Maren looked over Robbie, who was lying on the Ekornes sofa on the second floor, through the south facing window at the water. Maren was holding his hand as she did first nearly thirty years ago. She saw him struggle with pain that had been his companion so long now that it felt like clothing he wore and couldn't remove. She heard the other voices in the living room, Sandi, Bobby, Joseph, Elias, some of whom had come from across the country, and a hospice nurse. Her hold on his hand was firm; she wouldn't let him go just yet.
His journey was easy to summarize, she thought: complicated adolescence populated by caring people, continuing struggle about how to live as a bisexual man, the tug between triangles and the fundamental urge to pair bond, marriage to a woman, a son, two careers, abiding friendships, and the disease. She thought of his story of the old man's final lesson and almost smiled.
"What?" she asked.
Even formulating the answer was a struggle through the narcotics. "A ghost," Robbie whispered.
Time was a jumble surrounded by her fear and worry. She recalled the defining conversation, so many years ago.
"So, what can you live with? I know this isn't what you signed up for."
"Robbie, I love you. I just can't see why you need more than me."
"I've been trying, Maren; really, I have. I'm not going to throw away what we have just to fuck a guy, but I'm wired that way. It has nothing to do with you not being enough. No woman could ever be enough, but no woman could ever be more than you."
"Yeah," she laughed a little bitterly. "I should have listened to Sandi. What's the difference between one of us fucking around with someone of the same sex and doing it with someone of the opposite sex?"
"I'd never screw around with another woman. First, you are all the woman I'll ever need. Second, the whole nature of my sexuality is the need for another man as well as you; it's not about polyamory. I don't want a three-way marriage. Living with one other person is hard enough without complicating the marriage with another. Shit, this is strange to explain logically."
"I guess so! You know I love all of you, even the part that wants to fuck other guys. Besides, it makes me very hot to think of you and another guy, and we love to watch gay porn together. I just need to be sure I'm not going to be replaced."
The reverie was interrupted by the recognition that Suzanne Vega was singing in the background. Maren returned to the memory of that conversation so long ago.
"I hope you don't regret marrying me."
She had been startled at the question, and was quick to answer. She had thought it through and knew that this was what she had signed up for.
"No, don't be stupid. I've thought a lot about what I can live with. Robbie, I can't live with you missing so much, even if you're willing to do without."
"So,what are you suggesting?"
"There must be other guys like you out there, in happy marriages to women, who need a special relationship with another guy that doesn't compete with the marriage. I'd be very comfortable with you finding a kindred spirit."
She saw Robbie feeling released by the gift. "Mar, you know I will never do anything to jeopardize your trust."
"You're the most honest person I've ever known. I know you want to have me involved, but our experiences with that just haven't made me want it. Not bad, you understand, but nobody sends me like you do, and I just find the comparisons I make while it's happening too distracting. I'm happy with just you. Sorry, I don't mean to be petty."
"You've never been petty since I've known you. Look, let me think about this." After a few seconds he had said, "Talking to you this way always makes me horny. I feel so close to you."
Then they had engaged in one of the best fucks she had ever had with him. When they finished, she knew more clearly than ever how he felt about her, and knew she had made the right choice. That was how Elias came to be part of their little extended family.
She looked up from Robbie's face at Elias. Across the room, he immediately looked over at her, stopping a quiet conversation with Joey. Elias had known them before Joey was born, and had always been a part of Joey's life. Elias held her gaze and then walked over to the sofa and leaned down to kiss her on the cheek and then Robbie gently on the lips. He was the same height as Robbie when he had been healthy. He was slender where Robbie was more muscular; he was lightly hairy where Robbie had always been smooth. Most importantly, she thought, he had the same piercing intellect without pretension. He and Robbie formulated the same kind of jokes and reveled in word play. Robbie had been so much happier since he and Elias had defined their relationship. She smiled at him.
Elias looked down at a febrile and sedated Robbie. He had cried himself out before Maren had summoned him yesterday. "This may be it," she had said.
Without prolonged thought, he had called in sick, telling his boss that family illness might keep him away for a few days. He had told Maren that Justine wanted to be there, but had to line up baby sitters. Maren knew that Justine's take on Robbie and Elias was different than hers. Justine wasn't sure that Robbie wouldn't replace her, and Maren knew that she and Elias had periodic conflict about the issue. One of the things she admired about Elias is that he got her and Robbie, and never tried to take advantage of them. She talked infrequently with Justine to try to reassure her. She liked Justine, and could see that Elias loved her deeply, and like Robbie, never considered screwing around with another woman.
Elias thought about his first meeting with Robbie. He was used to postings from two kinds of men: men who were gay and hung the description of bisexual on themselves to keep from embracing their true natures and closeted married gay men who wanted to hook up and would say anything to make it happen. When he and Robbie met near the border between the counties where they lived, he had tried to find the fatal flaw, but couldn't. For one thing, Robbie had been completely open about Maren, letting him know that he was out to his wife and that she approved of their meeting. When Elias had said that he would like to meet Maren, Robbie had said that he hoped so. Then, there was the way Robbie looked into his eyes, curious and direct. Elias couldn't believe he had struck gold after all these years, or at how well their needs were matched, and the blind, god damned luck of it.
Fortunately, Elias thought, they were sexually compatible, as well. Both were versatile and had learned well what they both enjoyed. They always played safe, even after countless HIV and STD tests, shared with wives and each other like grade school report cards. They both scratched the only itch Maren and Justine couldn't scratch for either of them. Elias had a long thin dick, and he was delirious at the way Robbie gave head. Most guys he'd been with weren't able to take him as deeply as Robbie, and he couldn't believe how the "sensei" loved to be fucked. They were so playful together. The last time they'd played together was about two months ago. The decline for his friend had been ferocious. Elias felt like crap because, along with the concern for Robbie's pain, he wondered what he would do. Could he ever find someone like this again? Not fucking likely.
He held the hand that Maren wasn't and looked over at Joey. He could remember Joey's birth, how proud and mystified about being a father Robbie was. He knew that Robbie's father had left him and Elise alone, and could see how seriously Robbie took being a father. Robbie was very deft at explaining their relationship to Joey. And, even though Joey identified himself as straight, the boy detested homophobia and bullying. Joey had been among the last students to train with Robbie's teacher, and Joey was strong and caring. When very young, Joey would not go to sleep at an appointed time, and, for a few years, wouldn't stay asleep. Elias remembered staying with Joey on occasional nights so that Robbie and Maren could get some sleep. He knew Robbie envied how Elias's kids slept through from the first. You'd think a kid would have trouble understanding a bisexual father, but Joey seemed to understand how little Robbie's complication mattered. Now, Joey was a man, and, as far as Elias could tell, a decent one.
Robbie had told Elias how upset he was to be leaving Maren and Joey like this. He seemed to feel like a deserter, even though Maren had rebuked him for those thoughts. Elias had tried to get Robbie to see the truth, but the kid who had been left would never forgive himself for leaving, even if it was beyond his control. He picked up Robbie's hand and held it to his cheek, finally kissing the back of it before placing in on the armrest of the sofa before going back to Joey.
He put his arms around Joey. "This sucks, Joey. I feel like shit, and I can't imagine what you're going through."
"Eli, I'm so sorry. I know you and Dad are really special to each other. I wish I could fix it."
"Not your job, young one. We'll survive."
"Want to know a secret?"
When Elias nodded, Joey said, "I've already mourned him. Now, I just feel so happy to have been fathered by him. Jesus, most of my friends would have traded their fathers for him in a minute. Even when we were battling, he was my compass. He's so funny. That's the thing. He never took himself that seriously, except when he was standing up for someone else." As he said the last, he looked over to Bobby and Sandi.
Bobby was like an older brother to Joey. Whenever Joey got pissed off at his father, Bobby would remind him of how strongly Robbie loved and how much honor he had. When Joey was old enough, Bobby told him about meeting his dad, and how his dad, along with the old man, had saved him.
"Eli, all I feel now is happy, like he would want me to. Bobby's going to suffer the most here. I'm really worried about him. I know he has Pete, but he's right on the edge."
Elias said, "He's not sure what the world will be like without your father. He's not even aware of who he's losing, father and brother all in one. You'll have your mom and the rest of us, and he will, too. But, he just can't quite believe it now."
"I know Sandi has been trying to get him through it. He'd like for Pete to be here, but too many people make it harder for Mom."
Joey remembered his father trying to untangle the mysteries of being gay or bi, and how hard it was for him to understand his father's struggle. Talking with Bobby helped him see. Seeing Bobby and Pete together made it clear just how natural they were, even if Bobby was a little effeminate. He had been allowed to see his father through Bobby's eyes. That view was a revelation.
Joey thought back to the first appointment with the oncologist that he'd been allowed to go to. That's when he asked plainly what would happen to his father. The doctor tried to dance around the gory details, but his dad had said forcefully, "Tell him."
"Okay. Joseph, soon the tumor cells will replace most of your father's bone marrow. That's where his blood cells are made. He won't have enough white blood cells to fight infections or red cells to carry oxygen. My guess is that your dad will develop an infection, and, since he doesn't want to go to the hospital, he'll die of the infection soon after it takes hold."
Looking over at his dad, who was flushed and perspiring, breathing rapidly, Joey knew how fast it was happening now.
Elias left Joey and walked over to Sandi and Bobby. Looking at them, he said, "Neither of you look so good. Anything I can do to help?"
Bobby looked away, and Sandi said, "Not unless you can make the fucking world fairer."
Elias touched Bobby's arm, and said, "He'd like it if you held his hand."
Bobby turned to Elias, and began to sob. He walked into the kitchen with Elias behind him. Elias wrapped him in a hug as Bobby cried in long shuddering breaths. "Good. I'll bet you need this."
"I'm afraid I won't be able to stop. Pete's waterlogged by now. He's been so good."
"You're lucky in that way. I know that Robbie helped you become what Pete loves."
"He kept telling me to keep my head up and to keep trying. When I found Pete, he said, 'I told you, didn't I?'"
His rhythm of crying slowed. Sighing, Bobby said, "I want to touch him, but if I go over there, I'm going to do this again, and poor Mar is going to feel like mothering me." Bobby was the only other one allowed to call Maren by Robbie's pet name.
"You'll regret it if you don't hold his hand."
"Yeah, I know."
Elias watched Bobby take a deep breath, wipe his face, and walk toward the sofa. By then, Sandi had come in and bumped shoulders with him. Eli could never figure out how the three of them fit together. Robbie had told him about Sandi and how she had helped him understand what might be possible for him and how Sandi had introduced him to Maren. Elias thought that Sandi probably regretted not marrying Robbie, but she had chosen another path. Of all the emotions in the condo, Sandi's were the ones he understood best, rage and humor.
Sandi remembered Elise's death, at home, in Robbie's arms, free of technicians. She knew Maren was determined to give that to Robbie.
Elias and Sandi watched as Bobby slowly walked over and, standing where Elias had been, touched Robbie's hand. Maren looked up at Bobby, who held back the waterworks. Elias, Sandi, and Joey watched the two of them talk softly until both Maren and Bobby laughed aloud. The sound of their laughter waked Robbie a bit and he opened his eyes.
"Hey, sweetie," Maren said. She looked up toward the rest of them, and they moved to the sofa.
"Boo! Look," the voice rasped, "this is nothing special, but I am and have been one lucky fucker." Looking toward Maren, he whispered, "Damn, you're hot. Why did you ever pick me?"
As his eyes closed, from the darkness Robbie heard the old man saying to him, "You, find something useful to do with yourself."
Maren had been feeling Robbie's radial pulse as it got faster and weaker. Now, his rapid breathing slowed and became irregular. His pulse disappeared, and it was like he had never been there. No one, not even Bobby, cried. What was there to cry about for having known him?
At the memorial service, which Robbie would have detested, Maren, in a strong, happy voice, read this passage from a letter by the poet Rilke that she and Robbie loved. "And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other."