“What are you babbling about?”
“Three Men and a Baby. You remember the movie. Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, and Steve Guttenberg were all single and sharing an apartment and nobody worried about their sexual preferences. And what about Oscar and Felix on The Odd Couple? Murray the cop never thought they were getting it on.”
No messages on the machine. Max hung up the phone. “You’re a nag.”
“And trim your mustache already. You look like Gene Shalit.”
“Nag, nag. Did you feed Simon yet?”
“A few minutes ago. He ate eight goldfish the other day and he’s downing another half dozen now. Want to watch?”
“I think I’ll pass.”
Lenny shrugged. “He’s your snake.”
Max had bought Simon, a harmless garden snake, on a whim two years ago. He thought it would be kind of cool to own a pet snake. Max, however, had overlooked one small problem—he was scared to death of snakes. He loved Simon, liked to watch him slide about his cage and slither up to the screen on the top. But he was afraid to touch him—or go near him, for that matter. And worse, the only thing Simon ate were live goldfish, which he caught in his laser-quick mouth and swallowed whole. You could actually see the outline of the struggling fish as it slid down Simon’s thin body.
Luckily, Lenny had taken a liking to Simon—a rather sick liking, as a matter of fact. Lenny enjoyed inviting friends over to watch the feeding; they bet on which fish would be the last one eaten.
The doorbell rang. Lenny opened the door, paid the delivery boy, and brought the pizza into the den. Max watched him, remembering how his life had changed when he first saw Lenny’s gentle eyes seven years ago: 1984, a year of transition. The nights of anonymous sex, orgies in SoHo, leather bars, and Caligula-like bathhouses were beginning to melt away under the blistering heat of the AIDS epidemic. Though he had lived in constant fear of being found out, Max had participated in it all. How many lovers had he had? He had lost count. How many friends had he lost to the AIDS virus? On that number too he had lost count. So many taken away, and now the dead were little more than a blurry blend of faces, vivacious young men whose lives had been suddenly, painfully, snuffed out. They were gone now and too often forgotten.
Why, Max wondered, did we all gorge ourselves on nameless, faceless sex? Was it merely for the physical thrill or was there something more? Were we trying to rebel? Or were we just releasing the pent-up anxieties of living too repressed for years in a straight society? What were we looking for in that mass of flesh? Or more important, what were we running away from?
Over the past seven years Bernstein had had more than twenty AIDS tests performed on himself—all under assumed names and all negative. A stroke of luck and yet sometimes he felt guilty for not having contracted the virus, like an Auschwitz survivor wondering why he was still alive.
Lenny, on the other hand, had come from a conservative family. He married his high school sweetheart at the age of nineteen and they had a daughter a year later. He tried to suppress and deny his true sexual orientation, and for a while it worked. But by the fourth year of their marriage, he and his wife, Emily, knew that the heterosexual facade had finally cracked and broken away. The truth was revealed to their families, and Emily and Lenny parted as friends.
Max turned on the television. The two sat quietly on the couch, watching the television and holding hands.
Lenny leaned his head on Max’s shoulder. “I’m the best thing that ever happened to you, you know.”
“Yeah, I guess you are.”
A few minutes later they watched Michael and Sara walk toward the podium.
“DAD?” Cassandra called.
John Lowell did not respond. He continued to stare down at the old photograph.
“What are you looking at?” she asked softly.
He sighed deeply and placed the photograph down gently as though it were delicate porcelain. “Nothing,” he replied.
Cassandra crossed the room. As she suspected, her father had been staring at a picture of her mother. Tears flooded her eyes. “I miss her too,” she said.
“She loved you very much, Cassandra. She wanted you to be happy.”
Cassandra nodded, reaching out her hand and touching the image of her mother. “Sara just called.”
“Where has she been?”
“She wouldn’t say. She said we’d find out on NewsFlash.”
“On NewsFlash? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
John reached out, and for the first time in many years father and daughter embraced. Cassandra snuggled closer, feeling the wool sweater brush up against her. For a moment she forgot about the letters she had found in his desk. She forgot about Reverend Sanders’ voice in her father’s study, and she even forgot her own crazy suspicions. He was her father. She felt so right in his arms, like a small child again, so safe and warm and content and yet . . .
“You’re my whole world,” he whispered. “You and Sara.”
They clung to each other with an odd sort of need. The need was surprisingly strong, like a ravenous hunger that grew as you ate. Neither spoke, but they both knew that they were thinking the same thing. They could not say how they knew each other’s thoughts, nor could they explain the awful feeling of doom that permeated the room. This should have been a happy, tender moment, but something was lurking around the corner, something that wanted to rip and shred and destroy.
Cassandra broke away and they looked at each other uncomfortably, as though they shared an embarrassing secret. “The show’s coming on.”
“Right,” he said.
They left the room then, no longer holding hands or even touching. Still, the warmth of his embrace stayed with Cassandra like a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She watched her father turn on the television and felt a wave of love overwhelm her. He was such a gentle man, she told herself, a man who had dedicated his entire life to healing others. He would never hurt anyone. Never. She was sure of it. Positive. Her suspicions were nonsense. After all, a couple of letters and a meeting with Reverend Sanders hardly meant he was guilty of some sort of wrongdoing. As a matter of fact it meant nothing at all. She was glad that she had not told Harvey about the letters, that she had not betrayed her own father’s trust.
Cassandra sat back now, relieved, confident, and trying like hell to ignore the irritating voice of doubt that still echoed in her head.
FLASHBULBS worked like a strobe light, giving the illusion that Sara and Michael were moving in slow motion. They reached the podium together. Michael stepped forward while Sara stood behind him and to the side. Michael’s head was lowered, his eyes closed. A few moments later he lifted his head high and faced the crowded room of reporters.