Mark and I had made plans for the Labor Day weekend. On Saturday, I was to go to his house and from there with him to the beach. Grandma was going to pick us up and bring us back to the apartment where we would all have supper together. On Sunday, we both had to do some last minute shopping for school supplies so we wouldn't see each other. On Monday, I would go to his house and then again to the beach for a final summer fling. That evening we would have dinner at his house.
I got to Mark's house as usual about 9:00 AM on Saturday and we walked to the beach, where we spread out our towels and went into the water. It was quite warm for ocean water, so we stayed in for a long time. Finally emerging, we dried off and sunbathed, talking idly.
The beach was full of kids, many of them about our age. We looked them over, giving them ratings from one to ten, with ten being the most attractive. We did both the boys and the girls, even though we weren't really attracted to the girls. There were a few really hot boys but they seemed to be taken by girls.
As we lay there, two girls walked past. One of them stopped, looked at Mark, and said, "Hiya, cutie."
Without even thinking, I blurted out, "He's taken!"
The girl raised her eyebrows in surprise, looked at us both, and said sarcastically, "Well, excuse me!" before they walked on.
Mark laughed out loud. "It appears that maybe you've let the proverbial cat out of the proverbial bag," he chuckled.
"I'm sorry, Mark. I just didn't think."
"It doesn't really matter to me. After all I'm 'out'. It's you I'm a little worried for."
I assured him that I had never seen the girl before and I didn't think there would be a problem in Mashpee.
We spent the rest of the morning at the beach, swimming and sunbathing, and then walked back to Mark's for lunch. After lunch, we decided the beach was getting too crowded so we stayed and swam in the pool for awhile. I was making good progress with my crawl stroke, and I could see some changes in my shoulders and chest too when I examined myself each morning in the mirror.
Later we went up to Mark's room, took a shower together, and sixty-nined happily on his bed. When we finished, we lay front to front and gently rubbed each others' backs.
"Richard," said Mark, "have you ever thought about fucking?"
"Do you mean like in the ass?"
"Yeah, I've thought about it. I wonder if it hurts or if it really feels good."
"Well," Mark continued, "I've read that it can hurt a little at first but once you relax and get used to it, it feels great."
"Are you saying you want to try it?" I asked.
"Yes, I think I do. But before we do, I need to get some cream or jelly from the drugstore."
"Jelly! What flavor?"
"Not that kind of jelly. It's a lubricant to make fucking easier."
"OK. So why don't you get some and we can try it on Monday."
"Sounds like a plan," he said.
Even thinking about it had gotten us turned on again, so we sixty-nined again, working very slowly and letting things build up gradually. A couple of times we stopped and withdrew for a few minutes to prolong the feelings. Finally, we just got too hot and both came simultaneously. Mark gave a long sigh, and lay back. I pulled up again beside him and we spent some time just kissing and tonguing each other all over. Eventually, we went back in the shower, dried off, and got dressed.
When we went downstairs, Grandma was already there to take us to the apartment. The ride, as always, was a short one. This was the first time Mark had been to the apartment since my birthday party, and I was praying fervently that everything would go well. While Grandma made supper, Mark and I sat on the front porch. I returned his copies of The Lord of the Rings, and told him again how much I had enjoyed the whole trilogy. He asked me what I was reading now, so I told him a little about The Sword in the Stone, which I had just started.
We had a delicious supper. Tim was on his best behavior, keeping up a lively conversation with Mark, while Joey, who had by now grown devoted to Mark, gazed at him with awe.
During the meal, Joey asked, "Mark, how did you get that bruise on your arm?"
Looking at it, Mark said, "I didn't even know I had one."
"There's another one on your neck," put in Tim.
"That's funny. Richard, did you notice anything when we were changing clothes?"
I shook my head.
"I guess I must have bumped into something without realizing it," Mark decided.
After supper, complete with ice cream from Polar Caves, we went out front again. Mark sank into a chair and said, "You, know, I'm really not feeling so good."
"Was it something you ate?"
"No, it's not that kind of feeling. It's more like I have a fever or something."
"Do you think you should go home?"
"I hate to break this up so early, but maybe I should."
Grandma drove us back to Mark's house. We went up to the door so she could tell Mrs. Russell what had happened. Mrs. Russell thanked us and said she was sure it was nothing and they would see me on Monday.
Monday morning, we drove to Mark's house. As we entered his short street, an ambulance and the Russells' car pulled away from his house and went tearing past us. Seeing Christian and Peter in the Russells' driveway, Grandma drove up, opened the car window, and asked what had happened. They suggested that we go over to their house where we could sit and have a cup of coffee.
All I could think of was that Mark was sicker and that they had taken him to the hospital. We walked to the patio and Peter went in to get the coffee. When we were all settled, Christopher said, "In the short term, the problem is that Mark very quickly developed pneumonia after he left you on Saturday. All day Sunday he kept getting worse, and this morning, the Russells decided to take him to the hospital."
"Where are they taking him," I asked, "Hyannis?"
Peter answered, "No, they're taking him to the Dana Farber Institute in Boston."
"But that's for cancer," Grandma said. "I thought he had pneumonia."
"He does. Richard, what do you know about Mark's health history?"
A little cold hand clutched my heart. "Nothing. He's never mentioned it."
"OK," Peter went on. "This is going to come as something of a shock to you. When Mark was about two, he developed leukemia, and he was sick for a long time."
"What's leukemia?" I asked, but even as I asked it, I knew the answer.
Christian said, "It's a cancer that affects the bone marrow. Usually, too many sickly white blood cells get produced in the blood and they push out the red ones. Since the red ones take oxygen through the body, the body begins to be starved for oxygen. Often the first noticeable symptoms are bruising and infections, such as pneumonia, caused by the immune system being affected. So the Russells believe, because of the bruising and the pneumonia, that his cancer has probably come back."
A scream exploded inside my head. All the joy that Mark and I had built up over the summer suddenly came crashing down around me. I sat there, stunned.
Finally, very quietly, I asked, "Is he going to be OK?"
Peter said, "Richard, at this point nobody knows. First they'll have to get the pneumonia under control. If they can do that, then they'll have to start treating the cancer."
"But wasn't he cured when he had it before?"
"There is no real cure. What happened was that the leukemia eventually went into remission. That means that all of the damaged blood cells had been killed, but unfortunately, the cancer can return. Nobody knows how, or why; it just happens."
"OK, so if it went into remission before, can't they get it to do that again?"
"That's what they'll try to do, but, to be honest, Richard, they aren't always successful."
"But somebody HAS to!" By now I was getting frantic. What they had told me was that Mark was very sick, that he might get better, but that he might not. I knew that if he didn't he would die, but I simply couldn't say that out loud.
"They don't," put in Christian. "The doctors have learned a great deal about cancer, even since Mark had it thirteen years ago, but there's still too much that they don't know. The only thing we can tell you is that the Dana Farber is one of the best places in the world for him to be. If anybody can help him, they will."
It wasn't until I was in the car heading to the apartment that I began to cry, great, silent tears flowing out of my eyes and down my face. How can this be happening? I wondered. Two days ago we went swimming and had wonderful sex, and today he might be dying.
As if reading my thoughts, Grandma said, "Richard, don't dwell on what might happen. Dwell on the good that could happen. There's not a thing you or I can do about it except pray that he gets better."
All that day and night, I was miserable. I was hoping we would hear from the Russells, but of course we didn't. I'm sure they were too busy getting things set up for Mark.
School began the next day, my first day in high school. What should have been a happy time became terrible. I couldn't concentrate on anything the teachers were saying. Sometimes, a teacher would call on me and I wasn't even aware of it. Kids began to laugh and call me "Space Shot." When I got home, things were no better. We still hadn't heard a word.
On Thursday evening, the phone rang and Grandma answered. "How is he?" she asked, and then listened. "Well good," she said. "I guess that's the first step. What happens next?" She listened again. "And how long will that take?" She listened. "Oh, I see. Can Richard talk with you? He's sitting here dying a thousand deaths."
I took the phone from her. "Hello? How's Mark?"
"Hello, Richard," Mr. Russell said. "It appears they've gotten the pneumonia under control. When that's gone, they'll start treatment. Richard, how much do you know?"
"I only know what Peter and Christian told us, that he has leukemia, that he's had it before, and that it was in remission. How do they treat it?"
"Well, the simple answer is with chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, but they can't start that until he's a little stronger. Do you know about chemotherapy?"
"OK, simply put, it's a sort of cocktail of very strong drugs which are supposed to kill the bad cells in the body. It takes quite a while, so, in the best possible scenario, Mark will be here for several months. I will be traveling back to the Cape in a few days to work, and Mark's mother will stay in Boston. When I go back to Boston, I'll take Mark's cell phone and then he and you can talk. That might make you both feel better."
"Yes, sir," I said gratefully. "I'm sure it will."
"Sometime, when he's up to it, I'll take you up to Boston to see him, but for now he's just too sick to have visitors. Is there anything else I can tell you, Richard?"
"No, sir. Just give him a lot of hugs from me and tell him that I love him."
"I will. Of course he already knows that. The men in the ambulance told us that, all the way here, he was worrying about you. I'll tell him I talked with you and he'll see you soon. Shall I?"
"Yes, and thank you so much. Please call as often as you can."
"I'll do that. Goodbye, Richard."
I said goodbye and hung up the phone. Then I collapsed onto Grandma. She didn't say anything. She just kept hugging me and stroking my hair the way she did when we first moved to Mashpee.
Over the next weeks, I remembered what we had said before about time flying by when you're having fun and not moving when you're unhappy. That's how the days went. They dragged. I knew I was doing terribly in school and I wasn't getting half my work done. I think Grandma took a little time off to go to the school and tell my counselor what was happening, because my counselor checked on me every day, and I often saw him talking with the teachers. None of the teachers nagged me for my work. They just accepted what I could do and graded it very generously.
Two weeks after Mark went to the hospital, the phone rang again. This time I answered, and the familiar voice said, "Hello. What are you up to?" as though there was nothing wrong.
"Mark!" I shouted. "It's so good to hear your voice!"
"I'm glad you're happy, but you don't have to shout into my ear."
We talked and talked. He sounded perfectly normal. At one point he asked, "Do you want to know something odd?"
When I said I did he went on, "I didn't remember anything about having leukemia before. I didn't remember anything about the hospital, or being sick, or having treatments and tests. None of it. But when they wheeled me into my room on the first day, I knew I'd been here before. Isn't that strange?"
I agreed that it was.
"Hey, Richard. What do you call a gay dentist?"
Oh no, I thought, he's back to his corny jokes. Then aloud I said, "I don't know, Mark, what do you call a gay dentist?""A tooth fairy."
I groaned appreciatively.
"Richard, I don't want you to worry about me. I beat this before and I'm going to do it again. I'm not going to let it get me down."
"Good for you, Mark. I'm praying for you.""I know," he said. Before I could ask him how he knew, he said, "Oops. Here's the doctor. I guess I have to hang up for now."
So we did.
After that, we talked nearly every day. When I didn't hear from him, I worried. But when we did talk, he always sounded so cheerful that I began to feel everything was going to be alright.