Chapter 1

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and has won the Foreword INDIES LGBT Book of the Year Award. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

Seat 35A

Dear Kelly,

I think back to our parting just a few hours ago, and I miss you already. Thanks for driving me to the airport and seeing me off. It meant a lot to me. As did last night. I know this will be an important year for us, providing the space and time to think things over and sort through our feelings about our relationship—At least that's what my head keeps telling me: But my heart still wishes you were coming to Japan with me (Head and heart—when are they ever going to get their acts together?) I understand that you need this time and distance to listen to the dictates of your own heart, and the freedom to explore—

He crushed the letter into a tight ball and tossed it into the seat next to him

Meanwhile, sitting ten rows ahead, was a pretty young woman. She gazed pensively out the window, peering down upon the blue Pacific from 35,000 feet. The ocean was the color of her eyes; the clouds, brushed by the first blush of sunset, the color of her fair, unblemished skin. She appeared lost in her thoughts as the men on the plane passed by, casting subtle glances in her direction. She was aware of those glances, but chose to ignore them. She was about far greater things today. Her lovely lips pursed as she remembered: Her mission. So much depended upon her mission...

She had to pee.

Sally pulled herself up out of her daydream. This always happened when she became excited. She glanced at the large woman sitting in the aisle seat, a frown set on her face as she read the in-flight magazine, headphones hanging from her ears like a stethoscope. Her body language shouted, DO NOT DISTURB!

Maybe Sally could just hold it. It was simply a matter of mind over bladder, she told herself, and she set her jaw and legs into resolute positions, determined to distract herself by looking out the window at...all that water.

She decided not to look out the window. Instead she focused upon her mission. Yes, she was on her way to Japan! The thought sent a shiver through her. It was all so thrilling! Her first great life adventure, the first, she was sure, of many to come. She still couldn't believe it, had never planned for it, and yet here she was, flying on a 747 bound for the Orient, a place where fantasy and reality merged.

Her eyes were large when she first boarded the plane two hours ago. As they waited to depart, she was hardly able to restrain her excitement as she took everything in: the seatbelt sign—she buckled up; the chief steward recommended the in-flight magazine—she read it cover to cover; the flight attendants demonstrated the safety procedures—she watched with the rapt attention of one expecting to be quizzed in mid-flight. Now, where is your nearest exit? If you're traveling with a small child, who gets the oxygen mask first?

And then came the moment of LIFT-OFF! The Apollo 11 astronauts could not have been more thrilled. The plane had climbed steeply and banked to the left, making a wide arc over the city as she stared out the window. San Francisco sparkled in the afternoon sun, a cluster of skyscrapers rising up at its heart; bridges stretched like spidery arms across the waters, linking the scalloped shores of the bay; and soon the verdant hills of Marin County fell from view as the plane set out on its journey across the Pacific. She was on her way!

An announcement interrupted the hum of the cabin and brought Sally out of her reveries. Each announcement was repeated three times: in Thai, Japanese, and English—none of which she was sure she understood ("Radies and gentermen, we are now frying over Gulf of Araska.") Only Alaska? Her eyes were already flooding and she still had most of the Pacific to traverse. The world's largest ocean. All that water...

She glanced at her traveling companion, now dozing. Maybe she could wait; she checked her watch. Seven hours to landing. Maybe she couldn't. In matters of mind over body, the body always wins, and she cleared her throat. "Excuse me?"

The woman raised her chins and focused bleary eyes on the girl.

"Excuse me, but I need to...get up," and she offered an importunate smile.

The woman met her smile with a frown, and with an immense effort—Sally thought it might require a pulley and several strong men—she set about struggling out of her seat.

"Sorry," she whispered as she moved around her companion and hurried up the aisle. It was a midweek flight and the plane was only half filled. People sat in isolated clumps. Few spoke. Some were reading; some dozed; some just sat there, wearing their headphones, fish-glazed eyes giving no hint as to whether they were listening to the classical, pop, rock, country or comedy channels. All appeared so bored.

She was grateful to see that the front block of lavatories were unoccupied, and she slipped into one of them. After attending to the body's needs, she looked into the mirror, pleased finally to see someone who was as excited as she was. She studied herself as she straightened her shirt and brushed her long hair. She wanted to appear the suave and cosmopolitan traveler. A Woman of the World. Maybe one was supposed to look blasé. Oh, yass, Monte Carlo this time of year is just too, too tiring, don't you find?

Leaving the lavatory, she decided to stroll around the plane and give her legs some exercise. As she walked down the aisle, she imagined the eyes of every man in that section on her slender, shapely figure. But most heads were down, reading or sleeping. One man's head was up, lying back against the headrest as he dozed, his mouth wide open as if waiting for the dentist to come by.

It was then that she heard the abrupt crackle of paper being wadded up. She looked in the direction of the sound. Several rows ahead was a young man about her age sitting alone next to the window. His forehead was creased in thought, his lips pursed in a pensive frown. As she drew closer, she saw that the seat next to him was heaped with a pile of compressed balls of paper, partially hiding a battered paperback copy of Leaves of Grass. He was writing on the fold-down table, oblivious to her, oblivious to the world. She stopped at the middle lavatories at the end of his row and casually leaned against the wall, as though waiting for a vacancy, studying him as he concentrated on his writing. Dressed in a shirt of raw cotton, open at the throat, and light khaki slacks, he could have been a model advertising summer fashions, quite handsome, fair, with very blond hair. Hers was blond, too, she liked to think; but his was that sun-bleached, laser-white blondness she associated with surfers, while hers was more the drab straw-blondness she associated with housewives.

Sally felt a strong attraction to him, an attraction stemming in part from his physical appearance—he was a hunk—but something more: there was such a look of transcendence on his face. A young Romantic poet, she imagined, a twentieth century reincarnation of Keats or Shelley, comely, sensitive, listening intently to the Muse whispering in his ear.

He continued to write, unaware of her. He would stop, look up and stare out the window, his pen poised, awaiting the next surge of inspiration, like a surfer waiting for the next wave. Then the water heaves up, the wave breaks, and the crest of inspiration carries him along! Lo, he writes! Sally felt as if she were witnessing the raw act of creation, privileged to behold this young poet with the handsome features and sensitive eyes (she hadn't seen his eyes yet but she already knew they were sensitive), and the pen suddenly stops. He raises his head, staring once more into some vast space. His ears slightly redden; his fine jaw flexes; and then, in a fit of artistic frustration, he whips the sheet of paper off the table, crushing it into a ball and drops it into the seat next to him. Oh, the agony of the creative spirit!

Sally gave off a loud sigh of empathy. He looked up, discovered her standing there, and smiled. A lovely smile, and yes, he did have sensitive eyes—she knew he would—light gray, translucent eyes, like ice on a Sierra lake at dawn just before the sun touches it. She was feeling assertive today, this first day of her adventures, and she smiled back. "Hi."

"Hello." His voice was soft, and kind of shy.

Nodding at the seat full of wadded papers, she said, "Sometimes the words just don't come." She hoped she sounded like a fellow poet, one who well knew the agonies and ecstasies of the artist.

The young writer looked down. "Oh, the words come. Just not the right ones."

She moved closer, resting her arm on the seat of the row in front of him. "Are you writing a poem or a story?"

"No. Nothing so grand. Just a letter," and then she saw his eyes go unfocused for a second—no longer—just long enough for her to sense that this was a very private matter. Someone he had left behind. But it was already gone, and he was again smiling in his friendly, open way. "Stretching your legs?"

She nodded. Her hair tumbled demurely over her shoulders in a lovely, flaxen free-fall, which she had practiced in the mirror numerous times. "Yes, I like to get up and do a couple of laps around the plane every hour or so. I've found that it keeps the blood circulating on these long transoceanic flights."

"Oh, you've flown to Japan before?"

Her smile wobbled for a moment and threatened to slide off her face. ", this is my first time. To Japan, I mean." She held her breath, hoping that he wouldn't ask which other long, transoceanic flights she had made. But instead he looked impressed.

"Sounds like you fly a lot."

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "I wish I could count the times I've been on a plane." That's easy. This makes once, doesn't it? No, wait. Twice. There was the time Hiram Johnson had taken her up in his crop-duster when she was ten.

"I'm envious. This is the first time I've ever been outside the United States," said the Handsome Young Poet. There was a sweet, ingenuous quality about him, and Sally felt so relaxed that she almost blurted out, Me too! "Unless you count a camping trip in British Columbia," and he laughed good-naturedly with her joining in. Sure, why not? A day in Tijuana was the extent of her international forays.

He glanced back down at his writing paper, ready to make another attempt. She wanted to stay and continue chatting but sensed that he preferred the company of his muse, so she straightened back up. "Well, I'd better get back to doing my laps."

"Okay," he said. "I'll see you later."

She hesitated. "Later?" Was he suggesting something? Could he be feeling what she was feeling?

"I mean, we still have seven hours before we land. So we'll probably run into each other. It's a small plane."

She smiled brightly and said, "Yes, I hope so," but caught herself. Not too eager, not at first. "Well, maybe I'll see you later then."

She strolled down the aisle, smiling and humming softly, nodding to people in greeting as she met their eyes. Only two hours out of San Francisco and already her new and exciting life was well underway.

The large woman managed to conceal her joy at Sally's return, and with much huffing and puffing—why she required a seatbelt was beyond Sally—dislodged herself from her seat, accompanied by a stern frown which said that Sally's bladder had better hold out for the remainder of the flight.

Once again in her seat, she looked out the window and breathed deeply, feeling her small bosom swell with joy. She, Sally Anne Hughes of Fresno, California, was flying toward a new life in Japan! A whole year of exotic experiences and wondrous adventures awaited her, a year of new sights and strange customs and fascinating people, a year of discoveries and personal insights. And maybe romance. She thought back to the handsome young poet and recalled the phrase: Journeys end in lovers meeting. Where had she read that? Never mind. She was tired of reading about other people having all the fun and excitement. Now it was her turn.

From the seat pouch in front of her, she took out an airline postcard with a photo of a 747 flying into a sunrise. Or was it a sunset? So hard to tell. No, she was certain, it was a sunrise. Definitely a sunrise—and she wrote on the back,

Dear Peg,

think it will be great fun to live and work in Japan for a year. Of course, I'm doing it as a lark—I need a break now that I'm finished with school. But I also feel that there is something significant about this time coming, that my life until now has been but a preparation for this moment, and that all my experiences—growing up in a small farming community, the security of a warm and loving family, my many solitary moments—all have been an apprenticeship for what is now unfolding. I sense that I am on my true destiny's path and that something wonderful awaits me in Tokyo.

Dearest Peg, I'm sure you understand what I'm trying to say.

Give my love to Bernie and the kids.

Love, Sally