The Zetron tones sounded in the bay of Station 8 at the same time my pager sounded with three beeps announcing a call. I looked at the pager's alpha message and saw information about a multi-car crash. The radio speaker opened and, as my partner and I got ready to ride, the dispatcher called, "Station 11, Rescue 8, multi-vehicle crash on US19 at 28th Avenue South. PD reports six vehicles involved, with people trapped. Time out--0834."
We donned our helmets, belted up, lit up the overheads, and I pulled the rescue truck, which we referred to as a rescue car, out of the bay, turning right on 9th Street. I turned on the siren as Chris told dispatch, "Send Rescue 3 and special-call four ambulances."
The dispatcher set R3's tones off and dispatched them. I navigated through the traffic, drivers alternately pulling over as required and ignoring us, probably because their air conditioning made them deaf to the siren. Sometimes when you were in a hurry it paid to slow down. We swung north on 49th Avenue and sped up. The cops at the scene were more anxious than cops usually were, and our dispatcher told us that they were reporting three vehicles overturned, including a truck, with at least five people trapped.
Chris told the dispatcher, "Send Engine 8." Before the dispatcher had time to send it, we heard our lieutenant report that E8 was en route. We heard Engine 11 and Truck 11 report on scene. The captain on Engine 11 established the command post in a parking lot on the west side of US 19. He ordered the Truck 11 crew to assess scene safety and, after asking for Battalion 3 and Station 6, had Dispatch tell the ambulances where to stage. Chris and I knew we were in for a long morning.
We turned north off of 49th Avenue onto US19. Florida Highway Patrol troopers already had the intersection at 30th Avenue closed, and continuing north we swung into the southbound lanes. The scene looked like a war zone. Engine 11 had caught a hydrant and both preconnected attack hoses were pulled. One ran out to the overturned truck and the other to one of the cars. The hose line to the truck had an in-line foam eductor, which told us that fuel was leaking.
Chris and I parked safely, jumped into our bunker pants, and walked to the command post. The incident commander asked one of us to supervise the medical group. Chris nodded, told me to be careful and get him information on the patients, and then headed back to the rescue car to set up for triage, treatment, and transport. The IC assigned incoming rescue cars and ambulances to the medical group and had Dispatch give us a tactical radio frequency. Chris gave assignments as the rescue cars began to arrive.
I put my bunker coat on and went to the operations section chief, the lieutenant from Truck 11, who gave me a quick report on the people trapped and injured that I relayed to Chris. Truck 11 crewmen were trying to stabilize the overturned truck. The cab of the truck, a heavy rental moving truck resting like a turtle on its back in the roadway, was crushed. One of the saddle tanks just aft of the cab was leaking a steady stream of diesel fuel, and because the roadbed inclined toward the cab, the fuel was running toward the trapped driver.
While the crew of Engine 11 tried to stop the fuel leak and control the fuel already on the ground, the crew of Truck 11 was stabilizing the overturned truck with wood cribbing and airbags. I checked with medical group, telling Chris that I was going to try to reach the driver. He agreed, but only if the Engine 11 crew felt entry was safe. I didn't ask and began to make my way into the mangled cab.
The roof of the cab was almost pancaked onto the seats, but I had about eighteen inches of vertical maneuvering space. I had to enter from the passenger side, and I began to wedge my way in an inch at a time, calling to the driver. He answered weakly. When I reached the end of the little tunnel I was negotiating, I still couldn't see him, and I could only get one hand in through a small opening until I touched part of his body. I felt the contour of the limb until I found the hand. The rest of him was inaccessible. I could smell and feel the diesel, which fortunately has a much higher flash point than gasoline. As long as the guys didn't let a fire start near the fuel, we weren't going to burn to death.
Before we could get him out, a lot of metal would have to be cut away. Cutting metal in the presence of even relatively "tame" diesel is never a good idea. In any case, I had to figure out how long the driver could last.
Touching the arm through the small opening in the crushed metal and plastic, I asked, "Can you feel me touching you?"
"Yes." Good, that probably meant no spinal-cord injury.
"Wiggle your fingers." I felt the muscles of his forearm contract as his fingers moved, but he cried out.
"Sorry. I won't ask you to do that again if I can help it."
"Rich, is that you?"
"This is really fucked up, Rich. Twenty-five years a cop, and I end my days in a goddamned crash."
I didn't know Michael well, but I saw him frequently when he was dispatched to fires or rescue calls. He was a no-nonsense cop who always had my back. Occasionally, he'd stop by the station for coffee after a call, especially at night, but I hadn't learned much about his off-duty life. Cops and firefighters didn't normally socialize. I had taken care of one of his buddies when a hopped up tweaker had shot him, and Mike became very protective of me on the job.
"Michael, can you move at all?"
"No, I'm pinned. Jesus, a month from retirement."
I couldn't estimate his skin temperature with the latex glove on my hand. I broke at least five rules by pulling my hand back and removing the glove, which was decorated with blood. I carefully put my hand and arm back through the opening until I felt the skin of his forearm. Its coolness made me think that the bleeding was serious and he was in shock.
"Look, hang on. They're getting ready to cut you out. Stay with me." I maneuvered my fingers until I could feel the pulse at his wrist, which was weak and rapid. Shit. I couldn't really do anything to treat Michael, and the situation in the cab was very shaky. "Look, I have to leave for a minute. I'll be right back."
"NO! Please don't leave me. I need you to do something for me."
I had abandoned my radio to squeeze into the cab, so I knew no more than the driver about the situation outside the truck. I realized that he probably wasn't going to make it, so I decided: "Okay. I'll stay here. You keep talking to me."
"You're doing great. Just hang in there with me."
"I can see a lot of blood."
I've always told patients a version of the truth. "I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you get home, Mike."
That was as much truth as I could manage for him because I couldn't do squat to change the situation. I heard the pneumatic Ajax chisel start cutting at metal and then the rescue-saw engine started. I had to shout to be heard now, and his answers were harder to hear, even though we were only separated by a foot of wreckage.
He asked me if I was married. "Yeah. Ten years."
The metal groaned and the truck shifted as the guys worked on it. "You shouldn't be in here. Get out."
"Not going to happen. I do this all the time, and you and I are together for the duration." I could feel that he was shivering now, and I worried that he had a form of hypothermia common to the seriously injured. I decided that I wouldn't lose physical contact with him.
When the truck crew stopped to adjust the cribbing, the noise of their tools stopped as well.
"Rich, will you get a message to my … ?"
I noted his hesitation. "Sure, but you'll see her at the hospital."
"Richard, I don't think I'll make it to the hospital to see him."
The irony was stunning, but I didn't think this was the time to come out to someone in Mike's situation. "Okay. Michael, just don't give up on me now."
"Tell Bob and my son, Drew, that I love them. Tell Bob that he made my life perfect. Please find them and tell them as soon as you can. I don't care what you think of me, you have to promise me you'll tell them as soon as you can."
The noise of the pneumatic chisel and the rescue saw resumed, getting closer, and I could feel the cab move as layers of twisted metal were peeled back. Every time the guys changed the wrecked structure in their effort to free the driver, they had to restabilize it.
"Mike, I promise. I'm fine with your situation, but you'll be able to tell Bob yourself, and you'll see your son."
"I don't think so. I'm getting really tired and cold. I'm so afraid, Rich."
"Michael, how long have you and Bob been together?"
All I got was a long moan. I squeezed his arm and the pain brought him around a little. I repeated the question.
"Six years. We have such plans. He always worried that he'd get a call from the chaplain when I was on duty. I couldn't wait to get out of the job and spend time with Drew and Bob."
"That's good, Mike. I'm going to do whatever I can to be sure you can use those plans." I feared more and more that was an empty promise.
"Michael, talk to me." He made no response. I squeezed his arm. Still, no response came. I put my fingers on his radial pulse. Nothing. I had to assume he was alive and that his big arteries were still pulsing. I held Michael's cold hand and waited, talking to him the whole time.
I saw light from the driver's side of the cab as the guys peeled back the final layer on that side. Art, one of the Truck 11 crew cried, "I got him. Shit, there's a lot of blood."
"Art, does he have a carotid?"
"Sorry, Rich. I can't get one."
"How long until you can get him out?"
"I'm not sure."
I backed out of the cab the way I had come in, by inches. I was sore as hell. I limped around to the driver's side and saw Michael's body, recognizing at once the pallor of death. I felt his neck for a pulse. I shook my head at Art and the others, and told the ambulance crew that there'd be no transport. I'd watched too many trauma victims barely resuscitated and kept alive by machines. I couldn't inflict that fate on Michael. Sometimes my job was just shit. Some guys lost patients and didn't bat an eye. I always felt a profound sense of loss, especially after the kind of contact I'd had with Michael.
Chris and I hung around until Art and the guys finally got Michael out. He was as broken as the cab of his truck. I asked the trooper to give me Michael's wallet so I could get his personal information for the report. In the process of recording his name, DOB, address, and phone number, I saw a photograph of two young men and a boy smiling brightly. I gave the wallet back to the trooper.
Back at the station, I filed the report and started to call Bob, but stopped because he probably hadn't been notified yet. Soon, a cop and a chaplain would track him down and deliver the news. The time wasn't right to make the phone call, and Michael's message deserved more. I knew Michael's body was at the Medical Examiner's office and that the crash would be all over the news, and Donny would know about it.
If he had seen or heard the news story, my love would be worried. His bright voice answered and asked how I was. "Sometimes this job is shit, Donny."
"Tell me what happened."
I told him the story, and then said that I would be late getting home tomorrow morning. I had a message to deliver.
After a pause, he said, "Swing by and pick me up. I'll go with you."
In 1978, when I joined, the department was slightly more reactionary than a Southern Baptist church. I heard all the usual comments about fags. HIV was just over the horizon. The reason no gay men worked for the department was not only because they would have been harassed but also because they would probably have ended up dead. Supposedly everyone in the Fire Service bled blue, but a lot of my comrades would have done whatever they needed to do to get rid of a fairy.
Fire departments always had gay members, but we labored in silence and kept our relationships private or dated and married women to conceal the truth.
I had married after high school and limped along in an unfortunate relationship. My marriage wasn't as much a conscious strategy of concealment as an attempt to conform, to ignore something fundamental. My wife had no idea why I was angry much of the time, and after three years we divorced. The marriage damaged my wife and me but gave me cover during my first years as a firefighter. I think most guys attributed my lack of womanizing to psychological trauma after the divorce.
My next approach was to treat my life like the priesthood. My attempts at celibacy were entirely unsuccessful because I was a bit of a dog. For three years, I kept my work life and my private life strictly separate. My schedule had me off forty-eight hours after every twenty-four hour shift and allowed me to travel to nearby cities to hook up and socialize with "family," relatively free of the fear of discovery. I developed a group of friends who were initially attracted to me, I knew, because of my job. More than one bed partner enthused about fucking a firefighter. In 1987, I met Donny.
The gathering was at the home of a gay psychologist, Marty, and his lover, who both treated their relationship as a base of operations. They were happy with each other and with those they fucked, alone or as a couple. The concept of marriage or any other form of exclusivity seemed silly to them. Early in our acquaintance Marty had explained, "Richard, if you want dull, you should have stayed married." I missed almost nothing about my marriage except the idea of being coupled.
Marty and his partner invited me to the dinner party on the second night of my forty-eight hours off. They had also invited Donny because they found his whining about finding romance boring and thought that getting two hopeless cases together made sense.
Donny was quiet and seemed nervous while our hosts were flamboyant and loud. "Marty tells me you're a fireman."
I nodded and told him where I worked. I never felt unsafe telling gay friends where I worked. I was fortunate that even the ones who became angry with me protected my closet.
Donny was Marty's colleague and also a clinical psychologist. He was, like our hosts, lithe and feline in form but not like them in temperament. I couldn't imagine Marty or his partner ever showing the awkwardness that Donny showed that night. Marty was a performer who was always on; Donny showed no such artifice. I saw possibilities immediately.
Donny and I started dating and having sex. Over a few months, I began to stay at Donny's place on my forty-eight, leaving early in the morning of my duty day to drive to the station by 0600. Almost from the start, we saw ourselves as a couple, and soon even Marty and company treated us as one. Donny and I became a sort of exotic oddity in Marty's circle.
I met most of Donny's other close friends, who were very protective of him at first. Eventually they saw that I loved him, and they warmed to me. A path to the kind of domestic life I craved began to appear. I knew Donny was right for me because he was courageous in a quiet way, and he was trained to help me share my feelings with him. He was nothing like most firefighters -- unafraid to show weaknesses or flaws. He was also a very creative sex partner. We rarely disagreed, and I shared everything with him. He was wonderfully compassionate and humble about the limitations of his profession. He also freely shared his anxiety about my safety at work.
One night, we were in bed reading. He put his book down and touched my arm. "Rich, promise me you'll come home to me every day."
"I promise I'll do my best."
The only contention between us was about the effort I made to hide my sexuality and the toll that effort took on both of us. He could see that my increasing comfort in the identity I was creating with him couldn't coexist with the straight firefighter persona.
* * * * *
In the winter of 1989, one night, after a spectacular romp, Donny tried to confront the problem again. "Rich, hiding like this isn't healthy for you or for us. Hiding consumes too much energy and time. I won't be a part-timer in your life."
Donny was patiently stating a position he had held for many months, and I could sense the depth of his frustration. "You know I can't be out at work. Maybe after I retire."
"When? In five years? Ten? I don't think you're capable of giving up your job for anyone or anything."
Donny knew better than to suggest I find another job. I loved the adrenaline surges and demonstrating my ability to focus in high-demand situations. I was a closet hero. No one outside the Service can understand the rush of pulling someone alive out of a burning building or improvising to stanch a fountain of blood. When the roaches and rats were running out of buildings, we were running in. "It's a calling for me, Donny. While I'm able, I won't consider anything else."
"Is it possible that this game you're playing at work is just another high-risk scenario for you?"
The question irritated me, because it made me feel as if I were his patient. "What? You think I get a thrill out of the risk of exposure?"
"I'm proud of you, Rich, and I know you're good at your job, but this situation isn't tenable for me. I'm forced into your closet, too."
In my adult life, no one, including my ex-wife, could compete with my work, until Donny. Psychologists are expert advocates, so I probably didn't stand much of a chance at resisting what he wanted. Over time, Donny's point of view became increasingly persuasive.
"Are you asking me to choose?"
Donny gave me a small weak smile and touched my cheek. "No, I'm telling you that soon I'll have to choose. What about talking to Chris?"
"Never. I couldn't stand Chris throwing me away."
"Jesus, Rich, you've saved his ass enough that he'll cut you some slack. You love him, and he loves you in that crazy fireman way." I started to correct him, but he cut me off, "I know, I know. Firemen work on trains, firefighters put out fires." We both laughed and hugged one another in a desperate, forlorn embrace before we slept.
* * * * *
The next night, Station 8 caught a house fire. Chris and I followed Engine 8 in the rescue car. The engine stopped at a hydrant nearby to lay a supply line. Chris and I went on to the house and, after pulling on our breathing apparatus, circled the house, which had considerable fire on the first floor at the rear. The homeowners were in the back yard and told us that everyone was out except the dog. We told them to stay back, and we returned to the front yard where the engine was pulling up, paying off the supply hose from the hydrant.
After engaging the pump, the engineer opened a valve that fed water from the on-board water
tank to the outlets for the preconnected attack lines.
Chris and I pulled one of the attack lines and stretched it to the front door. The engineer opened the valve to let water fill the hose, which stiffened as air bled from the nozzle. We forced the door and went in, Chris in the lead. I could feel the level of the heat and see the thick smoke banking down from the hallway ceiling to about three feet from the floor. We crawled in, passing the unconscious dog, dragging the hose with us, moving to a back bedroom where the fire was seated.
Occasionally, flammable vapors accumulating at the ceiling would ignite, and a river of flame would roll over our heads until the vapors were temporarily exhausted. Otherwise, the only light came from the flashlights we had mounted on our helmets and the glow from the fire ahead. I heard a groaning noise from above and pulled Chris to a halt. A ceiling board came crashing down, fortunately ahead of us, and when it settled on the floor, we moved on.
We darkened the fire and reported by radio that we had it knocked down. The crew from the second due engine relieved us, and we moved out, following our line back to the front door. Chris picked up the dog, and we went to work on the front lawn.
When we had learned to insert breathing tubes into windpipes, we practiced on anesthetized dogs before we practiced on humans. Chris intubated the dog and began to ventilate it with a bag-valve ventilator. After a few seconds, the dog retched a couple times and started to move. Chris pulled the tube out and held the dog so it wouldn't run. The homeowners, who were now in the front yard, ran over to retrieve their pet. They were in tears.
Cleanup took an hour, and on the ride back to the station, Chris said thanks. That was all, just thanks, as if I had passed the bread at a dinner table. Saving each other's ass was normal because in burning buildings no one else was available.
Back at the station, we checked the equipment and the hose loads on the engine before taking a shower. Chris was a stud, and I always enjoyed watching him in the shower, but the pleasure was more aesthetic than lustful. He was a brother, one of many.
Still, I couldn't be sure of how any of this family would react to news about one of them being in love with a male psychologist. Chris and I dried off and dressed in uniform jumpsuits before restocking the rescue vehicle and retiring to the watchroom. The hour was too late to attempt sleep in the two hours remaining before shift change, and we were still wound up from the fire. The other guys were in the dorm, and all we heard was an occasional stray noise from the apparatus in the bay.
Chris didn't have a subtle bone in his body. "Something's going on with you, Rich. Give."
Before I could censor myself, I blurted, "Chris, I'm gay." He was the first friend of many years to whom I spoke those words. He smiled and then began to laugh until he saw that I was serious.
"No, Rich, don't bullshit me. I'd have figured that out."
"The reason you didn't figure it out is that, where I'm concerned, you only look at important things."
"You don't think being queer is important?" This seemed the bad reaction I had expected.
"Not to our friendship, our work." I was struggling.
"When did you realize you were gay?"
"When I was eleven."
He paused a few seconds. "Maggie?"
"I thought she'd straighten me out."
After another pause, he continued, "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"That's the stupidest question you've ever asked me. I was afraid."
Chris looked at me slowly shaking his head from side to side for a few seconds and then stood to leave the room. At that moment, if not for Donny's backup, I would have felt completely alone. In a couple of minutes Chris returned with a cup of coffee. Now I was thoroughly confused. He sat across from me again.
"I don't know what to make of this, Rich. But, I do know you better than I know most men, and you're good to the core. We'll make this work between us, but you can't tell anyone else on the job."
"You're not worried about working with me?"
"No, idiot, I'm worried about you staying alive."
* * * * *
Telephone, telegraph, tell a firefighter--all reliable communications technologies. Chris had not outed me, but within a year I could tell that my brothers were choosing sides. I suspect that, encouraged by sharing with Chris, I had simply stopped being careful. At home, Donny saw that I was less isolated at work and let me know that he knew how difficult telling Chris had been. I didn't want Chris to be in the position of lying for me, although I'm sure he had and would happily continue to do so.
Over a few months, my brothers began asking the question, and I began answering the question directly. My colleague's knowledge of my sexuality was like a fire starting. A fire needs three elements to start: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Usually, fuel and oxygen are abundant; heat is the missing element. In this case, the heat gradually rose until the situation erupted suddenly in flame.
One day, only a few of the guys shied away from me; the next day, Chris was the only one talking to me. Then, my lieutenant and his supervisor, the battalion chief, had a sit-down with me in the watchroom. Their first order of business was to confront me about the chorus they'd been hearing, and the second was to see if they could get rid of me.
"Richard, if what we're hearing is true, you're not safe here."
"Chief, are you saying that one of you is going to hurt me?" That flustered him a bit.
"You've been around long enough to know how these things go. We can't control what people do on fires."
"Any problems with my work? Because, if I look at my evaluations, I see a pretty effective firefighter and paramedic."
My lieutenant chimed in, "Christ, Rich. I'm hearing from wives who don't like the fact that you take showers with their husbands. The guys are nervous and pissed."
"What do they think I'm going to do, convert them?"
The chief took over. "We just don't want anyone getting hurt. Your ass is going to be hanging out, and no one's going to be covering it."
"That's your problem, not mine. I think most guys will do the right thing in a scrape."
"We think you need to resign."
"That's not going to happen. Give it some time. Unless you fire me, I'm staying."
"We don't have grounds to fire you, although I don't think the union would put up much of a fight for you."
"You might be wrong about that. They may hate the City more than they dislike me."
Three years of hell began. I knew that any deficiency in my performance would be the excuse they needed. I was good, though, and, by now, experienced. I didn't make mistakes. I found support from the medical staffs at the hospitals to which we transported patients. Chris suffered almost as much as I did, but he stuck with me and saved me from total isolation at work.
One morning after shift I went to the parking lot and found my tires slashed. On more than one occasion, my car was keyed and spray-painted. I became the reason that the City installed very expensive surveillance cameras in department parking lots. No one would go into the showers with me except Chris. I continued to love the work, and I wasn't going to give in to the pressure. I told Chris to get out of the line of fire, but Chris never wavered.
I vented to Donny. We were as married as two people can be. Donny persisted in gently urging me to quit, but he didn't threaten or pressure me. On a fire in 1994, I came close to leaving him.
* * * * *
We were working inside a 10,000-square-yard furniture warehouse. The incident commander made a reasonable estimate based on the time of the alarm that we had about twenty minutes from the time we entered before we would be in danger from a roof collapse. A number of circumstances confounded that estimate. The building's automatic sprinkler system failed. The fire had been burning longer than we thought. Truck crews weren't able to ventilate the building by cutting holes in the roof as quickly as they normally did. The temperatures at the roof were higher than we normally saw. The basis of each part of the inaccurate estimate became clear to arson investigators only the next day.
Commercial fires are qualitatively different than residential fires. If they get going, they are harder to contain and extinguish, partly because the fire has more room to expand. Fifteen guys might manage a house fire; commercial fires, if they were jumping up and down, might take three or four times that number because of the disparity in size between them.
Warehouses, especially furniture warehouses, are particularly tricky because of the fuel load. More fuel means more heat, and more heat requires more water. Commercial fires have a tipping point. To save as much of the building and its contents as possible, you have to enter the building and work inside. Once the high heat, rising from the burning fuel, deforms the metal roof girders, the roof becomes spongy and may collapse.
Chris and I, along with Engine 8's crew, were in the center of the building manning a large diameter attack line putting out nearly a hundred and fifty gallons of water per minute. Burning furniture was stacked on pallets and shelving nearly twenty feet high. We could hear the groaning and grinding of the metal roof trusses as they expanded with the heat.
At twenty minutes post-entry, the incident commander ordered the building cleared. We dropped our hose and followed its snaking path back toward the door we had entered. Before making the last right angle turn to safety, I heard noise, saw dust and debris, felt knifing pain in my legs, and then nothing. The collapsing roof had trapped the last man in our little human chain -- me. Chris and everyone in front of me were clear of the collapse.
When I came to, I found myself pinned. The reality was not what I'd seen in films. My world was pain and darkness. I could wiggle my fingers and toes and could contract my leg muscles, although I couldn't move. I tried to slow my breathing to conserve the air in my tank. I had started out with about thirty minutes of air, so I probably had about ten minutes left. When the air pressure in the cylinder was low enough for an average five-minute supply, a bell would sound to warn me. I figured I'd be here a lot longer than ten minutes. Asphyxia wasn't a bad way to go, much like going to sleep. Then, I ruefully thought that this would solve a lot of problems for the department. I wanted to struggle so I could get back to Donny, but I couldn't manage anything.
I thought of Donny, and for our sakes I wasn't going to give up hope. I relaxed and waited in the peaceful environment. The heat wasn't bad here, close to the floor; I could hear more distant sections of the roof collapsing. I tried periodically, but I couldn't work my arms free, and the pain in my legs made trying to move them useless. The bell on my air pack sounded. Selfishly, I wanted someone in here to talk with.
Over the bell, I heard sounds of moving metal and heard Chris shouting to me. I didn't think they had much chance to reach me before I ran out of air. They wouldn't hear my answers through my mask anyway. As the air pressure in the cylinder dropped, the force of the alarm bell's sound diminished. I estimated two minutes left. Then someone, probably Chris, cleared a narrow tunnel in the debris next to the floor and pushed the regulator of another air pack through to me. This was a really good plan, but since my arms were trapped, I couldn't hook my mask into another tank.
I was having more difficulty drawing air from my depleted tank, and the regulator was malfunctioning at low pressure. As I fell asleep, my last thought was of Donny. No one would be able to tell him that my last thought was of him.
Describing my surprise when I opened my eyes to see the light fixture over my gurney in the Emergency Department is impossible. One of the docs, a couple of nurses, and Chris were leaning over me. I whispered to Chris, "Thanks." He shrugged.
I spent a week in the hospital getting my legs repaired. Both femurs had fractured cleanly at mid-shaft. A lot of titanium and stainless steel was built into me. Donny had been at the hospital almost constantly since the first afternoon. Spouses of firefighters and cops always live with an intellectual appreciation of the risk of a line-of-duty death, but a real event clarifies everything.
After surgery, Chris told me about the rescue. Everyone had pitched in, even those who loathed me, because they were professionals. Chris had come after me because I was his brother; the others had come because they would have been shamed if they hadn't tried. Donny wanted to do something extravagant to thank Chris. Chris told Donny, "Rich already thanked me."
In twelve weeks, after a lot of physical therapy and gym time, I was cleared for duty. The atmosphere at the station when I returned wasn't much changed, but the vandalism to my property stopped. Chris was the same, but I wasn't. I still enjoyed the work. The first big fire after I returned was a test, and I went in as I always had, adrenaline overriding anxiety. Anxiety, though, was new to me. Before, my predominant reaction to fighting fire or trying to save lives had always been exhilaration. Now, a new element suffused my reactions to a call.
After wrapping things up at the station and dressing, I said goodbye to Chris and drove home. At nine, Donny was waiting by the front door and hopped in the car as I pulled to the curb. "Let me know if you need me to say or do anything," he said.
"I'm really nervous about this, Donny."
"I know, Rich." He squeezed my hand. "Do you think you should wait a few days before we see Bob and Drew?"
"Michael wanted the message delivered as soon as possible. I heard urgency in his voice. I promised."
"Okay. What are you worried about then?"
"I barely didn't know Michael well as a cop, but I was the one who was with him when he died. I feel odd thinking of how intimate being alone with a dying man is. I don't think anyone can imagine how close I felt to Michael."
"So, quite reasonably, you don't want to presume to compare Michael's relationship with Bob and his son to what you experienced with him."
"I don't want my own feelings about staying with Michael while he died to spill over onto the obligation I accepted from him.""Just tell them, then. I'll help you with the other part."
We arrived at Michael's house near ten o'clock to find cars parked in the driveway and along both sides of the street. We parked about a block away and walked in silence to the door. The front door opened a few seconds after I rang the bell, and the man I had seen in the photograph in Michael's wallet greeted us. He was a large man, a bit bearish. Over his shoulder, I could see the boy sitting in a corner, head down.
"Bob?" The man nodded to my question. "My name is Richard North. I was with Michael when he died, and I promised him that I'd give you and Drew a message from him. This is my partner, Donny."
"I thought Mike died before they got him out."
"I was with him in the truck."
"You're a fireman?"
Then, remembering we were still at the doorway, Bob invited us in. He obviously had a lot of support from a crowd of both men and women. He announced to everyone that I was a friend of Mike's, and then took me into a small guest room to talk. As I left the living room, I glanced at the boy, and Donny went over to talk with him.
"We don't want to intrude, but I promised Michael I'd give you and Drew a message from him as soon as I could."
"Sit down." We sat side by side on the bed. His deep sadness didn't play out in histrionics but was apparent in his resignation.
"Was he in a lot of pain?"
"I couldn't see his face, but at the end I don't think so. He was concerned about my safety."
"Michael was hurt badly, as you know, but all he could think about was you and Drew. He could have used his last minutes to say anything but chose to remind you of how much he loved you both. He said that you had made his life perfect."
Bob looked down and began to cry softly. I put my arm around his shoulder while he cried for a few minutes.
When he stopped, I gave him some tissues from the nightstand, and he asked, "Could I call Drew in so you can tell him? Andrew is Michael's son from an early marriage."
When Bob returned with the boy, they sat on the bed as I stood and repeated Michael's words for Drew. The boy looked steadily at me, not crying as Bob had. Then he asked, "What's being a fireman like?"
"Sometimes very sad, but overall it's the best job in the world."
"I was talking to Donny out there. Are you and he like my dad and Bob?"
"Yes, we are." Drew nodded and left the room.
"Bob, Donny is a psychologist. If he can help you or Drew in any way as time goes on, please call him." I handed Donny's business card to Bob.
"Thanks, and thanks for keeping your promise, Richard. I can't believe he's dead. I'm exhausted, and Drew is numb. I think that what you've done will help us when the reality settles in."
"Call me if you need to talk, please."
Before we left, Bob introduced us to a few of the mourners. On the drive home, Donny said, "I'm a little concerned about the boy. His feelings about his father are very confused."
"I gave Bob your card." Donny smiled.
As we drove to our home, I realized that I didn't want to be indoors right now. "Donny, would you mind stopping at Maggiore Park? I need to take a walk and think for a bit."
"Sure. I'll wait for you in the parking area."
Donny and I agreed that modern Valentine's Day, apart from any liturgical significance, was a holiday promoted by greeting-card companies. That being so, Donny still fixed a great dinner and told me how happy he was that I had survived the fire in the warehouse a few years ago and that our home hadn't been filled with mourners. "I could have been sitting on our bed listening to Chris give me your last message. I love that you keep your promises, Rich, that you have come home every day."
I didn't remind Donny that I had been alone when I lost consciousness and that no one would have brought him a last message from me. "We're just fortunate. As far as I can see, justice isn't part of the equation."
We made love with a little extra passion before dropping off. Fires or rescue calls don't usually enter my dreams, but that night I found myself looking at Donny sitting with Chris in our bedroom. Donny's cheeks were wet and his shoulders heaved. Chris looked pained, and I knew he was telling Donny that I had died in the warehouse. I wanted to tell Donny that Chris was wrong, that I had survived and we'd be all right, but I had no voice or presence in the room. The look on Donny's face was so hopeless, and he was so angry. He screamed at Chris that the fucking homophobes on the fire department hadn't deserved me and that my death was on their hands. Chris just smiled and nodded, telling Donny that I never could get my priorities straight. Donny said that he had always known that he wasn't my first priority. Startled by the dream, I awoke in such an anxious state that I felt chest pain.
Donny, slightly roused when I sat up, mumbled, "You okay, Rich?"
"Yeah. Go back to sleep, sweet one."
I didn't, though. I quietly left our bed and went to sit in the living room. I was naked but didn't bother to throw on my shorts and t-shirt as I left the bedroom. Sitting, chilled, in a wing-back chair reliving the dream, I realized that I had crossed a tipping point, that I'd had enough. I had been pushed over that point, toward which I'd been moving for the last few years, not by the attempted rescue of Michael or any of the hundreds of others, but by the short time spent with Bob and Drew. I didn't want Donny to have to spend the next however-long years without me, and as importantly, I didn't want to miss years with him.
I'd been doing this work for twenty years, and I had nothing left to prove to myself or anyone else. Being gay on the fire department wasn't as difficult as it had once been, but my relationships with half the guys I worked with would never be repaired. I still found myself looking over my shoulder more often than I should. Running toward chaos every third day wasn't as appealing as it had been. My job was important, but not nearly as important as coming home to Donny. Now, the decision to retire in five months, when I could put in my papers, didn't seem difficult. The job was finally in second place, where it belonged, and I had quieter ways to be a hero.