CJ did his homework before the event. Proper preparation was something he learned while working on the Clinton 2016 presidential campaign and became standard operating procedure for him. While researching in advance of the reception, he learned Thompson's Boat Center had served as the home of Georgetown Crew for near fifty years. Located at the intersection of Rock Creek Parkway and Virginia Avenue on the Potomac River in Georgetown, Thompson's was a public facility owned by the National Park Service.
Standing inside the door, he removed his gloves, stuffed them in his leather jacket’s pocket, and handed it to the girl working coat check. Glancing around the room, he waved at the school’s athletic director. Nearly a year after Patrick Ewing—the men’s basketball coach at Georgetown—gave him an unpaid position with the team, the college sophomore had become a fixture in the athletic department. Although his position was on the books as a tutor for student-athletes, he was more often than not involved in recruiting and fundraising.
“What up, bro?” Paul held up a fist for CJ to bump.
“Not much, Parker. And when I say not much, I mean not much. That twenty-minute walk from my house in this cold weather shrunk everything.”
Paul Parker threw his head back; brown, shoulder-length curls bounced as the senior rower and lacrosse player laughed. Although CJ’s duties in the athletic department were centered on the basketball team, he spent time with athletes from different sports. He tutored some, interacted with others during events such as this, and a few like Paul became friends. It was not unusual for jocks to pepper any group gathering in the basement of the Prospect Street townhouse.
“Dude, I can relate.” Paul’s green eyes sparkled as he threw an arm around CJ’s shoulders. “They have warm cider and I have a flask. If you want some of the high-test stuff we can go in the bathroom and I’ll fill you up.”
CJ’s laughter attracted attention and he was glad the financial supporters invited to the Rowing Winter Cocktail Reception were not expected for another half-hour or so. “Paul, did you just offer to take a gay man into the bathroom and fill him up?”
“Fuck!” The look of surprise was priceless. “That was innocent and you know it. Goddammit, Abelló. Why is it you twist anything I say into sexual innuendos?”
“’Cause you’re hot and single.”
“Yeah, well. I’m still not gay and you’re still married. Where’s Ozzie tonight?”
“We ain’t married. Yet. He’s home studying. Said he’s had his fill of snotty parties for the month.”
“Snotty? I’ll kick his ass next time I see him.” Paul’s comment reminded CJ of the charmed life he led. Even amongst a bunch of jocks, he did not have to hide his sexuality. “Anyway, you’ll be married soon enough. Unless you’re getting cold feet.”
“Nope. Wedding’s still on for June. You’re coming, right?”
“Yeah, you shit. I had to rearrange my trip’s schedule but I’ll be there. I’m flying out to Athens the following Monday. The rents suggested I leave on Sunday but I figured we’d all be plastered and recovering. What with Ozzie’s folks providing wine and there being an open bar.” Paul’s family owned an electronics manufacturing business in Rhode Island. They were well-off and had promised their son a six-week trip to Europe as a graduation present.
Being clinical about their relationship, CJ knew they would remain friends after graduation and both would become part of their own old-boys-network—those friendships and affiliations that could be mutually beneficial at points in the future.
They were still chuckling when Carson approached holding a steaming mug. “What’s so funny?”
“Paul just offered to help warm me by taking me in the bathroom and filling me up. I was wondering if he’d switched sides.” CJ’s comment earned him a shove from Paul.
Carson was always an outgoing man but influenced by the Squad’s antics, he had become even more assertive and playful. “Yeah well, I’ve seen both of you naked and you have nothing to worry about, CJ. They don’t call him Tiny in the locker room for nothing.”
“Fuck you, Carson. Next time we’re out on the drink, you’re going in. You know, speaking of locker rooms reminds me of something. How come you haven’t tried out for rowing, CJ? Hell, how come you haven’t gone out for any sports?”
It was a question CJ had been asked a few times. At one point, he considered trying out for crew since his old acquaintances Avery and Spike had been rowers and so was Carson. “Priorities. Freshman year I got involved in Clinton’s campaign. If she’d won, I knew I was in line to become a White House intern. When she lost, I decided I’d rather spend my time with Ozzie and the family. You have no idea how stressful those months were. Since then, responsibilities have piled one on top of another. I do play on a couple of intramurals teams.”
“I can’t believe we’re dealing with a priest for the second time in less than a month.” CJ held the house door open for Owen as the blonde shook his head and grinned.
“That’s okay, heathen. I promise you won’t get struck by lightning.”
“Fuck you, Oz.”
They walked the half-block to their destination and waited outside The Tombs until Owen waved at Chance Highbottom after the priest rounded the corner. “Hi, Father Chance. Thank you for agreeing to meet with us.”
“Great to see you again, Owen. And no way was I going to pass up the opportunity to meet the famous CJ.” The smile on the man-of-the-cloth made CJ relax somewhat. “It’s good to put a face to the name I’ve heard so often.”
“You can’t believe everything you hear, Father. I’m not half as bad as people make me out to be.” CJ shook hands with the priest and motioned towards the stairs leading down to the restaurant. “Shall we?”
The three men sat and placed their orders before the conversation came around to the matter bringing them together. “So, what can I do for you guys? I was somewhat surprised Owen called and invited me to meet with you.”
“Ummm, not sure if you’re aware, but Ozzie and I are getting married in June.” CJ felt uncomfortable but tamped down his dislike for clerics. At least this one went straight to the point and did not bother sprinkling his speech with pieties.
“I did hear of it. Congratulations.”
“Well, I’ll be honest with you, Father―”
“How ’bout we start with you calling me Chance. We’re not so far apart in age.”
CJ chuckled and placed his hand over Owen’s. “Careful there, you may be close in age to Ozzie but he’s six years older than I am.”
“Am not! It’s five years and change.”
“Whatever… Anyway, Chance, you have to understand I don’t believe in an all-powerful god and I have a healthy dislike for all religions. That said, we’d like you to perform the ceremony for us.”
The thirty-something, chestnut-haired man leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. There was a twinkle in his blue eyes as he spoke. “Okay, let me get this straight: you’re an atheist but you’re asking me to grant God’s blessing on your marriage. Why is that, CJ?”
“Because it’s what Ozzie wants.”
“That’s it? You just told me you doubt God’s existence but are willing to set that aside because of…I’m guessing Ozzie’s Owen’s nickname?”
“In a nutshell. And yeah, a friend of mine called him Oh Zee after they met and it stuck. Comes from his first and middle names. Owen and Zachary.”
“When’s this wedding? And would you want to have the ceremony at my church?” The enigmatic expression on Chance’s face when he retrieved his phone from a pocket was hard for CJ to decipher.
“June twenty-third and no. We’ll be having the ceremony outdoors and the reception in a hotel.” CJ’s head was a jumble of conflicting emotions. He might dislike priests and ministers on principle but this man messed with his prejudices. Chance went straight to the point, asked sensible questions, and spared them the diatribe on commitment and fidelity CJ expected when he agreed to the meeting.
Chance tapped away at his phone before glancing up at his table companions. “Okay, it’s on my calendar. You’ll have to let me know time and place and we’ll need to discuss vows. But you’re good otherwise.”
“Thank you! Thank you, so, so much, Chance.” Owen pumped the man’s hand with vigor.
CJ thought having a priest marry them a small price to pay if it made his man happy. He let out a long breath and smiled. “Definitely! We can talk details whenever you want. Thank you! I was scared you wouldn’t agree to do it.”
“Because of your lack of faith?” CJ nodded, still exhilarated what he thought would be difficult turned out to be so simple. “Would you like to know why I agreed so fast?”
“I would. You have no idea how much CJ fretted over asking you. Even more so after I told him he had to do the asking himself.” Owen’s comment made Chance chuckle and CJ lower his head.
“It’s very simple, CJ. I may have just met you but I’ve known about you for a few years. Thiago spoke of you in glowing terms after you two connected. He raved about the unknown student who reached out after he became emotional while recalling his brother’s death during a school meeting. Then last year you sent Patrick to me even though you’re not a believer. I know Thiago was the one who put the young Mr. Kennedy in contact with me. However, they made it clear it was you who orchestrated the meeting. During my conversations with both, I heard how you intervened to help Patrick’s brother through a rough spot with alcohol. Of you battling bullying in and out of school. And about your generosity with time and money on behalf of friends and strangers alike.
“Today, you confirmed the impression I created of you. You’re willing to subject yourself to a religious ceremony―which is anathema to your personal beliefs―because it’s important to the man you love. I wish more of my parishioners were like you. I’ll take a bunch of non-believers like you any day over most so-called Christians who say the right words. Please don’t be offended but I think you’re one of the most Christian people I’ve ever met. You may not talk the talk, but you walk the walk. What you do out of love for friends and family is what Jesus Christ asked us all to do. Unfortunately, most of us fail. Without realizing it, you’ve answered his call. By treating others the way you do, you’re living the way he tried to teach us how to behave.
“It will be an honor and my pleasure to officiate at your wedding.”
“Can’t we record this and watch it tomorrow?” Ritchie’s whining led to eye rolling and groaning from the crowd in the Prospect Street townhouse gathered to watch the opening ceremonies for the 2018 Winter Olympic in PyeongChang, South Korea. “I mean, like this is being shown on a delayed basis anyway. The HEAT game’s live.”
Brett threw a cushion at the fifteen-year-old. “Shut the fuck up, Ritchie. You wanna watch the basketball game? There’s plenty other TVs in the house.”
“But I don’t want to watch alone…” Ritchie’s grumbling was a result of the previous day’s Miami HEAT’s trade for Dwayne Wade. The team’s most prolific player in a multitude of categories was returning to the franchise after a year and a half absence.
“Dude, you keep this up I’m gonna ground you just on principle. Stay or go, I don’t care. But I don’t want to hear any more complaining.”
“Fine! But I’m watching the game after this crap’s over. So don’t yell at me when I stay up late and want to sleep in tomorrow.”
The group was a mixture of Elite and Squad members reinforced by a couple of Hoya athletes CJ was friendly with. “Bro, if you wait until tomorrow morning, I’ll watch with you after I get back from the gym. I wanna see the reaction in the arena when Wade’s announced. The place’s gonna be rocking.”
Fueled by beer and wine, the conversation was spirited. With temperatures hovering around the freezing point, some of the men opted for hot cocoa fortified with brandy even though inside it was comfortable. “I’m going upstairs to the kitchen during the next commercial break.” César had instigated the spiked chocolate movement when he returned from enjoying an after-dinner cigar outside with the neighbors. “I need to fix another batch.”
“Bloody hell, that’s a hot man!” Owen pointed at the flag carrier on the screen soon after the parade of nations began. “We should visit his country sometime soon, babe. Maybe we can convince a few hunky Norwegians to move to the U.S.”
“That’s it! Wedding’s off.” CJ snuggled next to Owen and pecked at his cheek. “My boyfriend wants a hunky athlete instead of me. Just remember, Oz, there’s a bunch of hot Scandinavian skiers out there. If you want a Norwegian, I may have to go hunting for a blonde Finn or Swede.”
“You’re so full of shit your green eyes are turning brown. Anybody else want more wine? I’m opening another bottle.” Owen stood for a moment but returned to his seat when the American delegation entered the stadium. The cameras captured the flag bearer entering with the large contingent from the United States behind her.
“There’s Gus! There’s Gus!” CJ’s excitement at seeing Gus Kenworthy march in with the U.S. team was met with derision from his younger brother.
“Gag me! You’re such a fangirl.” Ritchie ducked as CJ slung another cushion in his direction.
“Damn you’re being a pain in the ass tonight. You’re just jealous Ozzie and I are friends with an Olympic medal winner.”
“You’re talking about Gus Kenworthy, right? The gay guy?” Paul Parker was not as close to them as the other guys so he often asked for clarification when anyone dropped names. “How do you know him? I mean, you keep telling me you don’t know every gay man around but I’m starting to have my doubts.”
Brett interrupted the snickering. “Oh, shit! You shouldn’t have done that, dude. Now we’re gonna have to listen to CJ brag about all the famous people he knows.”
“Screw you, Papa. You can leave the room if you want. Go watch basketball with Ritchie. Both of you are being a pain.” Ritchie aimed one of the cushions thrown at him at his brother. “Ouch! Anyway, Paul, Ozzie and I met Gus at a party on Fire Island last summer.”
Owen placed a hand over CJ’s mouth. “You should have been there, mate. We were staying with friends from New York City and one of them was talking about CJ’s involvement in the Clinton campaign the previous year. Kenworthy overheard him and started talking to us. The following day we ran into each other at the beach and spent most of the day together. My boyfriend was his charming self and by the end of the weekend, he and Gus were talking like old friends.”
CJ’s eyes smiled as Owen ran a finger over his lips before removing his hand and allowing his fiancé to speak again. “He’s a hell of a nice guy, Paul. I don’t know if you remember, but he won the silver medal in men's freestyle skiing at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The Americans won all three medals, which was dope.
“I was impressed with him for his skiing and for adopting those stray dogs.” The fame earned by the Colorado skier for his aerial prowess was almost eclipsed when he became involved in saving five stray dogs. After the Games ended, Kenworthy stayed in Russia for over a month while he fought to bring the four puppies and their mother to the United States. “Then he came out, got inked, and posed naked for the ESPN Body Issue. I crushed on him big time.
“If you ever meet him, you’ll forget the medal and forget the dogs. Gus’ just a nice guy. And his shampoo commercial gives me goosebumps every time I see it. It’s kinda cool to hear him talk about his shoulders carrying his community’s pride while holding a rainbow flag.” CJ’s evil grin should have warned Ritchie his brother was about to pounce. “Bro, since you’re being a dick and you’re not impressed, Ozzie and I will make sure to keep him away from you if he shows up at our wedding.”
They watched the Miami HEAT game the following morning. As CJ predicted, when Dwayne Wade’s name was announced before he entered the game, the crowd erupted in thunderous acclaim. The prodigal player was home.
The drive to Wyoming, Delaware took two hours and most of it Carson spent talking about his home state. When CJ and Owen invited him on the excursion, he jumped at the opportunity for a quick visit home. They would meet his parents later in the day; Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer invited the four young men to have dinner with them.
César and Brett were in New York for the weekend so Ritchie was in the care of his older brother and along for the ride. “Hey, I know where we’re going but you didn’t say why we’re headed there. How do you know this guy?”
“Never met him, bro.” CJ glanced at his brother in the rearview mirror for a moment. “We’re just going to check out his operation. I’ve traded messages with Peter and he’s been hounding me to come for a visit.”
“How did the two of you connect?” Ritchie leaned forward in the back seat. Although the Jeep had the hard top on and the windows up, the noise was still loud enough to make conversation difficult as they rocketed east on US-50.
“You remember the Cal rugby player who got injured last year? They started a GoFundMe page to help with his medical bills. Papa gave them a big donation and I went online and did the same. Just a lot smaller. While on the site, I came across a campaign for Heroes’ Haven. I liked what they were doing and sent them a contribution. I also shared the link on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. They sent me the usual thank you e-mail and about a week later, they sent a second one.
“Turns out a bunch of my followers started making contributions in my name. Peter wrote to thank me and invite me to tour the campground if I was ever in the area. I guess the amount of money was significant enough ’cause he wrote again two weeks later. When he found out I lived in Washington, he insisted I come for a visit.”
Owen turned around for a moment to look at Ritchie and smirked. “You saw how all those followers reacted to his post about Abo dying? CJ’s fan club’s ready to react whenever he asks them anything. He already has the Squad, now he’s raising an army.”
CJ slowed after turning into the long driveway and came to a stop in the small parking lot. He guessed the man with the confused expression staring at them as they stepped out of Defiant was their host. “Peter? Good to meet you, sir. I’m CJ.”
“Yeah, I’m Peter. Sorry for staring. I had no idea you were so young. I expected someone in their forties, like me.”
“Well, that’s new and different.” Owen grinned and extended his hand. “Owen Liston. People seem to think CJ’s older than he is all the time. I was being sarcastic.”
He was introduced to Carson and Ritchie and once he shook their hands Peter appeared to regain his composure. “Heck, who cares how old you are. What you’ve done for us is what’s important. Although at some point I want to hear how someone your age has so many people willing to give us money.”
“He doesn’t like to talk about himself too much, Peter. But I’ll be happy to tell you all about it later.” Carson’s comment earned him a discreet middle finger from CJ. “How did you end up here?”
“Let me give you a tour while we talk. We’ll go inside and warm up afterward. Then we can discuss why I wanted CJ to come visit.
“I was a member of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard from 1993 to 1997. Then spent five years as a police officer in Maryland. In 2013, I started a church near here and the next year I had a phone call about this place being up for sale. A crazy idea popped into my head. It would require a lot of money and hard work, but it had the potential to help countless people. The person who approached me thought I’d be interested in building a worship center. I had no desire to build an enormous church with steeples and all that. I’d rather go pay someone’s mortgage.”
“I like the way you think.” CJ could not believe he was once again interacting with a religious leader. Three times in mere weeks was more than he had done in an entire year.
“Don’t know if you guys are aware, but over twenty vets commit suicide every day. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that eleven to twenty percent of soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I thought I could help and came up with an idea while watching the TV show, Tiny House Nation.” What if we could build a community of tiny homes for homeless veterans suffering from PTSD—and provide everything for free?”
The visitors from Washington paid attention to the older man while looking at a large barn sporting a fresh coat of reddish brown paint with bright white trim.
“My PTSD came from serving in the police department. Up until a year ago, I couldn’t even say what I struggled with out loud. I never realized how much I needed this too. Building this community and helping fellow vets has been my therapy.
“Thanks to all the donations we’ve received, we hired a registered nurse who’s moved onsite to live and work with residents full-time. We purchased a few horses and put them through equine therapy certification training. Heroes’ Haven also hosts a wide variety of community events throughout the week—from kids’ day camps to Sunday picnics by the lake. It gives residents a chance to interact with the real world in a familiar environment.”
“This is remarkable, Peter.” CJ liked what he was hearing. “What’s the end game?”
“The idea’s to help homeless vets get back on their feet and contribute to society again.” Peter waved at a woman who approached them with a baby in her arms and a dog running around her. “Come on. Let me introduce you guys to my family. Anyway, CJ, I’m trying to make sure no man’s left behind because of his service. I want to fulfill the promise the military made to us when we signed up.”
The frigid mid-February temperature had everyone stomping their feet in search of warmth whenever they stopped for more than a moment. The hot cocoa Peter offered them once they stepped inside came as a welcome treat. “Impressive, Peter. I appreciate what you and your people are doing. A lot. I’ll continue to support the organization and I’ll share some of the pictures I took today online. Let’s hope it gets you a few more dollars.”
“Thanks, CJ. It’ll mean a lot to me. And to those we’re trying to help. Maybe next visit you can stay longer? I have no doubt the residents would enjoy meeting you and your friends.”
“I’d like that! And in the meantime, if there’s anything else I can do…” CJ watched as the corners of Peter’s mouth ticked up.
“Actually, there is one more thing. How would you feel about taking a seat on our board of directors?”
Over the following week, the weather in the Washington, D.C. area deteriorated; temperatures plummeted and snow returned to the nation’s capital for a couple of days before turning into a bone-chilling rain on Saturday afternoon. It was too miserable to wait on the sidewalk, so CJ suggested they meet inside Rogo’s. He and Owen had invited James Rupple―CJ’s English teacher at Walls and a member of the CBC Foundation Scholarship Committee―to dinner. The invitation included Mr. Rupple’s husband, Yousef Mandana.
“Ozzie! CJ!” Tanix Janda waved at his friends from behind the bar.
“Sup, Tank?” CJ scrambled atop a stool and bumped fists with the big bodybuilder. “Have you lost weight? You look slimmer.”
Owen sat next to CJ and repeated the fist bump. “What’s up?”
Tank glanced at his body and ran a hand over the skin-tight shirt, which showed every ridge in the muscles of his mid-section. “There’s a competition coming up next weekend. I’ve been working on cutting up. The abs are almost there but the diet remains strict right up to the show. Then it’s back to pizza and beer. What can I get you guys?”
“Umm, nothing. We’re meeting―oh, there they are.” CJ was watching the front door and stood when he saw their dinner companions walk inside. “We’ll come hang out with you after we eat.”
The two couples exchanged greetings and CJ guided them all towards the one table in the joint with a reserved placard on it―benefits of knowing the owner and manager. They placed their drink and food orders and caught up with their lives. After the pleasantries, Yousef steered the conversation towards the meeting’s topic.
Placing his phone in the center of the table, he opened up the photo gallery. “I dressed up mannequins with the outfits we discussed in the e-mails and took pictures of them.”
“That’s what CJ and I would be wearing?” Owen smiled at the image. “I like it, mate.”
“Cool! Me too. Ritchie and Spencer next?” CJ also smiled as he nodded in slow motion.
Yousef swiped the screen. “Here’s the one for the two best men.” He paused for a moment before shifting the image again. “And here’s the one for the other groomsmen. You guys need to decide who gets what color.”
“And the two little kids are all in white, right?” CJ’s smile grew as he saw each image. His hand crept towards Owen’s and gave it a squeeze. “I’m in, Oz. I think we’ll look sick!”
Yousef leaned back in his chair looking satisfied. “Okay, who lives where? We need to figure out fittings. You two and CJ’s brother are here in Washington. Where’s everyone else?”
Owen spoke first. “Carson, Patrick, Tank, and Thiago are in DC too, so they’re easy. Tank’s the guy behind the bar right now.”
“Chipper’s in Miami. I know there’s a Neiman’s in Coral Gables.” CJ had to think for a moment to make sure he recalled the location of the proper rapid transit station. “It’s a Metro ride away from campus so he can go there to get fitted.”
“Slow down.” Yousef had taken a pen and small notebook out of his pocket and scribbled on it. “Okay, that’s eight of you.”
“Ethan’s in New York and Harley’s in Orlando. I have no bloody idea if you have stores in those places. I know for a fact you don’t back in Australia so my brother will be a problem.”
“There are Neiman Marcus stores in both the Orlando and New York City areas. Those two are covered and we’ll deal with your brother at the end. Next?”
“Actually, that does it. As far as the kids go, Ozzie and I still have to figure out if we want them in the wedding. We’ll decide in the next few days.”
“That leaves my brother in Australia and Brad in Afghanistan. Or who knows where.”
“Damn! Australia won’t be a big issue. Afghanistan may be a problem. I know you grew up on a farm. Is your brother there or in a big city? He should go into a tuxedo rental place somewhere. They’ll measure him and he can send those to us. I assume he’ll be in town a day or two before the ceremony?”
“He’ll fly in with Mum and Dad but I don’t have a date yet. I’m sure we’ll have them in town for a few days ahead of the craziness.”
“Good. When you tell him what to do, don’t forget we need hat and shoe size too. Now, Mr. Afghanistan. What’s his body like?”
CJ shrugged, unsure how to reply. “I don’t know. Average, I guess? He’s close to my height. Maybe a little leaner than me?”
“Any idea what day he’ll get in?”
“Nope. Working on it. He already requested leave and I’m trying to pull strings to help.”
“If worse comes to worst, I can take care of him the morning of the wedding. For now, get me his sizes. Check with him and make sure they’re current. His body may have changed since you saw him last.”
James Rupple remained quiet through the entire conversation. He now raised his glass and offered a toast. “I enjoyed watching you guys work this out, CJ. I’ve been to quite a few weddings of former students but I’ve never looked forward to one so much. I see Thiago now and then, but it’ll be good to see the rest of you. I’m also looking forward to meeting the remainder of the Liston family. Here’s a toast. To the two of you. To a celebration of love. And to a great future together.”