The sweep of events had carried CJ aloft to heights uncommon for someone his age. His ethos helped propel him into the limelight more than once. A reluctant public figure at first, in time he settled into a grudging acceptance of his soaring popularity.
CJ was the highest-ranking, elected member of the Georgetown University Student Association in the 2020 Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service graduating class. Invited to sit on the dais during commencement exercises, he declined.
Wanting to be with his classmates, not above them, was the explanation he offered campus newspaper reporters. He did not bother to share his other reason when he confirmed he would be speaking to the assembled graduates nonetheless.
That other reason was the cause for the applause and cheering aimed at him, as he climbed the raised platform’s steps after his introduction. Wearing noise-canceling earmuffs, Liebe clung to his gown, snug inside a papoose against his chest.
“Yeah, see? I knew this would happen. Y’all are just paying attention to Liebe and no matter what I say, you’re not gonna care.” Laughter rippled through the audience. “Although today is a momentous occasion, the most important day in my life was about a month ago when my daughter was born. I’d like to introduce you to Elizabeth Liston Abelló. Georgetown University class of 2042.”
While most of the crowd applauded, and some cheered, he walked to the edge of the riser and handed the baby to Owen. CJ watched him walk away for a moment before returning to the podium and extracting a sheaf of papers from his blazer. “By the way, the good-looking, blond dude I just handed the most important person in my life to is her other father.” He paused for a fraction of a second to allow his comment to sink in. “He happens to be the second most important person in my life. My husband, Owen Liston.” The reaction from the audience was a tad more sedate than when he introduced his daughter.
If nothing else, he had everyone’s attention. He had them hooked; it was time to reel them in. “The tapestry of my life is about the size of one of my daughter’s diapers right now.” Laughter was his goal, and the audience delivered. “As I grow older, that fabric will expand. But I am certain my family, my friends, my classmates—heck, even the Jesuits—will always be bright threads woven throughout.” The Jesuits reference earned him a few chuckles from the religious order members sitting behind him.
“A huge component of the charmed life I’ve led to date has been my experience at Georgetown University. Coming to the Hilltop was a difficult decision. I’m not a believer and attending a Catholic university was the furthest thing from my mind. You just met one of the reasons I decided to attend college one block away from home. I didn’t want to endure all that time away from Owen.
“Growing up so close to the school, I spent plenty of time on this campus during my high school years. Tossing Frisbees on Healy Lawn or lifting weights at Yates Field House fostered interactions with students not many kids get an opportunity to enjoy. Those men and women I met convinced me if I attended, interesting, bright individuals would surround me. And let’s face it, it’s not like I would be at a second rate institution.
“So, here I am, some four-plus years after making one of the smartest decisions I’ll ever make.” The pause was a chance to catch his breath and allow the audience to ruminate his comments. “I have enjoyed my time at GU more than I could have ever imagined. I have met fascinating people. I’ve argued with some, and I’ve agreed with others. I’ve laughed with friends, and I’ve cursed professors a few times too.” They were still paying attention; the chuckles confirmed people were listening.
“I felt a school that gave us President Bill Clinton and the late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scaliahad to be a place where differing outlooks and opinions would be welcome. I was right.” CJ paused again while shifting speech pages.
“Those two men at opposite ends of the political spectrum shared a desire to serve their country and did so to the best of their ability following their graduation. I have come to realize their dedication was in part molded by their time here. By being Jesuit educated.
“I do not know who said it, but I read a quote that expresses the concept best: ‘Being Jesuit educated means setting the Earth on fire. It means going out of your way, taking that extra step each and every day to help others. Even if it’s just holding a door for a stranger. In addition, one major part of being Jesuit educated is giving back. We all live in the same world, and we owe it to ourselves and others to make it a better place.’
“Call me a cockeyed optimist as a friend of mine has done more than once. However, like President Barack Obama, I believe in the promise of America. I also believe we, the best and the brightest, have a responsibility to our fellow citizens. I’m not talking about American citizens but about the global citizens we share Planet Earth with. Regardless of nationality, or any other trait that may differentiate us. Whether you are an American or not, the responsibility is the same.
“I just referenced someone from the left side of the political spectrum I alluded to earlier. Allow me to cross the aisle and paraphrase the late Senator John McCain: Do not despair during setbacks. Believe in yourselves and in the promise of our country. Of our world.
“At a time when technology permeates our lives. When advances in communication have shrunk said world and brought us contact with others all over the planet. When some have sought to divide us by building walls instead of bridges. I’m here to tell you they will not succeed.
“I believe human interaction will help us challenge and conquer this brave new world. I believe we should celebrate our differences, and we should embrace humanity. I believe we can make Georgetown, America, and Mother Earth a better place by extending a hand to our neighbors. I believe there is nothing wrong with accumulating wealth and enjoying its benefits. However, I also believe—as my parents taught me—that we have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than us.
“As we venture out on our own, let us not forget what we learned here. Service to our communities should be part of our life-plan. Volunteer, give money, participate, speak up. Be the last to accept the world we inherit can’t be improved. It’s up to us to make things better. Live and let live… But also, live and help live. Because believe me, it does get better.
“Finally, I encourage all of you to not be afraid to fail when you attempt something new. Instead, be afraid not to try. You may be surprised at what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it.
“It’s been a wonderful four years. A time of learning and growth. That period of my life is over but the future beckons. I plan to carry on Georgetown’s tradition of public service. Look me up at the State Department if you’re in the hood.
Owen beat the rest of them to his feet by a fraction of a second. The rousing, standing ovation enveloped them as he hugged Liebe a little closer to his heart. CJ’s vociferous cheering section tossed decorum aside as they stomped and shouted. He saw Owen give him a smile and a wink. Next to him, Ritchie’s enthusiasm was unparalleled. Owen took a step away from the high school senior when Ritchie kept jumping and pumping his fist in the air. As CJ reclaimed his seat on the lawn, he could still hear his brother cheering.
“It took your dad a lot longer to become famous, Liebe. I think you’re going to be all over social media today.” The baby slept against Owen’s chest, but he spoke to her as if she was listening. Those walking near them down Thirty-Seventh Avenue chuckled. Once the ceremony was over, countless of CJ’s classmates—some he knew well, others were casual acquaintances, and a few were complete strangers—clamored to have their picture taken with their fellow graduate and his daughter.
It was a familiar crowd surrounding them now. Owen’s mother flew to the United States after the birth with plans to spend a month with her first grandchild. His father would visit the following month, making a stopover in Washington during a business trip to France. Sebastián and Rosario Abelló did the same; they traveled to Washington after their great-granddaughter’s birth with plans to stay for CJ’s graduation. The upcoming completion of work at the Capitol Hill house was further enticement for Randy, Tyler, and Silas to visit DC. They arrived in time for the commencement and planned on furniture shopping with CJ and Owen the following week.
Because CJ was a local, he had more guests at the ceremony than others. The Squad and the Elite were all invited, and most now strolled toward the Prospect Street townhouse. It was a chance to grab a drink, use the bathroom, and for Liebe to get a fresh diaper.
“I never imagined my daughter would end up wearing it.” CJ removed the gold and jade grape-bunch brooch affixed to Liebe’s Georgetown University onesie. He had bought the trinket as a present in Hong Kong during his layover between Tel Aviv and Sydney, on his way to visit Owen’s ill sister. Liz did not survive, but she provided the greatest gift CJ would ever receive.
“Mom told me about it but asked me not to say anything. She wanted to surprise you.” Owen wrinkled his nose when CJ handed him the soiled diaper. “Damn, this is as bad as your farts!”
“Bullshit! My farts smell like roses.”
“Rotting, dead roses, maybe.”
Back upstairs, the dads served mimosas and bloody marys before they all moved to their next destination. César and Brett had reserved the entire restaurant for a banquet to celebrate their oldest son’s achievement. It would be the first time Abuela’s was not open to the public for Saturday lunch. While Owen headed toward his mother so she could hold Liebe, CJ gravitated toward his grandfather and cousins.
“Somebody give me a drink. I’m off daddy duty for the next twenty-four hours.” The mischievous tone suggested CJ was ready to play.
Randy looked somewhat confused as he poured from the pitcher. “What are you talking about off duty? Dads don’t take the day off.”
“Yummm!” CJ wiped his tomato juice-coated lips with the back of his hand. “Owen and I don’t have a choice, cuz. What with three grandparents and three great-grandparents around, the clamoring for Liebe-time has been deafening,”
“Plus, the dads insist CJ go out partying tonight. We have a couple of get-togethers.” Owen had wrapped his arms around CJ when he joined the group. “Can I get one of those bloodys? What were you guys talking about?”
Rod replied from across the counter where he sat next to Sebastián. “We wanted to ask Abuelo what he was getting CJ as a graduation present. He’s given fountain pens to all of us when we graduated from high school. Dad, César, Randy, and I got cars or the money to buy one when we finished college. But you guys have the Tesla, and you don’t use it all that much—”
“It’s being used a heck of a lot since Liebe was born. CJ and I think that will continue when we move to our house this summer.”
“Yeah, but you guys use the motorcycles and public transit much more.” Rod shifted his attention to their grandfather. “So, Abuelo, what did you get CJ?”
CJ did not trust his grandfather’s grin. “Hey! I said no presents. And I said if you felt compelled to get me something, a donation to Heroes Haven would suffice.”
“Compelled? Suffice? What? You think now you’ve graduated you get to toss quarter words around all the time?” Brett’s butt slap jolted CJ; he shook his head while smiling—college graduate or not, Brett was still going to give him crap.
“Day’s not over, boys.” Sebastián’s grin grew. “You’ll have to wait. Maybe we got him a present… maybe we didn’t.”
The Uber and Lyft caravan stopped in front of the restaurant and disgorged passengers. When CJ and Owen arrived in the last vehicle, they found their family and friends milling outside. While everyone had gathered in a loose circle around something, Harley faced the street and raised an arm in greeting. “Bruh! About time you guys got here. I’ve been waiting like for hours.”
“Oh, shut up, Harley. I just saw you at the graduation. How come you didn’t stop by the house like everyone else?”
“I had to go get your present. The one from your grandfather.” The man bubbled with excitement, even more so than usual. “Come on, come on. You’re gonna love it!”
“What the hell? I told him no presents. If he bought me a car—FUCK!” The group parted when they heard CJ’s voice to reveal a motorcycle parked on the restaurant’s plaza.
“Do you like it? It’s the new electric one! I couldn’t believe it when Cap called me and said your grandfather wanted my help with something.” Harley sounded proud of himself. “If you wanna get rid of Hunter, I’ll buy it off you. Wait ’til you get on this one. It sounds like a jet engine. Maybe you can leave the baby with your grandmother one day, and we can go for a ride? I know you been talking about getting a big one, but I think this is better. You can always borrow Cap’s or Mr. A’s when we go on a long trip. Or you can rent like you did when you went to Key West. I think—”
“HARLEY!” CJ knew everyone expected him to tell his friend to shut up. Instead, he spread his arms out. “Bring it in, brother. Thank you! As for Hunter, I’m not sure what I want to do. I need to discuss it with Ozzie, but I don’t think we need three motorcycles. At least not until Liebe can ride on her own.”
“Three is one too many.” Owen followed his husband as they walked around the 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire. “We’re definitely keeping this one. An electric motorcycle is an excellent match for an electric car. And Hunter’s going nowhere. Sorry, Harley. But if you want, you can have Rosebud.”
“You’re gonna get rid of yours?” Harley sounded surprised.
“Sure, why not? When we move, a Metro station will be a couple of blocks from home and another one a few from the office. If I ever need a vehicle, I’ll take one of the electric ones.”
CJ was in a playful mood. “Hold your horses, son. Who said you could ride my motorcycle?”
“Our motorcycle. DC’s not a community property state. So, I’ll be changing the registration on this one to make it joint ownership. If you ever divorce me, I’ll make sure it hurts.” Owen’s grin had a malevolent twist.
“Asshole!” CJ turned 360 degrees to scan the faces of the crowd surrounding him. “Thank you, Abuelo. I know I said no presents, but I think I’ll keep this one. Let’s get inside, people. I need a cocktail, and I want food.”
Chipper skipped his own graduation from the University of Miami due to his involvement in a project in Los Angeles. He decided to fly into Washington for CJ’s and to meet Liebe. His sister, Cristina, traveled from New York with her daughter, Carolina, for the same reasons. Brother and sister stood with Thiago, watching his son, Fabricio and the little girl play.
CJ elbowed his husband. “Check it out, Oz. Those two will be friends with Liebe in no time. Come on, let’s borrow our daughter and join them.”
“Give.” Chipper’s one word was accompanied by outstretched arms.
“Remember, no baby talk.” CJ handed Liebe over. “That crap rots brains.”
“I got, I got it. You and Cristina must have read the same book.” The man shook the bangs off his forehead and cuddled the infant closer. “Don’t you worry, Liebe, Uncle Chipper will take good care of you. Have you met Fabricio and Carolina? I have a feeling the three of you are gonna be hanging out a lot.”
Thiago picked up his son and allowed him to grasp Liebe’s foot. “This is your new girlfriend, Lollipop.”
“Oh, yeah? What if she turns out to be a lesbian?” CJ earned himself an elbow from his husband.
“Don’t start, homie. The Elite and the Squad may be all men, but I can see the Juniors are definitely gonna be co-ed.”
Chipper’s eyes swept over his friend before returning his attention to the girl in his arms. “You know something, Liebe? There’s this singer named Adam Levine your dads and I like a lot. He put out this music video with a bunch of women in it. ‘Girls Like You’ is a tribute to female-empowerment. I look at you and Carolina, and I’m convinced you’ll both grow up strong.” Chipper took liberties with the lyrics when he sang.
“Spent 24 hours I need more hours with you You spent the weekend Burpin’ poopin’, ooh ooh We spent the late nights Changing diapers, cleaning booties But now it's all good baby Roll that booty baby And stay real close
’Cause girls like you Run around with guys like me ’Til sundown, when I come through I need a girl like you, yeah yeah”
Moments later, Owen reclaimed his daughter. He and CJ stepped away, intent on returning her to her grandparents. “I reckon the three of them and Chatri’s two will be close. Too bad he and Helen are out of town today. Pretty cool seeing the upcoming generation. I wonder who’ll be the next one to have a kid.”
“Not, Ritchie. I think he’s so scared he’ll be keeping the condom companies in business for the foreseeable future.”
“Poor kid. I feel bad for him. Have you noticed the way he sometimes looks lost? It’s good to see him happy today.”
“The real happy one’s Brad.” The man had asked that someone pick him up at Heroes Haven in Delaware so he could attend the graduation; Ritchie volunteered, saying he was going to miss driving once he entered the Air Force Academy. “I thought the smile was gonna break his face when he found out Cristina was in Washington.”
“So, what are you naming the new bike?”
CJ looked his husband up and down, smiling. “Wow! You’re asking? With Sparky, you didn’t even bother.”
“Yeah, but that was a present for both of us. Technically, this one’s for you.”
“Technically, eh? Lightning! How about that? Kinda fits with it being electric.”
“Mint! I like it, mate. I like it. Lightning it is.” Owen leaned into CJ and whispered. “Be discreet when you look, but check out Lincoln. He sat next to Silas during the ceremony and hasn’t left his side since.”
“Well, those two won’t be the next ones getting pregnant for sure.”
The gathering brought to mind the wedding reception; CJ again spent most of the time floating between tables, visiting with each of the guests. When dessert was served, he sat next to Owen while holding Liebe in his arms. The clinking of a utensil against glass captured his attention as Brett stood up.
“It’s usually my husband or my son who give the speeches at events like this. Today, it’s my turn.” Brett sipped his mojito while the crowd quieted.
“Life isn’t worth living if you don’t have passion. I’m easily distracted, so I’ve had a few different ones drive me in my years.” Self-deprecation was a sure way to capture the group’s attention. “Growing up, it was surfing. I was happiest on the beaches of California or Hawaii during frequent trips to the islands with my parents.
“When they died, and I went to live with my grandfather, he turned me on to motorcycles. Straddling a big hunk of American steel gave me an adrenaline rush similar to what a big wave did, but I was able to enjoy the high even when there was no beach around.
“My parents were travelers, and I caught the bug from them. Deployed overseas, I was able to visit countries I might never have otherwise. Back in the US after taking a couple of bullets, I met César. Yeah, the good looks drew me in—so sue me for having a thing for tall, dark, and handsome—the personality and brains hooked me. The shared love of exploring and riding was but icing on the cake.
“Then CJ stuck his nose in my life.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” With Liebe in his arms, CJ tried not to shout.
“It means the last thing I expected was to become a father at the tender age of twenty-nine.”
“We beat you, Captain.” Owen fisted CJ, making sure not to jostle the sleeping baby. “CJ and I are both younger.”
“So am I, Cap.” Thiago lifted one of Fabricio’s arms and wiggled the kid’s hand.
“Okay, enough from the peanut gallery. As I was saying, CJ showed up and turned my world upside down. Gave me a new passion. I wanted to be the best possible parent, and I can’t thank the gods enough for his arrival.
“CJ turned out to be an extraordinary man trying to lead an ordinary life.” Brett’s grin grew as he scanned the room. “He’s utterly failed.” While he looked proud of his comment, CJ shook his head, and the guests laughed.
“I’m proud of both my sons for choosing careers in the public sector. Ritchie’s about to graduate from high school, so I’ll talk more about him then. One day, he’ll be doing his part to keep America safe as an Air Force officer. I always thought CJ was the wilder one, but instead of jets, or ships, or tanks, he chose to join the State Department. He’ll help protect us as a member of the Diplomatic Corps. For now. I have a feeling there’ll be much more from him in the future.”
Brett paused while signaling a waiter for another cocktail. Several others echoed his request and there was a momentary lull. Once fresh drinks were delivered, he carried on.
“Humor, often inappropriate, has been a coping mechanism most of my life. I’m trying to be serious here. CJ impacted my life more than I would have ever expected. And it’s not just him but also the people he surrounded himself with. Primarily the Squad. The way these young men have stood by one another in good and bad times is an inspiration.
“Recent years have been leavened with a multitude of fascinating individuals he’s met and charmed. César and I have benefitted from our son’s outgoing personality. We’ve enjoyed meeting politicians, singers, actors and actresses, and countless ordinary yet intriguing men and women. I expect more of the same in the future.
“We encouraged CJ to travel every chance he got. To experience new things and meet new people. Traveling and mingling with locals has a way of expanding your mind to acknowledge and accept differences. We’ve seen the effect those trips have had. CJ’s matured into a loving man who cares for others.” Brett’s solemnity was a sharp divergence from his typical demeanor.
“I’ve seen an angry teen beat the crap out of a burly biker who bullied someone for being gay and in the process earn the respect of complete strangers. I’ve heard a fouled-mouth young man eloquently speak in front of thousands—millions if you count the TV audience—and earn the respect of politicians and reporters decades older than him.
“I’ve been lucky to have had a front row seat as CJ grew from a scared boy into a confident man. A thoughtful student, a loving husband, and now a doting father. But all that doesn’t mean his farts don’t smell. Contrary to what I heard him say a little while ago.” Chuckles, giggles, and snickers served as background to the loud groan escaping César and CJ. “He’s a royal pain-in-the-butt at times. His other dad and I have clashed and locked horns with him more than once.
“My son’s almost as astute as I am.” Brett ignored the derisive catcalls. "At some point, he figured out obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it." He paused, allowing the words to simmer. “For those of you who don’t recognize the phrase, I stole it from Michael Jordan.
“Let me quote someone else. My grandfather used to ask ‘What have you done today to make the world a better place?’ I’m sorry he never got to meet CJ. He would have been proud his great-grandson answered the question with a litany of gestures destined to accomplish just that.”
Brett paused and sipped his cocktail again. “A few months back, the two of us took a bike ride by ourselves. It’s something we’ve been doing since he moved to DC. First, he rode behind me as a passenger. These days, I’m the one in back as he leads on his beloved Hunter. It’s a monthly ritual with us, even if sometimes it ends up being a nighttime ride for ice cream because we’re too busy for much more.
“During last month’s ride, I finally realized he was man enough to teach me. As he licked melting chocolate from the sides of his sugar cone, he said something I’ll always remember. I may have his words turned into a poster or something. He told me, ‘You have to realize where you come from is gone and focus on where you’re going.’
“Those words, that belief, the vehemence with which he spoke convinced me he was ready to take his place in the world. His place as a leader. The State Department’s lucky to get him. The CIA tried to and failed. The wealthiest man in the world wanted to snatch him and failed. Hell, César and I suggested he join the family business, and we failed too.
“The winner’s our country. At a time when our leaders have lost their way. When they quarrel and ignore the needs of our nation. I have faith my son will be a shining star amongst those serving our country.” The momentary pause this time was to wipe away a stray tear. He turned to CJ, smiled, and raised his glass. “So, what all my rambling leads me to is pride. Pride in my son and in the great things I know he’ll accomplish.
“Please join me.” Brett waved a hand, inviting everyone to stand. “Raise your glasses with me and toast my son. To his future and ours.
Four-and-a-half years after Summer began posting and seven years after CJ moved to Washington, my attempt to tell a positive story about gay men is done. I’m proud of the CJ series. My never having written fiction before is obvious in the early parts, but I believe I’ve grown almost as much as the main character. Like him, I was scared at the beginning. From wondering if anyone would read it or like it, to having one of the most popular stories ever on GA, has been a most pleasant experience. So, THANK YOU.
If you’ve read this far, I assume you’ve enjoyed the tale. How about showing it a little love. A quick reaction on this chapter and the story as a whole, and a comment on the chapter and/or a review of the book would make my day. For those of you reading without becoming members, now might be a good time to correct that oversight. I’d love to hear from you.
I’ll be back. I’m still writing and hope to share some new stuff with you soon.
Much love to all of you who’ve been so generous with me.
Carlos A. Hazday Wilton Manors, Florida March 28, 2019
Welcome to the discussion thread for CJ’s series.
All things CJ are fair game, I simply ask you be respectful of others.
I will actively participate in the discussion. Ask questions, speculate about what’s coming, or bitch about what happened.
We’re now open for business!