“Ladies and Gentlemen. We are now descending and will arrive in less than five minutes. Please fasten your seatbelts. Thank you for flying with us.”
It had been a long flight. I looked over at Tina and she was staring out the window. She had said hardly a half dozen words to me during the four hour flight home. She was still upset that I hadn’t answered my phone for hours when she called to inform me of my father’s death.
He had suffered a massive heart attack while mowing the yard earlier in the day. According to my mother, the medics said he was probably dead before he hit the ground. He had suffered a couple of minor heart attacks over the past several years, but his death was still unexpected.
I talked to him on the phone last week, and he sounded tired. He had retired a few years earlier, and he had developed a passion for playing golf. Mother said he spent more time at the country club than he did at home. When I talked to him, he had just finished eighteen holes and was in the club house drinking a martini. Little did I know it would be the last time I would speak with him.
My mother was waiting in the lobby of the airport when we arrived. I was also surprised to see Star sitting beside her. I was astonished by my mother’s appearance. She looked old; much older than I remembered her looking last Christmas when Tina and I had last visited.
She stood and rushed into my arms when she saw us walking down the long corridor as we disembarked. She buried her head into my chest and cried. “It’s just me and you now, Gene,” she whispered softly. I held her as she sobbed. Star came up and rubbed her gently on her back. Tina stood back, apparently unsure of what to do.
Star looked amazing. She seemed so full of poise and grace. She had matured into a beautiful woman. She was like a sister to me, and we had always welcomed her into our home as if she was one of the family.
“Hello, Gene.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek. “I’m so sorry.” She then turned and hugged Tina. I walked over to the turnstile and retrieved our luggage. I was trying to balance four pieces when Star walked over and took two of the lightest.
Tina put her arm around my mother and led the way out of the terminal. She and my mother had always been very good friends. I think it was their desire for my mother to have grandchildren that bonded their relationship. It was always after our visits home that Tina would insist that we try and have children. Our arguments would last for several months before she’d final relent and realize that I would never want children.
“Is everything all right?” Star asked. She looked at Tina and then back at me.
“Same old, same old,” I laughed nervously. Star and I had had many long conversations about my relationship with Tina. Since she was one of the few people who knew what had happened in high school, I felt more comfortable talking to her.
The ride home was surreal. I felt like a stranger in the car. Tina sat in the back seat and tried to console my mother. Star sat in the passenger’s seat and stared at me out of the corner of her eye. I glanced over a few times, but she’d look quickly away.
Cars were parked up and down the street when we arrived. No one had parked in the long drive, so we were able to drive up to the front of the house. As we got out, several people came out and greeted us.
Most were unfamiliar to me. I found out later that they were dad’s golfing buddies and members of the lodge he had attended for over forty years. Some I remembered seeing when I was a teenager. However, since I had moved two thousand miles away, I had lost contact with all my parents’ acquaintances. I was glad, though, that my mother had a lot of support from friends. I was overcome with guilt because I felt I had abandoned her over the years, and she and my father lived a life unknown to me. Visiting for two weeks every couple of years at Christmas now made me feel like a stranger in my former home.
I spent the next hour walking around the house and mingling with the mourners. People told me how sorry they were for my loss, but it seemed like empty sentiments. Most of them knew that I was estranged from my parents after I left high school and attended college.
My mother had an understanding of why I left. She had forced me to seek counseling after that incident in Billy Joe’s barn, and she was aware of my struggle with my sexuality. My mother thought that having children might strengthen my marriage to Tina and make me a better husband. I’d usually leave after our visits and head for the nearest bar when I returned back home. It would take me months to dissuade Tina from my mother’s influence.
I walked around the house trying to find some place to get away from the strangers who kept approaching me and offering their condolences. Somehow I found myself in my parents’ bedroom. I closed the door and plopped down exhaustedly on the bed.
I closed my eyes for a minute. When I opened them, I noticed a familiar picture on the wall. I walked over, took it down and clutched it to my chest. It was a picture of Allen and me. He was seventeen, and I was eleven. My father had taken it just as we had sledded down a large embankment behind our house. We had toppled over, and I was pinned under Allen. His face was full of laughter, while mine contained a painful grimace. Tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered that cold, December afternoon. I think it was one of the last times I ever saw Allen laugh, at least until Joey came into his life.
I was still staring at the picture when Star tiptoed into the room and sat quietly beside me. She took the picture from my hands and held it. She laid her head on my shoulder and muttered softly, “I miss him so much.”
“He loved you like a sister,” I remarked. “When the world turned away from him, you remained right by his side.” When she began to cry, I put my hand around her and pulled her nearer to me. It was several minutes before either of us said anything.
Star wiped the tears from her eyes, and then looked at me and laughed. She reached up and wiped my eyes dry. “We look like two big babies,” she smiled.
“I guess some things never change, do they?” I laughed.
Just then there was a soft knock on the door. Ticker poked his head in and saw us sitting beside each other. He walked over and I stood. He embraced me tightly, as only he could do.
“I’m really sorry, Gene,” he said sympathetically. “If there’s anything I can do.” I nodded and he hugged me again.
“I guess we should go back downstairs,” I suggested to Star. I took her hand and led her from the bedroom with Ticker trailing behind us.
As I descended the stairs and entered the living room, I stopped suddenly. On the other side of the room Joey was talking to my mother. There was a young boy standing beside him, and Joey had his arm protectively around his shoulder.
“I’m really happy, Allen.” It was Sunday afternoon. For the past five years I have come to Allen’s graveside and placed fresh flowers in a vase beside his tombstone. Today they were red and white carnations.
“He’s a great kid,” I choke back the words. “You’d love him. And now he’s my son, our son. Can you believe it? We’re dads.”
I know it sounds funny, but I want Allen to share my excitement. I want my happiness to be his happiness. When I sit in front of his grave, I always feel he is with me. I can feel his love surging inside me. For several years it was the only thing that sustained me.
“I wish you were here with us,” I say tearfully. “He’d love you. You’re both so much alike, so full of life. But I guess you already know that.”
I carefully rearrange the carnations, making sure that they are perfectly set according to color- red, white, red, white. Actually, it is more because of nerves. Something has been troubling me for the past year.
“Listen, Allen.” I begin. “I don’t want you to think that just because Nicky has come into my life that I love you any less. I know that since he’s been with me that I don’t think about you as often. But my love for you has never diminished.”
I sit quietly and listen to the gentle wind blowing through the trees just behind me. Then I know. “You wanted to see me happy. You always told me you didn’t care that I love someone else, as long as I love.” I start to smile. “Just how much did you have a hand in bringing Nicky to me?”
A chill goes up my spine as I close my eyes and hear Allen laugh. I arise, kiss the marble headstone and walk cheerfully to my car. Allen’s love will forever be with me. I know that in my heart.
“I need to talk to you, Doc.” Douglas Campbell paced nervously around my office. He walked over and closed the door. “This is important.”
Douglas, the senior class president, had stopped me in the hallway the day before and asked if he could schedule an appointment with me. I assumed he had something he wanted to discuss about graduation at the end of May, but his nervousness indicated that it was something unrelated to a class activity.
“Would you sit down and stop pacing around the room,” I laughed. “I’m getting dizzy watching you.” He stopped in the center of the room, and for a moment I felt he was going to burst into tears. He walked over, pulled a chair up to my desk and leaned forward.
“Can we talk, like private? Man to man?” He was whispering, afraid that someone in the outer office might hear.
“Of course, Douglas,” I assured him. “Anything you tell me will be confidential. That is, unless you confess to murder or something.” I laughed and tried to make the situation lighter, but he merely frowned and rolled his eyes.
“You know that Jason and Travis are trying to form this gay group here at school?” He waited for my response.
“Yes,” I replied. “I was the one who suggested it. I’ve wanted a gay-straight student alliance here for quite some time.”
He stared me in the eyes. I could tell he was struggling to say something. Finally, he sighed and said, “I want to join it.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he again awaited my response.
“That’s great, Douglas,” I said excitedly. “Jason and Travis will be thrilled. Your leadership skills will be invaluable.” He slumped down in his chair and let out another sigh.
“There’s a problem with that.” He fidgeted in his seat, again carefully measuring his words. “I don’t think you understand.” He paused before continuing, “I’m gay.”
“I see.” I sat back in my chair and studied him for a minute. “You’re not out?” Tears fell from down his cheeks as he shook his head.
“They’re so excited about this,” he replied. “They’re going all around the school trying to get other kids involved. I’ve been in the closet since I was thirteen. But just watching them being proud of who they are... I don’t know...it makes me want to... I don’t know... maybe come out or something.”
He put his head in his hands and wept quietly. I got up, walked around the desk and placed my hand on his shoulder. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” I assured him.
“I know that.” He turned and looked up at me. “But I’m the class president. What would people say?”
“Even class presidents can be gay,” I smiled. He seemed to relax a little. “Do your parents know?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I think they may suspect. I’m eighteen and I’ve never really had a girlfriend. My mom has thrown out a couple of hints the past couple of months. I think she wants me to tell her.”
I gently squeezed his shoulder. “Douglas, I’ve met your parents. They are wonderful individuals. I don’t think they’ll think any less of you if you are gay.”
“But I’m an only son,” he replied sadly.
“So was I,” I responded before I realized what I had said. He swirled around in his chair and stared at me.
“Doc,” he said disbelievingly. “You mean?” I pulled up a chair and sat beside him.
“I told you that anything you said would be confidential,” I said. “I expect the same respect from you.”
“You have my word on that,” he kissed his finger and crossed his heart. He leaned toward me and asked seriously, “Tell me how you handled it.” I gave him a very condensed version of my high school experience, leaving out the sordid details. I trusted him, but I didn’t think it was important that he know all the depressing aspects of my teenage years. Besides, I was trying to get him to feel comfortable about accepting himself. My life experience would have depressed him.
“But you said your parents kicked you out of the house,” he said worriedly. “What if my parents do that to me?”
“The point I was trying to make, is that my parents weren’t good parents,” I replied. “Your parents are caring and supportive. They love you deeply. I’ve seen the pride in their faces when you are involved in some school activity.”
“I still don’t know.” He sat back with a worried look. “What if they’re not proud of me anymore once I tell them?”
“I’ve been around a long time,” I assured him. “I’ve become a pretty good judge of people. I think you being gay won’t affect your parents love for you.”
He sat back and shook his head. I could tell he was really struggling with his emotions.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Are you willing to take a chance and come out to Jason and Travis?” I watched as his mind began to comprehend my suggestion.
“I think so,” he replied apprehensively. “Are they out to their parents?”
“Yes,” I replied. “They told me they were. Maybe talking to them about it will help you make a decision.” He nodded his approval.
“When should I talk to them?” he asked.
“How about now?” He thought for a minute and nodded his head.
I got on the phone and called my secretary. “Delores. Would you check and see what classes Jason Thompson and Travis Armstrong are in right now. Then contact their teachers and ask them to report to my office.”
Ten minutes later, Jason and Travis peeked their head in my office. Their eyes widened when they saw Douglas sitting in the room.
“Gentlemen, come in.” I cheerfully waved them into the room. “I think you know Douglas Campbell.” Both boys walked over and shook Douglas’s hand. “He has some things he’d like to discuss with you.”
I walked over to the door. “I’ll leave you boys alone for a while. Ask my secretary for a pass back to class when you finish.” I then closed the door and walked away. I strolled the hall whistling a tune I’d heard earlier on the car radio.
I returned to my office about a half hour later. The three young men were leaving and talking animatedly as they walked down the hall. Douglas turned and saw me approaching. He gave me a wide grin and a thumbs up as Travis put his arm around his shoulder and led him away.
When I arrived home, I immediately sensed that something was wrong. Star was sitting alone in the family room. She was holding a tissue in her hand and wiping tears from her eyes. My heart started pounding. Since I didn’t see Nicky anywhere, I was afraid something had happened to him.
“What’s wrong?” I asked nervously. “What’s happened?”
She stood up and walked over to me. “Mr. Albright is dead.” I felt immediately relieved that is wasn’t Nicky, but it didn’t minimize the sorrow I felt.
Mr. Albright had become an extremely good friend over the years. When I met Allen, I instantly hated him for how he had treated him. His stepfather’s homophobia had caused Allen to leave home, leaving him virtually alone in the world. If it hadn’t been for his mother, Allen would not have survived those earlier years.
His bitterness had also turned Gene against him. Gene lived in constant fear that his father would find out that he too was gay. It took several years of counseling for him to deal with his father’s influence.
But when Allen became sick, and we decided that he would return home to die, it was his stepfather who provided strength to all of us. He never left his beside, and he was with us both when Allen took his final breath. Mr. Albright took care of all the final arrangements that Allen and I had planned in advance. Not once did he question any decision we made. He even had his personal lawyer check over our joint banking account to prevent anyone from challenging my legal status.
Mr. and Mrs. Albright were frequent dinner guests, and Nicky and I were often asked over to dinner at their home. They adored Nicky, and they treated him as if he was their own son. On several occasions we argued over them buying him things that I had told him he couldn’t have. It wasn’t because he couldn’t have them, but I expected him to earn them. They, however, would merely appear one night and secretly give them to him when I wasn’t watching.
I sat down, numb from the news of his passing. It took me several minutes before I could respond. Star had sat beside me, holding my hand and gently rubbing it.
“Does Nicky know?” I asked. I knew Mr. Albright’s passing would be very difficult for him. He was extremely close to him and thought of him as a grandfather.
Star shook her head. “No,” she said. “I thought it was best that you tell him.”
“What happened?” All she had told me was that he had died. She explained how Mrs. Albright had gone out into the yard and found him lying dead with the lawn mower still idling.
“How is she?”
“She’s holding up,” Star replied. “This was so unexpected. They were drinking coffee together in the kitchen just a half hour earlier. She said he was cheerful, and there was no indication that anything was wrong. Gene and Tina are flying in from California.” She looked at her watch. “They will be arriving soon. She asked me to drive to the airport with her to pick them up.”
Star and I stood. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “You’d better go tell Nicky. Come by the Albright house later. Ticker and I will be there, and I’m sure Gene and Tina would like to see you again.” I walked her to the door and watched as she got in her car and drove away.
I let out a deep sigh. I then turned and headed up the stairs to Nicky’s room. What do you say to a kid whose life had undergone so many changes over the past two years? He had formed bonds and placed unconditional trust in his new family. Now one of those bonds was broken. How does a thirteen year old boy deal with such a loss?
Even though I knew Nicky was mature beyond his young years, he never ceased to amaze me. I guess loosing his mother at eleven had strengthened his character. He cried when I told him of Mr. Albright’s death. However, his main concern was for me.
He was worried how the death of Allen’s father would affect me. Like him, he knew that I had no family, or at least one that I could claim. The Albright’s had become my surrogate family. I had told him about Allen’s death and how Mr. Albright had been a source of strength and comfort to me following his loss.
“You gonna be okay, Dad?” He asked worriedly as he put his head on my shoulder. Tearfully, I leaned over and kissed him on his forehead.
“You know I love you, don’t you?” He smiled widely.
“Yeah,” he giggled. “I kinda figured that out.” I pulled him into another hug.
“Why don’t we go out to dinner,” I suggested, “and then we’ll stop by the Albright home. Aunt Star and Uncle Ticker will be there. You can also meet your Uncle Gene. He’s Allen’s younger brother. You haven’t met him yet.”
He asked, “Isn’t he that blonde guy in the football jersey?” I had forgotten that I had shown him the picture of Gene when he played on the high school football team. Mrs. Albright had given it to Allen when he once asked for a picture of Gene. It became one of Allen’s favorite pictures.
“Yep,” I said. “However, I’m sure he doesn’t look like that today.” I hadn’t seen Gene in a couple of years, but the last time he visited he still looked remarkably handsome. The years had been kind him. While I seemed to always grow older, Star and Gene were like Peter Pan. They never seemed to age.
After I saw Joey talking to my mother, I retreated without them seeing me and headed out onto the back deck. I sat by the pool and listened as the water bubbled gently along the sides. A few minutes later, the door open and Star walked out and approached me. She handed me an iced tea, and then she took the seat beside me.
“You all right?” she asked softly. “I know how hard this must be for you.”
“Yeah, right,” I answered sarcastically. Star gave me a quizzical look.
To be honest, I really didn’t care that my father was dead. I had spent years in therapy trying to undo the psychological damage he did to me. Parents can go to jail for physically abusing their children, but no one says a damn word when a parent destroys a young child’s mind.
I had grown to hate him since I was a teenager. I had struggled with my sexuality at an early age. Then I saw how he treated Allen. He destroyed him. I knew that if he ever found out that I shared the same traits, he’d disown and destroy me also.
So I spent years in therapy, and I eventually denied that I was gay. I was gay, however, but I hid it so deeply and placed it in a box- never to be opened. But then Joey came into my life. I was immediately attracted to him, but I could never confess it to him or myself. It killed me when he met my brother and they became lovers. They were so happy. So damned happy. I was almost destroyed again.
So I ran. About as far away as I could go. Two thousand miles on the other coast. I married and lived a life I grew to hate. All because of him.
If only I had Allen’s strength. Most people found him weak, but to me he was like a god. He stood up to that beast- my father. When Dad called him a fag, he said, “Fuck you!” Fuck you. He actually said that to my father. Of course, Dad put him out of the house, but he stood his ground. I was so proud of him.
Years later, when Allen lay dying, Dad tried to make amends. Allen was too sick to care, and Joey found it admirable. But to me, it was the old man trying to find absolution. He needed to seek forgiveness before it was too late. Allen gave it to him.
But what about me? Did he one time try to make amends with me? He didn’t even care. The times Tina and I returned home to visit during holidays, he hardly said anything to me. In his eyes, I had become the prodigal son.
But when I saw Joey tonight, all the old hurt resurfaced. Joey could have been mine if Dad had been more tolerant and understanding. If only he hadn’t hated so much, then I could have told Joey how I felt about him.
I did once; one dark night and with too much to drink. I kissed him on that porch. That kiss that almost destroyed my life. That kiss, if Dad had discovered, would have destined me to a life of loneliness like it did Allen.
Ironically though, Dad’s actions were the beginning of a chain of events that eventually brought Allen and Joey together. Allen once told me how he and Joey met- two lost guys on a bridge with nothing but despair. Two guys on a mission to end their lives, only to be brought closer together. A mission that ruined my only chance at love.
“Gene?” Star’s voice shook me from my somber thoughts.
“Who was that boy with Joey tonight?” Star was watching me thoughtfully. After an awkward minute, she spoke.
“I guess you haven’t heard yet,” she responded. “That’s Nicky, Joey’s son.”
I looked over at Star in disbelief. “His son?”