with us when Eric and I turned it off yesterday, so I asked, “I guess you found the heat okay?”
Rather than answer, Robin gave me her ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me’ look. Then I asked, “Where’s Dad and Sarah?”
“They went to get some things from the grocery on the next block,” Stacey answered.
Lookin’ around, I began, “Fuck, this kitchen’s even smaller than the one in the house.”
“Maybe you and Dad could enlarge it and modernize it,” Robin suggested.
Snorting, I responded, “He’s probably already got plans for doin’ it over the summer, but short of getting rid of the eat-in area, I don’t know how you’d expand it. “All of the plumbing for the kitchen and bathrooms is in that wall,” I said as I pointed to the wall across from me, “and it looks like there’s a support beam right there,” I added pointing behind me and to my left. “Behind most of that wall is another apartment, so we have to leave it as is. But between there and the support beam is three feet of wall that could come out, and that whole L-shaped section of wall between the kitchen and the bedroom hall could be opened up. We could take out the wall across from the kitchen that separates the hallway from the living room… that would open up the whole area and you could see the picture window in the living room from the kitchen. So if we get rid of the table and chairs in the kitchen, we could expand it up to the bedroom hallway and we’d have a much nicer kitchen too.”
“You’re beginning to think like Dad,” Stacey suggested.
“That’s a scary thought,” I responded, getting a laugh from both my sisters.
Just then the door opened and Dad and Sarah walked in. Sarah was pushing our folding cart and it was filled with groceries. “What a crappy grocery,” she said as she started to unload the cart and put the groceries away. “It’s tiny, crowded and expensive.”
“But it’s on the next block and we can walk there,” Dad pointed out. That was a big deal, as the closest grocery store to the house was a mile-and-a-half away, and we had to take the bus.
“There’s a Trader Joe’s down the street, at the corner of Grand and Clinton,” I pointed out. “There’s a Target too.”
Sighing, Dad said, “Signs of gentrification. We’ll have to check them out. One big advantage of living in Manhattan is that we have three pharmacies, three groceries, four banks, the post office, the library, a movie theater, a public market, several restaurants and a subway station, all within easy walking distance.”
“And several large housing projects,” I added.
“Yes, well the Lower East Side has always been very diverse,” Dad countered. “Here, you have luxury condos and housing projects, side-by-side.” Co-op Village is one of the few places in Manhattan with market-rate housing that’s considered to be affordable. It’s solidly middle class, even if it is in the high six figures, but then so was the house. My only regret is that we couldn’t afford something on a higher floor with a balcony or terrace. You should have seen the three-bedroom I looked at in Seward Park. It was on the nineteenth floor and had a terrace that was twice the size of our living room, but it was listed at over a million and a half. I had to see what that kind of money bought, though, and what it bought was a view you wouldn’t believe.”
“We have a fantastic view right here,” I pointed out.
“That’s one of the reasons I bought this place,” Dad related. “I could have gotten something a lot larger in Hillman, but it was right by the Williamsburg Bridge and the subway, and the whole place vibrated every time an M- or J-Train went by. I could’ve gotten an apartment like this on the fourteenth floor in building four, but it didn’t have nearly as good a view. This apartment cost about what we got for the house, the monthly maintenance is under a thousand, which is a bargain for three bedrooms, and it has great views. Because it’s in the stem of the building rather than the wings, we have both east and west views. Most of the apartments have views in only one direction.”
“It needs a lot of work,” I pointed out.
“Yes, I know,” Dad agreed with a sigh, “but it has real possibilities. We’re gonna take out that wall, that wall, that wall and that one,” he said as he pointed to each of the walls I’d already identified as the one’s I thought we should remove. “We’ll completely gut and remodel the kitchen and both bathrooms, getting rid of the eat-in area and enlarging the kitchen, putting in all new cabinets and appliances. We’ll replace the plumbing and modernize both bathrooms. We’ll put in all new hardwood floors and paint the place. It’s gonna be a busy summer for you and me, Joshy.”
“Can we afford to do all that?” I asked.
“Easily,” Dad replied. “For one thing, I got a better rate on the mortgage, so I was able to build-in the costs of the remodeling. We just have to use the funds within the year. Secondly, I’m gonna be making a bit more money at Manhattan Community —”
“You are?” I interrupted in surprise.
“With my track record of publications and awards, they approved me as an assistant professor in a tenure track position”
We all just sat there, stunned. Finally, it sunk in just what that meant and I shouted, “Way to go, Dad!” And then the girls started echoing my sentiment, and we all ended up in a group hug.
When we settled down, Dad commented, “You might want to get dressed, Joshy. Someone will be here before noon to install our broadband.” Shit, it was almost that now.
Heading to my bedroom, I grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, but figured shoes and socks were optional, so I didn’t bother. I never wore them around the house if I could help it. Dad was an assistant professor now. How do you like that? I pulled on my jeans and then pulled on my shirt as I headed back to the kitchen.
Although we didn’t have a lot of money to spare, two things we didn’t skimp on were broadband and wireless service. Dad got a discounted rate through the City University system that made them cheaper than most folks paid for basic service. We had gigabit fiber and we had unlimited family minutes, data and text. Dad got us decent smart phones too. Not the top of the line, but decent enough to use for schoolwork when we needed it, and decent enough not to be teased by our peers. Dad understood that our phones were a priority. We didn’t have a landline and we didn’t have cable TV, ’cause we didn’t need them. Our wireless plan came with free streaming, which gave us most of what we wanted to watch, and for everything else, there was Amazon.
As I rejoined the family, I heard Dad assigning work to each of my sisters, but when I got there he said, “For you Joshua, there will be no unboxing and putting things away. For you there will be no cleaning or vacuuming. I need you to help me hang the TV on the wall and to hang all the artwork and photographs. Only then will this truly be our home.”
I saw right away that the TV was gonna be a particular challenge. The place Dad had picked for it was on a wall that was shared with our neighbor’s bedroom, but I didn’t see how we could mount it on the wall without it becoming a sounding board. The wall was made of plaster over concrete block, which meant there was no dead space between the apartments to absorb the sound from the TV. The speakers were mounted on the back side, facing the wall, and they were tiny. They would vibrate the wall, sending the sound in both directions, into our living room, and into our neighbor’s bedroom.
“Dad!” I called out to my father, who was unpacking the framed posters that comprised our ‘artwork’. “The wall where you want to put the TV is common to our neighbor’s bedroom. If we hang the TV there, it’ll send as much of the sound into their bedroom as into our living room.”
“But there’s a solid foot of concrete behind there,” Dad replied as he came up to me.
Shakin’ my head, I replied, “It’s pure physics, Dad. The wavelength of the low frequencies is much longer than the thickness of the wall, so with a solid wall, it might as well be paper. There’s no dead space to interrupt transmission of sound through the wall. On top of that, the speakers are on the back of the TV, facing backwards. They send sound into the room by vibrating the wall. Finally, they’re tiny. By Newton’s First Law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Tiny speakers have to vibrate a lot more than big speakers to generate the same amount of sound, and all of that vibration will be coupled into the wall and into our neighbor’s bedroom.”
Then turning to look at Dad, I asked, “Is there any way we could turn the furniture arrangement so that it faces the other wall instead? The other wall is common to the stairwell. There’d be no problem with the TV mounted on the wall with the stairwell.”
Putting his hand under his chin and seeming to think for a minute, he turned to me and said, “What would you think about putting in a home theater?”
I didn’t need to think long about it. A home theater would be phenomenal, but not if it was the cheap sort of thing we could afford. Sighing, I told my father, “Not on our budget, Dad. Even a decent set of stereo speakers and an amp would run over a grand, and you’d hafta more than double that for surround sound. We just don’t have that kind of money. Maybe we could afford a sound bar with a couple of satellite speakers. Some of them sound decent and are inexpensive. Those crappy subwoofers that are made to be hidden behind furniture, however, do little more than annoy the neighbors.”
“What if I were to give you a budget of five thousand dollars,” Dad asked. “Could you do it for that?”
“Hell yeah,” I exclaimed. “I couldn’t do 11.2 Dolby Atmos, but we could have an excellent 5.1 surround sound system for that.”
“So for ten grand, we could have something that’s state-of-the-art, maybe with a larger TV?” Dad asked.
“For ten grand, we could have everything we could ever want in a home theater, including a bigger, 4K HDR TV.” Looking him right in the eyes, I continued, “But Dad, we can’t afford it.”
“Actually, I think we can,” Dad replied. “I’ve been thinking about putting a home theater in here since I first looked at the apartment, and we’ll have a lot more room when we take out the wall between the living room and the kitchen. Getting the tenure track position and our excellent credit record, I was able to get a much more favorable rate on our mortgage, and it’s a fifteen-year fixed rate too,” Dad went on to explain. “So I was able to build-in an extra hundred grand into the mortgage for renovations. That money’s just sitting in a savings account for now.
“Like I said, we have to spend the money by the end of the year, but I think we can use ten grand of it for a home theater now, as a sort of home equity loan to come out of our future renovations.”
“But what about the monthly co-op fee?” I asked. “That’s over a grand a month that we didn’t used to have to pay.”
“The co-op fee includes heat, gas and water, which ran us at least as much during the winter months,” Dad pointed out. “It also includes the property tax, which was well over a grand a month. Property taxes in a house are very expensive, but they’re peanuts in a co-op. We’re coming out well ahead.
“So after you hang the existing TV and help me with hanging the rest of our stuff, why don’t you start looking at our options for a home theater. Before anything else, though, we’ll need to move all the living room furniture if we put the TV on the other wall.”
“Maybe I’d better go now,” I countered, “and I can help you move the furniture and hang things over the weekend. Tomorrow’s a school day and if we want to take advantage of the New Year’s sales —”
I was waiting at the bus stop for the M21 bus to take me to the Best Buy on Houston Street. With everything taken care of in our new home, it was a chance to look at home theater equipment and pick up something on sale before going back to school. As I waited for the bus, four teenage boys who looked vaguely familiar came up to the stop. One of them actually looked younger, like maybe twelve, but I figured he was just a late bloomer. I was pretty sure I’d seen him in the hallways at Stuyvesant, as he had wavy brown hair halfway down his back that was hard to miss. I was also pretty sure I recognized one of the other boys from school, as there weren’t many kids of color who went to Stuyvesant. He looked like a younger version of Tiger Woods. Clearly, he was part African American and part Asian. What really floored me was that they were holding hands with the other two boys! The boy with the long hair was holding hands with a freckle-faced redhead and the Tiger Woods boy was holding hands with a curly-haired green-eyed blond boy. They were all good looking, but as couples they were stunning.
“You guys go to Stuyvesant, don’t you?” I asked. “I’ve seen you in the hallways.”
“Yeah, we do,” answered the boy with the long hair. “It’s a big school, but I think I’ve seen you there too. One of the non-Asian minority,” he laughed.
“Do you live around here?” The Tiger Woods boy asked. “I don’t think I’ve seen you ride the M22 to school in the morning.”
“We just moved here,” I answered. “We bought an apartment in that building, I said as I pointed to the building across the street.
“Oh cool,” the boy with the curly blond hair replied. “Asher and I live in the next building over,” he added as he pointed to the building across the courtyard from mine.
“Actually, my parents and I live in that building,” the Tiger Woods boy, whose name apparently was Asher, said as he pointed to a building ahead and on the right. “But Seth and I do spend most of our time at his place, especially since we got married.”
“Married?” I practically shouted in surprise. “You don’t look nearly old enough to get married.” I did notice that they were wearing matching gold rings though. I wondered if they could possibly be older than they looked. Way older.
“It’s a long story,” the Tiger Woods boy explained. “By the way, I’m Asher, and in answer to your unasked question, I’m almost sixteen.”
“And I’m Seth,” the boy with curly blond hair chimed in, “and I’m fourteen. I’ll be fifteen in June.”
“You’re my age,” I exclaimed. “By the way, my name’s Josh.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Josh,” Asher added as he shook my hand. The bus pulled up and we all boarded and dipped our farecards. The bus had one of the new terminals for tap-to-pay, but it didn’t work with our student bus passes yet. Asher and Seth took seats on the left side of the bus and I sat across the aisle on the right. The other two boys sat behind me.
Turning around, I repeated, “My name’s Josh, and you are?”
“I’m François, but I go by Freck, because of all my freckles, and I’m thirteen as of December.”
“And I’m Kyle,” Freck’s boyfriend said, “and I’m eleven as of last December… really. And I really do go to Stuyvesant, where I’m a senior.”
“As am I,” Freck added. I was stunned. It was difficult enough to believe that Kyle was only eleven, but for him and his boyfriend to be seniors seemed impossible. And they were boyfriends, and Asher and Seth were married. It was a lot to take in.
“I don’t fuckin’ believe it,” I responded.
“Finally, someone who fuckin’ talks like a New Yorker,” Kyle interjected.
Turning to Asher and Seth, I asked, “Are you two also seniors?”
Shaking their heads, Asher replied, “Nah, I’m at grade level and Seth’s only a year ahead. We’re both sophomores.”
“Where’d you move from,” Seth asked.
“Manhattan Beach,” I replied. “It’s next to —”
“Brighton Beach,” Seth said, completing my sentence.
“What do your parents do,” Asher asked.
“My Dad’s an assistant professor of Russian literature at Manhattan Community College,” I replied. “He got a transfer from Kingsborough. My mother was a doctor in Ukraine, and she worked as a nurse practitioner here, but she died ten years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Josh,” Kyle responded. “Do you have any brother’s or sisters?
“Three sisters,” I replied. “Two older, one younger.”
“Man, I only have one brother who’s fifteen, and that’s one too many,” Kyle chimed in.
“And I have twin sisters who are nearly ten, but now I live with my boyfriend, his brother and his dads,” Freck added. I raised my eyebrows when he mentioned two dads. He responded by explaining, “Ky’s dad didn’t accept he was gay until a year ago. He and Ky’s mom decided to divorce, and his dad fell in love with a colleague. They got married over the summer.”
“You live around here?” I asked Freck and Kyle.
“Nah, we live up in Riverdale in a house overlooking the Hudson,” Kyle responded, “But Ashe and Seth are our very best friends and we visit them often, especially when Asher offers to cook. We sometimes stay over, since they have the room.”
“I take it he’s a decent cook?” I asked.
“That’s like sayin’ the Empire State Building’s a tall building,” Kyle replied.
“My parents own an Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street and a Cajun place on Orchard,” Asher explained. “I do a lot of the cooking for the Cajun place.”
“Wait a minute,” I suddenly realized. “You mean the Asian place in the co-op?”
“That’s the one,” Asher responded.
“We ordered food from there last night,” I reported. “It was delicious.”
“Asher’s been written up in the New York Times for the Cajun restaurant,” Seth interjected.
I wasn’t per se a foodie and couldn’t ever recall reading the food column in the paper, so I simply responded, “I’ll have to check it out.”
Then noticing where we were, I said, “Oh, my stop’s coming up soon. Gotta check out some home theater gear at Best Buy while it’s on sale.”
“Oh no,” Seth practically shouted at me. “That’s about the worst place to pick up home theater gear. Not that they don’t have decent stuff if you know what to look for, but they’ll try to push mass-market goods with a whole lotta features you’ll never use. You’ll end up paying for shit you don’t need and getting a mediocre picture and barely tolerable sound. Whatever you do, don’t go there.” Well that wasn’t a subtle warning.
“Well, where would you have me go?” I asked.
“The place Ashe and I bought all our gear,” Seth replied. “And it’s right near the end of this bus route. A lot of what they sell is high-end used gear, but most of it’s only a year old if even that. People that buy high-end gear often find even higher-end gear they like better, and so they trade it in when it’s practically still new. New York has a lot of rich people who think nothing of buying all new stuff every year. Most people shy away from used gear because it isn’t under warranty, but this place guarantees everything they sell for life. If anything they sell ever stops working, just bring it in and they’ll repair it, free of charge.
“Wow, that’s quite a deal,” I responded. “Where is this place?”
“We’ll take you there,” Seth offered.
“Weren’t you guys on your way somewhere?” I asked.
“We were just gonna look around in The Village,” Asher replied, “maybe get some LGBT stuff to wear to school. But we can still do that afterwards on the way back home.”
“That’s very cool,” I responded. And then taking a huge leap of faith, I added, “Perhaps I can go with you then.”
“Hey Seth,” A guy with long grey har called out, “I see you brought some of your buddies this time as well as your boyfriend.” The guy was such a caricature, he looked like an aging hippie.
“Actually, Asher’s my husband now,” Seth announced.
“How does someone your age get married, dude,” the guy asked.
“It’s a bit of a long story,” Seth answered.
“Does it have something to do with the shit going on with your old man?” the guy asked.
“Unfortunately so,” Seth answered. My curiosity was piqued, but I’d wait to ask about it.
“So Paul,” Seth continued, “I think you’ve met my friends, Freck and Kyle before. This is Josh,” he related as he nodded in my direction. “He just moved to the neighborhood from Manhattan Beach and he’s in the market for a home theater setup.”
“Well we can certainly help you with that,” Paul responded as he turned his attention to me. “How much are you looking to spend, Josh, and what kinda space do you have?”
Pulling out a line drawing I’d made of the apartment, it was actually Freck that pounced on it, saying, “Oh, you’ve got one of the three-bedroom stem units. That’s actually the largest original layout they have at Co-op Village. I helped Seth combine a two-bedroom stem unit with a one-bedroom with terrace. We got three large bedrooms with walk-in closets, two full bathrooms and a den out of it. I see you plan to take out that wall between the kitchen and the living room, which is exactly what you should do. Opening up the kitchen will make a big difference too. It looks like you’ve got some plans to add closet space, and you need to, but there’s a better way. The bedrooms are large and none of the walls are structural. I can give you much larger bathrooms and ample closet space, and you’ll still have big bedrooms. You’re gonna end up with an eighteen-foot by eighteen-foot living room, which is epic, man. You can put a kickass home theater in there. The only limitation is your budget.”
I guess I looked like a tsunami had washed over me, which in a way I guess it had, as Asher explained, “Freck plans to be an architect. In fact, he’s been accepted to the combined architecture and civil engineering program at MIT.”
“That’s fuckin’ impressive,” Paul related and I nodded my head in agreement.
“I’m guessing with a dad who’s a Russian Lit professor that you got bookcases —” Freck interjected.
“Oh yeah,” I interrupted. “We have a ton of books,” I related.
“After all, there’s a lot more to Russian Literature than Tolstoy,” Freck said in flawless Russian. He didn’t even have an accent! “Dostoyevsky was absolutely brilliant,” he added.
“You’ve read Dostoyevsky?” I asked in Russian. “Your Russian is flawless.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Freck responded, “I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov in English when I was nine and in Russian when I was ten.”
“That’s some pretty heavy duty reading at any age,” I interjected, “let alone when you’re that young, even if you are a genius. When did you have time to study Russian?”
“I never did take a formal class in it,” Freck replied. “Language classes are so ridiculously slow.”
“Freck collects languages like some kids collect baseball cards, or Star Wars figures, or whatever,” Kyle related.
“How many languages do you speak?” I asked Freck.
Laughing, he replied, “Frankly, I’ve lost count. I mean, I speak all the major European languages and several Asian languages, including Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog and Hindi. I speak Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi. Oh, and Turkish. I don’t speak any African languages, so that’ll be my next challenge.”
“You don’t speak Korean, Vietnamese, Thai or Malaysian?” I asked, feigning surprise.
“Of course I speak Korean,” Freck replied. “That’s a very important language to learn now, almost like Japanese used to be. I understand a fair bit of the others, but I’d be hard pressed to hold a conversation in any of them. It’s not like I set out to study languages either. I just pick them up. Maybe I’d have trouble with an obscure isolated native tribe with a language not related to any others, but most of the world’s languages are related and I pick up the variations quickly without even thinking about it.”
“Amazing,” I responded.
“You know, you might want to consider puttin’ the TV in the corner,” Freck suggested. “I realize that’s partly on the wall shared with your neighbor’s bedroom, but that won’t matter if you have floor-standing speakers and plug the base ports. Then you can have a cozy grouping around the TV, with a sofa opposite and maybe a love seat on one side and a couple of arm chairs on the other, with a coffee table in the center of it all. You could further dampen sounds by putting your dad’s bookcases along both walls, with a matching corner cabinet under the TV for the electronics, your center speaker and maybe your sub. You might even consider built-ins.”
“That’s a really kick-ass idea, Freck,” I responded. “It’s ingenious, but it’ll mean rebuilding or revising a lot of our living room furniture. Still, I love the idea and so will my dad.”
“You should put your dining set between the sofa and the kitchen instead of by the door, where it is now. You’ll have the space for it with the corner arrangement and it’ll look so much better that way. You can put a grouping of chairs and maybe some plants in the window. It would be a nice conversation area or it would be perfect for reading or studying, and you could have a small table by the entrance, maybe with drop-down leaves, that could be like a family eating space, so you don’t need to use the formal dining table for breakfast and the like.”
“Not only did Freck design the floorplan for combining apartments in our place, but he did all the interior design as well,” Seth interjected.
“You’re hired,” I quipped with Freck, making it obvious I wasn’t entirely serious, or so I thought. “Now about our home theater —”
“So, what do you have in mind,” Paul asked.
“My dad has given me a budget of 10k, but I think that’s too much,” I related. “Money’s always been tight, but he seems to think that now that he’s in a tenure track position as an assistant professor, we can loosen the purse strings a bit. We’re planning to redo the kitchen and bathrooms this summer, him and me, and that’s gonna kinda bust the budget.”
“You’re doing the work yourselves?” Freck asked. “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?”
“Dad designed and the two of us built all the furniture in our apartment,” I replied. “We’ve done renovation work before, including drywall, plumbing and wiring. We had a lot of damage from Sandy and did all the repairs ourselves.”
“You would’ve been, what, seven when Sandy hit?” Freck asked and I nodded yes. “Now I’m impressed. Seriously, you should let me do the architectural work for you,” he continued. “I have a drafting table, a kick-ass computer and all the architectural software you could want. I did all the design work for Seth’s grandparents’ place and my drawings passed muster with the city buildings department. And my rates are reasonable. I’ll do it for free.”
Shakin’ my head, I responded, “Thanks for the offer, but I doubt we’ll need anything that formal.”
“Yes, you will,” Freck countered. “You’re not in a house anymore and you can’t get away with doing construction work without everyone in the building knowing about it. If they complain, the management will issue a warning and slap a fine on your next monthly bill. If you continue to work without a building permit, they’ll notify the city and you’ll be faced with a stop-work order and a hefty fine. There are application fees and inspections too, but I know the process and can guide you through it.”
“Gee, thanks for the offer, Freck,” I responded earnestly. “Now about that home theater —”
“First of all, Josh, what do you like to watch on your TV?” Paul asked.
“We have streaming through our wireless provider, and we have Amazon Prime. We don’t have cable. We probably watch TV an hour or two every night, and we usually watch a movie or two together on weekends,” I replied.
“So you’re pretty light viewers,” Paul responded, and then he asked, “What do you have now, and do you plan to keep any of it?”
“We have a fifty-inch off-brand LCD TV that’s not very good, so we’ll definitely want to replace it. The picture’s not all that bright, the contrast is terrible and it’s not nearly big enough for the size of the new living room.”
“That’s for sure,” Paul agreed, and then he asked, “How about your stereo.”
“My sisters and I listen to music on our phones,” I answered. “We had a boombox, but we got rid of it before the move.” It was funny, but Paul cringed when he heard me talk about a boombox.
“Is music a priority to you?” Paul asked. “Is there anyone else in the family for whom it might be?”
“My dad likes classical, but I don’t think he has much time to listen to it. Me and my sisters all listen to music when we study, each on our phones. We have a family subscription to Tidal.”
“Tidal,” Paul said in seeming surprise.
“Yeah, it’s an artist-owned streaming service,” I explained. “We like it because it’s lossless and the music just plain sounds better than on Spotify. Broadband is one of our few priorities and we have gigabit fiber, so downloading music from Tidal is no problem for us.”
“Oh we’re very familiar with Tidal,” Paul replied. “What sorts of music do you guys like to listen to?”
“Well, like I said, Dad likes to listen to classical. I think it’s from his Russian upbringing. I have three sisters and they like to listen to all kinds of shit. Sarah likes mostly hip-hop and Stacey likes punk, believe it or not. She dyes her hair and wears punk clothes too. Robin’s only twelve, but she’s got way better taste than her older sisters. She listens to classic and alternative rock. Me, I like to listen to Jazz. Not so much the fusion stuff or the so-called smooth jazz, but the jazz classics like Coltrane and Davis, or vocalists like Sarah Vaughn, Norah Jones, Diana Krall and good old Blue Eyes. I also like classic rock from the likes of The Beatles and The Who,” I concluded.
“A man after my own heart,” Asher responded. “Actually, we all like Jazz, although Freck has a predilection for Opera and Kyle favors Classic Rock.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I replied. “Not too many of my friends like to listen to what I listen to.”
“It sounds like you should get something with decent stereo music capabilities,” Paul concluded. Given the size of the room, I’d recommend a 7.1 surround sound setup for sure. Broadcast TV’s only 5.1 but a lot of movies are available in 7.1 Dolby. Unless you plan to turn the volume up, I’d get Atmos too, but that could up the cost more than you can afford, and you can always add it later.
“So let’s look at some of the components I have and what we can do for under ten grand,” Paul continued. Leading us into another room, Paul said, “This TV is going to blow your mind,” as he switched on a humongous flat panel that was hung on the wall. “It was the best entry-level 85-inch OLED model last year. We don’t often get an OLED model as a trade-in, ’cause they’re so new. Except for a few enhancements, it’s as good as the new models and the only difference between it and the top-of-the-line models is in features you’ll never use. Most people never even use the ‘smart’ features of their smart TV, and smart TVs can spy on you without your even knowing it. Most of us will plug in a streaming device anyway. The picture quality’s exactly the same as on the top of the line model. You’d have paid three grand for this model when it was new. I can give it to you for one grand, including delivery and setup, with our lifetime warranty.”
It had a fantastic picture but even on my generous budget from Dad, a thousand dollars was a huge chunk of change. Although at a conscious level I realized the price was very competitive for any 85-inch model, let alone an OLED model, my subconscious kept me from showing the enthusiasm the offer deserved. My hesitation apparently alerted Paul to just how tight money really was for us, so he added, “As part of a package deal, it’ll be even less, and we offer discounts for paying with cash or check. You won’t find a better deal and this is definitely the biggest bang for the buck you’ll find for a room that size. Keep in mind that OLEDs are much more energy efficient and use way less power than LCDs. Way less —”
Finally, my brain reengaged and I asked, “How can you discount it so much when it’s less than a year old?”
Laughing, Paul answered, “Rich folks don’t really care about getting top dollar for their shit. They only think about the new stuff they’re buyin’ and they don’t even haggle over the price. They don’t pay attention to the value of their trade-ins. I got this TV for next to nothing. A lot of dealers would turn around and try to get as much as they can for it… charging as much as $2500 for it, which is no bargain. We’re more interested in building a relationship with our customers. If I can deliver a higher-end home theater system than you thought you could afford, you’ll come back the next time you need something and you’ll keep coming back, even when you’re rich enough to buy everything new,” he added with a wink.
“Now the next question will determine whether or not you want to include an optical drive as part of the package —” Paul continued, but seeing where he was going, I interrupted.
“No, we don’t,” I said. “I’m well aware that Blu-ray offers better picture quality and access to special features not available with streaming. I know we could always add a Blu-ray player later if we change our minds, but it’ll cost more, perhaps a lot more. The thing is, we don’t have the budget to go around building a movie collection, and no one rents DVDs or Blu-rays anymore. We generally rent movies from Amazon, iTunes or Vudu and watch them once, and we’d rather watch a second movie than spend our precious time on the special features.”
“That’s great, Josh,” Paul responded. “You’ve obviously already given this a lot of thought. Before you close the book on an optical player, however, do you have any CDs left that you might still want to play?”
Shakin’ my head, I answered, “We stopped buying CDs once we tried Spotify. For our purposes at the time, the premium level was good enough. When Tidal came out, however, it was every bit as good as our CDs and it gave us access to a much larger selection of music, so we sold all our CDs.”
“Wait ’til you try Qobuz,” Paul interjected.
“What’s Kobuzz?” I asked.
“It’s a streaming company based in France,” Paul explained. “For a few dollars more, you get access to high resolution music too. It’s a much larger selection than Tidal’s MQA, and It’s fully lossless. They also sell high-res music at a substantial discount compared to other online stores. If you’re an audiophile, that is.”
“I’ve never had the money to be an audiophile.” I replied.
“It’s not as expensive as you think,” Paul responded. You don’t have to buy an expensive home theater or invest in a fancy personal music player. I can get you a decent pair of headphones or in-ear monitors and a good DAC, used, for around a hundred fifty. With your smartphone and the Qobuz app, you’ll have a setup that’s more than 90 percent as good as the A&K music players your friends have, at a fraction of the price, but don’t tell them I told you that.” We all laughed at that.
“So no optical disc player for now,” Paul concluded. “My next question’s even more fundamental, and It’s permanent. Once you go down the all-digital path as Seth has, there’s no going back. Well, Seth’s a special case, but he ended up spending thousands to add analog over digital technology to his system. The question is, do you think there’s even the remote chance you’d want to listen to vinyl on your home theater system? Or analog tape for that matter?”
Shaking my head, I replied, “No chance at all. Not only does vinyl cost too much, but it doesn’t sound that much better.”
“Vinyl does sound better than CDs or Tidal,” Asher countered. “Way better, but even with my Dad’s collection of vintage vinyl jazz, I have to admit that hi-res digital audio’s even better still.”
“Your Dad has a collection of vintage jazz?” I asked.
“Including an original first-pressing of Kind of Blue.”
“Oh man, I’d love to listen to that,” I replied.
“That can definitely be arranged,” Asher assured me.
“Cool,” I replied.
Paul went on to show me a home theater setup that truly blew my mind. Using nothing more than a video receiver that plugged into the TV and that plugged into our home network, he could send 7.1 surround sound to four amplified surround sound and rear speakers around the room. We could even send audiophile-quality music to another room while watching TV in the living room – not that we ever planned to do that – but it was nice to know we could if we ever decided to spend the money. What was really spectacular about going digital was that, rather than spending hundreds of dollars on thick ugly cables running all over the place to hook up the speakers, we only needed to connect them to our home network using thin Ethernet cables or our home WiFi. Each of the surround and rear speakers had its own amp, DAC and network interface built in. That was so cool.
For the front, Paul recommended a pair of tower speakers that were less than a year old and cost a fraction of the price of new ones, ’cause they were the older model. With the addition of a center channel speaker and a sub, we would have a great hi-res digital audiophile setup at a surprisingly affordable price. The whole thing was gonna cost us $7800 cash, including tax, and it came with free installation and a lifetime warranty. Paul was even throwing in the cables and sound-dampening feet for all the speakers at no extra charge. Seth told me that those feet usually cost a hundred dollars per speaker.
Paul requested that I put down half the cost as a deposit, but I didn’t have four grand in cash on me. I very nearly cried when Seth offered to write a check – these guys didn’t even know me, yet Seth was willing to do that for me. Paul was nice enough to wave the deposit however, once he cleared the purchase with a phone call to my dad. They could actually install our home theater the next afternoon.
“So I take it you’re Jewish,” Kyle began after we’d given our orders. We’d spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the shops in The Village and we were now sitting in a place I’d never heard of before called the Good Stuff Diner. They all told me it was the best diner in New York and Freck was treating all of us. When I raised my eyebrows at that, he explained that his parents were both billionaires, but he lived with his boyfriend’s family because his own parents didn’t have time for him. How sad!
So anyway, I realized Kyle’s statement was more of a question, so I answered, “We’re not very religious, but yeah, both my parents are Russian Jews… well, was in my mother’s case.”
“But your mother was from Ukraine,” Kyle countered.
“Good memory,” I exclaimed. “A lot of Ukrainian Jews came from Russia in the old Soviet days,” I explained. “And regardless, the Ukrainians always looked at the Jews as outsiders and lumped them with the Russians, even if their families had been there for generations.”
Just then the soups arrived and although my matzo ball soup was very good, it wasn’t the best I’d ever tasted, but it was better than what most places served, even in New York.
“Their lobster bisque’s incredible, but they only have it on Fridays,” Asher commented. “They make a wonderful white bean soup too, but only on Mondays.”
“I take it you eat here fairly often,” I responded, and added more in passing that I’d never tried lobster bisque and that we basically never ate shellfish.
“But you obviously don’t keep kosher,” Kyle responded. “Otherwise you’d have never ordered the turkey dinner.” I’d ordered the turkey because they all said the apple walnut stuffing was the best they’d ever had.
Shrugging my shoulders, I replied, “it’s not that we keep strictly kosher, but there are just some habits that are ingrained in us. We don’t mix meat and dairy and we don’t eat shellfish. Until very recently I’d never eaten pork, but my sister ordered a breakfast bagel with Canadian bacon at Essex Market the other day and not to be outdone —”
“Let me guess,” Seth began, “it was Robin, your younger sister. At twelve, she’s starting to assert her independence.”
“I can’t believe you remember her name,” I replied, “but yeah.” Truthfully, I hadn’t even remembered giving them her name, but obviously I must have. Seth was right though. I hadn’t thought of it at the time, but that was exactly why Robin ordered bacon. Seth seemed to have a profound understanding of people.
“A lot of my best dishes use shellfish as a principal ingredient,” Asher added. “Shellfish is an important part of Cajun and Creole cooking. The same is true of Asian food too. If you’re game, I’m gonna hafta introduce you to the joys of les fruits de mer. That’s French for seafood.”
“I’m definitely game,” I replied. “I don’t keep kosher and I’m willing to try anything once.”
“I’m guessing you’ve never had sushi either,” Freck chimed in, “even though most of It’s kosher. There are even kosher sushi restaurants.” As I nodded my head, Freck continued, “So it’s more a matter of familiarity than keeping kosher per se.”
“I guess you’re right about that,” I responded, “though I never thought about it that way before.”
“You’ve lived a sheltered life in Manhattan Beach,” Freck continued. “We’re gonna have to expose you to the more worldly ways of Manhattan itself.”
At that point our server arrived with our dinners and he put a huge platter of food right in front of me. On it were enormous slices of turkey breast with gravy and a generous mound of stuffing. Just when I wondered how in hell I was gonna eat it all, he placed a smaller plate next to the platter with a large serving of mashed potatoes and a bowl overflowing with long green beans and grilled peppers. My meal was great – worthy of any Thanksgiving dinner. I had an appetite as big as any teenager, but I was gonna have to take half of it home.
I noticed the food the others had ordered looked equally appetizing. Asher was eating the eggplant rollatini and it looked incredible. Seth had the salmon burger deluxe with sweet potato fries, Freck had the California wrap and Kyle had the chicken souvlaki platter. Everything looked delicious, and mine was absolutely the best turkey dinner I’d ever eaten. In the end I did manage to finish it, but I was beyond stuffed by the time we left.
As we boarded the M14A-SBS bus to head back home, I reflected on the wonderful friends I’d made today. They weren’t in my grade level, but of them, only Asher was older than me. It was a shame that Freck and Kyle would be leaving at the end of the year, ’cause I really liked them. We took a group of seats together in the rear half of the bus.
“I’ve really enjoyed spending the afternoon with you guys,” I began. “It’s just a shame you two will only be here a few more months, and then you’ll be off to Boston, I presume,” I added as I turned toward Kyle and Freck.
“Actually, we’ve decided to stay here another two years and do all our initial coursework at City College, up in Harlem,” Kyle explained. “The law doesn’t require us to graduate at the end of our senior year, even though we’ll have enough credits. New York would let us stay in school ’til we’re sixteen if we wanted, but what would be the point of getting into MIT if we only go there for graduation? But by taking courses for dual credit, we can get most of it paid for and we can stay with family and friends for two more years.”
“That’s fantastic,” I responded. “Just don’t forget those of us still at Stuyvesant,” I reminded them.
“There’s no danger of that happening,” Freck countered, “so long as Asher keeps feeding us.”
“So the truth comes out,” Asher responded. “The only reason you like Seth and me is because of my cooking.”
“You finally figured us out,” Freck replied. These guys were obviously very tight. Already, I felt close to them.
Looking down at the bag I was carrying, I opened it and looked inside at my purchases from the afternoon. I’d bought a double-Mars silver pendant and a rainbow-colored ring. I took out the ring and placed it on my right hand. Looking at it, I said, more to myself, “I’m gonna hafta have a talk with my dad when I get home. My sisters all know and they tell me Dad knows too, but I’ve never talked about it. Even the nearly three years me and Dimitri were boyfriends, I never talked about it. I just assumed Dad, with his old-world ways, wouldn’t understand.”
“I always thought my parents wouldn’t understand,” Asher began, “but then it turned out they always knew too. Would you like us to go with you when you talk to your dad?”
“No, but I think it might help if he meets you before I talk to him,” I replied. “Since I already told him about you, except the part about you’re bein’ gay, I know he’d like to meet you. I wouldn’t talk to him until after you leave, though. I don’t want him to think we’re ganging up on him.
“I’ll send him a quick text to make sure it’s OK for us to stop by,” I added as I texted away. Moments later, I got a reply stating that he was looking forward to meeting my friends. “We’re all set.”
As the four of us talked on the bus, I learned a bit more about my new friends – that Asher’s father was Creole and from New Orleans and that his mother was Chinese American from Flushing in Queens. The two of them met at Culinary Institute of America, up in Hyde Park. I learned that Seth’s mom was an oncologist – a physician that treats patients with cancer. His dad was our representative in the State Assembly in Albany, but he’d been indicted on charges of corruption, according to Seth, in retribution for crossing paths with the president. My father, like a lot of old-world Russian Jews, was a Republican and supported the president. I’d seen enough of how the president dealt with his foes, however, to believe what Seth was telling me.
I told my friends about how my oldest sister, Sarah, was a junior at Brooklyn Latin School, another of the elite specialty high schools, and that Stacey was a talented graphic artist and a sophomore at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, New York’s premier school for the arts. They were surprised when I told them about her vivid hair color and metal-studded leather collar and bracelet. Freck pointed out that if our dad could accept that, certainly he could accept a gay son. Strangely I’d never thought of it like that before. Finally, I told them how Robin was in the seventh grade at the Salk School of Science, a joint venture between the city public schools and New York University, and how she was passionate about science.
It turned out Freck really was a multimillionaire, and his parents were each worth billions. His dad was the CEO of one of the major brokerage firms and his Mom was the owner of one of the best-known fashion labels in the world. Kyle’s dad was a retina specialist who worked in the ophthalmology department at New York Presbyterian Hospital and his other father was an epileptologist, which is a neurologist who treats seizure disorders. I still didn’t learn how Asher and Seth came to be legally married or what Seth’s father might have done to cross paths with the president.
When we got off the bus, it dropped us right next to my building and so I led my friends inside and up to the sixth floor of our wing. When we entered our apartment, Stacey and Robin were watching something on their phones, but they got up immediately and came to greet me and my friends. Right away, Stacey turned toward Asher and said, “I recognize you from the paper. You’re Asher White, aren’t you?” I didn’t even know Stacey read the Times, let alone read the food section. We didn’t even subscribe to a newspaper, in print or online, so perhaps she read it in the library or at school, I guessed.
“Guilty as charged,” Asher replied as his face turned red. I was surprised I could see him blush so readily with his mocha-colored skin.
“Now that we live here, we’re gonna hafta check out your restaurant,” she continued. “I wouldn’t want to miss out on the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans… not that I’ve ever had Cajun food before.”
If possible, Asher’s blush grew even deeper as he replied, “Anytime you want to eat there, just tell the maȋtre d’ that you’re my friend and you’ll get the premium buffet for free.”
Then turning to Seth, she added, “And you’re his boyfriend, Seth Moore. That picture of the two of you together was adorable, but the two of you look even cuter in the flesh.” Now it was Seth’s turn to blush. “Those charges against your dad are totally bogus. I can smell bullshit a mile away and the allegations are first class bullshit.”
“Stacey,” Dad called out as he entered the entryway to our apartment, “we don’t talk like that around here, and especially not when we have guests.”
“Sorry,” Stacey responded.
Approaching the group of us, Dad said, “Hi boys, I’m Joshy’s dad, Avrahm Arens.” Did he have to call me Joshy? “Why don’t we go inside and sit in the living room,” Dad suggested, and we all did just that.
“I’m Asher White,” Asher responded as he shook my father’s hand, and then Seth chimed in with, “and I’m Seth Moore as he shook my father’s hand too.”
As we took our seats, Dad completely took me by surprise when he said, “Are those matching gold rings on your left hands, boys?” Good God, I didn’t even notice that at first, and my father picked up on it right away. “And don’t tell me those are anything other than wedding bands.”
Sighing, Asher answered, “It’s a bit of a long story.”
“You’re far too young to marry without permission from your parents. I could believe that you’re sixteen, Asher, but not you, Seth. Sometimes this happens with a court order when a Hasidic girl is pregnant, but I doubt that Asher knocked you up, so what’s the real story?”
“Well, my father is Frank Moore,” Seth began, but my father interrupted.
“The state assemblyman?” Dad asked and when Seth merely nodded, he continued, “I’m not going to judge you because of what your father may or may not have done. In my experience in the time I’ve been in America, in this country as in Russia, charges of corruption are usually politically motivated and have little to do with actual wrongdoing. I’m willing to bet your parents got a judge to marry you to protect what you have from greedy government officials, am I right?”
“Right on the money,” Asher replied. “Unfortunately, we’ve since been told it probably won’t work.”
“Any more than it would’ve where I came from,” Dad commented. “The main thing is that you two love each other. A marriage without love… and there are far too many of them… is worse than no marriage at all.”
“We do love each other,” Seth answered as he took Asher’s hand, “very much.” I was stunned that Dad was treating Asher and Seth just like he would’ve treated a straight couple, yet he obviously knew there were gay. WTF?
“That’s all that matters boys, and don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay. Finding true love is such a rarity in this world. It just about killed me when I lost my Hanna to cancer ten years ago. Love should be celebrated wherever we find it.”
Then turning to Freck and Kyle, he continued, “and I have a feeling it applies to you two as well, even as young as you are.” Then scrutinizing Kyle more closely, he asked, “At first I thought you might be a girl, because of your long hair, but you’re a boy, aren’t you?”
“I’m Kyle Goldstein, Dr. Arens,” Kyle responded. “I know you’re gonna ask, so I’m eleven years old as of December. I’m a senior at Stuyvesant, but my boyfriend and I are gonna take an extra two years before we graduate. We’ll do our first year’s college coursework for dual credit at City College, and then we’ll go to MIT, where we’ve already been accepted. Freck’s going into the combined architecture and civil engineering program and I’m going to study astrophysics.”
“It’s nice to meet you Kyle,” Dad said as he reached over and shook Kyle’s hand. “You’re very tall for your age, but I would’ve guessed your age in any case. I had a good friend growing up who was a lot like you. I was a bit of a prodigy myself, going to university when I was fifteen, but that was much more common in Russia than it is here. Prodigies are taken from their families and never given a chance to grow up. My friend was only twelve when he started university and like you, he liked boys, but that didn’t matter in the scheme of things. He never had a childhood at all and the stress of being expected to excel in an adult environment when he wasn’t ready for it was too much. It’s a terrible thing, to take your own life.” I noticed that Freck cringed when my father mentioned suicide and couldn’t help but wonder if that was from worry about Kyle, or perhaps from something more personal.
“I think you’ve made the right decision to wait on MIT and to go to City College. City College is a great place for boys like you to be given a chance to mature before going away to school. And I think you are very lucky to have the support of friends and of a boyfriend.” Then turning to Freck, Dad reached out and shook his hand and continued with, “And you must be Freck, which I’d guess is short for Freckles, and I’d guess you’re thirteen, but barely.”
“That’s amazing,” Freck replied. “I just turned thirteen on December 26.”
“You should’ve heard Freck in the stereo store,” I chimed in. “He came up with the idea for putting the TV in the corner over there,” I pointed, “and arranging the living room and dining room furniture around it. He suggested putting bookcases all along those two walls… maybe even built-ins… and then he started discussing Russian literature with me in fluent Russian. He even offered to do all the architectural design work for our planned renovations this summer. Apparently, we could face heavy fines if we don’t submit plans and paperwork and get building permits from the city.”
“You speak Russian, Freck?” Dad asked, and that led to an extended conversation in Russian about the Russian literature Freck had read.
Finally, lapsing back into English, Freck concluded, “I have what some have called a gift for learning foreign languages, but to me, it’s just a skill that’s there and that I have no control over. I hear words in context, and my brain compares them to similar words in other languages and within no time I can speak the language. I pick up the written language similarly, even those that are idiomatic like Chinese.”
“You’re both exceptional young men,” Dad responded. “I assume Freck isn’t your real name?”
“My given name is Francis San Angelo, but I hate Francis and plan to go by François, since I’m half French on my mother’s side. I’m a quarter Italian and a quarter Irish on my Dad’s side, but it’s pretty obvious the Irish genes are dominant. I was raised Roman Catholic, but my mom’s half Jewish on her mother’s side, which means that technically I’m Jewish too. Philosophically I’m an agnostic, but since I’m marrying into the faith, so to speak, I’ve decided to study with Ky and we’ll undergo a joint bar mitzvah ceremony next December.”
“That’s an interesting concept, Freck,” Dad responded. “In traditional Judaism, girls undergo bat mitzvah at twelve, so Kyle will undergo the ceremony right after he turns twelve, I take it, and you’ll do so before you turn fourteen, am I right?”
“Amazingly so,” Freck replied.
Lifting up Freck’s left hand, Dad said, “That’s a really fine watch you’re wearing. Very unusual. I haven’t seen one like it before, but it looks quite expensive.”
“It was a thirteenth birthday gift from Kyle and his dads, and from Asher and Seth,” Freck answered.
“You have two dads?” Dad asked Kyle.
“My biologic father didn’t accept that he’s gay until long after I was born. I think it was because of my mom’s drinking though. No matter how many times she went through rehab, she always relapsed, but she’s been sober ever since the divorce. They both came from families that escaped the holocaust by fleeing to Brazil and they’re parents expected nothing less than traditional marriage and many children.
Anyway, Dad’s an ophthalmologist and retina specialist who works at New York Presbyterian, and he fell in love with an epilepsy specialist who’s on the neurology faculty at Columbia. They got married over the summer and they took my brother, Freck and me with them on their honeymoon, ’cause they wanted to see Europe through our eyes. They’re both wonderful fathers, even if it did take my dad so long to deal with his sexuality and with relating to his gay son.”
“And Freck,” Dad said as he turned back to Kyle’s boyfriend, “are you by any chance related to Frank San Angelo? The Frank San Angelo?”
“He’s my dad,” Freck answered, and then he went on to explain who his mother was as well, and how he came to be living with Kyle’s family up in Riverdale. “I was so messed up with marijuana and alcohol, but when I tried to jump off a building to see if I could fly or not, my parents’ response was nothing more than to put me in counseling. They didn’t even get rid of their supply of pot. They just hid it someplace else where it was just as easy for me to find it. And I was still only ten. Finally, I’m living with parents who see me as more than an object to show off in front of friends and associates. Finally, I have parents who love me and care about me, and who set limits. I don’t need to tell you that a teenager needs limits.”
“That’s quite a story, Freck,” my dad responded, and I couldn’t help but agree. It was the first time I’d heard the full story too. But what was even more surreal was the way my very conservative father was treating my gay friends as if being gay was the most natural thing in the world to him.
I guess Dad could kinda see what I was thinking, ’cause of the way I was looking at him, so he asked, “What, you think I shouldn’t accept your friends because they’re gay? You think I didn’t realize that Dimitri was more than your best friend?”
When I just continued to stare at him, Dad continued, “For even longer than that I’ve been waiting for you to tell me. To come out to me, but I didn’t want to push it. Your looks at boys haven’t exactly been subtle, even though I’m sure you thought you were being careful. Maybe you didn’t even realize what you were doing at first, or even why when you were nine or ten. So you’ve made new gay friends who go to your school. That’s wonderful. So you bought a rainbow-colored ring. Good for you.”
I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to take the ring off before getting home! How fuckin’ stupid of me. My face really felt like it was on fire, but Dad continued, “Joshy, you may think I’m an old fogey, but I’m not so old to have forgotten what it’s like to be in love. You must also remember that I teach Russian literature. Of course I also studied classic literature in school. Both include famous authors who were gay and sometimes wrote about gay themes. Some of the greatest minds the world has ever known were gay. Should we reject DaVinci or Tchaikovsky because they were gay? Was there something wrong with them because they liked boys instead of girls, or maybe was it their homosexuality that underlay their greatness? Or just maybe, was being gay no more important to who and what they were, than whether they were right- or left-handed?
“Joshy, your being gay means no more to me than your eye color. You’re a wonderful boy who’d make any parent proud.”
I couldn’t help myself as I stood up and hugged my father tightly. I cried like a baby, right in front of my friends, and I didn’t even care. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the lights suddenly went out and my Dad and sisters started singing Happy Birthday while Sarah carried a cake in, I guess from one of the bedrooms. It said, ‘Happy Birthday Joshy,’ and there were fourteen lit candles. My friends joined in in the singing. I made a wish, blew out the candles and cut the cake.
Had I loved Dimitri? Had he loved me? Maybe time had already deadened the blow of our breakup, but I was beginning to realize my feelings toward him were nothing like the feelings my friends had for their boyfriends. Now if only I could find a boyfriend…
Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay preteen and teenage boys. There are references to gay sex and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. The reader takes all responsibility for the legality of reading this type of story where they live. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. The author retains full copyright.