I stared at the inscription on the tombstone. It was difficult to imagine that Allen had been dead for over five years. It seemed like only yesterday that we were taking slow walks around our neighborhood.
“I don’t even know how to begin.” I looked up and watched the clouds drifting slowly above my head. “Something is happening, and I don’t know just what to do about it.”
I picked at a blade of grass, tossed it aside and then reached for another. I don’t recall ever being so confused in my entire lifetime, and I had gone through quite a bit. I’d always been able to stay above water, and I could face head-on any problem that faced me. But this one I couldn’t.
Somehow I had let Gene slip slowly into our lives. I’m not even sure I can explain what happened. One day he was there. He became like a stray puppy you find on the street and take him in, he grows on you. Each day you say you can’t keep him, but each day it becomes harder to find him a new home.
That’s how it was with Gene. He crept into our lives and became a part of us. Nicky made it clear he missed him. At first I thought it was just the blueberry pancakes he missed, but then I saw something in his eyes I’d never seen before- a sadness. After two weeks, I thought it might become better, but it hasn’t. Last night I passed Nicky’s room and he was whispering to someone on the phone. When I checked his cell phone later, he had called Gene. In fact, it appeared he had been calling him almost daily. When I confronted him about it this morning, he told me he missed Uncle Gene.
“He wants to come back,” Nicky insisted. “He’s miserable in California.”
“Why doesn’t he?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Nicky replied as his eyes filled with tears. “I think it has something to do with you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “It has something to do with me?”
“He talks about you,” Nicky replied. “Then he’ll stop. He says it hurts too much.” He looked at me waiting for a response. I took a sip of coffee and thought about what he’d said.
I suddenly realized that Gene was experiencing the same feelings I was. However, neither of us was willing to admit how we felt about each other. Thinking back, he had tried on several occasions; but I had refused to accept it. The touches and caresses. The late night conversations and the snuggling together on the sofa while watching a movie. All these I thought he had done to help me heal from my wounds. Now I realized that they were much more. Gene was in love with me, and I was scared that I was falling in love with him.
“I don’t know what to do, Allen,” I cried. “He’s your brother, but I think I’m falling in love with him. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe he wanted it to happen. I don’t know.”
Suddenly, the wind picked up and I felt a cold breeze against my neck. Chills ran down my spine. I looked up and the sun peeked out from behind a cloud. A few minutes later, warmth surrounded me.
I reached out and ran my hand across the marble stone. “I love you, Allen. I always will. But it was you who insisted that I fall in love someday. A month ago I would have rejected the idea. But now, I’m not sure.”
Star walked up beside me and sat down. She took my hand and squeezed it. “You know Allen never wanted you to live your life alone.”
“I’m not alone,” I insisted. “I’ve got Nicky.”
“Yes,” she replied. “You have Nicky, and he loves you. But you need another kind of love, too. Someday Nicky is going to grow up and leave home. He’ll fall in love and then marry.” She reached out and brushed my hair. “Then you’ll be all alone again.”
Tears stained my face as I looked at her. “But he’s Allen’s brother,” I leaned in and wept on her shoulder. “It doesn’t seem right.”
She rubbed my back. “Yes, he’s Allen’s brother. But Allen loved Gene. He told us many times he wished that Gene was happy. He knew Gene was gay, and he always feared he’d die an unhappy man. Somehow I feel he’d be comforted knowing that you brought happiness to his brother’s life.”
“Do you really think so?” She nodded. Both of us could hardly see for the tears in our eyes.
“I know so,” she said as we fell into each other’s arms and wept. When I pulled away, the sun was shining brightly.
I think I’m going nuts here. California can be a really lonely place if you’ve got nothing to do. I’m staying in a Holiday Inn Express. It’s expensive, but where else am I going to stay?
I’m only going to stay long enough to finalize the divorce. After the incident in the restaurant back home, Tina wasted no time in filing for divorce. She’s having one of the other attorneys in her office handling it. She wants it to be clean and quick. She gets to keep the house, and I get my Mercedes. Since we each had separate bank accounts, there should be no problem with our individual finances.
Since Tina makes a sizeable income, she is asking for no alimony. I’m not sure I can afford it anyway. I quit my job at Amalgamated Biotech Research Laboratories as soon as I returned. Mr. Jefferson wasn’t happy, but he did agree on giving me a nice severance package. It should hold me until I can find something else.
And then there’s the matter of child support. Can you believe it? The one time in two years Tina and I have sex, and she gets pregnant. I think that’s why she’s not fighting me in court for money. I finally gave her what she wanted. A close mutual friend told me she is beaming with excitement about having a child. Right now we’re not going to deal with figures. I fully intend to take care of the child we created together.
I never thought I’d want to be a father, but living with Nicky quickly changed my mind. He’s a great kid, and I grew to love him like a son in the few weeks I lived with him and Joey.
God! I miss them so much. There’s hardly an hour goes by I don’t think about them. I remember how excited Nicky would become when I’d put a plate of my blueberry pancakes in front of him at the kitchen table before he’d go off to school. I laugh when I recall how he wrinkled up his nose the first time I made them, but then he wolfed them down like he hadn’t eaten in weeks.
I loved our talks on the way to school in the morning. He was growing up quickly, and he was experiencing the normal angst that typical teenagers go through. Well, maybe not normal. Most guys his age become interested in girls. I almost wrecked the car the first time he told me he thought he was gay.
He kept probing me for information, but I didn’t have a lot to share. I hadn’t grown up a typical teenager. I had hidden my feelings for years, so how could I give him good advice? My face reddened when he once asked me if I had ever liked any boys. He giggled when I told him I did have a crush on a boy when I was in the seventh grade. Typical of Nicky, he was relentless for days trying to get me to tell him about it. Finally, I admitted it had been Joey.
“You liked Dad!” He squealed. He bounced around in the car hollering, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!”
Later that night, I made him take a secret oath that he would tell no one what I had said. He licked his finger and crossed his heart. I still don’t think he’s told anyone.
Since I had confessed to him, he told me he had a crush on a boy also. I had an idea who it was since he had become a frequent visitor to our home, but I wanted him to tell me.
“I like Eddie.” His face reddened when he told me.
“Really?” He grinned when I looked over at him and raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, Uncle Gene,” he replied excitedly. “I think he likes me back.”
“How do you know that?”
“He kissed me last night.” His faced reddened even darker.
I tried to smile as I told him, “Cherish that first kiss, Nicky. You’ll remember it a lifetime.”
“I know,” he smiled broadly. “Did you ever kiss a boy?”
This time it was my turn to turn red. Nicky laughed when he saw the look on my face. “You have, haven’t you?” He asked excitedly, “Who?”
When I didn’t answer, and he saw my face redden brighter, he squealed, “You kissed Dad, didn’t you?” Later that night, he licked his finger and crossed his heart again.
He calls my cell phone almost daily. He tells me he misses me and he wants me to come home. I don’t tell him how much it hurts me to hear him say that.
I left because I realized it wouldn’t work, and it was killing me to stay. Every time Joey leaned into me when we were watching television and rested his head on my shoulder, I’d feel like someone was taking my heart in their hands and crushing it. At night I’d lay awake and hope that just once Joey would show me some kind of affection, but he never did. There were times I’d notice him staring at me, but I just figured he was wondering what my motives were. If only he knew I was deeply in love with him. It killed me not to be able to say those three little words to him. Now I doubt I’ll ever get the chance.
When the divorce is final, I’m thinking of moving to Europe. I was in London a few years ago, and I fell in love with the city. I know I don’t really want to go, but I figure if I can put the Atlantic Ocean between me and Joey, then maybe I can somehow find someone else and live a happy life. Only thing is, I don’t want anyone else.
“Well, Dr. Carpenter,” Star asked as she knotted the tie around my neck tightly. “Are you ready for your first day back to school?”
“I’m scared to death,” I admitted. I wasn’t afraid physically, but emotionally. The outpouring of support for the past month had overwhelmed me. Since I had regained most of my strength, my living room was filled at nights with staff and students. I had gotten hundreds of get well cards from all over the country. Ticker would open them before I had a chance to read them, sorting through the ones that contained hateful comments. One he found so threatening that he turned it over to the police.
“You’ll be fine,” she replied as she buttoned my suit jacket. “There are a lot of people out there who love you.”
Star watched as the smile on my face faded. She took my hand and held it. “Did you call him yet?”
“And say what?” I asked. “I can’t get you out of my mind, and I want you to come back to me and Nicky?”
“That would be a good start,” she smiled.
I attempted a faint smile. “Come on,” I said. “I can’t be late my first day back.”
Nicky was in the kitchen with Eddie when we walked in. He often came by to ride with Nicky to school before heading back home to be schooled by his mother. Last week Nicky and I had our first real argument since I adopted him. He and Eddie had decided that it would be a good idea if Mrs. Davis could teach Nicky also. That way they could spend more time together. We had compromised by letting him go over to their house after he got off school so they could work on their homework together. I’m not sure how much work gets done, but his grades seemed to be improving. I think a lot of it has to do with him trying to impress Eddie.
“Hey, Dad.” He and Eddie had been holding hands under the table when we entered. His face reddened when he realized I had seen them.
“Hi, Mr. Carpenter,” Eddie smiled. He got up from the table, walked over and hugged me. “You ready for your big day?”
“I guess I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be,” I responded. Nicky walked over and hugged me.
“I don’t know why I can’t go with you,” he whined.
“Because school is more important,” I insisted. He huffed and sat back down.
He then turned to Eddie and stated, “Don’t ever have a Dad for a principal.” Eddie giggled and sat down closely beside him.
I walked around behind them, took their hands and interlaced them. I leaned down and whispered, “It’s all right boys, but only in the house.” They blushed before getting up and hugging me again.
“Thanks, Dad.” Nicky said as he wrapped his arms tightly around me. “I love you.”
Returning to school was even more emotional than I thought it would be. When Star drove me up to the front entrance, a huge banner was draped over the front that read:
WELCOME BACK DOC!
There was loud applause as I got out of the van. I just stood and waved, completely moved by the scene around me. I noticed several television cameramen moving around and shooting the event.
A welcoming committee formed on the steps leading to the wooden doorway. Dr. Garvin was the first person I approached. He was followed by Ms. Meadows. Beside her stood a beaming Douglas Campbell.
“You’re responsible for this, aren’t you?” I asked when I hugged him.
“You got it, Doc,” he beamed proudly. “Nothing’s too good for the Doc.” I was quickly mobbed by students who were trying to hug me and express their well wishes.
It took me about twenty minutes to make my way to the office. I was exhausted by the time I sat down at my desk. On top of it were cards and letters that students had made for me.
Dr. Garvin entered and closed the door. He sat in a chair across from my desk. “How does it feel to be back, Dr. Carpenter?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “This is just so overwhelming.” I looked around the office and noticed that it had been freshly painted and new carpeting had been installed. A sick feeling swept over me when I realized it had been remodeled to cover up the blood stains.
“I have some wonderful news for you,” announced Dr. Garvin as he attempted to divert my attention from the room’s interior. “I have spoken to some local corporations, and they have agreed to fund the Gay-Straight Alliance here at Southwestern. We also have some statewide agencies who have agreed to volunteer as sponsors. If this takes off, it will become a model for other schools to follow.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I was happy that my dream for such an organization would become a reality; but yet, there had been such a high price for it to occur. One man was dead, and two people had been shot.
Sensing my change of mood, Dr. Garvin walked over and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Relax, Joey,” he said. “The sensationalism behind this will be only temporary. However, what you’ve managed to accomplish will be something that will benefit gay students for years to come. That is quite a legacy.”
I stood and shook his hand. “Thank you, Dr. Garvin, for believing in me. I didn’t do this alone. There are a lot of students who helped create this. They deserve most of the credit.”
“And they will,” he smiled. “I have talked to Doug Campbell, and we have arranged for the first meeting next Friday. Our sponsors are having a banquet in the school cafeteria for all those who want to join. Doug tells me they have over two hundred signatures.”
“That’s great,” I responded. I couldn’t believe that so many students were willing to participate. When the idea first came to me, I envisioned about a dozen students who would be willing to come out openly or give support to a friend who is gay. It had exceeded every expectation I had.
“Here’s the program.” He handed me a rainbow colored pamphlet. On the front was inscribed, Southwestern Gay and Straight Alliance. Under it was a quote, “Tolerance, Understanding and Support.”
I looked through it and stopped suddenly when my eyes came upon the keynote speaker: Dr. Joseph Carpenter. “I can’t do this.” I looked with concern at Dr. Garvin.
He laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. “Yes, you can. And you will. No one can address these students like you can. They have the deepest respect and admiration for you. It would be an insult not to have you as their first speaker.”
I sighed and sat down. Dr. Garvin laughed. “Don’t worry, Joey. Just tell them what’s in your heart.”
What’s in my heart? What is in my heart? I wasn’t even sure anymore.
The next week was spent preparing for the banquet. What started out as a small dinner had turned into a huge event. By the middle of the week, we had to make plans to move it from the school cafeteria to a larger banquet hall downtown. With the help of some generous donors, we were able to change the program and send out new announcements.
“How many tickets have we sold?” I asked Douglas on Thursday afternoon. He, Travis, Jason and four other students were on the membership committee. I had assigned them the task of selling tickets to the banquet.
“As of this morning, five hundred and sixty four,” he responded happily.
“Can you believe it, Dr. Carpenter?” Jerome Foster, one of the straight students on the committee asked. “We’ve sold over a hundred to straight kids. It seems like everyone wants to be a part of this.”
I shook my head in disbelief. I looked at the excited students sitting around me. They had believed in an idea, and they made it happen. I felt that they were being cheated because all the media attention was being focused on me. It was they, though, who should be receiving the accolades.
I walked over to a closet, pulled out a large bag and handed it to Douglas.
“What’s this?” He opened the bag and pulled out a sweater. He held it up and showed it to the others. The sweater was a pale yellow and contained an insignia of a rainbow flag on the breast. On the back were the words: Tolerance, Understanding and Support. Under the insignia was embroidered the name Travis. Douglas handed it to him and pulled out another and handed it to Diana, one of the lesbian girls on the committee.
I had ordered the sweaters for the students on the committee. I wanted them to stand out during the dinner and be recognized for their contribution to organizing the group. With the help of a corporate sponsor, every student who attended three meetings would receive a sweater with their name embroidered on it.
“This is so cool, Dr. Carpenter,” beamed Jason as he pulled the sweater over his head. Travis leaned in and kissed him on his cheek.
“Yellow looks good on you,” he told him.
“I want you to wear these tomorrow night,” I said. I then informed them of my idea of giving them to others who joined the alliance. They all seemed to like the idea. However, Travis made a point that students should be allowed to pick out their own colors for the sweater.
“He wants his to be pink,” remarked Jason, who immediately received a slap on the back of the head.
When school let out Friday afternoon, my stomach felt like a milk churn. I don’t think I’d ever been so nervous in my entire life. It didn’t help when I stopped by the banquet hall to see how things were going, only to see several local news trucks setting up outside. Jerome’s father was editor of the local newspaper, and I later learned he had notified the media of the event.
Star was to be my chauffer for the evening. I could usually depend on her to calm my nerves. However, even she seemed nervous. She kept pacing back and forth in the kitchen.
“What is wrong with you?” I asked. “I’m already nervous enough.”
She looked at me innocently. “What do you mean? Nothing’s wrong with me.” She looked at the clock on the wall, and then again at her watch.
“Are we running late?” I asked. I looked at the time. It was only 6:06. The dinner didn’t begin until 7:30.
“No,” she said nervously. “We have plenty of time.” Again, she checked the time on her watch.
We arrived at the banquet hall just before seven. After Ticker, Nicky, Eddie and I emerged from the car, Star rolled down the window and informed us she had left her camera at home. Without saying anything else, she sped off, leaving us standing in the parking lot.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked a confused Ticker.
“I don’t know,” he replied. I could tell he was hiding something from me, but I was already too nervous to worry about it.
The hall was filled when we arrived. People turned and applauded as we walked into the hall. Douglas, Travis, Jason and Diana approached me. They were wearing the yellow sweaters I had given them.
“This is a great idea, Doc,” beamed Douglas. “Everyone has been asking how they can get one.”
I walked around greeting people. Most were students and their parents. It was reassuring the number of parents who had attended to show support for their child. Many were wearing jackets or sweaters with the PFLAG emblem. They had even set up a table in one corner of the large room. When I walked over they thanked me for organizing the Gay and Straight Alliance at Southwestern, they said their membership had tripled in the past month.
I could hardly eat anything. Nicky kept trying to get me to eat something, but the way my stomach was feeling, I was afraid I’d get sick before I was to give my speech.
I felt better after listening to Douglas’s speech. He spoke of our three goals: tolerance, understanding and support. I was moved to tears when he looked over at me and told me that I exemplified all three. The room burst into applause, and I was given a standing ovation.
Dr. Garvin introduced me. He talked about how I had approached him with my idea of a gay and straight alliance at our school. He admitted that at first he had been apprehensive; but looking out at the audience, he was glad he had made the right decision.
When I took the podium, the room immediately erupted into applause. Over the loud clapping, I asked that the members of the organization committee join me at the podium. I hugged each of them as they approached, and I thanked them personally for all the time and effort they had put into organizing the event.
When the applause finally subsided, I said into the microphone. “This isn’t about me. It’s about them.” I held their hands, and we lifted our arms into the air while the room once again broke into applause.
I spoke for about twenty minutes. I discussed my life and revealed some personal incidences that had transformed me into the person I had become.
“It doesn’t matter where you have come from,” I announced. “It’s what you do with what you have learned. I came from a broken home. I was abandoned by my family, and despised by my father. I was rejected by almost everyone in my school.” I looked over at Ticker and fought back the tears I felt welling up in my eyes. “Yet some people still believed in me.” My voice shook with emotion.
“I fell in love with a man when the deck was dealt against us.” I wiped away tears and waited a minute before I could continue. “We shared a wonderful life together for fifteen years. I wouldn’t change a minute of the life we lived.”
“And today, my life is richer than it’s ever been.” I held back tears as I looked over at Nicky. “I have a wonderful son who I love and adore.” Eddie put his arm around Nicky and pulled him in tightly.
“I have shared with you this evening...” Just then Star appeared at the door. I had worried about her because she hadn’t joined us for dinner. When I told Ticker I was concerned about her, he kept assuring me that she was all right.
I stopped my speech when Gene stepped up beside her. He looked across the room and smiled timidly at me. Everyone turned to see what had caused me to stop speaking. When Nicky saw Gene standing in to doorway, he shouted out, “Uncle Gene!” He got up, ran across the room and jumped into his arms. After an emotional minute, he took Gene’s hand and led him back to our table.
Nervously, I tried to finish my speech.
“I have shared with you this evening my life story. Like most of our lives, it is a roller coaster ride, filled with joyful ups and depressing downs. But despite the depressing downs, I wouldn’t change a thing. The smiling faces before me are a testament that I have done something right.”
I looked around at all the students in the room. Many were young couples, male and female, who had their arms around each other.
“And in conclusion, my wish for you is that you find an everlasting love. I wish that all your dreams come true, and that your hopes and wishes exceed your expectations. Be tolerant of each other, understand diversity, and most importantly,” I looked over at Gene and said, “Don’t be afraid to love.”
“I’m exhausted,” Joey announced as we walked into the house. He pulled off his tie and toed off his shoes as soon as he entered.
“You were great, Dad,” beamed Nicky. “It’s kind of cool having a dad who is a big celebrity.”
Then he walked over to me and gave me a hug. “I can’t believe you came, Uncle Gene.”
I couldn’t either. Star had called me last week and insisted that I come for the dinner. She even made the airplane reservations and had the ticket sent to me. It was one- way. She called me last night and warned me that if I wasn’t on the plane when it arrived, she was booking the next flight to California. There were several threats of bodily harm. By the tone of her voice, I wasn’t sure if she was kidding.
Any time I tried to argue that it wasn’t a good idea, she’d stop me. “Please, Gene,” she insisted. “Give it one more chance. If you come back and you don’t think it will work, then I’ll buy you a ticket to London. I’ll even take you to the airport.”
“Star, I don’t...” The phone went dead. Reluctantly, I went into my bedroom and began packing. Twelve hours later, I departed the plane to find Star waiting nervously for me.
When we entered the banquet hall, Joey was standing at the podium. The room was transfixed on what he was saying. I could tell that he had complete control of the audience. Many people were wiping away tears.
I blushed when he stopped and looked at me. Everyone in the room turned and stared at me. The next thing I knew, Nicky was jumping into my arms. I buried my head into his shoulder. It felt good to be home once again.
“I’m hungry, Uncle Gene,” Nicky announced. He looked over at me with pleading eyes. “Can you fix some blueberry pancakes?” He reached out and took Eddie’s hand. “Eddie’s never tried them.”
It surprised me when he held his hand. I guess a lot had happened in the weeks that I had left. I looked over at Joey, but he didn’t seem surprised by their show of affection.
“You just ate,” admonished Joey.
“But we’re growing boys,” grinned Nicky. He looked over at me with another pleading look. “Please, Uncle Gene.”
I sighed and grabbed the skillet from the pantry. As we later ate, it felt as if I had never left. Joey, however, said very little. However, I could tell he was happy I had returned. Several times I looked over at him and he would smile back.
We went into the den and watched a movie on the television. Nicky and Eddie lay on the floor. Nicky rested his head on Eddie’s stomach and fell asleep. I was surprised when Joey nodded off and let his head fall onto my shoulder. It seemed like it did when he was still recovering from his gunshot and would rest against me.
Nicky woke up later and announced, “I’m tired. I want to go to bed.” He looked over at Joey resting against me and grinned.
Joey stirred, and then he sat up. “Okay, boys,” he said. “Go to bed.” They sleepily rose and headed up the stairs.
“One other thing.” They stopped and turned to look at him. “Leave the door to your bedroom open.”
“Dad!” Nicky shrieked. Joey started laughing as Nicky’s face reddened. He grabbed Eddie’s hand and pulled him up the stairs.
When we went by his bedroom ten minutes later, the bedroom door was open and the boys were sound asleep in twin beds. Joey started laughing and said, “I’ll tell you about it later.”
I followed him down the hallway, until I realized he was heading into his bedroom. I turned and headed to the guestroom. He reached out and grabbed my arm.
“Thanks for coming back,” he said. “Nicky’s missed you something awful.”
I tried to say something, but I was too saddened. I knew Nicky had missed me. I wanted to hear that he had. I then turned and went into my bedroom.
I had been lying in bed about a half hour staring at the ceiling. Nothing had changed. While we had eaten, I thought briefly that Joey did feel something for me. His casual glances out of the corner of his eye, and the smiles he had given me, gave me hope that he was happy I had returned. Listening to him snoring lightly when he had fallen asleep on my shoulder gave me a sense of assurance that I could be a part of his world.
“Nicky missed you something awful.” Didn’t you miss me, Joey? Didn’t you feel something was missing when I left? I thought about you constantly. Did you think about me at all?
I had almost dozed off when I heard a light tapping at my door. It opened and I could make out Joey’s silhouette in the doorway. He slowly crept across the room and then sat down on the bed. His shoulders sagged, and then he leaned down and placed his head in his hands.
I reached out and pulled away his hand and held it, rubbing it gently. He leaned down and looked at me. “You know I loved Allen. I just can’t right now.”
“I know,” I whispered. I pulled back the covers and he crawled in beside me. I turned and spooned my body into his and held him tightly. I held him for about five minutes when he let out a deep sigh. He rolled over and faced me.
In the darkness, we looked into each other’s eyes. He then leaned in and returned the kiss we had shared twenty years earlier.