On the days I picked Kevin up after school, we often went to a coffee shop. We started doing this when he was in kindergarten—a chocolate chip cookie, milk, and homework. The tradition actually dated back further to his infancy. Our apartment was so small and noisy, I preferred to work in coffee shops. A large part of Kevin’s nap time took place in various joints in Chelsea and West Village. Since Kevin and his stroller frequently smelled like fresh grounds, Danny always knew where we had been.
While Kevin tended to his homework, I’d either read, write, or tackle the New York Times crossword. The puzzle always tempted Kevin—helping me solve the crossword was more fun and challenging than his math problems. He’d scan the clues, then shout the number, direction, and answer while pointing at the starting square. “22-down is ‘cat!’” It didn’t matter where I was in the puzzle, he’d tap the square demanding I fill it in with his answer that second.
One late spring day after school—he was in third grade—we ended up at Grounded on Jane Street, one of several Village coffee bars we frequented. The forecast called for a chance of thunderstorms. Some severe. And sure enough, right after Kevin completed his homework and we were about to leave, the skies opened. No umbrella, we waited in the entrance threshold a few minutes.
“Papa, can I get wet?” he asked.
Kevin loved playing in the rain, mostly stomping in puddles. I glanced to the sky. No lightning. No thunder. Only rain. Why not?
I opened the door and yelled “Go!”
He darted off and was halfway to the next corner before I caught up. The rest of the way home the two of us skipped through pounding sheets of rain, splashed in puddles, and dared the clouds for more. The drops pelted the ground so hard they splashed back up, creating an immersive experience of raining from above and below. We breathed in the musty, yet oddly refreshing, steam lifting off the pavement. It’s the cleansing aroma, when cold rain hits hot asphalt or concrete, that feels unique to New York City.
The sidewalk was all ours. Everyone else sought shelter in stores or under awnings. For the moment the world revolved us and the drumbeating rhythm of the rain. I watched my boy kick it up and laugh, an uninhibited romp of joy. I was in awe of him. His being. I often caught myself in the simple act of observing him. I’d been doing that since the day he came home, as if I was still trying to figure out how he became the center of our world. Like he was some kind of magnificent mystery. An unfinished puzzle. A miracle I couldn’t believe, but one I couldn’t deny.
At home, Kevin kicked off his squishy sneakers and socks, then he ran away, screaming “I betcha you can’t get my belly.” I took the bait and chased him around the apartment, allowing him to elude my grasp a few times. When I finally captured him, I threw him on the sofa, then tickled and planted a few raspberries on his belly. After a few more escapes and chases, we both ran out of steam. He collapsed on the sofa. I lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. Then, out of the blue, Kevin said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”
Was he reading new age zen books? Meditating? Later that night, I told Danny what Kevin had said. He laughed. Turned out he wasn’t a studying Buddhism after all. He was just repeating a line from Kung Fu Panda. As I recalled the day—the two of us solving the crossword, dancing in the rain, then running around the apartment—my heart smiled. And I thought how true and right he was: today is a gift.
A few years later in Spring 2013, I received an e-mail that read: “The President requests the pleasure of your company at a reception in celebration of LGBT Pride Month to be held at The White House on Thursday, June 13, 2013, at four o’clock. Southeast entrance.” It sounded like a phishing scam, so I ignored it. But the e-mail also said to expect a formal printed invitation in the mail. June was fast approaching. I’d know soon enough. A few weeks later, the formal invitation arrived. I opened the envelope and read it out loud to Danny and Kevin. It was real. And we couldn’t wait to RSVP.
We booked a hotel within walking distance of The White House. When I mentioned I didn’t own a suit to coworkers, they started, without my knowledge, a Pete-needs-a-suit-to-meet-Obama fund. My coworkers were as excited as I was about the invite. At a sendoff party later that week, they presented me with a gift, a cash contribution for me to buy some formal wear.
We arrived in DC the night before the event. The next morning, we attended a policy briefing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, then roamed the halls and took pictures. At around 3:30 pm, we got in line at the southeast entrance to The White House. We made it to the first security checkpoint when the sky turned dark and ominous. I overheard one guard say to another a tornado had been spotted in nearby Silver Springs. Then, as if on cue, the winds picked up, and seconds later the deluge came. Luckily by then we were at the front of the line, under a temporary, four-legged canopy tent. All the guests behind us scrambled for cover, but there was no place for them to go. The wind intensified. Gusts blew the rain sideways and lifted the canopy’s legs off the ground. A guard grabbed one of the legs. I grabbed another. Unfazed, the guard checking credentials asked for our identification. He compared our photos and faces, then checked our names on the guest list. We’ll be inside The White House soon, I thought, right after the storm passes.
Never in our wildest imaginations had we dreamed of being there. We had performed no spectacular feat, no courageous act, no grand artistic, scientific, or such equally groundbreaking achievement to warrant the invitation. We were just an ordinary family living ordinary lives. It felt like we had crashed a party. And yet, being there somehow made complete sense—just another experience out of the many experiences in the previous thirteen years that weren’t supposed to happen. It was surreal and, as then Vice President Biden might have said, “a big fucking deal” for us.
We gathered with other guests in the East Room and waited for President Obama to arrive. Soon, he and Vice President Biden entered and approached the podium. We were inches away, about 3 rows behind the velvet ropes separating them from us. After they said a few words, issued a proclamation recognizing Pride month, they approached the rope line. I had fantasized about one of us shaking President Obama’s hand, but we were just inches out of reach.
Now it was time to celebrate. We ate, drank, and casually strolled from room to room to take it all in. At one point, Kevin stopped in the cross hall between the State Dining Room and the Red Room to study the John F. Kennedy portrait. He turned to us and grinned. He was on the verge of saying or doing something goofy. He folded his arms and tilted his head down to mimic JFK’s pose.
That’s our boy: pensive and reflective, yet playful, pretending to be JFK. I caught a glimpse of Danny’s “how-lucky-are we” smile. It was the same smile I had seen hundreds of times before. After all these years, we still pinched ourselves about how we became a family. There was our boy, an infant who shouldn’t have been in our lives if not for the grace of fate, mimicking the stance and expression of President Kennedy in the fucking White House. I reflected on how his life—all our lives—might have played out so differently and my eyes welled up.
But I wasn’t about to cry in The White House. I snapped a picture to keep the emotions at bay. We may never be there again, and I wanted proof so my future self wouldn’t think it was just a figment of imagination. The photographs, along with the stacks of cocktail napkins I made Danny and Kevin stuff into their pockets, would serve as evidence. But then another thought entered: who said this would be our one and only visit? Someday, I imagined, Kevin’s likeness might hang in this building as a backdrop for someone else’s photo. If there’s one thing I had learned over the previous 13 years, it was that anything is possible. Anything.