I never really believed in fate or destiny. Bad luck, curses, yes... when it came to my life, that is. Then Sam started leaping... and I had to take a closer look at a lot of things. Some of them –- hell, most of them -– were things I didn't particularly want to examine. Like Sam, leaping through time without a rudder to steer him, I had no choice but to go where the winds blew, face what they wrought.
Some strange winds blew through the New Mexico desert.
I let myself into my apartment, not bothering to turn on the light. Another leap was almost over, thank god. I desperately needed some down time after this one. On automatic pilot I changed into a pair of black silk pajamas and drew the heavy drapes in the bedroom; it had been evening where I'd left Sam, but here dawn was just beginning to get a solid toe hold over the foothills. I skipped the personal grooming stuff like brushing my teeth, avoiding the mirror because I knew I wouldn't like what I saw.
“Take a good look at yourselves in the mirror, all right? A good look. Because if you do, I don't think you're gonna like what you see...”
Shame burned my face as I climbed into bed, pretending I really thought I was going to get some sleep. I was exhausted, emotionally as well as physically, but that wasn't going to do me any good this morning.
I had to face Sam in a little over eight hours. And that was the easy part. I knew what I'd say, the truth: I was wrong. It would be sickeningly easy to smooth things over with Sam, always quick to forgive me no matter how I screw up. His heart's too big for his own good. I really don't know if I deserve that kid.
No, it was myself that I wasn't looking forward to facing. Sam used to tell me I was my own worst enemy, and I guess he was right. But... surely I was justified in the disgust I felt for myself this time. Maybe beating myself up over it wouldn't help, but I definitely needed a major attitude adjustment. Which meant major soul searching, something I've spent most of my life trying desperately to avoid. Afraid to open that trap door, of the rats that might come scurrying out. On those rare occasions when I do, I never like what I find.
I have a lot of excuses this time, valid reasons I can quote chapter and verse. I was born in the thirties, raised in a Catholic orphanage. When I was old enough to leave, it was right into the welcoming arms of the rigid military. Blah, blah, blah.
Oh God. I rubbed a hand over my face and prayed for an oblivion of sleep that I knew wouldn't be granted. I was also the same man who'd marched with the blacks at Selma, wore a long-haired "hippie" wig during the Beatles' heyday, read Jack Kerouac religiously (if you've ever read On the Road, you know he's no saintly right-winger). The man who'd wanted to fly with the birds because freedom meant everything to him. The freedom I fought for my country to protect: freedom to live, to choose, to love...
There was a serious contradiction in there somewhere.
Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is dangerous.
It had really shaken me up to see that poor kid, Phillip, ready to kill himself, driven to this point of desperation and desolation by a world that preached about rights on one hand, and stomped you down with the other if you dared to be different.
Even if you had no choice.
I winced as I remembered my inane excuses, why gays shouldn't be in the military. Had I really believed such obvious stupidity? That they'd make a pass in a foxhole? That they were somehow weaker, not "Real" men? Was my masculinity that fragile? I'd certainly never thought so before, always felt completely secure in that area.
Sam didn't seem to have any problem with it.
"Homosexuals are a security risk. They're easily blackmailed, and they lack leadership quality..."
But if it was okay to be gay, there'd be nothing to blackmail.
I shivered as I recalled the scene I'd walked in on that night. The rope... I thought they were really gonna hang Sam. I watched, my heart in my throat, too frozen with fear and shame to even let him know I was there. Even after.... After, when it turned out to be just a scare tactic, I blotted out the horror I'd felt. Kept from him that I'd been there to see. Worse...worse, I continued to act like a jerk.
Ever since Sam and I became friends, we'd been there for each other. For years during the leaps, I stood beside him, supported him. Always, even if I didn't agree with him.
But I stood at his side and spoke up against him, agreeing with a man who, in the final analysis, wasn't much different from the brass who'd insisted 'Negroes' couldn't fight for their country – and die for their country – alongside whites.
Only afterwards, after watching Phillip almost destroy himself, did the reality of it all hit me. Yes, it was a shame about Phillip... but Sam...they might've killed him. Assault, murder, all because of a hatred based on...what? A sense of manhood so tenuous that the idea of a man loving another man is so repulsive, so scary, that the response should be to inflict even more pain on these already tortured souls?
I've never believed in or condoned that kind of behavior, would have never tolerated it among my men, no matter what the reason...but I was still a part of the institution, of humanity. As such, I also was responsible.
I could face Sam tomorrow, and accept the forgiveness I knew would be granted. However, I still had a long way to go before I could face myself.
I got my liter of industrial-strength coffee, runny eggs and fake, cardboard bacon and deliberately chose a seat at Verbena's table.
Beeks could hardly miss the significance behind my morning sociability. She regarded me over the top of her book. "You look like shit," she told me mildly.
Subtle as always, one of the things I love about her. "Didn't get much sleep last night."
"Mmm hmm," she said in her best non-committal shrink murmur, and put aside the book. Waiting.
We hadn't talked much about this particular leap yet. I went about my job, she hers. Once she'd asked me how Sam was dealing with the situation, and I'd responded, "Mr. Save-The-Underdog Sam? Not a problem he can't handle." Except me. Except almost dying because of unfounded hatred.
"Verbena, why is the male of the species so damned insecure about our masculinity?" And how did taking a gang of seven to beat up one 'queer' assuage that inadequate feeling?
“Maybe because deep down they realize how tenuous their superiority really is."
Just my luck, she was in one of those moods. "Whatsa matter," I quipped, "date stand you up last night?"
She smiled beauteously. "See what I mean?"
I sighed loudly, so did Verbena, softer.
"This leap sucks," I pronounced, disgustedly throwing down a fork-speared piece of pretend bacon. "So does this food."
"Uh huh," she agreed, to one or maybe both. "Sam's due to leap out soon, isn't he?"
I nodded. "Probably after the track meet."
"You've made it this far..." I could hear the unfinished thought. On your own. “Why don't you stop by my office after Sam leaps, you can fill me in on what's been happening."
That was the way it worked with us. She knew better than to push me, at least not until I was ready to be pushed. "Yeah," I mumbled. We both knew I'd be there.
I'd grabbed another cup of coffee and lit a cigar, and things were looking up, just a centimeter. Then, without warning, a storm swept into the cafeteria and over to our table.
Donna stood before us, hands on her hips. "Admiral, I'd like to see you in my office."
"Good morning to you too, Donna," I replied.
"Now, Al," she demanded.
I looked at my watch, contemplating my schedule and my response. Sam and his wife had some significant things in common. When Donna had a bug up her ass she was a handful, and I wasn't in the mood for any public tantrums.
“Okay,” I agreed, rising. "I can give you a few minutes.”
I could have sworn she muttered sarcastically, thank you your highness, as she followed me out.
Donna never was one for preamble. As soon as we'd entered her office and sat down, she let me know exactly what was on her mind.
"How dare you risk Sam's life with your nasty little prejudices!”
I blinked, staring at her for a moment of shock before it sunk in. “Ziggy has a big mouth," was all I said.
"As project observer, your job is to guide Sam through the leaps, provide him with information, and try to keep him safe. If personal problems interfere with your ability to do that job--”
I didn't let her finish. Maybe I would have had more patience under different circumstances, but I was already wound tight. “My 'personal problems' had nothing to do with the mess Sam got himself into with his actions –- actions which I did not condone."
"They almost killed him!"
"No, they only meant to scare him." And took five years off my life. But no way was I gonna make any admissions to her, at least not now.
“They very well could have, the conscienceless animals,” she snapped.
Hitting closer to home only made me more defensive. I responded in kind. “May I suggest, Dr. Elesee, that your own prejudices are also coloring your judgment on this issue."
She glared at me, a sign that I'd succeeded. After her reconciliation with her father, Donna couldn't blame him anymore – or men in general – for her abandonment issues. So she transferred those feelings (you can pick up a lot from sessions with a shrink) to the military. Especially after her father was killed in an unfortunate accident. Friendly fire. She fought Sam tooth and nail over the military involvement in Project Quantum Leap, only he's more stubborn and determined than her. It was the only way to get the rest of the funding we needed to build. As always, Sam got his way. It was true that, like her husband, Donna never turned down a fight for human rights, but I felt her bitterness was affecting her emotions in this particular case.
She continued. “It's not my judgment that Sam's life depends on. You sided with them and left him hung out to dry.”
"I do not condone the behavior of that gang," I informed her. A rather blatant evasion.
"Nevertheless, the fact remains that you let your antiquated bigotry cloud your judgment. How the hell do you think that made Sam feel? The one, the only person he can count on."
"Sam's a big boy now, he can handle someone disagreeing with him, believe me," I defended, even as the wound drew blood, echoing my own guilty feelings.
"Okay, then. What about the personnel you're responsible for here at the project? We have quite a number of gays and lesbians on our staff, both civilian and military, I happen to know. Would you like them all fired? Or just the Marines?"
"What I'd like," I accentuated clearly, rising slowly and controlling my temper by sheer force of will, "is to terminate this pointless conversation and go help Sam win a track meet."
"He's your responsibility right now – but he's my husband. Don't let it happen again."
It showed the depth of my acceptance of her position that I hesitated at the door. "I'm... aware of the situation," I began in a softly conciliatory tone, then sharpened it with my next words. "But don't ever tell me how to do my job again."
"If Sam's life's at stake," Donna told me, almost sadly, "I'd do it again."
"You won't have to," I said, and left.
Normally I would've fought back with self-righteous anger, not let her get to me. But deep down inside me, there was a miserable little boy, crying out with regret. Promising to be better, to make it up. Swearing that I hadn't meant to hurt anyone. I smacked the kid, told him to stop whining, and went to apologize to Sam.
I had several long talks with Verbena after that leap was over. She helped me face my guilt. Not apologize for anything, but to leave old ways of thinking behind in the dawn of new enlightenment. Unlike Sam, I couldn't change the past. I had to focus on the present and future. A couple of months went by and I'd put it behind me. Life got back to normal.
Until the day someone left a present on my desk.
Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military.
I had a pretty good idea who left the book for me, but I didn't pursue it. Hell, maybe it wouldn't hurt to broaden my horizons more. I took the book home with me and sat with it on my lap for a long time, afraid to open it and face what I might find there.
Eventually, curiosity won out.
Curiosity killed the cat.
What I found in those pages shook my carefully nurtured peace all over again. It angered me. It sickened me.
I'd once believed what the Navy told me, that gays didn't belong in the military. I'd believed in their reasons, reasons I now saw as severely flawed. But this... This was at least as bad as the crimes the Chain had perpetrated. Worse, this was hypocrisy. As I read the damning words, I felt the honor the military stood for, that I stood for, reduced to meaningless lies...
I read about the twenty-two-million-dollar-a-year witch hunts, where any means -- including blatantly illegal – were used to round up and drum out gays and lesbians. I cringed through accounts of the repeated, vicious interrogations that lasted for long hours. Of threats, lies, unkept promises, coerced confessions. Perjury and slander, blackmail and brutality. Statements of confession to which words were added after the 'criminal' had signed them. And, if you were unlucky enough to get convicted of sodomy, court-martial and prison.
Even harder to take was the hypocrisy. Investigations dropped dramatically during periods of war when the military couldn't afford to lose personnel, only to rise again in times of peace. Then there were the recruits who admitted they were gay, sometimes right from their induction, and were told it didn't matter, that no one cared. Until they decided it suited them to care. Sometimes, it was just the luck of the draw.
You're probably wondering how I could have served all those years and still be so naive' to what was going on. Was it that I had my head in the sand? Or that I didn't care? It was difficult for me to understand myself, but all I can say in my defense is that even Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer claimed to be surprised when they turned on her for admitting she was a lesbian. It happens. In that atmosphere of conspiracy, fear and silence, you don't know unless you're directly involved.
In stark contrast, many European countries have had laws protecting gay rights in the military for years. I'm not sure what that says about the good old U.S.A.
I began wondering – as I'm sure my gift-giver meant for me to – exactly what kind of an organization I'd been part of all those years.
"How do you live with something like this? With the responsibility, the guilt?" I asked Beeks plaintively
"I guess every person has to answer that for themselves."
"If it weren't for the Navy, I'd be nothing. Because of them I got an education, flew... I served with pride and loyalty. But this--" I waved a hand towards the book in her lap. "Isn't my Navy."
"You don't have to throw the baby out with the bath water, you know."
"Huh?" I stared at her blankly.
"Your Navy exists. That shiny ideal, protecting and serving the citizens of this country. But so does that one," she motioned to the book. "There is good and there is bad. Everywhere, not just in the military."
"But..." I paused. "I know about a lot of the cover-ups, the crap that goes on. And as reprehensible as it sometimes seems to the civilian world, I know a lot of it really is necessary to protect the public... but for the first time, I'm ashamed to be part of the military."
"That's what you have to deal with. I can't give you any band-aid answers. You have to decide what you can live with."
"I wish Sam was here," I murmured. Beeks gave me a look. "No offense doc," I assured her. "It's just that, well, we were always good at, you know, listening, helping put things in perspective for each other."
"Are you sure that's what it is? Or is it because you figure Sam will be sure to have a strong opinion, be someone to make your decision for you?"
"l don't know," I admitted. "But how wrong can you go, listening to someone who's always perfect?"
"Sam perfect? You don't believe that any more than I do. What makes him seem that way sometimes is his unshakable conviction. When you make a decision that comes from your heart, your gut, it will be the right one... for you."
Is that the litmus test of life's decisions? If it feels right, if you have steadfast conviction then you're doing the right thing? Does doubt cast doubt?
In the months afterward, this philosophical question came to have significant meaning to me. And in that time, changes came, slowly, subtly, their passing barely marked. If Sam noticed any change in any of my attitudes... military-itis... he didn't comment. As for me, I had no idea what the far reaching consequences of a few random events would actually be.
I wish Sam was here.
I'm certainly not used to having my wishes come true – quite the opposite. So when Dr. Beeks summoned me to the Waiting Room, I was expecting to see some disaster or complication... I wasn't expecting to see Sam standing there.
For a moment I could only stare, frozen in place. Sam seemed to be also.
“Al?” he finally whispered. Came forward, hand out as he would when I was a hologram. When it met solid bulk he broke into a huge smile, and grabbed me up in a heartfelt hug.
I began to think he wasn't gonna let go and decided I wouldn't mind all that much... besides, it was easier to hide the suspicious wetness in my eyes.
Finally, Sam drew away. His eyes bore more than a suspicion. "I'm home!"
I had to grin. "Can't get anything past you geniuses."
He was looking like he was about to hug me again, when a new voice broke in. “Sam?"
I stepped back to stand beside Verbena, and let Donna greet her husband. Sam seemed surprised to see her for a moment, lingering Swiss cheese effect perhaps, then enveloped her in an embrace.
I turned to look at Verbena while the couple got reacquainted, she had tears in her eyes as well. The project was gonna run out of Kleenex this week for sure. She put her arm around me. "Well, we did it, my friend."
I didn't actually see much of Sam for the next few days. Between the requisite examinations from the medical and psych departments and his reunion with Donna, he was pretty busy. Except for the huge welcome home party thrown that first night (the staff had been waiting years for this one), and although it far surpassed the one we'd held after Sam's first leap, he and Donna slipped out early. He stuck close to me while he was there though, poor kid was kinda overwhelmed by all the attention and excitement on his behalf.
I had to admit, it was a very abrupt change in what was a – chaotic in a predictable sort of way – schedule.
My own personal soul-searching continued, accelerated actually, now that I suddenly didn't have to be on call twenty four hours, or run into the Imaging Chamber to deal with leaps. All that was left was months of paperwork, final correlations, and afterward, decisions. Only paperwork wasn't very... distracting.
I don't know what I'd hoped to accomplish by my particular choice of drinking establishment to pass the evening. Maybe I thought that peeking into their 'mysterious' world would give me some insight, some greater understanding. I hadn't talked to Sam after all, but I didn't want to be just another of the people putting demands on him right now. Besides, I still hadn't gotten used to the fact that he no longer needed me. No way was I ready to completely shift the scales of our relationship yet. I was feeling disoriented enough as it was.
After making a complete, embarrassing fool of myself with some story about being a psychologist doing research for a book, I stuck with drinking my beer and keeping my mouth shut, doing what I was best at. Observing.
"Buy you a drink, sailor?" a low, sultry voice asked. I turned around to face the newcomer, my chin dropping to my lap. Sam slid onto the stool next to me with a bemused smile, and ordered a light beer.
I couldn't decide whether it was embarrassing or amusing (Sam obviously thought the latter). "How'd you find me?" I mumbled.
"Who says I was looking for you?" was Sam's comeback. I glowered at him.
"Ziggy," Sam confirmed what I should have known. He took a long swallow of his beer, then turned to me. "Al...what the hell are you doing here?"
"It's a long story," I sighed.
Peripherally, I noticed several patrons giving Sam the once-over. Eat your hearts out guys, this hunk's got a long-legged female spitfire waiting at home. Of course I'd gotten my share of looks, too.
After silence from me to his obviously leading remark, Sam retaliated. "Wanna dance?" he asked, mischief in his eyes.
"You're really getting a kick out of this, aren't you?" I growled, tempted to say yes just for spite.
Suddenly, I grinned too. "Actually, you're right, it is pretty funny. Me in a gay bar."
"I can't wait to hear the explanation."
"So let's blow this place--" At Sam's scandalous look, I closed my mouth on the poorly chosen words and tried again. "--get out of this place.
Sam finished his beer and rose with me, heading for the door. I put a hand on his arm to stop him, never one to let a dare pass by. "But first, you did ask for a dance."
Sam blinked at me. "l was just--"
"It would be rude to turn you down," I said and led the way to the floor. I'd chosen a fast dance song – hey, I wasn't that drunk. The remake of a song called "My Religion", by the Cosmic Kittens. In an odd coincidence (well, it's what had finally decided me on accepting the dance), this particular song was written and first performed by a man named Peter Beckett. I'd bought the tape for Sam when it came out in'91, as a novelty. It had turned out to be pretty good.
Besides, I like to dance.
Give me love, when I feel the pressure
Give me hope, keep the dream alive
Can't you see, I'm no good without you baby
You give me a reason to keep the faith....
Sam wasn't a half bad dancer when he let himself get into it, and me, well, I was once disco king. I admit I took a perverse pleasure in knowing that many eyes were on us as we boogied around the floor. And both of us off limits – okay, so it was cruel. These days I had to take my amusement where I could get it.
I believe in your love, you are my religion
Raise my hands to the heaven above
You are the only one
When the world's insanity begins to swallow me...
"Well, that was weird," I said when we were outside.
"Women dance together all the time," Sam pointed out.
"Not in gay bars."
Sam went on as if not hearing me. "There are a lot of harmless things that are considered inappropriate between men, but perfectly fine for women."
"Yeah, so?" Was there a point to this?
"Like... this," he said, grabbing me in a tight embrace.
I carefully disentangled myself, glancing around. "Not in the parking lot of a gay bar," I reiterated.
"Don't you think there's something... skewered about the logic in this society?"
"Sometimes," I agreed, following him to my car. "You wanna pick up your car later?" I asked.
Sam shook his head, waiting for me to unlock the door. "I took a cab." At my inquiring look, he explained. "I figured we'd only need one."
Too smart for his own good, sometimes. "And if I was drunk, you were gonna make sure I didn't drive, right? What if I was here to pick up a guy?" I challenged when he didn't answer.
"Al," Sam chastised softly. "I know better than that. I don't know what's going on, but I know what isn't."
"Why were you looking for me, anyway?" I thought to ask when we were on our way.
Sam gazed out the window at the dark shapes of the mountains passing by, not answering for a while. "Maybe I had a feeling you needed someone to talk to."
Maybe? He said it as if it wasn't necessarily the answer. But suddenly, the world tilted into a better semblance of rightness.
I pulled over to the side of the road at a spot most of us at the project were familiar with. You could sit in the silent desert and look out into the distance at the lights of Socorro. The Hollywood Hills it wasn't, but it had a simple charm.
I put a CD in the stereo (Beckett seemed appropriate), and we got out and sat on the hood, a familiar ritual, you might have guessed. Talks, especially difficult ones, were somehow easier there. We stared into the distance for awhile. Sam pulled a stick of gum out of his pocket, I smoked my cigar.
Finally, Sam broke the silence to prompt me. "Okay Al, what were you doing in a gay bar?" There was a trace of a smile in his voice.
Sam looked at me. "What?" he asked patiently.
I sighed, rubbed a hand over my face. "Don't get me wrong, I've been wanting to talk to you. Get your... input. You remember your leap into Prescott Naval College? Where the gay cadet had gotten kicked out?"
"Yes, I do," he said slowly, as if finally starting to put the pieces of my strange behavior together.
"Well, after that leap... I did a lot of thinking. I'm not proud of how I acted, Sam."
"That's all over with," he hastened to assure.
"No, it's not. Not for me. See...." I stared out in front of me and composed my thoughts. "I was worse than a jerk. I didn't stick by you -- I let you down."
"Forgotten," he said softly.
I ignored it. “It sickened me when I saw what those bastards were doing out of hatred. To Phillip... to you. I came to terms with most of that. Then... I happened to get a hold of the book, "Conduct Unbecoming". Ever read it?" I didn't bother mentioning that I suspected it was his wife who'd 'given' it to me. For all I knew, she'd told him about it, had a good laugh filling him in on her revenge on the bigot.
"Oh, Al," Sam murmured. Yeah, he'd read it. Not unusual. One of Sam's hobbies was reading, voraciously. There were few, if any, popular books to come out each year that he didn't read. "And it didn't go down easy," he guessed.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I suddenly yelled. He said nothing, going back to the scenery instead. "Why didn't somebody tell me?" I continued. "Why didn't I know?"
"Would you have wanted to?" he asked gently.
"No," I admitted. "But now that I do, I don't know what to do about it. Shit, Sam, I can be a real asshole sometimes, but you know I'd never condone that kind of... of...." I fumbled for an unused descriptive. "That isn't the military I served in. I've been through most of this crap already with Beeks, but the bottom line is, now that I've taken my head out of the sand, I don't know how to deal with it. I feel like if I just ignore it and do nothing, that makes me almost as bad as they are. Yet... it's not my fight, you know?"
"Was it your fight at Selma?" Sam asked me quietly.
I saw what he was getting at, and it was a valid point. "But I had at least a chance in hell of making a difference. Maybe if I'd done something years ago. But now I'm just a broken down aging former jet jock whose days are numbered as it is."
"That's not true!" Sam defended vehemently.
"Maybe not to you or me, but to the Navy... I guess it's all a moot point anyhow, they're gonna retire me now anyway."
"We've fought it before, we'll fight it again," Sam said matter-of-factly.
"Yeah, but... this time I'm thinking of letting them."
"Because of the gay thing?" he asked, turning to me again.
"Yeah," I admitted. Now that I'd said it out loud, everything in me fought to repel the death knoll. The end of everything I'd spent my whole life building. "How can I, in good conscience, continue to be a part of... that?"
"Y'know, it's a shame...." Sam mused thoughtfully.
"Well, a great way to really shake them up... is if you had been gay all these years. That way, you could stand up at your retirement party and announce that one of their Admirals is gay and proud, and served with distinction for all those years. Really stir up their preconceived notions. Maybe write a book..."
"Yeah, well, sorry but I don't have the qualifications."
"I could always go back and rewrite history," Sam suggested wickedly. As I glared at him, he continued. "No, that wouldn't work. If you as a gay man was anything like you are as a heterosexual man... you'd have been discovered and kicked out years ago."
"Leavenworth for sure," I agreed.
"Al..." Sam swung his whole body around, sitting Indian-style, facing me. "I don't think your decision is that difficult. I know you. I know how you're feeling right now, standing by and knowing what's going on but not doing anything to fight against it. And yes, they'd like you to retire anyway. It's not the end, just retiring from the Navy," he pointed out, touching my arm in support and emphasis. "You're still a scientist, an engineer. And science is the one field where age is still seen as wisdom. Look at some of those ancient geezers," he joked, then turned serious again. "It could be just the beginning for you, a whole new direction to go in."
"I hear what you're saying. It's just... there's so many endings lately," I mumbled.
"Like the leaping?" Sam asked quietly.
"Hey – I'm glad you're home and I don't want you going anywhere near the accelerator again," I said sternly, reassuringly. "It's all these sudden changes."
I hadn't meant to blurt out all of it; hadn't even realized what was lurking inside of me until then. But it all came pouring out anyway. "The Navy wants me out, and now I don't have any excuses to fight with – don't even think I could stomach staying in. I'm no longer completely indispensable to the project the way I was before. You don't need me any more..."
"Oh Al," Sam sighed, and enveloped me in a hug. "I'll always need you. Why do you think I was looking for you?" he whispered into my ear.
"...Me needing your guidance instead of the other way around," I continued, but more lightly. "It's hell on the old equilibrium."
"I'll get you a new one," Sam promised, meaning it, smiling at me. And at that moment... I swear, the sun came out. It all crashed down on me. I realized how much I'd missed him.
With hindsight, I now know that was the very moment I fell in love with Sam. No, that's ridiculous. No such thing as love at first sight, and especially not with someone you've known for twenty years. Common sense tells you something like that must have been nurtured for many years, growing ever closer to fruition. Or dormant, waiting for some spark, some random and coincidental pattern of events to bring the right molecules together. Like a leap into a gay cadet, a certain book left on my desk. It wasn't even the moment I realized I was in love, for I entertained no such thoughts that night...consciously. But something happened. Some subtle change that I knew, felt. But didn't yet understand.
I guess you could say things got back on a more familiar keel after that. We spent more time together, I lightened up on myself about the gay thing. Except Sam was still a bit... distracted. Distant. Beeks said it was normal, getting his feet back under him, taking charge of his life again. Ironic that the more self-sufficient he became, the more the ground under my feet turned to sand. I was losing my footing, afraid of falling. If there was a whole new world waiting for me... well, it terrified me. Too many choices, not enough stability.
What scared me most was not being needed. I'm sure Verbena would have had a field day with that one, had I confided it to her. But it sure as hell put one thing in perspective – I intended to hold on tight to what little I had left of the life I had come to depend on like a security blanket. Drag out the process of retiring as long as I possibly could. Let some young dragon-slayer make a difference, fight the battles...it was enough just to fight my own personal battles.
A couple of weeks after our talk, Washington wanted us to deliver some preliminary conclusions, and they wanted them in person. Wanted to meet with their genius scientist whom they hadn't seen in four years. I'm surprised it took them so long to get around to it.
When I asked Sam if Donna would be accompanying us, he said no and nothing else. I'd heard the gossip, I spent my share of time hanging around the secretarial pool, angling to be invited in for a dip. I was determined to find out at some point if it was true, and repay Sam with a sympathetic ear and maybe some well placed advice.
Drooling for it, you might say. Pathetic, perhaps, hoping your best friend was having marital problems you could help him fix, and thus be needed again.
After a long, boring day with Congress, we were finally free for the evening. I suggested we go to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, but Sam was exhausted and wanted to just go back and order room service. He never has had the constitution or temperament for these grueling hours of sitting around explaining himself.
There wasn't much conversation during dinner, small talk and some discussion about the meetings, in between cursory attention to the TV news. Sam pushed his half-finished meal away and let himself fall backwards on his bed.
"Tired?" I asked.
"Yeah, the lousy kind. The tired you get when you've been doing nothing all day. Those crummy chairs are murder on the back," he commented.
"Why don't you take a hot bath?" I suggested. When he didn't answer, I decided a few hints were in order. "Everything else okay?" He turned his head, taking a long look at me. "How come Donna didn't come along?" I asked with fake nonchalance.
Sam dropped the bombshell abruptly. "Donna and I are separated."
I stared at him, stunned by the revelation. Yes, I'd heard the rumors floating around the project, but never expected anything this drastic. As I was digesting that, I was jolted anew at the concept of something so big happening in Sam's life without me being in on it from the beginning. Was it true he didn't need me anymore? Or was there another reason for his silence?
"What happened?" I finally asked, keeping my composure and my feelings firmly to myself.
Sam shrugged, studying the ceiling. "Four years of being apart and growing apart."
I could understand that. Very few marriages survive the stretch, mine hadn't. It was a long time, and people change. Especially with the things Sam had endured. He wasn't the same innocent spoiled golden boy who'd taken that first fateful leap.
Was that the problem? Had he and I grown apart as well?
"Do you think you'll work things out?"
"No." Final. Conviction...
What good finally having Donna gone, if the distance was there anyway? Stray, odd thoughts like that invading my conscious mind should have tipped me off about the direction of my path, but as I'd already found out, I could be incredibly blind.
Sam's long years of leaping had taken a toll on his marriage. I began to fret about the toll they might have taken on our friendship. Sam had never needed much prompting from me once he began telling me about a problem, on the contrary, he had always sought me out to confide in. Now however, he seemed disinclined to open up. After our reassuring talk that night he found me in the gay bar, I was ill-prepared for this new realization.
I decided I needed to sort out my thoughts, in private. "If you're not gonna take that bath, maybe I'll grab a shower."
"Donna used to like taking baths together," Sam began relating. "She'd put candles all over the bathroom, some bath oil in the water. It was nice..." he said wistfully.
Should I take this as a sign he did want to talk? "You miss her," I said, somewhere between a question and a statement.
Sam shook his head and glanced at me, his eyes finally showing a bit of emotion. "l miss... having someone," he said.
Loneliness was something else I could identify with. "I don't want to butt into your private life or anything, but if you want to talk, just remember...I'm here."
Sam looked taken aback and I cursed myself, having the feeling he'd read the selfish insecurity lurking beneath my words. He slipped off his bed and crawled onto mine. "It's not that..." he began almost pleadingly. "I still care for Donna, but I can't stay married to her anymore." He looked down, then met my eyes. "There's someone else I want to be with more."
If the world had opened up and swallowed me, I don't think I would have noticed. Maybe it had. I went from needing a seeing eye dog to needing sunglasses... well, in the blink of an eye.
Sam sat back on his haunches. Waiting for me to say something.
"Oh," I said in a small voice.
Everything – why Sam hadn't wanted to confide in me, what he was telling me now, how my own path had led me here... all ninety-six percent of it suddenly made perfect sense. It was that other four percent that worried me. "When did... this happen?" I asked haltingly, needing to get my record up a bit. At least to ninety-seven.
I admired Sam's calmness. Wondered if it was only on the outside, like mine. "I think I started realizing while I was still leaping. Then these weeks back with Donna, I couldn't deny how wrong it felt. I wasn't anxious to tell you," he admitted. "But I've always been honest with you. And I didn't want you to think I wasn't confiding in you because... well, you know. I hope you're not too shocked," he finally mumbled and fell silent.
I stared at him, immersed in the implications of how things could have worked out, in another reality. He didn't know how I was going to react, but he knew I'd at least be understanding. Because of that fateful leap, and the fact of what I'd learned (that Donna had been an unwitting, instigating factor in getting her husband together with his best friend was an ironic little twist). If not for that, how would Sam have suffered, in silence, afraid I'd be disgusted with him if I knew his true feelings?
I didn't ask him if he'd felt that way about me back then. I didn't want to know.
"I'd never want you to do anything you didn't want to do or... just on my account,” Sam said, still keeping eye contact.
"But?" I prompted. I felt a bit guilty at making him do all the work, but it had to be him, couldn't be me.
"I know this is a far cry from just learning to accept differences, but we've become so much closer since I began leaping. We've shared so much. I think we could be really good together," his bravado finally wore out and he lowered his eyes. "If you'd like to try."
It had taken a lot of courage, and I felt a rush of pride. "I guess there's only one way to test your hypothesis," I said, reaching up and turning off the lamp over my bed. The only light now was the one from the parking lot, shining in through the crack in the curtains. I think we both relaxed once the darkness descended to provide a modicum of illusionary cover.
I slid my hands up his thighs...god help me, I was suddenly bold!
"I need to know why you're doing this," Sam said, sounding breathless.
I considered my answer, and how good it felt to be touching him like this.
"Because you love me," I continued on without pause, before the interruption I knew would come, "because you're right, we've shared just about everything...except this. Because I've never been closer to another human being in my life... I don't think I've ever cared for anyone more," I admitted, although my tongue still refused to use the L-word, though it was undeniably true. "Because I need to know," I finished. To find out if the potential could be much more, and most importantly...because, although the logical part of my brain could think of several reasons why it might be a bad idea, my heart could find not one good enough reason not to. I remembered Verbena's words to me.
When you make a decision from your heart, your gut, it will be the right one....
I paused, not wanting to scare Sam... either of us...off.
Eventually Sam's hands came up, closing around my upper arms. "It still feels strange... being able to touch you," he murmured.
"You think it feels strange now," I quipped. Nervousness sometimes makes me make jokes.
We moved closer to each other. I'd changed from my uniform to a pair of pajamas before dinner, Sam was wearing sweat pants and a 'sawed off' sweat shirt. His hands came up to unbutton my top. They were shaking.
I took both of them in my own. "I don't think either of us has to be afraid of each other," I said softly. "We've been through too much together for that.”
“Oh, Al...." Sam sighed the familiar litany which could be affection or expletive, depending on the situation. Then his lips covered mine.
I closed my eyes and leaned into the kiss. It was sweeter than honey, encompassing my whole being, singing through me. Even if I had had them, no doubt could withstand the feeling growing between us.
"Was it okay?" Sam asked when we'd parted, apparently intending to check with me every step of the way.
"Nice," I murmured, sliding my hands under his shirt to rub circles over his chest. My hands yearned to roam, to explore this new and surprisingly inviting territory.
Sam leaned back slightly. "Feels good," he breathed.
Encouraged and restless, I lifted his shirt over his head, tossing it on the floor. It was a bit disconcerting to be faced with those impressive shoulders, but they were Sam's. And so far, he was anything but intimidating.
Then I remembered my musings a few months ago. About fragile masculinity. Decided mine was solid enough to withstand making love to another man – even a man bigger than me – when it was the man I cared for more than anything in the world.
"Let's lay down," I suggested, shedding my own top, the faint stirrings in my groin getting stronger in agreement.
We lay down close together, touching, getting used to the sensations gradually. Sharing kisses that we'd become expert at already; we both moaned loudly the first time our tongues met, and after that I had no doubt at all that certain parts of my anatomy would be able to respond to this.
"I've never done this before either," Sam told me in a hushed voice.
"Good," I responded. I reached down and cupped the warm bulge through the soft cotton of his pants.
He caught his breath on my name. Feeling that bulge grow beneath my fingers because I was caressing it, kind of went to my head...or one of them. The old ego, still fully in place. Where Sam had been making all the first moves, I seemed ready and willing to take over now. I tugged at his pants and he got the message, taking over so I could get rid of my own.
When we were both naked, Sam appraised me openly, while blushing furiously and endearingly. I pulled him closer and we kissed again. This time, our naked bodies pressed together and heightened the sensations. We automatically began to rock against each other, enjoying those sensations for awhile. Then I reached between our bodies and grasped his cock, fondling it more lovingly than I would have thought myself capable of.
Sam moaned in desire, fumbling to get to mine and return the pleasure. I moved back a bit to allow it. Fire curled in my belly as his long fingers wrapped around my erection. My nerve endings were ultra-sensitive, every minute sensation magnified.
We kissed and caressed in the ultimate sharing, bringing each other closer to the brink of release. The outside world ceased to exist, there was just us. Us and the love between us.
I absorbed every sigh, every sound and movement of his body into mine, like an echo. Finally, it built until there could be no holding back. I felt him stiffen as my own release spilled over onto his hand.
For long moments, neither of us said anything or moved, recovering. Then, I reached around his back, pressing my face against his chest as tenderness washed over me. His arms tightened around me in response. "I love you, Sam," I said, kissing the skin under my mouth.
Sam pushed us back to look into my eyes; his were glistening with wetness, and so beautiful. "I love you, too," he told me.
It almost overwhelmed me at that point. That Sam was there, in my arms. That he'd be there from that moment forward. Needing me as I needed him, being there for each other, come what may. I finally found something I'd been looking for all my life, without ever really realizing it. What we had together was real.
What we had together was forever.