Jump to content

Altimexis

Author: Classic Author
  • Content Count

    524
  • Joined

  • Last visited

View Author Profile

Community Reputation

1,040 I'm Unstoppable

Story Reviews

  • No Story Reviews

Comments

  • Rank: #0
  • Total: 3

8 Profile Followers

About Altimexis

  • Rank
    Manic Poster

Profile Information

  • Age in Years
    61
  • Gender
    Male
  • Sexuality
    Bisexual, leaning male
  • Location
    Northeast US
  • Interests
    Music (Classical, Jazz, New Age & Alternative)
    Travel & Photography
    Reading, Internet & Discussion

Recent Profile Visitors

37,331 profile views
  1. Frank Moore was stymied by the need for a reference. In more ordinary times he’d visit the famed law library at NYU, ranked sixth on the National Jurist’s list of the top 199 law libraries in the United States, but the library was closed because of the lockdown. The same was true of the Columbia University law library, ranked twenty-third, or the Fordham University law library, ranked forty-sixth. Even if he took the time to drive to Ithaca upstate, the Cornell law library, ranked tenth on the list, was also closed. Most of the resources of the libraries were still available online, including those of the top-ranked University of Iowa, second-ranked Yale, third-ranked Indiana University and fourth ranked University of Pennsylvania, but some of the older, more obscure references in case law could only be found in print. At times, the particular location of a case in a particular book on a particular shelf would lead to other cases in other books on other shelves. The loss of that physicality was especially troubling to Frank as he tried to pull together the elements of the book he was writing. And then there was the fact that he was writing a book at all. He should have been up in Albany, working with the governor at such a crucial time. He didn’t even have more time to spend with his wife. Since the start of the Pandemic, she’d hardly been home at all, spending many nights sleeping at the hospital. Starting her day as early as 6:00 AM, by the time she finished her day of caring for cancer patients at 11:00 PM or even midnight, she was just too tired to drive home. She had a car and the drive was only about twenty-minutes on the FDR, but that extra forty minutes of sleep saved by crashing in the on-call room made all the difference to her. At least there were his son and his son-in-law. Both were busy with their online studies, but they were home all the time and were keeping him well-fed. Indeed, were it not for Asher, Frank would probably be skipping far too many meals and would have wasted away by now. The boys helped keep him grounded. They kept him sane. Of course Frank also worried about his father, the eminent Dr. Paul Moore, who was the director of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. Although Dr. Moore lived with his partner on the Upper West Side, he might as well have lived on the Upper West Coast, given Frank’s inability to see him. Although Paul was very active, in his work and otherwise, he and his partner were both over sixty and thus much more susceptible to the complications of Covid-19. Frank didn’t know what he’d do if he lost either one of them. The thought of it terrified him. The sound of keys in the front door lock pulled Frank from his reverie. When he went to investigate, he found his wife in the process of hanging her jacket on a coatrack by the door. She looked beyond fatigued and there were deep lines etched into her face where the N95 masks she wore had dug into her skin. “You’re home,” Frank exclaimed as he moved to hug her, but her outstretched hand kept him from advancing further. “Let me take a shower first and then we can hug,” she responded. Frank knew she had good reason to be cautious. She had been hired to serve as a research assistant by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, perhaps the best-known cancer center in the world. It had been more than a decade since she’d last seen patients and the research assistantship was supposed to help her ease back into her role as a clinical oncologist. Her role in actual patient care was supposed to be minor, but with the pandemic, a majority of the oncologists and all of the residents had been diverted to caring for patients with Covid-19, leaving Memorial itself understaffed. Unlike with most other medical care during the pandemic, nothing about cancer care was elective. The patients’ cancers didn’t stop growing, just because people were dying from something else. Surgeries, radiation treatments and chemotherapy had to continue, and interrupting the research studies that were underway would have been pointless. Participants would have still needed treatment and the research team would have had to discard months or years of data and start over. Hence, in addition to her duties as a research assistant, Julie Moore took on a full load of clinical responsibilities, including admitting patients, ordering, managing and sometimes even administering chemotherapy, and ordering, interpreting and responding to lab tests and imaging studies. Worst of all were the transplant patients. One of the protocols she administered as a research assistant included stem cell harvest, followed by high-dose chemotherapy with radiation and then autologous bone marrow transplant. With the other physicians reassigned to care for patients with Covid-19, Julie had had to take on responsibility for the clinical care of her patients on the transplant unit. There was a full-time oncology fellow assigned to the unit, but with the medical residents all pulled to provide care for Covid-19 patients, the fellow was overwhelmed with her own patients. Hence, Julie had no choice but to step in and care for the subjects in her research protocol herself. These were very sick, immune-compromised patients with numerous complications that required an extraordinary amount of close attention. Her daily routine now involved tracking her transplant patients’ metabolic panels and cell counts and dealing with critical values as they arose. Twice she’d had to run codes on transplant patients when they went into cardiac arrest. Neither patient survived, but that the one she’d lost that evening was still in his teens weighed heavily on Julie and she couldn’t help but think of her own son and son-in-law. Standard procedure required that she notify the director of the transplant unit and when Dr. Varpetian heard Julie’s voice, she knew instantly that Julie was on the verge of burnout. Dr. Varpetian insisted that Julie finish up her work and go home, and that she take the coming week off. They could find other oncologists to cover for her, but a burned-out physician could cost patients their lives, which was unacceptable. Exiting the shower, Julie donned a robe and crossed the hallway to find her husband asleep on the bed, on top of the bedspread and still fully clothed. The poor guy probably fell asleep waiting for her, she thought to herself. She gently shook his shoulder and at first he was startled, but then he sat up in bed. Noticing the tired smile that seemed out of place with the look on his wife’s face, Frank asked, “What’s wrong, dear?” Sighing, Julie sat down next to her husband and related, “It was a very rough day, and then one of my patients coded. It was the second time I had to run a code. I thought the advanced cardiac life support training was just a formality. Who knew I’d need to use it?” “Did they make it?” Frank asked. Shaking her head, she replied, “He was only nineteen, Frank, but because of the cancer, he looked so much younger than his age. He looked like he was fifteen at most… he reminded me so much of Seth… without the hair, that it really hit me hard. Notifying the family was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Putting his arm on Julie’s shoulder, Frank responded, “Honey, we don’t need the money, if that’s what you’re worried about. We’ll get by. You don’t need to do this if it’s too much.” Giving a laugh in return, Julie answered, “This has nothing to do with money. Yeah, I decided to go back to practicing Medicine as a fallback…” “In case I go to prison?” Frank asked and Julie nodded. “Even if we have to go to our parents, we have resources to fall back on.” “Yes, but I’ve missed practicing Medicine,” Julie countered. “You know I always intended to go back to it. I only stopped to get your political career off the ground, and then I ended up staying in politics.” “You were a fantastic political manager,” Frank replied. “Yes, I was,” Julie admitted with a laugh, “which was why I kept with it, but there’s a good chance you won’t be going back to Albany, and a career in Congress, let alone the White House, seems so far away now. It’s a good time for me to return to Oncology and if you ever do end up in the Governor’s mansion or in Washington, you deserve someone with far more experience and training than I.” “But this is killing you,” Frank countered. “It’s too much.” Shaking her head, July replied, “All the physicians in New York are working extra hard now. They’re even calling doctors out of retirement and waiving continuing education requirements, and some of them have major risk factors too. They’re that desperate.” “But you won’t do them any good if you burn out,” Frank pointed out. “Which is why Dr. Varpetian told me to take the next week off,” Julie responded. “That’s still not much time,” Frank lamented, “and it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to be intimate.” “That it has,” Julie agreed as she cuddled up with her husband. “Not tonight though,” she continued. “After what happened today, I don’t think I can give you the closeness you deserve.” With a laugh, Frank answered, “I’m with you there. I’ve been at the book steadily for six or eight hours, since I ate dinner. I think I’d fall asleep in the middle of it if we tried. “Why don’t you go to bed and I’ll go shower and get ready, and I’ll join you in a few,” Frank suggested. “We’ll plan our date for tomorrow night.” “Sounds like a plan,” Julie replied as she stood and removed her bath robe, and then slipped under the bedcovers. She was fast asleep before her head hit the pillow. Undressing down to his underwear, Frank quietly slipped out the door and made his way to the bathroom. They’d given over the master bedroom and bathroom to the boys some time ago. Originally, he and Julie spent most of their time up in the state capitol in Albany and thus their bedroom in the city was seldom occupied. They never expected to be in town full time, let alone on lockdown. Therefore, they used one of the other two bedrooms and the main bathroom, which was the only other full bath, but it least it was a fairly large one. Just as he was about to step into the bathroom, he heard a young, adolescent voice call out to him. “Dad, is everything alright?” came the sound of Asher’s deep baritone voice, softened to a whisper. “We heard voices.” It pleased Frank that his son-in-law called him ‘Dad’. Turning to face Ashe, Frank replied, “Of course it is. Mom came home very late. She had a rough day. She’s been going at it steadily for the last two weeks and she needs some rest, so she’s taking the next week off.” “It’ll be nice to see her for a change,” Asher agreed with a smile. “I’ll make something special for brunch.” Laughing, Frank responded, “You’re always thinking about feeding us. Get some rest, Asher. Go back to Seth and snuggle up with him and show him how much you love him. You can worry about brunch when you guys get up.” “Are you telling me to go have sex with your son?” Asher asked. With another laugh, Frank responded, “You’ve been doing that for a year-and-a-half. Besides which, he’s your husband now. You know I love you every bit as much as I love Seth. I consider you one of my own.” Asher couldn’t help it as tears came to his eyes. “I’m not going to tell you when to make love and when you need to sleep. That’s between the two of you. You’re sixteen, Ashe.” “That’s right,” Asher realized, “I had a birthday. I’m nearly an adult now.” Chuckling yet again, Frank replied, “Asher, none of us is ever truly an adult. The law considers you an adult when you reach the age of majority, which is when the majority of your rights are under your own control. There are still some things you can’t do at eighteen, and there are many things you can do at sixteen or even younger. In marrying Seth, you became an emancipated minor, so the law already considers you an adult. In truth you’ve been playing the role of an adult since your mother was injured and you had to take over running the Ragin’ Cajun on your own. “That child inside of us is something that never goes away though, Asher. If you’re lucky, you’ll never lose that sense of wonder. Maturity, which is what makes us adults, is something we acquire over our entire lifetimes. “Now go back to bed so I can get to my shower and get some sleep myself.” Frank started to turn around but before he could do so, Asher pulled him into a tight hug, holding him for several seconds before releasing him. Ashe loved Frank and couldn’t fathom how the Feds could accuse him of corruption. However, Asher knew it was all coming from the top, for having thwarted an attempt to draw the U.S. into a needless war with Iran. Not that Iran was entirely blameless, but there was no way they had anything to do with the air traffic debacle of the previous Thanksgiving. That was the result of a software glitch and nothing more. Frank had done what was necessary to prevent the president from using it as a pretense for war. Now he was paying the price of doing the right thing. Far too many people had been thrown under the bus by this president – friend and foe alike. Asher returned to the master bedroom and slipped under the covers, snuggling up with Seth. Seth asked, “Is everything okay?” “Mom’s home,” Asher reported. “Her boss gave her the next week off,” he added. “Dad told me to go back to bed and snuggle up with you, and to get some rest.” Asher was actually doing a bit more than snuggling, however, as he rubbed his hand over Seth’s chest and used his thumb to play with Seth’s nipples. “If you snuggle like that, you’re not gonna get much rest,” Seth replied. Rather than answer him, Asher slid his hand down lower and grabbed his husband, finding him to be just as aroused as he was. Seth moaned with pleasure, and then turned around to face Asher, kissing him deeply. That led to much, much more. <·> <·> <·> “Something sure smells good,” Peter said as he walked into the kitchen, where Josh was busy browning ground beef in a skillet. Looking up, Josh did a double take when he realized Peter wasn’t wearing anything. He was so startled that he exclaimed, “You’re naked!” “Well yeah,” Peter answered. “Alan and I both sleep in the nude. Is this a problem?” Peter asked. “I can put on some boxers if my nudity bothers you.” “No, it’s not a problem at all,” Josh answered as he added a package of frozen peppers and onions and a tablespoon of minced garlic. “I just wasn’t expecting to be flashed by such a handsome man so early in the morning.” “Now I know you’re lying,” Peter responded with a laugh. “I’ll take the complement, though, even if it’s misguided.” Josh turned back to the counter, added a fresh filter to the coffee maker, measured out the requisite amounts of coffee and water and turned it on. As he got out a half-dozen extra-large eggs and proceeded to crack them open and whip them, Dave entered the kitchen. Dave was obviously freshly showered and had a towel around his waist, but when he saw that Peter was nude, he removed the towel, draped it over one of the kitchen chairs and said, “Good morning, Uncle Peter. Didn’t know breakfast was au naturelle today.” Josh drained the skillet, added the eggs, sprinkled in some black pepper and paprika, stirred the mixture and re-covered it. “If I’d known it was clothing optional, I’d have opted not to get dressed.” “Yeah, like you’re wearing a tux or something,” Josh replied. “I know that t-shirt and shorts must’ve taken forever to put on. Besides which, you never cook without a shirt, ’cause splattering grease burns.” “Boxers. You forgot I’m also wearing boxers… and it does at that,” Josh agreed as he turned down the heat on the skillet and dropped four slices of rye bread into the toaster. Just then Alan entered the kitchen, dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and flip-flops. “Shower’s free, Babe,” he announced, and then added, “That smells wonderful, Josh.” “I’ll go take my shower,” Peter announced, and then exited the kitchen. With both Josh and Alan fully dressed – actually, Josh was barefoot in contrast to Alan’s flip-flops, but otherwise was clothed, that left Dave as the only one in the nude. “I guess I’d better get dressed too,” he responded as grabbed his towel and left the kitchen. “So you guys really walk around naked all the time?” Josh asked as he grabbed the toast, which had popped up, and dropped another four slices into the toaster. “Only occasionally, before we shower,” Alan answered. “We usually dress after showering in any case. You never know who’ll show up at the door.” Laughing, Josh responded, “You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught by Jehovah’s Witnesses with your pants down.” “For them I’d make an exception,” Alan chided, and they both laughed. “Dave and I have a couple of friends who really are pretty much nudists,” Josh noted as he lifted the lid on the skillet, sprinkled a mix of shredded cheddar and mozzarella on top and replaced the lid. “They’re seniors at Stuyvesant, they’re boyfriends, and they’re only eleven and thirteen.” “I think I remember them from when we visited,” Alan responded. “The thirteen-year-old had lots of freckles and I think his nickname was Freck, and his boyfriend, Kyle, had hair down to his tush.” “Exactly,” Josh chimed in. “Anyway, they both live with Kyle’s dads in a large house in Riverdale that’s built into a hillside. They have an indoor pool and it’s completely private, so they usually don’t bother with clothes.” “I suppose they don’t have to worry much about people stopping by out in the suburbs,” Alan commented. “We, on the other hand,” live in a high rise in downtown Seattle and we have a lot of friends who think nothing of stopping by without notice… at least they used to.” “Sounds a lot like the way we live… or used to,” Josh responded. “What about the way we live?” Dave asked as he returned to the kitchen, this time wearing a t-shirt and shorts. “We were just talking about how, when you live in the city, you can’t really go around naked the way Freck and Kyle do, because friends can stop by at any time,” Josh answered. “Well, technically Riverdale’s in the city,” Dave pointed out. “Technically, a tomato is a kind of fruit,” Josh responded, “but you wouldn’t eat one in place of an apple. I realize Riverdale has its share of high-rises, but you can’t compare a house in Riverdale to a high-rise apartment in Manhattan.” Peter returned to the kitchen, just as the second batch of toast popped up from the toaster. Josh took each slice and added it on top of a slice from the first batch, with a pat of butter melting between them. He then cut the toast along the diagonal. Getting four dinner plates out of the cupboard, he set the table and added the toast to each one. Turning off the gas on the stove, he divided the simmering frittata into four equal portions and slid one onto each plate. Placing the pot of coffee on the table along with carton of orange juice and a jar of salsa, he said, “Breakfast, is served.” “It smells fantastic,” Alan responded as he sat down at the table, with Peter sitting down next to him. “I’m not in the same league as my close friend, Asher White,” Josh countered, “but I do okay. I saved a lot of time and work by using frozen peppers and onions, pre-minced garlic and frozen hash browns. If I’d done it all from scratch the way Asher does, it would have taken me over an hour. No offense, but there’s no way I’d spend an hour on breakfast, even if I was tryin’ to impress my boyfriend’s uncles.” “Well It tastes wonderful, Hun,” Dave responded after spooning a healthy amount of salsa onto his frittata and taking a bite. “Uncle Alan,” Dave began, “Mom’s gonna recover. I know she is, but if she doesn’t,” he continued as tears came to his eyes, “Would you guys take me in? Would I hafta go live with you in Seattle?” Josh hadn’t even thought of what would happen to his boyfriend if he lost his mother, and his pulse quickened when he realized that he might lose his boyfriend for good. “Sandy’s going to be fine, Dave,” Alan reassured his nephew. “But that could change,” he countered as tears streamed down his cheeks. “Most people don’t survive.” “Most people are elderly and have major risk factors,” Peter pointed out. “Your mother’s young and healthy.” “But if she dies, you guys and my grandparents are my only living relatives,” Dave countered. “If you don’t take me in, I’d either have to live with your parents in Florida or go into foster care, but would I have to move to Seattle?” Looking over at Peter, who merely nodded, Alan realized he was going to have to broach a topic he had hoped would never come up. “It’s complicated,” he began to explain. “Unless there’s already a guardianship order in place, you’d become a ward of the state. Relatives are always given preference when it comes to placement, so long as they’ve played a significant role in the child’s life as we have, but there has to be an investigation and background check to determine that we’d be suitable. Your grandparents couldn’t take you in unless they moved back to New York and for a variety of reasons, I don’t see that happening. In the meantime, you’d go into kinship care. “A close relative or even a friend of the family can take care of you under kinship care with much looser rules than with foster care, but there’s a problem… we don’t live in New York. To qualify, we’d have to change our residence at least temporarily to New York and agree to remain in New York to care for you.” “But you live in Seattle,” Dave again pointed out. “Yes, but I was already working from home because of the pandemic and can do so as easily here as there,” Alan pointed out. “And I’m currently unemployed,” Peter added. “In any case, it could take some time for CPS to conduct their investigation and it could take months to get full custody,” Alan continued. “Plus, we couldn’t take you out of New York at all, so instead we’d hire an attorney and petition the court for adoption. Since I’m your Uncle and Pete’s my legally married husband, the adoption would be fast-tracked and could be complete in a matter of months rather than years.” “And then I’d move to Seattle,” Dave added dejectedly. “Only if you want to, Dave,” Alan responded and Peter nodded his head in agreement. “I can work from New York indefinitely if need be, or I can get a job here. I’ve had offers. Both Google and Amazon are expanding their operations in New York. Not to toot my horn, but I’d be a plumb acquisition for either of them.” “And my chances of finding a job in the aerospace industry are actually better on the East Coast than in Seattle,” Peter added. “There’s less competition for candidates here.” “I thought Amazon decided against setting up operations in New York,” Josh interjected. “That whole stunt was a ruse,” Alan explained. “They always intended to expand in New York. They just never anticipated the stiff community opposition and, more importantly, the proposed site in Queens was in a major flood plain. With sea level rise, they’d have been dealing with flood mitigation by mid-century. The tax abatements wouldn’t have come close to covering that. “Amazon never intended to abandon New York, but by walking away from the deal, everyone was able to save face. Instead, they’re renting brand new office buildings in Hudson Yards, right in Midtown, so they won’t have to build from scratch and can be up and running in under a year. “Better still, however, I could work for Google in Chelsea. I’ve heard it’s a great place to work and Chelsea’s a great place to live for gays.” “But your lives are in Seattle,” Dave countered. “Don’t get me wrong… we love Seattle and we have lots of friends there, but we love New York too,” Alan responded. “You’re family and we love you. Family comes first. However, we’d welcome you to move to Seattle if that’s your choice, but only if it’s your choice.” “Your mother’s going to recover, Dave,” Peter added, “and we’d be delighted if you and your boyfriend would spend the summer with us in Seattle. At least you should know what it’s like there. I’ll warn you though, that summers are nice, but you may have heard a lot about it raining all the time in Seattle. We have a lot of sunshine in the summer, but it drizzles the rest of the year. The climate’s very similar to that in England and it does take some getting used to.” “Regardless of where you live, however, things would be much easier if we already had guardianship of you,” Alan went on. “People in their thirties rarely think of such things, but when your mother recovers, we’re going to initiate the process to obtain the right of guardianship so that if anything happens in the future, we’ll have the legal standing to care for you if your mother can’t.” “You really think Mom’s gonna recover?” Dave asked. “I’d bet my life on it,” Alan responded, bringing yet more tears to Dave’s eyes. Realizing that no one had touched their breakfasts, Josh suggested, “Give me a few minutes and I’ll nuke all your plates. This was meant to be a hot breakfast and it’s not very good when it’s cold.” Everyone chuckled with that. <·> <·> <·> The call came when Freck and Kyle were both online, participating in a school lecture for a class they shared. Freck briefly looked at his phone, saw that the call was from his mother and silenced the phone. Whatever it was that she wanted, undoubtedly it could wait until after the lecture. When he failed to answer and instead sent the call to voicemail, however, his mother followed it with a text message, ‘Urgent. Please call as soon as able.” For his mother to call it urgent meant that it was far more important than a lecture, so he tore himself away from the computer, walked out into the hallway and called his mother back. “What’s wrong?” he asked before his mother could even open her mouth. “It’s your father,” she responded. “Your biological father, that is. When he failed to respond to calls and texts this morning, the police were called. They found him in the penthouse. They say he’d probably been dead for several hours at least, probably from a heart attack, but it was evident he’d been snorting cocaine.” “I don’t believe it.” Freck practically whispered as he sunk to the floor. Hearing the thud of his boyfriend as he hit the floor, Kyle appeared in the doorway and asked, “Is everything okay?” but Freck didn’t answer. It had been a very long time since Freck felt any affection toward his father, yet tears came to his eyes, as much to his surprise as anyone’s. Kyle sat next to him on the floor and put his arm around him, holding him closely. Speaking back into the phone, he asked, “How are Debbie and Lisa taking it? How are you taking it?” “Debbie and Lisa had even less to do with him than you did, Freck,” she responded. “They hardly reacted at all. As to how I feel about it? Technically I was still his wife, but we were separated and any affection I had for him was long gone. For all the prestige I got from being the wife of the CEO of a prominent brokerage, there was nothing he gave me that I didn’t earn for myself on my own. The one thing he gave me that I value is my children, and I abused that gift for a long time. That well could’ve been me that died alone in that penthouse, were it not for my own near-death experience. “So now how do I feel? I feel grateful that he was the father of my three incredible children, but most of all I feel sad that his life was so shallow. I feel sad that for all his wealth and stature, he died alone.” “I guess I feel the same way,” Freck responded. Then after nearly a minute of silence, he asked, “Is there gonna be a funeral?” “Of course there’ll be a funeral, but it will be for immediate family only and with strict social distancing,” Freck’s mother responded. “I’ve just started to make plans for it for next Saturday. He’ll be buried in the family plot in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.” “We have a family cemetery plot?” Freck asked. “His family does,” she answered. “I have no intention of being buried there, and whether or not you’re buried there is up to you. Which reminds me, I need to contact his family. He has three brothers and two sisters, and of course there are his parents.” “His parents are still alive?” Freck croaked. He was shocked. He’d never met any of them, and now he found out there were aunts, uncles and grandparents he never knew he had. “Of course they’re still alive,” Freck’s mother answered. “Why wouldn’t they be? He came from a large Catholic family, but he wasn’t close to them. Not that he was estranged from them, but his focus was always more on money than on family as I think you know.” “But they’re his family,” Freck countered. “You don’t turn your back on your family.” “When you meet them, you’ll understand why they weren’t close,” she explained. “If it were now, I’d probably intervene to make sure at least you and the girls got to know them, but now you can.” When Freck didn’t say anything, largely because he was still in shock, she continued, “There won’t be a visitation or a wake or anything like that, under the circumstances. There’ll be a simple graveside service, and I’ll let you know the details when I have them.” As Freck ended the call, he turned to his boyfriend and said, “My father’s dead.” “So I gathered,” Kyle responded. “I was never close to him, but…” “You still feel a sense of loss,” Kyle answered for his boyfriend. “I don’t understand why but yeah,” Freck agreed. “I guess for all his shortcomings, he was still my dad. I never thought much of him, but already I feel his absence. I just never knew he had a large family. I always assumed since I never met anyone, he didn’t have any family. It’s so weird at thirteen to discover I have grandparents, aunts and uncles. They’re strangers to me.” “Perhaps you’ll find a connection with them that you never had with your father,” Kyle suggested. With a snort, Freck responded, “I’ll believe that when I see it happen.” Then after a moment, Freck asked, “Is the lecture still going on?” “It was finishing up when you got called,” Kyle answered. “In that case, I’m going swimming,” Freck replied, and then he ran down the stairs, threw off his clothes and dove into the water. <·> <·> <·> “Thanks for letting me know, Freck,” Seth responded. “I know you weren’t close, but he was still your dad. I understand why the funeral has to be for immediate family only, but you know that Ashe and I will be with you in spirit if not in body.” As Seth hung up his phone, he turned to Asher and said, “Frank San Angelo, Freck’s biologic father, passed away last night.” “So I gathered,” Asher responded. “Was it because of Covid-19?” Shaking his head, Seth answered, “It’s possible the stress of the lockdown was a factor, or maybe it had something to do with failure to seek medical care for fear of catching it, but he was using cocaine, so he probably had a cocaine-induced heart attack. Of course, because he died alone in his apartment and because of who he was, there’s gonna be an autopsy. The funeral’s being postponed until Saturday to allow for an investigation.” “Well that sucks,” Asher responded. “I can imagine how it’s affecting Freck.” “Not half as much as finding out he has grandparents, aunts and uncles,” Seth countered. “He what?” Asher asked. “It turns out Freck’s father’s parents are still alive, and not only that, but his dad had two sisters and three brothers,” Seth explaind. “Freck never knew they existed. To him they’re all strangers.” “That’s crazy, man,” Asher agreed. “I take it his father wasn’t close to his family.” “I asked Freck if his father was estranged from them, but his mother denies it,” Seth filled in. “I guess he just went his own way and left his family behind. It’s not like he cared much for his kids either.” “That’s true,” Asher agreed. “At least Freck’s mother has come around, and Freck is so lucky to have the support of Kyle’s dads too.” “It wasn’t that long ago that your dad was serving as Kyle’s guardian,” Seth pointed out. “There was a time when his father was so involved in his work that he was AWOL when it came to providing for the needs of his kids. And his mom was an alcoholic and was incapable of caring for him.” “How his life has changed,” Asher agreed, and then changing the topic, he continued, “So if we can’t attend the funeral to show our support for Freck, can we at least send flowers or something?” “Maybe we can send flowers to the graveside for the funeral,” Seth suggested, but then asked aloud, “I wonder if Freck’ll sit Shiva. I wonder if his mother will, being she’s half-Jewish.” “We can send food to both if you want,” Asher suggested. “It’s never inappropriate to send food, and we can send flowers too. Freck and Kyle are our best friends. They’re family.” “That they are,” Seth agreed. Just then, Frank Moore entered and immediately announced, “I just got word that Frank San Angelo died.” “Yeah, Dad, I just got off the phone with Freck,” Seth responded, “I guess they’re gonna delay the funeral so they can complete an autopsy.” “His death is all over the news media,” Seth’s dad continued. “They say he died of mysterious circumstances and there’s a lot of speculation that he may have had Covid-19 and not been aware of it. The coronavirus affects the heart and it can lower blood oxygen levels too, all before a person has symptoms.” “Yeah, that’s possible, but the police think it’s more likely the cocaine that did him in,” Seth responded. “He was using cocaine?” Frank asked. “You’d think the media would be all over that.” “They’re probably afraid of being sued,” Asher suggested. “It’s a sad day when the media censor themselves,” Frank Moore responded. “The truth will come out,” Seth chimed in. “How’s Freck taking it?” Seth’s father asked his son. “How about his mom?” “Frank San Angelo burned his bridges with his family a long time ago,” Seth answered. “Freck feels badly about it, but he doesn’t feel grief. He’s stunned that he has grandparents, aunts and uncles though. He didn’t even know that they existed. His father didn’t even have contact with his own family. He died alone.” “How sad,” Frank Moore responded. “No matter how busy we were, even as we split our time between the City and Albany, we always made time for you, Seth. I think you know that.” “’Course I know it, Dad,” Seth replied. “You’re the best dad ever. A role model. My hero.” “I feel the same way,” Asher agreed. Frank couldn’t help it when tears came to his eyes. <·> <·> <·> The news on his mother’s condition continued to improve and although Dave still wasn’t allowed to visit her in the hospital, he was getting steady reports on her progress from her doctors and nurses. Earlier in the day, she’d actually managed to sit up for a brief time. She still was on the ventilator but now that she had a tracheostomy tube – a tube inserted directly into the trachea through a surgical hole in the neck, she no longer needed sedation to prevent her from gagging on a tube down her throat, or from fighting the ventilator. The ventilator was set to assist with her breathing rather than to substitute for it, and with her in complete control of her breathing, she was now fully awake and conscious. With a tube in her trachea, she couldn’t yet talk, but she was able to communicate by writing short messages. Although the method was too cumbersome and tiring to hold a conversation with her son, she was able to tell him that she was okay and that she loved him, and he was able to let her know just how much he loved and missed her. Dave remained in quarantine pending the results of his second Covid-19 test, which was scheduled later in the week. The first one turned out to be negative, much to everyone’s surprise, and he remained symptom-free. Until cleared, he remained dependent on his boyfriend and uncles for shopping and errands. His iPhone, which was barely useable due to a badly cracked screen, sat on the desk in his room. He wasn’t inclined to do anything about it while his mother was in the hospital anyway. He had, however, taken the time to check on Apple’s website and for $150, they would have sent him a pre-paid box to send it back to them for repair. He’d have had to rely on the uncles to drop it off at the FedEx store on Houston, but Apple would have returned it to him, good as new. The trouble was that it wasn’t worth spending $150 on a three-year-old, factory-renewed iPhone 7. He wasn’t looking forward to talking to his mother about replacing it, but he had no choice. Maybe this time he could talk her into splurging on a brand-new iPhone SE, which cost $400 for the standard model. It was as they were eating dinner and discussing sending a platter of food to Freck for his father’s passing, that the doorbell rang. Since Dave was still in quarantine, Josh went to the door to see who it was. After a short time, Josh returned to the table, carrying a small package. “It’s for you, Dave,” he said as he started to hand it to his boyfriend, but then thought better of it. “Maybe I’d better open it first, just in case. I’ve already touched it, but there’s no reason you have to.” As Dave grabbed a scissors from one of the kitchen drawers, Dave asked, “What is it? Who’s it from?” “Not sure,” Josh answered. “It came by FedEx and I had to sign for it.” Then shrugging his shoulders as he began to cut away the tape, he added, “The label says it’s from Apple!” Within moments, Dave had exposed a shiny white box with a picture of an iPhone on the cover. Josh carefully dropped the box onto the table and set the shipping box aside, to be recycled later. He thoroughly washed his hands before sitting back down. In the meantime, Dave looked at the box in front of him and exclaimed, “What the fuck! It’s an iPhone Pro!” He knew his mother was in no shape to get him a new phone, and he doubted Josh could’ve afforded something that expensive. Looking up at the only other person he could think of who knew about his broken phone and who had the resources to buy a new one, he saw that his Uncle Alan was smiling. “This is too much,” he responded. “Davy, you should always come to me when you need a new phone,” Alan responded. “You might not think of Microsoft when you think of Apple, but Microsoft Office remains one of the most popular packages on the Mac, the iPad and the iPhone. I’m in charge of the Office development team for iOS. I got you that iPhone at below cost, and I can get you a new iPad Pro, MacBook or iMac for next to nothing.” “But still, this phone musta cost you hundreds of dollars,” Dave countered. “You already spent a fortune to come here. At least let me pay for the phone.” Waving his hand, Alan answered, “There’s no need. I can call you a beta tester and write it off as a business expense. It’s costing me next to nothing, so quit harping about it. I got you the Pro model because it didn’t cost me that much, and I wanted you to have the better camera and display. Likewise, I maxed out the memory so you could capture and edit some amazing video if you want.” “I don’t know what to say,” Dave responded. “There’s nothing you need to say at all,” Alan countered. “Just do great things with it while you’re at Stuyvesant next year.” <·> <·> <·> The steady arrival of deliveries of food was a surprise to Freck. He had a lot of friends from school and from the synagogue where he and Kyle were studying for their Bar Mitzvahs, but he’d never expected such an outpouring of support. He was well aware of the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva, which usually meant staying at home for a week after someone died and receiving visitors who wished to pay their respects. People were expected to bring lots of food, and to partake in eating lots of food, and there were prayer services held to remember the deceased. Of course the pandemic allowed for none of that. Their rabbi led a twice-daily minyan online, so they were able to pray even though the participants were apart. And people still sent food – huge platters of smoked fish, corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, blintzes and latkes, bagels, bialys and knishes, and of course all kinds of cakes, cookies and other sweets. It was enough to feed an army, but the army never came. There were no guests to feed and so everything that could be saved went straight to the freezer. Even with two teenagers and a healthy pre-teen in the house, the food was more than enough. From what Freck heard from his mother and sisters, they were experiencing much the same thing in their brownstone on the Upper West Side. The autopsy on his father had been completed but they were still waiting on the results from toxicology. The surprising thing was that Frank San Angelo had died of Covid-19 after all. His lungs were full of fluid and he’d been severely hypoxic. It was a well-known fact that younger patients who acquired the virus were sometimes unaware their oxygen levels were dropping, much less that they had pneumonia. With an oxygen saturation level that was likely in the range of 20%, his heart simply gave out. He literally drowned in his own fluids. Less clear was the role that cocaine might have played. Regardless, the news media had yet to pick up on the fact that he’d died while using cocaine. That the police were suppressing the point likely reflected the reach of his father’s influence and wealth – reach that even extended from beyond the grave after death. The funeral still hadn’t been scheduled. Things were up in the air, not only until the investigation into his death was complete, but there was a tremendous backlog of burials at Green Wood Cemetery due to the number of deaths from Covid-19. They’d been told it could be a matter of weeks before he could be buried there. It was a good thing his father was Catholic, as the delay would have been a major problem if he were Jewish. Even so, the delay was troubling. Just not knowing when his father could be laid to rest weighed heavily on Freck. He needed to move on. At least there was his swimming. Short of mind-blowing sex with Kyle, nothing was a more effective distraction from all the shit that was goin’ on in his life than swimming. To think that before he met Ky, he couldn’t even swim! Not only was he on the Stuyvesant swim team now, but he was one of their fastest swimmers. He’d always enjoyed participating in light team sports and prior to moving in with Kyle’s family in Riverdale, he’d been in a youth soccer league, but that was because it gave him a chance to feel like a normal kid for a while. Now he was on a varsity team! He was a serious jock – well, as much as that was possible for a thirteen-year-old, even though he was a high school senior. In fact, swimming was one of the few high school team sports he could participate in at his size and age. The thought of playing, say, varsity basketball, was enough to make him laugh. But then the smile faded from Freck’s face as reality once again intruded on his thoughts. Who knew when he’d have a chance to swim with the team again? At least he still had his boyfriend’s family’s pool. No one he knew had a setup like theirs. No one had year-round access to an indoor-outdoor in-ground heated pool, 24/7, but he did. Freck’s one regret about the design was that the ceiling height was barely eight feet, leaving no room for a diving board. At least he got ample diving practice at school, when it was in session. He might not be able to do a summersault off the high dive, but he could still take a flying leap into the water from the side of the pool. It was potentially dangerous, particularly when done from the pool’s shallow end, but Freck was an expert diver and he sliced into the water, barely creating a ripple. Surfacing and opening his eyes, he noticed that Kyle was descending the stairs that led into the rec room. Pulling himself out of the water, Freck went to greet his boyfriend as he entered the pool room. “Couldn’t sleep?” Kyle asked as Freck approached. “I had enough trouble sleeping, even before my father died. I read in The Times that a lot of people have been having trouble sleeping, due to worry about the pandemic,” he added. “Now, with my father passing away, it’s just another abrupt change in my life. Not that we were close, but he was such an imposing figure in the world of finance. The thought of him not being there is kind of surreal, you know?” “I can imagine,” Kyle answered. “Not that it matters, but do you think he left you any money in his will?” Barking a laugh, Freck responded, “You know, I never thought about it.” Turning to look directly into Kyle’s eyes, he continued, “You know I have a trust fund worth millions. You and I could live off of it indefinitely, even with the losses we’ve suffered from the stock market tanking, but a life of leisure is not who I am. It’s not what I want. I intend to use that money to create the largest sustainable architecture business in the world. If there’s anything left over, I’ll use it for pro bono work to help mitigate the effects of climate change on those who are environmentally disadvantaged. Environmental justice will be served.” Looking away, Freck continued, “I doubt that my father even gave thought to changing his will after he and Mom separated. He was only forty-one. Who the fuck thinks about dying when they’re that age? I expect that he left everything to Mom, but if he didn’t, it won’t make much difference. She has her own billions and she intends to give most of it away to help the homeless. If Dad left her his billions, she’ll probably use it to help that many more people. However, if he did leave any of it directly to me, it’ll allow me to better use my skills as an architect to help save the planet. With billions, I could hire a team of architects to redesign cities to survive in the face of climate change. I could fund projects around the world to ease the transition away from fossil fuels. I could invest in high-rise hydroponic technology so that food could be produced locally. Millions of acres could be returned to the wild, to be covered with forests that absorb carbon and replenish the earth’s oxygen.” “And billions of people will shake their fists at you, complaining that your technology has left them behind with no means of supporting themselves,” Kyle countered. “Hydroponic farms can be run by robots.” “That’s already happening with traditional farms,” Freck countered, “and what difference does it make to truckers if you eliminate the need for long-haul trucking, or just automate it. Better to be alive and unemployed than to leave behind a dead planet,” Freck responded, “but you’re right of course. The next major challenge after climate change will be how to provide for everyone’s needs in the post-employment era.” “There’ll have to be a major change in how people view the relationship between work and money,” Kyle acknowledged. “Just to get past the notion that people should have to work to put food on the table, or for clothing and shelter. No one should have to beg for food, or live homeless in filthy clothes on the streets. That’s just barbaric. Everyone should be able to have the basics.” “Yeah, but why would a jock who’s just not good enough for professional sports, for example, do anything to give back to the community when there’s no reward?” Freck countered. “Most of our high school gym teachers and coaches are failed professional athletes. Why would they bother to become teachers when they already have what they need? You know they wouldn’t be paid enough to make it worth their while.” Sighing, Kyle responded, “The reality is that when people with no desire to get an education run into a world of plenty, none of it available to them, they’ll riot. They’ll try to take what the rest of us have and when we protect ourselves within enclosed enclaves, they’ll scale the walls and destroy everything we have…” The two boys talked well until after the sun was up, discussing problems and solutions for a world they could never truly understand. Little did they know that events would soon overtake them, forever changing the world and the way they saw their roles within it.
  2. “Whatdaya mean, the Ragin’ Cajun’s closed?” Dave asked his boyfriend. It was nearly two o’clock and after trying for more than two hours to place an order for lunch from the Ragin’ Cajun through GrubHub, they’d finally been told that GrubHub was unable to reach anyone at the Ragin’ Cajun, even by phone. Figuring that Asher was probably busy in the restaurant’s kitchen, Josh texted Asher’s boyfriend, Seth, to ask what was up. That was when he discovered that the Ragin’ Cajun was closed for the foreseeable future and possibly for good. “The fuckin’ Feds seized both of the Whites’ restaurants,” Josh went on to explain. “They just barged in last night and seized everything. Seth says it’s all because they’re trying to pressure his dad into a plea deal on the bogus corruption charges they’re holding against him.” “What a crock of shit!” Dave responded. “The Ragin’ Cajun is one of the best restaurants in town, but the whole neighborhood relies on the Asian place. It’s the go-to place for Chinese food on the Lower East Side. It’s so unfair.” “What are we gonna do about lunch?” Josh asked. “I’d make somethin’, but the cupboard’s pretty bare and we can’t exactly wait a couple of weeks for our groceries to be delivered.” “There’s plenty of cereal,” Dave pointed out, earning a ‘yeah right’ look from his boyfriend. “Lots of empty calories, and not even a carton of milk or yogurt with which to eat the cereal,” Came Josh’s retort, “and don’t even suggest eating it dry.” Then pausing for a moment, he continued, “I’ll text Robin and see if my sisters can pick up some basics at the local Swine Fare, and then maybe later, they can pick up more stuff at Trader Joe’s.” “It’ll be nice to see Robin, if only from a distance, but what the fuck is Swine Fare?” David asked. “You never heard it called that?” Josh asked, incredulously. “It’s what a lot of people call the Fine Fare across the street. In the meantime, why don’t I order a pizza from Alfonzo’s?” “There are better pizza places by far,” Dave countered. “Besides, I’m really hungry. How about El Castillo De Jagua?” Nodding his head, Josh replied, “I could definitely go for Dominican.” Dave replied with, “Make it so, Number One.” Faking a gag, Josh replied, “I get enough of that Star Trek shit from my sister, and Asher and Seth are Trek fanatics. For that, you can make the call.” “Which means that I get to choose what to order,” Dave replied. “Why not?” Josh asked. “You’re my boyfriend and you know what I like, and I trust you.” The kiss that resulted from that remark quickly led to more, and another half-hour passed before the starving teens got around to placing their order. <·> <·> <·> Alan Simon disconnected the call as the airplane he and his husband were taking taxied up to the gate at the McNamara Terminal, at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He’d traveled through this airport on many occasions, and always thought it strange that Delta’s primary hub would be given the name ‘Metro’, particularly when it was less than an hour’s drive from the Canadian border. He could think of many so-called international airports that lacked even the most rudimentary facilities for customs and immigration. Detroit Metro, in contrast, was a major international hub. “Are the boys doing alright?” Alan’s husband, Peter, asked him. “Dave still sounds like he’s in a bit of a daze,” Alan replied, “but his boyfriend seems to be helping his mood immensely.” “That’s good,” Peter acknowledged. “I just hate to think of what may lay ahead.” They’d already discussed the possibility that Dave’s mother, Alan’s sister, Sandy, might not survive. Indeed, the odds against her seemed overwhelming. More than eighty percent of patients admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 pneumonia didn’t survive. Alan had been in contact with the doctors at Belleview and he knew that her course had been surprisingly rapid, and she was already on a ventilator, having presented with symptoms less than a day before. More typically, patients incubated the virus for a couple of weeks, developing symptoms long before the need for a ventilator. Although the presentation of her pneumonia had been rapid, Sandy Schuster did have a number of things in her favor. At 38, she was much younger than most patients admitted to intensive care, and she had no significant preexisting medical conditions. Most people who succumbed to Covid-19 pneumonia had at least two confounding medical diagnoses. Even so, she was a nurse and healthcare workers even younger and healthier than her hadn’t made it, including the doctor who tried to warn the Chinese of the seriousness of the threat of this novel coronavirus. He was only 34. No sooner had the plane come to a stop and the fasten seatbelt sings been turned off than the few passengers onboard, all of them socially distanced within first class and Comfort Plus, were up in the aisles, collecting their bags from the overhead bins. With so few passengers onboard, the plane was completely emptied and ready for deep cleaning in under five minutes. Alan and Peter each had a roller carry-on bag and a backpack that together contained everything they might need for the next few weeks in New York. There was a shared garment bag in checked luggage, but neither man wanted to think of the contents, as it contained a pair of dark suits and dress clothes. The only reason they might need those was if there were a funeral to attend. In happier times they’d have brought a lot more clothes for going out on the town. They loved all of the things that New York had to offer, from fine restaurants to outstanding theater, to some of the best LGBTQ nightlife the world had to offer. In happier times they would have spent countless days and nights in The Village, in Chelsea and places straight people didn’t even know existed. In happier times, they’d have endeavored to introduce Dave and Josh to some of the better places where gay teens could go. The boys were too young to go clubbing, but there were some great places for gay teens to meet other gay teens. But everything was closed. McNamara was the main terminal for Delta Airlines at Detroit Metro, but with so few people flying, it was practically empty. Designed to funnel passengers from all over America as well as international passengers to connecting flights, it was a city unto itself, with numerous shops and restaurants all along its length, all of which were closed under the orders of the Governor of Michigan. There were a few shops open, offering essential items travelers might need, and there were numerous restaurants offering takeout service. However, Alan couldn’t really see the difference between buying food at a takeout counter and eating it in one of the waiting areas, versus sitting down and eating the same food at one of the tables that would otherwise be available for sit-down dine-in service. Alan and Peter quickly located the gate for their next flight, which would be leaving in less than an hour. They didn’t bother with getting food in the terminal, such as it was. As passengers in first class, they’d been kept well-fed on the flight from Seattle, and they’d likely be well-fed on the flight to New York. Even though their original tickets were for economy seats, the boarding passes in their pockets had been upgraded to first class. The departure gate was at the other end of the mile-long A Concourse and so the two men backtracked a bit and boarded a tram, which took them the rest of the way there. Not long after they arrived, the flight opened for boarding. As with the flight from Seattle, the airplane was an Airbus and not a Boeing aircraft – an A220 on the first leg and an A219 on the second. After stowing their carry-ons and backpacks in the overhead bins and taking their seats, a cute male flight attendant came by and took their drink orders. Alan sent a quick text to Dave to let him know they’d soon be on their way, and Dave texted back to wish them a safe flight. Alan and Peter both switched their phones into Airplane mode as the aircraft door was closed. The pilot wasted little time in getting the plane underway, as with all the flight cancellations, the wait for a runway was less than half the usual time. The flight attendants had to rush through the safety demonstration before taking their seats for takeoff. With just over an hour of actual flight time, there was no meal served in the main cabin, and only a light meal served in first class. The meal was surprisingly good, though, consisting of a personal vegetarian pizza, a salad with greens and Mandarin orange wedges, and a brownie. After landing at JFK’s Terminal 4, Alan and Peter went straight to the baggage pickup and found their garment bag already circulating on the carousel. Grabbing it, they bypassed the car rental counters and headed straight to the Arrivals area, taking a Hertz shuttle to the car pickup area a short distance away. As a Gold Priority corporate member, Alan could choose any available car parked in a Gold Priority space. There were a number of luxury vehicles available, but they chose a Nissan Rogue because of its good visibility, maneuverability and range on a tank of gas – an important factor in Manhattan with its dearth of gas stations. The ignition was keyless and the fob was in the cup holder. After sending a text to the boys to let them know they were on their way, they stopped at the toll gate to pick up the rental agreement, and then entered the Van Wyck Expressway. Traffic was nonexistent and the trip to the Lower East Side only took them a half-hour. Upon arrival, they realized it was too late to pick up the parking pass and transponder that were waiting for them at the co-op office, so they waited under the Williamsburg Bridge, on Delancey Street, until another vehicle opened the gate to park, and then followed it inside. Parking in their assigned space, they sought out the security guard and showed her the letter acknowledging their temporary rental of the space. The rental car would have undoubtedly been safe if left overnight in the fenced lot, but Alan and Peter didn’t want to take a chance on it being towed. Retrieving their luggage from behind the back seat, the men walked the short distance to the Hillman Cooperative Apartments, on Abraham E. Kazan Street and had the security guard let them into the building. Within moments they were standing in front of the Schusters’ apartment door. Alan didn’t hesitate to knock on the door, even though doing so represented a momentous step. Although he and his husband weren’t in any high-risk groups, the moment Dave opened the door, they’d both be all-in with respect to Covid-19. If Dave had the virus, then it was very likely they too would soon be infected. It was a significant commitment to make, but their nephew needed them now more than ever. Alan shuddered to think of the possibility that his sister wouldn’t make it, even though the odds weren’t in her favor. He’d always looked up to his older sibling and she was the first person who knew he was gay. Indeed, it was she who helped him to accept himself for who he was. She was such a vital, vibrant woman and the one person he knew he could turn to for advice besides his husband. Losing her would leave a major hole in his heart and in his life, but that was nothing compared to what it would do to his nephew. Dave had no other living relatives who could take him in. Dave’s life was in New York, but Alan’s life was in Seattle, as was Peter’s. If Sandy didn’t pull through, not only would Dave be devastated by the loss of his mother but unless Alan and Peter moved to New York, he’d be torn away from his life – torn away from his boyfriend and forced to move some three thousand miles away. That possibility was something Alan didn’t want to think about just now, although he knew he and Peter were committed to Dave’s well-being, no matter what. The door opened and within an instant, Alan had a sobbing fourteen-year-old boy in his arms. As Alan held his nephew tightly, Josh thanked Alan and Peter profusely for flying across the country and he invited them into the apartment and closed the door behind them. “How’s Sandy doing?” Peter asked as he passed. Sighing, Josh replied, “There’s been no change. She’s in serious, but stable condition.” “Well, stable’s better than the alternative,” he added. “You got that right,” Josh agreed, then continued. “I’d offer you guys something to eat, but there isn’t anything left to eat in the apartment. With his mother working such long hours, Dave was ordering most of his meals out, even before Sandy got sick,” he apologized. “When he remembered to eat,” he added. “I take it that by breaking quarantine, we’re not exactly free to go grocery shopping either?” Peter asked. “I’m not sure, but probably not,” Josh answered. “However, my sisters will go shopping for us in the morning,” he added. “With three of them to lug it all back, they can pick up enough food from Target and Trader Joe’s to feed an army.” “Or at least two teenage boys,” Peter responded with a laugh. <·> <·> <·> When Kyle turned over in bed and felt only empty space where his mind told him his boyfriend should be, he awakened. Coming to full consciousness and realizing that indeed that Freck wasn’t there, he headed out into the hall and went to look for him. The bathroom door was wide open and it was dark inside, so Kyle presumed his boyfriend hadn’t gotten up to take a leak. The loud snoring coming from the bedroom next to his told him his brother was fast asleep. Walking across the entry foyer, he crossed over to the other set of bedrooms, passed the guest room and checked inside Freck’s bedroom to find that it too was empty, as was the bathroom in-between. His house was a front-to-back split level, built into the hillside, such that bedrooms and the entryway were on the top floor. Most of the houses of similar design around them had long ago been torn down to make way for ostentatious mansions that allowed their owners to show off their wealth. Kyle’s house was designed to blend into their surroundings, and it had been beautifully renovated, so his family saw no need to replace it. Besides which, the design afforded them complete privacy and since they were all guys, it was possible for them to forgo wearing any clothes as Kyle was doing now. Heading down the first set of stairs, Kyle saw that the great room and kitchen were dark, making it extremely unlikely that his boyfriend was there. Kyle wasn’t expecting to find Freck on the main level in any case. Heading down the next set of stairs brought him to the level under the upstairs bedrooms, which included the utility room, laundry room, his fathers’ workshop and the master bedroom suite. Kyle didn’t even bother stopping as he descended the final set of stairs, bringing him to the lower level, with the rec room and indoor pool. The sound of splashing water told Kyle he’d found his boyfriend, right where he expected to find him. The pool was originally built as an in-ground outdoor pool and later enclosed, adding a terrace directly above it that led off the great room upstairs. The addition of floor-to-ceiling glass French doors between the pool deck and an outdoor patio allowed for the pool to be fully enclosed in the winter months, but could be opened when it was warm outside. As it was still April, it was too cool to open the doors and so the sound of Freck’s splashing echoed loudly in the pool room. However, as Freck was an experienced swimmer and on the Stuyvesant swim team, the splashing was much more muted than it would have been with a less experienced swimmer such as Kyle. It was ironic that Freck, who’d never learned how to swim before coming to live with Kyle, had become an expert swimmer whereas Kyle, who grew up in a house with an indoor pool, was a mere novice. Freck hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights in the pool room and so he swam in the dark, illuminated only by the pool’s safety lights, which always remained on. The effect was of a soft glow that suffused the room, with shifting patterns of light as Freck disturbed the surface of the water. Apparently, he hadn’t heard his boyfriend enter, as he continued to swim his laps. Under different circumstances, Kyle would’ve dived in and gotten under him and grabbed his dick, but this was not the time for that. Clearly he’d gotten up because something was on his mind and he couldn’t sleep. Rather than diving in, Kyle sat down on the side of the pool and let his legs dangle over the edge and into the water. He figured the disturbance would be enough to get his boyfriend’s attention, and it did. Swimming up to the side of the pool, his head popped out of the water and he pushed himself out the rest of the way, turned around and sat next to Kyle. “Couldn’t sleep?” Kyle asked his boyfriend. “Way too much on my mind,” Freck acknowledged. “This whole Covid-19 thing has upended our lives. The dads are busy beyond belief, school’s ground to a halt and although we’re nearly done for the year, some of our friends are struggling to finish up online. Just when I was beginning to reconnect with my mom, we went on lockdown and I have to settle for texts, FaceTime conversations and plain old email. “We’re supposed to start fellowships at the American Museum of Natural History in the summer, but now we’re gonna hafta stay home and do our fellowship online…” “At least they weren’t outright cancelled,” Kyle pointed out. “Yeah, I know I should be glad that Seth’s Grandfathers are willing to let us do that,” Freck acknowledged. Then turning his head to face Kyle directly, he continued, “I got the strangest email from Josh early this morning.” “Is Dave’s mom okay?” Kyle asked. “Did Dave’s uncles arrive okay?” “There’s been no change with Dave’s mom,” Freck answered, “and he didn’t even mention his uncles, so I presume they got in fine. I guess he was having trouble sleeping and he sent me an email asking if I knew anything about Kawasaki Disease.” “Isn’t that a rare kind of inflammatory vascular disease in children?” Kyle asked. Laughing, Freck responded, “I told him he shoulda asked you. I hadta look it up, which of course he’d already done.” “What in the world does Kawasaki Disease have to do with anything?” Kyle asked. “He got a call from his old boyfriend,” Freck answered. “Dmitri?” Kyle asked. “Damn, you have a good memory,” Freck responded. “I guess Dmitri called Josh while he was waiting for Dave’s uncles to arrive. Of course, Josh was more intent on helping his current boyfriend rather than the one who broke up with him, but it turned out Dmitri called cause he’s in the hospital. He’s in Maimonides Children’s Hospital and they think he has Kawasaki Syndrome, or something like it.” “Fuck, it sounds serious,” Kyle responded, “Maimonides is in Borough Park. It’s a pediatric trauma center. The only one in Brooklyn, I think.” “Shit, do you ever forget anything?” Freck asked rhetorically, and then continued. “Apparently they’ve seen a few cases in the last two weeks and they think it may be associated with Covid-19.” “Dmitri has Covid-19?” Kyle asked. Shaking his head, Freck answered, “He didn’t have any symptoms, but apparently Manhattan Beach is a major hot spot in New York, and it has one of the highest death rates in the city.” “Fuck,” Kyle quietly exclaimed. “So Dmitri didn’t know what was going on when he developed a fever and red patches spread all over his skin,” Freck continued. “He was admitted to a local hospital and then transferred to Maimonides when they found he had pericarditis and an irregular heartbeat. Of course they tested him for coronavirus but it wasn’t until after he’d been transferred that the results came back. The test was positive.” To most kids, the term ‘pericarditis’ would have left them scratching their heads, but Freck and Kyle both knew that the sack that surrounds and lines the heart is called the pericardium. “So how’s he doing?” Kyle asked. “According to Josh, other than feeling like there’s fire running through his veins, he feels okay,” Freck answered. “I guess they’re giving him IV immunoglobulin and high-dose aspirin, and it seems to be working. Of course Josh is pretty broken up about it, now that he’s had some time for it to sink in. He’s been preoccupied with Dave, but Dmitri was his first boyfriend and they were together for a long time before Josh moved to the Lower East Side.” “You know, this could be huge,” Kyle commented. “If the SARS-CoV-2 virus is somehow responsible for Dmitri’s Kawasaki Disease, then maybe it could cause other autoimmune disorders, the way you can get shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia as an adult from having had chicken pox as a kid. Or long-term disability, like with rheumatic fever or Guillain-Barré syndrome.” “Now that’s a cheery thought,” Freck replied. “But there could be a silver lining. Maybe if Kawasaki Disease turns out to be associated with Covid-19, then kids won’t be so cavalier when it comes to social distancing and the like.” “Nor will their parents,” Kyle agreed. “They may not care about grandma getting sick and passing away, but they might think twice when it comes to their kids.” “Don’t be so sure about that,” Freck countered. “Look at all the anti-vaxers. Science and logic go out the window when they hear about conspiracies on Fox News or read about them on Facebook.” “I hadn’t thought about that,” Kyle responded. “Wouldn’t it be rich if scientists come up with an effective vaccine in record time, only for people to refuse it?” “Better to let millions die of Covid-19 than to take a chance on a vaccine developed by those evil scientists who are doing the Devil’s work.” Freck agreed. <·> <·> <·> “Yes, I see,” Dave heard his Uncle Alan say into his phone. Dave had just gotten up to use the bathroom, when he heard voices coming from the kitchen. He entered the kitchen, just in time to see Alan disconnect the call. Alan looked up at Dave with an unreadable expression as Dave just stood there silently. Dressed only in his boxers, Dave hadn’t planned to do more than go to the bathroom and go back to bed. Yesterday had been exhausting and his body was telling him he needed more sleep. Josh, similarly attired, walked into the kitchen and slipped his arm around his boyfriend and asked, “What’s up?” To the uncles it was still very early back in Seattle and their jet lag was only compounded by having gotten to bed very late. Alan nevertheless had woken early, partly because the light streaming in through the bedroom window told his brain it was later than he felt it should be, and partly because he was very worried about his sister. He and Peter had already showered and gotten dressed, and were in the process of making coffee and attempting to put together some semblance of breakfast. At least there was enough coffee in the apartment for two adults and two teens, but otherwise there was only an open box of dry cereal and no milk or yogurt with which to eat it. He’d just located an unopened jar of applesauce that he thought might serve as a substitute, but then his phone rang. “That was the hospital,” Alan began. “Your mother had a very rough night. They had to increase her ventilator pressure settings, just to keep her oxygen saturation up, but they’ve run into difficulty keeping her blood pressure up. Apparently, the two things are connected because increasing the pressure in the chest reduces venous return of blood to the heart, lowering blood pressure. It’s a bit of a ‘Catch 22’. “They’ve downgraded her condition to critical,” Alan continued, “but cautioned against treating it as anything more than a precaution. Her doctors are still confident she can pull through this, Dave. Your mother’s a fighter. She didn’t allow the virus to keep her from treating her patients and it won’t keep her from returning home to her son.” Sensing his boyfriend’s building panic, Josh pulled Dave into his arms and held him tightly, rubbing his back and soothing him as Dave began to cry in earnest. Josh himself was going through a lot. In addition to dealing with his boyfriend’s mother’s illness, he’d just learned that his first boyfriend, Dmitri, was in the hospital and battling some sort of mystery illness himself. He was no longer close to Dmitri, but they’d been boyfriends for three years and Josh was worried about him. Putting his hand on Dave’s shoulder, Peter said, “I know how hard this is on you, Dave, and the worry about your mom is only part of it. Not knowing what’s going on and not being able to be there must be horrible, isn’t it?” Dave merely nodded his head through the tears. “If anything happened to my mom,” Peter continued, “I wouldn’t find out about it until I read her obituary in the newspaper, and I wouldn’t dare attend the funeral. I’d totally be shunned. Since coming out, I’m no longer welcome by my family.” “Are you sayin’ my mother’s gonna die?” Dave asked. Realizing the colossal mistake he’d made in his choice of words, Peter countered, “Of course not. I was just trying to tell you that you’re not alone. We’re here for you, Dave. We’ll always be there when you need us. But your mother’s strong and she’ll pull through this.” Looking at the items on the counter, Josh responded, “Please tell me you weren’t planning to serve us Cocoa Puffs with apple sauce.” Chuckling, Alan answered, “It’s not like we have an extensive menu from which to choose, you know.” Even Dave laughed at that. “Speaking of menus, why don’t we just order out?” Josh suggested. “Zafi’s is on the next block and the food’s not bad as traditional diners go. They do a first-class breakfast.” “Yeah, Zafi’s is a great idea,” Dave agreed wholeheartedly as he grabbed his iPhone, saw the shattered screen and threw it back down in disgust. “It’s easier to see the menu on a larger screen anyway,” he said as he retreated to his bedroom and returned a moment later with an iPad and pulled up the menu on GrubHub. “Isn’t Katz’s Deli nearby?” Alan asked. “We ate there the last time we visited, and the food was excellent.” “Yeah but it’s a deli,” Josh countered. “It’s great if you want a pastrami on rye, but not good if you want a frittata or a lox omlet. Russ and Daughters Café’s around the corner from Katz’s, and they have a much better breakfast menu, but their prices are more appropriate to the Upper East Side.” Dave pulled up the menu and the four men and teens poured over it. “I think we can handle it,” Alan replied as he suggested ordering a platter and some sides. They ended up agreeing on a smoked whitefish and salmon platter, which came with a basket with breads and bagels, and also ordered side dishes of potato pancakes, knishes and blintzes to share. “Any word on Dmitri?” Dave asked his boyfriend as they waited for the food to arrive. “Dmitri?” Peter asked. “He was my first boyfriend,” Josh explained. “We were together since the sixth grade, but then he broke up with me when we moved to the Lower East Side. Anyway, Manhattan Beach, which is where we used to live, is a major hotspot for Covid-19, with one of the highest death rates in the city. I think maybe it’s because orthodox Russian Jews aren’t prone to social distancing, but in any case, Dmitri’s in Maimonides Children’s Hospital with some kind of syndrome with a Japanese name. They think that maybe it’s somehow related to the coronavirus. Dmitri tested positive for it, but he didn’t even know he had it.” Doing a quick search on his phone, Alan asked, “Is it Kawasaki Disease?” “Yeah, that’s the one,” Josh acknowledged. “That sounds like it’s pretty rare, and it usually affects kids a lot younger than someone your age,” Alan continued. “Yeah, Dmitri said that Maimonides usually sees maybe one case a year, but now they have three or four cases like his,” Josh explained, then added, “I’ll send him a text to see how he’s doing.” Moments later, his phone rang and Dmitri’s smiling, twelve-year-old face appeared on his lock screen. “Josh answered, “Dmitri?” “Hey, Joshy,” Dmitri replied. “Sorry to call, but it hurts to text. This Kawa-kooky thing’s painful as shit and my fingertips are peelin’, man.” “Fuck,” Josh responded. “It ain’t that easy to talk either,” Dmitri went on, “so I’ll keep it short. The important thing is that the docs say I’m gonna be okay. My heart’s back to normal and I guess the blood tests look good. I still don’t have no symptoms of Covid itself. If I keep gettin’ better, they think maybe I can go home in a few.” “That’s good,” Josh replied. “Anyway, how’s Dave’s mom doin’?” Dmitri asked. “She’s about the same,” Josh answered. He didn’t think it was worth telling Dmitri that she was a bit worse, and he didn’t want Dave to think about it either, and so he kept it to himself. “Tell Dave I hope she gets better soon, then,” Dmitri responded. “I’ll do that,” Josh agreed, and added, “You too, bud,” and then terminated the call, just as the food arrived. <·> <·> <·> Seth turned over in bed and reached out to snuggle with Asher, only to find that he wasn’t there. Opening his eyes, he saw that the other half of the bed was empty and so he got up, slid on a pair of boxer briefs and went in search of his husband. To Seth it still seemed surreal to call his boyfriend that, but legally they were now married and there was nothing he could or would do to change that. From a financial standpoint, the marriage might end up being a disaster, but Ashe was the love of his life and for a year-and-a-half, it had been a matter of when and not if they married. First stopping in the bathroom to empty his distended bladder, Seth headed out into central area of their apartment. As he did so, it dawned on him that today was Asher’s sixteenth birthday. As he entered the dining room, which served as the nexus between the two apartments they’d joined together, Seth spotted Ashe in the kitchen, dressed in khakis but barefoot and shirtless. Seth thought the contrast of his husband’s mocha-colored skin against the light tan of the khakis looked incredibly sexy. Asher was busy at work preparing something for breakfast. If it were anyone else, Seth would’ve told them to relax and let someone else do the cooking on their birthday, but cooking was Asher’s way of unwinding. There was no place where Asher felt more at home than in the kitchen. “Whatcha making?” Seth asked. “Breakfast pizza,” Ashe answered. “What the fuck’s a breakfast pizza,” Seth couldn’t help but ask. “A pizza with eggs, shrimp, bacon, spicy sausage, bell peppers, jalapeños and creole salsa,” Asher answered. “Sort of like a cross between huevos rancheros and shrimp creole pizza?” Seth asked. “Exactly,” Asher replied. “Sounds yummy…” Seth responded, “If it doesn’t erode the lining of my stomach, that is.” They both laughed at that. “So how long before it’s done?” Seth asked. “Fifteen… maybe twenty minutes,” Asher replied. “Good,” Seth responded. “That’s enough time for me to grab a shower and get dressed.” “Only because you don’t need to shave,” Asher teased. Sighing, Seth responded, “Sometimes I hate it that I have such a baby face… that I still look like I’m twelve…” “I happen to love that baby face,” Asher countered. “I know you do,” Seth answered, “and I’m not complaining about not having to shave, but for fuck sake, I’m almost fifteen.” “And perfect,” Asher countered as he gave Seth a brief peck on the lips, “just the way you are. Now go take your shower, before your breakfast gets cold.” “Yes sir,” Seth replied with a salute. Asher briefly enjoyed the view of his husband’s retreating back side, and then he returned to kneading the dough for his creation. When he was satisfied with the consistency of the dough, he spun and tossed it with ease into a perfect circle and placed it onto a circular baking sheet. It fit perfectly. Frying up a package of turkey bacon on the built-in griddle on the stove, he cracked open a dozen large eggs into a mixing bowl and whisked them to perfection. Slicing and crumbling the crisp turkey bacon, he added it to the eggs, followed by his home-made turkey sausage and shrimp after browning them on the griddle as well. He quickly sliced, diced and added a couple of red and green bell peppers and a couple of jalapeños. After covering the pizza dough with a layer of grated mozzarella, he stuck it under the broiler for a minute to melt and brown the cheese. Asher then poured the egg mixture over the pizza and then slid it back under the broiler until the eggs had set. he removed the pizza, added a layer of his home-made salsa followed by a layer of grated parmesan, and then slid the pizza to a four-hundred-degree oven. A few minutes later, he removed the golden-brown pizza and sliced it four ways with a pizza knife, into eight slices. It smelled heavenly. He was just getting the coffee maker ready to grind and brew a pot of coffee when a bleary-eyed Frank Moore strolled into the kitchen, followed by his wife, Julie. Asher greeted Seth’s parents, and Julie asked, “What’s that wonderful smell?” “An experiment,” he replied. “It’s a breakfast pizza… kind of a mix of American, Italian and Cajun traditions.” “Based on the success of your past experiments, I’m sure, it’ll be an amazing success,” Frank chimed in. “One of these days I’m gonna flop,” Asher countered. “I seriously doubt that,” Frank responded. “I have no doubt that you’ll be successful no matter what you do. I’m more worried about the restaurant business in general.” “A lot of places aren’t gonna make it,” Asher agreed. “It kills me that they took my parent’s takeout place, though. They were actually making more money during the pandemic than ever before. If they can just get their restaurant back, I think they’ll do okay. It might be just as well that we lost the Ragin’ Cajun, though,” Asher continued. “We were probably gonna hafta start over anyway, so it’s probably for the best that we’re bein’ forced to sit out the pandemic. Maybe after Seth and I finish college, we can start over when there’s already a vaccine for the coronavirus, so we won’t hafta worry about it. But even if it’s still around, I have some ideas for how to design a pandemic-proof restaurant.” “How would you do that?” Seth asked as he returned from his shower, dressed similarly to Asher in only a pair of khakis. “There are basically three ways of transmitting a virus,” Asher responded. “There’s the so-called fecal oral route, physical contact and respiratory transmission. Coronaviruses in general can be transmitted all three ways. The only risk of fecal transmission is in the restrooms, where we’ll use self-disinfecting toilets and contactless faucets and soap dispensers. The use of hand sanitizer at the table should be sufficient to prevent contact transmission, but just in case, we can provide hot, moist disinfectant towels to each patron at the start of the meal. No one will turn down a hot moist towel. Of course we’d completely disinfect the seats and table’s between patrons. Dilute bleach would be sufficient for that. “That leaves airborne transmission as our primary worry…” “And masks would work great for that, except that you can’t wear a mask while eating,” Seth interrupted. “Maybe you could have an ultraviolet spotlight above each table,” he suggested. Laughing, Asher replied, “Not only would you burn people’s skin off their hands, but it might not even be strong enough to kill the virus before it traverses the table. That might be a quick way to disinfect the seats and tables between guests though. “No, we have to isolate each table from the others and help to isolate our customers from each other. I can design a restaurant with all booths and partition them so there’s no contact between them. The issue is to prevent friends from giving the virus to each other. Coughing is the most visible way that happens, but there’s good evidence that the virus is aerosolized by the vocal cords and can be transmitted, just from normal conversation. Nothing’s a hundred percent, but if I put a HEPA filtration unit in the center of each table, I think I could capture nearly all the viral droplets before they get beyond each individual patron.” “Wouldn’t there be quite a draft from all that air flow, Asher,” Julie asked. “Not to mention how noisy that kind for air movement could be,” Frank chimed in. “It would defeat the purpose if people have to speak so loudly to overcome the noise that they expel more virus in the process.” “I’ve got some good ideas for both issues,” Asher replied. “Firstly, by using large vents and large diameter ductwork, we could keep the actual flow rate very low. It’d be a laminar flow system like what you have in hospitals, so it’d be quiet and there wouldn’t be any draft. The key is to design the restaurant that way from the ground up. Retrofitting an existing restaurant could be prohibitive, although I might be able to develop a portable unit for places that can’t afford anything else.” “You could make a business of it,” Frank suggested. “You could design virus-free restaurants for a living… maybe you could go into business with Freck. I’d be willing to invest in it too… if I don’t end up going to jail, that is.” Shaking his head, Asher responded, “But the time Freck and I finish school and are in a position to go into business together, the pandemic will be over, one way or the other. If it’s not, we’ll be in much graver danger than that from failing restaurants. “Anyway, let’s eat.” As expected, Asher’s pizza was extraordinary. <·> <·> <·> The sound of a chime playing on Jeff’s phone let him know he had a new text message. Picking up his phone, he saw that Home Depot had sent a text indicating his order had just been delivered. Turning to face his partner, Paul, he announced, “Looks like our stuff’s here.” “Thank God for that,” Paul responded as he polished off the last of his pancakes, popping a last forkful into his mouth. “Any more food like this and we’ll both need to buy a completely new wardrobe every three months. I’m not getting enough exercise as it is, and my metabolism can’t keep up with a diet of take-out food.” No doubt about that,” Jeff agreed. “Let’s go grab our packages and set up our temporary kitchen.” “You want us to grab our packages in our temporary kitchen?” Paul asked teasingly. “Wouldn’t it be more fun to grab each other’s packages?” “Very funny,” Jeff replied. “We can grab those later, after I review the submissions that arrived in my inbox this morning.” As the editor in chief for a couple of major astrophysics journals, Jeff never lacked for things that kept him busy. Between editing papers, reviewing grant applications and serving on committees and study sections, it seemed he spent far more time on other people’s research than on his own. That was the price of success. “In the meantime, let’s go grab our Home Depot packages.” Much as they hated to cook, the cereal and toast they usually enjoyed in the morning and the prepared meals they usually nuked in the evening were significantly healthier than what they were eating now. Biting the bullet, they decided to buy some makeshift appliances and set up a temporary kitchen in the dining room. They also realized they needed to resume physical activity as much as possible, but at their age, exercising outdoors among other people carried some risk. They spent a fair bit of time reading articles from Consumer Reports and reading online reviews of appliances and exercise equipment. For the kitchen, a small refrigerator and microwave oven would suffice, but there were so many options for exercise equipment, ranging from free weights to elaborate home gyms that the reviews left them baffled. “None of the exercise equipment will do us any good if we don’t use it,” Paul had commented in frustration. “So maybe we should focus on an internet-connected home gym with a simulated trainer to whip us into shape,” Jeff had replied. “Most of them are very expensive, and they have a monthly fee, not unlike a gym membership.” “Nothing is more expensive than medical care,” Paul had commented, “and the cost of having a coronary would be much worse than the cost of a home gym, not to mention that I don’t want to take a chance on losing you, Jeff.” A lot of tears had been shed after Paul made that comment. In the end, they decided on ordering a connected stationary bicycle and a compact, connected home gym. Both had stellar reviews but with the lockdown, they were backordered and would not arrive for months. Paul hated to pull strings but in his role as a museum director, he spent much of his time hobnobbing with rich donors. He put out some feelers and was surprised when it was Freck’s biologic father, Frank San Angelo, who came through for them, arranging for delivery and installation of a top-of-the-line home gym, exercise bike and treadmill, all at cost. Frank and Paul mused at how Freck’s dad could be so generous when it came to his personal contacts, yet so distant from his own son. Ordering appliances for their temporary kitchen went much more smoothly, and they were even able to find a line of retro appliances in a red finish from Galanz that would blend quite well with the appliances they would be installing in their new kitchen. As such, they could continue to use them afterwards, perhaps in their den. Better yet, they were in stock at both Home Depots in Manhattan and available for immediate delivery. They ordered a small seven-cubic-foot refrigerator and a microwave oven, as well as a dual-burner induction hotplate as a safe, temporary stovetop for things they couldn’t nuke. Donning their masks, they opened the door to find it virtually blocked by three large boxes. “Shit, how are we supposed to get those boxes inside here?” Paul asked. Resting his chin on his right hand as he stood in front of the door, Jeff responded, “Perhaps we could push the two boxes on the right the side just enough to climb over the bottom one. Then we can open the boxes while they’re still in the hall, where there’s more room. Once we have everything inside, we can break the boxes down and take them downstairs for recycling.” Sighing, Paul agreed, “I guess that’s a plan.” More than three hours later, the refrigerator, microwave and hotplate were plugged in and operational and the boxes were broken down for recycling and downstairs – and the two men were both hungry. Rather than ordering out, they decided to pick up some groceries instead. They grabbed their cart and headed to the West 82nd Street Grocery, over on Broadway. It was their first time venturing out of their apartment since the city went into lockdown, and both men couldn’t help but be struck by how quiet the streets were. They literally encountered only a handful of other people, also heading out to do their shopping, and not a single person in a car. <·> <·> <·> “Something sure smells good,” Freck commented as he sauntered into the great room. “It’s grilled salmon, with wild rice, braised carrots and creamed spinach,” Kyle’s brother, Roger answered. “How were you able to find the ingredients for that?” Freck asked. “I thought the stores were out of anything that’s decent, and deliveries are running way behind.” “I subscribed us to a meal plan,” Roger answered smugly. “Three meal plans actually. There are a lot of companies taking advantage of the lockdown, and the whole meal kit thing’s become popular, but mostly with young singles and couples. With everyone staying home, they see this as a chance to attract families to buy their products, so several meal plans are having sales. I signed up for Blue Apron, Home Chef and Sun Basket. “Since the dads are eating nearly all their meals at the hospital these days, meal plans designed for a family of four are perfect for three teenage boys, and we’re paying half the regular price. The meals range in price from about ten to fifteen dollars per serving, and so we’re getting a great deal for the first few weeks, paying only twenty to thirty dollars per meal for all of us. Even if we stick with one or more of the plans after the special is over, it’ll still be cheaper than ordering out for meals, and healthier too. Besides which, I enjoy cooking… just not the prep work, and this takes care of that.” “You cook it, we eat it… it’s a perfect division of labor I think,” Freck added “So how long before dinner’s ready?” Kyle asked as he entered the kitchen and joined in on the conversation. Shrugging his shoulders, Roger answered, “About twenty minutes.” “That’s enough time for a quick swim,” Freck responded as he turned and ran naked down the stairs, heading toward the pool. Kyle followed, intent on something that had nothing to do with swimming. <·> <·> <·> “You’re sure she’s doin’ better?” Dave asked for about the third time. “Yes, David, the proning seems to be working,” the resident physician taking care of Sandy Schuster confirmed. “Her O2 sats are up, her blood pressure’s up and her fever’s down. Not that she’s out of the woods, but she’s no longer in critical condition.” “Thanks Randy,” Dave responded, calling the resident by his first name as he’d insisted on being called. “Thanks for giving me the first good news I’ve had since my mom got sick.” “Hey, we take care of our own,” Randy replied before disconnecting the call. “So I take it she’s doing better?” Alan asked with hope in his voice. “Yeah,” Dave replied. “They’ve been trying something new,” he continued. “They’ve found that Covid-19 patients do way better when lying prone, lying on their stomachs rather than on their backs. They don’t understand why, but it seems to work. “Anyway, if she does well overnight, they’re gonna put in a tracheostomy tube tomorrow, ’cause she’ll need to be on the ventilator for a while and it’s easier to prone someone with a trach than if they have a tube sticking outta their mouth. It’s supposed to be minor surgery, but they’ll need to call you in the morning to get your consent, since Mom can’t exactly give it and I’m a minor, and you’re her healthcare proxy.” “Of course I’ll give consent,” Alan responded. “This really is good news,” he agreed. Although it was still pretty early in the evening, Alan and Peter were tired from waking up early. Their internal clocks were telling them it was only the afternoon, but the fading sunlight in combination with the lack of sleep was convincing their bodies otherwise. Further, it had been a very busy day and they were utterly exhausted. Much of the day had been spent making arrangements for a virtual patient visit of Dave with his primary care physician, and for testing him for the coronavirus. It was time well spent, however, as the visit yielded critical information – that Dave’s self-quarantine could be shortened if he twice tested negative and remained asymptomatic. The reality was that by the time he got the second test results, it would be nearly two weeks anyway, but of greater significance was that Josh, Alan and Peter would not need to self-quarantine at all unless Dave either became symptomatic or had a positive test result. With the city on lockdown, that still didn’t allow them much freedom, but since the uncles had access to a rental car, they could actually go out on errands and shop for groceries. They’d already made arrangements to take Dave to a drive-through testing facility in Queens in the morning. Robin brought them a few basic food supplies earlier in the day, but tomorrow they’d drive across the bridge into Brooklyn and pick up a ton of groceries at Wegman’s. It was a chain Alan and Peter had heard about but didn’t have in Seattle. Actually, neither Dave nor Josh had shopped there either, because it was fairly new and because it took an hour by public transportation to get there. By car, however, it was less than ten minutes away, as it was within the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just across the East River from Co-op Village. Although they all went to bed early, Dave was still too fearful for his mom to even think about having sex with his boyfriend. Instead, the boys cuddled in bed and talked into the early morning hours. They didn’t talk about anything in particular, but it was their first real bit of quality time together. The talked about school and whether or not they’d be able to have physical classes in the fall. They talked about what it would be like for Dave to attend Stuyvesant High School as a new freshman while Josh continued there, now as a sophomore. They talked about the search for a vaccine and other treatments for Covid-19, and what Dmitri’s illness could portend. They talked about the coming presidential election, about who the Democrats might select for vice president and the pros and cons of particular women that had been mentioned as candidates. It was as they were talking about if and when the city might start to open up again that first Dave, and then Josh fell asleep. All too soon there was a knock on the door as Alan came to wake the boys. To both boys it felt like they had just gone to sleep but as Alan reminded them, Dave had an appointment for Covid-19 testing in less than two hours. There was barely enough time for them to dress, grab a quick breakfast and drive out to Queens in time for the appointment. They were heading across the Williamsburg Bridge by 9:00 and were soon heading up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or the BQE as it was affectionately known to New Yorkers. Traffic was nonexistent on the BQE, as it was on the Long Island Expressway, the LIE, which more often than not was described as being the world’s longest parking lot. They arrived in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park well ahead of schedule, but soon found themselves stuck in a long line of cars that were waiting for coronavirus testing. Flushing Meadows was the sight of the 1964 World’s Fair and the Unisphere, the very symbol of the fair, still dominated the sprawling park. The park now housed the Queens Zoo as well as the Queens Museum, which was the home of the world-famous Panorama of the City of New York – a scale model of the entire city that was featured at the fair and later updated for the museum. Although the Panorama was prominently featured in the Amazon movie production, Wundstruck, neither boy had ever seen it in person, nor would they today, as the museum was closed because of the pandemic. A tent was set up at the far end of the park for drive-through coronavirus testing and the line of cars waiting their turn seemed endless. Although it was a drive-through testing site, patients still need to present with a physician’s prescription in hand and they still had to have made an appointment online. Due to the nature of the pandemic, facsimile prescriptions were allowed and so Alan had printed out the one that Dave’s physician had sent as a PDF attachment via NYU’s online patient access site. As they finally got close to the front of the line, a man wearing a mask and gloves knocked on Alan’s window and then handed Alan a couple of forms through the window. Alan signed the consent form and filled in a lengthy questionnaire to make sure Dave qualified for testing, and then handed both forms, along with the prescription, back to the man as he stood outside the car door. The man then handed back an instruction sheet with general information on the test and instructions on how to access the test results online. Moments later, Dave was instructed to roll down his window and a woman dressed in full Hazmat gear unceremoniously stuck a long cotton swab up Dave’s nose, and then planted it inside a matching plastic vile that was labeled with Dave’s name, date of birth and a patient ID number. The vial was dropped into a plastic zip-lock bag, which was dropped into what looked like a ballot box, and then Alan was instructed to drive away. It would have been a simple matter to stop at Wegman’s on the way home, but Dave was still under quarantine and so they drove back home to drop the boys off first. Alan and Peter then headed back to Brooklyn via the Manhattan Bridge and with the aid of Peter’s phone and navigation skills, were soon parked in Wegman’s parking lot. The store itself, which was much larger than most grocery stores in New York, was considerably smaller than the sprawling suburban stores for which the chain was known. It reminded Alan of the Whole Foods on Houston Street that he’d visited the last time he’d been in town. However, Wegman’s clearly catered to a broader clientele, with many less-expensive alternatives and their own store brand alongside the gourmet brands they featured. The store was relatively compact, with shelves extending well overhead and both wheeled ladders and helpful store personnel to retrieve the items located on the highest shelves. Fully half the floorspace was devoted to fresh, prepared foods on a much grander scale than any they’d previously seen. Not even Whole Foods could compare, as counter after counter of self-serve buffets offered every kind of food imaginable, but all of them were closed. There simply was no way self-serve items could be sold in the face of a global pandemic, and so only the deli counters were open, serving take-out items prepared by people dressed in full PPE regalia. Remembering hearing the boys complain about how their favorite all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant in the East Village had closed, even for takeout, the men decided to pick up a full assortment of sushi to take home after they finished the rest of their shopping. By the time Alan and Peter finished at Wegman’s some two hours later, they’d bought enough groceries to completely fill the back of the small SUV they’d rented, as well as the back seat and the floor of the back seat. They only hoped they could find enough room to put it all away when they got back to the apartment. <·> <·> <·> “What’s wrong, Hun?” Paul asked his partner, sitting down next to him on the living room sofa. At first, Jeff didn’t seem to hear him as he just stared off into space, but then he turned to face Paul and replied, “Oh, there’s nothing wrong, really. It’s just that the isolation is beginning to get to me. I just finished conferencing with the twins and I’m missing them, you know?” Jeff was referring to his twin sons who lived in The Village, Brad, who was the chairman of Economics at New York University, and Lyle, who was the dean of the Business School. “Don’t I know it,” replied Paul. “With a daughter in Australia, I don’t see her much anyway, but I have a son, a grandson and now a grandson-in-law, right here in New York. Not seeing them other than by FaceTime is killing me.” “And we lost a colleague and for me, a friend today,” Jeff continued. “We did?” Paul asked. “Did you know Sam Weiss?” Jeff asked. “Not well, but of course I’m familiar with his work and we’ve funded some of his research at Princeton,” Paul answered. “Sam and I had become good friends over the years,” Jeff responded. “He and I served on many of the same committees and we went on many of the same site visits for the National Science Foundation. Sam had a wife and kids, and grandkids, so it’s not like we had a relationship or anything, but we became close enough that we sometimes shared a hotel room when we attended meetings. He’s one of the few people who knew I was gay, even when I still had a wife myself. “His wife called me just before the videoconference with my sons,” Jeff continued. “Apparently, Sam came down with Covid-19 a few weeks ago and ended up in intensive care at Tom Jeff in Philadelphia. Sam passed away last night and of course the funeral’s for the immediate family only. His family couldn’t even be with him when he passed. How cruel is that?” Putting his arm around his partner, Paul responded, “Gees, that could have been either of us.” Turning back to look directly at Paul, Jeff agreed, “I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you, particularly after finding you again after all these years.” “You know I feel the same,” Paul added, and then he put his hand behind Jeff’s neck and pulled them together into a long and passionate kiss. It was as if each one was trying to protect the other through their love, and it didn’t stop with just a kiss.
  3. For the residents of New York City, the Covid-19 pandemic took most by surprise. Schools closed and teens and preteens, used to seeing each other everyday, found themselves instead with parents and siblings. Online conferencing was a poor substitute for human touch and nothing could replace the kiss of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Dave had enough to worry about with his mother being as a nurse, but when she was admitted to the ICU at Bellevue, his uncles from Seattle and his boyfriend became his lifeline. He couldn't help but wonder, though, what would become of him if she didn't make it.
  4. David Schuster felt like he was living in an alternate reality. Like everyone else on the planet, his life had been upended and nothing about it was the same. It was as if everything was off-kilter – tilted slightly so that he was always on the verge of falling. Humans by nature are social animals and no amount of technology could substitute for the simple reassurance of a human touch. Social distancing might help to prevent spread of the virus, but it wasn’t normal. FaceTime with his boyfriend was little better than talking to a robot and living his life, 24/7 within the same ‘four walls’ was driving him nuts. The apartment he shared with his mother was rather spacious for Manhattan at 1600 square feet. It was located in the Hillman Cooperative on the Lower East Side and although not nearly as nice as some of the other co-ops, which had doormen, parking and other amenities, the residents of Hillman got more bang for the buck. Otherwise, the Schusters could have never afforded it. They bought a three-bedroom apartment with the intention of having another one or two kids, but that was before Adam Schuster, Dave’s dad, was killed in Afghanistan. Dave’s mom, Sandy, was a nurse and until recently, she worked for a New York University physician practice at Langone Medical Center on First Avenue. She was always home by six o’clock and most of the time, Dave would have finished most of his homework by then. Since starting middle school, he always had dinner waiting when she got home and afterwards, they watched a program or a movie on TV together, or sometimes they had other plans. Now, in the face of a global pandemic, the clinic only handled urgent visits and so she had been assigned elsewhere, where the need was greater. Bellevue was the oldest hospital in America and a Level One trauma center, but ever since the pandemic started to overwhelm the area hospitals, it had become a dedicated hospital for patients with Covid-19. While most of Americans were doing their best to avoid exposure to the virus, Sandy Schuster put herself in harm’s way, every single day. And because the need was so great, she routinely worked double and even triple shifts, with scarcely a day off. For now, she had to be a nurse first and a mother second. She only hoped that Dave would understand. With all the schools closed, however, Dave was at home alone most of the time. He was fourteen and finishing up eighth grade at the Salk School of Science, an elite middle school that was a joint venture between the New York City schools and NYU Medical Center. Since the end of March, classes had been held entirely online. Because it was an advanced middle school, most of the coursework was done by independent study, with weekly rather than daily lectures on each subject and extended office hours online with the teachers. Unfortunately, very few laboratory experiments, which had occupied a significant portion of the school day, could be done at home. For the most part the students were forced to design them online and were then provided with hypothetical data, comparable to what they might have collected had they done the actual experiment. They then analyzed the data and wrote up a report. What Dave missed most about school, however, was the daily interaction with his peers. He loved doing the experiments with his lab partner, participating in class discussions and sitting down with friends at lunch to shoot the shit. He missed riding the bus and sitting with his best friend, Robin Arens, talking about anything and everything on the way to and from school every day. Sharing a love of cosmology, they often discussed the Big Bang, the role of dark matter and the very origins of life itself. Most of all, however, he missed his boyfriend, Josh Arens, Robin’s brother. Dave met Josh at Robin’s thirteenth birthday party. Josh was almost exactly the same age as Dave, but because of a fluke in the school cutoff date, Josh was already in high school. Josh was a freshman at Stuyvesant, one of New York’s elite public specialty high schools. Admission to Stuyvesant was by exam and although the 700 slots available for freshmen at Stuyvesant might sound like a lot, out of more than thirty thousand eighth-graders who were brave enough to take the exam, six thousand were offered a place in one of the specialty high schools, with only the top-scoring students getting a spot at Stuyvesant. Dave was very fortunate indeed to have been offered a place in the freshman class at Stuyvesant for next year – assuming there would be school next year. Dave couldn’t help but smile when he thought about Josh. They hadn’t known each other very long at all, but in that time they’d become very close. Dave fell hard for Josh – hard enough to come out to his mom – hard enough to come out to everyone. They’d already been intimate and were just beginning to have regular sleepovers when the whole world went on lockdown. Dave missed the intimacy and the make-out sessions, but even more than that, he missed just being with Josh. They spent hours FaceTiming throughout the day now, but without physical contact, it felt to both of them like being in prison. At least Josh had his father and three sisters with him. Dave was all alone. He was a small boy in a large apartment, with far too much time on his hands. The bottom fell out of Dave’s life in the early morning hours of a day in mid-April, although Dave wouldn’t find out about it until several hours later. Sandy was working the second of two straight shifts in one of the new makeshift ICUs. She’d been feeling unusually fatigued but chalked it up to her perpetual lack of sleep. She became concerned when she realized that she couldn’t smell the pungent, antiseptic smells that were usual in Intensive Care. Remembering that the loss of smell and taste could be a sign of Covid-19, she grabbed an infrared thermometer and found her temperature was a worrisome 38.2 degrees Celsius, which was equivalent to 100.9 degrees Fahrenheit. She informed the charge nurse for her unit, but they were already short-staffed and so she hunkered down for the rest of the shift. By the time it ended, she was starting to feel tightness in her chest and she was mildly short of breath, as if she’d just run a mile. She grabbed the nearest pulse-oximeter and found that her oxygen saturation level was only 62%. She rechecked her temperature and found it was up to 38.7 degrees Celsius, or 101.7 degrees Fahrenheit. When she informed the shift supervisor, he didn’t even bother sending her to the Emergency Department, which would have been the standard procedure, even for hospital employees. Instead, he asked one of the ICU attending physicians to take a look at Sandy, and after a brief examination, she in turn called admitting herself. Within ten minutes, Sandy Schuster was admitted to one of the few remaining empty beds left in the unit where she’d just worked. With the flurry of activity surrounding her admission and her rapidly deteriorating health, her cries to let her use her phone to contact her son went unheeded. In the face of worsening blood oxygen levels in spite of being given ever greater concentrations of oxygen, her physician had no choice but to sedate her, intubate her and place her on a ventilator. Ventilators were scarce and in desperation, sometimes had to be shared with as many as three other patients, but Sandy was deteriorating too rapidly to share a ventilator with anyone. That would come later – if she survived. As one of their own, her physicians and fellow nurses were particularly cognizant of her situation. By mid-morning, Dave was beside himself. He knew that his mother sometimes volunteered to take additional shifts when the need was dire, but she always called him to let him know. However, his texts and calls to her phone went unanswered. School was quickly forgotten as he attempted to locate his mom. Not knowing where she’d been assigned, he attempted to call the Nursing office at Bellevue only to be connected to just about every office but the one he needed. Every nurse was taking care of patients, leaving a skeleton crew of secretaries to answer the phones. Finally, he reached someone who was able to tell him that his mother wasn’t assigned to be working that shift, but that she hadn’t clocked out. In spite of his worsening panic, Dave had the sense to ask for the unit where she’d last been assigned. It took over sixty rings and being disconnected twice before he finally reached the attending physician who was taking care of his mother. “Is this David Schuster?” the doctor asked. “Yeah, it is,” Dave answered. “Who is this? Where’s my mom? Is she all right?” “I’m Doctor Kathleen Vargas,” the Doctor responded, “and I work with your mom. I’m afraid we had to admit her and I’m taking care of her right now.” “What happened to her?” Dave practically shouted. “Is she gonna die?” “She has a fever,” Dr. Vargas answered. “Her oxygen level was very low and so we admitted her directly to the ICU. She’s stable, now, but we had to intubate her and put her on a ventilator. Obviously she can’t talk to you now and we have her sedated in any case. We sent off a Covid-19 test and are waiting on the lab for confirmation, but there’s little doubt that she has it. Nevertheless, we started her on antibiotics, just in case she picked up something besides the coronavirus.” “Can I see her?” Dave asked. “What are the visiting hours?” “David, I know how tough this must be for you,” Dr. Vargas replied. “The hospital has suspended visiting hours for the duration of the pandemic. There’s too much risk of visitors contracting Covid-19 and spreading it, so we’re under a no-visitor policy, state-wide. Nearly all states have done the same. Don’t even try to come, as you’d be stopped at the door. “I promise you that I’ll call you at the end of my shift with an update, and I’ll ask the next physician to do the same. You have my word that we’re all doing everything for your mother that can be done. Not that we don’t for all our patients, but your mother was selfless in her work, and she’s one of our own.” “But isn’t there at least some way I can talk to her or see her?” Dave again asked. “David, your mother has a breathing tube down her throat. There’s no way a person can tolerate that when they’re awake.” Dr. Vargas continued, “Your mother is heavily sedated and wouldn’t even know that you were here, if you were here, but there’s something equally important. We have to assume that your mother may have infected you as well. I need you to self-quarantine. That means you need to remain in your home and arrange for someone else to bring you your mail and any needed supplies, such as groceries. You should call your primary care physician’s office to arrange for testing and you can discuss with them how long you need to remain in quarantine. In the absence of a negative test, you need to stay in your home for two weeks. “Do you understand what I’ve told you, David?” Dave didn’t even bother to answer. Dr. Vargas heard a loud clatter as Dave dropped his phone and it fell to the floor, shattering the screen. The last sound she heard before she disconnected the call and went back to attending to her patients, was the sound of a young teenage boy sobbing. It broke her heart, but there was no time to dwell on it. <·> <·> <·> Joshua Arens too was beside himself with worry. He and his boyfriend, David Schuster, had been FaceTiming throughout the day, every day, ever since New York City went into lockdown. Usually it was Dave who called Josh, but when Josh hadn’t heard from his boyfriend by 9:00 AM, he tried calling Dave himself, only to have the call go to voicemail. Josh tried sending a text and made several attempts throughout the morning to contact his boyfriend, all of them unsuccessful. When lunchtime rolled around and he still hadn’t heard from Dave, Josh decided to take matters into his own hands, shelter in place orders be damned. He was going to go see his boyfriend. It was a blustery spring day and so Josh opened the coat closet and grabbed his faux leather jacket. “Could you pick up some more bread, while you’re at it?” Stacy, his middle sister asked as she ate her lunch. Josh enjoyed cooking and did much of the cooking for the family, so it was natural that she assumed he was going grocery shopping. “Sorry Stace, but I’m not going shopping,” Josh replied. “You’re not dressed for a run,” Sarah, the oldest sister, observed. Grocery shopping and exercise were just about the only legitimate reasons for people to leave their apartments. Shaking his head, Josh answered, “I haven’t been able to reach Dave all morning. I have to check on him.” They all knew he wasn’t supposed to have contact outside the family, but none of them questioned him. “Would you like some lunch before you go, Joshy?” Sarah asked. Again shaking his head, he answered, “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not hungry.” “Good luck, Josh,” Robin, the youngest sister and Dave’s best friend, added. “Give him my love too.” In ordinary times, Josh often had to wait five minutes or more for an elevator to come, but today one arrived within seconds. There was a rule in place for the pandemic, limiting the number of people per elevator to no more than one person or family, but that was seldom an issue. The elevator was empty and Josh stepped right in. Crossing Grand Street, the walk to Dave’s apartment was a short one, as their buildings were scarcely a block apart. Dave had given Josh a key to the building, so Dave didn’t have go downstairs to let him in. Only the oldest residents still used the original Bell Telephone land lines that could unlock the doors remotely. Taking the elevator to Dave’s floor, Josh first tried the door chime and, getting no response, banged on the door loudly. He banged of the door a second time before Dave answered, opening the door just enough of a crack to call out, “Go away!” Then he slammed the door shut in Josh’s face. Although Josh only got a brief look at one of Dave’s eyes, he could see that he’d been crying. Josh tried banging on the door and even tried calling his boyfriend while standing outside his door, both to no avail. He shouted through the door, “Dave, I need to see you man. Whatever’s going on, I can help!” He was met with only silence. Josh knew something had to be up, but without Dave’s cooperation, there was no way to find out more. He didn’t know how to reach Dave’s mother, or even where she was working now. He doubted that any of his friends could get through, but Dave had a couple of uncles in Seattle and Josh thought that perhaps they could get through to him. The problem was that although Josh had met them when they visited back in February, he didn’t even know their last names, let alone how to reach them. Thinking that maybe his youngest sister would remember something, he called her. “Josh, what’s up?” she answered. Josh usually texted his sister rather than calling her, so she knew something more serious was going on. “Were you able to talk to Dave?” she asked. “He opened the door just wide enough to tell me to go away, then slammed it shut,” Josh answered, “but I could see he’s been crying. Something must be up, maybe with his mom. Could you try calling him, and then call me right back, Sis?” he asked. “If he wouldn’t answer you, he won’t answer me either, but I’ll give it a try,” she responded before hanging up her phone. Moments later, she called back to report, “His phone goes straight to voice mail. He must’ve turned his phone off.” “Do you know if any of his neighbors has a key?” Josh asked. “If they do, he never told me about it,” Robin responded, and then added, “His uncles probably would know.” “That’s what I was thinking,” Josh agreed, “but I don’t even know their last names, let alone how to contact them. I know they live in Seattle, but that could mean Bellingham, Tacoma, or Everett, for that matter.” “Or Redmond,” Robin pointed out, then added, “Listen, Dave’s mother’s maiden name is Simon. I remember that because he once mentioned how people joked that his parents should have opened their own publishing house. After all, they were Simon and Schuster.” It took Josh a moment to make the connection, but then he remembered seeing Simon & Schuster embossed on the spines of some of his textbooks. “So I’d wager that Dave’s mom’s brother is named Alan Simon, spelled ‘A-L-A-N’,” she continued. “How did you remember that?” Josh asked his sister. “That one’s easy,” she replied. “When Dave and I met, I happened to mention how it irked me that people always misspell my name, spelling it with two ‘B’s, like the bird, and he told me how his Uncle Alan had the same complaint, ’cause everyone always was spelling it with two ‘L’s and an ‘E’ instead of an ‘A’. So that’s why I remember it. I also remember that his uncle’s the vice-president of software design for one of Microsoft’s major products… I think it’s Office, or something like that. “Now his Uncle Alan’s husband, Peter, took the same last name, Simon! I remember that ’cause I sat next to him at dinner and we got to talking. He’s estranged from his family, so he actually wanted a new last name. I also found out that he was a software engineering at Boeing and he got canned in response to the MACS disaster that caused the 737-Max crashes. He was pretty pissed too, ’cause he designed the software for a very different airplane and it was management that decided to adapt it to the Max. He’s still looking for work too. His expertise is pretty specialized.” “Wow, Sis,” Josh responded. “I can’t believe you got all that info, and you remember it all!” “It’s just my innate charm,” Robin answered, “and my incredible intellect.” “Yeah, right,” Josh responded, although he believed that was exactly what it was. Like Josh, she was incredibly smart, but she was much better at recalling details, and she was significantly better at dealing with social situations. “Now, I just need to track one of them down.” “Leave that to me, Josh,” Robin replied. “It’ll take you forever to find them on your phone. It’ll be much easier for me to do it on my laptop, and let’s face it, I’m better at it than you are.” Josh couldn’t help but laugh. He knew she was absolutely right. “You stay where you are,” she continued. “You can keep tabs on Dave in case he opens the door, or maybe a neighbor’ll happen by and know who has a key.” Josh thanked his sister profusely and then terminated the call. The seconds seemed to tick by more slowly than Josh had ever experienced as he slid down onto the floor in front of Dave’s front door. It seemed as if hours had passed before his phone rang, so he was shocked to see that it had only been eight minutes. He didn’t recognize the number, but it was a number in Seattle and so he took the call. “Hello?” “Hey Josh, It’s Peter, Dave’s uncle,” Peter began. “Listen, I spoke with Robin and then tried calling Dave, but as I’m sure you’re aware, his phone goes straight to voicemail. I’m sure he has it turned off. What seemed most likely to me is that his mother was hospitalized and it’s probably for Covid-19. Why else would he act that way? Since I knew she was working at Bellevue, I called the hospital and asked for admitting. Because both Alan and I are listed as healthcare proxies, I had no trouble confirming that my sister-in-law was admitted to one of the makeshift ICUs…” “Fuck,” Josh interrupted. “My sentiments exactly,” Peter agreed, “and Alan and I will come as soon as we can. Not that we’ll be allowed to see her any more than Dave can, but our nephew needs us right now. He needs you too, even if only from a distance.” The comment on distance didn’t even register with Josh, however. He was focused entirely on his worry for his boyfriend. Peter continued, “Listen, Josh, could you please try to get Dave’s attention? Would you let him know you have me on the phone, and that I’ve been in contact with the hospital? Let him know I’d like to talk to him.” Josh stood up and resumed banging on the door, and called out, “Dave, I have your uncle on the phone. He got through to the hospital.” Before Josh could say anything more, the door flew open and Dave, dressed only in his boxers, grabbed his boyfriend’s smartphone from out of his hands and shouted into it, “Uncle Alan? Oh, hey Uncle Pete.” Neither boy was thinking and as Dave walked back into his apartment, talking with his Uncle Peter along the way, Josh followed his boyfriend inside, closing the door behind them. Josh put his arm around Dave as he continued to speak into Josh’s phone, but Josh could only catch bits and pieces of the conversation from listening to his boyfriend’s end of it. Finally, Dave ended the call and only as he turned to face Josh did he realize that he was there with him, inside his apartment. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he practically shouted into Josh’s face. “What do you mean by, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’,” Josh asked. “I’m your boyfriend and I love you. Right now we need to be together, social distancing be damned.” “You don’t understand,” Dave replied. “Mom’s in the ICU and on a ventilator. She’s got it, Josh. She’s got Covid-19. She’s stable, but barely, and what they’re not telling me is just how worried the doctors are. Most people have it for weeks before it goes into pneumonia. She’s got it with pneumonia… pneumonia serious enough to require a ventilator, right away. “But she’s probably had it for a while, Josh. She’s been living here with me, doing her best to keep to herself, but all that time we were sharing the same space. There’s a good chance I have it too, so I have to self-quarantine. I have to stay in the apartment by myself for at least the next two weeks to be sure I don’t have it… or to let it run its course if I do. The problem is that now you’ve had close contact with me, and we know that even asymptomatic carriers can spread the disease. That’s why I tried to get you to go away. I didn’t want to take a chance that you’d get it. But now we have to assume you may have it. You have to self-quarantine too.” “Can’t you be tested?” Josh asked. “Can’t we be tested?” “I need to call my doctor to find out if I can, and how,” Dave replied, “but even health care workers have had trouble getting tested. Even if I can get tested, there’s still a long delay in getting the results. For the time being, you’re stuck here with me.” “I can think of worse things,” Josh replied before he brought his lips to Dave’s. As their tongues entwined and the kiss deepened, it was almost enough to make Dave forget his despair – almost, but then Josh’s phone rang. “Shit,” he responded as their lips separated. Looking at his phone, he saw that the caller was from Seattle, and he told his boyfriend so, as he handed him his phone. “Hi Uncle Peter, I know I need to turn my phone back on,” Dave began, but then shifted gears when he heard the voice on the other end of the line. “Uncle Alan! Did Uncle Pete fill you in?” “Yes, David, he did,” Alan Schuster replied. “I called the hospital, and I spoke with the nurse taking care of your mother too. “Listen, Uncle Peter and I are booked on Delta via Detroit to JFK, first thing tomorrow morning. I’ll email you the specifics, but we expect to arrive at your place around dinnertime or shortly thereafter, depending on the usual flight delays that sometimes happen.” “But how is Mom?” Dave asked. “Well, as you know, she’s in intensive care, on a ventilator and sedated,” Uncle Alan began. She’s stable” “But I’ve read that more than half of the people who are put on a ventilator die,” Dave interrupted. “Something like eighty percent, and Mom was put on a ventilator right away. I’m so scared I’m gonna lose her, just like I did my dad.” Hearing his nephew’s despair was even harder on Alan than the worry he carried in his own heart for his sister. “Well keep in mind that most folks who wind up on ventilators are much older than your mother and have other serious medical conditions,” Alan answered. “Also, she was probably incubating the virus for quite some time before she got sick. She was working so hard that she probably ignored symptoms or didn’t notice them until they became overwhelming. Dave, the odds are undoubtedly far in her favor.” “Thanks for trying, Uncle Alan,” Dave responded, “but I’m old enough to know the odds aren’t in Mom’s favor. Anyway, Josh is with me,” Dave told his uncle. “He barged in while I was talking to Uncle Peter. By the time I got off the phone with him, it was too late.” But then realizing the quarantine restriction also applied to his uncles, Dave shouted, “Oh! You need to stay in a hotel. I was probably exposed and I probably have it! I’m under a self-quarantine.” “I appreciate what you’re saying, Dave,” Uncle Alan responded, “and it’s good that Josh is there with you, unfortunate though it may be for him, but you’re both only fourteen. I know you feel pretty grown up now, but you’re still kids and I think you understand that too. You need adults to help you through this. You need us.” As much as he wanted to spare his uncles the forced isolation of a self-quarantine, much less the risk of actually getting Covid-19, the truth was that he really did need his uncles there. Much as he hated it, Dave couldn’t help it when tears came to his eyes and so he sat down on the living room sofa and sobbed as Josh sat with him and held him closely. Taking his phone back, Josh asked Alan, “How are you guys gonna get from the airport to here?” “As I’m sure you know, public transportation is a disaster,” Alan answered. “It’s probably one of the reasons Covid-19 spread so far and wide in New York. Even with the subways and buses running virtually empty, the virus can survive on surfaces for days, so public transport’s a non-starter. Likewise for taxis and ride-sharing services. “Microsoft has a corporate account with Hertz and we’ve been assured that their vehicles are thoroughly disinfected between rentals. As far as parking’s concerned, I’ve arranged to rent a parking space from the East River Co-op. “So that’s a rather long answer to how we’re gonna get from JFK to your place,” Alan concluded, but then added, “Listen, we have a lot to take care of before we head to the airport tomorrow morning. We’ll call you from the airport to let you know we’re on the way, and please remind Dave to turn his phone on.” “Will do, Uncle Alan,” Josh answered, and then terminated the call. Looking around the area, Josh spotted Dave’s phone lying on the floor. Picking it up, he saw that the phone wasn’t just off. The screen was shattered. “God, Davy, you really did a number on your phone.” With a wry smile, Dave answered, “I figure, if you’re gonna break your phone, you might as well, do a thorough job on it.” It felt good to Josh to see his boyfriend smiling. Pressing the power button, the phone sprang to life as if nothing had happened to it. The screen wasn’t pretty, but it still worked. In any case, it would have to do until the boys were out of quarantine and could get it fixed. The first thing Josh did to test it was to phone home and let everyone know what had happened and that he would be staying with Dave for at least the next two weeks. He asked Robin to fill his suitcase with some of his clothes and his toiletries, and to drop it off whenever she had a chance. Standing up, Josh extended his hand to help Dave get up and said, “C’mon, let’s get you cleaned up, and then we’ll order some dinner from the Ragin’ Cajun. I never had lunch and something tells me you didn’t either, and I’m starved.” <·> <·> <·> “Is dinner here yet,” Jeff called out from his computer desk in their shared home office. Dr. Jeffrey Franklin was a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist and a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, on New York’s Upper West Side. “Let me check,” Paul called back from what was left of their living room. Dr. Paul Moore was the director of the astrophysics lab and the Hayden Planetarium at the museum, and he was Jeff’s boyfriend. He was also the father of Frank Moore, one of the most powerful politicians in the New York State Assembly, and the grandfather of Seth Moore, a sophomore at Stuyvesant High. Indeed, it was because of a lecture that Jeff gave at Stuyvesant that he got back together again with Paul, his first boyfriend from some fifty years ago. Work had just begun on the extensive renovations that would transform the large, three-bedroom, prewar co-op apartment they shared on the Upper West Side, bringing it into the twenty-first century. The kitchen, adjacent half-bath and entryway had been gutted, exposing the underlying infrastructure. In the end they’d have a large, open eat-in kitchen with modern, retro appliances appropriate to the period when the building was constructed, and they’d gain central air conditioning in the process. Floor-to-ceiling plastic sheets blocked off the gutted kitchen and bathroom from the rest of the apartment, allowing a narrow passageway from the living room, through the adjacent dining room to the front door. Unfortunately, no sooner had all of the gutting been done than a global stay-at-home order was issued by the governor, forcing all work on the renovations to cease. The wall between the kitchen and living room had already been removed and replaced by temporary plastic sheeting, but fortunately the wall and doorway separating the formal dining room from the living room had not yet been taken down. Hence Jeff and Paul still had a functioning living room and dining room, three bedrooms and the main bathroom. They just didn’t have a working kitchen. The plan had been for the men to live on takeout food for the couple of months it took to renovate the kitchen and adjacent half-bath, and then they’d live in the living room while the bedrooms and main bath were renovated, but then the work had stopped. As much as a pain in the ass as it was to be without a kitchen, it would’ve been much worse if they’d been forced to sleep in the living room for an indefinite period of time. At least there was some consolation in that, but living on takeout was not only getting to be old, but it was pricey. Even with eating only two meals a day – brunch and dinner – takeout was costing them over a hundred dollars a day for the two of them. Not that they couldn’t afford it, but the cost was adding up. Worse, if the shelter-in-place order continued much longer, they both stood to gain a fair bit of weight. Paul went to the front door and opened it slightly – just enough to see that dinner had indeed been delivered by ‘contactless delivery’. Paul grabbed the package off the doormat and brought it inside, setting the bag down on the dining room floor and opening it fully, then heading to the main bathroom to wash his hands. The rule of thumb was that all packages were considered contaminated with the virus on the outside but not the inside, and that the virus could survive on paper and cardboard for up to 24 hours. Whereas a package from Amazon could be allowed to sit in the hallway for a day, dinner couldn’t wait and so it needed to be opened, and then hands needed to be washed before handling the contents. As he passed by the den, Paul ducked his head inside and told his boyfriend, “Dinner’s here.” After thoroughly washing his hands for a full twenty seconds, he returned to the dining room and started placing the individual containers of food on the table, along with the included paper napkins and plastic utensils. Paul felt reassured that he could still smell the food, as the loss of the sense of smell and taste was one of the more common symptoms of Covid-19. Both Paul and Jeff were over sixty and although they didn’t have any significant other risk factors, they weren’t taking any chances on contracting the virus. As Paul sat down for dinner, Jeff joined him and they both opened the containers of food and dug in. They had a large choice of restaurants for takeout on the Upper West Side. Unfortunately, their absolute favorite, the City Diner, had elected to close rather than remain open for takeout and delivery service. As with a lot of places, they’d found that the fees charged for website orders and delivery by Seamless, GrubHub, Uber and others obliterated the meager profit they could have received. For the City Diner, closing and laying off all their workers was the best way to ensure survival in the long run. “By the way, I got an email from Freck,” Paul began the conversation as they ate. “He and Kyle expect to finish their coursework at Stuyvesant by the end of April and he was wondering if they could start their internships early.” Freck was thirteen years old and a senior at Stuyvesant High School, as was his eleven-year-old boyfriend, Kyle. They both had planned to intern with the two prominent astrophysicists, and then they would study an extra two years at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering, earning college credit in an environment more suitable to their age, prior to going on to study at MIT. “Doesn’t the city school year run through mid-June?” Jeff asked. “Yeah, it does,” Paul replied, “but I guess with everyone studying from home, a lot of the work is independent study, at least for the elite schools anyway. Apparently, Freck and Kyle are making quick work of it.” “I hadn’t even thought far enough ahead to the summer, or about summer internships in the face of social isolation,” Jeff interjected. “I’ll admit that there’s something to be lost in working from home, but except for the chance to interact personally with our scientists and graduate students, there’s nothing they can’t do independently from home,” Paul explained. “Freck has a high-end iMac Pro at home that’s even better than yours, and we know he knows how to use Linux, so he could certainly log into the lab workstations from home too. I’m not sure what Kyle has at home, but even if it’s just a tablet or a Chromebook, he could still log into one of the lab workstations and work with your group. I’d bet on him having a high-end MacBook Pro though. The fact that they finished their schoolwork at home so quickly speaks for itself.” “Yeah, I guess it does,” Jeff admitted. “Still, there’s no substitute for one-on-one interaction.” “Maybe not, but there’s always FaceTime or Zoom,” Paul pointed out. Chuckling, Jeff replied, “I know. My students and I are already using Zoom to interact with each other, and although Kyle’s only eleven, he’s at least as smart as the best of them. I need to stop thinking of him as a little kid, even though he looks like one.” “The same is true of his boyfriend, Freck,” Paul agreed. “My grandson would never let me forget it either.” “How is Seth doing these days?” Jeff asked. “He and Asher are hanging in there,” Paul answered. “He’ll be fifteen in June, and Ashe’ll be sixteen very soon. I think his birthday’s coming up in a matter of days now. It’s too bad we can’t do more than send a gift and a card.” “I’ll never forget the day Asher came up after my lecture to ask a question,” Jeff recalled. “Seth was with him, and he looked so much like you did at that age, at first I thought it really was you.” “Not likely after a half-century, but it must have been a shock in any case,” Paul added. “That it was,” Jeff agreed, “but I’m so glad I gave that lecture at Stuyvesant High. I’m so glad your grandson was there, and that he and his boyfriend asked questions. Otherwise, we would have never gotten back together.” “I’m grateful too,” Paul noted as he patted his boyfriend’s knee. <·> <·> <·> The sound of a splash alerted Freck that he had company. He’d been swimming laps in the large indoor pool that dominated the lower level of his family’s house in Riverdale. Actually, it was his boyfriend’s family’s house, but he thought of it as his own since he lived there with Kyle, Kyle’s brother, Roger, and their two dads. To his own parents he was little more than a trophy child, although his relationship with his mother had recently started to change, now that she was divorcing his father and had moved with his twin sisters to a brownstone on the Upper West Side. She was actually starting to act more like a real mom, but he was reserving judgement until he saw that the change in attitude was real and permanent. The feel of a hand groping his dick told Freck that it was Kyle who’d jumped into the pool with him. Turning around, the two boys kissed each other deeply as they treaded water together. When they came up for air, Freck asked, “Is dinner ready?” Shaking his head, Kyle answered, “Roger went out for groceries. He said there was nothing left in the house for us to eat.” “What do you mean, he went out?” Freck asked. “He can’t bring much back on his bicycle, and with the virus and all, it wouldn’t be wise for him to go to the store every day.” “He took Ken’s car,” Kyle explained, and seeing that his boyfriend was about to protest, he added, “Yes, I know he only just got his learner’s permit. He’s been driving since he was thirteen. The last thing any of us wanted was for our mom to drive to the grocery drunk… not that she could cook anyway. But as long as our mom was in the car, drunk or not, no one ever stopped Roger during his short runs to the store.” Roger had recently turned sixteen, the minimum age for a learner’s permit in New York, but with the minimum age for getting an actual license in the city being seventeen, it would be another year before Roger could get one. However, his exceptional height gave him a distinct advantage, as he could easily pass for seventeen or even eighteen; hence as long as he kept to the speed limit, the likelihood of his being stopped on the short drive to the nearby Key Foods Market was miniscule. It wasn’t the best place to shop in Riverdale and its environs, but it was close and convenient, and for decent meat, there was the adjacent Kosher Market – not that the Goldsteins kept kosher, but there was no comparison when it came to quality. Of necessity, Roger was the family cook, since their mom had been too drunk to cook for her kids and now that she was sober but out of the house, that left the two dads, who were always at work until the late evening. Although his meals were simple, Roger’s cooking was adequate. Since the pandemic hit, both dads were always at the hospital until very late, eating all their meals at the hospital and coming home only to sleep. Now more than ever, the three boys depended on Roger for all their meals. “Wanna have some fun while we wait for Roger to get back?” Kyle suggested as seductively as an eleven-year-old boy could. “You know I’m always up for that,” his thirteen-year-old boyfriend readily agreed. Getting out of the pool, their raging erections leading the way, they lay down together on a lounge chair and started making out in earnest. Kyle was almost entirely a bottom and it wasn’t long before Freck was buried deep inside of him, screaming with his release. Although Kyle was still too young to ejaculate, he had long enjoyed the pleasure derived from intimacy with his boyfriend. Hearing the sound of the door to the garage opening upstairs, the boys cleaned themselves up and headed up to help put the groceries away, and to chat with Roger as he got dinner ready. As they lived in a household of guys and had complete privacy, even when in the back yard, and since the dads were out of the house most of the time anyway, the boys didn’t bother to get dressed. Actually, they had no qualms with regard to modesty and other than during videoconferences with classmates and teachers, hadn’t worn a stitch of clothing in nearly a month. Roger, on the other hand, was much more modest and undressed only to shower. “Need some help with that?” Freck asked as they spotted Roger carrying a couple of grocery bags in from the garage. “Yeah, everything needs to be disinfected before it’s put away,” Roger answered. “I put a container of disinfectant wipes on the counter, but use them sparingly, ’cause that’s all we have. I’ll bring in the rest of the bags. If you guys could wipe everything down thoroughly and place them on the island, I’ll put everything away from there. Then lay the bags flat and I’ll throw them in the wash,” he added as an afterthought. “You got it, Bro,” Kyle replied and was rewarded with a middle finger from Roger, who hated being called ‘Bro’. He and Freck each grabbed a disinfectant wipe and began taking items out of the grocery bags and wiping them down. Since Roger had bought enough food to last a month or more, it took over an hour to disinfect everything. When he got to a prepackaged tub of guacamole, Freck opened it, grabbed a box of whole wheat crackers and began to devour it. Kyle quickly joined in. “Hey!” Roger cried out. “That’s meant to be a between-meal snack… not a main course.” I’ll have dinner ready soon.” “Not nearly soon enough,” Kyle countered. “We haven’t eaten since lunch.” “At least let me make some soup and sandwiches to go with that,” Roger admonished his sib. “Just let me put away the perishables, then I’ll get dinner on.” “By making some soup, I trust you mean opening a can,” Kyle countered. “I’ll heat some of the butternut squash you like that comes in a box,” Roger responded, “and for the sandwiches, I’ll make tuna melts with Swiss on rye.” “Starkist tuna?” Freck asked as a tease. It hadn’t been long after he’d moved in with the family that he pointed out that Starkist ranked dead last in sustainability and fair trade, with fish often bought from alleged Thai slave ships. “You know better than that, Freck,” Roger responded. “You’d never let me live it down,” he added as he got out a couple cans of Wild Planet albacore tuna. Opening both cans, he mixed in a little mayonnaise and a bit of spicy brown mustard and spread the mixture on three large slices of rye bread. Heating a teaspoon of canola oil on a large griddle, he added the slices and then placed a slice of Swiss cheese on top of each, followed by a sprinkle of oregano. At the same time, he filled a small saucepan with the butternut squash soup and heated it over a medium flame. In a matter of minutes, both the soup and the sandwiches were ready. <·> <·> <·> Asher and Seth were both spending the evening at the Ragin’ Cajun, preparing dinners for hungry New Yorkers to enjoy at home. Having picked up Cajun cooking from his dad, who was a black Creole from New Orleans, and Asian cooking from his mom, an Asian American from Queens, what started out as a desperate attempt to help out when his mother was injured had led to a review from the New York Times that called the Ragin’ Cajun the best Cajun restaurant outside of New Orleans. In truth, Asher’s inventive style of Asian-Cajun fusion had earned him the right to be considered one of the top chefs in New York. Yet he was not quite sixteen and still a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School. Because of its proximity to the Delancey & Essex subway station, the restaurant still did a brisk takeout business, primarily from first responders and healthcare personnel. Under the pandemic shelter-in-place orders, however, the lion’s share of their business was from the delivery of made-to-order, certified virus-free dinners throughout Manhattan and close-in Brooklyn and Queens. Cooking thermometers were used to ensure that all items were cooked to virus-killing temperatures and then they were assembled into compartmentalized sterile plastic containers and sealed shut. These were then placed inside paper delivery bags which were taped closed, and then a ‘contents certified virus-free’ sticker was applied. Deliveries, which used to be made by hired couriers on bicycle, were now made by Seamless, Grub Hub and Uber Eats. Those services were much more expensive, but far safer in preventing spread of the virus. To cover the additional cost, the boys added an automatic 25% gratuity that patrons could opt out of at checkout. Very few did. Tonight, Seth’s mind was on preparations for Asher’s sixteenth birthday, which was coming up in a matter of days, on Friday the seventeenth. With the lockdown in force, they couldn’t go to see a movie, at least not in a theater, nor could he take Asher to see a Broadway or Off-Broadway show. There was no way they could have a party either. Seth considered holding a Zoom party, but what would’ve been the point? Should he have cake and ice cream delivered to all their friends? It was a thought, but perhaps doing so would serve more to remind them how they were apart rather than together. It was just as Seth was thinking about the gift he’d gotten Asher for his birthday, a gold and silver gentleman’s bracelet, that a group of five men wearing Federal Marshall’s jackets literally barged into the restaurant. In contrast to Seth and Asher, who were both wearing N95 masks and gloves, the agents were wearing no such protective gear. “Everyone stop what you’re doing and put your hands where we can see them,” one of the men began as he flashed his badge, far to quickly for anyone to see if it was legitimate. Asher and Seth looked at each other, wondering where they were coming from, as ‘everyone’ was just the two of them. “Step away from the equipment and remove your masks so that we can see your faces.” “Are we under arrest?” Seth asked. “No, provided you cooperate fully,” the same man answered. “This facility and all contents are subject to seizure by the U.S. Federal Marshals.” The agent handed Seth a folded document that he presumed was the warrant. “If you’ll let me get my phone, I have the right to call my attorney,” Seth interjected. “You have the right to an attorney if you are under arrest,” the agent countered. “You’re not under arrest.” “I have the right to have an attorney present during questioning or during the execution of a search warrant,” Seth challenged. “You are neither being interrogated, nor searched,” the agent countered. “This entire building and its contents are subject to seizure. You must leave the premises immediately.” “If you don’t let me turn off the gas, your seized building will be a burned-out shell,” Asher interrupted. Shaking his head, the agent said, “We’ll take care of it, and we’ll even be shutting off all utilities, so there’s no risk of it burning down. “Now take off your masks so we can see your faces, then get out of here.” The boys complied as quickly as they could, donning their jackets and throwing their street clothes into a bag to take with them. As soon as they were outside the restaurant, both boys pulled out their phones and called their respective parents. Asher reached his father, who told him that the Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street had also been seized, and Seth reached his own father, who was already aware of both seizures and had been in contact with their attorney. The plans for Asher’s birthday were quickly forgotten. <·> <·> <·> The sound of a chime woke both David and Josh at what seemed to be an ungodly hour in the middle of the night. David reached for his phone and slowly began to remember the events of the previous day, when he noticed that the screen on his phone was badly cracked. Next to him, Josh squirmed, having slept poorly from both sleeping in a strange bed and from not being used to the dull rumble of the M and J Trains as they traversed the nearby Williamsburg bridge. “What is it, Babe?” Josh asked. Looking at his phone and noticing what was on his lock screen, Dave replied, “Looks like I got a text from Uncle Peter.” Opening his phone, he tapped on the notification to bring up the message. “He says that he and Uncle Alan are on board the plane and they got upgraded to first class. Nice. He says there are only seven other passengers besides them on the whole fuckin’ A220, so they’ll be takin’ off a little early. The flight attendants are all wearing masks and gloves, and the passengers are spaced out in first class. There are almost as many flight attendants as passengers too. They’ll text us when they get to Detroit.” “Uncle Peter really referred to it as a fuckin’ A220?” Josh asked with a bemused expression on his face. “I added ‘fuckin’’, Dave replied. “Undoubtedly a side effect of all the fuckin’ we did last night,” Josh interjected, and they both laughed. Indeed, they’d made love well into the early morning hours, so it hadn’t been all that long since they finally went to sleep. Sex had been the last thing on Dave’s mind when they got into bed, yet when they hugged and kissed, they were quickly overcome by the passion of the moment. For a brief time they’d been able to forget about the madness around them. “What time is it?” Josh asked. Looking at his phone, Dave answered, “8:55.” “Shit, I thought their flight was much earlier than that,” Josh replied. “Keep in mind, it’s only 5:55 in Seattle,” Dave reminded his boyfriend. “Oh right,” Josh admitted. “I forgot the time difference.” “You wanna go back to sleep?” Dave asked. Shaking his head, Josh answered, “Nah, I’m wide awake now.” “Same here,” Dave agreed. Then sitting up on the edge of his bed and holding his phone in front of him, he said, “Let me see if I can get an update on my Mom.” Dialing the direct number for the nurses station where his mom had been working when she fell ill. He asked the secretary if she could find someone who could give him an update on his mom’s condition. He was shocked when someone came on the line right away. “Is this David Schuster?” she asked. “Yeah, this is Dave,” he answered. “Are you her nurse?” “Actually, I’m her attending physician, Dr. Rao,” She answered. “I’m afraid your mothers condition worsened a bit overnight. That’s actually not unusual with Covid-19 and it doesn’t necessarily portend a worse outcome. She remains on a ventilator of course and will probably need to remain on one for the next couple of weeks. We’ll try proning her today… that’s positioning her on her stomach, which seems to improve ventilation. We’re also going to try to get her enrolled in one of the drug trials in which NYU is a participant. Do you have any questions about any of this?” Dave was so overwhelmed that it was nearly fifteen seconds before he realized he’d been asked a question. “Is she gonna die?” Dave blurted out. “Dave, we’re doing everything possible to make sure she doesn’t,” the doctor answered. “She doesn’t have any comorbidities or risk factors, and she’s young. The prognosis in people like your mother is actually quite good, even when they require a ventilator. Everyone is different when it comes to the course of infection but she’s getting the best care anyone could get in the world.” “Would you let me know if her condition changes?” Dave asked. “Would you like me to call you on this number?” She asked. “Yes please,” Dave answered. “I’ll be sure to keep you apprised, either way,” the doctor responded. Dave couldn’t help it when the tears came to his eyes as he ended the call. The thought that he could actually lose his mother was overwhelming and it didn’t help that he couldn’t even visit her in the ICU. Worse still, he was confined to his apartment, which large as it was, seemed way to small now. Thank God his uncles were on their way. Thank God for Joshy. Seeing the tears in his boyfriend’s eyes, Josh sat next to him on the bed and put his arm around Dave’s shoulders. Dave melted into him and sobbed for several minutes, until he ran out of tears. <·> <·> <·> “Are you saying that we could go to prison?” Seth asked, incredulous that the Feds, in their vindictiveness against his father, would go after him and Asher. The two boys along with Frank and Julie Moore were in the Moore’s Lower East Side apartment, all huddled around the 27-inch iMac that dominated their den. They were involved in a videoconference with the Moore’s attorney, Dalton, Asher’s parents, Gary and Beatrice White, and the Whites’ attorney and Beatrice’s brother, Charley Fung. Had it not been for the pandemic, they probably would have all gotten together in one of the lawyers’ offices or perhaps in the Moore home, but social distancing meant they were all conferencing from their respective homes. It made the meeting much more awkward to say the least, as the normal cues one got from body language were largely filtered out by the technology. “I did warn you that your marriage did little to shelter your assets from the Feds, while opening up the risk that you could be tried as adults,” Dalton pointed out. Seth and Asher had in fact obtained a court order, allowing them to marry when Asher was only fifteen and Seth was just fourteen. Believing that marriage put their college funds as well as other personal assets and the Moore apartment out of reach of the Feds, they were quickly learning otherwise. The reality was that it did little to protect the boys’ assets nor the Moore home, which was in their name, and it actually put the White’s two restaurants and their own home at risk. Further, it effectively emancipated the boys, putting them squarely in the Feds’ crosshairs and stripping them of the protections they would have had as minors. As Dalton told them after they’d hired him, it had been a colossal mistake. “You boys should consider getting your own attorney,” Dalton added. “Your interests could potentially be different than those of your parents. You need someone who’ll represent you and you alone.” “That’s ridiculous,” Seth replied, and Asher nodded his head in agreement. “I’d rather lose everything than lose either set of parents.” “Even if it means going to prison?” Dalton asked. “I’d rather lose everything than see my sons go to prison,” Gary countered. “I’d rather go to prison myself than see my boys end up in jail.” Seth loved the way Gary considered him to be his son too. “Same here,” Frank chimed in. “Not that I’d want to be thrown under the bus, but the priority must be on the boys. Dalton, as far as I’m concerned, you represent my children too, and they are the priority.” “Very well, but if it ever reaches the point where I feel I can no longer provide unbiased representation to both parties, I may have to insist on separate representation for the boys,” Dalton replied. “Fair enough,” Frank agreed. “So, what do we know?” “Not nearly enough,” Dalton replied. “Thanks, by the way, for scanning and sending me copies of the warrants. It’s often taking days to get my own copies, not that I can’t simply go after them myself. In any case, the warrants say nothing of why they were executed. “In any case, with the Ragin’ Cajun, we know that the entire building was seized, so that undoubtedly had something to do with Sam Weinstein’s malfeasance. That doesn’t explain why the place on Grand Street was taken, but the Federal racketeering statutes give broad authority to seize assets in corruption cases, even before the indictments are handed down. Personally, I don’t think it’s constitutional as it violates due process, but the Supreme Court has respectfully disagreed.” “Does that mean my sister’s family is about to be indicted?” Mr. Fung asked. “Not at all,” Dalton replied. “The Fed’s can hold seized properties indefinitely, as long as there’s an active investigation. It’s effectively a blanket license for the Feds to blackmail and coerce innocent third parties into cooperating with their investigation.” “Like that’s gonna happen,” Gary responded. “They can put us out of business,” Charlie Fung pointed out. “They can bankrupt us.” “Not only that, but you can’t sue them once it’s over,” Dalton chimed in. “Well, you can, but you’ll lose. They only have to return your seized assets to you, just in time for your landlord to take them in foreclosure.” “It’s a cooperative building, so it would be an eviction,” Charlie pointed out, which actually gives you more protection than you’d have if you were fighting the bank over foreclosure.” “You can apply for a small business loan under the recovery act,” Frank suggested. “Technically, they can’t turn you down unless you’re actually convicted of a Federal crime, and the way the law’s written, the loan can be forgiven, so you never have to give it back. The co-op can’t evict you while you’re under lockdown either.” “That’s all well and good,” Gary responded, “but as shareholders in the cooperative, we need to avoid earning the wrath of our neighbors. When businesses don’t pay their rent, everyone suffers for it.” “Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that,” Frank replied, “but as your state assemblyman, I can assure you that you’d be far from the only member of the cooperative seeking to postpone payment of their rent. “And Dalton,” Frank continued, “Let’s find out what can be done to settle the corruption case quickly and without further collateral damage. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my sons and the Whites out of prison, and to get their restaurants back.” “I’ll put out feelers,” Dalton responded, “but you won’t like the terms. The Feds won’t accept any plea that doesn’t involve jail time as the price for letting your family off the hook. That’s the whole reason they’re going after them. The U.S. Attorney on the case has been playing hardball and the seizures are a part of his strategy. My guess is that the case they were building around Sam Weinstein’s testimony fell apart, so this is their ‘Plan B’. “The building where the Ragin’ Cajun was is out of our hands. That’s Sam Weinstein’s mess. You’ll have to look for another location, if you can still get a license to reopen. We should first try to get them to release the place on Grand Street. If we can get that, we can probably get a permit for the Ragin’ Cajun in a new location, too. Unfortunately, this isn’t a matter that can be resolved by the health department. This isn’t a local issue and the U.S. Attorney isn’t playing by the same rules. I doubt he’ll give up the leverage he has by threatening to bankrupt the Whites without getting significant concessions in return. He’s looking for a plea, and he probably won’t budge until he gets one.”
  5. Altimexis

    Passover Panic

    When Josh and his sisters move from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Manhattan Beach to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he quickly befriends a group of gay kids that go to Stuyvesant High School, where he's a freshman. His youngest sister, Robin, forges her own relationships with fellow students at the Salk School for Science. In the meantime Freck's mother attempts to make amends. All look forward to the festivals of Passover and Easter, but then a global Pandemic forces a change of plans.
  6. Altimexis

    Part Two

    The sound of three cell phone alarm clocks all going off at once was enough to wake the dead. One would have been enough, but my sisters and I figured that the chances of all three of our phones dying at once was nonexistent. I reached for my phone only to find it wasn’t there. Crap, I’d plugged it in last night and would have to get out of bed to shut it off. Sarah and Stacey, my sisters, had already shut off their phones and made their way to the bathroom to start getting ready for school. Since I slept in the top bunk, over Stacey, it took me a bit longer to climb out of bed, but something wasn’t quite right. My desk wasn’t where it should be, and my phone alarm was still going off, annoying the hell outta me. Slowly the fog lifted from my brain and I remembered. We’d moved a few weeks ago. Together with my brother, Joshy, and my two sisters, there were four of us kids in the house and prior to the move, we all had lengthy commutes to school. We’d lived in the community of Manhattan Beach, an affluent community of small single-family houses, duplexes and quadraplexes at the east end of Coney Island. Comprised primarily of first- and second-generation Russian Jewish immigrants, calling it affluent was a relative term. My parents bought our house because it was just about the only thing they could afford within walking distance of their jobs, and because nearby public school 195 had an excellent reputation. They got it for a song when it was in foreclosure, after the 2008 financial crisis wreaked havoc on the New York housing market. Otherwise they could have never afforded a single-family detached house in Manhattan Beach. When Mom died from a very aggressive form of cancer, we went from having two modest middle-class incomes to only one. What had been a comfortable existence became one of constantly skimping and saving, just to get by. I was only two when she died, so going without was the only life I knew. Our clothes were not from designer labels, and some of what I wore had first been worn by my sisters. At least we did have smartphones with unlimited minutes, text and data, even if they weren’t the latest models. Because of Dad’s employment through the City University system, we qualified for deeply discounted rates from our phone and broadband providers. Since our wireless phone plan included free streaming TV, we didn’t need to subscribe to cable either. Another thing that helped was that Dad was a handiwork enthusiast and although he’d spent a fortune on a shitload of tools and a workshop he kept in the basement, he used all of that to build all of our furniture, with the help of my brother, who’d also taken an interest. They did excellent work too. When our house suffered extensive damage from Sandy – damage for which we weren’t insured, the two of them did all the repair work themselves. I think little Joshy was only seven then, but he was right there with Dad, the safety goggles practically falling off his nose and his hands barely big enough to hold the power screwdriver. Even then he had steady hands and did the work of an adult. The situation started to change as we began to graduate from elementary school and went off to middle school. Sarah was bright – we all were – and she was able to get into I.S. 239, the Mark Twain School for the Gifted and Talented. It was located at the other end of Coney Island, three miles away, and whether on foot or by city bus, it took an hour from our house to get there. Stacey followed her there, and then so did Joshy. Later, we all started to go even further afield as we got into New York’s top high schools. My older sister, Sarah, had put up with the worst of it the longest. She was now sixteen and a junior at The Brooklyn Latin School, one of New York’s elite public specialty high schools. It might have been in Brooklyn, but it was about as far as one could get and still be in Brooklyn. It took her ninety minutes each way by bus and subway via Manhattan. Then last year, my other sister, Stacey, who’s fifteen, got into the Fiorella H. LaGuardia School for Music, Art and the Performing Arts, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Of the four of us, Stacey’s the most talented and unique. She wears punk clothes and has a punk hairstyle, dyed in bright colors. She even listens to punk music, but man can she draw. She got her first graphic story published in a literary magazine when she was eleven. Since then she’s had a regular column in one of the major teen magazines and she’s working on her first graphic novel. Of the four of us, she probably has the best shot at becoming famous. At the same time, I was lucky enough to get into The Salk School of Science, an elite public middle school in Midtown Manhattan that was hard as fuck to get into, ’cause they only take 130 kids a year. That was last year, when I started sixth grade, and ever since then I’ve faced a seventy-minute daily commute each way. This year, Joshy got into Stuyvesant High School, New York’s very best elite specialty high school, but it was also in Manhattan and required a three-hour round-trip commute every day. Next fall, when I’m in the eighth grade, I plan to take the specialty high school entrance exam too. My first choice would be to get into the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at the City College of New York, up in Harlem. If I don’t get in there, I’d like to go to Brooklyn Tech or maybe Manhattan Hunter Science High School, or Bronx Science. “The shower’s free, Rob,” Sarah called to me as she exited the bathroom. I hated it when my sisters called me ‘Rob’. My name’s Robin and it really bugged me that they shortened it to a boy’s name. As it was, I was a bit of a tomboy. The fact that I adored science and math already labeled me as a geek, and I didn’t need the ‘lesbo’ label too, even if I was beginning to wonder if it might be true. We already had one gay member of the household and we didn’t need another. Dad was accepting of Joshy from the moment he finally came out, but would he accept a gay daughter too. I definitely thought some boys were cute, but the crushes I got on girls were just as strong. It was all so confusing! Was I maybe bi, or was it just the normal effects of fluctuating hormones and puberty? Getting into the shower, I realized that there was little I could do about it if I were gay or bi. Like my brother, I’d just have to live with it. Stacey was at the sink, brushing her teeth, but my sisters and I shared the master bedroom and bathroom, and so there was barely enough room for one person to turn around, let alone two. Stacey had the good sense to finish up and exit the bathroom before I finished my shower. So with all four of us kids spending two-and-a-half to three hours every day commuting to and from school, Dad had no choice but to look into alternatives for a place to live. The time spent commuting was such a waste too. With three of the four of us going to school in Manhattan and the fourth commuting via Manhattan, it only made sense that we live in Manhattan, but Manhattan’s expensive! Even the so-called affordable housing is expensive in Manhattan, so Dad concentrated his efforts on the parts of Brooklyn that were nearest to Manhattan, but that had just started to gentrify… places like Park Slope and Greenpoint. Then two major things happened. The first was that Dad put in for a transfer to Manhattan Community College in Tribeca, right across West Street from where Joshy went to school at Stuyvesant. Dad was a professor of Russian literature back in Russia, but he could only get work as a community college instructor here. However, he had numerous scholarly publications in some of the top English language journals, and Dad not only got the transfer, but he got a promotion to a tenure track position as an assistant professor. Public university professors don’t make a lot of money in New York, but it made a huge difference in what we could afford. The other thing that happened was connected to the first. One of the professors that interviewed Dad at Manhattan Community College mentioned that he lived on the Lower East Side. Not only was it an easy commute by bus, but it had some of the most affordable housing in Manhattan, yet it was rapidly gentrifying and even had a Target and a Trader Joe’s. It was a diverse community with a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews and because of concern for the potential for terrorism, a strong police presence that kept it safe. Unfortunately, most of the three-bedroom apartments Dad looked at on the Lower East Side were simply unaffordable. Costing well over a million, the larger mortgage on top of the co-op fees would’ve bankrupted us. He did mention that the views from some of the balconies and terraces on the upper floors we unbelievable though. Some of the apartments on the lower floors were more affordable, but they hadn’t been renovated since the buildings were finished in the mid-1950s. Most of them were in such crappy condition that we couldn’t have lived there until they’d been renovated, and that would’ve taken forever, even with Dad and Joshy doing all the work. We couldn’t afford to carry two mortgages. Then Dad found a place right on FDR Drive and the East River that blew us all away. It was only on the sixth floor and it didn’t have a balcony or a terrace, but it was large and it had incredible views of the East River and all three East River bridges. We could even see a good part of downtown, including the World Trade Center, right from our bedroom. If anything, the apartment was even bigger than our house – big enough that we could live there while doing the renovations, but it needed a lot of work. The kitchen and bathrooms needed to be gutted and redone. By getting rid of several walls, we could really open the place up and make it much more modern. It had never been renovated and had all the original crappy kitchen and bathroom fixtures and the like and was one of the few three-bedroom models we could find for under a million dollars. A million still sounds like a lot, but that’s close to what we got for the house. We sold it to an affluent Russian Jewish couple who wanted to tear down the house and build their dreamhouse on our lot. A very narrow dreamhouse, but one with a garage for their Mercedes, and a top-rated elementary school nearby. The window steaming up alerted me that I’d spent too much time in the shower, and so I turned the water off, dried myself and got out. I applied deodorant and a little perfume, dried my hair and brushed my teeth. I noticed I had a bit of peach fuzz on my upper lip, and it was kinda noticeable because of my black hair. It was nothing like what Joshy used to have, before he started shaving a few weeks ago. I knew that girls entering puberty sometimes got peach fuzz the way some boys started to get boobs, but it didn’t help with the way I was questioning my sexuality. I quickly dressed and then joined my sisters, brother and Dad at the breakfast table, pouring myself a mug of coffee. I’d tried my first sip back when I was eleven, when I started middle school, and I was instantly hooked. The funny thing was that while Dad, Joshy and my sisters all liked their coffee with varying amounts of milk and sugar, I found it sickeningly sweet that way and much preferred to drink it black. I only started drinking it in front of my family very recently, though, ‘cause Dad thought I was too young. After the move I put my foot down, since I’m almost thirteen. We usually ate a typical Russian breakfast, consisting of a slice of heavy dark bread, a thick layer of butter and a slice of cheese, so I grabbed a couple slices of bread and proceeded to fix myself a couple of ‘sandwiches’ and scarfed them down. Grabbing a jacket and my bookbag, I headed out the door and dipped my student bus pass in the kiosk at the bus stop, then got right on an M14A-SBS bus. They came every six minutes during the morning commute, so there was little point in checking my phone to confirm that it was on time. I didn’t have long to wait, and then I boarded the bus and sat in my usual seat by the window and placed my bookbag on the seat next to me. The bus pulled away and drove around the block before emerging back on Grand Street, stopping at what I’d come to think of as the short street with a long name, Abraham Kazan Street. Dave Schuster, a boy from the neighborhood who also went to my school, boarded the bus and smiled broadly when he spotted me. I moved my bookbag down to the floor by my feet and he sat down beside me. “Another day of exciting new discoveries,” Dave said with a smile as he stowed his bookbag at his feet. Dave was in the eighth grade at Salk, a year ahead of me. He’d celebrated his fourteenth birthday on New Year’s Day. He and my brother were almost exactly the same age, but Joshy’s birthday was on December 30, which qualified him to start kindergarten at the age of four. Dave missed the cut-off by one day. Technically, I missed the cutoff too, but by two months. “You get my text regarding my birthday party?” I asked. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied with a smile. Dave and I had been riding the bus together to and from school every day since we moved to Manhattan and we seemed to enjoy each other’s company. There were times like now when I thought he might be interested in me, but he never flirted with me the way a lot of boys do. Maybe I was just too young for him, or perhaps it was that I was a year behind him in school. If he did flirt, I wasn’t sure I’d’ve wanted to go out with him anyway. He was cute, though. As the bus pulled away, we fell into an easy conversation as we usually did. We were both interested in cosmology and it made for some interesting discussion – not the typical banter of a couple of middle school students. We had a super-easy commute, taking the bus across Grand Street and up Avenue A to Fourteenth Street, then getting off the bus at First Avenue and walking six short blocks to Twentieth Street. We coulda taken a bus up first avenue, but there wasn’t much point. At two miles from home, it was close enough to even walk to school in nicer weather. Perhaps I’d suggest it to Dave when it got warmer. There was nothing unusual that happened in my morning classes. Our school was unique in that it was a collaboration between the city and New York University Medical School, which was great. We had access to NYU facilities and were often taught by medical school faculty. Because we were housed on the fourth and fifth floors of P.S. 40, an elementary school, we shared facilities with them. There was a single lunch period for the middle school, separate from the elementary school, but in the same cafeteria at the same tables used by the elementary school. By the same token, lunch was whatever they served that day. The menu was posted online and some of the food was actually pretty good, but like most of my peers, I often brown-bagged it, and this was one of those days. The sloppy joes were swimming in grease and guaranteed to make a repeat appearance later that day, from one end or the other. Sitting down in my usual spot with my friends, I opened my lunchbox and removed a chicken club sandwich, made with leftover chicken breast from last night’s dinner. My Dad wouldn’t let me bring real bacon into the house, so I’d substituted vegan bacon bits and a slice of Swiss cheese. My Dad would never mix meat and dairy, not because he kept kosher, but because the practice was ingrained. I was learning the ways of the rest of the world and had found that Swiss and poultry made an excellent combination. Rounding out my sandwich were lettuce and a slice of tomato, all on a Kaiser roll, and rounding out the lunchbox were an apple, a peach yogurt and of course a brick of blue ice to keep it all cold. “That looks a hell of a lot better than what I’m eating,” my friend, Lisa, commented as she opened her lunch bag to reveal a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat, a bag of barbecue potato chips and a pack of Oreo cookies. “Let’s hear it for the Healthy Choice special,” she added to all our laughter. “You should try making your own lunch,” I responded. “At least then you’d have only yourself to blame.” “I did make it myself,” Lisa countered. “I need to learn how to cook.” “It helps to have two older sisters,” I noted, “although truthfully, my brother is the one who knows his way best around the kitchen.” “Is he gay,” Chris asked from across from me. “Not that it has anything at all to do with his culinary skills,” I replied, and then I countered, “Why, are you looking for a boyfriend?” The surprising blush on his face suggested that maybe he was. Or maybe like me, he was confused about his sexuality, so I let the matter drop. His sexuality was his business, so long as he didn’t pick on my brother. Then remembering the group text I’d sent all my friends, I said, “You guys all got the invite to my birthday party, right?” All the kids who ate lunch with me nodded their heads, so I assumed they got it. “The foods gonna be awesome,” I continued. Asher White, the head chef at the Ragin’ Cajun, is gonna do all the cooking. He’s just a kid, not quite sixteen, and he and his boyfriend, Seth, are gonna host it at their place. It’s on the top floor of one of the East River co-ops and you won’t believe the view.” “See what I mean about guys who cook bein’ gay?” Chris interjected. That was the last straw. “Chris, you know that the majority of the great chefs in the world are men, straight men,” I began, “Your attitude suggests that you’re either gay, homophobic or quite possibly both.” “Ouch!” Larry, one of the other boys in my lunch group, exclaimed. Although in middle school, girls usually sit with girls and boys with boys, but like I said, I was a bit of a tomboy. Since this was a science-oriented middle school, there were more boys than girls to begin with and a lot of the girls were like me. Our table was a pretty even mix. When Chris appeared to be on the verge of tears, I realized I’d probably gone too far, but then so had he. “Chris, it doesn’t matter to any of us if you’re gay or straight, bi or unsure. We still love you… just don’t go badmouthing my brother or his friends. Okay?” “Sorry I said anything,” Chris replied. “It’s just that my dad gives me a hard time about being a book worm and interested in science instead of something more manly like construction. He’s a plumbing contractor and is always pointing out how he makes more money than his doctor does, without ever having gone to college.” “Sounds like he’s the one who’s insecure,” Larry countered. “Besides, someday entire buildings will be three-D printed on site. The same’ll be true of bridges and roadways. Even farms will be replaced by high-rise hydroponic buildings where everything can be organically grown without the risk of disease or vagaries in the weather. The only farms left will be solar farms and wind farms, all of them automated. The only way to earn any money will be in things like the arts and sciences. You’re on the right track and he’s a dinosaur.” “But how will everyone else earn money to eat?” Carrie asked, but then the bell rang and it was time to get back to learning about the world in which we lived, rather than the future world of Larry’s imagination. Perhaps someday I’d help build that future world, but first I had to survive middle school, and I had a birthday coming up. Still, it made for interesting dinner conversation that evening when I brought it up. “Wasn’t that the whole point of Andrew Yang’s campaign?” Joshy responded, “That automation was leading to massive unemployment, and that we needed to tax the rich so that everyone could have a universal basic income?” “But unemployment’s negligible,” Sarah pointed out. “With low-wage jobs,” Joshy noted, “and only for now. Housing costs have risen faster than inflation everywhere and even in the South and Midwest, people can barely scrape together enough to pay the rent. Homelessness is at an all-time high, and a lot of the homeless have jobs.” “Why would anyone work when the government just hands out money?” Dad countered. “That was why communism failed in the USSR. As they used to joke, we agreed not to work and the government agreed not to pay us. Seriously, people were paid menial wages, regardless of whether they were a doctor or a janitor, or whether or not they showed up. They waited on long waiting lists for apartments they lived in, regardless of whether or not they paid the rent. Food and clothing were scarce and people waited in long lines for them. Then after communism fell, everything was too expensive for anyone to buy them. The fallacy of a guaranteed income is that there’s no incentive to work and without an incentive to work, nothing gets done and there’s nothing for people to buy.” “But could you feed us on a thousand dollars a month, Dad?” Joshy asked. “That’s one of the biggest problems with a so-called guaranteed wage,” Sarah chimed it. “A rural couple with no kids could eke out a living on two thousand a month, whereas a family like ours would have four mouths to feed on half that. We’d be out on the street, begging for food.” “What kind of world would it be without artists?” Stacey added. “But you’re missing the point,” I reiterated. “As long as there are people with enough money to pay them, there will be artists,” I challenged. “The arts will be one of the better ways to earn a decent income, but what if you really could 3-D print an entire building? It’s already been done with cars. The technology already exists and it’s just a matter of scaling it up. What if bridges, roadways or entire cities could be 3-D printed without the need for human hands? Maybe even the 3-D printers themselves could be 3-D printed.” “And maybe the cities could be designed by A.I., and you wouldn’t need people at all,” Sarah suggested. “Welcome to The Matrix.” “What a lame set of movies,” Joshy responded. “I agree with you there,” I chimed in. “The whole premise of using the energy of human metabolism to power the machines ignored the fact that you had to feed the people. If there were a source of energy in the first place to grow the food, why bother with people and the matrix when you could power the machines directly with that energy. If sky’s been covered over by thick clouds that block the sun, why not launch a series of solar satellites into orbit and beam the power back to the surface using microwaves to penetrate the clouds?” “You’d need to use radio waves,” Joshy countered. “Microwaves would be absorbed by the water droplets in the clouds. But the point I was making in the first place was the overall fallacy of most science fiction. Take Star Trek, for example. I’ve had this argument with my friends, Asher and Seth, who are practically Star Trek fanatics, but if the Federation had technology of such incredible interest to the Borg that they were so intent on assimilating us, why then did the Borg go back in time to try to disrupt first contact and prevent the Federation from being formed in the first place? Most sci-fi places an undue importance on humans and on earth, but there are undoubtedly much more advanced civilizations out there. Why the emphasis on us?” “Because it’s humans on earth that are gonna buy the science fiction,” I replied. “Exactly,” Joshy agreed. <> <><> When Dave boarded the bus, I could tell right away that something was wrong. I’d never seen him look so sullen and when he sat down next to me, he didn’t even greet me at all. It was January 28, the first day of the spring semester, and yesterday had been a clerical day – a day off from school for all the middle and high school students in New York City. I guess it was supposed to give the teachers a chance to prepare for the ‘horrors’ yet to come. By the time we reached the stop in front of the Delancey street subway station, I was genuinely worried. He still hadn’t said anything and he looked so withdrawn. I tried to gently ask what was wrong, but when I quietly spoke his name, he flinched as if I’d struck him. And then he started shaking. “Dave, what’s wrong?” I asked him in a bare whisper. When he didn’t answer, I tried prompting him by adding, “You look like your best friend died, but that would mean you’re talking to a ghost? That’s assuming I’m your best friend, that is.” “My best friend?” he responded, seemingly bewildered, then he suddenly understood what I had asked and replied, “No! It’s nothing like that.” When he failed to elaborate, I asked again, “Tell me what’s wrong.” “You probably didn’t notice it in the paper this morning,” he finally answered me, “and it wasn’t even in the front section, but there was an incident over the weekend. When I got up on Sunday morning to retrieve the paper, there was a swastika painted on our door. It was so startling and unexpected that at first, I didn’t recognize what I was seeing. Then I noticed that there were swastikas painted on several doors up and down the hall… doors that had a mezuzah… and there was graffiti painted on the walls. Horrible antisemitic slurs. When it dawned on me what I was seeing, I shrieked like a girl. Mom came running and when she saw what had been done, she called the police. It turned out they were already on the scene. Several of the floors in Hillman had been similarly defaced overnight. The police think it was because yesterday was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.” (Note to reader: This incident actually happened.) “That’s horrible,” I responded. “You hear of these things happening elsewhere, but not in New York and especially not here, where so many of us live. Did they catch the asshole who did it?” Shaking his head, Dave responded, “No, but it’s only been a little over 24 hours. The police are investigating, but we don’t even know how someone could have gotten into the building at all, let alone got in unnoticed.” “Didn’t the doorman see something?” I asked. “We don’t have doormen at Hillman,” Dave responded. “There’s a guardhouse in front of each building and a single guard that watches all three entrances, but there’s a lot of shrubbery to block his view. There are security cameras in the lobbies and in the elevators, but not on each floor. The police have already gone through the recordings and they haven’t seen anything suspicious.” “How could that be?” I asked. “What they think might have happened is that the perp scaled the fence and got into the courtyard between the buildings,” he answered. “But that’s a seven-foot high fence with sharp points on top,” I responded in surprise, “not that someone determined enough couldn’t get over it I guess.” “People often prop open the door to the courtyard, so they don’t have to worry about getting locked out if they don’t want to be bothered with their keys. So the perp might not have even had to scale the fence to get into the courtyard, and the doors from there into the building often fail to latch closed. So if the perp got access to the courtyard, they could’ve gotten into the back hallway of one or both buildings. There are security cameras, but because the assumption is that people supposedly have to go through the lobbies to get to the courtyard, they’re not recorded. The guard has to be watching the right camera at the right time to catch someone who sneaks in that way. Once they get to the stairwell, they’d be out of view the whole time.” Slowly it was sinking in what a terrible thing this was. New York has the largest concentration of Jews of any city in the world outside of Israel. Only Tel Aviv has a larger Jewish population. Although there had been times when tensions had flared between the Jews of New York and other minority groups, they were rare and self-contained. In the few terrorist attacks since 9/11, more of them had targeted the gay community than the Jews, and all were isolated events. For the most part we felt safe. This felt different because it was a spasm of hatred specifically targeted at us. It was a game-changer. It was a violation… a loss of innocence. Rather than say anything, I reached over and squeezed Dave’s hand. We both understood there was nothing that could be said. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for Dave to have discovered the graffiti himself – to have come upon it so suddenly and unexpectedly like that. This wasn’t Nazi Germany, after all. It was the United States. We were better than that. We rode the rest of the way together in silence. I didn’t expect my friends to know what had happened, but no sooner did I sit down in my first class than Larry sat down next to me and asked, “Did you hear about the anti-Semitic graffiti that happened over the weekend?” “That was in Hillman houses, right on Grand Street,” I replied. “The kid I ride the bus with to school every day opened the door Sunday morning to find a swastika on the back of it.” “Oh fuck,” Larry responded so quietly that I barely heard him. I knew just how he felt. “Is it someone I know?” he asked. Shaking my head, I replied, “You’d probably recognize him from seeing him in the hallway, or maybe you saw him at my party. He’s in the eighth grade and he sits with his own group of friends at lunch. We ride the bus and walk to school together because we live in the neighborhood and we enjoy talking. He’s become a good friend, but nothing more than that.” I could almost sense the feeling of relief that came over Larry when he understood that Dave wasn’t competition for me. “I bet you’re both freaked out over the whole thing,” Larry added after a period of silence. “I’m a bit freaked out and I don’t even live where it happened.” Just then the bell rang and the teacher got up to begin the class, putting an end to our discussion. I went through my morning classes in a bit of a daze, the thoughts of what happened over the weekend never far from my mind. But then there was an announcement that there’d be a special convocation for all the Salk students, immediately after lunch. Instinctively I knew it had something to do with the graffiti incident. By the time I sat down for lunch, word had spread through the rumor mill that anti-Semitic graffiti had been spray painted all over the Lower East Side. Some of my friends had heard that it was on the outside of one of the synagogues in our neighborhood. Chris thought it was on the outside of all the synagogues. Brandon thought it was inside one of the synagogues, and Rohan even thought it was on the inside of my building. I corrected all of the misconceptions with the truth, which was bad enough. As kids, they were all shocked by the incident, and it seemed they were disturbed by it, but a bit excited at the same time. They probably would have been more open in talking about out, were it not for my being from the neighborhood where it happened. Because of that, no one seemed to know what to say. When the lunch period was over, we dutifully took our trays to the return window, but then we were told to go to our seats in the cafeteria. The cafeteria doubled as an auditorium as it did in many elementary schools, and there simply wasn’t time to fold up the tables, put them away and set up the folding chairs for a traditional convocation. Because my side of the table faced away from the stage, I turned around to face it, as did all my friends on my side of the table. When the principal walked out onto the stage, we all sensed the seriousness of the convocation from his demeanor. His stride was deliberate and his face glum. “Good afternoon, students,” he began. “No matter how safe we hear our city is, no matter how much we hear about our record-low crime rate or about New York being the safest big city in America, none of that matters when the one something happens to is you…. and then something happens to remind us just how fragile our lives really are. “Many of you probably heard of the incident of hate that happened over the weekend. That it happened on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is undoubtedly no coincidence. Those of us who have seen this sort of thing before do little more than shake our heads, and we may not even think how it affects the victims themselves, especially when they are young. Thus it came as a surprise this morning when I was approached by one of our students who asked to speak to you. I asked him to write up his proposed remarks, never expecting him to have them ready in less than two hours. “You may recognize today’s speaker or you may know him personally. He has been a student at the Salk School for three years now. Next year he will be a student at Stuyvesant High School, but that’s not what he’s going to talk about today. Some of the most important lessons we can learn cannot be taught in the classroom. Without further delay, please welcome David Schuster. Please hold questions until after his presentation.” Principal Roberts started to clap and of course we all followed suit, even though it seemed strange to applaud for a kid, much less one of our own. “Good afternoon,” Dave began. “Thank you, Principal Roberts, for your insightful introduction. It is at times like these that we realize how little we know about each other outside the classroom. You probably didn’t know that my grandparents, my mother’s parents, were Holocaust survivors. They were infants when World War II broke out, but that didn’t matter to Hitler. They were hidden in the same convent in Austria and then brought here after the war by the United Jewish Appeal. Both of their parents perished in Auschwitz. They were adopted by different families, grew up in different neighborhoods and were later reunited in high school. “My father was an engineer who decided to do something for his country by joining the army reserve. He was deployed to Afghanistan and killed by an AED before I even had a chance to know him. I’ve lived all my life on the Lower East Side with my mom in an apartment on Grand Street, in the Hillman Cooperative. “Yesterday I got up early. Teenagers aren’t supposed to get up early on a long weekend, but I forgot it was a day off from school and set the alarm as I usually would on a Sunday night.” Everyone laughed at how Dave had gotten up early when he didn’t have to.” I went to grab our copy of the New York Times. Pulling on my jeans, I opened the door and reached for the paper, which as usual was just out of reach, forcing me to go out into the hallway. “After taking a brief glance at the headlines, I turned around and only then did I see a large black ugly swastika spray painted on our door. At first, I didn’t even comprehend what I was seeing. I was still half asleep and the appearance of a swastika was just so surreal and unexpected. Then as my brain started to engage and react to what I saw, I noticed more swastikas spray painted up and down the hallway. There were words too. Words of hate so vile and profane that I cannot repeat them here. “Finally I screamed and my mom came running, and once she’d calmed me down, she called 911. However the police were already in the building, as the graffiti had been noticed by one of the janitors on another floor. The police are investigating the incident as we speak. Unfortunately, there are few clues and the perpetrator remains at large. “It has been a difficult thirty hours for my mom and me. Her parents, my grandparents, live in Florida now and just happen to be on a cruise, so talking to them is difficult. They offered to leave the cruise at the next port of call and come stay with us, but of course we wouldn’t hear of it. I have a pair of uncles in Seattle, my mother’s brother and his husband, and they’ll be arriving late this afternoon to help get us through this difficult time. For that we are grateful. “My mom didn’t want me to come to school today. She thought I needed time to heal, and she may have been right in that regard, although for different reasons than she’d thought. She thought I’d have trouble concentrating in class and maybe that would’ve been true, but ever since I first got on the bus this morning, right through lunch, there had been a catharsis with my friends and for that I have been grateful. In a way this presentation is a continuation of that. “But let’s talk about the significance of what happened. It was probably someone who acted alone, a so-called lone wolf. It was an isolated incident – an incident of hate on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. Such incidents have been increasing worldwide and the trend is disturbing. There have been a preponderance of hate crimes against gay men and against Jews in particular, but we’re all vulnerable. “As New Yorkers we don’t like to think about it, but we’re probably the number one terrorist target in America. None of us were alive on 9/11, but the events of that day are a constant reminder of what can happen. The loss of my father is a very personal reminder to me and yet the graffiti yesterday was far more personal. “Hate only thrives when it is tolerated. Time and again, New Yorkers have rejected hate and embraced tolerance. This is one of the most diverse, ethnic and international cities in the world, and we thrive because of it. All you have to do is look around this room. At times like these we need to come together and support each other. But most of all, we need to show those who thrive on hate that hate has no place here or anywhere. “Thank you.” What an awesome speech! We all rose to our feet as we applauded. “Are there any questions for Dave or for any of us?” the principal asked. Dave fielded questions from the audience, and the principal explained to the students what to do if ever confronted with a hate crime, on school premises or otherwise. I’d been subjected to active shooter drills since I was in kindergarten, but this seemed real. <> <><> “So why aren’t you having your birthday party in your own apartment?” Larry asked me as he pipetted the solution onto an auger plate. We were collaborating on a science project involving growing cells in tissue culture. “Don’t you live in the same building as the kid who’s gonna host it?” he asked. “The same complex,” I corrected him. “There are four buildings in our co-op, and four co-ops in Co-op Village. Seth Moore lives on the top floor of the building next to ours. It’s not that we don’t have the room,” I added, “but we just moved in a month ago and we’ll be doing extensive renovations this summer. The place has all the original appliances and plumbing, and we’re gonna replace it all. We’re gonna enlarge the bathrooms and reconfigure the bedrooms, adding much larger closets, and we’re putting down hardwood floors. My dad and my brother will do most of the work, but my sisters and I will pitch in too, laying down the flooring, putting up the tile and painting.” “So what does any of that have to do with holding a birthday party now?” he asked. “Is your apartment still filled with boxes from the move?” “Nah, my dad’s too organized for that,” I replied. “He had all the boxes labeled not only by room but by closet or drawer, so everything could be put in its place and we were totally moved in the next day.” “That’s insane, man,” Larry responded. The way he was concentrating on his task made him look so serious, yet there was something about his face that was endearing. I couldn’t help but notice the light dusting of hair on his arms, the curly blond hair on his head and the intensity of his vivid blue eyes. I’d known Larry for more than a year-and-a-half now, yet he’d never affected me in this way before. Just last week I was crushing on my best friend, Lisa, and now I was crushing on Larry. What was wrong with me? “You still didn’t answer my question though,” Larry reiterated. “Why aren’t you having your birthday party at your place?” “Mostly because my brother volunteered his friends,” I explained. “Joshy’s gotten close to a couple of kids that live in our co-op as well as their friends. Asher White’s just a kid, but he’s the head chef at the Ragin’ Cajun, which is a restaurant on Orchard Street at Delancey. The food critic at The Times called it the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans, and the couple of times we went there, it was jammed, with lines out the door. The food’s actually a fusion of Cajun and Asian cuisine. Asher’s Dad’s a black Creole and his mother’s Chinese. My brother’s friends are really great guys. “Anyway, Asher offered to cater my birthday party, as long as we had it on the weekend so he’d have time to prepare, but our kitchen’s too small for what he needs. His boyfriend Seth’s apartment, on the other hand, is on the top floor and it’s newly renovated and huge, with a fantastic kitchen and a view of half of Manhattan that has to be seen to be believed.” “Oh shit!” he suddenly exclaimed as he dispensed a bit more of the culture solution that we were supposed to. “I need to pay more attention to what I’m doing.” <> <><> “I can’t believe you were born on Valentine’s Day,” Lisa said as we made our way through the lunch line. “Maybe you’ll get a boyfriend for your birthday.” Today they were serving chicken Parmesan with spaghetti and baby carrots, and it was one of the better things they served in our cafeteria. “A boyfriend?” I responded. “I don’t think so. Anyway, it’s not like I was born on February 29, or something,” I pointed out. “The odds of that happening are only one in 1,461. The odds of being born on Valentine’s Day are four in 1461, or a little more than a quarter of a percent. For someone born in February, the odds are one in 28-and-a-quarter.” “You’re a weirdo,” Lisa countered, “but if the odds of being born in February are one in twelve and the odds of being born on the 14th are one in 28-and-a-quarter, as you put it, wouldn’t the odds of being born on Valentine’s Day be one in 339, but they’re not, so your logic is flawed.” I wasn’t falling for her trap. “No, yours is,” I replied. “The odds of being born in February are actually 28 times 3 plus 29, out of 1461, which is 113 out of 1461, ’cause not all months have the same number of days. And the reason it’s not 28 out of 365 or 29 out of 366 is you have to account for leap year.” “But there is no leap year in centennial years,” Lisa said as we put our trays down at our usual spot on the long table, “except in millennial years, when there is. So if you want to be exact, the odds of being born on February 14 are 1000 divided by 365,241, which is… 0.2738 percent,” she calculated after whipping out her smartphone. “I could point out that you’d get the same answer by dividing one by 365.25, so the lack of centennial leap years doesn’t really matter, but I won’t,” I responded and we both laughed. “Only the two of you would come up with something like that,” Rohan commented as he took a bite of his chicken parm. “Hey, how many of you get two cards from everyone for your birthday,” I countered, getting a few laughs around the table. “Hey, this year my birthday’s during Passover,” Brandon interrupted, “and I’ll be thirteen and have my bar mitzvah too. If we even bother to have a cake, it’ll be an unleavened birthday cake.” “Is there such a thing as an unleavened birthday cake?” Rohan asked. “Yeah there is, and it’s nasty,” Larry answered. “Anything that’s made for Passover is pretty awful,” he added. “Matzo farfel mixed with milk and honey isn’t a bad substitute for a breakfast cereal,” Brandon suggested. “Farfel, you mean the stuff they put in soup?” I asked. “You eat that as a breakfast cereal?” “When the only alternative is to eat matzo, it’s not half bad,” Bran responded. “It sounds too sweet,” I countered. “Why not have scrambled eggs and turkey sausage?” “Because that involves cooking,” Bran replied, “and Mom’s idea of preparing dinner is choosing a restaurant to order from on Seamless. In the morning, I’m on my own.” “But you still keep Passover?” Larry asked. “I’ve asked that question too, many times,” Brandon answered. “It’s not like we keep kosher otherwise, but Mom insists on my sister and me being exposed to Jewish culture. By the way, you’re all invited to my bar mitzvah. It’s the week after Memorial Day.” “Oh, cool,” Lisa responded. “For what it’s worth, my dad insists on keeping Passover too,” I mentioned. “We haven’t even had a Passover Seder since my mom died. I can’t even remember what they’re like and my older sisters can barely remember them, but Dad insists on getting rid of every trace of bread in the house and eating only Passover foods during the holiday.” “But do you keep kosher otherwise?” Larry asked. Shaking my head, I answered, “That would mean keeping four sets of everything… a set of dishes for meat and a separate set for dairy, both for Passover and for the rest of the year. The devout even have separate stoves, ovens and dishwashers for meat and dairy, and the ultra-orthodox have separate kitchens. My parents were never like that. We still don’t mix meat and dairy, nor do we eat pork or shellfish at home, but we don’t keep kosher otherwise.” “What’s the point?” Lisa asked. “I guess it’s just a way of connecting with our roots,” I replied. “Or maybe Dad’s just being stubborn in sticking with traditions, even though he doesn’t want to put any effort into them. “What about you, Kevin,” I asked another of my friends. “Your dad is Jewish.” “And my mother’s Catholic,” he replied, “but we’re not religious at all. We don’t observe Passover or Easter.” “Passover’s a big deal in my family,” Larry interjected. “We all get together at my grandparents’ house in Peekskill… not just my parents and I, but all the aunts and uncles and great aunts and uncles and all their kids from my mom’s side of the family. There must be like thirty or forty of us around a long table they set up on their back porch. My great grandpa leads the service and we all take turns reading from the Haggadah and even the kids get to sip the wine. The Passover meal’s a potluck with everyone tryin’ to outdo the other, so it’s a real feast, and then afterward there’s the search for the afikomen, and it’s like a real treasure hunt. Last year it was wrapped in a plastic bag and inside the tank of one of the upstairs toilets. Man, no place is off-limits when it comes to where Grandpa hides it, and the kid that finds it gets a real prize. Last time, my cousin Rachel won tickets for her and her family to see Aladdin on Broadway.” “What the fuck’s an afikomen?” Rohan asked. “During the Seder, you have three matzos that are placed on a plate and covered with a napkin,” Larry explained. “They’re symbolic and represent the challah, or ceremonial bread that would normally be eaten with the meal. Anyway, during the service, the middle matzo is broken in half and one half of it, called the afikomen, is then hidden, to be found later by the children and served as dessert.” “You serve thirty or forty people a half-piece of matzo for dessert?” Rohan asked. “It’s symbolic,” Larry went on, “and we supplement it with additional pieces of matzo, and there’s a real dessert too, but by tradition, nothing can be eaten after the afikomen is served. Then we all do a lot of singing. Maybe it’s the wine, but everyone hams it up as we sing Dayenu, Adir Hu, Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya, among others. I love our Seders. They’re the reason Passover’s my favorite holiday.” “That sounds like a lot of fun,” I acknowledged without much enthusiasm. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the sound of Larry’s family Seders, or that I didn’t care. If anything, I was envious. I felt like I’d been missing out on something special all my life. At a fundamental level, I understood that most Jewish kids didn’t have an experience like Larry’s for Passover, but that still didn’t make it any easier when it came to my utter lack of experience. Larry seemed to pick up on what I was feeling, ’cause the next thing I knew, he suggested, “Hey, why don’t you celebrate Passover with my family this year!” And then he added with even more enthusiasm, “Why don’t you bring your whole family? You’d get to see what a big family Seder is like. Your whole family could. It’d be great!” As much as the idea of experiencing a real Passover Seder with Larry’s family appealed to me, the thought of doing it with thirty or forty strangers didn’t appeal to me at all. I really liked Larry – just being near him brought me warm fuzzy feelings – but I’d hardly get near him during his family’s Seder and meeting all of them en mass was definitely not something I would enjoy putting it mildly. I’d just as soon attend a community Seder at one of the synagogues. Still, it was a very nice offer and I needed to say something without hurting Larry’s feelings. Finally, I replied, “You do realize that I have four siblings, Larry, right?” “So there are five of you.” Larry responded. “You’ll hardly make a difference at all. Just bring a dish to share. I’m sure you’ll be more than welcome.” Smiling, I pointed out, “You probably should discuss it with your parents and ask your grandparents first, don’t you think? And I need to ask my family about it too.” Then in a stroke of inspiration, I told a white lie. “Besides which, I think my brother may have an invite from one of his best friends up in Riverdale. I think we may all be invited.” “Then why don’t you come by yourself?” Larry suggested. “I could have someone pick you up at the train station, or we could go together.” “Much as I’m flattered by your offer,” I answered earnestly, “Dad’d never let me take the train by myself.” Truthfully, Peekskill wasn’t that far – about an hour by train from Grand Central Terminal – and compared to the subway, Metro North was child’s play, but Dad wasn’t about to let his little girl go so far away on her own. However, the blush on Larry’s face told me that maybe he liked me as much as I liked him. The tingly feeling inside grew even stronger and I added, “I’ll ask him though.” The smile that lit his face told me I’d hit a bullseye. <> <><> “I can’t believe this food!” Lisa exclaimed as she took a bite of the spicy lobster creole. “I can’t believe the sausage isn’t real pork.” “Asher makes his own sausage from scratch,” I explained, “and he only uses turkey. I told you he’s an incredible cook.” “That’s an understatement,” she replied. “This is a great party!” “Thanks,” I responded. It was the middle Saturday in February and my family and friends were enjoying a feast of Asher White’s Asian Creole cuisine. There were 22 of us, including Asher and Seth and Seth’s parents, and their friends, Freck and Kyle. I’d invited fourteen of my friends from school, but three of them couldn’t make it. I’d also invited some of my old friends from Manhattan Beach, but all of them had sent their regrets. I guess I no longer rated with them, now that I was no longer a part of their lives. I guess Lisa took my dad’s sitting down next to me as her cue to leave, as she got up and headed back to the buffet table, even though her plate was still half-full. “At first I thought I’d stick to eating things that don’t contain any shellfish or dairy,” Dad began. “I appreciate that Asher made sure there was plenty for me to eat, but everything smelled so good and like with Chinese food, I had to try a little of everything, pretending I didn’t know what was in it. It’s hard to pretend that the thing with a tail isn’t shrimp though, and it’s delicious. Maybe it’s time for me to adopt a more worldly view and let Joshy and your sisters experiment more with their cooking.” “I think we’d all like that,” I responded. Then remembering Larry’s invitation from earlier in the week, I asked, “Dad, why did we stop having Passover Seders after Mom died?” Sighing, Dad began his answer with, “I bet you don’t even remember them, do you?” I responded by shaking my head and he continued, “It’s a bit complicated, but the real reason was that Passover was my Hana’s favorite time of the year. She loved tending to her garden in the spring…” “I don’t even remember having a garden,” I interrupted. “It was one of the things she missed from the old country,” Dad continued, “and even though we only had a tiny patch of a back yard with barely enough sunshine for anything to grow, she loved working in her garden. And she loved making the Passover meal. Most women considered it a pain in the ass to cook without leavening,” I couldn’t help but giggle, ‘cause it was the first time I’d ever heard him use a swear word, “but she loved the challenge. She invented the most incredible recipes and they were every bit as good as what she served the rest of the year. Even the mere thought of having a Seder was too much without her being there. “And I was so angry at God for taking your mother from me… from us,” he continued. “At first I blamed him and then I turned my back on him and decided he didn’t exist, but then I realized that the loss of my wife had nothing to do with God, but then I couldn’t feel the same way about God and religion after that, so religion hasn’t been a major part of our lives ever since. Even still, I wanted you to be exposed to your cultural heritage, and so we went to services on the High Holydays, but not at the Russian Orthodox Schule we used to go to. Instead, we went to a reconstructionist congregation, because they honor tradition, but treat God as more of a power than a deity. It fit a bit more with the way I felt at the time… maybe the way I still feel. “And I tried to observe some of our other traditions too, such as saying the Kidish over the wine on Friday night, and the Ha Motzi at the start of the meal, and the Birchat Hamazon at the end. Those were my traditional roles, but I could never bring myself to light the Shabbat candles, or to light the menorah at Hanukkah. Those were always the things your mother did. I’m sorry you missed out on so much. “You’ve just turned thirteen, Robbie,” Dad continued, “but even still, it’s not too late to study and catch up. You can still go through a bat mitzvah ceremony, perhaps when your fifteen if you’d like.” Shaking my head, I replied, “I don’t know, Dad. I’m interested in Jewish culture, but organized religion doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m not sure if I believe in God, but the stories in the Bible don’t jive with science. The evidence for evolution is about as strong as it gets. We can trace our evolution in the very DNA within us and within other life on earth, yet we can’t explain the origin of life in the first place. The theories are pure conjecture, but was God responsible, or was it pure chance? Nearly every civilization… every culture… has a belief in some sort of god or gods, a creation story, a belief in a soul and in an afterlife. Yet all of the creation stories and all of the beliefs in an afterlife can be disproven. Could it be that there’s something to the universal belief in god and a soul, but the rest is nothing more than mythology? “One of Joshy’s friends, Freck, calls himself a radical agnostic. We may never know why the universe exists, or what may or may not exist outside of it, or what may have come before it. These things are unknowable. Could the universe have been created by God? Does it matter? That’s where radical agnosticism comes in. Belief in God or a particular religion doesn’t matter… it’s what we do that matters.” “Sounds like you’re talking about radical agnosticism,” Freck said as he passed by. “I was just explaining the concept to my dad,” I told my brother’s friend. “We’re loosely observant but not religious Jews. We don’t belong to a synagogue, but we attend services at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now that we’ve moved, we’re in the market for a new place of worship.” “We belong to a really cool congregation near where we live in Riverdale,” Freck related. “It’s affiliated with Reform, but a much stronger emphasis on traditional observance, and with an emphasis on social justice. Kyle and I are studying for our bar mitzvahs there. By the way, you can pencil in the Saturday before Christmas. Of course you’re invited.” “There’s a Humanistic congregation on the Upper East Side,” Stacey added as she joined me and our dad. “One of my friends in the music program at school goes there and she likes it a lot.” “Is it near your school?” Dad asked. Shaking her head, she replied, “They meet in the faculties of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on West 86th Street.” “That’s not far from the Russian Arts Theater,” Dad exclaimed. “I’ve been meaning to check it out since we moved. Maybe we can check into both at the same time.” “Where do you go to school, Stacey,” Freck asked. “Fiorello H. LaGuardia…” Stacey started to answer. “By Lincoln Center?” Freck asked. “That’s the place,” my sister answered. “I guess that explains the hair and clothes,” Freck responded with a laugh. “Don’t remind me,” Dad chimed in. It was still a point of contention between the two of them, even though she’d been into the punk scene since the beginning of middle school. “I’ve been trying to ignore it for the last four years, but I must say, Stacey got all the talent genes in the family. Her drawings are incredible, even if I sometimes don’t get the meaning of them.” “She’s about to publish her first graphic novel,” I related. “That is incredibly cool,” Freck exclaimed. “You know, I’m gonna be an architect, which is kind of a blending of art and engineering. I can really appreciate those with major artistic talent.” “Which leaves me out,” I related. “And Stacey certainly didn’t get her talent from me,” Dad added. “By the way, happy birthday, Robin,” Freck remembered. “Thanks Freck,” I replied. “I’m finally a teenager.” “I crossed that threshold back in December,” Freck responded. “By the way, do you guys have big plans for Passover? This’ll be my first time at a Passover Seder and I’m excited.” What followed could only be characterized as an uncomfortable silence. Unfortunately, Joshy chose that particular moment to join us. “Looks like I interrupted something,” he commented as he sat down next to Freck. “You did, but I’m not sure just what,” Freck responded. “All I did was to express my excitement at attending my first Passover Seder with my boyfriend’s family, and then I asked what you guys are doing, and this is what I got.” “Ah, that explains it,” Joshy replied. “The fact of the matter is that while we keep Passover after a fashion, we don’t actually hold a Seder. We haven’t since our mother died.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” Freck responded. “What has it been, ten years?” “Good memory,” Joshy answered. “It’s just too painful, I guess. It was Mom’s favorite holiday and she always made a big deal of it… not that I remember what it was like now. I was only four when she died.” “I feel bad about it,” Dad chimed in. “The kids deserve better, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make a Passover Seder for them.” “We’re old enough that we could make it ourselves, Dad,” Joshy suggested. “You, know, that’s an excellent idea,” Dad replied. “In fact, we should make a point of it, but putting together a Seder takes a lot of planning.” “Well, we did get an invitation from one of my good friends at school,” I interjected, though I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like we’d be going. “He hadn’t cleared it with his parents and grandparents, who live up in Peekskill and actually are the hosts. They’re already having thirty or maybe forty relatives attending, and I didn’t feel comfortable getting involved with that. It’s a potluck, so food wasn’t the issue, but they’d all be strangers to us and we to them, and I probably wouldn’t even get near my friend, so it’d be awkward. “Sorry, Freck, but he’s here at the party,” I suddenly thought to say, “and I used the excuse that your family had invited us as an excuse to politely decline. So if Larry Sanders says anything, that’s why.” “Hey, that’s a great idea,” Freck exclaimed. “We have plenty of room and it’ll be my first Passover with my boyfriend’s family, and it’ll be our first Passover with my two dads being married and all, so why not? There’ll already be too much food, and if you wouldn’t mind bringing a dish to share, food won’t even be an issue. We’ll provide the matzo and the wine. “Let me text my dads and see if it’s okay with them…” “Before you do that, Freck, I don’t want them to feel pressured into making the offer,” Dad interrupted. “I certainly wouldn’t want to impose either. They might be looking forward to a simple Seder with just the two of them and their kids. After all, as you pointed out, it’s their first Passover together.” “Why don’t I text them and say I thought it might be a good idea, but that I hadn’t mentioned it to you yet,” Freck countered. “That way, there won’t be any pressure.” “Kids, what do you think?” Dad asked. “I think it would be a lot of fun,” Joshy replied and Stacey and I nodded our heads in agreement. “Okay, I’ll send a text and I’ll get back to you if they agree,” Freck related. “Tell him there’ll probably only be four of us,” Dad interjected. “Dad, you should come,” I responded. “You’d enjoy it too.” “If Freck gets the invite, I fully intend to go.” Dad answered. “It’s you who won’t be going.” “What?” I exclaimed. “Why not?” “Because if the offer from your friend still stands, you should take him up on it.” “But Dad,” I responded, “I just told you why I didn’t want to go.” “But you said he was a very good friend, and for him to ask you, he must like you too,” Dad explained. I could feel myself blushing furiously, but at least no one made fun of me for it. “As I recall, your biggest worry was that you’d never get near your friend and we’d all be strangers at the table. But if you go by yourself, you’ll very likely be seated next to your friend and you’ll spend the whole evening there with him. You’ll have a great time and you’ll meet his family in a non-threatening manner. You should definitely go.” “But I told him you’d never let me go alone.” I countered. “Did you hear me say it’s in Peekskill?” “And you think I won’t let you travel alone to Peekskill?” Dad asked. “It’s only an hour from Grand Central, and certainly it won’t be any worse than when you travelled an hour by subway every day. Like you said earlier, you’re thirteen now, and a teenager. It’s time for me to trust you and to treat you like the young woman you’re becoming. Just make sure there’s someone at the station in Peekskill to meet you when you get off the train. I don’t want you searching for their house all alone or taking a taxi or Uber by yourself. That’s probably way more dangerous than taking the subway or the bus these days. You hear things about that. “So if he’s here, I’d like to meet him. Go ahead and ask him if the offer’s still valid. Oh, see if you can bring a bottle of wine instead of a dish to share, since it’ll just be the one of you, and then bring him to me so we can chat.” Poor Larry! As I got up and looked around for Larry, I heard Freck exclaim, “All right! It’s a go for the Seder. You guys are all invited.” Truthfully, I’d have preferred to go to the Seder with Kyle and Freck’s family, but that was before. Spotting Larry in the kitchen talking to Rohan, I couldn’t help but smile as I approached. His whole face seemed to light up as I approached him. He’d been doing that a lot lately and it made me feel like a million. I wondered if my face did the same thing when I saw him. “Hey,” he said as I approached. “It’s a great party. Thanks for inviting me.” “I’m glad you could come,” I replied, and then I changed my expression and lowered my voice. “Could we speak for a minute?” “I’ll go get some more of this wonderful food,” Rohan said as he snuck away. “Is the offer for Passover still good?” I asked. “Could I still come? Did you clear it with your parents and grandparents?” I added as I remembered he hadn’t done that when he asked me. “In answer to your second question first,” Larry responded, “I’ve invited friends before and it’s never been a problem. It would be the first time I brought a girl, though.” My god, was he flirting with me? “I take it it’ll just be you alone, but didn’t you say your dad would never let you travel alone to Peekskill?” “He said I’m a teenager now and I’d be fine on the train, but he insists that someone meet me at the train station,” I answered. “He doesn’t want me trying to find your grandparent’s house on my own or taking a taxi or car for hire by myself.” “You can tell him that it won’t be a problem at all,” Larry responded. “Since it’s on a school night this year, we’ll leave directly from school and take the train together to Peekskill. Their house is a short walk from the station. I’ll escort you to the station after the Seder, or if he’s worried about you traveling alone late at night, you can stay the night at my grandparents place.” When he saw the look of near panic on my face, he quickly clarified, “That’ll be in one of the guest rooms with some of my cousins. Girl cousins, that is. Then we could maybe spend the day going around Peekskill. I take it you’ve never been and I could show you around, sans cousins of course.” “Sounds like a date,” I said before my mind engaged and realized how that sounded, but before I could apologize, Larry got a huge smile on his face, which turned a deep shade of red that I’m sure matched my own. Taking my hands in his and drawing me close, he said, “It could be… if you want it to be.” For a moment I thought he was gonna kiss me, but then the situation got a bit awkward and instead, he looked away. It was cute. He was so embarrassed. I’d had crushes before on both boys and girls, but this was different. Was this what it was like to really fall for someone? Then realizing he was waiting for a reply, I answered, “I’d like that, very much.” But then remembering my dad, I added, “by the way, my dad would like to meet you.” “Well, you’ll be meeting a whole shitload of my family, so I guess it’s only fair that your dad meet me to be sure my intensions are pure,” he quipped. “Oh, and he suggested I bring a bottle of wine instead of a dish to share,” I related. Laughing, Larry responded, “I guess your father really does think you’re mature. It’s illegal for a minor to transport any alcoholic beverages, even in a sealed bottle.” “Oh, I know you’re right.” I agreed. “In Russia, when he was growing up, kids our age could get hold of vodka and no one would think anything of it if they sat around drinking it in the open. Yeah, I’d rather not get in trouble for transporting wine.” “Don’t worry about it,” Larry countered. “Just bring yourself. There’ll be plenty of food for everyone. There’s always enough left over for lunch the next day and for the second Seder the next night.” “You’re inviting me for two nights?” I asked in what was a much higher voice than normal for me. Laughing again, he explained, “I meant for my grandparents and great grandpa. They’re the only ones in the family holding a second Seder.” “What about school?” I asked. “It’s nicer when Passover starts during spring break, but spring break doesn’t begin until Friday, Good Friday, but the schools have always been great about giving us time off for Passover. I’ve already requested it off and there’s still time for you to request it off too. Neither of us needs to worry about missing anything that we can’t make up over the break.” “That’s true,” I agreed, and then I said, “Come, meet my father,” as I let go of his left hand and pulled him over to where Dad, Freck and Stacey were still sitting. “Dad, this is Larry Sanders. Larry, this is my dad, my sister, Stacey, my brother, Joshy, and Joshy’s good friend, François ‘Freck’ San Angelo.” “You look entirely too young to be in high school,” Larry said as he looked at Freck. “You look like you’re even younger than we are.” “He is our age,” I responded, “and he’s a senior at Stuyvesant. And if you think that’s something, I’ll introduce you to his boyfriend, Kyle, who’s only eleven and also a senior at Stuyvesant.” “How does an eleven-year-old know he’s gay?” Larry asked. I was sure he meant it as a rhetorical question, but Freck didn’t take it as such. “Kyle?” Freck called out after spotting his boyfriend across the way, “Could you come here please?” As Kyle approached, Larry said, “If anything, he looks older than Freck.” Then blushing, he added, “Sorry, Freck.” “No, it’s true,” Freck responded. “I’ve always looked at least a year younger than my age and Ky’s always looked at least a year older. I’ve just hit my growth spurt, but Kyle’s father and brother are both well over six feet, and I’ll probably top out around five-and-a-half feet. Kyle’s gonna turn out to be taller, harrier and with a deeper voice than me, and I like my men that way. I also love the long hair you were too polite to comment on.” Blushing again, Larry asked, “How long did it take to grow your hair that long? I mean on most guys, hair that long would look girlish, maybe even ridiculous, but on you it looks pretty good actually. It accentuates your leonine features and makes you look more masculine if anything.” “That’s actually one of the nicest things anyone has said to me,” Kyle responded, “and thank you. I’ve been growing it long for over a year now, and since Freck likes it long, I’m not planning to cut it anytime soon.” “Could I ask you how you know you’re gay at such a young age?” Larry asked. “Of course you can ask, and I might even answer you,” Kyle laughed. “Seriously, why is it always the straight boys who ask this? A lot of kids are unsure of their sexuality, well into their teens. I’m not one of them. Sometimes a boy just knows from a very young age. I was eight when I realized I was gay, but I began to suspect it when I started reading at the age of three. And yes, a three-year-old can understand the difference between gay and straight and recognize how their brain responds to the sexes.” “Wow!” was all Larry was able to say. “Oh Dad, I can’t take wine instead of a dish for Passover because I’m a minor,” I interjected.“I’m not allowed to transport any alcohol at all, even if it’s in a sealed bottle.” “More than twenty years I’ve been in this country and I still can’t get used to some of the rules,” Dad complained. “But then we didn’t have teenage drivers in Russia. A twelve-year-old could get away with buying a pint of vodka over there, and no one would give any thought to the drunk young teenager on the street corner. Yes, it’s much better to keep kids out of trouble, even though they seem to find it anyway.” “I saw a recipe on the internet for halvah brownies,” Joshy, suggested. “It looked like they’d be easy to make, and they’re kosher for Passover.” “What’s a halvah brownie,” Freck asked. “Halvah is a Middle Eastern confection made from sesame seeds,” I explained. “It’s extremely dense, extremely rich and very, very sweet. It has a bazillion fat calories too, but it contains absolutely nothing that can’t be eaten on Passover. Passover brownies, on the other hand, are made with Passover flour and are pretty awful. Combining the two would probably make for a delicious dessert.” “We could try making a batch,” Joshy suggested, “and if they don’t turn out okay, we’d still have time to come up with something else to bring.” “That sounds like a plan,” I agreed. “If you’re done with me, I’m gonna get some more of that wonderful food,” Larry announced, and then not getting any objections, departed. Once Larry had left, Joshy asked, “Dad, I know you know I’m gay, but would you object to me asking a boy out on a date?” “Of course not, Joshy,” Dad answered. “What kind of father would I be if I didn’t let you date? Is it someone I know?” “I don’t think so,” Joshy responded, “but he’s here at the party if you’d like to meet him.” That sure piqued my curiosity. “He lives in the neighborhood but goes to Robbie’s school.” “Dave?” it suddenly dawned on me. “Dave Schuster?” “You know this boy?” Dad asked. “I sit next to him on the bus on the way to and from school every day,” I explained. “He’s in the eighth grade, but because his birthday’s on New Year’s Day, he just missed the cutoff for starting school a year earlier. He’s Joshy’s age, almost exactly. He’s become a good friend. It just never occurred to me that he might be gay.” No sooner had I said that than Dave appeared from behind us. Shit, had he been there all along? “Did you call for me, Robin?” he asked. “I heard you call out my name, even from the other side of the room.” Breathing a sigh of relief, I responded, “It wasn’t intentional. Your name came up and I repeated it just a bit too loudly.” “My name came up as someone who might be gay?” Dave asked. Yikes, he did hear. Just as I was trying to come up with something to say, Joshy took the lead. “I’m sorry, Dave, but that’s my fault. I really enjoyed meeting you and talking to you, and there were times I thought you might be flirting with me, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe you knew about me being gay because of my friends, so I kinda flirted back just a bit. I tried to keep it subtle, just in case I was reading more into it than was really there, but if you were flirting, I wanted you to know I’m interested.” “Wow!” Dave responded. “I’d no idea you’re gay. None at all. If I was flirting, God, I wasn’t aware of it. Maybe at a subconscious level. I guess you could say I’m still coming to terms with it. I haven’t told anyone. Not yet.” Then tilting his head slightly, he said, “You really want to go out with me?” “If you’re ready to date boys, then yeah,” my brother responded. “Very much. I like you Dave… a lot.” “I like you too, but I need to talk to my mom first. I’m gay. Wow, it’s weird to say it. I’m gay. I like boys. And I want to go out on dates. I want to go out with you. Yeah, let’s plan on it, but I’ll have to get back to you. I have to talk to my mom.” “Would you like me to talk to her?” Dad asked. “No, it’ll be fine,” Dave responded. “Her brother’s gay, so I don’t think she’ll have a problem with accepting a gay son. I just don’t want her finding out from someone else or being surprised at seeing me holding hands with a boy. Holding hands with Josh.” “Maybe we could take in a movie and go out for a bite afterwards, or something,” Joshy suggested. “We have the next week off, so maybe we can get together during the next week.” “Definitely,” Dave agreed. <> <><> “People are really spooked by the virus,” Larry began. “It’s already been a bad flu season and we had measles epidemics earlier in the year, all because of the anti-vax movement, but the threat of a new global pandemic has everyone running scared. There have been several new cases every day.” “Well, Seattle was the site of the first major outbreak in the U.S.,” Dave’s Uncle Alan pointed out. “We left just before it got started, but if we don’t return now, we might not be able to return. It seemed so far away until it affected us personally. At least it has barely infected New York.” “That you know of,” Dave chimed in. “Let’s face it, we’re all gonna get the virus eventually. We lost our chance to contain it and they won’t have a vaccine fast enough. Look at us. We live right next to Chinatown and half the faces on this bus are Asian. I’m surprised we aren’t already in quarantine.” “At least the MTA is going to extraordinary measures to ensure that every subway car, every bus and every turnstile is totally disinfected every night,” I mentioned. “Of course that doesn’t help if the someone who sat in the your seat before you had the virus, or if someone coughs on you. Some people are so paranoid that they won’t sit in any seat on the subway or bus, and they use gloves to hold onto the straps and the poles.” “The bus seems no less full than usual,” Dave’s mom chimed in, “and my guess is that the Met will be crowded as usual for the mid-winter break,” she added. “Most New Yorkers aren’t deterred, not even by the threat of a global viral pandemic.” “That could change in a heartbeat,” Uncle Alan suggested, and I couldn’t help but agree. It was the start of the New York City schools mid-winter break, and Dave’s uncles were getting ready to return home to Seattle in spite of the spread of the Coronavirus there. Before they left, however, they wanted to spend a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They asked Dave and his mom if they’d like to go along with them and offered to treat them to dinner. They also asked Dave if he’d like to bring a date and so he invited Joshy, but he also asked if I could come along since I was a good friend, and if I could bring a date too. Naturally, I asked Larry. This was our first date. We reached Union Square, where we took the escalator down and boarded a number four train. Because it was an express, it took only twelve minutes to go the three stops to 86th street, where we got off and walked the remainder of the way to the museum. There were only three blocks from Lexington to Fifth Avenue, and even though the museum bordered on 86th Street, we had to walk another four blocks south just to get to the main entrance. I guess there’s an accessible entrance too, but we had to walk up a huge cascade of steps, just to get inside. “I’ve traveled all over the world and visited some of the finest museums,” Uncle Alan began. “I’ve been to the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Prado in Madrid and the Ufizzi in Florence, the British Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Met isn’t the largest, nor is it the most eclectic, but none of them can hold a candle to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It has the most diverse, extensive and magnificent collection anywhere. And no museum has so many special exhibitions at one time, and they’re all included at no extra charge. I appreciate that other museums are free, but they charge a fortune to see the one or two special exhibitions they have. I love coming home to the Met.” “Living out on Coney Island, I never had a chance to visit the Met,” Joshy interjected. “This is my first time.” It was like a horror movie in which all heads swiveled to look at my brother. “My poor deprived boy,” Uncle Alan responded. “You must come here, and often. You need at least a week to see the full scope of the collection here at the main building, and then there’s the Met Breuer, and the Cloisters. You must see the Cloisters.” “Okay…” Joshy responded, but then he noticed me nodding my head and he asked, “You’ve been here sis?” “Are you kidding me?” I replied. “Of course I’ve been here, many times. The American Museum of Natural History too.” “When did you ever find the time?” Joshy asked. “After school,” I explained. “Our student bus passes cover three rides per day. That’s enough to get from home to school, from school to the museums and from the museums all the way home on the B Train or the Q. Kids under twelve get free admission, but no one ever stopped me after I turned twelve. The student admission’s only twelve dollars anyway.” “You know, rather than holding you guys back, maybe I can show Josh all my favorite places at the Met,” Dave suggested. “That way you can concentrate on the new stuff and special exhibitions, while I take Josh around to all the stuff you’ve seen a billion times already.” Laughing, Dave’s mom said, “We figured you kids would go off on your own anyway. The museum is open until 9:00 tonight, and Uncle Alan and Uncle Peter have generously agreed to take us to the Fourth Floor Dining Room afterwards. The last seating for dinner is at 9:00, which I thought was a bit too late, so we have reservations for 8:30, which gives you more than ten hours to explore the museum. Why don’t we meet in the Patrons Lounge on the Fourth Floor at 8:20 and we’ll go to dinner from there.” “Sounds good, Mom,” Dave replied. Then turning to Joshy, Larry and me, he said, “Come, let’s get our tickets, and then let’s get something to eat. I only had cereal for breakfast, and I’m starved.” Laughing, I responded, “I had even less, so I’m definitely ready for brunch.” Joshy and Larry nodded their heads in agreement. After saying our goodbyes to Dave’s mom and uncles, we stopped first at the Members’ desk and picked up tickets for the day. It turned out that Larry’s family were members and so we all got in for free. There were stickers on the end of the tickets which we peeled off and stuck on our shirts. They would allow us to come and go as we pleased. Although the price of a student ticket would’ve only been twelve dollars, Larry’s membership card not only saved us the cost of admission, but it gave us a ten percent discount on food at the restaurants and on purchases at the extensive bookstore and gift shop. I guess Dave’s mom and uncles were getting in as members too, ’cause the Met had reciprocity with the Seattle Museum of Art. “Okay, we have a choice of restaurants to eat at,” Larry began. “I figure we’ll grab a bite in the early afternoon too, so we can eat at a couple of them besides the dining room tonight. There’s a very large cafeteria downstairs with an extensive selection of different kinds of food, and it’s all pretty good. The cafeteria has the best selection by far. “There are a couple of smaller cafés overlooking the park where we can get an afternoon snack later on, or there’s the Balcony Lounge, which is only for members. Since we’re all starved, why don’t we start the day with the cafeteria? We’ll have no trouble getting a hearty meal there.” “Sounds perfect,” I replied. Dave led us through the center entrance of the Great Hall, around the huge marble center stairway and into the Medieval Art section. As soon as we reached it, however, Joshy stopped dead in his tracks and exclaimed, “Woah!” “You like?” Dave asked. “This is incredible,” Joshy enthused. “I was was expecting a bunch of boring paintings. Nothing like this. It looks medieval.” “That’s exactly what it is,” Dave responded. “And this is only a teaser for the Met’s medieval collection. Most of it’s up at their museum at the Cloisters. We’ll have to go there sometime. But this is very cool, don’t you think?” “It’s amazing,” Joshy replied. “I’d no idea this stuff was here.” “Wait ’til you see the African art, the indigenous American art, Greek and Roman art, the Egyptian art and the Islamic art. The Met’s collections are some of the best in the world. “But first let’s eat,” Dave concluded. Larry was right, there were all kinds of food available, ranging from breakfast items to full-course meals. It was my first time eating at the Met. There were stations with soups, hot and cold ready-made sandwiches, salads and there was a serve-yourself salad bar. There was a deli counter with every kind of made-to-order sandwich one could imagine. There was a grill with hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken breasts. There was pizza by the slice and by the pie. They also had an incredible selection of desserts. I got the rosemary chicken with roasted potatoes and creamed spinach. Larry got a pastrami on rye with coleslaw and French fries, and pecan pie for dessert. My brother and Dave got a large pizza to share. Taking a bite, I said, “This is really good.” “There are a few things I wouldn’t recommend,” Larry responded, “but most everything they serve is good or even great. Not gourmet, but excellent nevertheless.” “You guys ever eat at a place called the Good Stuff Diner?” Joshy asked. “They’re so desperate, they have to tell you it’s good in the name?” Dave asked. Shaking his head, Joshy replied, “In this case, the name’s accurate, although I’d probably call it the great stuff. It’s located on Fourteenth Street, just west of Sixth Avenue. The F Train stops right in front of it.” Laughing, I asked, “You mean the subway comes above ground and stops right in front of the door?” “Jerk,” my brother replied. “There’s a subway entrance literally right in front of the door. The B, D, F, L and M Trains all stop there. Path Trains from New Jersey too. The 14A bus stops right in front of it as well. Seriously though, the food’s excellent and it’s an easy bus ride away. Maybe we can double-date there sometime,” he added. “Is that a request for a second date with me?” Dave asked. “Maybe a second, third and fourth,” he replied with a blush. It was really cute, but I couldn’t let it go without teasing him. “That’s ’cause no one else will date you, and since Dave’s my best friend, he feels sorry for you.” “And you’re not interested in a second date with Larry?” Joshy asked. Now it was my turn to blush. “And a third and a fourth,” I agreed. “I hear you guys have big plans for the summer,” Dave interjected. “You mean our plans to renovate the apartment?” I asked. “We’re actually doing some preliminary work this week, installing built-in bookcases in the living room.” “I can’t imagine the work involved with that,” Dave said. “Breaking down walls, electrical wiring, plumbing and drywall… Man I can’t imagine doing even one of those things.” “Well if you want to learn how, we can always use another set of hands,” Joshy replied. “Are you serious?” Dave asked. “Very,” I responded. “Do you have any experience using tools?” “Other than using a screwdriver to drive screws into the wall for hanging pictures, none,” Dave answered. “Um, are you sure you used screws for that?” Joshy asked. “I mean usually you have to drill a hole first to use a screw.” “A screwdriver is the thing you use to hit the screw with, right?” Dave responded as he used his arm to demonstrate a hammering motion. Oh shit, he might be more trouble than he was worth. “Are you sure you don’t mean a hammer?” Larry asked. “You use a hammer to hammer in a nail into the wall.” “A screw has a helical tread and you use a screwdriver to turn the screw.” Joshy added. “You need to drill a hole first so the tread has something to dig into.” “Oh, you may be right,” Dave replied. “I guess I have a lot to learn.” “Now if you help, there’s a rule that you have to work naked,” Joshy added with a straight face. “Are you serious?” Dave asked in surprise. I nodded my head as I tried to keep a stern face, but I finally lost it and burst out laughing. “My sisters might like it if you work naked, but I’d prefer you save the getting naked for the nights,” Joshy added. “Ooh,” Dave responded. “Seriously,” I explained, “Most of the time we hafta keep the windows open and the air conditioning off for proper ventilation. It gets hot, so we usually wear skimpy shorts. You’ll probably want to do the same if you decide to help out.” “Even the girls only wear skimpy shorts?” Larry asked in surprise. “Can I volunteer too?” “You’re welcome to help out, Larry,” Joshy responded, “but my sisters also wear tank tops.” “Oh, for a chance to see Robin, practically naked every day, I’ll definitely want to help out,” Larry responded. “Ditto when it comes to Josh,” Dave chimed in. “Perve,” came Joshy’s response. Finishing up the last of his pizza, Dave asked my brother, “Are you ready to see the museum?” “I’m not sure what we’ll do with ten hours to kill, but I’m more than ready,” Joshy replied. “Trust me, Josh,” Dave responded as he got up from the table, “by the time we stop to meet my mom and uncles, you’ll be wondering where the day went and begging me to bring you back,” “I’ll believe that when I see it,” Joshy countered as we all stood up. “He’s right, Joshy,” I chimed in. “Could you please call me Josh, Robbie,” he asked “Robbie?” Larry asked with a bemused expression. “Point well taken, Josh,” I responded. Disposing of the remains of our brunch, we headed back upstairs and then Larry and I went off on our own as Josh and Dave did the same. <> <><> The time I spent with Larry seeing the Met was the best day of my life. Although our tastes differed on a lot of things, we both enjoyed hearing each other’s perspectives on art as we toured our old favorite exhibits as well as the new ones we’d not yet seen before. We both agreed that the new British Galleries were outstanding, and way better than what they’d had before. We also learned a lot about each other – things we’d not known from our casual conversations at school. I was falling for him and increasingly realized I wanted him as more than a friend. But then it dawned on me that I didn’t even know where he lived! I got the impression he lived in Manhattan, but that could include everything from a tiny flat in a housing project to a penthouse apartment. Finally, I just asked, “Larry, I just realized I have no idea where you live.” Laughing, he answered me, “I guess we never did discuss it, and I don’t like to bring it up because most kids, and adults for that matter, have preconceived notions about people who live where I do and I don’t like being treated differently from the other kids. I just hope you don’t freak out when you meet my parents.” At first I thought he might live in a horrible neighborhood or have parents who were in prison, but then I thought about where I lived, in a moderate income co-op surrounded by low-income housing projects and I realized he must mean just the opposite. Swallowing, I responded with, “I told you about my good friend Freck and about who his parents are, so I seriously doubt you can beat that.” “Don’t be so sure,” Larry replied. “Where do you live?” I asked. Sighing, he said, “I’d have rather waited until you’d gotten to know me better, but then since you’re good friends with Freck, who not only has famous parents but is a super genius, perhaps you’re one of the few kids to whom wealth and fame aren’t important.” Laughing, I replied, “Unless you’re related to the president, whom my father adores but I can’t stand, by the way, I could care less who your parents are. You could be Ed Koch’s grandson for all I care. What matters is the kind of guy you are, and that is something about which I think I have a good idea.” “Koch never married and was almost certainly gay,” Larry responded, “but you’re not far off the mark. I live in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. My parents are pretty well known in the music world and in New York’s social circles. My parents spend a lot of time with New York’s super-elite, but they aren’t like that at all, however it comes with the territory, especially when a good part of their jobs involves fundraising. Both my parents spend a lot of time teaching at Juilliard, but they can only teach as time permits. Unfortunately, they’re often on tour, sometimes at the same time.” Thinking about well-known musician couples, at first I drew a blank until I broadened my thoughts beyond my usual interest in classic rock. Then instinctively I knew. Rather than make a fool of myself, I approached it obliquely by saying, “Freck would love to meet them, especially your mom I think. He loves classical music, but absolutely adores opera. His real parents have season tickets to the Met, but he’s the one who uses them. Your father, if I’m right, has conducted some of the best symphony orchestras in the world, including the New York Symphony.” Getting a broad grin on his face, Larry said, “I’m impressed you figured it out so quickly. Could it be that you’re a classical music fan?” “I mostly like to listen to classic to rock from the likes of The Beatles and The Who, but I do like classical music too. I just don’t have as much experience with classical music and have a lot to learn.” If anything his grin grew broader as he said, “Damn, does it get any better? My parents tried to interest me in the piano. I think they hoped I’d round out the family as a concert pianist, but I’m much more interested in playing the guitar and in music from the likes of The Beatles and The Who.” If there was a moment I could point to when I fell head over heels for Larry Sanders, that was it. We spent the remainder of the day talking about music. It was evident that we both were very knowledgeable and had very strong opinions that didn’t always jibe, but our shared love and passion for the greatest music ever written was extraordinary. At one point I realized we were holding hands and smiling, I suggested, “It almost feels like you’re asking me to be your girlfriend, or something.” “There’s no ‘almost’ about it,” Larry replied, and then he pressed his lips to mine. I’d never kissed anyone on the lips before, much less a boy, and what I think he’d intended to be a quick peck on the lips nearly became a full-fledged make out session. The kiss might well have gone on forever, but then we both realized where we were. How embarrassing! <> <><> I slowly became aware of being in bed, but there was no mistaking it for my bed. My bed was the upper bunk of a bunkbed and I was always aware of the presence of a wall on one side and a drop-off on the other. Even if I wasn’t up against the wall or hanging over the edge, I knew where I was from the feel of the way the sheets were unyielding when I turned and probably from the reflected sounds off the wall. But now, I was nowhere near a wall and the sheets seemed to go on forever. And even with my eyes closed, I could tell that the room I was in was suffused with light. Slowly I opened my eyes to see that I was in a large bedroom with elegant draperies on a pair of windows and antique furniture that was definitely not the hand-built furniture my dad had made for the bedroom my sisters and I shared. In fact, my sisters weren’t even in the room, and I was in the biggest bed I’d ever seen. It was at least a king-size four-poster bed. As I sat up in bed, I noticed I was wearing an oversize t-shirt I didn’t recognize and the only other thing I was wearing was my panties. I still had no idea where I was or how I got there. Gradually, I began to remember spending the day with Larry at the Met. Just as the museum was about to close, we rejoined my brother and Dave, as well as Dave’s mom and uncles, in the fourth-floor patrons lounge. We then enjoyed an elegant meal in the members’ dining room, at a table next to a wall of glass overlooking Central Park. Even at night, the park was beautiful. It was very late by the time we finished our dinner and although we sometimes took public transportation at such a late hour, Dave’s uncles insisted on hiring a car to take us home. However, there was no way nine of us could fit into a single car and besides which, Dave lived just on the other side of the park. When he suggested that Joshy, Dave and I spend the night in the guest rooms of his house, and that we then spend the next day together, we eagerly agreed. Of course I ended up texting my father and he insisted on talking to Larry’s parents, but before long we were on our way across 79th Street. Just as I swung my feet over the edge of the bed, there was a soft knock on the door and then I heard a woman’s voice asking, “May I come in?” “Sure,” I answered, and Larry’s mother entered the room and closed the door behind her. “How do you feel, sweetheart,” she asked. “Well, other than a mild headache and being a little sick to the stomach, I feel okay,” I answered. “I don’t remember much about last night though. Did I get sick or something?” “You and Larry both had an entrée that contained a fair bit of alcohol. The alcohol is supposed to boil off, but not when it’s ordered rare. The server should have warned you. However, you look pretty well for someone so young and small who isn’t used to alcohol. Poor Larry didn’t do nearly as well. He spent much of the night in the bathroom. The sound of a piano began to drift into the room and I went to open the door and listen to the notes as they filtered their way up the stairs. I immediately recognized the song as Because by The Beatles, one of the lesser-known songs from their Abbey Road album. Actually, it was one of their most beautiful songs ever and the rendition being played on the piano was one I’d never heard before. It was exceptional. I made my way downstairs in spite of the way I was feeling and was barely aware of the way I knew I must have looked. My bladder felt like it would burst, but it could wait. I was drawn like a moth to the music, barefoot and clad only in an oversize t-shirt and my panties. I walked down two flights of stairs before I reached the living room and found the source of the sound – a grand piano, and a full-size one at that. I almost couldn’t see who was playing it, but then I spotted Larry’s face as he intently played the music. It was so beautiful. When the last note played and faded away, I clapped for him as I walked around the piano to find Larry sitting on the piano bench, clad only in his boxers. When he saw me, he blushed, turning red not only in his face, but all over. “I’m sorry, Robin,” he began, “I completely forgot you’re here. “Speaking of which, how do you feel?” he asked. “I hope you haven’t been as sick as me.” “I have a little bit of a headache and some mild nausea, but it isn’t that bad,” I replied. “I had a great time last night, if only I could remember it,” I added with a laugh. “But Larry, you played that so beautifully. Was that your own rendition?” “Yeah it was,” he replied. “It sounds even better on guitar, but I can’t play the guitar worth shit when I feel like this. Sitting at the piano, on the other hand, makes me feel better and the music soothes me. Sitting here with my hands on the keys, the room doesn’t seem to spin as much.” Then Larry started to play the piano once again and I immediately recognized it was The Beatles’ Penny Lane. I couldn’t help myself as I broke into song. Larry joined me in singing the chorus. When the last note had faded away, Larry commented, “It’s too bad Penny Lane was never released on an album.” “It’s on the deluxe version of the 2018 remastered release of Sargent Pepper,” I pointed out. “Fifty years later,” Larry countered. “Originally it was released on a double-A-side 45 along with Strawberry Fields in what would be an EP release today. What really blew was the way Strawberry Fields was cut from Sargent Pepper in the first place. That song was critical to the album and without it, the story The Beatles were telling didn’t make sense.” After a pause, I asked, “Play something else. Something a bit more contemporary.” “Okay,” Larry said before hitting the keys once more as he played the Overture to Tommy, by The Who, followed by Every Breath You Take by the Police, to which he sang along. His singing was wonderful. I think we were both startled when Larry’s mother suggested, “Why don’t you play something more serious?” I didn’t even realize she was there. “Okay, why not?” Larry agreed, and then launched into a tune that I didn’t recognize at first. It definitely sounded like Claude Debussy, but no sooner did I make the connection than I recognized as Arabesques. He played it beautifully. “You could play professionally,” I commented. “That was wonderful.” “Yes it was,” his mother agreed, “and he could if he only took the time to practice, but my son would rather find a cure for diabetes than be an entertainer, and that’s what’s important. “Now, I understand you have plans for the day and it’s already getting late. Why don’t you two get washed up, and then we’ll have a light lunch, alright?” “That sounds great, Mom,” Larry replied. “I’ll show Robin where everything is.” “Don’t forget to wake up the boys while you’re at it,” Larry’s mom added. As my brother and my best friend had shared a bed, I feared they hadn’t gotten much sleep last night. As far as I knew, Dave was a virgin, but Joshy had been sexually active for some time. Grabbing my hand, Larry led me back up the two flights of stairs and showed me where the bathroom was for me to use and he started to show me the controls for the multiple showerheads, but I interrupted him and said, “Larry, my bladder’s beyond full. If I don’t use the toilet right now, I’ll explode!” “Now we wouldn’t want that,” he responded. “Blood stains are extremely hard to get rid of.” Chuckling, I said, “Larry, it’s not funny!” “Okay, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’ve been told I have a warped sense of humor.” He exited the bathroom and closed the door behind him. I quickly dropped my panties and let loose into the toilet. Oh, that was a relief. As I was washing my hands, there was a knock on the door, and then there was the unmistakable sound of Larry’s mother’s voice as she asked, “Is everything alright dear? Is there anything you need?” “I’m fine,” I replied, and then I quickly surveyed the bathroom and saw that there was already soap and shampoo in the shower, and there were clean towels stacked on a shelf, so I took one. I looked at the shower controls and saw that it was not all that difficult to figure out. There was a hamper in the corner with a few items of clothing in it, so I pulled off the oversize t-shirt I’d slept in and dropped it into the hamper, leaving me in only my panties, which I hung on the back of the doorknob. I was just about to step into the shower when there was another knock on the door. I assumed it was Larry’s mom and so I called out, “Come in,” but it was Larry who entered. At first he was looking the other way and so he didn’t see me, but when he turned my way, he froze in place. His eyes got big as saucers and he stared at me as he turned a deep shade of red. For a moment it looked like he might actually pass out and so I ran to him and put my hand on his shoulder. I’d grown up in a household with three siblings, one of them a boy, and I’d never known modesty. Larry, on the other hand, was an only child and had probably never seen a naked girl before, at least not in the flesh. “Larry, are you all right?” I asked. When he failed to respond, I shouted a bit louder, “Larry!” Finally, he looked into my face, but then his eyes got even bigger and his attempt at speaking was only a stammer. “Larry, it’s all right,” I told him. “Really, it is. Your coming in here was an accident. When you knocked, I thought it was your mother at the door, so that’s my fault. It was kind of stupid of me, actually.” When he still remained silent, I continued, “For what it’s worth, I grew up with two older sisters, who share my bedroom, and a brother, and we’ve all seen each other naked. There’s no modesty when you have four siblings and their dad in a tiny three-bedroom apartment. Just the other day I caught a glimpse of Josh walking across the hall to the bathroom in only his boxers, but his boner was sticking out of the fly. I don’t think he was even aware of it, but I couldn’t help but giggle and he responded by flipping the bird at me without ever looking my way. I’ve seen his boner and he’s seen my boobs, lots of times and it’s no big deal. Finally, he said, “But I knocked.” “Yes, you did,” I acknowledged. “And you said to come in!” “I sure did,” I agreed. “I only needed to get my hairbrush,” he explained. “I’m so embarrassed,” he added. “There’s no need to be,” I replied. “You’re beautiful,” he said, and then he became self-conscious and looked down. I followed his eyes and he was rock hard. Then suddenly I knew just what to do. I reached forward and slipped my finger under the elastic of his boxers and pulled them forward and then pulled them down. I couldn’t deny that it was exciting to see his excitement, but that wasn’t the point. “Now we’re even, and we both know what we have to look forward to when we’re ready for it,” I exclaimed. “Now go jerk off or something and get in the shower. We need to get going before your mother comes up to see what’s going on.” That got him moving! I proceeded to shower, then applied the deodorant Larry’s mom had apparently left for me, brushed my teeth and brushed and dried my hair. I wrapped the towel around me and returned to my room, where I dressed in the clothes I’d worn the day before. I met up with Larry in the hall outside my room and he again apologized profusely for barging in on me, even though I kept reiterating that it wasn’t his fault. We headed downstairs and Larry guided me to the kitchen, where Dave and Josh where already being served lunch by an older African American woman. It was a simple meal but very tasty. During lunch, we had a friendly conversation with Larry’s mom. I found her to be unassuming and approachable, and not at all what I would have expected of a world-famous soprano. Clearly, she considered being a mother an equal priority to her career, but poor Larry was perpetually embarrassed by some of the things she said about him and the anecdotes she related to us. Although she tried not to pry, she did ask quite a few questions and was impressed, both with my family and with me. “So what’s on the agenda for today?” I asked Larry as we all headed out the front door and down the front steps. “Do you like Alanis Morrissette?” he asked, and I smiled broadly. “Who’s Alanis Morrissette?” My brother asked. “You did not just ask that,” I replied. “You got tickets for Jagged Little Pill?” Dave asked. “For the matinee,” Larry confirmed. I grabbed Larry’s hand and Josh grabbed Dave’s, and we headed together down Central Park West.
  7. Altimexis

    Part Three

    “I don’t know, guys… I don’t think this virus is just gonna go away,” Seth said as we sat down to lunch at Stuyvesant High School. “What, you don’t believe the president when he says it’s under control?” I jokingly replied to our friends. “Not when he’s more concerned with how well the stock market is doing, Freck,” Kyle chimed in. “It won’t be doing well much longer,” I responded. “Not when the numbers start piling up.” “They’re already piling up,” Asher agreed. “If you look at what they’re doing in China and how extreme it is… you can’t do that here. But the virus doesn’t know any boundaries and even though the president implemented a ban on travel to and from China, the Coronavirus is already here.” “On Saturday, February 29, there were 24 confirmed cases in the U.S.,” Kyle joined in. “By Sunday, it had nearly doubled to 42 cases. “By Monday it was up to 57 cases and yesterday it was up to 85. That’s exponential growth, and it’s probably the tip of the iceberg. For every confirmed case, there are probably at least ten people that have the virus but either don’t have symptoms yet, or their symptoms are mild. And who knows how many we don’t know about because they haven’t been tested. Maybe there are a hundred cases for every known case.” “The president doesn’t understand exponential growth,” I added. “He thinks it’s gonna just disappear. Mark my words, this is just the beginning and before long, New York City will be an epicenter of what will clearly be a global pandemic.” Then with an involuntary shiver, I added, “What’s it gonna do to the restaurant business?” Asher’s family owned two restaurants on the Lower East Side. Shrugging his shoulders, Asher replied, “It’s a bit early to say. I can’t picture New York taking such draconian measures that they shut down the restaurants and if anything, our Asian takeout restaurant should see business increase as people go out less often. If they do shut the restaurants or if people just get spooked, the Ragin’ Cajun could be in trouble. An all-you-can-eat buffet isn’t exactly the best restaurant venue when people are trying to avoid catching a virus.” “The takeout business there would also suffer, Ashe,” his boyfriend, Seth, pointed out. “It’s a self-serve food bar, after all. We might have to rethink things.” “Maybe you guys should be proactive rather than reactive,” Kyle suggested. “What do you mean, Kyle?” Asher asked. “Why wait until it’s a full-on global pandemic before taking action?” he responded. “Get ahead of the game with food you can certify to be 100% virus-free.” “And how am I supposed to do that?” Asher asked. “The virus is highly susceptible to heat,” Kyle pointed out, “so use thermometers to verify an adequate cooking temperature in every dish. Have kitchen staff wear those N95 masks if you can get them, or make your own face shields if you can’t. Serve everything in single-use, single-serving containers. Provide hand sanitizer on each table. Stop taking cash… take only contactless payments like Apple or Google Pay.” “I guess we could keep the buffet going for now putting out trays of food in single-use containers rather than having customers dish out their own portions.” Asher replied. “That’s a good idea, Kyle. “I hate to turn away customers who want to pay cash,” Seth added, “but it would probably be for the best. We don’t get many customers who pay with cash anyway…” “We do on Grand Street, at the Asian takeout,” Asher interrupted. “A lot of the older folks, who’ve been our most loyal customers, don’t even have a smart phone, so contactless payments aren’t an option for them.” “Surely they must have credit or debit cards,” I suggested. “Probably,” Seth agreed. “Then let them use those,” I recommended. “Put a sign in the window to the effect that you’ve stopped taking cash for their own protection. Also, you can encourage ordering online. That way you can have takeout orders ready for pickup, certified virus-free. Your delivery people should wear masks and gloves too, and maybe disposable hazmat suits” “That sounds like overkill,” Asher responded, “But maybe they could wear scrubs, and leave all deliveries on the doorstep. The gratuity would be added when the order is made. I hear PPE items are in short supply in general though, partly because they’re in short supply from China, but also because people are hoarding them. I sure don’t wanna be part of the problem.” “What the fuck is PPE?” Carl asked. “I guess I’ve been watching too much CNN,” Asher responded. “It stands for personal protective equipment, and it means, gowns, gloves, masks and the like.” “My dad has maybe ten boxes of N95 masks that he keeps for international travel when he has to go among crowds where TB is endemic,” Seth informed us. “He has a defective gene that prevents him from metabolizing one of the main drugs they use to treat TB. If he takes it, his liver’s toast, so he has good reason to have the masks, but they’re reusable and he certainly doesn’t need a hundred of them. With his current legal problems, though, and especially with a possible global pandemic, he’s not going anywhere, so the masks are there and you might as well use them.” “That’s fuckin’ fantastic,” Kyle responded. “You should order the scrubs right away, however.” “But don’t the hospitals need the masks even more?” I asked. “How about we give half the masks to the NYU Langone clinic at Essex Crossing, and keep the other half for the restaurant?” Seth suggested. “We can always give them more if the need arises.” “That sounds reasonable,” Asher agreed. “I wonder what’s gonna happen with the holidays coming up,” Josh asked, speaking up for the first time. “I know that Passover and Easter are a month away, but at the rate this thing’s spreading, by next week we’ll be into the thousands of cases in the U.S. The week after that, it’ll be over ten thousand cases and by the time we get to April first, there could be a million cases if we go on living life as usual. By the night of the first Seder, there could be ten million cases in the U.S., with thousands of deaths.” “Well that’s a cheery thought,” I responded, “but that’s if we continue to do nothing. Not even this president would be so stupid as to do nothing…” “Knowing him, he’ll just double down on that stupid wall of his,” Clarke interjected, “thinking he can keep the virus out, even though it’s already here. He’ll probably ban international travel, even though it’s spreading like crazy already. Look at what’s happening Italy.” “Something tells me there’ll be no Holy Week in Rome,” Carl interjected. “If nothing else, the governor will intervene,” Seth countered. “He has the authority to close the schools, close the bars and restaurants and impose a curfew if it becomes necessary, and knowing New Yorkers, it might. Hell, he could call out the National Guard to maintain order.” “You really think it could come down to closing the schools?” Kyle asked. “How the fuck will we finish the semester?” “We might not,” I answered. “More likely, we’ll have to finish our classes at home over the Internet.” “What about kids who don’t have broadband?” Carl asked. “Up until I moved in with Clarke’s family, I didn’t. I used to do my homework in the school library.” “Maybe there’ll be alternative sites for the students who don’t have it, or maybe Verizon or RCN or Spectrum will donate broadband to those who need it,” Clarke chimed in, “and maybe Apple and Microsoft will donate tablets to students who don’t have them.” “But what about meals?” Carl asked. “I woulda starved without school breakfast and lunch.” “The city will have to do something,” I responded. “But if they bring the students together for meals, wouldn’t that kind of defeat the purpose of closing the schools?” Seth asked. “It would be better than keeping the schools open and having the students together all day,” Kyle suggested, “but kids are social and they’ll probably stay together after eating anyway. We’re all fucked.” “Maybe that’s one way we can help,” Asher suggested. “We could prepare simple meals for kids and deliver them to the projects for anyone that needs them.” “And who’s gonna pay for them?” Seth countered. “I don’t mind dipping into our profits for a worthy cause, but we may need our savings to weather the storm if they shut us down altogether, so let’s see what the city does before being so generous.” “Your point’s well-taken, Seth,” Asher responded. “But getting back to the holidays,” Josh continued, “my family was really looking forward to celebrating our first Passover Seder with Kyle’s family, but if the virus has spread to infect hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S., let alone millions, there’s no way you’ll be able to hold a Seder. We’ll all be locked down by then.” “Fuck, I hadn’t thought of that,” I responded. “I was really looking forward to my first Passover Seder with my boyfriend’s family too.” “You know, our synagogue has a Seder every year,” Kyle brought up. “It’s for families that are, well, too lazy to hold their own, or that are just learning how or are too small. The thing is, they usually hold it before Passover, I guess so people can then go home and still hold their own if they want to. But maybe that’s what we should do. Maybe we should celebrate Passover early this year, before the Coronavirus has time to spread any further.” “We’d have to do it pretty soon, Ky,” I responded. “At the rate things are going, we might not be able to leave our homes before long.” “It might not be safe for us to leave our homes before long, or to get together with friends,” Seth added. “How do you guys feel about maybe holding it this Saturday?” I asked. “Are you fuckin’ crazy?” Kyle exclaimed. “Planning for a Seder takes time.” “But you don’t have time,” Asher countered. “The fucking virus saw to that. You know, I’ve always wanted to go to a Passover Seder and this would be my chance to prepare an authentic Passover meal. Seth could help me in the kitchen. If I take care of preparing the meal, Kyle, could you and Freck organize the Seder itself. Do you think you can do that?” “We’ll sure,” I replied. “If I have any questions, I’ll call our rabbi. I’ll ask her if she can recommend a Haggadah. There’s probably something we can download from the internet.” “Robin was supposed to go to the Seder held by her boyfriend’s extended family up in Peekskill, but now I doubt that it’ll happen,” Josh noted. “She’ll need to be included too. Maybe we should invite Larry and his parents, just as I’ll invite Dave and his mom.” “Robin is your sister, Josh?” Clarke asked. I’d forgotten they hadn’t met. “The youngest of three sisters,” Josh answered. “It sounds like you have a typical Catholic family, like mine,” Clarke responded. “And who are Dave and Larry?” Shrugging his shoulders, Josh explained, “A lot of Orthodox Jews have large families. Dave is my boyfriend, and Larry is Robin’s. They both go to Robin’s school, the Salk School for Science.” Clarke asked, “Isn’t that a middle school?” When Josh nodded his head, he asked in surprise, “You’re dating a middle schooler?” “Yeah, but we’re only a few days apart in age,” Josh explained. “I was born on December 30 and Dave was born two days later, on New Year’s Day. Dave missed the cutoff for starting school the year before by one fuckin’ day.” “That blows,” Clarke responded. “Yeah, it sure does,” I agreed, “but playing Devil’s advocate, they have to set the cutoff date sometime and New York’s is one of the latest. In some school districts I hear the cutoff’s as early as Labor Day.” “Fuck, that woulda screwed a lot of us,” Clarke replied. “It woulda screwed both Kyle and me, ’cause our birthdays are in December. So anyway,” I continued, “We invited Kyle’s mom ’cause they’re close, and so we invited my mom as a courtesy, and believe it or not, she accepted.” “What’s with that?” Clarke asked. “I thought you were estranged from your birth parents.” “It’s… complicated,” I replied. “She and my dad never showed me any love, and from the time I could understand it, I realized I was nothing more than a trophy child. But she is my flesh and blood and she’s half-Jewish herself, and my dads thought it would be nice to invite her. You can imagine how surprised I was when she accepted the invite, but in retrospect, I suppose it’s understandable.” “How so?” Clarke asked. “According to Wikipedia, it isn’t clear how her family survived the Holocaust and there’s a lot of talk that her family may have collaborated with the Nazis,” I explained. “Ouch,” Josh responded. “Yeah, but as much as I blame my mom for a lot of things, that’s not one of them,” I countered. “If her grandparents betrayed our people, that’s horrible, but it hardly is my mom’s fault.” “Yeah, that’s true,” Clarke agreed. “Still, it’s gotta be awkward having her there under the circumstances.” “For sure, but you know, I think she’d be the first to admit that living with Kyle’s family is the best thing for me.” “Interesting…” Clarke responded. “So how many does that make for your Seder?” “I guess if everyone can come, we’re up to nineteen participants, which kinda defeats the purpose of holding an early Seder to avoid spreading the virus, doesn’t it?” Seth asked. “Well how about we make it a kids-only Seder?” Asher suggested.” “That’s a great idea,” Josh agreed. “There’d still be eleven of us kids,” I noted. “And we couldn’t exactly exclude our dads, since they’d be hosting it at their house.” “True, but we’re together much of the day at school anyway, so the Seder wouldn’t really expose us to any more risk than we’re already facing every day when we eat lunch together at school.” Josh responded. “It’d be fun.” “So you’ll have a Coronavirus extravaganza,” Clarke added with a grin. “But Hell, Freck, you’re not even Jewish.” “Technically I am,” I countered. “I was raised Roman Catholic, but my mother’s mother was Jewish and hence my mother and I are too, by ancestry if not in practice. ’Course I wouldn’t count toward a minyan, the minimum of ten required for a Jewish prayer service… not until I complete my bar mitzvah next December.” “That’s another thing I don’t get, Freck,” Clarke continued. “You don’t even believe in God…” “I didn’t say I don’t believe in God,” I corrected my friend. “I’m an agnostic… a radical agnostic. I believe in moral righteousness, advancing knowledge and a future for humankind beyond earth, but I believe that if one seeks to do what’s right, the existence or nature of God is irrelevant. Kyle, by contrast, believes that everything has a scientific explanation.” “Which of course it does,” Kyle interjected. Laughing, I added, “You might say he has ‘absolute faith’ in science. The problem is that science is based on testing hypotheses. Some things can’t be tested and some things may never be known. You can’t disprove the existence of God. The one thing I’m sure of is that no organized religion has a monopoly on the truth, nor do any of them lack major flaws.” “So if you don’t believe in any organized religion, why go though getting your bar mitzvah at all?” Clarke asked. “I’m doing it because I’m marrying into a Jewish family…” “You’re thirteen, Freck, and Kyle’s eleven,” Clarke pointed out. “Most eighteen-year-old seniors don’t end up marrying the ones they’re with when they graduate. Look at what happened with you last summer in Paris.” “Even when I freaked and ran, it wasn’t because I didn’t love Kyle,” I explained. “When I ran, it was because of my own insecurity. It was my feelings toward myself that changed. And now I’m in counseling to help me to better deal with stress. I love Kyle and I wouldn’t want to think of life without him.” Kyle grinned at that. “Clarke and I love each other every bit as much as you and Kyle do,” Carl responded, “but I’m also a realist. We’ve even talked about what’s gonna happen next year, when I graduate and Clarke still has a year to go. We won’t have the option of choosing to go to college together. I hope to go to an NCAA division one school, hopefully on a basketball scholarship.” “I don’t want him to choose a local school because of me,” Clarke chimed in. “I want him to choose the school that gives him the best scholarship offer and that can give him the best education. If that’s Columbia or Fordham or even Seaton Hall, great, but if it’s Penn or UCLA, then that’s where I want him to go. It would ruin the relationship if either of us thought he gave up what he wanted. “Next year, when I choose my college, even if I can get into the same school, I won’t be able to afford it. Unless I can get an academic scholarship, chances are we won’t even end up in the same state, let alone at the same school.” “Fuck, that’s depressing. At least I know that Freck and I will both be going to MIT. Although we’ll be in different curricula, we’ll be together outside of class and share the same bed at night,” Kyle added as he blushed a deep shade of red. From the heat in my face, I guessed I did too. “Even though our careers will take us all over the globe, we’re not about to let that destroy what we have,” I agreed. “As an architect, I can live anywhere and do my design work anywhere. No matter what, we’re gonna make the time to be together. Absolutely, we’re gonna get married so, yes, I’m marrying into the faith.” “The Seder begins at sunset?” Asher asked. “Technically,” Josh replied, “but that’s not ’til around 7:30 this time of year, and 8:30 after this Sunday, ’cause of the switch to Daylight Saving’s Time, so we’d better start a bit earlier. After all, we’d like to finish it before midnight.” “There’s a story of the famous Rabbi Hillel getting so engrossed in a discussion during the Passover Seder,” Kyle threw in, “that their students had to interrupt them to tell them it was time for the morning prayers. We should probably ask everyone to arrive by 4:30, so the Seder can get underway by 5:00.” “You expect the Seder to last seven hours?” Clarke asked. “I’m told that four to five hours is typical, including the meal,” I related. “I can’t imagine doing anything that takes that long,” Clarke replied. “There are some operas that last longer,” I pointed out. “And you wonder why most kids don’t like opera,” Clarke responded, and we all laughed. <> <><> We’d planned to talk to Jake and Ken, the ‘dads’, that evening when they got home, but Kyle and his brother, Roger, and I got texts from Jake in the middle of the afternoon telling us they’d be working late at the hospital every night the rest of the week, as well as the entire weekend. I texted him back to ask if we could have the Seder on our own that weekend, but he responded that in no way could we hold it at our house without either him or Ken being there. Unfortunately, they were gonna be tied up at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where they both worked, for the foreseeable future, preparing for the Coronavirus pandemic, so any possibility of holding a Seder at our house this year seemed to be out of the question. I sent a quick text to Seth, asking him if we could hold the Seder at his apartment. I figured it might actually work out better there, since Josh’s entire family lived in the same cooperative, but Seth texted back that it wouldn’t be a good idea. Although his father was out on bail, pending the resolution of the bogus corruption charges against him, the governor still valued his input, particularly with the emerging coronavirus cases in the city. Between the governor and the mayor, his father was constantly on the phone and government officials could be expected drop by at any time. I was just about to text everyone to let them know we’d have to call the Seder off, when I remembered that I’d originally invited my mother and that my parents’ penthouse apartment would be ideal. Up until last year, I’d lived there, just a few blocks from our high school. I therefore sent her a quick text explaining the change in plans and asking if it would be possible to hold the Seder in the penthouse. She texted me back right away, but rather than giving me a direct answer, asked me if I could meet her there after school. That she was home in the middle of the day was strange enough, but her wanting to talk to me, face-to-face, was unprecedented. In my thirteen years she’d hardly ever spoken to me at all. WTF! Kyle and I walked the short distance to the penthouse after our last class. Because the apartment took up the entire top floor, the elevator opened directly into the apartment, where my mother and my twin sisters were waiting. As always, Mom was impeccably dressed, but there was something different about her too. Not that there was anything I could put my finger on per se. She strode purposefully toward me with the same demeanor as always, yet she looked different. My sisters, Debbie and Lisa, walked beside and slightly behind her as was expected of them in their roles as trophy children, yet they seemed more purposeful somehow. More confident and maybe more loved. I wasn’t sure why, but I could see it on their faces. “You’re looking well, Freck,” my mother said as she approached me, and that was different enough, but then she did something so unexpected that I might well have fallen over had I not been held in my mother’s arms. She never ever called me Freck – she called me Francis. She never ever hugged me – she kissed me on the cheek, and even then, only if it was in public. I was stunned. “Mom?” I asked. “Don’t you think it’s time I made some changes in my life? In our lives?” she asked. “Well yeah,” I responded, “but you’ve never done anything unless it benefitted your image. Forgive me for being skeptical, but it’s hard for me to picture you doing anything else. Is there a hidden camera somewhere?” “I suppose I had that coming,” was her response, “but I’ve come to realize that if my image is hollow, my legacy will be hollow. It took some problems I had, to put things in perspective. Don’t get me wrong… I’m proud of what I’ve built, but when I was confronted with my own mortality, I realized that someday history would judge me for what I didn’t do with my life. Suddenly it all clicked and it brought home the fact that the the bright lights and glitter won’t last. I suppose I always knew that, but to say I was in denial would have been a gross understatement. Shouldn’t my legacy include philanthropy? And not just my name on a hospital wing, but real life-changing activities? Shouldn’t it include my children?” “Mom, are you okay?” I asked, suddenly concerned there was something wrong with her health. “I’m fine, dear,” she replied. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with me.” “Not that I don’t appreciate the change,” I responded, “But life-changing philanthropy? I can’t picture Dad going along with anything like that.” “He went nuclear,” Debbie reported. “It wasn’t pretty,” Lisa agreed. “And you brought him around?” I asked. “That’s impossible to believe.” “Not that we see each other very much anyway,” Mom replied, “but we’ve decided on a trial separation.” “Woah!” I exclaimed. “Actually I’m pretty sure we’ll get a divorce,” she continued. “In fact, I’ve hired an attorney and I bought a brownstone, just off of Central Park West.” “You should see it, Freck” Debbie chimed in. “It’s on 88th Street, just down the street from Central Park.” Laughing – laughing – my mother never laughed, she asked, “You boys must be starving. Please, come inside? René and I have some snacks available in the kitchen.” This was not the mother who treated us as trophy kids. I was gonna reserve judgement though. It was hard to reconcile the woman in front of me with the mother I knew. We all headed into the apartment, which was based on an open design with a very modern kitchen around which were arranged a home theater, the living room, a formal dining room and a playroom. A row of stools with chairbacks was arrayed along a counter that ran the full width of the kitchen, and it was to the stools that we headed. We all sat down at the counter, with Kyle and me on one side of my mother and with my sisters on her other side. My sisters’ nanny, René, placed a plate with what appeared to be crab cakes and coleslaw in front of each of us. To that she added a cup of what appeared to be a seafood bisque, and a glass of Coke. There was something different about the way René looked today, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. She did seem more relaxed though. My sisters each drank some coke and proceeded eat their crab cakes, as did Kyle and I. I expected that Mom would eat the crab cakes and bisque, but leave the coke untouched, but she took only the coke and proceeded to sip it. It was so unlike her. I responded by saying, “If you pull a cigarette out of your purse and ask for a light, I’m gonna call the FBI and report you as an imposter.” We both laughed at that. “So you and Dad are separated, and you bought a brownstone,” I continued. “It’s hard for me to picture.” “Have you seen my Wikipedia entry?” she asked and I responded by nodding my head. “It put into perspective some of the things I heard growing up. I’d never even given thought before as to how my mother’s family survived the Holocaust. However, what really got to me were the references to my being aloof. It made me realize that while I want to be remembered for my sense of style and image, I don’t want it to end there. I’ve left my mark, but styles always pass. Fashion is fleeting. I want my legacy to live on in my children and in what I do with the rest of my life. “I’m in a unique position to put my stature and my image to good use. I could give generously and give my name to public works around the globe, but any billionaire could do that. I have an opportunity to use my social status to influence hundreds more. I can leverage my wealth and magnify it a hundred-fold. When I’m long gone, I want to be remembered for making a difference. I want to be remembered as the woman who raised over a trillion dollars and virtually put an end to homelessness in this country. I want to be remembered as the one to finally address mental health and drug dependence on the street and to ensure that everyone has access to the services they need. I want to ensure that every child has a roof over their head and people who give a shit about their future. The Coronavirus pandemic only demonstrates the urgency of doing so,” she concluded. “Dad would never go along with it,” I responded. “Which is why a divorce is inevitable,” Mom replied. “Your father sees the homeless as lazy, crazy detritus to be left to rot on the streets. I guess you could say I’ve picked a cause that couldn’t be further from his interests. This penthouse atop a glass tower suits him perfectly, but it’s not the right place for me anymore. It’s not the kind of place I want to raise my children.” “Do you want me to live with you in the brownstone too?” I asked as I swallowed hard. Shaking her head, she replied, “You’re welcome to if you want to… you and Kyle, but I don’t expect you to. You’re happy where you are and you love your boyfriend’s dads, who’ve given you far more love than your own father ever did. His idea of love is writing you a check whenever you ask for it. It’s no wonder you took advantage of the pot your father always kept in the house. Thank God he listened to me about keeping the cocaine under lock and key.” My jaw dropped when I heard that. “What, you think a man like that would stop at marijuana? I drew the line there. Social pot was one thing. Cocaine is social on a whole different level. It’s about being above the law… about being special… about living a life where social norms don’t apply. “It’s a miracle that you aren’t like that at all, Freck,” she continued. “It scares me how close we came to losing you last summer and the summer before that. We very nearly did. Riverdale I think is much better suited to you than a brownstone on the Upper West Side and being raised by a nanny. Speaking of which, I’m going to do right by René. I’m going to sponsor her visa so she can be here legally and eventually become a citizen. I’ll pay her a fair wage too… above minimum, and I’ll make sure your father pays the back wages he owes her. Otherwise he’ll have to deal with the IRS and he’ll still be on the hook for minimum wage plus benefits over the last ten years. No wonder René looked more relaxed! “What about my request to hold the Seder here this Saturday?” I asked. “With the separation, I don’t think that would be a good idea, Freck,” Mom responded and my face fell. “I only met you here today because I knew how convenient it would be for you to come here after school. Your sisters and I now live in the brownstone. However, I’d be delighted if you’d consider holding the Seder in the brownstone. “Is it large enough?” I asked. I knew that a lot of the brownstones on the Upper West Side had been divided up into apartments and I worried that her’s might be one of those, but when my sisters giggled, I realized it was absurd to think my mother would settle for anything that small. “We have over five thousand square feet, Freck,” Mom answered. “I can’t picture you needing more than that. Why don’t you and Kyle come over on Friday night? You can invite your friends for brunch on Saturday and spend the day in the park.” “I don’t know,” I answered. “I like the sound of that. It’s just that you and Dad never seemed to care about me or about what I wanted before. It was always about what made you guys look good. It’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that your request is nothing more than that, all over again.” “I suppose I deserve that too,” Mom, responded. “Your father and I were two career-focused people whose social status demanded we maintain certain appearances. It took a terrible toll on you and although I can’t make up for what I did to you, I can try to be a better mom from now on. What’s more is that I have two wonderful girls who are just as exceptional and I hope and pray it’s not too late to be a good mother to them. Please give me a chance to be a mother to you now. I’m not going to try to take you away from your boyfriend, nor from the wonderful life you’ve made for yourself with his family. I promise you that much and the rest we’ll have to fill in as we go.” My sisters! How could I have neglected to include my sisters? “Would Debbie and Lisa like to attend the Seder?” I asked. “Of course we would, Freck,” Debbie answered me directly.” “We’re both interested in learning about our Jewish roots,” Lisa chimed in. “It’s too bad we won’t have a chance to attend services for Good Friday and Easter, but they’ll almost certainly be cancelled too, I think,” Mom added. “I’m not sure that would be a good idea anyway,” I replied. “Saint Patrick’s is just so formal, and I wouldn’t exactly feel welcome there.” “Oh honey,” Mom responded, “I’m not talking about going back to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, regardless of whether or not you go with me to services.” I was shocked. “Frankly, the Center for Humanistic Judaism would probably be a much better fit now, particularly since you and the girls have taken an interest in Judaism, but I’m not ready to leave the Church behind, even though I’m not at all religious. I could never belong to a church that wasn’t accepting of LGBT members and that pretty much excludes the Catholic church. Otherwise I might have tried Holy Trinity, which is nearby on the Upper West Side. “There are a couple of liberal churches near the brownstone that are listed in online LGBT resources guides. One is the Second Presbyterian Church, which is right on Central Park West at 96th Street, and the other is the Advent Lutheran Church, on Broadway at West 93rd. Perhaps you’d consider going to services with your sisters and me on Sunday.” “If Kyle and I were to stay over, what would be the sleeping arrangements?” I asked. Laughing, she responded, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you’d ask that. You’re a healthy teenager, after all, and I’ve seen how the two of you interact. I’ll admit that at first, I was skeptical that boys your ages could experience true romantic love, but seeing you together has laid that notion to rest. No one can say for certain that it will last, but I hope it does. You and Kyle seem far better suited to each other than your father and I ever were. “I know that you and Kyle each have your own bedrooms, but I have it on good faith that you almost never spend the night apart. I’m fine with that and Kyle is welcome to share your bed, and how you spend your time in bed together is your business and yours alone.” After a pause, I asked my mother what was really on my mind. “The guardianship arrangement was between Dad and Jake Goldstein. Are you gonna honor it too, or will you try to get me to live with you permanently?” “Oh Freck,” Mom answered as she placed her hand on my arm. “You have the intellect of an adult but the insecurity of a child. I thought I already answered that. You know, you could if you wanted go away to MIT next year and I’d never stop you. You might find it’s easier for you and Kyle to live in Manhattan, particularly when you go to City College next year, but I leave that to you and Kyle, and to Kyle’s dads. Just know that you and Kyle will always be welcome in our home and that it’ll always be your home too. Sadly, I doubt your father will even seek visitation rights, let alone custody if we do divorce, but if he tries, I’ll not hesitate to call his bluff regarding his treatment of René. If you spend any time with him, it’ll be on your terms.” <> <><> I was surprised when everyone responded that they could make the Seder on Saturday, and everyone with the exception of Asher and Seth was interested in Saturday brunch and spending the day in Central Park. Asher and Seth, of course, would be busy preparing the Passover meal. Hence on Friday afternoon, with a change of clothes and our personal items in our book bags, Kyle and I took a number one train up to 86th street. In spite of the latest news on the emerging pandemic, the train was as packed as always. It was an easy ten-minute walk from the subway station at 86th street to Mom’s brownstone on 88th Street, near Central Park West. Brownstones were originally built as middle-class housing for the masses and were named for the use of a cheaper grade of limestone, which contained a heavy concentration of iron that gave it a reddish-brown appearance. Land was still expensive, however and so they were built with a first floor that was traditionally rented out as a separate apartment, with its own entrance. Many if not most brownstones are still used that way today, although as they became more and more unaffordable except to those with money, the ground-floor apartments are gradually being incorporated into the houses above them. Quite a few residents have made use of the ground floor, with its separate entrance, for a home business as, for example, with a solo practitioner attorney, doctor or accountant. Although it was very narrow, as are most brownstones, from the front it appeared to be a castle with a sweeping curved stairway leading up from the sidewalk to a wide double door that was obviously the main entrance to the house. A smaller door was tucked away under the stairway, right at street level. The middle three floors had bow windows in front that curved outward. The top floor instead had three smaller windows across the front, whereas the ground floor had two windows and a door. Kyle and I walked up the stairway and I pushed the doorbell. A moment later, one of the door panels swung open to reveal both of my sisters standing there, wearing matching shorts… and nothing else. At the age of nine – nearly ten, there was nothing much to see. They were still flat-chested and other than being quite a bit taller, they appeared much as they had the last time I’d seen them shirtless. Kyle, however, was clearly embarrassed and blushing. Coming up behind them, Mom said, “Girls, it’s okay to go shirtless when it’s just the three of us, but we have guests and it’s not appropriate to greet them as such.” “But it’s just Freck and Kyle,” Debbie complained. “Freck’s seen us without shirts all our lives, and Kyle’s his boyfriend and obviously has no interest in seeing our tits.” “Lisa!” Mom exclaimed, but for some reason I felt compelled to correct her and so I said, “It’s Debbie, Mom.” “You can tell the difference?” Mom exclaimed. Realizing I’d let my secret out, I responded, “I’ve always been able to tell. They sound different to me. It’s probably similar to the way I can pick up languages so easily.” “That’s pretty amazing,” Mom replied. “Does it work over the telephone?” “Just as well as in person,” I confirmed. “There have been times I could swear they played tricks on me by changing places,” Mom continued. “Now I have a way to tell.” Damn, my sisters did that quite often. I’d blown their cover to hell. “Why don’t we head to the top floor and work our way down, and I’ll show you my new home. We can drop your things on the top floor, in your bedroom while we’re at it,” she suggested. “You’re in the entry foyer, which is original to the house, and as you can see, there’s a front parlor, which is original to the design and was restored by the previous owner. He was an attorney and used the parlor as his office, which is why the walls are lined with built-in bookshelves. I was shocked when I saw a box stairway with an old-fashioned elevator in the center. There was a skylight overhead on the top floor that allowed light to filter all the way down to the ground floor. Brownstones usually had a long narrow stairway that hugged one of the side walls. The box stairway was actually more compact, and it allowed for the addition of a small elevator. “This stairway is wicked cool,” I commented. “Obviously, it’s not original to the house, which was probably built in the late nineteenth century, but I’m really impressed by how the builders who added it managed to match the style of the house,” I commented. “This house has a very interesting history,” Mom responded. “It was built just after the Civil War along with the other houses in this block. Then in the mid-1920s a clothing merchant named Alfred Pierce bought it for his wife and five children, including a young girl, Wilmette, who was paralyzed and couldn’t walk. Most likely it was spina bifida and most children with it didn’t survive back then. She was a beautiful child and he bought the house, intending for Wilmette and her nanny to live in the ground floor apartment while the rest of the family occupied the upper floors. “When little Wilmette turned six and all her brothers and sisters were off at school, she became despondent. Her father took her to see several doctors who could find nothing wrong with her. Finally, a young pediatrician realized that she felt isolated and suggested moving to a large apartment on one floor, but Alfred insisted that children needed to grow up with trees. The solution, he reasoned, was to add an elevator, but there simply wasn’t enough room for an elevator that could accommodate Wilmette in her wheelchair. “They interviewed several architects before a young architect named Lloyd Franklin came up with a workable plan. Instead of adding an addition to the house, he replaced the existing stairway with one built around an elevator. Unfortunately, the mechanics for elevators back then were always overhead and the resulting modifications to the rooftop resulted in frequent leaks whenever it rained. In any case, when the stock market crashed in 1929, Alfred was forced to declare bankruptcy. The largest creditor took the house and it was divided into five apartments… one on each floor. “The house might well have remained that way but in 2008, the landlord was overextended and had to sell. The house was bought by an attorney who was quadriplegic and needed a house for himself, his wife and their eight adopted children. The attorney bought it, gutted it and modernized it to the appearance you see today. He replaced the elevator with a new one with the mechanicals in the basement and added the skylight above, putting an end to the frequent leaks that had plagued the place since the elevator was first put in. “Sadly, he got a kidney infection and passed away about a year ago,” Mom continued. “In the meantime, the kids had all graduated high school and were away at college. It had been a struggle to fund their education as it was, but by selling the house… a large house she no longer needed… the widow was able to continue paying for her children to attend Ivy League schools. “Let’s head upstairs,” Mom suggested, then asked, “Does anyone want to take the elevator? “I’d like to try it out,” I replied and Kyle nodded his head as well. “It may look old-fashioned, but it works like any modern elevator,” Mom responded. “The girls and I will meet you at the top.” Pressing the ‘up’ button, Kyle and I opened the door and entered the elevator, which looked like a gilded cage, and the inner door slid closed behind us. I pushed the button for the fourth floor – the first floor was labeled ‘G’ rather than one – and we watched Mom and my sisters easily outpace us on the stairs as Ky and I slowly ascended. They were waiting on us by the time we arrived on the fourth floor. “You boys will be staying in the front bedroom on this floor, if you’d like to drop your things here,” Mom announced. We all entered the front bedroom and Kyle and I dropped our bookbags on the desk. Mom referred to it as a small bedroom, but although it was narrow, it was spacious and filled with antique furniture, including what appeared to be a king-size four-poster bed. Two windows with elegant draperies faced the street. Through an open door, I noticed that there was an en-suite bathroom and most likely, a walk-in closet next to it. Returning to the hallway outside the bedroom, Mom showed us there was another bathroom on the floor, which she told us we were free to use as well, and then she showed us the back bedroom, which was even larger than the one in front. There were three large windows facing a courtyard and garden in back and there were skylights as well. The effect was stunning. The room was bright and airy and contained a drafting table and a substantial computer workstation that was not unlike the one I had in my room in Kyle’s house. A large worktable dominated the center of the room. Bookshelves with an extensive collection of fashion books and magazines lined the walls. “The previous owner was an attorney, and his wife was an architect. As you can see, I’ve appropriated the space to use as my own studio,” my mother explained. “You’ve probably been wondering why I’m home so much of the time, and this is a good part of the reason. With a home studio, I can do a lot of my work from home and spend a lot more time with your sisters. It’s ironic that this virus thing is going on, as I now have the tools to work at home full-time, should the need arise. It’s not a substitute for my buying trips, but all the fashion people will be in the same boat if we can’t travel for a time.” Walking down a flight of stairs, we entered the front bedroom on the third floor, which quite obviously was the room my sisters shared. Unlike my bedroom above it, it had a three-pane bow window that looked really cool. They had twin beds, twin dressers and twin desks, but otherwise the layout was similar to my room on the top floor, with a walk-in closet and an en-suite bath. Ever since they could talk, they let it be known they preferred to share a bedroom as identical twins often do, rather than to sleep in separate rooms. “This is really nice,” I exclaimed, then asked, “René has the back bedroom?” “She’s downstairs in the kitchen, getting a snack ready I think,” Lisa answered, “but yeah.” Then after a pause added, “I bet you’ve been studying the house, trying to reverse-engineer the architecture.” “Of course,” I admitted with a smile. We entered the back bedroom, which was similar in size to the Mom’s studio but was jam packed with all the furniture that had been in her suite back in the condo. Now I could see that the back bedroom was bigger than the one in front, as space hadn’t been taken from it to add an en-suite bathroom. Moving down a floor, the front bedroom was a guest room with its own closet and bathroom. The back bedroom, which was Mom’s, was considerably larger than the ones above it, with a large master bathroom and closet. The windows overlooked a lovely private garden and it was evident that an addition had been made in back to the lower floors. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, her bedroom in the brownstone was a thousand times more inviting than the one she shared with Dad in the condo. The one in the condo was larger and more lavishly appointed, and it had an incredible view but it looked more like a hotel room than a place people lived. There were little touches in Mom’s new bedroom that made all the difference in the world – things like a vase with cut flowers, a fashion magazine left out on the dresser and even the remote control for the TV being left out on the night table. Dad never would’ve tolerated such things. “This is nice, Mom,” I told her. “Thank you, Freck,” she responded. We walked down to the main floor, with its double-wide front door and foyer that opened into a parlor. About the size of my bedroom upstairs and with a three-panel bow window that faced the street, the parlor was a cozy place to receive guests. Just past the stairs was a small half-bath and beyond that a formal dining room and then a much larger living room that spanned the full width of the house. I guessed it to be between sixteen and eighteen feet wide, with three French doors that were all open. They all had wrought iron railings that made each of them into a miniature balcony. It was a beautiful, unusually warm late-winter day and so I leaned out the center one to get a better look at the garden. “Suddenly, I heard someone shout, “Freck?” but it wasn’t coming from inside the house. The shout was repeated, and it definitely sounded like a young adolescent boy’s voice. Looking around, I spotted a boy who appeared to be dressed only in shorts, waving his arms over his head in the back yard of a house on the next street, kitty-corner to ours. I didn’t have my glasses on, as I didn’t need them to see short distances and had left them in my bookbag upstairs, so the boy was little more than a blur. By now Kyle was leaning out one of the adjacent doors, and Lisa and Debbie, their curiosity piqued by hearing someone shouting my name, were leaning out of the other, so I asked Kyle, “Do you see a shirtless boy in the next yard over and behind us, waving at us?” Before Kyle could answer, however, Lisa, who was leaning out the closer window, answered, “Yeah, it’s Larry Sanders. His mom’s a famous opera singer and his dad’s a famous conductor,” she added. “Yeah, we know him,” Kyle replied. “His girlfriend’s the sister of one of our closest friends at school. Actually, she’s become our friend too.” I called out from the balcony, “Larry, is that you?” “Yes!” he shouted, and then asked, “What are you doing here?” I answered back in a shout, “My mom recently bought this place. I take it you’ve met my twin sisters. I’m visiting for the weekend, and we’re having the Seder here tomorrow tonight. How about you?” “I live here,” he shouted back. “Oh wow, what a coincidence, but I’m embarrassed that I didn’t notice the change in the location of the Seder.” I asked, “Can you come over?” “When?” he asked. “Give me a sec,” I turned and asked my mom, “It’s one of the boys who’s coming to the Seder tomorrow night. He’s your neighbor! Could he come over now?” “Honey, when you’re here, this is your home too,” she responded. “Of course you can have friends over. He can even stay for dinner.” “Thanks Mom,” I replied as I kissed her on the cheek. Leaning out the middle balcony, I shouted. “Can you come over right now? Mom said you can stay for dinner too if you want.” “We already have plans for dinner, but give me about ten minutes,” he shouted back and then he disappeared into his house. Stepping back inside, I said, “I better get my glasses,” as Lisa and Debbie both giggled. Larry came over and spent much of the afternoon with us, enjoying a snack that René prepared consisting of grilled tuna melts with Swiss cheese on rye. I couldn’t help but be awestruck by what had been done on the ground floor. The entire front portion had been turned into a large state-of-the-art kitchen, which because of the windows in front, was incredibly bright and airy. A door from the kitchen led directly outside, making the house, with its elevator, entirely accessible. On the other side of the stairs was a small half-bath and a very large family room with an informal eating area, a state-of-the-art home theater, and glass doors opening directly into the garden. It was stunning, and given that it was all accessible, fuckin’ impressive. Larry offered to show us his brownstone, which was located on the next block. Unlike ours, which had incorporated the ground floor into the living quarters, Larry’s parents had turned the ground floor into a music studio, with extensive soundproofing, a state-of-the-art sound system and a recording studio. A separate ground floor entrance provided access for their students. The main floor made extensive use of wood paneling and built-ins, with a front parlor that was dominated by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a full-size grand piano. As was more common with a brownstone, the house had a long stairway along one of the side walls, but opposite it on the main floor was a completely open and modern kitchen. It was a really cool layout. The back half of the main floor consisted of a great room, similar to Mom’s living room and dining room combined. Although it had been opened up and modernized, it retained high ceilings and period-appropriate trim, making it perfect for both casual use and formal entertaining. A terrace off the great room overlooked the garden, with a separate outside stairway providing direct access to the garden. Dave introduced us to his mom and dad, whose faces were very familiar to me, but with clear signs of middle age that weren’t so visible in their public appearances. Although Larry’s father seemed a bit aloof, perhaps because of his British heritage, Larry’s mother had a warm smile and firm handshake that immediately exuded warmth. I also took advantage of the opportunity to talk shop with her about the more memorable operas in which she’d performed and the chance to star opposite some of the greatest tenors of our time. She totally blew me away when she asked if I’d be interested in working as an extra in one of her upcoming performances. I’d have to audition for it and I’d have to join the union, but it would be a chance to experience an opera from the inside, not to mention a chance to work with some of the top talent in the field. I’d hafta get permission from the dads, which I was sure I could get, but nothing was gonna stop me from doing this, except maybe the stupid Coronavirus. <> <><> “Are you sure you want to go to a diner?” I asked for about the tenth time as we walked down 98th Street. I’d been a bit surprised when Mom asked Larry if he could recommend a deli, dinner or family restaurant nearby that we could get in and out of without much fuss. Without hesitation, he recommended the City Diner. When I mentioned that Seth’s grandpas had taken Kyle and me there and it was excellent, our plans were set. I just couldn’t picture Mom eating at a diner. Laughing, Mom replied, “If the director of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and his boyfriend, a Nobel laureate, think it’s the best restaurant on the Upper West Side, then that’s where I want to go.” “Being a world-famous astrophysicist doesn’t necessarily make you a culinary expert,” Kyle pointed out. “Perhaps not,” Mom answered, “but being a prominent resident of the Upper West Side makes you a thousand times more qualified than dozens of anonymous idiots who write reviews on social websites like Yelp. I may be new to the whole social media thing, but it doesn’t take long to realize that most of it is utter bullshit.” I was shocked. I didn’t even know Mom knew about social media, let alone used it, and I’d never heard her say ‘bullshit’ when she was talking to us. There are many fine restaurants on the Upper West Side, but Seth’s grandfather and his grandfather’s boyfriend considered the City Diner to be the best. It was their favorite restaurant in New York. Asher and Seth said the same thing about the Good Stuff Diner, and Kyle and I ate at the Riverdale Diner all the time. When I lived in Battery Park City, I often ate food from some of the finest restaurants in Lower Manhattan. Frankly I liked the food better at the diners. The atmosphere wasn’t as elegant nor the food as fancy, but to me there was no comparison. The City Diner was at the corner of 90th and Broadway, which was only a few blocks away. I was shocked though when Mom suggested walking there. It was a cloudy late-winter evening with light rain and was a bit on the nippy side. Even for such a short distance, however, Mom always used to insist on being driven. She was steadily surprising me. “Oh, this is nice,” Mom said the moment we stepped inside. Although the food at the Good Stuff Diner might have the edge over the City Diner or the Riverdale, the décor at the City Diner was by far the nicest of any of them. It had an authentic Art Deco theme with a table layout that was exceptionally cozy. Although it was a fairly large diner, it didn’t feel large. The five of us were seated in a large booth, and we were each given a copy of the extensive menu. I decided on the chicken souvlaki sandwich, which came with a Greek salad and fries. I upgraded to sweet potato fries and ordered an unsweetened iced tea. Kyle ordered the Mexican Fiesta Salad, which consisted of a lime-marinated grilled chicken breast, tomatoes, cheese, avocado, corn, lettuce, red onions and ranch dressing. It sounded yummy, and he added an iced coffee. Both of my sisters ordered the City Diner burger deluxe, which came with coleslaw, a pickle, lettuce, tomato and fries, to which they each added a coke. Mom got the vegetarian frittata with egg whites and with whole wheat toast and coffee. Funny, but the idea of ordering breakfast never even occurred to me. The meal was so unlike her usual fare that it was surreal. “Are you sure you’re my mother?” I asked and my sisters giggled. “My life was a train wreck, Freck,” Mom began. “I told you I’d had some difficulties. What I didn’t tell you is that I collapsed during a public appearance and I ended up in the hospital.” Gasping, I responded, “I never heard about that.” “My publicist went to great lengths to keep it out of the press, just as he did with your apparent suicide attempt,” she explained. “I never even thought about that,” I responded. “It wasn’t really a suicide attempt, by the way. I was completely stoned and thought I could fly. The sad thing was that I was so apathetic from all the weed I’d smoked that I didn’t even care if I fell to my death. I was so fucked up.” “I’ll let that remark slide,” Mom interjected, “since I know how emotional this is for you. I know I used to use language like that around you kids all the time as I ignored you, particularly when I was speaking on the phone.” “My friend Asher White’s mother once said that foul language has its place,” I interrupted, “but it loses its impact if used otherwise.” “His mother’s very wise,” Mom continued. “So the reason I was hospitalized was that I have an eating disorder. I attend a lot of events and most involve eating a lot of unhealthy, rich foods. It made it very hard to maintain my figure, yet I had to in my line of work, so I spent a lot of time in the bathroom vomiting up what I ate. After doing that repeatedly for more than a decade, I collapsed and ended up in the hospital, where I found out that I came very close to ending up like Karen Carpenter.” “Who is Karen Carpenter?” Debbie asked. “She was a very popular singer back in the seventies.” Kyle explained. “She had a velvety voice that many consider unequalled before or since, but unknown to the public was how contentious her relationship was with her brother. Richard Carpenter sang background vocals with her and was her manager. She had a serious eating disorder and one day collapsed at home and never woke up.” “Damn,” Lisa exclaimed. “So the public was told I’d merely passed out from a hectic schedule and while everyone thought I was taking a vacation at a private location, I checked myself into an eating disorders clinic.” Our drinks arrived and we slowly sipped them as Mom continued her story. “The clinic focused on adopting a healthier lifestyle, with a balanced diet, light exercise and learning how to limit intake in the face of plenty. I can’t give up attending fancy dinners in my line of work, so quitting fine dining the way an alcoholic quits drinking was not an option for me, although I did have to face up to alcoholism and drug abuse as well. Instead I learned how use regular, healthy meals and snacks to suppress my appetite and to sample food without actually eating much of it. I can’t afford to skip meals as I often used to, because then I’d binge. And of course I started counseling and have been going ever since.” Snorting, I said, “The counseling I got wasn’t enough, and it stopped altogether when I moved in with the Kyle’s family. We all figured that being in a ‘normal’ household would fix all my problems, but the first time I encountered stress, I freaked out and ran. It’s a miracle I didn’t wind up dead.” “I feel terrible about how I handled it too, Freck,” Mom acknowledged. “I had recently been discharged from the eating disorders clinic and had yet to avail myself of the counseling. Even though I was right there in Paris, I was in no shape to help you then. I could only have done more harm than good. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but I was just coming to terms with my own problems and I cared enough to stay away from you. It wasn’t until I went through counseling that I turned the corner.” “So you’ve changed the way you eat and sworn off all mind-altering substances,” I continued the conversation, “and you’re undergoing regular counseling. At the same time, you’re just as involved with work as before, you’ve made a commitment to spend more time with your children and on top of all of that, you’ve decided you’re gonna end homelessness, not just by giving away your money, but by convincing others to give away their money too. That means establishing a foundation…” “Done,” Mom interrupted. “Wow! Mom. It means hosting untoward number of fundraisers yourself,” I went on. “It seems to me that you’re just setting yourself up for another fall and believe me, that’s something with which I have my own experience. I’m just grateful that I have a wonderful boyfriend who realized that we would both be better off in postponing going to MIT. I think you need to step back too and rethink some of this.” “That’s a good part of what the counseling’s about, Freck,” Mom acknowledged. “There’s no shortage of counselors in New York that specialize in my type of problems, and I’ve hired one of the best. She probably makes more money than I do,” she added with a bit of a laugh. When I looked at her askance, she added, “Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.” “Ya think?” I responded and we all laughed. “Probably more than both of my dads, combined though,” Kyle interjected to much laughter. “You’re absolutely right about my life though, and as I’ve heard more times than I care to, I have to prioritize and right now my priority is my children. Spending time with you guys takes precedence over everything else. That’s not to say that I can’t make commitments related to work or my charity, but that must come after I set aside time at home. That’s non-negotiable. We also need to do more things together, which means we’ll be going together more often to the symphony and the opera, going to theater and travelling on vacation together from now on. And before you ask, of course your invited to all of those too, Kyle.” “But how will you manage that and run your business and host fundraisers?” I asked. Mom answered, “Regarding the business, it’s just a label and I’m really little more than a figurehead when you get down to it…” “That’s not true,” I interrupted. “You’re far more than a figurehead. You have a sense of style that has largely defined what women wear today. You have a knack for finding young new talent and bringing their designs to market, long before anyone else takes an interest in their work. You take chances that no one else would, and it nearly always pays off.” Our server arrived with all of our meals. My chicken souvlaki sandwich smelled divine, but it was enough food for two people, and even Mom’s frittata was enormous. My sisters’ burgers were made with nine ounces of beef – I shoulda noticed that when they ordered. That was over a half-pound, and more than most adults could eat. How were two nine-year-old girls supposed to eat over a pound of beef between them? Kyle’s meal wasn’t small either, but it was probably the most sensible of any of ours. We all dug in. The desserts in the dessert case looked wonderful, but none of us had room. I was absolutely stuffed when I finished. <> <><> At first I felt disoriented – more than the usual sense of a fading dream that one gets the first thing in the morning. I reached out, expecting to find Kyle next to me, but I found only an empty mattress. Opening my eyes, I realized I wasn’t in my own bedroom in Riverdale, nor was I in Kyle’s. It was a strange room, yet inviting, with filtered light streaming in through a pair of windows that were covered with translucent draperies. Shifting patterns gave the impression of movement outside the windows, perhaps from trees rustling in a gentle breeze. The light was subdued, as if the windows faced into an alleyway. The walls were a very pleasant shade of pale green, but they were unadorned. Elegant antique furniture filled the room, yet it had a homey appearance – the sort of feeling one gets when staying in an expensive bed and breakfast. Slowly I remembered that I was spending the weekend with my mother in the brownstone she’d recently purchased on the Upper West Side. She and my dad had separated, and she was trying to make amends with me, or so she said. However, I was gonna be cautious, given the way she’d treated me before. It was still hard to imagine her doing all of this unless there were a primary benefit to her and her alone. Pulling back the covers, it was obvious I needed to relieve my bladder. Through an open door I could see that my bedroom had an en-suite bathroom and I remembered having used it last night, so made my way there. It was a rather tiny bathroom compared to what one might find in modern construction, with only a toilet under a window, a small pedestal sink and a shower stall. The architect in me surmised that it and an adjacent closet were carved out of what had originally been a very large bedroom that spanned the full width of the brownstone. The tilework, although appearing to be from the turn of the last century, was much more modern in construction. Smiling as I lifted the lid on the toilet and let loose my stream, I realized that it was the same model as the one I’d recommended for my friend Seth’s grandparents place. It looked like a vintage toilet, but it was clearly modern and used only 1.3 gallons per flush. Looking between the gauzy drapes and out the window, I saw that I was in the front of the house, looking down on the street, and on the top of five floors. I’d gotten to bed very late last night, thanks to my boyfriend. Speaking of which, where was my boyfriend? As rested as I felt, I knew it had to be after 9:00, but otherwise I had no idea of the time. I definitely needed a shower and the bathroom had a modern glass-enclosed shower taking up an entire end. Looking around, I noted there was shampoo and soap already in the shower and a bath towel hung nearby, so I turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, and stepped in. There was a rain shower overhead and there were body jets in the wall, and the combination felt heavenly against my skin. Lathering and soaping up, I let the water cascade over me and then I switched to the handheld shower to rinse myself off. After drying myself with the towel, I realized the deodorant I’d brought with me was in my bookbag, which was back in the bedroom. I headed back there intending to grab it, but then the doorbell rang. Vaguely I remembered that we’d invited our friends for a 10:00 brunch, but I’d just stepped out of the shower moments before and had barely had time to dry myself, let alone get dressed. I hadn’t even applied my deodorant yet and wasn’t about to put on a shirt until I did so. Someone else would have to get the door, but then the doorbell chimed again. Fuck. Certainly that would get someone else off their tush to get the door, but there was only silence. “Could someone get that!” I shouted out. “I just got outta the shower,” I added, “and I’m not wearing anything,” but still there was only silence. Cursing under my breath, I slipped on a pair of boxers and quickly donned the pair of chinos I’d planned to wear and rushed to the door. Still, no one else was in sight. Where were Kyle, or my mom, or my sisters? Running down the stairs and opening the door, I found Larry waiting along with Robin and her sisters. Larry had bemused smirk on his face, but Robin’s eyes in particular were wide as saucers. Her older sisters seemed no less surprised. “Sorry about the delay and about my state of undress,” I responded. “I just got out of the shower and I have no idea where anyone else is. Please come in.” “No worries,” Robin replied. “We’re early, but the MTA reported there were significant delays on the A Train, and we didn’t realize the B, C, and E trains were unaffected by the construction. We left extra time and didn’t need it, but better to be early than to keep everyone waiting for brunch. We grabbed Larry and came right here.” “It’s not a problem, although we won’t start the brunch until closer to 10:00. We would have waited for you in any case. Please come in and unless I can find someone else about, we can chat while I finish getting ready.” I led the four of them up to my bedroom via the elevator, and I quickly grabbed my deodorant. “Sorry about not being ready, but you caught me off-guard,” I added as I quickly applied it. Strangely, it was Larry who seemed to be more embarrassed by it, and then Robin said, “Hey, I live with two sisters and a brother, and modesty is not an option in our household. Believe me, I’ve seen my brother at his worst, and vice versa.” “Where are Josh and Dave?” I asked. “Dave’s mother has a small car, with barely enough room for two passengers,” Sarah explained. “She’s dropping the two of them off, so they should be here soon.” It was at that moment that Kyle joined us in my bedroom, but he clearly wasn’t expecting to see any guests. He’d obviously taken advantage of the other bathroom on the floor and had just gotten out of the shower himself, and he wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. When he saw that we weren’t alone, he mumbled, “Oh shit, why didn’t you tell me we had guests?” He grabbed his bookbag and ran back out. I couldn’t help but laugh at my boyfriend as our guests laughed along with me. “Why didn’t I tell him, he asks. Oh I guess the doorbell ringing twice and me yelling out that I was naked and needed someone else to get the door wasn’t enough.” “Well in his defense,” Robin began, “He must’ve been in the shower and didn’t hear us or your yelling. Talk about déjà vu! First Larry accidentally barged in on me in the bathroom when I was about to get into the shower, and now this?” His face turning a brilliant shade of red, Larry responded, “I can’t believe you brought that up, Robin.” “And they say girls are the sensitive ones,” Robin started to explain. “Larry, it wasn’t your fault.” Then turning to me, she continued, “His mom had just spoken to me through the door and so when I heard a knock, naturally I assumed it was her, but it wasn’t.” Ky returned right then, wearing khaki chinos and a pink polo shirt that contrasted nicely with his long black hair, which was still damp from the shower. Like me, he was still barefoot, but the fact that he had on a shirt reminded me that I had yet to get mine out, let alone put it on. However, he didn’t need to use deodorant yet and therefore didn’t need to wait for it to dry. With a hint of pink not only in his cheeks but also in his face and neck, Kyle apologized, saying, “Sorry about that, guys… I didn’t mean to flash you. I guess I didn’t hear the doorbell ring.” “Twice, I might add,” I pointed out, “nor did you hear me shout out that I was naked and someone else would have to get the door. Speaking of which, where is everyone else?” “I think I heard your sisters say something about going for a run this morning,” Kyle related. “I presume René went with them to watch over them. Perhaps your mother went with them as well, or maybe she or René went to get the food for brunch.” “So anyway,” Robin resumed, “Larry just stood there, totally frozen and embarrassed at the sight of my naked body, not that there’s much to see…” “Compared to other girls our age, you have plenty,” Larry interrupted. “Obviously you musta thought so,” Robin continued. “Robin!” Larry interrupted, but she just kept going. “I knew I needed to diffuse the tension in the room,” she continued, “so I pulled his boxers down and told him that we were even. It worked too.” “Actually, it was your mentioning that my mom could come check on us that got me moving,” Larry corrected. “What the fuck did I just miss?” Kyle asked of no one in particular. “I was just telling Freck how Larry accidentally barged in on me when I was about to get in the shower,” Robin answered. “Do you have to tell everyone?” Larry asked his girlfriend. At that moment the doorbell rang, and Kyle grinned and said, “I better go get that. It’s probably my brother.” Kyle was already running down the stairs by the time I remembered that Roger had plans for the day and wouldn’t arrive until later. “And I’d better finish getting dressed,” I added. I quickly donned, the emerald green polo shirt that everyone said complemented my red hair and coppery eyes. I tucked it in and added a brown leather belt with a copper buckle, which went nicely with the rose gold bezel of my watch. Lastly, I donned a pair of Nikes with ankle socks. Just as I was finishing getting dressed and kibitzing with our guests, Debbie and Lisa walked in and Debbie said, “Brunch will be ready in five minutes.” “Where were you?” I asked. “Mom placed an order at Gristedes’s,” Lisa explained. “We went with her and René to pick it up.” Gristedes was a gourmet supermarket chain and there was a store nearby at Columbus and 84th Street. Frankly, I thought their prices were extraordinarily high and their food wasn’t even as good as that at any one of a number of local stores. In any case, I was surprised that Mom hadn’t elected to have the food delivered. “Josh and Dave are downstairs, waiting for us,” Debbie added. “They arrived just as we did.” “Shall we head downstairs?” I asked our guests, and then we headed down the four flights of stairs to join our other guests for brunch. <> <><> Since it was a cloudy but pleasant late-winter day, Larry suggested we go for a run around the reservoir. Leave it to Kyle to think to ask how far around it actually was and since none of us knew the answer, he looked it up and found that the circumference was 2.5 kilometers, which was about a mile-and-a-half. We set off for the Jackie O. Reservoir in Central Park, a short walk away. I wasn’t a runner per se, but I’d always enjoyed athletics and sports. It was one of the few things that allowed me to feel like a normal kid. It was unusually warm for early March and the three of us boys pulled off our shirts and tied them around our waists. It took us less than a half-hour to circle the reservoir. We ran fast enough to work up a light sweat, but not enough to need to shower. We thought about making another lap around the reservoir but ended up running half-way around the ellipse of the Great Lawn, were several softball games were underway in spite of the growing worries about the Coronavirus. We stopped at the Delacorte Theater, where free Shakespeare is performed throughout the summer. We admired the statue of Romeo and Juliette in front of the theater, walked through the Shakespeare garden, which was just starting to bud, and walked up the stairs to the observation deck in Belvedere Castle, which none of us had been to before. By then we were all hungry and since it would be a while until the Seder meal, we headed to the Loeb Boathouse, located right on the Central Park Lake. Taking a look at the menu before entering, I saw that a burger cost $26 and although I’d often spent that much on lunch when I lived in Battery Park City, living with Kyle and his dads had taught me to appreciate the value of money. Now, the thought of spending that much on a burger seemed obscene. Perhaps because of people’s concerns about the virus, we had no difficulty getting an outdoor table for six at the more casual Boathouse Express Café and the food was excellent. I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, fries and an iced tea for less than half as much. After eating, we ended taking a leisurely stroll around the lake, stopping at the Bethesda Fountain, the Bow Bridge, the Ramble Stone Arch and the Oak Bridge at Bank Rock Bay, before heading back home. We got back to Mom’s brownstone just in time to see Asher, Seth and Roger unloading food from Seth’s dad’s car and carrying it directly through the ground-floor door to the kitchen. Once inside, I counted nearly a dozen large aluminum foil containers and wondered where we’d put them all, much less how we were gonna eat that much food. There was essentially one container for each of us. Normally I hated single-use containers, but aluminum was recyclable and the containers could go right into the oven. Indeed, Asher was adjusting the shelves in Mom’s double convection ovens and loading the containers, six to each oven. He’d obviously planned the whole thing out in advance. As Asher got the food ready to heat in the ovens, Seth’s father drove off. <> <><> “Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol haleilot?” My sisters sang in unison, and then they alternated singing the verses of the Four Questions as if they’d been doing it all their lives. Literally translated, it asks, ‘Why is different the night the this of all the nights?’ Of course with proper English grammar, it becomes, ‘Why is this night different from all the other nights?’ Differences in language constructs fascinated me, but I digress… The Four Questions had been asked by millions of kids over the years, and they were the basis of the entire Seder service. Traditionally they were asked by the youngest boy at the table and indeed, Kyle had always sung them in the past and had been prepared to sing them tonight. But with my twin sisters present, it was appropriate that they be the ones to sing them and, obviously, they’d come prepared. We were all seated at the dining room table on the main floor of Mom’s house. Roger occupied the head of the table and served as the leader of the Seder service, and Kyle occupied the other head of the table, what other people called the foot, and served as the co-leader. They were the only two participants with recent experience. We’d already lit the candles, had our first glass of wine, said the prayers over the spring season and the eating of the greens, symbolized by sprigs of parsley, and performed the ritual washing of hands. We’d broken the middle matzah in half and Mom had gone deep into the house to hide the afikomen, a half-piece of matzo that would be eaten as ‘dessert’ to symbolize the ending of the Passover meal. Following the recitation of the Four Questions, we read about the four children, the wise child, the scornful child, the simple child and the child not yet able to inquire. It was for the last child that it was necessary to recite the entire Passover story, so that they might begin to learn the history of the Jewish people and of their rescue from slavery. But the photo that accompanied the recitation of the four children was of four African children, a reminder that the story of Passover is the story of liberation of the Jews from slavery, but that slavery continues to this day and it affects people all over the world. The Passover Haggadah we were using was like nothing I’d ever seen in a prayer book of any kind from any religion, much less from what I was used to from my Roman Catholic upbringing. Published by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, it was called Invisible, The Story of Modern Day Slavery: A Social Justice Haggadah, and it mixed historic reference, traditional prayers and modern day references to ongoing slavery throughout the world. It was an affirmation that our commitment to God was a promise to relieve the oppression of our fellow human beings, whoever and wherever they were. I might not be certain of the existence of God, but there was no question that humans were suffering and that was something I could do something about. The retelling of the story of the Passover was all new to me. Of course I’d been raised with the story of the Exodus of the Israelites as a part of my Catholic faith, but it was told as the story of another people in another time and as the backstory to the coming of the messiah. The telling of the story during the Seder harkened to a tradition of oral storytelling going back perhaps more than a hundred fifty generations. It was a story of my ancestors too. When we got to the ten plagues that God supposedly vested on the Egyptians, I was surprised by the somber nature of the recitation, both in Hebrew and in English. It wasn’t joyful, gleeful or even vengeful at what happened to the Egyptians. It was sorrowful at what they’d endured because of the pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews. Then in the name of social justice, we recited the modern-day ten plagues, the plagues of war, hatred, despoliation, perversion, vice, neglect, oppression, corruption, subjugation of science and erosion of freedom. These weren’t plagues sent by God, but rather plagues inflected by humans against other humans. Was the Coronavirus a modern-day plague sent to punish us for destroying the environment? Next came a song I knew well because of my studies and preparation for my bar mitzvah next December. Mi Chamocha ba-elim Adonai? ‘Who is like You, oh Lord?’ That was followed by perhaps the best-known song of the Seder, even among non-Jews, Dayenu, ‘It would have been enough’. We went around the table, taking turns singing each verse, joining together in singing the chorus. However, I couldn’t help but think that if God really had done only some of what he was reported to have done in helping the Jews to escape bondage, we might still be slaves in Egypt, and perhaps ancient Egypt never would have fallen. Then again, why did God allow the Jews to be enslaved in the first place? Certainly, it wasn’t to sell Haggadahs. At least as an agnostic, I could claim it didn’t matter. Next came the Seder plate itself and the symbolism behind each item on the plate. There was the Pascal Lamb, which symbolized the lamb the Israelites ate the night before the Exodus, making use of the blood of the lamb to mark their houses so the Angel of Death wouldn’t take their first-born sons. In modern times, people often substituted a bone from whatever meat they ate at Passover, but from the looks of it, I guessed we were having lamb for dinner. Then there was the Beitzah, a roasted egg that symbolized new life. Many believe it was the Beitzah that became the basis of the Easter Egg in Christianity, much as wine and matzo became the symbols of Jesus’ blood and body in Communion. There was little doubt that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder and many of the symbols were common to both. Next was the bitter herb, symbolic of the bitterness of slavery, and the charoset, a mixture of chopped apples, nuts and wine that represented the mortar used in the physical labor done by the Jews in the service of the pharaoh. Next there was the matzo, the unleavened bread that represented the speed with which the Jews had to flee the Egyptian army, and then there was an orange, which apparently was a recent addition to the Seder plate that was reported to have originated in the Chabad movement. Upon turning the page, we came to a picture that looked so much like Dave Schuster that I asked what his picture was doing in the Haggadah. It turned out it was a picture of Zach Hunter at the age of fifteen, a boy who founded the student-run organization Loose Change to Loosen Chains, an anti-slavery organization, when he was only twelve years old. I used my phone to look him up in Wikipedia and found he’s about thirty now and has written four books. What an impressive young man! After drinking the second cup of wine and the ritual hand washing before the meal, we proceeded to eat the matzo, the bitter herb, which really was bitter, and in the tradition of Rabbi Hillel, a sandwich made with charoset and bitter herb between two pieces of matzo, representing the combination of elements in our ancestors’ difficult lives. Of course, there were prayers said in both Hebrew and English for each of these. Finally, it was time to eat! <> <><> “I have never, ever tasted any food like this,” I exclaimed as we were finishing the Passover meal. “Believe me, I’ve eaten food from some of New York’s finest restaurants too.” Smiling, Asher explained, “I wanted to create a meal as much like what the Israelites might have eaten in ancient Egypt, but that turned out to be far more challenging than I’d ever imagined. I knew that some foods are native to the Americas and although maize is prohibited in any case, potatoes, which are a staple at Passover, were not native to the Middle East and wouldn’t have been a part of their diet. Likewise, chickens were not available until around the fourth century B.C.E. Chickens are so much a part of Jewish cooking that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. The fowl eaten in ancient Egypt would’ve been limited to birds that can be found along the Nile and would have included duck, goose, quail and pigeon… lots of pigeon. Obviously without chickens, there were no chicken eggs, but I used them anyway as a substitute for the waterfowl eggs they would’ve had. Goose eggs are rather hard to come by. “Oxen were for the rich and would not have been available to slaves. We know the Israelites feasted on lamb before leaving Egypt, and other meats would’ve included goats and gazelle. It’s not clear if the Egyptians ate swine, but most scholars agree that the prohibition against pork among the Jews predated the Torah and was likely related to the risk of trichinosis. The ban on mixing meat and dairy didn’t originate until Talmudic times and was because of a very strict interpretation of the ban on the Canaanite ritual of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. Although it didn’t apply to ancient Egypt, I saw no need to deviate form what is now standard practice for many of you. “Fruits and vegetables were significantly more limited. Today we’re used to eating a wide variety of foods that have been cultivated from all over the world. Selective breeding over the millennia has results in crops that are nothing like they were in ancient Egypt. For example, ancient apples were more like crabapples today. However, the market was fresh outta crabapples and so I was forced to substitute modern apples,” he quipped. “They ate a lot of squash, figs, grapes and dates and I incorporated all of those into today’s meal. Onion, garlic and coriander were commonly used seasonings in ancient Egypt, but many common spices came from the orient and weren’t available. Remember, it was spices and not just gold that served as the impetus for Columbus’ attempt to find a shorter route to the Far East. I had to be creative. “The biggest question of what I could use was with regard to legumes. Lentils and chickpeas were staples in ancient Egypt, but Ashkenazi Jews do not eat them during Passover. Sephardic Jews, however, do, and I chose to include them. They undoubtedly sustained the Israelites as they wandered in the desert. They couldn’t have survived without them, mana notwithstanding.” “So I guess this isn’t turkey?” Larry asked. “That’s crispy roast duck with shallots and grape leaves,” Asher responded, “and this is lamb stew with lentils, figs, dates and squash.” “Why not use eggplant?” I asked. “It’s obviously Middle Eastern since it’s the principal ingredient in boba ganoush.” “Because It wasn’t domesticated until the Middle Ages, when Arabs imported it from India, where it still grows wild,” Asher explained. “Although fish almost certainly was eaten by the slaves in Egypt,” he continued, “gefilte fish originated among Ashkenazi Jews in eastern Europe and in its earliest form, consisted of minced, deboned fish stuffed back into the fish skin. In modern times the fish is deboned and ground, mixed with eggs, matzo meal, salt, seasonings and vegetables, and then poached in fish broth. Gefilte fish was definitely not on the menu in ancient Egypt, but I’ve heard that no Seder is complete without this delicacy and so I endeavored to make my own gefilte fish using ingredients that would have been available back then.” “It was delicious, Asher,” Josh commented. “Everything was delicious.” “Okay kids,” Mom began, “while René and I take care of cleaning up from dinner, it’s time for the search for the afikomen. I’ll tell you right now, it’s not in the trash, so you can save yourselves the trouble of going through the garbage, but everywhere else is fair game. We’ll reconvene back here in one half hour, with or without the afikomen, for dessert. In the unlikely event that someone finds the afikomen, I have two tickets to the Yankees season opener on April second, courtesy of my husband. They’re for seats right behind home plate.” “I wonder if there’ll even be a Yankees season opener,” Josh commented and we all mumbled our agreement. “Just in case it’s postponed or cancelled, I also have a fifty-dollar gift card from Amazon,” Mom added. Everyone else went either upstairs or downstairs, or into the parlor since Mom went to all of those places when hiding the afikomen. There didn’t seem to be much point in looking in the living room or dining room but wait, there was an open box of matzo hiding in plain sight, right next to a bottle of wine on the buffet. Was there ever a time when Mom could’ve slipped the afikomen into the box? Was the box even there when she went about hiding the afikomen? Truly I couldn’t remember, but then I remembered her helping to bring the food up from the kitchen at the start of the meal. Grabbing the box of matzah from where it sat, I looked inside and sure enough, sandwiched between whole pieces of matzo was a half-piece of matzo, wrapped in a napkin. It was the afikomen, so I removed it placed it on the table. Oh wow! It took me all of two minutes to find it. That left me 28 minutes to kill while everyone else searched for it, so I pitched in, helping my mom and René clean up after the meal. Mom asked me why I wasn’t searching for the afikomen, so I told her I’d already found it. It surprised me that my mother was right in there helping to clean up – in the past she’d have considered such work beneath her. Perhaps she really had changed. With my help, the leftovers were put away and those dishes that could fit into the first load were loaded into the dishwasher. With the dishwasher running silently, we washed the finer china by hand with me drying it, and then put it away. By the time a half-hour had passed, dessert plates and cutlery were on the table, fresh napkins laid and wine glasses refilled. Slowly the other kids filtered back to the table, a look of disappointment showing on their faces. In a way, I wished I coulda surreptitiously given the afikomen to any of them, but my dads woulda been the first to tell me they wouldn’t learn without a chance to fail. When everyone had returned to the table, Mom announced, “I didn’t think anyone would find this,” as she held the afikomen up for all to see, “but we have a winner, and it took him only a few minutes to figure it out. Freck is the winner of the tickets and gift card. Would you like to explain where the afikomen was hidden and how you found it so quickly?” With a laugh, I responded, “The afikomen was hidden in plain sight, in an open box of matzo on the buffet…” “That’s impossible!” Josh interrupted. “Your mom never stopped here before going both upstairs and downstairs, and around the parlor, making plenty of racket as she went. It was evident she was giving us ample clues as to where she might have hidden it along the way. When she returned, the afikomen was nowhere in sight.” “Except that she helped to bring the food up for dinner, including that box of matzo,” Kyle interjected. “I don’t know how I coulda missed it. She coulda easily slipped the afikomen into that box when she went downstairs, and then brought it upstairs later.” “And you deduced that in all of a few minutes?” Josh asked. “There’s a reason Freck will finish his senior year at Stuyvesant at the age of thirteen,” Asher commented. “Seth and I realized when we first met Kyle and Freck that they were intellectually ahead of us, in spite of their ages.” “And you treated us as your peers,” Kyle added, “rather than as the little kids we appeared to be. I’m not sure we’re intellectually superior to you, but the one thing I am sure of is that you’re lightyears ahead of most adults when it comes to how you don’t prejudge people. That’s a big part of why you’re our best friends, and why we love you.” “For sure,” I agreed. After eating a sickeningly sweet dessert made with dried figs, dates, raisins and nuts with honey, which Asher told us was traditional in ancient Egypt, we shared the matzo from the afikomen, supplemented with additional matzo, and then said and sang the traditional prayers that are said after a meal. It was a rather lengthy discourse of prayer in Hebrew and it seemed that I was the only one who knew the prayers without having to refer to the transliteration. I’d already memorized most of the prayers in conjunction with my Jewish studies, and the rest I could easily read in Hebrew directly. After drinking the third cup of wine, we finally let the prophet Elijah have his share. Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the messiah – the first and only coming of the messiah as foretold in the old testament. As an inducement for Elijah to usher in the messianic age, the door is opened to allow him to enter and to drink a cup of wine that had been sitting on the table since the start of the Seder. I could have sworn that the wine actually did go down a little bit, but that was probably just the power of suggestion. No part of the Seder is complete without a prayer, usually expressed in song, and so we sung the prayer for Elijah, Eliyahu. After singing some traditional psalms and drinking the fourth and final cup of wine, we said the concluding prayers, and then came the fun part. There are a number of songs that are traditional at the Passover Seder. Dayeinu is one of them, but there are three others that are technically not part of the service, however are no less important and are sung after the final prayers. There was a Steinway upright piano in the living room which Larry offered to play while we all sang. I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised that he could play the piano, given that his parents were such renowned musicians, but it still caught me off-guard. For his part, he was surprised the piano was in tune, particularly when Mom told him that none of us actually plays it. However, she had it tuned after the move, which was just a few months ago. The first of song was Chad Gadya, which means An Only Kid and is the story of a poor innocent little goat, bought for a couple bucks, only to be eaten by a cat that was bitten by a dog, that was beaten with a stick that was burned by a fire, that was quenched by water that was drunk by an ox, that was slain by a butcher that was killed by the Angel of Death, who was destroyed by God. What any of that had to do with Passover or the Jewish people was a mystery to me, but singing it in Hebrew, with each person adding a line to each verse, and doing so in a single breath, was a staple of Passover Seders around the world. Next we sang Adir Hu, which means God of Might, Echad Mi Yode’ah, which means Who Knows One, and the old spiritual, Let My People Go. <> <><> “Do you have any plans for tomorrow?” Larry asked at the end of the Seder. Apparently, Robin was spending the night at Larry’s house so she wouldn’t have to travel home so late at night, and Roger was spending the night in Mom’s guest room. Asher, Seth, Dave, and Josh and his older sisters were gonna be picked up by Seth’s dad. Josh confided in me that he was spending the night with Dave, but I had the good sense not to ask Larry if Robin was sleeping in the guest room. They were young, but then Kyle and I were far younger when we first became intimate with each other. “Well, Mom wants me to go to church with her and then we’ll probably head back home to Riverdale,” I responded. “Listen, the weather tomorrow is supposed to be even nicer tomorrow than it was today, with a high in the sixties,”. Larry noted. “How about having lunch with us, and then maybe we can spend the afternoon in the park?” “That sounds like a plan.” I replied. Just then my mother breezed into the dining room and said, “I’ve been checking out websites and I made a few phone calls and here’s the deal. Second Presbyterian is a very small congregation with a more traditional liturgy that I think we might like, but the members tend to be older. Advent Lutheran is much larger and multicultural, with five pastors, two of them Latino, and services in both English and Spanish. They have a very active youth program and a formal LGBT program. Perhaps we can go there tomorrow for Sunday services. In the future we might want to check out the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism’s Shabbat Services. I spoke at length with the rabbi, who sounds like a lovely person. He was born in Israel and even served in the army.” This was a whole different Mom I was seeing. In the past she would have had her personal assistant get the information for her and she’d have never made actual phone calls or spoken directly with a rabbi. I didn’t even know my mom knew how to use a computer, let alone look at websites. “If I could make a suggestion,” Larry interrupted. “My family belongs to Rodeph Shalom, on 83rd Street. They’re one of oldest synagogues in America and recently celebrated their 175th anniversary. There are two services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings… a formal one in the sanctuary led by the rabbis and the cantor, and an informal minyan in the chapel, led by the congregants. If you’re interested, I’ll go with you some time. Maybe I’ll invite Robin.” The blush on his face reminded me how fond he was of my good friend’s sister. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Larry,” Mom replied. “Assuming they’re still having them, perhaps we can go next week.” <> <><> I scarcely felt like I’d slept at all when the alarm went off on my phone at 8:30. Of course it didn’t help that we’d lost an hour due to the switch to daylight savings time. I told Kyle he could go back to sleep and we’d have lunch together when we returned from services, but Kyle wanted to go with us to church. I guess he was curious and wanted to be with me, so we both got up and got ready. The en-suite bathroom in my bedroom in the brownstone was tiny, but adequate for both of us to use at the same time, at least for now. Perhaps it would be different when we were both shaving, but that was at least a year or two in the future for me, and longer for Kyle. I stepped into the shower while Kyle brushed his teeth at the sink. “Your mom actually seemed nice at dinner last night,” Kyle noted, just before sticking his toothbrush in his mouth. “She’s not at all the mother I knew before I came to live with you,” I responded, “and my sisters confirm that this is the way she’s been since the separation. At first I was a bit worried that she’d try to get me to live with her now, but she vehemently denies it and I believe her. However, she did suggest we might both want to live here while going to City College.” Spitting the toothpaste out of his mouth and rinsing, he replied, “I’ve been thinking about that and you know, that’s not a bad idea. It would cut the commuting time in half, and it’d be much more convenient to come home for lunch or when we have free time. It’s a straight shot on the A Train.” “Actually, the B or the C train,” I pointed out. “The A Train doesn’t make any stops between Columbus Circle and 125th Street.” “Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Kyle agreed, “but in Riverdale, we’d hafta take a bus or a Metro North train to the subway, or we’d face a decent walk to the One Train.” “But Riverdale’s your home,” I pointed out. “It’ll still be my home… our home… but there’s no reason your Mom’s place can’t be our home too,” Kyle countered. “It’s certainly something to think about.” “I guess,” I replied as I turned off the water, dried myself and got out of the shower. Changing places with my boyfriend, I applied deodorant and brushed my teeth while Kyle took his shower. Fresh and clean, we both donned clothes that were a bit dressier than usual. We wore button-up shirts with dressy sweaters and khaki pants with lace-up casual shoes. Since we’d be back home for lunch, breakfast was just a bowl of cereal, toast and coffee. We asked Roger if he’d like to go with us, but he opted to sleep in. We arrived at the Adventist Lutheran Church nearly three-quarters of an hour early, yet families were already arriving for Sunday morning services. There were many young families with small children dropping their little ones off in day care, and there were families with young teens too. A lot of the parishioners knew each other, and it wasn’t long before we all were engaged in conversation with members. While Mom was deeply involved talking to a woman of similar age, Debbie and Lisa started talking to their children and Kyle and I were approached by a couple of boys around my age. “Hi, I’m Fernando,” one of the boys announced, “and this is Tyrone,” he added as we all bumped fists. “My name’s Freck,” I responded, then quickly added, “which is short for Freckles. My given name’s Francis, which I hate, and I use the French version François for anything formal. This is my boyfriend, Kyle.” “Cool, Tyrone responded. “Turns out were all family. Do you live near here?” “My parents are separated, and my mom just bought a brownstone nearby,” I explained. “However, I spend most of my time living with my boyfriend and his dads up in Riverdale.” “I think you’ll find a diversity of kids who go here,” Fernando interjected. “They have a very active youth group and there are a lot of activities specific to LGBT teens. And while there’s adult supervision, most youth activities are planned and executed by the teens themselves.” The sound of music playing indicated that the service was about to start, so Fernando suggested, “If it’s okay with your mom, there’s a group of us that usually sit together during the services, and then we get together afterwards for refreshments as a group while the adults do the same.” Seeing that Mom was now a bit of a distance away and still actively engaged with talking to other adults, I waved to get her attention, then pointed to the boys we were with and she nodded to indicate her permission to pray with them. <> <><> After the service, Mom and my sisters mingled with the other congregants while Kyle and I continued to talk to Fernando, Tyrone and the other kids. It turned out that one of the girls, Karen, was a student at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College. When I mentioned that Kyle and I would be going there next year, after finishing up at Stuyvesant, she responded, “I need to meet up with my family, but perhaps you can join us for lunch.” She led us out into the congregation and toward a distinguished, well-dressed couple with a kid who looked to be about our age. “Mom, Dad,” she began, “These guys are students at Stuyvesant, and they’ll be going to HSMSE next year. I thought maybe we could have them over for lunch and I could discuss the school and the campus with them while we eat.” “You’re certainly welcome to have lunch with us,” the father agreed, “If you have your parents’ permission.” “I’ll have to ask my Mom if that’s OK,” I responded, “but I’m sure she’ll agree with it.” “Anyway,” Karen continued, “these are Freck and Kyle, and guys, these are my parents and my brother, Kevin.” “What kinda name is Freck?” Kevin asked with a snort. “It’s a nickname and short for Freckles, obviously,” I replied. “My given name’s Francis, but I hate it.” At that moment, Mom approached with my sisters and after another round of introductions, during which I learned that Karen’s parents were Cynthia and Geoffrey Granger, they asked her if she and her daughters would like to join them for lunch. “Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose,” Mom replied, “but I think I already know you. I’m almost certain we’ve met before.” “You’re a fashion designer, aren’t you?” Cynthia asked. “Well, I rarely do my own designs anymore, but you probably know of me from my label,” Mom responded. Before Mom could even mention the name of her label, Cynthia responded, “Oh yes, I have a number of your outfits. Who doesn’t?” “People who can’t afford expensive clothes,” Kevin interjected. Damn, this kid was as sassy as my Kyle. “You’ll have to forgive our son,” Geoffrey added. “He just turned twelve and like many affluent middle schoolers, he’s discovered social consciousness.” Instead of responding directly to Geoffrey, Mom looked right at Kevin and said, “Well young man, I think you’re right about my designs, and that’s why I’m working on plans for a line of affordable clothing for women who want to look stylish but can’t afford designer clothes. However, I think the effort would be hollow if I made those clothes in Chinese sweatshops, wouldn’t it?” The boy actually was nodding in agreement. “Unlike my competitors, everything that carries my label is made in the U.S.A., but labor costs here are sky high. I’m looking at building a factory in an underserved rural community, or perhaps in Mexico, where I can still keep an eye on things and maintain quality control. I’m also making a commitment to switching completely to renewable energy within five years.” That was all news to me. The mom of my past wouldn’t have cared about affordability or sustainability at all. Turning back to the parents, Mom went on, “I’ve taken an interest in eliminating homelessness, particularly among our youth, and I’ve started a foundation to address homelessness, street drugs and mental illness. Geoffrey, I know you have a lot of influence with people of means in your position at the World Bank,” she added, “so you can count on me hitting you up for help in building a substantial endowment.” “I’d be happy to help in any way I can,” Geoffrey replied. “There’s scarcely a day when I don’t pass a dozen or more young men sleeping on the sidewalks of New York. Most people just want them to go away, but that’ll never happen unless we address the underlying causes… drugs, mental illness and an utter lack of affordable housing.” “Out of curiosity, I haven’t seen you here before. Do you live nearby?” Cynthia asked. “I just bought a brownstone on 88th Street,” Mom responded. “My husband’s idea of a place to live is a penthouse in Battery Park City. It’s convenient to him as the CEO of one of the major brokerage firms, but he balked at the idea of helping the homeless and it was just the last straw in what had been a loveless marriage. My children deserve better. Freck had a particularly hard time of it,” she went on, “and ended up moving in with his boyfriend’s family up Riverdale.” “You guys are gay?” Kevin asked. “Well yeah,” I replied. “It wouldn’t make much sense to be boyfriends if we weren’t.” “Aren’t you a bit young to know if you’re gay?” Geoffrey asked. “You both look like you’re about Kevin’s age, and he just turned twelve.” “Freck’s thirteen,” Kyle responded, “but I’m only eleven and I came out when I was eight.” “That’s cool,” Kevin responded. “My best friend’s gay, and he told me when he was ten. He tells me what guys he thinks are hot and I tell him about the girls.” Laughing, Cynthia responded, “I didn’t know Chuck was gay, but attitudes are certainly changing. By the way, are you familiar with True Colors United?” she asked my Mom. “Cincy Lauper’s organization for homeless gay youth?” I asked. “It’s sad to think there are still parents who can’t accept their gay children and discard them like unwanted trash or make life so difficult for them that they run away,” Mom chimed in. “So many of those kids end up on the streets of New York, preyed upon by those with no qualms about sexual exploitation, they end up addicted to drugs and dependent on their pimps for their supply. Yes, I plan to reach out to organizations like True Colors United.” “You definitely should come over for lunch,” Cynthia responded. “I’m on the board of True Colors United, and we definitely should talk.” <> <><> “There’s no way you could be seniors at Stuyvesant,” Kevin’s best friend, Chuck said as we enjoyed our lunch. It turned out the Grangers lived in a penthouse apartment on Central Park West, at Ninetieth Street, with a wrap-around terrace that afforded a phenomenal view of Central Park. It was a beautiful late winter day and we were taking advantage of the weather to sit outside. Cynthia had ordered chilled poached salmon from Zabars, a gourmet institution on the Upper West Side, known for its selection and quality foods. She served it with lemon dill mayonnaise and chilled asparagus, and it was delicious. Mom was off with Cynthia at a small table by themselves, talking about the homeless, and we kids were at a larger table talking about school, among other things. Geoffrey was inside watching college basketball, I think. “Believe it, we are,” I responded to Chuck’s comment. “At thirteen, Freck, you should be a freshman… maybe a sophomore,” Chuck continued, “but Kyle, you’re only eleven? What the fuck’s an eleven-year-old doing in high school?” “How many eleven-year-olds do you know that can solve complex vector partial differential equations?” Kyle countered, “Or manipulate four-dimensional tensors.” “What I don’t understand is why, if you’re seniors, you’re going to HSMSE next year,” Kevin interjected. “Actually, we’ll still be registered at Stuyvesant,” I explained. “That way, we won’t be taking slots from the incoming freshmen. We’ve both already been accepted at MIT for the fall and we were preparing to go there until a good friend pointed out the obvious… that we’d be freaks there at our age.” “You’d be freaks anywhere at your age,” Kevin countered, “but I think I see what you mean. You might both be geniuses, but you look like little kids. What professor would ever take you seriously.” “Just remember that City College is the place to go for those who otherwise couldn’t afford college. It used to be free. It won’t be in the same league as MIT,” Karen pointed out. “We’re well aware of that,” Kyle replied. “We run into much the same thing at Manhattan Community, where there’s a mix of kids who only want a two-year degree and kids taking advantage of the lower tuition and the chance to live at home another couple of years, but who plan to get a four-year degree somewhere else. Of course there are those whose grades in high school weren’t good enough to get into the college of their choice, so they go to community college first in the hope of proving themselves worthy of a better school.” “Most kids who go to City College are in it for the full four years,” Karen continued. “It’s a decent school with a competitive math, science and engineering curriculum and courses taught by the professors themselves. I think you’ll find that the professors are just as good as those in a better-known four-year university, but they’re the kind of professors that prefer teaching to research and the grind of publish or perish. That’s actually s good thing. It’s not Ivy League, but it’s way better than community college.” Changing the subject, Chuck asked, “So you two are boyfriends. Why can’t I get Kevin to be my boyfriend?” “Crushing on your straight best friend can be tough,” I answered. “It’s tough on the straight best friend too,” Kevin added. “I mean I really like fooling around with Chuck…” “I’m outta here,” Karen interrupted as she got up and walked into the apartment. Curiously, my sisters stayed put. “…but for me it kinda feels like I’m taking advantage of him when I know he’d like it to be something more,” Kevin continued. “We’re only twelve and I hope I’ll get a girlfriend in a year or two, or at least start dating girls, but what will that do to Chuck? I’m worried that he’ll take it hard.” “Hey, I know what I’m getting into,” Chuck replied. “For now we’re just friends with benefits and that’s fine with me.” “Sixth grade isn’t exactly the best time for finding a girlfriend, let alone a boyfriend,” I chimed in. “Maybe next year, but more likely eighth grade. I didn’t find Kyle until I was in tenth grade,” I related. “Yeah, but you were what, eleven?” Chuck asked. “I was within days of turning twelve,” I replied. “I was your age… and I was lucky. Very, very lucky.” The smile on Ky’s face told me he felt exactly the same way. The feeling of my phone vibrating in my pocket reminded me of the friends who were waiting to meet up with us and sure enough, it was a text from Larry asking when we’d be available, and if we’d be interested in spending the afternoon at the Central Park Zoo. Turning back to Kevin and Chuck, I said, “A couple of our friends, who are seventh graders at the Salk School for Science, are going to meet up with us later. Would you be interested in going with us to the Central Park Zoo?” Looking at each other and nodding, Kevin replied, “We’d love to, but we need to get going. The zoo closes at 4:30.” “Great,” I responded. “I’ll text them back and see if they could meet us in fifteen minutes by the reservoir.” <> <><> Epilogue The rapidity with which events unfolded took us all by surprise. The Coronavirus pandemic, dubbed Covid-19, spread around the globe like wildfire and it quickly became evident that the United States was destined to follow the course of Italy, with a healthcare system overwhelmed and perhaps millions of Americans succumbing to viral pneumonia. The President implemented a travel ban on Europe, which only caused the stock market to suffer some of its worst losses in history. Eventually he came around to the need to use his emergency powers to deal with the crises as the medical issue it already was, rather than only as an external threat, but much of what he did was too little, far too late. He never did seem to get that the virus wasn’t interested in making a deal. In the meantime, the governor of New York implemented sweeping changes to our lives, banning public gatherings, closing restaurants, hair salons and just ahead of Saint Patrick’s Day, closing all public schools throughout the state. The New York City school system moved very slowly to implement online education as a city-wide program, which of course resulted in substantial delays. Many of our teachers, however, chose not to wait and contacted all of us by email, implementing self-study programs and virtual classrooms using existing free videoconferencing software and websites. Asher’s family was busier than ever, though, getting meals out to the community from both their Asian takeout restaurant and the Ragin’ Cajun. Unfortunately, the case against Seth’s father on Federal corruption charges was essentially put on hold, which would have resulted in it being delayed indefinitely. The governor, who was a personal friend, however, needed Frank Moore to help deal with the crisis and so he applied pressure on the Justice Department. They didn’t drop the case but the deal they tried to strike with Seth’s dad was so contrived that the judge ultimately threw the whole thing out. Life fundamentally changed with the onset of Covid-19. We learned what we should have known all along – that human life is vulnerable and we can take nothing for granted. Whether or not people will learn from the experience and finally take the threat of climate change seriously has yet to be seen. In any case, we lived in a new normal and although we weathered the Passover Panic of 2020, our lives would never be the same.
  8. Altimexis

    Part One

    “I can’t believe you’re moving, Joshy,” Dimitri said as we walked around Manhattan Beach Park. It was a blustery winter day with overcast skies and angry swells on the Atlantic Ocean. The park was pretty much deserted, as there wasn’t even a beautiful view of the ocean today to attract runners and skaters. Nearby Brighton Beach was a better place for those things anyway. “First, you got into Stuyvesant,” he continued, “and now you’re moving to The City. You’re gonna live in Manhattan, man.” “You can always come and visit me,” I countered, “or I can visit you. Fuck, I commute from here to Stuyvesant every day, so there’s no reason either of us can’t make the trip to see each other. To be with each other.” “But isn’t that the reason you’re moving in the first place?” Dimitri asked. “Your old man doesn’t want you and your sisters schlepping into Manhattan every day, ninety minutes each way, every day.” “But surely my dad’ll understand my coming back here to the neighborhood to visit with my friends,” I countered. “You think he’ll go for weekly sleep-overs once you’ve moved?” Dimitri asked. “Don’t you think he’ll get suspicious when the only one you go to visit is me?” “Well, you are my best friend,” I responded. “Sixth grade,” Dimitri challenged. “We’ve been together since sixth grade. Just about three years now since we finally got the balls to come out to each other. You can’t live your entire life in a closet, Joshy.” “What choice do I got, Dimitri,” I countered. “My dad’s a very traditional Russian Jew. He’ll never accept having a gay son. I’ve still got three-and-a-half years to go before I can go away to college. Maybe even more than that if dad insists I go to community college first. After all, college’s expensive and we don’t have a lot of money. Mom died when I was only four and she brought in more than half the money, and dad never lets me forget that. With four of us heading toward college in quick succession, Dad can’t afford much on a college instructor’s salary.” “I get it Joshy,” Dimitri responded. “A lot of our parents made sacrifices to make a better life for their kids in America. Your mother was a doctor in Russia, but Russian doctors are a dime a dozen over here, so she got her nursing certificate and then became a nurse practitioner. It musta killed her to go from bein’ a doctor to taking orders from them, but she made good money… until she got sick.” “It’s more than that, Dimitri,” I went on. “Manhattan Beach might be the ‘rich’ end of Coney Island, but we could barely afford the house on two salaries as it was when Mom was alive. My parents bought it after the 2008 financial crisis, when it was in foreclosure and they got it for a song. Even so, it’s tiny.” “Yeah, but it’s a detached house,” Dimitri noted. “Ours is part of a quadruplex, with neighbors on both sides.” “And a garage,” I pointed out. “What do you need with a garage? You guys don’t even have a car. Still, I don’t see how anyone in Brooklyn can live without a car, Josh,” Dimitri countered. “Same for lotsa people,” I replied, “but because it’s so close to Kingsborough, Dad can walk to work, so we don’t need a car.” “Yeah, but this ain’t Brooklyn Heights,” Dimitri countered. “And don’t I know it,” I replied. “It was good when we were in middle school,” Dimitri went on. “We went to the same school and we shared a lot of classes, and after school, when the ’rents were still at work and I had the house to myself, you and I’d schtupp all afternoon long. Now, by the time you get home from Stuyvesant, maybe we got five minutes to hook up before my old man gets home from work. With you movin’ to Manhattan, we’ll never get together.” “It won’t be easy, but we’ll make the time, Dimitri,” I replied. Dimitri grabbed my shoulder, stopping me in my tracks and he turned me to face him, eye-to-eye. “It ain’t gonna work, Joshy. It just ain’t. You’ll be there and I’ll be here, and it’ll be a three-hour round trip, just to visit with each other either way. How’ll we ever have any kinda life together? We gotta end it, Joshy. There are a lotta boys in Brooklyn. A lotta boys way closer to home. And fuck, you’ll be in the heart of the action where you are. You got The Village and Chelsea. I bet there are a lotta queers that go to Stuyvesant…” “Most of the boys that go to Stuyvesant are Asian and live in Queens,” I countered, and then the gist of what Dimitri was sayin’ started to sink in. “You breakin’ up with me, Dimitri?” I asked. “Is that what this is about? You breakin’ up with me?” “It’s for the best, Joshy,” my obviously ex-boyfriend replied. “It’s really for the best. We gotta get our own lives now. We gotta find boys from the neighborhoods where we live. I gotta find someone in Brooklyn and you in Manhattan. That’s just the way it’s gotta be…” “You know what? Fuck you, Dimitri,” I shouted. “Fuck you!” I took off running as the tears streamed down my face. I ran through the parking lot and by the tennis courts. I crossed Oriental Boulevard and ran up MacKenzie Street, ’til I got to Shore Boulevard. I ran across the footbridge at Exeter Street and ran along Emmons Avenue, by all the boat docks with the boats, most of them berthed for the winter. I ran and I ran and I ran. I ran past the Comfort Inn, or the Come Fart Inn, as Dimitri liked to call it. I ran alongside the Belt Parkway and across the Gerritsen Inlet bridge. I ran all the way down Flatbush Avenue, ’til it became the Marine Parkway Bridge. I ran down Rockaway Point Boulevard ’til it ended at Breezy Point in the Gateway National Recreation Area. I ran until I was surrounded by water at the very tip of the Rockaways, with nowhere else to run. I was out of breath. I had a leg cramp. I had a cramp in the pit of my stomach. I was gasping for breath. I’d lost track of time, but I’d run a distance that normally took over three hours to walk at a brisk pace. Getting home was gonna take me over an hour on two buses. I could see Manhattan Beach from where I was, but I was now in Queens and literally an ocean away. I stopped to catch my breath, listening to the seagulls squawking and the sound of jets landing and taking off from Kennedy nearby. Hell, I heard that from home, but it was just background noise, but not now. I just stopped and listened as I let the sound of the jets drown out my thoughts. But even that couldn’t keep me from thinking of Dimitri. Life sucked. Big time. <> <><> Moving has got to be right up there with getting a root canal when it comes to the joys of life – not that I’d ever had a root canal. Let’s just say it’s not something I would have ever chosen to do, but when you’re a kid, you don’t get ta say in these kinds of things. So, I grew up in Manhattan Beach, a small community of mostly affluent Russian Jews on the eastern end of Coney Island. Sayin’ it was affluent was a bit of an exaggeration. Now Dyker Heights – that was affluent. People came from all over to see the lights at Christmastime in Dyker Heights. People spent a fortune to have professionals decorate their houses for Christmas in Dyker Heights. Can you imagine that? Not that anyone in my neighborhood decorated their house for Christmas, but even a tiny house in Dyker Heights was worth a small fortune. My mother was a doctor in Ukraine and my father was a professor of Russian literature in Moscow, but things never were good for Jews in the Soviet Union and they only went downhill when the Soviet Union was no more, so they emigrated to the United States, seeking a better life. They both came to New York and settled in Brighton Beach, where a lotta Russian Jews settled and formed their own community. Russian remains the dominant language in Brighton Beach, even more than English or Yiddish. Mom and Dad met in Brighton Beach, fell in love and got married. I guess it didn’t take mom long to realize she couldn’t work as a doctor in America. Well, she could have, but she’d’ve had to repeat much of her training and then would’ve ended up in a job in a godawful place like Tupelo, Arkansas, or maybe worse. On the other hand, nurses were in demand and it didn’t take long for a Russian-trained doctor to get a nursing certificate, and not that long going to night school to become a nurse practitioner, so that’s what she did. Dad, on the other hand, had a skill that was even less in demand in America. How many people wanted to study Russian literature in America? Not only that, but a Russian doctorate doesn’t rate much more than an American masters degree. Still, dad had published articles in English language journals and was considered one of the more knowledgeable people in his field, and with so many Russian-speaking people in Brighton Beach, Kingsborough Community College was more than interested in him. With his background, he didn’t qualify for a professorship, not even at the assistant professor level, but he was hired as an instructor at a pretty decent salary. Kingsborough was located on the eastern end of Manhattan Beach – in fact, it took up the entire eastern end of Coney Island. It was a bit of a walk from Brighton Beach, but it was mere minutes on foot from the house we bought in Manhattan Beach. Mom, in the meantime got a job at the nearby Menorah Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care. It was only a nursing home, but it was within walking distance of home. With four hungry mouths to feed, it didn’t hurt that we didn’t need to spend money on a car or even on public transit. We had a tiny house on Oxford Street, and by tiny, I mean tiny. I guess it was good that we had a single-family home when most of the houses were duplexes or even quadraplexes, but those all had single-car garages at street level. Our house had off-street parking in the form of a driveway wide enough for a couple of cars – not that we needed it, but in Brooklyn, a detached house with any off-street parking at all is worth a good deal more. The house itself, however, was only eleven or maybe twelve hundred square feet, with three small bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a dining room and a small kitchen, all on one floor. And there was a tiny back yard. I think it was the tiniest house on the street. All the other houses the size of ours had been torn down a long time ago and replaced with two- and even three-story houses. The people who bought ours bought it sight unseen, planning to do exactly that. For a lot of people, the house would’ve been plenty adequate, but there were four of us kids in the house – three girls sharing the master bedroom and bath, and me with the smallest bedroom all to myself, but sharing the other bathroom with my parents. It was our own little patch of paradise, but then Mom got sick. It was something called adrenal cortical carcinoma, and she was gone in just four months. I was only four years old and couldn’t understand why Mommy didn’t come home. Even after I threw a tiny shovel of dirt on her coffin, I still didn’t understand why she wasn’t coming home. Only now am I beginning to understand what a blessing it was that she didn’t suffer that long. But Mom was barely thirty. Who the fuck thinks about things like life insurance when they’re thirty? Well, some people do, but when you’re pretty young and you have four hungry mouths to feed and money’s tight in general, life insurance seems like a luxury. Health insurance is a priority and thank God my parents both had jobs that provided it. Whatever hers didn’t cover, Dad’s did and so we had no major out of pocket expenses. Otherwise, her illness coulda bankrupted us for sure. Both their jobs also provided basic life insurance – it wasn’t much, but between what my mom’s plan paid and what Dad’s paid for the death of a spouse, there was enough to cover the funeral and to pay off a chunk of the mortgage. So we refinanced the house and we all tightened our belts and we got by on dad’s income alone. School’s important and I’ve always been a good student in spite of the crappy New York public schools. My sisters and I were fortunate in that P.S. 195 was much better than most and one of the main reasons Mom and Dad decided to move to Manhattan Beach. I studied hard for the specialty high school entrance exam, but even I was stunned when I got into Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant’s one of the best fuckin’ high schools in the world. It’s the elite of the elite. Graduating from Stuyvesant could mean a free ride to an Ivy League school. I couldn’t turn that down, even if it meant commuting three hours round trip every day. I figured it was worth it, but it sure as fuck ate into my free time. It’s not like I could do my studyin’ on the subway. Most of the time you have to stand, but even if you do get a seat, you end up giving it up to an old person who needs it more. A lotta kids don’t, but I do. So studying’s pretty much out of the question on the subway and even reading’s pretty difficult. Internet and cell service are spotty when the train’s underground, and usually only work near the stations, so anything you read hasta be on your phone. Forget about answering email or texting, ’cause it never finishes going out before your phone loses service. Yeah, three hours of commuting is pretty much three hours of wasted time. It wasn’t just me either, ’cause all three of my sisters got into schools in Manhattan or distant Brooklyn. Dad saw what it was doing to us and so he put in for a transfer to Manhattan Community College, and it came through, so now we’re moving. Sometimes I have this dream that a giant simply picks our house up and moves it to Battery Park, right by my high school. If only it were that easy! Can you imagine just picking up a whole house and movin’ it? Not that we could afford a lot to put it on in Manhattan. The good news is that our new apartment is nearly as big as our house – maybe even a little bigger, so everything will fit right in. The bad news is that there’s no storage space at all, and so everything we have stored in the basement will have to go. Everything. We’re not about to pay to store a bunch of stuff we never use anyway. Mom’s been dead for a decade now, so it’s high time we give away her clothes. We’re certainly never gonna have a need for a crib, a stroller or any of the other baby things. There are boxes and boxes of clothes that are too worn or too small to fit any of us, an old boombox that no one listens to anymore and even an old television set with a picture tube that I can’t even remember seeing in use. Those can all go to Goodwill. All the sport stuff dad bought because he thought a boy should be involved in sports can go too. I never even used the baseball bat and glove, the basketball or the football. We won’t have space for a ping pong table or a back yard for a croquet set, so those too can go to someone who can use them. And much as Dad loves his workshop, there won’t be room for it in the new place. His workbench, table saw, lathe, drill press and band saw will all hafta go. The one thing he insists on keeping is his tool chest, which is a huge motherfucker of a beast that’s taller than I am. It’s gonna take up a whole closet. He spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on it and on the tools inside, but we used them to build all our furniture, so in a way, the tools paid for themselves. With five of us including Dad, you’d think we could make quick work of the move, but there’s just so much stuff to go through, to sort through and to decide if it’s worth keeping and, if so, deciding where we can put it. Even the stuff we know we’re keeping has to be carefully boxed up and labeled. You’d think that with moving within the same city, we wouldn’t need to be so careful, but Dad’s rented a U-Haul and with three teens, two of them girls and one a smallish boy, and a pre-teenage girl, maybe we could do it alone, but someone hasta drive the truck, and that someone was Dad. We still needed someone to do the heavy lifting, so Dad hired a couple of college kids, but they weren’t insured and bonded the way professional movers are and you couldn’t trust them not to drop things. <> <><> There’s no place for a large moving truck to park or even stand illegally in Manhattan, let alone pull up in front of an apartment building. One thing I discovered right away is that the M14A-SBS, the M21 and the M22 buses all terminate at the corner of Grand Street and FDR Drive. That’ll be great for our future, ‘cause it means we’ll always get a seat on the bus, but there are always buses parked or standing on Grand Street, leaving precious little room for cars to pick up and drop off passengers, or for deliveries. The loading dock for our building is actually located off Cherry Street, which is one-way and narrow, with cars parked on both sides. Because there are buses constantly driving down it, double parking or standing to unload a moving truck is not an option. There’s a very short driveway in front of the loading dock but it’s almost always occupied by contractors’ vehicles. However, Dad had the brilliant idea of getting there early and placing orange traffic cones across the entrance to keep contractors and delivery vehicles from using it. Everyone who saw them just assumed they were placed there by the co-op management. Because the driveway only accommodated a very small truck, we could only transport a small fraction of our stuff with each trip. The drive between our house and the apartment takes just over a half-hour when there’s no traffic, but it can take double or triple that with ordinary weekday traffic. Since the co-op rules didn’t allow us to move in on a weekend or a holiday, we had to move in on a weekday when we’re off from school. The holiday of Hanukkah took up the entire winter recess, however, right up until December 30, so the one day that was available for the move was December 31, New Year’s Eve. It also happened to be the day after my fourteenth birthday, but there’d be no time to celebrate this year. Too much had to be done for the move! Dad had it all down to a science though. The two older girls, Stacey and Sarah, worked with one of the college boys at our house to move everything out of the house to our driveway, and then to help Dad load the stuff into the U-Haul. Robin and I worked with Eric, the other college boy, to help Dad unload the truck to the loading dock at our apartment building, and then when Dad was in transit, Eric and I moved all the stuff upstairs to the apartment, assembled it and put everything in place while Robin stayed with the rest of our stuff below. The co-op had strict rules about work hours, and so deliveries had to occur between 9 AM and 5 PM. We started very early, with Robin and me as well as Eric taking the F-Train from Coney Island to Delancey at 7:30 AM. Delancey and Essex was a major hub and the public market at Essex Crossing was brand new and very nice. Since we had a little time when we got there, we stopped for a quick breakfast before walking to the East River Cooperative apartments, where we were moving. Eric, like me, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He was eighteen and was attending Kingsborough while he tried to figure out what to do with his life. His parents liquidated the college fund they’d started for him when they discovered he’s gay. They were ‘generous’ enough to let him live in their house while going to college, but they weren’t about to support him going to an Ivy League school when he’d chosen to ruin his life by following the gay lifestyle. Naturally, his story piqued my interest, but there was only so much I could ask with Robin right there. Although we were Jewish, we weren’t very religious and I could count on my fingers the times I’d been inside a synagogue, and very few of those were to pray. Oh, we did go to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but that was about it, and I never was bar mitzvahed or anything like that. We didn’t keep kosher, but we avoided mixing meat and dairy, we didn’t eat bread during Passover and we never ate pork or shellfish. Hence, I was more than surprised when little Robin ordered a breakfast bagel sandwich with Canadian bacon, eggs and cheese. Robin was twelve and was in middle school, in the seventh grade. WTF? Since Eric ordered the same thing, I wasn’t about to ask her, but was she merely curious, was she testing the waters or was she making some kind of statement? Well, now my own curiosity was piqued and so I ordered the breakfast bagel sandwich too. We all ordered coffee – even Robin. I’d never seen her drink the stuff, although I’d been drinking it since I was her age too, so I didn’t give it much thought. We went upstairs and sat at a table overlooking the market below us. I started to eat my breakfast sandwich and it was actually quite good. Delicious even. The bacon was a bit saltier than I was expecting, but not nearly as salty as lox would have been. The coffee was good too, but what really blew me away was when Robin drank it black. When I raised my eyebrows, she responded, “You seem surprised that I drink my coffee black. Maybe you’re surprised that I drink coffee at all, or that I’d order a sandwich with bacon in it? There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Joshua. I’m not so innocent as you think. Then turning to Eric, she asked, “So Eric, does our dad know about you being gay?” Talk about being direct! “Well, I certainly don’t make it a point to tell everyone, but I’m not hiding it either. I’d never find a boyfriend if I stayed in the closet and now that my dad knows, there’s little point,” he said with a snort. “Yeah, he’s known since I started at Kingsborough. You know, some of the greatest Russian poets were gay and wrote about gay themes. There was an LGBT renaissance until Putin rose to power and quashed it.” Tilting his head to the side, he added, “But I digress. After the first lecture, I got into a discussion with your father about one of the gay poets… I don’t even remember which one it was now, and your father actually asked if he could ask if my interest was personal. I told him he could and it was. He then blew me away by telling me my dad had called him and asked him to look out for me, but that he wouldn’t say why. He said he figured it was something like that and that I could always come to him if I needed help or advice. He’s been great too. He got me a job at the college and he’s helped me delve into gay-themed Russian literature, both classic and current.” “Given your experience, Eric,” Robin asked, “Do you have any advice for teenage boys who haven’t come out to their families?” Where the fuck did that come from? Could it be she knew? “What a loaded question!” Eric replied. “Well, every gay kid’s fear is being rejected by their families and ending up on the street, and I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t have to. A lot of kids end up being thrown out of their homes when their parents find out their gay, and a lot of them end up homeless and on the streets of New York, but most of them come from religious families in the Bible Belt. My parents are about as conservative as they come… they watch Fox News and voted for Trump… but they still love me. They may never understand me, but they’d never throw me out of the house. I just can’t picture that happening in New York, even in the more religious of communities. Well, you’re probably forced to marry a girl if you’re Hassidic, but that’s a whole other story. “The bottom line is that your parents will never change and that if they’re gonna react badly to your being gay, it won’t make a difference whether you come out at twelve or twenty. Parents are not allowed to send their kids for conversion therapy in New York, and there are services for gay kids who need help in New York, so there’s an excellent support system here. The thing is - that by staying in the closet, you miss out on all the normal things high school kids are supposed to experience. It’s a time in your life you’ll never have again, and it’s a damn shame if you spend it sitting alone in your room, figuratively if not literally.” “Food for thought,” Robin responded. Was this all about me? Did my sister set me up? “Shit, we gotta run to meet your father,” Eric suddenly exclaimed. “We gotta ghost!” Before leaving Essex Market, however, we picked up some rye bread, cold cuts and cheeses to throw in the fridge. There wouldn’t be time during the move to stop and eat, but there was always enough time to fix a quick sandwich as a snack. <> <><> We got to the loading dock behind our new building just as my dad pulled up in the U-Haul. We quickly unloaded the truck and then Dad headed back to the house to pick up the next load. Among the first batch were a large dolly and a hand truck. Robin stayed with our belongings on the loading dock while Eric and I started to carry our things inside. Dad had given me a set of keys, one to the building, one to the apartment and one for the mailbox, and so I used them to get inside. Starting with some rolled-up area rugs that were particularly unwieldy, we took the back hallway to bypass the lobby and went directly to the elevators for our apartment’s wing. As per the instructions, we had to wait for the elevator that had been padded for us, since there were no freight elevators in our building. Our apartment was on the sixth floor. The door to our apartment was directly across from the elevators and I used my key to open it. There was a surprisingly large foyer leading to a decent dining room and a large living room. A picture window revealed a spectacular view of the East River. It nearly took my breath away, but there wasn’t time for gawking. We were gonna need to buy more rugs, ‘cause the co-op requires it. Eighty percent of the floor area had to be covered. The floors were wood parquet on top of concrete, and there was no dead-space between our floor and our downstairs neighbor’s ceiling. We had large rugs in the dining room and living room in our house and Eric and I started to unroll them, but they were threadbare and would need to be replaced as soon as we could afford it. There was a nice rug for the girls’ room and so Eric and I struggled to carry it down the bedroom hall, past a small eat-in kitchen, past the tiny bedroom that would be mine, past the tiny bathroom I would be sharing with Dad and almost into what would be Dad’s bedroom. At the end of the hall, we turned right and entered the girls’ bedroom, which was the master bedroom. It was a decent size and it had its own small bathroom with a shower. As Eric and I unrolled the rug, I noticed that the view out the window was of a large courtyard and beyond it, a parking lot and another apartment building that looked like it could be a housing project. We were maybe one floor shy of bein’ able to see over the top of the housing project, which probably made a huge difference in what we paid, but even so, I could see several of the taller buildings of Lower Manhattan. More importantly, I could see nearly all of New York Harbor, with the Manhattan bridge in the foreground and the Brooklyn Bridge behind it. My sisters were gonna have a phenomenal view from their bedroom window. In the house, we might as well have been in Plano, Texas for all the view we had. Now, you could tell we lived in New York! Scarcely fifteen minutes had passed since we left the loading dock by the time we got back down there, yet even that was too long. Much of the furniture had to be disassembled to fit in the truck, and if we spent too much time transporting it, there wouldn’t be enough time to reassemble it before the next load arrived. “You run into any trouble waiting for us,” I asked my sister, who was reading a book as she diligently waited with our stuff. “Not so far,” she responded. Dad had obviously planned the order of what needed to go in each load, and first up was the tool chest, which we’d need to reassemble all the furniture. Since it was already on wheels, Eric could roll it around by himself while I opened and held doors for him. With the tool chest safely in place in the girl’s bedroom, we went back downstairs and brought up the disassembled components of the bunkbed and the twin bed frame from their room. Now the fun began. Unlocking and opening the tool chest, I got out the gyroscopic cordless screwdriver for Eric to use and the quarter-inch impact driver for myself, sliding batteries into both. I got out a set of driver bits that would fit both power tools. “Do you know how to use this?” I asked Eric as I handed him the screwdriver. “I guess you just push this button, right?” He responded. “Try pressing it and see what happens,” I suggested. “Nothing happens,” he responded in frustration. “Hold the bit and turn the handle to the right or left,” I told him and as he did so, the bit turned in the direction he turned the handle. The more pressure he applied, the faster it turned. “That’s so cool,” Eric exclaimed. “It’s very intuitive. Very natural.” “That’s the idea,” I replied with a grin. Dad didn’t skimp when it came to the tools he bought. Dad loved to build things himself and he’d been teaching me since I was six. At times he recruited the girls for his larger projects, but I was the only one to really take an interest. At that age I couldn’t put much power behind a hammer, but I could hold the end of a tape measure or use a power screwdriver. I was a fast learner, but then I had to be. We couldn’t afford to pay someone to repair the damage from Hurricane Sandy. We gathered up the parts for the bunkbed and all the associated hardware, and Eric and I went to work putting the bed back together. Dad designed and built it himself and everything fit so well that it only took ten minutes to set the whole thing up, including the built-in drawers and cabinets for storage. Sarah’s twin bed took even less time. Eric and I headed back downstairs and grabbed the girls’ dresser, followed by their large desk with three chairs, and a chest of drawers. We reattached the mirror to the dresser and reassembled the desk. Even though the furniture was designed for the master bedroom back in our house, it all fit well in the new place with room to spare. By the time Eric and I finished setting up the girls’ room, we both had our shirts off and I barely noticed the cold each time we went to the loading dock for another trip, although we did get some weird looks from the people we passed in the back hallway. Just as we picked up the last of the furniture for the girls’ room, Dad pulled up in the U-Haul and we had to stop what we were doing to help him unload it. What we unloaded was the bedroom furniture for both his and my bedrooms. Cool. We got to work assembling the furniture in Dad’s room first, and we were both sweating profusely. The temperature was really warm in the apartment, even with the windows open. It took a while to realize that the valves on all the radiators were open all the way and the heat was going full blast. By the time we figured that out and closed all the valves, it took hours for the place to cool down. In the meantime, we put up with the heat and the sweat. It was difficult to keep from staring at Eric. Not only was there sweat glistening on his skin, but unlike me, he had muscles. At one point I had to go into the bathroom to adjust myself so he wouldn’t see my boner. That would’ve been embarrassing. Looking out the window of Dad’s bedroom, I noticed that he and I both had a view of the East River, the Williamsburg Bridge and of Brooklyn across the way. I also noticed the continual noise from traffic on FDR Drive below. I guess that was gonna be our replacement for the noise of the jets from JFK. Other than that, it was pretty quiet. Dad and I both had a dresser, a desk and a double bed with built-in storage under the mattress, in the headboard and in the integrated night tables. My bed was a thirteenth birthday present, and it sure beat the old twin bed and chest of drawers I used to have. Both bedroom sets were a lot more complicated than the furniture in the girls’ room though, so Eric and I were getting further and further behind. At one point, Eric caught me lookin’ at him and he smiled at me. After a few minutes, he told me, “Your father knows, Josh.” “What?” I exclaimed. “Your father knows, or perhaps a better word would be that he suspects,” he elaborated. “You mean he suspects that I’m gay?” I asked in a near panic. “Don’t worry about it, Josh,” Eric continued. “He’s okay with it. More than okay with it. I think he’s known for a while. When I came out to him, he told me he thought his son was gay and it didn’t matter to him. He loves you, Josh, very much.” “He outed me to you?” I was incredulous. “You can’t out someone if they haven’t told you, you know. Your dad was just being supportive… of both of us,” Eric replied. “And there was the stuff your sister said. She all but said her brother’s gay.” Smiling – smiling, I agreed, “Yeah, she didn’t leave much to the imagination, did she? I can’t believe she did that. I can’t believe she knows!” And with that, I’d come out to Eric. “I’d be willing to bet that all your sisters know,” Eric responded. “It’s a pretty good bet they do.” Dropping down to the floor and sitting with my legs crossed and my head in my hands, I said, “I guess the only one I was fooling was myself. I just don’t understand how they found out. I’ve been so careful…” “If the way you’ve been acting around me is any indication, you’re not all that careful,” Eric interrupted. “I’m flattered and if you were a little older, I might even be interested, but I’m in college and you’re in high school. I’m eighteen and you’re fourteen and while four years won’t mean nothing someday, right now it’s not legal. As an adult, I can’t touch you ’til you’re seventeen, but you’re a great guy and anyone would be lucky to have you.” Then after a brief pause, he asked, “You gotta boyfriend, Josh?” “I had a boyfriend, but he dumped me when he found out I was moving. It really pissed me off, ’cause we’d been together since we were like, twelve, but I’ve come to realize it’s probably for the best. We might be in the same city, but it wouldn’t be practical. He told me that and I got angry. It hurt and I ran all the way from Manhattan Beach to Breezy Point…” “Shit, that’s like what, ten miles or somethin’,” Eric interrupted. “Eight miles,” I corrected him, “but I did it in like 80 minutes, which may not sound like much to a marathoner, but it’s six miles an hour, which is crazy fast for someone who’s not in shape like me. Man, I hurt for days afterward. Served me right too. Last night I said my goodbyes to Dimitri and wished him well.” “The voice of maturity,” Eric responded. “I don’t know about that…” I replied, but then my phone rang and I answered it. “What’s taking you boys so long?” Robin shouted into the phone. “Sorry Sis,” I replied. “Eric and I got to talking about how you and Dad and Sarah and Stacey all know about me being gay.” “Well it’s about time you admitted it,” Robin agreed, “but Dad’ll be back here any minute now and the loading dock’s pretty full. You boys need to get crackin’.” And crack we did. After we finished assembling all the furniture in Dad’s bedroom and in mine, we carried up three twin mattresses and two double mattresses and placed them on each bed. They were memory foam and man, they were heavy! Placing the mattress on the top bunk was especially difficult. We assembled the kitchen table and chairs and set them up in the tiny kitchen, and then helped Dad unload the dining room and then the living room furniture and proceeded to assemble them and set everything in place. The final furniture run brought all the lamps and small appliances, as well as everything that was in our fridge in the house. After that, Dad brought load after load of boxes, each one labeled not only with the room they should go in, but also the specific closet, cabinet or drawer where they belonged. Dad had it all figured out in advance, and for the most part, everything fit. Eric and I had to work furiously to keep up with Dad’s deliveries. Dad picked up the last load of boxes from the house just shy of 4:30, which didn’t leave enough time to empty the truck by the 5:00 deadline, let alone to carry everything inside. Fortunately, no one seemed to take notice when we went over, perhaps because everyone was getting ready for New Year’s Eve. We finished unloading the truck and took the last of the boxes upstairs, then packed up the dolly and the hand truck and secured them back in the U-Haul. Dad pulled away at 6:03 and headed back to Brooklyn to return the truck and to attend the closing on the house. It went without a hitch, as there was no inspection or walkthrough. The buyers were simply gonna tear the place down and build a narrow, three-story house on the lot. In the meantime, Sarah and Stacey along with the other college guy, Rick, took the F-train and arrived at the new apartment. By the time the older girls and Rick arrived, we were all starving. Eric and I were still shirtless and with the help of Robin, busily unpacking boxes, putting the contents away and breaking the boxes down, but even the mention of food made us realize just how famished we were. After a quick call to the doorman in our building, I ordered delivery from an Asian takeout restaurant on the next block of Grand Street. The doorman said they had the best Chinese food north of Canal Street, and he was not wrong. The food was outstanding and we all dug in. When Dad finally showed up a couple of hours later, we fixed a plate of food we’d saved for him and nuked it in the microwave. Poor Dad hadn’t eaten at all since the early morning, so he was more than grateful that we fed him. The college boys needed to get back to Brooklyn and Dad paid them, adding a generous tip. Before Eric left, I thanked him for talking to me, and said goodbye. He texted me his cell number and told me to be sure to call him if I had any questions or needed help or advice. There were still a lot of boxes that needed to be emptied, but we were all beyond exhaustion at that point, so Dad decided the rest of it could wait until the morning. We all made up our beds and Dad and I took turns in the shower. The bathroom had all the original fixtures from the mid 1950’s and the plumbing was crap, but we weren’t in a position to do anything about it. Freshly clean and with my teeth brushed, I slipped on a fresh pair of boxers and joined the rest of my family in the living room where, among the boxes, we watched the ball drop on our phones and welcomed in a new year. Returning to my bedroom, I pulled down the window shade, which appeared to be barely adequate, slipped off my boxers and got into bed. Although my bed felt familiar, the sounds of traffic on FDR Drive and the light from the moon filtering through the window shade made it hard to ignore the fact that I was in a different place. I tossed and turned for quite a while at first, but the next thing I knew, sunlight was streaming in through the translucent window shade on my bedroom window. A much better window shade would definitely have to be one of my first purchases. There was a Target down the street and I could probably pick one up there. I put it on my mental ‘to do’ list and turned over and went back to sleep. <> <><> The smell of coffee was the first thing I noticed as I woke up. Looking at my phone, I saw that it was already after ten o’clock, which almost made me panic until I remembered it was still school break. I didn’t have to be anywhere. Then I noticed how bright my bedroom was and I remembered that yesterday we’d moved. I definitely needed a better window shade. Obviously, my bedroom faced east and got the morning sun. Getting out of bed, I stretched my arms high above my head and arched my back, but then I noticed how fuckin’ freezing it was. Remembering where the valve was, I turned on the heat full blast. Pulling on my boxers, I plodded across the hall with my boner leading the way. Hearing a giggle from down the hall told me one of my sisters has seen me, and so I raised my middle finger in her direction without even looking her way. In a house with four kids and one parent, modesty was an impossibility. They’d all seen me with boners before, with my boxers on and even without. I’d seen them and their boobs in the altogether too. Closing the bathroom door behind me, I lifted the toilet lid and reached for my fly, only to realize that my boner was already sticking out. No wonder my sister had giggled. Pulling back a bit and aiming downward, I let loose my stream. After flushing the toilet, I stood in front of the sink and looked in the mirror. I had a new zit and the peach fuzz on my upper lip was getting to be more than peach fuzz. There was even a fine dusting of hair visible on my cheeks, and so I realized it was time. It was kinda exciting, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I added asking my dad about getting a shaver to my mental ‘to do’ list. Being Jewish, my dad always used an electric razor and I guess I would too. It had something to do with Leviticus, I think. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then headed for the kitchen and poured myself a mug of coffee, adding a little milk and sugar to my taste. Robin and Stacey were already at the kitchen table, each eating a couple of toasted cheese sandwiches. It was already too late for breakfast and the smell of the sandwiches made me realize how hungry I was. “Is there any more of that,” I asked. “Enough for you,” Stacey answered. “The fry pan’s still on the stove and you can have the pleasure of washing it out when you’re done.” I responded by giving her a middle-finger salute. Grabbing some of the cheese we’d bought at Essex Market yesterday from the fridge and four slices of rye bread from the counter, I turned on the gas under the fry pan on the tiny 4-burner stove and heated the sandwiches ’til they were golden brown on both sides and the cheese was nicely melted. There was already enough grease in the pan that I didn’t need to add any more butter. Turning off the gas, I slid the sandwiches onto a plate and carried the plate and my coffee to the table, sitting down with my sisters. Only then did I realize how quickly I’d found the coffee mug and plate. Dad really had organized things perfectly, so we knew where to find things, just as in the old place. I also realized how nice and warm it was in the apartment. I was only wearing boxers and yet I was comfortable. Robin hadn’t been with us when Eric and I turned it off yesterday, so I asked, “I guess you found the heat okay?” Rather than answer, Robin gave me her ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me’ look. Then I asked, “Where’s Dad and Sarah?” “They went to get some things from the grocery on the next block,” Stacey answered. Lookin’ around, I began, “Fuck, this kitchen’s even smaller than the one in the house.” “Maybe you and Dad could enlarge it and modernize it,” Robin suggested. Snorting, I responded, “He’s probably already got plans for doin’ it over the summer, but short of getting rid of the eat-in area, I don’t know how you’d expand it. “All of the plumbing for the kitchen and bathrooms is in that wall,” I said as I pointed to the wall across from me, “and it looks like there’s a support beam right there,” I added pointing behind me and to my left. “Behind most of that wall is another apartment, so we have to leave it as is. But between there and the support beam is three feet of wall that could come out, and that whole L-shaped section of wall between the kitchen and the bedroom hall could be opened up. We could take out the wall across from the kitchen that separates the hallway from the living room… that would open up the whole area and you could see the picture window in the living room from the kitchen. So if we get rid of the table and chairs in the kitchen, we could expand it up to the bedroom hallway and we’d have a much nicer kitchen too.” “You’re beginning to think like Dad,” Stacey suggested. “That’s a scary thought,” I responded, getting a laugh from both my sisters. Just then the door opened and Dad and Sarah walked in. Sarah was pushing our folding cart and it was filled with groceries. “What a crappy grocery,” she said as she started to unload the cart and put the groceries away. “It’s tiny, crowded and expensive.” “But it’s on the next block and we can walk there,” Dad pointed out. That was a big deal, as the closest grocery store to the house was a mile-and-a-half away, and we had to take the bus. “There’s a Trader Joe’s down the street, at the corner of Grand and Clinton,” I pointed out. “There’s a Target too.” Sighing, Dad said, “Signs of gentrification. We’ll have to check them out. One big advantage of living in Manhattan is that we have three pharmacies, three groceries, four banks, the post office, the library, a movie theater, a public market, several restaurants and a subway station, all within easy walking distance.” “And several large housing projects,” I added. “Yes, well the Lower East Side has always been very diverse,” Dad countered. “Here, you have luxury condos and housing projects, side-by-side.” Co-op Village is one of the few places in Manhattan with market-rate housing that’s considered to be affordable. It’s solidly middle class, even if it is in the high six figures, but then so was the house. My only regret is that we couldn’t afford something on a higher floor with a balcony or terrace. You should have seen the three-bedroom I looked at in Seward Park. It was on the nineteenth floor and had a terrace that was twice the size of our living room, but it was listed at over a million and a half. I had to see what that kind of money bought, though, and what it bought was a view you wouldn’t believe.” “We have a fantastic view right here,” I pointed out. “That’s one of the reasons I bought this place,” Dad related. “I could have gotten something a lot larger in Hillman, but it was right by the Williamsburg Bridge and the subway, and the whole place vibrated every time an M- or J-Train went by. I could’ve gotten an apartment like this on the fourteenth floor in building four, but it didn’t have nearly as good a view. This apartment cost about what we got for the house, the monthly maintenance is under a thousand, which is a bargain for three bedrooms, and it has great views. Because it’s in the stem of the building rather than the wings, we have both east and west views. Most of the apartments have views in only one direction.” “It needs a lot of work,” I pointed out. “Yes, I know,” Dad agreed with a sigh, “but it has real possibilities. We’re gonna take out that wall, that wall, that wall and that one,” he said as he pointed to each of the walls I’d already identified as the one’s I thought we should remove. “We’ll completely gut and remodel the kitchen and both bathrooms, getting rid of the eat-in area and enlarging the kitchen, putting in all new cabinets and appliances. We’ll replace the plumbing and modernize both bathrooms. We’ll put in all new hardwood floors and paint the place. It’s gonna be a busy summer for you and me, Joshy.” “Can we afford to do all that?” I asked. “Easily,” Dad replied. “For one thing, I got a better rate on the mortgage, so I was able to build-in the costs of the remodeling. We just have to use the funds within the year. Secondly, I’m gonna be making a bit more money at Manhattan Community…” “You are?” I interrupted in surprise. “With my track record of publications and awards, they approved me as an assistant professor in a tenure track position” We all just sat there, stunned. Finally, it sunk in just what that meant and I shouted, “Way to go, Dad!” And then the girls started echoing my sentiment, and we all ended up in a group hug. When we settled down, Dad commented, “You might want to get dressed, Joshy. Someone will be here before noon to install our broadband.” Shit, it was almost that now. Heading to my bedroom, I grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, but figured shoes and socks were optional, so I didn’t bother. I never wore them around the house if I could help it. Dad was an assistant professor now. How do you like that? I pulled on my jeans and then pulled on my shirt as I headed back to the kitchen. Although we didn’t have a lot of money to spare, two things we didn’t skimp on were broadband and wireless service. Dad got a discounted rate through the City University system that made them cheaper than most folks paid for basic service. We had gigabit fiber and we had unlimited family minutes, data and text. Dad got us decent smart phones too. Not the top of the line, but decent enough to use for schoolwork when we needed it, and decent enough not to be teased by our peers. Dad understood that our phones were a priority. We didn’t have a landline and we didn’t have cable TV, ’cause we didn’t need them. Our wireless plan came with free streaming, which gave us most of what we wanted to watch, and for everything else, there was Amazon. As I rejoined the family, I heard Dad assigning work to each of my sisters, but when I got there he said, “For you Joshua, there will be no unboxing and putting things away. For you there will be no cleaning or vacuuming. I need you to help me hang the TV on the wall and to hang all the artwork and photographs. Only then will this truly be our home.” I saw right away that the TV was gonna be a particular challenge. The place Dad had picked for it was on a wall that was shared with our neighbor’s bedroom, but I didn’t see how we could mount it on the wall without it becoming a sounding board. The wall was made of plaster over concrete block, which meant there was no dead space between the apartments to absorb the sound from the TV. The speakers were mounted on the back side, facing the wall, and they were tiny. They would vibrate the wall, sending the sound in both directions, into our living room, and into our neighbor’s bedroom. “Dad!” I called out to my father, who was unpacking the framed posters that comprised our ‘artwork’. “The wall where you want to put the TV is common to our neighbor’s bedroom. If we hang the TV there, it’ll send as much of the sound into their bedroom as into our living room.” “But there’s a solid foot of concrete behind there,” Dad replied as he came up to me. Shakin’ my head, I replied, “It’s pure physics, Dad. The wavelength of the low frequencies is much longer than the thickness of the wall, so with a solid wall, it might as well be paper. There’s no dead space to interrupt transmission of sound through the wall. On top of that, the speakers are on the back of the TV, facing backwards. They send sound into the room by vibrating the wall. Finally, they’re tiny. By Newton’s First Law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Tiny speakers have to vibrate a lot more than big speakers to generate the same amount of sound, and all of that vibration will be coupled into the wall and into our neighbor’s bedroom.” Then turning to look at Dad, I asked, “Is there any way we could turn the furniture arrangement so that it faces the other wall instead? The other wall is common to the stairwell. There’d be no problem with the TV mounted on the wall with the stairwell.” Putting his hand under his chin and seeming to think for a minute, he turned to me and said, “What would you think about putting in a home theater?” I didn’t need to think long about it. A home theater would be phenomenal, but not if it was the cheap sort of thing we could afford. Sighing, I told my father, “Not on our budget, Dad. Even a decent set of stereo speakers and an amp would run over a grand, and you’d hafta more than double that for surround sound. We just don’t have that kind of money. Maybe we could afford a sound bar with a couple of satellite speakers. Some of them sound decent and are inexpensive. Those crappy subwoofers that are made to be hidden behind furniture, however, do little more than annoy the neighbors.” “What if I were to give you a budget of five thousand dollars,” Dad asked. “Could you do it for that?” “Hell yeah,” I exclaimed. “I couldn’t do 11.2 Dolby Atmos, but we could have an excellent 5.1 surround sound system for that.” “So for ten grand, we could have something that’s state-of-the-art, maybe with a larger TV?” Dad asked. “For ten grand, we could have everything we could ever want in a home theater, including a bigger, 4K HDR TV.” Looking him right in the eyes, I continued, “But Dad, we can’t afford it.” “Actually, I think we can,” Dad replied. “I’ve been thinking about putting a home theater in here since I first looked at the apartment, and we’ll have a lot more room when we take out the wall between the living room and the kitchen. Getting the tenure track position and our excellent credit record, I was able to get a much more favorable rate on our mortgage, and it’s a fifteen-year fixed rate too,” Dad went on to explain. “So I was able to build-in an extra hundred grand into the mortgage for renovations. That money’s just sitting in a savings account for now. “Like I said, we have to spend the money by the end of the year, but I think we can use ten grand of it for a home theater now, as a sort of home equity loan to come out of our future renovations.” “But what about the monthly co-op fee?” I asked. “That’s over a grand a month that we didn’t used to have to pay.” “The co-op fee includes heat, gas and water, which ran us at least as much during the winter months,” Dad pointed out. “It also includes the property tax, which was well over a grand a month. Property taxes in a house are very expensive, but they’re peanuts in a co-op. We’re coming out well ahead. “So after you hang the existing TV and help me with hanging the rest of our stuff, why don’t you start looking at our options for a home theater. Before anything else, though, we’ll need to move all the living room furniture if we put the TV on the other wall.” “Maybe I’d better go now,” I countered, “and I can help you move the furniture and hang things over the weekend. Tomorrow’s a school day and if we want to take advantage of the New Year’s sales…” <> <><> I was waiting at the bus stop for the M21 bus to take me to the Best Buy on Houston Street. With everything taken care of in our new home, it was a chance to look at home theater equipment and pick up something on sale before going back to school. As I waited for the bus, four teenage boys who looked vaguely familiar came up to the stop. One of them actually looked younger, like maybe twelve, but I figured he was just a late bloomer. I was pretty sure I’d seen him in the hallways at Stuyvesant, as he had wavy brown hair halfway down his back that was hard to miss. I was also pretty sure I recognized one of the other boys from school, as there weren’t many kids of color who went to Stuyvesant. He looked like a younger version of Tiger Woods. Clearly, he was part African American and part Asian. What really floored me was that they were holding hands with the other two boys! The boy with the long hair was holding hands with a freckle-faced redhead and the Tiger Woods boy was holding hands with a curly-haired green-eyed blond boy. They were all good looking, but as couples they were stunning. “You guys go to Stuyvesant, don’t you?” I asked. “I’ve seen you in the hallways.” “Yeah, we do,” answered the boy with the long hair. “It’s a big school, but I think I’ve seen you there too. One of the non-Asian minority,” he laughed. “Do you live around here?” The Tiger Woods boy asked. “I don’t think I’ve seen you ride the M22 to school in the morning.” “We just moved here,” I answered. “We bought an apartment in that building, I said as I pointed to the building across the street. “Oh cool,” the boy with the curly blond hair replied. “Asher and I live in the next building over,” he added as he pointed to the building across the courtyard from mine. “Actually, my parents and I live in that building,” the Tiger Woods boy, whose name apparently was Asher, said as he pointed to a building ahead and on the right. “But Seth and I do spend most of our time at his place, especially since we got married.” “Married?” I practically shouted in surprise. “You don’t look nearly old enough to get married.” I did notice that they were wearing matching gold rings though. I wondered if they could possibly be older than they looked. Way older. “It’s a long story,” the Tiger Woods boy explained. “By the way, I’m Asher, and in answer to your unasked question, I’m almost sixteen.” “And I’m Seth,” the boy with curly blond hair chimed in, “and I’m fourteen. I’ll be fifteen in June.” “You’re my age,” I exclaimed. “By the way, my name’s Josh.” “It’s nice to meet you, Josh,” Asher added as he shook my hand. The bus pulled up and we all boarded and dipped our farecards. The bus had one of the new terminals for tap-to-pay, but it didn’t work with our student bus passes yet. Asher and Seth took seats on the left side of the bus and I sat across the aisle on the right. The other two boys sat behind me. Turning around, I repeated, “My name’s Josh, and you are?” “I’m François, but I go by Freck, because of all my freckles, and I’m thirteen as of December.” “And I’m Kyle,” Freck’s boyfriend said, “and I’m eleven as of last December… really. And I really do go to Stuyvesant, where I’m a senior.” “As am I,” Freck added. I was stunned. It was difficult enough to believe that Kyle was only eleven, but for him and his boyfriend to be seniors seemed impossible. And they were boyfriends, and Asher and Seth were married. It was a lot to take in. “I don’t fuckin’ believe it,” I responded. “Finally, someone who fuckin’ talks like a New Yorker,” Kyle interjected. Turning to Asher and Seth, I asked, “Are you two also seniors?” Shaking their heads, Asher replied, “Nah, I’m at grade level and Seth’s only a year ahead. We’re both sophomores.” “Where’d you move from,” Seth asked. “Manhattan Beach,” I replied. “It’s next to…” “Brighton Beach,” Seth said, completing my sentence. “What do your parents do,” Asher asked. “My Dad’s an assistant professor of Russian literature at Manhattan Community College,” I replied. “He got a transfer from Kingsborough. My mother was a doctor in Ukraine, and she worked as a nurse practitioner here, but she died ten years ago.” “I’m sorry to hear that, Josh,” Kyle responded. “Do you have any brother’s or sisters? “Three sisters,” I replied. “Two older, one younger.” “Man, I only have one brother who’s fifteen, and that’s one too many,” Kyle chimed in. “And I have twin sisters who are nearly ten, but now I live with my boyfriend, his brother and his dads,” Freck added. I raised my eyebrows when he mentioned two dads. He responded by explaining, “Ky’s dad didn’t accept he was gay until a year ago. He and Ky’s mom decided to divorce, and his dad fell in love with a colleague. They got married over the summer.” “You live around here?” I asked Freck and Kyle. “Nah, we live up in Riverdale in a house overlooking the Hudson,” Kyle responded, “But Ashe and Seth are our very best friends and we visit them often, especially when Asher offers to cook. We sometimes stay over, since they have the room.” “I take it he’s a decent cook?” I asked. “That’s like sayin’ the Empire State Building’s a tall building,” Kyle replied. “My parents own an Asian takeout restaurant on Grand Street and a Cajun place on Orchard,” Asher explained. “I do a lot of the cooking for the Cajun place.” “Wait a minute,” I suddenly realized. “You mean the Asian place in the co-op?” “That’s the one,” Asher responded. “We ordered food from there last night,” I reported. “It was delicious.” “Asher’s been written up in the New York Times for the Cajun restaurant,” Seth interjected. I wasn’t per se a foodie and couldn’t ever recall reading the food column in the paper, so I simply responded, “I’ll have to check it out.” Then noticing where we were, I said, “Oh, my stop’s coming up soon. Gotta check out some home theater gear at Best Buy while it’s on sale.” “Oh no,” Seth practically shouted at me. “That’s about the worst place to pick up home theater gear. Not that they don’t have decent stuff if you know what to look for, but they’ll try to push mass-market goods with a whole lotta features you’ll never use. You’ll end up paying for shit you don’t need and getting a mediocre picture and barely tolerable sound. Whatever you do, don’t go there.” Well that wasn’t a subtle warning. “Well, where would you have me go?” I asked. “The place Ashe and I bought all our gear,” Seth replied. “And it’s right near the end of this bus route. A lot of what they sell is high-end used gear, but most of it’s only a year old if even that. People that buy high-end gear often find even higher-end gear they like better, and so they trade it in when it’s practically still new. New York has a lot of rich people who think nothing of buying all new stuff every year. Most people shy away from used gear because it isn’t under warranty, but this place guarantees everything they sell for life. If anything they sell ever stops working, just bring it in and they’ll repair it, free of charge. “Wow, that’s quite a deal,” I responded. “Where is this place?” “We’ll take you there,” Seth offered. “Weren’t you guys on your way somewhere?” I asked. “We were just gonna look around in The Village,” Asher replied, “maybe get some LGBT stuff to wear to school. But we can still do that afterwards on the way back home.” “That’s very cool,” I responded. And then taking a huge leap of faith, I added, “Perhaps I can go with you then.” <> <><> “Hey Seth,” A guy with long grey har called out, “I see you brought some of your buddies this time as well as your boyfriend.” The guy was such a caricature, he looked like an aging hippie. “Actually, Asher’s my husband now,” Seth announced. “How does someone your age get married, dude,” the guy asked. “It’s a bit of a long story,” Seth answered. “Does it have something to do with the shit going on with your old man?” the guy asked. “Unfortunately so,” Seth answered. My curiosity was piqued, but I’d wait to ask about it. “So Paul,” Seth continued, “I think you’ve met my friends, Freck and Kyle before. This is Josh,” he related as he nodded in my direction. “He just moved to the neighborhood from Manhattan Beach and he’s in the market for a home theater setup.” “Well we can certainly help you with that,” Paul responded as he turned his attention to me. “How much are you looking to spend, Josh, and what kinda space do you have?” Pulling out a line drawing I’d made of the apartment, it was actually Freck that pounced on it, saying, “Oh, you’ve got one of the three-bedroom stem units. That’s actually the largest original layout they have at Co-op Village. I helped Seth combine a two-bedroom stem unit with a one-bedroom with terrace. We got three large bedrooms with walk-in closets, two full bathrooms and a den out of it. I see you plan to take out that wall between the kitchen and the living room, which is exactly what you should do. Opening up the kitchen will make a big difference too. It looks like you’ve got some plans to add closet space, and you need to, but there’s a better way. The bedrooms are large and none of the walls are structural. I can give you much larger bathrooms and ample closet space, and you’ll still have big bedrooms. You’re gonna end up with an eighteen-foot by eighteen-foot living room, which is epic, man. You can put a kickass home theater in there. The only limitation is your budget.” I guess I looked like a tsunami had washed over me, which in a way I guess it had, as Asher explained, “Freck plans to be an architect. In fact, he’s been accepted to the combined architecture and civil engineering program at MIT.” “That’s fuckin’ impressive,” Paul related and I nodded my head in agreement. “I’m guessing with a dad who’s a Russian Lit professor that you got bookcases…” Freck interjected. “Oh yeah,” I interrupted. “We have a ton of books,” I related. “After all, there’s a lot more to Russian Literature than Tolstoy,” Freck said in flawless Russian. He didn’t even have an accent! “Dostoyevsky was absolutely brilliant,” he added. “You’ve read Dostoyevsky?” I asked in Russian. “Your Russian is flawless.” Shrugging his shoulders, Freck responded, “I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov in English when I was nine and in Russian when I was ten.” “That’s some pretty heavy duty reading at any age,” I interjected, “let alone when you’re that young, even if you are a genius. When did you have time to study Russian?” “I never did take a formal class in it,” Freck replied. “Language classes are so ridiculously slow.” “Freck collects languages like some kids collect baseball cards, or Star Wars figures, or whatever,” Kyle related. “How many languages do you speak?” I asked Freck. Laughing, he replied, “Frankly, I’ve lost count. I mean, I speak all the major European languages and several Asian languages, including Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog and Hindi. I speak Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi. Oh, and Turkish. I don’t speak any African languages, so that’ll be my next challenge.” “You don’t speak Korean, Vietnamese, Thai or Malaysian?” I asked, feigning surprise. “Of course I speak Korean,” Freck replied. “That’s a very important language to learn now, almost like Japanese used to be. I understand a fair bit of the others, but I’d be hard pressed to hold a conversation in any of them. It’s not like I set out to study languages either. I just pick them up. Maybe I’d have trouble with an obscure isolated native tribe with a language not related to any others, but most of the world’s languages are related and I pick up the variations quickly without even thinking about it.” “Amazing,” I responded. “You know, you might want to consider puttin’ the TV in the corner,” Freck suggested. “I realize that’s partly on the wall shared with your neighbor’s bedroom, but that won’t matter if you have floor-standing speakers and plug the base ports. Then you can have a cozy grouping around the TV, with a sofa opposite and maybe a love seat on one side and a couple of arm chairs on the other, with a coffee table in the center of it all. You could further dampen sounds by putting your dad’s bookcases along both walls, with a matching corner cabinet under the TV for the electronics, your center speaker and maybe your sub. You might even consider built-ins.” “That’s a really kick-ass idea, Freck,” I responded. “It’s ingenious, but it’ll mean rebuilding or revising a lot of our living room furniture. Still, I love the idea and so will my dad.” “You should put your dining set between the sofa and the kitchen instead of by the door, where it is now. You’ll have the space for it with the corner arrangement and it’ll look so much better that way. You can put a grouping of chairs and maybe some plants in the window. It would be a nice conversation area or it would be perfect for reading or studying, and you could have a small table by the entrance, maybe with drop-down leaves, that could be like a family eating space, so you don’t need to use the formal dining table for breakfast and the like.” “Not only did Freck design the floorplan for combining apartments in our place, but he did all the interior design as well,” Seth interjected. “You’re hired,” I quipped with Freck, making it obvious I wasn’t entirely serious, or so I thought. “Now about our home theater…” “So, what do you have in mind,” Paul asked. “My dad has given me a budget of 10k, but I think that’s too much,” I related. “Money’s always been tight, but he seems to think that now that he’s in a tenure track position as an assistant professor, we can loosen the purse strings a bit. We’re planning to redo the kitchen and bathrooms this summer, him and me, and that’s gonna kinda bust the budget.” “You’re doing the work yourselves?” Freck asked. “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?” “Dad designed and the two of us built all the furniture in our apartment,” I replied. “We’ve done renovation work before, including drywall, plumbing and wiring. We had a lot of damage from Sandy and did all the repairs ourselves.” “You would’ve been, what, seven when Sandy hit?” Freck asked and I nodded yes. “Now I’m impressed. Seriously, you should let me do the architectural work for you,” he continued. “I have a drafting table, a kick-ass computer and all the architectural software you could want. I did all the design work for Seth’s grandparents’ place and my drawings passed muster with the city buildings department. And my rates are reasonable. I’ll do it for free.” Shakin’ my head, I responded, “Thanks for the offer, but I doubt we’ll need anything that formal.” “Yes, you will,” Freck countered. “You’re not in a house anymore and you can’t get away with doing construction work without everyone in the building knowing about it. If they complain, the management will issue a warning and slap a fine on your next monthly bill. If you continue to work without a building permit, they’ll notify the city and you’ll be faced with a stop-work order and a hefty fine. There are application fees and inspections too, but I know the process and can guide you through it.” “Gee, thanks for the offer, Freck,” I responded earnestly. “Now about that home theater…” “First of all, Josh, what do you like to watch on your TV?” Paul asked. “We have streaming through our wireless provider, and we have Amazon Prime. We don’t have cable. We probably watch TV an hour or two every night, and we usually watch a movie or two together on weekends,” I replied. “So you’re pretty light viewers,” Paul responded, and then he asked, “What do you have now, and do you plan to keep any of it?” “We have a fifty-inch off-brand LCD TV that’s not very good, so we’ll definitely want to replace it. The picture’s not all that bright, the contrast is terrible and it’s not nearly big enough for the size of the new living room.” “That’s for sure,” Paul agreed, and then he asked, “How about your stereo.” “My sisters and I listen to music on our phones,” I answered. “We had a boombox, but we got rid of it before the move.” It was funny, but Paul cringed when he heard me talk about a boombox. “Is music a priority to you?” Paul asked. “Is there anyone else in the family for whom it might be?” “My dad likes classical, but I don’t think he has much time to listen to it. Me and my sisters all listen to music when we study, each on our phones. We have a family subscription to Tidal.” “Tidal,” Paul said in seeming surprise. “Yeah, it’s an artist-owned streaming service,” I explained. “We like it because it’s lossless and the music just plain sounds better than on Spotify. Broadband is one of our few priorities and we have gigabit fiber, so downloading music from Tidal is no problem for us.” “Oh we’re very familiar with Tidal,” Paul replied. “What sorts of music do you guys like to listen to?” “Well, like I said, Dad likes to listen to classical. I think it’s from his Russian upbringing. I have three sisters and they like to listen to all kinds of shit. Sarah likes mostly hip-hop and Stacey likes punk, believe it or not. She dyes her hair and wears punk clothes too. Robin’s only twelve, but she’s got way better taste than her older sisters. She listens to classic and alternative rock. Me, I like to listen to Jazz. Not so much the fusion stuff or the so-called smooth jazz, but the jazz classics like Coltrane and Davis, or vocalists like Sarah Vaughn, Norah Jones, Diana Krall and good old Blue Eyes. I also like classic rock from the likes of The Beatles and The Who,” I concluded. “A man after my own heart,” Asher responded. “Actually, we all like Jazz, although Freck has a predilection for Opera and Kyle favors Classic Rock.” “That’s pretty cool,” I replied. “Not too many of my friends like to listen to what I listen to.” “It sounds like you should get something with decent stereo music capabilities,” Paul concluded. Given the size of the room, I’d recommend a 7.1 surround sound setup for sure. Broadcast TV’s only 5.1 but a lot of movies are available in 7.1 Dolby. Unless you plan to turn the volume up, I’d get Atmos too, but that could up the cost more than you can afford, and you can always add it later. “So let’s look at some of the components I have and what we can do for under ten grand,” Paul continued. Leading us into another room, Paul said, “This TV is going to blow your mind,” as he switched on a humongous flat panel that was hung on the wall. “It was the best entry-level 85-inch OLED model last year. We don’t often get an OLED model as a trade-in, ’cause they’re so new. Except for a few enhancements, it’s as good as the new models and the only difference between it and the top-of-the-line models is in features you’ll never use. Most people never even use the ‘smart’ features of their smart TV, and smart TVs can spy on you without your even knowing it. Most of us will plug in a streaming device anyway. The picture quality’s exactly the same as on the top of the line model. You’d have paid three grand for this model when it was new. I can give it to you for one grand, including delivery and setup, with our lifetime warranty.” It had a fantastic picture but even on my generous budget from Dad, a thousand dollars was a huge chunk of change. Although at a conscious level I realized the price was very competitive for any 85-inch model, let alone an OLED model, my subconscious kept me from showing the enthusiasm the offer deserved. My hesitation apparently alerted Paul to just how tight money really was for us, so he added, “As part of a package deal, it’ll be even less, and we offer discounts for paying with cash or check. You won’t find a better deal and this is definitely the biggest bang for the buck you’ll find for a room that size. Keep in mind that OLEDs are much more energy efficient and use way less power than LCDs. Way less…” Finally, my brain reengaged and I asked, “How can you discount it so much when it’s less than a year old?” Laughing, Paul answered, “Rich folks don’t really care about getting top dollar for their shit. They only think about the new stuff they’re buyin’ and they don’t even haggle over the price. They don’t pay attention to the value of their trade-ins. I got this TV for next to nothing. A lot of dealers would turn around and try to get as much as they can for it… charging as much as $2500 for it, which is no bargain. We’re more interested in building a relationship with our customers. If I can deliver a higher-end home theater system than you thought you could afford, you’ll come back the next time you need something and you’ll keep coming back, even when you’re rich enough to buy everything new,” he added with a wink. “Now the next question will determine whether or not you want to include an optical drive as part of the package…” Paul continued, but seeing where he was going, I interrupted. “No, we don’t,” I said. “I’m well aware that Blu-ray offers better picture quality and access to special features not available with streaming. I know we could always add a Blu-ray player later if we change our minds, but it’ll cost more, perhaps a lot more. The thing is, we don’t have the budget to go around building a movie collection, and no one rents DVDs or Blu-rays anymore. We generally rent movies from Amazon, iTunes or Vudu and watch them once, and we’d rather watch a second movie than spend our precious time on the special features.” “That’s great, Josh,” Paul responded. “You’ve obviously already given this a lot of thought. Before you close the book on an optical player, however, do you have any CDs left that you might still want to play?” Shakin’ my head, I answered, “We stopped buying CDs once we tried Spotify. For our purposes at the time, the premium level was good enough. When Tidal came out, however, it was every bit as good as our CDs and it gave us access to a much larger selection of music, so we sold all our CDs.” “Wait ’til you try Qobuz,” Paul interjected. “What’s Kobuzz?” I asked. “It’s a streaming company based in France,” Paul explained. “For a few dollars more, you get access to high resolution music too. It’s a much larger selection than Tidal’s MQA, and It’s fully lossless. They also sell high-res music at a substantial discount compared to other online stores. If you’re an audiophile, that is.” “I’ve never had the money to be an audiophile.” I replied. “It’s not as expensive as you think,” Paul responded. You don’t have to buy an expensive home theater or invest in a fancy personal music player. I can get you a decent pair of headphones or in-ear monitors and a good DAC, used, for around a hundred fifty. With your smartphone and the Qobuz app, you’ll have a setup that’s more than 90 percent as good as the A&K music players your friends have, at a fraction of the price, but don’t tell them I told you that.” We all laughed at that. “So no optical disc player for now,” Paul concluded. “My next question’s even more fundamental, and It’s permanent. Once you go down the all-digital path as Seth has, there’s no going back. Well, Seth’s a special case, but he ended up spending thousands to add analog over digital technology to his system. The question is, do you think there’s even the remote chance you’d want to listen to vinyl on your home theater system? Or analog tape for that matter?” Shaking my head, I replied, “No chance at all. Not only does vinyl cost too much, but it doesn’t sound that much better.” “Vinyl does sound better than CDs or Tidal,” Asher countered. “Way better, but even with my Dad’s collection of vintage vinyl jazz, I have to admit that hi-res digital audio’s even better still.” “Your Dad has a collection of vintage jazz?” I asked. “Including an original first-pressing of Kind of Blue.” “Oh man, I’d love to listen to that,” I replied. “That can definitely be arranged,” Asher assured me. “Cool,” I replied. Paul went on to show me a home theater setup that truly blew my mind. Using nothing more than a video receiver that plugged into the TV and that plugged into our home network, he could send 7.1 surround sound to four amplified surround sound and rear speakers around the room. We could even send audiophile-quality music to another room while watching TV in the living room – not that we ever planned to do that – but it was nice to know we could if we ever decided to spend the money. What was really spectacular about going digital was that, rather than spending hundreds of dollars on thick ugly cables running all over the place to hook up the speakers, we only needed to connect them to our home network using thin Ethernet cables or our home WiFi. Each of the surround and rear speakers had its own amp, DAC and network interface built in. That was so cool. For the front, Paul recommended a pair of tower speakers that were less than a year old and cost a fraction of the price of new ones, ’cause they were the older model. With the addition of a center channel speaker and a sub, we would have a great hi-res digital audiophile setup at a surprisingly affordable price. The whole thing was gonna cost us $7800 cash, including tax, and it came with free installation and a lifetime warranty. Paul was even throwing in the cables and sound-dampening feet for all the speakers at no extra charge. Seth told me that those feet usually cost a hundred dollars per speaker. Paul requested that I put down half the cost as a deposit, but I didn’t have four grand in cash on me. I very nearly cried when Seth offered to write a check – these guys didn’t even know me, yet Seth was willing to do that for me. Paul was nice enough to wave the deposit however, once he cleared the purchase with a phone call to my dad. They could actually install our home theater the next afternoon. <> <><> “So I take it you’re Jewish,” Kyle began after we’d given our orders. We’d spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the shops in The Village and we were now sitting in a place I’d never heard of before called the Good Stuff Diner. They all told me it was the best diner in New York and Freck was treating all of us. When I raised my eyebrows at that, he explained that his parents were both billionaires, but he lived with his boyfriend’s family because his own parents didn’t have time for him. How sad! So anyway, I realized Kyle’s statement was more of a question, so I answered, “We’re not very religious, but yeah, both my parents are Russian Jews… well, was in my mother’s case.” “But your mother was from Ukraine,” Kyle countered. “Good memory,” I exclaimed. “A lot of Ukrainian Jews came from Russia in the old Soviet days,” I explained. “And regardless, the Ukrainians always looked at the Jews as outsiders and lumped them with the Russians, even if their families had been there for generations.” Just then the soups arrived and although my matzo ball soup was very good, it wasn’t the best I’d ever tasted, but it was better than what most places served, even in New York. “Their lobster bisque’s incredible, but they only have it on Fridays,” Asher commented. “They make a wonderful white bean soup too, but only on Mondays.” “I take it you eat here fairly often,” I responded, and added more in passing that I’d never tried lobster bisque and that we basically never ate shellfish. “But you obviously don’t keep kosher,” Kyle responded. “Otherwise you’d have never ordered the turkey dinner.” I’d ordered the turkey because they all said the apple walnut stuffing was the best they’d ever had. Shrugging my shoulders, I replied, “it’s not that we keep strictly kosher, but there are just some habits that are ingrained in us. We don’t mix meat and dairy and we don’t eat shellfish. Until very recently I’d never eaten pork, but my sister ordered a breakfast bagel with Canadian bacon at Essex Market the other day and not to be outdone…” “Let me guess,” Seth began, “it was Robin, your younger sister. At twelve, she’s starting to assert her independence.” “I can’t believe you remember her name,” I replied, “but yeah.” Truthfully, I hadn’t even remembered giving them her name, but obviously I must have. Seth was right though. I hadn’t thought of it at the time, but that was exactly why Robin ordered bacon. Seth seemed to have a profound understanding of people. “A lot of my best dishes use shellfish as a principal ingredient,” Asher added. “Shellfish is an important part of Cajun and Creole cooking. The same is true of Asian food too. If you’re game, I’m gonna hafta introduce you to the joys of les fruits de mer. That’s French for seafood.” “I’m definitely game,” I replied. “I don’t keep kosher and I’m willing to try anything once.” “I’m guessing you’ve never had sushi either,” Freck chimed in, “even though most of It’s kosher. There are even kosher sushi restaurants.” As I nodded my head, Freck continued, “So it’s more a matter of familiarity than keeping kosher per se.” “I guess you’re right about that,” I responded, “though I never thought about it that way before.” “You’ve lived a sheltered life in Manhattan Beach,” Freck continued. “We’re gonna have to expose you to the more worldly ways of Manhattan itself.” At that point our server arrived with our dinners and he put a huge platter of food right in front of me. On it were enormous slices of turkey breast with gravy and a generous mound of stuffing. Just when I wondered how in hell I was gonna eat it all, he placed a smaller plate next to the platter with a large serving of mashed potatoes and a bowl overflowing with long green beans and grilled peppers. My meal was great – worthy of any Thanksgiving dinner. I had an appetite as big as any teenager, but I was gonna have to take half of it home. I noticed the food the others had ordered looked equally appetizing. Asher was eating the eggplant rollatini and it looked incredible. Seth had the salmon burger deluxe with sweet potato fries, Freck had the California wrap and Kyle had the chicken souvlaki platter. Everything looked delicious, and mine was absolutely the best turkey dinner I’d ever eaten. In the end I did manage to finish it, but I was beyond stuffed by the time we left. As we boarded the M14A-SBS bus to head back home, I reflected on the wonderful friends I’d made today. They weren’t in my grade level, but of them, only Asher was older than me. It was a shame that Freck and Kyle would be leaving at the end of the year, ’cause I really liked them. We took a group of seats together in the rear half of the bus. “I’ve really enjoyed spending the afternoon with you guys,” I began. “It’s just a shame you two will only be here a few more months, and then you’ll be off to Boston, I presume,” I added as I turned toward Kyle and Freck. “Actually, we’ve decided to stay here another two years and do all our initial coursework at City College, up in Harlem,” Kyle explained. “The law doesn’t require us to graduate at the end of our senior year, even though we’ll have enough credits. New York would let us stay in school ’til we’re sixteen if we wanted, but what would be the point of getting into MIT if we only go there for graduation? But by taking courses for dual credit, we can get most of it paid for and we can stay with family and friends for two more years.” “That’s fantastic,” I responded. “Just don’t forget those of us still at Stuyvesant,” I reminded them. “There’s no danger of that happening,” Freck countered, “so long as Asher keeps feeding us.” “So the truth comes out,” Asher responded. “The only reason you like Seth and me is because of my cooking.” “You finally figured us out,” Freck replied. These guys were obviously very tight. Already, I felt close to them. Looking down at the bag I was carrying, I opened it and looked inside at my purchases from the afternoon. I’d bought a double-Mars silver pendant and a rainbow-colored ring. I took out the ring and placed it on my right hand. Looking at it, I said, more to myself, “I’m gonna hafta have a talk with my dad when I get home. My sisters all know and they tell me Dad knows too, but I’ve never talked about it. Even the nearly three years me and Dimitri were boyfriends, I never talked about it. I just assumed Dad, with his old-world ways, wouldn’t understand.” “I always thought my parents wouldn’t understand,” Asher began, “but then it turned out they always knew too. Would you like us to go with you when you talk to your dad?” “No, but I think it might help if he meets you before I talk to him,” I replied. “Since I already told him about you, except the part about you’re bein’ gay, I know he’d like to meet you. I wouldn’t talk to him until after you leave, though. I don’t want him to think we’re ganging up on him. “I’ll send him a quick text to make sure it’s OK for us to stop by,” I added as I texted away. Moments later, I got a reply stating that he was looking forward to meeting my friends. “We’re all set.” As the four of us talked on the bus, I learned a bit more about my new friends – that Asher’s father was Creole and from New Orleans and that his mother was Chinese American from Flushing in Queens. The two of them met at Culinary Institute of America, up in Hyde Park. I learned that Seth’s mom was an oncologist – a physician that treats patients with cancer. His dad was our representative in the State Assembly in Albany, but he’d been indicted on charges of corruption, according to Seth, in retribution for crossing paths with the president. My father, like a lot of old-world Russian Jews, was a Republican and supported the president. I’d seen enough of how the president dealt with his foes, however, to believe what Seth was telling me. I told my friends about how my oldest sister, Sarah, was a junior at Brooklyn Latin School, another of the elite specialty high schools, and that Stacey was a talented graphic artist and a sophomore at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, New York’s premier school for the arts. They were surprised when I told them about her vivid hair color and metal-studded leather collar and bracelet. Freck pointed out that if our dad could accept that, certainly he could accept a gay son. Strangely I’d never thought of it like that before. Finally, I told them how Robin was in the seventh grade at the Salk School of Science, a joint venture between the city public schools and New York University, and how she was passionate about science. It turned out Freck really was a multimillionaire, and his parents were each worth billions. His dad was the CEO of one of the major brokerage firms and his Mom was the owner of one of the best-known fashion labels in the world. Kyle’s dad was a retina specialist who worked in the ophthalmology department at New York Presbyterian Hospital and his other father was an epileptologist, which is a neurologist who treats seizure disorders. I still didn’t learn how Asher and Seth came to be legally married or what Seth’s father might have done to cross paths with the president. When we got off the bus, it dropped us right next to my building and so I led my friends inside and up to the sixth floor of our wing. When we entered our apartment, Stacey and Robin were watching something on their phones, but they got up immediately and came to greet me and my friends. Right away, Stacey turned toward Asher and said, “I recognize you from the paper. You’re Asher White, aren’t you?” I didn’t even know Stacey read the Times, let alone read the food section. We didn’t even subscribe to a newspaper, in print or online, so perhaps she read it in the library or at school, I guessed. “Guilty as charged,” Asher replied as his face turned red. I was surprised I could see him blush so readily with his mocha-colored skin. “Now that we live here, we’re gonna hafta check out your restaurant,” she continued. “I wouldn’t want to miss out on the best Cajun food outside of New Orleans… not that I’ve ever had Cajun food before.” If possible, Asher’s blush grew even deeper as he replied, “Anytime you want to eat there, just tell the maȋtre d’ that you’re my friend and you’ll get the premium buffet for free.” Then turning to Seth, she added, “And you’re his boyfriend, Seth Moore. That picture of the two of you together was adorable, but the two of you look even cuter in the flesh.” Now it was Seth’s turn to blush. “Those charges against your dad are totally bogus. I can smell bullshit a mile away and the allegations are first class bullshit.” “Stacey,” Dad called out as he entered the entryway to our apartment, “we don’t talk like that around here, and especially not when we have guests.” “Sorry,” Stacey responded. Approaching the group of us, Dad said, “Hi boys, I’m Joshy’s dad, Avrahm Arens.” Did he have to call me Joshy? “Why don’t we go inside and sit in the living room,” Dad suggested, and we all did just that. “I’m Asher White,” Asher responded as he shook my father’s hand, and then Seth chimed in with, “and I’m Seth Moore as he shook my father’s hand too.” As we took our seats, Dad completely took me by surprise when he said, “Are those matching gold rings on your left hands, boys?” Good God, I didn’t even notice that at first, and my father picked up on it right away. “And don’t tell me those are anything other than wedding bands.” Sighing, Asher answered, “It’s a bit of a long story.” “You’re far too young to marry without permission from your parents. I could believe that you’re sixteen, Asher, but not you, Seth. Sometimes this happens with a court order when a Hasidic girl is pregnant, but I doubt that Asher knocked you up, so what’s the real story?” “Well, my father is Frank Moore,” Seth began, but my father interrupted. “The state assemblyman?” Dad asked and when Seth merely nodded, he continued, “I’m not going to judge you because of what your father may or may not have done. In my experience in the time I’ve been in America, in this country as in Russia, charges of corruption are usually politically motivated and have little to do with actual wrongdoing. I’m willing to bet your parents got a judge to marry you to protect what you have from greedy government officials, am I right?” “Right on the money,” Asher replied. “Unfortunately, we’ve since been told it probably won’t work.” “Any more than it would’ve where I came from,” Dad commented. “The main thing is that you two love each other. A marriage without love… and there are far too many of them… is worse than no marriage at all.” “We do love each other,” Seth answered as he took Asher’s hand, “very much.” I was stunned that Dad was treating Asher and Seth just like he would’ve treated a straight couple, yet he obviously knew there were gay. WTF? “That’s all that matters boys, and don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay. Finding true love is such a rarity in this world. It just about killed me when I lost my Hanna to cancer ten years ago. Love should be celebrated wherever we find it.” Then turning to Freck and Kyle, he continued, “and I have a feeling it applies to you two as well, even as young as you are.” Then scrutinizing Kyle more closely, he asked, “At first I thought you might be a girl, because of your long hair, but you’re a boy, aren’t you?” “I’m Kyle Goldstein, Dr. Arens,” Kyle responded. “I know you’re gonna ask, so I’m eleven years old as of December. I’m a senior at Stuyvesant, but my boyfriend and I are gonna take an extra two years before we graduate. We’ll do our first year’s college coursework for dual credit at City College, and then we’ll go to MIT, where we’ve already been accepted. Freck’s going into the combined architecture and civil engineering program and I’m going to study astrophysics.” “It’s nice to meet you Kyle,” Dad said as he reached over and shook Kyle’s hand. “You’re very tall for your age, but I would’ve guessed your age in any case. I had a good friend growing up who was a lot like you. I was a bit of a prodigy myself, going to university when I was fifteen, but that was much more common in Russia than it is here. Prodigies are taken from their families and never given a chance to grow up. My friend was only twelve when he started university and like you, he liked boys, but that didn’t matter in the scheme of things. He never had a childhood at all and the stress of being expected to excel in an adult environment when he wasn’t ready for it was too much. It’s a terrible thing, to take your own life.” I noticed that Freck cringed when my father mentioned suicide and couldn’t help but wonder if that was from worry about Kyle, or perhaps from something more personal. “I think you’ve made the right decision to wait on MIT and to go to City College. City College is a great place for boys like you to be given a chance to mature before going away to school. And I think you are very lucky to have the support of friends and of a boyfriend.” Then turning to Freck, Dad reached out and shook his hand and continued with, “And you must be Freck, which I’d guess is short for Freckles, and I’d guess you’re thirteen, but barely.” “That’s amazing,” Freck replied. “I just turned thirteen on December 26.” “You should’ve heard Freck in the stereo store,” I chimed in. “He came up with the idea for putting the TV in the corner over there,” I pointed, “and arranging the living room and dining room furniture around it. He suggested putting bookcases all along those two walls… maybe even built-ins… and then he started discussing Russian literature with me in fluent Russian. He even offered to do all the architectural design work for our planned renovations this summer. Apparently, we could face heavy fines if we don’t submit plans and paperwork and get building permits from the city.” “You speak Russian, Freck?” Dad asked, and that led to an extended conversation in Russian about the Russian literature Freck had read. Finally, lapsing back into English, Freck concluded, “I have what some have called a gift for learning foreign languages, but to me, it’s just a skill that’s there and that I have no control over. I hear words in context, and my brain compares them to similar words in other languages and within no time I can speak the language. I pick up the written language similarly, even those that are idiomatic like Chinese.” “You’re both exceptional young men,” Dad responded. “I assume Freck isn’t your real name?” “My given name is Francis San Angelo, but I hate Francis and plan to go by François, since I’m half French on my mother’s side. I’m a quarter Italian and a quarter Irish on my Dad’s side, but it’s pretty obvious the Irish genes are dominant. I was raised Roman Catholic, but my mom’s half Jewish on her mother’s side, which means that technically I’m Jewish too. Philosophically I’m an agnostic, but since I’m marrying into the faith, so to speak, I’ve decided to study with Ky and we’ll undergo a joint bar mitzvah ceremony next December.” “That’s an interesting concept, Freck,” Dad responded. “In traditional Judaism, girls undergo bat mitzvah at twelve, so Kyle will undergo the ceremony right after he turns twelve, I take it, and you’ll do so before you turn fourteen, am I right?” “Amazingly so,” Freck replied. Lifting up Freck’s left hand, Dad said, “That’s a really fine watch you’re wearing. Very unusual. I haven’t seen one like it before, but it looks quite expensive.” “It was a thirteenth birthday gift from Kyle and his dads, and from Asher and Seth,” Freck answered. “You have two dads?” Dad asked Kyle. “My biologic father didn’t accept that he’s gay until long after I was born. I think it was because of my mom’s drinking though. No matter how many times she went through rehab, she always relapsed, but she’s been sober ever since the divorce. They both came from families that escaped the holocaust by fleeing to Brazil and they’re parents expected nothing less than traditional marriage and many children. Anyway, Dad’s an ophthalmologist and retina specialist who works at New York Presbyterian, and he fell in love with an epilepsy specialist who’s on the neurology faculty at Columbia. They got married over the summer and they took my brother, Freck and me with them on their honeymoon, ’cause they wanted to see Europe through our eyes. They’re both wonderful fathers, even if it did take my dad so long to deal with his sexuality and with relating to his gay son.” “And Freck,” Dad said as he turned back to Kyle’s boyfriend, “are you by any chance related to Frank San Angelo? The Frank San Angelo?” “He’s my dad,” Freck answered, and then he went on to explain who his mother was as well, and how he came to be living with Kyle’s family up in Riverdale. “I was so messed up with marijuana and alcohol, but when I tried to jump off a building to see if I could fly or not, my parents’ response was nothing more than to put me in counseling. They didn’t even get rid of their supply of pot. They just hid it someplace else where it was just as easy for me to find it. And I was still only ten. Finally, I’m living with parents who see me as more than an object to show off in front of friends and associates. Finally, I have parents who love me and care about me, and who set limits. I don’t need to tell you that a teenager needs limits.” “That’s quite a story, Freck,” my dad responded, and I couldn’t help but agree. It was the first time I’d heard the full story too. But what was even more surreal was the way my very conservative father was treating my gay friends as if being gay was the most natural thing in the world to him. I guess Dad could kinda see what I was thinking, ’cause of the way I was looking at him, so he asked, “What, you think I shouldn’t accept your friends because they’re gay? You think I didn’t realize that Dimitri was more than your best friend?” When I just continued to stare at him, Dad continued, “For even longer than that I’ve been waiting for you to tell me. To come out to me, but I didn’t want to push it. Your looks at boys haven’t exactly been subtle, even though I’m sure you thought you were being careful. Maybe you didn’t even realize what you were doing at first, or even why when you were nine or ten. So you’ve made new gay friends who go to your school. That’s wonderful. So you bought a rainbow-colored ring. Good for you.” I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to take the ring off before getting home! How fuckin’ stupid of me. My face really felt like it was on fire, but Dad continued, “Joshy, you may think I’m an old fogey, but I’m not so old to have forgotten what it’s like to be in love. You must also remember that I teach Russian literature. Of course I also studied classic literature in school. Both include famous authors who were gay and sometimes wrote about gay themes. Some of the greatest minds the world has ever known were gay. Should we reject DaVinci or Tchaikovsky because they were gay? Was there something wrong with them because they liked boys instead of girls, or maybe was it their homosexuality that underlay their greatness? Or just maybe, was being gay no more important to who and what they were, than whether they were right- or left-handed? “Joshy, your being gay means no more to me than your eye color. You’re a wonderful boy who’d make any parent proud.” I couldn’t help myself as I stood up and hugged my father tightly. I cried like a baby, right in front of my friends, and I didn’t even care. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the lights suddenly went out and my Dad and sisters started singing Happy Birthday while Sarah carried a cake in, I guess from one of the bedrooms. It said, ‘Happy Birthday Joshy,’ and there were fourteen lit candles. My friends joined in in the singing. I made a wish, blew out the candles and cut the cake. <> <><> Had I loved Dimitri? Had he loved me? Maybe time had already deadened the blow of our breakup, but I was beginning to realize my feelings toward him were nothing like the feelings my friends had for their boyfriends. Now if only I could find a boyfriend…
  9. 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.
  10. 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?
  11. 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.
  12. “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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. “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.
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

Our Privacy Policy can be found here. We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue..