For a moment, Crispin Hughes has to process the newsfeed on the small TV in their breakfast nook. Then he takes a deep breath and bellows, “T.J.!”
T.J. Hammond pelts down the stairs at the urgent tone of the summons.
“What’s wrong?” he demands. His shirt is on, but not buttoned, his tie is slung loosely around his neck.
His husband points to the screen where anchor Georgia Gibbons is informing the world of the death of Congressman Sean Reeves, an apparent suicide.
“Damn,” T.J. says. His blue eyes follow the crawler under the broadcast, while his fingers are busy completing the act of dressing.
“Is that all you’re going to say?”
Crispin is staring at him. T.J. shrugs. “I don’t know what you want me to say, Cris. That was over a long time ago--you know that.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Bother me? I don’t know if ‘bother’ is the right word….” At Crispin’s continued gaze, T.J. sighs and continues. “Look, I feel bad for his family. Hell, I feel sorry for him--and I think it’s damn ironic, all things considered--since it could have been me, because of him. Was that what you wanted to know?”
“I just wondered--how the hell do you do that?” The second half of the question is delivered in a completely different tone of voice.
“Ten seconds ago, you were half-dressed, and now you’re perfectly put together, even your tie is perfect--how the hell do you do that? It’s like a magic act on a good day, and today--” His wave includes the TV set and T.J., and he looks baffled.
T.J. laughs, which seems to shock him. “Good grief, I learned how to tie a tie before I even learned how to tie my shoes. I could probably do it in my sleep.”
“I know you were over him, if I didn’t I would never have married you--”
“Okay, so what’s the problem? I’m sorry if I’m being thick--is there coffee?” T.J. helps himself to a cup, then studies Crispin for a moment as he sips it. In another lifetime, Crispin was his NA sponsor. He knows T.J. better than anyone else on earth. “Look, there was no unfinished business there. Not on my side, anyway. I saw him one time, in public, with his wife…he was scared I was going to out him, and I felt…nothing. No lingering warm fuzzy feelings, no regret, no resentment. Maybe a little sorry for the poor closeted S.O.B., but…not my circus, not my monkeys, you know?”
“Do you think that’s why he did it? Because he couldn’t stand it any more?”
“Either that, or someone was twisting his arm behind the scenes and he couldn’t face the idea of being outed--it wouldn’t be the first time that happened.”
The other man is still looking toward the TV with a stricken expression, so T.J. sets down his cup and gives him a hug. “No,” he says firmly, with sudden intuition about why Crispin is really worried. “I’m fine. This isn’t going to trigger me. Yes, there was a time I thought I couldn’t live without him, but look at me, alive and well.”
Crispin thumbs the ‘off’ button on the remote and hugs him back.
Chapter 2: Flowers for the Living
T.J. visits his mother.
The Oval Office isn’t much different than T.J. recalls it from his dad’s tenure. His mom looks surprised to see him--from the neutrality of her assistant’s call, she’d probably been expecting Douglas--but she smiles, glancing at the flowers he carries. He sets the lead-crystal vase down on the credenza--Never on her desk! It might tip over and ruin something vital!--and hugs her tenderly.
She’s lost weight, gone from slender to almost gaunt. No one ever said the Presidency wasn’t stressful. The White House has the best chefs in the country, but that only helps if President Elaine Barrish eats what they cook. Today, she looks worn particularly thin, probably by the news about Sean Reeves.
His mother looks from him to the blossoms--it’s a gorgeous arrangement of white roses and white tulips with a minimum of greenery. “They’re lovely, sweetheart. What’s the occasion?”
T.J. takes a deep breath. “I just wanted to say I was wrong and I’m sorry and thank you.”
There’s a flicker of panic in her expression that he understands all too well. What is he apologizing for? What has he done this time? Can we keep it out of the news? Those days are over, but he still awakens that reflex, he realizes guiltily.
“Sean Reeves,” he says, and sees her flinch. She studies him for a moment, no doubt wondering if he’s going to crumble. He isn’t.
“We don’t know, yet, why…it happened,” she says.
“That doesn’t matter, at least not to me,” he tells her. “But hearing the news made me think. That was almost me, Mama.”
His mother nods, a jerky up-and-down motion of her head, brown eyes wide, not leaving his. Clearly, she remembers all too well, has probably replayed that scene a thousand times in her nightmares.
“One time, when I was being a little snot, I told you I’d never thank you for saving my life. Do you remember that? Well, I was wrong. Thank you very much for saving my life and I’m sorry for the Hell I put you and Daddy though while I realized I was worth saving.”
She gasps, then she’s holding him tightly and sobbing against his broad chest. His big hand pats her back gently, mindful of how delicate she is. It’s coming up on six years since that horrible night in December, and that’s a lifetime ago in more ways than one. His mother is the most powerful woman in the world; she has enough to worry about…but she doesn’t need to worry about him anymore….
The door to the Oval opens and in strides Douglas Hammond. He looks from T.J. and their weeping mother to the expensive bouquet and frowns. “Oh God--T.J., what have you done now?”
Elaine pulls herself up to her full height and glares at the intruder. “Apologize this minute, Douglas!” she orders him with a sniffle.
“What--but he--you’re crying!”
“My son very thoughtfully brought me flowers!” she snaps, her facade back in place. T.J. tries not to grin at the expression on his twin’s face. “When is the last time you did that? Thomas, stop smirking!”
T.J. laughs out loud. “I need to get back to the store. Have a better day, Mom!” He kisses her cheek. “See you, Douggie!” With that he departs, satisfied that he’s finally made a long-overdue amends.
Chapter 3: Better Late
T.J. reaches out; Crispin supports him.
The townhouse is quiet after dinner. Crispin has a stack of papers he’s grading, while T.J. sits at his desk with a stack of Music Box stationery, tapping the barrel of his pen against his full lower lip.
He’s done this before, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Making an amends to the living is difficult, but to the dead? What’s the best way to go about this? T.J. knows his affair with Sean Reeves was wrong, but if Carol Reeves isn’t aware of her husband’s infidelity, the last thing he wants to do is add to her pain at a time like this.
Crispin chortles and reads from an essay: his student had meant to compare and contrast ‘Walden’ by Thoreau with Walden College from ‘Doonesbury’, but instead had confused it with ‘Bloom County’. “There were no penguins at Walden Pond! Thoreau predicted climate change!”
That’s funny. T.J. smiles. His own college days are a drugged-out blur, but his husband’s enthusiasm for his subject has been educational all by itself.
Okay, this is a simple courtesy letter. He doesn’t need to spill his guts, just be polite….
Dear Mrs. Reeves,
My husband and I were saddened to hear of the death of your husband. Our sympathies are with you and your family at this difficult time.
If there is anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Thomas J. Hammond
He shows the letter to Crispin, who scans it with raised eyebrows. “Simple and to the point,” he comments. “You might change that to ‘anything we can do to help’. I’ll sign it, too.”
“You’d do that? You know my history--”
“Ancient history. Right?” The affair happened long before he became T.J.’s sponsor, but he’s heard the excruciating details. It’s one of the reasons Crispin was adamant about them not getting involved, but watching the metamorphosis of T.J. Hammond from childish and entitled to mature and thoughtful gradually changed his mind. Finally, he’d told T.J. to find another sponsor. They’ve been married for two years now, and it’s good.
“Why do I feel guilty?” T.J. blurts. “I didn’t do anything to him! I haven’t seen in him in forever! I certainly didn’t make him end his own life--so why?”
“Survivor’s guilt,” Crispin suggests. He’s familiar with that himself. “And because you’ve been there. You know how much pain it takes to get to that point.” A long, low sigh from his husband, and a nod. “You’ve got a soul, kiddo--that’s not a bad thing.”
T.J. swoops to kiss his forehead and returns to his desk. “Apparently I also have a late-blooming conscience.” He sighs ruefully and begins to redraft their letter of condolence.