Matt's birthday fell on a Friday that year, and he was required to work as he was every Friday. The three busiest days for retail are the weekend, and Matt's company wanted it's managers to work weekends when the customer traffic was the greatest.
He had tried to switch days for his usual day off, Thursday, but neither Anna nor the third keyholder could do it. He was however, able to get the Friday day shift. He stayed a bit longer that night to change an endcap display and make a few phone calls. When Martha came in she asked about the boys. Matt chatted with her for a while before starting the journey home.
Traffic was maddeningly slow this evening, and Matt switched radio stations relentlessly. Steve and Garry had broken up in September and he still missed their humor. He finally settled on Q101, although it was still too early for his favorite show, 80's at Eight. He was looking forward to a quiet evening with Tim and the boys.
When he arrived at the Ash Street courtyard, he noticed there were no lights on in the townhouse, except those around the windows. That's odd. They must have run to the store or something.
Tim's car was gone, and the kitchen door was locked. He didn't want to take off his gloves to insert the key in the lock. Maybe the front door is open, he thought.
As he put his hand on the doorknob, it yielded to his touch. His heart skipped a few beats. It could be a burglar.
Someone turned on the lights. There, assembled in the living and dining room area were the most important people in his life. Along with Tim, Brian and Tommy, was his mom, his sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew. Also present were Leah and Mike, Father Grimes, Marty, and Bill. They all laughed, shook his hand, slapped him on the back, or kissed him.
Tim was one of the last ones he hugged. "You ." He whispered in his ear.
"It really was the kids' idea." The coffee table was covered with wrapped gifts and a buffet table was covered with food.
"Sit here," Gloria directed him toward the recliner. "First you have to open gifts."
"Mom, I'm hungry. Could I get a bite to eat, first?"
"Of course, you're the birthday boy."
Gloria prepared him a plate of some of his favorite party foods: raw broccoli and cauliflower with ranch dip, Buffalo wings, teriyaki chicken, chunks of cheese and crackers. As he ate, he watched the partygoers interact. Tim talked to Bill about beginning foster parent classes, Gloria and Karen and Carl talked about plans for Christmas, Leah and Father Grimes were engaged in a discussion of the symbolism of Christmas and Hanukkah traditions. Matt was pleased they were all getting along so well. He was even more pleased that they all accepted his family unit as normal. His all-male family was not a freak or an oddity. They were perfectly normal.
Matt was touched beyond words. These people, adults and children, had gone to some trouble to prepare this party for him, and successfully keep it a secret from him. He would discover later that they had conspired with his staff to keep him at work a little longer so that they would have time to prepare. That anyone would take such effort to prepare food, buy gifts and arrange time in their busy lives to gather demonstrated how much they loved him touched him.
When he had finished eating, he took his seat in the recliner. "Oh, you didn't have to get me gifts," Matt protested. "Just the party would have been more than enough."
Karen handed him a square box. "This is from us." Inside, was a This Old House baseball cap. Matt laughed.
"I love it," he told her after he kissed her.
"They're all gag gifts," Tommy spoke up.
From Gloria, he received a Johnny Mathis tape, and a church calendar from Father Grimes.
"To remind you when to come to church, darling," he commented.
Leah gave him a beautiful hand-blown Christmas ornament, which was an unusual gift for a Jewish woman to give. Bill gave him a piece of paper rolled into a tube and tied with a red ribbon.
Matt opened it. It was a certificate announcing that he was St. Luke's Foster Parent of the Year. "Thanks, Bill."
"You've earned it."
Marty gave him a Queer Ken doll with one alteration: he had replaced the shoes with Army boots. Matt laughed boisterously.
Mike handed him a wrapped shirt box. When he unwrapped it and opened it, there was a disposable diaper with a bow. Matt cautiously peered inside the diaper to see unwrapped Hershey's kisses that represented poop. Matt laughed again and hugged Mike.
Tommy handed him a little box. Inside was a coffee mug printed with 'World's Best Dad.' His eyes got misty as he hugged Tommy tightly.
"Thank you," he whispered to the boy. "I love it."
Finally, Brian handed him a wrapped object that looked like a book. Inside was a photo album with pictures Brian had taken at Camp Homewood that summer.
"This is great, Brian. I still miss camp. This will remind me of camp." Brian allowed himself to be hugged as well.
Gloria produced a cake -- chocolate, his favorite. They cut the cake and it was distributed on little paper plates with plastic forks.
Tommy played with his cousin Kirsten. He was generously sharing his Lego blocks with her. Kirsten was all-girl; she liked dolls and wasn't very interested, but Tommy tried to engage her nonetheless.
Kirsten got up and walked over to Karen. "Mom," she said, "I like Tommy, but I don't like his toys." This brought a round of laughter from the adults and a puzzled look from Kirsten.
There was still one gift left. Tim hadn't given him a gift. Tim handed Matt a small, oddly shaped wrapped gift. Matt ripped into it. It was a Matchbox version of a Chrysler minivan. On the back was taped a key. It was marked with the Chrysler and Jeep logos.
"What's this?" he asked Tim.
"Better put on your coat," Tim advised.
"There's still one gift left."
Out the front door all the partygoers went to the street. There, along with all the other cars parked at the curb was a black Jeep Grand Cherokee with Tim's license plates.
"I thought we could have at least one vehicle that we could all fit into comfortably. And when Brian starts to learn how to drive ."
"You traded in your Probe? I thought you liked it."
"I did," Tim said quietly, "but now the kids are more important. Plus, I can put tools in the back."
Matt sat in the driver's seat and breathed in the unique and remarkable new car odor. The other guests voiced their approval. With four doors and a spacious storage area in back, the Jeep was the perfect vehicle. No dowdy minivan for this family! They were going to travel in style.
Karen, Carl and the kids said their good-byes outside, and Matt thanked them for the fun evening. Mike was spending the night. It seemed that any special occasion was an excuse for Mike to spend the night.
Back inside, Bill and Marty helped put the food away and Brian and Mike cleared up the wrapping paper and ribbon. Leah and Gloria scraped plates and loaded the dishwasher and got along so well, they were making lunch plans. Bill put on his coat soon after.
"Congratulations on winning the award," he said as he shook Matt's hand.
"I think I mentioned that O'Donnell was having some sort of ceremony in the spring. I'm sure he will want to present this to you again."
Matt rolled his eyes. He was pleased by the attention, but he really hadn't done anything unusual -- just good parenting.
Father Grimes left next. He had parked his car in back. Tim and Matt both hugged him at the kitchen door.
"I've got something else on my mind, Matt. We're thinking about opening the school again."
"Really? How is that possible?"
"It's going to be independent of the Archdiocese. We'll talk more about it later."
Once he had left, Matt turned to Tim.
"I love you," Matt told Tim. "You sacrificed your car for our family."
Tim tried to downplay the effort. "You weren't going to trade in your car, and there's no way we were all going to fit into your Saturn or my Probe."
Matt whispered in his ear, "You can fit your probe in me anytime."
"You are so bad," Tim laughed.
They tried to regain decorum as Matt's mom approached. Gloria kissed her son. "I'm so proud of you. You're doing such a good job."
Matt kissed her back. "Thanks, mom. It's been easy so far. Almost too easy. I'm almost waiting for the other shoe to drop."
"Don't forget to call you Aunt Mary sometime," she reminded him. Matt's Aunt Mary was his father's sister and his godmother. She was a wonderful cook and had given him gifts on every birthday until he graduated from college. She did have some quirks: she smoked like a chimney and she spoke loudly as if you were in the next room.
Mike and Brian retreated to the basement where they would be sleeping. Marty, Leah, Tim and Matt settled in the living room with Tommy in Matt's lap. They switched off the other lights except for the lights around the windows and the Christmas tree. Tim lit the candles on the coffee table. It was a lovely, cozy tableau, drifting down like the snow that had just begun.
Matt tried to drop subtle hints to Tommy to excuse himself, but he either didn't understand, or was ignoring them.
"So, Martin, are you spending the night?"
"Where would I sleep?"
"In Brian's room. The boys are sleeping in the basement." He stretched his arm across the couch and squeezed Tim's shoulder. "I want to thank you all for this; it means so much to me."
Marty picked up the mug from Tommy. "Of course, Matthew. For all you do, this mug's for you."
Tim stood up. "Who would like some wine?" Everyone did, including Tommy. "Forget it, mister," Tim told Tommy.
Matt winked at Tommy. "I'll give you some." The Italian side of Matt's family including his Aunt Mary introduced wine to their children at an early age. It was actually a preemptive strike, of sorts. When his cousins got to high school and they were offered Boone's Farm, they were blasť about wine. They already drank it at home.
Matt stood up to stretch and use the rest room. When he returned, Tommy grinned at him and waited for Matt to sit down before he sat in his lap again.
Marty was offering his opinion of current fashion trends. Snippets of conversation stayed in Matt's mind like sound bites on the late night news.
Marty: "The think I detest most about the whole grunge movement is the return of bad facial hair.
Leah: "All fashion is cyclical, isn't it? Both my sons had bad sideburns throughout the seventies."
Matt: "Give me the clean-cut boy-next-door look any day."
Marty: "Like Brian's haircut?"
Matt: "That child is a fashion slave. Everything has to be the correct brand in the color of the season at the most expensive price possible."
Leah: "I think it's admirable that you've got a schedule for chores."
Tim: "And he's going to rebel when he finds out he has to start buying his own clothes."
Matt: "It's my duty to make sure he has clothing. Nowhere does it stipulate that they have to be Tommy Hilfiger. The other day, he wanted a Nike T-shirt. They wanted $25 for it. Twenty-five bucks for a T-shirt!"
Marty: "The way I see it, sportswear companies should pay us for the privilege of advertising on our bodies."
Matt: "What I really detest are these super-baggy jeans. Yuck!"
Marty: "Oh, how I wish for the tight jeans again."
They all laughed. By this time, Tommy was fast asleep in Matt's lap. He mindlessly stoked his hair and occasionally kissed his forehead.
"What a sweet boy he is," Leah said, referring to Tommy.
"With all he's been through, its a wonder he's not more fucked up." Matt suddenly glanced at Leah. "Oh, sorry, Leah," he apologized.
She waved it away. "Fucked up is good clinical term. I find it useful sometimes. How is he getting along with Brian?"
"So far, so good, knock wood," Tim said knocking on Matt's head. "Sibling rivalry hasn't raised it's ugly head yet."
"So to speak," Marty interjected.
Suddenly the four adults heard laughter and shouts from the basement. Matt was about to admonish them, when the boys came tromping up the stairs with Matt's old yearbooks.
"Look what we found!" Brian said breathlessly.
"The ghost of high school past," Marty quipped.
Matt slapped his hand to his forehead. "God!"
"Look at that shirt!" Mike exclaimed, pointing to a picture of Matt as a junior.
Leah laughed as his discomfort. "Part of accepting yourself is accepting your past."
"Not when it included platform shoes and man-made fibers."
Mike and Brian hooted and convulsed with laughter.
"Brian, darling, it was the High Disco Era," Marty explained.
"Look at Marty! God, Uncle Marty, your hair is going to take over the planet in this picture."
Now, it was Marty's turn to be embarrassed. He had possession of one of the yearbooks. "There's Jake's dad. And here is Jake's mom."
"Bitch," Matt muttered under his breath.
"I heard that," Brian giggled.
"What made her such a female dog?" Leah asked.
"Oh, she was always so snotty and sarcastic. She thought she was better than everyone else. A very unpleasant person to be around. Very negative and abrasive."
Brian turned serious. "Can I ask you a question, Dad? You too, Marty. And Tim. When did you find out you were gay?"
They had talked about many gay-related topics, but never this one. The Discovery.
"I knew all along," Marty began. "I knew about her, too," he said pointing at Matt.
"I was out in high school," Matt protested.
"The hell you were. You were so deep in the closet, dust bunnies were gathering on you."
"That's not true." He paused. "Well, OK, maybe my freshman and sophomore years."
"Uh-huh, right," Marty said sarcastically.
"OK, maybe my junior year, too. By my senior year, I could get in bars and buy beer."
"You could?" Mike asked incredulously.
"In Illinois, until 1980, eighteen-year-olds could buy beer and wine." He shifted Tommy in his lap. Incredibly he had remained asleep throughout the yearbook part of the party. "I think Tommy should go to bed."
"I'll carry him," Tim offered. Matt handed the limp boy to Tim, who carried him upstairs.
"Oh, man. Bedtime Apartheid."
Matt laughed at Brian's clever term. "No, young man, this discrimination is directed at everyone under eighteen. You and Mike may excuse yourselves to the basement."
Mike got up without protest, and kissed Leah.
"Behave yourself tonight," she told him.
"Just when the conversation was getting good," Brian protested.
"No, darling," Marty teased, "we just wanted to talk about you."
Brian also started downstairs, and Matt thought his feelings were hurt, or he simply was doing the adolescent boy thing and trying to present a cool image. But, just before he headed downstairs, he hugged Matt from behind the couch, wrapping his arms around his chest.
"Happy birthday, Dad." Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. "I love you."
An hour later, after Leah had left and the boys were asleep, Marty, Matt and Tim were still talking in the living room.
"I have a problem," Marty suddenly blurted.
"Jealous of what?" Matt asked, although he knew the answer.
"Of you two." Marty had never spoken of it to them, although Matt and often suspected it and Tim had voiced his suspicions to Matt.
"I - I'm sorry. I never meant to come between you two. I promised myself I wouldn't," he started to cry. His tears were especially poignant because Marty was the jester. He could always be counted on for a funny line and to keep the party going. His wit was his trademark, and it could be used as a razor to slash someone or as a self-deprecating cover. Cynicism was his defense against a cruel gay world that often judged by appearance alone. Matt had rarely seen him cry. He was tough; he was a survivor, or at least that's the way Matt always viewed him.
Matt crossed the room to the recliner and engulfed his friend in a tight hug. "You're not coming between us. In fact, you brought us back together when we were fighting this summer. Remember?"
Tim crossed the room as well, and put an arm around his shoulders.
"Is it me? What's wrong with me? Even Jeffrey Dahmer had boyfriends."
"Nothing's wrong with you. Nothing at all. You're a wonderful man."
His crying began to subside. "I'm tired of being single. I'm sick of it. I want a boyfriend."
Matt smiled wistfully. "You always used to tell me that desperation was not attractive."
"Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if desperation did make us more attractive?" Tim asked.
Marty began to weep again. Matt rocked him gently. "I think I know what brought this on. The yearbooks."
Marty simply nodded.
"Isn't there anyone you're interested in? What about that guy you were seeing for a while? Glen?"
"He's going out with some boy-toy he met at the bar," he said bitterly.
"What about Don?"
"He moved to Glen Ellyn. I lost touch with him."
"What about my dad?" Tim asked.
Marty looked up, his eyes brimming with tears again. He didn't say a word, but all three knew that Patrick was the core of the problem.
"Marty," Tim said rubbing his back, "My dad doesn't know what he wants. I'm not excusing him. He's confused."
"Confused is a nice way of putting it. I would use Leah's clinical term for it," Matt muttered.
Tim flashed him an eat-shit-and-die look. "I know he likes you, Marty."
"But not in the way I liked him. I wanted to settle down with him. I guess I scared him away."
"Give him time," Matt encouraged. "And we'll talk to him in the meantime."
"Yes," Matt promised. "Just give him some space and don't go chasing after him. You don't want to look too desperate."
Marty managed a faint smile. "Would you? Talk to him, I mean?"
Matt kissed his cheek, which was wet with tears. "I promise."
The shrill telephone demanded attention at 1:35 early the next morning.
Matt was nearest the phone. Before he picked it up, he glanced at the clock.
"Hello?" he croaked.
"Matt?" A very young voice.
"Who is this?"
"Jake." His voice trembled slightly. "Is Brian there?"
Matt was loosing his patience. "He is, but he's asleep. Like you should be."
"Matt " his voice trembled again. "I need someone to talk to."
Matt sat up in bed and turned on the light. Tim rolled over and shielded his eyes with his forearm. "What's wrong, hon?" he croaked.
Matt pulled the mouthpiece away from his face and coughed to clear his throat. "Jake? Are you OK? Where are you?"
"I'm at a phone at the Checker station." The Checker gas station was a few blocks south on Western. Matt and Tim had stopped there for ice on the 4th of July.
"What happened, Jake?"
"My mom beat me."
Chills ran down Matt's spine. "Stay right there. I'm coming to get you."