Nate heard Matt come in the front door and was standing in the doorway to his room as his older brother walked down the hall. “All good at college?”
Matt grinned at him. “Yeah, you know I made it through mid-terms in pretty good shape, and I’m staying on top of stuff so far, so it’s all good. I’m thinking I can pull off a B average this quarter but I’m looking forward to the long Thanksgiving weekend, I can tell you. Any word from Michael?”
“Yeah. He called about twenty minutes ago and was out of the Gorge and almost to the airport, so he should be here any time.”
A few minutes later Matt was putting away his books when he heard Nate shout “He’s here!” They walked out the front door together in time to see Michael step out of the Scout. He was wearing Wranglers and a western shirt, but Vans instead of cowboy boots. He raised up on his toes as he stretched, and the shirt pulled out of the Wranglers exposing his stomach. Nate saw it and felt the surge of desire, as he trotted down the sidewalk heading for his boyfriend. About five seconds later Nate was in his arms. Matt wasn’t far behind him, and it became a three-way hug rather quickly.
Finally, Matt said, “Okay, break it up and tell me about this rig.”
Michael gave him a quick run down on how the Scout was the original four-wheel drive, off road vehicle after the Army style Jeep. “Don’t let anyone tell you different. The Bronco came later.” Then he and Nate walked him through the work they’d done on it last summer. Michael added, “It’s still got great compression so no need to rebuild the engine or anything like that.”
“No problems on the drive?”
“Nope. I was worried about some mechanical problem happening, but nothing did. So far this fall my dad’s mechanic friend helped me rebuild the fuel pump and the water pump, then we went to work on the electrical system. We replaced the generator with an alternator and got rid of the separate voltage regulator, put in a new battery and replaced a few wires that the mice had gotten to. It isn’t fast on the freeway, I’ll tell you that, and there were plenty of semi truck drivers pissed at me going slow in the right lane when they had to slow down in traffic before they could pass me in. I just smiled and waved, and a couple blew their air horns, which means they know what it is and dig it.”
“How did the heater work,” Nate wanted to know.
“The heater worked fine; it puts out plenty of hot air. The defroster part is a little funky. I’ll have to look at the air ducts under the dash when I get back. The main thing is that it’s not well insulated so it’s hard to keep it warm inside. You know, just rubber mats on the floor and a fiberglass top. It wasn’t a problem last winter ’cause I never drove that far, pretty much just to school and back. I think I’m going to have to get serious about putting in some insulation, though.” He looked at Matt and his boyfriend and then added, “Grandpa will tell me to grow a set. That real men don’t need insulation.” He laughed, “Course when it was his rig, he never hardly drove it in the winter!”
Matt grabbed Michael’s duffle bag and Nate took his pack and they headed up the sidewalk to the house. As they walked past Matt’s Land Cruiser, Michael nodded and said, “Nice wheels. We should go four wheeling some time.” Matt grinned in response.
When they dropped his stuff in Nate’s room, Matt said, “I’m helping mom cook dinner when she gets home, so you guys are off the hook for a couple of hours… if you know what I mean. Then after dinner I’m going over to see Jessica.”
As they walked down to the kitchen so Michael could say hello to Laurie, he raised his eyebrows “When did you start to cook?”
“Well, mom taught both of us the basics, like breakfast. David and Jackson are both good cooks and they’ve taught me a lot. David learned from the cook his family had growing up, he taught Jackson how to cook, and now he’s passing it on. I mean, David’s more than just my therapist, you know!” He grinned at Michael knowingly, then added, “And they’ve both made me understand that cooking together is a great part of a partnership with your soul mate.”
Michael nodded approvingly and added, “I need to learn to cook more if I’m moving down here next year.” He looked at Laurie as he finished that statement, and added, “Isn’t that right?”
“It is! And welcome back!” She wiped her hands and pulled Michael in for a huge hug and then continued, “having Matt start to cook with me has been a lot of fun. Now, before you and your boyfriend go upstairs to get reacquainted, call home and let your parents know you arrived safely.”
“Yes, Mom,” Michael said with a wide smile, and Nate pulled him across the kitchen to the phone on the wall. When they got up to Nate’s, room he immediately pulled Michael onto his bed, hands sliding all over his boyfriend’s body.
“Whoa, cowboy! This rodeo’s going to last more than five minutes, you know!”
Nate was panting. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you and how horny I am!”
“Oh yeah? I think I do,” Michael said in a husky voice just before he pushed his tongue into Nate’s mouth.
A while later as they lay in each other’s arms waking up from a post-coital nap, they heard Nate’s mom at the other end of the house and were pleased that she didn’t bother them. Later, Matt knocked on the door as he opened it and leaned in saying, “Dinner’s about ready.” He grinned. “Are you two all caught up on the sex now? You look pretty chilled out.”
Nate shot him a friendly warning glare. “We are, thank you very much. We both appreciate how concerned you are that we don’t get out of practice and keep our sex organs in tip top condition.”
Matt just laughed. “Tip top condition like the Scout? Right! Come on, it’s almost dinner time.”
They helped Nate’s mom serve dinner and Michael caught her up on all the news in Pendleton and what had transpired since his visit in late September for his cancer check up.
She looked at him inquiringly. “And your schoolwork?”
“Really good, Laurie. I aced midterms. Things have gotten better all-around at home, at school, with my friends… with me. I’m just happier and funny thing, when you’re happy with yourself you do better at things like school.”
She beamed and replied, “You don’t have to tell me much about that. I see it here every day with my two boys. Matt and Nate both found themselves and someone they love and are the happiest and most productive I’ve ever seen them. I think it’s the kind of thing that true love does to people!”
Matt said, “Mom, lighten up.”
She looked at both of them, and replied, “No, I won’t because it’s true. Thanks to the work you did after you became friends with Jerrod and Roger, and then David and Jackson, and then getting together with Jessica, you’re a different person. And don’t try and tell me you’re not. Same thing for your brother with Michael. I’m just really happy for both of you, and proud of both of you too.”
Nate looked at his boyfriend and rolled his eyes, but Michael squeezed his hand under the table and looked at him knowingly. They’d both done their own work, individually and together, during the past summer. Nate got the message and smiled back at him, and then said, “Thanks, Mom.”
Laurie went on. “We’re thrilled you’re here with us for Thanksgiving, Michael. It’ll be a big day tomorrow. There’s going to be eighteen people at David and Jackson’s for dinner. They’re insisting on doing the turkeys, but I’m baking pumpkin and pecan pies. Roger’s mom is bringing a vegetable dish and potatoes and Jessica’s mom is bringing some type of salad and candied yams. Will and Sam are supplying the liquid refreshment. It’s going to be quite the feast.”
“I guess. That sounds like a ton of food and a lot of people. Will they all fit.”
“Your haven’t seen that dining room table before with all of the leaves in it. It is amazing how long it gets!”
“Can we help tomorrow?” Nate asked.
“I’ll make the pie crust early, and other than whipping the cream the pumpkin pie is really just putting in the filling. There’ll be three of each, so they’ll have to bake in series. You guys can chop the pecans, and then you’ll have your token contribution out of the way.” She grinned at them conspiratorially. “Then you’ll have time in the morning to go for a walk, or whatever.”
Matt looked at Nate and Michael and said, “Tomorrow’s Thursday and that’s our usual day to meet Sean in the park. Since school started, we’ve only had time for one basketball session a week with him, and that’s on the weekend. Because it’s Thanksgiving we all figured we’d meet Sean and his mom in the morning. Do you guys want to come?”
Michael and Nate glanced at each other, their eyes sparkled over a quick smile, and they both said, “Yeah!”
“We’re meeting them at nine o’clock. I’ll let Jerrod know you guys are coming, ’cause that’s means two cars, so we’ll meet everyone at the park. You guys need to be up by eight if you want breakfast.”
He looked at his mom. “Right?”
“Absolutely. I want all three of you fed and done and out of here so I can make my pie crusts.”
They pulled into the parking area just in time to see Jerrod and Roger unloading Kaiser and Chloe from the back of the Cherokee. Matt pulled the Land Cruiser into the nearest open spot a few cars down. There was a few minutes of pandemonium as all the people and dogs greeted each other for the first time. Things were back to normal by the time they saw Sean and his mom approaching from across the park.
Matt waved and looked at Jerrod and Roger. “See how much better he’s walking? Jessica says his coordination is improving from the basketball drills combined the PT he’s getting at the hospital.”
They watched their young friend approach, a wide smile breaking into a radiant grin as Sean saw all of his friends and the two dogs. “I think you’re right,” Jerrod said. “He still has a serious limp, but he’s moving much better. That is outstanding.”
Sean couldn’t restrain himself, and when he was thirty feet away, he loudly said, “Kaiser!”
Knowing what’s was likely to happen, Roger had made Kaiser sit and had his fingers on the dogs collar to hold him. When he heard Sean call the dog’s name, he slipped his fingers off the collar and said, “Release.” Kaiser shot off towards Sean, closely followed by Chloe, and in seconds among the most pleasant thing in Sean’s life unfolded as he knelt to hug Kaiser, received the weight of Kaiser on his chest, and then toppled over into a tumble of boy and dog… that quickly became a tumble of boy and two dogs.
They all watched it unfold and the amount of sheer joy on the face of Sean and his mom. Jerrod said, “Come on,” and they all walked over to the lady, whom he introduced to Michael and Nate. She was happy to meet them, and said she’d heard a lot about them, their summer in Pendleton, and facing down the bull in the rodeo.
Michael let Nate do the talking, and nodded when Nate said it was a great summer, and that they’d just done what they needed to do when that bull got loose.
Sean’s mom looked at Michael and said, “But Jerrod told me that the young girl had cerebral palsy too. Did you know that?”
“No, ma’am. We just saw she had a limp and was in the wrong place and needed help, and we were closest. So, we did what we had to do.” He looked over at Sean and then said, “I did’t know Sean, just what Jerrod and Roger told me about what a cool kid he is.”
“Well, let’s fix that right now.” Sean’s mom turned to him and said, “Sean, let those dogs go before you spoil all of their training, and come over here and meet Matt’s brother and his boyfriend.”
It took a minute for Sean to unwind himself and then he came over as Roger and Matt held the dogs, and Sean was introduced. The boy immediately made the connections and looked at Nate as he held out his hand and said, “Your brother is my good friend. He told me you were a baseball star too.”
“Well, I was pretty good. I don’t know about a star, Sean. But then I had a hip problem and had to have surgery at Doernbecher. That’s where I met Michael, so you see, we’re all Doernbecher patients.”
Sean got a serious expression on his face and said, “That’s very good.” Then he turned to Michael, “You were a patient too?”
Michael nodded, “Yeah. I had cancer, but my last two tests came back clear. I met Nate because of those guys.” He nodded at Roger and Jerrod. “And the dog. I mean, it was mainly the dog.” He grinned at Sean, and added, “Was it mainly that way with you too?”
It took Sean a few seconds, but then a conspiratorial grin spread on his face, and he said softly, “Yeah. Mainly the dog.” He paused, then went on. “But now there’s two dogs. Twice as much fun!”
They heard Matt say, “Alright you guys, enough talking. Time to exercise the dogs. Sean, should we play retrieve or hide and seek?”
Sean focused right in on the question and said, “Retrieve. You can throw the ball when I get tired.”
“What about Jerrod and Roger, and Michael and Nate,” Matt asked?
Sean blushed and then said softly, “Them too, we’ll rotate.”
Matt led them over to the large open area in the center of the park and they watched the drill unfold. Chloe’s training had been progressing during the summer, and even though she was just under a year, she’d mastered walking on a leash as well as “Sit, Stay,” and was held in a stay position while Kaiser was retrieving. She was beginning to understand the concept of sitting and waiting till released to retrieve the ball, though that was a challenge simply due to her excitement. Having Kaiser as the leader of her pack was an immensely important part of how quickly she learned. Every so often when Kaiser needed a rest, Roger and Jerrod would do short retrieving drills with Chloe, who was getting better between retrieves and figuring out she was supposed to sit and not be overwhelmed by her excitement.
Forty minutes later, as they were all leaving, Matt reminded Sean that he and Jessica would pick him up on Saturday morning. “The weather forecast says rain, so you’ll be glad we’re inside at the YMCA.”
Sean nodded and they shared hugs all around as they departed. Back in the Land Cruiser, Michael commented on Sean’s capabilities. Matt nodded. “He’s a smart kid, and what’s so neat is that Jerrod and Roger somehow understood that and befriended him… I mean, Kaiser helped, of course, and Sean kind of blossomed. But what really started happening this summer is that Jessica is learning how to develop students, and when we started doing the basketball drills with him, it was like a whole new dimension. He loves basketball and really focused and practiced. Meaning at home during the week, too, where he’s got a hoop above the garage door. And not just his shooting improved, but his coordination improved, too. I mean, he wore the toe out on a pair of sneakers! On top of that, like I told Jerrod, his speech improved too.”
“His speech?” Michael sounded confused.
“Well, yeah. We had to talk to him about drills. About dribbling so far, then passing, who to pass to, the tactics, stuff like that. And he understood it in his head, all kind of theoretically, but then over the summer he began more to internalize it and to be able to do it and then talk about it. It was amazing to watch.”
“You and Jessica did all that,” Nate asked?
“No, we were just part of what was going on. He gets regular physical therapy and speech therapy at Doernbecher. I think his love of basketball just added a new dimension that he could really focus on and get into in a whole new way. It kind of got layered on top of the foundation that had been built with Jerrod and Roger and Kaiser.”
Matt paused as they turned onto their street. “Want to know what’s most amazing?”
Nate and Michael said “What?” in unison.
“He’ll be a sophomore in high school next year, and he wants to go out for the basketball team.”
“You’re right. That’s a huge reach and a big goal, but he’s got the commitment.”
“How can he even do that,” Michael asked? “He can’t run, and you said he has trouble dribbling. Aren’t they going to say he doesn’t qualify, or even get harassed?”
“All real possibilities,” Matt said, “but guess what. There’s policies against discriminating against handicapped kids, just like against discrimination against gay kids. He’s a killer shooter within free throw range. He’s not going to be the first guy down the court with the ball and he’s not strong enough for three pointers, but if he gets the opportunity to shoot inside the free throw line, he’s dead on most of the time.”
They’d pulled into the driveway and Matt continued. “We’ve got plenty of time to clean up before we head to David and Jackson’s for Thanksgiving, but you guys are riding with mom. I’m going over to pick up Jessica and her parents.”
When all the guests had arrived, they were surprised to see that Will and Jackson were dressed in bow ties and black vests and had serviette towels over one arm. They were bartending for the large group, and it only took a few comments for the story to come out about how years ago when David and Jackson first bought the “Hobbit” house, Will had lived with them. He and Jackson had been in college at Lewis & Clark, and as they expanded their bar offering and learned how to mix drinks, they’d regularly done this.
Jackson looked at his best friend since high school, grinned, and then looked at all the assembled friends and family. “I’m betting there isn’t a mixed drink any of you can request that we can’t make, and thanks to Will and Sam we not only have a bottle of Lagavulin single malt scotch and an Oregon gin made with local juniper berries, and some Polish vodka, but we have bottles of top notch Oregon Pinot Noir on offer, or chilled Pinot Gris for those that prefer white wine.”
The party ensued and the conversation covered a wide range of topics. At one point it got around to old friends and the fact that Susan, who had previously retired from teaching school was now being joined by her partner Ellen who was retiring from the hospital. They were selling their property outside of Newberg and moving down to Lincoln City on the coast. David quipped that more friends living on the coast with beach houses meant more reasons to visit. Then he glanced at his watch. “Time to pull the birds. They need to rest for twenty minutes, then we’ll eat.” He nodded at the mothers and said, “Fifteen minutes and your dishes go on the table, and then we’re on our way!”
It was a sumptuous feast, the younger generation sitting at one end of the table carrying on their conversation while the adults did the same at their end. They were finishing dessert with the typical leaning back in their chairs and sighing from consuming too much food when Jessica’s dad said, “That was a fabulous meal, but it’s beginning to feel a little like that Elia Kazan film to me.”
All the young people looked at him not understanding the reference. “Apologies to the younger set,” he said, chuckling, “I’m thinking of his film titled America, America that released in the early ‘60’s. It’s about a Greek immigrant family, and after a huge family feast, the men all retire to the living room for cigars, and they’re so full that they all have to undo their vests and the top buttons on their trousers to let their bellies out.”
Roger’s parents laughed along with him and commented on how much that film had meant to them after they immigrated from Switzerland. Jessica’s dad looked at the younger set and added, “Clearly we’re dating ourselves, but you understood the reference, I hope?”
There were nods all around and then Jackson stood up and looked at everyone gathered around the table and said, “While I haven’t seen that film, I get the meaning, but guess what? I have news!”
That got everyone’s attention, and then he went on. “We asked my dad to be here with us for Thanksgiving, but he said he couldn’t make it because he chose to work so he could continue building up his service hours so that he can retire early.”
“What does that mean?” Jerrod asked.
“It means that he’s worked a lot of holidays and stuff not just because of the extra pay but because he accumulates more hours of service and… it means he’s going to retire early next year with full benefits.”
Roger and Jerrod, along with Will and Sam who knew him well, all cheered.
“But wait, there’s more,” Jackson went on. “When he retires, he’s selling his house in Seattle and moving down to Portland. Is that cool, or what?”
Will’s mom, Sam, cooed. “How wonderful. He’s coming home to be with his son and near his sister.”
“It’s totally great, isn’t it?” Jackson looked over at Jessica’s parents and said, “I don’t think you know this, but I didn’t know my dad growing up, he had a fling with my mom, then was in Vietnam and settled in Seattle after that. I didn’t meet him till my mom’s funeral. That was almost twenty-five years ago when I was eighteen, but we really connected and have been close ever since. However, the problem has always been that even though Seattle’s only three hours away, and we talk a lot on the phone, Seattle is still three hours away. Now that’s going to end, and we’ll all be close by.”
The conversation continued about selling a house and buying a replacement, what part of town he’d live in, how long it would take and the simple pleasures of having your dad close by. Jackson was engaged talking about how his dad was really the car guy who had bought and given him the Challenger, but then he noticed Matt sitting quietly with damp eyes.
At a lull in the conversation he softly said, “Matt, is everything alright? Are you okay?”
Matt looked up and swallowed and then said, “Yeah, actually, I am. It was just the talk about your dad coming back into your life and now moving down here to Portland.”
David was sitting next to Matt and after glancing at his mom, put his hand on the boy’s forearm and said, “Nothing ever wrong with getting emotional, you know.” He could see Jessica was holding Matt’s other hand between their chairs.
“I know. That’s another thing I’m learning after years of being the tough guy who never showed his feelings.” He paused and then took a breath. “Most of you know that our dad died when we were kids, so what Jackson said really struck a chord. I know people that die don’t come back, but Mom told Nate and me yesterday how much we’d changed this year, and it’s true. I used to be the tough guy athlete, but I had no real friends. Now I’ve got this.”
He swept his hand around the table.
“I have two new uncles, I finished high school and got two scholarships. I got into college, I got a good summer job, I got a better girl friend than I probably deserve, I have real friends… and I mean all of you. It’s pretty amazing, really. Anyway, what I wanted to say is that I was telling Jessica yesterday about some of this and that… no, wait.” He paused and looked around at the expectant faces. “I’m guessing most of you have had this experience with these two,” and here he pointed at David and Jackson. “Where they’re helping you figure out stuff in your life and they play you a song to help you understand what’s happening. Am I right?”
Heads nodded around the table. “I want to know. How many? Raise your hands.”
Two thirds of the people around the table raised their hands.
“See! Anyway, one of the things I learned from David, and Jerrod who learned it from David, is that a song makes you feel a thought. And once you’ve felt the thought you can begin to process the thought. I was telling Jessica about that and how I think I found the song of my life. I think it’s beautiful musically and love to listen to it, but the lyrics just keep driving home a message to me. I’m guessing most of you have heard it, it’s called Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve. The main point is that life is a bittersweet symphony, a bittersweet thing… he sings about being a slave to money and stuck in the system and how you can’t break out of the mold no matter what you do… and it’s not good. You can be a slave to a lot of things, and I guess for most people, like it was for me, it’s not good. It’s hard. It hurts”
He paused and looked around, but while still emotional, he was calm and wasn’t embarrassed.
“So, anyway, after painting this dark picture of how bitter life can be, he starts singing about the other side, the sweet side. There he talks about being able to change, how hard it is to change the mold. That you can’t do it alone and it takes work, but you can do it with help from other people.”
He paused again, then went on. “Anyway, that’s how I understand it, and I know it’s true for me. I’ve changed a lot. I guess we all have. I had a lot of help from everyone around this table. I heard Michael tell my mom yesterday about how good he’s doing in school and stuff because he’s found himself and he’s happy… and how when you’ve found yourself and are happy you just do better at things like school and life and all. That’s me too. Anyway, sorry if I got carried away.”
There was a few seconds of silence as everyone took in the magnitude of what Matt had said, then his mom cleared her throat and spoke. “Matt, what you just shared with us was wonderful, and what you said about my comment to Michael yesterday was true, but only partially so. I wasn’t just talking about Michael and Nate, I was also talking about you and Jessica, remember?” She paused for just a moment and then continued. “I did comment on the wonder of finding yourself as a person and being happy, but I also said that there’s another factor that applies to them but also to you and Jessica. That’s finding the love of your life. I think I also said I was very proud of both of my boys… but I think I’ll stop now before I embarrass them.” She looked about the table with a knowing smile.
Matt looked at his mom and said, “You’re right, Mom. You did say that and it’s true.” He looked around the table at everyone gathered and added, “You guys are the most important people in my life, so I just wanted to say that and thank you.”
Listen to the YouTube Video of Bittersweet Symphony by
There was a momentary silence, and then a number of compliments about his candor and how thankful everyone was that he was part of their circle of friends and family.
David had watched Jessica, who had been listening intently as Matt spoke, and then looked over at her parents to gauge their reaction. It was quite clear that they were impressed with his honesty and ability to be transparent. In his conversations with them since they’d first met six months previously when they’d approved Jessica joining them on a long weekend at the beach, he’d felt they were more and more positive about their potential future son in law. Now he felt even more confident.
The conversation turned to cleaning up, washing the dishes and packing up and sharing the leftovers, and then walking the dogs. Jessica’s mom asked about the dog work at the hospital, and that soon led to Roger and Jerrod informing everyone that the construction project was going to demolish the old pavilion they used to rest the dogs outside.
“I don’t understand the implication. Can you fill me in?”
“Well, it’s in the courtyard in the center of the hospital, so it’s a safe and quiet place outside to give the dogs a break and a rest when they’re working. In the summer the pavilion means they have a shady place. In the winter it’s a place out of the rain so they aren’t soaked when they go back to see patients.”
“And what’s going to happen,” she asked?
“We don’t know,” Roger said. “That’s part of the problem. Administration says they’ll put up a tent, which probably means some kind of pop-up tent, but it will for sure be smaller than the pavilion. And a tent is a pretty flimsy substitute. Also, we can’t get a straight answer about a replacement pavilion when the construction work is complete. Not even what the time frame is. That’s totally frustrating!”
Jackson had been following the conversation and was tuned into Jerrod and Roger’s frustration. “What do you mean ‘admin says they’ll put up a tent?’ That sounds like tokenism to me.”
Jerrod looked at him and replied, “I think I know what tokenism is, but I think it’s down low on the priority list or something like that. You know, as if a tent will do.”
Matt quietly said Jerrod’s name and then continued. “I’ve been to the hospital a few times when Nate was there, but never in the courtyard. Could I see it sometime? When are they taking out the pavilion?”
“In two weeks.”
“Can I come by this Sunday or next? You know, meet you guys there, just to see it? I’ve got an idea of what it is, but I don’t have a picture in my head.”
Jerrod looked at Roger and back at Matt. “Either one, man. Whatever works for you.”
Matt nodded, and then Jackson said, “In the meantime you need to press the person in charge of the dog program to put the pressure on admin, to make them understand this is important and can’t just be blown off.”
Jessica’s mom added, “Jackson is right. Someone, somewhere has an answer to those questions. You know I volunteer at Providence Hospital, so I’ve seen how bureaucratic hospitals can be. If I can help somehow, just let me know.”
“You’re right, we should do that, and we will,” Jerrod said. “But, speaking of dogs, they’ve been very patient so far. So, I’m thinking when we’ve cleaned up, they should each get a piece of turkey and then we all take them on a walk around the neighborhood.”
“Good way to settle this great dinner,” Will said, “and not only a timely relief for the dogs, but way healthier than opening the buttons on our pants! Then we can come back here and savor some more of that great wine. I’m not trying to make anyone drink more than they want, but there’s a bottle of each open… and you know, wine goes bad left in an open bottle.” He grinned and then they all got organized for their walk.