“Hey, Tom, I’ll find you a jacket or something warm and we can get out into the Garden.”
“Sure, time to go back to the womb.”
I looked at him and shook my head.
“Come, to the closet,” I said in a bad Dracula voice.
“Don’t get weird on me, Pete.”
“Too late, I’m a tad nuts already, but I got good reasons,” I said half seriously.
I got out a heavy flannel shirt, a gray zip up hooded fleece with the hand warmer pockets and gave him a pair of heavy socks and some pull-on boots that my sister had given me for Christmas my first winter here. I had never worn them; they weren’t me. A flannel shirt, two sweatshirts and my sneakers were the comfort and warmth I was looking for.
We trundled down the hall through the kitchen and out the back door. It was weird to have so many clothes on. I opened the back door and had to squint due to the glare. I could almost see my breath.
“Wow, just a bit brisk compared to yesterday’s swelter, huh,” I queried rhetorically.
“Man, now I’m awake,” Tom said as he opened his eyes wide and then began to squint too.
After surveying my Eden, I decided it was in good shape, and just needed a good clean out. I dropped down the steps and over to the little shed I had built of the perforated sheet steel and the I-beam I found on the street. The metal sculptor down the street cut and welded it together for me. Then we swore all that afternoon dragging it down here and setting it up. He photographed it and put it in his portfolio under collaborative efforts. I passed the leaf rake to Tom and said to start at one end and work to the gate. I would cut and clear out of the beds and toss the trimmings into the paths for him to collect.
We had been at work for about a half hour when I heard a key in the gate latch.
“Klaus? I’ll get it, I’m right here.”
I went to open the gate but was beat to it and it wasn’t Klaus.
“Vroom, what are you doing here?”
“I came up on the train late last night. I had my first fight with Jeremy and I need to talk it through with you…and Mom. Thought you might need a hand with the Garden after…Hi,” he said to Tom, “I guess you already have help.”
“John, this is Tom Petersen. Tom, this is John Hall.”
“He calls me Vroom…my middle name, no jokes please. Thank you very much.”
“Hi, John, glad to meet you too. No jokes from me.”
“I found Tom here trying to freeze to death last night under my porch. I told him that he couldn’t live there so I invited him to live with me.”
“WHAT!…No offense, Tom, really, but Pete Langer have you lost your ever-lovin’-fuckin’-mind?”
“Nope, I’m quite sane I think. Look, I invited Dan to live with me less than twenty-four hours after we met.”
“Oh, come on that’s different; he was your friend’s best friend.”
“Tom, you’ll have to excuse him. I tend to have very loving and caring friends, but after a while they come around to see where I’m coming from….usually. Once they get to know you it will be fine. Just be yourself.”
“Have you told Steve and Katie about Tom yet?”
“Haven’t had the chance,” I said as walked to the shed and got the small rake and a spade and handed them to John.
“Here, you know what to do, give us a hand will ya?”
He shook his head in disbelief and then started helping.
We got lost in a comfortable banter between the three of us for awhile and then I brought up John’s fight last night.
“You want to talk about it now?”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Look, don’t be afraid to say anything in front of Tom, OK? Come on, spill.”
John kept digging and cleaning up the beds as he talked of misunderstandings and miscommunications that happened between the two of them. I kept asking, “Is that how you really feel about it?” because I wondered that if some of the things that were said were said to hurt or place blame instead of reveal the truth of the situation. I was on my knees halfway behind a bush. John finally had come to sit on the brick path, his knees to his chest. Tom was sitting on the little stone slab bench in the sunshine listening attentively.
“John, let go and tell Jeremy what you really feel. It’s OK for you guys to not agree on things…or have different opinions or feelings. You guys don’t want to be clones of each other, do you? You can express the things that you like or dislike and the other has to process it to the way he can handle it. If then you guys can’t come to an understanding then you have to figure a compromise…or break up. Last resort.”
“Tom, see, isn’t this amazing, I come to hear a Rhododendron bush give me advice on life and love…or is it the cute ass?”
“I like the ass,” Tom said.
“And I’d like to smack both of yours,” I said looking at them through the stalks of the bush.
“Oooooh, please, I’ve been a bad boy,” Tom cooed at me as he pointed his butt toward me.
I hung my head as a flashback of Jason filled my mind, but instead of tears I smiled. I backed out and stood. I grabbed Tom, hugged him and kissed him on the neck.
“Come here, you,” I reached down and pulled Vroom up and hugged him too.
“I love you two,” I said looking back and forth at them.
“Let’s get this stuff into the mulch heap and, Tom, start sweeping the paths. Time for some lunch.”
As I sliced up fruit to make a salad I called Steve. Fitz answered the phone.
“Hey, Mom, what trouble are the young ones up to?” I could hear Steve Jr. in the background making gurgling noises that, to me, sounded like a song. He must be in her arms I thought.
“They’re good. It’s the big boy who’s grumpy. We opened a bottle of wine with dinner last night and he drank most of it.”
“Do you mind if I steal him a way from you for awhile? I need my lawyer.”
“Sure, everything OK, Pete?”
“Yeah, things are great. Why don’t you all come down? I could use your imput too, darlin’.”
“Here, I got to put Stevie down, talk to Steve.”
This was a conversation that I wanted to do in person, to have a face to go with the situation, but I decided to start now. As John and Tom talked to each other I recalled what had happened last night, in detail. I asked Steve what his legal opinions were on the situation and how could I begin the process of getting him into school; to legally become responsible for him, and asked what are my liabilities in regards to his real parents.
“Do you want to be his parent or his lover?”
“Both…well not really. I just know I have to accept some responsibility for him for a year, but really I’m just in love with him.”
“I know I surprise you.”
“No, what I really wanted to say was are you fucked up or what.”
“OK, I’m off the deep end. I truly mean that. I know I’m pushing boundaries I have no right to push, but I also know the core feelings that I have. I have to be honest to myself, you know that. You know that about yourself too.”
“Let me call a guy from the firm who handles shit like this. This is way out of my range. I’ll get Katie and the kids together and see you in less than two, OK?”
“Cool, I love you, Steve.”
“I know…oh…one more thing. You’re really happy right now, aren’t you?”
“Yeppers. I’m even happy to deal with whatever shit comes my way in this.”
“Cool, let me tell Katie what’s up. You might hear her response from here.”
We chuckled and hung up.
I looked up to see John and Tom looking at the photos of Dan and me, the Three Musketeers, and the Upperline family that hung together on the wall above the kitchen table. Vroom was pointing out people and explaining relationships.
“Are you tellin’ stories that I’d like to tell?”
“It’s OK, there’s so much more than you can tell in five minutes. Steve, Katie and the kids are coming to meet you, Tom. Vroom, will you stay too? I want all y’all’s opinion on this. Sorry, Tom, but it’s time you meet the review board. You’re bright enough to understand why.”
Tom looked at me with sad eyes.
“I’m sorry about Dan and Jason.”
“Thanks, yeah, it still hurts and will always suck, but that’s why my friends will give you and me the third degree. They don’t want me to get hurt again. They’re protective of me. That’s why when I asked you to move in on the spur of the moment last night I had to consider so much in a flash of pure thought. I know I’m right in my gut feeling too. I pray you won’t prove me wrong.”
I looked over at the two blond haired boys in front of the photos and shook my head. Maybe I am fucked up I thought, but the energy that they gave off was what I have always sought in my life. I smiled and turned back to the cutting board to put the last of the fruit into the bowls.
“Who wants yogurt on theirs?”
Once the family had made it through the door and dropped their kid baggage I made introductions.
Tom asked me, “Do you have a nickname for everybody?” I had to think about it.
“No, Steve’s never had one, Dan either. It just comes to me for certain people, natural.”
Fitz rolled her eyes, “I sometimes think it’s not so natural, but with Pete, you just have to accept certain things and let it go…then I guess it does become natural….strange, hmmmm.”
She got lost in a thought.
“Why, do you want a nickname, Tom?”
“No, not really, I was just wondering that’s all.
“Want me to call you Son?” I asked jokingly.
“NO, that is quite alright,” Tom said seriously.
“I think he’d like for you to call him Dad,” Katie said with a smirk.
“Fitz, cut it out, come on, seriously.”
“I’m sorry, Pete, that was uncalled for…but you still surprise me. And you have been in a serious fathering mode for the last year and a half.”
“You’ve taught me a few things about how to be a father,” Steve interjected.
“Nothing that wasn’t already there, Steve,” I countered.
I paused a second to think and then continued.
“Tom has come into my life, our lives, for whatever reason. I don’t question the how or the whys and I don’t know where it’s going to lead, but I do know my gut feeling that it should be…whatever ‘it’ is. I’m just asking that you give Tom the benefit of the doubt as you would me. I don’t know why y’all give me the unconditional support and love that you do but I think that it’s the best thing in the world and I just want you to throw some his way too. Just like Jason, when the four of us gave him the support he needed he flourished. The fact that Dan and I fell in deep love with him was secondary in a way. We did because he grew into an amazing individual…he wasn’t a kid in a gas station toilet anymore.”
We all silently cross referenced each other’s expressions for a minute before I started again.
“And you’re right, Katie, I do have some sort of Dad feelings going on here, actually more like big brother feelings. Tom, I can’t help it. It confuses me and tears me up inside, like I’m violating some moral code, but what my rational mind says and what my heart says are two different things in conflict. I have to go with my heart as my guiding star. I know it is right and I can feel both ways and still be true and honest to myself, to you, Tom, and to y’all. I have always been in a realm of relationships that is outside of the box. Even when I had a simple loving relationship with Dan it was a big deal to everyone…even to you, Fitz, that day in the grocery store. The two of us fretted over coming out to our best friends, our parents… everybody. We were just two kids in love, nothing more. I guess I am still on some pilgrimage to push the envelope. I don’t know why. I would have been ultimately content with just Dan and me being a member of each other’s family and of the one we created with you two. It grew, and then shrunk, goddammit…but has begun to sprout again. Look at Vroom; he came on to me by exposing himself to me on the subway. He was in high school…barely…but still you accepted him. He’s one of the best friends anyone could have and if I could get him to let me take his picture, he’d be up on the wall too.”
I looked over at the walls to either side of the window behind the red topped table and scanned the photos. I sighed, then picked up Daniel and set him in my lap as I sat on the stool. I nuzzled his neck.
He pushed my unshaven face away gently, “Skatchy, Unka Pete.”
I kissed him on his temple, “Sorry, my good man.”
“You have no problem convincing this jury, Pete,” Steve said softly, “but in a court of law you’d have a sh…load of problems.”
Steve glanced at Daniel and Katie because he promised no more swearing in front of the kids.
“Tell me the facts,” I said.
“Until he’s seventeen you can’t touch him, especially since he has crossed state lines. It’s really strict and the penalties harsh. The fact that he would be living here poses a whole host of legal issues. Even once he becomes seventeen it’s touchy, especially if his parents throw a fit, but if we can get consent from them then you can get him into school, become his legal guardian even…it opens lots of things up. In January of ’88 he’s his own man. Pete, I have to tell you, you’re taking a serious, serious risk. It could blow up in your face to the point of having your architecture license revoked…not likely but legally possible. They grant you that license on moral grounds too.”
“Yeah, I remember reading that part…sh…sugar. See Fitz, I’m tryin’ too.”
“But I don’t know what you’d do with your license in Sing Sing for ten to fifteen.”
“Redesign the shower facility or something fun,” I said with a laugh.
Tom started to laugh too, then quickly stifled himself.
“Alright, I know the risks. Please, let’s move on with this. I know my heart is right. My “feeling” tells me we somehow belong together. I know it won’t be easy and know there will be things we can’t plan for which will be the toughest to deal with. That’s why we all need each other. Ya with me on this? You too, Tom, are you in?”
Everyone nodded their heads including Daniel.
“When can I put my name on the mailbox?” Tom asked with a smile.
Steve busted out laughing.
When he calmed down enough he said, “I’ll tell you when.”
Tom, Steve and Vroom went out to play with Daniel and Stevie in the Garden. Katie and I began to fix dinner together. Over the last few years I have come to learn the joy that she and Dan had cooking for all of us. It’s a lot of work to cook, but the friendship and sharing that goes on between us is worth the sweat and effort. We also could talk on another level about the situation with Tom.
“I accept that you are doing this and I truly admire you for it, but I too have gut feelings that bother me about this, Pete.”
She looked at me and pursed her lips. She didn’t want to hurt me with what she had to say.
“Bring it on, Mom. I love you for being my sounding board too.”
“Peter, don’t get cheeky with me,” she laughed. “Really though, you don’t know a damn thing about this boy beyond this feeling that you have, do you?”
I shook my head no and said, “I know, Fitz, all of the horrible scenarios have run through my mind, besides him being a murderer, which you’ll have to agree you would doubt, what’s the worst he could do, steal my wallet and run up my credit card to its limit? Come on, you know I have no issues with money. I have more than I know what to do with, more than I’ve ever told you guys about…a lot more.”
Katie screwed up her face.
“I was wondering why you had made savings accounts for Daniel and Stevie with so much money.”
“Actually that comes out of what I make a year. I would be fine without that other shit. So, I don’t give a damn about money, that isn’t what life is about. So if I lose money on a chance to let somebody have a good life it’s a bet I’ll take any day of the week.”
“Well there are other issues too. I worry about AIDS, Pete.”
“Yes, I thought about it too, but if we aren’t going to have sex for a few months that relieves the initial problem. And if we really are going to go there, if I don’t become his big brother, I thought we could go for testing together as Christmas presents to each other.”
“Peter, you wouldn’t…”
“Why not, I couldn’t think of a greater gift than freedom of worry. I don’t want any issues to hide behind. No secrets, remember? Dan and I worked that one out. It worked well.”
“Tell me your thoughts on the age difference,” she asked.
“I don’t think the eleven year difference is all that great in time terms but at this point in our ages it is. Yes, he still is sixteen, but in some ways he does act older and he certainly is mature for his age. This is something that only time will let us all know what is going on. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. Another gamble.”
“Pete, what if Tim calls and says he’s sorry for his mistakes and wants to get back together?”
“Well, I’ve slept three to a bed before.”
I looked at her with a false smile, but she wasn’t buying it.
“Yeah, I’ve gone round and round about that one. I feared he was going to call when I was in the shower with Tom this morning. I would have had a heart attack. I still love him very much. I guess Dad Elliot is right, I have a huge heart and have lots of love to give. I just gotta give it…Oh, by the way, did they call you, they are coming up in two weeks for five days?”
“Yes, I still haven’t figured out how I’ll explain to the kids how they have three sets of grandparents …Back to Tim, please.”
“Right, I don’t know, he’s the one who has cut himself off from us. I’d forgive him in a heartbeat, but he’d just have to stand in line. Seriously, I don’t think I’ll hear from him till Dan’s and my anniversary. He has been very religious about being with me or calling me on that day to support me and send his love. I think it will be the first time there is strong enough emotion for him to connect again…at least because of guilt. If he doesn’t call then…I… don’t…think…he’ll ever call.”
I hung my head and cried. We turned and hugged each other, our food covered hands held away from each other like flippers.
“He’ll call at some point. This is not like him…this is not him. I hope he’s seeing somebody.”
I broke away and looked at her confused.
“Professionally! To talk this thing out!”
She started to laugh. So did I.
“Fitz, he’ll call some day. I know it. For the first time though I hope it’s not today but in a month or so and then I’ll know more about how I feel about Tom and where we are going. Who knows, it might be just a big brother role with him. He also might be the love of the rest of my life. I just don’t know.”
“I’m OK with it too, you know that. I’m taken aback by it at the moment…and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I know, neither do I, but I think that it’s part of life to deal with pain. You just gotta…”
We both craned our necks out the window over the sink when we heard Daniel wail. Steve was picking him up off the bricks. Katie had her hands wiped and was at the back door before I could turn my head. Daniel had taken a tumble and scraped his knee and palm. I went to the bath for Band-Aids and was at the back door as he was brought in to be smothered with attention.
For the first time since Upperline Street we had five people at the table, plus two. Stevie came with his own seat, but I was caught as to whom to ask to sit on the stool. It was only a difficult choice for me. Tom made the decision for me.
“I got the stool,” he said with glee as he placed it between John and me to my left.
I smiled. Katie and Steve sat and looked around the table. I looked at them and smiled. They knew of the significance of the moment. Our family was together again.
As we began to pass the food around I looked to John and said, “As soon as dinner is over call Jeremy. I can’t believe you’ve waited this long.”
He paused as he thought about it, “I know, I knew he wasn’t going to be home this afternoon, and then I was concerned about all of this.”
He swung his hand around indicating all of us.
“We’ll be fine and we want you to be too.”
Tom was curious about New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Dinner that night was a time to tell stories and reminisce. I laughed and had fun talking about our life down there. I didn’t cry when telling stories about Dan, Jason and my adventures for the first time since they died. It made me feel as if they were still with us and that made me happy.
While Tom and I did dishes, John paced, walked, hopped and danced back and forth on the linoleum floor while he made up with Jeremy. I was glad he allowed us to eave drop on his conversation. I was proud of the way he explained himself and was humble to Jeremy. Katie and Steve rounded up the kid baggage and got themselves ready to be cabbed home. I think that is the one thing that the two of them were totally unprepared for, the amount of time it took to get the four of them out of the door for any reason.
By seven-thirty Vroom headed for home to get his bag and catch a train to Princeton and the Thomases had gone home after a bunch of “skatchy” kisses to them all. John promised me that he would bring Jeremy next weekend and all six of us would go to the movies. Katie said with a serious laugh that she had better book a baby sitter now.
Tom and I picked up a bit and then cuddled on the couch to watch TV. We were two very content souls that night.