The Minneapolis Northwest terminal was a hive of early morning activity. The airline dominated the city and it was literally impossible to fly in and out of the 'Cities' without using NWA. Doug and Brent were returning to Memphis on a 0900 flight, and Dave and I were on a shuttle to Chicago at 0930. After saying our 'good-byes' and seeing the Memphis-bound guys off, we waited for boarding the 737. The area was full of business-type 'road warriors' ready to ply their trade in the Windy City.
Ah, Chicago. I had called home a couple of weeks earlier and told mom about my vacation plans with a close friend for the lakes area of Minnesota. I said it was a great opportunity to stop for a visit on the way back to Memphis. I hadn't been back to my old home for almost two years.
The last time I had seen mom was at the Cornell graduation in Ithaca. My sister, Liz, was now 25 and working as a merchandising specialist for Marshall Field's. Her fiance I had met only once. He was an associate at Kirkwood Ellman, one of Chicago's international-reaching law firms. 'He'll probably be making some big bucks, some day,' I thought, 'and should be able to take care of sis.' They had announced a spring wedding.
Rick, my brother was a mystery to me. He had just turned 28 and was living in Wrigleyville with his old college roommate from Michigan State. Rick was on the floor at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a trader - one of those guys you see in pictures with funny, bright-colored smocks, waving their arms frantically. As I recalled, his roommate was a broadcast journalist for one of the local TV stations. Except for an annual Christmas card and birthday note, we hadn't spoken or seen each other for a couple of years. Funny. We had always been friendly, but never that close.
Since Dave wanted to look up Russ in the Evanston area for lunch and introduce us, I told mom that we should be in Oak Park by late afternoon. She was going to get the clan together for dinner. Liz and her fiance would be there. Rick thought he could make it with a friend. So, with mom included, there would be seven assorted Cole family members and guests. I knew mom would call a caterer.
After touching down on time at O'Hare, Mike and I collected our baggage and proceeded to the Avis counter. Mike handled the check-in process and we were on our way.
As we left the airport, the digital clock on the dashboard displayed 1105.
"I really am anxious to see Russ again. There is so much to talk about and nothing to say at the same time."
"That's kinda confusing, babe."
"I know, but hear me out." I squeezed his thigh and smiled at Mike while he drove.
"Take your time. We've got about 45 minutes before we get to the restaurant." Russ and I had arranged to meet at Maggiano's Italian restaurant located in Skokie's Old Orchard shopping center at noontime.
"He and I were very close friends, as you know, in many ways. I never actually came out to him. It just worked out that way. But he knew."
"Russ and I will be friends forever and I want to introduce you as my partner...partner for life. He'll understand."
"How does he rationalize what you guys did? That was way more than being sorta gay."
"Naw. With him it was just exploring things and doing stuff with his best friend. I understood the boundaries and respected them."
"If you say so. I know when I was a kid we all messed around a little. Y'know, circle jerks and you jack me...I'll jack you. That kind of thing. Russ and you really stretched those boundaries."
"With Russ it was safe, trusting teen horniness with a real intellectual curiosity about sex. He's going to be a great doctor," Dave said with a determined smile.
"I'm really looking forward to meeting this unique friend of yours."
We drove down the Kennedy, angled north to get to Skokie and Old Orchard and parked at 1145. Having a local Chicagoan at the wheel helped out. Mike was terrific in that crazy traffic.
Standing in the foyer of the restaurant, I was amazed how busy it was before noon. Mike and I were chatting about nothing in particular when I heard in the background, "Hey Dave, is that you?" Turning around, I saw my buddy Russ marching forward with his usual confident air.
"Russ." I opened my arms, and he glided in for a hug. Just like old times...well, almost. 'It's great to be with my oldest friend,' I thought as I pulled back and looked at him closer. "You look great."
"So do you." Scanning the tall guy to my left, Russ asked, "Who's your friend?"
"Mike Cole. Mike, say 'hi' to my lifelong pal, Russ Bennett."
Mike extended his hand and smiled broadly. Russ took it and returned the smile. "Russ, I know that you two have been best friends for a long time. I hope that you'll include me as a friend as well."
"Hey, Mike, if you're a friend of this guy, consider it a done deal." He extended his left hand and placed it on Mike's shoulder to emphasize the point. "Come on, I've got a table over here."
Walking into the dining room was like strolling back in time. The high, tin-embossed ceilings and the paneled walls with large, sepia-toned photos brought back images of an earlier Chicago. The black and white tile flooring and red and white checked tablecloths rounded out the earlier-era Italian restaurant theme.
After we sat down, the waiter took our iced tea orders while presenting the menus. When he came back with the drinks, we had decided to share the family style spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread and iceberg lettuce wedges drenched with the house Italian dressing.
"Dave, I've really missed not seeing you for so long. How goes it?"
"I think that the bad part of my life has healed. The trip to Gull Lake this weekend brought back some good memories of mom and dad. Next year, Russ, you'll have to come up for a weekend when we can all get away." I wondered if Russ picked up on the 'we'?
"I'd really like that, big guy. It's been four years since I've been up to your cabin. How much time do you have left in the Navy?"
"About 2 years. I transfer to that big-ass aircraft carrier out in San Diego next month." Russ and I had kept up regular correspondence.
Turning to Mike, he asked, "You're in the Navy, too?"
"Guilty as charged," Mike replied with a smile. "Dave and I indirectly work together. I've got a little under a year and a half to go."
"We've become great friends." I reiterated. I sensed Mike wanted to skirt any further talk about the Navy and us.
"How's med school?" Mike asked.
"Ah, Dave's been talking about me," Russ replied with a smile. "It's tough. I've never worked so hard in my life. But Northwestern is tops. I'll go through my pre-med program in both Evanston and at the Memorial Hospital teaching complex in Chicago for the next three years before transferring full-time to the Streeterville campus. In about six years, I'll be ready for internship."
"Jeez, that is a long learning curve. Must be hard on the love life?" Mike was genuinely interested.
"Yeah, tell me about it. No way to date anyone steady. I'm like a monk. Then residency. I'll be a ripe 30-year-old guy before I move into a practice," Russ said, with a wistful expression.
"No wonder the doctors charge so much." Mike playfully patted Russ's shoulder.
"Hey, I gotta pay back the 'rents' and a student loan," Russ said with a grin. "What brings you guys into town?"
"We're going to have dinner tonight with his mom and family," I answered. It was interesting watching Russ and Mike, my two best friends, verbally posturing while warming up to each other.
"Oh, you're from here?"
"Oak Park. Born at Northwestern Memorial, actually. I wanted the family to meet Dave while we were up here."
Russ frowned a little and asked, "Why do I get the feeling that there's more purpose to this trip then just catching up?"
"No one can accuse you of being slow on the uptake." I took a deep breath and continued, "You're my unofficial brother, so I wanted to introduce you to the man who has become the most important person in my life." Talk about laying my life on the table.
Russ folded his hands and looked reflectively at both of us. Mike and I stared back anxiously. He suddenly rose from the table, walked over behind me, and put his strong hands on my shoulders. After kissing me on the forehead, he said, "I'm really happy for you." Mike stood as Russ approached and received a warm hug. "Mike, take good care of this terrific guy." I smiled as I noticed Russ's head lean into Mike's chest.
"I will. This is for keeps," Mike said while looking intently at me.
"And I get a new friend as a bonus," Russ added. "If you're in Dave's life, you're in mine as well."
"Ditto," was all that Mike needed to add.
Russ was all smiles as he returned to his seat. "Am I correct that you're going to play a gay version of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, tonight?"
Relaxed, I said in a deeper tone, "Yeah, I've got to butch it up for the in-laws." I thought that Mike was going to spit iced tea everywhere as he laughed.
"If you were any more butch, we'd be driving a truck to Oak Park," Mike rejoined after wiping his mouth of the escaped beverage that was dripping from his chin.
"I hope that tonight's dinner works out as well as lunch has. Maybe I'll find someone in my life, as special, before I get out of med school," Russ concluded with a warm, secretive smile.
"You will. That right gal is out there. Just be patient," I answered with a wink. I noticed that Mike smiled like a cat that had just eaten the canary.
We continued a light, breezy conversation through lunch. I picked up the tab, and Russ left a tip. The conclusion was that we were all definitely going to stay in touch with each other and definitely get together at the lake next year. I was very relieved that everything between Russ and me was out in the open.
"I really enjoyed meeting Russ," Mike said, as we walked to the car. "He's bright and a major hottie."
"He'll make some gal a good husband once he's settled in a practice."
"Russ will be making someone a good husband, just don't be so sure it'll be a woman," Mike replied, with a smile and a raised eyebrow.
"Oh, come on now. Russ isn't gay." I looked at Mike with a questioning expression.
"I was getting blips, babe."
"Well, Davey's going to 'blip' you later tonight."
"I'm counting on it," Mike said, squeezing my hand for emphasis. I filed Mike's suspicions about Russ away for future reference. 'Hmmm,' I wondered, 'had I misread my old friend's real feelings, years ago?'
Heading south on the Edens Expressway, we hooked up to the Congress by way of shortcuts Mike knew and arrived at his family home around 1500. As we pulled up the driveway, an attractive woman in a fashionable business suit greeted us as the car stopped.
Turning to me, he said, "Well, wish me luck." He winked before getting out of the driver seat and said, "Hi, Mom. It's great to see you." He closed the door and brought his arms around this attractive woman who had an inner glow about her, not to mention a very stylized haircut and makeup. 'She is one hot lady,' I thought as I got out of the car.
After a mother-son kiss, she said, "It's been too long." Mrs. Cole turned to me as I walked around to meet her. "And this is Dave?"
"Yes, Ma'am." I offered my hand but she immediately pulled me in for a motherly hug.
"My heart is open for any friend of Mike's."
"Mom, why don't you and Dave go inside, and I'll get the bags." As they walked up the steps, hand in hand, talking in a friendly, open manner, I grabbed our stuff from the trunk and joined them inside. "Is my room in the back still in one piece?"
"Actually, it's now my office. Why don't you take the bags upstairs? Both bedrooms are available." While I was walking upstairs I heard Dave tell her about growing up in St. Paul. Knowing that Rick's old room was the largest, with a queen bed, I put the bags in there. I noticed that the dcor had changed, as well as the bed. I returned to the living room to see mom holding Dave's hands on the couch.
"I'm so sorry about your loss."
He glanced at me and replied, "Mrs. Cole, it's been a tough couple of years or so. But, I've moved on, thanks to Mike."
"First, it's Martha. Please. Second, how has my Mike helped?"
Sitting down in the easy chair across from them, I answered, "It's kind of complicated. But, that's one of the reasons that we're here." Mom momentarily looked at me with a questioning stare.
Maintaining composure, she asked, "Are you telling me that this handsome man and you are more than just friends?" I noticed that she was still holding Dave's hand.
"Yes, Mom. Much more than just friends. Dave is my partner. He's the man that I want in my life forever." I got up and moved over to the couch, sitting next to the woman who had brought me into this world 24 years ago.
She looked at me as she considered her next words. A small smile emerged as she wrapped her arms around me and said, "Baby, this doesn't quite take me by surprise. You never had any special girl friends." She tenderly kissed me.
"I tried. I really tried. But women never turned me on."
"This is going to take a little time to get used to, but I'm with gay men every day. I hate to use the old clich, but some of my best friends are gay. Single, older, in-shape straight men are a bitch to find, so my dates are usually with gay colleagues."
"This is a part of you I didn't know existed." A smirk crept over my mouth as I thought of my mom, the 'fag hag'.
"I don't sit home and knit, son. I'm usually out for dinner and movies at least once a week. On Wednesdays there's couples bridge. And occasionally I've gone dancing with friends in Boystown."
I laughed, thinking about my outings on North Halsted Street. "My mom, the disco queen," I said, "Who'd have guessed?"
Dave joined in as we all laughed.
"So, if this is the way your life has turned out, you've still got a mother to come home to." Turning to Dave, she continued, "And Dave, it looks like I've got another son. A damn good-looking one, I might add." She hugged him and Dave hugged back. I saw tears forming in his eyes.
"And maybe I've gained a new mom?" His voice was hesitant and quiet.
"Yes. And when you want to move from calling me 'Martha' to 'Mom', I'll be ready."
"Thanks...Mom." He kissed her on the cheek.
"I like that. I like that a lot, Son." She planted a light motherly kiss on his lips.
With that moment over, mother kicked into business mode. "Let me give you a rundown on tonight's dinner. Since your flight is fairly early tomorrow, we'll have cocktails at six. I'm sure that your little surprise will be accepted in a positive manner. Liz and Philip will be driving in with Rick from the North Side. His roommate, Bob Cooke, is on the early Channel 5 news. We'll probably see him here around 6:30 p.m. The caterer gets here at four and dinner will be ready at seven. So, why don't you two go upstairs and unpack. I guess Rick's old room will do for both of you?" She delivered the last part with a sly smile and a wink.
"Yeah, you might say our partnership has already been consummated." I shuffled a little as I thought, 'Yikes, did I just admit to mom that Dave and I did it?'
"Just don't wake up the neighbors tonight." That brought out another burst of laughter.
Dave and I got up and went to the hallway. "I'm going to drive him around town for a while. I want to show him some of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses and the old neighborhood. We'll be back by five so we can freshen up."
She leaned up and kissed both of us on the lips. "Have fun."
"Seriously, how is everyone else going to take this news?"
"Your sister, Liz, adores you. And Philip seems pretty sophisticated. As far as your brother Rick is concerned, we'll play that one step at a time."
"Dave, take good care of my son."
"Count on it."
We drove around this older Chicago suburb for a while. I gave Dave the rundown on the family members. Dave and I were both pleased about the outcome of lunch, and the later meeting with mom. Act three would commence at 1800. Returning as promised, we encountered a beehive of activity in the dining room and kitchen. Mom noticed us and shooed Dave and me upstairs with her hands.
She called out, "Mike, you use my bathroom to freshen up, so Dave can have the hall bath. It will be faster. I'll need you two down here in a half hour to help."
We both said in unison, "Okay, Mom."
I nudged Dave as we laughed. Entering Rick's room - it would always be Rick's room to me - I closed the door and brought my partner into a tight embrace and kissed him. "I love you, buddy."
"How much?" he asked.
"This much," I said as I kissed him again with a full tongue assault while gently groping his basket. I felt a stirring there.
"Be careful...'Davey' is getting excited."
"Let him. That was just a little welcome to the Cole homestead. Tonight, if everything goes well, we'll have plenty of time to make real love."
I found Rick's old terry-cloth robe, stripped and put it on for the short walk to mom's bedroom and bath. I also located another cloth robe of some earlier vintage for Dave. The other bath was in the hall between the two bedrooms.
By 1730, we were ready to face the family. Although we both wore khaki pants and dress shirts, we did coordinate so that we weren't wearing the same color. We also deliberately wore different styles of shoes - him in topsiders, me in tassel loafers.
Mom met us as we came down the stairway. "Well, you boys look spiffy. If you two will finish setting the table, I'll go upstairs and get ready."
Again in unison, "Yes, Mom." We grinned at each other.
Knowing mom's entertaining patterns, I knew that one wine glass was required and no water glass. But seeing a bottle of Champagne sitting in a cooler off to the side, I pulled out the long-stemmed flute glasses from the hutch. The flatware was pretty simple. I found the napkin rings and showed Dave how we prepared each place setting. The next task was to ice down the wet bar in the living room and make sure that there was plenty of glassware. Mom always had a complete bar and the various colors of wines. At around 1750, the doorbell rang. I went to the front door.
"Mike. How great to see you," Liz shouted out when the door was opened. She literally jumped into my arms.
"Hi, Sis." I kissed her lightly on the lips and turned to her fiance. "Philip, it's been too long. Congratulations, by the way, on the engagement. You've got a wonderful girl and a wacky family in your life now." We shook hands.
"Hey, little brother."
My secret idol, as long as I could remember, came up to me. "Rick, 'hi'." I put my hands on his shoulders and pulled us into a brief hug. "How are you doing?"
"Really well, but look at you. So grown up," he said with a warm smile as we all walked inside.
"Guys, I want you to meet my friend, Dave Swenson. We took a few days off to use his cabin up in Minnesota. I wanted us all to get together before