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Archive for the ‘bisexual’ Category

Old Roads

Allan twirled his beer. He watched as the bottom of the bottle followed the ring of its own sweat on the concrete tabletop. His hand had internalized the sequence—wrist back, forefinger lunge, third finger twist, thumb tug, repeat, repeat—so that the bottle would adhere to its course without his further attention. It wouldn’t err as his mind focused on our conversation.

We were just shooting the shit, as we always had. Unlike most times before, however, this shit-shooting had taken coordination, planning and some costs. We had to shed our lives to come here, to a place we could only go together. It cost him four hours of driving and a tank of gas. It cost me excuses to my parents, apologies that I was missing one night of a vacation back home, and a bedtime assurance to my boys that I would come home after they were asleep to kiss them good night once more. Added to this was, thus far, the shared cost of six beers between us. But we paid the toll, glad for the fare.

I looked up at the clear night sky. Allan grinned, watching his bottle twirl.

“What?” I asked, catching his smile with my own.

“This.” He removed his bottle from its orbit and took a pull with his lips. “This, being with you. Man, it’s like I just saw you yesterday. Have we even been in the same place since my wedding?”

“Nope.” I sucked down warm beer. “No, and really, we barely spoke then. You kind of had other priorities, as I recall.”

“Yeah, I guess I did,” he nodded. “What with the ‘getting married’ thing and all.”

“That was a really nice event,” I nodded in turn. I took another drink. “Right nice.”

“Shit, yeah, well, you set the bar high.” He raised his bottle. I raised mine to clink the reference. He drained the last of his beer.

“Cheers,” I nodded, killing my own. “Fuck, wasn’t that some party?”

He laughed, covering his nose to avoid losing good beer. “Your wedding? Shit, yeah,” he finally managed. “I’m sorry, but I was so fucked up by the end of that thing.”

“We all were,” I laughed. “My poor dad. Did I tell you this? Okay, so Dad, he doesn’t drink. He stopped when we were kids. His folks were drunks and so on, but get this. So, he has a few too many beers at my wedding. He finds me dancing with David and some of the gay boys. He comes over, rolls up his pants and asks the queers to check out his legs.”

Allan fell back on his bench, laughing silently. When his laughter entered hearing range, it was well deep and barrel rich. My toes curled in my shoes. “Oh, fuck.” He gathered his breath. “Oh fuck, that’s so good. Your dad . . .” he began to laugh again.

“No, wait,” I grabbed his arm. “It gets better. So Dad, you know, he can’t drink. And he’s dancing with the gay boys . . .” We both break up. “No, no, wait.” We caught our breath. I begin to sing, reaching for an Elton John falsetto. I banged my fingers on the table. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy and the ga-aa-aa-ays.” I break up in his laughter. I watched him wipe tears from his eyes. “No, but come on, really,” I said. “Serious story here.” We each took a breath and settled down. “Are you ready?”

Allan pushed out one last laugh, deep in his belly. He drew a breath and exhaled. “Okay, no, wait.” He reached for his empty bottle, stared at it for a moment, and sat it back. “Okay, all right.” He folded his hands in his lap. He shook the curls from his forehead.” “All right. I’m ready.” He laughed again. I looked at him askance, as if impatient to finish my story. “No, no,” he laughed. He caught his breath again, “Okay,” he smirked. “Ready.”

“Okay.” I coughed, composing myself. “So, Dad asks the gay boys to check out his legs. Everyone agrees my dad has very nice legs, which he does. So then Dad pulls me over, bends down, and rolls up my pant’s leg.”

“Oh, shit,” Allan laughed.

“Right? It’s my wedding; I’m in my suit. He’s on his knees in the grass, rolling up my pants. His bare knees!” I laughed again. “So he turns to the boys and says, ‘And what do you think of the legs of my wonderful, wonderful son?’ And the boys are all laughing and agree that my legs are nice, too.”

Allan knocked on the table, his face contorted.

“No, wait for it, wait, wait. So my friend David says, ‘The only thing that could improve his legs is if they were wrapped around my neck.’”

We fell out. He banged the table and slapped my back. His laughter infected my own, sending it soaring.

“Oh shit, man,” he finally said, coming down. “Oh shit. He said that to your dad?”

I nodded. “He said that to my dad. About his son. At his son’s wedding. Luckily, I think it went over his head.”

“Lord. I hope so.” Allan shook his head. “God damn, that’s too good. Now, wait, who’s David?”

My fingernails picked at a bottle’s edge. “Hmm? Oh, David? You met him at the wedding—tall, good looking guy.”

“Oh, I was wondering if you two guys ever . . . you know.”

I looked up from the bottle and caught his eye. “Had sex? Well, shit yeah we did.” Allan laughed again. “Before we were married, of course. Baby, I had been naked with pretty much everyone at my wedding who didn’t share a last name with me or my bride. Of course, who’s to talk? You had fucked every girl there except the one I married.”

“You are too fucking funny, man.”

“Just talking ‘bout Shaft.” I reached for his bottle and stood. “And you look too fucking thirsty. Here, I’ll get this round.”

“No, sit down,” Allan took my arm. “There’s no bar here, they come to you.” He waved for the waiter.

The waiter nodded and made his way to us. “Yes? Oh hello, Allan. And my goodness, look who you’re with! How long as it been, guy?”

I smiled, not recognizing him. “Much too long,” I said warmly. “Much too long. How’ve you been?”

“Me, I’m good.” He looked at his feet, shuffling slightly. “I’ve got a new studio down near Daniel’s old place, and I’m doing some large-scale altar paintings, kind of thinking about Rothko, though, you know, more rooted in Byzantine iconography. And you? How’ve you been? How’s New York? I thought of you when the towers collapsed.”

“New York is fine,” I said. “You know, recovering. It’s been a tough year. Your paintings sound interesting in that context.”

“I’m pleased with them. You should come out to see them, if you have time. I’d really benefit from your critique.”

“Well, I’d like that,” I said. “If we can make the time.”

“He’s only here for a few days, visiting family,” Allan interjected, rescuing me. “They’re not even in town. Y’all are down on the lake, right?”

“That’s right. Tonight’s the anomaly.” I turned back to the waiter. “Maybe you could send me slides some time?”

“That would be great,” the waiter nodded. “I’ll get some paper to get your address.”

“Could you also being us two more Coronas?” Allan raised the empty bottles.

“Sure, sure.” The waiter took the empties. “Say, and why are you in town? Is your band playing?”

“Nah, I’m just here to sit for a while with my best friend in the world.” Allan patted my back in a gesture that communicated that this was a private party.

“Well, let me get your beers. And be sure I know when you’re playing, Allan. Your CD was great, just really great. Like Eddie Vedder meets Keith Richards.” The waiter grinned. Allan smiled blankly. “Well, okay, let me get your beers.”

We watched him amble past a large fern.

I leaned close to Allan. “Okay, now what’s his name?”

“Tommy. You remember him from seeing bands here.”

“Right. Tommy the Dweeb. He smoked clove cigarettes. Always did try too hard.”

Allan scowled. “I fucking hate being compared to Eddie Vedder.”

I patted his hand. “You do sound like Eddie Vedder. But you are much prettier.”

He took his hand and slapped my arm. “Fuck you, man. You know I sang the way I do before there was a damn Pearl Jam.”

“You could be bigger than Pearl Jam,” I went on. “You’ve got the voice and the face to go with it. You could front the boy band of grunge. You know, the version that’s safe for eighth-grade girls.”

“Fuck you, man,” he laughed.

Tommy the Dweeb returned with the beers. I wrote my address on the back of a paper coaster and shook his hand. Tommy refused my money, saying the beers were on him. We squeezed limes into our bottlenecks and toasted the waiter. We drank for a time, resting in our memories.

Allan twirled his beer, watching the bottle draw a new sweat ring. “I learned to sing in your car, man,” he said quietly.

I put a hand on the small of his back. “I remember.”

We talked about life, catching up on the gaps that eluded our infrequent long distance phone calls. I told him things were fine with Lucy and the new house. Lucy was there with our baby girl, actually, relieved that she had an excuse to avoid a visit with my family. The boys were still transitioning from city to suburbs, getting used to the idea that they could go outside without special permission.

He told me that he and his wife were having a rough patch. She really wanted a baby, and after years of trying, they had been to a doctor and learned that Allan was impotent. They were considering options, all of which were more complicated than they had hoped. Taking the next steps for in vitro fertilization or adoption had them questioning their commitment to one another; if they were going to redouble their efforts at becoming parents, they each needed to be sure the other was fully on board. At the moment, they were stuck at this crossroads—should they move forward together, or part company as friends?

We ordered another round and talked until eleven or so. Allan had driven over after work that day, and now had to drive two hours back home so he could get some sleep before heading to his shop by eight. I climbed in his truck and he drove me out to my parents. We sang along to George Jones.

The outside light flickered on automatically as he parked in the driveway. He got out of the truck to hug me goodbye.

“You sure you don’t want to crash here?” I asked. “I know we can get you up early. My grandmother wakes up at dawn.”

“Nah, I need to get home. It’s too late to call Alice, and I’d rather drive at night when there’s no traffic. Come here, let me get going.”

He took me into his arms. He pulled me close, squeezing my waist. “It’s been too long, man. Let’s not wait so long.”

I put my hands on his face and pulled back to look at him. His smile was so wide in his baby-faced cheeks. He still looked as he did at fifteen, but for the laugh lines around his eyes. I kissed him. He kissed me back, a warm peck, but I persisted. I caressed his lips with my tongue. He closed his mouth, surprised, but then parted his lips. His tongue met mine. I moaned softly, running my fingers through his hair.

After a while, he pulled back and grinned. “Well damn, I didn’t see that coming.” I was pleased to have taken him unaware. He put a hand on my shoulders. “Nobody else has done that. I love you, man.”

“I love you, too, Allan.” He patted my shoulder and turned to his truck. “Drive safe. Turn up the music. Stop if you need to.”

“I will, and you say hey to your folks for me.” He gave a wave as he drove off.

It was the last time I saw Allan. A few months later, his wife found him on the couch. He had died of an undiagnosed heart condition. We were all stunned to hear the news. Allan was vivacious and strong. It was inconceivable that he would simply pass.

“You have to go down there,” Lucy said when I told her the news. “Are you okay? God, he was like your brother.”

“Yeah, well, I’m shocked,” I told her. She hugged me. “He was only thirty-six, so young.” I thought of his mother and sobbed. Lucy cried with me.

My parents offered to meet me at the airport. I had a carry-on bag and my suit. I would be back home only for a few days, long enough to attend the funeral and check in with our friends. I wondered if it would be appropriate for me to kiss Allan one last time in his casket.

“Poor baby,” Mom cried, hugging me. “I just think of Allan’s mother. I don’t know what I would do if I lost one of mine. And he was her only baby.”

“Hi, Mom,” I mumbled, my cheek crushed by her neck. “Yes, it’s really sad.”

Dad wrapped his arms around us. “He was lucky to have you as a friend.”

“Yeah, we were both lucky,” I said, swallowing.

Dad drove us to the house as Mom filled me in on what had transpired with my nieces and nephews since my last visit a few months before. Essentially, nothing much had happened, but my mother had a gift for weaving elaborate narratives from rather banal threads. I wasn’t really listening, but I preferred the sound of her drawl to the chatter of talk radio. I stared out the window, watching the landscape whir along the new Interstate.

When we got home, I called Nora. She cried when she heard my voice. I told her I needed to see her, to be with someone else who understood. She gave me directions to her house and told me to bring wine, lots and lots of wine. My parents gave me the keys to my grandmother’s old Impala. I said I would likely stay at Nora’s if we got to drinking. Mom kissed me and told me to please be careful, as she would hate to lose me.

“Nora?” I called from her screen door. I could see strings of lights decorating her foyer. Music was playing from somewhere inside. The door was unlatched, but I didn’t want to just barge in.

“Oh my God!” Nora ran from her kitchen. “Oh my God, oh my God!” She opened the screen door and threw her arms around my neck. “Oh my God, you’re here, oh my God.” She began to cry. I lowered the bags of wine to the porch and held her. I kissed her head. She stood back, looked and me and smiled. She laughed. Tears filled her eyes as she clapped her hands. “Oh my God. Okay, you’re here. Okay.” She took my hand and pulled. “Okay, come in, come in, we’re going to the kitchen.”

“Wait, Nora.” I bent down. “I brought wine . . .”

“You did? Oh, thank God.” She bent to take two bottles, took my hand and pulled. “Come in, come in. Oh my God, you’re here!”

Nora’s husband Kevin stood in the kitchen, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on a television placed on the top of the refrigerator. “Hey, look who’s here!” He held out a hand. I took it and pulled him into a hug. “Good to see you, man.”

“You too, you lucky sumbitch.” I let go of him and put the bottles on a table. “Now, please tell me you have a corkscrew.”

“Here, you do it,” Nora said, fishing in a drawer. “I just don’t trust my hands.” She stopped and took my face in her grip. “Thank God, you’re here.”

“I wish we didn’t have to be here under these circumstances,” I said. “We’re too young to do weddings and funerals.”

“I know, I know,” Nora smiled. “And I look terrible in black.” We laughed. She put her lips to mine, and then jumped as she covered my face in kisses. “God, I love you so much!”

I giggled. “That tickles, sugar. And you know I’ll love you, ever and always.”

Kevin watched, smiling.

I poured Merlot for the three of us, filling Nora’s deep glasses nearly to the rims. She lit some candles and we sat to talk. Her phone rang. She left the room to take the call. Kevin’s eyes drifted back to the television. “You a fan?” He pointed at the set.

I looked over my shoulder. A Vulcan was upset. “I’ve actually never seen it.”

“Never watch it, then,” Kevin shook his head. “It will suck the life right out of you.”

Nora returned and sat, the phone still in her hands. “Okay, that was Lucinda. She’s on her way over.” She slumped and looked at me. “I’m wondering if we should call Timothy and all them.”

I fingered my glass. “Yeah? I don’t know. I mean, I want to see people, but . . . that’s going to become a bunch of people, very fast. And, I don’t know . . .” I took a sip of wine.

Nora put her hand in mine. “What, honey?”

I closed my eyes and winced. “I can’t make sense of any of this. And I’m not ready to have other people mediate my grief.”

I opened my eyes. Nora was inches from my face. “I know exactly what you mean. No one should take this from us until we process it.” She grabbed my arm and pulled closer. “But you know what? We’re all doing this. We’re all hurting. We don’t have to do it alone, either.” I leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “You’re not alone, honey,” she said. “None of us is.”

She pushed her forehead to mine. “Okay, baby, make the calls.”

Lucinda was the first to arrive. She brought more wine.

Timothy arrived with beer and three cars full of people who were, in my recollection, thirteen years old. During my senior year of high school, my circle of friends was very close. We were the smart set and all of the creative kids who read or spoke well gravitated to us. Somehow, into that clique of juniors and seniors came Timothy, a pudgy philosophical seventh grader. He kept up with our banter and if he didn’t get something, he asked follow-up questions until he did. We educated him as we went along, and pretty soon, we forgot his age and treated him like a peer. Still, we made a point of telling him he couldn’t join us at weekend parties.

“There’s beer and pot,” Allan told him.

“And sex,” I added.

“Please?” Timothy begged. “Seriously, my mom won’t mind. I can bring her if I have to. Come on, please let me come. Please?”

The prohibition stood firm so long as I was a senior. The next year, Allan was in charge. The newly-minted eighth graders flocked to him. He was their epitome of cool, all that they aspired to be. During his freshman year of college, Allan once said, “You know, I’ll never get laid like that again.”

“You never know,” I said. “This is the South.”

Our party grew too large for Nora’s kitchen. Kevin lit a fire in a cast iron stove on their deck and we moved outside. It was after midnight. Kevin went to bed, kissing Nora good night. He kissed my head. “Good to have you back, brother,” he said. He hooked my hand and took me into a bear hug. I kissed good night to his bearded cheek.

My hometown has distinctive sounds at night. Crickets and frogs are so voluminous you need to raise your voice to be heard. The trains that bisect the town ran close to Nora’s backyard, so that we were occasionally shushed by distant whistles and clacks that signaled the imminence of a deafening rumble.

“I’m sorry about that, guys,” Nora shouted as a train tore through the night.

“I like it!” I shouted back. I wanted to rush to the tracks and scream at the passing cars, to let out this tumor of grief for a boy I had lost and the longing for a man I didn’t know well enough to love as intently as I did.

It was quiet again as we sat near the stove. It got late but the wine held out, and no one showed any sign of leaving. So many years after high school, we were able to return to our familiar comfort with one another; we had gone on to other lives and places, but here, in this group, we remained the same people who had once imagined the future together.

Timothy looked content, his arm around my former girlfriend Lauren. She caught my eye and raised an eyebrow. I grinned. He had been nursing a crush on her for twenty years. I could remember him following us through the halls at school, and watching as we made out in the parking lot. We were his first ideal of romance. In his young mind, Lauren became the very embodiment of love and desire. He had never married. Allan used to joke that he was waiting on Lauren to break up with her longtime boyfriend. Recently, she had.

Nora sat beside me. She poured me another glass, and rested her head on my shoulder. I massaged Linda’s foot in my lap. She smiled and raised her glass in response. I took a sip.

“I’ve got a question,” Linda said. “I was just thinking of Allan taking my virginity, and wondered: how many of us had sex with Allan? Come on, show of hands.”

Half the people in the circle raised hands: every woman and me. We collapsed into laughter. “Please don’t ask that question at the service tomorrow,” I begged.

“We should charter a bus,” Nora guffawed. “With a banner: ‘Allan Slept Here.’”

“You slept with Allan?” Lucinda asked me. “I had no idea. None.”

“Well, he didn’t much talk about it. He wasn’t really into guys, but you know, he and I . . .”

“He was so in love with you,” Nora interrupted.

“Yes,” Linda echoed.

“We loved each other. I mean, that was the deal. We were straight boys in love. And we were sexual. So we had sex.” I sipped my wine. The fire crackled. I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, despite its truth. I wanted to wad it up, throw it into the fire, and start over.

Nora laughed. She bent over, grabbing her sides. “What, what?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, this is so inappropriate,” she giggled. “But that got me wet!” Everyone descended into gales.

I noticed Timothy wasn’t smiling. I hiccupped a few more giggles. “Hey, are you okay, Timothy?” I asked.

He looked into the fire. “I don’t think it’s very respectful.”

“What? The sex talk?” I sat up. “Hey, I’m sorry, it’s just . . .”

Timothy picked up a wood chip and dug into the deck. “I mean . . . if it was a secret, it should stay a secret.”

“Wait, are you talking about me and Allan? You knew about that, didn’t you?”

He nodded. “He told me, but that’s not the point. If you agreed to keep it a secret, it should be a secret.”

I sat back. “I tell it because I’m drunk, I’m tired, and I miss my friend. Forgive me.”

Nora sat forward. “Timothy, Allan’s dead. He won’t mind. And anyway, we all knew. He told all of us. Well, all of us except Lucinda, evidently.” Lucinda shrugged. Nora hit me. “Wait, why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Ask me later,” I nudged. “I’ve got a story that involves your bedroom.”

Nora covered her mouth and raised her eyebrows. “Oh, really?”

Nervous titters vibrated through the crowd. Timothy threw his wood chip into the fire. We fell quiet and watched the chip burn. Another train was heading down the line. After it passed, Lucinda spoke up. “Allan’s passing was so unexpected, so sudden. I guess it goes to show that you have to live each day like it’s your last.”

There were murmurs of assent. “I don’t know,” I said. “That seems too pessimistic. And maybe too complicated. Like, an anticipated last day might easily become a to-do list, a series of errands. Tell your mama you loved her. Write down the bank accounts. Open the good scotch. Watch the sunset. Kiss the wife and kids . . .”

“Get laid,” Lucinda added. We laughed.

“That too! But you know what I mean?” I continued. “It isn’t that any day could be your last. The point is that each day can be more fully appreciated. We spend so much time doing what we are supposed to do, and maybe we spend too little savoring the everyday things we would miss if they were gone. It’s not just about scaling Everest or whatever. It’s about tasting what you chew, listening when your children talk, laughing when . . . um . . .”

“Stop and smell the roses,” Linda nodded.

I reached for her hand. “Oh my God. Did you make that up? That’s it!” She grinned. “Well, I’m drunk and maudlin and talking in clichés. What the fuck do I know? But if I had Allan for just ten more minutes, I would tell him how much I loved him—which was so, so much—and then I would fuck the absolute living shit out of him until the meter ran down the time.”

“Here, here!” Linda laughed over the noise of convulsions. We clinked glasses.

“To love!” Nora echoed. “Je suis la lune!” She pedaled her feet in the air and handed me another bottle to open.

I woke up the next morning with a head full of rocks. I rolled over and squinted into the sun coming through a window. I was under a quilt on a day bed in a room lined with shelves. I could make out boxes on the shelves; focusing my eyes, I saw that they were action figures, each in their original packaging. I smelled bacon.

I sat up. I swung my feet to the floor. I ran my fingers through my hair.

“Do I look as bad as I feel?” I asked, stumbling into the kitchen.

Nora raised her head from the table. Her hair fell in her face. “I’d tell you, honey, but I can’t open my eyes.”

“Y’all had some party last night, judging from the bottles left over,” Kevin said from the stove. “Sounds like you sent Allan off real good.”

I sat at the table and buried my face in my hands. “Yeah, he got a fine bon voyage.” I dropped my hands and stared at Nora’s scalp.

Kevin put two cups of coffee in front of us. “Y’all best sober up. We have to be at the service in two hours.”

I looked at the clock. “Fuck, is it really ten? I have to go back to my parents house to get in my suit.”

“No problem,” Nora muttered into the table. “It’s thirty minutes on the Interstate.” Kevin served breakfast and we gradually came around. I kissed them each goodbye and walked out to my grandmother’s Impala. It was a bright morning. I drove into the sun, regretting my sunglasses.

I referred to Nora’s directions, trying to trace my way backward to my parents’ house. Somehow, I missed the turn onto the Interstate, which had opened in the two decades since I left home. Rather than double back to get directions, I decided to drive the way I knew, on the older highways and back roads. By the time I got home, I had been driving for over an hour.

“Isn’t the service at noon?” my mother asked as I came in the door.

“Yes,” I said, rushing upstairs. “I got turned around on the way back from Nora’s.”

“It’s twenty ‘til now!” she called.

“I know!” I shouted back.

“You’ll be late to your own funeral, son,” she said, walking back to the kitchen. “Good thing Lucy didn’t come, she’d cuss you out.”

Mom wrote out directions to the chapel so that I could take the Interstate. She gave me the directions, and then went over them with me as I stood in the kitchen tying my tie. “Mom, I could drive there in the time it takes you to explain these directions,” I said impatiently. I kissed her cheek and took the paper. She hollered at me to drive safe.

The chapel was standing room only. I closed the door behind me and shuffled to one side, taking care not to block the view of anyone behind me. Allan’s band was playing one of his songs, with the guitarist filling in the vocals. I looked over the heads of the seated mourners, but I couldn’t see a casket.

The door opened behind me. Jonathan stepped in, removing his sunglasses. I stepped over to hug him.

“You’re here,” he whispered.

“Yes,” I replied. “Thank God for you. No matter how late I am, I can always count on you to be later.”

He motioned for me to move closer and brought his lips to into my ear. “Fuck you,” he growled. I nearly giggled.

The service, or what was left of it, was short. As we were already standing by the door, Jonathan and I each stood to one side to act as ushers. Allan’s widow, Alice, came down the aisle holding a ceramic vase Allan had made. His mother, Barbara, held Alice’s arm. She wore large black sunglasses. She looked so small.

Alice leaned to kiss my cheek as she passed. “My husband is so heavy,” she whispered. He had been cremated. I would never see him again.

I squeezed Barbara’s hand. She turned her face to me. “Baby, are you coming to the house?” she croaked.

I cried and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

She nodded. “Please, I need you there.”

I hugged her, trying not to cry so much. She had enough tears. She dropped her arms and turned to the door, resting a hand on Alice’s elbow. They shuffled outside. I put my hand to my mouth, suppressing my sobs. Barbara looked so drained of life.

Jonathan and I stayed in place as the mourners filed by. I recovered and folded my hands in front of my body. Following the line outside, we found our friends milling on the lawn outside the chapel. People were hugging, drying their eyes, and smoking, talking in hushed tones. Kids ran by, dressed in their Sunday school clothes. We watched as someone helped Barbara into a car.

“We should give them a good head start before we go to the house,” Jonathan said. “They’ll need to get her settled.” I nodded, reaching for his hand.

I followed Jonathan to Barbara’s place. We parked with the other cars along the side of the road and walked into the backyard. Some of the former seventh graders were seated in a circle, drinking beer and singing as the guitarist played. We nodded hellos and passed into the house. Allan’s aunts were in the kitchen. Linda helped them to bring food out to the dining room table. I took Linda to one side and hugged her. She broke down. “Stop, stop,” she said, slapping her hand to my chest. “I can’t do this, I need to help them.”

“Is she okay?” I asked. Linda shook her head, wiping her nose on a tissue. She turned and went back the kitchen. I followed the corridor to the living room.

Barbara was seated at the center of the couch, surrounded by people. “Mmph, there he is,” she said, drawing on her cigarette. “Come here, New York, and sit next to me. Y’all scoot over and make some room.” One of her sisters stood and took a glass from the coffee table. I made my way through the crowd to her side. I put my arms around her. Her head fell to my shoulder. “I buried my baby today,” she said, quietly.

I nodded, sniffling. “I know.” I held her.

“But you know what?” She sat up and waved her hand, guiding her cigarette through the air. “I’ve still got my other children. Allan’s friends. Y’all have all been so good to me, all his life. And now, even more so.”

Linda watched from the dining room. “We love you, Barbara,” she called. The words were picked up by other voices as heads nodded around the room. Linda wiped her eyes.

“Well, I love y’all,” Barbara said, her eyes raw and red. She turned to me and patted my leg. “You go call your mama and tell her you’re my son now, too.”

I sobbed. “You cruel bitch,” I wept. “Now, I think you’re purposefully trying to make me cry.”

A wry smile crossed her lips. “Honey, we’ve all been crying and we aren’t about to stop. I fully intend to sit here, get drunk, and cry myself dry.”

I laughed, kissing her cheek. I turned to Linda. “What do you have to do to get a vodka in this joint? Jesus Hosanna.”

“On its way,” Linda said, pointing over her shoulder to the kitchen. Barbara was already pretty soused, but no one was going to close her tab today. Her sister came back with a tall glass of vodka and orange juice. Barbara took a long sip. I took the glass and put if back on the table.

“You know what?” She drew on her cigarette and turned her head to exhale. “I always thought Allan would’ve been happier with you.”

I looked around. “You mean, with Linda?”

She patted my hand. “No honey, with you.” Several of us laughed. “No, now, I mean it. He loved you so much, baby, so very much. One time I asked him if he was in love with you. He shook his head and he said, “Naw, Mama. I love him, but I’m not in love with him.’ But you know what?” She lowered her voice. “I could tell he was.”

My face grew warm. “Well, Barbara, thanks for your blessing. A little late, perhaps, but . . . ”

Laughter burst from her. “Oh, baby, you made me laugh,” she said, patting her chest. “Oh heaven, thank you for that.”

I kissed her hand. “Seriously, though, I loved him, too. Still do. That’s the beautiful part. We still get to keep him with us, in our love for him.” I didn’t know where those words came from, but the sounded comforting and true, so I was grateful for them.

She squeezed my hand. “That is so right.” She reached for her vodka. “So right.”

I sat next to Barbara, talking with her and our friends, until she was good and drunk. Two of her sisters came over and helped her to the bedroom. We all wished her goodnight. The sun was starting to set.

We ate some food, sang some songs and drank some beer. We all kissed each other and said we’d get together soon, and not at a funeral. Linda’s brother Simon collected phone numbers, emails and addresses. The next day, I breakfasted with my parents and flew home to my wife and children.

A few days later, Simon sent an email to all of us, inviting us to join a Yahoo group he had created. Other friends were linked into the group, and soon, we were all catching up and carrying on in our message board.

Then, a funny thing happened. Former seventh-grader Timothy began corresponding with my former girlfriend Lauren. He had moved to New York a few years before, and she lived with her daughter in Maryland. He began to travel down to visit them on weekends. Pretty soon, he proposed. She accepted.

Twenty years after first meeting—one year after Allan’s death, two weeks into my separation—Timothy and Lauren were going to get married.

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Physical

I closed my eyes and concentrated on the tone, listening as it grew louder and then receded. I detected faint modulations in pitch. Each time I heard the tone, I pressed the red button on the stick I held in my right hand, as instructed. After a while, I no longer heard anything. I sat still, leaving the earphones in place, my thumb on the button. I wanted to be ready if the tone returned. The nurse entered the examination room and turned off the machine. “You been sitting like that long?,” she asked. “It’s been over for a few minutes, you know.”

I opened my eyes and removed the headset. “I thought so. It’s kind of relaxing, I guess. I kind of zoned out there.”

“Hmm,” she nodded, looking at the read out. “Okay, so the doctor will be right in. You can undress and sit on the table. There’s a robe on the hook.”

“Okay, thanks.” She closed the door as she left. I tugged off my fleece, wondering if that “hmm” meant anything. I undressed to boxers and slipped on the robe. Paper crinkled under me as I sat on the examination table.

The doctor looked up from my chart as he opened the door. “Good morning, uh, Henry,” he nodded. “I’m Doctor Berkowitz.”

“Good morning, doctor. We’ve met before.”

He offered his hand. “Of course, we’ve met. Old habit. I always announce myself like that.”

“I’m naked and you’re the nervous one,” I grinned. My feet swung as they dangled from the table. I was a little nervous myself, as one is when getting a physical. I felt fine, but one always wonders: what if they find something?

“Yes, I suppose so,” he chortled. His eyes returned to the chart. “Now, let’s see . . . ah, you just turned forty two. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks.”

“Any particular complaints?”

“Nope, I feel great.”

“Good, good. That’s what we like to hear. You seem to be in fine shape. Your weight is good, your cholesterol is terrific . . .” I smiled, as though I had earned a gold star for eating well.

He pulled out the results of my hearing test. “Let me ask you: do you find it increasingly difficult to distinguish sounds? Like, is it harder to hear a specific voice in a crowd?”

I felt a jolt of panic. “Uh, yes, it is.”

“And do you find it increasingly difficult to read fine print, or to make out objects at a distance?”

Oh my God. “Yes, yes I do.”

“Do you wear glasses?”

“No, I never have.”

“Hmm, well, you might want to get your eyes examined.” He joted a note.

“Why?” I asked. “Is there something wrong?”

“No,” he smiled. “You’re just getting older. Things change on this side of forty. You’ll notice things are different as you age.”

“Oh, well . . . I guess that’s to be expected . . .” I tried not to sound crestfallen. I’m just getting older, that’s all. Big deal.

Doctor Berkowitz continued. “Let me just ask you some more questions, running down this list . . . do you smoke?”

I sat upright, folding my hands in my lap. “No.”

“Good. Did you quit or . . .”

“Nope, never took it up.”

“Even better.” He made a check on my chart. “Drink?”

“Yes, please. Cabernet would be nice.”

Doctor Berkowitz looked up. He laughed. “No, I wasn’t offering a drink. I was asking if you drink.”

“I do, mostly wine and bourbon.”

“Much?”

“More than I should.”

“Hmmm.” He made a note on my chart. “Let’s watch that. Are you sexually active?”

“And how!” My legs swung a little faster.

Doctor Berkowitz looked up. “Are you married or single?”

“Single.”

“Multiple partners?”

“Oh yes.”

“Male or female?”

“Yes, please.”

Doctor Berkowitz was momentarily confused. “Oh, you mean ‘both?’ You have relations with men as well as women?’

“Yes, and occasionally both at the same time.”

“So you are bisexual.”

“Yep.”

He wrote a “b” on my chart, then paused again. “And may I refer to you as bisexual?”

“Yes, please do,” I smiled. He continued to write “isexual.”

“I assume you are safe? You use condoms?”

“Yes. I’d like to get a battery of STI tests too, while I’m here.”

“I’m just noting that as we speak,” he said as he wrote. “I’ll send the nurse back in to draw blood.” He took a moment to write, then closed the chart. He clicked the pen and slid it into his shirt pocket.

“Okay,” he said, standing. “This reminds me to check your prostate.” He reached for lube and a latex glove.

I hopped from the table and turned. “My bisexuality reminds you to check my prostate?”

He looked taken aback. “No, I meant . . . it’s just that you are over forty, and therefore at increased risk . . .”

I laughed. “I’m kidding, Doctor Berkowitz!” I lowered my boxers and bent over the table.

“I forget what a comedian you are. Okay, so let’s take a look, funny man . . .”

“No extra charge . . . huh?” I grunted.

A moment later, the glove hit the trash canister. Doctor Berkowitz washed up, offering off-handed advice about being safe and healthy. We shook as he headed off for another patient. A nurse came in and told me to get dressed before the next tests.

I peed into a cup. I bled into a vial.

A week later, I opened my mail and learned that I was in fine health. Of course, I expected that.

Each night as I lay in bed, wondering.

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Tourists

I was working at my desk, and already on my second cup of coffee, when I heard giggling from my bedroom.

The girls were up. It was a little after ten. I had assumed they would sleep longer after our late night together. I saved my work and went to the kitchen. I opened a cabinet and pulled down two cups.

The girls take their coffee as I do, strong, with sugar and half and half. I stirred, humming as a stream of sugar vanished into a whirl. I tapped the spoon twice on the lip of each cup. I carefully lifted the cups and made my way to the bedroom. I rapped on the door with my foot. “Are you decent?” I called.

“No, never.” More giggles. “But come on in.”

I nudged the door with my shoulder. “I thought you might want some coffee.”

“Oh!” Stevie said, tossing her hair as she sat up. “I could get used to room service.”

“Only the finest,” I smiled, placing the cup on her nightstand.

Stevie was a tourist, on her first visit to New York. Her naive awe of the city made her seem younger than her twenty years.

I made my way to the other side of the bed, the side where I sleep.

“Good morning,” I smiled to Stevie’s best friend. I put the coffee on the nightstand and leaned forward to kiss her. Stevie’s friend was a blond beauty, also a tourist, just a few days shy of her eighteenth birthday. Her braces showed as she smiled. I caressed the hair from her face. “Did you sleep well, love?” I asked.

“Yeah, fine,” she said sitting up. “Thanks for the coffee, Dad.”

My daughter Rachel was in town. Rachel brought along Stevie—and yes, she was named for Stevie Nicks—to introduce her best friend to her “other” family and the city she has come to know over so many visits throughout her childhood

I surrendered my bedroom to the girls, and bunked on the couch.

This was the first time she brought a friend to the city, and I was keen to make it special. It could only bode well for the frequency of future visits if Rachel regarded my place as an urban pied-a-terre for herself and her pals.

Rachel lives in a small town, a place where friendships can be a tad incestuous. Rachel’s best friend Stevie has a younger brother who is Rachel’s new boyfriend. Rachel’s new boyfriend is the best friend of two of her younger brothers.

Rachel tells me it can get a complicated. Sometimes her boyfriend comes over to skateboard with her brothers, and she feels left out. Sometimes her brothers feel neglected when he comes over to listen to music in her room, the door left ajar to allow her mother’s frequent peeks, “just checking in.”

“It’s not like we’re doing anything anyway,” Rachel says. “I mean, he’s only fifteen.”

Their visit was to last only a few days, but the girls had arrived with a hefty agenda. Stevie wanted to see Times Square and the tree at Rockefeller Center, and to go ice skating in Central Park, “if,” she added, “we won’t get mugged there.” Rachel wanted to go shopping at St Mark’s Place, and to visit the “glass mall” we toured on her most recent trip. (It took me a while to ascertain that the phrase “glass mall” referred to the new Time Warner Center.) Somewhere along the way, they would also need to spend time with my kids and my ex.

Their first night was the only one we would have on our own as a trio. I had a few items to add to their agenda. Stevie beamed as we took the subway to Christopher Street. She whispered to Rachel, “Everyone is New York is so fine.”

“I know,” Rachel replied, knowingly. “They walk a lot and wear black.”

“That’s cool,” Stevie said, holding her bag close to her raspberry coat.

As we walked through Washington Square Park, Stevie noticed a sign for New York University. “Oh, too bad the Olsen twins dropped out, we might see them.”

“Yeah, keep your eyes open for celebrities anyway,” Rachel said. “They all live down here.”

“Actually, my boyfriend Peter Sarsgaard lives nearby,” I said.

“He’s my boyfriend, not yours,” Rachel corrected. “Can we stop by and see him?”

“I though you had Jake Gyllenhaal?” I asked.

“Him too, he’s mine too. Hey, can we see Brokeback Mountain up here? I really don’t think it’s going to come to the Podunk Palace Multiplex back home.”

“If we have time, I’m game,” I said.

Rachel looked at me, smiling. “What did you say?”

“Game. I said ‘I’m gay-MUH.’ Listen for the final consonant.”

Stevie listened to our banter. “Wait, who is Peter . . . ”

“Oh cool, look,” Rachel interrupted. “A tattoo store. Can we go in?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s browse the flash.”

“Wait,” Stevie asked, “What’s flash?”

“Stevie’s got two tattoos, you know,” Rachel said, raising an eyebrow to me.

“Really? Let’s see,” I asked. “Here, under this street lamp.” I will always take that bait. Stevie lifted her jacket and shirt and bent forward to show the ornate sprawl on her lower back, then turned and lowered her waistband to show the flower on her lower torso.

I stooped for a closer look. “Nice work,” I admired, politely.

“Thanks,” she said, lowering her shirt in place. “My fiancé talked me into the second one.”

Twenty, tattooed and betrothed. There are times I miss the South.

We stopped in shops as we walked towards dinner, the girls admiring overpriced hand-painted jeans and cheap mass-produced sunglasses. I fell back, allowing them time together. I was content to be the third wheel.

Though I did my share of steering. “Hey, a friend of mine is doing some editing over at that Starbucks,” I said. “Mind if we say hello?”

“Sure,” Rachel shrugged.

“We’ll make her buy us coffee,” I elbowed her.

“Hmmmm,” Stevie smiled. “Caffe mocha light.”

At the Starbuck’s, I knocked on the glass. Bridget looked up. “Well, hello, Henry,” she smiled, as we entered the door. I kissed her cheek, and introduced the girls.

“Hi Rachel, I’ve heard so much about you,” Bridget said, scooting over to make room for more chairs. “Nice to meet you Stevie. You girls want anything? Some hot chocolate?”

“Well,” Rachel’s eyes scoured the menu. “We were thinking caffe mocha light . . .”

“Sounds good.” Bridget palmed a twenty my way. “You, boy. Go get coffee. We have girl talk.” They were laughing as I returned with three cups. They talked as we drank our coffee. Now I was a fourth wheel.

Bridget was taking to her new privilege as an insider in my family. Rachel was no doubt filing queries about Dad’s friend.

We finished our coffees and took our leave. Bridget had her work to do, and I wanted to get the girls fed reasonably early. We had a full night ahead. As the girls put on their coats, I leaned over to kiss Bridget. “Rachel is adorable, and yes, she looks exactly like you,” Bridget whispered. “And by the way—the girls just saw you kiss me.”

“People kiss in New York,” I smiled. “It’s sophisticated.”

“Just be ready for questions.”

“We’ll see. Take care. Good luck with your work. Thanks for the coffee.”

“Have fun, sweet boy.”

I walked a few steps behind the girls as they admired windows and vendors’ stalls. That was okay, I thought. Short but sweet. Maybe my secret life can be not so secret with Rachel. At least a little bit.

“Henry?”

I turned. It was Thomas.

Thomas: my bisexual twink comedian who loves the trannies.

“What brings you to my neighborhood?” he asked.

“I’m here with my daughter,” I replied, pointing ahead. “And her friend.”

“Really? Huh. Man, I have to meet your daughter.”

“If you behave,” I intoned.

I was kidding, but half serious—for two years he has admired Rachel’s photographs on my refrigerator door. He stands naked in my kitchen and asks, “So how long before she’s legal?” I usually reply that I am not setting up my daughter with anyone I’ve been with, so eyes off, boyfriend.

Perverts are lost without scruples.

“Rachel? Stevie?” I called. “Hang on, I want you to meet my friend Thomas.”
We caught up. He shook their hands and introduced himself. The girls smiled that smile girls smile when meeting someone very cute.

“So what are you guys up to?” Thomas asked.

“Nothing much,” Rachel said. “Just looking at stuff, on our way to get something to eat.”

“Yeah, I was just on my way to grab some dinner too.” Rachel and Stevie looked at me. Thomas looked at me.

I supposed this would be all right. “Thomas, if you don’t have other plans, would you like to join us? We’re going out for Indian.”

“I like Indian,” Thomas said, nodding at the girls. “I know a good place on Avenue A.”

“That’s very likely the place we have in mind,” I said. “Come on.”

As we walked, Rachel described the restaurant to her Stevie, who was a little trepidatious. She had warned me that she didn’t like “weird” food, as all tourists will say, but she was open to all the major food groups, so Rachel and I were determined to broaden her horizons a bit.

I could imagine that Thomas was also willing to broaden her horizons. We climbed the stairs to the restaurant. We had warned Stevie to ignore the shouts of competing maitres d’, encouraging us to choose their doors over the one we selected. We were seated. Stevie marveled at the dense tent of lights overhead. “Cool, right?” Rachel giggled.

“Weird, but very cool,” Stevie agreed.

I described a few dishes, as the girls had decided I would order for them. Thomas made his selection.

He was very quiet. Thomas is funny like that. He’s a performer with a great sense of humor, yet he is also shy with new people. That’s as true at a dinner as it is at a party. He tends to listen and watch, observing people and their interactions. You know he is at ease when he begins dropping well-placed one-liners into the conversation. I knew to take the lead until he warmed up.

After we ordered, I remembered that we had failed to pick up beer for dinner. The
Indian restaurants of Sixth Avenue generally lack liquor licenses, so diners must bring their own beer or wine. “I think I want beer,” I said. “Thomas?”

He said that would be great and started to stand. “No, sit,” I said. “Talk. I’m just walking downstairs I’ll be right back.” I excused myself, nodding to Thomas. He would just have to fend for himself with these chatty tourists.

“So, how do you know Dad?” Rachel asked after I left.

“Oh, we just know each other,” Thomas gulped. “So, how was the trip?” Thomas was listening to the girls talk when I returned.

“Everything all right?” I said, unpacking two Kingfishers.

“Yeah, cool,” Rachel said.

I poured the beers. The girls excused themselves to the restroom. Thomas took a sip. “Man, you didn’t tell me Stevie was engaged. How am I supposed to score here?”

“You aren’t supposed to score. You are just here to pretty up the joint. Be nice and make nice talk.”

“Your daughter looks just as Aryan Nation as you.”

“Yeah, if I were young and pretty, I’d be her.”

“Too bad she’s not a slut like you.”

“You want to take this outside? Behave.” The girls joined us. We had ordered a round of appetizers, including the sweet crunchy banana pakoras Rachel likes. Thomas relaxed and kept the girls laughing. When dinner arrived, we passed around silver trays heaped with rice, chana saag, chicken tikka masala, and lamb vindaloo. We tore at the poori and nan, dipping it in daal.

The lights were dimmed in favor of flashing sirens and disco birthday music as the waiters brought Rachel her birthday mango ice cream. “This place is pretty awesome,” Stevie shouted over the music, clapping along.

“Yeah, I love it,” Rachel nodded.

There was a line of hungry diners waiting as we left. The tiny restaurant was so cramped we had to put on our coats outside. The maitre d’ thanked us profusely, as if we had been the only prospective customers that night. “Nice schtick,” I said to Thomas as the girls walked ahead. “They don’t charge much, but you know they do very well.”

“I’m convinced all these restaurants share the same kitchen,” Thomas said, gesturing at the street lined with Indian places.

“This is widely rumored. Like the cole slaw that is ubiquitous in Greek diners. It’s all the same, so it must come from the same source.” We talked until we reached Thomas’s corner.

“Well, this is where I live,” he said.

“Thanks for joining us,” I said. “We are off to be tourists.”

“Have fun.” He nodded to the girls. “Very nice to meet you. Have fun while you are here.”

“Thanks, you too,” Stevie smiled, flirtation dripping from her drawl.

“Nice to meet you too,” Rachel said. She reached to shake his hand. Stevie followed suit.

“Cool.” Thomas took their hands in turn. “Okay, have fun.”

“You too,” I said. He turned and crossed the street. Stevie watched his back.

“What’s up with that?” she said. “I thought for sure we’d get sex off him.”

“I know, what’s up?” Rachel drawled. “He’s just too cute.”

“You want me to set it up?” I teased. I turned toward the corner and raised a finger. “Oh, Thomas . . .”

“Dad!” Rachel punched me. “We are kidding!

“Oh, whew,” I said. “Good thing you stopped me.”

“Were you really . . . ?” Stevie began.

“Don’t encourage him,” Rachel laughed.

“Come on now, no more cute boys,” I said. “We’re off to Times Square.”

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Bernard and I arrived home around four. We unpacked the car. He left to return the rental car. I stayed to organize boxes and suitcases.

I emptied my pockets of condoms, glad they went unused. I made a sandwich.

Bernard returned before five. He made a sandwich. Around six, Bernard settled in to watch the news, warm under a quilt. He fell asleep immediately. He would sleep until morning.

The holiday exhausted him.

I was also feeling the worse for the wear.

Around eight, my phone rang. I put on my coat and scarf. I closed the door quietly behind me. The elevator took me to the lobby. A car was waiting. The passenger in the back seat leaned forward and smiled. I smiled back, opened the door and sat next to her. She kissed me. “It’s over,” she said. “You survived eXmas.”

I took out my flask. The driver took off.

That night, I dreamed I was on a television show that turned out to be a sleeper. Good reviews led to more viewers, and it was a hit in certain circles. It focused on an eccentric family, sort of like “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

I was a minor character. The success of the show did not make me instantly famous, but everyone was thrilled for me and now and then, someone would point me out on the street. This small measure of fame was nice.

The patriarch of our television family, President Josiah Bartlett, was dead set on a project that we considered a folly. He treasured a quote from Plutarch and now wanted to see that quote destroyed. He wanted to watch as that quote was hurled from a speeding train.

I wasn’t sure why he wanted this, or how it would be pulled off. I imagined carved marble letters being smashed on rocks. To realize this vision, our television family traveled by train to a remote mountain location. We were left at a bend in the line, overlooking a sublime view. “Men, you set up camp,” the President ordered. “While the ladies prepare a fire for dinner.”

As we sat around camp, I realized I was bored and not quite sure what was supposed to happen. I also realized that I had had sex with many of the other campers.

I talked with a cute couple. He was freckled with red hair. She was a doe-eyed pixie who sat with her legs curled under her. He said she was his sub. She nodded in agreement. “I’m really aggressive and passionate,” he said. She nodded. He began to initiate something with her, but as they kissed, he said something that didn’t sit well with her. The moment was lost.

Later, he tried again. He knocked over a beer, and in cleaning up the mess, he was distracted into something else. “You say you are a good dom,” I said. “But you get distracted and don’t follow through. Do you have trouble focusing?”

“Sometimes, yeah.”

“Here. Kiss me,” I said.

“Okay.” He moved closer.

We kissed as his girlfriend watched. We kissed tentatively at first, then with increasing ardor. But I had to keep him focused. He was not a great kisser and he seemed to get lost now and then. He pulled back. “Ow, you kiss too much,” he said.

“Too much?” I asked.

“Yeah, I don’t really kiss that much.” The girlfriend nodded.

We heard the train arriving. “This is it,” the President shouted. “Everyone come to the tracks!”

We raced over. The train rounded the bend. A conductor leaned from the window as it passed, tossing something from a window. The President ran to collect it. “That’s it!” he cried. He gathered up a small bundle.

We drew close to see that he held a paper plate, tied to a rock. It was nestled in his arms like a newborn. The quote from Plutarch was written on the plate. “Kind of anticlimactic,” someone whispered to me. It was my ex brother in law, Richard.

“Not too impressive,” I agreed.

“Okay everyone, break camp,” the President called. “We take the next train out.”

We packed up our tents and waited for the train. We were taken to a nearby station in an Old West town. We were put onto a tram. It raced us through the town and into a saloon, winding past bar, tables and patrons, like “The Wild Ride of Mister Toad” meets the Gem Saloon of “Deadwood.”

“Looks like the set designers had fun,” Richard said.

“I’ll say!” I replied. We disembarked at the end of the tram ride. I lead the group. I nearly stepped on Annie Sprinkle, who reclined on the floor. She was dressed in a gypsy blouse, long skirt and full petticoats. She spread her legs as I passed, exposing herself. “That’s one off the tab,” she called to the bartender. The bartender guffawed. She flashed Richard. “That’s two!” The bartender laughed as she flashed us each in turn.

We left the saloon, and I became confused. Why was President Josiah Bartlett on our show? Or maybe I was on “The West Wing?” But if so, what was my relationship to the President? Who was my character?

I thought to ask Richard, but he wasn’t around.

Monica Lewinsky ran up to me. “Baby, I missed you!”

“I missed you too, Molly.” In the dream, her name was Molly. We kissed and she hopped on my back. “Where are you taking me?” she asked.

“Nowhere. Molly, look, you know I’m not interested in marrying you.”

“Silly boy,” she said, nibbling my ear. “You know I’m the one.”

I woke up.

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On the drive south, and again on the return journey, my family charted a course through the Shenandoah Valley to visit with my daughter, Rachel.

Originally, the plan had been to pick up Rachel on the way down and return her on the way back, as is our annual custom. We were particularly keen for her to join us this year, for she is at an age—seventeen—which may offer one of her last flexible summers before her life is wrapped up in boyfriends, jobs and college.

Alas, Rachel has always been precocious. She already had too much on her plate to manage a three-week excursion to the Deep South.

Last spring, she graduated high school a year early, leaving her with a few divergent options. Should she stay at home and work for a year, to save money? Should she fulfill our shared fantasy and join me in New York?

She wondered: should she pursue college admissions in her home state, and live near her mom and dad, or in New York, to live with her dad, or maybe in California, near her other dad? And if she did move, what would that mean to her ten younger siblings?

Rachel’s family ties are complex, perhaps a fact of life when a girl has three fathers.

Rachel’s mother Emily and I were never formally in a relationship. The conception of our daughter was due to a certain convergence of coincidences.

The winter of nineteen-eighty-seven was unusually snowy. Because of this, classes were canceled at my college, and I found myself one night drinking at the bar tended by my roommate, Jetboy.

I had long blonde hair. Because of this, Emily felt compelled to braid my hair as I sat at the bar. While I didn’t know Emily very well, I did like her physical resemblance to Molly Ringwald. I also liked that she was so fond of my hair. It felt nice to have her touch it.

When Jetboy returned to our apartment that night, he walked in on Emily and me having sex.

He would get accustomed to the sight. For the rest of that winter and into the spring, Emily and I fucked and fucked.

She would hang out with her friends at the dorm, smoking pot and listening to bootlegged cassettes of Grateful Dead concerts. When she was good and baked, she would call me and ask to come over.

I always said yes.

Emily and I each had a “real” relationship back home. Our nights together provided a salutary opportunity for sex while we were at school.

Jetboy didn’t mind at all. He thought it was cool that we went at it regardless of his presence, though he declined our occasional entreaties to join us.

As the academic year drew to a close, Emily and I prepared to return to our lives back home. I happened to be at the dorm when her boyfriend arrived to help her move. I shook his hand and helped Emily load her things into his pickup truck. She waved goodbye and smiled as they drove away. I waved and smiled in return.

In July, I heard through the grapevine that Emily was two months pregnant.

I counted backwards.

I called her.

Emily confirmed that yes, she was pregnant and yes, the child was mine. But her boyfriend assumed it was his, and she preferred to keep it that way.

She said she would not be back in school for the coming year.

Emily was nineteen. I was twenty-two.

I had made an erroneous assumption. My real girlfriend Pablo and I relied on her birth control pills. I assumed that any woman who didn’t insist on condoms was on the pill. Emily seemed unconcerned about birth control, so I figured she was all set.

Turns out she wasn’t on the Pill. Turns out she was opposed to birth control. Abortion too, for that matter. So she was going to have my baby and raise it with her boyfriend.

I might never meet my child.

Needless to say, I was a little distracted as I began my senior year. I had a very big secret to keep.

When I returned home for Christmas break, my family was poised for a great milestone: my brother Jesse and his wife Teri were expecting their first child. My parents, then in their mid-forties, were about to become grandparents.

Just before New Year’s Day, I was with my family in a hospital waiting room when Jesse came out, his eyes tearing, to announce the birth of my nephew Tracy.

I hugged him, crying.

A week later, in a hospital in rural Virginia, my daughter was born. Emily named her Rachel Ann.

No one in my family knew. Very few friends knew.

I called Emily every few days to check on her and to listen to our baby gurgle and cry.

A few months later, after graduation, I began to date Lucy.

One summer night, as we lay in bed nude, sweating under a fan, listening to Wire, I told Lucy I had some things to confess.

First, I’m bisexual.

Second, I have a daughter I’ve never met.

I knew that her mother and brother were gay, and that her father had left the family when Lucy was four. I tried to joke that by being a queer absent father, I was either perfect for her, or the worst possible match.

She held my hand.

“You are not bisexual if you are with me,” she said into the night. “And you have to meet your daughter.”

She convinced me. I went to Virginia to meet my six-month-old baby girl.

Rachel had blue eyes like her mother and me. She had wispy blonde hair. She had her mother’s soft open mouth. I held her, scared and nervous.

I kissed them both goodbye at four that afternoon. I had to be out of the house when Rachel’s real father returned from work.

I told Lucy how amazing it had been to hold my daughter.

“I’m sure,” she said. “When will you see her again?” I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, I should see her again.

I invited Emily to bring the baby to visit me. She agreed, and I drove out to pick them up.

By this time, Rachel was walking.

I wasn’t ready for Lucy to meet Emily and Rachel. That was just too weird, I thought.

“I can wait,” Lucy said. “But will you be sleeping with Emily?”

“We haven’t had sex in over a year,” I said. “But what difference would it make if we did?”

“It will make a difference to me,” she said.

I agreed that my sexual relationship with Emily was over.

For a weekend, Emily and I took care of Rachel. Our baby toddled around my room, knocking down books and chewing on album covers. She slept between us at night. Rachel is blurry in every photograph from that weekend, unless she was sleeping.

In time, Lucy would meet Emily and Rachel. We traveled out to see them fairly often, always when her boyfriend was away. I took photographs of my beautiful baby, her beautiful mom, and my beautiful girlfriend, smiling, playing, enjoying one another.

This works, I thought. I can’t believe it, but it works.

One day Emily called to say she was leaving her boyfriend. She was in love with someone else, a guy I had never met named Phil. They were taking Rachel and driving to San Francisco the next day.

I tried to talk her out of doing anything rash. I realized I had absolutely no say in the matter. Emily could do whatever she wanted with our daughter.

Lucy convinced Emily to talk with a friend of ours, a family lawyer who would at least offer some advice. Emily agreed.

She took only one part of our friend’s advice. She left a note for her boyfriend saying she was gone for good, and she was taking the baby.

The baby, she added, is not yours. With that, she was gone.

A few months later, Lucy and I flew to San Francisco. We visited their tiny apartment in the shadow of a freeway overpass. We took Rachel to the Presidio and the zoo.

Emily was pregnant. She seemed very happy.

At Christmas, she received a summons. Her ex-boyfriend was suing for custody of Rachel.

Emily and the baby were to appear in court in Virginia, in a small town where the ex-boyfriend’s father was a leading figure. Of course, Lucy and I drove down for the hearings.

When the ex-boyfriend and his family arrived at court for the first hearing, they saw me with Emily. I was holding Rachel. His mother blanched. Rachel was a carbon copy of me.

The ex boyfriend had promised to be civil in these proceedings. He was a sweet guy, and he had my sympathy: his child had been taken away. But I also knew that if he had custody, my tenuous relationship with Rachel would be severed. He had no reason to keep me around as another father.

Emily had a court appointed lawyer who seemed unfamiliar with her case.

His lawyer stood to say that Emily was a pot dealer and devotee of the Grateful Dead. She represented a flight risk as she had already left for San Francisco; furthermore, she was obliged to follow the Grateful Dead to all concerts.

This was pure fabrication. Emily didn’t follow Dead shows. And while she and her ex boyfriend both smoked, it was he who was the dealer.

No matter. The judge concurred with his argument, and ruled that while the case was being decided, Rachel was better off with her father and his family, community members of good standing.

Rachel was taken from Emily’s arms and placed in those of her ex-boyfriend’s mother.

Emily screamed.

Lucy and I were shocked. Our friend the family lawyer had told us that babies generally remain with the mother during a custody battle unless there was a clear danger to the child.

Outside the courthouse, Lucy took Emily by the shoulders. Both were crying.

“Listen to me, Emily. Listen to me!” she said, looking to her eyes. “I am calling my family. We are paying for you to have a real lawyer. You are not losing Rachel. Do you hear me?”

Emily nodded, too stunned to do otherwise.

Lucy called her family. Lucy called lawyers. Lucy wrote checks.

I signed affidavits asserting my paternity. I offered myself for blood tests. I initiated my long relationship with the sovereign government of the State of Virginia.

When the judge issued a final ruling, Rachel stayed with Emily.

That summer, Lucy sat with me as I told my parents I had “important news.” I held Lucy’s hands in my lap.

I was with my girlfriend, but we looked somber. This was clearly not an announcement of our engagement.

My friend Donnie had already been diagnosed with AIDS. Mom looked as if she might cry.

“I’m sorry I have taken so long to tell you this,” I said, swallowing hard. “But you have another grandchild.”

Dad looked confused. Mom suddenly smiled. “You and Lucy are expecting?” she asked.

Lucy and I stumbled over one another to tell the story.

That night, the four of us were in a car driving toward Rachel.

As I made introductions, my parents shook hands with Phil. They rubbed Emily’s bulging belly.

And they fell in love with their granddaughter.

In time, Emily and her ex-boyfriend made peace. He remained a part of Rachel’s life. She refers to him as her “other dad.”

Emily and Phil got married. They traveled around for a while, then settled down in Virginia. They had seven children after Rachel, each pregnancy unplanned but welcome. Rachel helped to deliver each of her siblings.

Emily and I settled into a kind of fraternal relationship. I love her like a sister. We agree on very few things: my Deadhead hippy fuck buddy became a born-again fundamentalist who home schools her kids and insists that they attend rallies against gay marriage.

Whatever. We’re family.

My parents and children mingled with Rachel’s full family this summer. My kids played with Rachel’s other siblings, riding skateboards, chasing her dog, and holding the baby.

There were too few moments for Rachel and I to be alone, but we drank those moments in great gulps.

For now, Rachel has decided to wait about leaving her hometown. She loves New York, she told me, but this is home. She enrolled in a community college. She continues to work as a waitress at a cool café. And she got her own place. She lives in a cabin with a fireplace, a pool and a big Jacuzzi tub. Her Beatles memorabilia lines the walls.

She pays for school and her cabin with the money she earns. Her brothers and sisters take turns sleeping over, when she wants company.

My parents and I took her to Wal-Mart to help fix up her place. She asked me for a Bodum coffee carafe like mine.

Shortly after I returned to New York, I received a card from my daughter.

Hey Dad,

It was so great to see you and everybody last week. I am writing this on my patio with some great coffee—thanks!

I’m so sorry I couldn’t go south this year. When can I come up to New York? Maybe for my eighteenth birthday. Then we can smoke cigarettes and watch porn—you know, the usual, but now it will be legal.

I love you Dad. Call me!

Rachel

PS When is my boyfriend Marcus coming to New York? Maybe at my birthday? I know you think he is yours, but he is mine. Ha ha!

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What a tender kiss he has, I thought.

Verdad and I were making out at a party. I ran my hand up his nude arm to his shoulders, then to his smooth cheeks. His soft skin sparked my fingertips. I traced a lazy finger along his forehead, his brow, his aquiline nose.

My touch returned to his cheek, only now it felt scruffy and unshaven, the cut of his jaw more angular and manly. I pulled back to look at him. It wasn’t Verdad.

Whoever it was, he smiled.

“You know,” I said, looking away. “This is a little awkward, but I don’t recall your name. Your face is very familiar, though.”

“You don’t know me, huh? Look closer.”

I looked.

“Anything?” he shrugged.

“Nothing. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Here, try this.” He joined his thumbs and forefingers into circles, and turned his hands upside down on his face, mimicking glasses.

His image came into focus for me.

“Oh God, of course,” I slapped my cheek. “You’re Elvis Costello.”

“Yeah,” he grinned, pointing to his eyes. “Contacts. No one notices me. Anyway, it’s Declan—nice to meet you.” He extended a hand.

“Likewise,” I said, taking his hand. “I’m a big fan.”

“Well, thanks. I’m a big fan of those kisses.” He tugged my hand, pulling me closer. “Give us more.”

His lips touched mine, and my chest heaved. It was like the weight of a thousand butterflies landing on my heart.

That, or the weight of an eight-year-old boy.

“Daddy, Daddy!” Collie jumped on my body. “Time to get up-py, up-py!”

“What? What time is it?”

“Breakfast time, breakfast time! Wakey wakey!”

Where the . . . oh yeah. My room at the lake house.

“Okay baby, you can go tell Papa I’m up.”

“You’re not up up.”

“I will be, I just have to get dressed. Go. I’m coming.”

“Okay, I’ll be back if you fall asleep.” He trotted out, leaving the door ajar in his wake.

I fell back on my pillows. Two weeks without sex were taking a toll. These dreams were insane.

Two weeks. Huh. I rubbed my eyes. When I was married, I could take month after sexless month with nary a blink. Guess I am out of shape.

I dropped my feet to the floor and pulled up my shorts, stooping to adjust myself to the least conspicuous position. I pulled on a t-shirt that dropped to cover my hips.

“Well, well!” Dad called from the griddle. “Great day in the morning! Is this an official sighting of my wonnerful, wonnerful son, Hanklin?”

“I’m afraid so,” I shuffled past, hugging him. “It won’t get much prettier than this.”

“Did you sleep well, honey?” Nanny smiled, slipping her hands around my waist. I turned my hip to her—or rather, turned away my still-aching groin—and kissed the top of her head.

“Very well. A little too deeply. You?”

“Well,” she said, squeezing me. “At my age, if you wake up at all, that’s a good night’s sleep.”

I kissed her again. “This may be the last sunrise you see, old woman, if you don’t get out from between me and my coffee.”

My kids were seated at the table, eating bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and fresh peach slices. I poured my coffee, streamed in half and half and sugar, and sat thickly next to Jason. We exchanged glances.

“You’re up early,” I said.

“You’re up early,” he deadpanned.

“Yeah, but you look like death.”

“Yeah, but you look like death.”

“Stop copying me.”

“Stop copying me.”

I sipped my coffee, smacking loudly.

“Ah reet, ah right, that’s good java, daddy-o,” I said in my best Wolfman Jack impersonation

He coughed into his juice.

“Too easy,” I said, returning to my cup. “Even at this hour, I still got it.”

“You can keep it,” Jason retorted. He paused a beat, trying not to lose the rhythm before delivering his zinger: “At least I got my hair.” He and Collie burst into laughs.

I put down my cup, aghast, and punched his arm. He punched me in reply.

“Do I have to separate you?” Dad asked, delivering my serving. “’Cause I will, right down the middle.” He bonked a fork on my head before setting it next to my plate.

When Dad was home, the vacation was much easier. He would wake early and find Nanny on the porch, where she had watched the sunrise. After a cup of coffee and quiet conversation, they would go to the kitchen and pull out the griddle. From their beds, the kids would smell bacon and follow the scent into the kitchen, like cartoon hound dogs sniffing wavy lines in the air to their source in a rabbit warren.

No alarms, no wake up calls.

I was allowed to sleep for so long as the kids let me. It was never very late, but there is nothing better than waking to the sight of children eating a breakfast you didn’t have to cook.

After we ate, Dad went to prepare the boat for the day while Nanny washed dishes and the kids watched television. I took my coffee to the computer to check email, generally a fixture of my morning routine.

I wasn’t sure how much time I would have.

Sure enough, the familiar squeaks and squawks of the dial-up connection proved as great a lure to some bloodhounds as the smell of bacon had been to others.

I was quickly reading and responding to a few notes when Mom came downstairs, holding her new Maltese puppy. “Good morning!” she beamed at the children.

“Good morning,” Collie replied on behalf of himself and his sister, neither of whom diverted their eyes from Spongebob Squarepants.

“Well, look who decided to get out of bed,” Nanny teased, with more than a hint of malice.

“Good morning, Mother. Any eggs left?”

“Well, I guess I can put some on. I was just cleaning up . . . ”

“Why, thank you, that would be nice.”

Jason was clearing his plate and passed by the computer. “Wow Dad, you got eight hundred and eighty two messages!”

“Yeah, a lot, right?”

I was reading an email from Luis.

Hey Henry,

How’s it going, sweetheart? I’m seeing Jen tonight. Any chance we can meet you at your place?

Luis

I had just hit reply and typed a few words—“I’m out of town until next week”—when Mom flew across the room, as though her curiosity had sprouted wings.

“Somebody wants to say good morning to you, TJ!” She shoved the puppy’s snout in my face.

As I recoiled, I saw Mom sneak a glance at the computer screen. She had used the dog as a diversionary tactic to spy on me.

“Your dog is very cute,” I said, pushing it back. “And very nosy.”

“You working or writing one of your friends?”

“Yes.”

“Well, who are you telling you are out of town?”

“Mom . . . please.” I closed the laptop cover. “I don’t listen to your phone conversations. Don’t read my emails. Please.”

“I don’t know what’s so damned interesting,” she said, pulling her dog close. “But I can take a hint.”

“Here’s the hint again, Mom, in neon: mind your own business.”

“How do you want your eggs?” Nanny called.

“Scrambled is fine,” Mom replied, on her way to the kitchen. “Y’all got cheese?”

I signed off, leaving unread the bulk of my emails. I took my coffee and left to retrieve the children’s swimsuits.

My father raised comedians. My mother raised privacy advocates. My adolescence was filled with her intrusions.

“Mom, I can hear you breathing. Can you hang up the extension? Mom? Okay, look, I’ll talk to you tomorrow at school—my Mom won’t hang up.”

“Mom, do you need the bathroom? I see your shoes under the door. I’ll be right out.”

Now, in retrospect, she claims to have acted from love. It’s a parent’s duty, she argues, to be on top of what her children are doing.

“You didn’t know when I took your car for a joy ride,” Jesse teases.

“I stole so many of your cigarettes,” Lee laughs.

“I’m still shooting up,” I add, scratching my arm.

“You using that good shit I sold you?” Frank asks.

We know better. She had never heard the phrase “tough love” when she started prying in our things. She was just nosey by nature. Her sons were generally good at hiding the evidence. But sometimes we slipped.

I remember waking from a nap one afternoon during my senior year of high school to discover Mom in my room, reading a torrid mash note from a girlfriend of mine. I had fucked this girl, but good, and she was begging for more in very explicit terms.

Mom knew this girl was black. She was shocked.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

She crumbled the note. “You . . . you can do much better,” she managed, before leaving the room.

“You should leave that note. Mom? Mom! That’s my note!”

My diploma was still warm in my hands when I moved out of the house.

(And if you think I’m a rake now, you should’ve visited my bachelor pad at age eighteen.)

No surprise, then, that I never felt the compulsion to come out to my family about my bisexuality. That was mine and none of their beeswax. It’s an open secret, nothing more.

I had told my future wife that I was bisexual when we began to get serious—that was her beeswax, after all—but throughout our relationship, she never knew my ATM or email passwords.

It wasn’t as though I had secrets to protect; we shared a bank account and I was generally content with fidelity. I just needed some measure of privacy. If she wanted to know about private matters, I preferred that she ask me, rather than take it onto herself to open my accounts. For fifteen years, that was largely a matter of principle.

It proved prescient when my ex wanted some reason to dump me, and searched everywhere for the presumably hidden weapons of mass destruction that would support her foregone conclusion that war was justified.

It may seem odd that a blogger should feel so strongly about privacy. I mean, no one has forced me to detail my life so intimately as I do. And yet I do so with a great concern for being as honest and direct as possible.

Because while I value privacy, I also value honesty. These things should not be contradictory.

I enjoy living a life that is open and welcoming. I treasure the people who appreciate that openness without prying and tugging for more than I offer. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I can trust them enough to open still further.

Pity those who just can’t resist the temptation to rummage through my medicine cabinet or dig for gossip juicier than that I so willingly offer. They risk finding themselves tossed unceremoniously to the curb.

Prying eyes followed me through adolescence, and through my marriage.

Hopefully, I am free of that now.

On this trip home, I took care to dump the cache when reading news or email on the family computer. I used a secure laptop to write or check blogs, using every password protection I knew.

I’m all grown up, and still worried about Mom digging in my business. Because, sad to say, she still does. I long ago developed strategies to create privacy in a den of spies.

When the sex dreams got too bizarre and I needed a moment alone, I reverted to the tried and true refuge of my adolescence and marriage.

Me and Rosie Palms in my fortress of solitude.

“Mom? Dad? I’m in the shower if anyone needs me.”

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That night, after my talk with the teenagers, the sex dreams took a turn for the incestuous.

Following our afternoon on the boat, Lynn’s boyfriend had broken up with her via telephone. Lynn made a tearful call to break this news to her mother, my brother Jesse’s ex wife Teri.

This got me to thinking about Teri. I realized I had not seen in her in a couple of years.

My subconscious took hold of that realization. I would see Teri that very night.

In appearance, Lynn and her brother are perfect amalgams of their parents’ combined traits. Both parents are attractive, blonde, blue-eyed, with glowing smiles.

Their children share that description, but for one additional factor. In marrying Teri, Jesse had added several inches to the gene pool. She is around six feet tall, as are the kids. My brother Jesse, at five foot seven or so, is dwarfed by his ex and their children—an amusing detail in any family photograph.

My brother and his wife broke up a decade ago when she decided that she was a lesbian.

This came as a great surprise. At the time, Jesse and Teri had two young children and a new house.

My brother was distraught. Are you sure? he asked. Can’t we work something out? Maybe you can be a lesbian without divorcing me? Shouldn’t we stay together for the kids?

What else could he say? Divorce and homosexuality are equally alien in our family. All we know is that families stay together, no matter what.

It wasn’t possible, Teri said. She was already in love with someone else—a woman.

My parents were equally distraught. I might even venture that my mother’s distress surpassed even that of her son Jesse, arguably the person more affected by Teri’s decision.

To their great credit, though, my parents made it clear to Teri that that they loved her no matter what. Divorce or no divorce, she was still their daughter. She was still family.

(This by contrast to Teri’s own parents, self-styled sophisticates who told Teri to clear out her childhood bedroom in their home, as they no longer had a daughter.)

Mom called me with the news. I was stunned and felt terrible for Jesse and the kids, not to mention my mother, who could barely talk about it without crying. I hated what this was doing to my family.

But, I said, if this is what Teri wants, then that is the way it is.

How can you say that? my mother asked. They have children! What about their responsibilities to them?

I know, I replied, but what is the alternative? If she’s gay, she’s gay. She can’t stay married and pretend otherwise. I’m sure they will continue to meet their obligations in a new family arrangement.

Besides, I went on to say, it was very brave of Teri to come forward with this revelation. Coming out is very difficult, particularly given her family’s reaction. I felt compelled to support that. In fact, I was happy for her.

Mom hung up on me. Perhaps I had gone too far.

Teri’s girlfriend left her not long after the divorce was finalized. Teri told Jesse she had made a terrible mistake and asked him to take her back.

It’s too late, he said. He was already engaged to someone else.

Since then, Teri has dated a string of men. None has quite stuck.

Naturally, this family history has been much in mind since the end of my marriage. Mine was the second divorce in my family, and my marriage was also ended at the wife’s behest.

“She’s going to regret this,” Mom says of my ex, “Just like Teri did.”

“Maybe so,” I say. “And if so, just as in that case, it will be too late.”

Mom nods. “Good. You can do better.”

The conversation with my niece and nephew must have brought those thoughts home. Thoughts of Teri brought her into my dreams.

I suppose that if I were going to have sex dreams with a family member, it was commendable that my subconscious had the decency to switch dials from my niece and nephew to their mother.

In the dream, I was giving Teri a tour of a house my parents had recently purchased. It was large, ancient and utterly devoid of furniture. “Kind of drafty,” Teri said, shivering.

“If you are cold, I can show you a little secret to this house,” I said. “But you have to keep it between us.”

“Oh, I’m curious,” she smiled. “Show me.”

“You promise to keep it secret?”

“I do.”

I bit my lip. “Okay then, follow me.” I led her into the butler’s pantry and opened a closet door. “This way,” I said, reaching for her hand.

We descended a dark staircase, entering a sauna. “Hey, that’s a nice surprise,” she said.

“Isn’t it? I love a sauna.”

I opened the door and led her into the steam. When my vision adjusted, I could see that the sauna was full of nude men. Some were touching one another. All noticed us standing there, fully clothed.

“Oh!” Teri exclaimed, her hand rising to her mouth.

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “This must be men’s day. Come on, let’s go this way.”

I led Teri into a room with plastic mats on the floor. I recognized it as a swinger club.

I only vaguely recollect the rest of the dream. It had to do with me fending off advances from entreating couples as I led Teri in search of the staircase upstairs.

I awoke and lay in bed, wondering at the occasional transparence of dreams.

Teri, so far as I know, is the only other member of my birth family to have any experience with bisexuality. Yet our experiences are so different that there is no reason for me to expect that she would understand my current life better than any other family member.

That following evening, we took Lynn back to her mother’s house. Teri came out to say hello to me and my kids. I stepped out of the car to hug her neck.

“Well, you look great,” she said, pulling me close. “You’re getting some sun.”

“Why thank you, I feel pretty. And you look as lovely as ever!”

“No, no, I’m fat! Look at me”

“Nonsense, you are wasting away, you scrawny thing,”” I said. “You need to get some meat on those bones. Now come over here and say hey to the kids.”

It felt familiar to indulge in this exchange, so common among reuniting Southerners.

Teri leaned into the car and cooed at each of my children in turn. Lynn reminded the kids that this was her mother. Teri reached around the car seats to hug my Mom and Dad.

“My goodness,” she said, standing to face me. “Your babies are so big! I feel so old.”

“Tell me,” I replied, my arm on Lynn’s shoulder. “I’ve been hanging out with this one, you know.”

We talked about our growing children for a bit before my kids grew restless. “We should get going to eat,” Mom called.

I kissed Lynn’s cheek and stepped forward to hug Teri goodbye.

“Keep in touch,” she whispered into my ear. “We’re still family, you know.”

I buried my face in her hair and kissed her neck. “Bye, Sis.”

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