1600 12 November 2010
IT WAS Friday, it was early November, it was rainy and cold, and I was thoroughly miserable as I walked across the Georgetown University campus from my tiny office in the history department to M Street, then through the heart of Georgetown to Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington Circle, and finally 23rd Street until I arrived at the Foggy Bottom-GWU Metro Station. I wished for the hundredth time that I’d elected to drive to work that morning, and a poem by Thomas Hood began running through my brain:
No sun—no moon!
No morn—no noon!
No dawn—no dusk—no proper time of day—
…. No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member—
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds!—
When I was in the station, safely underground and out of the weather, I inserted my fare card in the slot in the turnstile and, when it popped back out, made my way to the appropriate platform, and waited patiently for the next outbound Orange Line train, which at that time of the day was a very short wait. Once I was on my train, I settled down, and by the time it stopped at the Virginia Square-GMU station in suburban Arlington, my gloomy demeanor had somewhat brightened. That change in mood was short-lived, however, and went into an immediate downward spiral once I emerged from the station and contemplated the weather—it had gotten progressively worse during my subway ride.
As was typical for that time of day and that kind of weather, a number of taxis were queuing up outside the station, so I decided to splurge rather than walk a few blocks in the rain. The eager cab driver became considerably less so when I gave him my address, and he managed to make it clear that a trip of only a few blocks was hardly worth his time and trouble. I gave him a taste of what my students referred to as “the look”—and it proved to be as successful in intimidating him as it was with my students in the fifteen years I’d been teaching, and he ceased his muttering. When the taxi stopped in front of our house, I dashed up the walk, onto the porch, and out of the rain.
As I opened the storm door to unlock the front door, I sensed motion at my feet and looked down. What appeared to be a FedEx overnight envelope was lying at my feet—it had evidently been propped against the front door. I picked up the envelope, tucked it under my arm, inserted my key, and used it to enter the house.
Inside the house, the silence was deafening, except for the beeping of the alarm, which I quickly shut off. The boys had started their first year of college as roommates at The Citadel in September, and even after two months, it still felt odd to come home to a house that wasn’t filled with the noise of two teenagers and their friends.
In the master bedroom, I quickly spread my damp suit on the bed to dry and pulled on a set of warm-ups. Grabbing my briefcase and the FedEx envelope, I headed downstairs to the basement, after a quick detour to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of wine.
The house occupied a lot that sloped quickly down from street level and ended at the edge of a rather deep ravine. This meant that the basement, as well as the two-car garage underneath the house, was at ground level at the rear of the house. I went into what was ostensibly a storage room and walked over to the built-in shelves along one wall, where I pressed a hidden button. A section of the shelves swung out on silent hinges, revealing an armored door protected by an electronic keypad. I unlocked the door, stepped onto the landing beyond, and pulled it shut behind me, knowing that when I did so, the section of shelves would automatically swing back into place.
At the bottom of a short flight of steps was our private study, which we called the safe room, because it was totally secure from prying eyes and ears. My partner and I needed that level of safety because he worked with high-level security matters at the Pentagon and often brought paperwork home with him. In addition, I had a clandestine secondary career as an analyst for one of the so-called “alphabet” agencies that dealt with security matters. No, it’s neither the CIA, the FBI, nor any of the other agencies with which you might be familiar. The group for whom I work part-time is so secret that only a half-dozen people in DC are even aware of its existence.
I settled down at my desk, set my briefcase on the floor, and took a sip of wine. Then I finally examined the FedEx envelope. Curiously, it wasn’t addressed to either Randy or me but merely contained the street address. I opened it cautiously, upended it, and a single eight-by-ten photograph slid out onto my desk. The glossy black-and-white print was a rather grainy enlargement showing two men standing in a stream, apparently facing each other. They were obviously enjoying the act of splashing water in each other’s direction and were totally naked. They were also partially tumescent.
I sat for a long while, mesmerized by the photo, and I was so overwhelmed by the memories it invoked that I couldn’t focus on anything else. Instead, I found myself carried back to that summer, which was forever etched in my brain under the heading “the summer before it happened.”
Blue Ridge Mountains, VA
RANDY and I had been best friends ever since chance had made us freshman roommates at The Citadel. We met our future wives during our junior year and had a double wedding immediately after we graduated. I went on to spend several years in graduate school, obtaining first a master’s and then a pair of doctorates, one in Russian history and the other in Eastern European history, while Randy began a career with the military.
That particular summer, we took our wives on our annual camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains—for once, our sons had been left with their respective grandparents for a couple of weeks instead of accompanying us on the trip as they usually did. It was a fun time, and the four of us took advantage of the fact that our campsite was extremely isolated. I don’t remember who was the first to suggest we go skinny-dipping, but we eventually did so several times.
That camping trip was remembered as “the summer before it happened,” because by Christmas of that year my wife was dead—killed by a drunk driver—and Randy’s wife had left him for another man. I spent what was left of that school year suppressing my own grief and dealing with a thirteen-year-old son who’d just lost the mother he loved. Randy had much the same problem, given that his wife had not only left their thirteen-year-old son behind but had made it quite clear that there was no room for a child in her new life.
1700 12 November 2010
I SNAPPED back to the present when I was hit with an unexpected rush of sadness at the memory of the months that had followed. That was easily one of the worst periods of my life, and I’d survived by dedicating myself to two things—my son and my work. I went to classes and taught, and I spent the rest of my time either with my son or pursuing the research for my next book. However, during the following summer, things took an unexpected turn.
Blue Ridge Mountains, VA
AS SOON as school was out that year, we took the boys camping, which was something they loved to do. We pitched a pair of two-man tents in the same remote area where we’d all been so happy in the past. Randy and I even managed to goad the boys into skinny-dipping with us—they were nervous and uncertain at first but eventually got into the spirit of things and splashed around in the little natural pool with us nearly every day.
On the last night of the trip we were all a little sad, knowing that we had to leave the next morning and return to the real world. The boys retired to their tent a little early, and so did we. The weather had turned unseasonably warm, so we were lying naked on top of our sleeping bags in order to alleviate the effect the heat was having on us—we’d briefly discussed moving the sleeping bags outside the tent, but the ever-present mosquitoes had made doing that impossible. I drifted off to sleep very quickly but woke up some time later to find Randy clutching me, his face buried in my chest. He was sobbing quietly, and at first, I didn’t know what to do or say.
Finally, I put my arms around him and said, “What’s the matter? Still missing Mary Jane?”
“Are you kidding?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said.
“Of course you can,” I said. “After all these years, there isn’t anything you can’t tell me, you ought to know that.”
“I’m afraid you’ll hate me.”
“I doubt it.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you,” he said, “but first, hold me for a minute or two.”
We shifted positions until we were lying belly to belly, arms wrapped around each other. He began to move a bit in my arms; then he sighed and said, “Oh, God, I knew it would feel like this.”
“Knew what would?”
“Holding you like this. Being held. It feels good, doesn’t it?” he said.
“Now that you mention it,” I said, “it does. A little weird, but good.”
“I love you, Ian,” Randy said.
“That’s hardly news,” I said. “I love you too.”
“No, Ian,” he said. “That’s not quite what I meant. I love you in the way that most men love women.”
“You’re just hard up for affection.”
“Please don’t make fun of me,” he said. “I’m serious. I love you. I think I’ve always loved you, but I simply never figured it out before.”
Before I could speak, his lips found mine, and for some strange reason, I didn’t resist. When we finally broke apart, gasping for air, he said, “Can’t you feel it? I’m aroused, and I think you are too.”
I felt his hand groping between our bodies, and he continued, “You feel it too, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess I do—in more ways than one.”
We spent the rest of that night on a voyage of discovery, and I was grateful that the noisy stream was loud enough to mask the sounds coming from our tent. In the early hours of the morning, when we were finally exhausted, I found my voice and said, “You know what, Randy?”
“What?” he said.
“I’ve always felt, deep down inside, that there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was, though, I just knew, at some level, that it was missing.”
“But not anymore, right?” he said.
“Yeah, not anymore. God, how could we have been so blind?”
“Ditto that,” he said.
Shortly before dawn, we put our practical minds to work and came up with a plan for the future, a portion of which we divulged to the boys during the trip home. We stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s on I-81 near Winchester, and when we were settled at our table eating our food, I looked at the boys and said, “May I have your attention for a minute?”
“Sure, Dad,” Sean said.
“What’s up, Uncle Ian?” Paul said.
“I guess it’s no surprise to you guys that Randy and I have both been having a hard time adjusting to going from a two-income household to a one-income household this year,” I said.
“No, Sir,” they chorused.
“So,” Randy said, “we’ve come up with a solution.”
“What?” Paul said.
“You and I are going to move in with Ian and Sean,” Randy said.
“Cool,” Paul said.
“Does that mean that Paul and I will have to share a room?” Sean said.
“Yes, it does,” I said. “Does that matter?”
“Nope,” he said. “We’re always sleeping over.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “I can’t even remember the last time that Sean and I slept alone in our own rooms.”
“One more question,” Sean said.
“What?” I said.
“Are we gonna turn the den back into a bedroom so Uncle Randy can have it?”
“There’s no need for that,” I said. “The king-size bed in the master bedroom will be more than adequate. It’s been a few years, but Randy and I are used to sharing quarters.”
“Are you gonna sell the house, Dad?” Paul asked his father.
“I don’t think so,” Randy said. “It’ll bring in enough rent to pay the mortgage, insurance, and taxes, with a bit left over, so I’ll keep it as an investment.”
“There will be one added bonus,” I said.
“What’s that?” Sean said.
“As you know, your mother had a life-insurance policy,” I said, “and I’m going to take some of the proceeds and have a pool built in the side yard.”
“Is the yard big enough?” Sean said.
“Yes, it is,” I said. “Remember, I own the vacant lot next door, so all we have to do is dig up the hedge and move it to the far side of that lot.”
“When?” Paul said.
“As soon as your father and I can round up three or four bids,” I said.
“Will it be ready before summer is over?” Sean said.
“I don’t see why not,” I said.
And so it began. Within a week, Randy and Paul were settled into their new quarters, and we’d signed a contract with a pool company. As it happened, I’d been working for the agency for about eighteen months at that point, and when I told my contact about the pool, he set a few things in motion. Because the lot sloped so rapidly downward, a great deal of excavation and leveling was necessary. Shortly after the excavation for the pool was finished, but before any forms had been constructed or cement poured, I made an excuse to put the project on hold for a while, and a tent was erected over the site, complete with canvas walls that touched the ground. During that time, workmen came in every day, and by the time the pool contractor was allowed to continue, the safe room under the basement was in place, and all traces of its construction were gone. The pool people never even noticed that their work had been disturbed.