"What are you talking about?" CJ stopped walking and stared at Chipper in disbelief.
"I'm talking about the fact you and Owen will end up together. I seen the way you smile whenever we talk about him and you don't think anyone's paying attention. It's gonna happen. Even if it's a long time comin'."
"Dude, really? You too? Why can't people accept I don't want a boyfriend?"
"But I do accept you don't want a boyfriend right now. And I ain't pushing. Just telling you what I see. You can take your time, but I think Owen's gonna be part of our lives for a long time to come."
"Whatever, man. You and I are too young to get tied down. I wanna fuck around some more before I get hitched. Look at my dads. I think one reason they're still together and not screwing around behind each other's backs is they got it out of their system before they met."
"Yeah, I know." Chipper cast his sight downwards, staring at his shoes as they slowed down their pace. "I wish my dad had gotten it out of his system by the time he met Doc. I fucking love Matt and wish they'd stayed together."
"Sorry. I didn't mean anything by that." CJ felt horrible stirring up his friend's emotions; he snaked an arm around Chipper's shoulders and gave him a squeeze.
"I know. Don't worry. I'm still pissed at him for cheating, but I'll deal with it. But I swear I'll never do what he did. The day I get married, that's it. No sneaking around behind anyone's back."
• • •
"I guess Tuesday's pizza night everywhere." Chipper picked up the slice in front of him, folding it in half lengthwise, before sticking the narrower edge in his mouth.
"Sorry, Chipper. My fault." Brett ran his fingernail along the bottom of the pizza box, scraping off pieces of melted cheese. "I was responsible for dinner tonight, but ended up getting caught up in what I was doing. My asshole cousin, a hundred times removed, got me all pissed off. He actually had the guts to threaten us with lawsuits unless we found a place for him in our business or the foundation."
"What's he looking for, Papa?"
César had kept mostly quiet up until that point. "Money. As far as we know, that side of the family squandered their inheritance. We think he's looking for a piece of what Brett's father and grandfather left him."
"Are you guys going to give it to him?" asked Chipper.
"Fuck no! It's going to cost us money in legal fees and it'll be a pain in the ass." Brett scraped more cheese off the cardboard and licked the hardened mess from his fingers. "But by the time we get done with him, he'll wish he'd never known I existed."
"I can fuck him up for you if you want, Papa."
"Gee, thanks, CJ. Maybe we'll stick to the courts for now. Okay? Anyway, we might have to wait a couple of weeks to implement our plans until this mess gets cleared up."
"You mean you won't need us like CJ told me?" asked a confused looking Chipper.
"Nope, not what I meant. I do need you guys. I want you three to come up with plans for a scholarship program for high school students. We can work on the framework and start implementing it when the lawsuits are settled."
"The foundation will pay you a small stipend for the work we're asking you to do," explained César after Brett had given him a nod and a smile. CJ figured they had planned out what each one of them would discuss. "I'm not sure how much CJ elaborated, but we're going to concentrate on military, educational, and gay issues. Anything else you guys think we should support, give us a presentation and we'll go from there."
"The environment!" Chipper finished swallowing the large mouthful he had spoken through, making the other men laugh. "My friends and I did a bunch of things last year to get tickets for the free concert Global Citizen put on. Some of them are easy and we can do them here too. I plan to drag CJ to my old school when we're in New York. We'll talk to my buds and get some more ideas."
"Works for me," said CJ.
"You kids figure out what you want to do"―Brett used a slice of pizza as a pointer while looking at the boys―"write up a one page summary, and then we can all talk again."
"You mean like a proposal, Papa?"
"That's exactly what we want, CJ. Hey, you boys want to split a beer?" Brett finished the one he had in his hand and turned to César with a pleading expression.
"None for them. They need to finish their homework and then I'll drive Chipper home."
"I can walk, Uncle César."
"Nah, I'll take you. Anyway, CJ, last year you told us one of the things you did during your internship at Senator Rubio's office was read over one-page summaries. That's kinda what we'd like you guys to give us."
The crutches leaned against the dining room table and papers surrounded Brett's laptop as he furiously typed away. The marine looked up from the screen as CJ walked in the front door. The boy noticed his father's face relax and a smile form on his lips. Whatever he had been engrossed in obviously forgotten.
"Dude! How was school?"
The boy slipped his backpack off his shoulder, dropped it on the floor by the staircase and walked over to his father. "Okay," he said before leaning down to kiss Brett's cheek. "What are you doing?"
"Dealing with stupid relatives. I've been trading e-mails with our attorney concerning our options." Brett chuckled as he reached for the mug resting on the table. "Greedy son of a bitch's probably salivating at the prospect of a drawn out fight in court. He'd love to rack up the billing hours."
"I thought you and Dad liked your lawyer."
"We do. But he's still a lawyer. You know, a lower class of human?"
"You're bad, Papa. So what are you all doing with this guy that's threatening to sue you?"
"Right now, accumulating dirt on my long-lost cousin. His claims are so preposterous, our attorney thinks he can get any lawsuit he files dismissed. We'll try to hurt him financially too by asking the courts to have our legal fees and expenses reimbursed. His claims are frivolous enough."
"Good. And if you need me to beat him up, I'd be happy to fly out to California." CJ's joking made them both giggle.
"That's alright, we'll save you just in case we need you. Sometimes, the courts are the best way to deal with idiots. Even when you want to beat the shit out of them. We're hoping if we hammer him hard enough, he won't be able to try anything again for a long time."
"Do you need to call your dads?" asked Chipper, unlocking the front door to Doc's condo.
"Nah, I texted Papa already. I can just do my work here and then we can hang out. Dad will pick him up and bring him over whenever we're supposed to have dinner. Why's Dash so hot about cooking for all of us?"
"Not really sure. He said it was to thank your dads and you for looking after me the other night so he and Doc could have dinner. As if I needed a babysitter." The way Chipper rolled his eyes, CJ had to chuckle. "I think he's just trying to get in good with the in-laws."
"Us? Oh, wait. You mean because he and Doc are getting serious?"
"Got it in one! One of the reasons Doc wants to go to New York is so he can see Sean. I'm pretty sure he'll be ending whatever it is those two have going on. Dash's over here a couple of nights a week these days."
"Well, I'll be staying friends with Sean no matter what. He's a good guy."
"I'm actually looking forward to meeting him. Your dads always say nice things about him too."
• • •
"What are you doing?" asked CJ, watching Dasan score an X with a sharp knife on the bottom of each tomato before dropping them in a pot of boiling water.
"I want to peel them beforse slicing them," replied the man, lifting each crimson beauty with a slotted spoon into a bowl full of water and ice. "The boiling water softens the outer layer and the icy bath stops them from cooking. You can see the skin starting to curl where I made my cut. Once they're cool, it'll be easy to strip it back."
Dasan had arrived while Chipper and CJ were busy finishing their homework. He carried two canvas bags full of groceries with him and headed directly to the kitchen once inside the apartment. The boys mostly ignored him while he rattled around the cabinets, pulling out several pots, utensils, and spices. CJ kept glancing at him out of the corner of his eye and eventually stood up and joined the man in the kitchen.
"That's different. I just wash `em and slice `em."
"This is best for when you cook them. It avoids the stringy stuff you sometimes find in sauces. But my mom always did it this way even when they were going into a salad or anything else."
Both guys looked up when Chipper loudly slammed a book shut. "Done," exclaimed the boy. "Hey, CJ, want to go to my room and play some Madden?"
"Hang on. I wanna see what he's making first."
"Nothing special, CJ. Chicken fried steak, sliced tomatoes, grits, and biscuits." Dash fished the last of the tomatoes out of the boiling water, turned off the stove, and emptied the pot in the sink.
"That sounds real Southern to me," said Chipper. "Are you trying to butter up Uncle Matt?"
"Maybe," replied Dasan with a coy smile. "You know I'm from Oklahoma, it's not as Deep South as Alabama, but close enough."
"Where in Oklahoma, Dash?" asked CJ. "Is your family still there?"
"I was born in Tulsa. Dad's full Cherokee and his side of the family lives in the state. Mom's from Kansas. I have relatives in Wichita. She met my father while she was in college and stayed in Oklahoma after graduation."
"Are they still in Tulsa?" asked CJ. "You know something? I really don't know much about you."
"Not much to find out, my friend. You know it was my thirty-third birthday this week. I was born in Tulsa, graduated from high school there and from Tulsa Community College. I've been HIV positive since I was nineteen, and have been in the Washington area for almost ten years. Oh, and Mom and Dad are both alive, living in Tulsa, and working at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. It's owned by the Cherokee Nation."
CJ hesitated for a moment. "Ummm, do you mind talking about HIV?"
"Not at all," he replied, looking up at both boys, giving them his full attention. "You have questions, you ask them. I'll try to answer anything as honestly as possible."
"It seems weird to know someone young who's infected. I've always thought of guys with AIDS as being older. I know you can't tell if someone's positive by how they look, but still... Do you know how you got it?"
"I was young and foolish. I thought I was in love, and I forgot all the safer sex lessons after three months of dating a guy in school. It had to be him. Before and after I was always careful. You do know being HIV positive and having AIDS are not the same thing, right?"
"I know there's a difference between the two. I've heard that before," said Chipper. "But not sure what it is."
"AIDS is diagnosed when an HIV positive person suffers one of several opportunistic infections. Those are the type that take the opportunity to attack the body when the immune system's not working properly. Something like a year after breaking up with that guy, I ended up in the hospital. I had toxoplasmosis―google it if you want to know what it is―and that's when I found out I was infected."
"Did you go after the guy who made you sick?" CJ's question led to vigorous nodding by Chipper.
"Why, CJ? As much as he was a fucktard for not telling me, the final fault rests with me. I knew what needed to be done, but I ignored everything I'd learned. We're so damn quick to blame others for whatever happens, we avoid owning our shit. Taking personal responsibility for our actions is something we, as a nation, seem to forget too often. Going after him, as you put it, might have provided me some small satisfaction, but in the end it wouldn't have accomplished much."
"Yeah, I guess." CJ wasn't entirely convinced. He knew fists weren't always the answer, but still.
"So, are you like, okay now?" asked Chipper.
"Ha! Depends on how you describe okay. I recovered from the toxo but went into a bad depression. Spent some time partying, running away really, but eventually came to my senses. I take meds every day and for now my viral load―the amount of HIV in my blood―is so low it's undetectable. I'm still HIV positive and will most likely remain so for the rest of my life. I still have AIDS, the classification doesn't go away. But I'm alive, I take care of myself, and I feel good. I plan on sticking around for a long time."
"Alive's good," said CJ, sighing. He stared into Dasan's eyes momentarily before glancing down at his hands clasped on top of the counter. "Trust me, when Papa crashed all I kept thinking about was him surviving. The guy who picked me up at school must have thought I was a little kid, I was crying so much. Even forgot to turn on my phone to call Dad. I thought of all those veterans we see with artificial arms or legs. And I thought of Papa ending up like that. And what kept running through my head was it didn't matter. All I wanted was my father to not leave me. I was lucky. I still got him around."
School Without Walls High School occupied two adjacent structures on G Street, within the urban campus of The George Washington University. One was the old brick-clad Ulysses S. Grant School, and the other one a modern facility constructed at the same time the Grant building was gutted and renovated. The glass façade of the addition sat a few feet back from the original edifice and had a low, short wall in front with the school name on it. Around this sign, students congregated before and after classes, and during lunch break.
CJ sat on the wall, his feet dangling, talking to his friends and waving now and then to acquaintances who called out to him or one of the other students surrounding the sign.
"Well, I'm glad that's over," said Autumn, throwing her head back to shake the hair off her face. "I can't believe we have the next ten days off."
"Yeah," added José-María. "Tomorrow CJ and I will be in New York at this time."
"And I'll be joining you guys on Sunday." Chipper, sitting next to CJ, looked at the Venezuelan diplomat's son. "Are you sure you can't stay longer than you're planning?"
"No, I tried to convince my parents, but since my cousin will be in meetings all day on Monday and Tuesday, they want me back at home."
"That's funny," said CJ, smirking. "The rents won't let you visit New York alone, but my dads are willing to let me go by myself. And you're older than me!"
"Yeah, bruh, but it's different," interrupted Harley. "You're staying in your own place, in a safe building, and Chipper will be there the next morning. You won't really be alone."
"Whatever...," replied CJ. "Are you working the whole week like Thiago is?"
"I hope so. Danno told me to be at his place by ten each morning. He said we'd work for a couple of hours, have lunch, and then work at least two more hours in the afternoon. I don't even know how much he's gonna pay me. But I get to eat for free every day. And I get to play with―"
CJ felt another Harley monologue coming and decided to interrupt. "Does he know you'd prolly do it for free?"
"Or that the amount of food you'll be eating could bankrupt him?" Chipper bumped fists with CJ and both stared at their friend who momentarily stopped the back and forth rolling of his skateboard.
"You guys are mean to poor Harley," said Autumn, leaning in and placing a soft kiss on the boy's cheek.
"Oh, that's rich coming from the woman who's often shouting, `Just shut up, Harley'." Thiago moved quickly to avoid the slap Autumn aimed at his head. "You're telling us we're mean to him?"
CJ stepped out of his Dad's Caddy onto the sidewalk in front of Washington's Union Station and zipped up his hoodie. The weather in both Washington and New York was forecast to be warm, but the early morning air had not yet shed the overnight chill. He glanced at the majestic white granite building and smiled. After his first visit to the transportation and shopping venue the previous fall, he'd come back on his own and spent half a day exploring the building. Over a hundred years old, he'd learned the station was the second busiest in Amtrak's network and had been extensively refurbished in the late 1980s after Congress had declared it a National Treasure.
"Thanks, Dad," he said, after opening the back door and reaching in to snatch up his suitcase and backpack. He was taking a lot more clothes than he would need―including the quilted vest he'd worn almost daily during winter―intending on leaving most of them behind. His fathers wanted all three of them to have enough items in New York in case of a quick trip in the future.
"Where's José-María meeting you?" asked César.
"In front of Starbucks." CJ adjusted the backpack on his shoulders and grasped the handle of the black leather bag he'd borrowed from his parents.
"Okay. Be safe, have fun, and call us once you get to the City."
"Bye, Dad. Tell Papa I'll bring back the bagels he asked for." CJ slammed the door closed. He was ready for the new adventure to begin.
• • •
"CJ!" José-María's shout made CJ turn in his direction. As planned, his friend was waiting in front of the coffee shop, one hand held up in greeting, the other one holding one of the chain's distinctive white and green coffee containers.
"Morning, Jose, you ready to do this?" asked CJ, extending his arm to bump fists with his traveling companion. Both guys were smiling, their eyes shining with excitement.
"Yeah. I'm really glad you could come up. It'll be fun. Do you want to get something to eat or drink?"
"Nah, I'm good. I had some breakfast at home, and plenty of coffee. Plus I have a bottle of water in my backpack. I'm saving myself for lunch. There's this bagel place near the apartment that makes the best whitefish salad and I'm looking forward to getting a bagel piled high with it."
"Sounds like you have the day planned out."
"Not really. But we have to eat. After we get to New York, ride a cab from the station, and dump our stuff at the apartment, it'll be lunch time."
• • •
José-María insisted on paying for the taxi ride from Penn Station to the Upper East Side. CJ had learned his lesson about allowing others to cover some joint expenses with Owen while in Australia. The Aussie's admonitions came to mind, and after offering to put the cab fare on his credit card, he didn't harp on it.
He stepped out of the old Checker, marveling at the size of the behemoth, and lifted the trunk hatch to retrieve their luggage. Waiting for his friend to join him, the boy stood on the sidewalk under the dark green awning covering the entrance to the building. With José-María following, he walked towards the door being held open by a young man wearing the building's distinctive doorman uniform: dark gray pants and jacket over a white shirt and striped tie, a peaked cap on his head.
"Hi, I'm CJ Abelló. My dads own apartment number―"
"Of course you are," said the doorman, smiling to reveal a row of perfectly white teeth. "We've been expecting you. Dr. Calhoun let us know you were arriving this morning. And my dad told me about you and your fathers. I think you met him last year before he retired?"
"Yeah, Theo. I remember. He told us he would be gone by the end of the year and his son was taking over his position. I guess you're it."
"Yes, sir. I'm Ajax. Ajax Karalis. It's good to meet you, Mr. Abelló."
CJ checked the man out, trying not to be too obvious about it. He was an inch shorter than himself, with short brown hair and a full beard a shade darker. He seemed to be in good shape, although his clothes made it hard to picture what his body looked like. His most striking feature, however, were his eyes. A brown so light they were almost amber. CJ lowered his gaze when he realized he was staring. "I'm CJ, Ajax. Sir and or Mr. Abelló is my father."
"Okay, CJ," replied the man, chuckling slightly. "I'll remember."
"I'm being rude. This is my friend José-María. We go to school together in Washington."
"Welcome to New York," said Ajax. "Will you be spending the week with us?"
"Thank you. And no, I'm not," replied José-María.
"We're gonna drop off our stuff and then bum around all afternoon," said CJ, rummaging through his backpack. "His cousin's coming over tonight and we're all going out to dinner. Ah, here's my key. Okay, Ajax, good meeting you. We'll see you in a little bit."
• • •
"It looks so cool," commented José-María, looking up at the round structure in front of them. "Have you been here before?"
"Nope," replied CJ. "I'm not even that interested in the exhibits, it's the building itself I want to explore. It's one of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpieces."
"Who is he and how come you know about it?" When CJ suggested they walk up Fifth Avenue and spend some time at the Guggenheim, he'd readily agreed, admitting to never having visited a New York City museum before. On the way, the guys decided to stop at one of the vendors at the edge of Central Park and each had a couple of hot dogs and a soda for lunch. The bagel sandwich could wait until the next day as far as CJ was concerned. There was something special about eating a cart hot dog while standing and watching people walk by.
"Wright was one of the original starchitects. He had a large following and became famous for his distinctive structures―both houses, and public buildings like this one. My cousin's studying to be an architect. I've always liked architecture, and we talk about this kind of stuff all the time. When I was in Chicago last year, he and his boyfriend took me to see the house this guy lived in."
"So do you want to study the same thing?"
"I don't know, Jose. I'm not sure what I want to study. But architecture's one of the things I enjoy. Just not sure I can make a good enough living doing it."
"But you don't have to worry about that, right? I mean, your dads have money..."
As usual, CJ felt uncomfortable when his fathers' wealth came up. Over the past year he'd become used to not worrying too much about spending money, but he still felt funny when others talked about it, and usually tried to change the subject as quickly as possible. "I don't want to depend on their money forever. I plan to make my own and support myself. Come on, let's go in."
"Wow!" exclaimed José-María as soon as they had stepped inside. "This is so different." He was staring at the ramp circling the inside of the building, climbing towards the oculus and skylight above.
"I know, right? This is even better than all the pictures I've seen. And the descriptions definitely don't do it justice. Do you know critics trashed the design when it was first unveiled? Same shit that's happening right now with the subway station at the World Trade Center site designed by one of the modern starchitects."
"That's the second time you use that word, CJ. What do you mean by starchitect?"
"Sorry. That's one of those made-up words used to describe famous architects. They're like the movie stars of architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the original ones. A bunch of his buildings, like this one, have been declared National Historic Landmarks."
"Have you been to a lot of them?"
"Just his house in Chicago and now this one. But I've read some on him. Which reminds me, we need to hit the gift shop on way out."
"Let me guess: you want a t-shirt." José-María fingered CJ's shirt and smiled.
"Of course I want a t-shirt. But I also want to buy a couple of other things. Back around the time we were born, the museum hosted an exhibit where they had motorcycles all over the place. There's a book about it I want and I hope to pick one up on the building itself."
The interest CJ showed for the structure did not carry over to the art on display as he had predicted. None of it caused much of a stir within him. After exploring the ramp exhibits, he was ready to go. Carrying a plastic bag full with his purchases, he led his friend back into the New York afternoon and suggested they walk through Central Park. He also wanted to stop at the market before returning to the apartment to pick up some basic stuff. They had time to waste until they were supposed to meet José-María's cousin for dinner.
• • •
The doorman had called to let them know their guest was on the way up and CJ stood in the hallway, holding the door open with his foot, while he waited for the visitor to exit the elevator. Bernardo was a couple of inches shorter than CJ, about the same height as his cousin. His brown hair was cut short and his chocolate eyes seemed to dance as he stared the kid up and down when they greeted each other at the apartment's entrance.
"Hola, Bernardo. Yo soy CJ."
"Un placer. Hablas español como un gringo." The older guy snickered when he accused CJ of sounding like an American while speaking Spanish. "But we talk in English, okay? I need practice."
"Fine with me," said CJ, standing aside so Bernardo could enter the apartment. "And I don't sound like a gringo. Do I?"
"A little, CJ," replied José-María while hugging his cousin. "But your accent is cute. Plus, you use Cuban words and expressions all the time which are different from how we say stuff in Venezuela."
"Ummm, I never thought about it. I mean, I don't speak Spanish as much as I used to in Miami, but back there nobody mentioned I sounded funny."
"Not funny. It's cute, like my primo said. I bet your friends back in Miami sound the same so they wouldn't notice." Bernardo glanced around the place and then walked towards the balcony sliding glass doors to peek outside. "And with your big blue eyes and white skin, most people wouldn't think you're Latino anyway. This is a nice place."
"Thanks. It's only my second time here, but I like it. Hey," said CJ, looking at José-María, "you want to have a drink before we go eat? You and I won't be able to get served at the restaurant."
"Great idea!" replied Bernardo before his cousin could say a word. "We can have a couple of drinks now and then we can come back and have a couple more afterwards. When we come get Jose's luggage."
"I wanna wash my face and comb my hair." CJ walked towards the cabinet he'd raided during his previous visit, opened it up to reveal liquor bottles and drinking glasses, and then pointed towards the kitchen. "You can get ice and shit from the refrigerator. Can you fix me a rum and coke? Not too much rum, please."
• • •
While Bernardo lifted bottles out to examine their labels, José-María took three glasses and walked towards the kitchen. "I'll get ice and a bottle of coke. I'll have the same thing CJ wants. What about you?"
"Yeah, that's good. But what I really want is your friend. You were right about him. He's a cute one. Nice culo on him. It's gonna be fun when you and I fuck him tonight."
"I don't think so, Primo. CJ's told me before he's not interested in anything else but being friends."
Bernardo put down the bottle in his hands, reached inside his sport coat, and retrieved a small plastic bag with a couple of white pills. Looking around furtively, he shook it in front of his cousin. "Trust me. When we return from dinner, I'll get him to relax. By the time I'm done with him, he'll be open to party. Hell, he'll be open all night."
CJ Abello 2016
Edited by Mann Ramblings
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