I thought it appropriate to post this chapter early. Hope you don't mind...
CJ, Owen, and Ritchie returned to Washington on the first day of 2017 to an empty house. César and Brett had flown to England and spent New Year’s Eve in London with their old friend Rashid Khan and his partner. When planning the trips, the fathers insisted their sons arrive home in time for Ritchie to have a full day settling in before going back to school. The older couple flew home a day after the others did.
CJ spent subsequent days relaxing, waiting for the new semester at Georgetown University to start. Harley Wilkinson was still in town and the two went out riding―Harley borrowed his father’s motorcycle since his was in Orlando―although the temperatures were in the forties and the two felt like mummies wrapped in so many layers.
On Martin Luther King Holiday, CJ drove his dad’s new Cadillac for the first time. The lease had expired on the old one and César replaced it with a new version the weekend after returning from England. With room for up to eight and tons of bling, the Escalade was a throwback to Detroit’s gas-guzzler days. A 420-horse power V-8 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission did not make the steel behemoth an environmentally friendly vehicle.
Ritchie refused to go to the party so it was CJ, Owen, César, and Brett in the car when they stopped to pick up Dr. Matthew Calhoun and Dasan Turner. “Love the new car smell.” Matt ran a hand over the leather seat as he climbed into the vehicle. “Wow, this one’s got even more room back here than the previous one.”
“It’s definitely longer. I’m gonna have to get used to that.” CJ tapped the rearview mirror. “Check this out, it turns from a mirror to a screen for the camera in back. It’ll make parallel parking easier.”
“I still hate it.” Owen’s grunt and long face earned him a tap to the back of the head from Brett.
“Oh, shut the fuck up, Ozzie. You better take that stick out of your ass. You’re being a dick. We know it’s not an eco-friendly car. We need the room for the family. And for when César has to take out clients. What the fuck else you want from us? We already promised to donate money to a tree planting effort to offset the carbon footprint. So lay off!”
CJ tried not to laugh at how plainly his father spoke. “I think Ozzie would have preferred you getting a Tesla.”
• • •
“Come on, buddy. Wave at your grandparents.” Chatri held the phone with one hand while waving the other one at his son. It was Gamon’s first birthday party and the proud father was broadcasting live on Facebook for the benefit of family back in Washington State.
“Right, like he’s going to pay attention to you when there’s a chocolate cake in front on him.” CJ stood next to the birthday boy’s father and made faces at him. “Hey, Gamon, should we take the phone away from your dad so we can get on with the singing, candle blowing, and eating?”
The kid gurgled, muttered “dada,” and tried to wiggle out of his mother’s grasp while reaching for CJ—the beard fascinated the toddler.
“Oh, great!” Helen shook her head while laughing. “I hope the ‘dada’ was a reaction to you mentioning his father, CJ. Otherwise we’re in trouble.”
“I don’t know, Helen. I think your son likes my son better than he likes his own father. César and I would be happy to take him off your hands.” Brett’s comment earned him a hard stare from Chatri.
“Watch it, Captain. If you’re jonesing so bad for a grandson, have CJ make one for you.”
“I think he’s been trying. But it looks like Ozzie might be barren.”
“Bloody hell! Go ahead, Brett. Blame me. Blame the Aussie. Maybe it’s not me, you know? Maybe your son shoots blanks?”
“Thaaat’s enough.” César looked around at the small gathering―they knew everyone except for a couple of Chatri’s friends from the hospital who were laughing at his family’s antics. “You’ll have to forgive my husband, my son, and his boyfriend. They’re not used to being out in public in polite company.”
Eventually, the guests belted out Happy Birthday. The parents blew out the single candle, cut the cake, and passed slices around. Owen followed close behind when CJ went to sit next to Dr. Prescott Harding―Matt’s business partner―and the doctor’s boyfriend, Gray Young. “Gentlemen, we wanted to talk to the two of you. We haven’t seen each other in ages.”
“Who you calling a gentleman? No need to insult us, you know?” A smirking Gray bumped fists with the younger couple while Prescott shook hands with them. “What’s up, CJ? How was Australia, Ozzie?”
“Mate, the trip was brilliant. I got to spend time with my entire family at the winery and then we were in Sydney with my brother and sister for New Year’s Eve. I have to say, the best part was showing Ritchie around. He’s like his brother in some ways but more of a daredevil. You should have seen him surfing!”
“And since Ozzie brought up my brother”―CJ looked at Prescott―“that’s who I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Anything wrong with him?” Dr. Prescott Harding asked the question in a professional tone but CJ noticed a small tick upwards by an eyebrow. It made him smile knowing Pres and Matt were more than the family physicians; they were family friends.
“Nah, nothing wrong with him. That I know of. Since he and I didn’t do our physicals at the same time last summer, I’m not sure what you and Matt talked to him about. Did you cover sex and HIV with him?”
The stare Dr. Harding gave him was intimidating. “Really, CJ? You want me to discuss a patient’s information with you? Why are you asking me? Didn’t you ride here with Matt? You could’ve asked him.”
“He ain’t a patient, Pres. He’s my little brother! The reason I’m asking you is you are the infectious disease specialist. You’ve been the one to discuss that type of stuff with me since I moved to Washington.”
“Okay, I can understand the last part. How old’s your brother? Thirteen? Fourteen? Not only is he a patient, which means I have to keep his information confidential, he’s a minor! I’ll discuss medical issues with his parents. That’s not you, buddy. It’s your dads.”
“You’re being a pain, you know that? The dads would say it’s okay to talk to me about Ritchie.”
“Fine, go get them.” Prescott’s smile led CJ to believe the medical man was now playing with him. “Get César and Brett to tell me it’s okay to discuss their son’s medical details with you. And in front of Owen and Gray too. Hell, let’s discuss your personal info as well while we’re at it.”
Acknowledging he was defeated, CJ sighed and shook his head but his smile did not falter. “Whatever! You’re such a pain. I can’t wait ’til Chatri finishes his residency. I’m gonna be sooo glad when he starts working for real and I can deal with a doctor who listens to me. I’ll talk to the dads, but I think Ritchie needs a serious conversation about safer sex. Ozzie and I have talked to him, but I think he’ll pay more attention if it comes from you or Matt.”
“And why would he need such a talk?”
“Because the kid’s hormonal, mate.” Ozzie was well aware why CJ was having this conversation; it was a subject the two had already discussed. “Actually, he’s just a horny bugger. There was an incident back at the beginning of last summer we never told the dads about. Ritchie stole a joint the night of CJ’s graduation party, disappeared with a girl, and when they surfaced, there were reddish eyes and reddish lipstick smears on both.”
“Then there’s the trip to Australia.” CJ’s smile grew remembering his brother’s antics. “He behaved most of the time because Ozzie’s sister was with us. But whenever she wasn’t around, Ritchie kept pointing out girls and women he’d love to fuck. His words.”
Prescott looked at the two men talking to him and smirked. “Sounds to me like a typical post-puberty teenager.”
“Yeah, sure. Typical, my ass. Good looking kid with money can easily convince some chick to throw her legs open for him. I don’t want him catching anything. And I sure as hell ain’t ready to deal with a pregnancy!”
“Damn, you sound like a parent. Tell you what: you three stay here. I’m going to have a chat with César and Brett. You did well, CJ. It’s good you’re looking out for your brother.”
As Dr. Harding walked away, CJ turned his attention to Gray. “How’s school going, bud? Ready to take your exams?”
In addition to working for Leo Dallas’ Leatherneck Construction, Gray was attending Northern Virginia Community College, gearing up to take his General Contractor license exam. “I’ll be done in late spring. Keeping my fingers crossed I’ll have the certificate by summer.”
“That’s perfect, mate.” Owen took a quick glance at CJ and received an acknowledging wink. “CJ wants to buy a house and we’d like you to go with us when we go look at properties.”
“Seriously?” Gray looked surprised. “You’re planning to buy a house? Why would you want to move? I mean, you have the perfect set up right now. Anyway, wouldn’t Leo be a better choice? I mean, he works for your father almost full-time these days.”
“One at a time,” CJ replied. “I’m not planning on moving out. The house would be an investment for now. Prolly rent it out. What we're thinking is you being there when we first look. If we see something we’d like to do, you could give us an idea of how easy or hard it might be. We'd get my dads and Leo involved once we found something we liked.”
“Sure, I’d be happy to help. When and where?”
“No idea on either. We asked Dash to keep an eye out for any place he thinks might be good. I’d love to stay in Georgetown. But I’m open to other neighborhoods as long as it’s in Washington. I don’t want anything in the Virginia or Maryland burbs.”
“Kalorama’s a nice area. You could rub elbows with the Obamas and Trump’s daughter and son-in-law since they’re all moving to the neighborhood.”
“No thanks! Between those two, the place will be lousy with Secret Service agents. I don’t want the headaches. And I’ve had enough politics for a while.”
The following Friday―after a short three-day work week―the nation’s capital closed down once again for the inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States. CJ, Owen, Ritchie, and Patrick played basketball in the morning and then joined their fathers to watch the swearing in. At the end of the ceremony, the mood inside the house was as gloomy as it was outside.
Having no interest in watching the parade, the men escaped outdoors in search of fresh air. The dark, overcast skies and the slight drizzle did not prevent them from regrouping outside after using the bathroom and refreshing their drinks. They sat on the side patio, a small blaze in the fire pit, smoking Cohibas from the supply of Cuban-rolled cigars CJ and Owen brought back from Australia.
The conversation revolved around the new President’s dark tone and hideous comments. CJ felt a bit lost. “I have no idea how this will go. I’ve been ready to give him a chance. He won the election and he deserves the respect of the office. But I’m not feeling any warm fuzzies right now.”
Brett was the one to summarize their feelings. “Dude! You’ve heard of people sucking the air out of a room when they speak? This guy sucked the air out of an entire fucking city. Sure, we should give him a chance. However, we all better keep both eyes open. It could get ugly in the next four years.”
A week later, CJ and Thiago left the dojo together and headed to the Georgetown townhouse. Thiago brought clothes to change into after showering; Nadine and Owen were waiting and the four headed out to dinner once they were ready. The couples had made a pact to try and get together at least once a month in the New Year.
“How come you picked George Washington University for your MBA, Ozzie? I would have thought you’d want to go to Georgetown. So you could be around CJ all the time.” Nadine had found out Owen was applying to the Global Master of Business Administration program at the Foggy Bottom institution.
Owen glanced at CJ, a small smile on his lips. “CJ’s the reason I didn’t apply to Georgetown. I want him to enjoy the next four years without having a boyfriend hovering around all the time. We see each other every day already. No need to be around each other twenty-four seven.”
“That’s a healthy approach. So, you graduate this year from law school and you go right back for another degree. Thiago finishes his undergraduate degree―in two years thanks to all the credits he already had from high school―but has four more years until he gets his doctorate. Any of you ever going to get a real job?” Nadine’s teasing tone made the three men around her chuckle.
“Great! My own girlfriend throws me under the bus! For the record, I already have a job waiting for me when I graduate.”
CJ wiped his mouth as he finished chewing. “Walgreens? Did they offer you a job already?”
Thiago looked around the table with an expression CJ could not decipher. “Nah, somebody else. I signed an agreement with the VA. The Department of Veterans Affairs will pay for my school and I’ll go work for them when I graduate.”
“Really?” This was the first CJ heard about Thiago’s plans. “How come? You know the foundation would extend the scholarship you got. You didn’t have to worry about paying for school. Wouldn’t Walgreens offer you more money?”
“They might… But, I think I’d rather make less money and do something more rewarding than dispensing diet pills and painkillers to bored housewives. Working for the VA will give me the chance to do some good helping service men and women.”
CJ was dumbfounded. “Wow! What led to this decision?”
“You.” Thiago did not say another word while staring at CJ.
“Me? What the heck? How did I have anything to do with it?”
“You’ve taught me a few things since I met you, CJ. Amongst them, to love the military for all they do. And that money’s not everything. Sometimes you have to do what feels right and let the chips fall where they may.”
Saturday, a week after being there with Thiago and Nadine, CJ and Owen were back for dinner at the Tombs. Ezra Dawani was in Washington for his annual visit with his boyfriend Levi Olken and insisted on the location, claiming he had loved the typical American pub the previous year. CJ sat with his back to the wall at the table he and Owen were starting to think of as their own―they ate there that often.
“Oh… my… god… Give a girl a break! Too much hotness at one table. So, which one of you's asking me out on a date?” The server was new; she had no idea who CJ and Owen were much less their two friends. The three locals laughed, while Ezra looked embarrassed.
“That may prove to be a little problematic.” Levi scratched his scruffy face and smirked. Mediterranean good looks hinted at his Middle Eastern background. Born in Israel to American parents, the man moved to the United States years before to claim his American citizenship.
“How about you take our drinks order and point us out to the bartender when you give it to him. We’ll talk about that date when you come back.” Being in a playful mood, CJ decided to have some fun with the new girl.
When she returned, her expression was a jumble of embarrassment and surprise. She placed a glass of sparkling water with a lime in front of CJ. “He laughed at me! Told me you’re not old enough to order alcohol and said you’d have to settle for the usual club soda.”
CJ chuckled; the reaction was more or less what he expected. “I figured that’s what he’d say. I know I look older but I’m only nineteen.” CJ nodded in his boyfriend's direction. “Don’t worry. Ozzie and I eat here all the time. You’ll get a chance to get me back. Did he say anything else?”
The woman would not meet their gaze; she stared at the order pad in her hands. “Yeah, that my chances for a date with you or the blond guy are nil to none since you’re a couple. And he figured your two friends are one too.”
When they were done with their meal, CJ invited Ezra and Levi home for a nightcap―he claimed he wanted at least one beer since he had not been able to have any while his companions did. There was another motive for his move; Ritchie was spending the night at a friend’s house but the dads were home. He wanted them to meet Ezra.
“DADS…” CJ’s shout reverberated throughout the house.
“DOWNSTAIRS! STOP SHOUTING!”
Brett’s retort made Owen chuckle. “Come on down to the basement, guys. We have beer and wine down there. Unless you want something stronger?”
Levi rubbed his hands together and looked at Owen with anticipation. “Is the wine from your family? I loved what I had last time I was here.”
In a concession to winter, César and Brett wore t-shirts and sweatpants instead of the typical household attire of boxer shorts. When the four younger men strolled in, the two were standing in front of the couch; a half-full bowl of popcorn rested on the coffee table and whatever movie they were watching was paused.
“Hey, Levi.” César extended his hand towards him. “How was dinner, boys?”
“Good, but we had a rookie server who had no idea who Ozzie and I were. She wanted to know which one of us was going to ask her out on a date.”
“Ha!” Head shaking accompanied Brett’s cackle. “Bet she was disappointed.”
“The bartender set her straight. Pun intended. Dads, this is Ezra. You’ve heard about him before. Ezra, my dads. Brett Davenport and César Abelló.”
When introductions were complete, the men made themselves comfortable. Owen walked towards the game room section of the basement and returned holding aloft a bottle of wine. “Dads, I’m opening a bottle of the new Tempranillo Jack sent us. You guys want some?”
Halfway through the conversation, CJ sprung the idea the four young men concocted over the meal. “So, Dads, these two are engaged. Levi’s going to Israel in July and then Ezra’s coming back with him for good. We were talking over dinner, and since Ozzie’s gonna be busy studying for the bar exam at the same time, I want to go with Levi for a visit.”
It had been a year since CJ’s cousin Randall Abelló and Tyler Scott―his longtime companion―had married in Chicago. Randy and Ty flew to Las Vegas for a week’s vacation to celebrate their first anniversary and invited Rod and Taisha to join them.
Randy’s brother, Rodney, and his fiancé Taisha Kravitz, had moved in together the previous month when the townhouses in front of Brett’s Tacoma neighborhood project were completed. CJ, Owen, Ritchie, and the fathers had pitched in to help Rod move out of the apartment in the old Georgetown Theatre building. They were all now waiting for the young couple to announce a date for their wedding.
“Hey, Dads.” CJ, Owen, Ritchie, and Wingnut were sprawled on the couch watching TV while the two older men played pool. “You both have a text message. The three of us just got the same one.” CJ had muted the sound and the younger guys were all smiling.
“Wanna tell us what it is?” César glanced upwards from the orange felt for a moment. “I have one more ball to sink and then I’ll get the eight. I think I’m going to beat Brett for the first time this year.”
“Keep dreaming, baby!” Brett did a small celebratory dance. “I’m the undisputed champ here.” He lowered his voice to a loud whisper. “Except for Ritchie, of course. Motherfucker hasn’t lost a game yet.”
“There’s a picture attached to the message. You guys may want to look at it.”
César straightened up, placed the cue stick on the table, and stared at his son. “Spit it out, CJ. You’re distracting me. What the hell’s so important?”
“Geez, Dad, a little testy? Fine, if that’s the way you want it… Your nephew Rod and Taisha did more than travel to Vegas to celebrate Randy and Ty’s anniversary. The fuckers eloped! The picture’s them getting married by a fat guy dressed like Elvis!”
César and Brett had already left the house and gone to dinner with Tom and JP. CJ and Owen were invited to join them, but CJ declined telling them he wanted to have a private Valentine Day’s meal with Owen. The Aussie was next door changing while CJ finished getting ready himself. Walking out of his bedroom, he found Ritchie on the couch still engaged in the same aerial combat flight simulator he favored.
CJ called his brother’s name a couple of times; Ritchie wore headphones and apparently did not hear him so he waved a hand in front of the kid. “You gonna be okay being alone for a couple of hours?”
“Of course I am, CJ. I’m almost fifteen, you know?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I keep forgetting you’re all grown up. You want us to bring you back food? We’re staying in the ’hood.”
“Nah, I already ate. I finished the leftover Chinese from Sunday. Have fun with Ozzie. And hurry back. Remember, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on tonight.”
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours. Call me if you need anything.”
Martin’s Tavern was busy but CJ had made arrangements in advance and the booth he asked for was empty and waiting for them. He and Ozzie waved at a few people they knew by sight from the neighborhood, and stopped to say hello to an older couple who lived five or six houses down the street.
CJ’s hands were sweating; he kept rubbing them on his jeans to dry them. His usual resolute attitude had deserted him and he was experiencing a little fear. By the end of the meal, his fidgeting was bothering Owen. “What the heck’s going on with you, CJ? You’re as jumpy as a Mexican bean.”
“Damn! You’re sounding more American by the day. What the hell you know about Mexican beans anyway? Y’all don’t have that kind of shit in Australia.”
“Whatever… Now spill it. What’s on your mind?”
CJ gave Owen a smile and a flirty expression. “You, same as always. But more importantly, what’s going to happen when you graduate.”
“I’m going to spend two months reviewing for the bar exam and then I’ll start school again. You know that.”
“And what happens when you finish your MBA? That’s what I’ve been thinking about.” Owen made to speak but CJ raised a hand to stop him. “No, let me get this out. The way I see it, you want to stay in the US and there are several ways to achieve that goal. One, the Nature Conservancy agrees to do the right thing and files the proper documents to get you a work permit. Two, you take a position with a company that’s willing to do so. It might not be your dream job, but you get to stay.”
Owen’s expression turned sour at the mention of him taking a job in corporate America. “I don’t want to do that. I want to do something that helps protect the environment, not spend my life finding loopholes in laws and regulations.”
“I know that, babe. Three, you can buy a visa if you invest a million dollars in a business or half that on a real estate project in the US.”
“CJ! You know I don’t have that type of money. My family does well by most people standards, but I don’t think they have a million dollars to give me just so I can stay.”
“I know. I’m trying to cover all our options.” CJ had worn his long wool coat over a long-sleeved, plain, black t-shirt and black jeans. Having hung it on one of the hooks next to the booth, he reached in the front pocket and withdrew something he held out of view. He stood, looked at the bartender, and gave him a small nod.
When the initial notes of Snow Patrol’s Just Say Yes replaced the background music at a much louder volume, the hum of conversation died and CJ took two steps to stand next to Owen’s side of the booth. “Or we could try something else.” CJ got down on one knee and opened his hand to reveal a simple gold band.
“I want you to stay, Ozzie. I’ll do whatever it takes. I want you to stay by my side. Forever. Just say yes. Say you’ll marry me. Say you’ll become my husband. Say you’re ready to grow old together. I love you, Ozzie. Please, just say yes.”
You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. The entire restaurant stared at the two young men in The Proposal Booth. The same spot where John F. Kennedy asked Jaqueline Bouvier to marry him almost sixty-five years before. Owen’s sniffle and smile told the story of how he felt. When he leaned forward and planted a sweltering kiss on CJ, the restaurant exploded in applause.
Thank you, Mann Ramblings, Kitt, and Reader 1810 for your hard work.
This story would not be possible without your assistance.