"Happy birthday, to you. Happy birthday, to you..."
CJ came awake to someone gently shaking his shoulder, and soft voices around him singing to him. The tune intruding into his slumber made him smile. He yawned and opened his eyes to find César sitting beside him. Brett was squatting in the aisle to the left of his dad, while Tom and JP peered at him over the back of their seats.
"Happy birthday, dear CJ. Happy birthday, to you!"
"Good morning." CJ vigorously rubbed his face, wiping his eyes with the heel of his hands. "Thank you."
"Happy birthday, buddy." César leaned over and gave his son a kiss on the forehead.
"Yeah, kiddo. Happy birthday," said Tom, reaching over and mussing up the boy's already messy hair.
"Here you go, mate. Happy birthday!" Blake had been standing on the aisle behind Brett, holding a tray he placed in front of CJ. "The champagne's courtesy of the captain, the cupcake your dads brought with them, and the pin's a present from the cabin crew. We all hope you have a great birthday and enjoy visiting our country."
"Thank you! This is great. It's my second birthday party. I like it." CJ rubbed his hands together, looking delighted at the small surprise. "Can I have some, Dad?" he asked taking hold of the wine bottle.
"Sure you can, it's yours," said Brett as he stood and leaned against the armrest of the seat behind him. "But we're not letting you get drunk this early in the morning. Why don't we let Blake open it and pour some for all of us?"
CJ held the champagne out to the flight attendant. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all, mate. That's what I'm here for. Be right back."
"Cool pin. Thank you!" CJ held up the card to which a red triangular stick pin with a golden kangaroo was attached. "My first souvenir from Australia. Where'd you get the cupcake, Dad?"
"Georgetown Cupcakes," replied César, referring to one of the boy's favorite places back home. "Bought it while you guys dropped off your friends yesterday, so it's a day old."
"Red Velvet?" asked CJ.
"Yup," replied César as he ran the tip of his finger through the white frosting before sticking it in his mouth. "Damn! I should have brought enough for all of us."
"I ain't sharing..."
• • •
"Oh wow! This is so cool!" CJ climbed into the driver's seat of the bright blue Colorado 7 his dads had rented. "The steering wheel's on the other side of the car. Is Holden an Australian brand?"
"Get out of the bloody car and see to your bags, CJ. They're not gonna load themselves, you know?" JP was in the process of turning down one of the two seats on the back row of the vehicle. "Holden's an Australian company owned by General Motors."
"Okay, but I get to ride shotgun."
"Forget it, kiddo," said César. "You get to sit in back this time. JP's driving since he knows where we're going. Tommy's the tallest so he needs the leg room up front. Brett and I get the middle row. I want to sit next to my husband."
"Fine. Can't believe you guys are being mean to me on my birthday." The pouting the teen was doing apparently wasn't sufficient to move any of the adults; they all handed JP their luggage so he could stack it inside the SUV.
"Go ahead and climb in, mate." The Aussie waved at the boy after taking his suitcase. "You can keep your backpack with you. We'll be ready to go in a minute."
"How long's the drive to Newcastle, Uncle Pope?"
"A bit over two hours, depending on traffic. We'll stop for lunch along the way. Should be at the hotel sometime between two and three."
"Is the weather there the same as here?" asked CJ removing his hoodie. "It's nice and warm."
"It'll probably hit thirty-six in the arvo."
"The what? And what's that in our degrees?"
"Bloody hell! I've been back for two hours and I already sound like I've never left the country. Somewhere in the mid-nineties Fahrenheit. Arvo means afternoon."
"He, he, he. Your accent's heavier too! Do we go near the water on the way? I want to stop and take a selfie with the ocean behind me so I can post it on Facebook."
"Nah, sorry, mate. We're taking the M1 most of the way. But your hotel's close enough to the beach you can walk there. What's the big deal anyway? It's just water, it'll look the same."
"Duh! I'll know it's different. I've never seen the Pacific Ocean, except from the plane right before we landed. So what's the plan this arvo? I'd love to go for a run, and the beach sounds like a great place to do it."
• • •
"HEY! That was a sign for the Opera House!" CJ's excited shout interrupted the comfortable silence which had permeated the inside of the vehicle for the past few minutes. "Are we going by it? Can we see it from the car?"
"Yes, we are. And yes, you will. We're going through Sydney proper and will be crossing the bay on the Harbour Bridge," explained JP. "It won't be a great view since we'll be on the far side of the bridge, but you'll see it."
"Can we stop to take a picture?"
"From the bridge? I don't think so, CJ. It's an old one and the lanes are narrow. No place to stop, or even slow down," JP shook his head, staring at the teen in the rearview mirror. "You'll see it when we come to Sydney after Christmas. The view of the Opera House is great from the pedestrian walkway on the Bridge. We'll do that and you can take all the pictures you want then."
"Ughhh! I think I fucked up." Brett had been rummaging through his shoulder bag for the past few minutes. "I think I forgot my voltage converter back home."
"Papa, you're such a blonde," snickered CJ. "Don't worry. I brought two. You can borrow one of mine."
César, a grin on his face, glanced over his shoulder at his son. "You brought two?"
"Yeah. I have a phone, a laptop, a tablet, and my electric razor. Figured I might need to plug in more than one thing at a time."
"Damn, César! The boy inherited your anal retentive gene." Tom had turned to look at the other passengers. "No denying he's the fruit of your loins!"
"Doesn't matter anyway, I've got Brett's in my bag. He'd left it on top of the desk when he took his bags downstairs. I was wondering how long it was going to take him to realize it."
"Asshole!" exclaimed Brett mock punching his husband on the arm. "I bet you hid it on purpose just to make me sweat."
"Children! No fighting in the back." JP's comment made the men chuckle.
"Hey, Uncle Tom, would you ever consider living in Australia?"
"Sure would. If JP had to move, I'd follow him anywhere." The big Irishman looked over at his husband smiling. "Australia doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, but they allow same-sex partners of their citizens to apply for permanent residency and citizenship."
"Wow! So, if Uncle JP was transferred you'd move here and―"
"No, he wouldn't," JP momentarily turned his head towards the passenger seat, looking at his partner.
"Of course I would," replied Tom. "Now more than ever. We're married."
"Which means I'm eligible to apply for US citizenship. If it came down to it, CJ, I'd quit my job. Maybe at one point I might have considered returning to Oz. Not anymore. I'd never want Tom to be away from Bradley and Patrick again."
• • •
"Mate, are you sure you don't want to come to my parents' house with us?" The men had stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Mardi, an hour outside Newcastle, before resuming their drive. They'd just arrived at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and were in the process of taking the luggage for CJ and his dads' out of the rental car.
"We're sure," replied César, grasping JP by the arm and giving him a reassuring shake. "Your mom and dad shouldn't have to worry about strangers when you get there. Go spend the rest of the afternoon with them. We'll see you guys later tonight."
"I'm sure they could come pick us up," said Tom. "That way you'd get to keep the car."
"What the hell would we need it for?" Brett asked. "We're going to check in, relax and maybe join the kid for a jog. I could definitely use some stretching and fresh air after an entire day sitting inside planes and cars."
"What time are we meeting for dinner, Uncle Pope?"
"Bloody teenagers and their appetites. I'll call you guys and leave a message if you're out. Sometime between seven and eight? Mum and dad will want to join us. It's your birthday, and we need a slap up meal to celebrate."
"Okay. Whatever slap up means," replied CJ with an impish grin. "Better not be anything about slapping me. I wouldn't want to hurt you while your `rents are watching."
"Asshole!" César aimed a swat at his son's head, but the boy scampered away before the hand could connect. "Get out of here, JP. I bet your parents are pacing, waiting for you guys. We'll see you tonight."
• • •
"G'day, mates," greeted a smiling Tom, walking into the bar accompanied by JP and an older couple. "Did you have a good arvo?"
"Forget it, Potus. Don't even try," replied Brett, laughing and standing. He had been sitting at a small table by the glass wall overlooking the harbor, along with CJ and César. All three had glasses of red wine by them. "That has to be the worst Aussie accent I've ever heard," he added with a grimace.
"Shut up, Jarhead. I'm trying to impress the in-laws." Tom appeared to be in good spirits, the hesitancy and dread he'd previously admitted to about seeing JP's parents not visible.
"Guys, I'd like you to meet my parents, Joe and Kate Smith. Mum, Dad, these are our friends: César Abelló, Captain Brett Davenport, and their son, CJ."
César stood at the same time Brett had, and stepped forward to shake hands with the couple. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it's such a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting us to join your family over Christmas."
"Call us Joe and Kate, please," said JP's father. The middle-aged man standing in front of the American visitors was close to the same height and build as his son, and had a deeply tanned face, framed by dark hair sprinkled with silver strands along the sides. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith sounds too much like the title of an old movie. Although I wouldn't mind it if Kate looked a bit more like Angelina Jolie."
"You're no Brad Pitt, dear," replied his wife. "You might as well get used to the idea. Welcome to Australia, and to Newcastle, gentlemen. And a very happy birthday to you, CJ."
"Thank you, ma'am." The polite response was an automatic reflex; his mind wasn't on the couple he'd just met. The sparkling blue eyes of the tall, blonde man standing behind them had captured his attention the moment they'd walked into the room.
"I hope you don't mind an uninvited guest at your birthday dinner," continued Kate. "This is my nephew, Owen. He surprised us this afternoon and insisted on coming along."
"I had to come see my favorite cousin," the good-looking guy said. He shook hands with Brett and César, but his eyes never moved away from CJ. "Happy birthday, mate."
"Ummm, thanks. I'm glad you came to have dinner with us. You're Spencer's brother, right? You guys look alike."
"Yeah! He's in Thailand right now. Finishing up his gap year travels. Sent me an email telling me to be nice to his favorite poofter."
"Owen!" Kate's exclamation was heard by a couple of patrons who turned around in their chairs, and stared at the group. "How can you say something like that?"
"It wasn't me, Aunt Kate. You know my brother, he's an idiot. Anyway, he and CJ met in Washington over the summer. Spencer said they got on well enough."
"Yeah, we did," said CJ.
"I can see your brother sending that e-mail. He was such a jerk when he first met these guys," interjected Tom. "We were out on the boat, and ready to toss him overboard after the first hour. Dragon was so fed up, he threatened him with CJ beating the crap out of him. Eventually he settled down."
"How about we walk over to Scratchleys?" JP's interruption made his mother suddenly close her mouth. She appeared ready to chastise Owen some more. "We can continue the conversation at the restaurant."
"Who's Dragon? What did my brother do?" Owen still held CJ's hand after grasping it while greeting the boy. "I'm sorry, CJ. The wanker's all muscle and no brains."
"It wasn't a big deal." CJ slowly retrieved his hand and waved it in dismissal. "A little misunderstanding."
"You're killing me with all these details, mate." The sarcastic comment made CJ grin, and the warm smile on Owen's face made him tingle; he liked the Aussie's sense of humor. The two of them followed the rest of the group, walking a few steps behind them along the riverfront while CJ recounted the weekend aboard the PP, when he had first met Spencer. "So, could you have really beat him up?"
"Yes, he could have," said JP, jumping into their conversation while holding the door to the restaurant open for his parents.
Scrathley's on the Wharf occupied a glass enclosed building with magnificent views of the Hunter River and Newcastle Harbor. In the rapidly fading light of day, the seafood restaurant glowed, the inside bathed in light from ceiling mounted globes and spots. Although the center bar area was almost full of patrons, the eatery was not overly crowded. Two tables by the windows were quickly brought together for them; Kate and CJ sat at either end, while the rest of the men took the other six chairs. Owen took the spot to CJ's right, César sat next to the young Aussie, with Brett directly across on CJ's other side.
"If there are no objections, I'd like to order some wine for the table," said Kate. She opened a narrow, leather bound menu which had been placed on the table between her and Joe. "I plan on having all of you addicted to Hunter Valley vintages by the time you return home. CJ, since it's your birthday we're celebrating, do you have a favorite varietal?"
"Ummm, not really. I don't know that much about wine. But I've already had a glass tonight, and that's all my dads allow."
"Nonsense! You're certainly having a few more tonight. I'll deal with your fathers if I have to." Her tone was friendly but firm, her gaze shifted between César and Brett, as if to challenge them to contradict her. CJ noticed the quick nod his fathers shared.
"I think we can relax the rule a bit, buddy. The laws concerning young people drinking are a bit more realistic here, and it's your birthday." Brett raised an admonishing finger at CJ. "But we go back to one with meals when we return to Washington. And if you get drunk I ain't carrying you."
"I'll take care of you if you get drunk, mate." Owen's quick reply made everyone at the table smile. CJ tried to hide the coloring he was sure rose on his cheeks by making his face disappear behind the menu.
`Brilliant!" exclaimed Kate. "You'll get to sample all our wines on Christmas Day, and some from a few other wineries whenever you tour the valley. Let's see what they have available from vintners without a tasting room open to the public."
• • •
"That was a great meal," said César patting his flat stomach. "The chili-salt crusted seared tuna was out of this world." They had ended the evening with a toast to CJ's birthday―the bottle of Australian sparkling wine compliments of the restaurant manager. "I'm gonna have to be careful I don't gain weight this trip."
"It won't happen," replied Brett stripping his shirt off and kicking off his shoes. They were in their hotel room getting ready for bed after saying goodbye to their friends and making plans to meet up the next morning after breakfast. "I'm more worried about CJ getting out of hand. We're gonna have to keep an eye on him."
"What do you mean? Why would we have to do anything special about him?"
"Oh, come on, César. You can't tell me you didn't notice the way he and Owen kept looking at each other the entire night. That boy―"
"Stop! Don't go there, Jarhead. I already told you I talked to CJ at the airport in LA. He knows the rules. I trust him to follow them."
"But nothing. Didn't you learn your lesson? Do you actually think if our boy wants to get some dick you're gonna stop him? And what about Lance last summer? You didn't seem to have a problem with whatever he and CJ were doing. Hell you told him it was okay for them to sleep together."
"Owen's older than―"
"That again? Didn't you get called a hypocrite for making a similar comment before? Aren't I six years older than you? That's more of a difference than between CJ and Owen. Look, babe, I love the fact you're so protective of our son, but you have to be realistic. The best we can do is instill the proper values in him, which will hopefully lead him to conduct himself appropriately. I think we're doing a fair job in that respect. But in the end, he's going to do what he wants to."
"So you don't mind if those two end up in bed fucking?"
"It doesn't matter much what you or I think. We've both made our thoughts on sex known. I think CJ's a smart kid and we have to trust him. How the hell else is he going to grow up, if we keep him locked away in a room?"
"Fine! But I don't have to like it. Owen seems okay, but still."
"We're not going to agree with everything CJ thinks, or like everything he does, Jarhead. But, to paraphrase an old song, way up high or down low, we'll go along wherever he may go."
"Which song is it? And why are you quoting it?"
"It's Wherever You Will Go by The Calling. It was a hit back in 2001, when Lourdes and Rich moved to Germany. I'd had two short years with my son and all of a sudden he was taken away from me. The song speaks of losing someone and being willing to follow them through hell and high water. Each time I heard it, I'd tear up. It's how I felt about the kid. He was my son and I would do anything in my power for him. Now, it's how I feel about both of you."
"I hate it when you get mushy. Especially when you make sense."
"Come to bed. I'm sure we'll find something to do so you can stop worrying about CJ getting laid."
"Don't be pissed you missed it," said César looking at his son. "Set the alarm tonight, or leave a wake-up call with the front desk."
"Don't bother, I'll do it." Brett, standing behind CJ, placed his hands on the boy's shoulders and gave him a reassuring shake. "I wouldn't mind seeing the sun rise over the Pacific. Saw it go down plenty of times growing up in California, but I can't remember if I've ever been this close to the water on this side to see it come up."
"Cool. Thanks, Papa." The teen and his dads stood outside the hotel waiting for Tom and JP. Overnight, the temperature had dropped significantly, but at Pope's urging, the three of them still wore shorts and t-shirts. CJ had one of his fathers' Harley-Davidson sleeveless ones on―a light gray one, with the motorcycle company's logo and RIDING FREE SINCE 1903 superimposed on a faded American flag.
"There they are," said Brett, pointing at their friends crossing the street walking towards them. "Guess there'll be six of us today," he added when Owen came out from behind the SUV, jogging to catch up with Tom and JP.
"Good, I'm glad Owen's joining us." César tilted his head, looked at his husband, and raised his eyebrows. "It'll be good to have someone with us who actually knows his way around. JP's been in the US too damn long to remember anything."
"G'day," Owen stretched his hand out to shake with the men. "I hope you don't mind me tagging along. I offered my services as a tour guide to Uncle John Paul. Hi, CJ."
"Hi," replied the boy, his gaze fixed on the blond Aussie's eyes.
"So, what are we doing this morning? asked Brett.
"Owen suggested a walking tour to a couple of nearby spots," Tom replied. "He and JP worked it out. I'm just along for the ride."
Brett looked at the young man standing next to his son, "Then, lead on, McDuff."
"You got it wrong, Papa. It's lay on, Macduff. From Macbeth."
César slightly shoved his son forward, pointing in the direction they had walked the night before. "Shut up and walk, CJ. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Which way are we headed, guys?"
"This way's good, sir. We can―"
"Stop right there, son. I'm César. You call me sir again, I'll have CJ hurt you the way he was supposed to hurt your brother."
"Ignore him, Owen. I wouldn't hurt you. I promise."
"Somebody start walking before I decide to start hurting people, myself," said Brett.
"You can ignore him too. Papa's all bark. He just wants to act all Marine Corps tough."
"Bloody hell! We're half a world away, and you guys are still at it? And now you've got my poor cousin involved?"
"Hey, Owen, I have a question for you." CJ fell in step with the young man, walking next to him while the four older men followed. "How come you called him Uncle John Paul before? I thought it sounded weird since I knew you guys were cousins."
"My sister started it when she was little. She's your age. I guess John Paul looked so old to her, he became an uncle. Spencer and I just took to calling him the same."
"And how come you call him John Paul instead of JP?"
"Mate, you have to realize I haven't seen much of him since he first left to attend uni in California. I'm probably spending more time around him this week than I have in total over the past ten years. Our mums always use our full names. It's what I'm used to hearing all the time."
"So, you're gonna stick with us while we're here?" asked CJ, picking up on the comment about Owen seeing a lot of JP during the visit.
"I was thinking about it. Is that okay with you?"
"Oh, yeah, I'd like that." CJ felt his heartbeat quicken; he surreptitiously moistened his suddenly dry lips with the tip of his tongue. "Where are we going now?"
"I thought we'd stroll towards the tip of the headland and check out Nobby's Lighthouse. It was built on what used to be an island at the entrance to the harbor. Back in the eighteen hundreds, they cobbled together a stone breakwater and connected it to the mainland."
"Cool. Can we go inside?"
"Nah. Sorry. It's only open to the public on Sundays. But it's a great place to watch the ocean, the ships coming in, and the surfing on Nobby's Beach."
"I've never surfed. I wanna try it before we return home. Papa grew up surfing in California. He promised he'd try to teach me."
Owen's reply was quick. "I'd love to take you surfing. I have my boards at home. We could do it tomorrow. Or the day after. Whenever I came home from uni, I would goofy-foot it to Nobby's right away."
"Surf-speak," Brett's comment reminded CJ his dads were right behind, listening to the conversation. "Means he leads with his right foot."
Owen nodded while taking a quick glance over his shoulder. "Your dad's right, CJ. I'll show you whenever we get out in the waves."
"Maybe we'll plan it so the three of us can come out together."
CJ turned around in time to see César elbow his other father and wondered what it was about. "Are you going to come with us too, Dad?"
"We'll see," replied the dark-haired man staring at his husband. "If Papa promises to behave, I'd rather spend the time sampling wines with Pope and Potus."
After their stroll to the promontory with the beacon, the men walked along the southern shore of the peninsula. Perched above Newcastle Harbour, Fort Scratchley stood guarding the city from enemy incursions. Built during the Crimean War to protect the city against a feared Russian invasion, it became the only Australian fort to engage in a maritime attack during the Second World War when it exchanged fire with a Japanese submarine.
"What's that?" asked CJ, squinting in the bright sunshine, pointing towards the southeast. The view from the Fort stretched north and south along the coastline, and the teen was looking at a pastel colored art deco structure at the edge of the shore.
"I can answer that one. I spent enough hours about it when I was a young lad," put in JP. "The Ocean Baths have always been a popular swimming spot. It's really just an enclosed section of the ocean. A salt water pool. No surf and no sharks, but some critters still get in. I know they clean it out every year to remove extra sand and scrape off oyster shells from the concrete walls."
CJ took a few steps away, in case he had to make a run for it, and smirked. "Looks pretty, but sounds boring, old man."
"I'm with ya, mate," agreed Owen. "Give me the surf and the sharks. Makes life interesting!"
Their morning tour lasted a bit over two and a half hours. After walking to the Ocean Baths so CJ could check out the old pavilion up close, they stopped by the Convict Lumber Yard archeological excavation, returning to their hotel via Scott Street and a pedestrian bridge over the train tracks leading from Newcastle Station.
• • •
Once they had taken a quick bathroom break, the six men had gotten in the car, and headed off to lunch. Brett wanted to experience driving on the other side of the road, so Owen entered their destination in the GPS to provide directions, before climbing into the vehicle to sit in the back. For once, CJ didn't bother to ask for the front passenger seat; he followed the strapping Aussie, and sat next to him. An hour later, they were at an outdoor table at Potters Brewery in Nulkaba, pints of Hunter Witbier within easy reach.
"May as well enjoy the beer, mates." JP raised his glass in a toast. "You'll be up to your arse in wine for the next couple of days. Here's to Christmas in wine country."
"So instead of being drunk off our asses, our asses will be drunk off us?" César earned himself groans with his comment.
"Daaad, what have I told you about your lame jokes? I'm sorry, Owen, I keep trying―"
"Watch it, buster. Don't go picking on my hubby or I'll make sure all you get for Christmas is a lump of coal."
"Ha, ha, ha, Papa. Is that regional humor? Just `cause we learned Newcastle is big on coal mining doesn't mean you have to start showing off."
"Showing off? Me?" asked Brett feigning incredulity. "Isn't that like the pot calling the kettle black... as coal?"
"You guys are forgetting one important point," said Tom, causing all eyes to turn towards him. "Newcastle was founded as a penal colony. I'm an officer of the law, and if the bad puns continue, I'll have to turn you guys into convicts." His quip earned him catcalls and wadded up napkins thrown in his direction.
"Help!" exclaimed CJ placing a hand on Owen's arm who sat beside him. "See what I have to put up with all the time."
"No worries, mate," replied the Aussie. "I'll protect you. Actually, they sound like fun to be around."
• • •
"I'm joining CJ on his run before breakfast tomorrow," said César while toweling his hair dry. "The amount of food Kate dished out tonight has me scared. If we keep eating this well during the entire trip..."
"Yeah, I'll be there in the morning," grumbled Brett. "I wouldn't want CJ out in a strange town by himself."
Their lunch at the brewery had been followed by a driving tour through Cessnock, and some of the other small towns in the area, before returning to JP's parents' house in Newcastle. His mother had insisted on a home cooked meal for the visitors, before they were confronted with the extended family crowd.
"What the heck's got you grumpy, Jarhead?"
"I'm trying to be good, babe. But did you notice CJ and Owen barely spent a minute apart from each other? And they kept finding reasons for little touches here and there. I may not be able to do anything about it, but I don't have to like it."
"All I have to say is you better be on your best behavior. Remember, tonight Santa Claus is coming to town."
2016 CJ Abelló
Edited by: Mann Ramblings
This is a work of fiction set in the real world. Certain living individuals make appearances in the story; all other characters and the events in which they all participate are the creation of the author. Any resemblance of the fictional characters to actual individuals is purely coincidental.
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