September 20, 2001
I pick up an apple from the bowl on the kitchen counter and shine in on the orange and blue dishtowel that hangs by the window near the sink. As I walk to the base of the cantilevered stairs I take a bite of the Granny Smith.
“Hey, Birthday Boy,” I call up, “Y’all about ready to go up there?”
“Just brushin’ my teeth; I’ll be down in a couple. I think the rest of the crew is about ready too.”
Turning and walking across the honed white marble floor of the foyer to the front door I enjoy listening to the clicking echo of my dress shoes. Opening the thick mahogany door wide to the beautiful clear warm day, I whistle and call for Jester, then crunch along the crushed stone path to the mailbox that hangs to the side of the garage door. Two bills and a letter emerge from its darkened interior. Out from the woods near the road the old dog comes slowly trotting toward home, making a circuitous route over the berm of earth and grass that cover the garage. He stops at the top and points his nose high in the air to sniff his domain.
“Come on, boy, stop dawdlin’.”
He gives me a knowing blink and runs in a slow gait toward me. I reach down and stroke his ear and the white hairs that have begun to fill in the black and brown areas on his snout.
As we walk back to the house I say to him, “We’ll all be back tonight. I put out a treat for you in the kitchen.”
I can tell his nose has already picked up on that fact. He trots off to check it out. Back inside, leaving the door open, I stop at the long concrete wall that spans the foyer. Over a hundred framed photos and one round silver-framed mirror create a pattern across the wall. I scan the photos that surround my reflection and see the forever-young Dan and Jason looking back at me as I check my thinner, but not yet gray, hair. I still miss them. Staring at the photo of the back of Jason’s head surrounded by the halo of light as he studied the clouds on our flight to New York, I shake my head in disbelief. Walking further down the wall, I look at the rest of the years since those days on Upperline and continue to munch on my apple. Scanning the other photos I smile at what I still have. At the end of the wall I turn the corner into the den and walk across the thick Tibetan wool rug to my desk tossing the bills into their slot and then slice open the letter. It’s from Klaus, a short note to say all is well and life is good and it includes a picture of him and his wife outside of their new home. They moved to their old hometown in Germany in 1995. After fifty-five years they felt it was finally safe to move back. They sold their building in New York after a few of their long-term tenants had died and Jeremy and John had moved out. I miss them even more since visiting them in Germany last year. I lean their picture up against the phone, pick up the receiver and hit the speed dial for next door. As I listen to the rings I pick up the model of the yellow Electra 225 from the shelf behind my desk. I run it back and forth across the green granite desktop.
“Hey, Fitz, y’all ready to go over there?”
“Well we finally have got some clothes on your son, so it won’t be long. Have you noticed this thing with him wanting to be naked all the time now? And have you talked to him about it, because he won’t listen to me or Steve.”
“Yes, and yes I have, and yes, I’ll talk to Jason again. You know, he was out playing naked with the dogs yesterday at 5:30 in the morning. Well, actually, he wasn’t completely naked…he was wearing his Red Sox cap.”
I pause to see if Katie laughs; she doesn’t.
“He saw me standing up in the bedroom window and waved for me to join him. I did, but at least I put on my yoga shorts first. We talked about it then. He said he would be better about it. But, Fitz, he’s just enjoying the freedom. I think he will change when he hits puberty. Now, of course, Jason Godcheaux didn’t so…”
Now, Katie laughs.
Jason Peter Thomas was born on the last day of May in 1989. Fitz had found out by the slip of her doctor’s lips that it was to be a boy during a routine ultrasound. She had expressly told him she did not want to know. She then told Steve and me that we were in charge of naming him since she had only thought of girls’ names. Steve and I were at a loss after more than two months of discussion and bickering until we decreed that the baby would name himself. Fitz glared at us with disgust when we told her.
“Shit, I’ll just ask Daniel and Stevie to do it,” she exclaimed.
We shrugged our shoulders and I prayed for divine intervention. It was answered. Five seconds after the baby was born the doctor held him up for the three of us to see. Katie burst out laughing. Steve and I stared at each other in disbelief.
When the nurse placed the baby into Katie’s arms she said, “Hello, Jason Peter Thomas. What beautiful red hair you have.”
It seems that red hair runs not only in Fitz’s family but in Steve’s too, but rarely so bright a color. He has also followed his namesake in his free spirit and outspoken manner. He has been a dream, and more work to raise than I could have ever imagined, even when he does go home to sleep most nights. He calls me “Dad”, Steve “Pop” and Fitz “Mom–o-mine.”
“I can’t believe that it’s the beginning of Fall tomorrow,” Katie says.
“I can’t believe it’ll be nineteen years either,” I respond.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” she says as she starts to cry and then so do I.
“Oh God, I still miss them,” I whisper.
“The events in the last week have really brought those feelings of loss to the surface again,” Fitz says softly.
“I can understand the horror that so many thousands are suffering. I can’t help but feel it all over again,” I reply just as quietly.
“Here come the three guys now. Yes, your Mom’s been cryin’ again, and yes, it’s OK. Thanks for wipin’ my tears, Dan. Yes, Steven, I’m talkin’ to Peter. Is your father ready? Jason, please go get him. It’s time to go.”
Dan is sixteen now and a junior in high school. He’s as tall as I am with ruddy brown hair and a perfect mix of his parents’ looks. He also has the most wonderful blend of his parents’ character and demeanor. He loves baseball and is dating his first girlfriend. He’s a gentleman in every sense of the word. He still calls me “Unka Pete” and last year requested that we all call him Dan instead of Daniel. It chokes me up sometimes. He is a best friend to Steven and the ultimate big brother to Jason.
Steven calls me Peter and now prefers that we call him by his formal given name. He is like his father only in name. He is fastidious about most everything and doesn’t want anything to do with toys. His intelligence is off the charts and almost any subject fascinates him. By the time he was eight he had read two different sets of encyclopedias cover to cover and retained most, if not all, of the information. He also corrected the errors in each, informed the publishers of their mistakes in addition to writing a critical analysis of each. We all wonder in what direction he’ll choose to use his amazing mind, but what I enjoy the most is the fact that he loves to play the piano and compose. He writes a song for my birthday each year. This year was a jazz composition based on some Louis Armstrong tunes from the twenties, including West End Blues, which he thinks is one of the most brilliant compositions of early jazz.
“The boys say they’ll be over in a few minutes. They said they have to help the ‘Old Man’ to the car.”
“Oh, wait till I tell Tim that, but I sure am grateful the ‘Old Man’ is still here.”
“Tell Tim what?” asks the voice behind me, “What old man?”
“I’ll see you in a few, the Birthday Boy is here. Love you.”
I hang up the phone and put my arms around Tim and hug him as hard as I can. I kiss him and then lean back and rub my thumbs across his almost non-existent eyebrows. I look at his too-short haircut and the glistening of the moisturizing cream on his red face.
“I love you, ‘Old Man’. Happy Birthday!”
“I love you too, ‘Even-Older Man.’ Those boys are bein’ cheeky again aren’t they?”
I nod. Tim takes the last two bites of the apple and then tosses it into the can under my desk.
“Nice shot…they, like me, are glad you’re here to be cheeky with.” I bounce my eyebrows at him.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Tom bounce down the stairs followed by Lin and Joe Larkin.
“Hey darlin’, you ready to take the Birthday Boy to dinner?”
“You bet,” I reply.
Tim had his hair singed and his face and hands burned nine days ago when he walked into the main lobby of One World Trade to attend a nine o’clock meeting. He was walking toward the elevators when the first plane struck the tower. He felt the building shake, heard an elevator cab crash to the ground and saw a ball of flame race toward him from one of the elevator doors. He was lucky; the fireball retreated just as it reached him. Thinking he was OK, he began to help others and continued to get the injured to the ambulances and help the rescue people who soon began to arrive. People kept telling him he was hurt. He didn’t believe them and was soon helping others get out from the South Tower after it had been hit. A fireman finally made him stop and took him to be treated by an EMT at an ambulance. As the fireman ran back toward the South Tower he called to the EMT to make sure that Tim didn’t head back in to help anymore. Less than five minutes later Tim was running from the ambulance, up Liberty Street, helping an injured woman move as fast as she could go as Tower Two came crashing down behind them.
When I walked into the office that morning I got one of my feelings. It was as severe as, yet very different, from any other I had ever had.
I looked at Jester and said, “Shit, boy. Stick with me today.”
I went and sat at my desk to meditate.
Tom looked up from his desk and asked, “What’s up?”
“I got a really weird feeling,” I replied.
A few minutes later we looked up to see that first plane scream down Manhattan from our office window in an old Victorian house that overlooks the Hudson on a palisade in New Jersey.
My comment was, “What the fuck?”
It was going too fast and too low. We watched it plunge into the North Tower. I screamed at the top of my lungs and collapsed onto my desk. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen knowing Tim was in that building. Tom’s shaking me and Jester licking my face brought me around again. After I got my senses I dialed Tim’s cell phone number; I got no answer. Tom and I then watched the second plane disappear into the south tower; we were completely freaked by what we were witnessing. I continued dialing and getting no answer for the next hour and a half when the north tower collapsed, then there was nothing. I found out later that Tim had lost his phone in the initial blast and never noticed until after the first collapse when he thought to call anyone.
It was six hours of terror and agony later when my office phone rang with a strange cell phone number coming up on the screen. I picked up the phone. It was Tim; he was on a ferry coming across the Hudson and would I please come pick him up. I cried into the phone when I heard his voice and then Tom and I ran for Sammy. He was standing on the dock looking absolutely lost when we drove up. He looked like a ghost with his suit and hair covered in the white gray dust of pulverized concrete, only his face and hands were wiped clean. The smell of his burned hair filled my nose as we hugged as tightly as we could.
“Take me home,” was all that he said through his tears.
Each day he tells us a little more of what he went through that morning.
“Hey, you’ve been crying,” Tim says to me as he wipes a tear from my cheek.
“Yeah, Fitz and I were thinking about Dan and Jason and the anniversary tomorrow.”
“I was thinking the same thing as I was brushing my teeth.”
Tim pauses and then quietly says, “September, a hell of a month ain’t it.”
“At least there is one bright spot in it,” I say as I kiss him, “Come on let’s get this show on the road.”
Tim turns and puts his arm around Joe’s waist.
“Hey, Love, you ready?”
“Yep,” Joe replied.
“That’s right, Dad,” Lin says to Tim, “we can’t keep the parents waiting.”
The Welkers and the Elliots will be there for the birthday party we’ve been planning for more than two months, as will Mrs. Larkin. She had finally come to accept her gay son and his family of Tim, Lin and even Shawn. Neither of my parents will be there. They both died in the early nineties, sixteen months apart, each of cancer. It was a tumultuous and difficult period in my life. I still miss them incredibly and even think to and try to call them from time to time. I cried the day I walked across the tarmac from the airplane after having just passed my flight test for my pilot’s license because I wanted so desperately to call Dad. No one would have been happier or prouder and there is no one I would have wanted more to share that moment with. He had died two years before. Every time I fly, I wear something orange in his memory, just as every year I plant geraniums outside of our kitchen door as my mother always did.
Yet, not all of what happened during that time was horrible. It was during the spring of 1994 that Tim finally found his soulmate. After Tim and I broke off our relationship the previous year, yet still living together on the Hill, we decided that it was a good time to go to Mardi Gras again. We were both in need of a break from reality. Even though our relationship was over our friendship was as strong as ever; we had come to rely on the other for our mental stability. Tim’s job, superiors and coworkers were hell, to put it politely. He couldn’t stand who he worked with or what they had him do; everything he did went against what he enjoyed about his chosen field. He just didn’t want to run away anymore, not without having a clear direction of where to go. I was completely stressed after learning in the summer of 1993 that my mother was dying of lymphoma. This was just too much for me to handle after burying my father less than a year before. I had always expected my parents to be there, not for both of them to be dead before they turned 62. So, at my mother’s encouragement, more like insistence, Tim and I planned our trip to New Orleans. She was in full belief that we all needed to keep on with life.
“I’ll be fine, go enjoy yourselves. You two need a break.”
She had been feeling better in the last month so reservations were made.
On February 10th, we left for New Orleans and were quickly absorbed into the fun and debauchery of Mardi Gras. The frivolity was short lived; four days later on Lundi Gras the phone woke me at 7 AM. It was my sister calling to say that Mom had died less than an hour before. I spent a frustrating morning trying to get a flight home, finally handing the phone to Tim who worked out a deal for me to leave early Mardi Gras Day. Tim would have to come home on our regularly scheduled flight three days later. I called Joe to tell him the news. Lin, Shawn and Joe were in our hotel room within an hour. Tim and the Larkin clan worked to keep my spirits up all day. Shawn made it a habit of holding my hand. That night we all went to the inaugural Orpheus parade. It was a spectacular display; incredible for a first time event. I was in awe as I stood on top of a stack of metal street barricades silently watching the birth of a Mardi Gras tradition. As I absorbed the sights and sounds I shared them with my mother’s spirit. I only began to cry when I realized that it was also Valentine’s Day; my mother had gone to be with Dad on one of their favorite holidays. Shawn quickly clambered up and latched onto me. I began to smile.
Early the next morning as Joe drove me to the airport, I asked him to take care of Tim.
“Oh, I think he’s quite capable of handling himself,” he replied, “but I know what you mean. He’s already asked if he could spend the day with us going to all of the parades.”
“Cool. Thanks, Joe.”
Tim and Joe had only ever been acquaintances, always a friend of a friend. They had never spent much time together. I think that on Mardi Gras Day, Lin, Shawn and Joe all fell in love with Tim and he with them. The week after the funeral Tim took a leave of absence from work and returned to New Orleans. One month later he moved down to New Orleans to a new job, a home with Joe and the kids and the life he had always desired. Tim was finally content and Joe had finally found the love of his life. Their toughest time was the death of Shawn, who died two years ago, soon after reaching his eighteenth birthday, finally succumbing to the disease he was born with.
“What about the rest of the posse?” Tim asks.
“Well, let’s call,” I say as I hit the speed dial again and wait patiently.
“Hey, Vroom, you’re not on your way yet,” I ask like a smartass.
“Well, we would be if I didn’t have to come back through the door to answer the phone. Look, the kids and Jere are in the car and we’ll be there in less than two. Meet you at the garage.”
“Cool, love you, sweetie.”
“Yeah, yeah, ya still haven’t forgiven me for diggin’ up the Rhododendron by your back door yet, huh.”
“Forgiven, yes. Forgotten, no, but you’ll ask next time won’t you?”
“Yes sir. See you in a couple…and tell the Birthday Boy I love him and we all have prezzies for him…Oh, and I saw the guys goin’ out their back door and headin’ through the garden. They should be comin’ through your kitchen door about now. Love you, Pete. Bye.”
I hung up and heard our kitchen door open.
Jeremy and John celebrated fifteen years together this past May. They bought the adjoining lot to ours and the thirty acres across the road in 1991. I got to design a house for them that was finished in early ‘93, and also designed the office and greenhouse complex for “Vroom’s Nursery” on the far side of the road. After John’s Ivy League education he felt that there was nothing he’d rather do more than work with plants. Now, he not only uses the acreage across the road but his own, Steve’s and mine to grow his plants on, sometimes taking and selling plants that I had specifically planted. Thus, the slight dispute over the Rhododendron that used to live by my kitchen door. I truly can’t complain. He and his crew keep all of the grounds in an immaculate yet natural state. It leaves Tom and me to have to tend only The Garden that flows from our back door.
When I drove off that day thirteen years ago I headed across New Jersey lost in blind thought and a smoldering rage. Tom slowly, dejectedly wandered back to the house. He walked in to find Paul with his head in the oven and the gas on. He was able to resuscitate him, barely. It wasn’t until I had driven halfway across Pennsylvania that I wondered if I should turn back to try to resolve things. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I wanted go into a church and pray so that I could understand what I felt. It couldn’t be just any church I thought, then I decided it couldn’t be a church either. Finally, I struck on the idea of Fallingwater, to me that was my church or at least would be that day. I drove the rest of the way across the state to Bear Run and slept in the parking lot that night. The entire next day I wandered the site and through the house again and again, looking for spots to meditate and resolve the hurt I felt in my soul. At nightfall I returned to Sammy, slept for a few hours, and then headed home. I knew I had to forgive Tom and Paul and try to work things out. It was near dawn and I was approaching the Jersey border when I was pulled over by a State Trooper. I had been going four miles an hour over the speed limit.
After he looked at my license he said, “I don’t know who you are, or who you know, but I’ve been told by my superiors to do what ever it takes to get you to a phone and to call home. That’s it…although you were slightly speeding, but you’ll make my day if you just go to a pay phone at the next exit. I’d really appreciate it.”
I started to laugh. Obviously Tom had called his dad, who called his childhood best friend, who was the head of the State Police. The cop followed me to the gas station where he held out a handful of quarters to me. I shook him off with a smile. I called Tom collect. I sat for an hour on the floor of the phone booth as we talked about what happened. After ten minutes the cop drove off. I drove back to New York as fast as I could once we hung up.
For a year we tried to work things out between us. I had a hard time forgiving Tom because I couldn’t understand his compulsion to have sex with friends, neither could he. Sessions with a couple’s therapist only seemed to make the situation worse. We agreed our relationship never felt as it once did, but we were also confused by all that was right about it and didn’t want to end it and go our separate ways. It wasn’t long before Tom left for his sophomore year that it finally occurred to me what the premonition might have meant from the day I went out to find him under the stairs, that at least Tom and I were meant to be partners in the architectural sense. He immediately and absolutely agreed. So, on the day he was granted his architectural license in 1996 the firm of Langer & Petersen was born. Up until that time and ever since we have shared an office, our desks at right angles to one another. When we design we sit side by side or across the table from one another. We are equals who create at a level greater than the individuals combined. Neither of us would want it any other way. We now have a firm of over twenty-five employees; we are a family.
Yet, during his sophomore year, we finally decided to let each other go. I knew that I had to let him find his own way. If he came back to me then all was well. If not, then it was never meant to be. I had to put my faith in my feelings. Tom also said that maybe this was the time to find out if Tim really was the one for me. I swore at him over that statement, yet cried at his honest practicality of the situation too. I didn’t go looking for Tim though; again, I felt that I needed to leave it up to fate. I could not force the situation.
After the letter containing the loan forms arrived I never heard from Tim again. So, I began to go out on dates with men I had met through a variety of ways. The whole process scared me. I even called Jim Dessault to see if he wanted to date again. He was in a serious relationship but we concluded that we had a lot stronger feelings then than we ever admitted to. We talk on the phone and e-mail each other all of the time now. He has just been made a partner in one of the largest architectural firms in the world.
It was in September of 1992 that I drove into Manhattan early one morning. I parked Sammy near where I had my second meeting of the day and got on a 1 train at 50th Street to make my way to the first appointment. It was packed with commuters. Once I was able to grab onto a pole I scanned around looking for some breathing room. At the far end of the car I saw a face staring down into a neatly folded Wall Street Journal.
“Son of a Bitch,” I said to myself and began to push my way down the car.
“Pardon me. ‘Cuse me. Sorry. Comin’ through. Pardon me. ‘Cuse me. Comin’ through.”
I started to laugh as I was reminded of Bugs Bunny trying to get down the aisle in a theater. I kept at it. I got pushed back in the wrong direction when the doors opened at 42nd Street. I kept my eyes on him. He didn’t get off. He hardly looked up from his paper as one mass of people exited and another entered. He just lifted his little brown paper bag containing his lunch so that it wouldn’t get squished. At 34th Street I finally made it to him just as the door closed and the train lurched forward. He fell back a step towards me. I put my arms around him. His head shot up in shock and fear.
“Timothy James Welker, will you marry me?”
I didn’t wait for an answer. I leaned him back and kissed him long and passionately. His arms went up into the air. That end of the car erupted in hoots of delight, hollers of disgust and squeals of laughter from the high school girls standing next to us.
We only broke when we started to laugh from the statement, “Eeeewwwww, People are eating here,” from the tremendously obese man stuffing a bagel with gobs of cream cheese in his mouth.
Tim then put his arms around me and said, “Peter, oh man. Yes, Peter, yes!”
“Come on, let’s get off,” he said to me at 28th Street.
“We’re gonna do more than just get off,” I replied with a smirk.
“Call your office or where ever you’re goin’ and tell ‘em your sick. ‘Cause ya ain’t goin’, your comin’ home with me!”
“Just do it,” I said.
I called my two clients and begged off claiming an emergency; to me this truly was a necessity. I raced up the stairs with Tim and hailed a cab. We both couldn’t stop smiling as we climbed into the taxi. Our fingers automatically intertwined. We talked the whole way home about where we were with our lives and what had happened. Within an hour I opened the door to home. He was speechless. I was caught between wanting to drag him up the stairs and get naked and wanting to show him around.
After ten seconds of standing at the end of the foyer and looking at it all he said, “Shit, I got the rest of my life to see the house. Let’s get nekkid!”
We raced each other up the stairs. Five hours later the babysitter brought Jason, Daniel and Stevie over having just picked up the latter two from school. I hadn’t said a word about Jason or my arrangement with Fitz. Tim was stunned, he cried when he saw Jason’s red hair.
“Here play with your Unka Tim. I got dinner to make. And I’ll call Steve and Katie to come over for dinner.”
“Ya want me to call ‘em…or do ya want to surprise ‘em, ” Tim asked.
“Hmmmm, I think they need a little excitement.”
Katie stood in awe when Tim walked into the kitchen carrying Jason.
Steve ran to hug him, “Oh my God, Tim, you crazy sonofabitch, you can’t leave. You can never leave.”
“I’m not…ever. I promise.”
He wiggled his fingers on his left hand. I finally had given him the ring I had bought for him the month before Brad committed suicide. Fitz pushed Steve out of the way and squeezed Tim. Steve grabbed Jason from being squished between Katie and Tim . Tim and Fitz dissolved into tears.
“Where did you find him,” Steve asked me calmly.
“On the subway. He’s been livin’ in fricken New York for six months. He’s apologized profusely for not makin’ his presence known.”
“Sounds like he needs his butt slapped to me.”
Daniel and Stevie ran and sat down at the breakfast nook looking back at their dad as innocently as they could.
“Not you guys,” I said, “Unka Tim. Unka Tim’s the one who’s been a little bit bad.”
They broke out in wide grins.
“Hey, why don’t you guys set the silverware for me.”
“Formal or casual settings, Uncle Peter,” Stevie asked.
Stevie set out the silverware with absolute precision. Daniel decided the seating arrangement. He made sure Tim was sitting next to me. Tim and Katie watched the kids as they caught up on everything.
“You sure are trainin’ ‘em young about proper table manners and such.”
“Nope, it’s all him,” she replied.
“He reads as well as I do,” Steve added.
“Nope. Daniel, he looks like us. Jason, we can explain the red hair, but Stevie the brainiac…I just accuse Katie of an extraterrestrial extramarital affair.”
Fitz just shrugged her shoulders.
“What about Tom,” Tim asked.
“What about him? Dinner’s not for fifteen so push speed dial three and see if he’s in his dorm room.”
Tim did and then said, “Tom. Tim Welker. How are you?”
We all laughed when we heard the scream on the other end of the line.
Our relationship wasn’t much more than a long honeymoon; within six months it was painfully obvious to both of us that we were not meant to spend the rest of our lives together. The fun times, good conversations, great sex and yoga all did not add up to the spiritual love that we were both looking for. Near the end of the summer after we were reunited we decided to call it quits and live as friends and roommates for the foreseeable future.
“Honey, we’re home,” comes the singsong voice of David as we hear Paul’s and his footsteps echo across the wide plank oak flooring of the kitchen. Tim, Joe, Lin and I walk from the den, cross the front hall and greet them. They envelop Tim in a hug.
“Hey sexy, I like your boot camp hairdo,” Paul says.
“Well, thanks, smartass. Love you too.”
“Cool, group hug,” comes the voice of Dan as he, Steven and Jason wander in the open front door.
Jester appears with his tail wagging to join the crowd. I step back and smile as arms surround Tim. He winks at me with a broad grin. Jason breaks off and comes over and hugs me.
“Don’t worry we all love you too, Dad.”
“Don’t I know it! Now let’s move this love fest outside to the garage, ‘cause we’ve got to get goin’.
Jester, you stay…you’re in charge, OK.”
I scratch his ears and kiss his head. He wanders off to the patch of sunshine on the living room floor and lies down with a huge sigh.
“I’m sorry, boy,” I call out, “I asked, but the restaurant wouldn’t let you come.”
“Jase, go get the present on the dining room table, please.”
As the rest all flow out the front door and down the gravel path to the garage. Tim, Tom and I wait for Jason to emerge with a basketball sized box wrapped with a big orange ribbon.
Tim chortles and shakes his head, “Old jokes never die, huh?”
I just smile at him as I think of him laughing when he finds a ‘45’ of The Cold singing “Three Chord City” at the bottom of that box. Tom stops me as I turn to head for the garage.
He reaches into his pocket, “You forgot these. They’re invited too, you know.”
A broad warm smile crosses his face as he hands me Dan and Jason’s rings and then hugs me. Over his shoulder, on the wall of my office, I see the purple, green and gold smeared pillowcase that I had stretched and framed. My smile broadens.
“I love you,” I whisper.
We now head out the door. As I turn back to pull the door shut and lock it Jester lifts his head, “By midnight, boy,” I call out. His tail wags as I close the door.
John, Jeremy and their two kids are getting out of their green Jeep Cherokee when we all walk up to the garage. I turn to see Steve and Katie standing by their car.
“Wonderin’ when y’all would get here,” Steve says with a smirk.
“Oh, come on, Pop, we all heard the garage door goin’ up as we came down the walk, give us a break,” Jason ribs back.
Frank and Olgivanna giggle at Steve as they walk over to give Tim a hug and wish him Happy Birthday.
Five years ago Jeremy and John were given a unique opportunity to adopt a five and six year old brother and sister. Their father was a distant relative of John’s. In fact Vroom and his mother were their closest relatives. Their parents were killed in a car accident on a small highway in the mountains of West Virginia. It has been a difficult and long legal struggle for the two of them to become their legal parents but in the minds and hearts of everyone involved, especially Frank and Olgivanna, it was a done deal within a month of them moving in.
Vroom opens the back of the Cherokee and asks for the presents.
David and Paul look at each other, “Shit!,” they say simultaneously. With a laugh, Paul takes off across the grass for their house, “Don’t go away. I’ll be right back!”
I laugh as he lopes across the tall grass and wild flower meadow that separates our two houses.
Tom struggled for over a year to design that house for Paul and David. They built the house a year after Tom got out of school and he had to learn the compromise between the excitement of design and the reality of a budget. It’s a peaceful balance of horizontal planes and sinuous, seemingly capricious curves that make up the walls.
After Tom and I broke up he began a binge of “Boyfriends du Jour.” David and Paul had gone through some similar struggles in looking for love. During a New Year’s Eve party at the Sweeton House in 1991, soon to be ‘92, the three of them were sitting on the couch drowning their love sorrows with eggnog.
Daniel, who was between Tom and David, after listening to their laments, gave his wonderfully innocent six-year-old wisdom, “You know something Unka Tom, Paul and David they need to be with each other.”
Fitz, Tom and I burst out into laughter and continued to giggle while we received the “Eat Shit and Die” look from both David and Paul. They took it seriously though and by summer they were living together. The two of them had been inseparable buddies in their four years at M.I.T. but had never considered dating because they had always been best of friends. They give Daniel a present every New Year’s Eve.
As for Tom and me, it wasn’t until the Fall after his graduation from RISD when I got call at 7:30 in the morning that we decided to get back together. Tom was living in the apartment above our office. I was perturbed by the phone ringing while I was shaving because I was already late.
“What?” I answered in an irritated voice.
“Hey, whoa! It’s just me. Do I need to call you back?”
“No, no, sorry. I was shaving. It’s OK though. I’ll wipe it off. I’ll cream again for you.” I said with a laugh.
I was really glad to hear his voice that morning. I had had a dream about him less than an hour before.
Tom giggled at the thought and said, “Can I come home?”
“Sure, you know you’re always welcome to stay here.”
“No, what I really mean is can I come home to OUR house?”
“Tom, seriously, what are you trying to say?”
“Well, I went to this early morning yoga class today. It was a teacher I’d never had before...he was kickin’ our butts. Well, anyway, I’m in this pose....goin’ deeper and stayin’ longer than I’d ever before and I just burst out cryin’! And it wasn’t ‘cause it hurt...it just released something. Well, Melanie, from the office, she knew I had let go of some long hidden emotion. She came out of her pose and just held me for a bit. Then, once I smiled, we both went back to our practice.”
“And?” I asked quietly.
He paused again and then said, “Pete, can we try again? Because I know now that there is no one on this earth that I’d rather spend my life with than you. Your premonition was right. Will you have me?”
“Absolutely, Tom,” I said without a moment of hesitation.
Life between us has been good ever since.
Tim walks into the garage and turns back to me when he’s between the two Beetles.
“Which one,” he asks flicking his index finger back and forth.
“Sammy,” I say simply.
He reaches for the door to the dark blue 2001 Beetle and opens it.
“Oh crap,” he slams the door closed.
“What,” I ask.
“I was going to get the cell phone charger, but I don’t have my cell phone anymore...and besides Sammy doesn’t have a cigarette lighter to plug it into.”
The crowd bursts out laughing. Tim glares at us all and then rolls his eyes as he smiles.
Tim and Tom bought me the Beetle for my birthday this year. Tim felt that I needed to have an alternative to Sammy, to give him a semi-retirement. Tom hated that I borrowed one of Vroom’s Nursery pickups when I didn’t want to take Sammy out in bad weather.
“What too butch for you,” I would tell him.
He would just make a face and go on. So they surprised me with a new black VW Beetle. I told them both that I loved them more than anything in the world but I would never get in a black VW again.
“I knew we should have gone with our first impression,” they screamed in unison.
“Sorry. Excuse us; we’ll be back as soon as we can sweet talk that salesman.”
They drove up a few hours later with this dark blue one. I wouldn’t let them get out. We then took it for a long drive. We still have yet to name it. We’re hoping that it will name itself.
Steve comes around and puts his arm on Tim’s shoulder.
“Here, first present.”
He reaches into his suit coat and hands him a cell phone with a blue bow on it.
“Set for your old number and all charged up.”
“No wonder you backed out goin’ with me to the phone store the other day.”
“Oh I went…just without you.”
Tim kisses Steve as he strokes the gray hairs of his short sideburns.
“Cool, time to freak Mom out. She’ll have a heart attack when she sees my number come up on her phone.”
Tim pushed in his mom’s cell number.
“He still has a devious streak in him, huh,” Steve says to me.
“Oh, yes. Thanks, that was good timing with that gift.”
“Which is great ‘cause it really is a boring one.”
Tim laughs with his Mom and tells her we are all just leaving. Steve and I watch Paul come bounding back across the meadow followed by a slow meandering Polly. The old Border Collie can hardly go faster than a good walk. Fitz walks out into the meadow with Dan.
“Come on girl. I was wonderin’ where you’ve been this afternoon.”
“She’s been sleepin’ in the sun on our kitchen patio,” Paul said as he walked past.
“Dan, get her to go in the house. It will probably be too cool for her to be out later.”
“Yes Mom. Come on, Pol, let’s go.”
They both wander slowly to their home.
Vroom looks at me and asks, “So what route, Pete, or better yet, Katie? Over or under?”
Fitz glares at him and says, “Over.”
I look at Vroom and shrug
Paul hands Tim’s present to Vroom.
“Are we ready to roll?” Tom asks as he opens the door to Sammy.
“As soon as Dan gets back,” I reply.
“You ready darlin’,” I ask Tim.
He nods and says, “There are twenty-some people who’ll be waitin’ on us. So we need to get our ass in gear.”
Tim opens the door for Joe and he slides into the back with Tom. Sammy starts right up. Steven and Jason make faces at us as they climb in their car.
“Come on kids,” I hear Vroom call out, “Wagon train is a headin’ out.”
Lin, a stunningly beautiful woman of 24 who balances sage-like maturity with an impish sense of humor and who has a blossoming career as a web designer, laughs as she piles in the far back seat with Olgivanna and Frank getting them to giggle too. Then David and Paul climb in amongst the presents. Jeremy pulls around the drive. I follow behind him.
Dan comes sprinting up the path, “Hey don’t forget about me,” I hear him yell.
I smile at him looking across the top of Sammy and whisper to myself, “No, we’ll never forget you Dan.” I caress the top of the car as I watch him climb in with his brothers. I do the same and the three cars head for Manhattan. The sawtooth skyline is golden yellow as we drive off the hillside towards the highway.
The four of us chatter about the party we are heading to as we zoom down I-80 toward the George Washington Bridge. Tom and I get lost in banter about whether we can finally convince Mom and Dad Elliot to come live in a guesthouse that I want to build. They never did retire to the house in Galveston like they planned. Mom still enjoys driving over to Dan’s grave to sit and read in the sun.
“Let’s build it anyway and let Mom and Dad and my Dad and Betty share it as they want,” Tom says.
“Geez, everybody gets what they want and I’m still waitin’ on the beach house you promised me,” Tim moans in a false whine, “Even Jester has gotten his house.”
“Buy the land and I’ll build the house,” I reply in a deep voice, “Cheeky.”
He pinches my thigh and smiles.
“You gotta deal,” Joe replies from the back. As we approach the George Washington Bridge the conversation turns to David and Jeremy’s Great Aunt Flo who is also coming to the party. At a hundred and five years old she still gets around quite well, although she has to use the cane instead of carry it now. Arne Petersen’s new wife, Betty, and Flo have become the cut-ups at our recent gatherings. Tom and I try to decide who will be the brunt of their latest practical joke.
Tim turns to us and says, “I’ll smack both of their fannies if it’s me.”
“Ooooh, Flo might like that,” Tom says with a giggle.
“Kids,” I say as I hand the cash to the man at the tollbooth.
I turn to Tom and say without thought, “E-Z Pass is in the blue boy.”
Both of our heads jerk to a tilt.
“That’s it,” we scream in unison.
Tom kisses me behind the ear as I turn back to grab the change being waved in my face. Sammy’s little brother now has a name.
I zoom out of the tollbooth down the middle lane and under the huge American flag that hangs from the arch of the New Jersey tower awash in the orange light of the setting sun. I then look over to see Tim with his lips pursed staring down at the wispy gray white plume that still rises from the tip of Manhattan. I reach over and squeeze his thigh. This is his first trip back into the City since that Tuesday. He sighs and wipes his eyes. He turns to me, a huge smile grows across his face and he begins to wave. Past Tim, I see the green Cherokee come up along our right. I turn to the left and see Steve and the three boys with their faces pressed up against the glass with silly grins. I start to laugh and wave. Then I see Fitz, her eyes firmly fixed forward.
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