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About Altimexis

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  1. Last spring, Jeff was reunited with his long lost love, whom he last saw nearly fifty years ago, when they were both in their teens. Abandoning a life in California and moving in with Paul in New York City, merging two lifetimes into a 3-bedroom prewar apartment proved to be more difficult than either of them imagined. Things come to a head when they can’t agree on how to renovate the kitchen. Leave it to Paul’s grandson, Seth, to come to the rescue with a surprise plan, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
  2. Seth Moore grew up on New York’s Lower East side, the son of a New York State assemblyman. He loved his dad and admired his dedication, but then his dad was arrested on federal charges of corruption. It couldn’t be! When the Feds moved against his boyfriend’s family and seized their restaurants, their only means of support, something had to be done. Would Seth’s dad cop a plea to insider trading and go prison for a crime he didn’t commit, all for the sake of his son and the boy he loved?
  3. I was practically comatose as the teacher went on and on about Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry, when my counselor, Mr. Reynolds, appeared at the classroom door. The teacher Interrupted her discussion and went to the door, speaking to Mr. Reynolds for a moment before turning toward me and calling out my name. “Seth, gather up your books and backpack. You’ll be going with Mr. Reynolds.” When I got to the door, Mr. Reynolds gently grabbed my arm and guided me down the hall. I certainly didn’t think I’d done anything wrong and he didn’t seem to be treating me as if I had. My first thought was that one of my family was hurt and maybe in the hospital — or worse. When we got to the elevators and he pushed the button, I asked, “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” “I think it would be better if we wait until we’re downstairs,” he replied. Now I was really getting worried. Sensing my nervousness, he squeezed my arm, which only made my impending sense of panic that much worse. When we got down to the administrative offices, the way everyone was staring at me had me convinced someone important to me had died. That sense was only magnified when Mr. Reynolds led me into Dr. Epstein’s office, where Gary and Asher were already seated. However, neither of them got up and hugged me or anything like that, so it seemed unlikely anyone was hurt. Nevertheless, something really serious was going on. That fact was exemplified by the way Mr. Reynolds shut the door behind him as he left. “Seth,” Gary began, “there’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it. Your father has been arrested…” “Arrested!” I practically shouted. “There must be some mistake! My dad’s as honest as they come. There’s no way he couldda been arrested. No way!” Sighing, Gary continued, “Unfortunately, wrongdoing has little to do with it when it comes to politics. He was arrested a short while ago by Federal agents, apparently acting on the orders of the Attorney General… the Attorney General of the United States, not the Attorney General of New York. There was a brief news conference on the steps of the State House in Albany. All that was said was that your father had been under investigation for corruption by the Justice Department and that substantial evidence of corruption had been uncovered.” “That’s preposterous!” I responded. “Dad’s probably the least corrupt politician in Albany.” “I probably don’t need to tell you, Mr. Moore, that guilt or innocence has little to do with public perception when it comes to politics,” Dr. Epstein chimed in. “We’ve certainly seen evidence of that from as high as the Oval Office. That this was politically motivated seems pretty obvious, but to the public, it won’t really matter. “Ordinarily, corruption in the state legislature is investigated by the state attorney general under the direction of the governor’s office. The Feds would only become involved if there were evidence of corruption in the governor’s office, and then it would be the FBI that would investigate. The State Department generally doesn’t get directly involved in cases of corruption at the state level because of the potential for claims of political influence. With this president, however, it seems he could care less about appearances or the use of his office for political purposes. Not that I’m alleging anything. Ultimately, that will be for the voters to decide, but suffice it to say, your father has become a perceived threat and the president has acted to neutralize him.” “Holy, shit, we’re fucked,” I said as I plopped down into an empty chair, and then the ramifications finally dawned on me, and so I asked, “Is it all over the news?” “That’s why I’m here,” Gary replied. “After your father was taken into custody by Federal marshals, your mother became preoccupied with mobilizing resources to fight this and to get your dad out of jail. Unfortunately, she can’t divide her time between dealing with a political crisis and with her family at the same time. “Naturally, with such a public arrest and a hasty news conference afterwards, it didn’t take long for a customer to mention it to me, at which point I checked my phone and got the scoop, such as it was. I then immediately called your mother on her private cell number and reassured her I would care for you while she concentrates on more pressing matters.” “Are my parents still up in Albany?” I asked. Shaking his head, Gary answered, “After he was taken into custody, your father would have been taken to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which is a Federal jail located right here in Manhattan. He’s probably still in-route there. In the meantime, your mother’s on her way back here. It’ll be easier for her to operate out of your father’s office in The City and to stay in your apartment.” “When will Dad be arraigned?” I asked. “Most likely in the morning, in the Federal Courthouse on Center Street. The charges will be read and your dad will enter a plea of not guilty, and his attorney will request he be released on his own recognizance. At least that’s what your mother said would happen.” “But the DA will ask for bail,” I interjected. “Not the DA, but a US Attorney, since it’ll be in Federal court. He most certainly won’t allow your dad to be released on his own recognizance,” Dr. Epstein answered. “In fact, it’s quite likely he’ll ask the judge to deny bail, citing your father’s flight risk. Most judges would simply confiscate your father’s passport and set a six- or seven-figure bail, but there’s always a possibility the judge will grant the attorney’s request. If that happens, he’d probably remain at the Metro Correctional Center, but if the judge expects him to remain in custody throughout what could be a lengthy trial, he may remand your father to a minimum-security Federal prison such as the one in Otisville.” “Shit, Mom needs to hire the best lawyer in America,” I responded. “At a cost of at least a grand an hour,” Asher chimed in for the first time. “Fuck, the case could drag on for months or even years,” I replied. “We don’t have that kinda money.” “Perhaps the Feds don’t really have anything on your father after all,” Asher suggested. “Perhaps it’s all political payback for something the president perceives your dad did or said. Perhaps this’ll all be dismissed in a matter of days.” “Perhaps… but not likely,” I countered. “The thing is, even if this is resolved quickly, he’ll always be tainted. How’s he gonna run for governor or the Senate if people think he’s a crook. The mere allegation of corruption could kill his chances.” “Let’s focus on keeping him out of prison, shall we?” Gary responded. “We can worry about his future in politics later.” “I need to see him,” I stated with conviction. Sighing deeply, Gary responded, “I understand how you feel, Seth. Not that I’ve been in a situation like this before, mind you, but you mean a lot to me. I felt much the same way when Bernice had her accident last summer, but I could still see her every day and I knew she’d be alright in the end. Unfortunately, it could be some time before you’ll be able to see your father. It’ll happen, but not right away. All things legal happen in due time.” “This really blows,” I complained. “Yeah, it does,” Gary agreed. Then it suddenly dawned on me that in all the time I’d known him, I’d never heard Gary speak of his own family. Not once. I’d met some of Asher’s cousins — Bernice’s nieces and nephews, and I’d heard her speak of a brother, but never of her parents or any other siblings, aunts or uncles. I’d always had the impression that Bernice’s parents didn’t approve of her marrying Gary, but at least she was on speaking terms with her family. I couldn’t help but wonder if Gary was estranged from his family but wasn’t sure how to even bring the subject up. Perhaps I’d ask Asher about it before discussing it with Gary, if ever. “Things could get a little rough around here,” Dr. Epstein interjected. “It’s already all over the news and I wouldn’t doubt that some of your peers already know. By the end of the day, I’d imagine the entire student body’s going to know, not to mention the store clerks and strangers you may meet around your neighborhood, but the worst of it will probably happen here. I’ll meet with all your teachers and do everything I can to prevent any overt bullying or other abuse. However, no matter how much we might remind students that your father’s innocent until proven guilty, they’re still going to talk about it behind your back. The more brazen will talk about it in front of you, and there’s not much I can do about it unless it becomes physical. “You might be tempted to respond to everything you hear, perhaps even violently, but you could get in a lot of trouble for that. I probably don’t need to mention it, but in responding to the taunts, you’ll only be reinforcing people’s perceptions of your father’s guilt. Although it will be very difficult at times, the best thing you can do is to simply walk away. “Do you think you can do that, Seth?” She was right. Everyone was gonna know. Fuck, they probably already did, or would as soon as the bell rang and the texts and tweets started flying. How in fuck was I gonna handle all the attention? Could I really just walk away from it all? Did I even have a choice? Dr. Epstein was absolutely right. In reacting to the taunts, I’d only reinforce the idea that Dad was guilty. And the more I reacted, the more taunts there’d be. It wasn’t gonna be easy, but no matter what I felt, I was gonna hafta keep it to myself. At least we had friends, but would they stand by me? I had to believe that they would, and with their help, and Asher’s, I’d get through this. Rather than answer her, I merely nodded my head. “There’s something else we need to talk about,” Gary went on, “and it’s one of the main reasons I wanted Dr. Epstein to sit in on the discussion, as it could complicate your time here in a number of ways. “It’s very common in cases of corruption for the Feds to seize a suspect’s assets to prevent them from moving their assets offshore. At the least, they’ll put a lean on the suspect’s property and freeze all their bank accounts once they’ve completed their initial investigation. The fact that they have not done so attests to the hasty nature of the inquiry and that they went public with arresting your father before they were ready to go to trial. Unfortunately, It’s probably only a matter of time before they take action against your family’s assets, and they’re not likely to differentiate between your parents’ assets and yours, even though you have stocks, bonds and bank accounts in your own name that reflect your own investments and more recently, your own earnings. “So if there is to be any hope of protecting your own wealth and the roof over your head, Seth, we need to act now to protect what you have. Your mother has already asked your attorney… your personal attorney and not the criminal defense attorney they’ll be hiring to represent your father… to set in motion measures to protect your holdings and to transfer as many family assets to you as the law will allow, most importantly your apartment. We’ll be meeting with her later today. The problem is that, so long as you’re a minor, your assets are considered a part of your family’s assets and there’s only so much we can do to protect them.” “Not that I’d want to divorce them or anything, but isn’t there a way for me to legally separate my finances from those of my family?” I asked. “Isn’t there a way to legally become an adult? Not that I feel like I’m ready to be an adult, but I think I read about a way to do it legally.” Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Gary continued. “It’s called emancipation, and it could be a way to protect you and your personal wealth from the feds. By severing your legal and financial relationship with your parents and giving you complete control over your assets, your attorney can argue that your assets represent your own personal wealth and should be considered independently from that of your parents.” “But there must be a downside,” I countered. Sighing, Gary responded, “There are many. Legal protections for minors are in place for a reason and emancipation removes nearly all of them. You can be questioned by the police without a parent present. You can be sued and be held legally responsible for your actions. There are still legal restrictions based on age, such as for use of tobacco products and alcohol, or the purchase of firearms, but otherwise you would have the same rights and responsibilities as an adult. “However, there are other risks too,” Dr. Epstein interrupted. “For example, if you were to get into a fight with a fellow classmate, even if they were the one to start it, you could be brought up on charges as an adult. It would be the same as what we face when an eighteen-year-old senior becomes involved with a minor. It would be your responsibility to avoid those types of situations. “Not that I would expect you to become involved in activities such as sexting, but if you merely are sent nude photos of a classmate, you can be charged with possession of child pornography. If you pass those images along to other students, you can be charged with distribution of child pornography. There are literally hundreds of situations in which you could unwittingly commit a crime that would not even merit a warning if you were treated as a minor.” “So if someone wanted to cause me grief, they’d only need to send me nude pics of a classmate?” I asked, incredulous that we could be ensnarled without even being aware of it. “It wouldn’t be hard to prove your innocence, but it could cause you considerable grief until you do,” Dr. Epstein answered. “And, of course, there’s the matter of your relationship with Asher.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Because he’s still a minor, any sexual contact between the two of you would constitute statutory rape,” Dr. Epstein explained. “You could go to jail for merely touching your boyfriend’s genitals, and that’s defined by age… not by emancipation, so even if Asher were to be emancipated as well, any sexual contact between the two of you would constitute sexual assault until he reaches the age of consent, which in New York is seventeen.” “Fuck, that’s more than a year away,” Asher complained, earning a stare from his father, to which he responded with, “Sorry.” “The only exception is marriage,” Dr. Epstein continued. “If the two of you were legally married, consensual sex between the two of you would be perfectly legal.” “Yeah, like that’s even a remote possibility,” I responded. “I would have to be eighteen to get married without parental consent, and sixteen with parental consent. Asher won’t be sixteen for another few months, and I won’t be sixteen for nearly another year-and-a-half.” “I didn’t know this until today,” Gary interjected, “but in the state of New York, one can legally marry at the age of fourteen with parental consent and a court order. That’s apparently in response to Hassidic Jews, who sometimes undergo arranged marriages in their teens. However, Civil Law judges generally don’t approve underage marriage, even with parental consent, unless at least one of the parties is sixteen or nearly sixteen.” “I’ll be sixteen in April,” Asher pointed out, “less than three months from now.” “Exactly,” Gary commented. “So with the formal consent from myself on Asher’s behalf and from your mother, Seth, and with a court order from a Civil Court judge, you boys can legally marry, even at such a young age. Marriage would automatically grant you emancipation from your parents and afford you due process in your own right before the Feds could take action against you. They could still seize your assets if they have reason to believe they were ill-begotten, but it would be a legal quagmire that could be tied up in Federal court for years. Hence they’d be much more likely to stick to going after your parents’ assets and leave yours alone.” “Wait a minute,” I asked, “are you suggesting that Asher and I get married now?” “Your attorney thinks it could help you to protect your assets,” Gary explained, “particularly since it would serve as a perfectly valid reason for your parents to give you the apartment. Your parents can simply transfer title of the apartment to the both of you as a wedding present. You’d owe a hefty tax bill, but the apartment would be jointly yours, free and clear.” Shakin’ my head, I responded, “There might not be any tax at all. Dad set it up so the apartment’s owned by a shell corporation that has no intrinsic value. I already own a third of the shares. In giving Asher and me their shares, Mom and Dad would transfer sole control of the corporation to us, but the shares have no value, so there’d be no tax owed. At least that’s how I think it’d work. “But in terms of marriage, I’m only fourteen,” I complained. “I’d always assumed we’d wait until we were both adults… legally.” “Do either of you have any doubts about getting married in the future?” Gary asked, but before I could answer that I didn’t, he continued, “If you and Asher were eighteen and had met a year ago in October, would you have any reservations about getting married right now?” Shaking his head, Asher answered, “Of course not, but that’s not the point. We’re not adults… not yet. I have absolutely no doubt that Seth is my soul mate and the one I’m meant to marry. However, being a teenager is stressful enough, and so is school. Many marriages don’t succeed and it’s often because of inexperience, particularly when it comes to dealing with someone who has their own way of doing things and their own way of coping with stress. This whole thing is so far out of left field and it’s caught both of us off-guard. I really didn’t expect to have to grow up so fast.” “But you did it before,” Gary pointed out, “when Mom was injured just a couple of weeks before the restaurant was supposed to open. You had absolutely no experience in running a restaurant and little to fall back on other than your cooking skills and your experience in observing your mother and I manage a much smaller, takeout restaurant. But you took that experience and your skills and you ran with it, doing things that would have challenged someone twice your age, and you succeeded.” “And I could point out that for all intents and purposes,” I chimed in, “you and I have been living as a couple for more than a year now. You already know all of my most annoying habits, and you know darn well how I handle stress… or not, and vice versa.” “This wouldn’t be a shotgun wedding,” Gary added. “It’s strictly up to you and there are a number of other legal strategies that can be applied that hopefully should be effective. I asked your attorney that question specifically, and she assured me that there is a plan B. The reason she brought up marriage was that, once we talked about emancipation, it became a necessity if the two of you were to stay together. But if you two were married, it would make it a lot easier to shelter your assets, particularly the apartment.” “Seth, I don’t think we have a choice,” Asher countered. “If your life is wrecked, my life is wrecked. Totally. And I’m more than willing to take on a little risk if by doing so, I can protect you and protect our future together. To me it seems a small price to pay. The thing is, if I’m reading this right, we can marry as soon as our attorney can get a civil court judge to sign off on it. It’s something we can do right away. I don’t know what’s involved with emancipation, but I suspect it could take a while…” “It could take weeks or more likely months, just to schedule a hearing,” Dr. Epstein agreed. “Once we’re married,” Asher continued, “your parents can transfer the deed for the apartment to us jointly, before the Feds have a chance to put a lien on the property. Then the apartment will be ours, free and clear.” “There is one thing that concerns me,” I countered. “Dad’s day job is in investments. He’s invested in the stock market, in bond trading and to an extent, in real estate, and he’s done well. Not that we’re wealthy by any means, but with so many investments, there’s a lot to investigate. Although Dad always was careful to avoid potential conflicts of interest, there must have been cases where he unknowingly invested in something that was connected to Albany. If there’s one thing the Feds are good at, it’s following the money trail, wherever it might lead. They don’t care if the money ends up in the hands of a kid, a grandparent or a business associate. If they think it’s tainted, they’ll go after it. “The really scary thing about getting married is that with Ashe and me being emancipated, we’d be facing the Feds as adults,” I concluded. Little did I know at the time just how prescient my assessment had been. <> <> <> Everyone grows up with an idea of what their wedding will be like someday. White lace and promises. A kiss for luck and we’re on our way. I’d known for a while now that I’m gay, but even so, I expected I’d get married to a wonderful man in a church, with friends and family around me. From the moment I met Asher, I expected that he would be the one, but the dream never changed. There’d be something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. I’d always envisioned a traditional wedding with a large guest list. My dad would have insisted on inviting everyone important in the whole damn state. There’d have been a large reception with a live band and lots of dancing. And then Asher and I would have been off on our honeymoon to some exotic destination, where we’d screw our brains out all night and maybe all day too. The last thing I’d expected was a civil ceremony in front of a civil court judge, with only my father-in-law and my attorney present. It all happened so fast and before we even had the time to think about what was happening, Asher and I were legally married. The attorney my family had been using since well before I was born urged caution. She wanted to wait until we’d had a chance to meet with the criminal defense attorney she and my Mom were seeking to represent my Dad. However, Asher’s mother had connections in Chinatown and because of that, we were able to have the case heard that afternoon. The judge agreed that Asher and I were financially independent, had demonstrated the ability to run a business independently, and were effectively living independently. With permission from both families, we were granted our request to be allowed to marry at the age of fifteen in Asher’s case, and fourteen in mine. I had thought the matter would end there and we could take some time to come to a decision regarding whether or not we actually wished to proceed, but that wasn’t what happened. After the judge banged the gavel, he congratulated us on being a legally married couple and suggested it was traditional to kiss, which of course we did. De Facto, we were now emancipated from our parents and fully responsible for our finances and our actions as if we were adults. I could see by the look on Asher’s face as we turned to kiss each other that he was as shocked as I was. There were no vows exchanged, nor an acceptance of those vows. It wasn’t until later that we’d learn that there is no legal requirement for wedding vows. The written request to marry that was drawn up by my attorney, along with the marriage license, which was signed my both Asher and me as well as by Gary and by my mom, was all that was necessary and sufficient from a legal standpoint. Once we had left the courthouse, I very quietly asked Asher, “Did you realize that the judge was gonna marry us today?” “It fuckin’ blew my mind,” he replied. “I had no idea that was gonna happen. I thought this was just a hearing before the judge on our request for an early marriage. Hell, I didn’t even expect him to make his ruling today…” “Same here,” I interrupted. “I thought it’d be a few days before he’d make a ruling,” Ashe continued, “and that we’d have some time to plan a small ceremony. And I thought we’d be able to make a final decision before we went through with it. Not that I have any regrets…” “Me neither,” I agreed, “and I think we can probably have a more formal ceremony in front of friends and family at some point in the future, but with us already being married, it won’t be the same.” “I know exactly what you mean,” Asher agreed. I felt so unsettled by the whole thing, but it was more than that. Hastily arranged marriages had been a fact of life since the dawn of marriage as an institution, yet they seldom solved anything and often had unintended consequences. Deep down I knew that something just wasn’t right in all of this. I couldn’t help but feel that our ‘shotgun’ wedding would only serve to stoke suspicions about our finances, and that the result could have dire consequences far beyond what they might have ordinarily been. It was a feeling I was gonna keep to myself for now. There was no use in worrying Asher or our families until and unless something happened. In any case, the lawyers — both my family’s and Asher’s — were going to have to work out how best to combine Asher’s and my assets, and how to handle the gifting of the apartment. Technically, the apartment was owned by a shell corporation in which I already owned a third of the shares. The use of shell corporations was a common technique my dad used to minimize the tax burden, but that could be an advantage now. Rather than transferring title, my parents could simply gift their shares in the corporation to Asher and me. There’d still be tax consequences, but those could be largely offset through a bit of financial maneuvering. Were it not for that, we could have owed, transfer taxes, a co-op flip tax and a gift tax on the entire value of the apartment, not to mention a capital gains tax on the eventual sale price in the future. That was something to be left to our attorneys. After the wedding ceremony, such as it was, Gary took Ashe and me out to an amazing restaurant in Chinatown. The entrance was to a very non-descript ‘hole-in-the-wall’ sort of place, with furniture that looked to be maybe fifty years old if not older. There were Formica tabletops edged with stainless steel, around which were red vinyl-covered seats. Even though the place looked like a dive, it was packed, with not an empty seat to be found. Every customer was Asian too, and none of them were talking in English. It was a third-world cacophony. In the back, a stairway led to the second floor, which was anything but noisy. We were taken to an elegant private dining room with beautiful lacquered furniture and artistic touches that were clearly not mass-produced. Silk embroideries hung on the walls and incredibly detailed wood carvings adorned a side table. Fine china was set at each place on the table, with what I feared were real ivory chopsticks. I was surprised when Bernice joined us, as it was rare indeed that the two of them took any time off from work, much less at the same time. Although Bernice was Asian, it was Gary who ordered dinner for us, speaking in what I presumed to be fluent Mandarin. He ordered everything from memory, never once looking at a menu, nor even requesting one. The first hint of the meal to come came surprisingly quickly and not quietly as a large tureen was brought to the table, to which was added what appeared to be a large bowl of rice, but it caused the contents of the tureen to sizzle loudly. It sounded like Rice Krispies on steroids. The server then ladled a full serving into a bowl set in front of each of us and I could clearly identify a large variety of seafood, including squid, muscles, scallops, shrimp, crab and possibly lobster, along with a variety of fish. I later learned that it was called sizzling seafood soup, which was a combination of a bouillabaisse-like soup with sizzling rice. I could have easily made a meal of the sizzling seafood soup alone, particularly with another full serving for each of us left in the tureen, but we were just getting started. The next course was a traditional arrangement of Chinese dumplings — steamed, deep fried and sautéed — and spring rolls, stuffed with seafood, vegetables, beef, pork and chicken. Served with various sauces and with spicy mustard, they were all delicious. Next came what I presumed to be the main course, with a variety of stir-fry dishes consisting of Chinese vegetables served with beef, chicken, seafood or no meat, representing a variety of traditional styles. Everything was delicious and Asher and I made no attempt to limit our intake, as we assumed this was the final course, save perhaps a light dessert. Needless to say, we were stunned when the server brought out four plates, each with a petit fillet and a whole lobster, served with Chinese vegetables. We drank copious amounts of Jasmine tea to settle our overstuffed stomachs, and then dove right in. The second main course was followed by a dessert buffet, and we took our sweet time, pun intended, allowing our food to settle before sampling a little of everything on the buffet. The wedding might not have been much to talk about, but the meal my in-laws arranged for us afterwards was truly memorable. <> <> <> Our wedding night was probably the least erotic of any in history. Actually, I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for couples to fall asleep on their wedding night, due to utter exhaustion, and only realize later that they’d failed to consummate the marriage. Perhaps things were different when couples waited to have sex until then, but by the time most couples get married today, they’ve already been sexually active for some time. Besides which, who could even think of having sex after a feast like the one we’d had earlier in the evening. We did make an effort but didn’t even realize we’d gone right to sleep until we heard my mom getting ready for bed. Pulling on our boxers, Ashe and I went to see how she was. Knocking on her door, when she opened it, I don’t think I’d ever seen her look so tired in my life. Her eyes were vacant with dark circles under them. Her face was expressionless. She was a zombie. Cautiously at first, I reached around her and drew her into a hug. At first she didn’t seem to react, but then she threw her arms around me and hugged me more tightly than I’d ever been held in my life as she cried her eyes out. I’d never seen her like this before. It was kinda scary. Asher came up behind us and hugged us both. It was comforting to feel his support. Finally, Mom’s tears began to subside, and she pulled away and said, “It’s been a very long day, and I don’t think I’m ready to go to sleep just yet. I know I should but I can’t, and you boys must have lots of questions. Why don’t you throw some clothes on and we’ll talk.” No sooner had I closed our bedroom door than Asher commented, “She looks awful. I think this has affected her even more than it has us.” “How could it not?” I replied. “Mom gave up a promising career in Medicine to run Dad’s first campaign, and after he won, she became his chief strategist and advisor as well as his chief of staff. For more than a decade, this has been her life.” “It’s almost like they’re one person,” Asher commented, “kinda like I see us, you know?” “Yeah, I do know,” I agreed. “It was serendipity that brought them together. Dad was a twenty-year-old, first-year law student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Mom was an intern at nearby George Washington University. She was in the first year of her Internal Medicine residency and was on an Emergency Medicine rotation, when who should come in with a fever, right-sided abdominal pain and vomiting but a dashing young law student named Frank Moore. Needless to say, it turned out to be acute appendicitis, but it was several hours… nearly a day before he was taken to the OR and so there was quite a bit of time for them to get to know each other. They started dating after Dad was released from the hospital. “Whatever’s going on, she undoubtedly feels like she’s as much a part of it as is my father. He might be the one in jail, but she’s bound to feel responsible, even though in no way, shape or form could either of them have done anything wrong. Right now, she’s probably analyzing and re-analyzing every policy decision they’ve ever made.” Throwing me a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, Asher got dressed in similar attire. Neither of us bothered with socks or shoes. We never did when we weren’t planning to leave our apartment. He then responded, “I’d never thought what your mother actually does before. I can’t imagine what that’s like. I’m not sure I’m cut out for politics.” “Right now, me either,” I agreed. Opening the bedroom door, I was shocked to find Mom sitting at the dining room table rather than in the living room, where we’d have all been more comfortable. Asher and I sat down across from her. “This is all my fault,” Mom began. “I should have never let your father take such a big risk. He wanted to prevent the president from starting a war with Iran. We should have known the president wouldn’t stop at that if he was bound and determined. Frank should never have taken such a big risk like that.” “Mom, what are you talking about,” I asked. Sighing, she explained, “Do you remember before Thanksgiving, when the Air Traffic Control System went down?” “How could I forget?” I asked. “I actually passed out when I heard about it. You and dad were on your way home from San Francisco and ended up having to land in Indianapolis. I was sick with worry until you walked in the door.” “You may recall that the president initially fingered Iran as the culprit,” Mom reminded me, “claiming they’d hacked into Air Traffic Control. He called it a terrorist attack. It was only because of people in Homeland Security that leaked it, that the truth came out. And so much has been overshadowed by all that’s happened since then. Although we never talked about it, your father was one of the ones that orchestrated the leak.” I was shocked. I never had an inkling that Dad could even do such a thing. Mom continued, “As one of the key players in the State Assembly, he often receives briefings from the Governor. In this case, the Governor was briefed by the Port Authority, which as you know, controls all the area airports. New York and New Jersey are unique in that regard, but with so many third parties in the loop on this one, the fact that the incident was caused by a software bug that led to a system-wide failure on one of the busiest days of the year was bound to come out. In fact, there were a number of leaks to that effect, and not just from your father. However, when it became apparent that the president was sticking to his story of an Iranian act of terrorism in spite of the revelations from Homeland Security, the Governor felt compelled to do something about it. He asked your father to arrange for it to be leaked to the press, and so your father told your grandfather, who leaked it to one of his contacts at the Times. “I know it sounds like a round-about way for the governor’s office to leak information to the press, but it protects the Governor from ever being implicated in orchestrating such a leak.” “But it leaves Dad vulnerable,” I pointed out. “It does,” Mom acknowledged, “but not as much as you’d think. The governor only knows that your father will arrange the leak, but he doesn’t know exactly how he arranges it. Grandpa Paul’s contact at the Times only knows that the information came from a reputable source who has provided sound information in the past. They may suspect that the information came from your dad, but they would never ask and of course, in the event that he was ever questioned about it, the Governor would deny it. “Your father’s willingness to put his neck out there on behalf of the governor is one of the reasons the governor trusts your father and it’s one of the reasons the governor has been willing to help your father advance politically at such a young age.” “So the president is punishing Dad for leaking the truth about the Air Traffic meltdown to the press?” I asked. “In a word, yes,” Mom answered, “but it’s more complicated than that. The president might never have known about Dad being the conduit for one of the many leaks, had it not been for other circumstances. You see, even after the revelations from Homeland Security became public, the president continued to press for an Iranian connection. Your father was convinced the president intended to use it as a pretext for war, and he wasn’t the only one. Something had to be done.” “What did Dad do?” I asked. “He obtained a copy of an internal memo, sent from the head of the FAA to the director of Homeland Security, and he leaked it to the press,” Mom answered. “He could have and should have done more to cover his tracks, but time was of the essence. Unfortunately, it was all too easy for the president to have the source of the leak traced.” “At least it shouldn’t be too hard to exonerate Dad when it comes to charges of corruption,” I commented. The look on Mom’s face was something I’d never seen before — kind of a mix of anxiety and disappointment — no, not disappointment. It was a look of fear. “I only wish that were true, but even if there was nothing to find, Justice would have little difficulty fabricating evidence of corruption. New York is definitely not the place for the faint-hearted and Albany has a reputation as one of the most corrupt state governments in the nation — a reputation that’s all-too-well deserved. Virtually anyone who sets foot in Albany could be tagged with corruption, no matter how clean and well-intentioned they might be.” Then leaning forward and looking right at me, Mom continued, “Seth, you don’t get to where your dad has gotten without getting dirty. Not in this town. We went to Albany with the best of intentions, but he could have never gotten so far at such a young age without enlisting the help of some powerful allies. He never compromised his principles or resorted to the sorts of quid pro quo that our president seems to consider business as usual, but in order to get the committee assignments he wanted, and to pass the legislation that was so important, he had to wheel and deal and that meant trading political favors. Sometimes supporting legislation he might have otherwise opposed, could put him in a position to pass legislation we really cared about.” “But that’s not really corruption,” Asher chimed in. I’d forgotten he was even in the room. “Politicians do that sort of thing all the time.” “There’s a fine line between political maneuvering and corruption, Asher,” Mom replied, “and although we were extremely careful never to cross that line, in retrospect, we blurred the line more times than I care to think about in the name of expediency. At the time it seemed necessary, but to an outsider, it could look like we exchanged legislation for personal gain. You have to believe that that was never the intent. Still, your father’s ascent to prominence probably wouldn’t have occurred had he not helped the party and to an outsider it might appear as if we profited as a result of his actions. That is the very definition of corruption, and your father could go to jail for it. Frankly, I could too, but it’s your dad who was arrested.” This was another side of politics I was seeing for the first time and although I knew politics had a dirty underbelly, I’d never remotely considered the possibility that my parents were involved in any of it. “I guess what I’m saying,” Mom continued, “is that we never did anything unethical, but we might have done things that could be construed as illegal. Ordinarily, I’d say none of it would hold up in court, but there’s no telling what could happen with a president who doesn’t distinguish between personal and public interests and who doesn’t see the Justice Department or the FBI as being independent of partisanship.” Mom just hung her head. I guess there was nothing left to say, so I asked, “The question is, where do we go from here, and what’s the strategy to keep Dad outta prison?” “Obviously, we’ll fight this with everything we’ve got,” Mom answered, “but it could take years to clear our name. The presumption of guilt will put a strain on all of us and proving innocence in the eye of the public is a lot harder than merely discrediting whatever proof of guilt the Justice Department comes up with. We’ll hire the biggest guns we can afford to defend us. At least we have the resources to do so… for now.” “What about our investments?” I asked. “Couldn’t they be alleged evidence of corruption?” “No, but there could be allegations of insider trading,” Mom answered, “and there might be just enough evidence to make it stick. That is our one Achilles Heel,” she concluded. Slumping down onto the table, I sighed and said, “What a fucking mess.” <> <> <> The stares from our fellow passengers as Asher and I boarded the M22 bus said it all. A lot of the same people rode our bus every day, but they never really paid any attention to us before. We were just a couple of kids — gay kids, but most adults tended to avoid talking to teens and vice versa. Today was a whole other story, as pretty much everyone stared at us as they boarded along the route. Even the people who lived in the projects seemed to know who we were and who my dad was. In my mind, I could almost hear what people were thinking, even though they kept their thoughts to themselves. ‘There’s the kid with the crooked dad,’ seemed to echo through the bus. When we got off the bus, it was even worse as our fellow students stared at us wherever we went. Asher and I had very few courses in common this semester, so we didn’t even have each other’s support during most of the day. Thankfully, our good friend, Clarke, shared second period with me and he made it a point to sit next to me in class. “I know exactly what it’s like to go through what you’re goin’ through,” he said as he took his seat. “We’ll talk at lunch,” he added before the teacher began the day’s lesson. By the time I hit third period, I felt like an automaton — a robotic shell of the person I once was. Fortunately, Asher was in my class and we had a chance to talk for a brief moment. It was little more than a minute and nothing more than acknowledging that we were okay, but it was enough to give us both strength. Then it was time for lunch and a chance to sit with our friends. The food in the cafeteria was actually fairly decent, so none of us brought our own lunch, preferring to enjoy a hot meal. There were a lot of places to eat nearby that had way better food, but leaving the campus was frowned upon and the time lost walking to and from someplace else wasn’t worth the effort. Besides which, the restaurants nearby and the Hudson Eats food court at Brookfield place were much more expensive. As we headed toward the cafeteria, I checked my phone and found a text from Mom. It read, ‘Dad out on bail. Long list of charges. Still interviewing lawyers. TGDH.’ It took me a bit to decipher that TGDH stood for ‘Thank God Dad’s home.’ Going through the lunch line was surreal as even the servers stared at us as we moved along and selected our lunch items. A couple of our friends, Clark and Joel, were several kids ahead of us in line, but they let those kids go ahead of them so they could drop back to be with us. They both worked part-time at the Ragin’ Cajun, so we’d gotten to know them very well over the course of the last year. They’d both met my father and had often been there for Ashe and me when we needed them. As usual, Joel took the lead and asked, “How are you guys holding up?” “I feel like a robot,” I answered, “just going through the motions like a good little student, but the real Seth Moore is in hibernation.” “I can imagine,” Joel responded. “You know Clark and I have your back if you need it, don’t you?” I noticed Clark nodding his head too. “Of course I know it,” I replied, and then nodding toward Asher, I added, “We both do, and we appreciate it.” The seating was organized around a number of round tables, each big enough to seat eight of us in a pinch. Exiting from the cashiers, we headed to where we usually sat and spotted Freck and Kyle already seated at one of our usual tables. We were joined by Carl and Clarke, who pulled up a couple of extra chairs. Of course, all our friends were afraid to bring up the elephant in the room. The only one of them with the moxie to do it was Kyle, and he didn’t disappoint us. Jumping right in, he began with, “Well, I’ve met your dad, Seth, and he didn’t strike me as a crook, so what’s really going on?” “I’m not at liberty to discuss all the details,” I responded. “Suffice to say that Dad did something that displeased the president, who’s directed the Justice Department to dig up dirt on Dad. You know my dad. He’s as honest as can be, but politics is still politics and Albany isn’t exactly known as a paragon of virtue.” “Having been there and done that,” Clarke chimed in, “I know a bit about what you’re going through, although in my case, the ’rents were guilty as sin. My dad was an amateur, though. We lived well beyond our means, making it obvious my parents had other income besides their government salaries. It was all too easy for the Feds to prove racketeering. With your Dad, on the other hand, everything’s above board and if anything, you guys live below your means. Not that I’d hold it against you personally if your dad were guilty, any more than you’ve held it against me. Friends are friends, no matter what. Still, I believe in you, Seth, and I really do believe your dad’s innocent. He’s being set up.” “That’s what we’re afraid of,” I admitted. “It’s pretty obvious from the way things were handled that the arrest was a rush job, with scant evidence submitted to a Federal grand jury. But if they’re bound and determined, they’ll get Dad, even if they have to manufacture the evidence. At least Dad’s out on bail now.” “Really?” Asher asked. I hadn’t realized I’d not had a chance to tell him yet. “Yeah, Mom texted me just before lunch,” I explained. “I hadn’t had a chance to tell you yet.” Asher responded. “I’m just glad your dad’s out of the slammer.” “For sure,” I replied. “You know, there’s a rumor going around that the two of you got married,” Carl interjected. “Of course, there’s no way you guys could get married so young, even if you wanted to.” “Actually, the rumors are true,” Asher responded, drawing gasps from around the table. “It certainly wasn’t something we planned,” he continued. “Seth’s lawyer recommended it and before we knew what was happening, a civil court judge had declared us legally married.” “You make it sound like an accidental marriage,” Carl quipped. “Why didn’t you guys tell us?” Kyle asked. “It all happened so fast,” I answered, “and as ridiculous as the whole thing sounds, it really hasn’t been the foremost thing on our minds, you know?” “It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Asher concurred. “I expect we’ll hold a formal ceremony in the future. Seth and I have talked about it. I mean it wasn’t like a shotgun wedding or anything and we both agreed to it, but it still doesn’t seem real.” “How the fuck could you get married so young?” Kyle asked. “I mean, neither of you is sixteen yet, let alone eighteen. Don’t you hafta be sixteen with parental permission in New York?” “New York law allows for marriage at fourteen with a court order,” I explained. “They prefer that at least one of the partners be sixteen, but Ashe is fifteen and three-quarters, which apparently was close enough. I guess Hassidic Jews sometimes marry in their teens, which is why the law’s written that way.” “Why the fuck would you want to get married now?” Kyle asked. “I mean, I know you love each other and want to get married someday, but how could getting married now help your father’s situation?” “For one thing, it provides a legitimate excuse to shelter our apartment from the feds by putting it in Ashe’s and my names,” I explained. “It’s not unreasonable to give a condo or a house as a wedding present, so by getting married now, we gave my parents a legitimate way to give us the apartment. “The other thing is that it’s harder for the Feds to go after my own personal assets if I’m emancipated. However, if I were emancipated, I couldn’t legally have sex with Ashe, even if he were an emancipated minor as well. Marriage is the only way we can have a legal, sexual relationship and be treated as adults.” “What kind of assets could a kid have anyway?” Joel asked. Taking a deep breath, I replied, “Please don’t let it change our relationship, but my Dad’s day job is investing, and he put money into stocks and other investments for me every year, starting when I was born. Those investments have grown considerably over the years.” “Shit, how much are you worth?” Clark asked. When I told them, Joel responded, “Damn, all this time, I’ve been friends with a kid who’s a millionaire.” “You probably don’t want to know what Freck’s worth,” Kyle mentioned. “It’s not like I’d ever flaunt it,” Freck responded. “My parents would and do, but that’s just not the kind of person I want to be. They can keep their billions as far as I’m concerned. As long as I have Kyle, I have all I need. “Not to change the subject, but won’t you hafta pay a shitload of taxes on the apartment?” Freck asked. “We would if we owned it outright,” I answered, “but Dad’s a master at avoiding taxes… legally, that is. The apartment’s owned by a shell corporation, and that won’t change, so it turns out there are no transfer taxes or flip tax involved. I already own a third of the shares, and each of my parents owns a third. As a wedding present, they’ll each give me half their share and Asher the other half, so I’ll own two thirds, and Asher will own a third. We’ll rent the apartment from the corporation, much as my parents do now, and the corporation will pay the co-op fees using the rent, so that the corporation itself never has a significant balance or worth. We won’t pay any taxes until the apartment is sold in the future.” “Damn, it’s really true that the rich don’t pay taxes,” Clark responded. “We do pay taxes,” I countered. “A portion of the rent is used to pay property tax. It’s buried in the co-op fees.” “Yeah, but no transfer taxes, no flip tax, no gift tax and deferment of capital gains until you sell?” You have to admit that it’s a sweet deal.” Freck pointed out. “Who said I’m complaining?” I replied. “Now, we just need to find a top, high-power lawyer to keep my dad out of prison,” I added. “You don’t have one yet?” Freck asked. “We have the lawyer our family has been using for years,” I explained, “and she arranged for a criminal defense attorney from her firm to represent Dad temporarily, but he has no prior experience with Federal cases. We need a heavy-hitter who’s spent time in Federal court and isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Justice Department or the White House.” “My dad might know of someone,” Freck responded. “My biological father, that is. As the CEO of one of the largest brokerage houses in the world, he’s spent more time in Federal court than he’d care to admit. Actually, he has a whole legal team on staff, but it wouldn’t be proper for them to represent you. It might look like there’s a quid pro quo, which would only make things worse for your father.” “You really think you can get me the name of someone good?” I asked. “I know I can, Seth,” Freck answered. “Besides, like Clarke said, that’s what friends are for.” <> <> <> “Dad!” I shouted as I threw myself into his arms. It was so unusual to see him at home when I got home from school. Like everything else, it was surreal. We hugged each other tightly and held on for dear life. When we finally pulled apart, Dad asked, “How was school? With everything going on, did you run into any problems?” “Well, it was obvious everyone knows about it,” I admitted. “Even the servers in the cafeteria and the janitors. Mostly, people just stared, and no one taunted me or my friends.” “That’s good,” Dad responded, “but if it gets too rough at school, just let me know and we’ll think of a strategy together, OK?” “Sure thing,” I agreed. “I got a call a few minutes ago from Frank San Angelo,” Dad went on. “As I’m sure you’d expect, I’ve spoken to him on a number of occasions and we’ve met a few times, but I didn’t realize that he’s Freck’s father. Apparently, Freck texted him about how you mentioned I needed to hire top legal representation. It could be bad for both of us if the press got wind of him helping me in any way, but he did give me a couple of names of attorneys his own legal staff recommended highly. I’ve invited one of them to meet with us after dinner. “Speaking of which, I thought we’d just order some pizza tonight, since we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. How about Scarr’s Pizza?” Dad asked. “You wanna order from my competition?” Asher asked. “Son, there may be a half-dozen Cajun restaurants on the Lower East Side and in the East Village, but you have no competition. No other restaurant holds a candle to you, and certainly not a pizza place. Just because they’re at the other end of Orchard Street doesn’t make them you’re competition, any more than Katz’s, or Russ and Daughters Café. But if you’re in the mood for great pizza as I am tonight, Scarr’s is on the New York Times’, top ten list of best pies in NYC.” “Sounds good to me,” I chimed in. “I’ll order a large eggplant and ricotta,” Dad announced. “Asher, why don’t you choose the toppings for the second pizza.” “How about green pepper, spinach and mushroom?” Ashe suggested. I was surprised he’d gone with another vegetarian pizza, but that was fine with me. When it came to pepperoni or sausage, I could take them or leave them. Barbecue chicken, ham or shrimp were another matter, but those apparently weren’t on the menu. “Looks like they don’t have spinach,” Dad responded as he looked at his phone. “Might I suggest garlic or cherry tomatoes?” “Tomatoes sounds good,” Asher replied. After tapping on his phone a few times, Dad announced, “There, I ordered it for 4:45 — Soon enough that you’ll hopefully not starve in the interim, but late enough that you won’t starve before bedtime, and it’ll give us enough time to clean up afterwards.” “Do we need to dress up or anything?” Asher asked. “Your school clothes are definitely overkill,” Dad answered. Although we didn’t have a school uniform or anything, the requirement for white dress shirts and dark slacks made it look like we did. “C’mon, Ashe,” I called to my boyfriend, “let’s go change.” At my parents’ suggestion, we’d moved into the master bedroom at the start of the school year, and they’d taken over what had been my bedroom. With my parents living in their place in Albany during the legislative session, which ran all-year, there wasn’t much point in the master bedroom being vacant all the time. Since they were home only when the Assembly was on recess, and when possible, on weekends, they didn’t need as much space. As it was, Asher and I spent most of our nights together, with Asher spending only a couple of nights a week in his own bedroom in his parents’ apartment, at their insistence. Now that we were married, even those two nights would probably disappear. Asher and I retreated to our bedroom and as we stripped out of our school clothes, Asher remarked, “Frank sure isn’t himself.” “Spending the night in lockup will do that to you, Ashe,” I responded. “It’d take a toll on any of us.” “I know that,” Asher replied, “but it’s not just that. Your dad doesn’t even look like the same person, you know?” Yeah, I did know. He looked like he’d aged twenty years in the last 24 hours. Dad was young for someone so powerful in the state government. His fortieth birthday was coming up in July, but until today, he’d still looked young. I’d heard plenty of people say he looked like a kid, not that any teenager ever thought their parents looked like kids. Dad started his political career right out of law school, at the age of 23, taking a job as a law clerk for President Clinton’s former secretary of Housing and Urban Development. When his boss ran for New York Attorney General a few years later, Dad joined him as a staffer with his campaign. Mom had just finished a fellowship in oncology at the famed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and with Dad’s foray into politics, decided to take time off to raise her newborn son. Dad was rewarded with a key position in the Attorney General’s office but resigned his position just a year later to run for a vacant seat in the state assembly. Mom and Dad had bought an apartment in the Seward Park co-operative on New York’s Lower East Side when they first moved to New York, and the assemblyman who, for decades had represented the district, had been convicted on charges of corruption. Dad had a clean slate and youthful energy, and he easily won the primary and went on to win the seat. Dad’s rise in the state assembly and in the Democratic Party had been meteoric, particularly when his good friend, the state Attorney General, became the governor four years later. With the governor’s favor and an ability to wheel and deal that was unusual in someone that young, Dad got all the right committee assignments and soon became chair of powerful Ways and Means Committee. It was rumored he was in line to become the next Speaker of the Assembly, and Dad had set his sights on running for governor or even the U.S. Senate someday. But now, Dad appeared to be an entirely different man. Gone was the youthful exuberance that made him so popular with voters. Gone was the appearance of naïveté that so often caught his rivals off-guard when he out-maneuvered them. Now, Dad looked tired, and it had me worried. Obviously, Asher had seen it too. “Dad’s had it pretty easy in politics,” I commented, “so he’s never really faced adversity before. He’s never lost an election and rarely lost a vote for something he deemed important. This arrest is from out of left field, and it’s the biggest threat any politician can ever face in their career. It’s a career-ending event.” We were both down to our boxers now and Asher asked, “What do you think we should wear for tonight?” Thinking for just a second, I suggested, “A polo with khakis and dressy sneakers would look nice without being too pretentious, don’t you think?” “Sounds good.” Asher agreed, and then added, “You should wear your dark green polo. It brings out your green eyes.” Shrugging my shoulders, I responded, “And you should wear one of your cream-colored polos. It contrasts nicely with your skin color.” Nodding his head, Asher responded, “I can do that,” with his killer, Tiger Woods smile. Usually I never gave it any thought that my boyfriend — now my husband — was half-black and half-Asian. What was so important about race anyway? It was all to easy to stereotype based on race, when in reality, each family had its own story to tell. Asher’s father’s family didn’t come to America as slaves to work on the plantations of the South in the days of cotton. His father’s ancestors were brought to the Caribbean as slaves to work on the sugar cane plantations, and then escaped to Louisiana with other refugees during the Haitian revolution. Settling in an area that was settled by French fur trappers and native Acadians, they became a part of the very fabric of one of America’s preeminent cities. Although never enslaved in the U.S., they certainly were victims of Jim Crow. Even so, the black Creole were a vibrant part of New Orleans’ culture that enriched all of America as I saw it. Same with his mother’s side of the family, who came to the U.S. from China, seeking their fortune during the California gold rush and ended up helping to build the nation’s rail roads. But thinking of Asher’s family reminded me of my earlier thoughts about why I’d never met his grandparents, and so I asked him. “Hey Ashe, today it dawned on me that I’ve never met your grandparents on either side of the family. Are your parents estranged from them or something? Are your grandparents upset at your parents for marrying outside their race?” “That’s a really good question Seth, and not something my parents like to talk about,” Asher answered. “Until about the second grade, I never really knew that other kids had grandparents, so I didn’t really miss the fact that I never saw mine or knew anything about them. As you can imagine, it came as a shock to me when I discovered that, not only was there such a thing, but that most kids had grandparents whom they saw fairly often and who spoiled them rotten. It kinda made me jealous.” “Didn’t you ask your parents about it?” I asked. “Sure I did, but whenever I asked, they put me off,” Asher answered. “With a lot of prodding, the way only a little kid can prod, I got Mom to tell me that she grew up in Queens and still had parents and siblings there. Well I knew where Queens was. The F train goes right there, so I asked why we never saw them and why we couldn’t visit them. Eventually I did get to meet my aunts, uncles and cousins, but she kept making excuses as to why we couldn’t see her parents. “In the meantime, I found out that Dad grew up in New Orleans and that his father still lived there. He told me his mother had died, but it wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I could get him to explain that she’d died in childbirth when he was born, which was why he doesn’t have any brothers or sisters. “But backing up a bit, kids always think everything involves them and I’d already had plenty of experience with kids making fun of me because of my mixed race. Black kids called me a chink and Chinese kids called me by the ‘N’ word. I grew up with that but I had friends, and maybe the racial stuff is part of the reason why I became an introvert and buried my nose in books. Anyway, for a long time I assumed my grandparents hated me too. “The whole thing came to a head when I was ten and we were going to one of my uncles, for my cousin’s thirteenth birthday. I was just beginning to think of my parents as people and it dawned on me that my cousin was missing out on having his grandparents there on his birthday, and so I told my parents to go to the party without me, so Mom’s parents could be there too. That prompted a very frank discussion of race, and that my grandparents estrangement from Mom and Dad had nothing to do with me. Finally I learned the truth… that it was my parents’ mixed race marriage that was the issue and not their mixed race son.” “What a shame,” I responded. “Your parents are two of the finest people I know. I already think of them as my other parents and not just my in-laws. I don’t even think of their race at all. And of course I don’t think of yours, except that the combination means I have an incredibly cute and handsome… husband.” Asher had been blushing even before I mentioned his good looks, so I asked, “Why are you blushing, Babe? You were blushing even before I told you how incredibly cute you are.” Asher turned even more red and he looked down, then finally he admitted, “My cousin’s thirteenth birthday was my sexual awakening. It was the summer and they have a pool, and I got to see my cousin and all of his thirteen-year-old friends wearing only their swimsuits. It was the first time I realized how much I liked looking at shirtless boys. At first I thought I wasn’t interested in the girls because I couldn’t see their nipples, but then I found online porn and by the time I started sixth grade, I knew I was gay.” “Shit!” I exclaimed as I looked at the alarm clock by the bedside. “We’ve been away from Mom and Dad for more than an hour!” “We’d better get back to them,” Asher responded. “Is your dad gonna be OK?” he asked. “Sure he will,” I replied, “just as we will.” I could only hope my eyes conveyed conviction my heart didn’t feel. We rejoined my parents just as the pizza arrived. “Leave it to a pair of teenagers to arrive just in time to eat,” Dad quipped with a smile. It was so good to see him smiling and laughing. We all laughed along with him. Grabbing a slice of the mushroom, pepper and tomato pizza, I dug in, as did we all. The pizza was pretty good, but I didn’t think it was anywhere close to being in the top ten. Personally, I liked Stanton Pizza way better, but then I had to respect the New York Times. After all, they gave Asher’s restaurant a glowing review too. When I got to trying a slice of the eggplant and ricotta pizza, I had to admit that it was incredible. Definitely one of the best pies I’d ever tasted. Dad was right. By the time we finished putting everything away, the doorbell was ringing. Since I was the one closest to the door, I opened it to let the attorney who might be representing Dad into the apartment. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the man on the other side of the door. I figured he’d be old — at least fifty or sixty, with graying hair and perhaps balding. Although the man who greeted me was bald, he wasn’t balding by any means. His head was shaved, and he had a mustache and goatee. He was African American, but the most surprising thing was that he was pretty young. He looked like he was around my dad’s age. He kinda reminded me of Commander Ben Cisco from Deep Space Nine, one of my beloved Star Trek series. “Is this the Moore residence?” the man asked, which made me realize I’d been dumbly staring at him rather than inviting him in. “Yes, it is,” I answered as I extended my hand. “My father’s Frank Moore and I’m Seth,” I said, and added, “Why don’t you come in,” as I shook his hand. “Hello Seth,” the man responded as he entered our apartment. “I’m Dalton Fitzgerald. It’s nice to meet you. And congratulations on your marriage. We’ll talk a bit more about that later.” I must have shown how much I was taken aback by his knowing about Asher and me getting married, as he continued, “What, you seem surprised that I know you just married Asher White? I never take on representing someone as their attorney until I do my due diligence, and it would be negligent of me to come here to discuss your father’s case without having done my research.” By then, my dad had approached the door and he reached out with his hand and said, “Hello, Mr. Fitzgerald. I’m Frank Moore.” As they shook hands, the attorney said, “Frank, if it’s alright with you, I much prefer to be on a first-name basis with my clients. We’re going to get to be very close during the coming months… as close as any people can be when one of them is being paid $1,250 an hour to be your friend, that is,” he added with a chuckle. $1,250 and hour! Holy shit! Was anyone worth that much? “I know that’s a lot of money, particularly for someone in your situation,” he continued, “but I never take more than a few clients at a time and you’ll get my undivided attention. You’ll also get someone who’s successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court and other Federal courts, along with a full team of legal professionals. Very few attorneys have the kind of experience I can bring to your case. I can’t guarantee to get you off, but I think there’s a good chance you’ll walk away from this, poorer only for the money you’ve paid me to represent you.” “Mr. Fitzgerald, I’m Julie Moore,” Mom said as she approached and extended her hand. Taking her hand, he replied, “Julie, as I just told Frank, I much prefer first names, so please call me Dalton.” Then turning to me, he added, “That goes for the rest of you too.” “Why don’t we go inside,” Mom suggested as she led the way. As we approached the living room, Asher stood up and extended his hand, saying, “Dalton, I’m Asher, Seth’s boyfrie… er, husband.” Shaking Asher’s hand, Dalton responded, “It’s nice to meet you, Asher. Believe me, I remember very well what being a newlywed is like. It took me years to transition to calling Tyrone my husband rather than my boyfriend.” “You’re gay?” I practically shouted in surprise. “Yup,” Dalton answered. “Young, black and gay. Not exactly what you were expecting, am I Seth?” “You certainly don’t fit the typical stereotype of a seasoned criminal defense attorney who specializes in Federal cases,” I replied. “In my experience, there is no typical stereotype,” Dalton responded. “We come in all shapes and sizes. The best of us tend to be young though, as we’re often tapped for the Federal bench when we hit middle age.” Then looking around, he added, “This is nice. I like what you guys have done with the place.” “A good friend of ours, a senior at Stuyvesant High School, designed the physical layout of the place when we combined this apartment with the one behind it,” Asher explained. “He thought of things none of us had considered before. He also helped us pick out the furniture. He was just a sophomore then, and not quite twelve years old. He just celebrated his thirteenth birthday, and his boyfriend, who’s also a senior, just turned eleven.” “It sounds like you have some impressive friends,” Dalton commented. “Now, why don’t we sit down and talk about what’s going on, and our strategy.” “Does that include us?” I asked, unsure as to whether or not we were included. “I would have wanted you in on the discussion, regardless,” Dalton answered, “but you two bought yourselves seats at the table, so to speak, when you got married. There will be unintended consequences and we’ll need to involve your parents too Asher, but more on that later.” Fuck! What did he mean by that? We all took our seats in the living room, Asher and I on one of the sofas, Mom and Dad across from us on the other. Dalton, rather than sitting in one of the armchairs as I thought he would, sat on the futon in front of the TV, which gave him room to spread out with his papers around him. Before any of us could speak, Asher asked, “What do you mean by getting my parents involved?” Chuckling, Dalton answered, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have even brought it up. There’ll be plenty of time to discuss it later without allowing the issue to distract us from our primary goal of stopping anyone from going to prison. Unfortunately, in getting married, not only did you fail to sever the relationship between Seth and his parents, but you put your own finances and those of your parents at risk.” Fuck! “There’s a strong possibility that would’ve happened anyway, given the sweetheart deal you got on your lease for the Ragin’ Cajun, but in getting married, you enhanced the atmosphere of suspicion and in all likelihood drew the attention of the Feds. This is a perfect example of why one should never rush into anything. Your attorney was well-intentioned, but the Feds have access to information and authority that state and local agencies typically do not.” “Should we get a divorce?” I asked. “Why would you do that?” Dalton responded. “It’d be like shouting ‘FIRE’ in a crowded theater, and then saying, ‘never mind’. The damage is already done. Besides which, I take it you planned to marry someday anyway.” “My life wouldn’t be complete without Ashe,” I replied. “I know high school relationships rarely last,” Asher added, “but ours is special. We’re interested in different career paths, but we share the same interests and goals.” “So let’s talk about what’s gonna happen,” Dalton said as he turned to face us all as a group. “As much as you’d like this to be over and done with, a case like this moves at a glacial pace. Part of that’s because the legal system in general moves slowly in the interest of seeking justice, but I think a good part of it is strategic. In drawing the process out, Justice hopes to wear you down, getting you to take a plea bargain that vindicates what they’ve done. In a case like yours, however, there are usually other motives involved, be they political strategy or a form of revenge…” “This is definitely a matter of revenge,” Dad interrupted. “I was one of several people who leaked information on the FAA’s Air Traffic Control debacle, just before Thanksgiving. When the president continued to push for an Iranian connection, I felt I had no choice but to force the issue and so I leaked a series of internal memos to the press. Unfortunately, there was no time to cover my tracks. Undoubtedly, this is payback.” “A profile in courage to be sure,” Dalton responded, “but not one that history will likely remember. Assuming that’s what’s driving this, then we’re in for a very rough ride. Political payback’s a bitch and the primary determinant of the outcome depends only on how badly the president wants to hurt you. Sometimes the goal is only to destroy your career, in which case a quick resolution’s still possible. More often the goal’s to make you suffer, and in that case the ordeal could be long and painful. Assuming there isn’t any actual serious corruption, keeping you out of prison could come at the price of financial ruin, and not only for you, but for your entire family, and Asher’s.” Dad visibly paled, and then asked, “Is there a possibility of avoiding that by pleading to a lesser charge?” “Not without jailtime,” Dalton answered, “and there’d be a degree of financial loss as well, but right now, that’s a best-case scenario. I don’t know what the Feds actually have and that could determine everything. What I know about for sure is your connection to Sam Weinstein, a real estate magnate and developer with a reputation for shady dealings, and that you have an extensive portfolio of investments, some of which could undoubtedly be alleged to have involved insider trading. I know that everything you did was on the up-and-up. That much is evident from reviewing your financial records, but I don’t need to tell you that appearances are what’s important. “As difficult as it may seem, the prudent thing is to wait,” Dalton continued. “By law, Justice has to turn over everything they have on you without exception. It’s called discovery and in and of itself, discovery could take weeks… or even months. Once we know what evidence they have and the witnesses they intend to call, we’ll be in a much better position to determine if a plea bargain is in your best interest, or even possible. We’ll also be able to plan an effective defense.” “Are you sure about Sam?” Dad asked. “I’ve known him for years. Not only has he given generously to my campaigns, but he’s invested heavily in the community, renovating and restoring properties that others would have torn down.” Shaking his head, Dalton responded, “I looked into his financials and used my extensive network of contacts to get the low-down on him. His investment in the Lower East Side is a sham Frank. He spends heavily on cosmetics while ignoring major problems with infrastructure. And that sweetheart deal on the lease for the Ragin’ Cajun is just that. It cost him virtually nothing and yet if it came out to your constituents, it could be highly embarrassing.” Then turning to Asher and me, he added, “Did you know there’s a poison clause in your lease? Not only does he get to keep everything you put into the restaurant, from the tables to the napkins, but there’s a no-compete clause too. Technically, your parents’ Asian restaurant already violates that, and he could use it to put them out of business at any time. But even more, you’re forbidden from opening another restaurant anywhere in New York City for the next twenty years, and that includes both of you as well as your parents. He’s effectively locked you into a twenty-year agreement, with a lease that lets him raise the rent arbitrarily after the first five years.” “Fuck,” I exclaimed. Then turning to face Mom and Dad, he continued. “And Frank, he’s been setting you up for a fall since you first ran for Assembly.” “But why?” Dad asked. “It didn’t take much digging for me to figure out his game,” Dalton replied. “He’s transparent as hell if you know what to look for. He has big plans for the Lower East Side, but he needs air rights. Because of all the development around Essex Crossing, however, there aren’t enough air rights for sale to build the kind of super-tall tower he has in mind. He wants a variance to allow him to pool the air rights from all his properties, but the City Council has balked. He figured that when the time was right, he’d pressure you as the next Speaker of the Assembly or governor to cut a deal with the city… a quid pro quo that would let him build a series of eighty-story towers on Delancey.” “Shit, that’d destroy the whole character of the Lower East Side,” Dad responded. “Of course, now that you’ve been arrested, that scenario’s no longer a possibility,” Dalton went on, “but in cooperating with the Feds, he could try to cut a deal that’s just as beneficial. Like I said, though, he’s an amateur.” “But what’s to keep him from painting Frank as a corrupt politician?” Mom asked. “The Feds can’t protect Weinstein from the state,” Dalton answered, “and we can dig up enough dirt on him to not only put him out of business, but to put him away for decades. There’s always the possibility that he’ll sell out and accept a plea deal with the Feds that avoids jailtime,” Dalton cautioned. “Because of the rules against double jeopardy, the state couldn’t convict him of crimes for which he’s already plead guilty at the Federal level, even if he serves no time. A felony conviction would put an end to his real estate empire however, and I just don’t see him being willing to do that. I just don’t see Sam Weinstein as being a serious threat. That’s not to say the Feds won’t scrutinize your involvement in getting that sweetheart deal for your son-in-law’s family, though. In any case, I’ll get that poison clause invalidated before we’re through.” “Is it possible there’s a window of opportunity right now?” Dad asked. “Before the Feds have the chance to dig up anything else on me, might we be able to stop the investigation in its tracks?” “You mean to make a deal?” Dalton asked. When Dad merely nodded his head, Dalton went on to ask, “Is there anything to dig up on you that I don’t already know about?” “Absolutely not,” Dad answered, but added, “but then I had no idea about Sam Weinstein. I always went to great pains to avoid the appearance of impropriety, but I can’t say I didn’t involve myself in the wheeling and dealing that goes on in Albany. I’d have never gotten where I am today without trading votes for the things I felt were important.” Laughing, Dalton replied, “Frank, that’s just politics, and while some folks might question your judgement, no one would question the need to trade votes. So long as you never sold your vote, you should be safe. That doesn’t mean someone wouldn’t allege impropriety, but other than affecting public perception, that sort of thing almost never results in a conviction, and certainly not in jailtime. “The one potential Achilles heel is your investment income, as I’m sure you already know. It’ll be pretty hard to prove you didn’t know of hidden relationships between the companies in which you invested and those doing business with the state of New York, and you can be sure there were such relationships. The one charge that might stick is insider trading, but if you’re willing to go the distance, we can win that one on appeal. “Now as to the existence of a ‘window of opportunity’, there’s always the risk that in flashing a hundred-dollar bill at a mugger, the mugger will kill you for the several hundred more he assumes you must be hiding. If you give it up too readily Frank, the Feds are sure to think you’ve something to hide. My very strong advice is to wait and let the process of discovery go forward. Let’s see what they’ve got on you first, and then we can consider your options. “I know you’re probably worried about what will happen if the Feds go after your assets. Don’t. The Feds can put a lien on your property, but they cannot seize your apartment so long as you’re living in it. They can freeze your bank accounts, but they can’t do anything more than put a lien on your capital assets. Whatever you do, don’t try to move assets offshore, and don’t transfer your apartment to your sons. Those are both red flags that could force the Feds to move against your other assets. You have to trust me on that and let me deal with the consequences. We’ll fight the Feds tooth and nail whenever they try to restrict your liquidity. “What I suggest you do, because the Feds could seize the contents of a safe deposit box, is to get a heavy safe and have it professionally installed in your apartment. It doesn’t have to be hidden, but it does need to be bolted down such that it can’t be easily removed, and it should be fire-rated for electronic media for no less than two hours. It should have a pick-proof mechanical combination rather than a key lock or an electronic one, and of course you should share the combination with no one. Keep in mind that the courts can order you to give up the combination but complying should be your choice and not a matter of law enforcement hacking into it. “I recommend you keep some cash on hand, just in case you find your accounts frozen. Keep enough cash on hand to last you at least a year… a couple hundred thousand… a million if you’re paranoid. Consider it as a rainy-day fund and don’t spend it unless you have to. An alternative, if you trust me, is to sign over responsibility for paying your bills to my office. That way, no matter what, I can make sure you never fall in arears. We’ll just add a six months’ worth of your expenses onto my retainer. “How much of a retainer do you need?” Dad asked. “If you choose me to represent you,” Dalton began, “I’ll need a quarter million up-front. That’s enough to cover two hundred hours of my time, which I’ll probably go through in the first two or three months. Assuming the Feds go forward with this and it goes to trial, you can expect to spend one or two million over the course of a couple of years, not including any appeals.” “One or two million!” I exclaimed. “Lest you think I’m pocketing all that,” Dalton countered, “consider that I pay close to a hundred grand a year in rent on my office space and six-figure and near-six figure salaries to a pair of associates, a clerk and two paralegals, and most of their time isn’t billable. Beyond that, I’m not apologizing for what I make, because I’m good at what I do and my time is worth it. I can’t guarantee we’ll win, but there’s an excellent chance I can keep you out of prison and that’s worth everything.” “So how do we do this?” Dad asked. “Before you decide you want to hire me, let me draw up a contract and retainer agreement and give you a chance to look it over. I’ll email it to you by the end of business tomorrow. Take your time looking it over, but let me know as soon as possible if you do intend to use my services, so that I can begin the process of discovery…” “I definitely want to hire you,” Dad interrupted. “I trust there will be nothing untoward in the contract, and you come highly recommended by someone who’s judgement I trust more than I trust my own. I’d write you a check right now, but I don’t have a quarter million in checking,” he added with a smile. “Few of us do,” Dalton replied with a smile of his own. “Besides which, I’d rather not have responsibility for your money until we have a signed contract.” “I would also like to have your office take over my finances… all of them, until this whole debacle is over,” Dad added. “I can’t take over responsibility for your investments Frank,” Dalton replied. “That’s not within the scope of my practice.” “Is there a way we could put them into a blind trust?” Dad asked. “We could set it up to cover our basic expenses and even your retainer, and even if the Feds put a lien on it, “the trust would protect it until we either reach a plea deal or I’m convicted and go to prison.” “There’s a risk the Feds could seize the entire trust,” Dalton countered, “but I do know someone who’s an expert on such things. If anyone can structure a trust to prevent that, she can, and if she can, I’ll have her write it up and present it to you.” “Sounds like a plan,” Dad responded, causing me to groan inside. “Oh, one thing you may not have considered is what would happen if you resign your seat in the State Assembly. Although the loss of income would certainly take a bite out of your finances, you’d also lose your state civil service benefits, including health insurance. You have the resources to self-pay your basic expenses, but a major illness could wipe you out. Rather than going through the health exchange, I’d recommend you set up a health savings account in conjunction with a comprehensive, catastrophic health plan. Those are relatively cheap, yet they don’t have all the restrictions typical of most regular health plans.” “Do you think I should resign my seat?” Dad asked. “It’s unlikely you’ll be reelected, even if we win this,” Dalton answered, “but resigning now would reinforce the public perception of guilt, which could taint a future jury. I’d hold off on doing anything rash until I complete the process of discovery.” This was turning into one big clusterfuck, and there was no indication it was ever going to go away. <> <> <> Since Dad was under arrest for corruption, even though he was out on bail, he wasn’t allowed to continue his work as a state assemblyman. He couldn’t even be paid his salary — officially, he was on an unpaid leave of absence, and there didn’t seem to be any open positions for potentially corrupt politicians being advertised at the moment. He couldn’t practice law without the risk of being disbarred either, and working as a lobbyist could inadvertently put him at greater risk of conviction. His options were somewhere between limited and nonexistent. As did many people in his position before him, Dad took to writing a book. The financial return on writing books was iffy to begin with and it could take years to realize any royalties. Mom, on the other hand, had given up a promising career in medicine to be Dad’s campaign manager and chief of staff. She hadn’t practiced in any capacity since she completed her oncology fellowship some fourteen years ago. So much had changed in that time and most of the protocols for treating cancer back then were no longer in use. If she were to go back to practicing oncology, she’d have to relearn all of the essentials of her field, and the best way to do that would be to repeat her fellowship She might not even get a position in New York and could have to move across the country. If that happened, I wasn’t sure what we’d do. Dad couldn’t leave the state in the midst of what was going on, and I certainly didn’t want to move and either leave Asher behind or take him away from his family. She was already too late to apply for a position for the coming year, which began on July 1, however, as applications had been due months ago and interviews for positions were over for the year. Positions were filled through a nationwide matching program in which applicants rank the programs they’d like to attend, and programs rank the residents they’d like to have, with the results announced on Match Day, in mid-March. It came as a complete surprise when Mom practically collided with Ashe and me as we entered the apartment one day in early March, just as we were returning home from school. “I have an interview at Memorial in an hour. I have to run!” she said.” She was smartly dressed in a blazer over a blouse, a skirt and high heels and a dressy overcoat. She barely spoke to us, saying “Bye Sweeties, I’ll see you later,” as she disappeared into the elevator, leaving Ashe and me totally baffled. Obviously, we weren’t going to get any answers until she returned in the evening. The one thing I could think of was that Memorial had an unexpected vacancy. Vacancies usually arise because of illness or injury, unplanned pregnancy, marriage, death of a family member or other life-changing events. By their nature, vacancies can’t be filled through the Match. However, Memorial could attract anyone they wanted, and they were a large enough program that a single missing body could be covered by a physician assistant or nurse practitioner until they could obtain someone through the Match the following year. Mom had been searching all over North America for unfilled vacancies in hematology-oncology fellowship programs, but she never expected to find one at Memorial. “Well that was interesting, “Asher said to me as we dropped our bookbags in the dining room and got out our homework. Since Dad had taken over the den to use as his own personal study while writing his book, the only place Ashe and I could work on our homework together was the dining room table. “I thought you said it was too late to interview for the coming year.” “It’s way too late,” I replied, “or too early, depending on how you look at it.” “How so?” my boyfriend — oops, husband asked.” “The match results’ll be out in less than two weeks,” I explained. “There are always some applicants that fail to match with a program, and some programs that don’t fill all their positions. Mom could interview for an unmatched position once the Match is over and done with, but that won’t be for another couple of weeks. Perhaps Memorial decided to give her a shot at filling an unexpected vacancy,” I suggested. “We won’t really know until she returns and tells us what’s going on,” I added, then as an afterthought, I said, “Maybe Dad knows something.” The way Dad had retreated into working on his book, seemingly day and night, it was easy to forget he was even home in the apartment these days. The two of us literally ran to the den, which was tucked away in a corner where the original entrance to the second apartment used to be. The door was still there as an emergency exit. A small alcove provided access to the original kitchen window as well as a window unit for air conditioning and a radiator for heat. We found him busily typing away on what had been my iMac. “Dad?” I called out. After a moment, he stopped typing and without even looking up, said, “Yes Seth?” “Do you know anything about Mom’s interview today?” I asked. “Mom has an interview today?” he responded. “She didn’t say anything to me about it.” “Yeah, she just rushed out of here, saying she has an interview at Memorial,” I explained. “Memorial!” he exclaimed. “I thought they’d finished their interviews for the year. That’s what she told me anyway.” “That’s what we thought too,” I agreed, “but that’s where she said she was going.” “Hmm,” Dad responded. “It’d be great if she got a spot there, but don’t get your hopes up.” He then went back to his typing, leaving us just standing there. “Obviously, we’re not gonna find anything out until she gets home,” Asher said, “Let’s change our clothes, grab a snack and get started on our homework.” After stripping out of our school clothes and donning t-shirts and shorts, we headed to the kitchen. “There’s no telling when we’ll eat dinner,” Asher commented as we entered the kitchen, “so I’ll make some grilled cheese sandwiches to hold us over.” To anyone else, a grilled cheese sandwich wouldn’t sound like much. A couple pieces of white bread and a slice of American cheese, toasted in a skillet with a little butter. Nothing that Asher made, however, was ever that simple. Asher started by grabbing a large skillet and setting it on the stove on a low flame. He added perhaps a tablespoon of canola oil to the skillet, which immediately began to sizzle, and then added four slices of Kosher rye bread. He got out a medium onion and proceeded to chop it into fine pieces, which he then threw into the skillet, alongside the pieces of bread. He next took a clove of garlic and minced it finely, adding the garlic to the simmering onion in the skillet. Next came a red and a green bell peppers, which he washed, sliced, cleaned and diced, but he set the diced peppers aside for the moment and attended to the contents already in the skillet. Removing the four slices of bread and setting them on a plate, grilled side up, he scooped up the onion and garlic mixture and spread it evenly on top of the four slices of bread. He placed the four slices of bread back in the skillet, keeping the grilled sides up, and added a slice of sharp cheddar on each of two of the slices and provolone on each of the other two slices. As the cheese started to melt, he spread a little mayo on top, followed by the peppers. On top of that went slices of Swiss cheese on two of the slices and mozzarella on the other two. As the top layers of cheese were melting, he sliced up a tomato into very fine slices. Finally, he removed two of the slices, placing them back on the plate, added the tomato slices, and then flipped the other two slices over and placed them on top, pressing down firmly and slicing each sandwich in half. The result was a couple of sandwiches that shared about as much in common with a generic grilled cheese sandwich as a Ferrari did with a Fiat. Now that was a snack! After polishing off our sandwiches, we cleaned up and then sat down at the dining room table and got down to doing our homework. We both made quick work of the day’s assignments and then got busy working on our upcoming term papers and studying for midterms, which were coming up soon. When it was six o’clock and we still hadn’t heard from Mom, I sent her a text asking if she knew when she’d be home for dinner. It took her nearly an hour to respond. She texted that she was being taken out for dinner by some of the faculty and we shouldn’t expect her home before ten. For the sake of expediency, Asher and I ordered a bunch of stuff from the Asian takeout restaurant his parents owned. Other than the generous tip we gave the delivery boy, the food was free and as always, delicious. My dad was right — it was the best Asian food north of Canal Street. Speaking of which, Dad was grateful when we brought him an assortment of Asian food to the den, so he didn’t have to interrupt his writing. When ten o’clock came and went and there was still no sign of Mom, I began to get a little worried, although I understood that she probably wasn’t in a position to send a text. Surely her interviews must have finished by now, but all things were possible in the city that never sleeps. I remembered her talking about how she used to go out for drinks with the other physicians and staff after a long day of caring for patients at Memorial, back in her fellowship days. Perhaps some of the people she used to work with were still there and they invited Mom to go out with them. Unfortunately, it was still a school night and as much as Ashe and I would have liked to have stayed up until Mom got home, Dad insisted that we go to bed by eleven. I could tell that even he was a bit concerned. Mom should’ve called or texted, but then she probably was otherwise involved and lost track of the time. In any case, Asher and I washed up and got into bed at eleven, but sleep did not come easily. Finally, just before midnight, I heard the unmistakable sound of the front door opening. Shortly after that, just as Asher and I were pulling on our boxers, intending to get dressed and see how things went with Mom, I heard Mom and Dad talking and then the distinct sound of Dad shouting, “Fantastic!” We forgot about getting dressed and rushed out in only our boxers to see what the shouting was all about. It was obvious Mom and Dad were ecstatic, and before I could even open my mouth to ask what about, Mom exclaimed, “They offered me a job!” “For a fellowship?” Asher asked. Shaking her head, she replied, “No, as a research assistant. The chair of medical oncology was one of the attending physicians I served under during my fellowship all those years ago. I thought I’d need to redo my fellowship in order to get back up to speed and to be taken seriously when applying for work, but Dr. Chaudry’s willing to give me a chance without another fellowship. I’ll need to retake my boards in Internal Medicine and Oncology before I’ll be eligible for a faculty position, which will be no mean feat, but a research assistantship will give me a chance to get back up to speed and to acquaint myself with the newer protocols while easing back into clinical practice. In a couple of years, I’ll be able to apply for a position as a clinical assistant professor, with a faculty appointment at Cornell. It’s a great opportunity.” “Aren’t you glad I made you keep your license up-to-date?” Dad asked. I wasn’t sure what Dad meant, so I raised my eyebrows and Mom explained, “It costs nearly a grand every two years to renew a medical license in New York State, and it isn’t even tax deductible. I just didn’t think it was worth it. On top of that, you need to complete fifty hours of continuing medical education every year, but I’d have probably done that anyway. The problem is that if you don’t renew, you have to pay back all the missed renewal fees plus a penalty, and it can take months or even a year to get your license back. Dad was right. It was better to keep paying the fees in case I decided to practice again someday.” “Does the assistantship pay as well as a fellowship?” I asked. “It’ll pay a bit more,” Mom answered. “Not nearly as much as I’ll get as a faculty member… not that Memorial is known for high salaries in the first place, but even in New York, we can live on it.” “That is fantastic,” I exclaimed. Even if the Feds tried to seize our assets, they couldn’t take her salary unless they arrested her too. It would offer a financial cushion against whatever might happen in the future. It also gave Mom a sense of doing something, and we all needed that now. Just as Dad was working on his book and Asher and I were working in the restaurant, Mom would be playing a major role in helping to keep the family together during these difficult times. <> <> <> Before I knew it, April was upon us and Asher would soon turn sixteen. In a couple of months, I myself would turn fifteen. I was still getting used to the idea that we were married. Since Mom and Dad had been forced to rent out their place in Albany and move back in with us, it didn’t really feel like we were married but, legally, we most certainly were. The one cloud hanging over our heads was the ongoing investigation by the Feds into Dad’s alleged corruption. Dalton kept us well-informed and the process of discovery was, for the time being, complete, but it was an ongoing investigation and without a trial date being set, the Feds were keeping their options open to file additional charges against Dad. In the meantime, Sam Weinstein was turning out to be much more of a problem than Dalton had originally thought. The Feds were able to pin a lot of serious shit on him and the mere threat of jailtime was enough to make him sing. Worse yet, the Feds were so determined to pin crap on Dad that they were willing to cut a deal. And in pleading guilty to Federal charges, he could avoid facing charges from the State of New York. Undoubtedly, he was lying through his teeth. The other shoe dropped a few days before Asher’s birthday, when the Feds showed up at the Ragin’ Cajun and closed the place down. We were both working there at the time and only found out afterwards that they’d closed Asher’s family’s Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street too. Asher’s family was completely reliant on their restaurants to pay their bills and didn’t have significant savings to fall back on, other than the money that was intended for Asher’s college fund, nor could they afford to pay the rent on either restaurant for more than a few months. Unless the situation resolved quickly, they’d have no choice but to declare bankruptcy on both restaurants and look for work elsewhere. Worse still, Dalton warned us that we could all end up facing arrest and since Asher and I were now married, we’d be treated and tried as adults. None of us had done anything wrong, but the Feds seemed hell-bent on entrapping Dad, even if it meant fabricating charges on those he cared about, based on the most tenuous of evidence. Unfortunately, the strategy was working. Not only did Dad offer to pay Dalton for the time spent defending Asher’s family — representation they could have never afforded otherwise, but he instructed Dalton to make overtures to the Feds on reaching a plea deal. If successful, dad would go to prison. Under the circumstances, none of us felt like celebrating Asher’s sixteenth birthday, especially Asher. We would celebrate another time, perhaps in conjunction with the celebration of our wedding, once the whole ordeal was over. <> <> <> “So here’s the deal,” Dalton began. It was the middle of May and he’d been negotiating with Federal prosecutors for more than six weeks. We were in our apartment — all of us — Mom, Dad, Gary, Beatrice, Asher and me. “The Feds aren’t willing to cut a deal that doesn’t involve a felony conviction and jailtime. However, beyond that, all is negotiable. Clearly, they’re seeking to punish you and to send a message to all who might try to challenge the president. It’s petty and vindictive, and way out of proportion to the situation at hand, but then I’ve come to expect that from the current administration. “I very strongly believe they have no case and we can win this thing. If we see it through, no one will go to prison and Frank, you might still have a shot at getting back into politics. My recommendation is to see it through and let me pursue either getting all the charges dropped or getting you acquitted. However, they are prepared to seek incitements of the boys from a Federal Grand Jury, and to try them as adults. Even if acquitted, they’ll likely be expelled from Stuyvesant and will probably have to delay their high school graduation. Unless convicted of a felony, getting into an Ivy League school should still be possible with their grades, but it would be much more of a challenge. “You’ve indicated that any involvement of the boys is unacceptable to you and of course, I respect that. If I had two fine young men for sons, I’d probably feel the same way. I also understand your insistence that the White’s avoid bankruptcy and that they be able to retain their restaurants. That turned out to be more of a challenge than you might have expected. Weinstein’s in much deeper shit than you can imagine. The Feds ended up taking all of his properties and they’ll be auctioning them off, including the contents of all the retail space in his buildings.” Then turning to Gary, he said, “I know you won’t find another sweetheart deal and you’ll have to start over at another location, but with your reputation, you should have little difficulty raising the funds to do so. Just be glad you aren’t the art gallery that occupied the space next to yours, as they’ve lost everything.” Then turning back to Dad, he continued, “Frank they’re willing to drop all of the charges of corruption and racketeering in return for a plea of no contest to insider trading. A ‘no contest’ plea is not an admission of guilt but rather an agreement not to contest the charges, and unlike with a guilty plea, you don’t need to establish guilt in front of the judge. You only need to establish that you understand the nature of the charges and the consequences. It won’t absolve you of possible charges at the state level, but your beef never was with the state and the state has no plans to investigate or indict you. They’ll also agree not to pursue investigations of your relatives, including your children and your son-in-law’s family and will put that in writing. Not that there ever was a basis for those investigations in the first place. “The SEC will agree to recommend a sentence of one year in a minimum-security Federal correctional facility, with probation possible after six months of good behavior. The judge, however, will be free to establish a sentence of anywhere from no jail time to ten years in prison, so you’ll want to do a bang-up job at your sentencing hearing. We’ll spend some time preparing for that. We’re also going to recommend remand to the minimum-security prison camp at Otisville, New York. It’s about seventy miles north of the city. Unfortunately, much depends on the judge assigned to the case, and whether or not they were appointed by the current president. We won’t know that until just before the hearing.” Dalton went on to explain the financial costs of the plea agreement, which were significant. Dad would have to return funds the SEC deemed to be ill-gotten and pay a substantial penalty. The good news was that my investments, even though they came from Dad, would be off-limits. Dalton explained the consequences of a felony conviction, which included disbarment, a ban on trading stocks and bonds and working as a registered lobbyist for a number of years, depending on the level of government. He wouldn’t lose his passport and would be allowed to travel, but there could be restrictions on travel in some countries. He could still buy and sell real estate, could invest in stocks and bonds so long as he used an independent broker and at least in New York, could still vote. It was a lot to take in, but Dad didn’t even hesitate. “Go ahead and take the deal, Dalton, and I appreciate everything you’ve done for us. I know you got the best deal possible under the circumstances. My family and I know I did no wrong, but I’ll admit I’m guilty of one of the cardinal sins in politics… the appearance of impropriety. I never intentionally invested in anything that could have been affected by my activities in the Assembly, but it was incredibly naïve of me to assume that it wouldn’t be seen as otherwise by my adversaries. “With respect to corruption, I have no regrets. The fact that the Feds are willing to drop all charges of corruption says it all. I may have blurred the line a few times as necessary and expedient, but I did nothing unethical and I’m sure a jury would agree with that. Spending six months in prison will be an interesting experience I’m sure, but necessary. Nothing is worth compromising my sons’ future, nor that of my son-in-law’s family.” “Frank, ordinarily, I always respect my client’s wishes,” Dalton countered, “but there’s something fishy about this deal. I know the jailtime and financial penalty sound like a lot, but it’s much less than what I would’ve expected under the circumstances. They’re hiding something Frank. We’re missing a piece of the puzzle… something they should’ve handed over in discovery but didn’t. Give me until the end of the week, and then we’ll enter your plea. Let’s at least keep them off-balance until the last minute, and if we do find something, we can discuss our options.” <> <> <> With finals looming on the horizon, it was a very bad time to take any time off from school, yet there was no way I would miss my Dad’s hearing. Ashe and I were both there for emotional support. I knew Dad and Dalton had spent days together, going over everything they would present and say, but I was privy to none of it. Much as they trusted me, Dalton insisted that absolutely no one be in the loop. The harm that could be done if any of it got out in advance of the hearing would be irreparable. The one thing I did know was that the judge was a recent appointee of the current president. That alone made me very nervous. I was surprised at the degree of interest from the media generated by a simple hearing. I guess the possibility of a plea arrangement and sentencing of a corrupt politician was big news, or news in any case. The bailiff told everyone to rise and of course we all stood up as the judge in his robes walked into the courtroom. He was young and appeared to be a bit nervous. Perhaps this was the first case he’d tried that was generating interest in the news media. As we retook our seats, I reflected on how weird it was to be sitting in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Courthouse, a building that’s frequently pictured on TV and in the movies. It was surreal. The Federal prosecutors sat at one table, with Dad and his legal team at the other. In addition to Dalton was Cortney Jeffries, one of his associates. After the case was introduced and the judge requested preliminaries, it was Cortney who stood and said, “Your Honor, if it would please the court, we request that you recuse yourself from these proceedings for conflict of interest.” There was immediate murmuring in the gallery and Asher asked, “What do you think that’s about?” “I’ve no idea,” I whispered, “but I’m sure we’re about to find out.” “It has come to our attention through a search of public records,” Cortney continued, “that Your Honor’s family has substantial real estate holdings in New York. As you may know, Frank Moore was a co-sponsor of the recently passed tenant bill, which the Governor signed into law. As a result of that law, Your Honor’s family stands to lose over thirty million dollars in rent revenue over the course of the next ten years. We believe that this may prejudice Your Honor and it might be very difficult to adjudicate the case fairly.” Woah! “Please approach the bench,” the judge requested and Cortney and her counterpart from the other table did so. I couldn’t hear anything that was said, and then after a few minutes of discussion with the judge, they returned to their respective tables. The judge then announced, “My family’s real estate holdings have no bearing on this case and will not influence my decisions. I therefore rule against the motion to recuse myself.” “Damn,” Asher exclaimed, “I thought for a moment we might actually get a new judge.” “Even though we didn’t, Cortney has put him on notice,” I pointed out. “This is a high-profile case and the last thing the judge wants is for what’s probably his first big case in Federal court to be lost on appeal. I’m sure he’ll be on his best behavior.” “Still, he has every reason to want to please the man who appointed him,” Asher pointed out. “Let’s hope his interest in serving justice wins out in the end,” I replied. “Ms. Jeffries, has your client agreed to accept a plea agreement?” the judge asked. “He has not, your honor,” she replied, eliciting gasps from many in the gallery, including myself. “You are aware that I have in front of me a statement, signed by your client, agreeing not to contest a reduced set of charges offered by the prosecution?” the judge asked. “From what I can see, it’s an exceptionally fair deal. Is there a compelling reason for your client to reject a deal he’s already agreed to take?” “There is, your honor, as new information has come to light that has caused my client to change his mind,” Cortney answered. “In particular, we have uncovered evidence that the prosecution has withheld critical evidence that would exonerate my client. Further, they have selectively chosen evidence of insider trading while ignoring evidence that refutes it. Finally, the prosecution acted to shut down my client’s son-in-law’s family’s restaurant without cause. As the restaurant is their only source of revenue, it put undue pressure on my client to reach an unfavorable plea agreement. The prosecution has acted in bad faith and the plea agreement signed by my client is therefore invalid. “If I may, your honor, I have evidence to submit that backs up my contention of prosecutorial misconduct.” Again, there were gasps. I knew from listening to my dad that prosecutorial misconduct was a serious accusation that was seldom used. Prosecutors, especially US Attorneys, had broad powers and judges were loath to find against them. For Dalton and Cortney to allege prosecutorial conduct must have meant they had rock-solid evidence. Either that or it was an act of desperation. The ramifications were clearly evident on the face of the young judge, who swallowed hard. Whichever way he ruled, it could define the rest of his career. “If it pleases the court,” Cortney continued, “The prosecution would have you believe my client used his political office to influence the market and to take advantage of pending legislation to inflate the value of his portfolio in what amounted to classic insider trading. To that end, they have presented a long list of financial transactions and investments that increased in value as a result of contracts with the state and or by other means related to legislation in the State Assembly. What the prosecution did not do was to correlate these with my client’s legislative positions and actions in his role as a leader in the Assembly. When that is done, it is noted that my client actually opposed a majority of the legislation that ended up benefiting him personally.” “Objection!” the chief prosecutor shouted without elaboration. “Sustained,” the judge ruled, although I had no idea why. “Your Honor,” Cortney countered, “the prosecution’s evidence is incomplete and, as we shall show, one-sided. Clearly, they cherrypicked the investments that supported their position and ignored those that did not. Although I cannot prove intent, I am prepared to present proof that the data are not fully represented. It strains all sense of believability to suggest that the manipulation of the data wasn’t deliberate.” “Your Honor,” the prosecutor interrupted, “certainly you can’t allow defense to bring in new data this late in the game to support baseless allegations. If the defense wishes to present these data at trial, they are free to do so.” “I can’t prove the allegations aren’t baseless unless I’m allowed to present evidence to that effect,” Courtney challenged. Sighing, the judge responded, “Mr. Walters, if there is evidence that a plea agreement was pressed on the defendant based on faulty data, I certainly need to hear it, and Ms. Jeffreys, please keep in mind that this is a hearing for a plea arrangement and not a trial. Any new data provided must be brief.” “Certainly, Your Honor,” Courtney replied. “To that end, I have prepared a report that I’d like to present into evidence at this time.” She handed a thick binder to the bailiff, as well as one to the judge and one to the prosecutor and his assistant. “This report evaluates my client’s involvement with each of the companies cited by the prosecution and his activities in the legislature that might have resulted in positive or negative financial gain. It also provides a statistical analysis of the data and finds a negative correlation between my client’s activities and his personal financial outcome. In other words, my client’s legislative agenda actually would have diminished the value of his portfolio, had it been fully implemented. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that my client invested, based on what he expected the legislature to do rather than what he wished it to do, but then, that wouldn’t have been insider trading. Certainly, the prosecution knew all of this and chose not to report it, but that in itself doesn’t constitute misconduct. “What would constitute misconduct, however, would be if they cherrypicked the data they presented, showing only those investments that profited during my client’s tenure in the Assembly and suppressing the evidence from investments that did not profit or actually declined in value, and that is exactly what they did. In the second portion of the report, we look at a representative, random sample of my client’s investments. We didn’t have time to do a comprehensive analysis, but a representative sample should tell us if the prosecution exercised due diligence, and they did not. We found that, when we look at my client’s investments in companies that had any kind of relationship with the State of New York, there was absolutely no correlation whatsoever with outcome. Indeed, those investments, which represented less than three percent of his overall portfolio, did no better nor worse than his overall portfolio. “The prosecution has failed to provide any evidence, positive or negative, of an attempt on the part of my client to influence the market value of these investments, nor is there evidence that my client used information about pending legislation, regulations or contracts to alter his investment strategy. There is no evidence of a quid pro quo, nor that the timing of his investment transactions was in any way influenced by his legislative activities. “In summary, the prosecution based the charge of insider trading on incomplete data. At the least, the prosecution was negligent in the methods employed to collect and analyze the data. However, that strains credibility, and what I see is a systematic, intentional misrepresentation of the data so as to pressure my client into pleading ‘no contest’ to a crime he did not commit.” “Objection!” the lead prosecutor shouted. “Sustained,” the judge replied. “Conjecture has no place in this courtroom. However, Ms. Jeffrey’s makes a compelling point for further evaluation and analysis of the data, which cannot be completed in the short timeframe of this hearing. Both the prosecution and I need time to review the contents of the new report. I need to determine if it has merit, and the prosecution needs time to be able to refute it. “Therefore, we will adjourn this hearing and reconvene it in not less than two weeks, at which time I will rule on the merit of Ms. Jeffreys’ report. Of course, merit doesn’t imply persecutorial misconduct, but rather whether there are grounds for further investigation. The prosecution will have an opportunity at that time to present whatever evidence they have to counter the report, within reason, and defense will have the opportunity to provide supporting evidence, within reason. I will then rule on the merit of defense’s motion and if there is merit, we will schedule a more extensive hearing on the matter with the opportunity to present additional evidence. If I do not find merit, the defendant will have the opportunity to accept the original plea agreement.” Lifting his gavel, the judge asked, “Is there anything else to be presented before we adjourn? “Yes, Your Honor,” Cortney answered. “That the prosecution may have seen fit to skew the data would be bad enough, but in order to pressure my client into taking a plea deal, the prosecution moved against my client’s son-in-law’s family restaurants. They have two restaurants located on the Lower East Side, one on Grand Street and a newer restaurant on Orchard Street. The one on Orchard Street was in a building owned by Sam Weinstein, a developer under investigation for tax evasion, fraud and bribery. That building has been seized as per the Federal statutes on racketeering and the restaurant would have been closed regardless. “The restaurant on Grand Street, however, has been owned and operated by the family for decades and is in a building owned by the cooperative in which the family resides. My client has no financial relationship with the restaurant other than a desire to see that his son-in-law’s family remains financially solvent. It’s one thing to use legal means to apply pressure to obtain a valid plea arrangement, but quite another to deliberately harm an innocent party as a means of doing so. Without at least one of the restaurants remaining open, my client’s son-in-law’s parents will have no other means of support.” “Mr. Walters, could you elaborate on the reasons why the restaurants were seized?” The judge asked. “Certainly, Your Honor,” the prosecutor replied. “The defendant was directly responsible for obtaining the lease on the restaurant on Orchard Street on behalf of his son-in-law’s family. To that end, he contacted Sam Weinstein, a known criminal, regarding an available property.” “Objection!” Cortney shouted. When the judge merely nodded at her, she elaborated, “Sam Weinstein is an alleged criminal who has yet to be convicted of any crime. Further, my client only served to arrange a meeting between Gary White, his son-in-law’s father, and Mr. Weinstein. It was Mr. White… not my client… who negotiated the terms of the lease. Moreover, Mr. Weinstein is a contributor to my client’s campaigns and has been a supporter of many initiatives to benefit residents of the Lower East Side who reside in my client’s legislative district. As Mr. Weinstein has not been convicted of any crime, my client had no reason to suspect that he ran a criminal enterprise.” “Sustained,” the judge ruled. “Mr. Walters, you will refrain from referring to Mr. Weinstein as anything more than a suspected criminal and you will refer to any possible criminal activity involving the defendant or Mr. Weinstein as alleged criminal activity.” “Yes, Your Honor,” the prosecutor responded, and then he continued. “So from our standpoint, the defendant’s relationship with a suspected criminal was suspicious and the arrangement for a meeting between Mr. White and Mr. Weinstein was seen as a prelude to an alleged criminal enterprise that was orchestrated by the defendant. We therefor seized both restaurants under Federal racketeering statutes.” “Mr. Walters,” the judge responded. “That reasoning seems awfully thin. Is there any evidence that the restaurant on Grand Street in any way supports criminal activity?” “No, Your Honor,” the prosecutor admitted. “In that case, I rule that the restaurant on Grand Street be returned immediately.” Then slamming down his gavel, the judge said, “We are adjourned until a hearing date can be scheduled regarding the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.” <> <> <> “So your dad didn’t take the plea bargain after all?” Freck asked as we sat down to eat our lunch. “No, and it shocked the hell outta me,” I admitted. “I thought sure he was gonna plead no contest to insider trading, and maybe even be sentenced, but that wasn’t what happened.” “So what did happen,” Clarke asked. “Dad’s attorney, or rather his associate, Cortney Walters, withdrew Dad’s plea agreement and alleged prosecutorial misconduct.” Carl actually whistled in response. “That’s a pretty serious allegation, and not one to be made lightly. You really need to be sure of yourself to allege something like that… or stupid.” “She was awesome,” Asher responded. “She really seemed to know her shit, and she’d obviously done her homework. She presented a review of the prosecutor’s data and showed how, even though Seth’s dad benefitted financially from the associations between New York State and some of the companies whose stock he traded, his own voting record actually worked against him. Had he gotten his way in the Assembly all the time, he’d have made substantially less than he did in the end.” “Yeah, but that doesn’t rule out insider trading,” Kyle pointed out. “Sorry to bring it up, but just because a politician votes a particular way doesn’t mean they can’t make a profit from knowing how the Assembly will vote as a whole.” “Yeah, and Cortney admitted that,” I related, “but as she pointed out, that doesn’t amount to insider trading. Anyone could have made the same trades, knowing in general how the Assembly was expected to vote.” “And she did something really cool,” Asher chimed in. “She took a sample of Seth’s dad’s investments and compared performance of those that involved companies that did business with the state to his portfolio overall. You know what she found?” “I assume she found no difference,” Kyle replied, “so it makes insider trading unlikely. If he really did take advantage of the relationship between the companies that do business with the state and his own position in state government, those investments should have done better than the others, and significantly so. But that still doesn’t rule out the possibility of insider trading… it just makes it extremely unlikely. There’s also the possibility he could be using shell corporations to trade without anyone being aware of it. The legitimate trades would then be just to cover his tracks. Not that I’m accusing your dad of doing such a thing Seth.” “And if he were doing something like that,” Clarke joined in, “there should be other evidence of it. People don’t resort to shell corporations and offshore bank accounts unless they intend to make use of those funds. That’s what tripped my parents up. Seth’s family lives at or below their means, so what would be the point of taking a risk on insider trading?” “That’s just it,” I replied. “Dad’s done very well with his investments, and they’ve all been above board. Why the fuck would he risk it all by doing illegal shit?” “The good news is that Cortney was able to get the judge to force the prosecutor to let my parents reopen their restaurant,” Asher added. “You mean the Ragin’ Cajun’s gonna reopen?” Kyle asked with obvious hope in his voice. Shaking his head, Asher answered, “No, that’s not gonna happen. The guy that owned the building was a crook and is under investigation by the Feds in his own right…” “I think the investigation of my dad is what kicked off the Federal investigation into his shit,” I interjected. “Yeah, I guess that’s probably true,” Asher agreed, and then he went on to explain to our friends, “Seth’s dad arranged a meeting between the building’s owner, Sam Weinstein, and my dad. He had an unexpected vacancy and Dad was able to negotiate a real sweetheart deal on the space for the restaurant.” “Except that it had a poison clause,” I pointed out. “Yeah, that actually sucked, big time, and because of it, it’s actually a good thing the Feds closed the Ragin’ Cajun,” Asher related. “Otherwise I’d be stuck in that space until I was as old as my dad.” Then turning back to our friends, Asher continued, “My dad negotiated to keep all the furnishings that already were in the space, which had previously housed a restaurant, and he got a five-year deal to keep the rent at what it had been too.” “That’s epic,” Freck joined in. “Most landlords could give a shit about keeping the rent low enough that local businesses can afford it. That’s why so much retail space is vacant these days. Landlords raise the rent to what the market will bear, or so they say, and unlike with residential units, there is no rent stabilization or anything. The only businesses that can afford Manhattan rents by and large are retail chains, so the landlords hold out for a major chain to lease the space, rather than keeping the rent low enough for existing tenants to remain in place. It’s stupid, ’cause getting some rent’s way better than getting none, but the tax laws let them deduct the full cost of the lost revenue at the higher rent, so in some ways they come out ahead. The problem is that every time a business closes because it can’t afford the rent anymore, a little bit of New York’s character is lost.” “I think that landlords should be required to lease their retail space at the original lease rate to existing clients until they have a new tenant to rent the space,” I chimed in. “Why have vacant space when there’s already someone who wants to use it, and there’s no reason to raise the rent when the alternative is to get nothing.” “Yeah, but the tax laws make it too easy to do just that,” Freck agreed. “When you’re the mayor of New York Seth, and I really believe you will be the mayor someday, maybe you can change that. But getting back to what happened yesterday… so Asher, that really sounds like it was a great deal. What was wrong with it?” “Part of the deal was that anything we purchased for the restaurant, even with our own money, became the property of the landlord,” Asher answered. “Well that sucks,” Kyle responded. “We thought that was OK,” Asher continued, “because we figured we’d want to buy new stuff after five years anyway. We never dreamt the restaurant would be so successful, nor did the landlord for that matter, and keeping the initial costs down was what was important. What we didn’t realize was that hidden in the fine print was a no-compete clause that would have kept me or my parents from opening another restaurant for the next twenty years. What it meant was that we would’ve had a twenty-year lease, but that the landlord could have raised the rent as high as he wanted after the first five years.” “Shit, that’s crazy man,” Clark agreed. “The guy pretended to do good for the community by investing and rehabilitating properties no one else wanted,” I added, “but it was all a sham. He supported Dad in his campaigns too, which was why Dad thought he was on the up-and-up. It turned out that most of his improvements were cosmetic, and that he skimped on upgrading infrastructure to the point that his buildings were almost unsafe. Some of them don’t even meet code and will hafta be torn down. All along, his only interest was in buying up air rights, planning to use his influence to get the city to allow him to consolidate them in new developments on Delancey. The trouble is there’s already a lot of development in and around Delancey, so there aren’t enough air rights to be bought for the eighty-story buildings he wants to build. He hoped to use his influence to buy his way out of the existing restrictions.” “What a douchebag,” Kyle exclaimed. “What did you say his name was again?” “Sam Weinstein,” I replied. “Is he Jewish?” Kyle asked. “He wears a yarmulke, so I guess so,” I replied. “But what does that have to do with anything?” “Nothing,” Kyle answered, “except that there are still a lot of folks… probably half the country when you get down to it… that still believe the old stereotypes about Jews, you know? A lot of Americans think we’re money-hungry grubby cheapskate thieves, and it doesn’t help our image when one of our own turns out to be just that. Anti-Semites don’t need much of a reason to hate us as it is. You may have heard that some of the white supremacists in Charlottesville chanted, ‘The Jews will not replace us,’ as if we’d even want to replace trailer trash like them. A lot of successful doctors, lawyers, businesspersons and entertainers are Jewish because education is a major part of our traditions. And guilt. We’d feel too guilty if we didn’t give our mothers a chance to kvell, and they wouldn’t let us forget it either.” “I know what you mean,” Asher responded. “Asians are much the same way… not that we face the rising antisemitism you guys are seeing these days, but there’s still a lot of resentment at our success and the way we’ve come to dominate college admissions at Ivy League schools. African Americans certainly know about racism and hatred. My dad is Creole and maybe that’s one of the things that makes him different. In any case, I got a strong drive to succeed from both my parents. “But getting back to what happened yesterday, the Ragin’ Cajun won’t be reopening anytime soon, and certainly not where it was, but the judge ruled that the Feds have to release their hold on the Asian restaurant, so my parents’ll be able to reopen on Grand Street.” “That’s great news Ashe,” Freck responded, and everyone else chimed in agreement. “So what happens now?” Kyle asked. “The judge is gonna review the evidence our attorneys collected, and the Feds will have a chance to review it too. We were supposed to reconvene in a couple of weeks, but we couldn’t get a court date until the middle of June, right in the midst of finals, so I’ll have to miss the next hearing at Dad’s insistence. I guess the Feds’ll have a chance to challenge our evidence, and we’ll have a chance to present any additional evidence we can find in the interim, and then the judge’ll make a decision on whether or not the allegation of misconduct has merit. If not, Dad will have another chance to take the plea, but if it does have merit, I’m not sure what will happen then.” “If the judge decides the allegation of misconduct has merit,” Carl began, “then your dad’s attorney will likely ask the judge for summary judgement. That means he’ll ask the judge to dismiss the entire case, based on the lack of evidence that your dad did anything wrong. It would be great if the judge went along with that, as it would put a quick end to the case and it would mean acquittal, so he couldn’t even be retried on the same charges. However, even if the judge thinks the allegation of misconduct has merit, he could decide the charges still have merit too and decline summary judgement, opting instead for a full trial by jury. But if he decides that, he’ll have to deal directly with the allegation of misconduct, which would be messy. He’d either have to resolve the allegation by conducting an independent investigation or reassign the case to another prosecutor. Either way, it would add months to the case.” “Damn, I forgot you’re going to be a lawyer too,” I commented, but just then the bell rang, bringing our discussion to an end. <> <> <> Gary and Bernice wasted little time in reopening their restaurant on Grand Street, and their customers quickly returned. Surprisingly, a lot of people from the neighborhood who’d never tried it before stopped in as well, not to mention people from outside the neighborhood who were curious, given all the publicity from Dad’s arrest. They had to bring in extra help, which included Asher and me, but there was a significant uptick in sales, which translated to badly needed revenue. It only took them a month to recoup their losses from the restaurant being closed for two months, and they came out well ahead by the time business settled down to the level it had been before my dad’s arrest. Asher and I both did well in school and were on-track to maintain our straight-A average, keeping us in the running for valedictorian in a couple of years — not that either of us expected to stay in first place as the competition heated up during our junior and senior years. Finally, Dad’s court date was again upon us, but Asher and I both had exams that afternoon and so taking time off to attend the hearing was not an option. I feared I might fail my exam out of worry for dad, but I felt my phone vibrate during my third-period class. I noticed Asher was also pulling out his phone in spite of the ban on texting while in class. We could end up in the vice-principal’s office, but I knew Dr. Epstein would understand. Just to be safe, however, I kept my phone in my lap and out of sight. Glancing down at my phone, there was a simple message from Mom. It read, ‘NOT GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS!’ My head shot up in time to see that Asher had a huge grin on his face that matched my own. The teacher took notice though, and asked. “Mr. Moore, is there something important enough to interrupt the class.” “Yes sir,” I responded. “A Federal judge just found my dad not guilty on all counts!” A bit surprisingly, the class erupted in a cheer and the teacher had no choice but to let it slide. Moments later the bell rang, and we were on our way to lunch. It was amazing the way kids who were so quick to judge Dad when the news first broke of his arrest were now so supportive. People were congratulating me, slapping me on the back and bumping fists with me. Others nearby, seeing this, came up to me to ask what was going on. There was little doubt that word would quickly spread of my dad’s acquittal — hell, it was probably all over the news sites by now — but the Stuyvesant rumor mill was faster. With all the kids stopping us along the way, Ashe and I were among the last in line in the cafeteria, and even then, kids kept coming up to us. While we were waiting in line, Mom sent another text that read, ‘US Att unable to refute our data. Dalton moved for summary judgement. Judge agreed. No evidence of insider trading. No evidence of corruption. Full acquittal. No appeal.’ Wow! I texted back, ‘Fantastic! Will Dad go back to Albany?’ Her reply came almost immediately, ‘Yes. Already talked to Gov’. Then a moment later, she continued, ‘Needs new chief of staff. I must stay at MSK. Commuter marriage. Dad may run for Gov in 2 years. If wins I’ll join. You’ll be in college. GTG. News conf.’ Double wow! By the time Asher and I got our food, our friends were already halfway through eating their lunches. We sat down and immediately, Freck asked, “Rumor has it your dad was acquitted?” “Acquitted on all counts,” I replied. “Carl was right, we moved for summary judgement and the judge agreed. The US Attorney was unable to refute our data and the judge found there was no evidence of insider trading, and there never had been any hard evidence of corruption. All they had was circumstantial, and the word of a sleazebag real estate mogul.” “As expected, the judge took the easy way out,” Carl chimed in. “With summary judgement, the whole issue of prosecutorial misconduct became moot.” “Yeah, but he was appointed by this president, who pushed for Seth’s dad’s arrest in the first place,” Asher pointed out. “I would have thought the judge felt enormous pressure to proceed with a trial.” “I’m sure he did,” Kyle agreed. “You should see what the president’s saying on Twitter,” he added. “He’s in the midst of one of his Twitter storms right now. He keeps calling the judge a coward and says everyone knows Frank Moore’s guilty as can be.” “Half the people in America will believe him too,” I replied. “Not in New York, and unless your dad runs for president, nothing else matters,” Asher countered. “There is that,” I agreed. “I’m just glad the judge didn’t cave to the pressure from the president who appointed him.” “That wasn’t gonna happen,” Carl countered. “Elected officials are afraid to challenge the president for fear his supporters will vote them out of office, but that doesn’t apply to judges. That judge will be on the bench for the rest of his working life. He’ll see presidents come and go from both parties, but a bad decision made this early in his tenure could define the rest of his career. Better to be seen as one who’s fair than to appear partisan.” After a minute of eating, Clarke asked, “Is your old man gonna go back to his seat in the Assembly?” “That’s the plan,” I responded. “He never relinquished his seat, although he did have to give up his chairmanship of Ways and Means during his leave of absence, and he won’t get it back. However, he’ll likely run for governor in a couple of years anyway.” “What if the current governor decides to run for a fourth term?” Freck asked. “That would be unprecedented,” I noted, “but if he does, Dad’ll just have to wait. He isn’t about to challenge his benefactor for his job.” “Is there any chance of getting compensation for lost income and attorney’s fees?” Kyle asked. “I don’t see how,” I replied. “There is in most cases, but there’s no recourse with the Feds,” Carl jumped in. “You can’t sue the Federal Government and the judges know it. I’m sure your attorney made a request after the judge agreed to summary judgement, but it’s rarely approved in criminal cases.” “What about your mom?” Clarke asked. Sighing, I replied, “She has a commitment to Memorial Sloan Kettering, so she’ll hafta stay behind and Dad’ll hafta get a new chief of staff.” “So they’ll have a commuter marriage?” Clarke asked and I merely nodded my head. “That’ll be tough on them,” he added. “Yeah,” I agreed. “But as busy as she is with her new job, they wouldn’t have seen much of each other anyway. And they’ve always come down to The City on weekends and during recess to see me, so that’ll be nothing new for Dad. If Dad wins the race for Governor, Mom’ll look for an oncology position in Albany. Ashe and I will be in college by then anyway.” “I’m just glad your dad’s off the hook,” Asher responded. “Now, the White-Moores can get on with their lives.” “Who are the Whitmores,” Freck asked. “Not Whitmore, White-hyphen-Moore,” I explained. “It sounded like Whitmore,” Freck insisted, “but you know, it’s kinda cool that your names combine to a real name, you know? You ought to consider using Whitmore. Maybe you could legally change your names.” “I never thought about it, but it really is cool,” Asher responded. “What do you think, Babe?” I’d never considered not keeping my original family name, but it did sound kinda cool, and so I replied, “I like it. We should consider it and I’ll look into it after the school year’s over.” “So now that your dad’s in the clear, are you guys gonna celebrate your birthdays?” Kyle asked. “After all, Asher turned sixteen back in April, and that’s at least as big a deal as Freck turning thirteen back in December.” “You just want to party,” Freck chided his boyfriend. “Damn right I do,” Kyle responded, “and it’d be a great way to end the schoolyear.” “Actually, my dad’s turning forty in a few weeks,” I reported. “Before the whole corruption debacle, he used to talk about hosting a party for his constituents on his birthday. Now, perhaps he’ll do that, and there’ll probably be a formal, black-tie affair for his donors, and maybe something up in Albany. Ashe and I will be expected to attend any and all of his birthday celebrations, but we can make arrangements for you guys to attend any of them too. We’ll have to coordinate our birthday bash with his, but we’ll definitely do something. And we’ll probably have a formal wedding next year some time. The moms are already working on it. “So if you’re worried about a dearth of parties to attend, we’ve got you covered,” I concluded. “Maybe we could celebrate our birthdays on the Fourth of July,” Asher suggested. “You’re always bragging about the great view you have of the fireworks from our terrace… not that I’ve gotten to see them yet, but that would be a great time to celebrate all around, and you know your dad will be tied up in Albany, probably at the Governor’s party as usual.” “That’s a fantastic idea Ashe,” I agreed. “It’d be a great time for an end-of-schoolyear party too. Let’s all plan on it.” The bell ringing reminded us we had more classes to attend and finals to take. I was no longer worried about failing to pass mine, now that Dad had been acquitted. It felt like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders and a grey cloud had gone away. We had birthdays and a wedding to celebrate, and now maybe Asher could think about looking for a new space for the Ragin’ Cajun. Finally I could let out the breath I’d been holding since January, and Ashe and I could get on with our lives.
  4. “Happy birthday dear Kyle… Happy birthday to you!” I really was happy. Eleven at last – not yet a teenager, but old enough that people were starting to listen to me rather than treating me like a little kid. Everyone sang as Dad brought out a large sheet cake with eleven candles on it. We were all in our swimsuits and huddled around a patio table next to our enclosed pool. How cool it was to have a pool party in December! My birthday cake was decorated with the likeness of a vinyl record on it, with a tone arm in place on the record and musical notes on both sides. It was ironic, ’cause I was just about as anti-vinyl as an audiophile could be, but nothing exemplified music more than an image of an old-fashioned record player and so that’s what was on my birthday cake. Not that I was happy with most digital music either. Not by a long shot. Oh, the songs were OK, but 99.999% of music today was mastered for streaming, which I thought should be classified as a war crime. Although vinyl is phenomenally better than compact discs, which are way better than Spotify or Apple Music, it’s fragile and even the best vinyl degrades with time. That’s why Neil Young was making it his life’s work to save music by digitizing the original multi-track recordings in high resolution, so it could be saved in a format that preserved the full dynamic range of the music and that would last forever. I had a huge collection of high-res music on my computer, and nothing – not even vinyl, could touch it. Not many eleven-year-olds that I knew of were as passionate about music as I was, but then not many eleven-year-olds that I knew of were in their senior year at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s elite public high schools. Not many eleven-year-olds that I knew of were out and proud either, nor did they have a boyfriend like Freck. Freck was another prodigy, but he was a couple years older than I. His birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks, and he’d be turning thirteen. Freck was about to become a teenager. After I blew out all the candles, my cousin Jason, from California, and my friend, Asher White, broke into singing a rendition of the Beatle’s Birthday Song. Jason, who was thirteen and had won national competitions for the jazz band he formed when he was only nine, was playing his keyboard while both boys sang along. Asher, who was fifteen, was a soloist with the Stuyvesant Men’s Chorus and had a magnificent voice. After singing Birthday Song, Jason started banging on the keys and he and Asher segued into Elton John’s Crocodile Rock, followed by The Who’s Pinball Wizard, Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, Carole King’s I Feel the Earth Move, The Police’s Every Breath You Take, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and lastly, Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Truthfully, I loved all kinds of music, including classical, jazz, country and even hip-hop, but my absolute favorite music was classic rock. The sixties, seventies and early eighties were a special time when music recording was at its peak, before the digital revolution came along and wrecked everything. My baby and I danced away until we could dance no more. Only then did I realize that I’d yet to eat my own birthday cake. Although I’d cut way back on my caffeine intake, I still loved the taste of coffee and never missed an opportunity to eat coffee-flavored anything. Dad had searched far and wide for a baker that could make a birthday cake flavored with real Kahlua, and man, was the cake incredible. Served with coffee Häagen-Dazs, it was perfect. Finally, we got down to the opening of presents. I had a Sony PlayStation gaming system and several of the gifts were new games for it, but I wasn’t what you’d call a hard-core gamer. I enjoyed playing for fun every now and then, but I didn’t play enough to be competitive and so I never got into online gaming. I got some Kindle books, including the latest book from Orson Scott Card that I’d been dying to read. I got a Blu-ray version of the latest season of Star Trek Discovery and although I wasn’t a hardcore Trekie like Asher or Seth, I knew I’d enjoy watching all the special features that weren’t available when streaming from CBS All Access. Freck gave me a pair of opening day tickets for the new Star Wars movie as part of a package with limited edition Star Wars 3D glasses, a signed limited-edition movie poster and a soon-to-be-released limited-edition steel book 4K-HDR Blu-ray set of all eleven movies. I had to chuckle at the thought of receiving a collection of eleven movies for my eleventh birthday. That was something my boyfriend would enjoy even more than I would, as he was a diehard Star Wars fan. In any case, it would be fun to see the latest Star Wars movie on opening day on the big screen with him. Because my birthday was so close to Hanukkah, I always got a single present for both from my family every year. It kinda sucked, as my combined present never seemed like as much as the two presents my brother, Roger, got each year. I had a feeling, however, that this year might be different, as it would be my last birthday living at home. I wondered what kind of present I might get this year as my dad handed me a sealed envelope. Last year, I got my A&K portable music player, which cost $1800. I already had one of the latest iPhones, and I’d probably get a new laptop for graduation. I was way too young for a car, but a new bicycle would come in handy if I got into MIT. Taking the envelope from Dad, I opened it and started to read. The MIT letterhead immediately piqued my interest, but I was totally unprepared for what followed. “Dear Mr. Goldstein, We are prepared to offer you a position as an undergraduate in the class of…” I couldn’t continue reading, as my eyes filled with tears. Finally, I turned to Dad and asked, “How did you get this? Acceptance letters aren’t supposed to be mailed for a couple of months.” “Let’s just say it helps to know a Nobel laureate in physics,” Dad replied. Dad was referring to Dr. Jeff Franklin, an endowed chair at the American Museum of Natural History and the life partner of my friend Seth’s grandfather. But then I had a critical thought and asked, “But what about Freck?” “If you read the rest of your acceptance letter,” Dad answered, “you’ll see that they have agreed to your request to share a dorm room with your ‘friend’, François San Angelo. Speaking of which, consider this an early birthday present,” Dad added as he handed a similar envelope to Freck.” Moments later, Freck let out a whoop as he said repeatedly, “I’m in. I’m in!” “The joint program in Architecture and Civil Engineering?” I asked my boyfriend. “Absolutely!” he responded. He was practically jumping up and down, right next to me, but then he got a puzzled look on his face and asked, “Not that I’m not grateful for the news, but how is this a birthday present?” “Are you kidding?” Dad responded. “Between you and Kyle, the tuition’s over a hundred grand a year, not to mention the cost of room and board.” “But my parent’s will be paying my share,” Freck countered, “and you’d be paying Kyle’s college expenses regardless, so you still owe him a birthday present.” “Indeed, I do,” Dad replied as he handed me another envelope. I opened it and immediately noted the logo of the American Museum of Natural History. I’d looked into a number of summer internships in top labs around the world, but of the very few that allowed participants younger than eighteen, none were for anyone as young as me. I’d not encountered anything about an internship at the AMNH – not one that was open to high school students, let alone those younger than eighteen or even sixteen, yet here I was reading a letter of acceptance into such a program. How was this possible? Before I could even ask the question, Dad answered, “The museum doesn’t even offer summer internships to high school students. Of course, there are learning programs all the time, but they’re geared more toward a basic STEM curriculum. There are a limited number of positions associated with specific research projects and exhibitions, most of them for graduate students. Undergraduate internships are rare and high school internships unheard of. But then they’ve not had a Nobel Laureate in an endowed chairmanship make such a request before.” “Internships?” Freck asked. “Yes, you both have internships there this summer,” Dad continued as he handed Freck a letter. “Of course, there could be no quid pro quo involved with the internships. Other than specifying that they be open to graduating high school seniors, regardless of age, the only stipulations were that one required fluency in five or more languages other than English, and the other required completion of advanced courses in vector calculus and complex number theory.” “Gee, I wonder where they could find applicants still in high school meeting those qualifications?” I asked. “Believe it or not, there were multiple applications for both positions,” Dad related, “even though they weren’t exactly advertised. You’re not the only exceptional kids out there, you know.” “That’s a scary thought,” Roger interjected, eliciting laughter from all of our friends. “I hope you understand that these internships really are a gift, even though they didn’t cost me any money,” Dad added. “Of course I understand,” I replied and Freck nodded his head. “I literally spent days making the arrangements, including petitioning the governor and both of our senators. There’s little precedent for allowing eleven- and thirteen-year-olds to participate in advanced internships. However, Seth’s grandfather, is an example of one. He was only thirteen when he attended a summer program at the University of Iowa that was intended for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Thus Dr. Franklin insisted that there be no minimum age and that age not be a factor in the consideration of applicants. Still, we had to get waivers from state and federal regulations in any case. “So you’ll both be busy this summer, and although your internships will both be at the AMNH, you’ll be doing entirely different things and may go all day without seeing each other. In many ways, it’ll be a lot like it’ll be at MIT.” The thought of Freck and I going our separate ways during the day really hit me hard. I’d always known in the hypothetical that things would be different in college, but I hadn’t really given much thought to what that would mean. At Stuyvesant, I was way ahead of Freck in math, but he was way more advanced in his language classes. Still, we had a number of classes in common, and we always ate lunch together with our friends, every day. At most, I might go an hour or two without seeing my baby, but otherwise we were always together. MIT would be different. Not only would we be functionally at different levels in our math, sciences and humanities, but we’d be in entirely different curricula with perhaps no overlap at all. We might take a creative writing course together or maybe a history course, but that would mean spending perhaps a few hours together in a week, and no more. Maybe if we were lucky, we’d share a computer science class since programming skills were central to both our fields. Otherwise, we’d only see each other at breakfast and at dinnertime, and if we made the effort, at lunchtime. At least we’d share our nights. But when I thought about it, weren’t our lives gonna be like that from now on? We’d each have our own careers and spend our days apart. With Freck’s career as an architect, he’d probably be away for weeks at a time as he worked on-site on his projects. And wouldn’t the same be true for me in my field? Particle accelerators don’t exactly grow on trees and the most powerful ones aren’t even in the U.S. I might be away for several weeks at a time myself, collecting data from my experiments. It was gonna take a huge effort for Freck and me to have any kind of life together at all. And as much as I’d like to start a family, what kinda life would our kids have, with their daddies always on the road? I guess I was getting sorta morose, as Freck pulled me aside and said, “My office can be anywhere in the world, Ky. Find yourself a top academic position… maybe even an endowed chairmanship at one of the top places for physics. Wherever you go, I’ll go, and if we have kids, we’ll hire a nanny. It wasn’t bein’ raised by a nanny that fucked me up, Ky. It was bein’ treated as a trophy child by parents who never loved me. That’ll never happen to our kids,” he concluded as he drew me into a hug and hugged me tight. How’d he know what was buggin’ me? “It won’t be easy, Freck,” I responded. “Governments aren’t investing in particle accelerators anymore, which means making do with upgrades to the ones we already have and improvising a lot for our experiments. Today it’s the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Tomorrow it could be Fermilab in Illinois. Particle physicists don’t have the luxury of choosing their country, let alone their lab.” “Maybe that’s a sign that the field’s overcrowded,” Freck suggested. What a cheery thought! “Maybe that’s a sign you should keep your eyes open for the next big thing,” he continued. “Particles are the fundamental building blocks of the universe,” I explained. “If there are major discoveries to be made, they’ll be made by particle physicists.” “If that’s so, then what are the particles that make up dark matter?” Freck asked. “What happens to the quarks inside a black hole? What were the particles that gave rise to the big bang?” “You know those questions don’t have answers,” I responded. “There were no particles when the so-called big bang occurred, but what does that have to do with anything?” “Is it that the answers haven’t been discovered yet, or that we aren’t asking the right questions?” Freck countered. “Why is it that we still can’t reconcile quantum theory with relativity?” I was about to respond with what I thought was the obvious answer, when I realized that it wasn’t so obvious. Maybe Freck had a point. I must’ve stopped with my mouth hanging open, as he continued, “The answer’s not so obvious, is it? “Look, we’ve just reached the point where we can measure gravity waves. It wasn’t long ago that they didn’t even have proof that they existed. It wasn’t that long ago that we only knew of the existence of nine planets in the universe, the status of Pluto notwithstanding. Now, we’ve mapped the existence of thousands of planets, some of them similar to earth. “I don’t have your background in math… at least not yet, but it seems to me that the greatest discoveries of today aren’t coming from particle accelerators. Chris Nolan made a film called Interstellar. It’s depiction of what a black hole looks like was based on the latest theories, and guess what we saw when we actually got our first glimpse of a real black hole? The astrophysicists nailed it, and not a single particle was destroyed in the making of the movie. It’s a fucking awesome, exciting time. “Discover the true nature of gravity and you’ll unlock the secrets of the universe. Figure out why mass and momentum are conserved, and you’ll unlock the secret of interstellar spaceflight. And it just so happens we’re gonna be spendin’ the whole summer with two of the greatest astrophysicists in the world.” It was like an epiphany. I’d been so focused on the great discoveries that underlay the books I’d read when I first became interested in science – discoveries made in the late twentieth century – that I’d ignored the great discoveries that had been made in my lifetime. Freck was absolutely right – if I could discover the true nature of gravity, mass and momentum, I could free humankind from the shackles of Newton’s First Law. As a Chris Nolan put it in Interstellar, humankind has never found a way to go anywhere without leaving something behind. Perhaps I could change that, and what better place to learn about astrophysics than in one of the greatest astrophysics labs in the world? I was so excited, I grabbed my honey and kissed him deeply, eliciting hoots and hollers from all our friends. <> <> <> Although we’d celebrated my birthday on Sunday, today was the actual day I turned eleven, but it was Monday and a school day. My boyfriend, Freck, on the other hand, always had his birthday off because it was on the day after Christmas, a time when no one was thinking about anything as mundane as a birthday. Even in our household, we usually celebrate a traditional Jewish Christmas. By that I meant seeing a movie and eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant. In our case, we usually went to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster and had dinner at one of the best restaurants in Chinatown. This would be the first year that Freck would spend Christmas with our family, which presented us with a dilemma. Although he was one-quarter Jewish, he was raised Roman Catholic. His parents weren’t at all religious, but they’d always celebrated a traditional Roman Catholic Christmas together as a family, and visibly so. They celebrated midnight mass at Saint Patrick’s cathedral as special guests of the Archdiocese of New York, in thanks for their generous donations to the church. On Christmas morning, there was a formal giving of gifts, always with special clients of theirs in attendance. Freck’s gift was supposed to be a combined Christmas and birthday present, but the day after Christmas, on Freck’s actual birthday, there was nothing… not even a birthday cake. Well that was certainly something that would be different this year. Freck’s birthday would not be forgotten. But what should we do about Christmas? Freck had taken it upon himself to learn about Judaism and he and I were even studying in preparation for a joint bar mitzvah service next year. He was looking forward to an authentic Hanukkah with us, but I hated to see him ignore his Christian upbringing. Technically I knew that Judaism doesn’t leave room for belief in Christ as the messiah and Freck actually considered himself agnostic, but with so many children of mixed faith who celebrate both of their backgrounds, why couldn’t Freck celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah? The two holidays happened to coincide this year, so there was still time to formulate a plan, but not that much time. Christmas was just over two weeks away. And then the next day would be his thirteenth birthday. It was not only his first birthday with my family, but a very special birthday too, as Freck was becoming a teenager. As his boyfriend, I needed to be sure we made it particularly special. But what could I get him for a gift? Freck already had everything a boy could want. Getting time to discuss plans with the dads was proving to be nearly impossible. With their varied schedule and on-call responsibilities, finding them both together at a time when Freck wasn’t around just wasn’t happening, but even finding either one of them alone was difficult. I knew they wanted to do right by Freck, but their workload at the hospital always picked up around the holidays and this year was proving to be no different. My older brother, Roger, was a never-ending font of ideas, most of them totally impractical. My best friends were Asher and Seth, but they were two years behind me in school and the only time I really saw them at school was at lunch… with Freck. The one window of opportunity to speak to anyone was after school, during basketball practice. Our good friend Carl was one of the leading scorers on the varsity team and his boyfriend, Clarke, always sat in the stands during practice and at most of the games. Because Freck was on the swim team and had his own practices to attend, he wasn’t around for most basketball games or practice. It was thus that I found myself sitting next to Clarke at basketball practice on Tuesday afternoon, the day after I turned eleven. “Clarke,” I began the conversation, “you come from a family of means and always got what you wanted, right?” Laughing heartily, Clarke responded, “Oh yeah, I come from a family of means all right. My dad went to college but he started his professional life as a garbage man and worked his way up through the union. Although we never were poor, we lived in a much more modest neighborhood when I was growing up. It might have been called a detached house but in every way, it was a row house with about a foot of space between houses… just enough that I had to take care of what passed for a lawn. The entire back yard was taken up by a pool… an above ground pool built into a wooden deck that was too shallow to dive into and too narrow to swim across. It wasn’t until my dad threw his support behind a dark-horse candidate for mayor and the schmuck actually won that we were able to move into our current place. And then it was more a matter of kickbacks, bribery and embezzlement that made it all possible. “So now we have a nice house, but it’s on Staten Island… not in Riverdale. I think you’re the one who knows what it’s like to grow up in a family of means, Kyle.” “Gees, I’m sorry, Clarke,” I replied, feeling a bit sheepish for bringing it up. “I just assumed you always lived in that mansion of a house where you live now. Our house is really small compared to all the teardowns around us. It’s what they call a front-to-back split level. I never really thought of us as being affluent or anything. I mean, know people think all doctors are rich, but my dad’s still paying off his medical school debt, and he didn’t even finish his training until around the time I was born…” “How much did you say that fancy music player cost that you’re always carryin’ around with you?” Clarke interrupted. “And isn’t your swimming pool indoors?” “Technically it’s under a terrace that was added on after the house was built,” I answered, “so it’s an outdoor pool that was later enclosed and heated, but yeah, I guess we’re doin’ okay. It’s just that Freck grew up in a freakin’ penthouse apartment in the shadow of the World Trade Center, with billionaire parents, all the toys a boy could hope for and season tickets to the Met…” “And he was a pothead by the time he was eleven,” Clarke interrupted, “and he tried to kill himself. He was rich beyond measure, yet bankrupt when it came to love. I know something about what that’s like. My dad beat the shit outta me, all the time, and then gave generously to the Church so the nuns all looked the other way. Even when I got to Stuyvesant, he made sure I knew just how worthless I was. That’s why I became a bully, ’cause I learned from my old man that the only way to earn respect was by making others fear you. How fucked up was that?” “Yeah, but you really turned your life around after meeting Carl,” I pointed out. “No doubt, that boy saved my life,” Clarke acknowledged as he looked down at his boyfriend in a sweat-soaked tank top, shooting three-pointer after three-pointer. “It seems to me that you saved Freck’s life too, literally,” he added. Shakin’ my head, I countered, “He had a major relapse over the summer, while we were in Paris. A stupid little argument about Parisian architecture was all it took. He thought he knew better than the Parisians and when I stood up for them, he took it to mean I was repudiating him, and he ran away. It took us three days, 25 thousand euros and a hired investigator to find him, but that was the least of it. The worst was when we had to go to the morgue to identify what the police thought was his body.” “Fuck,” Clarke responded. “I couldn’t stand it if something like that happened with Carl. Then looking right at me, he continued, “I guess the real difference with me is that with my parents going to prison, I got closure. My wounds were mostly physical, and those wounds healed. With my brother moving back home and my boyfriend and his mother moving in with us, I have more than enough people loving me and showing me I’m not a worthless faggot. “All of Freck’s wounds are internal,” Clarke continued, “and although he has you and your dads now, he still doesn’t feel secure. There’s no easy fix for it either. It’s gonna take time for him feel worthy of your love.” “We’re both in counseling,” I responded. “He sees a therapist once a week and we have family counseling every week too. We’ll continue that until we go away to MIT in the fall.” “Maybe goin’ straight from Stuyvesant to MIT isn’t the best thing for you guys,” Clarke suggested. “There’s no question you’re both ready academically, but the pressure of trying to live up to bein’ adults might be too much. I mean, Freck’ll be thirteen, and you’ll be only eleven, and you’ll be in with kids who are mostly eighteen. At least Freck looks like a teenager and his voice has changed, but he’ll still be a good foot shorter than a lot of his peers. It’ll be even worse for you, but I think Freck’s more fragile and the stuff you just brush off could wound him deeply.” It was like bein’ struck by a thunderbolt. Here, I’d been worried about what to get Freck for his thirteenth birthday when that was nothing compared to the stress we’d both be facing next fall. We were only months away from graduating from one of the best high school’s in America, and we’d be interning over the summer at one of the premiere astrophysics labs in the world, and then we’d be freshmen at MIT. We’d already been accepted for studies in the fields we wanted and our carrier paths were set, yet we were still children, both legally and emotionally. Freck was just beginning his teens and I was still a pre-teen who’d yet to even need to use deodorant. How could we expect anyone to take us seriously? Yet if we didn’t go to MIT next fall, what else could we do? Living at home would make it easier, but the stress of competing in an adult world would be no less at Columbia. But if we delayed starting college for a year, what else could an eleven-year-old and a thirteen-year-old do in the interim? It wasn’t like I never heard of taking a gap year, but we weren’t nearly old enough to work and it’s not like we could go traveling the world on our own. I just didn’t see an alternative to going through with our plans to start college at MIT. “Yeah, I think you guys should think seriously about spending another year or two in high school or maybe even doing something else entirely,” Clarke continued. “I know that it’s not uncommon for some students to take five years to finish high school. There are even some schools that offer five-year programs for students with special needs, and it isn’t because they’re dumb. I don’t think you’re obligated to graduate when you have enough credits, so maybe you can postpone graduation and take another year of classes. You can take courses for dual credit at City University and accumulate credit you can apply at MIT. You might even have enough advance placement and college credit to start as a sophomore or even a junior there.” Clarke’s idea was a revelation. I’d been thinking that the only alternative to going to MIT next year was to start college somewhere else, but that would solve nothing. However, by extending our time at Stuyvesant, we could take much of our first-year college coursework at City University Community College, which was located right across the street from Stuyvesant and where the students were used to the presence of high school students from Stuyvesant. And we’d have the support of Stuyvesant for another year, including all our friends and our dads and Roger. Freck could even spend another year on the swim team if he wanted. It’d be a chance for us to be kids for another year. It’d be another year for Freck to heal and for our love to grow. My worries about finding the perfect gift for Freck’s thirteenth birthday were quickly forgotten. No matter what I got him, Freck would probably love it because it was from me, but that was immaterial. The opportunity to spend another year at home with our dads and another year with all our friends would be priceless. <> <> <> I came close to bringing up my thoughts at dinner that night but decided to wait until I had more information. It was thus that I found myself seated in the counselors’ office the next day. It was the first time I’d actually met with my counselor since beginning at Stuyvesant last year. I went to make an appointment, first thing in the morning, but with the winter break coming up, Mr. Reynolds didn’t have many appointments scheduled in the first place and asked if I’d like to meet with him then. Of course I agreed. “Mr. Reynolds,” I began, “I don’t know if you remember me…” “It would be pretty hard to forget you, Kyle,” he interrupted. “As far as I know, you’re the youngest person ever to attend this school, and your attitude is, shall we say, memorable. So what can I do for you today?” “Well, this is really a question that affects both my boyfriend, François San Angelo, and me…” “Did Freck finally talk to you?” Mr. Reynolds asked. Huh? I’d no idea what he was talking about. I guess he saw the confusion in my face, ’cause he continued. “I take it he hasn’t, and that’s a shame. You two really need to talk to each other and to your fathers rather than trying to deal with your problems in isolation, but I’m getting ahead of myself. “As you know, what we discuss with our students in private is strictly confidential. You may be aware that Freck has met with me several times this year…” “He has?” I asked in surprise. “Why didn’t he discuss it with me?” “That, I’m afraid, is something you’ll have to ask him.” Mr. Reynolds replied, “and of course I’d be happy to meet with the two of you together or to arrange a meeting with your entire family. However, in the interim, what can I do for you today, Kyle?” “As you may know,” I began, “Freck and I applied for admission to MIT for the coming fall.” “And you were both accepted,” Mr. Reynolds interjected. “Congratulations to you both.” When he saw the look of shock on my face, however, he added, “Don’t be surprised that I already know about your acceptances. Guidance offices are always contacted and often receive notice, even before the students do.” “I didn’t know that,” I replied, and then continued, “The reason I asked to meet with you today, however, is because I’m concerned that Freck and I aren’t ready to go away to college. Don’t get me wrong… going to MIT has always been my dream, and the joint program in architecture and civil engineering is tailor made for Freck. I probably don’t need to tell you that Freck has his issues and I’m worried that the pressures of competing with kids five years older than him could send him over the deep end. Not that he isn’t ready academically, but he’s still dealing with issues of rejection by his biologic parents. “In my case,” I went on, “although I’ve never felt threatened by older kids and adults, I’m concerned that even with my up-front attitude, no one will take me seriously when my voice hasn’t even changed. I’m not worried about the other kids, as I’ve been dealing with older peers all my life, but if the professors and TAs treat me like a little kid, how can I get a fair shake?” Folding his hands and sitting back in his chair, Mr. Reynolds responded, “You really should talk to your boyfriend about your concerns. Without getting into the specifics of my conversations with him, I will say that he has many of the same concerns as you, with the addition that he’s worried about holding you back…” “You mean he wants to postpone going to college, but hasn’t even brought it up with me because he doesn’t want to ask me to make the sacrifice for his sake?” I asked. “Again, I can’t answer that, although I’ll admit you’re most perceptive,” Mr. Reynolds answered. “But we might both benefit from waiting to go away to college,” I replied. “That, Kyle, is something with which I heartily agree,” he responded. “Not that you’re not capable of doing the work academically, but you’re not yet even teenagers and have yet to develop the coping skills most college students take for granted, immature though they may yet be. Another year would make a big difference, and another two years could be the difference between sinking or swimming. Learning isn’t a race to see who can finish first. My goal, which should be your goal as well, is to see you both succeed.” “Another two years for me would mean I’d be a teenager when I start at MIT,” I went on. “I’d have undergone a growth spurt and, given my dad’s height and my brother’s, I’d probably be approaching six feet. My voice will have changed by then and although I won’t have started shaving yet, I’ll at least have broader shoulders and a squarer jaw. I might still be in with kids who are six or seven years older than I, but at least my profs will take me more seriously.” “That’s especially true at MIT, Kyle,” Mr. Reynolds interjected. “Because MIT is, well, MIT, they can get away with relying more on teaching assistants than almost anyone. I’ve heard tales of students who didn’t even recognize their professors when they passed them in the hall. Just by being tall and having a deeper voice, you’ll be in a much better situation to be taken seriously by the TAs, who are just kids themselves.” “I think my boyfriend will be much better able to handle college life at fifteen than at thirteen, too,” I continued as Mr. Reynolds nodded his head. “Plus he’d have another two years with my family to build his sense of security. He’d be much better able to cope. “My first question, Mr. Reynolds, is do we have to graduate this year? I know we’ll both have enough credits, but do we have to graduate Stuyvesant as soon as we meet the requirements?” Smiling, Mr. Reynolds answered, “That’s a great question, Kyle, and the answer is no, you do not. In fact, by law, we’re obligated to provide you with an education until you reach the age of sixteen, regardless of whether or not you qualify for graduation at an earlier age. Granted, there are limits to the courses we can offer you, but with our university affiliations, you can take a full spectrum of college courses for dual credit at a substantial discount and without the hassle of applying for admission. Of course, you’d still be facing some of the same issues with being taken seriously, so that’s not a panacea. “However, you might want to consider going to the High School for Math, Science and Engineering,” he suggested. “It’s a much smaller, more individualized school, with only a hundred students per year rather than seven hundred as we have here.” Holy shit! Why hadn’t I thought about that before? One of New York’s elite specialty high schools was located on the main campus of City College, in Harlem. Freck and I had chosen Stuyvesant over the other specialty high schools because it was top-rated, and we both wanted a broader education than one focused on a STEM curriculum. My first choice had actually been Bronx Science, but I was happy to ‘settle’ for Stuyvesant to be with Freck. But now, maybe we could transfer to HSMSE for an extra year of high school before going to MIT, or perhaps we could avail ourselves of the HSMSE curriculum without actually transferring schools. Indeed, most of our courses would be City University courses anyway, but at City College, Freck could take all of his first-year engineering courses and I could take my physics and science courses in a setting where they were used to having high school students in their midst. “Another thing you might want to consider is taking a gap year,” Mr. Reynolds continued. “A lot of students these days take a year off between high school and college to get some real-world experience.” “Yeah, but it’s not like Freck and I could join the Peace Core, or spend a year traveling all over the world,” I pointed out. “No, but there are a lot of gap-year programs available, right here in New York,” Mr. Reynolds countered. “I understand you’re already planning to spend the summer at AMNH,” he added, much to my surprise. “As with college admissions, the guidance office is often the first point of contact for such programs, so of course I knew about it. There are many such gap-year programs available and although most are only open to adults or at minimum, sixteen-year-olds, exceptions are made. The New York Times, for example, has a gap-semester program that’s an excellent opportunity, and they’re flexible when it comes to taking exceptional kids. Or perhaps you’d like to spend a year at AMNH after completing a fifth year of high school. Regardless, I know we can work something out. “But you really need to discuss it with Freck and with your dads. The last thing you want is for Freck to think you’re delaying college, just for his sake. You have to convince him this is your idea and not something you picked up from me. If he thinks that, then not even I will be able to reach him.” <> <> <> It was at dinner that night that I saw a chance to raise the issue of delaying college. Ken, my dad’s husband, had just been talking about his niece, who was a freshman at Princeton University, an Ivy League school. According to her, the TA teaching her English Lit course had asked her out and she worried that by saying ‘no’, it could affect her grade. “Of course, I reminded her that if she did go out with him, she’d be in a very difficult position too,” Ken said. “I told her that the onus really was on her TA to avoid a relationship with a student… that merely asking her out could be seen as sexual harassment. So the next time she saw him, she suggested he read the section of the student handbook dealing with sexual harassment.” Laughing, Roger said, “At least that’s not something any of us’ll need to worry about… bein’ hit on by a TA, that is.” “Don’t be so sure about that,” Dad countered. “You should read Michael Crichton’s book, Disclosure, or at least watch the movie.” “Is that about a male student and a female teacher?” Roger asked. “A male engineer and his female boss,” Dad answered. “And there’s always the possibility of a gay male TA harassing a male student,” Freck joined in. “A TA could get in major trouble for doing anything with an underage student,” Ken responded. “In Massachusetts the age of consent’s sixteen, and any sexual contact with someone under that age is considered statutory rape, even if it’s consensual.” Seeing my opportunity, I interjected, “I’m just worried about not being taken seriously. Being asked out on a date would be a significant improvement over being ignored, which is what I fear will happen.” “What do you mean, Kyle?” Dad asked. “Look at me,” I answered. “I’m barely five feet and sound like a little kid. I won’t start my growth spurt or have my voice change for at least another year. Even though the professors and TA’s may know I wouldn’t be in their class unless I belonged there, they’ll still treat me like a little kid. I won’t be taken seriously.” “You’ve never let that worry you before,” Dad responded. “You’ve always shrugged it off and your attitude has quickly dispelled anyone’s assumptions based on your age.” “But that’s in casual conversation,” I countered. “It would be different in the classroom. Why pay for an MIT education when I’d be getting less attention than a kid in middle school?” “But going to MIT has always been your dream,” Dad responded. “And I’ll still go to MIT, but maybe it’s not such a good idea to go there right after high school,” I explained. “Or maybe it would be better to start my coursework at one of the local colleges and then transfer to MIT in a year or two. Or maybe I should take another year of dual credit courses and postpone graduation by a year, and then take a gap year, so I’d at least be a teenager when I start…” “This is about me, isn’t it?” Freck interrupted. I’d tried to keep the focus on my worries about me, but I should have realized my boyfriend would see right through my strategy. Sighing, I responded, “Freck, I’ll admit that my first concern was worry for you, but then I got to thinking about what it would mean for me to go to college at the age of eleven, particularly at a large school like MIT, and I imagined what that might look like and didn’t like what I saw. Already I feel like a freak at Stuyvesant, but with so many small, Asian kids who go there, I don’t stand out that much. Not only that, but I have friends there and I come home every night to a house with loving parents. However at MIT, I’d look like a midget compared to all the eighteen-year-olds. I’d probably be the only pre-teen there. Yes, we’d have each other, but would that be enough?” “No, it wouldn’t,” Freck agreed. “I’ve been talking to my therapist, and to my counselor at school, and trying to figure out a way I could delay going to MIT without holding you back. That’s been the hardest thing… knowing MIT has been your lifelong dream and not wanting to hold you back. But if I go to MIT next year, it would be so easy to fall back into using pot when I’m under pressure, and as soon as I do that, well, I might as well jump off the GW bridge right now, and I couldn’t do that to you. Never again. “I looked into going to Columbia,” he continued, “’cause we could live at home if we do, but we’d face the same problems when it comes to fitting in with the other students. And although Columbia is still one of the best places for architecture, they don’t have a dual degree with civil engineering and environmental science the way MIT does. It’s not the best place for you either, Kyle. Columbia isn’t known for particle physics and they don’t even have an astrophysics program. MIT is by far your best bet, with Harvard being a close second. “The interesting thing I discovered is that we don’t have to graduate this year. So like you said, we could remain at Stuyvesant for another year or maybe even two and take college courses for dual credit that would be equivalent to the courses we would’ve taken at MIT. Stuyvesant has relationships with all the City University of New York campuses and not just the community college, and with Brooklyn Tech, but I think the best option might be to go to City College up in Harlem, ’cause they already have a joint program with HSMSE. We wouldn’t be freaks there. “I’ve been working with Mr. Reynolds, our counselor at Stuyvesant, and I have some ideas for what we could do if we stay here next year. I’ve actually mapped out courses we both could take at City College that would transfer directly to MIT. A year at City College would give both of us enough credits to start as juniors at MIT, but I’d like to suggest we take an extra two years off before going to MIT. You’d be thirteen and a full-fledged teenager by then, and probably close to six feet tall and with a deep voice like Roger’s, and I’d be fifteen and much better able to fit in and to resist the temptation to resort to drugs. We could take three semesters of coursework and participate in extracurricular activities with our friends at Stuyvesant. I could even be on the swim team if I wanted. Then maybe we could enroll in a gap-year program for the final semester, like the one we’re doing this summer.” “Would it be an option to start at MIT mid-year, two years from now?” Ken asked. “I considered it,” Freck answered, “but the semesters don’t line up with Stuyvesant’s. MIT’s spring semester begins right after winter break, in early January, whereas New York city schools’ fall semester doesn’t end until late January. Besides, I think the extra time would do me good. It’s not like we’re in a hurry or anything, unless you just want to get rid of us,” Freck added as he smiled at Ken. “I’ve just been reluctant to bring it up because, well, I didn’t want to hold Kyle back.” “Don’t worry about me, Freck,” I responded. “I think I need the extra time as much as you do. But you took it upon yourself to arrange a course schedule for me at City College for next year?” Rather than say anything, Freck opened his phone and handed it to me. The phone was open to a spreadsheet showing my coursework for the next three semesters, starting next fall. I couldn’t help but be impressed as he’d mapped out courses that were virtually identical to what I’d planned to sign up for at MIT, with some additional foreign language and humanities courses that were definitely of interest to me. Handing the phone back to him, I replied, “This looks really good, Freck. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into it, and I like the choices you’re suggesting for me.” “So you agree we should mooch off your dads for another year?” Freck asked. “Kyle would be the only one doing the mooching,” Dad pointed out, “since your own parents are paying your way as per the guardianship agreement, but we’d be delighted to have you live with us for another couple of years. Freck, we consider you as another son.” “By waiting a couple more years to go to college, it’ll give you guys more time to save for my college expenses, so you might even come out ahead,” I suggested to my dad. “With tuition going up much faster than the rate of inflation, I’m not sure how much that helps us, Kyle,” Dad responded. “However, Ken and I will miss you terribly when you do go away. I really think postponing it is the right decision.” <> <> <> Now that we’d resolved the issue of deferring our enrollment at MIT, I was back to worrying about what to get my boyfriend for his thirteenth birthday. It needed to be something special. Something unique that he wouldn’t think to get himself. If he were undergoing his bar mitzvah this year, I might get him something related to that, like a custom-made tallit, or prayer shawl. Although he’d need a tallit for his bar mitzvah, a really nice, custom-made one could cost thousands of dollars. Maybe I could talk to the dads about going in together on one for his bar mitzvah. Somehow, that seemed more appropriate. But there were plenty of other things I could get him that were relevant to his newfound interest in his Jewish roots. Perhaps a sterling silver kiddish cup, or maybe a designer menorah for use during Hanukkah. It was only a thought, but at least I knew he didn’t have these things. There were many places in Riverdale that sell Judaica, including the gift shop at our synagogue, but there was one shop in particular in the East Village that seemed to sell unique things I’d seen nowhere else. I’d noticed it when passing by on the M14A bus with Asher and Seth. It just so happened that we were double-dating with our friends on Friday night and then staying over, and so I came up with a plan. Asher’s dad insisted that he and Seth take a break from working at the Cajun restaurant, and we were going out to dinner with them, followed by a movie afterwards. We started out by taking a number three train from Chambers to Fourteenth Street and then walking the short distance to the Good Stuff Diner, which Asher insisted was the best diner in New York. Having grown up with the Riverdale Diner so close to home, I had my doubts, but he was not wrong. I had the salmon burger special, which came with a bowl of lobster bisque that was out of this world. I added a side of sweet potato fries, ’cause no burger’s complete without fries. The salmon burger was the best I’d ever tasted, and the fries were outstanding. Although everything in the dessert case looked incredible, there was no way I could eat anything else. Freck had something called Chicken San Francisco that consisted of a whole chicken breast and asparagus, smothered with a sort of vodka sauce and served with soup or salad, a vegetable and a potato or rice. At Asher’s recommendation, he choose the lobster bisque, mashed potatoes and string beans. Asher and Seth shared something called the Captain’s Table, which included salmon, crab-stuffed sole, scallops and shrimp, which they ordered with an extra cup of the lobster bisque, sweet potato fries in addition to mashed potatoes, and spinach in addition to the string beans. They barely finished it all. We still had plenty of time before the movie started at the AMC Theaters at Essex Crossing, so I implemented my plan by saying, “Guys, there’s a shop I want to visit on the way to the movie, over on Avenue A at Third Street. It’s a Judaica shop, so perhaps you’d rather do something else and meet me at the movie.” “I’m game to go with you,” Freck responded as I figured he would. I was counting on it, ’cause I wanted to see if he liked anything in the shop before getting him something for his birthday. What I hadn’t expected was for Asher and Seth to say they wanted to go too, so why not? We all boarded an M14A-SBS bus and got off at Fifth Street on Avenue A. “Hey, this is cool,” Asher said as we walked by a large amount of retail space at Fifth Street that was simply labeled “Space for Artists.” Through the windows we could see that the store consisted of one large, open space with partitions dividing it into small areas, each labeled with the name of an artist. Paintings and photos were hung on the partitions, and there were also displays with sculpture, art glass and other decorative objects. “I’ll bet the landlord got tired of seeing his space go vacant and decided to do something useful with it.” “By giving away the space for free, he probably still gets to take a huge tax deduction,” Seth pointed out. “I wish more landlords did this sort of thing… do you guys wanna go inside?” “Could we first check out the store I wanted to see?” I asked. I didn’t want to miss out because we had to get to the movie, and so we walked down to the corner and entered a very tiny shop with Judaica in the window. There were Hanukkah menorahs, Seder plates, wine goblets and the like, mostly in contemporary designs made of metal and glass. Everything looked elegant and the prices were about what I would expect for New York, which was to say, not exactly cheap. I also noticed that there were other types of art besides Judaica, as well as a plethora of clocks, water fountains and other decorative objects. In spite of the number of items on display in such a small space, they didn’t appear crowded at all. Everything was tastefully displayed. Just as I noticed a large display case with jewelry and a ton of watches, an older gentleman entered from the back of the store and asked, “Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?” “We’re just looking around,” I answered. “We pass this place all the time on the 14A and I couldn’t help but notice your selection of Judaica in the window.” “It’s a shame that with the Lower East Side and the East Village becoming so trendy, mine is one of the last remaining shops of its kind in the area, and I’m not exactly young anymore. By all rights I should have retired a decade ago, but then what would I do? This shop is my home. It’s my life. I’m Jacob, by the way. Do you boys live around here?” the man asked. “Seth and I do,” Asher responded. “We live in Co-op Village, by the East River. My parents own an Asian takeout restaurant over on Grand Street, and more recently we opened a Cajun restaurant on Orchard…” “Wait a minute,” Jacob interrupted. “I read about you in The Times. I’ve eaten at your restaurant. It’s the Ragin’ Cajun, isn’t it?” Blushing, Asher responded, “When my mom was struck by a kid on an electric bike, my dad had to take her place at the Asian restaurant. He was ready to declare bankruptcy, but I wasn’t about to let it happen. My dad’s Creole and opening an authentic Cajun restaurant was his dream. My boyfriend and I did the best we could until Mom was enough on her feet that Dad could take time away from the Asian place.” “Yeah, but you are only what? Fourteen or fifteen?” Jacob interjected. “You guys are kind of a legend around here.” I didn’t think it possible for Asher to blush any more deeply, particularly with his mocha-colored skin, but dammed if he didn’t turn fire engine red. “I’m just glad we were able to help keep my dad’s dream alive until he could get back to it.” “Yeah, but you still are in charge of the menu,” Seth pointed out, “and you still devise the recipes for everything we serve.” “Actually, it’s Seth who devises the menu and decides which items are appropriate for the standard buffet and which can command the higher price of the premium buffet,” Asher responded. “It’s a team effort, guys,” Freck chimed in. “Any way you look at it, you guys started a phenomenal restaurant in a city that’s brutal when it comes to restaurants,” Jacob responded, “so there is much for you to be proud of.” “Man, you have an incredible watch selection here!” Freck exclaimed as he peered into the case with wonder in his eyes. In that instant I knew what his birthday and Hanukkah gift would be. Like most of us, he’d never owned a watch. What was the point when we had the exact time on our phones, but I had to admit there was something special about having a tiny piece of technology on one’s wrist. I’d even thought about getting myself a smart watch but I couldn’t really figure out a good reason why I needed one. My dad, on the other hand, had several really nice watches that he wore regularly – some of them for everyday use and some of them for dress. It wasn’t that he needed to keep track of time, since the time was displayed on clocks all around him at work, but there was something elegant about wearing a fine watch. It was a kind of jewelry, but at the same time an expression of technology. It wasn’t like he wore a Rolex or anything – those cost as much as a car – but his watches were unique and each one reflected his personality. It was time for Freck to have one. “Not many kids are interested in watches these days,” Jacob lamented. “The miniaturization in a watch hardly seems relevant in an era when an entire computer fits in your pocket.” “Yeah, but smartphones are nothing more than integrated circuits,” Freck responded. “Any decent computer engineer can design computer on a chip. There’s nothing magical about a smartphone. A watch, on the other hand, truly is a wonder of miniaturization,” he continued. “When you look at the workings of a watch, it’s like looking into another world of tiny mechanical components, perfectly synchronized and accurate. There’s something special about a time piece. I’ve always been fascinated by them, even if my dad was an asshole when it came to the ones he wore.” “Take a look at this,” Jacob said as he took a watch out of the case and handed it over to Freck. The dial was transparent, and the inner workings of the watch were visible as they seemed to pulsate with activity. “Now turn it over,” Jacob instructed Freck, and he complied. “Woah!” Freck exclaimed as he saw that the back of the watch case was transparent as well. “Now shake the watch,” Jacob commanded and Freck did so. There was a metal piece that went around and around as Freck did so, acting as a sort of pendulum. Immediately we could see that this piece, this pendulum, was what wound the watch. “This is an ‘automatic’ watch,” Jacob explained. It uses a main spring as mechanical watches have used for centuries, but there’s no need to wind it as your own kinetic energy does the work as you move about. And in terms of accuracy, thanks to a Japanese movement with a quartz crystal to regulate the balance wheel, it’s nearly as accurate as any watch you can buy. Not even a Rolex can match its accuracy. The only downside of an automatic watch is that it has to be worn to stay wound. Leave it in a drawer for more than a day and it winds down and needs to be reset. Some people even buy watch winders to keep their automatic watches from winding down.” “This is so cool,” Freck exclaimed. “How much does something like this cost?” “That’s one of the pricier models,” Jacob answered. “It has a Japanese movement, three sapphire crystals, and day and date functions. I generally charge $750 for this model, but I’d be willing to let it go for $500 if you want it. Otherwise, I do have some automatic watches for as little as $150, but none as elegant as this one.” “Do you have it in a black ceramic case with a black ceramic band?” Freck asked. Shit, it sounded like he was gonna buy it for himself. So much for my idea for a gift. “I’m afraid this manufacture only comes in a stainless-steel case or stainless steel with yellow or rose gold electroplate. The gold version would be a hundred more, with your discount. It’ll cost another hundred to upgrade the band from leather to stainless steel, and $150 from leather to either color of gold.” “You can’t get it in black stainless?” Freck asked. “I’m sorry, but they only make it in the three finishes,” Jacob answered. “Damn,” Freck responded, but then he seemed to get a flash of inspiration and looked up at the man and asked, “Do you have anything that’s designed for swimming? Not just waterproof, but that has functions like a stopwatch and lap counter that could be used for competitive swimming?” “It sounds like you’re on a swim team,” the man replied. “Stuyvesant High School,” Freck answered. “We’re all students at Stuyvesant.” “You look way too young to be in high school,” the man responded. “I’m gonna be thirteen in a couple of weeks,” Freck answered. “Yeah, but you’re a senior at Stuyvesant,” Seth interjected. “So’s his boyfriend, Kyle,” he added as he nodded toward me, “and Kyle just turned eleven. They’re gonna be going to MIT next year.” “Actually, we’ve decided to defer graduation for another year or two and take courses at City College next year,” I explained. “Sorry, but we just decided on it a couple of days ago and we’re still working out the details. We both realized that as young as we look, no one would take us seriously at MIT. And we decided we’re not ready to do our own laundry just yet.” “That’s utter bullshit,” Asher chided me. “Actually, it’s mostly about me,” Freck began. Then looking at Jacob, he explained. “My biologic parents are billionaires who only had me as a trophy child. By the time I was ten, I was a total pothead, and when I was eleven, I tried to kill myself. That’s why I now live with my boyfriend up in Riverdale. Even so, I had a relapse over the summer…” “What?” Seth asked in surprise. “Yeah, Kyle and I had a minor disagreement that at the time, didn’t seem so minor to me. I ran away and got back into heavy pot use. I lived on the street in a Paris suburb for a few days, and even took up with other street kids. I was completely fucked up.” “Why didn’t you tell us about this?” Asher asked. “I thought we were your best friends.” “You are, beyond a doubt,” Freck answered, “but this was so horribly fucked up and it’s not something I was proud of.” “The worst of it was when the police called us to the morgue to identify what they thought was Freck’s body,” I added. “I couldn’t go through that again. We’re in counseling now and Freck has his own therapy sessions. I think that experience over the summer made us realize that neither of us is ready to live on our own just yet. We still plan to go to MIT, but when we’re both a little older. At the least, I need to be a teenager first. No one’s gonna take me seriously when I sound like a little kid.” “It sounds like you boys have quite a story to tell,” Jacob interjected. “At least the one thing you don’t seem to fear is homophobia… not that it doesn’t still exist, but you all are out and proud, and don’t seem the least bit concerned about what other people think about your sexuality.” ‘Why should we?” I asked. “I mean, I’m not about to walk through a rural Texas town, hand-in-hand with my boyfriend, but here in New York, no one bats an eye at Freck and me when we hold hands. We feel safe here, and we have the full acceptance of our parents. Even my dad’s finally accepted his own sexuality and he and my other dad got married last June.” “It wasn’t always that way, you know,” Jacob responded. “I wasn’t here when Stonewall happened, but I moved here not long after that and I was involved in the first Pride marches in New York. Did you know that for the first Pride march, we actually had instructions on what to do if we were arrested? Homosexuality was still illegal back then, and demonstrating for the right to break the law was itself considered illegal. Those were tough times and it’s only because of the bravery of those who came before you that you can enjoy your freedom today, but you must never take it for granted. With the recent court appointees, the rights we fought so hard to achieve could still be taken away.” “Fuck,” I said so softly that I wasn’t sure anyone else heard it. But then Seth put his hand on my shoulder and said, “As long as my dad’s in Albany, New York will always be a safe place. New York will always be a sanctuary for sanity.” “So…” Freck interrupted as he turned back to Jacob, “I was asking about watches for swimmers?” “There are some very good ones,” Jacob replied. “You may have heard about Nixon watches, which were designed by surfers for surfers. The only problem with Nixon watches is that they’re huge and you’re not ready to wear a dinner plate on your wrist. “I do have something that might interest you, however,” He continued. “The only problem is that it’s one of the most expensive watches I sell.” Jacob then pulled out a very impressive-looking chronograph in black stainless with a copper-colored bezel, but it wasn’t like any stainless steel I’d ever seen. “This is black titanium,” Jacob continued, “and it’s the natural color of the alloy, so it will retain its color, even if scratched deeply. If you lift it, you’ll see that it’s incredibly light weight, and it’s extremely thin, which is why it’s a good swimmer’s watch. Not that you’d want to wear any watch at all during actual competitions, but as thin and light as it is, it won’t affect your times.” As Freck took the watch from Jacob, he exclaimed, “Shit, this is unbelievable. It hardly weighs anything at all.” “Let me see that,” I requested and Freck handed it over. He was right – it weighed about as much as maybe a couple of quarters, if that. As I handed it back to Freck, however, I noticed the price tag dangling from it and it read $7,500. Holy Fuck! That was well outta my league. “The crown is screwed down as it should be in a diving watch,” Jacob continued. “With it in it’s locked position, the watch is safe to a depth of over five hundred meters. Even so, the chronograph features of the watch can still be used without sacrificing water resistance. You’ll also note that the crown and buttons are on the inside margin of the watch, where they’re better protected than on the usual outside margin. “The most remarkable thing about this watch, however, is that it’s designed in such a way that the case should never need to be opened. There is no battery. The watch is solar powered and when fully charged, can run for four months, even if kept in a drawer. It never needs to be set. It uses the same GPS satellite signals used by your phone to synchronize itself to the correct time, anywhere in the world. Compensating for Daylight Saving Time is done with the push of a button, but that’s the only thing that isn’t automatic on this watch, and that’s only because it can change with the whims of Congress. “Wow, I love it,” Freck responded. “I love the way it looks too.” I had to agree with him there. It had a copper-colored bezel - I think maybe it was rose gold and it really complemented Freck's red hair - a black dial and black band with copper-colored accents, with the numbers in a copper-color that seemed to glow, and then I noticed that they really did glow. There was an outline behind each hand and digit that literally glowed in the dark. Three small sub-dials complemented the watch nicely, providing chronograph features without making the watch dial overly large. The dials also served a dual function, indicating day, month and year in addition to the standard date window. It was utterly cool, but the price was outrageous! Not like a Rolex, but well beyond what I could afford. “I hate to ask this,” Freck continued, “but how much does it cost.” Obviously, he hadn’t noticed the price tag dangling from the band. “Obviously, there’s a huge markup on these watches,” Jacob responded, “and to discourage black market and internet sales, the warranty is only valid if the watch is sold by an authorized dealer.” “How much?” Freck asked again. “I’m not supposed to sell this watch for less than list price, which is $7,500.” “Fuck, that’s way more than I’m willing to spend on a watch,” Freck responded. “I mean, I really want that watch, but I’m not gonna spend that much on a watch. Not even half that much.” “Guys,” Seth interrupted, “If we don’t leave now, we’ll never get to Essex Crossing in time for the movie.” We were seeing Black Christmas, a creepy new movie about a killer stalking a group of sorority sisters. What an apt movie to see on Friday, the thirteenth. In a last-ditch effort, I asked Jacob, “Is there any way you’d take less for it?” Sighing, he replied, “If you pay in cash, I can let it go for half that, and I’ll even absorb the tax, so it would be $3,750.” “Might as well be 37 thousand ,” Freck replied. “The trouble is, now I don’t want anything else.” As we walked down Avenue A and crossed over Houston to Essex Street, I couldn’t get my mind off that watch. I knew Freck really wanted it, but I just didn’t have that kind of money. I got a decent allowance, but that had to pay for my phone, my clothes and even my lunches at school. I didn’t need to pay for my own broadband at home or even minutes on my phone, ’cause we had an unlimited family plan, but everything else came out of my allowance. I’d planned to buy a new iPhone next fall and that was something I could easily postpone, but I’d certainly hit a growth spurt within the next year or two and there was no way I could put off buying new clothes. But with my bar mitzvah coming up in a year and all the gifts of cash I’d certainly receive, could I maybe ask Dad for a loan? Was it even worth spending that kind of money on a watch for Freck’s birthday and Hanukkah? Thinking of the way he looked at it and held it in his hand, yes, it was worth it… if I could find a way. It was later that night, while Freck was in the bathroom taking a dump, that a miracle occurred. It began when Asher said, “Freck really seemed to want that watch.” “I wish I could afford to get it for him,” I responded. “I went to that store because they seemed to carry higher-end Judaica. I knew Freck was interested in exploring his Jewish roots, so I thought maybe something costing around a few hundred dollars would fit the bill. But when he fell in love with that watch, I knew I had to get it for him. If only I could afford it.” “If the watch were a thousand less,” Seth asked, “if it were $2,750 instead of $3,750, could you afford to get it for him?” “You think you can get Jacob to lower the price by another thousand dollars?” I responded. “Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? He’s already knocking off half the cost, which has got to be virtually his entire profit margin. And he’s absorbing the tax or maybe not declaring it. How’s he gonna knock off another thousand, when he's probably giving it to us at cost?” “He wouldn’t be the one knocking off the thousand,” Seth answered. “Asher and I would.” “Guys, there’s no way I could ask you to spend that much on my boyfriend for his birthday and Hanukkah,” I protested. “No way.” “Why not, we spent close to that on you,” Asher related. “No, you didn’t,” I responded. “Maybe half that, and even that’s too much.” “But if you add up our birthdays and Christmas, how much are you spending on us?” Seth asked. It didn’t take me long to think about it. I hadn’t spent that kind of money on them. Not five hundred dollars on each of them. Again, it was more like half that. Looking askance at my friends, Seth admitted, “Alright, I know we’re exaggerating a bit, but you guys are our best friends and we won’t always be together. This is Freck’s thirteenth birthday and Ashe and I would like to help you get him that watch.” “A year ago, we couldn’t have afforded it,” Asher admitted, “but the restaurant’s doing well. Real well. Seth and I both have fully funded our college education. We have enough for the full cost of Ivy League tuition, books, room and board. We can afford this.” Just then the toilet flushed and so all conversation had to stop, but with Asher and Seth each paying $500 of the cost of the watch, I’d have enough, but barely. I’d still have to postpone replacing my iPhone an extra year, but then most people were waiting three years or even more to replace their phones, so that was an easy choice. And by doing that, I’d have enough. <> <> <> Before I proceeded any further, I looked up the watch and verified it was everything Jacob said it was. It was clearly one of the best swimming competition watches money could buy. It had an impressive five-year warranty, but only if purchased from an authorized dealer. When I looked up the list of authorized dealers, Jacob’s store was on the list. And when it came to price, I couldn’t find anyone selling it for close to what Jacob was willing to sell it for. Clearly, he wanted Freck to have the watch, even if he didn’t make any money off the sale. It was two days later, on the Monday of the final week before the winter break, that I found myself between classes. I didn’t have much time, so I quickly ducked into an unused classroom and dialed the number for Jacob’s shop. When he answered, I replied with, “Jacob, this is Kyle from Friday night. I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m the little kid with a boyfriend who drooled over a swimmer’s watch.” With a chuckle, Jacob answered, “It would be pretty hard to forget you, Kyle. Nothing pains me more than a customer who really appreciates the quality and value of one of my best watches but can’t afford it. I’ll do everything possible to help that kind of person out, but I can’t give the watch away for less than my cost. I wish I could.” “Listen, I don’t have much time, but would you be willing to throw in the cost of engraving the watch?” I asked. “Regardless, when could you have it ready?” “Are you sure you can afford it, Kyle,” Jacob asked. “No, I can’t,” I answered, “but with two of our best friends each chipping in five hundred, I can swing it. Barely. I’ll have to make some sacrifices, most notably postponing my next iPhone by a year, but Freck’s worth far more to me. He’s priceless.” “I’m happy to engrave the back of the watch with whatever you wish to say,” Jacob responded, “but I’ll need all of the money up front in cash before I engrave it. Once it’s engraved, there’ll be no way to return it. What did you have in mind for the engraving?” “To François on his 13th, with all our love, Kyle with Asher and Seth,” I replied. “And I’d need to talk to your father” Jacob continued. “Even if you have the money in cash, I need to be sure your father won’t come after me for accepting such a large sum from a minor.” Sighing, I replied, “I need to talk to him anyway about this, but it won’t be easy. Oh, I’m sure he’ll allow me to get the watch once I explain it to him, but he’s an ophthalmologist and a retina specialist at New York Presbyterian and finding a time to talk to him without Freck around will be hard. But I’ll do it, and I’ll make sure he calls you.” “By any chance, is your father Jake Goldstein?” Jacob asked. I was shocked! He knew my dad! “How’d you know?” I asked. “Your father and I go way back,” Jacob answered. “Your mother wanted to get him something special when he completed his fellowship, but she couldn’t afford a Rolex. She inquired at a number of better-known jewelers around New York, but they all wanted exorbitant amounts for custom work. However, several of them mentioned a Jewish codger in the East Village who did custom work at a reasonable price. I’ve since sold him several watches, as well as a few pieces of Judaica.” Just then the bell rang and I said, “I’ve gotta go. I’m late for class, I’ll get back to you in a day or two.” “There’s no need, Kyle,” Jacob replied. “I’ll contact your dad directly. I have his cell number. One of us’ll get back to you when the watch is ready.” ‘If the watch is ready,’ I said to myself as I hung up my phone and ran to class. Fortunately, the teacher was still talking to another student when I snuck inside. Friday was the last day of school before the winter break, and yet I still hadn’t heard anything from either Jacob or Dad. If I didn’t hear from him by the end of the school day, I was gonna hafta confront him when he got home. However, later that day I finally got a response from Dad. He sent me an email: Dear Kyle, I’m sorry it took me so long to respond to Jacob, but there was much to arrange. I had the item engraved, giftwrapped, boxed and delivered by courier to my office, where it will remain under lock and key until Christmas. I hope you don’t mind that Ken and I coopted part of your gift, but the gift will still be from you and your friends and he’ll still have the internship from Ken and me. There’s no way I can let you spend that much on a gift for Freck. There’s no way I can let Jacob take such a loss either. Jacob and I go way back and I’ve bought several watches from him. The menorah we light every year at Hanukkah is one I bought from his shop before you were even born. The candlestick holders we use every Friday night and the Seder plate we use at Passover every year are also from his shop. Jacob’s a fantastic jeweler and he designs his own watches. If you look closely, you’ll notice his name engraved on the dials of a few of mine. He always gives his loyal customers a substantial discount, but when you consider his overhead, fifty percent amounts to a loss. He really wanted Freck to have that watch. I’ll make up the difference. So I’ll take Asher and Seth’s thousand, and I’ll take a thousand from your savings, and Ken and I will cover the rest. Other than yourself, Ken and I, no one will know that you and your friends didn’t pay the full cost of the watch. Consider it our gift to both of you. Love, Dad Damn! At first I was angry that Dad had taken it upon himself to put a limit on how much I could spend on Freck, but then I realized that I’d have probably felt the same way if I were in his shoes. And he was right too – it really was as much a gift to me as it was a gift to Freck, as I really had intended to pay the full cost myself. Thanks to Dad, I’d be able to get my boyfriend a very special gift for his thirteenth birthday and Freck would get to own the watch he loved. Not only that, but Jacob would still be able to pay the rent. That night was the premier of the new Star Wars movie, and we had tickets! Star Wars wasn’t really my thing, but Freck was a Star Wars fanatic and just watching his enthusiasm made it all worthwhile. We could’ve gone to see it in a number of theaters, but the official New York premier was held at the AMC Lincoln Square, the largest IMAX theater in the city. We met Asher and Seth there, as they’d also purchased tickets for themselves for the premier. Even I had to admit the movie was awesome, and Freck was in absolute heaven, thrilled to see the concluding episode of his favorite sci-fi series of all time, in 3D on the biggest screen in NYC. We even got to keep the limited-edition 3D glasses and a signed movie poster as keepsakes. How cool was that? <> <> <> Two nights later was the first night of Hanukkah, but I had something else in mind for that Sunday. After a pleasant Sunday brunch at the Riverdale Diner, our Dads took us up up US Highway 9A to the Taconic State Parkway, a multi-lane divided highway that eventually became a scenic, winding road. Freck got more and more curious as we drove further away from the city, particularly when we left the highway behind, and still we drove on, revealing nothing. Finally, we turned off at a place called Hopewell Junction, just past crossing Interstate 84. We drove a bit further until we came to a sign advertising Christmas trees, and we turned in. “We’re getting a Christmas tree?” Freck asked. “But we’re Jewish.” I liked that Freck considered himself Jewish, but that wasn’t the point. “I’m sure we won’t be the only Jewish family in Riverdale with a Christmas tree, Babe, although a lot of them will be called Hanukkah bushes. The point is that you were raised Roman Catholic and even though you’re not religious, you shouldn’t have to give up celebrating Christmas, just because we aren’t Christian,” I explained.” “The way my parents celebrated…” Freck began, “well, it wasn’t very Christian. Then again, Christmas wasn’t even Jesus’ real birthday.” “And if you think we celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a menorah for eight nights in a row, because a lamp with only a few drops of oil in it miraculously burned for eight days, you’re more gullible than I thought,” I countered. “We celebrate Hanukkah because the Jews finally fought back against their oppressors and actually managed to defeat the Greek Army. That is the real meaning of Hanukkah.” “I guess you could say that Christmas represents the beginning of Christianity, for better and for worse,” Freck added, “but it also represents the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire and the victory of faith over a world ruled by paganism and fear.” “Let’s go pick out a tree,” Jake suggested. “If we place it in the foyer, there’s a good twenty feet from floor to ceiling, so an eighteen-foot tree should fit perfectly.” What a terrific idea! The front entrance overlooked a circular, two-story foyer, which led into the great room. A curved stairway led from the entrance down to the great room, and then continued down to the lower level, and then the rec room, where the pool was located. The tree would be perfect in the space, but it would be a huge one and it would take all of us to lower it down into place. It didn’t take long for us to spot a great tree, but I knew from watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation that what looked small in the lot wouldn’t be so small in the house. Jake’s Subaru Forrester was a good fifteen feet in length, which still left a few feet of tree sticking off the front and back, once it had been cut down and tied to the car. One thing was for sure – what appeared to be a nice, winding, scenic road on the way up became a much scarier route on the way back home. On the way back, we stopped at the Lowe’s in Yorktown Heights, where we picked up a large tree stand and everything we would need to trim and decorate the tree. When we got home, I discovered that Dad and Ken had already given a lot of thought to how to lower the tree into place… and how to get it back out. I’d figured we’d lower it down through the front door, but that would’ve involved dropping it some twelve feet to the lower level, and getting it back out wouldn’t have been possible. Instead, we wheeled the tree on a set of dollies around back onto the terrace and through the great room. Using rope and a pully attached to the upper stair railing, we were then able to lower the trunk down and into the tree stand. We then used the same pulley on the upper railing to pull the tree the rest of the way to vertical and to secure it in place. To remove the tree, we could simply reverse the process. Decorating an eighteen-foot tree turned out to be much more of a challenge than we’d expected, as even with a step ladder, the higher branches were out of reach. It took a fair bit of creativity to get the strings of lights and ornaments in place, but when we finally plugged it all in, the effort was worth it. The star on top of the tree was something I’d have never expected. Dad had somehow managed to find online a lighted six-pointed Star of David to top the tree. When we were all done, Freck said, “You know, all the years of celebrating Christmas in the condo, my parents always paid professionals to decorate the tree. At least it was a real tree and not an artificial one – an artificial tree would have never satisfied my parents in their quest for perfection, but neither would have a tree decorated by their kids, so they paid professionals to do it. This is the first time in my life that I actually got to decorate a Christmas tree and you know what? It looks a thousand times better than any tree my parents ever had.” By the time we finished decorating the tree, it was well after sunset and the time we were supposed to light the menorah, but better late than never, so we sang the prayers and lit the first candle of Hanukkah. We were all starved but it was way too late to cook anything ourselves, so we ordered a traditional meal of latkes, or potato pancakes, from the Riverside Diner. There’d be plenty of time for Freck to ‘enjoy’ the experience of making them from scratch during the coming week. <> <> <> I offered to go with Freck to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, but he was thrilled to have the option of not going for a change. We slept in the following morning, then awoke on Christmas Day to what, at least for me, was merely a day off from school. Both dads were already at work, making rounds at New York Presbyterian Hospital. They’d both volunteered to take call on Christmas as they often did. They’d be home by early afternoon, in time for us to celebrate a Jewish Christmas together. “Hey, there’s nothing under the tree,” Freck exclaimed as he padded downstairs in his usual weekend attire, which although a day early, was his birthday suit. I was similarly attired and Roger, as usual, wore his day-old boxers with a t-shirt. “We get our Hanukkah gifts on the last night of Hanukkah,” I pointed out, “and you’ll get your gifts tomorrow for your birthday in any case.” “You don’t even have any stockings hung by the fireplace with care,” Freck complained. “We don’t have a fireplace,” I pointed out. “A mere technicality,” Freck countered. “Are you guys as hungry as I am?” Roger asked. “You kidding me? I could eat a pig,” Freck answered. “Not in this house, you won’t,” Roger responded, “but how about making some authentic Hanukkah latkes?” “Sounds good to me,” I answered. “Count me in,” Freck chimed in. Little did he know what was involved. Holding up a bag of each, Roger asked, “Russet, or sweet potato?” “Sweet potato!” Freck and I answered simultaneously. Sweet potato might not be traditional for latkes, but sweet potato latkes are so good. Roger handed us the bag of sweet potatoes and Freck and I started scrubbing and peeling the potatoes while Roger used our food processor to slice and dice a medium onion. He then grated the sweet potatoes using the food processor while Freck mixed a couple large eggs with two tablespoons of flour in a large mixing bowl. Roger drained the onions and the potatoes of all excess water, and we then blended them in with the eggs and flour, and then formed them into patties. Finally, Roger fried the latkes in canola oil in a large skillet while I made the coffee. I put a tub of low-fat sour cream and a jar of organic apple sauce on the table, and we proceeded to eat our creation. Man, were those potato pancakes good! They were a first for Freck, who couldn’t get enough of them. Afterwards, we showered and dressed, not knowing when the dads would be home. The dads didn’t get home until a little after three o’clock, which left scant time to get downtown, eat at a Chinese restaurant and catch a movie. Frankly, I wasn’t all that interested in seeing another movie, as we’d just seen the Star Wars premier and there was nothing else that I really wanted to see. The bigger issue was that it was usually Mom who made the dinner reservations and, in her absence, Dad forgot about it. There was no way we could get a reservation for Christmas Dinner at the last minute, so that meant trying our luck as a walk-in. “Could you get us a reservation at the Ragin’ Cajun?” Ken asked. Shrugging his shoulders, Freck responded, “I’m sure we can. They keep half the tables for walk-ins, so there should be no problem getting a table as friends of the chef.” “Would you be disappointed if we went there?” Dad asked. “Of course not,” I replied. “I’m sure Ashe will have a special menu for Christmas, and his food’s always incredible.” Then thinking about it for a second, I asked, “Have you guys ever been there?” Shaking his head, Dad answered, “We hardly ever get down to Lower Manhattan anymore.” Then Roger added, “I go to school in Lower Manhattan, yet I’ve never even been there.” “Then you guys are in for a treat,” I responded as I pulled out my phone and dialed Asher’s cell. Asher answered on the fourth ring and immediately said, “I know you know I can’t talk now, so I’m guessing you need a reservation?” “Right on the money,” I replied. “Just let the maître d’ know you’re there as my guest when you arrive, and you’ll get the next available table,” he responded, and then hung up. “Looks like we’re all set,” I told everyone, and then we got ready to head downtown. Even with traffic, the FDR Drive took us right there. The one wrinkle was that we didn’t realize that in exiting at Houston and taking the FDR feeder road down to Delancey, we were forced to turn right at Clinton, because of the Williamsburg bridge entering the roadway at that point. That actually turned out to be a blessing, as by turning left on Rivington, we had much better access the Essex Street parking structure, and the Ragin’ Cajun was just on the next block. The dads were shocked when they saw the line from the restaurant winding its way around the block. “Is it always like this?” Dad asked. “Pretty much, even on weekdays,” I answered, then added, “there’s a shorter line in the other direction, just for takeout.” “Damn,” Roger exclaimed. “Why even go to college?” “For one thing, Asher must be pretty smart to have gotten into Stuyvesant,” Dad answered. “He is,” I interjected. “For another,” Dad continued, “tastes change and there’s no guarantee that the restaurant will always be so popular. Look at the Carnegie Deli. Gone after decades in operation. It’s always good to have an education to fall back on when you’re in the restaurant business. Thirdly, Asher won’t always have Seth to handle the business end of things. Seth’ll want his own career and even if Asher hires someone else to manage the business, he’ll never know if he can trust them unless he knows his way around a spreadsheet. And if he ever decides to go onto bigger and better things, a business degree would empower him to make better decisions.” “He does plan to expand, once he finishes college,” Freck chimed in. “He’d like to open another buffet on Times Square, strictly for the tourist trade, and maybe an upscale Cajun restaurant uptown.” “He’ll need good managerial skills to keep three restaurants going,” Dad added. Opening the door, we went up to the maître d’. Asher and our friend Joel were in the kitchen, busily preparing food for the buffet, and Seth was at the register, weighing and checking out the takeout orders. I waved at them and got smiles from all three. The maître d’ seemed to know who we were and was expecting us. “I’ll have a table for you in five or ten minutes… wait, one just opened up. Just give Tim a minute to buss it and set it up for you, and I’ll seat you shortly.” Ordinarily there’d be a standard and a premium buffet, but not today. For the holiday there was only a premium dinner buffet, priced at thirty dollars for adults and twenty dollars for kids under twelve. Hah! I could eat as much as any adult, but my dinner would be a third less. Asher was a phenomenal chef and although we’d just had some of his wonderful Cajun turkey at Thanksgiving, I couldn’t get over the spread of incredible Cajun-Asian fusion dishes. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Today’s Cajun turkey was completely different than what he’d served at Thanksgiving in any case, with a crispy crust more typical of Beijing Duck. There were pumpkin dumplings with cranberries, seafood gumbo over Lo mein noodles, spicy shrimp and scallop creole, string beans with pepper and onion stir fry, blackened lobster with Asian vegetables, and so much more. There were even some dessert items, including pumpkin bread pudding and sweet potato tarts. It was a feast! We were all groaning by the time we finished. When Dad asked for the check, though, our server informed us that our buffet was on the house. However, Dad insisted that we should pay, especially since it was a holiday, but the server was under strict orders not to take any money from us, so Dad gave her a $100 tip. Normally we’d have given her thirty or forth dollars, so that was really generous. Since we were already right by Essex Crossing, Dad suggested we see a movie after all. There were several possibilities, including the new movie version of the musical, Cats, and a brand new World War I thriller, 1917, but in the end we chose a new release from Amazon called Seberg, which was the true story of an actress in the sixties who was targeted by the FBI for her support of the civil rights movement. Man, I had no idea that kind of stuff went on back then. Damn! It was late by the time we got home, and tomorrow was a big day for Freck, but I was determined to see that it was a big night for him too. At the recommendation of his therapist, we had separate bedrooms and slept apart most school nights, but this wasn’t a school night! We undressed and got into bed together, and then snuggled up with each other after I turned out the lights. We were both excited, as I could feel Freck’s member against my thigh as I’m sure he felt mine. Slowly, I brought my hand to his shoulder and gently caressed it before sliding it under his arm, where I knew he loved to be touched. I slid my hand lightly across his chest and circled his nipple as I brought my lips to his and kissed him deeply. As we broke the kiss, Freck moved his mouth under my arm and kissed and licked me there as I slid my hand down his abdomen, paused to finger his belly button, and then slid my hand down further and grabbed him. I loved the feel of the silky-smooth skin overlying his rigidity. Ever since Freck’s misadventure over the summer in Paris, Freck had learned the pleasures of our most intimate places – something that had always been erotic to me, so I fondled him and then teased him before pushing inside. Freck took a sharp intake of breath in response. Freck then licked his way down my torso before grabbing and taking me into his mouth as I did the same. He teased my most intimate place before he too pushed inward, and we pushed and prodded as we used our mouths and tongues to satisfy each other, bringing each other to a shuddering release. I loved Feck’s taste and regretted that I could not yet give him a taste of me, but that would come in time. We were temporarily spent, but we were far from done as I extended my tongue and teased him and then pushing inside. He moaned with pleasure as I intensified my pursuit of his enjoyment. At one time Freck would have never taken an interest in this sort of thing, but now he eagerly mimicked my actions. I was more than ready and so I pulled back and unwrapped a condom. I didn’t think we really needed them, as we were totally committed to each other and Freck had tested negative for HIV and STDs, but Dad would get suspicious if the supply of condoms he gave us went unused. Freck was mostly a top and I was very much a bottom, and so I flipped myself back around and lay on my back as Freck did what he does so well. I’m sure Roger must’ve heard our screams as we came, as he was just in the next room, but we didn’t care. I disposed of the condom, and then whispered, “Happy birthday, my love,” into my baby’s ear, just before we fell asleep in each other’s arms. <> <> <> Freck was already up when I awoke the next morning, but I was pretty sure I knew where to find him. Freck had become an avid swimmer since moving in with us and he liked to start the day in our indoor pool. It was such a luxury to be able to swim in the middle of winter. After dealing with my full bladder, I padded my way downstairs and, sure enough, found my baby swimming laps. I waited until he was swimming away from me, and then dove in and swam under him, reaching up and grabbing just where I knew he would be. That pretty much put an end to his swimming. Quickly, I took him right into my mouth and managed to bring him to climax before I ran out of air. We then cuddled and made out in one of the lounge chairs, until Dad came down and warned us to shower and dress, as the caterers would be there soon. I didn’t realize Dad had hired caterers for Freck’s thirteenth birthday. At Roger’s suggestion, even though we weren’t all that hungry, we grabbed some breakfast bars, as it could be quite a while before we’d have access to the kitchen once the caterers arrived. Indeed, it was already close to ten o’clock, and Freck’s party was supposed to begin at noon, so there wasn’t much time. By the time Freck and I got out of the shower, the caterers had arrived and had already taken over the kitchen, so we quickly put on our swimwear. Freck looked so sexy in his Speedo. When we entered the great room, I discovered that the caterers were Japanese! Woah. A sushi chef had already prepared a shitload of sushi and they were setting up a deep fryer for tempura. They were grilling yakitori and mushroom caps as appetizers, as well as frying spring rolls, and they also had teriyaki on the grill. It was gonna be a feast! At first Freck was speechless, with his mouth hanging open. Finally, he said, “I can’t believe your family is doing this for me,” once he regained his voice. “Why wouldn’t we,” I responded. “I’ll admit, I’m amazed we hired a sushi chef, but Japanese is your favorite kind of food, and you’re more than worth it. You only become a teenager once, after all.” “You know, in a way I feel like I’ve always been a teenager,” Freck countered. “I mean, I’ve always been with kids who are older than me. My parents pretty much left me on my own from the time I was a baby and my nanny stopped paying attention to me when the twins were born.” “How old are the twins now?” I asked. “They’re nine… ten in July,” he answered. “So I’ve kind of been without any real supervision for the better part of a decade…” “Since you were three?” I interrupted. Nodding his head, he responded, “Three-and-a-half. The twins took all my nanny’s time after they were born. Like you, I could already read by then, and was potty-trained and could dress myself. My nanny did all the cooking, such as it was at first, and we had other people to clean up after us and do the laundry. Even then, it didn’t take me long to realize that I preferred a neat room and the only one who could keep it that way was me. I had to grow up fast.” “But you got into drinking and smoking pot,” I pointed out. “Which is why I said I was more like a teenager than an adult,” Freck explained. “My parents were too, for that matter. It took moving here to learn what childhood’s really supposed to be like. That’s part of the reason I wanna wait a couple of years to go to MIT. I need to learn to be a child before I can move onto bein’ an adult. I need to close the chapter on Freck before beginning the one on François.” “That’s pretty intense,” I responded. “Yeah,” Freck agreed. Then cocking his head to the side, he asked, “Hey, you wanna go swim until the guests arrive?” Shaking my head, I replied, “There’ll be plenty of time to swim later. I think I’ll just chill out and watch TV. But don’t let me keep you from swimming! Why don’t you go ahead?” “Oh, Okay,” he replied. “Just come get me when the first guests arrive. If the party’s supposed to start at noon, you know no one’ll show up before 12:30, and things won’t get underway until 1:00.” “For sure,” I agreed, and then Freck headed down the stairs to the lower level and the pool. Before I even had a chance to grab the remote control, however, I heard him shout, “Oh wow! There are already a lot of presents here!” Running to the railing overlooking the foyer, I looked down and saw that, indeed, there were a ton of gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. “I think those are all yours, bud,” I called out over the railing. The Hanukkah gift-giving wouldn’t be for another three days yet, on the final night, just after we light eight candles. “There are gifts from all your relatives,” Freck exclaimed. “Even from people I’ve never met.” “You probably met them at the wedding,” I responded, “but some of them even I don’t remember,” I added with a laugh. “I guess I’d better leave these for later,” Freck stated with a sigh. “If you don’t want someone to throw you in the pool,” I agreed. “Someone will probably throw me in the pool anyway,” Freck noted and I had to agree. After Freck disappeared from my sight, I headed back to the great room and plopped myself down on the sofa next to my brother, where Roger was already mindlessly flipping through channels. After watching him fail to land on anything for more than a second or two, I suggested, “Either watch something like CNN, or pull up a short movie or episode of something you actually like on Netflix or Amazon Prime, why don’t you?” “Because annoying you is so much more fun,” he replied. “Likewise,” I agreed, and then I attacked him with a vengeance. The tickling soon turned into an all-out wrestling match as we fell off the sofa to the floor and rolled around, taking care not to knock anything over. It didn’t take long for Roger to have me pinned, but even still, he held my shoulders down with his extended arms, failing to let me up. “You may be two years ahead of me in school, brother, but I’m still nearly five years older,” he exclaimed. “By the way, how long did it take you to shave today? Oh, that’s right. You’re still hairless… everywhere except for your head, where you wear your hair longer than most girls I know.” That much was true. I hadn’t cut my hair in nearly a year now, and it was already halfway down my back. I liked my hair long and more importantly, Freck absolutely loved it that way. “Like Sampson, my hair makes me strong,” I told my brother. “Let me up now, or you’ll see what I do to you.” Of course, taunting him only strengthened his resolve to keep me down, but with his hands holding my shoulders down and his body holding my legs down, that left my hands and arms totally free, and so I resumed tickling his arm pits with furor. That was all it took and we soon ended up sitting on the floor, laughing with each other as only brothers can. “Boy, the food smells amazing,” Dad said as he entered the great room, with Ken close behind him. They were both barefoot and wearing swim trunks, but also polo shirts. I guess that was so they’d appear parental to any parents dropping off their kids. And maybe to the kids too. As far as I knew, no one we invited was a smoker or used drugs, but one doesn’t always know what their friends from school do in private or when they party, so I could understand the need for the appearance of authority. “I didn’t know you hired a sushi chef,” I exclaimed. “I didn’t know you could hire Japanese caterers at all, but that was naïve of me. I love sushi. I love anything Japanese, except maybe the Americanized stuff like Benihana.” “The sushi chef was part of a package deal,” Dad explained, “and the caterers are actually Korean.” “Korean!” I responded in surprise. “A lot of Japanese restaurants are owned by Koreans, and a lot of trained sushi chefs are Korean… even the ones working in some of the Japanese-owned restaurants,” Dad went on to explain. “Of course, the Japanese-owned restaurants claim they’re more authentic and generally charge more, but the Koreans, by increasing the supply to meet the demand, have reduced the prices the market will bear. The fact is that during World War II, Japan invaded the Korean peninsula and they trained Korean chefs to prepare food for them. Thus the Japanese trained a generation of Koreans to prepare Japanese food identical to that served in Japan, and now there are Koreans training other Koreans, serving a growing demand all over the world.” “That’s really cool,” I replied, “at least until the fish run out.” “That’s a bit pessimistic, don’t you think?” Ken asked. “Not really,” I replied. “Yesterday’s worst-case scenario is today’s best-case scenario. Scientists have consistently underestimated the speed of climate change. We’re already in the midst of global ecosystem collapse.” “It’s a shame… they were talking about the greenhouse effect back when I was your age, Kyle,” Dad added. “Actually, they taught about it in school when your parents were my age,” I responded. “We’ve known about it all this time yet done nothing. We’ve destroyed the Amazon rainforest… the most important carbon sink on the planet. We’ve only accelerated the pace of deforestation as we over-fish, over-graze and over-plant. The pace of species extension is quickening and we’re losing the very buffering systems that have absorbed atmospheric carbon throughout our planet’s history. Not only are we releasing vast stores of fossilized hydrocarbons into the air, but as the tundra thaws, we’re releasing vast amounts of methane. People don’t realize that the ice caps that are melting are themselves an important buffer that regulates temperature. Once the ice is gone, the only remaining buffer will be the boiling point of water. How will life survive when the oceans start to boil?” “You’re assuming a runaway greenhouse effect,” Freck said as he padded his way up the stairs, his hair still wet from swimming. “We’re a long way from becoming another Venus, mind you. Not that it couldn’t happen,” Freck continued, “and James Hansen would back you up on that, but the earth doesn’t receive nearly as much sunlight, nor does it have an atmosphere that’s entirely carbon dioxide. Yes, the sun’s output will eventually increase enough to boil the oceans, but not for another billion years or so.” “Well, there’s one way to find out,” I replied. “All we have to do is keep burning fossil fuels and destroying earth’s ecosystem, and we’ll get our answer.” “The good news, if it can be called that, is that China stands to lose the most from climate change,” Freck countered. “They have a lot of issues with corruption, but when they flood the market with cheap solar panels and wind turbines, not even the protectionist policies of the U.S. will be able to stop the adoption of renewable energy. The biggest problem is that carbon neutrality won’t come nearly fast enough to mitigate against sea level rise, starvation and mass migration. And that’s where I’ll come in, building new cities to absorb the migrants, and vast high-rise urban farms to feed them.” “And who’s gonna pay for all that?” I asked. Shrugging his shoulders, Freck answered, “It could just as easily be us as them who are the migrants. It’s cheaper to house and feed climate refugees than to go to war with them, particularly when there are more of them than us.” Ken chimed in. “Let’s hope we all come to our senses before things get that much worse.” “Amen to that,” Dad agreed. “Man, the smell of all that food’s makin’ me starved,” Freck announced, as if we didn’t already know that. Being the most brazen among us, I stepped up to the kitchen island, where a batch of spring rolls was cooling, and grabbed one, popping it into my mouth. I’d figured it would be hot, but not quite so hot. With nothing cold to drink within my reach, I put my hand in front of my mouth and blew repeatedly on the morsel in my mouth until it was cool enough to bite into. Finally, I could tell that it was stuffed with shrimp, and it was delicious. Being far more sensible, Freck stepped up to a plate of fresh chicken yakitori and grabbed a stick, blowing on it and then sliding it into his mouth, biting down and pulling back. The smile on his face as he chewed showed how much he was enjoying it. Roger grabbed a stuffed mushroom cap and popped it into his mouth, obviously enjoying it as well. “Boys, you can each have one more appetizer before the guests arrive,” Dad admonished us. This time I grabbed a mushroom cap, Roger ate a stick of beef yakitori and Freck, the devil, took a shrimp spring roll, dipped it into spicy mustard and popped it in his mouth. Perhaps it had already cooled down since my misadventure, as he had no trouble at all. It was just as I attempted to take another appetizer without being noticed, the doorbell rang. Of course, it rang just as I was trying to get away with sneaking a third appetizer, and so I was caught with chicken yakitori in my mouth. “What the fuck is someone doing, arriving early,” Freck asked. Actually, it was ten of twelve, which could only mean one thing, and so Freck and I rushed upstairs, just as Dad was opening the door. Sure enough, it was Asher and Seth on the other side. Only our very best friends would be brazen enough to come early. “You’re early,” I said as they waltzed in. “No, we’re not,” Asher countered. “It’s rude to be late and given the vagaries of public transportation, you should have expected us any time after 11:30. Everyone else is just late.” “You just wanted to get here before the best of the food was gone,” Freck countered. “Damn right, we did,” Seth replied. “Same place for changing?” Asher asked. Nodding my head, I replied, “Freck’s and Roger’s rooms for boys, mine and the guest room for girls.” “Swimsuits optional?” Seth asked with a teasing voice as he unzipped his coat to reveal he was already bare-chested. “You know better,” I answered. “For one thing, Jessie may have the same equipment, but she’s trans and would be offended to be treated like a boy. Secondly, Freck invited quite a few girls who are friends from school. Thirdly, the caterers aren’t all men and for all we know, some of the men might like boys too. And finally, we don’t need any rumors getting started about an orgy or anything.” “We aren’t having an orgy?” Asher asked. “What kind of party is this, anyway.” He was having trouble saying it with a straight face however, and then he lost it entirely as he broke out in his trademark Tiger Woods smile. “Come on in guys,” Freck admonished our guests. “There’s a ton of food and we’re all starving. You’re our best excuse to start eating.” “In that case, we’ll be right back,” Seth replied as he grabbed his boyfriend’s hand and pulled him in the direction of Freck’s bedroom, which was on the opposite side of the vestibule from mine. “Oh, you can leave your presents under the tree, on the lower level,” I added. Stopping dead in their tracks, Asher asked, “You guys have a Christmas tree? But you’re Jewish!” “Freck was raised Catholic,” I explained, “and even though he’s making the effort to learn about Judaism, we didn’t want to see him lose sight of his roots.” It seemed we’d just gotten down the stairs when the doorbell rang again. This time it was the Staten Island crowd, which included, Clarke and his boyfriend, Carl, Clarke’s sisters, Connie, Jasmine and Ellen, and his brother Joseph, who drove them to the party. No sooner did we direct them to the bedrooms to change and tell them where to leave their presents, than Joel and Clark arrived. After that, a steady stream of guests started to arrive. It was quite a while before we were able to get back downstairs, by which time the great room was filled with boisterous teens who were chowing down on sushi and on all kinds of appetizers and Japanese food. Everyone was dressed in swimsuits and there was an indoor pool just waiting for them, but for teens, food is always the first priority. For pre-teens too. I was starved, so I grabbed a plate and filled it with as large an assortment of sushi as I could carry. I loaded my plate with wasabi and ginger and soy sauce, grabbed a pair of chopsticks and looked for a place where I could sit down. Seeing Freck’s twin sisters sitting off by themselves, I decided to try to get to know them, as I’d barely met them, let alone talked to them before. “May I sit here?” I asked as I approached a corner of the room, where they were sitting on the floor. “Oh, hi Kyle,” one of the girls said as I sat down, cross-legged across from them. “I still can’t tell which of you is which,” I noted, not that I even knew their names to begin with. I remembered that their nanny, Freck’s nanny before he’d moved in with us, was René, but she was elsewhere at the moment. “I’m Lisa,” said the one on my left, “and the dumb one sitting next to me is Debbie.” “Dumb my ass,” said Debbie, “I’m at the same grade level as you.” “You’re in, what, the fourth grade?” I asked. “Sixth grade,” Debbie answered smugly. “Sixth grade? You girls are in middle school?” “We would be if we were in the public schools,” Lisa answered, “but we’re in a private Montessori school, which is why it was so easy to work our way up two grade levels.” “The plan is to finish the eighth grade by the end of next year,” Debbie went on. “We’ll take the New York specialty high school exam next fall and, with any luck, get into Stuyvesant the following year.” “Shit, that means you’ll be freshmen when you’re ten, just like Freck was,” I related. “Genius must run in the family.” “Don’t tell your boyfriend,” Lisa continued, “but Freck’s our role model…” “Academically,” Debbie interrupted. “We know better than to get into alcohol or drug use. I think maybe having each other keeps us grounded. And of course we’re not gay. We like boys.” “As does Freck,” Lisa said, and then she stuck out her tongue at her sister. Then turning back to me, she said, “You sure seem to like sushi.” “It’s one of my favorite foods,” I related “Freck’s too, but you probably already knew that. Have you tried the sushi? It’s really good.” Both girls had plates filled with teriyaki and tempura, but I thought that perhaps they’d eaten some sushi earlier. Scrunching up her face, Debbie, answered, “We hate sushi. We love fish, but only if it’s cooked and not from a can. I’m not a fan of shellfish either, but Lisa likes shrimp and she made me try the shrimp tempura, and it’s growing on me. I even like the asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower tempura, and I never used to like those vegetables at all.” “Your tastes are growing up,” I replied. “I used to hate asparagus, but now it’s my favorite vegetable.” Then picking up a piece of California roll and reaching toward her, I suggested, “Here, try this.” Taking it from me, popping it in her mouth, chewing it and swallowing it, Debbie exclaimed, “Hey, this is really good! What is it?” “It’s a California roll, and it’s made with cucumber, avocado and cooked crab,” I answered. Then holding up another piece, I asked Lisa, “Would your like to try it?” Taking it from me, she ate it and responded, “Yeah, this is really good.” “Are you ready to try something more daring?” I asked as I held out a piece of tuna roll. “That’s really, really red,” Lisa noted. “It looks raw.” “It’s yellow fin, and it’s delicious,” I responded. They both scrunched up their noses and Debbie said, “Sorry, Kyle. I know it’s not normal for New Yorkers not to like lox, but we hate it. We just don’t like raw fish. We’ll stick with the cooked food.” “How long did it take you to grow your hair like that?” Lisa asked. Both of the girls were freckled red heads, like Freck, and they wore their hair teased, but fairly short-cropped. “I’ve always kept it on the long side,” I responded, “but it was just above my collar when I started growing it this time last year. So it took me a year to grow it this long.” “It’s such a rich brown,” Lisa continued. “You ever think of getting highlights and maybe braiding it?” “Man, that would be a lot of work,” I responded, “and Freck likes running his hands through my hair. I don’t know how your brother would take it.” “Would take what?” Freck asked as he snuck up behind me. “Hey Lisa, Debbie,” he added, nodding at the correct twin with each name. “How’d you do that,” I asked as I stood up to greet my boyfriend. “Tell them apart?” Freck asked and I nodded. “I could always tell, as long as I can remember, but I have no idea how I do it. It’s like the way I pick up languages. I’m not even aware of doing it… I just know which twin is which. I can even do it in the dark, so it probably has something to do with how they sound to me. Maybe they breathe differently. I don’t know.” “That’s amazing,” I responded, “and we were wondering how I’d look in braids, and if you’d like it.” Shaking his head, Freck responded, “No way. I like your hair, just the way it is now. I like long hair. Long hair’s sexy, but not in braids.” “How long should I grow it?” I asked. “Down to your ass at least,” Freck answered. “Maybe your knees. Grow it as long as you can without tripping on it. “You know I’ll have to cut it eventually,” I replied. “No one’s gonna take Kyle Allen Goldstein, Ph.D., seriously if he has hair as long as Rapunzel’s, right?” “They will if you save the planet, Ky,” Freck answered. “Besides which, I’m more important to you than everyone else, so if I tell you I don’t want you to cut your hair, then you should let it grow as long as you can.” “Of course you’re more important,” I agreed, “but sometimes we can’t escape society’s expectations.” Sighing, Freck added, “Sad, but true.” “And why didn’t you tell me your sisters are in the sixth grade?” I asked. “’Cause the last thing I knew, they were in the fifth grade,” Freck replied. “If anything, they’re smarter than I am, so I expect they’ll be in college at the same time we are.” “Pretty cool,” I agreed. “Well, as the birthday boy, I need to mingle,” Freck announced, “and I need to get some of that wonderful food before it’s all gone. That sushi looks fantastic.” “It is,” I responded as I looked down at my nearly empty plate. “Looks like it’s time for me to get some more food too.” We both headed back to the kitchen island, where all the food was set out, and I grabbed an assortment of the tempura and some of the teriyaki as Freck grabbed a full plate of the sushi. I’d probably have some more sushi myself, after I’d sampled a little of everything else. On the other hand, I knew Dad had gotten a couple of cheesecakes from Junior’s for Freck’s birthday and had them decorated. One was Freck’s favorite – cheese carrot cake, and the other was strawberry cheesecake for those who didn’t like carrot cake. Any depraved soul who didn’t like Junior’s cheesecake was outta luck. Freck went off to mingle with the guests and so I went in search of someone else to talk to while I ate. There was some opera playing in the background – I think maybe it was Carmen, Freck’s favorite. I headed downstairs, to the rec room, which was the level with the pool. Our house was unusual because it was built into a hillside as a front-to-back split level. It was actually one of the smaller ones on our street and a lot of people were buying up the older houses like ours, just to tear them down and build brand-new McMansions. As far as we were concerned, ours was perfect the way it was. Built in the early sixties, it originally had four bedrooms at street level, with a den, the laundry and a utility room below. In back, there was an enclosed kitchen, a formal dining room and a living room. A large unfinished basement led to a large, sloping back yard that was too steeply sloped to play in. At some point, someone put in a concrete patio and in-ground pool, finishing off the basement at the same time to turn it into a family room. The previous owners that sold us the house did a fantastic job of modernizing it, adding the terrace, enclosing the pool, combining the dining room and living room to create a single great room with a vaulted ceiling, enlarging and opening up the kitchen, and building a new master bedroom suite where the den had been. The entry was on the top level, which included two bedrooms and a bathroom on each side of the entryway. A curved stairway led down to the great room, which had a high, vaulted ceiling and extensive windows that led out to a terrace. A large, open kitchen took up one end of the great room and was separated from it by a large island. A two-car garage led directly into the kitchen. The stairs continued down to the lower level, with the master bedroom suite on one side and the laundry room, utility room and workshop on the other. The curved stairway continued down to the rec room, with a pool table, a ping-pong table and a couple of sitting areas. In addition, there was a wet bar, a home office and a couple of full bathrooms with showers. A wall of glass doors led to the pool room, which was under the terrace. The base of the Christmas tree was on the lower level, with the tree rising up into the two-story foyer. There were a ton of presents under the tree for Freck’s birthday. I couldn’t wait for him to open mine. No one was in the pool just yet as most everyone was eating, but Clarke, Carl and Jessie were engaged in a game of pool, so I stopped to watch them as I ate my food. Carl was clearly the best player of the three of them, but the other two held their own fairly well. I watched them play a couple of full games before I went back upstairs to grab another plate of food, but ended up deciding I’d already had enough. People were starting to gravitate to the pool and so, after allowing some time for my food to digest, I headed there myself. The dads set up a net and we got involved in a game of aquatic volleyball. It was a blast! Before I knew it, it was time for birthday cake. Dad brought out the carrot cheesecake, with thirteen lit candles, as we all sang Happy Birthday. Freck blew out all the candles as everyone clapped. The cake was decorated with what appeared to be the New York skyline, undoubtedly a reference to Freck’s chosen profession as an architect. Above the skyline it said ‘Happy 13’, and below in large letters, it simply said ‘FRECK’. The other cake, which was topped with a strawberry glaze, was decorated with white icing in the form of a Hanukkah menorah. Below the menorah were the words, ‘Happy Hanukkah & Merry Christmas’, and the requisite number of candles were inserted into the cake at the appropriate positions of the menorah. We lit the candles as we sang the prayers, and then we promptly blew them out so we could eat the cake. I had a slice of the strawberry cheesecake and it was wonderful. Finally, it was time to open the presents and so we all gathered around the Christmas tree while the dads took turns handing giftwrapped boxes, bags and assorted misshapen objects to the birthday boy. Most of the gifts were simple things like iTunes gift cards, but there were also some classic sci-fi books in hard cover, which Freck loved, and even some DVD Audio discs of newly restored operas, originally recorded in the forties and fifties, that could be ripped and played in high-def on our music players. Freck was thrilled with them. There were 4K-HDR steel book Blu-rays of Battlestar Galactica, all of the Star Trek series and even the older, classic stuff, like the Twilight Zone, which were really cool. I couldn’t wait to watch them all with my baby. Sure, we could have streamed them, but the Blu-rays looked better on our 4K OLED screen, and they came with special features not available on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Most of the stuff the relatives sent consisted of clothes, and those were a mixed bag, pun intended. Some of the items were a bit large on Freck, but he’d probably grow into them. Freck’s own parents gave him an Armani suit, which was a nice touch, since his only suit was definitely too small on him now. My great grand uncle, who’d been rather cool to us at Dad’s wedding last June, sent Freck a really nice leather jacket that would’ve cost over a grand if bought in New York. I guess he was trying to make amends. My great grandfather sent an alligator belt with a silver buckle with ivory inlays that were almost certainly illegal. We suspected the alligator skin was from an endangered species in the Amazon as well. Undoubtedly, he thought Freck would appreciate a gift that was very hard to come by outside of Brazil, not realizing he was a staunch environmentalist. It would be a challenge to come up with a polite way of thanking him for such a thoughtless gift. Finally, we were down to the last item, which consisted of cubic box, perhaps four inches on each side, and wrapped in an elegant gold leaf wrapping paper with a subtle embossed hexagonal design. On closer inspection, the hexagons formed an endless pattern of six-pointed stars. The attached card, which I’d bought at the Papyrus store in 4 World Trade Center, was considerably larger than the giftbox. The card, which was itself a work of art, was the perfect expression of my love for Freck. It better have been, ’cause it cost more than ten dollars. Freck read the card and then kissed me on the lips. He carefully peeled away the wrapping paper, taking care not to tear it. I expect that he thought it was far too elegant to be simply torn off. I would’ve done the same. Slowly, an elegant box came into view and Freck’s hands began to shake as he realized what it was. Slowly, he opened the box to reveal the watch he’d admired so recently. He almost didn’t believe what he was seeing, but then he looked right at me and said, “There’s no way I can accept this, Kyle. It’s too much.” “It’s inscribed,” I replied, “so it can’t be returned. And take a look at the inscription. It’s not just from me.” Removing the watch from the box, Freck flipped it over and read the inscription, and then said, “Asher, Seth, I really appreciate the thought, but this is too much.” Then looking back at me, he added, “I could’ve bought this watch myself, but I didn’t because it’s more than I wanted to spend on a watch. Don’t get me wrong, I love the watch. I’ve never seen a watch like this and unlike a Rolex, which is all about showing off, this watch is actually worth the price. It’s a marvel of technology, but the price is more than I’m willing to spend.” “But isn’t that what giving gifts is all about?” I asked. “Isn’t it about giving someone you love something you know they want, but that they’d never spend the money on themselves? A gift should be something special… an extravagance.” “Gees, you make me feel like a jerk now,” Freck responded. “For your birthday, what did I get you? I got you tickets to the premier of the new Star Wars movie, a limited-edition keepsake and the new Blu-ray steel book Star Wars collection… things that I’d have liked to have for myself. I could’ve spent a lot more but I didn’t want you to feel pressured into spending a lot of money on me, and look what you got me?” “But this is a special birthday,” I pointed out. “It’s not everyday you become a teenager.” “Every birthday with you is a special birthday, Kyle,” he replied. “You spent way too much.” Seeing the way he was brooding, I thought perhaps he should know that I had more than just Asher’s and Seth’s help, and so I asked, “Would it help to know that I had some additional help in buying the watch? Dad didn’t think I should spend that much either, but when I explained how much you wanted it, he offered to pitch in so you could have it. I’d fully intended to buy it myself, and with Asher and Seth’s help, I could have done it if I deferred getting my next iPhone by a year, but Dad wouldn’t let me. He and Ken pitched in the difference and I only let them because they’re the reason I couldn’t do it on my own. As Dad put it, it was a gift from them for both of us, ’cause it let me buy you the watch I wanted to give you, and it let you receive the watch you wanted more than any other gift.” “Why don’t you put it on, son,” Ken suggested, and Freck opened the clasp and put the watch on his left wrist. It fit him perfectly and really looked great on him. “Every year, my parents got me something to better show off their trophy kid. The Armani suit’s a perfect example. Much as I needed a new suit, spending a few thousand dollars on something I’ll outgrow in less than a year is more about them than about me. This is the first time that anyone’s spent this kind of money on me, for me. It’s the first time anyone’s gotten me something I really wanted.” Freck related as a few tears rolled down his cheeks. “Zei Gezunt. Wear it in health, Freck,” Dad responded. <> <> <> Before we even turned around, we were singing Auld Langsyne, and then it was back to school. Other than in the shower or during swim meets, Freck always wore his watch. As he said, it wasn’t just about wearing an exceptional timepiece. It was a constant reminder of the love it represented. There would be other gifts and other milestones ahead, but we would always remember this thirteenth birthday as the time Freck truly became part of our family.
  5. Freck and Kyle are both seniors and they’re out and proud. They’re also protégées, as Kyle just turned eleven and Freck is about to turn thirteen, on the day after Christmas. Kyle wants to get his boyfriend something special, but the watch Freck likes is way out of Kyle’s price range. Maybe with help from friends and family, and with a lot of self-sacrifice, he can swing it, but they’ll both learn the greatest gift is one they already share - the love of family.
  6. Like the namesake movie released in 2000, which is set in LA, What's Cooking (in NYC) explores the lives of four families as they make preparations for the Thanksgiving holiday. As with the movie, there is much unexpected drama, but with the added wrinkle that all four families, who are well-known to NYC Holidays readers, are waiting for loved ones to arrive on the same flight from California. When a glitch in Air Traffic Control occurs, anything can happen.
  7. “I can’t believe these amounts,” Seth exclaimed to his boyfriend as he went over the order they’d just placed for Thanksgiving. They were in Seth’s apartment on New York’s Lower East Side and, as was typical, his parents were out of town. For most of the time, the boys lived on their own although they were young teens. Seth’s father was one of the most powerful politicians in the New York State Assembly and spent most of the year up in Albany, but at the moment he and Seth’s mother were in San Francisco on a fact-finding mission related to fire safety. It had been an historic fire season in California, and this was an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Asher’s parents owned a couple of restaurants and were also seldom around. “Like I said, Thanksgiving is second only to Mother’s Day, and I expect it to be no different with our place,” Asher replied. Asher was referring to the Asian takeout place his parents owned on Grand Street, near their apartment, and by ‘our place’ he meant the new Cajun restaurant they’d opened on Orchard Street, just north of Delancey. Asher’s mother was Chinese American and his father was Creole, and it had always been a dream of his father’s to open a Cajun restaurant. However, Asher’s mom was struck by a kid on an electric bicycle while crossing the street, suffering multiple fractures for which she had to spend her summer in surgery and then in rehab. She was still recovering from her injuries. With two restaurants to run, it was left to Asher and Seth to open and run the Cajun restaurant while his father took care of business at the Asian place. It was a lot of responsibility for a couple of young teenagers – Asher had just turned fifteen and Seth fourteen – but already Asher knew his way around the kitchen as well as or perhaps even better than his dad, and Seth had learned to be a savvy businessman from his own father. Together they prepared an amazing Cajun buffet menu that attracted the attention of the Times’ food editor, and the resulting review left the boys busy beyond belief. Thankfully, Asher’s dad was able to hire and train additional help, so he could take over the Cajun restaurant when the boys returned to Stuyvesant High School in the fall for their sophomore year. Stuyvesant was New York’s top elite specialty public high school and considered one of the best secondary schools in the world. “And don’t forget that you volunteered to provide food for the homeless shelter,” Asher added, “which means I’ll be extra busy in the kitchen when I can least afford it.” “We can easily afford to give the shelter food to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.” Seth replied, “and it’ll bring us a lot of good publicity and good will in the community.” “Yeah but in effect, you volunteered my time too,” Asher countered. “The food isn’t gonna cook itself and cooking dinner for the homeless means cooking that much more food.” Yes, Asher could hire additional workers and he still had their friends, Joel and Clark, to help out in the kitchen, but there was only one Asher to put out the hypothetical fires when they inevitably arose. “And if the shelter had approached you instead of me approaching them, are you telling me you’d have refused?” Seth asked. Shrugging his bare shoulders, Asher responded, “No, of course not,” with his killer, Tiger Woods smile. “But it’s one of the reasons our food order’s so large. It also means I’ll be spending time preparing traditional Thanksgiving dinners in addition to the Cajun food I’ll be serving at the restaurant.” “Yeah, I know Babe, and I’m sorry,” Seth replied. “I hadn’t thought about the need for blander food until the director of the shelter brought it up. “By the way, where are we gonna store all that food?” Seth asked. “It’s not like we have spare refrigerators laying around, and with fresh turkeys, they’ll spoil without refrigeration.” “Easy,” Asher responded. “We’ll have the turkeys delivered live, and we’ll butcher them as we need them.” When Seth looked at his boyfriend askance with his mouth hanging open, Asher laughed heartily and said, “Gotcha! Oh, you are so gullible.” “I’ll show you gullible,” Seth replied, and he tickled his boyfriend in the ribs and under his arms. Asher responded by pulling Seth into a hug and kissing his boyfriend deeply. A while later, as they cuddled in bed, Seth asked, “How do you intend to keep the turkeys refrigerated?” “I’ll use a trick I learned from my parents,” Asher explained. “There’s lots of space in the basement under the restaurant and there’s a floor drain. We’ll build a makeshift icebox over the floor drain using chicken wire and inexpensive, reusable polystyrene panels… what you’d call Styrofoam… and pack all the turkeys in ice. As the ice melts we use the turkeys on top, but we can always add more ice if we need to. Meanwhile, the water from the melting ice goes right down the floor drain.” “Damn, I don’t know how we’re gonna keep up with the demand,” Seth commented. “I’m not saying it won’t be a challenge,” Asher answered, “but we perfected our techniques over the summer and I’ll have a lot of extra hired help. We’ll even have a large crew of dishwashers. We have a few days yet, and we’ll be ready.” Snuggling up with his boyfriend, Seth responded, “I’m counting on that.” <> <> <> “Good morning, Momá,” Carl said as he entered the kitchen and kissed his mother on the cheek. “Have you seen Clarke?” “Isn’t he with you?” she asked. Clarke, not to be confused with Clark, was Carl’s boyfriend and they shared a bedroom, but slept in separate twin beds. Clarke had obviously gotten up early, but as to where he went, Carl hadn’t a clue. Carl could scarcely believe how much his life had changed in less than a year. Last year at Thanksgiving, he and his mother lived in a low-income housing project in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. Although relatively safe, thanks to its proximity to One Police Plaza, the headquarters for the New York Police Department, like most housing projects it suffered from shoddy construction, poor maintenance and a high prevalence of crime and drugs. Still, it was a great deal better than where he began his life in the projects of Spanish Harlem. His mother had gotten pregnant when she was even younger than he was, but her boyfriend was shot and killed in a spate of gang violence. The prospects for the future of a young Latino male, particularly a gay one, raised by a single teenage mom in New York public housing are rather bleak, with a fair likelihood of ending up in prison or worse while still in the teens or twenties. The fact that he was intelligent, however, worked in his favor and when he managed to get a high enough score on the specialty high school entrance exam to get into Stuyvesant, his prospects improved dramatically. Hell, he could walk to Stuyvesant. With his minority status and a diploma from Stuyvesant, he’d likely get a full ride scholarship to an Ivy League school. On top of that, he was a top athlete and the leading scorer on the varsity basketball team, and that was last year when he was still a sophomore. If he didn’t get an academic scholarship or a needs-based scholarship, he’d very likely get an athletic scholarship, so if he survived life in the projects until he graduated high school, he’d be set for life. However, on a fateful day last December everything changed yet again. Clarke was a freshman who was known to be a bully and managed to get in trouble on a fairly regular basis. Stuyvesant didn’t have a zero-tolerance policy, but Clarke was already skating on thin ice when he punched out a fellow freshman in gym class. The boy he’d punched out was Asher White, an out and proud gay boy who was half black and half Asian, and he’d done it right in front of his boyfriend, Seth Moore, whose father was one of the most powerful men in the State Assembly. Talk about a death wish! Carl was working in the administrative office that day, trying to earn some badly needed spending money, when Clarke was dragged into the vice-principal’s office by his gym teacher. Right away Carl noticed something in Clarke’s eyes that spoke of profound remorse, and maybe of something else as well. While taking Clarke to retrieve his clothes from his gym locker and his books from his hall locker, Carl got an inkling of just what that other thing might be, and what he saw was desire. There was no mistaking it when Clarke flirted a bit without realizing he was flirting, Carl gained an understanding of what was driving Clarke’s bullying, particularly when Clarke opened up about how his father was beating him at home. In short, Clarke was a homophobic bully because he had a homophobic bully for a father, and because he himself was gay and having a hard time dealing with it. Carl fell in love with him on the spot and, as it turned out, he with Carl. Clarke ended up coming out to the vice-principal, and to himself that afternoon, but the beating he got from his father that evening was enough to put him in the hospital. In the end, both of Clarke’s parents ended up in prison, not only for child endangerment but, unbeknownst to Clarke at the time, the Feds already had them in their sights for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. Fortunately for Clarke and his eight siblings, including four sisters still living at home, his oldest brother, Joseph, had been accepted to law school at Columbia and had already planned to move back home. Joseph took on the responsibility of serving as guardian for Clarke and his sisters, but recognizing he couldn’t do it all while in law school, he hired Carl’s mom as a cook and housekeeper, and Carl moved in with Clarke. Now Carl lived with his boyfriend and the three remaining sisters still at home, on Staten Island in a stately, upscale house with a pool in back, not that any of that mattered to Carl. What was important was that he had the most wonderful boyfriend in the world. “So, how about a Cuban omelet today?” Momá asked her son. “I’d love It,” Carl answered. “Is there anything I can do to help?” “Maybe you could get the coffee going?” his mother suggested, and Carl obliged. A Cuban omelet was basically an omelet with sweet, fried plantains, to which any of a number of additions could be made. Momá like to make hers with diced ham, onions and bell peppers, with spicy salsa on top. Carl thought she made the best Cuban omelets in the world. As she went about preparing the omelet ingredients for herself and five children – two teenage boys, two teenage girls and a twelve-year-old girl – she spoke to Carl about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. “I’ve been giving some thought to Thanksgiving dinner, Carl, and I’d like to bounce some ideas off of you,” she began. “Momá, you make the best turkey dinner in the universe,” Carl responded. “Why don’t you make the food you always make, but on a larger scale?” “Because Puerto Rican food is very different from traditional American food,” she responded. “Although your boyfriend’s family seems to like my cooking, I’ve had to tone it down quite a bit to cater to American tastes.” “Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Carl replied. “It just means I have to add a lot of salsa to make up for it, but what’s wrong with turkey with your best molé sauce? Clarke loves your molé.” “As does Jasmine, but Connie and Ellen don’t,” Momá noted. “Besides which, it’s not traditional for Thanksgiving. I know to you it is, but it’s not for most American taste buds. Francine and Scott are coming home for the holiday, and Scott’s bringing his roommate and his roommate’s boyfriend with him. I have no idea what they might like. And then there’s Sarah and Jeff, and the baby to consider.” “The baby won’t be eating any solid food in any case,” Carl pointed out. “But the baby’s parents will, and their idea of Thanksgiving most likely involves roast turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. I’ve never made food like that, but there’s no reason I couldn’t. That stuff’s pretty simple compared to Puerto Rican food. “So, what I thought I might do is to prepare a traditional roast turkey, but with my molé to serve on the side for those that want it. Instead of a traditional stuffing, I’ll make a cornbread stuffing with just a hint of jalapeño, and I’ll make Cuban yams with plantains. I’ve never baked a pumpkin pie before, but I’ll give it a try, along with maybe a sweet potato pie, which I do know how to make. “How’s that sound?” she asked her son. “It sounds fantastic,” he replied as he hugged her from behind and again kissed her on the cheek. Just then Clarke waltzed into the kitchen, saying, “Something sure smells fantastic.” “I made Cuban omelets,” Momá responded as she slid an omelet onto a plate for each of the boys. Carl proceeded to pour a cup of coffee for each of them as well as for his Momá. “Where have you been?” Carl asked his boyfriend. “I was up in the attic, getting out Ellen’s baby crib and her baby things for little Stevie,” he answered. “They’ll be here tomorrow, you know.” “Gees, I almost forgot, since we still have school tomorrow,” Carl responded. “It kinda sucks that we have to go to school for only two days.” “It used to be two-and-a-half days,” Momá pointed out. Soon, they were joined by three bleary-eyed teenage and near-teenage girls and Momá prepared Cuban omelets for each of them. Afterward, they all helped with the cleanup. They all discussed their plans for the upcoming holiday, including Momá’s plans for Thanksgiving dinner, which everyone seemed to like. Soon the other family members would be arriving from out of town. With that, Momá knew all too well, anything could happen. <> <> <> Kyle Goldstein sat by the poolside as his boyfriend, ‘François “Freck” San Angelo’ swam laps in their indoor pool. They had been boyfriends for nearly a year now and Freck had been living with the Goldsteins since last January. Freck was a trophy child – the son of a billionaire father who was the CEO of one of the best-known brokerage firms in the world and a billionaire mother whose fashion label adorned the closets of affluent women the world over. Unfortunately, the lack of attention from his parents led Freck into heavy marijuana use, resulting in a nearly successful suicide attempt at the age of eleven. On top of that, Freck was a true genius – a senior at New York’s elite Stuyvesant High School who would turn thirteen next month. Kyle was no slouch either – he was also a senior at Stuyvesant and would be turning eleven, just before the Christmas holiday. Although two years apart in chronologic age, Kyle and Freck were intellectually similar and they were truly boyfriends, even at such a young age. Kyle excelled at math and science and he planned to study physics with an emphasis on particle physics next year, hopefully at MIT. Freck was a genius at languages, speaking more than a dozen fluently and being able to communicate in several dozen more. He picked up languages the way most people learn to tie their shoes, but language was not his passion. Freck wanted to be an architect and to design sustainable cities. To do that, he hoped to be admitted next year to MIT’s combined degree program in architecture and civil engineering. Kyle and Freck lived in a large house in Riverdale, an affluent suburb in the North Bronx. The house was built into a hillside overlooking the Riverdale commuter rail station, affording them an unobstructed view of the Hudson and of the New Jersey Palisades across the way. Short of someone using a telescope from the Palisades Parkway, the house afforded complete privacy, which was why Freck and Kyle were in the nude. The house rules were pretty much clothing optional, with no swimsuits ever worn in the pool. Also living in the house were Kyle’s brother, Roger, who was fifteen and a sophomore at Stuyvesant, and their two dads, Jake and Ken. Jake was an ophthalmologist who specialized in disorders of the retina and was on the faculty of New York Presbyterian Hospital, a part of the Columbia-Cornell medical system. Ken was on faculty there as well, being a neurologist who specialized in seizure disorders. The two men met through their shared patients, fell in love and, once Jake finally admitted to himself that he was gay, they married in a beautiful ceremony at the start of the summer. They then took a ten-week honeymoon, traveling all over Europe, but they took the three boys with them because, as they put it, they wanted to see Europe through the boys’ eyes. Unfortunately, Freck experienced a serious relapse during the trip and even ran away for a short time, but in confronting the episode, Freck came to accept he would need therapy sessions for quite some time. The whole family would be involved, and they were. The sessions were proceeding slowly, but already Freck was feeling more comfortable in his own skin. Of course, the issue of their being boyfriends at such a young age often came up when people met them for the first time. At nearly thirteen, few questioned Freck’s acceptance that he was gay, but a lot of people were concerned that he was sexually active and involved in a relationship at such a young age. With Kyle only being ten, however, alarm bells tended to go off in people’s heads when they realized just how young he was. The fact that he was a brash New Yorker who could swear like a sailor didn’t seem to help things any, either. The fact of the matter was that Kyle was a genius who became aware of sex and human sexuality when he started reading, at the age of three. It didn’t take him long to recognize that his father lacked any sexual interest in his mother but seemed to take an interest in the boys who took care of the landscaping. Kyle began to suspect that he himself might be gay and concluded that he was by the time he was seven and started masturbating. He came out one year later, at the age of eight, much to the disbelief of his family, and he met Freck when he was nine. Freck was the first person he’d ever met who truly got him. He was intelligent, he was kind, he was adorable and he was sexy as hell. Already they’d made plans to go to school together next year and to get married when Freck turned eighteen and he was sixteen. Yes, they were sexually active. They did things that would make most grown gay men blush. At the recommendation of their psychologist and counselor, they kept separate bedrooms, but spent many of their nights together in each other’s arms. The summer had been a real learning experience in more ways than one, and since Freck’s relapse, which led to an experience with street kids, it seemed a new door had been opened to sexual experimentation and it just kept getting better and better. Now that Kyle was approaching eleven and the beginnings of the hormonal surge that would lead to puberty, he couldn’t help but wonder what was ahead. He’d always been able to achieve orgasm and although they were becoming more intense, they were still dry. He loved how Freck tasted and he couldn’t help but notice the intensity of his orgasms when he ejaculated, but for now he could only wonder what it would be like for him. The feeling of wetness on his skin brought Kyle out of his reverie, only to realize he was being splashed by his boyfriend. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving and soon his relatives from California would arrive, but for now it was still clothing optional and so he jumped into the pool and grabbed his boyfriend’s dick and then swallowed him whole. As he’d proven before, he had little difficulty bringing his boyfriend to orgasm before he ran out of air. <> <> <> “I’ve been giving some thought to Thanksgiving, “Jeff began as he and his boyfriend, Paul, sat in their apartment on the Upper West Side. Both in their sixties, they first met when there were in a summer science program at the University of Iowa back in 1972. Jeff was only sixteen back then and Paul was a mere thirteen, and they became fast friends, and then more. Unfortunately, at the end of the summer they went their separate ways and lost touch with each other until Jeff gave a lecture at Stuyvesant High School last spring. By then Jeff was a world-famous astrophysicist and a Nobel Lauriat, but he nearly faltered when a boy who was a dead ringer for his long-lost lover got up to ask a question. It turned out the boy, Seth Moore, was the grandson of his lost love, who was now the director of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. Over dinner that evening, Jeff had an opportunity to meet Seth and some of his friends, and then to reconnect with Paul. They rekindled their relationship that very night and it didn’t take long for that first spark to become a passionate flame. The only problem was that, although Jeff’s twin sons lived in New York, his life was on the West Coast, where he was an endowed chair at UCLA. He could hardly walk away from that, nor could Paul leave his position. They were approaching retirement but neither of them felt close to being ready to retire. It was Seth’s friend, Freck, who came up with the answer. By talking his billionaire father into funding an endowed chairmanship at the museum, Paul could offer Jeff his dream job and a reason to move to New York. Of course, the position was competitive and because it was an endowed chair, subject to action of the board. As such, Paul had minimal influence on the selection process but at least he couldn’t be accused of nepotism. The reality was that with a Nobel Prize in physics, there was no serious competition and Jeff was awarded the position. With the sale of his home in West L.A. and his investments, Jeff would have had little difficulty affording an apartment on the Upper West Side, near where Paul lived, but there never was any question about it. Even if Paul hadn’t owned an unusually spacious three-bedroom apartment with elegant old-world charm, Jeff would have moved in with him. They’d both lost so much time, but with God’s grace and the luck of good health, they could yet spend their last few decades of life together. It was as if they’d never been apart. However, Thanksgiving presented a special challenge, as the two men had their own traditions. Both men had lost their wives, Paul’s wife to M.S. and Jeff’s to breast cancer, and they both had adult children. After Paul lost his wife, he and the children made every effort to be together for Thanksgiving, but to say that Paul didn’t cook was being generous and as his kids went off to school and established their own lives, it had become more and more difficult to come together for the holidays. His son, Frank, was now one of the most powerful men in the New York State Assembly and he usually had his own commitments for Thanksgiving, often with the governor. Even worse, Marissa now lived in Australia, where Thanksgiving is celebrated in March. In recent years Paul had taken to having Thanksgiving dinner alone at his favorite restaurant, the nearby City Diner. Jeff, on the other hand, usually celebrated Thanksgiving with his twin sons and was thus in New York for the holiday. The twins lived together in The Village and both taught at NYU nearby. Brad was the chair of the economics department and Lyle was the dean of the business school. Neither of them had married and Jeff had long suspected that they were gay and in a relationship with each other, perhaps even bringing other men into the relationship as they saw fit. It just wasn’t something he felt comfortable talking about. Of course, he and Paul were both invited to spend Thanksgiving with his sons in The Village, but neither of his sons cooked and they always ended up having a ‘home-cooked’ Thanksgiving dinner delivered from the nearby Good Stuff Diner instead. Now that Jeff had a loving boyfriend, it all seemed so contrived. Maybe it was time to cut his sons loose and let them do their own thing with their own friends, rather than feeling sorry for their old man. He and Paul were perfectly capable of making Thanksgiving for themselves now, even if Paul was hopeless in the kitchen. “So I was thinking,” Jeff continued, “the only reason the boys invited me for Thanksgiving was because they knew I would otherwise be alone for the holiday. But neither of them cooks and we always ended up ordering out. The food was always excellent, but it was all so contrived. Now, they’re approaching middle age themselves and they have their own lives in The Village, and somehow, I don’t think feeling sorry for their old man is all that important anymore. They should be doing their own thing now with their own friends… friends they wouldn’t dare have over with me around.” “So you’re saying you’d like for the two of us to go to the City Diner for Thanksgiving?” Paul asked. Putting his hand over his boyfriend’s, Jeff replied, “You know, unlike you, I can cook.” “You want to make Thanksgiving dinner here? For just the two of us?” Paul asked in astonishment. “I used to do it with Wendy and the boys,” Jeff replied. “Yes, Wendy did most of the work, but the turkey itself was always my responsibility, so I know something about making a Thanksgiving turkey.” “But what about the stuffing, or the sweet potatoes, or the cranberry sauce?” Paul asked. “I can follow a recipe as well as anyone else,” Jeff answered. “Besides which, cranberry sauce from a can isn’t all that bad, and a sweet potato casserole made with canned yams is surprisingly good. Wendy used to make it that way. I can make a green bean casserole… anyone can make that… even you, and Juniors makes an incredible pumpkin pie cheesecake for the holiday. I’ll order one.” “And the stuffing?” Paul pointed out. “Yes, making a good stuffing is hard work,” Jeff replied, “and stuffing mixes are uniformly pretty bad. I guess I’ll just have to try my luck with downloading a recipe.” <> <> <> “Is all of this Kosher?” Seth asked as he surveyed the ovens Ashe had installed in the basement of their restaurant. “Of course not,” Asher answered. “We’d have to keep separate facilities for meat and dairy if we were a Kosher restaurant, and I’d have to charge a lot more for the buffet.” Punching his boyfriend in the arm, Seth responded, “You know what I meant.” “The main thing’s ventilation, and the city has strict regulations for that,” Asher answered. “That’s why each oven’s individually ventilated. And of course, I had to have a city inspection when we added the extra gas line, so it’s all good. Turkeys take up a lot of space and take a long time to roast. These added rotisserie ovens will free up a lot of space upstairs for the prep of everything else.” “But you have to go outside to bring anything upstairs,” Seth pointed out. Pointing to the corner, Asher answered, “I got the super to let me put in a dumbwaiter. The work’ll be done tomorrow, while we’re in school. People will still need to go outside to access the basement, but the turkeys can be washed and prepped down here, cooked on rotisseries and then sent right to the kitchen upstairs.” “What about your Cajun turkey?” Seth asked. “I’ll prepare the brine and rub upstairs and send it down via the dumbwaiter. Our workers will inject and rub it down here, prior to loading the birds onto the rotisserie. Most of the turkeys, however, will wind up in my turkey Creole, my turkey soup and my other turkey and seafood dishes. And of course, I’ll have twenty plain whole roast turkeys ready for you to take to the shelter.” “Fantastic,” Seth replied. <> <> <> “Hey, fucker,” Scott greeted his brother and his brother’s boyfriend as they returned home from school. “Hey, ass-wipe,” Clarke responded in return, “and Jake,” he added as he pulled his brother’s best friend and roommate into a hug. Then seeing a young African American man next to Jake, Clarke said, “And you must be Terrance,” as he shook the young man’s hand. “I was just about to introduce you, bro,” Scott interrupted. “Clarke, you already know my best friend, Jake. This is Jake’s boyfriend, Terrance. Terrance, this is my younger brother, Clarke, and Clarke’s boyfriend, Carl.” “Nice to meet you, Carl,” Terrance said as he shook Clarke’s boyfriend’s hand. “How was the flight?” Clarke asked his brother. Without the resources of the football scholarship that Joseph had when he was at Notre Dame, nor an academic scholarship, Scott ended up going to the State University of New York at Buffalo. Although not cheap, in-state tuition was considerably more reasonable than it would have been at a non-SUNY school. “It’s not all that far,” Scott answered, “Although we did have to get out and help push the plane down the runway to get it airborne.” “You make it sound like you took a four-seater,” Clarke responded. “That’s just what it was…” Scott replied. “Give it a rest, shit-face,” Jake interrupted. “It wasn’t even a propeller plane. It was a regional jet with fifty seats. There were seventeen rows with two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other. There wasn’t any space to speak of under the seats though, and damn little in the overhead bins, so we all had to check our carryon bags.” “That kinda blows,” Clarke acknowledged. “Did Francine get in OK from Albany?” Clarke asked. Francine was a freshman at SUNY Albany. “Right behind you, Clarke,” she called out as she approached, and they hugged. “Didn’t have a seat though, and three hours standing on an Amtrak train is no picnic.” “Never thought I’d say this, but it’s great to see you,” Clarke replied. “Boys, I have some sandwiches ready if you’re interested,” Momá announced from the entrance to the kitchen. When wouldn’t teenage and early twenties young men be interested in sandwiches? When they entered the kitchen, they saw that the three of Clarke’s sisters who still lived at home were inside, already eating their sandwiches, and there was a fourth plate that was apparently Francine’s. Since the Notre Dame Academy that they attended was just a one mile walk away, the girls were always home before Clarke and Carl, who had to take the Staten Island Ferry and the bus. “So when’s Sarah getting in?” Clarke asked as he grabbed a sandwich from the stack in the center of the kitchen table and poured himself a glass of milk. Tapping his phone a few times, Joseph replied, “Looks like their flight was delayed an hour getting outta SFO. It’s supposed to land at JFK at 10:15 instead of 9:00 tonight, and I’d figure another hour at least for holiday-related traffic over the airport, but I can’t count on that.” Then looking up, he said, “Throw in the usual backup on the Belt Parkway, made worse by holiday traffic, and it’ll probably take me ninety minutes to get there, plus I’ll need time to park and get to the gate. I’ll plan to leave here at eight.” “And you’ll get back here with a crying baby at around midnight, if then,” Clarke added. “But to them it’ll feel like only nine,” Carl pointed out, “’cause of the time difference.” “They’re staying in Momá’s room?” Clarke asked. “Yeah, they’ll need the space more than I will,” she replied. “By the way, thanks for lending me your room, bro” Joseph added. “It would’ve been hell sharing a double bed with Scott.” “The feeling’s mutual,” Scott responded as he flipped his brother the bird. Yes, space was definitely going to be tight during the coming week. There were six bedrooms and a den, and ordinarily five kids and two adults living there full time. Clarke and Carl shared a room with twin beds, as did Ellen and Jasmine. Connie and Joseph each had a single room with a double bed to themselves, and Momá had the master bedroom with a queen-sized bed and a private bath. That left the guest room, with a double bed, and the den, with a pair of Hollywood beds, but there would be seven guests plus a baby staying the week. Of course, Clarke and Carl didn’t mind sharing a bed at all – indeed, they’d have liked to do so permanently – so by switching rooms with Joseph, Joseph and Scott could share a room and still each have their own bed. By sleeping in the den along with Francine, Momá could leave the master bedroom for Sarah, her husband and their baby. That left the guest room, with its double bed, to be shared by Jake and Terrance. As the kids ate their snack, Momá looked at her to-do list for the holiday and added a few more items to it. She’d already done most of the shopping, but with a sigh, she realized just how much she had left to do. <> <> <> “C’mon, we need to get going!” Kyle admonished his dad as they ate their dinner. “It’s stupid to leave so early, when we know the flight was delayed outta San Fran,” Roger countered. “But with holiday traffic, it’ll take forever to get to the airport,” Ky remarked. “And with holiday traffic, their flight’ll be stacked up over JFK, maybe for hours,” Freck countered. “But what if it’s not?” Kyle asked. “Kyle, stop acting your age,” Ken responded. “Even with traffic, it usually only takes an hour to get to JFK from here, but just in case, let’s say it takes two hours, plus a half-hour to park and get to their terminal. So two-and-a-half hours, and that’s being extra cautious. Let’s assume their flight lands on time at 10:15. That means we wouldn’t need to leave until 7:45, which is nearly than an hour from now.” “So chill, bro,” Roger added, causing everyone at the table to cringe. <> <> <> “Hey, did you see this?” Jeff asked his boyfriend as they sat at the table, eating their frozen dinners. “The entire air traffic control system went down.” “What?” Paul asked in surprise. “The Associated Press reports that the entire FAA air traffic control system has gone down, leaving thousands of flights stranded in the air. The story’s been picked up by just about every other news app on my phone too. I’m getting one notification after another.” “Damn, that’s horrible,” Paul responded. “With so many traveling for the holiday, the system must have overloaded.” Nodding his head, Jeff agreed, “Probably a cascade failure. I wonder how long it could take to reboot all the computers.” “Probably hours, but what would they do with all those flights in the meantime?” Paul asked. “I think they have a contingency plan,” Jeff replied. “They put them into a holding pattern with visual flight separation until the system comes online. In a worst-case scenario, they land the planes, one at a time, wherever they happen to be.” “Just before Thanksgiving? That would be a hell of a mess.” Then after a pause, Paul continued, “I’m just surprised there isn’t enough redundancy built into the system to compensate for a cascade failure of the entire network.” “I’m sure there is,” Jeff countered. “There’d have to be to deal with a national catastrophe such as another 9/11. I’m just surprised it didn’t prevent something like this.” “Maybe this wasn’t an accident,” Paul suggested. “What do you mean, Babe?” “Isn’t this the sort of thing Russian, or Chinese, or Iranian hackers might do to sew chaos in the U.S.?” “You know, I think that’s a distinct possibility,” Jeff replied. “In fact, I think I read about the Pentagon conducting war games using this very scenario. The scary thing was that they never were able to bring air traffic control back online and that a series of mid-air collisions inevitably occurred. Even worse, by the time we were able to figure out the source of the attack, our utilities had already been compromised and we were in the midst of a nationwide blackout. Russia could have marched right in, had we not shown a willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons. But it turned out it was China that had instigated the attack.” “Let’s hope this turns out to be nothing more than a glitch,” Paul responded. Then after another minute or two, Jeff asked, “Isn’t Frank flying today?” “Now that you mention it, he and Julie were in San Francisco over the weekend on some sort of fact-finding mission… something about catastrophic fire response. They were supposed to fly home tonight, which means they’re almost certainly in the air right now.” “I’m sure they’re alright,” Jeff responded as he placed his hand over his boyfriend’s, but his eyes spoke otherwise. <> <> <> Business in the restaurant was unusually light, even for a Monday evening, but with Thanksgiving being only a few days away, most people weren’t interested in going out to a buffet restaurant when they’d be pigging out soon enough. Only a few of the tables were occupied and so Asher had very little to do in the way of preparing food to replenish the buffet, which gave him plenty of time to start preparing some of the food for Thanksgiving. However, there’d be a lot of food left over when they closed for the night, and that they always gave to the homeless shelter. In any case, it would soon be time for the boys to stop for the day, as there were strict workhour restrictions for those under sixteen during the school year. Seth was manning the cash register, which left him plenty of time to work on a term paper that was due after the break. Seth didn’t need the job, but he’d helped out over the summer when Asher’s mom had been injured and it was largely due to his creative use of spreadsheets that they were able to maximize profits. Seth now felt a strong connection to the restaurant and he loved being with Ashe. Because Seth had silenced all notifications on his phone, he was blissfully unaware of all the notifications flashing across his screen when the air traffic control system went down. Thus it came as a complete shock when the emergency tone sounded on both their phones. Living in New York, they were acutely aware that their city was the number one terrorist target in America, if not the world. Although neither of them was yet born on 9/11, they’d grown up, forever in the shadow of the events on that day. The message on their phones was terrifying. It read, ‘Terrorist threat. Stay indoors if possible. Strict curfew begins at 10:00 PM.’ “Shit, a restaurant’s no place to be stuck in the midst of a terrorist attack,” Asher exclaimed. “With our preparations for Thanksgiving, there’s virtually no room left if we have to seek shelter in the basement.” “Let’s close up now, so everyone can get home before the curfew begins,” Seth suggested. “We can give the customers takeout containers and let them clean out what’s left of the buffet.” “That’s a good idea,” Asher agreed, “and if anyone needs a place to go, they can come home with us. But I wonder what’s going on.” Joel, who was helping out in the kitchen that evening, responded as he scrolled through the notices on his phone. “The air traffic control system went down, nationwide. The President’s calling it a potential terrorist attack.” Neither Joel nor Asher noticed the ashen look on Seth’s face until he fell to the floor. <> <> <> “I’m going and that’s final,” Joseph exclaimed as Fox News blared in the background. “And what good will that do?” Clarke asked. “I can’t find out anything,” Joseph responded. “The airline’s website is down and I can’t even get into their 800 number. All I get is a fast-busy signal.” “That’s ’cause everyone’s tryin’ to get through,” Carl chimed in. “But think of what you’ll find at the airport. It’s not just one flight that’s missing. All flights are missing. It’ll be chaos and you won’t know anything more than you do right now.” “But what if they make it to JFK and I’m not there?” Joseph asked. “They were probably over the Midwest when air traffic control went down,” Clarke countered. “You heard what they said on TV. Their plane’s undoubtedly in a holding pattern over Iowa or someplace like that. But even if they did make it here,” he continued, “then what? Even if they land on time, by the time you hit the road, there won’t be enough time to make it home before the curfew takes effect. But in reality, they won’t get in tonight and you’ll be stranded at the airport with thousands of other people and no place to go.” “I have to be there for them, Clarke,” Joseph reiterated, but Momá interrupted. “No you don’t, Joseph,” she said. “The last thing your family needs is to have to worry about you too.” “I’ll have my cell with me,” Joseph answered. “And what will happen when, not if, the cell network goes down,” she asked. Shaking his head, Joseph reiterated, “I have to do this,” and with that he entered the garage and he was gone. <> <> <> The TV in the great room was tuned to CNN, with five faces glued to the screen. Jake had briefly entertained the idea of going to the airport anyway, just in case his sister’s family’s flight got through, but the likelihood of that happening was nil as was becoming increasingly apparent with the family watching the breaking news. Jake had already determined that the flight would have been crossing into Indiana when air traffic control went down, and that was where it would stay until the system either came back online, or they were forced to land each plane, one at a time. More importantly, Jake felt it essential that the family stay together during the crisis. He remembered all too well the events of 9/11, but that was nearly two decades ago, when he was in residency. There was only his wife to consider back then but even so, stuck at the hospital, he felt utterly helpless when it came to her. He wasn’t about to do that to his sons and husband now. In the meantime, the CNN commentators prattled on about the potential for this to be a terrorist incident, and who might be behind it. The President had yet to address the nation, but in a hastily convened news conference had named China and Iran as the most likely culprits. He didn’t even mention Russia, whom everyone knew was the most capable of carrying out such an attack on American infrastructure. The fact that it was this particular president who was responsible for shepherding the country through such an event was terrifying to Jake. The President was known for acting on instinct with little thought to the consequences. Jake had no trouble imagining the President authorizing a nuclear strike before we even knew who instigated the terrorist attack in the first place. “This is all bullshit,” Freck suddenly exclaimed. “It’s total fuckin’ bullshit. They don’t know anything! They’re just going on and on about the same stuff over and over again… stuff a five-year-old could have told them. It’s all mindless fuckin’ bullshit.” “But what else can they say?” Roger responded. “It’s not like there’s anything to report, but the world is hungry for news… any news. If you wanted to be entertained, you’d watch Fox. If they don’t have anything to report, they make it up. But CNN has their standards and so they feed us what little they have, over and over again.” Suddenly standing up and pulling off his shirt, Freck announced, “I’m going for a swim. At least it’s something productive I can do to pass the time. Just let me know if there’s anything new.” With that, he stormed out of the great room and down the stairs. “You know what? I’m gonna join him,” Kyle announced as he too stood up, stripped off his shirt and ran after his boyfriend. “You know what? It sounds like a plan,” Roger agreed as he ran after his brother and brother’s boyfriend, stripping off his shirt as he went. “You want to join them?” Ken asked his husband as they mindlessly continued to stare at the TV. “Nah,” Jake replied. “Someone has to keep apprised of what’s not going on.” And then both men laughed. <> <> <> “They can’t just put the planes randomly into stacks and bring them down in the order they stacked them,” Jeff pointed out. “Most planes fly with only a slim margin of extra fuel, especially if they’re flying over land. After all, why pay to ship unused fuel across the country. But that means there isn’t much time left to bring those planes down, and they have to prioritize them by the amount of fuel left.” “There are a lot of airports capable of handling passenger jets,” Paul pointed out. “I think I read that there are around a thousand of them in the U.S. and Canada.” “But how many planes were flying when the air traffic control system went down?” Jeff asked. “I think I read there are something like seven thousand over North America at any time,” Paul responded. “Wouldn’t there be more for the holiday?” Jeff asked. “Larger, fuller planes… not more of them,” Paul countered. “The skies are already at capacity.” “Yikes, that doesn’t help with the situation,” Jeff interjected. Then after a pause, it dawned on him that the U.S. wasn’t the only player in North America. “What about Canada,” he asked. “Doesn’t Canada have its own air traffic control system?” “I’m pretty sure they do,” Paul responded, “and if I remember correctly, it’s run by a private company and even a bit more advanced than ours.” “Don’t a lot of coast-to-coast flights take a northern route to avoid congestion?” Jeff asked. “I wonder if Frank’s flight went anywhere near Canada.” “Maybe flights out of Seattle,” Paul suggested. “Although I guess a flight from San Francisco might cross over into Canada near Detroit.” Shaking his head, Jeff responded, “Actually, Toronto has pretty congested air space, so I doubt any U.S. flights would fly over it unless it was the most direct route. Chicago to New York would fly over Detroit and into Canada, but probably detour a bit to the south, over Lake Ontario to avoid Toronto. A flight from San Fran would most likely stick to the central U.S. to avoid the congestion over Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. More likely it’d fly high above the Interstate 70 corridor, above Denver, Kansas City, Saint Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus.” “Yeah, that makes sense,” Paul agreed. “They probably wouldn’t go anywhere near Canada. Then after a bit, he wondered aloud, “I wonder why they haven’t started landing the planes already?” “They probably have,” Jeff replied. “But if they told people that, the highways would fill up in no time with people hoping to find their loved ones halfway across the country. No, they definitely wouldn’t want to do that… not with the possibility of war looming. The first priority would be to get those planes down, but even before that, they’d want to keep everyone calm and occupied. Like it or not, having folks glued to their televisions is the best way to do that. We learned that lesson on 9/11.” “So why aren’t we glued to the TV?” Paul asked. “Would you really rather listen to a bunch of uninformed TV reporters come up with pure conjecture?” Jeff asked. “I’d much rather listen to you,” Paul replied. “Likewise,” Jeff agreed. “Besides which, if anything really important happens, we’ll hear of it from our phones.” “Agreed.” <> <> <> “How the fuck are they gonna get several thousand airplanes down safely without radar?” Seth asked of no one in particular. “Seth?” Bernice White asked her son’s boyfriend. When Seth had passed out, Asher called his parents, who were already in the process of closing up the Asian takeout restaurant because of the pending curfew. They rushed right over, but by the time they got to the Ragin’ Cajun, Seth was already conscious and back on his feet. It was then that Asher learned that Seth passed out because both his parents were headed home on a flight from San Francisco. Nevertheless, with his parents’ help, Asher closed up the restaurant and they all headed back to Asher’s family’s apartment. “Shit, my parents are up in the fuckin’ sky and God knows when or if they’ll fuckin’ be able to land,” came Seth’s retort. “I can fuckin’ say fuck any fuckin time I fuckin’ want to.” It was the first time Seth had ever been belligerent in front of Asher’s parents, even during the several months he’d lived with them while his parent’s apartment was undergoing extensive renovations. Walking over to where Seth was seated on the living room sofa, Bernice squeezed Seth’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Seth. You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have tried to correct you. This is one of those times when no other word is as appropriate.” Blushing furiously, Seth replied, “I’m sorry guys. I shouldn’t have flown off the handle like that.” “You had every reason to fly off the handle, Seth,” Bernice replied. “And son, they aren’t without radar,” Gary, Asher’s dad, chimed in. “Yes, commercial jets are dependent on air traffic control to maintain safe distances from other jets, which is why there are contingency plans for just this sort of incident. That’s why they put all the jets into a holding pattern until they can either get the system back up, or land all the jets safely. But they aren’t without radar. “For one thing, every commercial jet has its own radar-based collision avoidance system. For another, the individual airports have their own radar and can track the planes as they bring them in for a landing. Indeed, the smaller airports that lack more sophisticated equipment rely only on conventional radar, and those airports will certainly be helping out under these circumstances. “But the one thing I have yet to hear mentioned in all those news reports is our nation’s military. The military has radar that’s far more sophisticated than that used by air traffic control. Indeed, the systems used by air traffic control were developed first for the military, and they’re at least a generation behind. The military can track all those planes and get them all down safely.” “Or shoot them down,” Seth half-way joked. “Yes, but why would they,” Gary countered. “Their first priority is in protecting Americans, and that includes the roughly one million passengers stuck on planes right now.” <> <> <> “Why the fuck are we watching Fox?” Carl asked of no one in particular. “Because it’s what we always watch,” Clarke answered. “But Fox isn’t real news, you know,” Carl responded. It’s nothing but a front for the Republican Party. It’s truly ‘fake news’, so why are we watching it now, when the truth matters?” “First of all, my family has always voted Republican,” Clarke replied. “We’re Catholics, against abortion, against affirmative action and for gun rights and for family values. We believe people should be able to take care of themselves without the need for government intervention. Secondly, Fox isn’t afraid to take a chance on being first with the news.” Chuckling, Carl countered, “First, even when they’re wrong. Why bother to verify facts when their adoring public doesn’t give a shit whether their right or wrong, ’cause if they hear it on Fox News, it must be the truth. “And what about gay rights? The Republican Party hasn’t exactly been a champion of gender equality, gay rights, gay marriage or religious non-discrimination. Look at what happened in Indiana, where a Catholic high school fired a straight counselor, just for supporting a couple of fired gay teachers, but that’s just freedom of religion. Do you really believe that’s fair? “And what about the rights of minorities? Is it right to separate children from their families and to put them in cages, just because they came to the U.S. in search of asylum? Is it right to break our international treaties and to ignore international law and refuse to even consider those who are persecuted from seeking asylum in America? My family came here because we’re Puerto Rican and because your country invaded ours a century ago. But how’s that differ from the countries of Central America that are effectively run by drug lords who are financed by the drug users of America? “And do you really believe a kid should be able to buy an AR15 and bring it to school and shoot up their classmates? And as far as government assistance is concerned, after your parents went to prison, your family lost their health insurance. If it weren’t for Obamacare, your family would be uninsured and if, God forbid, one of you got sick, you’d stand to lose everything you have. Is that really what you believe is right?” Before Clarke could even open his mouth to answer, his three sisters, his brother’s roommate and his brother’s roommate’s boyfriend all broke into applause. Only Clarke and Scott were left with their mouths hanging open, but then Scott turned to Clarke and said, “Your boyfriend has a point there, bro.” Finally, Clarke admitted, “You know, fuck it. Those were my parents’ values and my parents’ beliefs, and look where it got them. Hell, I haven’t even been to Church in years. I don’t even believe in God, so why the fuck should I stand up for shit I don’t believe in. Is abortion wrong or right? I’ve never been in a position to need one, so I don’t know. Assault weapons? No one outside of the military needs them, and they should be illegal for everyone else. Gay rights? Minority rights? Religious rights? No one should have the right to discriminate because of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, regardless of what they believe their God says. Period. And when it comes to those down on their luck? Yeah, I think the government has a responsibility to step in, and those of us more fortunate should quit complaining.” “You’re beginning to sound like a Democrat,” Carl told his boyfriend. “Let’s not push it,” Clarke replied with a smile, “but yeah, let’s switch channels. I hear CNN’s petty good, or maybe MSNBC.” <> <> <> “And two points for the dads!” Jake screamed as the ball swooshed into the basket. Jake and Ken had long given up on watching the TV and had joined the boys in the swimming pool. A television was tuned to CNN in the corner, just in case there was any breaking news, but no one was watching it. Baskets were set up at each end of the pool and a game of fathers versus sons basketball was in progress. The dads were outnumbered, three to two, but the dads were bigger and stronger than the boys. Only Roger was tall enough to compete with the dads’ height, but the size and agility of the younger boys, particularly Freck, allowed them to maneuver much more easily under water. The score was 48 to 27 in favor of the sons’ team, and the boys were delighted. But then Roger noticed that the face of the president was on the television. None of them liked the man, but he was the president and so they interrupted the game to hear what he had to say. “My fellow Americans,” the president began, “At “7:07, Eastern Standard Time, the entire U.S. air traffic control system went down. The cause of the system-wide failure isn’t yet known, but sabotage is strongly suspected. That it occurred during the busiest of the flying season would seem to be no coincidence, and for hackers in say, China or Iran, it would be an ideal way to attack the United States without resorting to military force.” “Notice how he didn’t mention Russia?” Kyle interjected. “Figures,” Freck agreed. “Make no mistake, a terrorist attack on American infrastructure is no less significant than a nuclear strike on our heartland, and we will respond accordingly,” the president continued. “Shit, I hope he targets the right enemy,” Freck interrupted, “and not with nuclear weapons.” “The U.S. has developed the tools to hack into any infrastructure and disable it, anywhere in the world,” the president continued. “We can utterly destroy our enemies’ power grids, communications networks and air traffic control systems, and bring their economies to a halt. But make no mistake, we can and will make use of all the weapons systems at our disposal if necessary to counter a terrorist threat, and any attack on our infrastructure must be considered a terrorist attack and comparable to the use of weapons of mass destruction.” “What a fucking idiot,” Jake exclaimed, earning a chuckle from all the boys. “At the moment, the only system affected seems to be air traffic control,” the president went on. “However, should any other aspect of our infrastructure be targeted, we will act swiftly and brutally to counter the attack. And make no mistake, once we have determined the source of the attack on our air traffic control system, we will retaliate with an appropriate level of force as necessary to counter all future attacks. This attack will not go unanswered. “Now I know this is a busy time for air travel and that a lot of you have family members who are on planes flying right now, and I want to assure you we will do everything possible to bring your loved ones down safely and securely, and to return them to you or home in as quickly a time frame as possible. The Canadian air traffic control system was unaffected, and for northern routes, they will be assisting us in tracking American flights and bringing them down safely. We will make use of our military, and of the vast array of small airports that have their own radar that can be used to assist in landing aircraft. “In the meantime, all flights have been placed into safe holding patterns to ensure against the risk of collisions. These holding patterns are completely safe and stable. As quickly as possible, we will clear each flight to land where they are, in priority of remaining fuel. All we ask of the communities where these flights land, many of which do not usually receive commercial flights, is to provide shelter as best they can for the passengers, until such time as alternative transportation can be arranged. “Now I know a lot of you have plans for the holiday and I ask you to bear with us. It may not be possible to arrange for your loved ones to get to you before the Thanksgiving holiday. Because of the volume of expected displaced people involved, we expect it could take some time before everyone’s where they’re supposed to be. That’s just the way it is. Please be patient and everyone will get where they need to be as soon as they can get there. “Thank you.” “Correct me if I’m wrong, but did he, like, actually say anything?” Roger asked. “Nothing we didn’t already know,” Kyle answered. “That’s what I thought,” Roger agreed. “And we might not know the whereabouts for my sister’s family for days,” Jake added. <> <> <> “Well, that was a pretty useless speech,” Jeff exclaimed. “I think the last useful presidential speech began something like, ‘December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy,” Paul countered. “That sounds about right,” Jeff agreed. <> <> <> “The rent for landing on Indiana Avenue, with a hotel, is $1050, Dad,” Asher related. “From what I can see, you don’t have it, but you do have the Boardwalk and I happen to have Park Place. So how about you give me the Board Walk and we’ll call it even.” “Don’t do it, Gary,” Seth admonished his boyfriend’s dad. “That’ll give him three monopolies and it’ll be impossible to go around the board without landing on one of them.” “Don’t be so dramatic, Seth,” Asher countered. “You already have three monopolies.” “Yeah, but two of them are the utilities and the railroads, and the third is Baltic-Mediterranean, the cheapest monopoly on the board,” Seth pointed out. “Rent for landing on them is nothing compared to landing on the Boardwalk with a hotel.” “And it’s the only property I have left that isn’t already developed or mortgaged,” Gary noted. “So I guess I have no choice.” “I could lend you the money,” Bernice suggested. “And why would you do that?” Gary asked. “Because I don’t want our son getting the Boardwalk any more than you do,” she explained. “In fact, why don’t you sell me your Boardwalk. I’ll pay you double the face value, which’ll still keep it out of Asher’s hands, and $800 will give you enough to pay him the rent you owe.” “Hmm, that does sound like a better deal,” Gary mulled over. “Dad!” Asher whined, “What good is owning the Boardwalk unless it can be developed. Sell it to me, and I’ll let you keep your cash.” “Such as it is,” Gary countered. “No, I like the idea of keeping the Boardwalk out of your hands much better.” After completing the transaction, Gary was left with the monopoly of New York, Tennessee and St. James Place, with hotels on each, but only $340 in cash. Asher was up next and he rolled a seven, taking him from Chance to Marvin Gardens, which his mother owned, with a hotel.” “That’ll cost you twelve hundred dollars,” she exclaimed, but Asher clearly didn’t have it, and to mortgage any property, he’d need to sell back his houses and hotels, with the exception of Park Place. Holding up the card and tiling his head to the side, he shrugged his shoulders, asking the question. “That would be fair,” Bernice agreed as she took the card from her son, and then she said, “And for only $2000, I can have hotels on the Boardwalk and Park Place.” “How’d you accumulate so much cash,” Seth asked. “Good investment strategy,” she answered, causing everyone to laugh. Five minutes later, she was the only one left standing. The time was 3:20 in the morning. <> <> <> The O’Malley household had been up for the past twenty-four hours and everyone was still glued to the tube, even as eyes were fading. As an honorary O’Malley and the only matriarch not in prison, Momá decided that as long as everyone was still awake and with no sign of anyone getting ready for bed, perhaps she should prepare some breakfast. Nothing heavy or spicy, given that everyone’s stomach was tied in knots, but enough to make up for being up all night while fasting. Thinking of a French toast recipe that used cinnamon bread and more milk than egg, she got started preparing the batter while she had her son, Carl, get the coffee going. Debating whether or not to serve bacon or sausage with breakfast, she remembered a package of turkey bacon she’d bought at Francine’s request and decided it would be perfect for the meal. The smell of frying bacon was enough to wake the dead, which pretty much described the state of the family as they watched CNN in the family room like good little zombies. As everyone wandered into the kitchen, Momá handed each of them a plate with a thick slice of French toast and a couple of strips of bacon, and Carl went around filling coffee mugs until everyone had coffee if they wanted it. Jars of various marmalades and jams on the table, as well as a bottle of pancake syrup and a carton of orange juice, completed the meal. “Still no word from Joseph?” Momá asked. “Can’t even get his voicemail,” Clarke replied. “CNN says the cell networks are all overloaded and that people should wait and try later, but the lack of contact with him is killing me. Shrugging his shoulders, Scott responded, “It was his choice to go off on a fool’s mission to wait for Sarah’s family at the airport.” <> <> <> Kyle and Freck were cuddled up at one end of the great room sofa and Roger was at the other end. Jake and Ken were cuddled up together on the adjacent love seat. They were all still naked, because that was the way they swam. The TV was still on and the quiet sound of commentators blabbering could be heard in the background, but no one was paying attention, as all eyes were closed. <> <> <> The sound of the land line ringing woke Jeff up. He and Paul were fast asleep, each of them in one of the living room recliners in Paul’s Upper West Side apartment. Scrambling to get out of the chair, Jeff ran to grab the cordless phone in the kitchen before the call went to voicemail. “Hello?” Jeff answered as he picked up the receiver. “Hello, Paul?” a man’s voice queried from the other end of the transmission. Shaking his head, not that the person at the other end could see it, Jeff replied, “This is Jeff, Paul’s friend.” “Jeff, you have no idea how good it is to talk to you,” the man answered. “We tried calling Seth and Asher on their cells, but we couldn’t get through, not even to voicemail, and they don’t have a land line. We tried both restaurants, but there was no answer. Finally, we thought of calling you. I guess it’s natural to think first of calling your own kids at a time like this, so the thought of calling you guys slipped my mind.” “Who is this,” Jeff asked. “It’s Frank, Paul’s son” “Frank?” Jeff exclaimed. Paul was out of his recliner like a shot. He grabbed the receiver from Jeff, forcing him to retrieve the next closest handset from the den. “Frank? How are you?” Paul asked. “Where are you. Are you alright? Is Julie okay?” Laughing, Frank answered, “We’re both fine. In fact, everyone’s fine. They put us in a holding pattern over Indiana and Illinois, and at one time we thought they were going to have us land in Peoria or maybe Dayton, but they don’t have the capacity to handle a larger plane like the 777 without air traffic control. So we landed in Indianapolis, at the old airport, mind you. Not that anyone told us anything until we were on our final approach.” “So you just landed in Indy?” Paul asked for confirmation. “We landed hours ago,” Frank answered, “but all the cell phone networks are overloaded and our calls just weren’t getting through. And try to find a pay phone these days! Wherever we found some, there were endless lines to use them.” “So where are you right now?” Paul asked. “We’re at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown,” Frank replied. “Everything anywhere near the airport is booked solid as you might expect under the circumstances, so we didn’t even waste our time looking. We took the first bus heading downtown, where prices are high and not many people think to look. There were plenty of rooms available, so that’s where we are. And of course, once we got into our rooms, we had access to land lines, which is why I could finally call you.” “You talk like it’s more than just the two of you,” Jeff noted. “Well, yeah. We were circling for quite a while, so we got to know some of the other passengers seated near us in coach, and it turned out we already had connections to some of them. You may recall that Seth and Asher are best friends with a couple of kids from school, Kyle and Freck?” Frank asked. “Yeah, we actually met them,” Jeff answered. “Kyle was only ten, or maybe he’s eleven by now, but he’s like a junior or maybe a senior at Stuyvesant and has a wicked sense of humor… and quite a potty mouth. And he has a boyfriend, Freck, who’s twelve or maybe thirteen, and fluent in like a dozen languages.” “Those are the boys,” Frank responded. “In fact, it was Freck that designed the plans for our apartment.” “Oh, that’s right,” Jeff related. “He wants to be an architect. Were Kyle and Freck on your flight?” “No, but they have family who were… an aunt, an uncle and three cousins from Berkley who were on their way to spend Thanksgiving with them. In fact, the cousins, all boys, are nearly as brilliant as Kyle and Freck. Also, you might remember one of Seth’s other friends, Clarke O’Malley.” “Oh, I remember Clarke,” Jeff replied. “That was the kid whose parents were involved with embezzlement and racketeering and ended up in prison. The kids got a good lawyer who protected their assets, though, so they all landed on their feet.” “Yeah, the oldest son, Joseph, is in law school at Columbia,” Frank related. “His sister and brother-in-law are very proud of him, and of Clarke for that matter, who managed to overcome his father’s homophobia and volunteers for the Stonewall Foundation. Anyway, they were on the flight too, along with their new baby, and we’re all staying at the Hilton Garden.” “Clarke has a boyfriend, Carl, who’s on Stuyvesant’s varsity basketball team, as I recall,” Paul added. “They’re all bright kids.” “So yeah, Julie and I are here with Kyle’s aunt and uncle and their three sons, and with Clarke’s sister and brother-in-law, and their baby.” “Any prospects for getting home?” Paul asked. “Not by airplane,” Frank answered. “Not for a long time by that route. It’s just like it was after 9/11. It’ll be a week before the planes are flying again, assuming they identify what went wrong and that we’re not at war as a result of that. And the one and only Amtrak train that leaves here daily is overbooked for the duration, as is every single bus heading anywhere. “All the cars at the airport were rented too,” Frank continued, “but that was to be expected. One of the perks of my position, however, is access to rental vehicles that are reserved for official state business. I’m pretty sure I can get a ten-passenger van by tomorrow morning. 99% sure. Assuming the curfew’s lifted by then, we’ll get up early tomorrow morning and plan to hit the road at six AM if possible. It’s a fourteen-hour drive, not including stops or holiday traffic, so we figure we’ll get in late tomorrow night, which means that, God willing, we’ll be home for Thanksgiving.” “Don’t you usually have plans with the Governor or something?” Paul asked his son. “Normally we do, but they’ve been cancelled for obvious reasons,” Frank answered. “We’d have bowed out gracefully in any case after this ordeal. We need to be with family.” “You’re welcome to spend Thanksgiving with us,” Paul responded, “but as you know, neither of us really cooks. We were planning to give it a try this year, and if you’re willing to take a chance on our experiment, you’re welcome to join us.” Laughing, Frank answered, “I think I have a better idea if we can work out the logistics. After all, there are ten of us who’ll be on the way home tomorrow, and the three families are already interconnected, so I thought we might want to have Thanksgiving together as one big family. Seth and Asher will be busy with their restaurant, but I think I can talk them into spending a few hours with family and we can order our dinner from them. No one is a better chef than Asher.” “I’ll agree with you there, Frank,” Jeff related. “The only issue is that I think we’ll have to have it at our place for logistical reasons,” Frank went on, “but besides the ten of us now in Indy, there’s you two, Kyle and his brothers and dads, Seth and Asher and Asher’s parents, and God knows how many O’Malleys are home for the holiday… there could be as many as eight of them, plus Carl and his mom. That means perhaps as many as thirty adults and kids would be crammed into our tiny living room and dining room.” “Yeah, but Freck did a great job with the design,” Paul thought aloud. “It’s not all that small for a Manhattan apartment, and a lot bigger than ours. It’s doable.” “I agree,” Frank added, but then he continued, “the problem is that we have no way to reach the boys, or anyone else for that matter. We don’t have a land line in our apartment and, with the restaurants closed, the only way to reach them is on their cell phones…” “Did you try texting them?” Jeff interrupted. “Texting uses a much smaller bandwidth than a voice call.” “Yeah, I tried both and neither is getting through,” Frank complained. “How about e-mail?” Jeff asked. “Did you try sending him an e-mail? “E-mail? How retro,” Frank commented. “You can’t get much more retro than a land line,” Jeff countered. “How true,” Frank agreed. “The problem was that my e-mails weren’t even going out, but now that I’m in a hotel with free WiFi…” Then after a short pause, he continued. “There, I just sent both boys a quick message that we’re okay, and it didn’t bounce back.” “Great, but let me know if you don’t hear back from them soon,” Paul responded. “If necessary, we can go there ourselves to let them know… once the damn curfew’s lifted. <> <> <> “Holy shit!” Seth exclaimed as he saw there was a new email message from his dad. “What is it, honey?” Asher asked as he stretched, realizing he’d fallen asleep while trying to watch the news. Then looking at his own phone, he said, “Holy shit is right!” After reading the message from Frank Moore, he added, “Send him a quick message, asking him to send the details of where he’s staying and when he thinks he’ll be here.” “Already on it,” Seth stated as he swiped away at his virtual keyboard. After a delay, Seth responded, “He’s at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown in Indianapolis, and get this, he’s with Kyle’s aunt, uncle and cousins, and with Clarke’s sister, brother-in-law and nephew.” “Woah, they must have all been on the same flight together,” Asher exclaimed. “What are the odds of that happening?” “Actually, pretty high if they were all flying out of San Fran on the same day,” Seth noted. “It was probably the one with the best time, best price and best seat availability, and it probably showed up at the top of the list. “Dad’s asking if we could spare a couple of hours and bring Thanksgiving dinner for a combined feast in our apartment with all three families. He thinks there could be as many as thirty adults and kids involved.” “Shit, that all depends on our suppliers coming through with the turkeys. All bets are off until the curfew’s lifted and we can get back to making preparations. Assuming we’re back in business, Joel and Clarke can handle the kitchen stuff for a few hours as long as it’s not during the peak times for takeout. “Ask your dad if we could make it either really early, like before eleven, or really late, like after seven. The tables are booked all day, but I doubt anyone will come in for takeout before noon or after six.” After a bit, Seth replied, “Dad says to plan on 7:00.” Then turning to his boyfriend, he added, “assuming we’re not at war by then.” <> <> <> Turning excitedly to look at his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s mother as he hung up the land line, Clarke practically shouted, “That was Sarah!” “So I figured,” Carl interrupted. “Anyway,” he continued, “she’s in Indianapolis and, get this, she was on the same flight with Kyle’s aunt, uncle and cousins, and with Seth’s mom and dad!” “Wow, what a coincidence,” Momá replied. “Maybe not,” Carl went on to explain. “There are only so many direct flights between San Francisco and New York, and with holiday travel, only some with seats at a decent price. That’s why they didn’t fly into Newark… they were able to save a few hundred bucks by flying into Kennedy. That flight was way less expensive, as I recall… everything else was like nearly a thousand dollars because of the holiday. “So when are they getting in?” Momá asked. “They’re trying to rent a large van,” Clarke answered, “and hope to be here tomorrow night.” “Great,” she responded. “Then they’ll be here for Thanksgiving.” “Speaking of which, we’re all invited for Thanksgiving at Seth’s place, with food from Asher’s restaurant,” Clarke related. “But I already have enough food here to serve an army,” Momá lamented. “I still have to prepare it, whether or not we have in on Thanksgiving, and it won’t keep all that long. There’s no sense in letting it all go to waste.” Then looking up, she asked her son’s boyfriend, “Ask them if we can bring the food, since we already have it. Asher can save himself the trouble of schlepping it across the Lower East Side on a city bus.” “But Asher’s cooking’s fantastic, Momá,” Carl interjected. “And mine isn’t?” Momá responded. Then sighing, she suggested, “Tell him he can either bring a side dish or a main dish that isn’t turkey. That way no one will starve,” she quipped with a laugh. “I just wish we’d hear something from Joseph,” Clarke added with a worried look on his face.” <> <> <> “It’s confirmed,” Jake began, “Frank Moore managed to commandeer an Indiana State Park’s Department van and will leave Indy with everyone, first thing tomorrow morning.” “But won’t he have to drive it back to Indiana?” Kyle asked. “At some point,” Jake agreed, “but there’s probably a lot of that sort of thing going on among various state agencies right now, thanks to the crisis. The advantage in using an official state vehicle is that they’re exempt from the curfew, so that’s one less worry they have.” “It’s great that they’ll be here for Thanksgiving,” Ken responded, “but I’m just glad they’re all okay.” “Definitely,” Freck agreed, but then added, “but if we’re all having Thanksgiving dinner at the Moore’s, what are we gonna do with all the food we already bought for here?” <> <> <> “Will they be able to find gas along the way?” Paul wondered aloud as he and Jeff got ready to hit the sack for the first real sleep since the crisis began. “I’m sure the gas stations will be open by tomorrow,” Jeff decided. “It’s probably just as well they aren’t leaving ’til tomorrow, though.” “And I suppose they’d have access to emergency gas supplies if necessary, being they’ll be in a government vehicle,” Paul added, “but knowing Frank, he’d never take advantage of something like that unless he was stranded.” “Come on, boyfriend, it’s time to get some sleep,” Jeff said as he held out his hand. Smiling, Paul grabbed his boyfriend’s hand and followed him to their bedroom. <> <> <> Having been awake for more than 24 hours, Asher and Seth went right to bed after hearing via email that Seth’s dad was safe in Indianapolis and, hopefully, would be home in time for Thanksgiving dinner, certainly in time for it to start at seven. What was not clear at the time they headed to Asher’s bedroom was who or what was responsible for the collapse of air traffic control, if or what America might do in response to it if it was indeed a terrorist attack or even if a war with a rival foreign power was imminent. There were many questions yet unresolved and they didn’t even know if or when the curfew would be lifted, nor were they aware that both Clarke’s family and Kyle’s were both making plans to bring Thanksgiving dinner, upending the boys’ plans. None of those things mattered to Asher and Seth as they drifted off to sleep in Asher’s bed, safely in each other’s arms. What mattered was that everyone they cared about was safe and sound. <> <> <> While the rest of the family was finally getting some well-needed rest, Momá was wide awake, just thinking about the preparations for Thanksgiving, which was only two days away. Today should have been a school day for the kids, but with the curfew still in place and all the schools shut down, it seemed unlikely there would be school until the following Monday. She could’ve easily waited until tomorrow to start work preparing Thanksgiving dinner, but she was wide awake, and she was psyched. The cornbread stuffing would take the longest to prepare and so Momá began her preparations for making cornbread. Unlike Asher, who’s ‘from-scratch’ recipe involved starting with stone-ground corn meal and oatmeal, Momá used whole-grain corn on the cob, which was in season in the late fall and which gave her cornbread and her stuffing a unique, authentic texture that few could match. Husking corn was the hardest thing she would have to do, so it was just as well she was getting an early start on it. <> <> <> Preparations for Thanksgiving dinner at the Goldstein household took an entirely different direction, based on years of serving turkey during the Jewish holiday of Passover, in the spring. Because Passover was based on the Jewish exodus from Egypt, during which there wasn’t time to wait for bread to rise, it had to be eaten flat. The eating of leavened bread was prohibited during the week-long holiday of Passover, in remembrance of the sacrifices made by their ancestors when they fled Egyptian tyranny. Because of the need for a meal that could be prepared in advance and then simply be placed in the oven to roast during the lengthy Passover service, turkey had become a staple of Passover in many Jewish households. With a need for stuffing that didn’t use leavened bread, recipes had evolved for stuffing based on the use of the unleavened bread in the form of matzo or matzo meal. Neither Jake nor Ken had ever kept Kosher, but they’d both been raised on matzo-based stuffing for Passover and it was the only kind of stuffing they knew how to make for Thanksgiving. It had been years since Jake participated in Thanksgiving meal preparation, and as his wife’s alcoholism became worse and worse to the point that she was incapable of cooking, Jake had made it a point to volunteer to take call on the holiday, leaving his sons to fend for themselves. Once Jake’s sister, Helen, became aware of the situation through her own son’s communications with their cousins, she made it a point to invite her brother’s family to California for the holiday. Jake was relieved to have someone else taking responsibility for Thanksgiving dinner, absolving him of the guilt that usually came with avoiding the holiday, but that was before Kyle came out. There was no way Jake was going to expose his sister’s family to an out-and-proud nine-year-old, particularly when Jake was dealing with issues of his own sexuality. Because Kyle refused to stay in the closet for his father’s sake, he and Roger had been forced to stay home last year. That was how Kyle came to meet Roger’s friends, Asher and Seth, and through them his boyfriend, Freck. Freck’s story was considerably different from that of his boyfriend. Borne into a household that was rich by any standard, his parents never saw the holidays as relevant other than for public relations. They celebrated the holidays conspicuously when it was to their advantage and skipped them when it was not. When they celebrated Thanksgiving, it was always as a family with thirty or forty invited guests, and it was held in their penthouse apartment. It was a catered affair, with the caterers paid only minimum wage as they toiled all day, away from their own families. There was never a problem hiring caterers, though, as it was understood that a refusal to cater on the holiday would end any future opportunity to cater for them ever again. Thanksgiving wasn’t Christmas, however, and so as often as not, Freck’s parents skipped the holiday altogether, spending it instead on business dealings overseas, where Thanksgiving was celebrated on different dates. As such it fell to his nanny to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for Freck and his twin sisters. Hailing originally from Poland, however, she’d never even seen a turkey let alone roasted one prior to coming to America. She always tried her best, but some of her attempts ended up as epic fails. Amazingly, this was to be Freck’s first ever traditional family Thanksgiving dinner. Although a matzo-based stuffing might not be traditional outside of Jewish families, to Freck it would be his first taste of home-made stuffing. Not that the food prepared by the caterers hadn’t been delicious, but it wasn’t real. Although he was exhausted beyond belief, he couldn’t help but be drawn to the preparations in the kitchen, all of which were new to him. As the only member of the household with actual Thanksgiving dinner experience, it fell to Ken to do all the work, but Freck, like a kid half his age, was all too eager to help while his boyfriend slept the day away. <> <> <> “Well, that was interesting,” Paul exclaimed as he hung up the phone. “What, was interesting,” Jeff asked as he stretched his arms overhead, realizing he’d fallen asleep in his recliner yet again. “That was Frank,” Paul explained. “He’ll definitely be leaving Indy early in the morning. Anyway, he got word from his contact in the Port Authority that the FAA has tracked down the cause of the failure.” “They have?” Jeff asked. “What was it? Or should I ask who.” “Definitely what,” Paul responded. “As you’d expect, air traffic control’s multiply redundant. It consists of a network of nodes, each of them associated with radar facilities, mostly at airports. The nodes work in conjunction with neighboring nodes, each of them tracking flights in their area of overlap, so that at any time a flight will be tracked by at least two or three nodes. As a flight moves through an area, each node hands off responsibility to the next one in sequence so that the location of every flight over the U.S. is always known and shared with the other nodes.” “The planes all have transponders, don’t they?” Jeff asked. “Yes, of course they do… at least the commercial ones do. Transponders are required for some private planes, but optional for most, which leaves a gaping hole in the system. The transponders provide air traffic control with the identification of each flight as well as with data from the planes themselves to assist with routing the flights and avoiding pockets of unstable air. “Of course, there are other things up in the air that don’t have transponders, such as birds,” he added. “So what does this have to do with what happened?” Jeff asked. “Obviously, problems could arise if then nodes don’t agree on the position of a flight,” Paul explained. “That’s actually pretty common, though, as weather disturbances may affect the signal path differently from one node versus another, but there’s so much redundancy built into every node… backup computers and secondary and tertiary radars, that it seldom takes long to resolve an issue. However, if a node ever shows conflicting data for multiple flights, the system is designed to simply shut that node down. The adjacent nodes can pick up the slack and the passengers are never put in danger “However, yesterday was one of the busiest travel days of the year and although there weren’t more commercial flights in the air, thanks to the use of larger planes and pricing to steer flyers to routes with lower utilization, every flight was full. Add to that a record number of private airplanes were flying, a lot of which lack transponders. The system was already operating beyond its design capacity when a cold-burst over Denver… an abrupt atmospheric disturbance, suddenly altered the locations of all planes without transponders. The commercial flights all compensated for the disturbance and sent updates via their transponders, but the private planes seemed to abruptly change position, casting extreme uncertainty as to their location. Without transponders, the adjacent nodes couldn’t verify the locations fast enough and the node at the Denver Airport took itself off-line as a precaution, as it was designed to do. The adjacent nodes were designed to take up the slack, but they were still attempting to verify the positions of the private planes, and failing to get data from Denver, they were all programmed to assume they weren’t functioning properly and so they too shut down. They should have all come back online quickly after rebooting, but without data from Denver, they shut back down, permanently.” “And the failures spread across the network from node to node… a classic cascade failure,” Jeff chimed in. “And unfortunately, the system wasn’t designed to be rebooted from a total system shutdown,” Paul continued. “There were always expected to be at least some functioning nodes, so the coders didn’t even design for such a possibility.” “That’s crazy! How did they bring it up in the first place?” Jeff asked. “They brought it up on top of the old system,” Paul answered, “using a protocol that’s since been eliminated, and of course they decommissioned the old system long ago, as it would have been too expensive to maintain. Total system reboot was supposed to be added later, but it never was. After all, the new system was supposed to be foolproof.” “But like most things, it wasn’t,” Jeff responded. “So what happens now?” “What happens now is a lot of political scrambling to spin it the right way,” Paul replied. “As my son put it, the FAA already had a lot of egg on its face from the 737 Max debacle, and the heat from this disaster’s going to result in a lot of fried egg.” Jeff couldn’t help but break into gales of laughter. Once he calmed down, he countered, “I meant what was going to happen to fix the system from an engineering standpoint.” “I know that,” Paul explained, “but politics always comes into it and it will be central in this case. The simple answer is to bring the entire system up in diagnostic mode and, once everything is verified, go live. A software fix to the glitch that brought the system down in the first place could be vetted slowly and deliberately, and then installed with a future upgrade. Meanwhile the problem that resulted in the cascade failures could be avoided entirely by restricting private flights during busy times to only those with transponders. With Christmas coming, however, that would be a very tough sell. Attempts to require transponders have always failed because some pilots can’t afford them. “Unfortunately, there’ll be substantial pressure not only to bring the system up as quickly as possible, but to declare it safe and sound. If they wanted to, they could have the air traffic control system back up tonight and the planes flying tomorrow, but that would make it all too evident that the president overplayed his hand. Instead, the engineers will be forced to rush out a quick fix before it’s ready and then everyone’ll pat themselves on the back and declare the problem cured, but not before holding congressional hearings on the matter. Either way, the planes probably won’t resume flying until the weekend at the earliest.” “So typical,” Jeff noted. “Agreed,” Paul replied. “What’s really scary is that with the President’s neck so far out there with the terrorist thing, there may still be talk of the whole thing being caused by terrorists. It’s so much easier to point your finger at someone else, and this president seems to do so on a routine basis. Name your country and the president will use it as an excuse for sanctions or even war.” <> <> <> The pleasant slumber Asher and Seth had been enjoying for several hours was interrupted by the piercing sound of the emergency alert system, coming from their phones. Asher reached for his phone, which was charging on his nightstand. Because they were in Asher’s bedroom and Seth’s phone also needed charging, his was across the way, sitting on the dresser. “What is it, Babe?” Seth asked. “The president’s gonna speak to the nation at 9:00 PM, Eastern Time,” Asher responded with a yawn. “What time is it now?” Seth asked. “7:30,” he answered. “Shit, we slept in all day,” Seth responded. <> <> <> “Something sure smells good, Momá,” Carl exclaimed as he entered the kitchen, his boyfriend trailing behind him. “While you were being lazy, I was getting to work on making cornbread for the stuffing,” she explained. “I make it from fresh corn on the cob, which is barely in season, but it takes me all day, just for the cornbread.” “You make the best stuffing, Momá,” Carl exclaimed as he used a spoon to extract a small piece of the cooling cornbread and proceeded to eat it, earning a swat form his mother.” “No sampling the cornbread,” she admonished her son. “I need all of it for the stuffing. And put some clothes on.” Shrugging his bare shoulders – he and Clarke were dressed only in their boxers – he responded, “We just woke up, Momá. Got a message. The president’s gonna speak at 9:00.” “Well you have plenty of time to get dressed before then,” she responded. “And you need a shave, and you both need a shower. How long has it been anyway?” Sheepishly, Carl admitted, “Yesterday morning.” Then turning to his boyfriend and raising his eyebrows, he added, “C’mon, Clarke. Let’s go take a shower.” The implication that he intended that they shower together wasn’t lost on Momá. Ordinarily she’d have said something but decided not to this time. She’d been up since early yesterday morning and was in no mood to argue with her son and his boyfriend. Besides which, what difference did it make anyway? She knew they were intimate on a regular basis and nothing she said was going to change that. But as the boys receded back up the stairs, she realized that soon, everyone would be up, and hungry. Quickly looking at the inventory in the refrigerator and cupboards, she pulled out some lettuce, carrots and tomatoes from which to make a salad, threw a pot of water on the stove to boil for spaghetti, and set a couple of pounds of ground beef into a large skillet to brown for her spaghetti sauce. <> <> <> Because it was getting late and he was already soaking several boxes of matzo in chicken stock for the stuffing he’d make tomorrow, Ken decided to make fried matzo for dinner. Fried matzo was traditionally more of a breakfast or brunch dish, but with everyone’s sense of day and night screwed up anyway, why not? He just needed to add another box of matzo to the others, which he soaked in the boiling liquid. Once that was done, he got out a dozen large eggs and proceeded to break them and whip them. Because the family didn’t keep Kosher, he felt free to add some milk and cheese to the mix, both of which made the meal so much better. Finally, he got out a quarter-pound package of Nova lox and shredded it into small pieces, which he added to the batter. Once the matzo was soft, but not yet turned to pulp, he added a slice of it to a skillet and poured some of the egg batter mix over it, flipping the matzo at just the right time, when it was barely golden brown on one side. Repeating the process with each of ten of the eleven slices of matzo that came in a box, he put two slices of matzo on each plate and then put them into the oven to keep warm. It wasn’t long before the rest of the family began making their way to the kitchen, roused by the smell of the frying matzo. When Ken placed a plate of the fried matzo in front of him, Freck couldn’t help but ask, “What the hell is this stuff?” “It’s fried matzo,” Kyle answered. “It’s… different, but I think you’ll like it.” Taking a bite, Freck said, “You’re right, Ky. It’s delicious.” Then changing the subject as he so often did, he asked aloud, “So what do you think the president will say tonight?” <> <> <> “The bastard!” Jeff exclaimed when the president finished his speech. “How could he outright lie like that?” “Because that’s what he does,” Paul answered. “Ever since he took the oath of office, he’s been looking for an excuse to get into Iran, and now he has one. To his way of thinking, why not take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the air traffic crisis?” “Because too many people already know the truth!” Jeff countered. “But the truth is what you say it is these days. Everything else is ‘fake news’, Paul noted. “He didn’t actually say it was Iran, you know,” Jeff pointed out. “He certainly implied it though,” Paul agreed, but then had another thought. “What do you think would happen if the truth were leaked to the press?” “The president would categorically deny it,” Jeff surmised. “Look at all the other lies he’s gotten away with. And a war with Iran would certainly help divert attention from his other troubles.” “Definitely,” Paul agreed. “Still, I can’t help but think that if enough sources came out with the truth…” “What are you thinking, Babe?” “George W. Took us to war based on disinformation,” Paul explained. “People are still skittish about that and if there’s a lot of folks telling a different story, I think it’d be pretty hard to go to war based on even less, you know?” “Maybe, but this president has certainly shown a willingness to do what he wants, regardless of the truth,” Jeff countered. “Yes, but his actions do have consequences,” Paul stated. “He campaigned on getting us out of endless wars and even his loyal base might take exception to him starting one. If even a few people in the know were to come forward, it could tie the president’s hands.” “Are you suggesting you might be thinking of doing something?” Jeff asked. “Absolutely,” Paul answered. “I know people.” “So do I,” Jeff responded. “People listen to Nobel Laureates…” “They also listen to the director of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History,” Paul declared. “Not that we’d have any influence directly, but a news tip in the right direction could set in motion a chain of events that even this president couldn’t ignore.” “How certain are you of the authenticity of the information you got from Frank?” Jeff asked. “Very,” Paul answered. “As a member of the assembly leadership in Albany, he’s privy to a lot of information, including from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.” “But he gave you that information in the strictest of confidence,” Jeff countered. “No, it wasn’t like that,” Paul explained. “Sure, he wanted to reassure me that our worst fears weren’t true, but he wouldn’t have breached his confidence if that were the only reason. My son and I have an understanding. When he receives confidential information that he feels is within the public’s right to know, he sometimes leaks it to me with the understanding that it might be leaked to the press. That way, if the governor or the president stonewalls it, it will still get out. This is certainly one of those times.” <> <> <> During his speech, the president had fingered terrorists from the middle east as the culprits in the air traffic control system failure, and strongly hinted that Iran was to blame. He assured the country that everything possible was being done to verify the culpability of those involved, and that a measured, appropriate response to the terrorism would be forthcoming. In the meantime, he lifted the curfew and assured America that the air traffic control system was completely safe and that flights would resume in the morning, much to the surprise of the director of the FAA, who would have to scramble to have everything ready in time. In order to speed those stranded to their destinations, the president authorized the airlines to cancel all existing reservations through the weekend and to fill flights by lottery. Unfortunately, the ensuing chaos that resulted probably slowed things down considerably more than if the president had simply left things well enough alone. However, American ingenuity was finding a way for many of those stranded to get home by other means. Indeed, many an Uber or Lyft driver came to realize they could make decent money driving stranded passengers home, and that they could even undercut the inflated holiday prices being charged by the airlines for their flights. By whatever means, people were finding their way home for the holiday. By Wednesday morning, however, reports were emerging that the system-wide crash of the air traffic control system was not caused by terrorists, but rather by a software bug that caused individual stations in the network to take themselves offline. Under the heavy load of holiday travel, failures in a few strategic locations resulted in a cascading series of failures that brought the entire system down. Multiple officials had come forward with evidence to refute the president’s assertion that the failure was the result of hacking by terrorists, and members of both parties were vowing to hold Congressional hearings to get to the bottom of the matter. Asher and Seth reopened the Ragin’ Cajun on Wednesday morning and they did an outlandish takeout business. Asher’s parents reported that the same thing was happening at the Asian takeout restaurant too. People were rushing to catch up with their Thanksgiving preparations, leaving scant time to prepare something to eat on the day prior to the feast, and so they ordered takeout. Asher was relieved that he wouldn’t need to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends. He had enough to do preparing food for the restaurant, and for the nearby homeless shelter. Preparing dinner for eight people as he’d done the previous year had been enough of a challenge. By request, however, he would bring a turkey, prepared Cajun style with his special spicy brine and rub, and he would bring a pot of his spicy pumpkin soup. With a chuckle, he couldn’t help but remember that it was his soup that had caused all the lights to go out the previous year. With the cellular network beginning to come back online, Seth finally had a chance to talk to his parents Wednesday morning. They were already on the road, along with the eight family members of their friends who would be attending Thanksgiving dinner the next evening. Even at that hour, they’d encountered heavy traffic, making it likely they wouldn’t arrive in New York until very late that night, if not until after midnight. At least with the resumption of cell service, the boys would be kept apprised of their progress. <> <> <> The sky was already beginning to lighten as Frank Moore got his first glimpse of the New York City skyline on the morning of Thanksgiving. They’d run into very heavy traffic around Columbus and stop-and-go traffic around Pittsburgh. Traffic had been heavy on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, all the way to Harrisburg, where it came to a standstill. Picking up a bit once they hit Interstate 78, it slowed again around Allentown and as the van approached New York. With frequent stops for food, bathroom breaks and diaper changes, it had taken nearly twenty-four hours by the time they crossed the Goethals Bridge into Staten Island. Frank had briefly considered simply driving straight through the Holland Tunnel and dropping all the passengers off at his home. It would have saved him a lot of time and saved them the trouble of returning there that evening for Thanksgiving dinner. However, given how anxious everyone was to be reunited with family, he quickly dismissed that idea. Besides which, they all needed a chance to rest and freshen up for the dinner party, as did he and Julie. In spite of the early hour, the O’Malley family was thrilled to see the new baby and to greet Sarah and her husband. The only sore point was that Joseph still hadn’t returned home. He’d spent the entire ordeal at JFK, sleeping on cots in makeshift dormitories set up for the benefit of the stranded passengers. In his haste to get to the airport, he’d neglected to bring a charging cable for his phone and, once the cell network came back online, was forced to rely on the largess of others to recharge his battery, which didn’t last very long. His phone was his only reliable link to the outside world and so he used it to keep abreast of what was happening. It wasn’t until late on Wednesday that he was finally able to reach Clarke. When he discovered that Sarah and her family had caught a ride home with Assemblyman Moore and his wife, there was no further need to wait at the airport. Joseph went to retrieve his car from the offsite lot where he’d parked it, only to discover that the battery was dead. He’d never gotten around to buying a portable jump-starter, and his attempts to get through to AAA roadside assistance were futile. With the AAA app on his phone not even showing an estimated wait time, he began approaching total strangers to see if any of them would offer a jump start. He could only hope he’d make it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. <> <> <> Kyle was beside himself and was jumping up and down, acting more like a six-year-old than someone about to turn eleven, let alone a kid with the intellect of someone twice that age. Finally, his aunt, uncle and cousin were in New York and would soon arrive at their home in Riverdale. Actually, they were back in New Jersey, as Google had routed them up the Turnpike and over the GW Bridge, rather than having them deal with the glacial pace of the BQE or FDR Drive. There was a backup at the bridge, but that was to be expected, and now it was just a matter of time. Frank Moore was inching the van along in that backup, cursing the fact that the van, a Parks and Recreation van from Indiana, lacked an EZ-Pass transponder, forcing him to make use of the cash-only lanes at the toll booths. Finally, he reached the front of the que, paid the toll and was soon inching his way across the bridge in heavy traffic. Once he reached the exit for the West Side Highway, he was able to move considerably faster, zipping across the Henry Hudson Bridge into the Bronx. This was his first time seeing the Goldstein house and he was surprised at just how modest it was. That was before he saw that it was built into a hillside and had an unobstructed view of the Hudson and the Palisades. <> <> <> It was already early afternoon by the time Frank and Julie pulled up in front of their apartment building on the Lower East Side. With the Macey’s Thanksgiving Day Parade already in progress, traffic on the FDR had been heavy, even though it was nowhere near the parade route. They couldn’t leave the van in front of their co-op, however, even though it had an official state government license plate. They had a reserved parking place available, but it was filled with one of their cars. After quickly unloading their luggage and taking it upstairs, Frank took the car under the FDR and up an official-only exit ramp into East River Park. He parked it in front of the Lower East Side Ecology Center and handed the keys over to the officer on duty. The van still needed to be driven back to Indiana, but it was no longer Frank’s responsibility. It was now just one of many vehicles that needed to be returned to their states of origin. Indeed, there were many such vehicles in other states, waiting to be returned to New York. There was much to be done before the Thanksgiving dinner party that evening, but the second order of business was sleep. Frank walked back across one of the pedestrian bridges over the FDR and headed up to their apartment on the top floor of their building. The first order of business, of course, was letting the dads and the boys know he and Julie were home, safe and sound, and so he quickly called them to let them know and to say they’d see them at dinner in a little while. They then quickly undressed and, after setting the alarm for 5:30 PM, they were fast asleep. <> <> <> “What’s in this stuffing?” Asher asked. “I’ve never tasted anything like it.” “Notice that he didn’t actually say he liked it,” Roger pointed out. “Matzo stuffing is a bit of an acquired taste,” Kyle agreed. He then went on to explain the reason for using matzo instead of bread in the stuffing. Thanksgiving dinner was underway in the Moore apartment, with twelve adults in attendance, including Scott, his roommate and his roommate’s boyfriend, and thirteen children, Including Francine, who was a freshman at SUNY Albany but was still seventeen. It was an arbitrary division that allowed for everyone to be seated comfortably, with adults in the living room and kids in the formal dining room. The only one missing was Joseph, who had yet to get his car started. Apparently, the problem was more significant than a dead battery. Although everyone seemed to prefer the cornbread stuffing, most everyone agreed the matzo stuffing was delicious too, and the sweet potato casserole Ken brought was among the best anyone had ever tasted, not that Momá’s candied yams and plantains weren’t also fantastic. At that moment the doorbell rang and Seth went to answer it. On the other side of the door stood Joseph, who’d finally made it for Thanksgiving dinner. Because the formal dining room was directly off the entry foyer, all the kids saw Joseph and a cacophony of questions ensued. Finally, after everyone quieted down, Seth was able to ask, “Glad you finally made it. Is your car fixed?” Shaking his head, Joseph answered, “Nah, the AAA finally showed up, but they couldn’t get it started. I ended up having them tow it to a garage nearby… one with a good rating on Yelp. It’s obviously more than just the battery. It’s probably the alternator, or maybe something else. I took the A-Train to Manhattan and took the M22 bus here.” “Your car’s pretty old, Bro,” Clarke responded. “like from the nineties?” “It’s a ’96, so it’s over twenty years old now,” Joseph answered. “Unfortunately, the garage where I had it towed won’t even be able to look at it until Monday. I guess then I’ll find out what’s wrong with it and how much it’ll cost to fix it, if it even pays to fix it.” “What’ll you do if it doesn’t?” Clarke asked. “I guess then I’ll have to get a new one,” Joseph replied. “You really should get a new one anyway,” Carl interjected, “That thing has broken down so many times since you moved in with us… it’s just not reliable anymore. It’s not safe.” “Yeah Bro,” Clarke agreed with his boyfriend. That thing was old when you bought it, back when you turned sixteen.” “And with what money am I supposed to buy another car?” Joseph asked. “You could use the trust fund,” Clarke suggested. “That’s kinda what it’s for. With you bein’ the head of the household and our guardian, you can’t be without a car… not on Staten Island. I don’t need to tell you that we don’t even have a subway.” “We have a major bus route that goes right by the end of the street,” Joseph countered, “but you can’t exactly use the bus to bring home the groceries, can you?” The reality was that Staten Island was more suburban than urban and most everything required a car. Momá had been using Joseph’s mother’s Nissan Rogue to take care of the household errands, but she wasn’t always available to ferry the other kids to and from their various activities. The Feds had confiscated Joseph’s dad’s Mercedes SUV when they charged him with racketeering, so that wasn’t an option. Truthfully, Joseph really did need a car. Following Seth into the dining room, he sighed and said, “I guess I might as well get started looking at cars tomorrow. Maybe I can find a deal for Black Friday.” Rolling his eyes, Carl replied, “If you find a deal for Black Friday, it probably won’t be for the car you want. Buying a car takes finesse… and someone who knows something about cars.” Then after a short pause, Carl asked, “Have you given any thought to what kind of car you’d like to buy? If you could have any car in the world, what would it be?” “Definitely an SUV,” Joseph answered. “If money were no object, Porsche has a nice SUV, but it would be way more car than I need. I think maybe another Nissan Rogue would fit the bill. it’s stylish and it gets great mileage.” “Living in New York, you should definitely get a hybrid,” Carl suggested. “You can’t really go by just the EPA figures when it comes to driving around here, where you spend a lot of time mired in traffic. Electric motors are way more efficient than gas engines when it comes to stop-and-go traffic, so hybrids are the only cars for which you don’t pay a penalty for living in a place with a lot of heavy traffic. More importantly, you should get a larger SUV. This is a big family and you need more space. You should get something with a decent third row.” “So what would you get,” Joseph asked. Without hesitation, he answered, “A Toyota Highlander Hybrid. I know Toyota hasn’t exactly made the best decisions at the corporate level lately, but they still make solid, well-built, fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, quality cars that are built to last. Its mileage is close to thirty MPG, and even with the third row open, there’s still plenty of room for cargo. It’s the ideal car for you, man.” “Why not get a used car?” Francine asked. “A new car loses so much value the moment you drive it off the lot, you might as well save that money and use it to get a much nicer car than you could otherwise afford.” “Maybe you could get a used Escalade, or a Navigator, or even a Range Rover,” Clarke suggested. “Those are expensive cars to own, operate and insure,” Carl pointed out. “You might be able to afford to buy a used one, but you’ll spend a lot more on gas… premium gas, and repairs will cost you an arm and a leg. Plus, those cars make much more significant targets for thieves and the insurance rates will be through the roof.” “All good points to consider, but I’m starved! I haven’t exactly had much to eat in the last couple of days, after all,” Joseph explained, making everyone cringe. “I’ll tell you about it later. In the meantime, I’ll go get some food, and I’ll be right back.” “Except this is the kiddy table,” Seth pointed out. “You’re expected to eat with the adults…” “Not that you’re an adult in any way, shape or form,” Clarke quipped. “The cutoff’s supposed to be eighteen,” Francine explained, “which is why I’m in here and you’re supposed to be out there.” “Frankly, I think I’d rather eat with you guys rather than with the ’rents,” Joseph countered. “Just give me a few, and I’ll be right back.” When he didn’t return after ten minutes, however, it became apparent he wasn’t going to return. Clarke surmised that Scott had probably waylaid his brother, so that he’d have someone other than the parents to talk to. “Oh shit… again I forgot the pumpkin soup, and the Cajun turkey!” Asher exclaimed suddenly. “No, don’t do it Ashe,” Seth responded. “The last time you tried to heat your pumpkin soup, the lights went out and we had to gut the place.” “Not to worry,” Asher countered. “This time the pumpkin soup’s simmering on the stove, and the turkey’s keeping warm in the oven. As you know, both use gas rather than electricity, so unless your lights run on gas, there’s nothing to worry about.” Asher then walked the short distance to the kitchen and returned with a tureen filled with the pumpkin soup. He went back and grabbed a stack of soup bowls and spoons and brought them to the table. Finally, he opened the oven and loaded some of the Cajun turkey onto a serving tray. When Francine tasted the Cajun turkey, she actually moaned and said, “Oh, this is so good. The pumpkin soup’s fantastic, but this is the best turkey I’ve ever tasted. I thought Momá’s molé sauce is excellent, but it’s nothing compared to this. It’s orgasmic.” Everyone couldn’t help but chuckle in response to that. “Now you know why the food editor at The Times called Asher’s cooking the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans,” Seth added. “I’m definitely gonna hafta check out your restaurant before I return to Albany,” Francine agreed. <> <> <> While the parents were engaged in a discussion of whether or not it was better to serve as a whistle-blower or to leak information to the press, Joseph became engaged in a conversation with his younger brother, Scott, Scott’s roommate and best friend, Jake, and Jake’s boyfriend, Terrance. At first the conversation revolved around the classes they were taking and how things differed at SUNY Buffalo from Notre Dame, where Joseph had done his undergraduate work. Eventually they got to talking about how he’d been stuck at the airport and how his car had been towed to a garage, where it was awaiting evaluation on Monday. “Joseph, my man, that car’s older than I am,” Scott began. “It’s not reliable. It isn’t safe. Regardless of whether or not it can be fixed, it’s time to get a new one.” “Yeah, that’s pretty much what everyone’s tellin’ me,” Joseph related. “Now that I have a responsibility to my siblings,” he added, “I probably should get a mid-size SUV. Something like a Toyota Highlander.” “Why settle for a car our parents would’ve bought when you could get something much nicer if you buy it used?” Scott asked. “That’s pretty much what Clarke said, but Carl pointed out that I not only need to be able to afford to buy it, but I have to be able to fill the gas tank.” Joseph countered. “It’s not just about the purchase price,” he continued, “it’s about the cost of ownership… how much it costs to operate, maintain and insure the vehicle.” “Smart man,” Terrance said, agreeing with Carl. “But what about the fact that a new car loses thousands of dollars in value the moment you drive it off the lot?” Joseph asked. “Even if I get a Highlander, wouldn’t it pay to buy a used one?” “Not according to Consumer Reports,” Terrance, countered. “According to them, it only pays to buy a used car if you intend to trade it in. If you plan to keep a car more than ten years and particularly if you intend to run it into the ground as you did with your last car, the initial depreciation doesn’t matter. This isn’t like the bad old days when all cars were American and built to start rusting out within a few years. Today’s cars are built to last. The average car on the road today is twelve years old. Twelve years old. That’s the average. Think about it… that means that the typical car lasts more than twenty years, and people are actually keeping them that long. It’s not worth worrying about initial depreciation.” “Buy why not save a few thousand bucks?” Joseph asked. “Because it’s not really saving money at all,” Terrance argued. “Look, most new cars come with at least a two-year warranty. Your Toyota comes with a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty and five years or 50,000 miles on the powertrain. With a used car, you’re lucky to get a ninety-day warranty, even for a late-model car, and if you buy it from a third party, you won’t get any warranty at all. One lousy repair bill can completely wipe out your supposed savings. “Not only that, but most dealers will cover your maintenance for free for the first two or three years. Some of them will even offer free maintenance for as long as you own your car. That’s a savings of hundreds of dollars, right there. Add to that the ability to order your new car, just the way you want it and there really is no comparison.” “Definitely food for thought,” Joseph commented as he took another bite of his turkey, eliciting groans from his brother and his brother’s friends. <> <> <> By the time they finished the meal, everyone was stuffed beyond reason and barely able to stand. A short while later, however, they all managed to find room for coffee or tea with dessert. True to his promise to cut down on caffeine, however, Kyle stuck with decaf. With the Black Friday sales set to begin that evening, the dinner broke up at 10:00 so everyone could return home in time to check out the latest sales online. Paul and Jeff, however, stayed behind to discuss the recent air traffic control debacle with Frank. Although the leaks to the press had been extensive and although they hadn’t been the only ones to leak the details, they were concerned that the president might still try to claim that Iran had been involved. This president wasn’t known as one to be burdened by the facts. The facts were what he said they were and thus if he said the Iranians were involved, then they were involved. The man simply couldn’t be trusted. Therefore, Frank decided it was time to leak details of the debacle that could only have come from someone inside air traffic control. As a strategy it was risky, but anything was worth avoiding war. <> <> <> Having pretty much decided that he needed a new car, Joseph went with Carl in tow to a number of Black Friday ‘sales events’, only to find that most of the dealerships were more interested in clearing out old inventory than in showing the latest models. Therefore Joseph and Carl spent most of Saturday visiting dealerships in New Jersey, where prices were reported to be lower. Joseph was amazed at how quickly Carl managed to get the dealers to lower their prices. It was evident that Carl knew a lot about cars and could counter any argument a dealer posed as a reason for charging a higher price. More significantly, Carl had a knack for appearing disinterested, even when the car was exactly what Joseph wanted. Joseph, for his part, had assumed he would have to order his car with the specific options he wanted and then wait several weeks for delivery. Carl knew better. Carl was intimately aware of all of the various package deals and specifically which options were included with each. In the end, Joseph got a fantastic price on just the car he wanted in just the color he wanted, with exactly the options he wanted and with a few more thrown in. He hadn’t even considered getting heated leather seats or built-in navigation, but he was sure he’d appreciate them when trying to find his way on a cold winter day. Not only that, but he was able to drive the car off the lot that very day. Come Monday, classes at Columbia Law School resumed and so it was between classes that he received word on the status of his old car. Unfortunately, the problem was with the onboard computer, which was no longer manufactured for his car. Because the model was so old, the only option was to obtain a similar, compatible model from a scrap dealer, but in spite of the mechanic’s best effort, none could be found. Joseph ended up paying the garage to have his old car towed away for scrap. <> <> <> With Thanksgiving behind them, it was time for Asher and Seth to begin making preparations for Christmas. The Asian takeout restaurant had always been open on Christmas Day and so Asher saw no reason the Cajun place shouldn’t also be open for the holiday. With the preponderance of Jewish people that lived on the Lower East Side, Asher expected to do a brisk business. In the meantime, Kyle would turn eleven in just a couple of weeks and everyone was excited about planning for that. A couple of weeks later, just before the end of the year, Freck would finally become a teenager. Of course, that meant holding an even bigger celebration. Asher and Seth couldn’t help but recognize how quickly time was passing them all by. They realized that these friends and these experiences were things that would never come again as everyone started to go their own, separate ways. In scarcely nine months, Kyle and Freck would be leaving for college, perhaps at MIT. Although they would always be the best of friends, it would never be the same as it was right now. Right now was a time to be savored and celebrated. It was a time that would never come again.
  8. “This is beautiful,” I said as I held my baby close. We were standing on a terrace overlooking the Danube below. The elegant Hungarian Parliament building was directly across from us. We’d taken a tour of it earlier in the day. It was the most stunning example of neo-gothic architecture I’d ever seen. It was unfortunate that the current government was dominated by a right-wing authoritarian bastard whose anti-Semitic language was more reminiscent of the Nazi era than the twenty-first century. Now that I was part of a Jewish family and had a Jewish fiancé, the attacks felt personal. That we’d just spent a week in Israel only highlighted my sense of Jewish identity, in spite of my concerns about the worsening prospects for peace in the Middle East. Snuggling my baby close, I enjoyed the feel of his bare shoulder against my chest. We were both wearing tank tops – not wife beaters – I’d never call them that again. To think that I’d nearly thrown my love away made me shudder in the chill of the late afternoon air. “Are you okay, Babe?” Kyle asked as he undoubtedly felt me shudder. “Couldn’t be better, with you at my side,” I answered as I squeezed him tight. We’d spent a lot of time talking as a family since my breakdown in Paris. Yes, it really was a breakdown and I was still coming to terms with it. That Kyle and his family… my family, we’re so willing to forgive my episode was something I could never take for granted. How a total fuck-up like me could ever be deserving of such wonderful people was something I’d never understand. After playing catch-up and racing through Spain, Portugal and southern France, we’d spent a full week in Italy, seeing the wonders of Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice. The great museums of Florence alone we’re worth a couple of weeks, rather than a couple of days. Rome was an education in more ways than one. The ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum were incredible and I really gained an appreciation for Roman architecture, but poor Kyle had his wallet stolen by a hoard of Romani children, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been any older than he was. At least he didn’t have any credit cards or a driver’s license to have to report as stolen, but the time spent reporting the incident to the police turned out to be a colossal waste of time. Ky was out a few hundred Euros and it would have been nice to have thought the money was at least putting food on someone’s table, but as the police explained, the money bought the kids nothing more than a promise of protection. Their stealing for street gangs only funneled money into organized crime. From Italy we drove to Zagreb and Sarajevo, where the scars of war were still evident, and to Sophia, which was nearly as beautiful as Paris. I’d really been looking forward to seeing Athens, the birthplace of modern civilization, but I wasn’t prepared for the abject poverty I saw there, nor the extent to which mass migration had transformed the society. We saw some of that in Italy, but nothing like what we saw in Greece. What’s more, acid rain has largely destroyed the very architecture I’d come to see. Istanbul, on the other hand, was a wonderful surprise. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, a former cathedral built when Istanbul was Constantinople, were amazing in their beauty and architecture. The museums of Istanbul were outstanding, particularly the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. It was a shame we didn’t have more time for them. Although the government has become increasingly authoritarian, the Turkish people couldn’t have been more friendly. I was impressed with the culture and history of Turkey and although I didn’t much care for the heavy-handed way Ataturk banished Islamic fundamentalism, I appreciated his desire to bring the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the eventual backlash was what led to Erdogan’s rise to power. From Athens we flew to Israel and spent a week there. Although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, I was shocked by the deferential treatment we were given on arrival as American Jews, myself included. Although I was still coming to terms with my Jewish roots, the fact that I was one quarter Jewish by way of my maternal grandmother meant that by Jewish law, I was considered 100% Jewish by the state of Israel. Rome and Istanbul had already exposed me to the world of ancient architecture and archaeology, but Israel was another matter entirely. Nowhere else on earth was the history of human civilization so visible. I could almost feel the presence of my ancestors in my very bones, spanning thousands of years. Everywhere we went in Israel was a lesson in history that could never be realized in a classroom. However, everywhere we went, it was impossible to escape the pervasive sense of conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Jewish and Muslim societies flourished side-by-side, but there were checkpoints and barriers everywhere we turned. The feeling that the Palestinians were second-class citizens was inescapable and yet so was the fear of terrorism. There were constant reminders… echoes of the past… restaurants and busy marketplaces where people had been killed by suicide bombers. The thing was that the extremists on both sides were driving the ongoing conflict. So long as fear and mistrust persisted, things wouldn’t change and the opportunity to forge a lasting peace was being lost, perhaps forever. From Israel we flew to Bucharest and then we took a train to Budapest, which was truly one of the jewels of Europe. Scarcely two more weeks were left in our adventure, but that hardly mattered as I snuggled up with my baby. There was still so much left to see and do. Tomorrow we would drive to Kraków, where we would begin our exploration of Poland, once the home of three million Jews, nearly half of Europe’s Jewish population. “Boys,” Jake’s voice called out from behind us, “we need to head back to the hotel.” Reluctantly, Kyle and I pearled ourselves away from the view and from each other. We took a tram back across the river to our hotel, a rather modest place in which my boyfriend and I shared a room with three twin beds with Roger, Kyle’s brother. True to our word and as per Stéphan’s recommendations back in Paris, we wouldn’t share a bed until we returned home and, more importantly, until I tested negative for STDs. <> <> <> The hotel in Kraków was much nicer than what I’d been expecting. We were sharing a two-bedroom suite and were right by the old Jewish quarter, within easy walking distance of all of the historic sites we hoped to visit. Unfortunately, we had less than two half-days to see them, as we’d be spending most of tomorrow visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of all the Nazi death camps. What was particularly odd about our visit to Kraków was that, in spite of rising antisemitism, traditional Jewish culture was surprisingly popular in Poland. Poland was overwhelmingly Catholic, but there were Poles who actually dressed up in traditional orthodox Jewish garb and danced to klezmer music. Well, I was raised a Catholic too, but nominally. I was baptized, but my parents never took me to church, nor did I attend Sunday school or ever go to confession. But it was no secret that many Poles had helped the Germans to round up and deport their Jewish neighbors while nearly all the rest stood by and watched. The Jews weren’t some culture that was stolen from them – they were a people the Poles had directly and indirectly helped to eliminate. Maybe I shouldn’t hold the current generation responsible, but watching them emulate the culture of the people their parents and grandparents helped exterminate was surreal. We had to get up early the next morning as we had a lot to do. After eating a heavy Polish breakfast at the hotel consisting of bread, cheese and cold cuts that I could’ve done without, we drove to nearby Oświęcim, the Polish town by which the concentration camp was built, and toured the local Jewish museum. We then drove to Auschwitz only to find the parking lot filled with humongous tour buses. It was a mad scene with hoards of people lined up behind their tour guides as they were led through what should have been one of the most solemn places on earth. I was horrified by the mad scene. Fortunately, the dads had already made arraignments through the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York and hired a private guide to take us around both Auschwitz and the much larger, neighboring facility at Birkenau. Rather than having to strain our ears from the back of a group of fifty or more people, just to hear the monotonous droning of the tour guide, we were taken through the facilities at our own pace and we received much more in-depth, personalized information. We were able to ask questions as we went and they were answered in a way that neither patronized us nor assumed we knew more than we did. Not only that, we were able to skip the lines and proceed through the place in a much more logical order than that taken by the large tour groups. We started the day at the museum at Auschwitz and proceeded to tour the main facilities, which consisted of series of long multistory brick buildings. As we would soon see for ourselves, this was an unusual arrangement for a Nazi concentration camp and it spoke of an exceptional degree of permanence. The reason was that, unlike with other facilities, Auschwitz was converted from a former Polish army base and was built to last. Inside the buildings, the museum exhibits continued, with entire rooms filled from floor to ceiling with artifacts. There was an entire room filled with nothing but shoes and another with toy dolls. There was a room filled with wigs and another with eyeglasses, and yet another with dentures. I knew that the Nazis took away all their prisoners’ personal effects, but what possible use could they have made of such items? Auschwitz seemed like a maximum-security prison, with solidly built buildings, tall barbed-wire fences and cordoned-off sections, guarded by tall guard towers. Etched metal plaques with professional illustrations told the story for those able to deviate from their tour groups long enough to read them. It was only upon seeing the crematoria with the ovens, perfectly proportioned to the human body, that I came face-to-face with death and the horrific nature of the place. There were plenty of archival photographs throughout the facilities to remind the casual visitor what Auschwitz was all about, yet the experience seemed somehow sanitized. It didn’t feel real. The stuff they sold in the souvenir shop was totally bizarre and much of it was frankly inappropriate – things like giant pencils in bright colors with Auschwitz stamped in the side. And then there was Birkenau. Thank God hardly anyone took the time to visit the much less developed facilities at Birkenau. In the movies, when they show trains arriving at Auschwitz, it’s really at Birkenau. Although nothing remains of the original wood-framed barracks other than the foundations, the original brick stove chimneys are intact, giving a true sense of the meager provisions available to those deemed capable of providing slave labor. The shear scope of the place defies description. There were hundreds upon hundreds of rows of barracks, each housing hundreds of prisoners, several in each bare bunk bed. For those not ‘fortunate’ enough to be deemed adequate for slave labor, the ‘showers’ were in huge facilities with observation skylights where the Nazis could observe the final death throes of their victims. More than four thousand could be gassed at a time. The place was so large, it took a couple of hours, just to walk out to the International Memorial on the far side of the facility, and back. Along the way, we saw the ruins of ovens that were still smoldering, even after all this time. The place was a freakin’ death factory and it literally made me feel sick. We were able to go up into the guard tower over the gatehouse. From there we could see the entire grounds of Birkenau and Roger spent quite a bit of time photographing the entire panorama, piece by piece. He explained that he intended to use software to stitch all the individual photos together to make a high-resolution, mammoth photo of the entire scene. Somehow, I felt that no matter how large he might make his photo, it couldn’t convey the true scope of the place, nor the madness. Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau like this really affected me – far more than I thought it would. When we were in Israel, of course one of the places we visited was Yad Vashem, a vast archival museum that cataloged all the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Shoah, the Hebrew name for the Holocaust. Because the Germans kept meticulous records of everyone they rounded up, detained and executed, and with the aid of eyewitness accounts, Yad Vashem houses as comprehensive a record as humanly possible of what happened to all the Jewish families in Europe during that horrible time. Unfortunately, those sent directly to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau weren’t recorded, but the record of being sent to Auschwitz without a corresponding record of registration pretty much told the story. Of course Jake and Ken looked up the data available on their own families and were shocked at the amount of detail. Ken in particular had an extensive family tree and with the exception of his great great grandfathers and grandmothers, all of whom immigrated to America during the waves of immigration during the latter part of the nineteenth century, none had survived the Holocaust. He was able to trace the fate of dozens of cousins that perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and others. Some of the lucky ones were assigned to work details at Treblinka and Sobibor, only to end up at Auschwitz nevertheless. One even ended up at Bergen-Belsen for a possible prisoner exchange with the Allies, only to die of typhoid, just as Anne Frank did at the same facility. Jake’s family’s fate was similar except that his great grandparents escaped from Hungary to Brazil at the start of the war. All of his other relatives perished. Were it not for the daring escape of Kyle’s great great grandparents, my baby wouldn’t be here today. Out of curiosity, however, I decided to try looking up information on my mother’s family. I didn’t even know my mother’s maiden name, let alone her mother’s maiden name, but thanks to my mother’s fame and notoriety, she had an extensive Wikipedia page. In the section on her early life, according to Wikipedia, ‘She was born as Sophia Stein, the daughter of Joseph Stein, a prominent businessman from Strasbourg, and Eleanor Moscowitz, a Jewish socialite from Paris whose family had ties to the French defense industry. Although the means by which her family managed to survive the Nazi occupation remain unclear to this day, rumors to the effect that the family had ties to organized crime have persisted in spite of a complete lack of supporting evidence.’ Naturally I expressed shock that both of my mother’s parents were Jewish, but then Jake reminded me that Stein is as much a German name as a Jewish one, and that Strasbourg had originally been a German town; hence, many German surnames persist in eastern France. I asked him about what involvement in organized crime might have meant, but when he suggested that it might have involved collaboration with the Nazis or sex trafficking as a means of bribery and blackmail, I wished I hadn’t asked. I already had a low opinion of my biological mother, but the possibility that her family might have survived the Holocaust by selling their fellow Jews into the sex trade was appalling. Nothing could justify that. In any case, I looked up my mother’s family in the database at Yad Vashem and found that her family had been extensive. Dozens of men, women and children had perished on work details and in the gas chambers of Eastern Europe. Only my grandmother and great grandparents had survived. I had very mixed feelings about the possibility their survival might have been the result of Nazi collaboration or sex trafficking, but were it not for that, I wouldn’t be here. In any case, many people did some pretty horrible things in order to survive, and it wasn’t up to me to judge them. Now, as I looked across the vastness of the Nazi death camp at Birkenau, with ovens that were still smoldering, I was at peace with my family’s past. This evil was perpetrated by one man and his followers. I could only pray that we never see anything like this again, but the way things were going in the world, I feared we might, even in my lifetime. Actually, we already had. Coming to a final decision, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “I’ve decided I’m gonna do it.” “Do what?” he asked. “Be bar mitzvahed,” I replied. “Or rather, become a bar mitzvah,” I corrected myself. “You know it’ll be a lotta work,” he responded with a thoughtful look on his face. “Please don’t do it for me,” he added. “Much as I love you,” I replied, “I wouldn’t go through all that, just because I love you. There are a lot of things I’d do for you, but that isn’t one of them. No, this is something I have to do for myself. I might be only a quarter Jewish but the possibility that my mother’s family may have survived the Holocaust through bribery, blackmail or collaboration with the Nazis isn’t something I can ignore. I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for that, so it’s not really up to me to judge them, but I still feel in a way I should try to make amends. “There’s nothing I can do to bring back those lives lost or destroyed by the actions of my ancestors, nor is it my responsibility. But maybe by exploring my Jewish roots, I can at least bring closure to the possibility that my getting here is because of some pretty awful things done by my great great grandparents. Becoming a bar mitzvah won’t change the way I feel about God or religion and I’ll probably always be an agnostic. However, by understanding Judaism, maybe I can reclaim a part of me that my family managed to utterly destroy in themselves. Maybe I can purge the last of the poison I inherited from my relationship with my parents. I know I still need counseling… lots of counseling, but I think I need this too.” “When do you think you’ll do it?” my boyfriend asked. “Our schedule’s pretty busy this year, and then we’ll be in our freshman year of college. How are you gonna find the time to study the Torah, let alone memorize the prayers, learn how to chant and prepare for the ceremony?” “I’m already fluent in Hebrew,” I pointed out, but Kyle wasn’t having any of it. “Modern conversational Hebrew isn’t anything like ancient Hebrew, let alone the Hebrew in the Torah. It’s like studying Latin is hardly enough to prepare for the priesthood.” “With my ability to learn new languages, I doubt it’ll take me long to learn how to chant the Torah,” I countered. “And by reading the Talmud, I’d be even better prepared than most bar mitzvahs are when they turn thirteen.” “Jewish scholars spend a lifetime studying the Talmud, and yet most say even then, they don’t truly understand it,” Kyle challenged and of course he was right. After a bit of thought, I responded, “Perhaps when we get back, I can discuss a study program with your rabbi. Already I can read and write Hebrew. What I really need is a private tutor who can meet with me, maybe once a week, and guide me in my studies. Being ready for my bar mitzvah in December’s probably unrealistic, but with an intensive course of study, maybe I could be ready by next summer.” “That sounds really ambitious… like crazy,” my boyfriend replied. “You know I’m capable of doing it,” I countered. “Yeah, you are,” Kyle agreed. “So am I,” he added. “In fact, why don’t we do it together? God knows, if I wait until I’m in college, I’ll never get around to it. We can study together and maybe help each other in the process of helping ourselves. I’ll never read Hebrew as well as you do, so you can help me with that, and I can help you with the Jewish liturgy, which I’ve been exposed to all my life.” “Yeah, but even if you finish your studies this summer, you won’t be able to go through with your bar mitzvah until you turn thirteen,” I pointed out. “Perhaps,” Kyle acknowledged, “but you know, orthodox girls become bat mitzvahs at the age of twelve. Our congregation’s pretty liberal when it comes to things like that, so maybe I can talk the rabbi into letting me go through the ceremony a year early. Maybe we could schedule it for winter break next year, just after I turn twelve but before you turn fourteen, when you’d still be thirteen. We could have a double ceremony.” “That’s a really interesting idea,” I agreed. “Actually, it’s pretty outstanding. We should definitely talk to your rabbi.” “Definitely,” Ky agreed. <> <> <> Our European vacation was nearing its end. From Kraków, we’d traveled to Vienna, Munich, Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm. Soon we would fly to Reykjavik, where we would explore the wonders of Iceland and the land of the midnight sun before heading home to New York. Prague was the absolute highlight of the trip in terms of its shear beauty. Every time we rounded a bend and came upon the sight of Prague Castle across the Vltava was enough to take my breath away. The sex trade in Prague was rampant trough, with teenagers of both sexes and kids, some of them barely out of diapers, catering to every taste. Ky and I were both hit on by tourists anxious to get it on with a couple of preteens. That was an aspect of Prague I’d have rather done without. Berlin was an interesting study in contrasts. We all knew of the history of the wall and even though it had been decades since the wall fell, and even though all traces of the wall had been obliterated, it didn’t take a genius to realize that in many ways there still were two Germanys. There were a couple of museums dedicated to life in the DDR, the Deutsch Democratic Republic, and there was the STASSI museum, all of which were fascinating, but nothing could have been more stark than seeing homeless youth, curled up on makeshift mattresses and living on the street in the shadow of the elegant buildings that had arisen where the wall had once stood. I’d always thought the social safety net in Western Europe should have prevented homelessness altogether. I was all too used to seeing the homeless on the streets of New York and to the smell of urine in the subway elevators there, but finding the same thing in the major cities of Europe and especially in Germany was totally unexpected. Germany was the richest country in the European Union. Yes, the absorption of the DDR had put a severe strain on the economy and the more recent absorption of the Syrian refugees had strained it even further, but Germany had a huge trade surplus and jobs were plentiful for those who wanted to work. But then why was youth unemployment so high in the former East? Hadn’t we come far enough in the twenty-first century to eliminate homelessness, poverty and mental illness? What would future societies say about us when we couldn’t come up with the will to solve such a seemingly simple problem. Maybe that was something left for me to do. Maybe once I became the architect of entire cities, I could find a way to provide plentiful affordable housing for all that needed it without sacrificing the amenities that make cities attractive to those who generate society’s wealth. Now that I had some experience with being homeless myself, brief though it had been, I knew that this was going to be one of my priorities in life. But there was much more to the problem than affordable housing as I knew all-too-well myself. Affordable housing could help families without alternatives to survive, but unless we addressed mental illness and drug dependency, homelessness would remain intractable. I couldn’t help but wonder if allowing people to make the choice to live on the street rather than undergo treatment was in anyone’s best interest, but then there was no choice if treatment wasn’t available. No one wanted to spend money on a problem until it affected them personally, and even then, they’d rather spend more to lock people up than to rehabilitate them. I had a lot of healing to do, and with Kyle at my side, a lot of studying to do about a part of me that until this trip, I’d barely known existed. Kyle and I had already sent an email to his congregation’s rabbi and although there wouldn’t be time to meet with her before school began, we’d tentatively agreed to meet with her every week after attending Saturday morning services. I was about to begin a new chapter in my life – one that would help to define the man I was to become.
  9. I arrived with Stéphan at Châtet-Les Halles, the train station located within Forum Les Halles. I was shocked at how modern the place appeared, even though I’d left from here only a few days before. It was nothing like the architecture of Paris, even though it maintained the ridiculous height restriction. Stéphan led the way, explaining that his office was actually located within Forum Les Halles. How cool! Before we’d gotten very far, however, I was tackled by a flying mass of brown wavy hair, and then Kyle kissed me on the lips, right in the open. “You asshole,” he screamed at me. “You fuckwad,” he added. “You scared us shitless.” Without emotion, I replied, “You called me ‘Schreck’. You called me Francis. You know how much I hate that name. You even questioned my integrity as an architect. I thought you loved me and it hurt. I just couldn’t handle it.” “Of course I love you, Freck,” he responded. “I still love you, very much. I never questioned your integrity, as a future architect or otherwise. You and I have different opinions of Paris architecture. We probably always will. Couples who claim to have the same tastes in everything are either lying to each other, or one is allowing themselves to be dominated by the other. Neither of those alternatives is healthy for a relationship. “We’re gonna have fights, Freck. That’s just a normal part of a relationship, and it’s necessary to clear the air, but it doesn’t mean I think any less of you or you less of me. I never questioned your integrity and I could never envision what you see when you look at a building or an empty lot and imagine what could be.” “I just don’t know if I can ever trust you again, Ky,” I countered. “We both said things that were meant to hurt, and that is something we should vow never to do again, but I’m not sure I can promise anything when we actually face a disagreement in the heat of the moment.” “Then maybe it’s better if we go our separate ways,” I replied. “If you think you’ll ever find another boy who loves you as much, who supports you and who understands you, you have another thing coming. And if you think you can ever get the kind of satisfaction from pot or from casual sex, you’re bound to have a serious fall.” “How did you know about…” “I didn’t, but pot makes you horny and you were with hormonal teenagers, and you’re sexually active, so I figured that you probably did things you might later regret.” “It wasn’t like I wanted to cheat on you, Kyle,” I continued. “It just… happened, and it was pretty good at the time. It was something I needed then. Or I thought I did.” “Was it really better than sex with me?” “In a word, yes,” I replied, but I could see how much it hurt Kyle, which was the last thing I wanted to do. “Not that it was anything like the feeling we used to get when we made love, but these kids were older and more experienced. I learned things you and I never even thought of doing. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. Maybe if we can get back to where we were, we can try those things. Maybe when coupled with love, it could really be great. It’s just gonna take time before I can forgive you.” Putting his hand on my shoulder, he responded, “I know you must think I betrayed you, but please consider it in the context of the betrayal of your parents. I could never do to you what they did to you all your life. I called you names you hate and I give you my most profound apologies for that. I know you think I judged your ability to be an architect, when all I did was express my opinion about old-world versus modern architecture. Modern works well in New York, but not so well here. It can work here, as it has with Forum Les Halles, where we are right now, but old-world style provides a sense of history and even New York benefits from it. That’s my opinion and it’s my right to have it, regardless of your chosen profession.” “It’s hard for me to see it that way, Ky,” I answered, “but I’ll try to understand it from your point of view. It just may take some time, and I just don’t know if our being boyfriends will work out in the end.” “I’ll be patient, Freck, and I’ll do everything to show you that I’m the one you should spend the rest of your life with. But you have a lot of soul-searching ahead of you. I don’t think you realize just how much your running away hurt all of us. It was devastating. Dad and Ken hired Stéphan to help to find you…” “Their choice,” I interjected. “No, it was no choice. They are responsible for you and we were in a foreign country and had to rely on a bureaucracy we didn’t understand. Hiring Stéphan was the only way. We also lost several days of our vacation, and that’s time we’ll never get back. It’s not about the money, but the opportunity we lost to see some remarkable things that will have to wait for another time… a time that may never come again. The worst of it, though, was last night, when we had to go to the morgue to identify what the police were certain was your body. That moment will forever be etched in my mind. I had a nightmare last night that it really was your body. I think I’ll probably have that nightmare again from time to time.” “Quit trying to make me feel guilty!” I practically shouted in anger. “I don’t want you to feel guilty. I just want you to realize that there are people who love you, and that it’ll take a whole lot more for us to change our minds. It saddens me to think that you’re so broken that you can only see the worst in people… the worst in everything.” “The world’s a shitty place,” I countered. “I know,” Kyle replied, “but it’s also a pretty incredible place.” By now the dads and Roger had caught up to us and Stéphan was gently trying to motion us forward. Within minutes we were all sitting in Stéphan’s office. He asked if anyone wanted coffee and, predictably, Kyle indicated in the affirmative, and so he put a pot on. Stéphan began by saying, “If you don’t mind, let’s get the financials out of the way and then we can discuss where we go from here.” He then handed a multi-page document to each of the dads and said, “I’ve itemized all my expenses, my daily rate and my hourly rate for my services, broken down by date and activity. Three days at five thousand is fifteen, and three hours on Sunday plus six hours today at 500 is 4500 euros, for a total of nineteen-five. I’ve itemized all of my time since we met on Sunday and I think you’ll agree that the cost was reasonable. I’ve also itemized expenses, including copying, phone calls to the States and train tickets etcetera, for a total of 689, which I’ve rounded to five hundred, and then there were the bribes. Some fine members in law enforcement and in the legal system are complicit with sex traffickers. I have my contacts of course, and they led me to find Freck, but it took five thousand in bribes. It was money well spent. So the total comes to twenty-five thousand, which is exactly the amount of the retainer. If you’ll sign here, we’ll call it even,” he concluded as he handed Jake a two-part receipt and a pen. “You guys spent twenty-five thousand euros to find me?” I asked in shock. “Of course, Freck,” Jake answered. “You’re more than worth it to me. If it’s any consolation, we’ll see if your trust fund will cover it, but we paid it with the full expectation that we’ll never get it back. Stéphan told us the average case costs double that, and that it could easily have cost in the six figures to find you. We also knew the odds were fifty-fifty that if we found you, you’d be dead. But if we didn’t spend the money, we’d almost certainly never have seen you alive again. We weren’t willing to take that chance. None of us thought twice about putting our plans on hold either.” “Damn,” I responded, “and for you guys, that’s a hell of a lot of money.” “Freck, your parents may be billionaires,” Jake countered, “but as I’m sure your father would tell you, they didn’t get to be billionaires by treating 25k as if it were pocket change.” “That’s exactly what he’d say,” I admitted. “So the next question,” Stéphan interrupted, “is where do you go from here. Not that I didn’t enjoy meeting you and I must say, it’s been a pleasure working with two such precocious young men, but the last thing I want to have to do is make another phone call to ask this family to go to the morgue to identify your body, Freck. We were lucky this time… it turned out the kid in the morgue was older… maybe fourteen or fifteen… but next time we may not be so lucky. What’s obvious is that your insecurities didn’t end when the Goldsteins took you in. Your parents sent you to useless therapy sessions, and then wham, you found a boyfriend who understood you and loved you, and a family that loved you and offered you what you never had from your biological parents, so you were cured, right?” “I guess I never really got over the affects of the attempted suicide,” I responded. “But it wasn’t an attempted suicide at all, and yet it was, wasn’t it?” Stéphan asked. “Yes and no,” I answered. “I was smoking a lot of pot and it dulled the pain, but it took away the good feelings too. It made me apathetic and it distorted reality. When I attempted to jump, it was because I thought I could fly, but I really didn’t care.” “Exactly,” Stéphan agreed. “You thought you could fly and wouldn’t it have been wonderful if you did! But if you couldn’t fly and instead fell to your death, well, game over… just hit reset, isn’t that right.” “That’s exactly what was going through my head,” I agreed. “But the real issue is that the marijuana use amounted to self-medication. You were using it to dull the pain… the pain of a useless existence. You had parents who treated you as a possession, little different from a Mercedes or a Rolex… something to show off. You had sisters who were so much younger than you that they only reinforced your sense of isolation. You had a nanny who used to pay you a lot of attention, but then the twins were born and she had to devote all her attention to them, and it turned out she was undocumented, so she was always looking over her shoulder and she resented you as a burden she had to bear to keep from being deported. She didn’t tell you that, but you must have felt it.” “Yeah, I did, but I had no idea what it was about,” I answered. “And then on top of it all,” Stéphan continued, “you’re a genius and you had this incredible gift of being able to pick up languages almost in an instant. To you, it was so natural, yet everyone made such a big deal about it that you came to resent it as something that set you apart from everyone else, and yet you couldn’t turn it off if you tried.” “God, that’s exactly how I felt,” I answered. “So you felt rudderless and you saw your parents drinking and smoking pot, and you saw how it made them act crazy, but they seemed so happy and you wanted to feel like that too, so you tried alcohol, which only made you more depressed, and you tried pot, which didn’t make you happy, but it took away all the bad feelings and so you smoked more and more of it.” “I thought I was past that,” I commented, “but when things went wrong, I went right back to it. But why? I had a great boyfriend and a caring family, yet the first time we had a major disagreement and I felt like I was under attack, I ran. Am I really so insecure and self-centered and shallow that I can’t handle a disagreement? But why did Ky push it? Why did he call me those names? Why did he insult me so?” “Let’s start with the names,” Stéphan suggested. “Schreck is a cute little character and you’re a cute little guy. Is Schreck really such a bad nickname?” “I got called that by bullies all through fifth grade,” I answered. “Does Kyle have anything in common with those bullies?” “Not at all,” I replied. “Not even close.” “So would it really bother you if he called you that, so long as it wasn’t meant in malice. So long as it was meant in an endearing sort of way.” I thought about it for a bit, and then I answered, “You know, it wouldn’t. In fact, I’d like that, so long as it wasn’t used to hurt me.” “I’d never use it to hurt you, Freck,” Kyle chimed in. I didn’t know your history when I called you that. I’ll never call you that again… unless you want me to.” “Ky,” I replied as he took both his hands in mine, “you can always call me that so long as it’s done in love. It can be like a pet name you have for me, and a reminder that we should never push those buttons again.” “And what about Francis?” Stéphan went on. “You can’t expect to be called Freck forever. In fact, you probably wouldn’t like being called that once you’re in college next year. So what about Francis?” Interrupting, Kyle said, “I’m sorry, Freck, but I really did call you Francis in malice because you jumped on me for calling you Schreck the way you did. But Freck, I’ll never call you Francis again, unless you want me to.” “And I’ll hold you to that,” I replied. “But actually, Francis isn’t so bad as a formal name… it’s just so formal and it’s particularly bad for someone who’s gay like me and trying not to be thought of as a sissy.” “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Stéphan interjected, “but in no way are you effeminate or a sissy. Now I know you don’t want to be called Frank or Frank Junior, but how about Frankie?” Nodding my head, I responded, “You know, that’s actually a very good compromise, but it makes me sound like a gangster. Jacques… he’s the kid who rescued me and introduced me to Philippe… he gave me the nickname ‘François’. I’ve been using it for the last few days and it’s grown on me. “François is the French version of Francis, but it doesn’t sound so effeminate. As I figure it, I’m three-eighths Italian, a quarter French, a quarter Jewish and an eighth Irish. It’s kinda funny that I look more Irish than anything, but I guess that just means I don’t need an Irish name for people to know I have Irish blood in me. So if I go by ‘François San Angelo Goldstein’, everyone’ll know my roots.” “You wanna take my last name?” Kyle asked with a tremor in his voice. “Of course I do,” I answered with conviction. “After all, we’re getting married, aren’t we?” “You… you still wanna get married?” Kyle asked as tears overflowed his eyes. Taking his hands in mine, I answered, “Ky, I really fucked up. Our love couldn’t be stronger. I shoulda known you were only expressing your opinions… and maybe a little of your ignorance when it comes to French architecture. But above all else I shoulda never doubted our love. I shoulda known the name-calling was only teasing. “I overreacted, and tragically so. I coulda lost you forever, but worse than that, if something had happened to me… you’d have never forgiven yourself. You’d have blamed yourself for the rest of your life. It would’ve been self-inflicted pain and I’d have been the cause of it. Believe me, I know what that kinda poison is like. No one should hafta go through what I’ve gone through. “So yeah, I wanna marry you. I want to be with you ‘til death do us part and all that. And I never ever want to put you through that kind of pain again.” “Not to blame you for what you did while on the street, but who’s Philippe?” Kyle asked. “He’s the guy who ran the flat where I stayed.” I answered, but then Jake gave me that look that says, ‘You need to own up to this, son,’ and so I added, “He was the house pimp… a former street kid who took kids like me under his wing and made sure they were safe.” “As far as pimps go, he’s decent,” Stéphan interjected. “He cares about his boys and doesn’t just use them. He’s a good part of the reason Freck’s still alive” “Don’t you want to include your middle name, François?” Jake asked. “He won’t tell me what it is,” Kyle lamented. “I know what it is,” Jake admitted. “I’ve always known. I had to have it to file the court papers for guardianship.” “You knew it and you didn’t tell me?” Kyle exclaimed. “It wasn’t up to me to tell you,” Jake replied. “I never even told Ken.” “I suppose you have a right to know it,” I jumped in. “It wouldn’t be right for my husband not to know my middle name, but I hate it even worse than I hate Francis. My middle name’s Lynn. Francis Lynn. How do you like that for a gay boy’s name? My parents musta had gaydar when I was in the womb or something. So I guess my full name’s gonna be François Lynn San Angelo Goldstein.” “Damn, I’m so used to thinking of you as Freck that it’ll take a lot of rewiring to think of you as François, François,” Kyle added. “I think that goes for all of us,” Jake agreed with a laugh “You guys can still call me Freck, or Freckles, Schreck, Francis, Frank, Frankie, Lynn or even Fucker if you want,” I replied. “I’ll still go by Freck at Stuyvesant until I graduate, but once I start college, I’ll go by François. I’ll even change my name, legally, since I won’t be able to get married until I’m sixteen.” “So what about what you said about Kyle insulting you?” Stéphan continued. That was probably the hardest thing for me to address, but it needed to be addressed. I could easily forgive Ky, but I’d never forget his put-downs. “That’s something I can forgive,” I answered, “but I don’t know if I can ever forget it. Sustainable architecture is my passion, and if we’re gonna save the planet, we hafta replace older, inefficient buildings with new ones.” “You see where I keep my office,” Stéphan pointed out. “Most tourists think it’s really cool, which is one of the reasons I’m here, since I cater mostly to tourists, but Parisians think it’s hideous. I like having clean lines and contemporary furnishings, and it certainly dispels the image of the disheveled P.I. most people think of when they think of someone in my profession. Most importantly, it makes it possible for me to charge what I’m worth. It makes it possible to afford to live in Paris. “But the rent here is very high. Much higher than in most of Paris. I’m on a meter and I pay my own electric bill, and it’s very high. I can’t wait to see the bill for July, with the way I’ve been using the air conditioning. My friends who are in the old stone buildings are much more comfortable and they pay a lot less for electricity. The old stone structures may seem antiquated, but there was a method to the madness. High ceilings trap heat, keeping it away from the people below. Large courtyards help keep outdoor spaces in the shade, helping to cool the buildings overall. And the stone itself is a heat sink, helping to maintain a constant temperature, day and night. The only problem is that with an extraordinary heat wave like the one we’re having, the stone absorbs the heat and releases it slowly, keeping the building hot long after the heat has dissipated. But by combining air conditioning with stone, it’s possible to remove the heat during peak periods, allowing the building to cool itself the rest of the time.” “So you’re saying that I still have a lot to learn,” I concluded. “There wouldn’t be much point in going to architecture school otherwise.” “And I was merely expressing an opinion and drawing on some of my knowledge of the very science Stéphan just outlined.” Kyle said as he looked me in the eyes. “I wasn’t insulting you by any means although you seemed to take it that way. I just see it differently is all. Besides which, doesn’t razing an entire city kind of defeat the purpose of sustainability?” “I don’t want to raze Paris at all,” I countered, “but as an architect, I bridle at the restrictions imposed by the building height rules.” “Forum Les Halles and the Pompidou Center are perfect examples of how you can still be inventive within those confines,” Stéphan pointed out. “Yes, but it still perpetuates an affluent city proper, surrounded by middle-class suburbs and suburban slums,” I objected. “That, my friend, is more a matter of attitude than architecture, and it seems to me you have the same problem in New York.” “He’s right, Freck,” Kyle agreed. “Yeah, I know,” I concurred. “It’s just hard for me to back down. You remember when I asked you to save me the next time I went down the rabbit hole?” “Yeah, I do,” he replied, “and this is definitely that time, and probably not the last time.” “No, I’m afraid it’s not.” “There are two problems you need to face, François,” Stéphan interjected. “Firstly, there is your drug dependency, and you’re not the only one,” he added as he gave Kyle a withering stare. What was that about? Kyle didn’t seem to have an idea what he was talking about either. He just shrugged his shoulders and returned an inquisitive stare as he sipped his coffee. “That’s your third cup of coffee,” Stéphan pointed out. “So what?” he asked. “I love the taste of coffee.” “And a lot of people love the taste of wine, but you’d do more than raise an eyebrow if I were drinking my third glass of wine since getting back to the office now, wouldn’t you?” “Yeah, but that’s different,” Kyle claimed. Interesting. I’d never really given thought to Kyle’s love of coffee before. It was just a part of him. “Is taste the only reason you drink coffee?” “Well no,” he answered honestly. “I need it to wake up in the morning. I need it throughout the day to stay awake.” “Are you sleep deprived?” Stéphan asked. “Well no,” he answered. “Do you see anyone else here drinking coffee?” “No, but I’m the coffee addict in the family.” “Think about what you just said, Kyle, and I think you’ll realize you hit the nail on the head.” Did Kyle just admit to being addicted to coffee? I didn’t need to think long about it. Without coffee he couldn’t function at all, yet I seemed to get by just fine without it. But addicts need to give up their addiction completely. I couldn’t picture Kyle ever giving up coffee. He loved it with a passion. “Are you suggesting I give up coffee?” Kyle asked Stéphan. “As a student, it will be hard to give it up entirely, especially in university,” he answered, “but there is an alternative. You can wean yourself from the caffeine in coffee by gradually substituting decaf, and then drink regular coffee only when you need to stay awake, as for example with a particularly boring lecturer, or to study for an exam. I think you’ll find that if you use caffeine sparingly, it’ll be much more effective when you really need it.” I had to admit, that made perfect sense and apparently it did to Kyle too, as I saw him nod his head. “Now Freck,” Stéphan continued, “you have a serious problem with marijuana and it was unresolved even before your relapse, which was why you went back to it. You definitely need help to avoid it going forward, but there’s an even more significant issue… the reason you used pot in the first place. Can you explain it, François?” I didn’t even need to think about it. “I smoke pot to dull my pain,” I answered. “But pain is such a nebulous word, right?” Stéphan countered. “It means so many different things to many different people. Pain can be sharp, lancinating, stabbing. It can be dull, aching, throbbing. It can be tingly, numb, burning freezing. Which was yours?” How could I describe my pain? It wasn’t real, was it? But then I thought about it and answered, “It was kind of dull and aching, but maybe even more, it was an icy-hot, burning, freezing numbness, but that doesn’t make sense!” “How’s that,” Stéphan asked. “Well, I felt painfully numb from the absence of emotion. My parents didn’t love me, but they didn’t hate me either. They just didn’t care about me so long as I didn’t embarrass them. They displayed me like a fine sculpture, expressing pride to their guests until the guests departed, but then their pride just switched off, just like that. I got more caring from my dad’s secretary and my mom’s manager than from my own parents. So what did I do? I went and smoked pot to replace one kind of numbness with another. It doesn’t make sense!” “I think it makes perfect sense,” Stéphan responded. “There are many kinds of numbness. You said so yourself. There’s the burning, painful kind of numbness, such as when your foot falls asleep, or you get frostbite, or when the Novocain starts to wear off at the dentist. Then there’s the pleasant kind of numbness when you slip into dreamland, when you’re comfortably numb.” Kyle and I turned to look at each other as we simultaneously said, “Pink Floyd!” Looking back at Stéphan, I asked him, “How do you know all this shit?” Laughing, he replied, “I have a Ph.D. in child and adolescent psychology, but the pay for therapists in the field is, as you put it so nicely, shit. I took some courses in forensic psychology in school and realized I like that kind of work. It allows me to apply my knowledge to place myself inside the heads of my young victims and use that knowledge to find them. The hard part is that a part of me dies every time a kid is already dead by the time I find them, but finding a child alive is the greatest feeling in the world.” “So where do we go from here?” Ken asked. “I think you may now realize that the assumption that François would be fine, just from putting him in a loving environment was incredibly naïve. He’s going to need a lot of help, both in terms of his drug dependency and in terms of his residual feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. And he needs help to develop his own sense of self-worth, independently of all of yours. “Let me ask you, what are his sleeping arrangements at home?” “He sleeps with me,” Kyle replied. “That’s what I figured,” Stéphan responded. “Is space tight in your home? Is there another bedroom you could use to make it just his? Laughing, Jake answered, “We have six bedrooms, with a home office, a study for the kids and a guest room that never sees any use. But Ken and I are hardly ever home outside of family life and the home office is mostly a place to keep our papers, which are all on-line now anyway. We could easily combine the office and guest room and that would leave a separate bedroom for Freck.” “Why does he need a separate bedroom?” Kyle asked. “We love each other, so why can’t we share a bedroom?” “I know you love each other, Kyle,” he Stéphan answered, “and I know you’re sexually active and there’s no reason that you shouldn’t still enjoy a loving, sexual relationship so long as it doesn’t become obsessive, possessive or compulsive. However, you’re both still children and even though intellectually, you’re functioning as adults, your psychosocial development is still a work in progress. You still need to develop your independence and you can’t really do that unless you have your own space. If you’re always together, you’ll always have a social handicap and even if you separate, you’ll seek another dependent relationship, and that’s not healthy.” Wow, that was a lot to think about, and I saw Kyle was equally affected by it. “So anyway,” Stéphan continued, “It’s essential that you, François, and your family go for regular counseling, and not just weekly. I’d recommend that you see someone at least twice a week until you leave for university next year, and as a family at least weekly. I’d suggest that when you go away to university, that you and Kyle room separately, but I suspect that’s a non-starter…” Kyle and I were both shaking our heads. “But at least you should resist the temptation to put your beds together. You can satisfy your sexual desires without sleeping together every night. And you should make the effort to have your own friends and interests, separately as well as together. That’s very important, and it applies now as well.” “What about the rest of the trip,” Jake asked. “Should we cancel it and go back home?” “I think that would be a grave mistake,” Stéphan replied. “You’d regret it the rest of your lives, and there’d be so much guilt on everyone’s part that that alone could split the family. I think the best thing is to go on with your travels and to talk frequently as a family. Just remember that travels are a stressful time for most families and not just yours. It’s rare that people who are close are together twenty-four-seven, and tempers often flare. The best thing to do when that happens is to call a time-out and discuss things as a group but taking turns. However, should you ever need outside help, please call me, on the house.” But there was something else on my mind that had me worried shitless, and I had to get it off my chest, even if it did mean we had to change our plans. “There’s something else guys,” I began. “The night before last, three of the boys came down with a terrible cough and low-grade fever. Philippe thought it might be from smoking contaminated weed. The three boys affected were the heaviest pot smokers, but then so was I. “We smoked THC smuggled in from The Netherlands, where the stuff’s basically legal. We smoked it using Juuls. I guess there’ve been some cases of kids getting pulmonary fibrosis from using bootleg pods in their Juuls, and Philippe thought that might be what was going on. He had us all checked over by a doctor, and the doctor thought it unlikely I could’ve been affected in such a short time.” Smiling, Ken answered, “As physicians, Jake and I get regular reports from the New York State Health Department and, yes, there have been reported cases, just as you described. We don’t know what the contaminants are just yet, but there’s a lot of conjecture that burning them produces cyanide, and the cyanide is highly toxic to the cells that line the lung. Actually, cyanide is toxic to every cell in your body. It decouples oxidative phosphorylation, which in lay person’s terms, prevents the mitochondria from utilizing oxygen. “Killing off a few cells in the lung generally isn’t a problem and it happens all the time from environmental toxins, but your phagocytes make quick work of the dead cells and the lungs quickly repair themselves. The problem is with repeated exposures, such that the phagocytes fill up with dead, toxic cells and then they die too. When that happens, fibroblasts move in and the lungs are repaired by laying down scar tissue. Not only do fibrotic lungs lose their elasticity, but they can’t exchange oxygen as well, and the effects are permanent. There’s just no way a few days of heavy pot use would do that to you, Freck. You’re in the clear.” “But the doctor said something else that has me even more worried,” I countered. “He said the symptoms the boys had was also consistent with TB. I’m scared I might have gotten it.” “Mycoplasma tuberculosis is a funny organism, “Ken responded. “It’s an intracellular bacterial pathogen that’s able to hide from your immune system, literally by hiding out inside your cells. That’s why it’s so hard to develop an effective vaccine against it. It has a very long life-cycle that allows it to remain dormant for years. Yes, it’s transmitted by coughing and the primary infection is in the lungs. It infects the cells at the base of the lungs and enters the bloodstream, where it makes its way to the apices of the lung… that’s the top part. Kind of a roundabout way of getting there, but it infects the apical cells and remains dormant for a long time. It isn’t ’til it reactivates that it’s infectious, so the chance of getting TB from kids who have a primary infection is just about zero. And we can always have it checked out when you get home.” “Wow, that’s a relief,” I admitted. “Given the fact that three of them came down with the same symptoms simultaneously,” Jake chimed in, “I seriously doubt that the boys had either pulmonary fibrosis or TB, both of which need time to evolve. Perhaps the heavy use of pot made them more susceptible, but most likely they all came down with a common upper respiratory infection from an ordinary virus. Again, there’s nothing to worry about. “There is a much greater concern, though,” Jake continued. “You had unprotected sex with teenage prostitutes. That’s a very high-risk behavior and you know it.” I dropped my head in response. Of course I knew it. “The last thing you’d want to do is to give an STD to Kyle, particularly something like HIV,” Jake continued, “and unfortunately, you might not become HIV-positive for up to six weeks after exposure. That means you can’t be tested until we get back home, and that you can’t have unprotected sex with Kyle until you test clean. I’m not willing to trust the life of my son to the integrity of a condom. Therefore, I’m going to have to insist that you limit your sexual activities to mutual masturbation and frottage for now. Is that understood?” Kyle and I both nodded our heads. It was a tough thing to face, but Jake was being more than fair, and Kyle was being far more forgiving than I thought I deserved. Just when it appeared we were about to break up and go back to the hotel, Ken spoke up. “You know Stéphan, I don’t think I mentioned it before, but my training is in pediatric neurology and I did a fellowship in epilepsy. However, neurology and psychiatry have the same specialty board and residents are required to train in both. It’s only the emphasis that differs. Is there any reason I shouldn’t provide counseling while on the trip?” “In a word, yes,” Stéphan answered. “For one thing, you’re far too close to the family and even though you’re a recent addition, you can no longer be objective. Just as important, however, is that psychiatry involves the medical treatment of mental disorders, right? Your training in traditional psychotherapy is minimal, and in actual counseling is virtually nonexistent. You would need to do a psychotherapy fellowship first, no? You’re just not prepared to take this on.” Ken seemed to be relieved as he nodded his head. “So the bottom line is you should enjoy the rest of your vacation and have fun, and make arrangements for therapy when you get home. “And don’t forget you can call me anytime.” <> <> <> “We have some decisions to make,” Jake began as we sat around a hotel room that wasn’t big enough for all of us. “We were supposed to be on our way to Lisbon today, and then tomorrow we were going to spend time in Lisbon and then drive to Seville, Gibraltar, Málaga, Cordoba, and Granada. Of course it’s impossible to see everything we were going to see originally, but the primary choice is between trying to see as much as we can of what we’d planned, or to simply forget about most of Spain and Portugal, and take the high-speed train tomorrow morning to Barcelona, assuming we can get a seat reservation. We’d then pick up where we left off.” “I really want to see Lisbon if we can,” I countered, “and Madrid for that matter.” “How do the rest of you feel about it,” Dad asked. “I know I’ve been a pain in the ass with my camera,” Roger began, “but who knows when I’ll get back here, if ever. I vote for seeing as much of what we planned as we can.” “I feel the same way,” Kyle chimed in. “Great,” Ken exclaimed. “I’ve already worked out the arrangements. We’re booked on a flight to Madrid tonight, and we’ll spend tomorrow morning at the Prada and the rest of the day seeing Madrid. We’ll then pick up our car on Saturday morning and drive to Toledo and on to Lisbon. We’ll spend Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning in Lisbon, then drive to Gibraltar, Granada, Valencia and on to Barcelona. We won’t have a lot of time along the way, but we’ll get to Barcelona only a day-and-a-half later than we’d planned, which we’ll make up by bypassing Switzerland and driving directly to Milan. We’ll miss out on some of the scenery… the Pyrénées, the Mediterranean coast and the Alps, but we’ll hit the highlights and then pick up what we’d planned.” “If it’s Tuesday, this Must Be Belgium,” Roger said with a laugh, and we all joined in.
  10. After I ran out on Kyle and out of the museum, I kinda knew where I needed to go, and it didn’t take long to find a kid who sold dope. He wanted too much for it, but he was willing to trade a pretty good supply for my phone, and I definitely needed to ditch the phone. I’d already turned off Find My Phone for obvious reasons, and since it wasn’t on contract or anything, all I had to do was ditch the SIM card and hand the phone over. Once he verified the phone worked, he handed over my dope and I had enough pot for a week at least, or so I thought. Once I had a chance to think things through, though, I realized there was no way I could go back to my family and I might have to end up living on the streets until I could find a decent place to stay. One thing was for sure – I needed money and I needed it in cash. I had a small amount of cash with me, like a few hundred euros, but that wouldn’t last long. I had more cash back at the hotel and Kyle had some too. I had a lot of money in my bank accounts and I had a credit card with a decent credit limit, but any attempt to access either of them would be traceable. But if I did something now, before my family even realized I was gone, I wouldn’t have to access my resources later. Although I needed a co-signature to make a cash withdrawal from my bank accounts, I had a debit card linked to one of my accounts and could use it to withdraw up to five thousand dollars, or maybe over here, euros, at a time. Before I could do anything, though, I needed my passport, which was in our hotel room, and I needed my clothes and essentials, but the luggage I had would be a dead giveaway that I had money, so I stopped in a sporting goods store and bought a decent used cross-country backpack. Returning to the hotel, I emptied my luggage into the backpack, taking all my clothes and toiletries. I also grabbed the rest of my cash, and Kyle’s stash of cash. Even then I felt guilty about taking it, but I needed it then and I knew Jake and Ken would take care of him. With my passport and possessions in hand, I headed to a nearby convenience store and bought a prepaid debit card that couldn’t be traced back to me. I think the clerk was surprised I wanted such a large amount, but the transaction went through without a hitch. Then I went to a mobile phone store and bought a prepaid smart phone – not the kind I was used to, but it was adequate. With the essentials taken care of, I headed to a nearby park, where I finally had a chance to partake of my cannabis purchase. Man, it’d been way too long since my last smoke and I felt nothing but relaxation as I lay back and enjoyed the high. Next thing I knew, I was cold and it was pitch dark out. In a panic, I checked around me and realized my phone was gone, my cash was gone and my pot was gone. I still had my backpack though, and when I checked, my passport and debit card were still there. I’d hidden them well, thank God, but I was out some serious cash. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I said aloud, though there was no one to hear me. Without my phone, I had no idea what time it was and so I slung my backpack over my shoulders and started walking. As I did so, I realized just how starved I was and so I headed in search of food, but unlike in New York, all the shops were closed. Eventually I found my way to a super-modern train station. I didn’t recognize it, but I figured there’d be food there, at least from a vending machine if not a kiosk. First thing I did was hit up an ATM and replenish my supply of cash. Ironically it was a McDonalds I found and so I ordered a couple of Big Macs and a large order of fries, found a nice patch of floor by a wall I could lean against, sat down and wolfed down my gourmet meal. I noticed a station clock and the time was 3:47, but I wasn’t the least bit tired and so I remained seated against the wall and pretended I was waiting for my train to arrive in the station. I guess I did fall asleep though, as the next thing I knew, the station was filled with commuters arriving from the suburbs for work. I couldn’t stay where I was and so I needed a plan. With my command of languages, I could go anywhere in Europe, but traveling the intercity trains required showing my passport, and then I could be tracked. It might be possible over the course of several days to travel by local trains across much of Europe, but to what purpose? I’d be no better off and I’d have spent a fair chunk of my money. I was totally fluent in French and not just French, but authentic-sounding Parisian slang. There were plenty of places I might have gone in Paris where my family would never think to look, but I’d be a lot safer outside of Paris. There were a number of major suburban edge cities that were better places for a young runaway to blend in. Noticing that a train was leaving shortly for Cergi-Pontois, I purchased a ticket from a kiosk and got on board. Because I was commuting away from the city, I had my choice of seats and settled in for the short ride. The first station I came to was very suburban and it would have been difficult for me to find anything without being noticed. The second station, however, was in a large urban center that, although very modern, was covered in graffiti and kinda run down. Perfect. It didn’t take me long to find a kid, maybe fifteen, I guessed, who was standing by a lamppost and vaping. I wasn’t sure if he was vaping tobacco or something else, but it didn’t much matter and so I asked in my best French slang, “Hey man, can I get a hit of that?” “It ain’t tobacco,” he replied. “Don’t much like tobacco anyway,” I replied. “Was hopin’ for somethin’ else.” “In that case, help yourself,” he said as he handed me his Juul. I took it from him and took a real good look at him without being obvious about it. He was wearing skin-tight jeans with flip-flops, but his shirt, what there was of it, was an under-sized, super-tight spandex wife beater, and yeah, now that I was on my own, I was gonna call it a wife beater. His clothes screamed prostitute, so I’d need to be cautious. “Gonna be a scorcher of a day,” the kid said. “Supposed to be maybe 37 today and forty tomorrow.” Shit, that really was hot, like over a hundred degrees hot. “Fuckin’ global warming,” I said. “Fuckin’ right,” he agreed. I took a deep hit and felt a sense of calm wash over me. “This is really good shit,” I exclaimed as I took another hit before handing the Juul back. “Pure THC. Nothin’ but the best. Those were pretty good hits for a little guy like you,” he commented. “Plenty more where that came from if you’re interested.” Yeah, I was interested all right, but I didn’t know this guy from Adam and I’d hafta hit up an ATM to buy some pot. If he were to see what I have, he might just take my stuff and run, so I had to be even more cautious. “Maybe later,” I replied. “I’m interested all right, but I don’t exactly have the money.” “The stuff’s illegal here,” he added as he looked off into space, “but essentially legal in The Netherlands, which is where we get it. Some folk get it from Spain or even Germany. It’s a bit riskier there… black market. It comes from China and it’s dirt cheap either way, but you never know if it’s pure unless you pay your contacts to buy it legal, then smuggle it in.” Then turning to look directly at me, he commented, “You got nice threads for someone who don’t have the cash.” “Looks can be deceiving,” I countered. “Rich parents don’t mean shit when they throw you outta the house.” “You gay?” the boy asked. Talk about being direct! “Are you?” I asked. Taking another hit on his Juul, he nodded his head and answered, “I wasn’t any older than you when the rents caught me givin’ my best friend head. My friend was almost thirteen and I was kinda close to twelve, but I wanted it as much as he did. My old man didn’t even give Luc a chance to pull up his pants. He threw us both out and told me never to return. Worse, he called Luc’s parents and they were as bad as mine. So we were both on the street with no money and no home.” “You been on the streets for four years?” I asked in surprise. The boy took another hit from his Juul, and then handed it over to me before sayin’, “More like two-and-a-half,” he replied. “I’m fourteen now, but I know I look a bit older. Kinda the reverse of you, I think. You look eleven, but from your voice, I think you’re maybe twelve or even thirteen.” Takin’ another deep hit on the Juul, I passed it back and said, “I’m twelve. Won’t be thirteen ’til 28 December. Name’s Jacques, by the way.” “No it’s not,” he countered, “but I’ll call you that if you want,” he added with a disarming smile. “Americans don’t go by Jaques.” Before I could stop myself, I responded, “How’d you know I’m American?” Laughing, he answered in English, “Oh, don’t get me wrong. Your street French is just about perfect. You’ve even got the mannerisms down pretty good. But no French kid would wear your clothes. Another thing is your face. Native French speakers use different muscles than American English speakers, and it affects the way your face looks.” “Damn,” I replied, also in English. “I have a good ear for languages, and I can pretty much trace your family history from the way you pronounce certain words. I guess because I can pick things up from what I hear, I never bothered to consider the way language affects the face.” “So what’s my history?” he asked. “Not a lot to tell,” I replied. “One of your parents is part Tunisian, which isn’t unusual in Paris. Other than that, your parents are at least third generation working class Parisians.” “And proud of it,” he added. “By the way, my name’s Jacques… really.” “Boy, I sure picked the wrong name,” I responded, and then added, “My given name’s Francis, but I hate it. My friends call me Freck, ’cause of all my freckles.” “Freck?” Jacques practically spat. “Freck isn’t the right name for a kid like you. It’s too cutesy American, if you know what I mean. It’s not the right name for a street kid, especially not one who’s trying to appear to be French.” Then after a pause, he suggested, “How about François. You can’t get more French than that! It’s the same as your Francis and it means ‘free’.” “François,” I repeated. “It’s perfect.” “Then it’s settled,” Jacques agreed. “From now on, you’re François. And it was very clever of you, the way you got out of answering my question. ’Course it didn’t take me long to figure out you’re gay anyway. I can tell you like the way I look, but you don’t know me and you’re bein’ cautious, which is one of the most important rules of survival on the street. You’ll tell me your story when you’re ready.” “You’re assuming I’m going to stick with you,” I noted. “I don’t need to assume anything,” he responded. “I already know it. For one thing, you need me for this,” he said as he held up his Juul. “For another, you need a kid like me who’s a survivor, who’ll look out for you and protect you. I know you got some money, but that’s a liability on the street, ’cause everyone will try to take it from you if they know you got it. I know how to keep your stuff safe, and when you need more, I know how you can get it.” “Is that what this is about?” I asked. “Are you setting me up to take my things?” Looking at me askance, Jacques replied, “I’ll admit, I wouldn’t mind some help now and then. That’s what friends on the street do. I said I’d look out for you and I meant it. But I’d never steal from you, François. You’re a good guy. I get that vibe from you. I think we could help each other. I’m serious about keepin’ your shit safe. Deadly serious. There are plenty of people who would kill you, just to get their hands on that nice backpack of yours…” “But it’s an old one,” I pointed out. “Maybe to you, it’s old,” he replied. “More likely, you bought it used thinkin’ you could fool a street kid like me, but it’s way too nice for a street kid. You’re gonna hafta ditch the pack or make it look worthless to keep it and everythin’ inside from getting stolen. But I know where you can keep your things where they’ll be safe. I know you ain’t ready to trust me, but in no time, you’ll know better than to trust anyone else.” “You said you know how to get money?” I asked. “I assume you mean by turning tricks.” “There are only so many ways to survive on the street,” Jacques replied, “and the only other way for kids like us is stealin’ it or sellin’ dope. That can land you in a whole lotta trouble real quick, and it can get you dead faster than anything.” “So can sellin’ your body,” I pointed out. “True that,” he replied in American ghetto slang. “That’s why you need a good pimp. No doubt, most pimps are only interested in getting’ what they can from you. To them, you’re just a product to be sold and when you’re no longer marketable, they get rid of you. That’s a good way to wind up in the morgue. That’s why you need me. You need someone who’s been on the street and survived. Someone who knows his way around and knows who you can trust. My pimp’s a good guy. Started out on the street like us, learned the ropes and now he looks out for the next generation of street kids. He’s not just a pimp, but a street mom and daddy all in one.” “I hafta ask you this,” I countered, “but does your pimp pay you to recruit kids like me?” “You’re very perceptive François, but it’s not like that. We’re a family out here. We take care of each other. Of course, Philippe is always on the lookout for new merchandise, but he doesn’t need to pay us to recruit new talent. He takes care of us and we take care of him. Mostly, though, we do it because it’s the best way for kids to survive on the street. Philippe can give you a place… a decent roof over your head… make sure you never go hungry and help you stay clean in more ways than one. Pot’s OK and wine’s OK in moderation, so long as they don’t interfere with work or school…” “You go to school?” I asked in surprise. “We all do,” Jacques answered. “Not regular school, ’cause you need a real address for that and a legal guardian, but the local parish school doesn’t turn anyone away.” For the first time I noticed that Jacques didn’t stink. In fact, he smelled rather nice, like he was wearing a light cologne. He was clean-shaven, his hair was neat and his nails were trimmed. He was actually quite handsome. But then remembering his story, I asked, “So whatever happened to Luc?” It kinda looked like Jacques was about to tear up when he answered. “Luc didn’t understand the ways of the street… neither of us did… but Luc was always the leader. He didn’t take shit from no one and he didn’t back down. Any sane person knows to back down when someone asks for your money. A fist is no match for a knife. He was just thirteen and I still feel guilty that he was tryin’ to protect me. He was the first street kid I saw die in front of me, but not the last. That’s why you need Philippe.” “But that means turning tricks,” I surmised, “and I’m not ready for that.” “We do sell THC to some of our customers and you could help with that, or you can pay your keep, but it doesn’t really matter,” Jacques answered. “A year from now when your money’s all gone and you’re as hungry as ever, you’ll be a hot commodity, and Philippe will be willing to wait if that’s what it takes. He’ll charge you fifty euros a week, room and board, and nothing more. That’s for a bed, a hot shower and meals with the rest of us. He’ll give you a locker and let you supply the lock. You can’t beat that.” Jacques sure seemed to be on the up-and-up. There was still a risk he was gonna rob me blind, but I didn’t have too many options, so I replied, “So when can I meet this Philippe?” <> <> <> Life on the street wasn’t anything like what I’d been expecting. For one thing, I had an actual place to stay with a group of fifteen other boys. Philippe had a three-bedroom flat, and a pretty large one at that. It wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods, which helped explain why people tended to look the other way, with young teenage boys coming and going during the night. I got the impression from some of the others that they sometimes did favors for local cops to keep the police from checking up on the place. Philippe, of course, had one of the bedrooms to himself, so that left only two bedrooms for the rest of us, which meant eight boys sleeping in each bedroom. There were four sets of bunk beds crammed into each room, so with the addition of me, the house was full. Philippe had his own en-suite bathroom, which meant all sixteen of us boys had to share the one remaining bathroom. At least it was a large one, with three sinks and a communal shower with four showerheads. There was only one toilet, though, which was located in a room by itself, as is typical in Europe. It was made clear that no one could hold up the toilet and that if I got a case of the runs, I’d need to find a place to do my business elsewhere. True to Jacques’ word, there were sixteen lockers in the living room, all jimmy-proof and able to take a heavy-duty lock, which I purchased immediately at a hardware store down the street. The space was tight, but I was able to fit all my things inside without ditching the backpack. The only drawback was that the flat didn’t have a washer or dryer, so we all had to schlep down the block to a laundromat that cost a euro for each washer load and another euro for the dryer. Obviously, I wouldn’t be washing my clothes until they needed it, and changing underwear was gonna be a luxury. One of the things I found most surprising about the operation was that the boys weren’t permitted to service random johns. We were all expected to take turns recruiting johns from the strip, myself included, but we weren’t allowed to go off with them. Philippe carefully vetted all the johns himself, to make sure they were trustworthy and clean, and only once he was satisfied that a john was safe would a boy be allowed to go out with him. The john was expected to pay cash up front and to supply their home or a hotel room. No johns were ever permitted in the flat. It was a tight operation. There was a really nice TV in the living room, but there was no air conditioning and, in the summer, daytime temperatures with so many boys in one place were stiflingly hot, even in normal times. We were all street kids and most of us spent our days on the street, finding our own entertainment wherever we could. Most of the boys slept late, having been up much of the night. The lucky ones stayed out overnight with their johns, for which they earned good money. Because I wasn’t bringing in any dough, I had a greater share of the chores, but everyone was responsible for keeping the place clean. The day I arrived, the outside temperature was already near 37 Celsius by the time I got there, and the temperature inside the flat had to be at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit if not more. As soon as I had my stuff secured in my own locker, Jacques told me about a large water park, located right in Cergy-Pontois. It set us back four euros a piece, but on a hot day like this, that was well worth it. It took us over an hour to get there on foot, though, but it wasn’t like I had anything else to do. When I’d asked Jacques about bringing a swimsuit, he said I wouldn’t need it, but I didn’t know what he meant until we got there. A lot of the people, particularly the kids, weren’t wearing anything at all. That was fine with me! For my four euros, there was plenty to do, but things like paddle boats cost an extra fee for rental. Still, Jacques and I were able to do way more than swim, as we tried out just about every water slide and swam on every beach they had. The place was incredibly crowded, but we kept cool and I had a feeling I’d be spending much of my summer here. Jacques kept his Juul with him, inside a water-proof armband in which he also kept our cash. He took it out from time-to-time and we partook of his supply of cannabis. We were hardly alone in that regard. I loved to swim, and it felt good to be back in the water, but it reminded me so much of the life I’d had with Kyle, Roger and the dads. The thought of what I’d lost made me feel sad in spite of the good time I was having with Jacques. He noticed my change in mood right away though, and he asked, “You missing your family?” How’d he know? I ended up spilling my guts and telling my whole life story as we lay together on the the beach and smoked from his Juul. I told him far more than I ever planned to. “It’s not too late, you know,” he finally said. “It sounds like you had a pretty good life, even before you met your boyfriend. I understand that you were alone and hopelessly lonely, and that’s a good part of the reason that you turned to pot. But your boyfriend helped you overcome it. At least you know he’s still alive. I wish I could say the same. Sometimes I’m so horny, I can’t stand it. I know that sounds crazy for a whore to say, but it’s not the same. More than anything, though, I miss Luc. I really loved him and I sometimes cry myself to sleep thinking about him. That did it. The tears came to my eyes and Jacques and I ended up hugging each other and consoling each other. But then the atmosphere changed as I think we both realized how close and intimate our contact was, and we both became aroused. Slowly, I pulled away to get a good look at him, and then I close my eyes and our lips came together. When we started grinding against each other, Jacques suddenly stopped and cautioned, “We can’t do this here. We could end up in Juvie for doing it in public, and Philippe could throw us out for that. He can’t afford any trouble with the police.” Then grabbing my hand, he said, “Come, I know a place where we can be alone.” He led me to a wooded area of the waterpark where we were out of site of the crowds, and then he leaned down and took me into his mouth. I was so horny, it didn’t take long. I felt guilty afterwards, but I was still horny and I was still high, and I put the guilt out of my mind for the time being. But seeing that Jacques was still aroused left me with a quandary. Getting head was passive sex and although I didn’t refuse Jacque’s advances, I’d done nothing to encourage him. Giving head would be another matter entirely, and there’d be no way to avoid the feeling that I’d cheated on Kyle. When Jacques saw my hesitation, he asked, “Is something wrong?” With tears in my eyes, I replied, “I have a boyfriend. At least I did. We had a fight and we both said things that made it impossible to continue being boyfriends, but…” “But you’re not over him,” Jacques said, completing my thoughts. I merely nodded my head, and then my thoughts of Kyle only served to bring me crashing down, and a crash on pot is like a bipolar flip from mania to depression. I burst in to tears and cried uncontrollably as Jacques did his best to console me. When the tears finally started to subside, he added, “Something tells me you’re not gonna be with us all that long, but we’ll take good care of you until you figure out what you want to do with your life.” Then standing up and lending me his hand to help me up too, he said, “We need to head back now if we want to eat with the boys. If you stay, you’ll be expected to help with meals, but you’re a newbie and so you can do that later. Let’s get going, and you can meet the rest of us at dinner.” Dinner was surprisingly good, and healthy. We had some sort of beef stew with wine and vegetables in it, and there was a salad and lots of bread. None of us went hungry. The boys were a mixed group, and I was surprised to see I wasn’t the youngest either. We ranged in age from ten to seventeen, with fourteen being the average. It was pretty obvious that these were all street boys, though, as even the friendliest of them seemed hardened, and all of them seemed older than their actual age. When dinner was over, several of the boys left, I guess to be with their johns, while the rest of us cleaned up and washed the dishes. Another thing I hadn’t noticed at first was that there wasn’t a dishwasher. The apartment was still uncomfortably hot and no one was shy about shedding clothes. Most of us were in boxers or boxer briefs. A few of the boys weren’t even in that much. Once everything was put away, we went outside and played a game of soccer, right on the street. Although it was still quite warm outside, the game made us work up a sweat, which ironically actually cooled us off. I’d used to play soccer when I still lived in Battery Park City, so I held my own in the game and actually managed to score a goal. Once it was completely dark out, and with non-functioning streetlights, we had no choice but to go back inside. We took our turns showering and brushing our teeth, then we all went to bed. I’d never slept in a bunk bed before, much less a top bunk, and that took some getting used to. The trickle of boys as they returned home from their jobs didn’t help with my getting to sleep either. Eventually I did, though, as the next thing I knew, I awoke to the smell of coffee. As I slipped down from my bunk, it dawned on me that today was the day we were supposed to leave for Madrid and I silently wondered if they’d left without me. Tuesday was supposed to set a record, with a high around forty Celsius, so staying in the apartment was not an option. After cleaning up from breakfast, while some of the boys went on a shopping trip with Philippe to an airconditioned mall, Jacques included, a group of nine of us headed to the waterpark to spend the day. I didn’t really know any of the others yet, but they treated me as one of them and I felt safe. When we got there, we shucked our clothes and hit the waterslides and other water attractions, doing our best to stay cool. One of the boys brought a Juul with him and an ample supply of pot which we passed around. Rather than spend money we didn’t have on burgers and fries, we’d brought a sealed pack of smoked salmon with us and a loaf of bread. Funny, but lox back home woulda cost me some forty or fifty dollars a pound, but in Paris a pound of smoked salmon was no more expensive than a pound of smoked turkey. And even in this heat, a sealed package of smoked salmon could keep without refrigeration. It was a perfect French lunch for the group of us. After lunch, we passed around the Juul, and then something happened that was completely out of the blue. The boys snuck into the woods and of course I followed. We were already naked and horny as hell from the pot, so when Paul touched me, I couldn’t help but react. I was uninhibited and resistance was futile. That thought made me think of my best friends, Asher and Seth, back home, which made me hesitate for a moment, but the moment was quickly forgotten as multiple sets of hands touched me all over, even in places I would have never touched myself. It was hot as hell and we were nine horny adolescent boys, most or all of us gay. It was the most stimulating thing I’d ever experienced. Only later would I realize I’d participated in an orgy, even though there wasn’t any direct penetration. Except for the pot and the circumstances, I’d have never done anything like this, especially with a group of prostitutes. Yes, they were all around my age and seemed nice as hell, and we were all in a bad situation, but the risks of unprotected sex were extraordinarily high. However, they were experienced professionals and they did things with me I would have never even conceived of doing myself. The experience was amazing and whether it was intentional or not, they taught me more about how to give and receive pleasure in that one afternoon than I could have acquired in a lifetime of sex with Kyle. I almost didn’t feel guilty for cheating on Kyle… until I did. <> <> <> The bottom fell out early Wednesday morning when one of the boys woke up with a hacking cough. Not only that, but similar coughing could be heard coming from the other bedroom, where it was obvious that a least two of the boys were sick. Philippe emerged from his bedroom with the concern of a mother hen, but there was something else I saw in his eyes too. I knew that look from my biologic parents, and it wasn’t a benign one. It was the look they had when they were weighing their obligations as parents against the potential fallout and deciding between what was right and what was best for them. It was still hot as blazes in the apartment and so Philippe’s attempts to feel foreheads was fruitless. Finally, he brought out a digital thermometer and all three of them had low-grade fevers. “I don’t like this,” he said. “I don’t like it at all.” After a pause, he continued, “There’ve been rumors of kids getting’ sick from Juulin’, but no one knows why. I don’t need a fancy degree to figure it has somethin’ to do with contaminated THC. I thought I knew our supplier. I trusted him. He used to be one of us.” Turning to the group of us, he continued, “We have a doctor who’s discrete, but I don’t need a doctor to know this is serious. This ain’t a cold or the flu. Three of you couldn’t have caught something from a john. If this is from Jullin’ with bad THC, you could die without treatment. Quick treatment. I’m gonna drop these three at different emergency rooms. I’m sorry, but it’s the only thing that can be done. I can’t do more than that to help you. I’m sorry you’ll have to go into the system until you can get away, but that’s better than bein’ dead. “And for the rest of you, we’re gonna hafta smoke our weed the old-fashioned way, but we all need time for our lungs to heal. I don’t need to tell you that these three are our heaviest THC users…” Next to me, I thought. “…and that’s a big clue about what could await all of us.” Phillippe continued, “I’ll have the doc come check all of us out, but I think the best thing is for us all to give up pot for the foreseeable future. We’ll see what the doc says, but it’s probably best if we lay off the stuff for a while or longer.” “What about booze?” a boy who I think was named Chris asked. “You know the rules for beer or wine,” Philippe answered. “No stealing it and no getting drunk in public. If you can stick to the rules, feel free.” Then turning to look directly into their eyes, he continued, “Denys, Paul and Léon, get washed and dressed, and we’ll leave in five minutes.” Then turning back to the rest of us, he said, “Everyone else, go back to sleep. I’ll return after I drop them off, and we’ll talk about getting everyone checked out in the morning.” But before going to get ready himself, he stopped me and said, “I know you’re new here, François, and you aren’t familiar with the rules yet. We’ll talk when I get back, but the bottom line is that my first priority is in keeping everyone safe, but when it comes down to a choice between the safety of one or even a few of you, I can’t do anything that would risk our home. I’m taking enough of a risk as it is to drop the boys off, as there are cameras and my license number could be tracked. I’ll reduce the risk by going to different hospitals and dropping them on the next block, but it’s a risk. It’s the most I can do. “Anyway, get some rest and we’ll talk when I get back. Just don’t get any foolish ideas about turning us in to save yourself. I’ve never had to inflict severe punishment on a boy and I’ve never killed anyone. But don’t think I wouldn’t do whatever was necessary to keep everyone else safe.” <> <> <> “Come here, son,” the Doctor asked as he beckoned me forward into a makeshift exam room on the living room sofa. “What’s your name?” he asked. “François,” I answered. “Well, you certainly look healthy and in better shape than the other boys, and I don’t recall seeing you before during our monthly screenings. I’d certainly remember such a handsome boy as you. There aren’t so many redheads in France, after all. How old are you, François?” “I’m twelve-and-a-half,” I answered honestly. “And well into adolescence, I see,” the doctor added. “OK, let’s take a listen to your lungs,” he said as he placed his stethoscope on my chest, and then on my back. “Take some deep breaths, he told me and I complied. “Your lungs are clear as a mason jar,” he continued as he placed a digital thermometer under my tongue and placed a clip on my index finger. A minute later, he removed both and said, “Your temperature’s normal, your heart rate is low, which shows you’re in great shape, and your oxygen saturation’s 100%. It doesn’t get better than that.” “Does that mean I’m OK?” I asked. “It means there’s no sign of infection or of active lung disease,” he answered. “Of course there are the recent reports of pulmonary fibrosis in users of black-market pods with e-cigarettes. That might not show up until after several weeks or months of use.” “I’ve been smokin’ THC with the others during the last three days,” I reported. I was really kinda freakin’ out. Squeezing my shoulder, he responded, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about, François. There shouldn’t be any lasting damage from such a short time. Now in a group like this one, we always have to worry about TB,” he added. “It’s a serious problem among street youth, it’s often drug-resistant and the symptoms are very similar.” I was at a near panic when he told me that. I’d read about how drug-resistant tuberculosis was spreading among the homeless in New York, and it was common in association with HIV. And here I was sharing a bedroom with seven other boys, all of them involved in high-risk behaviors. “Couldn’t you just test us for it?” I asked. “You must have forgotten about your immunizations,” the doctor replied. “In the United States, where the incidence is generally low, they prefer to use surveillance and skin tests to detect and treat TB before it becomes rampant. We have such a large immigrant population, especially from Tunisia, and there is such suspicion among immigrants that we can’t afford to rely on surveillance alone. Not that the vaccine is very effective… it’s in the category of being barely better than nothing, but because of your vaccinations, your skin test would be positive, regardless of active infection, or not. “However, if you were an American… Francis instead of François… your skin test could still be negative, even right after becoming infected with TB. It could take several weeks before you seroconverted to a positive skin test.” Fuck, that wasn’t what I wanted to hear! I might have tuberculosis right now and I’d never know it. And I couldn’t even be tested for it for several weeks. And then it dawned on me, the good doctor had spoken to me in English at the end. Had I blown my cover? Did the doctor know who I am? Double fuck! <> <> <> It had been three hours since the doctor finished examining the last of us and left. We’d worked together to prepare dinner, had a nice meal of puréed vegetable soup and smoked salmon, with blueberries and heavy cream for dessert, and we’d worked together to clean up after the meal, wash the dishes and straighten up and vacuum the flat. I was outside playing soccer with some of the boys as we used the time to blow off our anxiety over the day’s events. Those who had dates for the evening were out with their johns. It was business as usual. Suddenly, a car drove up and parked right in front of our building. That was peculiar as hardly anyone ever came to our neighborhood. A man and a woman got out of the car and headed straight for the front door of our building. They were buzzed inside, so there was no way to know which flat they visited. They were inside for quite some time and they left before we all went inside. In any case, there was no mention of their visit that evening and we all assumed they were visiting someone else in one of the other flats. It wasn’t until early Thursday morning that I learned otherwise. I awoke to the sensation of Philippe shaking my shoulder. “François, get up. You need to come with me. There’s a man here to see you.” That sure got my attention as I wondered who it could be. I didn’t even think about the fact that I was naked until I saw the man standing in the living room, waiting for me. It wouldn’t have mattered, though. There wasn’t any room for personal things or to get dressed in the bedroom and all my clothes were in my locker in the living room. The man wasn’t at all familiar. He was young – probably in his twenties – and stylishly-dressed in expensive-looking, casual dress clothes. It was the kind of outfit my biologic mother might have designed if she designed clothes for men. Sheepishly, I approached the man and said, “If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’ll get my clothes and get dressed.” The man answered, “There’s no need to be embarrassed, Freck. Why don’t you wait to hear what I have to say, and then you can get dressed in clothes more suitable for the morning.” Slowly I was coming out of my fog and I realized that, not only had he spoken to me in English, but he’d called me by my American nickname. “My name’s Stéphan Rubeneaux,” the man continued, “but I’d prefer it if you just call me Stéphan.” I’m what you might call a private investigator and I specialize in finding missing and runaway children. Your family hired me to find you, Freck. From what I’ve been told, you are incredibly lucky. The streets of Paris can be very hard on kids, particularly if they’re not familiar with the ways of Paris. That’s especially true of this part of Cergy-Pontois, which is a failed planned community and is overrun with crime. Philippe has looked out for you. Most pimps seek only to exploit young runaways and if you’d met any of them first, your life would have been in great peril. “But even with the money you stole from your brother and your own savings you withdrew, sooner or later you’d have to resort to prostitution to survive. That’s how Philippe makes his money… by selling the services of the boys he cares for to fat, middle-aged men who want to have sex with boys. That’s your future here, Freck. You’d spend the rest of your youth having sex with fat, middle-aged men with bizarre fetishes, not the least of which is sex with boys who remind them of their own sons. And if you’re lucky enough not to catch AIDS or another STD, or to be killed, the transition from being a teenage prostitute to an adult prostitute is rarely successful. Most former teenage prostitutes wind up as drug dealers in a life of crime, short though it may be. It’s a far cry from what you wanted to do in life as an architect.” “But the things Kyle said,” I countered, “he disrespected me.” “I’m sure it won’t surprise you that Kyle sees it differently,” Stéphan continued, “but even so, he still loves you very much… in fact he’s IN love with you and he’d do anything to get you back. Also, keep in mind that he’s only ten. He might have the intelligence of an adult, but he doesn’t have the life experiences that you do.” “That might be true,” I responded, “but if anything he’s more mature than me… no, than I. I’ve been talking in slang too much lately. He’s never resorted to using pot or doing anything irrational. He’s always kept a level head and approached things from a logical perspective. I’m the emotional one. I’m the one who attempted suicide. I’m the fuck-up…” I started sobbing uncontrollably and Stéphan pulled me into him and let me cry on his shoulder. As the tears subsided, I realized that even though Stéphan was tall, I was crying on his shoulder and not into his chest. Apparently, I’d hit a growth spurt and hadn’t even realized it. “Come, Freck,” Stéphan resumed. “Let’s get you back to those who truly love you. Let’s get you back to the boyfriend who’d do anything not to lose you. Let’s get you back to your family.” Philippe, who I hadn’t even realized was still in the room with us, added in English, “You should go with him, François. Everyone else here, myself included, would kill for this opportunity.” Nodding my head, I went to my locker, removed the lock and got out my backpack. I pulled on a fresh pair of boxer briefs and dressed in a polo shirt, shorts and sandals. Stopping in the lavatory to relieve myself and in the bathroom to wash my hands, I headed out with Stéphan and into an uncertain future.
  11. The sound of a ringing phone brought me out of a pleasant dream, but by the second ring, it had faded entirely. My boyfriend, Freck was lying beside me and at first I’d no idea where we were. For whatever reason, the phone wasn’t near us and the ringing seemed to be coming from across the room. I saw Freck toss aside the covers and walk naked as the situation slowly came back to me. We were in Paris, in the midst of a ten-week European vacation that was also Dad and Ken’s honeymoon. Freck reached for the phone, which was on a desk at the foot of the bed, and I heard him answer, “Hello?”, and then he responded, “Yeah, Kyle and I will be down in a few, but why didn’t you call one of us on our cell? The hotel phone isn’t near the bed… Oh, you intended it that way. Gotcha. See you at eight.” Then turning to me, he said, “It’s seven thirty, babe. We have a half-hour to shower, dress, and get downstairs for breakfast.” “Damn,” I replied as I hauled my naked body out of bed. “I’m exhausted, but it was worth it,” I added. “Definitely,” Freck agreed. While Freck took his shower, I brushed my teeth. It had taken some doing, but I convinced the dads that Freck and I needed our privacy while in Paris. After all, Paris was the most romantic city in the world, and we’d already gone more than two weeks without a chance for intimacy. I was only ten, but I had my needs. Therefore, Dad and Ken were making the sacrifice of their own privacy for the week and sleeping in a room with a double bed and a twin, so that Roger could room with them. Freck and I had a double room to ourselves, and we’d taken full advantage of it last night, well into the morning. But now we were paying the price. When Freck got out of the shower, I jumped in and started washing while Freck brushed his own teeth, applied deodorant and cologne and started to get dressed. In the meantime, I finished my shower and dried myself off, then blow-dried my hair, which was getting rather long. I had no intention of cutting it in the foreseeable future though, as I liked it long. It was down to my shoulders now and I thought I might see just how long I could let it grow. I didn’t need to use deodorant yet and the dads thought I was still a bit young to wear cologne in public, so I joined Freck in getting dressed. We were staying in an old-world hotel on the left bank, in Saint Germain des Prés in the sixth arrondissement, a quaint neighborhood of small shops and cafés. Although the hotel was rather old and the rooms were small, it included a number of luxury appointments such as heated towel bars – not that we needed heated towel bars – but the overall effect was of understated elegance at a reasonable price. I loved it. Breakfast was served on the main floor in a separate breakfast room where guests sat at long tables with copies of Les Monde and The International Herald Tribune, as well as other key newspapers from around the world. Dad, Ken and Roger were already seated and they’d saved some seats across from them. Freck, being multilingual as he was, immediately grabbed a copy of Les Monde and started reading about current events. Although I did reasonably well in the languages I’d studied, including Spanish and Japanese, I’d never studied French, nor did I have a desire to. I therefore grabbed a copy of The International Herald Tribune, a joint publication of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Our server came to the table and dropped off baskets in front of us with an assortment of fresh hot breads, croissants and rolls, as well as an assortment of cheeses, ham and smoked salmon. So this was a real continental breakfast. After two weeks of eating eggs, bacon, ham, baked beans and toast every day for breakfast, it was nice to eat something a bit healthier. The server offered to bring us coffee, tea or hot cocoa. I of course chose the coffee without hesitation, but Freck thought about it for a bit and ordered the hot cocoa. “Getting a bit of a sweet tooth, are we?” I teased my boyfriend. “French Coffee is espresso and it’s incredibly strong,” he explained. “Their cocoa on the other hand isn’t from a mix. It’s real cocoa and I’ve heard it’s incredible.” “Well, strong coffee never hurt anyone,” I responded, “and I need my caffeine.” When the pot arrived, I poured myself a full cup and started to drink it. My God, it was so bitter, I almost spit it out. Laughing, Freck said, “You’re supposed to drink it in those small espresso cups, babe, and with a lot of sugar.” I’d been a coffee drinker since I was seven and successfully argued with Dad that drinking coffee was little different from drinking cola. Since then I’d tasted many different varieties of coffee and even some espresso, but I’d never, ever diluted my coffee with sugar or milk. Knowing more what to expect, I took my next sip more slowly and found the coffee to be rich and flavorful. It was definitely a drink meant to be sipped and savored rather than gulped. When Freck tasted his cocoa, he actually moaned. “Oh my God, this is good. I’ve never tasted hot cocoa like this.” Then turning to me, he asked, “You want a sip?” Of course I had to take him up on his offer, and he was right. The cocoa was incredibly good. It was rich and bold, but to me it was sickeningly sweet, which seemed even worse than the bitterness of the espresso. “It’s very good,” I commented, “but I’ll stick to my coffee.” It was a very simple meal, but everything was fresh. The breakfast itself was truly exceptional, but already the temperature was decidedly warm and sticky. The hotel was air conditioned, but as an older building typical of many in Europe, climate control was spotty at best. In London and the U.K., the weather had been comfortable though damp. With daily highs in the low- to mid-seventies and lows in the fifties, we were comfortable in shirt sleeves and never really noticed the lack of air conditioning. Paris was gonna be another matter. With highs in the mid-eighties and unusually high humidity, it would be uncomfortable. By the time we left for Spain next Tuesday, it was expected to be about a hundred degrees. Ironically, it wouldn’t be as hot in Madrid, and at least in Spain they were used to the heat. Today was only supposed to get into the mid-seventies and Freck and I had dressed appropriately, in T-shirts and shorts with sneakers and low-cut socks. By next week I expected we’d be in tank tops, shorts and sandals. With the exception of some clouds on Thursday and rain on Saturday, the weather was expected to be sunny for the entire week. There was much to see and do during that time, including several museums, not the least of which was the Louvre. No less important, however, were the Musée D’ Orsay, the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, Musée de Cluny, Centre Pompidou, Musée Marmottan-Monet, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais de Tokyo, and of particular interest to Freck, Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Although Freck was particularly interested in art and architecture, I was most interested science and hence the two museums of most interest to me were Musée du Quai Branly, which was a museum of archeology, and Musée des Arts et Métiers, which was Europe’s oldest science museum. Of course there were many other things to see too, including the views from the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre and the Pantheon. There was also Luxembourg Palace and Gardens, Versailles, the Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées and for Ken, Pere Lachaise Cemetery and the Catacombs. We also planned to spend Friday in Normandy, primarily to see the D-Day sites, and had reservations for a tour. The most important site I’d wanted to see, however, was the Notre-Dame Cathedral, but it had been ravaged by fire and wouldn’t reopen for years. C'est dommage, as the French would say. Freck suggested that since the Louvre would be closed tomorrow whereas most museums were closed today, we should see it today. Leave it to Freck to think only of the museums. Dad pointed out that today’s weather was supposed to be ideal, with the coolest temperatures we’d see all week and ample sunshine. Therefore, today should be an outdoor day. We settled on an ambitious schedule that involved seeing Place de la Concorde, Avenue de Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Place du Trocadero and The Trocadero Gardens, and finishing with the Eiffel Tower. Of course we ended up passing right by some of the museums we’d be seeing later in the week, but why waste time indoors on such a beautiful day? Roger couldn’t have been happier as it meant ideal conditions for his photography of the city. With Tuesday being another spectacular day, weather-wise, we took in the Montparnasse Tower with it’s breathtaking view of Paris, Montparnasse Cemetery, Luxembourg Palace and Gardens, the Catacombs of Paris, which were incredibly cool, and the Pantheon, which has a crypt where Victor Hugo and Madame Curie are buried. From there we took the Metro to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, which it turned out was surprisingly beautiful with headstones and monuments far more elaborate than any I could’ve imagined. Among the famous buried there were Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Frederik Chopin. From there we took the Metro to Montmartre, where we visited the famous Sacré-Coeur Basilica and took in the breathtaking view of Paris as Roger filled yet another memory card with his photography. Although Wednesday was hot, the dads thought we should continue with outdoor things while we still had the sun, and so we headed out to Versailles and spent the day there. It took forever to see anything though, with Roger setting up his shots and photographing every garden and every room from every conceivable angle. He even claimed he had enough photos to create a virtual tour of much of Versailles that could be viewed with VR goggles. Talk about going overboard. Thursday was cloudy and it was also the one day of the week when the Louvre was open late, and so we headed straight there. I’d been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York many, many times and so I fully expected the Louvre to be of similar caliber. Both museums were considered to be among the best in the world and they were numbers one and two on a number of lists. Originally a small portion of Napoléon’s palace, it grew to occupy a full wing and eventually it took over the entire palace before running out of space. It was then that the Chinese American architect I.M. Pei was called in to redesign the Louvre, adding new reception, conference, food service, shopping and parking areas without disrupting the original design. As Freck was quick to point out, Pei’s design of a glass pyramid was ingenious. What looked like a pyramid from above ground actually served as a giant skylight through which the underground portions of the museum were bathed in light. Not only that, thanks to the pyramid, even below ground the three wings of the Louvre were always visible. There was so much to explore of the Louvre and we all had different priorities, so we decided to split up, with the dads going off in one direction and Roger with his camera and lenses in another. That left Freck and me on our own with some twelve hours in which to see one of the greatest museums on earth, and while twelve hours sounded like a long time, it wasn’t enough time to scratch the surface of the collections, let alone see anything in depth. With my interest in archeology, there was a special exhibition on relics of the Hittite Empire, and of course I wanted to see the art of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. It might seem strange that a Jewish boy would want to spend time seeing Islamic art, but I found it fascinating. Of course I was also interested in the art of ancient India, China and Japan. Freck was interested in seeing the Medieval Louvre, which was underground and exposed the ramparts from the original castle, as well as the extensive collections of the art of Europe during the Renaissance and after. Since we knew there’d be long lines waiting to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, we decided to head there first, before the crowds got to it. We were not disappointed… in the line, which snaked around the large exhibit hall before reaching the famous painting. We did get to explore a lot of art in depth along that way, though. The other must-see artwork was the Venus de Milo, an ancient Greek statue of exquisite beauty. It turned out the Venus de Milo was at the intersection of two great exhibit halls among a huge collection of statuary, and so we had no difficulty getting close enough to appreciate it. Armed with some amazing apps that catalogued every object of art in the Louvre and showed where to find them, we spent hours exploring as much as we could. The Louis XIV rooms were a real highlight – I’d never seen such opulence in one place before – and I really enjoyed seeing the Medieval armory, which was much more elaborate than even the Metropolitan’s Cloisters back in New York. Freck was thrilled to be seeing some of the work of the most famous artists of all time. We spent only a little time in the museum’s extensive main gift shop. With the limited space in our luggage, anything we bought would have to be shipped back to the States. Fortunately, the books that most interested us were available on Amazon, and for less money and with free Prime shipping. We’d wait to order them when we got back home. We enjoyed two meals during our day at the Louvre. Although we could’ve left the museum to eat at a café or bistro nearby, we wanted to avoid that and spend as much time in the museum as possible. For lunch we ate at Comptoir du Louvre, a cafeteria-style restaurant located under the pyramid. Although we only had soup and sandwiches, the food was surprisingly fresh and we enjoyed our brief midday break. Later in the day, we had a very nice dinner at Goguette, also under the pyramid, an elegant sit-down restaurant that promised the best that France has to offer, served quickly so patrons could return to seeing the museum. It was quite a splurge, but Freck was paying and the setting was rather romantic. All-in-all, I thought the Louvre was comparable to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The Met had a more varied and, in some ways, eclectic collection, but the Louvre was more extensive. The Louvre was significantly easier to navigate, since it occupied a palace that was built over a finite period of time, and I.M. Pei only enhanced the ease of getting around. Although Freck and I had both been to the Met many times and could quickly get to any collection in the museum in minutes, visitors often found the Met to be a confusing labyrinth of different buildings and passageways that were constructed during different periods and without an evident plan. We didn’t get to everything we wanted to see at the Louvre, but we covered the highlights and had a better idea of what to see the next time we visited Paris, and there would certainly be a next time. As huge as the Louvre was, we never once crossed paths with the dads or Roger. We finally met up with them right at ten o’clock, by the spiral staircase that leads down from the pyramid above. Poor Roger actually complained that he’d filled two memory cards. When I asked him the size of the memory cards he was using and how many photos they held, he said he was using 128GB SD cards that, with 42.4 megapixels, yielded about 2500 raw stills or over two-and-a-half hours of 4K video per memory card, not that he needed video in the museum. “You shot five thousand photos in one day?” I asked for confirmation. “And then some,” he replied. Woah, the boy was obsessed. By the time we got back to the hotel, Freck and I were exhausted, and we fell asleep the instant our heads hit the pillow. The next thing I knew, the alarms were sounding on both our phones and after a brief moment of disorientation, I remembered that today was the day we were going on a tour to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches and other sites. The dads always railed about taking tours, favoring to do their own research and make the arrangements themselves. For Normandy, however, it was difficult to see it without taking a tour for at least part of it, and there were many more options for making it a day trip from Paris by signing up with a tour operator. Fortunately, the dads had done their homework and the last thing any of us wanted was to sit on a bus all day with only a few minutes of sightseeing at each site. Further, we didn’t need a tour guide to spoon-feed us information that anyone could find on Wikipedia. Instead, we took a high-speed train to Caen, where we were met by our guide at the train station. We traveled by van, just the five of us and our guide, so it really was a private tour. In contrast, we saw a lot of large tours with humongous busses filled with nonagenarians, not that I had anything against ninety-year-olds, but we were able to see so much more on our own. Our guide took us to all the main beaches where we could still see the ruins of the German defense measures. We visited the D-Day memorial at Omaha Beach and we toured the associated museum, where we viewed a really cool video that showed actual Allied and German film of the invasion, side-by-side. Our guide took us to a really nice, out-of-the-way restaurant where we enjoyed an authentic Norman lunch before returning to Caen for the train trip back to Paris. We had three days left in Paris and eleven museums left to see – ten if the Grand and Petit Palais were counted together, and half of them would be closed on Monday. The other half would be closed on Tuesday, but that didn’t matter since we were leaving that morning on a high-speed train to Barcelona, from which we’d travel to Madrid. The bottom line was that we couldn’t possibly see all eleven museums and do them justice. Realistically, we could only see six or seven of them. The Branley, the Orsay, the Pompidou and the Cluney were all large museums that could take a day in and of themselves. I desperately wanted to see the Branly, the Cluny and the Arts et Métiers, whereas Freck was insistent on seeing the Orsay, the Pompidou and the Architecture et du Patrimoine. Roger wanted to see the Cluney, the Orsay the Grand and Petit Palais above all else, and Ken insisted in seeing the Pompidou and the Tokyo. Dad was most interested in the Orsay, the Marmottan-Monet and the Arts Décoratifs. It was obvious to me that we’d have to split up and focus on the museums of most interest to each of us, but the dads had grave concerns about either Freck or I going it alone. They were even concerned about Roger, but he insisted that at fifteen, he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Besides which, I didn’t think any of us were thrilled at the idea of seeing all the artworks as measured by camera angles, so Roger would be on his own. We tried to work things out so that Freck and I would always be with one of the dads, but we didn’t share the same priorities and there just wasn’t enough common ground. In the end, Freck and I convinced the dads that we were responsible enough to see the museums we wanted to see by ourselves as long as we stuck together. As concessions we agreed that we wouldn’t go anywhere outside of the museums and that we would be escorted to, from and between museums by one of the dads. The trouble was that the Musée du Quai Branly, Musée D’ Orsay and Musée des Arts et Métiers were all closed on Monday, which meant we’d have to see them on Saturday or Sunday. The Centre Pompidou, Cité de l’Architecture, and the Cluny were all closed on Tuesday and could thus be seen on any day. The Branly and Architecture were near each other and so it made sense to see them together on one day, so we chose to see them on Sunday. Likewise, the Pompidou and Arts et Métiers were nearby and so we should have seen them together, but they were closed on different days! That meant we’d have to see the Orsay and the Arts et Métiers together on Saturday, which left the Pompidou and the Cluny to be seen on Monday. Dad would accompany and see the Orsay on Saturday with us, and Ken would go with us to the Branly on Sunday and the Pompidou on Monday. Freck and I would be on our own for the Arts et Métiers, Cité de l’Architecture and the Cluny. The hours were very restrictive, so we’d need to make tracks! Saturday was a rainy day, but our plans went off without a hitch. We started with Musée D’ Orsay and I almost didn’t want to leave it, but then I’d have missed seeing the oldest science museum in Europe. The Orsay was built in an old train station and the use of the space was ingenious. As with the Louvre, there were period rooms that were exquisite, but the real highlight was the collection of impressionist paintings, which was second to none. I could’ve spent days in that museum. However, Arts et Métiers did not disappoint. Sunday started out with just as much promise as Freck and I saw the Branley with Ken in the morning and early afternoon. Rather than eating the hotel breakfast, we all went out for Sunday brunch since the museums didn’t open until 11 AM. The Branley was absolutely fuckin’ fantastic – unlike any museum I’d ever seen. Its focus was on primitive arts from around the world, with an emphasis on archeology and anthropology. It was outstanding and easily worth a full day, but Freck wanted to be an architect and so a visit to to Cité de l’Architecture was a must. Ken accompanied us there, then continued on to Palais de Tokyo, planning to meet us at 7:00 when the museum closed. It was then that the worst days of our lives began. It started innocently enough with a discussion of, what else, architecture. Because Freck wanted to be an architect, I naturally assumed he would be enamored of the architecture of Paris, which I found to be rather charming. Paris was so different from every other city I’d ever seen or seen pictures of, that I couldn’t help but be enchanted by it. I did nothing more than make an innocent comment about the extraordinary architecture of Paris, when Freck responded, “Extraordinary architecture? Are you fuckin’ kidding me? What’s extraordinary about it?” “What’s not to like about it?” I asked. “It’s so different from anything else I’ve ever seen.” “What’s not to like?” Freck replied. “For starters, it’s not unique, it’s not original, it’s limited, it’s monotonous and it turns it’s back on the street, sequestering the lovely courtyards contained from public view. With five or six stories, it’s not tall enough to require elevators, not that there’s any space for them, yet too tall for the infirm to climb to the top. By its very nature, it can’t be made accessible to those with disabilities either. One might excuse that if it reflected the development of French architecture over the centuries, but it doesn’t. Paris was redesigned during the reign of Napoléon and most structures of significance were torn down and replaced. Yes, there are wonderful examples of Gothic, Neogothic and French Renaissance styles, but then Napoléon came along and established a uniform code of style that has defined the city ever since. “But what about the Eiffel Tower?” I pointed out. “The Eiffel Tower is the one unique architectural statement to define the city in more than two hundred years. Maybe the Grand Palais, but that’s it.” “But there are modern skyscrapers along the Seine,” I pointed out. “Are you referring to those drab eyesores south of the Eiffel Tower?” “And what about the Montparnasse Tower?” I asked. “The views are incredible from the top” “Not only is it out of character for the rest of Paris,” Freck countered, “but it’s what killed any further change to the Paris skyline. It caused such an outcry that the city banned any further high-rise development within the city, locking in the drab architectural style forever.” “La Defense?” I suggested. “The architecture’s cool, but it’s an edge city, built in the suburbs of Paris outside the city proper. In fact the restriction on building height just about ensures that all future development will be outside the city proper, and it locks in a city center populated by elites, surrounded by suburban slums,” Freck countered. “I think UNESCO might disagree with your assessment,” I replied. “Look at what happened with the proposed Tour Triangle.” “That was a real shame,” Freck countered again. “A modern forty story tower would have redefined Paris.” “And destroyed its unique character,” I said. Sighing loudly, Freck said, “Don’t get me wrong, Kyle. Paris is the only city in the world that can compare with New York for culture, the arts and fashion. OK, London is perhaps the new world center for theater, thanks to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, but Paris and New York are the world’s centers of the arts. That said, Paris is an architectural backwater based on two-hundred-year-old standards and a degree of uniformity that could only have been imposed by the dictator Napoléon. It’s inconceivable that Parisians have chosen to immortalize an architectural style that hides its most beautiful spaces from public view, turns its back on its streets, divides rich and poor and segregates its most disadvantaged citizens in suburban slums. It shuns the disabled and stifles innovation and sustainable development, relegating Paris to a second-tier status from which it will never escape.” “Second-tier status?” I practically shouted, drawing curious looks from the people around us. “Paris is the very definition of world class, maybe even more than New York. No place has as much old-world charm…” “For good reason,” Freck interrupted. “Other places may envy its old-world charm, but they can do so much more than Paris can. Paris will never achieve the status as a center for technology or regain its role as a political leader. What international architect would ever come here with the restrictions they’d face.” “Um, I.M. Pei?” I suggested. “Yeah, but he didn’t have to worry about the height restriction,” Freck countered. “He just built underground.” “And the reason that’s a problem is?” I asked. “There aren’t many places with courtyards where they can build underground.” “I thought you said that all the old Parisian buildings have enclosed courtyards,” I pointed out. “Why can’t they build under them?” “Not everyone can build a glass pyramid to let light into an underground cave,” Freck explained. “Look, there’s no reason they couldn’t at least double the restriction on building height. That move alone would lead to new development and a dramatic increase in accessible, sustainable and affordable housing.” “The affordable housing won’t be in the new development,” I contended. “It’ll be in the oldest, least accessible, least sustainable buildings.” “And those buildings will be torn down to make way for new development.” “And a part of Paris would die in the process,” I complained. “No it wouldn’t,” Freck insisted. “Look at how well air rights management has worked in New York. Rather than tearing everything down, air rights management lets developers build skyscrapers by buying up the unused air rights of the neighboring buildings. That way, rather than building a bunch of high-rise buildings, developers build a few really tall buildings and leave the historic architecture intact. It avoids having high-density skyscrapers as is so common in other cities.” “And you end up with narrow eighty-story buildings, built on lots designed for the original two- or three-story buildings that used to stand there,” I pointed out. “And the effect is very, very cool.” “Not if you live next door to one of those super-tall buildings,” I replied. Well, what’s important is sustainability,” Freck went on, “and it’s pretty hard to achieve carbon neutrality in low-rise, hundred-year-old structures.” “Don’t be so sure of that,” I countered. “Paris’ climate is much more temperate than New York’s and they use a lot less air conditioning than we do. They don’t need heavy insulation when their buildings are constructed of foot-thick stone exteriors. The old boilers have largely been replaced by new super-efficient models and the water heaters are instant flash-heating models that use a fraction of the energy of conventional systems. “With a modern glass and steel structure, on the other hand, there is no heavy stone exterior to moderate the temperatures, so you have more extreme highs and lows. Even if you use an ultra-efficient heat pump, you have to pump out all the heat from the sun shining through the glass, and then you need to pump the heat back in at night. Glass doesn’t provide much insulation, after all. I shouldn’t need to tell you that super-tall buildings have a high surface area to volume ratio. The most efficient shape for a building is a sphere, but since that’s not very practical, a cube. And the interior courtyards offer privacy and help to bring the outdoors inside in a way that New York architecture can’t. “Glass isn’t much of an insulator,” I pointed out. “Triple-pane windows are very efficient,” Freck countered. “Not as good as even wood or stone, and it can’t compare with high R-value insulation.” “What the fuck do you know about architecture anyway,” Freck objected. “Apparently more than you do,” I replied. I knew it was mean, but I was really beginning to question Freck’s ability to integrate form and function. “It’ll be a long time before you have enough stature to insist on designing buildings your way or no way at all. Most architects are hungry, and that means designing what the client wants, regardless of what you think of it. All said and done, you won’t be able to put food on the table unless you satisfy the customer” “Are you suggesting I would sacrifice the needs of my clients in the name of style?” Freck asked. “Yes, Schreck, I think you would.” I didn’t know why it slipped out, but I was steamed and my subconscious made the connection to a name I was sure would annoy him. Little did I know just how much it would. “You called me Schreck!” Freck practically screamed at me. “All through fifth grade, a group of bullies tormented me by calling me that. It was horrible. I never really got over it. I can’t believe you called me that!” “I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” I responded, but then I twisted the knife by calling him the name I knew he hated the most. “I won’t call you that again, Francis.” Rather than respond by calling me names, Freck simply turned around and stormed out of the museum, leaving me all alone. I was stunned. His storming out of there took me so by surprise that I just stood there for a long time before I even thought to move. What was I gonna do? I tried calling Freck on his phone but it went straight to voicemail. I kept on calling him over and over until my calls stopped getting through at all. Later, I’d learned he actually removed me from his contacts and blocked my number. The last thing I wanted to do was call the dads after lobbying so heavily to share a room with my boyfriend. In retrospect I should have, as adults have way more experience than kids with relationships. I just didn’t yet realize how much damage Freck and I had done to our relationship in such a short time. I didn’t realize how profoundly the exchange had affected Freck or how quickly he could fall into despair. We’d unleashed unresolved issues that hadn’t gone away from before I knew him. I did briefly consider calling my brother, but quickly dismissed the idea. Again, I wasn’t thinking clearly or I’d have realized that Roger could have helped. I still had over two hours until the museum closed at seven, and then we were all planning to go out to dinner. I should have gotten the help of the dads right away and tried looking for Freck, but I never thought he’d just plain leave the museum, let alone go very far. I figured he’d show up at closing time and we’d apologize for the things we said, and then go back to the hotel and make up with each other by making love. I never once thought this might be the last time I ever saw him, or saw him alive. Well one thing was for sure – without Freck, I had no interest in seeing the museum. The Aquarium de Paris Cinéqua was nearby, so I decided to wait for Freck’s return by spending my late afternoon there. It was also open until seven PM. I left the aquarium at 6:45 and walked the short distance to the architecture museum. When I didn’t see Freck anywhere near the entrance, I went inside and enquired at the information desk to see if they’d seen him. With his red hair and profusion of freckles, he was relatively easy to spot. They remembered seeing him earlier but hadn’t seen him since he stormed out. Dejectedly, I went back outside and waited for him by the front entrance, but he never came. Ken showed up at about 7:10 and he immediately asked where my boyfriend was. He pretty much freaked out when I said I hadn’t seen him since we had an argument shortly after entering the museum. He immediately called Dad and my brother and then both arrived together, scarcely ten minutes later. In the meantime, Ken called the police and asked about reporting a missing child. Later I realized how wise he’d been not to mention that Freck had run out, reporting only that he was missing. Unfortunately, the fact that he was twelve worked against us. Had Freck been any younger, he would’ve been treated as a potential abduction and the police response would’ve been immediate and decisive. A twelve-year-old, however, was treated as an early adolescent and considered to be a runaway unless evidence could be found to suggest otherwise. Ironically, I realized the police were absolutely right in this case. When Dad and Roger arrived, we realized that no one had bothered to check the hotel and so Ken and Roger immediately headed back there to look for or wait for him. In the meantime, Dad and I went straight to the nearest police station to file a missing person’s report. Whereas we considered his disappearance to be an emergency, the police treated Freck as a teenage runaway. As the officer taking our report said, he’d either show up in a day or two, leave Paris and maybe even France, or be found dead. I could’ve cried. It quickly became apparent why laissez-faire is a French term. The police weren’t gonna do anything, not even after he’d been missing 48 hours. We were gonna need help from outside the police and we needed it fast. Dad hadn’t a clue how to go about getting it though. His next call was the American Embassy and although it was after hours, a staffer agreed to meet with us. The U.S. embassy in Paris was located near Place du Concorde, near the Grand Palais and the Louvre, and it seemed to take forever for the taxi to get there. In the meantime, Ken called to say that Freck hadn’t returned to the hotel and all his things were still there. I gave a huge sigh of relief at hearing that. The staffer who met with us was very helpful, particularly in terms of helping us to calm down and not panic. It was she that suggested we have the police trace Freck’s phone, which they should’ve suggested in the first place. Although he could’ve turned off the Find My Phone feature, any use of his phone at all, even for a few seconds, would trigger a ping on the nearby cell phone towers. By putting a tracer on his phone, we could locate where he was at the time of the ping and act accordingly. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t help if he kept his phone off, but it was doubtful that he wouldn’t turn it on at some point… unless he ditched his phone and got a prepaid phone, which was something a runaway definitely might do. When the staffer asked about Freck’s passport, Dad replied that it was still back at the hotel. But then I had a sobering thought. “Dad, did Ken and Roger actually look inside Freck’s luggage?” Dad wasted no time in calling Ken, who checked with Roger, who was waiting for Freck inside our room. The reply was the worst thing I could’ve imagined – all of Freck’s luggage was completely empty. I had Dad tell Roger where we were keeping our spare cash and our passports. I knew that Freck had a few hundred euros hidden away as did I, in addition to the cash we kept in our wallets. Freck’s extra cash, as well as mine, were gone. So was his passport. “Well, seven or eight hundred euros won’t last very long,” the staffer commented, “but it would be enough for him to get out of Paris in just about any direction.” Then she asked, “Does he have a credit card or access to any additional funds?” “He does have a credit card,” Dad answered, but at least in the States there aren’t many businesses that would let a kid use one without an adult being present with the kid.” “It’s the same here,” the staffer chimed in. “His biologic parents are quite wealthy,” Dad continued, “billionaires in fact. Freck has substantial funds in his bank account, but he needs a co-signature from his parents or from me, his legal guardian, before he can make a cash withdrawal. By going on-line, however, he could wire money to anyone, including himself.” “At least an American will stand out over here, particularly in France,” the staffer replied. “But he speaks fluent French,” I pointed out, “and Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German. He’s very convincing too,” I added. “He could make any stranger believe whatever story he tells.” “So, he could be anywhere,” the staffer realized. Then picking up the phone, she spoke to someone in a language I didn’t immediately recognize – something Germanic, like maybe Dutch or Flemish. Then she turned back to us and replied, “I’ve contacted someone I know at Interpol. They can expedite a request to locate a mobile phone. The response to a ping won’t be as immediate, but it will cover all of Europe.” Then pulling out a card and giving it to dad, she continued, “I’d suggest you hire a private investigator, and this is a good one. He’s not cheap, but he can cut through the red tape of dealing with multiple government agencies in multiple countries. He has an excellent success rate, but I have to caution you that very often, when they’re found it’s in a morgue.” I shuddered at the thought of that. Dad called the number on the card as soon as we left the embassy, and made an appointment to see the P.I., first thing in the morning. <> <> <> My expectation of what a P.I.’s office should look like was tainted by just about every book I’d read and movie I’d seen. The typical P.I. as per my experience with books, should be middle-aged, overweight and wearing rumpled stained clothes. Their office should be seedy and dingy with stacks of papers everywhere, an old manual typewriter in evidence, and maybe a food-encrusted plate or two under some papers. A secretary, if there was one, would be a hopeless romantic, in love with her boss but resigned to the fact that he’s oblivious to her affection. The P.I. the staffer recommended wasn’t anything like that. For one thing, he was young – like maybe in his late twenties, and he appeared to be fit and trim. His office was in Forum Les Halles, a very modern, glitzy shopping arcade and office complex near the Pompidou Center that I didn’t even know existed before. There was no secretary, but none was needed. Stéphan Rupeneaux had all the latest gadgets, including an iMac Pro, a color multifunction laser printer, an iPad Pro and the latest iPhone. He sat at a sleek glass desk with hardly any papers in evidence, but then none were needed in an all-electronic office. His dress was casual, yet precise. He wore a yellow polo shirt that had a dull sheen to it and was probably made of silk or a silk blend. His slacks appeared to be of fine pressed linen, and probably were, and he wore designer sandals, with toenails that were obviously manicured. He greeted us with a warm smile that appeared genuine and asked questions that were probing but not obtrusive. In a matter of fifteen minutes, he understood the family dynamics and had no trouble accepting that Freck was my boyfriend, even though I was only ten years old. He asked us about Freck’s past and why he was no longer living with his biologic parents. When I mentioned his past use of alcohol and marijuana, he responded, “That’s the first thing he did after he stormed out, as you put it. He went looking for a supplier, and I’m sure he had no difficulty finding one.” When I mentioned Freck’s attempted suicide, he countered, “But it wasn’t really a suicide, was it? In a way, he really was calling out for help, but when he tried to jump from the rooftop of that parking garage, he thought he could fly, but he didn’t care, one way or the other.” “That’s exactly what he said,” I responded. “Your boyfriend has unresolved problems,” Stéphan answered. “He still has a lot of pent-up anger and guilt, but more than anything, he’s very insecure. He’s unsure of himself and your argument probably brought those insecurities to the surface. His first reaction was one of flight. By running he could, in his mind, leave the guilt and the insecurities behind. In his anger he could find a new purpose, albeit one that’s short-lived. But in self-medicating, he can simply forget to care about it. Let us hope the cannabis is enough for now. Let’s hope he doesn’t use anything stronger in an effort to escape, or fall in with those who would harm him. “In terms of where he might go, it’s hard for a young boy to survive in the countryside. Everyone is so suspicious. It’s much more likely that he’d stick to an urban center, particularly a large one. From what you described, he’s exceptionally smart and would know that dangerous behaviors would risk discovery, so I doubt he would try to hitchhike across Europe. As young as he is, he can’t simply walk up to ticket agent, but he wouldn’t need to. Many of the ticketing kiosks accept cash and for those that don’t, it’s easy enough to purchase a prepaid credit card. I think we can assume he wouldn’t use his own credit card or tap to pay with his phone, as then we could track him. So long as he travels within the EU proper, he wouldn’t even need to show his passport to buy a ticket, but he’d have to show one to board an inter-city train. “The easiest places for a kid to survive on the streets are London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Berlin. Rome, Athens and Madrid are also possibilities, but the competition from migrant children could be a problem and he’d be wise to avoid them. Of course there are migrants in all the cities of Europe… in the States too… but the problem is much worse in the South. Any further east and it would be difficult to get by without using his passport.” “You didn’t mention Paris,” I asked. “Are you saying he definitely left here?” “I was just about to get to that,” Stéphan answered. “My suspicion is that your Freck stayed right here in Paris. As you said, he speaks the language very well and Paris has a large population of street youth into which he could easily disappear. It’s a large enough city that he’d have no trouble avoiding any places you might look for him, and he wouldn’t have to spend his precious euros on transportation. Of course we will contact agents and agencies in the rest of Europe, and back in the States, just in case. However, the majority of our effort will be focused here, as it’s the most likely place we will find him.” Stéphan asked us if we’d thought to contact Freck’s biologic parents and embarrassingly, we had to admit that the thought hadn’t crossed our minds. Stéphan offered the use of his landline, which we gladly took advantage of. It turned out that Freck’s mother was in Paris right then, and so we called her private number. Not only hadn’t she heard from Freck, but she didn’t even ask how he was. She asked only that we let her know when he’d been found. What a bitch! Stéphan then outlined what he would do and how much it would cost. With similar cases, the final cost was usually on the order of fifty thousand euros. Occasionally, with a quick resolution, the cost could be much less, but with a prolonged search it could run into six figures. The cost would probably come out of Freck’s trust fund, but I’d have given up going to college to see Freck returned to us, alive and safe. Stéphan asked for a twenty-five-thousand-euro retainer and Dad provided one by bank transfer, right on the spot. He and Ken both carefully read all the documents before they signed a contract for Stéphan’s services. After leaving Mr. Rupeneau’s office, I felt confident that Freck would be found. Stéphan knew how to navigate the system and to cut through all the red tape. It was just a matter of time. Obviously, we couldn’t continue our trip, nor was it wise to return to the U.S. We agreed that we should stay in Paris and so we asked the hotel if we could extend our stay. Unfortunately, it was a popular hotel and they were booked solid. Fortunately, Stéphan knew of a neighborhood hotel that was generally unknown to tourists. It was in a convenient area on Boulevard de Port-Royal in the fifth arrondissement and the price was not unreasonable. The room didn’t include breakfast but there were many cafés nearby. We moved into a room with a double bed and two singles, and we waited. We weren’t at all up to doing any sightseeing, but we desperately needed something to occupy our time. As Stéphan explained, there was nothing we could to do help in the search for Freck, and a lot we could do that would totally mess up his efforts. In a word, he’d admonished us to stay out of his way, but it wasn’t easy. I’d never before realized just how taxing it could be doing nothing. Every day there was the same routine. We got up, showered, dressed and went out for breakfast. After checking in with Stéphan, we’d take walks around the neighborhood, read, stop at a café for lunch, read some more, walk around some more and go out for dinner. Stéphan kept us apprised and we learned right away that Freck had withdrawn €5000 and used it to purchase an anonymous prepaid debit card at a convenience store. His phone was found the next day when it pinged off a nearby cell tower. We learned from the kid who had it that Freck had sold it to him. With the proper assurances, he admitted that Freck had traded it for pot. Naturally, we bought the phone back but unfortunately, that was the last we heard anything about Freck. Over the next couple of days, our walks around the neighborhood acquainted us with Parisian life outside of the usual tourist spots. Luxembourg Garden was nearby, along with Esplanade Gaston-Monnerville and Jardin des Grands-Explorateurs Marco-Polo et Cavelier-de-la-Salle, and so there were plenty of places we could go for a nice stroll or to read a book in peace. There were several institutes of higher learning that were close as well, including an elite technical institute that was the French equivalent of MIT. The Paris Observatory was also close by, but not generally open to the public. However, based on my background, we were able to arrange a tour. We were right by a large military hospital and a military museum. The best discovery of all, though was a quaint street known as Rue Mouffetard that began were Rue Descartes ended, near the Pantheon, ran south to where it crossed Rue Pierre Brossolette and became a pedestrian street, and ended at La Place Georges-Moustaki and Square Saint Médard. Rue Mouffetard was an historic route, but what distinguished it was the constant flow of people. It was a place where Parisians, both native and immigrant, congregated, laughed, danced and had fun. Because of its proximity to so many educational venues, it was heavily traveled by students who gave the street a kind of Bohemian atmosphere. There were shops, cafés, pubs, fine restaurants and convenience stores all along its length, which made it the go-to place in the neighborhood. Saint Germain Des Pres had its shops and restaurants, but it was much more high-end and it clearly catered to tourists. Rue Mouffetard was a place for the people of Paris, and it was a great place to go people-watching. I went there once with Roger for a quick lunch, and then with the dads and Roger for a fine dinner. I also made it a point to visit some of the cafés and to try their different variations on coffee. Some of the owners were reluctant to sell strong espresso to a little kid, but I learned to explain in French that I’d been drinking coffee for more than three years. The one thing we didn’t realize when we chose the hotel was that it wasn’t air conditioned. Truthfully, the first hotel barely had effective air conditioning either, but it was way better than nothing, which was what we had now. Most Europeans were used to going without air conditioning and putting up with sweating during the hottest days in the summer. They just weren’t yet used to the heat and humidity that came with climate change. Summer was turning out to be a record-setter and downright dangerous. On Monday, the temperature reached 99 degrees with a heat index well over a hundred. On Tuesday we set an all-time record for Paris of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, with a heat index above 120. And there was no escape. The department stores were overrun, museums were packed, anything that was air conditioned was wall-to-wall people, which defeated the purpose of going there in the first place. People were swimming nude in all the fountains and in the Scene. Nearly a hundred died of heat stroke and its complications. And Freck was still missing. By the time Wednesday rolled around, I was beside myself. We all were. It had only been three days since Freck disappeared, but three days is an eternity when the one you love is missing. And still there was no new information. Stéphan was busy going all around the Paris metro area, to places where runaway kids often congregated, and he was talking to dealers who might have sold Freck more marijuana. He was also in contact with other P.I.s throughout Europe who were helping to look for Freck in other cities. He was constantly checking with local police, with Interpol and scouring local hospitals for unaccompanied boys. It was that evening when we were all at a local pizzeria and I was enjoying a smoked salmon pizza that was wonderful, when Dad got the call I’d hoped to never experience. He simply said, “I have to meet Stéphan,” from the look on his face, I knew it wasn’t good, and why didn’t he ask us to go with him? Swallowing, I asked, “Is it Freck? Is he in the hospital? Is he dead?” Sitting back down and taking my hand in his, he said, “The police found a body matching Freck’s description, but that doesn’t mean it’s him. After all, we cast a wide net.” “Dad, I’m going with you,” I emphasized in a steely voice. “I don’t think that’s wise, son,” he replied. “I know it’s not wise,” I agreed, “but it’ll be worse if I don’t go with you. I have to do this, Dad. I’ll let you go in first… that way I won’t hafta see some other kid’s dead body, and I won’t hafta deal with the uncertainty when I see him. But if it is Freck, I need to see his body with my own eyes.” Nodding his head, Dad paid the bill and we all left the restaurant, the uneaten pizza left on the table. The trip to the morgue seemed to take forever, even though it was a short one. The longer it took, the queasier I felt, almost to the point I thought the pizza might make a repeat appearance. I was consumed by dread at the thought that Sunday might have been the last time I saw my baby alive. I didn’t want to remember him as a dead body, yet I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t see him one last time. I’d regret it for the rest of my life. Dad said it was more likely some kid with red hair and freckles who didn’t even look like Freck, but how many red-headed, freckle-faced twelve-year-old street kids could there be in Paris? No, I was resigned to the fact that this really was Freck. This was the end and I didn’t know how I was gonna go on. Finally, we arrived and and Stéphan met us outside the morgue, and then he and Dad went inside while the rest of us waited in the hallway. It took much longer than I’d expected and then finally Stéphan and Dad came out. The tears in Dad’s eyes revealed the horror that was about to consume my life. “It’s not him,” Dad said in a somber tone with tears streaming down his cheeks. “I’ve seen many dead bodies before, as most doctors have, but it’s a bit of a shock when it’s someone close to you. Everyone looks different in death than in life, and at first, well, I thought it might be him. But then I paid more attention and I realized that the body was from someone much older than Freck. Freck looks young for his age, and he’s short for a boy entering his teens whose voice has already changed. This boy had facial hair! Our hair continues to grow after death and even if the deceased had just finished shaving immediately prior to death, they’ll end up with a five o’clock shadow. His shoulders were wider, he had more muscle definition and he was a fair bit taller. This was a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy.” “But it looked like him,” I replied, still having been so resigned to Freck’s death that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t him. Shaking his head, Dad answered, “No, it was a red-haired teenage boy with freckles, but it wasn’t Freck. This boy didn’t have nearly as many freckles as our Freck. There was also a surgical scar where he’d had his appendix out. Freck never had surgery. It wasn’t him, Kyle.” I couldn’t help myself. I threw myself into Dad’s arms and buried my face in his chest and balled my eyes out. It had been one hell of an emotional roller coaster, but Freck was still missing and because of that, the tears still reflected my grief. Not that it was even on my mind, but even if we did manage to find Freck tomorrow, there’d have to be substantial changes to the trip itinerary. We were supposed to spend a week in Spain, Portugal and southern France before heading to Italy via Switzerland. The next time I saw my boyfriend, I was gonna pummel him for wrecking our vacation.
  12. “And now, because there are two grooms,” the Rabbi continued, “the customary symbolic breaking of the glass that seals the marriage will be done by both men. We’ll wrap the glass in a napkin and place it under this rather hefty slab of stone,” she added as she placed the glass on the ground and then placed the slab over the glass, leaning against it. “And it makes it easier to break the glass, such that there’s no need to use an old-fashioned lightbulb in place of the glass as we used to. “Gentlemen, on the count of three, you may stomp on the slab and break the glass… one… two… three!” Jake and Ken brought their feet down simultaneously, hard onto the stone slab, and the sound of breaking glass was unmistakable and the whole crowd shouted, “Mazel Tov!” Because the Rabbi was from a nearby congregation that combined traditional observances with liberal beliefs and an emphasis on nature, what happened next was like something out of a movie, in which the bride and groom are hoisted up high on chairs and paraded around while the guests dance in circles around them. Only in Jake and Ken’s wedding, there were two grooms, and because the wedding was held under a canopy in Wave Hill Gardens, a large public garden overlooking the Hudson, there wasn’t enough room for all the guests to dance in concentric circles. Instead, the grooms were carried high up on chairs as they led a parade through the entire garden, the guests following behind in a kind of chain dance, based loosely on the traditional Jewish dance, the Hora. Everyone sang and danced between rows of budding and blooming roses, lilies and other, more exotic, plants and flowers. For a moment I thought we were gonna dance into and through the greenhouse, but the leaders seemed to think better of it, as they might have decapitated the grooms trying to get them through the door. Instead we paraded around the greenhouse and among the rows of plants and statuary. We ended up at the Wave Hill House, a stately mansion where the reception was to be held. The grooms wisely dismounted and led us all into the mansion, where we entered a stately banquet room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a rounded, circular projection that overlooked the Hudson and the New Jersey Palisades. I knew Jake and Ken had had a tough time deciding on an indoor reception versus an outdoor reception under a tent or inside the greenhouse. They ended up compromising on both, holding the rehearsal dinner under a tent at our home, and the wedding reception itself indoors at the Wave Hill House. Late June in New York is unpredictable, and is just as likely to be too cool as too hot, with rain being common. As it turned out, it was an uncomfortably hot, humid day, and the air conditioning inside the Wave Hill House was very welcome. As we entered the reception hall and I saw the circular tables arrayed before us, at first I feared Ky and I would again be seated with the relatives from Brazil. That would have been about as much fun as running naked through Central Park, which is to say, nothing I’d ever voluntarily do. Fortunately, there were many more tables this time, as more guests were in attendance, and there were enough Brazilian guests to fill a pair of tables by themselves. Kyle and I found ourselves seated at a table with Kyle’s brother, with Ashe and Seth and with our three cousins from California. I couldn’t have been happier with the seating arrangements. After a brief ceremony to welcome the Jewish sabbath, dinner was served. The conversation at dinner was a free-flowing mix of academics and sex as might be expected of a group of precocious teens and pre-teens. We talked about our favorite music, movies and books. We discussed politics, but with all of us coming from liberal backgrounds, there was very little disagreement. With biologic parents who were billionaires, I had perhaps the most conservative views, followed closely by Asher, but we both agreed that the rich should pay a larger share in taxes. In New York City, the top percentile of income earners actually do contribute half the state and local income tax collected, and everyone at the table agreed it should be that way for the nation as a whole. What started out as a brief comment on climate change led to a very spirited discussion of the merits of different proposals for coping with rising sea levels. Although both our house in Riverdale and our Ky’s cousin’s house in Berkley were well above sea level, both are a part of very affluent, yet vulnerable metropolitan areas. Both the financial district in New York as well as that in San Francisco were barely above the water line as indeed, much of Lower Manhattan flooded during Sandy. My parents’ condo building suffered extensive damage and although Asher and Seth escaped the worst of it, both were without power for nearly a week. I was a particularly strong critic of New York’s plans for a flood barrier around half of Manhattan. Although designed to hold back six feet of sea level rise and predicted storm surges, there was little question in my mind that it was too little, too late. The barrier wouldn’t even be completed for years and until completed, it’d do more to hold flood waters in than out, making flooding worse. “Of course, it might be more practical to build dykes across the Verrazano Narrows and across Long Island Sound, maybe at Throgs Neck or even between Sands Point and Pelham Bay Park,” I explained, “but then you’d have to deal with the Hudson… either pumping water out or damming it and diverting it through incredibly rich suburbs of Westchester. Unfortunately, the cost would be high and the benefit only temporary. “A better approach would be to harden buildings that can tolerate perpetual flooding with saltwater, raise street levels, relocate infrastructure above ground and create flood buffer zones by bulldozing older structures and creating parkland.” “You mean older structures, like Asher and Seth’s co-ops,” Roger had to point out. “Actually, the co-ops can be saved, but at a cost,” I countered. “The first floor would need to be reinforced with concrete and second-floor residents would need to be bought out so the lobby could be raised. The residents would have to decide if it’s worth spending millions on saving their homes rather than simply accepting a buy-out. The low-lying projects and what’s left of the tenements should be turned into parkland, with new high-rise affordable housing built to replace them. The worst would be Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, which are in a flood zone and already nearly insolvent. The city’s responsible for the residents in the projects but middle-class renters would be shit outta luck. There’s nothing left that’s affordable in Manhattan. “Infrastructure’s a much bigger problem, though. After Sandy, my dad’s company was without dedicated high-speed internet for more than a year. How can a brokerage survive without a communications link? They had to rely on microwave towers on the rooftop, which seriously limited their bandwidth. Nearly all of New York’s infrastructure’s underground, and damn little of it can tolerate flooding with saltwater.” “You’re really into this sustainable architecture thing,” Jason commented. “I’ve been reading up on it ever since I got an interest in it last Christmas,” I replied. “I’ve decided it’s gonna be my life’s work. If humanity has any hope of survival in the future, we’re gonna hafta adapt to a very different world. Chris Nolan can make a movie about us finding a new home among the stars, but the reality is that it’s far easier to adapt to the one we already have. We may hafta build climate-controlled, high-rise hydroponic farms, but everything we need to survive is right here and short of the resolve to reverse the damage already done, my architecture is what’s gonna save us.” “And my music that’ll keep us all sane,” Jason added. “So where do you plan to go to college?” Steve asked. “Well, Ky has always wanted to go to MIT, and it turns out that MIT has the best architecture school in the world,” I noted. “In fact, they have a dual degree program in combination with civil engineering that’ll be perfect for me. We both got perfect scores on the SAT, so it’s very likely we’ll both get in, but none of it matters unless they’re willing to let a couple of underage boyfriends room together.” “Yeah, it’d really blow if they didn’t let you be together,” Jason agreed. “We wouldn’t do it,” Kyle responded. “Freck and I agree on this. We’re engaged to be married, by the way, when I’m sixteen and he’s eighteen. My dad’s already given the OK if we’re still together, and we’re gonna be together.” “For sure,” I agreed. “But if MIT won’t let us stay together as roommates until we get married, then we won’t go there,” Kyle went on. “No dream’s worth it if I can’t be with the boy I love… the man I intend to marry. If it comes down to it, we’ll go to Columbia and commute from home. Columbia’s a fine school with a top-notch reputation, and for Freck, it’s still in the top ten for architecture schools. So Columbia’s a potential backup, with Cornell a possible third.” “There are definite advantages to living at home when you’re in college,” Steve noted, particularly when it comes to laundry, dining and entertainment,” he added with a laugh. “Yeah, but what do you do when you wanna bring a girl home?” I asked. “That, my friends, is the one major disadvantage to living at home,” Steve replied. “It’s not that my parents don’t accept that at sixteen, I’m old enough to be having sex, but how many girls are willing to undergo an inquisition by their boyfriend’s parents before things get serious?” “Isn’t having sex kinda serious?” Asher asked. “Well, yeah, but you know what I mean. You meet someone, you go out a couple of times and maybe you’d like to get to know her a little better, but taking her home to your place means meeting the rents.” “You’d take a girl to bed with you after only a couple of dates?” Seth asked. “So how many dates did you guys go on before you became intimate,” Steve asked. “Well, actually one,” Seth admitted, “but that was different. We’re both guys.” “Actually, it wasn’t even really a date,” Asher added. “We met when I was trick-or-treating on Halloween last year, and Seth was giving out candy, and we ended up talking all evening until his parents came home in the early morning. Then we came out as boyfriends the next day at school, and after we got home…” Boy, was Seth blushing when he admitted, “Yeah, well, okay. I shouldn’t say anything about jumping into bed after only two dates, when Ashe and I were intimate less than a day after we got together for the first time.” “They fucked each other silly,” I responded. “Come on now,” Ashe replied. “We did not do that our first time.” “No, they did it their second time,” Ky suggested. The deep blush on both boys’ faces pretty much said it all. “So how has it worked, when you bring girls home?” I asked. “Steve’s still a virgin,” Phil replied, “Whereas I’ve had experience with both girls and boys.” “I am not a virgin!” Steve responded, a little too loudly. “Oh yeah?” Phil asked. “Then who’ve you done it with?” “None of your fuckin’ business,” he replied. “And who have you done it with, at your young age?” I think we were all shocked when he threw out several names of both sexes. “Jesus,” Steve responded. “Can you even come?” “You don’t need to squirt to come,” Ky threw in. “Damn right,” Phil agreed. “So who’ve you done it with, Steve?” Sheepishly, he admitted, “Well, I’ve been focusing on my studies.” “So I was right,” Phil went on. “You’re a virgin.” “I wasn’t aware it was a race,” Steve replied. At that point, thankfully, our dinner conversation was interrupted by Ken’s brother, who offered a series of toasts to the grooms, followed by several other family members offering their own well-wishes. Even we kids were served real Champagne – enough that I was starting to get a bit buzzed. Finally, the band started playing a traditional Jewish melody, Hava Nagila, I think, and the dance floor filled with people in concentric circles with hands joined, dancing the Hora. Once again, the grooms were hoisted high on chairs, each one forming the focus of a set of circles. It was kinda cool to watch, especially when the outer circles broke at their closest points and formed an ellipse around both groups, and then the process repeated with each smaller circle until the grooms were united in the center of all the combined circles. Still, I felt like an outsider. I knew I wasn’t the only one there who wasn’t Jewish by a long shot, but like a lot of the people present, in a way I was marrying into the religion. Not that Kyle was any more religious than his dads were, or than I was, but he seemed to have a strong cultural identity that I lacked. His whole family did. I, on the other hand, came from a father whose grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated from Italy, Germany and Ireland. He was raised Roman Catholic but hadn’t been to church since he was a boy. I didn’t know nearly as much as my mother except that her father came from France and her mother was in fact Jewish. I guess that technically made me Jewish too, but I knew next to nothing about the Jewish people. Ironically, I could read, write and speak Hebrew better than anyone in my boyfriend’s family, yet I didn’t know any of the prayers that they knew by heart. Aside from his cultural identity, however, Kyle was an unabashed atheist. He was absolutely convinced there was a scientific explanation for everything, including the origin of the universe and the origin of life. One might say he had faith in atheism, which sounds kinda funny, but it truly is an act of faith to believe our origin is strictly a matter of chance. I, on the other hand, am not so willing to dismiss out of hand things that defy explanation. The origin of the universe can never be known because we can never examine what existed before the so-called big bang. But there are examples much closer to home as, for example, when one identical twin knows when the other has been hurt, even when they’re separated by miles. Or the commonality of premonitions and the belief in fate. Not to suggest that there are ghosts or any of that paranormal shit, but every civilization on earth has at its core a belief in a deity or deities. Is a belief in God an evolutionary trait in humans, and if so, what could be the possible survival advantage of such a belief? It certainly hasn’t kept us from killing each other – if anything, religion has underlain some of our worst wars. Or perhaps it was presumptuous of me to equate religion and a belief in God. As far as I was concerned, religion was no different than mythology. Wasn’t the Bible, after all, just a series of stories? How did it differ from Greek or Norse mythology, other than that it was our mythology? Did Jesus really walk on water or was it a mistranslation? After all, the Hebrew expression for walking on water is the same as that for walking by water. And if Genesis really was the story of creation, why didn’t God mention the dinosaurs, or the comet that wiped them out? Why does the Bible suggest the earth is only thousands of years old, when we know it’s billions of years old? There’s scientific proof! No, religion and God are two different things entirely, and if there really is a god, they must have come from somewhere. In other words, who or what created the god that created us? And why is belief in a god or gods universal. Do we as humans share some sort of connection outside of our physical existence? How could we ever know? Perhaps a better question would be whether or not we have a soul, as the belief in a soul and an afterlife is also a universal human trait. I once read that perhaps our sentience stems from a symbiotic relationship between a physical living entity and an entity from outside our space and time, a soul. But if that were true, where did the soul come from? It just seems that the human mind is too finite to grasp a reality that is infinite. I guess I could be considered an agnostic, but even that term connotes an indifference that doesn’t really describe how I feel. It wasn’t that I don’t care whether or not there is a god or if there is something that connects us outside of our physical existence. No, I do care about these things, but the reality is that some things are just unknowable and hence, there is no point to trying to understand that which can never be understood. We have to make the best of the existence we know and to find meaning in our own way. Beyond a doubt, nothing was more meaningful than love… the love between two dads that was being shared with all of us tonight, and the love I shared with the wonderful boy seated next to me. The band started to play some popular tunes, mostly pop shit from like the eighties and nineties, from when the dads were kids. Kyle and I were interested in music, which this was not, and not so much in dance, but hey, it was a wedding and so we danced as the sun set over the Hudson. One thing about a June wedding was that the sun didn’t set until around 8:30 and it didn’t get dark until around 10:30 at night. But even after it was pitch black outside – not that it’s ever pitch black at night in New York – the wedding reception was still going strong. Finally, the grooms cut the cake and we got to taste it. It was a chocolate Kalua-based cake that was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Needless to say, we loved it, especially Kyle. The reception finally started to wind down after midnight as the guests departed. It was after two in the morning by the time the last of the guests had left and we finally walked the short distance to our home. Ky and I crashed almost as soon as our heads hit the pillow, but time for sleep would be short. In a matter of hours, we’d hafta get up to finish packing and then head to the airport for our overnight flight to London. <> <> <> My biological parents might be billionaires but I’d never been outside of New York or New Jersey before. They traveled extensively all over the world by private jet, but they never saw the need to take us with them and so this was the first time I’d ever flown at all, let alone overseas. I was shocked at how early in the afternoon we left for the airport. I realized that traffic is unpredictable and so we needed to leave time for that, but even if it ended up taking two hours to get to Kennedy Airport, rather than the 45 minutes Google Maps said it should take by Uber, that still left us more than three hours until our flight left. We’d already checked in with the airline and with the Global Entry program, it seemed to me there was little reason to leave so early. Jake even brought a notarized copy of my guardianship papers with him. Traffic wasn’t a problem, but when we got to Kennedy, I saw why we’d left so much time. The International Terminal was pure pandemonium. The cars out front dropping people off were lined up three and four deep and it took close to an hour to get near enough to the curb for our driver to drop us off. Once inside the terminal, we were confronted by huge crowds of people and long lines. We already had our boarding passes, but we still had to check our luggage. Jake and Ken had gotten all of us brand new luggage, and it was insanely expensive, but guaranteed to last forever. The dads each had a mid-sized spinner, ’cause they had to carry shit for all of us. Roger, Kyle and I each had an international carry-on piece and even though it was regulation for cabin luggage, the limitations for the number of pieces carried on meant they all had to be checked. Fortunately, first and business class had their own line for checking their luggage, but even still it took more than a half-hour to get to the head of the line and get the luggage checked through to Heathrow. The lines for economy were unbelievable, and everyone had so much luggage! Hell, even the lines just to use the check-in kiosks were several people deep. With the luggage check behind us, I’d assumed that with Global Entry, we’d need to do little more than show our passports at the gate. Boy, was I wrong about that. When we got to Security, the lines were unbelievable. Although Global Entry could mean shorter lines and no need to remove shoes, or computers or the like, some passengers are still subjected to extra scrutiny. I guess there was something worrisome about a couple of men traveling with three boys, but the TSA agent decided we should go through regular screening procedures and she routed us to one of the longer lines. At least she didn’t make us go to the very back of the line, but it was still quite a while before we got to the screening area. We all had to remove our sneakers and belts, and any laptops or tablets. Because of the length of the trip, we all had MacBook Airs that had to be removed for screening. That still left a lot of electronics in our carry-on luggage. None of us made it through x-ray to the satisfaction of the screening agents and everything ended up being inspected by hand, especially all of Roger’s camera equipment. Apparently, it wasn’t unheard of for terrorists to hide explosives inside of large camera lenses, so they took time to examine each lens to make sure it was functional. It took more than an hour to get through Security. Boy, was I glad we’d left so early! When we finally got out of security, we found ourselves in the midst of Duty-Free shopping. We couldn’t even get to the gates without passing through aisles of Duty Free. Even once we were through it, it was like being in a large enclosed shopping mall. Jake asked us if we’d like to grab a quick bite to eat, to tide us over until they served dinner on the flight. He cautioned us that in business class, we’d be well-fed throughout the flight, but that it could be some time before they served dinner. When doesn’t a kid like to eat? When they ate a huge meal at a wedding reception, followed by a large brunch the next day before leaving for the airport. That’s when. We all decided we should wait until we were in the air. We had about an hour to kill, so we browsed through some of the shops on the way to the gate. As I would have expected, everything was way overpriced, but it did give me some ideas of things to order from Amazon, once we returned to the States. When we got to the gate, every seat in the waiting area was taken and tons of people were milling around. Teenagers were sitting on the floor, texting on their phones or with their laptops open and plugged into any outlet they could find. Fortunately, we didn’t have long to wait until business class was called for boarding. Our flight was on a Boeing 777 and although I had concerns about how Boeing ran their business, I wasn’t convinced that Airbus was any better. The 737 Max was one of the worst examples of corporate greed and it really cast the FAA in a bad light. Truthfully, Boeing mislead the FAA and they’d never had reason to question Boeing before. The Max was a flagrant attempt to recycle a very old design to compete with more modern models from Airbus. By adding larger jet engines, however, the plane was inherently unstable and relying on software – hidden software – to compensate for the instability was a disaster waiting to happen. The design process had been so fragmented that no one realized that it lacked even the most basic safeguards. I wasn’t an aeronautical engineer, but even I could see the problems with the design and the process. I’d sure as fuck never design a building that way. We boarded the plane between first class and business class. In first class, seating looked more like an office than an airplane, with no more than four seats in a row and individual cubicles with seats that could be laid flat. In the main cabin, which was behind business class and included economy and economy plus, there were nine seats in each row, separated by two aisles, and with hardly any room between rows. We had much more room, with just eight seats in each row and enough room between rows to stretch your legs, yet not enough to lean back all the way. One less seat across might not seem like much, but it made all the difference. There were four seats in the center section and two on either side. I had a center aisle seat, with Kyle and then Roger next to me, and with the dads across the aisle. Seated on the other side of Roger, in the other center aisle seat on our row, was a teenage girl who I guessed was maybe sixteen or seventeen. It appeared her parents were across the aisle, on the other side of the plane. It seemed to take forever to board the plane, during which we could do little more than sit in our seats as an endless stream of passengers made the way down the aisles. No wonder they allowed practically an hour for boarding. Finally, they closed the doors to the aircraft and our flight attendant came around and offered us snacks and drinks while we waited to take off. Kyle and I both selected cookies and water. I was surprised that the water was served in real glass goblets. Something told me the folks in the main cabin had to settle for plastic cups. The wait on the tarmac was interminable as we slowly taxied into position and waited our turn. Then suddenly we were rushing down the runway and just when it seemed we’d run out of runway, the plane was airborne. Being in the center, I couldn’t really see much out the windows, so I settled in for the flight ahead. Only then did I realize I’d been holding Ky’s hand throughout takeoff. There was a really cool entertainment system built into each seat. However, the touchscreen was small and the response very sluggish. Roger suggested that we get started watching a movie right away, as it would still be a while before they served dinner and there was little point going to sleep before dinner. Unfortunately, with only about five hours until we’d be starting our approach to Heathrow, that meant maybe three or four hours for sleep if we were lucky. We’d only gotten about five hours sleep the past two days, so we were gonna be beyond exhaustion by the time we got there. I flipped through the selections of movies and although the list was extensive, there really wasn’t anything I hadn’t already seen or that I wanted to see, and I had no interest in watching mindless TV shows. Kyle seemed to reach the same conclusion at the same time. Sighing, he said, “More than fifty choices of movies, and not one I want to watch. But if I listen to my music or try to read a book, I’ll just fall asleep while we wait for dinner.” “Would that be such a bad thing?” I asked “Maybe not, but sometimes it’s worse to sleep only a few minutes at a time, you know?” he replied. “Trust me,” Ken responded from across the aisle, “even a few minutes of sleep is better than none when you’re sleep deprived.” “He’s right, boys,” Jake chimed in. “You might feel like crap when you first wake up, but every little bit helps when it comes to sleep. You learn that pretty quick in medical school.” “The voice of experience,” I replied. The server came by and handed out menus with the evening’s dinner selections, as well as the morning’s breakfast. It seemed like such a waste, to print up such a beautiful menu on heavy, glossy paper when it would be thrown away in the morning. It was especially wasteful in our case, as we’d taken advantage of the airline’s on-line ordering service to make our selections in advance. On the other hand, air travel itself was a major contributor to climate change. The rest of the world used high-speed trains for travel on land, but Americans were too impatient for that and used air travel for everything. We needed to change if we were gonna survive. Although it was Roger who insisted we get started watching a movie, he hadn’t even extended his entertainment system from where it was stowed, let alone turned it on. He was talking up a storm with the teenage girl sitting next to him. Kyle and I each got out our A&K music players along with our A&K IEMs, which we stuck into our ear canals. I saw that Kyle selected the classic rock album, Tommy, by The Who. I felt more like listening to a little Pavoratti, and chose the Verdi opera, La Traviata. I closed my eyes for just a minute, the better to enjoy the music. The next think I knew, I was being handed a hot wet towel with which to wash up for dinner. Dame Joan Sutherland was already singing “Follie! Delirio vano è questo!”, which meant I’d been asleep close to a half-hour. Looking to the side, I saw that my boyfriend was also just waking up. How’d that happen? After pulling out our IEMs – what everyone else called earphones, Jake explained, “I told the flight attendant not to disturb you with refreshments, so you’ll have to ask them to bring you something after they serve dinner. I grabbed a bottled water to tide you boys over in the meantime,” he added as he passed the plastic bottle over to me. I hated the use of bottled water from an environmental standpoint, but it was welcome under the circumstances. “You boys both ordered the pasta?” the flight attendant asked as she came up to me and Kyle. “Yes sir,” I replied. “The beef sounded wonderful, but my boyfriend and I are trying to reduce our carbon footprint.” “My, you boys look so young!” the attendant said as he handed us our trays. “I didn’t even come out until I was eighteen. Could I ask you how old you boys are?” “I’m twelve-and-a half,” I replied, “and Kyle’s ten-and-a-half, but we’re both seniors at Stuyvesant High School.” “That’s incredible,” the attendant responded before moving on to the next row. The dinner was surprisingly good, bordering on gourmet. I was expecting something along the lines of a Stouffer’s frozen dinner, but the dinner was way better than that. Before we left, Kyle and I had talked about maybe becoming vegans. Kyle had tried it once before but chose last Thanksgiving for his first day. Needless to say, his being a vegan lasted only a few hours if that. This time if we do it, we’ll do it together and we’ll stick to it. If we’re to survive as a species, we have to practice sustainable agriculture and nothing would have more of an impact than eliminating the raising of animals for food. Before the flight attendant had even come to collect the dinner trays after the meal, Kyle and I leaned our chairs back and I closed my eyes. The next thing I knew, the cabin was filled with the scents of breakfast. There was no choice this time, I guess because we’d be landing soon. The interactive map on our entertainment systems showed we were already flying over Ireland. Breakfast consisted of a cheese omelet, a biscuit and fresh fruit with, of course, coffee. The food was excellent, but the coffee was pretty vile. As Kyle put it, it’d do until we had a chance to get some of the real stuff. Getting through immigration control was surprisingly painless, as they used a system similar to our Global Entry, but that worked with any compatible passport. After retrieving our checked luggage and making a cursory pass through customs, we were on our way to our hotel and the U.K. portion of our European vacation, or holiday, as the Brits would call it. <> <> <> London seemed very similar in size to New York, but more spread out as there are no physical constraints the way there are in New York, which is built on a series of islands. Just as New York is largely defined by the Hudson and the East River, London is largely defined by the River Themes and just as New York is an agglomeration of boroughs, London is an agglomeration of cities including the cities of Richmond, Westminster, London, Lambeth, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and many more. Our hotel was a rather modest guest house in Westminster, near Victoria Station. There is no grid in London or any other old-world city, for that matter. Cities in Europe grew as a conglomeration of multiple small settlements along a major waterway and so the streets of London radiate out from a number of central squares, circuses and gardens, with crisscrossing grids of streets in between. I was a bit surprised at just how modest our accommodations were in London – not that they were shabby by a long shot – they were modern and attractive, but not exactly luxurious. I thought that perhaps we’d stay in a suite in one of the better hotels, with one room for the dads and one for us kids, but that would’ve run us over a grand a night and with ten weeks ahead of us, that kind of money could have bought a decent luxury car. We weren’t in that league. Our lodging in London was costing less than three hundred pounds a night, with a full English breakfast included. Although I grew up with parents who were rich by any standard, even with two physician salaries, the dads were at best upper middle class by New York City standards. For what we could probably get for our house in Riverdale, we could get something like Seth’s renovated four-bedroom top-floor apartment in the co-ops on the Lower East Side, or perhaps a studio apartment in one of the better buildings on the Upper East Side. Affluence was relative in New York and although not many could boast a house overlooking the Hudson, an indoor swimming pool or a ten-week European vacation, we couldn’t afford that vacation except by staying in hotels on the cheap side of the equation. Traveling in business class was truly a spurge but, as the dads put it, it was the difference between sleeping and not sleeping on the way over. We’d be in economy plus on the way back. Our hotel was more of a guest house, and we had two tiny rooms. For the kids, there was a small room with three twin beds and bathroom that was barely big enough for the shower stall, toilet and sink it contained. The dads’ room was even smaller, with a double bed and similar-size bathroom. It quickly became apparent why we were traveling with so little luggage, as finding room for even three small carry-on suitcases plus our cabin bags and backpacks was a challenge. We had enough luggage packed for the first week, which would be in London, but not for the second week, which would be traveling around England. As the dads explained, we’d need to find a laundromat every seven to ten days or so. Naturally as it was still early morning when we arrived at the hotel, our rooms weren’t ready and we had to leave our luggage at the front desk. London was five hours ahead of New York and although the clock behind the front desk read 9:00, our biologic clocks kept telling us it was only 4:00 AM and we should go back to bed. This being a Sunday morning, not much was open yet either. The first order of business was to purchase transportation passes for the week, and so we headed up to Victoria Station, a half-mile away and an easy walk. Because we weren’t familiar with London, we headed to the tourist office, where we waited in a long line to speak to an agent. We already knew that Londoners used something called an Oyster Card for both the underground and city buses, and so the first order of business was to purchase one of them for each of us. New York was in the process of adopting a similar system to replace its MetroCard system and as in London, certain credit cards could also be used in the tap-to-pay system, but as kids, we didn’t have these and unlike with the new system in New York, London had not yet implemented the use of smart phones to pay for transportation. One of the other significant differences between the London system and New York’s was the use of distance to determine fare. In New York, one could travel anywhere by subway, from the Pelham Bay in the Bronx to the Far Rockaways in Queens, all for a relatively modest fare. In London, bus routes and the underground were subdivided by zones and one paid more to go farther. As such, it was necessary to tap to exit the underground as well as to enter, much as was the case in Washington DC with its Metro. We could get a discounted flat rate by paying by the day or the week, but we still had to pay extra per trip for travel between zones. Therefore, it was a bit complicated to figure out the optimum combination of weekly, daily and per-trip fares we would need to pay. On top of all that, there was a fee to purchase the Oyster Card itself, but we could use them indefinitely, no matter how many times we visited London in the future. Once the dads figured out what we needed to purchase, with the help of the agent, and purchased the oyster cards, they handed one oyster card to each of us, which we slid into our wallets. When we asked the agent for a bus route map, however, he gave us a hardy laugh and told us a route map would require something the size of a book. He explained that there are hundreds of bus routes, but they went virtually everywhere. In time we would come to appreciate that one could take a bus from nearly anywhere in London to anywhere else in London, with perhaps only one change needed. I’m sure the Londoners appreciated they’re extensive system, but it was almost impenetrable to outsiders, which was why we almost never saw tourists on London’s buses. In New York with its simple route structure, however, there were very few days when we didn’t run into travelers from overseas. I kinda preferred keeping it simple, yet extensive as we did back home. In any case, the agent recommended a few apps for our phones that could guide us wherever we wanted to go. By the time we finished our business at Victoria Station, we were all dragging from jet-lag, but it was barely noon and there’d still be a wait before we could get into our rooms. We were also beyond starved and so we set out to find a place to eat. There were many eateries and kiosks in the station itself, but it would have been a shame to settle for train station food when we were in London. The Brits are known for their pubs and so with the aid of our phones, we went in search of a traditional English pub. I was surprised that children would be allowed in a pub but in the U.K., pubs are a combination of neighborhood bar and family restaurant, where food is ordered and paid for at the register and then brought to one’s table. It didn’t take long to find one of the better ones and, of course, we all ordered the national dish, fish and chips. I already knew that what we call a potato chip, the Brits call a crisp, and that what they call a chip is what we’d call a fry, so I wasn’t surprised when the food arrived in paper-lined baskets. I don’t usually eat fried foods but for this I’d make an exception. The fish was way better than any fried fish I’d ever eaten before and the chips were delicately seasoned and succulent. I was stuffed by the time we finished our Sunday lunch – we all were, and I figured we’d probably pack it in early with only a light snack before bed. We weren’t all that with-it, so the dads suggested we stick with some light outdoor sightseeing. We were already right by Westminster Cathedral, which we soon learned was not the same as Westminster Abbey, and this being Sunday, it seemed only natural to start there. We went inside but didn’t stay long, as there was much to see in the area. From there we headed up to Buckingham Palace, but for some reason the queen didn’t know we were coming and was at Balmoral in Scotland for the summer. Not only did the dads forget to arrange an audience with her, but there wasn’t even a changing of the guards, so we didn’t stay long. Buckingham Palace is surrounded by public gardens – the Palace Gardens to the west, Green Park to the north and Saint James Park to the east – with several miles of walking paths and trails among them. There was no way we could see all them, but the idea of circling around the palace by way of the three parks and gardens was appealing, and so that’s what we did, passing by the Queens Gallery, the Palace Gardens and the Memorial Gates and Monument, where we found a kiosk for renting Santander Cycles. The smiles on our faces when we saw those bicycles just waiting for us was enough to wake up the dead, which pretty well described us before we found the cycles. Riding our bikes, we saw the Wellington Arch, the Royal Artillery Memorial, the Wellington Statue, the Equestrian Statue and the New Zealand Memorial. We crossed over into Hyde Park with its famous rose garden, and then we came to a holocaust memorial that we hadn’t even realized was there. It was the first of many such memorials we would be seeing during our time in Europe, culminating with a tour of Auschwitz itself and for the first time, I truly felt my Jewish roots. I was only one-quarter Jewish and had had no exposure to that part of my heritage while growing up, but now I was with my boyfriend and his two dads who were Jewish and I was slowly realizing that this would be a major part of my life from now on. Turning to my boyfriend, I said, “I never told you this, but my maternal grandmother was Jewish. I guess technically that makes me Jewish too.” “Funny, but you don’t look Jewish,” came Kyle’s smiling retort. “That is so lame,” I replied. “I’ve never really thought of myself as Jewish before, but now that I’m marrying into the faith, so to speak, it really changes things.” “Do you think you might want to be Bar Mitzvah’ed?” Ky asked. “I never thought of it before,” I replied. Then turning to Roger, I asked, “Were you Bar Mitzvah’ed?” “Freck, it’s not a verb,” he responded. “Bar Mitzvah means ‘son of the commandments’. You become a bar mitzvah. It’s not something that can be done to you. You have to study and the ceremony is merely a ceremony for you to demonstrate that you are worthy of becoming an adult member of the community… worthy of participating in sacred prayers as part of a minyan.” “Actually, a mitzvah is an act of righteousness,” Kyle countered. “The word is often translated as referring to the 613 so-called commandments in the Talmud, an ancient treatise on Jewish law, but it encompasses so much more than the literal interpretation arrived at by scholars whose universe consisted entirely of the eastern Mediterranean.” “Are you planning to become a bar mitzvah?” I asked my boyfriend. “I hadn’t really thought about it,” he replied, “and it’s rather late to be starting Hebrew school, but I already know most of what’s required and I could learn the rest in no time,” he added. “Yeah, I’d definitely like to do that, but I’ve got time. I won’t turn thirteen for another two-and-a-half years. On the other hand, you, my boyfriend, will be thirteen the day after Christmas this year, and there’ll be damn little time for study before then, and even less when we’re in college.” “I can already read, write and speak in Hebrew,” I pointed out. “Yes, and you can do the same in Arabic, but I don’t think you’re prepared to walk into any mosque and pray either,” Kyle countered. “There’s a lot to learn before becoming a bar mitzvah, not the least of which is to memorize all the prayers and your Torah portion and your Haftorah portion, including the musical inflections to use in chanting them. You need to learn and understand the history of the Jewish people, which is more extensive than any history of any people alive today. There’s no older written history than that of the Old Testament, as the Christians call it.” “It’s a lot to think about,” I replied. “I’m sure I could do it, maybe by next summer rather than my thirteenth birthday, but it would be an undertaking unlike anything I’ve done before.” Squeezing my shoulder and looking me in the eyes, Kyle countered, “You don’t have to do this for me Freck. I didn’t fall in love with you because you’re Jewish. Hell, I didn’t even know you’re a quarter Jewish until now. I grew up with the culture, but I’m not doing it because of my religious beliefs. It’s just a part of who I am… and I wouldn’t mind getting all those presents,” he added with a chuckle. Looking down, I responded, “As much as I love you, I wouldn’t be doing it for you either, Kyle.” Then looking up into his eyes, I continued, “I’d be doing it for me. This is a part of me that suddenly seems relevant. Very relevant to my future.” It was a lot to think about. There wasn’t more to say, and so we didn’t. Recognizing just how huge Hyde park is, particularly when combined with the adjacent Kensington Gardens and the Sackler Gallery, we decided to see them on another day, in conjunction with Kensington Palace. So we headed back into Green Park and then Saint James’s Park, stopping to see the monuments and statuary along the way. We ended the day at Saint James Café, located on Saint James’s Park Lake, within the park, where we had what the Brits would call a lite afternoon tea consisting of small sandwich of roast beef and greens, followed by a dessert of spotted dick. No kidding, spotted dick. It was a kind of pudding made with dried fruit and custard. We rode our bikes back to Victoria and turned them in at a kiosk about a block from our hotel. For a family of jet-lagged tourists, it had been a surprisingly full afternoon. <> <> <> The week we spent in London went far too quickly. London is a city very similar in size to New York, but with a history that spans millennia. There are so many gardens in London and with a temperate, oceanic climate that’s similar in many respects to that of our Pacific Northwest, the profusion of flowering plants is unbelievable. There are rose gardens everywhere and they’re all so perfect. I’ve heard that roses are among the most difficult plants to grow, and yet here they were thriving. New York has it’s Kew Gardens, but the Royal Gardens at Kew in Richmond were something else entirely. One of the coolest things we saw was the City of London Cemetery, located on the outskirts of the city. It’s not that any of us is fascinated by death, but Ken has a particular interest in historic cemeteries. This one was actually more of a crematorium with very few burial plots, but what distinguishes it is the memorial rose gardens, in which a rose bush is planted in memory for every person cremated there. How cool is that? Just as New York is a city of museums, museums are a big part of London. The British Museum is world-famous, with artifacts stolen… err, collected from all over the world. At one time, the Brits had ‘acquired’ territory that spanned the globe – they called it the empire on which the sun never set. Seriously, to the peoples they conquered, the British literally plundered their most precious treasures, many of which are in museums all over the world, but nowhere more so than in the British Museum. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has one of the most extensive collections of decorative arts in the world. I could have spent days there, but we only had a half-a-day to spare. I was definitely gonna hafta go back someday. There was the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery and the Tate Museum. Then there was the Museum of the City of London, the Transportation Museum, the Postal Museum, and the Charles Dickens Museum. Of course, no visit to London would be complete without a visit to Madame Tussaud’s and then there was perhaps the coolest one of all, the Spy Museum. There was Kensington Palace, Royal Albert Hall, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster with the famous clock tower of Big Ben, which unfortunately for Roger and his camera, was enshrouded in scaffolding. We saw the Tower Bridge and went up in the London Eye, one of the largest Ferris Wheels in the world. There was Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Wimbledon and the Isle of Dogs. ’Course I was especially interested in the architecture of London, and we saw a lot of it. There were many places from which to see the city from the highest of vantage points, including the Sky Garden, the Gherkin, which looks like a giant suppository or maybe a dildo, and the tallest building in London, the Shard. Although the inventive designs were impressive, none of them came close to being sustainable, which was a shame. Although the situation isn’t nearly as dire as in cities such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Miami or New Orleans, climate change is already having a major effect on London and the future is not unlike that in New York. London is inland, but the River Thames passes right through the heart of the city and is responsible for the drainage of most of southeast England. An ingenious accommodation, the Thames Barrier, has been in operation since the early 1980s, preventing storm surges from the North Sea from inundating central London. As climate extremes have begun to take a toll, however, the barrier has been needed much more frequently and in the 2013-14 season, it had to be closed fifty times. With sea level rise, there will come a point where it needs to close once or twice each day to prevent inflow of tidal waters, and it’s not really designed for that. The prediction is for increasing rainfall too and, hence, the barrier’s effective days are numbered. Even if the Brits were to use a series of dams, and reservoirs, flooding hundreds of miles of farmland, and even if they construct massive pumping stations to deal with getting rid of excess water, there’d still be the problem of dealing with massive storm surges. Of course these problems had solutions, albeit very expensive ones. New York was projected to have to spend 2.5 billion dollars per year mitigating sea level change by 2050. We could afford it. London could afford that kind of money too. The cost of saving Boston, however, would be much higher, and for all intent and purposes, no amount of money could save Miami or New Orleans, in spite of their most sincere efforts. In the third world, some of the most populous cities of all were destined to face serious flooding, and they were ill-equipped to deal with it. It looked like I was gonna be busy. Our time in London came to an end on Sunday, one week after we’d landed there. We didn’t have time to catch a play or musical during our time there, which was kind of a shame, given how London’s known for its theater, but then there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be seen on or off Broadway in New York. London was an extraordinary city with a profound sense of history that New York could never match. There were stunning palaces, world-class museums and beautiful gardens throughout the city. The modern architecture was amazing, but far from sustainable. Both London and New York were much alike in that regard. On Sunday morning we checked out of our hotel and rented a Range Rover for the next week. It was a bit large for the narrow roads that predominated in the villages of the British countryside, but it was barely big enough to accommodate the five of us and to stow all our luggage securely, such that it couldn’t be seen. Our plan was to make a grand circle encompassing most of the major cities in England and sites of historic interest. We took off heading east to an area known as East Anglia, a picturesque region of gardens, castles and the North Sea. We spent the night in a small bed and breakfast in Norwich, pronounced NOR-itch, and took off the next morning to the north for Lincoln, which had one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’d ever seen. Roger went nuts trying to photograph all the statuary and stained glass inside. We spent the night in a guesthouse in the town of Chatsworth, in the center of what the Brits referred to as ‘The North’. After a cholesterol-laden full English breakfast, we spent the morning at Chatsworth House, a sprawling English estate with beautiful gardens and a mansion filled with world-class art and marquetry. Once we finally managed to pry Roger away and back to the car, we headed up to York, from which New York got its name. We spent the afternoon sightseeing in York – York Minster was even more spectacular than the Lincoln Cathedral and again, Roger went nuts with his camera. The next morning, after another huge breakfast, we drove to Manchester, where we spent the next two nights. Manchester had some really nice museums, and a cathedral that was surprisingly modern inside, but the real highlight was in nearby Liverpool. I’d always heard Liverpool was gritty and industrial – at least that’s the story from the Beatles growing up there. What I wasn’t expecting were world-class museums, an open-air pedestrian mall taking up half the downtown, extensive parkland and gardens, and redeveloped docks with high-end shops and restaurants. Of course the legacy of the Beatles could be felt everywhere. I would have liked to have spent another day there, but there was still so much more to see. Come Friday morning, after another humongous breakfast, we headed to the heart of industrial Britain, Birmingham. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was very nice and I loved the older architecture of the place, but there was very little time to be spent there as we had to make tracks. From Birmingham we drove down to Oxford, which not only was the home of the world-famous university of the same name, but the home of Rover, the car company that made the car we were driving. In fact, Rover makes a full line of sedans and other types of vehicles in addition to the high-end SUVs that they sold in the States. We took a tour of Oxford University in the evening – they aren’t generally given that late in the day, but apparently the dads made arrangements for a private tour, based on the possibility that Kyle and I might apply for the following year. Not only was Oxford thrilled with the possibility of kids of our ability going there, but clearly they were interested in milking my rich and famous parents for all their worth. They’d have no problem with Kyle and me sharing a large dorm room together. We’d even have our own personal servant to clean up after us and iron our clothes. The tuition for American students would be on the order of 35 thousand dollars each per year, servant not included. That was a bargain compared to tuition in the states, where tuition at M.I.T. would be over fifty grand. The bottom line is that, like it or not, as young as we were, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for us to study overseas until graduate school. Besides which, Oxford doesn’t have a program in architecture. On Saturday morning, after another huge full English breakfast, we set out for Stonehenge. I’d heard it was a bit of a tourist trap, but it was Stonehenge, after all. When we got there, however, it was exactly like the pictures I’d seen of it, which was to say that it was so iconic that it was almost as if I’d seen it before. Worse still, calling it a tourist trap was being overly generous. The souvenir shops sold just about anything one could imagine with the likeness of Stonehenge on it. There was even Stonehenge toilet paper. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something mystical about using it after taking a big dump. The place was crawling with tourists, all of them taking their selfies, that it was just about impossible to take a picture of the formation by itself. Roger tried though, and ended up taking hundreds of repeated shots from different angles. He explained that he had software that could eliminate things that weren’t consistent from frame to frame and thereby eliminate all the people. Cool. Finally, it was time to return to London and turn in the car, which had served us well. We then took a taxi to the International Terminal at Saint Pancras. We had a little time, so we checked our luggage and went exploring. The train station and attached hotel were wicked cool, with some of the most outstanding neo-gothic architecture I’d ever seen. There was an amazing sculpture in the station that was several stories high and showed a man and a woman about to kiss, I think. The base of the statue told its own story, with several panels in bas relief. It was incredible. Realizing that the British Library was nearby, we decided to take a look and were blown away. The building was modern, yet functional, with tables and conversation areas that looked more like an eatery than a library. The tables were filled with young people – high school and college students, in sharp contrast to the much more geriatric population in the main library in New York. There were special exhibits including a showing of some of DaVinci’s original manuscripts. There wasn’t time to see the exhibit before our train left, but I did buy the book associated with the exhibition. It was my first major purchase of the trip. The single most incredible feature of the library, however, was a giant glass cube filled with books. The library was organized around a multistory atrium and within that atrium was an enormous glass cube, through which could be seen stacks of leather-bound volumes representing the library’s enormous collection. I was sure glad we stopped to see the library. It was a major highlight of the trip for me. Finally, the time came to head back to the International Terminal to board the Eurostar Express train to Gare du Nord in Paris via the Chunnel. It would take us a little under two-and-a-half hours to get there and even though we were in Standard Class, the accommodations were still quite nice. Indeed, the primary differences between Standard, Standard Premier and Business Premier were in terms of amenities. Indeed, of most significance, were the meals, with both premier classes serving a meal and in the case of Business Premier, a better selection of meals with wine and drinks included. As we’d already started the day with a large breakfast and eaten a light lunch when we first arrived at Saint Pancras, a meal on the train would’ve been superfluous. Besides which, what could be better than eating our evening meal at a sidewalk café in Paris?
  13. “You want us to watch an old movie from the ’sixties?” I asked, incredulous that Jake and Ken were even thinking of wasting time before their wedding. Surely they had better things to do. “But it’s a classic, Freck,” Jake explained, “and with us all going to Europe for the summer, we thought you might enjoy it. It had an all-star cast for 1969, and they just don’t make light comedies like that anymore.” “For good reason,” Roger countered. “Comedies back then were so lame.” “Yes, it’s silly and contrived,” Ken chimed in, “but it reflected the times, and do you really think The Avengers is any less contrived?” “Hey, don’t bad mouth my Avengers,” Roger responded. “Marvel Comics rule!” “Oh gag me,” Kyle replied. “I’ll watch a dozen mindless twentieth century comedies over that rubbish.” “On that, I agree with my boyfriend,” I added. It was June 26 and a few hours ago, school had let out for the start of summer vacation. In just two days, Jake and Ken would be getting married in Wave Hill Gardens, a very popular site for weddings that was located just a short walk from our house in Riverdale, an upscale neighborhood in the North Bronx. First, there would be a rehearsal dinner at our house tomorrow night – already, a tent had been erected on the terrace behind the great room, right above the pool – and then on Friday, the wedding itself would be held in the late afternoon, before the sun set and the Jewish sabbath began. Jake and Ken weren’t all that religious, but some of the family members were and so certain traditions needed to be observed, although there was nothing traditional about a Jewish gay wedding. After taking their vows under a canopy overlooking the Hudson and the New Jersey Palisades across the way, the reception would be held at the famed Wave Hill House. Ken was an epileptologist… a neurologist specializing in seizure disorders, at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Jake was an ophthalmologist specializing in retinal disorders who worked at the Edward Harkness Eye Institute, a part of New York Presbyterian, the primary teaching hospital of Columbia University and a part of the Columbia-Cornell system. They met because of some mutual patients of theirs and I guess they’d been crushing on each other for years, until Jake finally admitted to himself that he’s gay. They only started dating in January, but they were already hopelessly in love and decided to get married as soon as Jake’s divorce was final. Since the divorce wasn’t contested, it was more a matter of Jake’s wife, Kyle’s mom, finishing her alcohol rehab, which she did in April. As part of the divorce settlement, Jake offered to buy her a house or apartment rather than fight over the one they already had, but then Ken offered to give her his apartment in Castle Village, a co-op complex in Manhattan’s Hudson Heights that was just north of the GW Bridge. I think he meant it as a joke, but she readily agreed. It was a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on the top floor with an unobstructed view of the bridge, George Washington Park, Fort Tryon Park and, across the Hudson, Fort Lee and the Palisades. It was worth a small fortune. So just last month, Kyle’s mom moved into Ken’s old apartment and Ken moved in with us. The day after the wedding, on Saturday night, we’d all be taking an overnight flight to London for the start of nearly ten weeks on a whirlwind trip encompassing much of Europe. It was actually Jake and Ken’s honeymoon, but they insisted on taking us with them. As they put it, they wanted to see Europe through our eyes. How fuckin’ awesome was that? The day after we got back, Ky and I would start our Senior Year at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s elite specialty public high schools. “So it’s settled,” Jake responded before any of us could object. “We’ll watch the perfect European travel movie.” “Just tell me it’s not European Vacation,” I interjected. “That definitely wasn’t one of Chevy Chase’s better films,” Jake agreed. “Besides which, that was in the mid-1980s. The only thing worse was Vegas Vacation. No, tonight we’re going to watch the classic, If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium.” “But we aren’t even going to Belgium,” Roger complained. “That’s beside the point,” Ken countered. “What matters is that it’s a light-hearted comedy about a group of tourists on a whirlwind two-week tour of Europe. At least we’re going to take the time to enjoy our trip. We’re not going on a tour… we don’t need to. Freck, you speak the languages… all of them.” That actually was pretty much true. I was fluent in more than a dozen languages including Spanish, French, German and Mandarin Chinese, and could communicate passably in a few dozen more. Languages came naturally to me. So we all sat down in the great room and streamed the old movie, which wasn’t even in high-def and looked pretty crappy on our 4k-HDR TV. It was contrived, but funny and actually a pretty cool way to get us in the mood for our upcoming trip. <> <> <> Taking a flying leap, I dove head-first into the deep end and began swimming my laps. Since moving in with my boyfriend, their indoor pool – actually, now it was as much my pool as theirs – had become my daily refuge. When I lived in Battery Park City, I played soccer and basketball regularly. Options for team sports outside of school were much more limited in Riverdale, however, and forget about school. There was no way a twelve-year-old high school senior could compete with his teenage peers in team sports – not even in intramurals. I did okay in gym class, but that was the extent of my sports activities in high school at Stuyvesant. Swimming was a different matter, though. Size truly didn’t matter at all. The bigger issue was that until last year, I didn’t even know how to swim. Opportunities were limited and as a city boy, I really didn’t have an interest – but that was before moving in with Kyle’s family. That was before I had an indoor pool, right in my home. The great thing was that, even when the extensive floor-to-ceiling glass doors were open to the outdoors, we were on a hillside and had complete privacy. The only ones who might see me swim in the nude were my boyfriend, Kyle, his brother, Roger, and their two Dads, Jake and Ken. Yup, it was just us five guys and clothing wasn’t even optional in the pool. None of us wore any. This would be my last chance to swim in the nude until we got back from Europe. It might be my last chance to swim – full stop, as the Brits would say. The sound of splashing water alerted me that I was no longer alone in the pool. I tried to continue my laps, but the feel of arms around my waist and a hand grabbing my dick let me know that my boyfriend was awake. Turning to face him, our lips came together, and tongues meshed with tongues. “Eew, you didn’t brush your teeth, did you?” my boyfriend asked. “Did you?” I asked in return. “Well no, but I’m not the one with a name like Freak,” he answered. “I’m not either, but I’ll let it slide this time.” Actually, I got called Freak a lot by bullies in school until I learned to take the teasing. My real name was Francis, but I hated it and went by Freck, ’cause of all the freckles I had. “What the fuck are you doing up so early, swimming, of all things?” Kyle asked. “Gotta stay in shape over the summer,” I replied. “Not that I’m complaining, but this is probably the last time I’ll have a chance to swim until we return to New York, and then school’ll be starting back up. Maybe I’ll even join the swim team this year.” Shrugging his shoulders, Kyle responded, “With all the eye candy, it might be fun to attend all your meets. Just, don’t you get interested in any other meat.” “Very funny,” I chuckled, but hastened to add, “not that I’d even want the attention, but what fourteen, fifteen, sixteen or seventeen-year-old would even take an interest in a twelve-year-old senior?” “Some guys like their boys young,” Kyle responded. “At least you have pubes. Sometimes I wonder what you see in me.” “Are you kidding?” I replied. “For a ten-year-old, you’re pretty we’ll endowed, and I seriously doubt than anyone could do what you do for me. More importantly, you’re the only one who really gets me. You’ve been there, and at an even younger age. You’re perfect, Ky. I can’t imagine life without you. I don’t even want to think about it.” Once again, our lips came together and then our tongues, and the kiss seemed to go on forever as we ground into each other. Pulling apart, we were both breathing heavily when Kyle said, “Just let me catch my breath, and then I’ll show you how long I can hold my breath.” “What do you mean,” I asked naïvely. Before I knew what was happening, Kyle’s head was underwater, and I understood exactly what he meant. <> <> <> Although it might have been the start of our summer break, we couldn’t sleep in – not with the rehearsal dinner that night. The caterers would be arriving by mid-afternoon and soon the guests would follow. Jake and Ken had been working feverishly all week, tidying up as much of their clinical practices as they could before the wedding. Even now they were at work, taking care of last-minutes issues that couldn’t be left to anyone else. They were supposed to be home by early afternoon to get ready for the rehearsal dinner, but I suspected they’d be challenged to make it on time for the roasting afterward. I knew all to well what their professional lives were like. In any case, they were both at work from before we even got up and Kyle and I were on our own, along with Kyle’s brother, Roger who was fifteen. The irony was that while Ky and I were now seniors and would be heading off to college together next year, Roger would be starting his sophomore year at Stuyvesant. We teased him mercilessly about how dumb he was, but he was no slouch to have gotten into Stuyvesant. He was very smart – he just wasn’t a genius like Kyle or me. “It’s about time you guys showed up,” he announced as we entered the kitchen. Roger was wearing boxers whereas Kyle and I were still in the nude. “Something sure smells good,” Kyle remarked, “especially the coffee. What are you having?” I chuckled at how Ky lasered in on the coffee before even thinking of the food. Sometimes he sounded more like a twenty- than a ten-year-old. “Tuna melt on a bagel with a bowl of Amy’s tomato bisque,” Roger replied. “Is there any left for us?” my boyfriend asked. Rolling his eyes, Roger answered, “I made enough for all of us.” Sure enough, there was a pot of the soup simmering on the stove on low heat, and a bowl of tuna salad on the counter next to it, along with a plate of bagels and a brick of Swiss cheese. The tuna salad, which was loaded with diced bell peppers and onions, looked delicious. Grabbing the bread knife, I sliced a couple of poppy seed bagels in half and dropped them into the toaster. While the bagels were toasting, I spooned the rest of the tomato bisque into a couple of bowls and carried them to the table while Kyle sliced the cheese into thin strips. When the bagels popped up, I grabbed a couple of plates and placed a bagel, open face, on each one. I spooned the rest of the tuna salad onto the bagels and then laid the cheese on top, nuking them until the cheese was just starting to bubble. Carrying the plates to the table and setting them down, I went back for silverware and napkins while Kyle poured each of us a full mug of coffee. He added milk and sugar to mine to my taste, but he left his own black, and carried both mugs to the table. As we sat down, Kyle said, “Thanks for making brunch, bro. It’s fucking awesome.” “You’re welcome, shithead,” came Roger’s reply. Brunch really was awesome, but I couldn’t help but remark, “Yeah, I know you went to a lot of trouble, opening those cans and that package of frozen peppers and onions.” “Hey, Freak, I served you guys only the best,” he replied. “I coulda served you any soup… even Campbells… but I served you 100% organic tomato bisque from Amy’s, heated in a genuine Corning pot. And I’ll have you know that was dolphin-safe StarKist chunk-lite tuna with Helman’s real mayonnaise and Goulding’s spicy mustard. None of that crappy grey French mustard for you. And how do you know I didn’t chop up a fresh onion and a couple of peppers?” “Um, maybe it has something to do with the empty package in the trash?” I replied. “OK, so I took a shortcut, but isn’t it better this way?” he asked. “Yeah, it’s way better,” I admitted, “and we do appreciate you making enough for all of us.” “Which he had to do, once he opened the package of peppers and onions, “Kyle pointed out. “And doesn’t StarKist buy their tuna from Thai slave ships?” he asked. Actually, that was a subject I knew a lot about. “Unfortunately, StarKist isn’t alone in using fish caught with questionable practices,” I added. “StarKist uses absolutely no strategies to protect the environment or human rights. In a Huffington Post article that ranked twenty brands of tuna based on sustainability, StarKist ranked dead last. I wasn’t going to say anything when I got here and saw what was in your cupboard… not yet…” “So what tuna would you have us use?” Roger asked. “American Tuna and Wild Planet tied for first place, with Whole Foods coming in a close third,” I replied. “I’ll send you the link.” “Maybe you can make a list of everything we need to change in our cabinets and closets, babe,” Kyle suggested. “That might take a while,” I replied. “C’mon,” Kyle said, changing the subject. “Let’s clean up from brunch, and then maybe we can all watch a movie before the circus begins.” Shaking his head, Roger replied, “You two go ahead if you want. My new camera just arrived and I need to get it ready for the trip.” “It better take fantastic pictures for what you spent on it,” Kyle replied. It was true. Whereas Kyle and I spent a fortune on music and on audiophile equipment for listening to it, Roger’s passion was photography. Roger already had what I thought was a pretty expensive camera, but it wasn’t good enough for our ‘trip of a lifetime’. So he spent thousands of dollars on the latest, greatest full-frame mirrorless ILC, which he claimed was way better than a DSLR. He spent thousands more on lenses, memory cards, batteries and a professional backpack in which to carry it all. He literally cried when I pointed out that the restrictions on carryon luggage meant he’d have to check it, so he wisely also ordered some more practical gear for travel. “Besides which, you guys don’t like to watch what I wanna watch,” Roger countered. “Things like The Avengers and Spiderman. You know, the good stuff.” “Oh gag me, bro.” Kyle replied. “That Marvell action superhero shit’s fuckin’ awful. It’s fake, contrived and a waste of perfectly good synapses.” Then turning to me, he added, “Come on, Babe. Let’s go watch Green Book. I’ve been dyin’ to see it since it won Best Picture.” <> <> <> “Can you imagine the balls it took to do that?” Kyle asked as the final credits rolled. We were both still nude and cuddled up on the great room sofa. Kyle sat upright and stretched out his lithe body, with his arms straight overhead, his legs straight ahead and his back arched. With his chest puffed out, the position was very erotic. He then settled back down and rested his head in my lap, placing his feet flat on the cushions with his knees bent and in the air. My dick poked him in the ear, which caused him to giggle. “The incredible thing was that it really happened,” I replied as I started rubbing my hand on his chest and settled into rubbing his nipple with my thumb. “I mean, how many African American concert pianists are there, even today?” I pointed out. “Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller were no less great in their own way,” Kyle responded as he turned onto his side and started playing with me. “So was Thelonious Monk. They weren’t schooled in classical music, but their fingers could do plenty of amazing things, and they did it on the fly.” “Of course you’re right,” I agreed, “and they weren’t the only ones who could do amazing things with their fingers,” I added as I started running my fingers through his hair. His hair had been on the longish side when we met, but he’d been letting it grow longer since he started at Stuyvesant in January, and now it was nearly shoulder length. I really liked it that way and I loved running my fingers through his long wavy brown strands. “People still expect black pianists to play Jazz. The gay issue was interesting, though.” “And the way they addressed it head-on was surprising,” Kyle added. “It didn’t affect their friendship,” I pointed out, “and they remained friends all their lives.” That was the last thing I was able to say as Kyle took me into his mouth. I lay myself down in the opposite direction and returned the favor. <> <> <> “You look nervous,” I said as my boyfriend and I got dressed up for the rehearsal dinner. We were both wearing navy blazers over white shirts with khaki slacks. At least tonight we wouldn’t have to wear ties, and we could even wear sneakers in my case, and sandals in Kyle’s case. Tomorrow, we’d have to wear much dressier clothes. “Of course I’m nervous. I’ll be meeting a lot of people I’ve never met before, none of them aware that I’m gay, let alone that I have a boyfriend.” “But Kyle, they’re coming here for a gay wedding,” I pointed out. “They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t accepting.” “Yeah, but even accepting people have trouble when confronted by a ten-year-old gay boy, and my grandpa is very homophobic,” Kyle countered. “I think he’s only coming so he can put us down. I don’t think anyone else is coming from Brazil. If they’re like him, it could be a real fuckin’ mess. “And then there’s my dad’s siblings. The whole reason I stayed in town last year for Thanksgiving was ’cause Dad didn’t want Aunt Helen to know I’m gay.” “She’s the one who lives in California, in Berkley?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s her, and it’s hard to imagine her being homophobic when she lives in one of the most liberal places in America, but this’ll be the first time I see her as an out preteen, which is a little scary. She and my Uncle John, and my three cousins are all coming. And there’s my Uncle Frank from Chicago, Aunt Eileen from Columbus, not to mention their spouses and kids. That’s a lot of people who could hate me. And then there’s Ken’s whole family.” “My dad likes to say that no family is without it’s bad apples, including our own,” I noted. “So what if there’s a ’phobe or two at the wedding. When it comes to dealing with the haters, you’re formidable. It’s not a fair fight… not by a long shot. You can deal with them…” Just then Asher and Seth walked in. “And of course, there’s our friends, Asher and Seth,” I added. “What about us?” Ashe asked. “Ky’s worried that some of the guests will have a hard time accepting an out-and-proud ten-year-old,” I answered, “but he won’t be alone. For one thing, I’ll be there, right by his side, and for another, you guys will be there. There’s strength in numbers.” “There is that,” Kyle responded. “It’s too bad Clarke and Carl couldn’t come.” Seth’s snicker let me know that I wasn’t the only one who found Ky’s choice of words amusing. “So, are you guys excited about your upcoming trip?” Asher asked. “More like panicked,” I replied. “We probably shoulda started packing last week, but with school and finals and all, there just wasn’t time. Kyle and I should have started our packing this morning, but it’s the first day of summer vacation, you know? We kind of blew it off and had wild, passionate sex instead.” “And we watched Green Book,” Kyle interjected. “That was a really good movie,” Asher exclaimed. “Imagine a closeted black concert pianist making a tour of the Deep South in the 1960s, having to rely on a ‘green book’ that listed safe places where ‘colored’ people could stay.” “And he had to play Jazz in front of white audiences, even though he had a PhD and was versed in the likes of Beethoven, Chopin and List,” Seth added. “I’d like to think things have changed, but in many ways, I know that they haven’t. Thank god that at least in New York, no one bats an eye that I’m in love with a half-black, half-Asian boy.” “But now we’ll have only a few hours to pack for a ten-week trip,” I pointed out. Laughing, Seth responded, “Hell, being the son of a politician, I’ve been traveling since I can remember, but I never know about it until a few days before if I’m lucky. Sometimes I don’t find out we’re leaving until a few hours before we hafta leave. Dad makes sure my passport’s always up to date, but I sometimes have to pack a suitcase with enough clothes for a week overseas at a moment’s notice, including dress clothes. A few hours is plenty of time. Just take a few minutes to make a list of everything you’ll need. Then when you pack, you need only go down the list and cross things off as you go.” “Spoken by someone who’s obviously a packing veteran,” Kyle laughed. “How’s your mom, Asher?” I asked. Bernice White had been struck by a kid on an electric bike while crossing Grand Street. It happened two weeks ago and she was still in the Hospital for Bone and Joint Diseases, having undergone surgery for multiple fractures. The kid fared far worse, though – way worse. He lost control of his bike and veered into the path of an onrushing MTA bus, and was dead at the scene. The kid was only fourteen and still in middle school. “She’s in surprisingly good spirits, even with what happened to her,” Asher replied. “She starts her rehab at the Rusk Institute next week.” “Fuck, isn’t your new restaurant opening next week?” Kyle asked. “Have you figured out how you’re gonna run two restaurants without your mom?” Asher’s family was opening a new Cajun restaurant, just north of Delancey on the Lower East Side, near where they lived. It had long been a dream of Asher’s father, Gary, who was Creole. They already owned an Asian takeout place on Grand Street, and the plan had been for Bernice, who’s Chinese American, to continue running it, but now those plans were in turmoil. “Our Grand Opening is this Monday,” Ashe answered. “Seth and I are gonna run the new place ourselves with a little help from my dad, who’ll be busy keeping things going on Grand Street. I have a lot of experience in the kitchen, but for Seth and me to open our own restaurant…” Just then there was a knock on the door and Roger stuck his head in and announced, “Guys, the guests are starting to arrive. You need to finish getting ready and come out to mingle with them.” Damn! “You just want us to keep them entertained,” Kyle responded. “You’re just now figuring this out?” Roger replied, “Entertainment is our primary role as children, so, yes, we’re expected to keep them from getting restless.” “How much are we being paid for this gig, and does the union know about Dad hiring under-age, non-union actors?” Kyle asked with a straight deadpan face. As always, his delivery was flawless. Roger didn’t miss a beat either as he answered, “We’re being paid in kind with a trip to Europe, and we’re fleeing the country, just in case the union finds out about it. Anyway, please finish getting ready and make your appearance,” he admonished us, and then he slipped his head back out the door. Once Kyle and I finished getting ready, he said, “Come, let’s face the execution squad.” The great room was already full of guests in fancy garb, with many of them filtering their way onto the terrace, where the caterers were busy serving drinks. “Hey, let’s go see if we can score some booze,” Kyle suggested as he nudged us to the door to the terrace. “Yeah, like that’s gonna happen,” Asher responded, but we headed toward the terrace anyway. At least maybe we could get non-alcoholic mixed drinks, or even just Cokes. Before we could even get half-way to the door, however, a strikingly handsome young teen called out, “Kyle, is that you?” “Jason!” Kyle exclaimed as he ran up to the boy and they embraced warmly. “You’ve grown! Damn, you look good. So how’s my favorite cousin?” “Can’t complain,” he answered. “I’ll be starting my freshman year at Berkeley High in the fall and I’m pretty excited about that…” “You’re already fourteen?” Kyle interrupted in surprise. “Actually, I’m still twelve,” he replied. “I know, I’m tall for my age and my voice has already changed, and I look older, but I’ll turn thirteen in August. I skipped fourth grade.” “Seth was home schooled and started high school last year at the age of thirteen. He just turned fourteen in June,” Kyle added, but then blushed and said, “Sorry, but I forgot to introduce my friends. “Seth and Asher are my two best friends. Like me, they go to Stuyvesant High School, but like Roger, they just finished their freshman year. I met them when we couldn’t come out to California for Thanksgiving. Taking pity on Roger, they invited him to have Thanksgiving with them, and Roger invited me. They in turn introduced me to Freck, who just completed his junior year at Stuyvesant, same as me.” Shaking his head, Jason commented, “It’s hard to fathom you starting your senior year at high school when you’re still only ten, right?” Nodding his head, Ky answered, “Yeah, I won’t turn eleven until the winter break.” “How old are you, Freck,” Jason asked me. “I know I look like I’m more Ky’s age,” I answered, “but I’m actually two years older than my boyfriend. Like you, I’m twelve, but I won’t turn thirteen until the day after Christmas.” It was only after I’d said it that I realized I just outed myself, and probably Kyle too if Jason drew the obvious conclusion. Sure enough, Jason cocked his head to the side and asked, “Your boyfriend?” “Well yeah,” Kyle answered. “That’s the real reason Roger and I didn’t visit you guys for Thanksgiving. I came out last year, when I was only eight, and Dad was having a hard time dealing with it. I think he was having trouble dealing with his own sexuality…” “And not many parents want to think about their own kids’ sexuality, particularly when they’re only eight,” I interjected. “Anyway, Roger stayed home with me in sympathy,” Kyle added. “Seth and I are a couple too,” Asher commented as he took his boyfriends hand, and I did likewise with Kyle. “And your parents are cool with you having a boyfriend at your ages?” Jason asked Kyle and me. I explained how my dad was the CEO of a major brokerage and my mom owned one of the best-known designer labels in the world, and how they were never around and so I now lived with my boyfriend. Kyle explained that since we’d both be going to college next year, it was better for us to explore our relationship while we were still in high school and had adults around we could ask for advice and guidance. “Shit, my parents won’t let me have an actual boyfriend until I’m sixteen,” Jason complained. “You’re gay, Jason,” Kyle asked. “Well yeah,” he replied. “I came out last year when I was still eleven and although they were surprised, they’ve been nothing but supportive.” “But waiting until you’re sixteen, when you’ll be a senior in high school, is absurd,” Asher stated. “Tell that to my parents,” Jason complained. “They have no problem with me dating, but they think I should gain experience through dating and learn from my mistakes before I try a steady relationship, and I guess I understand that, but Gees!” “So we’re both gay,” Kyle related. “I knew there was a reason why you’re my favorite cousin. Then turning to me and to Seth and Asher, he explained. “Jason’s one of the few kids I know who’s as passionate about music as we are. Not only that, but he’s a talented musician too. He plays piano, violin, bass, guitar, bass guitar and saxophone…” “I’m impressed,” Seth interrupted. “Sounds like you’re into jazz. Ashe and I are major jazz fans.” “That’s real cool, and I’m more than into it,” he replied. “I started my own band when I was like nine and starting middle school. I’ve won a few contests.” “He’s won more than a few contests,” Kyle related. “He’s won national competitions. He’s fantastic. He’s amazing. If you closed your eyes, you’d never know he’s just a kid.” Blushing, Jason responded, “I’ve done pretty good, but I’m also very lucky to have the support of my parents, who let me practice for hours on end. Kyle’s one of the few kids I know who’s as passionate about music as I am, even if it’s mostly crappy music he likes.” “I like a lot of different kinds of music, including jazz, rock and even hip-hop,” Kyle countered. Glancing at me, he continued, “Freck, on the other hand, is a die-hard classical music fan. He’s been introducing me to the opera. Thanks to his parents, he has season tickets to the Met.” “Out of curiosity, how’d you get the name ‘Freck’?” Jason asked. “My real name’s Francis,” I explained, “but I’ve hated that since I was little. I got teased a lot in school as you can imagine. I coulda gone by Frank, but my Dad’s name is Frank and I didn’t want to end up always being compared to him. When your name’s Frank Junior, everyone knows there’s a Frank Senior. Anyway, the kids at camp called me ‘Freckles’, ’cause of all my freckles, and I shortened it to Freck. Unfortunately, a lot of kids called me ‘Freak’ and some still do, but I learned that the best strategy for that was to simply ignore them.” Just then, a thin man with dark curly hair approached us and Kyle called out to him. “Hey Uncle John. It’s a really great to see you.” “It’s nice to see you, Kyle,” he replied as he clearly seemed to notice our joined hands. “We really missed you at Thanksgiving last year.” “Yeah, well Dad was having a hard time dealing with a nine-year-old son who was out and proud,” my boyfriend answered. “By the way, this is my boyfriend, Freck, which is short for Freckles, and our best friends, Asher and Seth.” “It’s nice to meet you boys,” he replied, and then added, “You’re all so young. Are you really ready to have boyfriends?” “Uncle John, Freck and I are seniors at one of the top high schools in the world. We both got perfect scores on the SAT and we hope to go to MIT together next year. Freck is fluent in about a dozen languages and can speak and understand several times more. Half my course load next semester will be across the street at Manhattan Community College, a part of the CUNY system. We plan to get married in five-and-a-half years, when Freck turns eighteen. I’ll be sixteen by then. “Roger likes to joke that I have the brain of someone twice my age, but only the maturity of my actual age. To a degree, that’s true, but in comparison to my peers at Stuyvesant, I’m not that much different except for my age. A lot of the kids are young for their grade level, but I’m definitely an outlier. So’s Freck. The bottom line is that a lot of so-called prodigies never manage to fit in. A lot of them resort to taking drugs or even commit suicide. Freck tried both and the thought of that terrifies me. “A lot of so-called normal people spend a lifetime searching for a soulmate they’ll never find. I don’t need to be an adult to know that I’ve found the boy who’s my other half. Intellectually he’s my equal and we share so many interests in common. We do have our differences, me being the skeptical idealist and he being the obstinate pragmatist, but that’s definitely a good thing. We complement each other, we respect each other, we share common goals and we enjoy being with each other. And isn’t it better for us to learn about life, love and, well, sex from each other than from some pedophile pervert? After all, who else would take an interest in us? “So to answer your question Uncle John, no we’re not too young to be boyfriends, and we’re definitely not too young to be in love. And as for Asher and Seth, they’re the couple that introduced Freck and me. As far as I’m concerned, they walk on water. Asher’s fifteen and he’s opening his own Cajun restaurant in Manhattan in a few days, and he’s definitely one of the best chefs I’ve ever met… well, he’s the only chef I’ve ever met, but his food’s the best I’ve ever had. And Seth’s dad’s one of the most powerful politicians in New York. He’ll be the governor someday, or maybe a senator or even the president. Seth’s fourteen, and he’s going to follow in his dad’s footsteps too.” “Damn, I know you’re only ten, but you talk more like one of my middle-aged colleagues,” Uncle John responded after Kyle had said his piece. “It comes from spending more time with books than with friends growing up,” Asher interjected. “Seth and I are a bit like that too… Seth in particular ’cause he was around politicians all his life and he was home schooled, but Kyle and Freck are more like adults in kids bodies. It’s one of the reasons they’re our best friends. They’re a lot younger than we are, but they think and talk like we do.” “You’ve certainly given me food for thought,” Uncle John said as he looked a Kyle. Then looking at Jason, he added, “Not that I’m suggesting it’s OK for you to get a boyfriend, Jase, but if you happen to fall in love before you’re sixteen, let’s just say I’ll keep an open mind about it.” Just then a tall blond woman came up to us and Kyle said, “Hi Aunt Helen.” “Hi kiddo,” she replied as she ruffled my poor Ky’s hair. I could only see how much my boyfriend was struggling not to tell his aunt how much he was not a kiddo, but then his Aunt Helen turned back to her husband and said, “Come on, dear. I’d like to introduce you to some of our relatives from Brazil.” As they departed, Kyle responded under his breath, “Fuck, I didn’t think any of them were coming. This could get ugly…” We were interrupted by a couple of boys who looked very much like Jason, one who appeared to be younger and one older than he was. “Hey faggot,” the younger one said with a voice that hadn’t yet changed.” I was just about to give Jason’s obviously younger brother a piece of my mind, when Jason interrupted, “It’s OK guys. Phil and I have been calling each other that for years, since long before I even thought I might be gay, let alone came out.” “I knew you were gay,” the younger boy responded. “I knew it by the time I was eight, and you were turning ten. Why do you think I called you that in the first place?” “Damn, I guess I knew it too,” Jason replied, “but I wasn’t ready to admit it even to myself just yet. But then why did you call me something so vile, you fucker? Why didn’t you just ask me if I was gay?” “Cause it was more fun to call you faggot,” he answered, “and because it kept you from asking me if I was gay… I’m definitely not, by the way. I definitely like girls… and boys too. Took me a while to figure it out, but I’m bi.” “And you’re what, eleven,” I asked. “As of March seventeenth,” he replied. “Yup, I was born on Saint Patty’s Day. And how come no one’s asked if I’m too young to know I’m bi and not straight?” “Because I knew what I was at your age,” I answered. “I knew when I was even younger. And my boyfriend came out when he was eight,” I added as I squeezed Ky’s hand. “By the way,” Janson interrupted, “these are my brothers, Phil and Steve. Phil’s eleven and just finished seventh grade, and Steve’s sixteen and just finished his freshman year at Berkley… U Cal Berkley, that is.” “I’m twelve, and just finished my junior year at Stuyvesant,” I interjected, and you probably know about Kyle,” I added. “Actually, they probably don’t,” Kyle countered. After all I just started at Stuyvesant in January, so they might not know I’ll be a senior next year. Last they knew, I was in the sixth grade.” “Damn!” Asher exclaimed, “I’m the only normal boy in the group.” “Normal if you mean you’re in the age-appropriate grade level, Honey,” Seth chimed in. “Not so normal if you consider you’re attending one of the top public high schools in the world. Not so normal if you consider you’re about to open your very own restaurant at the age of fifteen, and that in my book, you’re one of the best Cajun chefs outside of New Orleans. Not so normal if you consider you’re incredibly handsome and a dead ringer for Tiger Woods in his youth, with a Creole American father and a Chinese American mother. Not to mention that your boyfriend’s father’s one of the most powerful politicians in the New York and his grandfather’s the director of astrophysics at the American Museum for Natural History. Yeah, you’re just so fucking ordinary.” “Guys,” Jason interrupted, “let me finish the introductions. You already know our cousin, Kyle, but you probably didn’t know he’s gay and he’s out and proud at the age of ten. Actually, he came out when he was only eight?” My boyfriend nodded his head. “So Kyle transferred to Stuyvesant High School, where our cousin Roger, who’s fifteen, just finished his freshman year, but Kyle just finished his junior year and will be a senior in the fall. Kyle’s as passionate about music as I am and as I recall, he wants to be a scientist.” Again, Kyle nodded his head. “Kyle’s boyfriend, Freck,” Jason went on, “which is short for Freckles, is twelve and also finished his junior year at Stuyvesant. He’s equally passionate about music and loves classical music and especially opera. Is there anything else you like to do?” “I love Star Wars,” I replied, particularly, since I knew how much it’d annoy my boyfriend. “I think it’s the best sci-fi series ever made.” “Really?” Jason responded. “Me too,” he agreed. “It’s a fuckin’ shame the saga’s coming to an end.” “It’ll never be over, bro,” Steve said as he patted his brother on the shoulder. “Disney won’t let it die so long as there are major fans like you and me to demand more.” “God, I’m surrounded,” Kyle said in response. “At least some of us have an appreciation for real science fiction, like Star Trek,” countered Asher. “Best sci-fi ever,” Seth agreed, “and plausible, as opposed to that Star Wars crap.” “Like I said,” Ky complained, “I’m surrounded.” “For once, we agree on something,” Phil began. “Star Wars is pure fantasy. It’s way too mystical to be considered science. And Star Trek is too optimistic. Somehow we’re supposed to believe we survived global nuclear war to emerge with our technology intact, that we discovered warp drive, which breaks about a zillion rules of physics, and that we broke bread with the Vulcans, formed a grand alliance, a federation of planets, and went on to find dozens of other intelligent life forms out there with compatible DNA with whom we could mate.” “Leave it to you, to think of the sexual aspect of Star Trek,” countered Jason, “rather than the fact that everyone spoke English or that all those advanced civilizations were at the same level of development as our own.” “Hey, it’s just that bisexual kids are less inhibited about sex than the rest of you,” Phil explained. “Anyway, the Borg weren’t at our level of development. They were far ahead of us. Frankly, I think we are much more likely to end up like the Borg, if we don’t destroy ourselves first. We’re already practically glued to our smart phones, and it’s entirely likely that we’ll eventually develop implantable technology. From there it’s only a short trip to cybernetics and mind control.” “You’re on target there, cousin,” Kyle chimed in. “I just don’t think we’re gonna make it that far,” Phil went on. “With climate change, and the destruction of the world order, I think we’re witnessing the end of civilization right now and we’ll see it come to pass in our lifetimes. No, we’re not gonna get any farther than the moon. Hell, we may never get off the surface of our planet again, and with global ecosystem collapse, our species might not even survive.” “I couldn’t agree more,” I concurred. “My dream is to become an architect and to design sustainable cities, but you’re right Phil. We may never make it that far.” “When it comes to science fiction,” Phil resumed, “I think a far more likely scenario is a dystopian future… something like The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner, or The Divergent Series.” “Oh Barf,” Kyle exclaimed. “Those movies and books are so bad. If civilization collapses, there won’t be anything left upon which to build a dystopian future. No, my idea of great sci-fi is the Ender’s Game Series and the Ender’s Shadow Series of Orson Scott Card.” “That’s dystopian,” Phil countered. “He’s right, babe,” I chimed in. “I know the whole concept of a little kid going on to save humanity appealed to you when you were six, but the concept arose from the aftermath of a global attack by an advanced alien civilization. I hand it to Card for not pretending we’d come together in a Kumbaya moment to fight the invaders. Military corruption and nationalism don’t just go away when our survival’s at stake. Our survival’s always at stake when it comes to war, so there’s plenty of military history to cite as examples. “A lot of his ideas were way out there,” I continued, “and it’s far more likely we’ll have wrecked the earth before we have a chance to venture beyond our home planet. To paraphrase something I read, intelligent life is so improbable that it’s likely separated by so much time and space that we may never encounter it outside of our planet. Not only that, but any advanced civilization that came to be in the past has probably long since moved on and if it still exists, it’s probably been replaced by the very artificial intelligence it developed.” “And on that cheery thought, let’s see if we can get something to drink,” Kyle suggested. But before we even made it very far, the caterers shut down the bar and discretely informed us that it was time to move into the tent for dinner. <> <> <> I never could understand why some people felt the need to play matchmaker when it came to planning a formal dinner. Growing up with billionaires for parents, I was exposed to the concept of event planning from a very early age. By the time I started school at Stuyvesant, I’d already been to dozens of such events. It wasn’t like I had a choice in the matter and frankly, I’d have rather been doing something else, but my parents never missed an opportunity to show off their genius son in front of all their business partners, colleagues, friends and relatives. Invariably I ended up being seated at a table with a bunch of snobby rich kids who looked down on me, I guess because I wouldn’t play their social games. The irony was that I was the one who was several grades ahead in school. So when the dads decided to host a rehearsal dinner and settled on making it a buffet, I assumed that it would be informal and that people could seat themselves as they wished, with people they found interesting and not with people someone else decided they’d enjoy being with for dinner. Oh, how I was wrong. The caterers were fine with serving a buffet, but they wouldn’t hear of people sitting wherever they wanted. That just wasn’t how it was done. Heaven forbid, people should wait in long lines and then have to carry plates all over kingdom come as they looked for an empty seat. No, that kind of disorder could never be allowed. Instead, people would have to be assigned to sit at tables, which would then be called up individually to the buffet line in an orderly fashion. And so it fell to the dads to decide who would be assigned to sit at which table and even who would be seated next to each other. I knew they meant well and they really did make the effort to have people with similar interests, but who didn’t know each other well, sit next to each other. Unfortunately, by the time the guest list was being arranged for the rehearsal dinner, there just wasn’t much time. They might as well have thrown darts with people’s names on them at a dartboard with a layout of the tables, for there was little evidence of the serious thought that had gone into the seating chart. I had hoped Kyle and I would be seated together at a table with several other kids, preferably young teens, but that was not to be. At least we were seated together, but at a table with a contingent from Brazil. I guess Jake felt that when he made the seating chart because I was one of the few Americans in attendance who spoke Portuguese, I’d be better able to converse with the family members from Sao Paulo. However, Kyle doesn’t speak any Portuguese, and we were thirty or forty years younger than the next youngest person at the table. What was Jake thinking? As the group of us made our way into the tent that had been erected on the terrace, the only thing I knew was that Kyle and I were seated at table seven. None of our cousins from California were seated at table seven, nor were Asher and Seth. Now, I would have thought table seven would be somewhere between tables six and eight, but Kyle and I found table six right away. Surrounding table six were tables eleven, fifteen, twelve and eighteen. Go figure. We searched high and low and, naturally, table seven was where we least expected it. When we finally found table seven, there were already two couples seated there, one of them appearing to be in their sixties and the other in their eighties or older. I started to introduce myself, but the younger man quickly interrupted, “My English not so good. I speak some, my wife speak a little and my parents no speak.” Okay… How in fuck was Ky supposed to understand them either. Was I supposed to spend the night translating? “You are family?” the man who spoke some English asked. I was about to respond in Portuguese, but then something told me I should wait to switch languages. Sometimes it’s better if people don’t know you can understand them, and so I responded slowly, in English, “Sort of. I don’t know if you know Kyle, Jake’s younger son. I am Kyle’s boyfriend.” “You children are faggots?” he practically shouted. That was the last thing that anyone at the table said to us for nearly the entire evening. The man quickly explained to his wife and parents in Portuguese that, not only was Jake a faggot, but his younger son was too. As the remaining family members from Brazil arrived at the table, he duly informed each one that the cute children at the table were disgusting faggots. I asked Kyle if he knew who any of the people seated with us were, but other than that they were family from Brazil, he didn’t know any of them. The one consolation was that, because they didn’t know I spoke their language, they said things they would have never said in front of me otherwise – things they wouldn’t have wanted Jake to hear about from me. It seemed that none of them wanted to be there, nor did they even condone what they referred to as sodomy, as if the only thing that mattered was the sex act. No, they came to the wedding because Jake paid their way and thus it was an opportunity for a New York vacation. They didn’t even ask him if it was okay to extend their stay – knowing Jake, he’d have been happy to do so if they asked – but instead, they took it upon themselves to change the return flight Jake had paid for to one that left two weeks later. Also, they’d extended the reservations for their hotel rooms to match without changing the billing. One of the women actually laughed that Jake wouldn’t realize they’d stayed an extra two weeks at his expense until he saw the bill, if he even noticed it at all, given the size of the bill for all the other guests. This was one of those times when it was great to have a father who was the CEO of the major brokerages. Although I was now living with my boyfriend’s family, I still had my connections with some of the key staff there, including the accountant I’d recruited to make all the wedding arrangements for Jake and Ken. A quick text between the dinner courses to her was all it took to set things in motion and shift the charges for their hotel rooms without their being aware of it. I wouldn’t even tell Jake or Ken about it until we got back from our trip to Europe. They could consider it a wedding present from me. Chuckling to myself and thinking of my friends with their weird Star Trek obsession, I remembered the old Klingon expression, Revenge is a dish that’s best served cold. With no one to talk to at our table, Kyle and I spent the time during dinner talking to each other. The food was excellent as I would have expected, but still not on a par with Asher’s cooking. The nice thing about having a buffet was that we could fill our plates with food we liked, even if the caterers insisted on serving us portions they thought were appropriate. And Jake and Ken still were nowhere to be found. With no one else to talk to as we ate, my boyfriend and I discussed our mutual interest in space exploration. Although Ky’s primary interest was in particle physics and the so-called grand theory of everything, the cost of building ever larger, ever faster particle accelerators was prohibitive. With the potential for a return on investment being decades into the future, if not centuries, governments were cutting back on funding such projects. The situation was not all that different when it came to space exploration. Assuming the perils of climate change didn’t lead to our extinction or the fall of civilization, we’d soon need to mine the solar system for the minerals we’d depleted here on earth. However, as I see it, space exploration and colonization represent humankind’s ultimate destiny. On that, Kyle and I could agree. The problem with space exploration is that the laws of physics as we understand them severely limit the speed and hence the distance we can travel in space. With existing technology, it would take months or years to reach the planets in our own solar system and reaching the nearest star would take lifetimes. Unfortunately, generating faster spaceships means generating more momentum, and the only way to do that still involves ejecting a propellant at high velocity through a rocket nozzle. Rocket fuel is very inefficient, but even if we developed the technology to convert the propellant to pure energy at an ideal one-to-one ratio, there’d always be a limit to how fast we could accelerate before the weight of the additional propellant exceeded what was needed to propel the additional weight of the propellant alone. The only possible resolution might be to somehow scoop up dark matter from around the spaceship as we travel, not that we even knew what dark matter actually is. Kyle and I talked about the use of more novel strategies for space propulsion that we’d read about. There’d recently been an article on the subject in Scientific American and there actually was a program of funding from NASA to investigate novel high-risk, high-potential strategies for propulsion. One of the more promising strategies, for example, used land-based lasers and light sails, but it would only be useful within range of land – be it on earth or the other planets, and it wouldn’t be useful for deep space exploration at all. Perhaps the most interesting idea involved the use of the piezoelectric effect to alter the shape of a large mass, in effect generating minute gravity waves. Kyle called it gravitational peristalsis, but all joking aside, the effect was infinitesimal, but measurable. Still, there’d be no need to expel mass in the form of rocket propellant to generate thrust if there were a way to directly manipulate gravity. The trick would be to do so without needing a ship the size of a planet. Yes, we had a much more interesting conversation than we’d undoubtedly have had if our table mates had spoken English. As the meal wound down, Jake and Ken were still missing in action. Jake’s sister made it a point to announce that both were accounted for, but Jake was tied up with emergency surgery on one of his longtime patients and Ken was stuck in emergency dealing with a patient he’d been treating for epilepsy for many years. She assured us that, come hell or high water, they’d be home soon, even if she had to go down to Presbyterian herself and forcibly abduct them. “You’d think they could have gotten someone else to take over on such an important night,” one of Jake’s second cousins complained in Portuguese. “Family should come first. They have a responsibility to entertain their guests.” Without thinking, I responded in Portuguese, “I’m sure they would have if they could have. They probably started with their emergency patients while they were still on-duty, but there probably were other emergencies and there wasn’t another attending physician to take over, and they didn’t feel comfortable leaving it to the resident on-call. That’s the kind of doctors they are… ones that put their patients’ welfare over their own. The only thing more important is a family emergency. A rehearsal dinner is not a family emergency, nor is the need to provide entertainment.” The faces of the Brazil contingent actually paled as they realized I could speak Portuguese. Oh well, the cat was out of the bag. “Your Portuguese is excellent,” one of the cousins stated. “Why didn’t you tell us you could speak it?” “I’m fluent in more than a dozen languages,” I replied, “and Kyle and I have only one year left in high school. These cute, disgusting faggots hope to begin their studies at MIT in another year. Truthfully, we had nothing to say to you that could be said in polite company. Besides which, it was so much more fun to listen to what all of you said.” “You heard everything we said?” another cousin said. “Pretty much,” I responded, “and I’m sure Jake and Ken would have been happy to pay for your vacation if you’d asked. They’re very generous that way and, after all, you schlepped all the way from Sao Paulo to attend the marriage of two perverts. However, since all of the arrangements were made through my father’s brokerage firm, I took the liberty of informing them of the change in arrangements you made. You might want to save yourself some embarrassment by notifying the hotel yourselves that you intend to pay for the additional two weeks.” “Son, do you have any idea who I am?” the senior man at the table implored me. “I know you’re Jake’s granduncle, or something like that, and that you escaped with your parents from Nazi-occupied Hungary,” I replied. “Your Hungarian accent is even stronger than Jake’s,” I added. “I’m afraid I don’t know who you are outside of being a valued member of this family, but then you don’t know who I am either, other than being Kyle’s boyfriend and future husband.” “You’re, what, thirteen?” he challenged, “and you expect me to take you seriously?” “Haven’t you been listening?” I countered. “I’m not thirteen… I’m only twelve, and I’m fluent in more than a dozen languages and can speak dozen’s more. My boyfriend, your great grandson or grandnephew, is only ten years old, but we both just finished our junior year… what you probably call grade eleven, in one of the best high schools in the world. We’re both taking college-level courses too.” When I told him the name of the brokerage where my father was the CEO, he exclaimed, “My God, they’ve been handling my investments for decades,” and when I told him the name of the fashion label my mother owned, his wife exclaimed, “Oh dear, I’m wearing one of her evening gowns right now.” Once Kyle’s great granduncle, or whatever he was, realized just who my parents were, he shut up. Completely. It wasn’t long after that that the dads finally arrived and started making the rounds to the various tables, before Jake’s sister interrupted them so that the roasting could begin. Each armed with a plate full of food, they finally had a chance to sit down while friends and family told amusing and embarrassing anecdotes. I learned a lot about the men who’d come to mean so much to me. <> <> <> I was sleeping so soundly and so deeply that I didn’t even remember my dreams, when something or someone came crashing down on Kyle and me. “What the fuck?” my boyfriend responded as we tried to extricate ourselves from whatever landed on top of us. “Wake up, you lazy bums,” Roger said as he continued his assault. “Tomorrow night, we fly to Europe for the entire summer. But this afternoon, Dad and Ken are getting married, so there’s no time to waste. There’s very little time left, and so much to pack. So you boys have five seconds to get your asses out of bed before I start tickling you.” Roger started counting, but only managed to get down to two before Ky and I were both standing next to our bed. Of course we were both naked, but Roger was used to that by now. “I talked to the dads about what we need to bring,” Roger went on. “Keep in mind that we’ll only have a car for part of the time, and not at all in London or Paris. The cars will be sized for European roads, which is to say, kinda puny, with barely enough room for the five of us, let alone a lot of luggage. Some of the time we’ll be taking trains, which means we’ll each have to carry our own luggage and lift it to place it overhead. “The bottom line is that, even though the airline lets you to bring close to a hundred pounds of checked and carry-on luggage, you shouldn’t bring more than about fifty pounds worth. You might like to bring a large suitcase or maybe share one between the two of you, but smaller suitcases are easier to stow or fit in a car. The dads bought all new stuff for us… really good stuff. It arrived yesterday via FedEx and I unpacked it and stashed it in the den. We each have an expandable rolling international carry-on bag to check, plus a cabin bag and a backpack. They don’t hold a lot, but then there’s no way we could take enough clothes for ten weeks anyway. Our instructions are to pack enough socks and underwear for ten days, along with four or five t-shirts, one or two dressy shirts, a sweater, a sportscoat, two pairs of shorts, a pair of khakis and a pair of dressy casual shoes. You’ll wear your sneakers, another t-shirt and another pair of khakis on the plane. Also, you should bring a cheap pair of flipflops ’cause even in luxury hotels, in some places the bathrooms won’t be all that clean.” “What about sandals or flipflops to wear?” Kyle asked. “Would you really want to wear flipflops on the streets of Barcelona?” Roger asked. “I guess not,” Kyle answered. “You can bring sandals if you have room, but it won’t always be practical to wear them.” “How about bringing wifebeaters?” I asked. Kyle visibly cringed and Roger responded, “That term is never to be used in this house. I’m sure you realize how offensive it is.” I nodded my head in response. “We call them tank tops or just ‘tanks’, and you can pack a few of them if you have room, or some muscle shirts if you wish, but keep in mind that there are a lot of times wearing one wouldn’t be appropriate.” “How about swimsuits?” I asked. “I doubt there’ll be much time for swimming with all the dads have planned for us,” Roger replied, “but some of the hotels will undoubtedly have pools. It’s probably a good idea for all of us to bring a pair, especially for you, given your love of the sport. “Oh, and don’t forget to pack an umbrella and a light hooded jacket or windbreaker. It probably won’t get cold enough for hoodie or a warm jacket, but you can always combine the sweater and windbreaker if it gets cold enough. And don’t bother to bring toiletries… not even toothpaste. We’ll buy everything else there after we arrive. The airlines only let you bring enough toiletries in three ounce or hundred ml sizes to fill a one-quart zip-lock, which isn’t nearly enough for ten weeks. It’s just easier to buy it there and throw out what we don’t use. “In terms of other things, you’ll obviously bring your phones to use as cameras if nothing else. Dad added international calling to our data plan, so you don’t have to worry about that…” “Isn’t that like ten dollars a day?” Kyle asked. “Yup, $700 for ten weeks per phone,” Roger answered. “Talk isn’t cheap, and neither are text or data. If you want to save a little money, turn off data roaming and use WiFi where you find it. And don’t forget to bring USB chargers for your phones and any other toys you decide to bring. Speaking of which, you might want to bring your own noise-cancelling headphones along. Most of the major airlines provide noise-cancelling headphones in business class, but they’re not Bose or even Beats.” “Not that I’d want Bose,” I countered as I wrinkled my nose. “Frankly, noise-cancelling headphones don’t sound natural. Kyle and I will take our A&K IEMs any day.” Kyle and I both had very expensive portable music players and in-ear monitors – what some might call earphones – that are way beyond Bose for sound quality. “If you like sticking crap in your ears,” Roger objected. “Anyway, you need to get busy packing while you have a chance. There’s a brunch under the tent at eleven, and then you’ll be getting ready for the wedding after that. The reception will last long into the night and there won’t be nearly enough time tomorrow before we have to leave for Kennedy. So get going.” “Just so there’s coffee at the brunch,” Kyle responded, much to my amusement, and Roger’s. Let the madness begin…
  14. Jake and Ken are getting married, and then they're taking their sons, Roger and Kyle, on a ten-week European vacation. Francis (Freck), Kyle's boyfriend, will be going with them, but he has a history that includes drugs and a suicide attempt when he was only eleven. On top of that, Freck, a freckle-faced redhead who was raised Catholic, now has a Jewish boyfriend and has come to realize that he's one-quarter Jewish. Naturally, he's curious about what it all means. But what will happen when his life hits a minor bump in the road?
  15. Stepping out into the nasty, cold, early April rain, I zipped up my jacket and pulled my hood over my head and my boyfriend, Asher, did the same. Looking across the street to the nearest bus stop, the M22 bus was nowhere in sight. I’d just checked the MYmta app on my phone, which showed the bus to be less than one stop away with an estimated arrival time of one minute, but looking down North End Avenue, there wasn’t a bus in sight. Asher and I huddled under the scant overhang afforded by the front Entrance to Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s elite public specialty high schools. We lived only two miles away and in nicer weather, we often walked home, but this was definitely not the weather for walking. “Where the fuck is it Seth?” my boyfriend asked. “Maybe the weather’s messing up reception from the bus transponders,” I suggested, but then the unmistakable outline of a city bus emerged from the rain and we made a mad dash across the street to catch it. Because we lived more than a mile-and-a-half from school, we each had full-fare student bus passes, which allowed us up to three free bus rides on school days, so we dipped our cards into the metro farecard reader and proceeded to take our seats on the bus. “How’s the apartment coming?” my boyfriend asked. He was referring to the work being done on my family’s co-op apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. Asher and I both lived in the East River Cooperative Apartments – a four-building, twelve-tower complex located where Grand Street meets FDR Drive and the East River. “It’s getting there,” I answered. “It should be done by spring break.” “I bet you’re excited,” Asher responded, “but I’m sure as fuck gonna miss having you stay with us.” “Fuck being the operative word,” I added with a smirk. I’d been living with my boyfriend and his parents in their apartment the entire time the work was being done. Their apartment only had two bedrooms and one bathroom, and a small one at that, so I’d spent the last four months sleeping with my boyfriend in his bed. Both my parents and his were totally cool with that, which was pretty amazing given how young we are. I’m only thirteen – almost fourteen, and Ashe will soon celebrate his fifteenth birthday. The thing is, my Dad’s one of the most powerful members of the New York state assembly and my parents spend most of their time up in Albany. Even when the State Assembly isn’t in session, they’re always busy meeting with constituents or at political fundraisers, so I’m pretty much on my own. Asher’s parents own an Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street, right in our co-op complex, so they’re hardly home either, but they’ve always been there when Ashe or I needed them. Sure, I was only thirteen, but my parents treated me more like an adult. Now that I had a boyfriend, they didn’t have to worry so much about me being alone all the time, and now that Asher’s dad had guardianship papers for when my parents were away, they had peace of mind. So much has changed in the past year! I grew up living in a nice two-bedroom apartment in Seward Park, but the reality was that I spent just as much time living with my parents up in the state capital. Because of the constant schlepping back and forth between New York and Albany, and especially because of my parents’ concern that the public schools in both cities were crap, I was home schooled. Academically I did well and finished all of my pre-high school coursework a year early, but I didn’t have any friends and I was terribly lonely. Then everything changed. It was my mom who suggested I take the entrance exam for New York’s specialty high schools. I coulda continued to be home schooled, but I had a much better chance of getting into an Ivy League college if I had a diploma from a top high school like Stuyvesant. More importantly, going to classes in a real high school would better prepare me for life in college. Best of all, I’d have a chance to make some friends – real friends. But staying in town meant I’d be separated from my parents, most of the time. My Grandpa Paul lives in the city, on the Upper West Side, but as the director of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, he’s always on the road and hardly around much either. Between my parents and my grandpa, there’d always be an adult available in an emergency, but living on my own would be a challenge. Having grown up around politicians, I was much wiser to the ways of the world than most adults, let alone young soon-to-be-teens. But then came the event that changed my life forever. Like a lot of city folks, my parents often browsed the real estate section, mostly out of curiosity and to get an idea of what our place was worth. Sometimes we’d go to an open house if an apartment listing looked interesting. So it was on an early April Sunday, not long after I’d gotten word that I’d been accepted to the freshman class at Stuyvesant and just as I was about to turn thirteen, that we found ourselves looking at a top floor apartment in the nearby East River Cooperative. One look at the terrace and the view was all it took. Dad wrote a check for the asking price, right on the spot. We purchased the apartment for just shy of a million, which was a bargain for Manhattan, and in return for a quick cash sale, the seller agreed to pay all closing costs. However with only one small bedroom and one tiny bathroom, we had to improvise when it came to space for me. It had an open floorplan with a phenomenal terrace and an unobstructed view of most of the New York skyline. The East River, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, South Street Seaport the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, Union Square, Hudson Yards and the Empire State Building were all part of our view. Sure, the apartment was small, as were most Manhattan apartments in our price range, but with a view like that, who cared? And had it not been for living there and giving out candy on Halloween, I might never have met Ashe, the love of my life. We’ve been inseparable since then, but Ashe loves to cook and, as he frequently pointed out, the kitchen was designed for someone who liked to eat out. It was little more than a corner of the living room with a small stove, a sink, a tiny fridge and practically no counterspace. And while a narrow bunk bed in a closet was fine for me when it came to sleeping arrangements, there was absolutely no privacy for a couple of teens who were just learning about love. Then, on Thanksgiving, the lights went out. It turned out we had faulty wiring. It was all fucked-up. We couldn’t live in a place without electricity and we couldn’t even sue the previous owner or the electrical contractor, because it was the co-op management that screwed it up. An office worker made a clerical error and approved adding a 220-volt line, even though the building only had 110. The contractor assumed he got what he requested and proceeded accordingly, with disastrous results. We couldn’t exactly sue the co-op, ’cause that would have been like suing our neighbors and Dad’s constituents wouldn’t have taken kindly to that. The whole place had to be gutted and the wiring replaced. So, when we heard that the neighbors behind us were thinking of selling their place, we snatched it up. The seller was thrilled with the offer, ’cause they didn’t have to pay a real estate agent and we paid all the taxes and legal fees. We even paid the so-called flip tax required by the co-op board. With cash in hand, they were able to buy a larger place that was on the market in the adjacent wing of our building. By combining our apartment with theirs, we’d have three bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a den, a formal dining room, a state-of-the-art kitchen, a large living room with a home theater, and an entryway with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases. It would be a showplace that was worthy of one of the most powerful men in the state assembly. ’Course it would never do for it to be so nice that the voters took notice, but because it was in a co-op building on the Lower East Side, in a neighborhood surrounded by city-owned, low-income housing projects, no one could accuse us of living high on the public dole. I figured it would be at least the middle of the summer before we’d be able to move in. An architect had to be hired and architectural drawings had to be submitted to the city building’s department and to the co-op board for approval, which could take months. Then there were two inspections required, and the co-op had strict rules about work hours, which excluded weekends and holidays. All work had to be done between 10:00 and 5:00 and on top of all that, we weren’t allowed to do any work on religious holidays, of which there were a surprising number. With Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists living in our building, there was always some obscure observance getting in the way of the work to be done. Then things seemed to happen quickly. Our architectural blueprints were approved by the city in just a few days, and the co-op board approved them in less time than that. The contractors got started right away and the city inspections occurred like clockwork. Some politicians like to throw their weight around and expect differential treatment, but that just wasn’t my dad. He wasn’t one to use his leverage or take advantage of his friendship with the governor, but we were desperate. Because of Dad’s political stature, no one wanted to get on his bad side. Thankfully, that resulted in the renovations being done in half the usual timeframe, which meant the apartment was ready for us to move in by our spring break, just in time for Asher’s birthday. I’d been planning to take him someplace special – just the two of us, and I’d probably still do that, but maybe I could host a birthday party for him too. It’d be a great time to show off the new place, which everyone was dying to see, and to celebrate my boyfriend’s entering his middle teens. I wasn’t sure there was an exact definition, but it seemed that if thirteen and fourteen were the early teens and eighteen and nineteen were late teens, then fifteen, sixteen and seventeen must be the middle teens. So as far as I was concerned, Ashe was about to become a mid-teenager. It certainly fit, ’cause Asher was tall and he was already shaving, almost every day. I on the other hand was still pretty short and I didn’t even have any pubic hairs until a few months ago. Maybe the best thing would be to have a kind of birthday picnic. We weren’t allowed to barbecue out on the terrace due to fire regulations, but our new kitchen would have a built-in gas grill and even I could grill hamburgers and hot dogs. Yeah, we could have hamburgers and hotdogs, and maybe chicken breasts and grilled vegies on a skewer. I’d order a birthday cake from the Kosher bakery down the street, and of course I’d pick up some ice cream too. “Tuvok to Janeway, come in Captain Janeway,” I heard echoing from nearby. “We are approaching our destination and the shuttle will soon be landing.” Coming out of my reverie, I realized we were approaching our bus stop, which was at the end of the line. As we got up, I replied, “Are you saying I’m a girl, Ashe?” Captain Janeway was the captain on the Star Trek series, Voyager, and Tuvok was the security officer. Ashe and I were both avid Star Trek fans, but Captain Janeway was a woman. “If the foo shits,” Asher responded as we made our way to the back door. Stepping out into the pouring rain, we made a mad dash across Grand Street, dodging the usual heavy traffic, and headed for Asher’s apartment building. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a girl,” I countered as we retrieved the day’s mail and entered the adjacent elevator. “No, you’re definitely not,” Ashe replied before kissing me deeply and grinding his member into mine. Usually we’d have a quick snack of some food as soon as we arrived home, but today perhaps we’d start with a different kind of snack… < > < > < > “No, that sofa needs to face the other one,” our friend, Freck admonished the delivery people as they tried to comply with his exacting specifications. “The sofas are gonna go across from each other, with the coffee table in the middle… not in an ‘L’ configuration. The two armchairs should go on the kitchen side, and the futon will go on the entry side, so it doesn’t block the TV.” I suspected the movers weren’t used to being bossed around by a twelve-year-old kid. His real name was Frances, but he hated it and preferred to be called Freck, ’cause he had lots of freckles. It was Freck who designed the plans for combining the two apartments, and he designed the layout of the furniture on his laptop. He had an amazing eye for spatial dimensions and planned to become an architect with particular expertise in sustainable architecture. He was hoping to get into MIT, into their combined architecture and civil engineering joint degree program. He also speaks at least a dozen foreign languages. I used to think Freck was ridiculously young to be in high school, but then his boyfriend, Kyle, joined him this semester. Kyle’s only ten, yet he can handle complex vector calculus. They’re both high school juniors at Stuyvesant and hope to graduate next year, and they’re out and proud. Their help has been invaluable. When we first made plans for combining the two apartments, it quickly became obvious that, with the exception of my parent’s bedroom set, almost none of the furniture we had would work with the new design. We needed to buy all new furniture, but when Dad suggested buying a bunch of generic stuff from a place like Raymour and Flannagan, Mom put her foot down and said our apartment was not gonna look like a hotel lobby. It was Freck who suggested we look at custom-made Amish furniture. He knew we couldn’t afford the designer stuff his parents bought, but Kyle’s house had all Amish stuff and so we schlepped our way up to Riverdale to see it. We were all impressed with what we saw, and particularly with how well everything was made. The Amish used solid hardwoods that would last for generations. There were some great sights on the Internet where we could order everything we would need, custom-made to the exact dimensions we wanted and with the wood and fabrics we wanted. The trouble was that Mom didn’t trust ordering furniture, sight unseen, and so we spent an early January weekend in the Lancaster area, visiting about a dozen showrooms and selecting the styles and finishes we wanted. Seth and Freck came with us, of course, and Freck brought his laptop with software that could ‘place’ any furniture we were considering, letting us see right away how it would fit and what it might look like in our apartment. Mom fell in love with the mission-style and we ended up selecting mission-style furniture in an unusual quarter-sawn light-oak finish, with textured cushions in earth tones. The centerpiece of the living room was to be a cozy grouping with two sofas, two armchairs, a futon, a coffee table and a wedge-shaped end table. These were complemented by a set of matching bar stools along the kitchen island. For the dining room we ordered an elegant solid oak table with two leaves and twelve chairs, as well as a matching breakfront and a buffet. For both my bedroom and the guest room, we ordered mission-style queen-sized bedroom sets with matching computer desks and bookcases. In the den we decided on a sleeper sofa, a desk and matching bookcases and file cabinets. We knew that, contrary to popular belief, most Amish furniture is made in large factories using modern equipment and tools, but because everything was custom made to order, we were warned upfront that final delivery would not be until April at the earliest. Complicating matters, the various items would be fabricated in different shops in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. There was a lot to coordinate and a delay in the delivery of even one piece would delay the entire shipment, as all of the different items had to be stained and finished together to ensure they all matched. The stars must have all been aligned, because we were informed just the week before the apartment was finished that our new furniture was ready to be delivered. As if we’d planned it that way, the apartment was completed on Tuesday, the week before the start of our spring break. My parents went through the apartment on Wednesday, making sure there were no problems that needed to be addressed, and had all the stuff we’d had in storage, including their bedroom furniture, delivered on Thursday, the day before the start of Spring Break. Starting bright and early on Friday morning, Good Friday, as it turned out, which was also the first night of the Jewish holiday of Passover, Ashe and Mom unpacked the clothes, the dishes and pots and pans, and anything else that could be put away in the closets and cabinets. In the meantime, Freck and Kyle helped by unboxing all the books and organizing them in the new built-in bookcases in the entryway. Meanwhile, Dad and I hung the two TVs we already had, plus two new ones we’d ordered, as well as all the artwork. By the afternoon of Easter Sunday, more than half of the boxes were empty and had been broken down, ready for recycling, and everything was put away. The new furniture was delivered on Monday, which left us the rest of the week to finish unpacking and organizing everything, and in particular for me to connect all the stereo equipment and set up the home theater. By the time Thursday afternoon rolled around, all the boxes had been emptied, flattened and taken downstairs for recycling and all the closets and drawers were full and organized. The kitchen in particular was state-of-the-art, with a built-in Sub-Zero fridge, triple convection ovens, a built-in convection microwave, an eight-burner gas stove with a dual-burner gas grill under an overhead ventilation hood, extensive countertops with a dazzling array of KitchenAid and Cuisinart appliances, and more cabinet space than I’d ever seen outside a commercial kitchen. The apartment looked as if we’d lived in it for years, thanks to all of Freck’s planning. Ashe’s birthday was on Saturday, but because my parents had to return to Albany the first thing on Friday morning, we had a family dinner in honor of Ashe on Thursday. His mother spent the entire afternoon preparing a feast of his favorite dishes while his father baked a traditional birthday cake. They closed their restaurant in the late afternoon and then brought all the food up to our new apartment, just as we were finishing our final unpacking. Freck and Kyle had been staying with us all week, and as they were our absolute best friends and in reward for all their help, they would be staying for Ashe’s birthday dinner. Unbeknownst to Asher, they would be staying for the coming weekend as well, including what was to be Asher’s surprise birthday party. Setting the table, I couldn’t help but marvel at how elegant our dining room looked. The furniture was of a transitional style that matched to the Mission style of the rest of the apartment, and the light quarter-sawn oak exuded a warmth not found in most traditional dining room furniture. The central location of the dining room allowed for a passthrough between the two original apartments. It had been my parent’s bedroom and our initial thought had been to make it a den, but Freck conceived of using the space for a dining room. The idea was brilliant, as it allowed for expanding the living room and kitchen, making the whole apartment seem much larger. The only drawback was that the dining room window faced the interior and didn’t have much of a view, so we covered it with an elegant drapery. I set the table with a fine linen tablecloth and our finest china and flatware, and carefully laid a set of chopsticks above each place setting. The meal was gonna be served by some of the kitchen staff from the restaurant, who were being paid for their time. It was gonna be an eight-course feast that was guaranteed to leave none of us standing. We started the meal with a sizzling rice and seafood soup that was out of this world, and followed it with an amazing variety of sushi, and that was just the appetizer. The next course consisted of an array of seafood dishes – broiled calamari with rice, steamed muscles with ginger, grilled prawns and scallops with Chinese vegetables, crab imperial and in a first for me, escargot, which was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I’d always thought of escargot as being French, but the Creole had their own way of preparing it, giving it a bit of a zing without hiding the natural flavor. Thankfully, the next course was easy on the stomach – a tossed green salad with a Japanese ginger dressing – but we were only half-way through the meal! Next up was a course of Chinese dumplings of every variety – steamed and fried – and filled with shrimp, crab, squid, mushrooms, broccoli and ground turkey as a substitute for pork. Finally, we were served the main course, a choice of prime rib, broiled salmon and boiled lobster tail in any combination, served with whipped sweet potatoes and steamed vegetables. Naturally, Ashe and I had all three. After all the dishes were cleared, we finished the meal off with a serving of green tea ice cream, which actually helped settle our overstuffed stomachs, and then a traditional birthday cake with fifteen candles was brought out as we sang a horrible rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’. Served with the cake was coffee with just enough kalua to leave us feeling warm but not buzzed. After the last of the cake and coffee were finished and the last of the dishes were cleared away, it was time for presents. Freck and Seth started it off by pooling their resources and giving Ashe a signed original script from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Whoa, I’d seen something similar advertised on eBay for like $600. What a great gift! Next it was my turn. Picking out a gift for my boyfriend was a bit tricky, ’cause I could afford to get him something really nice – even extravagant – but he couldn’t in return for my fourteenth birthday next month. The last thing I wanted was for him to feel obligated to get me something expensive that he couldn’t afford. Then I had an epiphany – I could get us both something, so he wouldn’t feel obligated at all. We’d been together for almost six months now and I had no doubt that we’d be together forever. Asher opened the small box I gave him to find two matching gold rings inside, each with its own gold chain. “Someday those rings’ll go on our left ring fingers,” I explained, “but for now we can wear them on chains around our necks as a sign of our love for each other.” “Seth, is this a marriage proposal?” Asher asked with a bemused expression on his face. “In a way, I guess it is,” I answered. “After you both graduate from high school,” Dad chimed in, much to our amusement. “Now you’re engaged, just like us,” Kyle added to all our laughter. During our New Year’s Eve party, Kyle actually did announce that he and Freck were getting married in six years, when Freck turns eighteen. “You should at least kiss the bride,” Freck suggested as he looked at me, to even more laughter. I didn’t hesitate to take him up on his idea. Next up was my Grandpa Paul. Although technically part of my family, he treated Asher pretty much as if he were another grandson, just as my parents treated Ashe like another son. I knew Asher wasn’t expecting a gift and so when Grandpa handed Ashe an envelope, I knew he’d be surprised. Grandpa had discussed his gift with me in advance to be sure we didn’t already have plans. Asher tore open the envelope and pulled out the card, but when he opened his birthday card, a couple of tickets fell out. The look of surprise on Asher’s face when he saw what the tickets were for was priceless. “Hamilton? You got me tickets to see Hamilton?” Then he looked at me and said more than asked, “You knew about this, didn’t you?” “Look at where the tickets are, and for when,” I responded. “Orchestra, Row C, for Tomorrow night?” “Those are premium tickets,” I pointed out, “in the center, just behind the lottery seats.” “They musta cost a fortune,” Ashe exclaimed. “It wasn’t that bad,” Grandpa responded. “Thanks to my connections, I got them for about half the box-office price, which is a quarter the scalper price.” “Thanks, Grandpa,” Ashe exclaimed as he hugged my grandpa tightly. My parents had gotten Asher a shiny new MacBook Air laptop for Christmas, so I knew he wasn’t expecting much from them for his birthday. I also knew that he was wrong. For Christmas they’d gotten me an Astell & Kern A&futura portable music player that cost as much as Asher’s laptop, and now Asher was staring speechless at the very same model of music player and earbuds as they’d given me. We were both audiophiles and passionate for jazz and to Ashe, this was perhaps just as important as the laptop. Asher got up and hugged both my parents in thanks. Next came the gift from Asher’s own parents. Although they didn’t have the resources that my parents had or even much money to spare, they loved their son very much and would stop at nothing to make him happy. They’d gotten me a one-year subscription to Tidal for Christmas, to go with the music player my parents got me, so I was kinda expecting them to do the same for Ashe’s birthday. Instead, Asher opened his card to find they’d given him a one-year subscription to Qobuz. “What the hell is Qobuz?” he asked his parents in confusion. I myself had barely heard of it. I knew it was a streaming service like Tidal that also sold music like HDtracks did, but as far as I knew, it was only available in Europe. It was Freck, however, our resident opera-lover, who answered, “Qobuz is like, the ultimate streaming service. They’re based in France and really big in Europe, and they’ve just started selling subscriptions in the U.S. Unlike Tidal, which uses MQA, Qobuz streams high-res music at full lossless resolution, which is way better, and it only costs five dollars more a month.” “I’m gonna be jealous,” I responded, “but maybe we can share.” “Not that I understand what Freck’s talking about, but of course we’ll share,” Asher answered, and then he hugged both his parents in thanks. “Trust me, Qobuz sounds way better than Tidal,” Kyle chimed in, “and don’t get me started on Spotify or Apple’s, Google’s or Amazon’s pathetic streaming services.” “Speaking of sharing,” Asher’s Dad began, “one more thing we want to discuss is your sleeping arrangements, now that the renovations are done. Your mother and I have discussed it with Frank and Julie, and the four of us agree that you and Seth are unusually close and have both demonstrated a level of maturity that’s unusual for young teens. Most parents wouldn’t be comfortable with their sons sharing their bed with their boyfriend or girlfriend. After all, you’re both young and have a lot to learn about life and love. “The bottom line is that as much as we approve of your relationship and have no issues with your being intimate, at your age, relationships seldom last…” “No fucking way!” I practically shouted. “Asher’s the one for me and I’m the one for him. Just like the rings I gave us both tonight, our love is forever.” “Seth,” Dad answered, “now you’re sounding your age! We all agree on this. We love you both completely and we sincerely hope your relationship lasts, but you need to hear Gary out on this.” “And as I was saying before I was interrupted,” Asher’s dad continued, “we do hope your love is forever, but it would be foolish to stake your lives on it. Each of you needs your own space and for that reason alone, each of you needs to have your own bedroom in your parents’ apartment. However, although we expect you to keep separate bedrooms, we’re not going to tell you where to sleep. I doubt we could force the issue if we tried, not that we would want to. We trust you both and we trust your judgement.” “Tomorrow, we’ll be heading back to Albany,” Mom added, “but it’s fine with us if the two of you want to spend your nights together in this apartment, so long as Gary and Bernice approve. We love Asher and we feel better knowing you won’t be alone. You do need to have your own space and you need to be able to spend time alone in your own space whenever you feel like it, but it’s up to you where you spend your time and even where you keep your clothes.” “So you’re saying Ashe can move in with me?” I asked. “I didn’t say that,” Mom answered. “In fact, at your age I think it might be better for your relationship if you waited. However, for all intents and purposes, if that’s what you want to do, the answer’s effectively, yes.” I was thrilled! I went up and hugged Mom and then Dad, and then Asher’s mom and dad. Asher did the same. “You’re also welcome to have friends over, so long as it doesn’t interfere with your studies and as long as their parents approve,” Dad chimed in. “However, if we ever get a call about you hosting a wild party, you’ll have to return to living with us up in Albany during the legislative session.” “Not gonna happen,” I responded. “Look, Asher and I hosted our own Thanksgiving dinner party. The only mishap wasn’t even our fault… the lights went out when the wiring melted.” “And you handled that very well,” Mom complimented me. “You even made arrangements for an electrician to come out. We trust you Seth. Otherwise we’d never allow you to stay here by yourself.” “There’s one more announcement we have to make,” Dad began. “As you all know, we often order Chinese takeout from our favorite restaurant when we’re in town,” he said, referring to Asher’s family’s restaurant, “but we all know that Asian food is far from the only family specialty. The restaurant on Grand Street serves the best Asian food north of Canal Street, but we have it on good authority that Gary is also the best Cajun chef in town…” “Along with Asher,” I interrupted. If anything, I thought Asher was a better chef than either of his parents, but then maybe I was biased. “In any case,” Dad continued, “We realize you already have a successful restaurant and with Asher’s college expenses looming ahead, you’re not really in a position to open another one. Although I’d love to invest in your endeavor to open a Cajun restaurant and I have the resources to do so, as a politician, I can’t. “That said, I have friends in the real estate business here on the Lower East Side and although the neighborhood is faring relatively well, like everyone else in New York, they’re facing increasing competition for retail. The new retail space at Essex Crossing and to an extent in the Hudson Yards development has only exacerbated the problem. We’re beginning to see a significant number of vacant storefronts, even though the rents here are among the lowest in Manhattan. “Sadly, one of the newer restaurants on Orchard Street, between Delancey and Rivington, is facing bankruptcy and the landlord is being forced to foreclose on the contents due to nonpayment of rent. Usually he would sell off all the kitchen equipment, tables, chairs and other items at auction for much less than their worth to cover his costs. Then he’d be facing the prospect of a prolonged vacancy as he competes for businesses to fill the space. Naturally, he’d rather have someone paying rent rather than simply writing off his expenses. “I’ve spoken to the owner about investing in a new restaurant and told him about your skills as a Cajun chef, but he pointed out that the Lower East Side is already home to four highly-regarded Cajun restaurants, including one right on Orchard Street, near Houston. On top of that, there are a few Cajun restaurants in the East Village, not to mention a noodle restaurant in Chinatown that also serves Cajun food and a couple of pizza places that offer Cajun toppings. In other words, there’s a fair bit of competition, but that can be an advantage too. With a critical mass on the Lower East Side, it won’t be a struggle to get people to come here for Cajun food… you just need to find a niche that the others aren’t serving. “The existing restaurant’s small, but quite attractive, with an open kitchen, twenty-odd tables and a takeout counter. It wouldn’t take a lot of work to make it yours. The owner would like to discuss what you might do with the space and, should you take it, he’s willing to lease it with all the equipment included for the same rent he charged the last lessee, for the first year. If he likes your plan for the place, he’s willing to wave the usual deposit and to negotiate a rent abatement as an incentive to help you get started. “A rent abatement?” Asher asked. “With a storefront glut, some landlords will throw in free rent in return for signing a lease,” Dad explained. “Instead of requiring ninety days rent up front as a security deposit, for example, they might defer charging any rent at all for the first ninety days.” “I don’t know…” Gary responded. “Even with all that, I’d have to front tens of thousands of dollars to hire waitstaff, busboys and dish washers. If the restaurant fails, we could lose over a hundred thousand, easily. That’s a good chunk of Asher’s college fund.” “I have a lawyer who can help protect your assets, and he’ll only charge a few thousand for it. I’d recommend you set up each restaurant as a separate corporation so that if either fails, you won’t lose your home or Asher’s college fund. We can protect Asher’s college funds in a trust, and it’s likely my father can help get Asher a scholarship, particularly if the boys end up getting married.” “Our restaurant’s already set up as a corporation,” Gary replied, “and Bernice’s brother will handle all the legalities at no cost. It’s how things are done in Chinatown,” Gary explained. “And I can help out, Dad,” Asher threw in. “You know I know my way around the kitchen and it’d be a great way to see if running my own restaurant is what I want to do with my life.” “He’s got a point there, Gary,” Dad agreed. And then I found myself saying, “I’ll be fourteen next month and can get a work permit.” “I’d still have to pay you boys,” Gary pointed out, “and the minimum wage is now fifteen an hour.” “Yeah, but we’ll do the work of four regular guys,” I responded, much to everyone’s amusement. “The owner could meet with you, first thing in the morning,” Dad added, “and I’d introduce you before taking off for Albany.” “Could I go too?” my boyfriend asked. I guess it was gonna be an early morning for both of us. < > < > < > “Wow, this is nice,” I exclaimed as we entered the restaurant on Orchard Street, just north of Delancey. “It’s in a great location too,” I added. “I wonder why it failed?” “Poor service, lousy food, good intentions but poor execution,” came a voice from inside. “Sam, how are you,” Dad said as he approached a rather large, decidedly overweight man who looked to be in his fifties. Rather than shaking hands, the two men hugged briefly, and then Dad introduced him to Gary. “Sam Weinstein, Gary White,” he said and then the two men shook hands. Dad continued the introductions, saying, “This is my son, Seth,” after which we shook hands, “and Seth’s boyfriend and Gary’s son, Asher.” “Has anyone told you, you look amazingly like…” Sam began as he shook Asher’s hand. “Tiger Woods,” Asher said, completing the sentence. “I hear that all the time. With a black father and a Chinese mother, I guess the comparison’s inevitable I think.” “I hear you’re actually Creole,” Sam asked Gary. “Born and bred,” Gary answered. “I came up north to go to school in Poughkeepsie with the full intent of returning to Louisiana to open my own restaurant, but then I met a young Chinese American woman from Queens, who was also at the Culinary Institute of America. The rest, as they say, is history.” “Parlez-vous français?” Sam asked Gary. Even I knew what that meant. “Un petit peu,” Gary answered, “but it's been a long time since I’ve spoken any French. My grandparents spoke Creole but around the house, my family spoke English. My Mandarin’s probably better than my French or even my Creole now, and that’s not saying much.” “As you can see,” Sam went on, “the restaurant could be ready for business as soon as you pass your inspections, but it’s not really set up for an oyster bar.” Laughing, Gary responded, “My grandpa loved oysters, but my dad and I never did see the enjoyment of eating raw mollusks. And they certainly can’t compare to snails in the shell, sautéed in butter.” “There are already two highly-rated Cajun restaurants within a few blocks of here,” Sam pointed out. “How do you intend to compete with them?” “You’re right, Sam,” Gary began, “another traditional Cajun-Creole restaurant here wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d be just another place with an oyster bar, boiled crawfish, crabs and lobster. Besides which, that kind of cooking’s not what I’m about. Sure, I enjoy those things and would serve them, but there’s nothing like a good jambalaya or shrimp creole for real Louisiana home cooking. “We should at least check out the other places,” I suggested. “We need to know the competition.” “Of course, we need to do that,” Gary agreed, “but I seriously doubt any of the other restaurants serve real homestyle Cajun cooking. Louisiana comfort food. Down home cooking for the soul.” “The Ragin’ Cajun,” Asher said out of the blue. “The Ragin’ Cajun,” Gary echoed. “I like it.” “I like the name, but you gotta have a business plan if you’re gonna succeed,” Sam chimed in. “I think Dad has the right idea,” Asher commented. “Cajun and Creole comfort food would be something different. Incredible flavors in simple fare, kinda like an Indian buffet, you know? You already have high-end Cajun restaurants that serve individual dishes on fine china with linen table cloths, and there are fast food Cajun restaurants where you order your food at a counter and it’s served in paper baskets. You even have places like Popeye’s that claim to serve Louisiana-style fried chicken and other dishes, fast and cheap. Imagine having a hot, all-you-can-eat buffet of incredible Cajun and Creole dishes.” “You know, that’s a really great idea, son,” Gary responded. “We could start the day with breakfast fare… Cajun omelets, frittatas and the like. For lunch we could have a simple buffet for something like $9.95, with five or six basic dishes, and for dinner we could expand that to something like twelve or sixteen dishes and charge something like $19.95. We’d also have a menu of traditional dishes available for those that want it, but the man draw would be a feast of Cajun and Creole dishes at a reasonable price.” “And you’d only need three people to run it,” Asher interjected. “A dedicated chef in the kitchen, an assistant chef-slash-server-slash-cashier, and a busboy-slash-dishwasher.” “You’d need a lot more help than that, son,” Gary interrupted, “but it shouldn’t be too hard to hire some kids from the neighborhood. We’ve always managed for the restaurant on Grand Street.” “And of course we’d offer takeout,” I chimed in. “You already accept orders over the internet at your other restaurant and you could easily expand it to include this one. We could even take phone orders over the existing line at the other restaurant. We could leverage our existing resources.” “We?” Dad asked with a bemused expression. “Definitely ‘we’,” I replied. “I’m part of the family too, you know.” “You certainly are, Seth,” Gary agreed, “and that’s a really good idea.” “You’ve tasted Gary’s cooking?” Sam asked my dad. “It’s some of the best I’ve ever tasted,” Dad replied. “Asher’s is even better,” I chimed in. “You cook too?” Sam asked my boyfriend. “Ever since I was tall enough to reach the burners,” Ashe confirmed. “You know, you remind me of a chef prodigy who started cooking gourmet shit when he was ten,” Sam interjected. “By his early teens, he was serving full tasting menus in his home, and he was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. When he was sixteen, he left home and moved from California to New York. They even made a movie about him. Now, he has a successful tasting menu restaurant very near here, over on Forsythe.” “Sounds like you have some competition, honey,” I responded. “Hardly,” Ashe replied. “Not that I begrudge chefs that have only one or two sittings in an evening and prepare fifteen-course meals with portions the size of an egg yolk. Nor do I begrudge patrons that are willing to shell out upwards of $500 per couple on food and drink for an evening of fine dining. I too can create dishes that stimulate taste buds you didn’t even know you had, but what’s the point if only a handful of people can afford to enjoy it? “When I open my own restaurant someday,” Asher continued, “I want people to be able to afford to dine there for more than just special occasions. I’m not saying I’ll price it in the range of a Happy Meal, but a typical family of four should be able to afford it every now and then.” “So let’s talk turkey,” Sam began as he rattled off some figures. “Good God!” Gary replied. “That’s more than four times what we’re paying on Grand Street.” “And on Fifth Ave, you’d be paying hundreds of times more,” Sam countered. “It’s all a matter of location, location and location. That said, I’d much rather have a successful restaurant on the premises than let it go vacant. This is a fully furnished restaurant and I’m willing to rent it to you as if it were raw space. I’ll let you rent it for the first year at what the last lessee paid, and I won’t charge you anything until your inspections are done and you’re ready to open. I’ll give you a six-month abatement, with only half due at the end of the lease.” “How much would it go up after the first year?” Gary asked. “I’d charge you market rate of course,” Sam replied. “I’d be willing to sign a five-year lease if you’d lock in the lower rate…” Gary countered. “Gary,” Dad interrupted. “Are you sure that’s wise? The first-year mortality for restaurants is greater than fifty percent, but you’d be on the hook for the full five years.” “I couldn’t give you an abatement with a five-year lock-in,” Sam countered, “and the equipment and furnishings would be mine, including any you add.” Nodding his head, Gary responded, “That’s fair.” “But you’d be giving up three months free rent,” Dad pointed. “Better to pay half as much for an additional four years,” Gary countered. “I’m not looking to survive the first year, only to go bankrupt in the next. A restaurant needs a good, solid five years to become established. By then, we should have enough of a following to survive paying market rate rents, even with a son in college.” Then turning to Sam, he asked, “Is there any storage space available?” “There’s a finished basement, accessible from outside the building, and it’s included in the rent.” “Mr. Weinstein,” Gary replied as he reached out to shake his hand, “I’ll have to have everything inspected, but assuming everything checks out, we have a deal.” And with that, Ashe’s and my plans for the summer were pretty much set. Little did we know how true that would turn out to be. < > < > < > “Alexander Hamilton… My name is Alexander Hamilton… But there’s a million things I haven’t done… Just you wait… Just you wait,” my boyfriend sang as we walked down West 46th Street, toward Eighth Avenue. It was the long way around, but better than going through Times Square itself. “You have a great singing voice,” I commented. “Why thank you,” Ashe replied, but then added, “I wish I could say the same for you.” “Fucker,” I responded, but we both knew it was true. Asher was a member of the Stuyvesant Men’s Chorus. I, on the other hand, wasn’t even permitted to sing in the shower. I might have a critical ear and near perfect pitch, but a great singing voice to match was not one of my talents. As we turned onto Eighth Ave and then headed back up 45th Street, I asked my boyfriend, “So, what did you think?” “You know, I really was expecting that all the hype was just that… hype, and I’m not at all a fan of hip-hop, but that was surprisingly good. Outstanding actually.” “I agree,” I chimed in. “Miranda has a way of combining words and rhythms unlike anyone else. He’s really brought history to life for our generation.” “Some of the critics are justified in claiming that he put Hamilton up on a pedestal, and demonized Jefferson, who was one of the greatest minds of the late eighteenth century,” Ashe pointed out, “and Burr wasn’t as much the demon history made him out to be.” “Miranda didn’t whitewash Hamilton’s philandering,” I pointed out, “and when it comes to Burr, it doesn’t really matter how brilliant he might have been. As a sitting vice-president, he challenged his chief rival to a dual and killed him in cold blood. There’s no getting around that.” Sighing, Asher agreed, “Murder does have a way of negating one’s accomplishments.” Entering the restaurant, I approached the maître d’ and said, “You should have a listing for Seth Moore.” Looking down his list, he replied, “Your table should be ready in about five minutes.” Asher and I stood aside to let other patrons through while we waited. Although Junior’s doesn’t take reservations, they take entries to their waitlist over the internet and I’d added my name as soon as the musical had finished. “I can’t believe you chose Junior’s,” I began. “I mean, I would’ve taken you anywhere for your birthday.” “But we agreed it would be better to eat after the theater on a Friday night,” Ashe explained, “and what could be better than cheesecake? Junior’s cheesecake’s even better than sex, and that’s saying a lot when compared to sex with you.” A giggle from behind us reminded us we weren’t alone. We turned around to find an African American girl and a white boy who were maybe a few years older than Ashe and me. “You two are so cute together,” the girl exclaimed. “So are you,” I replied. “I know you must get this all the time,” the boy said to my boyfriend, “but you look just like Tiger Woods did when he was a kid.” Without missing a beat, I chided my boyfriend, “I told you Tiger, you shoulda worn a disguise,” which got a laugh from all of us. Just then, one of the waitstaff called my name and escorted us to a small table for two in a long row of other tables for two. Junior’s was a popular place, but then their reputation for having the best cheesecake anywhere on the planet was well-deserved. The Cheesecake Factory might have more varieties, but it couldn’t compare. Ashe and I already knew what we wanted, having viewed the menu online, so we didn’t even bother with the menus that were handed to us. As soon as our server appeared, I said, “If you’re ready, we already know what we want.” When the server nodded his head, I continued, “We’ll share an order of the broiled seafood combo, with a cup of matzo ball soup and an order of coleslaw for each of us. Just to confirm, one of the sides of coleslaw should count as the vegetable that comes with the combo?” After the server nodded his head, I went on. “Today’s my boyfriend’s birthday, so he gets a free slice of cheesecake. Is there a choice for that?” “Plain, strawberry or marbled,” the server answered. “I’ll take the strawberry,” Ashe responded. And I’ll have a slice of the carrot cheesecake,” I added. “Anything to drink?” the server asked. “Just water,” I replied as Asher nodded in agreement. The food arrived quickly and seeing the sizes of the servings, we were glad we’d opted to share the main course. Asher’s cheesecake arrived with much fanfare and a candle, but we decided to share both slices with each other. I’d had the carrot cheesecake before and knew it was incredible. Asher was right – Junior’s cheesecake is better than sex, and when it comes to Asher, that’s saying a lot. By the time we finished our meal, it was almost midnight and traffic was light, so the trip home didn’t take long at all. Of course, no birthday celebration would be complete without a night of earth-shattering sex. Without getting into the specifics, we ended up putting even Junior’s cheesecake to shame. < > < > < > Ashe and I were naked, floating in a raft down the Seine, right in the heart of Paris. Notre Dame had been restored to its full glory and it was a magnificent sight as we cuddled and kissed while the passers-by waved to us. What a glorious day, but then there was a banging sound. The sound got louder and then someone shouted from the left bank, “Hey, you lazy bums! Freck and I are starving. And it fuckin’ smells like sex in here.” Slowly, I opened my eyes and Kyle and Freck gradually came into focus as I felt my boyfriend squirm in bed next to me. Sitting up in bed, Ashe exclaimed, “You expect me to make breakfast for you on my birthday?” “No, we expect you to make lunch for us on the day after your birthday,” Freck replied. “It’s nearly one o’clock in the fuckin’ afternoon!” Throwing the bedcovers aside, I got up out of bed as Asher did the same. As we walked between our friends and headed to the bathroom, I heard Kyle say, “I so didn’t need to see that.” Looking down at my body, I saw that I was encrusted with dried cum. Looking over at Ashe, he was too. After relieving ourselves in front of the throne, we got into the shower together. It was easily big enough for two. The plan, as I’d worked it out with Freck and Kyle, was that I’d quickly finish in the bathroom and get dressed while Asher shaved. That way I could keep Asher occupied until we both headed out to the living room together. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. While I was in our bedroom, picking out clothes to wear to Asher’s surprise birthday party, Asher decided that in spite of my request, he didn’t really need a shave since he’d just shaved yesterday. Asher was now shaving daily during the week, but today was Saturday, after all, and so why bother shaving? And since it was just our best friends, Kyle and Freck, why not get the coffee going before getting dressed. So, while I was standing in my closet, picking out what to wear, I suddenly heard ‘Surprise!’ followed by a roar of laughter. Oh shit! I couldn’t exactly leave Asher out there alone in front of all our friends and so I rushed out into the living room, wearing nothing more than my boxers and the look of panic on my face. Much to my surprise, Asher was still out there, posing in the nude as all our friends laughed and applauded at the same time. When Asher saw me, he said, “I’m gonna get you for this, Seth,” which only made everyone laugh harder. “You didn’t tell us the party was ‘clothing optional’,” our friend Jessie said, to which his boyfriend, Tariq replied, “Are you suggesting that we all need to undress?” “Clark and I are game if everyone else is,” Joel chimed in, as usual speaking both for himself and his boyfriend, but then Clark countered with, “Speak for yourself, Joel. I intend to keep my clothes on, thank you.” “Hey! Not all of us are here are boys, you know,” René countered, to which I responded, “Yeah, you may be a trans girl, but you have the same equipment as everyone else here.” “Sad, but true,” she agreed. “Speaking of Clark,” Asher interjected, “where are Clarke and Carl?” Clarke had been a homophobic bully and had been Ashe’s nemesis throughout the first half of our freshman year at Stuyvesant, and then he lost it in gym class one day and decked my boyfriend, knocking him out cold. We’d hoped Clarke would be expelled, so what a surprise it was when he came back to school after the winter break… with his boyfriend, Carl. They were now two of our closest friends but had sent their regrets with very good reason. “Clarke’s working on rewriting an essay on bullying for the Stonewall Foundation, and Carl’s helping him,” I explained “It’s due on Monday, with a chance at winning a scholarship worth thousands of dollars.” “The excuses some people make…” Kyle quipped, which got a laugh from everyone. Kyle was only ten years old, yet he had the most natural deadpan of anyone I’d ever encountered. He had such a dry, sophisticated sense of humor. He was a natural. But then he revealed a level of maturity closer to that of his age when he added, “Well, since the party’s clothing optional…” and then proceeded to drop his shorts and boxers in one swift move, exposing himself to everyone. His brother, Roger, intervened by saying, “Even if this party really was clothing optional, that doesn’t mean the rest of us want to see what you’ve got, bro.” “Why not?” Kyle asked. “As long as Ashe and Seth are going au naturelle, why shouldn’t I?” “Well while the rest of you sort out whether or not you want to party in the nude, I’m gonna go fix some lunch for all of us,” my boyfriend interjected. “I’m starving. And there’ll be no orgies until after lunch,” which got a round of oohs and ahs from everyone. “There’ll be no orgies after lunch either,” I clarified. “Not that I think any of us are interested, but if the neighbors complain, I’ll end up back with my parents up in Albany, being home schooled.” Then turning to Asher, I added,” There’s no need for you to make the lunch, Ashe. This is your birthday party, after all, and I’m perfectly capable of grilling up some burgers and dogs.” Shaking his head, Asher replied, “No offense, Babe, but you don’t know shit when it comes to using a grill. You’ve come a long way since we first met… finally, you can crack an egg without the yolk winding up on my foot… but do you even know how long to broil a burger so that it’s done inside without burning it, or even how to tell when it’s done?” Sheepishly, I admitted, “I’ve no idea, but I’ll have lots of help.” “Honey, it’s just not right to make your guests do the work for my party,” Asher countered. “Besides which, I really enjoy cooking. It’s what I love to do. Please, let me prepare the lunch. I guarantee it’ll be the best barbecue you’ve ever tasted.” “Well with an offer like that, I can hardly refuse,” I answered. Leaving my boyfriend to do his thing in the kitchen, I turned around to find that Joel had made good on his threat and he was completely naked, as were Jessie, Tim, Larry… and Roger! Raising my eyebrows as I looked at him, he replied, “Not that I have anything to prove, but how many straight boys do you know who’d feel comfortable being naked in room full of gay boys.” Interestingly, he was the only one with a bit of a boner, but I realized that was probably because he was more than a little self-conscious under the circumstances. René, Tariq, Clark and George were all still fully clothed, whereas Dave, Freck, Sean and Calvin had stripped to their underwear. I sure hoped that no one used their phone to take pictures! Before long, the most amazing aromas began to permeate the air as the dining room table began to fill with plates piled high with blackened hamburgers, blackened salmon burgers, blackened chicken breasts, turkey dogs, tuna melts on rye, corn on the cob and toasted hamburger and hotdog buns. Large serving bowls soon appeared, filled with coleslaw, Cajun home fries, vegetarian chili and grilled peppers and onions. There was enough food to feed an army – or a room full of teenage boys and a trans girl. Along with everyone else, I grabbed a paper plate and quickly filled it. I started with a hamburger smothered with peppers and onions, a turkey dog smothered with chili, home fries and coleslaw. When I bit into the hamburger, I actually moaned. The Cajun seasonings made it so much better than any hamburger I’d ever tasted. On my second trip, I had a chicken breast, a salmon burger and corn on the cob. Much as I loved a tuna melt, I was way too stuffed after my second plate to even think of having one. Ashe was right. No one else could have made a lunch like this one, and he did it in under an hour and without breaking a sweat. It made me wonder if Gary and Asher should add a catering business to their plans for the new restaurant. It was definitely something to think about down the road. We were all groaning after finishing lunch, but in the end, there was damn little food left over. With everyone’s help, we had it all cleaned up in no time. We still had a cake and ice cream to devour, but that would come later, along with the giving of gifts. In the meantime, we had a serious Trekathon to begin. I’d discussed some of my ideas for having a Star Trek marathon for Ashe’s party with Freck and Kyle beforehand. Freck was much more of a Star Wars fan and Kyle was a sci-fi skeptic, but they’d both enjoyed watching all the Star Trek series and the movies and had more than a few ideas on how to spend an overnight slumber party with all our friends. I owned complete sets of Blu-Ray disks and DVDs for all of the Star Trek series and movies. In the end, we decided to watch the first season of the original series from the 1960s. Most of us, myself and Ashe included, had never actually seen it since it was released in HD on Blu-Ray. In fact, I’d only seen it in the original SD versions on our old TV. Today we’d be watching it on our 85” Visio OLED TV in 7.1 Dolby Atmos surround sound. The new Blu-Ray versions weren’t wide-screen, but they had all new enhanced special effects that were supposedly worthy of HD treatment. There were 29 episodes in season one, each of them running about forty minutes without commercials. In addition, there were several hours of commentary and special segments too, but there wouldn’t be time for any of that. The episodes would take over nineteen hours to watch by themselves. “All right everyone,” I announced, “It’s time for our Trekathon!” “A Trekathon?” Asher asked. “Yeah, a Star Trek Marathon,” I explained. “Since none of us have seen the original series in high-def, we’re gonna have a 20-hour marathon and watch the whole first season as we’ve never seen it before, so empty your bladders and grab a seat on a sofa, barstool or the floor and cuddle up with the one you love, as the Trekathon begins now.” Opening up the first season package for the first time, I popped out the first disk and dropped it into the tray of my Blu-Ray player. Since he was the guest of honor, I sat my boyfriend down in one of the two armchairs that faced the TV and I plopped myself down in front of him on the floor. With Asher’s bare legs and feet dangling over my naked torso and resting in my lap, the position was actually sexy as hell and I immediately started to plump up. Rather than embarrass myself, I grabbed the remote and cued up episode one, season one. We started with The Man Trap, which was followed by Charlie X and then by the actual series pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before. Actually, as everyone knows, that was really the second pilot made for the series, as the first one was deemed too cerebral by the network and ended up being incorporated into episodes 11 and 12, Menagerie, Parts I and II. It was interesting watching the original series in high-def, as the low-budget nature of the stage sets was glaringly apparent. The bridge of the Enterprise was positively spartan, with video displays that were clearly painted on. The uniforms were nothing more than T-shirts and slacks in the case of the men, and miniskirts in the case of the women. The planets to which they beamed down were stage sets with painted styrene rocks and badly-lit skies, but at least the newly redone special effects were considerably more believable than the originals. Above all else, the acting, if somewhat stilted, was way better than that in other shows of the era, and Star Trek featured the first truly multi-ethnic cast, including a woman of color in a major role. As would have been expected, there were no gay characters featured at all in the original series, nor were there in any of the subsequent series or movies until the final movie made, Star Trek and Beyond, in which Sulu’s character was gay. The irony was that George Takei, who played the original role of Sulu, really is gay and has since been a major activist. Of course, the new series Discovery actually does feature gay characters in major roles, as well it should. The original series might have lacked the polish of the later series and the movies, but it was truly groundbreaking nonetheless and many of the episodes were very thought-provoking. There were several episodes that probably should have never been made, but that could be said of nearly any series. Naturally, Kyle wasted no time in panning everything about Trek, starting with the opening scene showing the Star Ship Enterprise, traveling through a field of stars. “Even if FTL travel were possible,” he began, “that’s not how it would look. Think about it. Each of those stars is lightyears apart. As the Enterprise travels among the stars, they should appear to fly out in all directions, away from the ship as it passes them by, then fly back to close in behind the ship. The stars ahead of the ship should appear bluish and the ones behind them should appear reddish, owing to the Doppler shift.” And on and on he went as he pointed out everything that was wrong with Star Trek. Finally, Freck said, “Shut up, Kyle. It’s science fiction. There are far more elaborate space-based series and movies that get it equally wrong, yet they’re still a lot of fun to watch.” We were all so engrossed by the series that we didn’t break until after finishing the second disc with episode nine, Dagger of the Mind. By then we’d been watching Trek for six straight hours and it was approaching 9:00, and long past time for us to get up and stretch. Man was it difficult to get up after sitting on the floor for six hours! I got out the birthday cake I’d bought down the street at the Kosher bakery and lit fifteen candles, as we all sang a horrible rendition of Happy Birthday. Asher tried to blow out all the candles, but they just wouldn’t blow out. It didn’t take him long to realize that they were trick candles, for which he gave me a noogie. After eating the cake and ice cream, it was time for Ashe to open his presents which, by agreement, were all inexpensive, mostly gag gifts. I asked everyone if they wanted to call it a night or to watch more Trek, to which I got a resounding answer – everyone wanted to watch more Trek, and so we reclaimed our seats and I slipped disc three into the player, which included the superb two-part Menagerie episodes. After finishing disc three, I cued up disc four, which began with episode fourteen, Balance of Terror, arguably one of the best sci-fi episodes of any series, ever. After finishing disc four, it was nearly 5:00 AM and the sky was starting to lighten. I noticed that eyelids were drooping and we all realized it was probably a good point to stop for the night, and so I got out a bunch of air mattresses and spread them around the living room. Cuddling up with my Asher, I was soon fast asleep and didn’t wake up until the doorbell rang at noon. Realizing that none of us would feel like fixing something for brunch, I’d ordered a Sunday brunch to be delivered from Russ and Daughter’s. Forgetting that I was dressed in only my boxers, I gave the delivery guy an eyeful when I answered the door. Realizing what I’d done when he blushed, I apologized and explained that it was a slumber party for my boyfriend’s birthday and we’d all just woken up. Because the dining room was directly across from the entrance, I had him set up all the food on the dining room table, so he didn’t see more than a glimpse of the naked and nearly naked bodies, strung out on air mattresses all over the living room floor. I did give him a rather hefty tip though. Brunch consisted of an impressive spread of bagels, lox, smoked whitefish, pickled herring, hummus, knishes, blintzes, potato pancakes, tomato and cucumber salad and other assorted specialties. After I got the coffee going, it didn’t take long for everyone to grab a plate and fill it with some of the best breakfast food on the planet. After putting the air mattresses away and giving everyone a chance to wash up and brush their teeth, we resumed our places in front of the TV and I inserted disc five of Star Trek, the Original Series, season one. By the time we polished off disc seven, we’d watched another twelve episodes, and with a break for pizza, it was after 10:00. Because of the lateness of the hour and since tomorrow was a school day, the first after the spring break, I arranged transportation for everyone who needed it and thanked them for coming to the party. After the last of our guests was out the door, I turned to my boyfriend and he swept me into his arms and kissed me deeply. “Thanks so much for planning all that for me,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting it, and it was wonderful.” Our bed was still unmade and smelled of dried cum from our love making of two nights before, but we didn’t bother changing the sheets. It had been about 48 hours since we’d last worn any clothes and even though we’d been naked, or nearly so, the whole time, there hadn’t been any way for us to do anything more than cuddle. My boyfriend was feeling randy and we wasted little time in adding to the cum stains that were already all over the sheets. < > < > < > As the semester began to draw to a close, I became more and more excited about our plans for the summer. Not that I needed the money or anything, but for the first time in my life I’d be working in a real job. I knew it would be good experience and I’d get to spend my summer, side-by-side with my boyfriend. I knew there’d be challenges with opening a new restaurant, but with Gary’s and Ashe’s cooking, it was bound to be a hit. But then came the day that changed everything. It was my fourteenth birthday and Ashe and I had plans. From Stuyvesant it was a very short walk to the Brookfield Place Pier, where we would take a water taxi to Chelsie Pier, a short ride to the north. We could’ve taken an M20 bus most of the way there, or sprung for a limo, but somehow the idea of taking a water taxi seemed more romantic. At Chelsie Pier, we’d board a yacht for an architectural tour of the city, by cruise ship. When Asher asked about taking a cruise for my birthday, we both agreed we didn’t want to do the tourist thing, but the cost of a charter was prohibitive. The idea of an architectural cruise seemed ideal, as it would be a chance to explore familiar landmarks from a new perspective. There would be snacks on the boat, which was essential for a pair of teenagers. Afterwards, we’d tour the new Whitney Museum of American Art, which neither of us had been to, and then have dinner at Simò Pizza, rumored to have the best pizza in New York. I had just gotten out of my last class of the day and was heading to the main entrance, to meet up with Ashe and head to the pier, when I got a text from Gary, Ashe’s dad. Immediately, I feared that something had happened to Asher, but when I read the message, I realized the situation was no less dire. Ashe’s mom had been in an accident and was in the Emergency Room at Belleview. My heart sank as I read the message, which had been sent to both Ashe and me. Belleview was a Level I trauma center and a teaching hospital for NYU. For anything other than trauma, she’d have been taken to the closest hospital, Lower Manhattan Hospital, or if less serious, to Beth Israel or Tisch. Belleview meant trauma. Bernice and I had become very close, but Ashe would be devastated. When I got to the lobby, I looked around for Ashe but didn’t see him. Usually, he got there first and was waiting for me. I wondered if something had happened to him, but then I spotted him coming toward me as he spoke on his phone. Of course – he must’ve called his dad. As Ashe approached, I heard him say, “Love you, Dad. We’ll be right there,” and then he hung up his phone. “Ashe, you know I love Bernice the way I love my own mother,” I said as he caught up to me. “I know you do,” my boyfriend replied. “What happened?” I asked. “We’ll talk on the way,” he responded. “The M9 bus goes right there, but Dad ordered a car for us. It’ll be here any minute.” Sure enough, a black limo was waiting for us in front of the school. We got in back and Ashe proceeded to explain what happened as the driver pulled away. “A kid on an electric bike rode westbound in the eastbound bike lane on Grand Street this morning. He ran a red light and struck Mom when she attempted to cross. She had the walk light and was in the crosswalk. I know she always looks both ways, but an electric bike can go as fast as a car and Dad thinks that even if she saw it, she didn’t have time to avoid it. She’s lucky she wasn’t killed.” “I thought electric bikes are illegal in New York,” I asked as much as stated. “They are for now,” Ashe replied. “Same for electric scooters,” he added, “’cause they’re deadly on crowded New York streets, but that doesn’t stop unscrupulous businesses from using them for deliveries, just to shave a few seconds and beat out their competitors.” “Did the kid even stop after he hit Bernice?” I asked, “or did he disappear?” Getting a somber look on his face, Ashe replied, “Both. After he hit my mom, the kid lost control of his bike and veered into the path of a 14A bus that was rushing the light. Dad said the kid was dead at the scene.” “Good,” I responded, “served him right.” Taking my hand, Ashe countered, “He was only doing his job, Seth. Dad said he found out the kid was only fourteen and still in middle school. He was our age, probably trying to earn some spending money with a job before school. Yeah, he rode the wrong way and ran a red light, but it was his employer who put an illegal vehicle in his hands without even providing a helmet, let alone instruction in how to use the bike safely. “I feel bad for what happened to Mom… horrible, but the kid who hit her was just a kid like us. He made a foolish mistake and he coulda killed Mom, but he didn’t deserve to pay for his mistake with his life. Now, there’s a grieving mother who’ll never see her son again. Maybe she’ll get a multi-million-dollar settlement from the MTA, but that won’t bring her son back.” “You guys should sue the owner of the company that hired the kid,” I suggested. “Perhaps we will, but it’s probably nothing more than a family-owned restaurant like ours, just barely eking out a living and putting food on the dinner table.” After a brief bit of silence, I suddenly realized I didn’t know the extent of Bernice’s injuries, so I asked Ashe, “What about your mom?” “Thank God she didn’t get a serious brain injury,” Asher exclaimed. “She has a concussion and will probably be a bit out of it for a few weeks, but it coulda been so much worse. It’s bad enough as it is. “The worst of it is that her right femur is shattered. It’ll take multiple surgeries and months of rehab before she’ll be able to walk. On top of that, her left leg is broken… both the tibia and fibula… as is her right wrist.” “Jesus,” I exclaimed. “And she has multiple cracked ribs and pulmonary contusions that make it painful just to breathe.” “You got all of that from the brief call to your father?” I asked. “That… and more.” After thinking about what had happened, I asked my boyfriend, “If the accident happened this morning, I guess while we were still on the bus to school, why didn’t your dad call us then? Why’d he wait ’til the end of the day?” “Well, of course his first concern after the accident happened was with Mom,” Asher explained. “I asked Dad why he didn’t call us sooner though, and he explained that he didn’t want to take us out of school any more than he had to so close to finals. And of course, there was the fact that as kids, we wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Mom while she was in Emergency. We’d have spent the entire day in the waiting room.” Pretty soon, the limo pulled up in front of the main entrance to Belleview and we went inside. Before we could go anywhere, we had to stop at the Information desk and get picture IDs, which proved to be a problem in my case. At first the receptionist didn’t want to issue me an ID because I wasn’t a family member, even after Ashe explained that I was his boyfriend. It wasn’t until he pulled out his phone and threatened to call his dad, who was my guardian, that the receptionist relented. Apparently because of the guardianship, I was considered a family member after all. Once we found Emergency, it didn’t take long to spot Gary, who explained that Bernice was in stable condition and just waiting for a bed in the NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital over on Second Avenue. Originally known as the Hospital for Bone and Joint Diseases, it was a world-famous institution similar to its chief rival, the Hospital for Special Surgery, located just three miles to the north. Gary got permission for us to go back and see Bernice while we waited for her to be transferred to the orthopedic hospital. I wasn’t prepared for just how bruised up her face was, though. It was a miracle she didn’t suffer a brain injury or even lose any teeth. She kept fading in and out, I guess ’cause of all the pain meds she was on. While we were with her, one of the orthopedic residents came in to check up on her. He told us they had a bed for her, but that it wouldn’t be until late in the evening before an ambulance would be available to take here there. He also told us Dr. McCray would be operating on her in maybe a day or two. The resident told us Dr. McCray was one of the top trauma orthopedic surgeons in the world. With nothing better to do in the meantime, Gary took us to the Moonstruck Diner, located right inside the hospital. It wasn’t anything like Asher’s favorite diner, the Good Stuff, but the food was way better than the usual hospital cafeteria shit. While we were eating, however, there was an overhead page for Gary. It turned out Bernice was gonna be moved right then! We quickly wolfed down the rest of our dinner and Gary hightailed it back to Emergency, so he could ride in the ambulance with his wife. Because it was fairly close, Ashe and I decided to walk to the orthopedic hospital – it was an easy fifteen-minute walk. We got there just as the ambulance pulled in, and so we followed Bernice up to her room. Just as the nurse was telling us we had to leave so she could admit Asher’s mom to her room, a very tall, distinguished-looking, silver-haired African American lady in a white coat waltzed into the room, went straight to Bernice and introduced herself as Dr. McCray. Woah – Dr. McCray was a woman, and she was black. For a woman of color in that era to have made it in Medicine and particularly in such a male-dominated field as Orthopedics meant she had to be twice as good as anyone else. She had a warm, compassionate smile and very respectful demeanor. I instantly took a liking to her. Looking around the room, Dr. McCray began, “I see you have the whole family here, and such a diverse group. You guys are a real microcosm of America and such a nice contrast to those who think we need to become bullies to make America great.” She certainly didn’t mince words. “I’ll have to mention what you said to my dad,” I spoke up. “I think we’re definitely on the same political wavelength.” Looking at me for the first time, she said, “Young man, you don’t look anything like the other people in this room, but your eyes are exactly the same as those of someone I’ve met before. Your hair too. My son’s doing a post-doc under Dr. Paul Moore at the American Museum of Natural History. Are you by any chance a relation?” “He’s my grandpa,” I replied. “Which means your father is Frank Moore, I take it,” to which I nodded. “No wonder you mentioned your father and politics,” she continued. “He’s such a fine man. But how are you related to this family?” she asked. Taking my hand in his, Ashe explained, “Seth’s the love of my life.” “And I love Asher’s parents as much as I love my own,” I added. “I can see it in your eyes,” she replied. Then turning back to Bernice, she said, “We used to handle trauma cases like yours by operating as soon as possible… usually within hours of injury, but all too often, there were complications. The desire to fix things is so overwhelming that it’s hard to admit that rushing right in isn’t the best thing to do. “The human skeleton isn’t like the steel skeleton of a building and your bones are far from inert. In fact, bones are among the most vascular structures in the body and not only do broken bones bleed like crazy, but the only way to stop the bleeding is to cauterize the blood vessels within them, killing the cells that are so critical to bone healing. “So now we wait… at least 24 to 72 hours after injury before we do any major surgery. That way all the swelling, bleeding and inflammation will have subsided, allowing us to safely repair the damage without making things worse. “Now for the left leg and the right wrist, however, we’re not going to be using invasive surgery and so we’d like to align them as soon as possible. We could simply set them and put them in a cast, but with the trauma to your femur and given that you won’t be walking any time soon, it’s better to use external fixators.” Pulling out an x-ray – how’d she get it from Bellevue so quickly? – she held it up to the light and said, “I downloaded this film from the Emergency Department and printed it out for us to look at together.” Ah, so that was how she did it. “As you can see, there are simple fractures of the wrist bones… both the radius and the ulna. The location’s fortunate, as it means there should be no disruption of the ligaments or the carpal bones that make up the wrist itself. Still, we aren’t going to take any chances and I’ve called in Dr. Thomas, one of the finest hand surgeons in New York. Tomorrow morning, he’ll take you to the OR and under local anesthesia, just enough to numb up the bones, he’ll drill holes in the bone fragments and insert pins and an external fixator to hold the wrist together until it heals. The whole procedure won’t even take an hour. “In the meantime, and while he’s doing that, I’ll be working on your left leg, pretty much doing the same thing with the tibia and fibula.” Then getting out another x-ray film and holding it up to the light, she continued, “Your right femur, or thigh bone, is quite another story. As you can see, you have a complex comminuted fracture of the shaft of the femur, with four separate bone fragments. Very often when dealing with femoral fractures, we simply drive a rod through the center of the bone from end to end, but there’s no way a rod could hold so many fragments together. So on Saturday, we’re going to take you back to the OR and under a combination of heavy sedation and spinal anesthesia, we’ll use steel plates and screws to hold all the fragments together so they can heal in proper alignment.” “Why won’t you use general anesthesia?” I asked. “We used to,” Dr. McCray answered, “and our patients experienced a lot of bleeding. It was only after a number of us noticed that in the patients who requested not to be put to sleep, that bleeding was much less. Again, bone bleeds a lot and we’ll still probably need to transfuse at least a couple of units, and we’ll use a device called a cell saver to recover as much of your own blood as we can so we can re-transfuse it, but with heavy sedation and a spinal, you’ll lose less than half as much blood as with general anesthesia.” “Could I donate blood for Mom?” my boyfriend asked. “We’re both O-positive.” “Are you sixteen?” Dr. McCray asked. Shaking his head, Ashe replied, “I just turned fifteen.” “I’m sorry, but you can’t,” Dr. McCray answered. “Although there’s no valid medical reason why a healthy young man like you can’t donate, the law doesn’t permit it before the age of sixteen.” “How long will all this take?” Mom asked. “There’s no sugar-coating it,” Dr. McCray replied. “Recovery from the surgery generally takes a week under the best of circumstances and could take as long as a month. Once you’re stable enough, and assuming your insurance approves it, we’ll transfer you to the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation, which is also in this building. Inpatient rehab typically lasts one to two weeks for injuries such as these, with a focus on being able to care for yourself as you heal up at home. You’ll be restricted in bearing weight on your left leg and right wrist for six weeks, and on the right leg for at least three months. Then begins the real work, with intensive outpatient rehab. Figure at least six months before you’re ready to go back to work, and perhaps as much as a year for maximum recovery.” “Fuck,” I said, after Dr. McCray had left the room, which earned me a stern look from Gary. “Dad, will our insurance cover all of this?” Asher asked. With a loud sigh, Gary answered, “I already notified our insurance this morning. We have Empire Blue Cross through the health exchange and, fortunately, NYU and all its facilities and doctors are in-network. The stop-loss kicks in after our out-of-pocket expenses reach $7500, which they certainly will. Without that, we’d be royally screwed. Thank God for the ACA.” “Dad, what about the restaurants?” my boyfriend asked. “Well that’s going to be a real problem, isn’t it?” he replied. “We already hired extra help for the Asian takeout place in anticipation of opening the new restaurant, but with your mom out of commission, I’m going to have to split my time between two restaurants, and both will suffer. And then when Mom comes home, she’s going to need a lot of help, and our health insurance doesn’t cover any of that. We may just have to declare bankruptcy on the new place and cut our losses.” “No, you won’t,” Asher countered. “I can open the Ragin’ Cajun and run it myself, starting once school’s out for the summer. Seth and I can handle it, at least until school starts back up in September. By then, maybe the Ragin’ Cajun will be enough on its feet that you can take it over and hire extra help for the place on Grand.” “Son, you don’t know anything when it comes to running a restaurant,” Gary countered. “Sure I do,” Ashe challenged his father. “I know how to plan menus and prepare food for dozens of people at a time. Seth already has experience in taking orders and collecting payments…” “I’m already experienced in buying and trading stocks and bonds,” I interrupted. “I know how to run a business and file taxes. My dad taught me to do that,” I added. “And who’s going to wash the dishes and mop the floors?” Gary asked. “Who’s going to make sure the windows are clean and the trash is taken out? How are you going to drum up business? Unless you have a plan for all of that and then some, the restaurant will fail, and New York’s brutal that way. People will try a place once, but they’ll never give you a second chance if you screw up.” “I know that, Dad,” Asher responded. “Yes, we need some help. We coulda handled all those things if you were in the kitchen doin’ all the cooking and running things. I’ll need to train Seth and maybe someone else to take over cooking in case I can’t. And I’ll need to hire some kids to wash the dishes, bus the tables and mop the floors. Fortunately, Seth and I know of a couple of kids from school who could use the money and whom we can trust.” “You mean Clarke and Carl?” I asked. “Can you think of anyone better?” Ashe answered. “Except that Clarke won that scholarship,” I pointed out, “and he and Carl will be away for the whole summer.” “Shit, you’re right,” Asher responded. “I forgot about that.” “Hiring friends can be trouble,” Gary cautioned. “If they don’t measure up, you’d be hesitant to take them to task for it. It’d be a shame for a job to get in the way of your friendship. And if they’re under sixteen, they’ll need work permits.” “I understand the risks,” I countered, “but I’d rather start a new business with people I can trust than with total strangers.” Then giving it some thought, I asked my boyfriend, “What about Joel and Clark?” I suggested. “I thought you said Clark was going to be away for the summer,” Gary interrupted. “C-L-A-R-K from Queens… not C-L-A-R-K-E from Staten Island,” I corrected Gary. “Both Joel and Clark’s fathers work for the MTA and they don’t make a lot of money. If they don’t already have jobs lined up, they’d probably love a chance to make some extra cash. And they’re not so close to us that their friendship should get in the way.” “We’ll have to ask them,” Ashe agreed. “In fact, Joel likes to cook… or is it Clark?” he continued. “Perhaps they could be my backup in the kitchen.” “You’ll have to pay them fifteen an hour,” Gary pointed out. “That’s minimum wage. On top of that, you have to pay for workers’ comp, and you have to consider payroll taxes.” “Couldn’t we just subcontract with you?” I asked. “You could hire us and our friends and provide workers for the Ragin’ Cajun under contract. I’m sure Ashe would be willing to pay a fair fee for your services, like maybe a dollar per year over cost.” Nodding his head, Gary answered, “It wouldn’t cost us anything to add a few more employees to the payroll, and that way, we could cover each other if the need arose. “The biggest problem as I see it is that you won’t be able to do anything until after finals, and even then, Asher will be preoccupied by his mother’s recovery…” “Dad,” Ashe interrupted, “I’m ready for finals. So’s Seth. We’ve both turned in all our term papers. We’ve studied all along and we’re ready for finals right now. It’s a good thing too, with what’s happened to Mom. And the restaurant’s already ready for business. The window signs are painted and the buffet table’s installed. We just need to finalize the menu and to advertise. We can put up some signs in local businesses, drop some flyers with coupons in all the mail rooms of the co-ops, and hire some kids to give out flyers in front of the Delancey and Essex subway station, and maybe take out an ad in The Low Down. We can do it, Dad.” “I think it’s an excellent idea,” came Bernice’s voice from out of nowhere. “What?” Gary, Ashe and I all asked at once. “Gary, you’re going to have your hands full on Grand Street and taking care of me, but it’s nothing we haven’t done before when one of us is ill,” she explained. “There’s no way you can take the time to open a new restaurant now, but wouldn’t it be better to let our son give it a try than to give up and declare bankruptcy? Would we be any worse off? If Asher can get the restaurant off the ground before school starts in the fall, by then I should be well enough to manage our Grand Street restaurant from home…” “But Dr. McCray said you won’t be able to go back to work for six months,” Gary interrupted. “It wouldn’t be physical work,” she countered. “I’d simply handle the books for both restaurants and put out the fires while you take care of the early morning shopping runs and the day-to-day management of the new place. The experience this summer would be great for Asher and Seth, and it would give them something else to do besides worrying about me… and you know that otherwise Asher would worry himself sick. This way he’ll be too busy to worry.” “Once school starts, I could still help out in the restaurant on most evenings and weekends,” Asher pointed out. “As could I,” I chimed in, “and yes, we both realize that school comes first.” “At least the rent doesn’t start until we open,” Gary said as much to himself as to us, “but it’s still a huge undertaking for a couple of boys who are barely old enough to work.” “We can do it, Dad,” Asher replied. “You’ll need far more help than you realize,” Gary countered. “Even if you hire your friends, you should hire some kids part-time from the neighborhood too. Let them handle the grunt work. They can bus tables, wash dishes and mop floors. We’ll be hiring some kids for the Grand Street restaurant for the summer anyway, so we’ll just hire twice as many kids as before.” Then turning to me, Gary said, “Seth, you’ll have to run it by your parents.” “Of course I will,” I responded, “but they won’t say no. They’ll see it as a great learning experience and they’ve always been willing to let me take a chance that I’ll fail, rather than preventing me from even trying to succeed. The thing is, I’ve never really failed.” “When is your birthday?” Gary asked. “Oh shit!” Asher exclaimed as he realized we’d forgotten about our plans. “I’m sorry,” Garry chimed in. “With all that happened, I forgot it was today.” Sighing, he added, “At least you’re old enough now to get your work permit. I still don’t know if it’s a good idea, but I guess there’s little harm in giving it a try.” “Yes!” Asher shouted as he pumped his fist in the air. I’d never seen him so excited. < > < > < > “Cajun buffet! Half-price! Authentic Cajun buffet! All you can eat!” I practically screamed out at the top of my lungs. Then turning to the kid standing next to me, I said, “Now you try it.” We were standing on the southeast corner of Delancey and Essex, right at the exit from the subway and the entrance to the Essex Market. He was a cute African American boy who looked like he wasn’t a day over twelve, but I knew he was fourteen and had a work permit. Man, did he have a mouth, though. His shouting was much more effective than mine. Another kid from the neighborhood, a Latino girl, was standing on the northeast corner, and there were kids on the southwest corner and on the northwest corner, which was right in front of McDonalds. We were handing out flyers to passersby in front of the four main exits from the Delancey and Essex Street subway station, the busiest on the Lower East Side and a major terminus for Brooklynites entering Manhattan. With four subway lines and three bus lines converging at one location, there was an amazing amount of foot traffic and ample opportunity to hand out leaflets. We’d printed up twenty thousand tri-fold full-color, two-sided leaflets on heavy glossy paper, with a full menu inside. On the front were the words, “GRAND OPENING! Ragin’ Cajun Buffet!” as well as a color photo of Ashe’s incredible spicy jambalaya. On the back was a map showing the location of the restaurant, highlighting that it was only two blocks from the subway, as well as the phone number to call for takeout and the website address. On the inside flap were four coupons – two for a half-price lunch buffet at $5.99 each and two for a half-price dinner buffet at $10.99 each. At full price, the buffet was a steal but with the coupons, it was insanely cheap. Over the weekend, we’d left stacks of the leaflets in the mailrooms of all of the nearby co-ops and apartment buildings, as well as in several local businesses that included beauty and barber shops, dry cleaners, drug stores and markets. We’d left stacks of them in the gift shop of the Tenement Museum, located right by the restaurant, just across Delancey Street. Now, we were handing them out to busy commuters on their way to work, and we’d hit them up again over the lunch hour and with the evening commute. We’d also placed an ad with coupons in the The LowDown and in Time Out New York. Once I was sure the kids were doing their job, I joined Ashe, just in time for the restaurant’s opening at 11:00. Joel and Clark were already hard at work. I’d stay until closing at 9:00. We would’ve preferred to stay open at least until 10:00 or 11:00 to match the competition, but federal and state workhour restrictions made that impossible. During the summer months, we were restricted from working later than 9:00 PM, and that would drop to 7:00 PM during the schoolyear. We couldn’t work more than six days a week, nor could we work more than forty hours in a week until we turned sixteen. And although we had a liquor license, none of us was old enough to serve alcohol. Russ and Daughter’s Café, right across the street, opened at 8:00, so we decided there was little point in competing with them for the breakfast crowd. For those who didn’t want to spend close to $20 on lox and bagels, there was the McDonalds nearby. There was no way Ashe and I could be open for both breakfast and dinner, so aspirations of offering Cajun frittatas would have to wait until we were established and could afford to hire more people. Our lunch buffet would begin at 11:00 and close at 2:30. The dinner buffet would be open from 4:30 until 8:00, with the restaurant closing at 9:00. Patrons could order from the menu all day for eat-in or takeout service. Orders could be placed by phone or through the website, but those would be handled by the restaurant on Grand Street. For the time being, we would close from Sunday afternoon through Monday, as it was the easiest way to satisfy the workhour restrictions. Technically, Ashe could only work from 8:30 AM until noon and from 4:00 until 8:00 PM. On the books, I would work from noon until 8:00 PM, but the reality is that we both would have to work our asses off from 8:00 AM until 10:00 PM. Fourteen-hour days were definitely not legal for anyone under the age of eighteen, but there was way too much for us to do. After today, Joel and Clark would work from 1:00 PM until closing, Tuesday through Saturday, and we’d have part-time help from neighborhood kids during the peak lunch and dinner hours. Even though I’d had an idea of what was involved, I couldn’t believe the amount of work that went into running a restaurant. In order to serve the freshest food possible, the food had to be purchased every day. Fortunately, with our proximity to Chinatown, fresh produce, fish, seafood and poultry were readily at hand, provided one was willing to get up at the crack of dawn. Because both the Grand Street restaurant and ours used similar ingredients, one person could do all the shopping for both and have everything delivered. In the past, it was Asher’s mom who did the shopping, but she was still undergoing inpatient rehab at the Rusk Institute and wouldn’t be able to walk around Chinatown before Thanksgiving at the earliest. Thus, it fell to Ashe’s dad to do all the shopping for now. Even so, the delivery trucks started showing up at 8:00 and even that barely left enough time to prepare the lunch buffet. Asher made everything from scratch, so baked goods, prepared the night before, went straight into the oven first thing. Chicken and vegetable stock for soups were also prepared the night before and allowed to set overnight. Asher made his own sausage from ground turkey, and that too took time. In the meantime, it was our responsibility to maintain the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, which included sweeping it and hosing it down, and would include shoveling it in the winter. Windows had to be washed at least twice a week to keep them free of New York City grime. Inside, everything had to be spotless, which meant washing the floor every night. Plates, silverware and stemware had to be washed throughout the day to keep up with the demand of the buffet. We had a commercial dishwasher, but it wasn’t adequate for the high volume we needed and so about half the dishes needed to be washed by hand. Eventually we’d install a second dishwasher, but that wouldn’t be for some time. A commercial washer and dryer kept us supplied with clean linens. On our first day of business, with all the leaflets we’d given out, I expected there’d be a line at the door but of course there wasn’t. The buffet was fully stocked with an amazing variety of Cajun, Creole and fusion dishes when we opened at 11:00, but no one came. Our first customer didn’t arrive until nearly 11:30, and even at our busiest during the lunch hour, no more than four or five of the tables were occupied in spite of the half-price coupons we’d given out. By the time we took down the buffet at 2:30, less than half the food Ashe had prepared was gone. Those who came for lunch, however, really seemed to like the food and made multiple trips to the buffet. The amount of food eaten per person was very high – there just hadn’t been nearly as many customers as we’d hoped for, but it was only our first day. Dinner was even worse, with only a smattering of people in the restaurant at any time. That was probably to be expected, given the lighter foot traffic in the evening and that it was a weekday. At the end of the day, more than half the food was left by the time we closed the buffet line at 8:00. I hated to see all that food go to waste and had no intention of following the usual practice of most restaurants to simply throw it out. There are legal and tax incentives to give it to the homeless, so I arranged for it to be picked up by a church nearby. Even though there hadn’t been much business, Ashe and I were exhausted by the time we walked into my apartment at close to midnight. By the time we got into bed, we scarcely had six hours to sleep before we had to get up to be at the restaurant in time for the deliveries the next day. I could only hope we’d become more efficient with time, and maybe then we could get seven hours of sleep each night. I could function on seven hours and often did during the school year, but getting less sleep than that was a killer. Our second day of business wasn’t better than the first. During the peak of the lunch hour, less than half the tables were full. Again, dinner was a bust with much food left over at the end of the day. As the week progressed, the lunch crowd slowly increased and people started coming in without coupons and asking if they could still get the discount, which we honored nevertheless. Word was spreading, but when the coupons ran out, would people still come? Even now, was there enough business to pay the rent? On our first Friday and Saturday evenings, we did a surprisingly brisk business for dinner. We were never quite full and there never was a wait for a table, but it was a struggle to keep up. A number of patrons even ordered from the menu – enough to keep Ashe busy. On Sunday, the lunch business was significantly brisker than we’d anticipated as people came for brunch. Not that we were ever full, but Asher had to work feverishly in the kitchen to keep up with the demand. By the end of business on Sunday afternoon, we were exhausted and crashed the moment we got home. I think we slept straight through until mid-morning on Monday and then spent the rest of the day with Asher’s parents at the Rusk Institute. It was our only chance to physically spend time with family and there was no time left for ourselves. And then it all started again on Tuesday morning. By the end of the second week, we were doing a brisk business for the lunch crowd and for Friday and Saturday dinners. Business on weekday evenings, however, remained tepid at best and when the coupons expired on June 30, all our business declined. After deducting food costs, salaries and benefits, rent, electricity, gas and Internet costs, we weren’t even close to breaking even. Of course, when we figured in our advertising costs and the lost revenue from the coupon promotion, we were significantly in the red and would need to make much, much more to climb out of our cumulative debt. It was to be expected that business would fall off during the winter and I began to wonder if we’d survive. The first time a patron ate a full meal, then filled a plate and asked for a take-away container, I was shocked. The whole idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet is that one should take only what they can eat, and I came to realize why some restaurants charge for uneaten food. I started to prepare a sign that we reserved the right to charge for uneaten food, but then I had an epiphany. New York was full of food bars that charged for food by the pound. What if we were to let patrons get take-out from the buffet for a flat per-pound charge? Asher was game and so I put up a whiteboard and wrote that takeaway service was available from the buffet for a flat $9.99 per pound – a price in line with that charged by other food bars in New York. The effect on business was dramatic. People who didn’t have the time for a sit-down meal were willing to pay more to take it with them. This was especially true in the evening, with customers stopping by on their way home from work. By the end of July, nearly half our business was for takeout. People loved being able to pick and choose what they wanted to fill up their take-home containers, rather than ordering takeout from the menu. Even so, we were struggling to break even. At least the Yelp reviews were strong and positive. In the meantime, Bernice was making slow but steady progress in her rehabilitation. She was discharged home the morning of the Fourth of July, just in time to watch the fireworks from the terrace of our apartment. I hear they were spectacular, but Asher and I weren’t finished with our work at the restaurant until after the show was over. The same was true for Gary at the restaurant on Grand Street, but at least my parents and Bernice had a great time. Not that I was complaining. Asher was having the time of his life doing what he loved. In addition to waiting on tables, Joel and Clark were learning how to prepare all the dishes as Asher varied the buffet menu, day by day. I was having a blast managing the restaurant and spending time with the boy I loved. I was learning how to analyze profits and even developed my own method for using spreadsheets to track the cost and marginal return on each and every one of Asher’s dishes. It might not be enough to avert bankruptcy, but every little bit helped in the end. As July became August, Bernice began taking baby steps with a walker in physical therapy. She wasn’t allowed to put any weight on her right leg or left wrist just yet, but she was getting better and better at getting around on her own. She even managed an occasional appearance at our restaurant, which was near where she had her physical therapy. Seeing her struggle to carry a plate of food from the buffet made us realize what people with disabilities had to deal with every day. We put up a sign indicating that help was available for those who needed it. And then our lives changed yet again although we didn’t know it at the time. It was a Thursday evening and business was typical of a weeknight, which was to say slow. Asher had prepared a typical buffet for the evening, consisting of fifteen Cajun, Asian and fusion dishes that represented a sampling of popular items. There was a spicy jambalaya, seafood creole, lentils with curry over saffron rice, spicy vegetable stir fry and wild mushroom dumplings. There was a matzo ball soup with squid, spicy Cajun crab soup and lobster ravioli with peppers and Cajun spices. All in all, it was an amazing spread that made my mouth water, but typical of what we served every night. My curiosity was peaked when a middle-aged gentleman came in alone and ordered both the buffet and some items from the menu. I couldn’t help but wonder why the buffet wasn’t enough for him, and why he needed to order multiple entrées. He wasn’t thin, but he wasn’t so large that I could picture him eating that much food. His appearance was pretty typical of many of the working-class people who lived on the Lower East Side. As I took his order, he commented on the young appearance of the kitchen staff. Since we had an open kitchen, he could easily see Ashe and Clark as they prepared the food for the buffet. He asked me how old we were, and I told him I’d just turned fourteen and the others were fifteen, and that we were all about to begin our sophomore year at Stuyvesant. He seemed intrigued. “Where are the adults?” he asked and so I explained how Bernice had been struck by a kid on an electric bike, and how Gary had to manage the place on Grand Street. We spoke about how electric bikes and scooters had just been legalized in the New York and how that might lead to even more accidents in the future. “Anything that can go over ten mph should require training and a license,” I said, but the man pointed out just how difficult it would be to enforce such a law. When I came back with the first of the food he’d ordered from the menu, I saw that he’d taken a single plate with a sampling of items from the buffet – just enough for a taste of everything. As I was about to leave, he asked, “You know, young man, you look very familiar, like someone I’ve met before.” “You may have met my dad,” I replied. “He’s our state assemblyman.” “You’re Frank Moore’s son!” the man exclaimed. “No wonder you look familiar. No wonder you’re so smart, but what’s your connection to the restaurant?” “Asher’s my boyfriend,” I explained. “I don’t really need the money… not that I don’t appreciate the tips,” I hastened to add with a smile, “but Asher and his parents need my help. I love Ashe, but I love his parents too.” “The things we do for love,” the man replied with a sigh. I gave the man little thought as I went about waiting on tables, making sure every customer’s needs were attended to. He took his time to savor the meal, but we weren’t particularly busy or in need of tables for other customers. Whenever I visited his table, whether it was to bring him more food, to refill his water glass or just to see if he needed anything, he asked me about the restaurant and about our lives. In time I told him about how Gary and Bernice met in culinary school, how Ashe and I met last Halloween, the extent of Bernice’s injuries and her progress in rehab. The man was quite personable and I ended up mentioning my novel use of spreadsheets and statistics to track the profitability of individual dishes. He seemed impressed. In any case, when he finished, he paid the meal in cash and left a rather generous tip. His visit was quickly forgotten. < > < > < > It was two weeks until the start of school and the strange man who’d eaten in our restaurant last Thursday was just about the furthest thing from my mind. Ashe and I already had our class schedules and locker assignments, and we were excitedly looking forward to the start of a new school year. We planned to continue working nights and weekends at the restaurant, with Gary handling the weekday lunch crowd. We’d be busy for sure but until Bernice was able to return to work, Gary needed all the help we could give him. If the restaurant failed, it wouldn’t be from our lack of trying. Because Asher was practically living with me fulltime, it wasn’t at all unusual for us to speak with his parents by phone. That didn’t mean we never saw them but with our being busy at the restaurant, talking by phone was sometimes the easiest way to keep up with Bernice’s progress and to express our love for each other. However, I knew something was up when Asher hung up his phone. “Well that was strange,” Asher said with a perplexed look on his face. “What was strange?” I asked. “Dad said he’ll be stopping by the restaurant this morning with some people,” he replied. “He also told me he wanted to be sure I knew that he was always available to help if things got out of hand. I mean it’s not like we have customers waiting for a table, so why would things get out of hand?” Shrugging my shoulders, I said, “I’ve no idea, but we’d better get going in any case.” When we got to the restaurant, Dad was already waiting for us, along with the man who’d eaten with us last Thursday and a man with multiple cameras hanging from his shoulders and his neck. The guy was obviously a photographer, but why was he here along with the guy from the other night? “Pete Wells?” my boyfriend asked as he approached the man from the other night and shook his hand. “You know this man?” I asked. “Not personally, but of course I know who he is,” Ashe replied. “I’ve only read his column in the Times about a bazillian times. They don’t show his face, so he can visit restaurants incognito, but his pic’s all over the ’net for anyone who takes the time to find it.” Then turning back to face the man he’d referred to as Pete Wells, he asked, “Are you here to review our restaurant, or is it just my wishful thinking?” Laughing, he replied, “You probably didn’t recognize me when I ate here last week. I make it a point to come unannounced when I review a restaurant, and I do my best to blend in with the crowd. I’ve been known to show up unshaven, in ratty jeans and a T-shirt,” he added. “I certainly remember you,” I responded, “Particularly since we spent so much time talking to each other. It’s a bit unusual for a patron to order multiple entrées on top of the buffet, but I just thought you were being eccentric and I never once thought you were a food critic. No offense, but you seemed so ordinary, like someone I could’ve passed on the streets of the Lower East Side, hundreds of times and not noticed.” Laughing, Mr. Wells said, “That, young man, was the intent. When there’s a buffet, I usually stick to the items on the buffet, but your menu includes some highly unusual items that I just had to sample, even though it made it more difficult for me to blend in.” “Asher’s mixed background gives him a unique ability to combine Asian and Cajun approaches to cooking in unusual ways,” I explained. “Anyone, myself included, can serve raw oysters or boiled live crayfish,” Gary chimed in, “but how many chefs can make a spicy shrimp and sausage creole as a stir-fry with snap peas and water chestnuts? My wife’s Chinese and I work in her restaurant, yet I’d have never thought of it.” “They call it fusion, but this Cajun Asian chef is my fusion boyfriend,” I said as I pulled Ashe into a half-hug. “Hold that pose!” the photographer exclaimed as he shot several photos of us. As the delivery trucks arrived and Asher and I prepared the food for the lunch crowd, Mr. Wells interviewed us in depth and the photographer shot a bunch of pictures, seemingly photographing every square inch of the restaurant, inside and out. He also photographed pictures of Gary, Ashe and me, separately and in various combinations. As we began setting out the food for the lunch buffet, the photographer shot photos of each of the dishes and of the buffet from various angles. When we opened the doors and the first customers arrived, Mr. Wells thanked us and then left, but Gary stayed. The first words out of my boyfriend’s mouth were, “Well that was unexpected. When do you think the review will run?” “The Times runs it’s restaurant reviews on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Gary answered. “I expect this one will run this Thursday.” “I wonder if the review’ll be decent,” I asked aloud. “Oh, I think it’ll be more than decent.” Gary replied. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t have come back.” “A bad review I could live with,” Ashe responded. “I could learn from a bad review. But a review from the Times leaves no room for improvement. How can I top that?” Taking him in my arms, I answered, “Honey, you don’t need to top that. Your success is what matters and I’ve always known that whatever you do, you’ll be successful. You’re the best. This just confirms that.” With a laugh, he countered, “I just have to survive the onslaught.” Then with a sheepish smile, he added, “C’mon, we need to get going.” “I meant what I said about being available to help out,” Gary added. “You don’t need me today or tomorrow, but I’m sure you will on Thursday if I’m right about this. In the meantime, I’ll arrange help from Mom’s family to cover the place on Grand Street. Maybe even more help for here too. Your cousin’s in Queens can help out,” he continued as he looked at Asher. I knew Bernice came from Queens, but I’d never stopped to think that she probably still had an extended family there. Since I’d never met them, not even for Asher’s birthday, it made me wonder if she was estranged from them due to her marrying a black man. I knew such prejudice existed, but I’d never given thought to it before. To me, Bernice wasn’t Asian, Gary wasn’t black, and Asher was neither. They were simply the people I loved. “Obviously, I think we should raise our prices,” Gary continued, but Asher interrupted. “Dad, we already raised our prices before we opened. We had to, because of the new minimum wage. I don’t want this to become just another upscale restaurant.” “It won’t be, but you have to do something about the demand a review from the Times will generate. Do you have any idea what Russ and Daughters Café charges across the street?” Gary asked. “Yes,” I answered, “but eventually the crowds will return to normal and we don’t want to scare away our customers. It’s what economists call hysteresis in the demand curve, where raising prices has a different effect than lowering them.” Then I had a crazy thought. “What if we were to offer a two-tiered buffet?” I thought aloud. “We could charge more for Asher’s more expensive items… his recipes that use more expensive ingredients and have a higher demand than the others.” I then outlined how we might arrange a second buffet line with premium items, and I explained how I’d already determined which dishes could command a higher price. Gary was amazed when I showed him some of my spreadsheets. “Son, this is incredible,” Gary responded, but he was addressing me and not Ashe. I liked it that he considered me to be his son, too. “And by introducing it as a premium buffet, it won’t look like you’re raising prices. Do it.” At first I thought we might charge an extra five dollars for the premium buffet, both for lunch and dinner, but Gary convinced me the demand could justify an extra six dollars for the premium lunch buffet and eleven dollars for the premium dinner buffet. We’d start the premium buffet on Thursday. After Gary left, it was pretty much business as usual as we served our patrons lunch. When Joel and Clark showed up, I told them about the visit by the New York Times food critic and the photographer. “It could get crazy,” Joel responded. “For all we know, it’ll be a bad review,” Clark suggested, earning a gentle slug from his boyfriend. “Ouch!” said Clark in return. “Nah, this is a great restaurant,” countered Joel. “It’ll be a great review.” “That’s what I’m afraid of,” I replied. I was surprised the next morning when again, Gary was waiting for us at the restaurant when we arrived. A delivery truck was dropping off some tables and chairs that were a close match for the ones we already had, but where the fuck were we gonna put them? “If you move the buffet table back by the kitchen,” Gary explained, “you’ll have enough room to fit them in. Just then a truck arrived bearing cartons of new dishes and silverware, and Gary and I set to unloading them, and then moving things around to accommodate the new tables. I thought about mentioning that we’d paid for tables that would belong to Sam, our landlord, but then thought better of it. We’d probably earn back enough to pay for them in less than a day, if the Times gave us a good review. “I’ll see you boys here in the morning, bright and early,” Gary responded as he walked out the door. I slept poorly that night, waking frequently to check the time on my phone. The time seemed to crawl by as sleep eluded me until just before dawn – then the alarm on my phone sounded the start of a new day. Whipping out my phone, I pulled up the New York Times app and went straight to the food section. Because my parents had a subscription, I could read the Times for free. And there it was as I read aloud, “Ragin’ Cajun Rocks the Lower East Side.” “What? Let me see that,” my boyfriend exclaimed as he grabbed my phone. Asher started scrolling through the article like crazy. “Best Cajun cuisine outside of New Orleans… Elegant dinner service… Phenomenal buffet… Reasonable prices… Talented teenage chef?” he read aloud. “This is a really long review. He only does that for the very best restaurants.” Then looking at me, he added, “This could be trouble.” “Yeah, but it’s the good kind of trouble to have,” I countered. “Maybe now we can make enough to survive. Who knows, we might even earn a Michelin Star.” Laughing, Ashe responded, “There are just 76 one-star restaurants in New York, fifteen with two stars and only five with three. I’ve never eaten at any of them. We’re not in that league. Not even the Times can help with that.” “But who’s counting?” I responded with a laugh of my own. If my boyfriend truly didn’t care, how was it that he knew the precise number of restaurants in the city with Michelin stars? “Maybe we’ll get a Zagat recommendation,” I suggested. “That’s definitely possible…” Ashe agreed. “Actually, it’s quite likely.” When we got to the restaurant, the first delivery truck was already waiting for us and the order was for four times as much food as usual. “Holy fuck, does my dad really think we’re gonna need this much?” With a shrug, I answered, “I guess we’ll find out.” It didn’t take long to find out, as several times that morning, people knocked on the door to see if we were open for breakfast, even though our hours were clearly posted. By 10:30, when Gary finally arrived, there already was a line forming, even though we wouldn’t open before 11:00. As Gary walked in the door, he handed me a piece of paper and explained, “Here’s a list of the reservations for this evening.” Asher barely acknowledged his father as he worked feverishly in the kitchen to prepare for the mad rush that was to follow. Gary continued, “the phone’s been ringing off the hook with requests, so I decided we’d take reservations for half the tables. We’re booked solid for the next two months.” My jaw just about hit the floor. Looking over the items Ashe had prepared for the lunch buffet, I quickly determined which of them would be worth an extra 50%, and then I wrote on the white board, ‘New Premium Buffet: Lunch – $18.99. Dinner - $32.99’. I arranged the premium items in a third row, down the center of the buffet table, with the standard items in rows on either side – one side for eat-in customers and the other for takeout. Everything was as ready as it could be, and it was time to open the doors. As I did so, I noticed that the line stretched all the way to Delancey, and around the corner before it disappeared from view. I seated our patrons as quickly as possible and within minutes, there were hardly any empty seats in the house. I already had an app on our phone that allowed us to track orders, but now we had half-again as many tables. Thankfully it didn’t take long to reconfigure it for the new arrangement. Surprisingly, at least to me, nearly everyone opted for the premium buffet. Ashe was desperate for Gary’s help in the kitchen, which left only me to take orders and accept payments for the entire restaurant, the new tables included. On top of that, there was as steady stream of people opting for takeout from the buffet, but all of those orders had to be weighed and rung up. I thought we were fucked, but then Joel and Clark walked in, nearly an hour early. “We saw the review in this morning’s Times,” Joel explained as they walked in the door, “and we figured you could use our help.” “That’s a bit like saying the Titanic coulda used another lifeboat,” I commented with a smirk, and then added, “Thanks for coming in early. You’ve just saved the day.” “Hey, what are superheroes for?” Clark responded, earning a punch to the shoulder from his boyfriend. “I put Joel and Clark to work waiting tables while I rang up the takeout orders. Our part-time help bussed tables and washed the dishes, but as busy as the restaurant was, they were working twice as hard as before and would quickly burn out. We were gonna hafta hire some more kids to keep up the pace. When 2:30 rolled around and we shoulda been dismantling the buffet and closing until dinner, there was still a long line out the door with patrons waiting for a table or to grab some takeout. There was no way we could close the buffet. The tables were all full. Fortunately, a group of Asian teenagers arrived shortly afterwards, ready to help out. They looked like they ranged in age from about twelve to fifteen, but they were probably older. Gary came over and introduced all of them to me. They were all his nieces and his nephew and included Jas, who was fourteen, Leela, who was fifteen, Jennie, who was seventeen and Lisa, who was nineteen. Gary asked me to put them to work where they were needed, and to train them, and I wasted no time in doing so. It was evident from the start that they’d helped out in other restaurants before, as they slipped into their roles very quickly. How naïve I’d been about managing with only two or three people! Even before the Times article, we were struggling to keep up with four of us and some part-time help. It was obvious the demand was there for us to open in the morning for breakfast, and now we’d be hard-pressed to close before ten, but teens weren’t allowed to work past nine. Having Gary on-sight was extremely helpful, but he couldn’t run things by himself after nine, and once school started back up, we could only work evenings and weekends. We wouldn’t even be able to work past seven during the school year. What were we gonna do? Things continued at a brisk pace through the afternoon and into the evening, when the first of our guests with reservations started to arrive. We didn’t have a maître d' and it quickly became evident that we needed one. Fortunately, with patrons lingering longer over dinner, we could still get by with two servers and two busboys. I therefore pulled Leela to seat our guests while her sisters were the servers. By the time we closed for the night at ten, we were all exhausted. I was also concerned that we’d violated workhour restrictions for minors and that if someone reported us, the city could actually close the restaurant down and impose a huge fine. And tomorrow was Friday, the start of the weekend. After Gary returned from escorting his nieces and nephew to the subway station nearby, as well as Joel and Clark, Asher said, “Dad, there’s no way we can keep this up. No way. We’ll burn out, crash and burn before the weekend’s over.” “And we risk being closed down by the city for violating workhour restrictions for minors,” I pointed out, “and what about when school starts back up?” “And who’s in charge at the other restaurant?” Asher asked.” “Hey, maybe Clarke and Carl are back,” I pointed out. “Maybe they could help out. I’m sure they’d like to earn a little money.” “Boys, boys,” Gary responded as he held up his hands, “If you know some kids who’d be interested in a job, that’s great, but we’ll have a lot more help starting tomorrow.” “How so, Dad?” my boyfriend asked. “I’ve made arrangements with an agency to provide some additional help,” Gary explained. “Four workers from seven in the morning until three, and two more to work from 2:30 through 10:30. We’ll open at 7:30 and close at ten.” “But won’t that be expensive?” I asked. When Gary replied with the cost per hour per employee, it caused me to whistle. “Yes, it sounds outlandish” Gary admitted, “but that includes benefits and taxes. We don’t have to pay workers comp, health insurance or payroll taxes, so it’s not all that bad.” “But that’s still a hell of a lot to take from the bottom line,” I pointed out. “And how much did we gross today?” Gary asked. “Yeah, OK. We can afford it,” I realized. “And we’ll need all the help we can get for the weekend.” “We’ll stay open Sunday afternoon and Monday too,” Gary added. “I expect that by next week, things will settle down a bit and then we can reassess our need for people. In the meantime, we’ll begin interviewing for permanent jobs here.” “Are you staying?” I asked Gary. Laughing, he answered, “This was supposed to be my restaurant in the first place. The restaurant on Grand isn’t nearly as busy and Mom can manage it from home as she continues her recovery. Qin, who’s been with us since before Asher was born, will take over the daily food buying while I prepare to open for breakfast every morning. You boys will take over the food prep and management for lunch and early dinner while I get some much-needed sleep, and then I’ll come in for the dinner crowd. “Asher will continue to be in charge of the menu and Seth, you’ll continue to manage the books. I could never manage to do what you’ve accomplished with your spreadsheets and statistics. The Ragin’ Cajun may be my restaurant, but I can hardly take credit for the Times review. That was all your doing. When school starts back up, you and your friends can work evenings and weekends, so long as it doesn’t interfere with your studies.” < > < > < > “Hey Freck! Kyle!” I shouted as I spotted our friends in the cafeteria. “Sitting down with them, I asked, “How was Europe?” “Europe was awesome,” Freck answered. “Europe was fuckin’ hot!” Kyle interjected. “They set records across the continent. It was insanely hot.” “Yeah, it was nice,” Freck responded. “You called that nice?” Kyle asked. “You thought 42 C was nice? Are you fuckin’ crazy?” “42 degrees Celcius?” I thought aloud. “That’s like… 108 degrees Fahrenheit! That really is insane.” “Yeah, but Madrid’s always hot in the summer,” Freck countered. “And man, wasn’t Spain really something?” “And Portugal,” Kyle agreed, “and it was nice to have someone who speaks the language.” “Yeah, it really was a lot of fun to practice my languages,” Freck chimed in, “especially in London.” “Very funny,” Asher chided, but Freck countered, “Hey, London’s a lot like New York, with more people speaking foreign languages than English.” “So where all did you guys go?” I asked. “We flew to London and spent a whole week there.” Kyle answered. “I’d never been to Europe before, and London’s my absolute favorite city next to New York. Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abby are cool, The British Museum is cool, The Victoria and Albert Museum is way cool, the London Eye is cool and the British Library is incredible. Way better than Bryant Park.” “So you liked London, but what else did you do?” I asked. “We visited Manchester, York, Birmingham and Liverpool,” Kyle answered. “Liverpool was amazing, and not just because of the Beatles.” “We took the train through the Chunnel to Paris,” Freck took over. “Now to me, Paris was the best. We spent a whole week there and it still wasn’t enough. The Louvre alone was worth a week, and not just because of the art. I. M. Pei was a genius. His glass pyramid’s like a giant skylight, letting visitors see where everything is at a glance from underground. And then there was the Eiffel Tower, the Quai Branly, Musée d’ Orsay, the Grand Palais, Montmartre, the Pantheon, Champs Elysées and Saint-Germain Des Prés.” Laughing, I responded, “I get the idea.” “Notre Dame’s a real mess,” Kyle added. “It’ll take years to restore it. To think the whole cathedral could’ve collapsed, all because of a lack of firewalls, sprinklers or a decent alarm system.” “I understand why they made the choices they did,” Freck chimed in, “but it nearly cost them a world treasure. This is exactly the sort of problem I’d like to solve as an architect. They could’ve kept their historic ‘forest’ to support the roof, but added firewalls made of light-weight ceramics to keep a fire from spreading. Instead of sprinklers that could’ve caused water damage, they could’ve used oxygen-depleting fire suppression systems like the ones used in data centers. And instead of an advanced but cryptic alarm system, they could’ve had a computerized system with embedded infrared cameras that could’ve instantly pinpointed the source. Even with a tight budget, the cost would’ve been nominal, and there’d have been no need to send someone to investigate a suspected fire.” “An ounce of prevention always seems like it costs too much money, until you have to buy a pound of cure,” I agreed. “From there we went to Madrid, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Grenada, Valencia and Barcelona” Kyle continued. “Then it was back to France and Lyon, and then Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice, and then Zagreb, Sarajevo, Sophia, Athens and Istanbul.” “Wow!” Asher exclaimed. “Then we flew to Israel,” Freck went on, “and we spent a week there. It was incredible, but I could never live like the Israelis, surrounded by my enemies and in a constant state of war. It’s easy to see why they treat the Palestinians as they do, but they’ll never know peace. Then from Israel we flew to Bucharest, and from there we went to Budapest, and then Krakow and Auschwitz…” “That was so important,” Kyle interrupted. “My father’s greatgrandparents were the only ones to escape Hitler, the rest of the family couldn’t get out, and they all perished in the gas chambers of eastern Europe.” “You can’t imagine the scope of Auschwitz until you see it in person,” Freck continued. “There’s a large room filled with nothing but shoes, and another with eyeglasses. When you get to Birkenau, the immense size of the place is something you have to see to believe. The ruins of the ovens are still smoldering.” After a prolonged silence, Kyle continued, “From there we went to Vienna, Munich and Prague, which I think is the most beautiful city in Europe, if not the world.” “Beyond a doubt,” Freck agreed, “and then we went to Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm. From there we flew to Reykjavik and spent a few days in Iceland, and then we flew home.” “Man,” Asher began, “I know you spent like ten weeks on your trip, but that sounds exhausting.” “There’s an old movie that Dad made us watch before the wedding,” Kyle explained. “It’s from like the sixties and called, If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium.” Then laughing, he added, “Funny, but we didn’t even have time to get to Belgium, even though Brussels is the like center of the EU. We didn’t see Amsterdam in the Netherlands either, which not only is supposed to be beautiful, but it’s where the Anne Frank House is. Dad and Ken didn’t want us to do the kind of trip where you see a new country every day. They wanted us to really get to know some of the most important cities in Europe. There’s still a lot to see, and someday, Freck and I will see it all.” “It’s really cool that your dad and his husband wanted to take you guys with them on their honeymoon,” I said. “You know, I still keep in touch with my biological parents,” Freck began, “but even with all the traveling they do all over the world, they never once took my sisters or me on a family vacation. The only reason they cared when I nearly killed myself was because it would’ve made them look bad. “I know Kyle’s dad was pretty much the same way, but he’s really turned his life around. He admitted he’s gay and got a boyfriend, and now they’re married and sickeningly in love. More importantly, he spends time with Kyle and me, and with Kyle’s brother, Roger. He and Ken took the three of us along on their honeymoon because they love us and because, as they put it, it was way more fun to see Europe through our eyes. “I love them,” Freck added as tears came to his eyes. “They’re the parents I never had.” Kyle put his arm around his boyfriend and pulled him tight. Sometimes it was hard to think of them as being only twelve and ten, as they acted more like Ashe and me. And on top of all that, they were seniors this year. Next year they’d be in college, maybe at MIT. Getting his composure back, Freck asked, “Anyway, I saw the piece in the New York Times about your restaurant. It sounds awesome, but you guys must be crazy busy.” “Tell me something I don’t know,” I replied, getting a laugh from everyone. “We recruited Joel and Clark and they were a major help over the summer, and now they’re working weeknights after school along with Clarke and Carl, who just got back from their summer program. It’s Ashe’s Dad’s restaurant and he’s pretty much taken it over since the article came out, but Asher’s still in charge when it comes to planning the menu and trying new recipes, and I manage the books and keep track of which dishes sell.” “And of course we spend our weekends working at the restaurant,” Asher chimed in. “How’s your mom doing, Ashe,” Kyle asked. Getting a sad look in his eyes, he answered, “It’s a long, slow process. She still can’t put weight on her right leg, and because of her broken wrist, she can’t use crutches, so she has a special walker with a raised platform for her right forearm. She can get around, but it’s slow going and she gets frustrated. So much of her time is taken up by PT…” “Yeah, but none of that has stopped her from being involved with the restaurant on Grand Street,” I interrupted. “Since Gary had to take over running the Ragin’ Cajun, she’s thrown herself into managing Grand Street, even though she can’t physically do much. I can’t help but admire her.” “I can’t believe they actually legalized electric bikes like the one that hit her,” Asher added as he stared off into space. “Actually, it was the state government that legalized them,” I pointed out, “and even my dad voted to lift the ban in spite of knowing what happened. As he put it, stopping and arresting kids on electric bikes and scooters was seen as targeting immigrants, and even though the city didn’t check immigration status, ICE used it as an excuse for their raids. Many of those kids and their families ended up being deported. Besides which, anything that gets people out of their cars is seen as a good thing. Rentals are still banned in Manhattan, but businesses that purchase them for deliveries can now use them legally.” “Let’s just hope they take the time to train their employees to use them safely, and that they supply them with helmets too,” Asher responded. “Amen to that,” I agreed. “We don’t need to have any more middle-schoolers getting killed, trying to earn a few extra bucks.” Realizing we only had minutes until the bell rang, we all wolfed down our lunch and prepared to head to our afternoon classes. Compared to the work of starting a restaurant, schoolwork was easy. While some of our classmates were involved in Junior Achievement, Ashe and I’d actually started our own business. We’d managed to double Asher’s college fund and we still had three years more to build on our success… or to crash and burn. Gary was being cautious and even if both restaurants went belly-up however, our profits were invested safely in a trust fund with a broad portfolio, ensuring that Ashe and I could attend college wherever we wanted. My dad used to joke that someday I’d be the mayor and Ashe would own the best restaurant in New York. Chuckling as I collected my things, I wondered if a fourteen-year-old could run for public office. On the other hand, I knew all too well what real-world politics were like, and it was sobering to think of where we might be had Gary not stepped in to take over the restaurant. Perhaps taking our time to finish high school and go to college wasn’t such a bad plan after all.
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