“I can already tell we need to come back and spend more time in this town.” CJ broke off a chunk from his chowder’s bread bowl, dipped it in the creamy broth, and stuffed it in his mouth. An early morning flight and the time difference had the newlyweds in the City by the Bay early enough to enjoy lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf.
“Mate, I don’t care what else we do. All I wanna make sure of is we find a place we can get some of this sourdough bread sent to us. We won’t be able to pick it up ourselves like we do with your New York bagels. But I plan on ordering for shipping on a regular basis.”
The honeymoon trip was a wedding present from Owen’s parents. The first and last night they were in San Francisco; the days in between they had reservations at a bed and breakfast in Napa. Friends of Geoffrey and Pamela Liston—a vintner family they met years before during a tour of California vineyards—had a guesthouse on their winery’s grounds.
“Tell you what, Oz. How ’bout we change our return flight? Instead of leaving in the morning, we can catch the redeye. It’ll give us another day in San Francisco. We can ride the cable cars and explore. Maybe do a quick visit to Golden Gate Park and hit the De Young Museum.”
“Sounds good. So Chinatown for dinner tonight? We can do the Castro the night before we leave. I’m sure it’ll be livelier on a Saturday night.”
With Owen behind the wheel, CJ spent most of the drive to Berkeley reading comments left on the Instagram picture of them with the colony of sea lions who made their home at Pier 39. At some point, they gave up on being anonymous and embraced the notoriety CJ’s political involvement had brought. He often used the platform to promote social justice causes he believed in; Owen did the same with environmental issues. The picture they both shared from their nuptials—a group shot of the wedding party in front of the Jefferson Memorial—garnered thousands of reactions.
“So this is where Brett and JP went to school, eh? Pretty cool. Where do you want to go now?”
“Ummm, I don’t care.” CJ glanced at the map on his phone and pointed eastward. “I want to check out the football stadium. I read it’s modeled after the Coliseum in Rome. The visitors’ center’s in there too.”
The couple ended up posting a picture in front of Founders’ Rock, which had CJ’s father and Owen’s cousin gushing in their comments. The monument marked the spot where trustees of the College of California gathered on April 16, 1860 to dedicate a new campus for higher learning.
In the evening, they shared one standing in front of Dragon Gate, the Grant Avenue entrance to Chinatown. While CJ was enamored with the architecture, Owen was delighted to discover the inscription by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. He felt "All under heaven is for the good of the people" encapsulated his passion for protecting the environment.
The drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, between the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and Vista Point on the northern end of the famous span, took about half an hour. They lowered the ragtop on the yellow Ferrari 458 Speziale A and zipped up their hoodies to ward off the morning chill. CJ was itching to get past the urban congestion to open up the car. He was unsure if he could handle driving at near 200 miles per hour but they would soon find out.
“Mate, I know you can’t take your eyes off the road too long but you have no idea what you’re missing. You should’ve let me drive this morning. The view’s amazing.” Owen reclined the seat a smidgen, leaned his head back, and stared at the girders and cables that made up the structure. “It resembles a sculpture more than a utilitarian bridge.”
“You can drive on the way back at the end of the week. Did you know the bridge’s named for the Golden Gate Strait? And that the passage between the ocean and the bay was named by a U.S. Army officer? Or that the paint color’s known as international orange?” CJ threw his head back and laughed. “I love Wikipedia. What a great place to find useless data.”
The hotel’s concierge suggested an early start since good weather was forecast for the day. Located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Vista Point was a popular stop for visitors and locals who flocked to the overlook to take pictures. The small parking lot filled up fast on clear days and closed if traffic backed up on the bridge.
“Oh, man! Would you look at that view! It’s fucking insane!” CJ spread his arms out, tilted his head, closed his eyes, and started singing.
“Shut up, mate. You know you can’t sing worth shit. Tony Bennet and Chipper would both kill you if they heard that atrocious rendition of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’”
“Screw you, Oz. Let’s ask somebody to take our picture with the bridge and the skyline in the background. We need to post this one online.”
“I have that selfie stick in my backpack. I’ll go get it and we can take it ourselves.”
“Nah, save it for when we’re somewhere without people around. I’d rather be sociable and talk to somebody. You never know who you’ll meet, and we can offer to do them in return.”
CJ was masterful when researching their travel locations; for this portion of their trip however, he relinquished control to his husband. Owen’s knowledge of wines would serve as their guide. Vineyards and wineries dotted both sides of the road and they recognized many of the names. Although Liston vintages were a staple in their home—augmented by the Argentinian wines Chipper’s mother sent them on special occasions—Owen could spend hours browsing through the offerings at liquor stores. He often came home with new selections for them to try.
“This reminds me of the first time I drove through the Hunter Valley. The number of wineries in one place blew my mind. Tell me again why you’re so keen on visiting this place first.” CJ loved listening to Owen talk about wines. The knowledge and appreciation the man exhibited surpassed his own love of architecture.
“You’re gonna have to turn in about a quarter mile. There’ll be a sign out front. Anyway, Opus One’s the result of a collaboration between Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux and Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi. The two said they wanted to create a wine to showcase their pursuit of uncompromising quality. And they bloody well succeeded. Their Cabernet’s the best wine I’ve ever tasted.”
“Better than our family’s?” CJ enjoyed the thought he now had an ownership interest in the Australian winery.
“Definitely! Even Mum and Dad agree. I’ve only had it a couple of times. It’s not inexpensive but they get a bottle or two now and then. I’m warning you right now. We’re buying a couple of cases and having them shipped home.”
“Fine with me. I sure hope they take plastic. What makes it so special?”
“Hang on a minute.” Owen retrieved his phone and tapped away at it until he found what he was looking for. “Let me read you the description of the vintage I hope we can get. ‘The 2014 Opus One exudes subtle aromas of fragrant florals, fresh garden herbs, and forest floor that give way to a concentrated blend of red cherry, blackberry, and black currant. Fine-grained tannins offer a velvety texture and complex structure that builds to a long, vibrantly fresh finish with a touch of mocha. Enjoyable now, the wine will delight for years to come.’ I’m salivating just thinking about it.”
“Just out of curiosity, how much is this elixir of the gods going to set us back?”
“Their website lists a case of six bottles at close to two thousand. Plus tax, shipping and handling, of course.” A smirk accompanied his sarcasm-tinged comment.
“Damn! That works out to over three hundred dollars a bottle. We’re so getting one of those climate controlled wine storage units when we get back home. I wanna make sure we store those babies right.”
“That’ll work for now. But, when we get ’round to fixing up the Capitol Hill house, we’re installing a proper wine cellar. The basement’s not as big as the one at your dads’ place, but it’s unfinished and perfect to store a few hundred bottles.”
“I’m down with that. We’ll have to make sure we can hide the real good stuff in a dark corner. Don’t want anyone stumbling down there and wasting this kind of vino on a Friday night binge.”
Purple Flame Winery sat on the edge of Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. A family-owned enterprise much like Liston Winery, the boutique nature of the business guaranteed constant attention by the owners. The founding couple had befriended Owen’s parents and both couples visited each other every few years. Their relationship grew when they discovered their first-borns were gay.
Whereas Owen eschewed a life cultivating grapes and turning them into wine and left the family vineyards behind, Yves Jackson did not stray far from home when he declined to become a vintner. With parental support, he built and operated a small guesthouse on a corner of the property not suitable for planting.
“Welcome to Purple Flame, gentlemen. I’m Yves.” CJ estimated the man with the radiant smile and aqua colored eyes resembling his own to be in his mid-thirties; he would be surprised later when he discovered Yves was forty-three. The tight, purple, knit shirt he wore hinted at a gym-toned body and the bronzed skin attested to time spent outdoors. Yves looked at the couple and zeroed in on the Australian. “You have to be Owen. You resemble your father.”
“I am, mate. I’ve heard I look like Dad before. This is my husband, CJ.”
“Pleasure to meet you both and congratulations. Mrs. Liston sent me an e-mail gushing about the event. Something about two former presidents in attendance? I didn’t realize we would be hosting celebrities when she booked your stay.”
“Dude, don’t you start. We get that crap all the time from my dads and from Ozzie’s parents. We might know some famous people, but we’re not in the same league.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, CJ. I googled both your names and found plenty of evidence to the contrary. Seems you were an integral cog in Mrs. Clinton’s campaign for the White House. And the photos with the two of you all dressed up in that Italian magazine spread were fantastic. Are you guys pursuing careers in modeling?”
“Not a chance!” The speed with which Owen reacted surprised CJ. “I’ve gotten used to the notoriety being around this guy entails. But you’d be surprised, he doesn’t seek it out. He just attracts famous people. Like the sun capturing planets which end up orbiting around it.”
CJ’s mumbled “asshole” elicited a chuckle from the innkeeper. “Ozzie’s being a jerk. Because of where we live, I’ve stumbled upon a few politicians. That’s led to meeting some celebrities. But it’s not the circle we move in all the time. We did that photo shoot on a lark. A bucket list kinda thing. It was an interesting experience and we might do another one for the heck of it at some point. The photographer’s become a friend—he did our wedding photos—and made us promise we would listen if he came up with a project he thought we would like.”
After signing the register, their host took them on a tour of the facilities. The textured, dark gray concrete blocks, immense expanse of glass, and exposed wood beams gave the structure an arts and craft feel that had CJ smiling.
“Mate, this looks like something your favorite architect could have designed.” Owen’s observation caused Yves to stop in the middle of an explanation about solar panels.
“You’re a Frank Lloyd Wright fan?” He asked staring at CJ. “Are you an architect or designer?”
“Huge fan! I love his work but I decided against architecture. I’m still in school, majoring in international relations.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize you were still a student. Since you like Wright’s work, you’ll be happy to hear it inspired the Purple Flame’s design. We even echo his love of fireplaces. All our rooms have one.”
Owen took CJ’s hand and intertwined their fingers. “If we start down the architecture rabbit hole, we’ll never find our way out. I want to hear more about those solar panels. We can talk design and Wright to our heart’s content afterward.”
“I see… Each one of you has different interests but you pay attention when someone discusses the other one’s. That a good foundation to build a marriage upon. Anyway, when I sat with the architect, I mentioned I liked Wright designs but wanted a twenty-first century version. Starting at the top, we installed a metal roof and a rainwater collection system for landscape irrigation. I already mentioned the solar panels. They provide most of the electricity we use and sometimes enough to sell back to the utility company. Exterior walls are two sets of concrete blocks with a gap in between. We pumped enough insulation into the space, we estimate our energy costs for heating and cooling are lowered by at least a quarter. We used reclaimed wood whenever we were able to. Our fixtures, electrical and plumbing, are the most efficient available at the time of construction. And to finish it up, the landscaping’s made up of native plants.”
“Mate, this is like a dream house. We own an older house in Washington we’ve rented out. We’ll remodel and move in sooner or later. When we do, I want to incorporate a lot of the same features you’ve used here.”
“We’ll have to get creative with some things since the house’s part of a Historic District. Being placed on the National Register does have a few drawbacks.” CJ was as excited as Owen about their future home. They agreed to keep a list of ideas about the remodeling they would compare when the time for the design phase began.
“I’m sure you guys will figure it out. Let’s get you settled in your room and we can talk some more over a glass of wine. We have a complimentary tasting every day. You can meet our other guests and sample some local wines. We feature a different vintner every day. Don’t forget you’re having dinner with my parents tomorrow night. Dad’s looking forward to showing off our cellar and Mom’s all gaga about some new recipe she wants to try. My boyfriend and I will be joining you.”
They spent the next day touring wineries, enjoying the taste rooms. Dinner with the family was one of those affairs where a different wine accompanied each course. CJ and Owen couldn’t stop gushing. The following day they were out on the road again and in the evening decided to stay close to home base.
Purple Flame’s main winery buildings were a few hundred yards away from the guesthouse and boasted a tasting room and a bistro. The restaurant specialized in American Nouveau dishes featuring local ingredients and their wine offerings were limited to the region. CJ stared at the list their server placed in the middle of the table and grinned. “Thanks, but from now on you can just hand it to my husband. He’s the wine connoisseur in the family.”
“I’m holding you to that, CJ. No more ordering rotgut.” Owen glanced at the young woman and winked. “Give us a few minutes to decide what we’d like to eat and then I’ll ask for suggestions on the wine. We’re here for a few days and I want to taste as many varieties and vintages as possible.”
Dinner at The Spark became a nightly ritual with Owen poring over the wines offered and selecting different ones each night. CJ, on the other hand, peppered their servers with questions about the food, took pictures of each dish, and jotted notes on his phone about ingredients and preparation.
The last day of their stay in Napa saw them greet the aurora; Owen grumbled about the early hour when CJ brought him a cup of coffee while still in bed. “I don’t know how you do it. I wake up early for class thanks to the alarm, but half the time you don’t even need one.”
“I think it’s genetic. You know Dad gets up early. Abuelo does too. He’s told me he’s always been like that. He also said as he’s gotten older, his wake up time’s gotten earlier. Something for you to look forward to, Oz.” CJ grinned while Owen groaned.
An hour or so later, as the sun climbed higher into the sky, so did they. The crisp morning air kept at bay by their hoodies and the heat emanating from the open flame blazing next to them, CJ and Owen shared silly grins with the other occupants of the gondola. After days of visiting vineyards, wine tasting, and hiking through the majestic redwoods in the adjacent state park, they were now treated to a bird’s eye view of the surrounding countryside.
The hot air balloon ride was a spur of the moment decision. They found a marketing flyer for the flights at an information kiosk in Calistoga and made reservations. Ziven, their pilot, was a full-blood Sioux who served in the military and was a California Highway Patrol officer afterward. He retired to embrace his passion for lighter-than-air flying. Long, graying hair tied in a ponytail and a walrus moustache gave him a distinctive appearance, but it was his friendly disposition that endeared him to the passengers. He gave them a brief history of Montgolfier balloons and lighter-than-air flight while maneuvering the aircraft with short bursts of flames from the burner.
“I’m going to miss this.” CJ leaned over the edge of the basket and stared at the landscape as the red-striped envelope filled with hot air drifted in the breeze.
“What? Napa?” Owen had his phone out, taking pictures of the landscape and other balloons dotting the sky.
“Well, yeah. I’ll miss having all these great wineries at my doorstep too. But I meant all the traveling we get to do during school breaks. So many sites to visit, so many sights to see. It’ll all come to an end as soon as we graduate and start working. We’ll be able to sneak away for a week here and there, but no more months of summertime easy living.”
Ziven remained in contact via two-way radio with his wife who led the balloon’s chase vehicles. She waited for them with flight completion certificates, mimosas, and croissants when they touched ground on a school baseball field. While the support crew deflated, folded, and stored the craft, the captain and his wife offered a toast: “The wind has welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well, the birds have joined in your laughter, and watched with approval as you settled back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
The exhilaration brought on by the day’s adventures, and the copious amount of wine consumed over dinner and afterward, was tinged with a touch of sadness over the impending end to their stay at the Purple Flame.
As they had done every night, the guys ambled back to their room after dinner, swapped their clothes for one of the terry cloth robes provided, uncorked one of the bottles purchased during the day, and stepped outside into the evening chill. The clothing-optional hot tub perched on a courtyard ledge offered a view towards the park, illuminated by logs burning in the fire pit, a lone copper industrial light hanging above, and the flickering of countless distant suns. The setting was idyllic.
When CJ closed his eyes, the incandescence in the old-fashioned Edison bulb in the antique lamp engendered an ephemeral phosphorescence behind his eyelids, reminiscent of the sky full of stars spread like a blanket above them. The corners of his mouth ticked up a notch when Owen grasped his hand under the bubbling water and intertwined their fingers. He sighed in contentment. “You know something? I’m happy. I’m abso… fucking… lutely happy. I love you, Oz.”
The torrid kiss they exchanged was a prelude to the ensuing bout of lovemaking once they clambered out of the tub and returned to their room.
They timed their departure the following day to avoid the worst of morning commuter traffic streaming into San Francisco. Not wanting to deal with driving in the city, they arranged to return the rental car and availed themselves of public transit and cars-for-hire the last two days of the trip.
“Where do you want to start, mate?”
“You have to ask? The Painted Ladies, of course.” CJ referred to Alamo Square's famous postcard row at Hayes and Steiner Streets. The escalating formation of Victorian houses with downtown skyscrapers towering behind them was one of the most photographed locations in San Francisco.
In the late afternoon, after their day of sightseeing was done, they stopped at the Palace Hotel’s Garden Court for their Signature Tea. The elegant fine china and silver tea service was a tradition dating back to the early 1900s featuring delicate tea sandwiches, homemade scones, and a variety of teas ranging from classic blends to exotic infusions.
Following a long nap back at their hotel, the men, wearing jeans and t-shirts, headed to the Castro for a night out in what CJ called the most famous gayborhood in the United States. “Even more than the Village in New York?” Over the past few years, after many visits to the Stonewall Inn and other Greenwich Village landmarks, Owen had fallen in love with the neighborhood.
“Hey, this is my first trip out here too.” CJ accompanied his defensive response with a playful shove. “I’m basing it on what I’ve read. And what I’ve seen in movies and TV. Guess we’ll decide after tonight if we like one better than the other one. So, dinner, a movie, and dancing?”
“Yeah! Mum and Dad have been to the Castro Theatre. They said to make sure we went no matter what was showing. The Wurlitzer organ alone is supposedly worth the price of admission.”
Instead of limiting their exploration of gay nightlife to one location as they had done in South Beach and Amsterdam, CJ and Owen decided to bar hop. By the time they returned to the hotel, inebriated and tired, they had enjoyed listening to Top 40, indi rock, and EDM. Each venue had them interacting with different segments of the community and making friends with a couple who promised to get in touch next time they visited the east coast. CJ and Owen might not return to California or the Bay Area for a while, but they now had a small circle of people willing to host them on their next trip.
Their last day in San Francisco they could be found riding the cable cars more often than not. Their exercise that day came from trudging up Lombard Street. The famous roadway, known for a steep one-block section with eight hairpin turns, left them sucking air despite both being in great shape.
“Could you imagine this thing covered in snow? I’d be sliding down it nonstop.” CJ’s comment drew nods from other tourists standing on the hill’s crest.
“Sounds like a recipe for broken bones, mate.”
CJ wrapped his arms around Owen’s waist from the back and whispered in his ear. “As long as it’s not a broken boner we’re fine. I’d take care of you until they healed, anyway.”
Owen turned his head sideways and searched for his husband’s lips. “I know you would. I’d do the same. I love you, CJ.”
“I love you too, Oz.”
Thank you, Mann Ramblings, Kitt, and Reader 1810 for your hard work. This story would not be possible without your assistance.
Special thanks to @AC Benus for his assistance with this chapter
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