Chapter 4

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.

Dear Kelly,

Truth time. I know and you know that Japan has come at the right moment for us. If I weren't leaving, our relationship would probably have self-destructed within a few months. This way we have a year to think about it, and to find out what each of us wants. I realize that we are different, with different temperaments and different needs (He clenched his jaw) but there is still so much that I don't understand: how our love became confining for you, or your need to explore other relationships to "fulfill" yourself (His grip tightened on the pen, his handwriting becoming less fluid with each line.) When did you start feeling this way? You didn't need to explore other relationships during our first two years together.

His jaw was now so tight, it was becoming uncomfortable; his pen strokes were a biorhythmic needle, registering on the pale stationery the suppressed pain welling up in him.

I don't understand. Just how does one fall out of love?

Now that moistness around the eyes, constricted breathing in his chest, nasal passages beginning to clot and close. Even as he wrote, he knew he would never send the letter. He was writing this for himself.

I went into our relationship for keeps. For better, for worse, through thick and thin, and every other cliché you can think of. I looked forward to living our lives together, expected that we would grow old and die together. My feelings haven't changed for you.

His handwriting began one of its tailspins into illegibility and spiraled off the page.

Behind her, the sharp crackling of crushed paper interrupted Sally's reading, and she laid Shogunaside, just as John Blackthorne's ship was nearing the dangerous Japanese coast (page 11.) She was having difficulty concentrating on the novel. Excitement kept bubbling up from her stomach, setting off small detonations of endorphins in her brain. Why read about adventure when you're living one! Having spent all of her twenty-two years in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, Sally could get excited about a trip to Stockton. Now she was traveling across the world's largest ocean to live for a year in one of the world's great cities. In her mind, even John Blackthorne's experience paled in comparison.

She pushed the button on her armrest, summoning the stewardess, and ordered a glass of white wine. It seemed fitting, the proper thing to do for a cosmopolitan woman of the world. Soon, with the wine in hand, she settled back in her seat and watched as the plane drifted past an island cloud.

The attractive young woman with the luxurious blond hair sat staring out the window. Hers was a sultry look...

Sally wondered if she looked sultry. She tried to imagine how sultry would look on her. The image didn't come. She was pretty, she knew, in a sweet, wholesome kind of way, like one's kid sister or the archetypal Girl Next Door. But she wanted to be ravishing. She wanted to be mysterious, alluring...

She wanted to be someone else.

Her face shifted into a frown. What kind of name is Sally anyway? It made her sound so juvenile. One thinks of pigtails and braces, someone carrying a doll. Sallys don't have adventures. Sallys stay at home and settle down and get married to men named Fred or Wilbur, and have oodles of kids and organize church bazaars in their spare time. She considered herself a misnomer.

Then a smile (a sultry, mysterious smile) returned to her lips. No one will know her in Tokyo. Why not create a new persona for herself, a new identity? Yes. But first she needed a new name to fit the new Her, something befitting a spirited adventuress—Tracy, Hilary, McKenzie—a name that captures her spontaneously carefree yet sophisticated nature—Sidney, Elspeth, Saundra—slightly mysterious, perhaps suggesting a hidden past (who wouldn't want to hide the fact that she came from Fresno?)—Something cosmopolitan perhaps—Adrienne—yet innocent and slightly vulnerable—Ariel, Kristy—befitting a winsome lass off for a year to live in a foreign country by herself.

Inspired, Sally set her glass aside, took out her notebook and began to write

Angela was on her way to Japan. Elena's alluring smile sat mysteriously on her face as she sipped her Chateaubriand and stared out the window. Adrienne was lost in her private memories of that time, unaware of the handsome young men who passed by, hoping to catch her lovely blue eyes—lovely blue-green eyes—blue-gray? gray-green?—hoping to catch her lovely gray green blue eyes...

"Hello, again."

Ariel looked up to see the Handsome Young Poet standing in the aisle and jerked immediately into a smile. "Oh, hi!"

He stood there, holding in each hand an airsickness bag bulging with crumpled wads of paper, reminding her of her kid brother with his boyish smile and bags full of Halloween treats.

"You finished your letter?"

"Ah, no. I gave up." He shrugged. "I figure I have a whole year to write it, so I guess there's no rush." Then his smile turned sheepish. "And the stewardess wouldn't give me any more paper."

"It looks like you finished off a small forest right there," Kristy joked in her teasing, alluring manner that men found so irresistible.

His smile surfaced once again, dazzling, like the sun coming up over the ocean. He was radiant in his blondness. Sally opened her smile full throttle, showing off her white teeth, one of her better assets, she knew, and hoped that she wasn't drooling down her front. The older woman, sitting between them, trying to read a magazine, turned her head petulantly toward the young man, eye-level to his crotch, as they chatted about the progress of the flight so far. The voice of the chief steward came over the PA system, announcing that the evening meal would be served shortly.

"Would you care to join me for dinner?" he asked.

Her eyes were all wide and starry. "I'd love to," she said quickly. Too quickly? The older woman turned to her with a look as if Sally had just agreed to have sex with him in one of the lavatories.

"Good," he said. "I'll just dump these in the trash and be right back."

They sat in his row, the seats around them vacant, as he lowered her tray. "Or would madam prefer a table next to the window?"

"This will be fine, thank you."

"By the way, my name's Chris." He held out his hand. "And you are...?"

She took his hand and stared at him, her mind racing. Ariel? Adrienne?



Kristy? Angela?

Answer, Stupid. He thinks you forgot your name!

"...Sally." She smiled, and then grimaced. It wasn't easy to free oneself from one's past.

"Sally. I like it. It suits you."

She was afraid of that.

His full name was Chris Jarrett. He lived in Seattle, had graduated from the University of Washington, and was a high school English teacher.

What an amazing coincidence! She loved English!

"And where are you from?"

"Los Angeles," she lied. There was something distinctly un-cosmopolitan about being from Fresno.

"Really! My family used to live down there when I was a small kid. Near Long Beach. Which part of L.A.?"

The only part Sally knew was Disneyland. "Uh...Fresno." She blushed slightly, "I mean, it's so close to L.A., I consider Los Angeles my real home. Kind of my spiritual home, if you know what I mean. I'm down there so frequently, I almost know it better than Fresno," she laughed lightly, and then switched into serious-discussion mode. "It's a wonderful city, don't you think? So cosmopolitan. So much culture and energy."

"I suppose," he said, "but it's really not for me. Too big. I was glad when we moved."

"That's true," she conceded. "One vast urban sprawl. And the pollution's a terrible problem."

"It's the pace of life I found hectic, even as a kid."

"Definitely a rat-race." She couldn't agree more. "All so hurly-burly. People rushing around, never giving thought to why they are rushing so." She shook her head in dismay. "And the people there are so plastic and phony."

"I think it must affect one's relationships—"

"Oh, it has to."

"I guess I'm just a small-town boy at heart. Seattle is about as large a city as I want to live in. I need to be close to the mountains and lakes and forests, and breathe clean air and feel the rain on my face."

She knew she would love Seattle.

Then he laughed. "Listen to me, talking about wanting to live in a small city, and here I am on my way to one of the world's largest."

She laughed, too, more in time with him, as though she were an acting student studying laughter.

It was a wonderful dinner with ample rounds of wine. There were so few passengers that the flight attendants had retained their professional cheery demeanors, making frequent passes—red in the right hand, white in the left—to refill people's glasses. And over dinner the two young people continued sharing their lives as travelers anonymously do. Sally continued to find fascinating parallels, as if fate had purposely brought them together on this flight. Chris loved literature and was a voracious reader; her lifelong ambition—since college—was to be a writer! They both loved film and music. He had a sister; she had a brother. He had been to British Columbia; she had always wanted to visit British Columbia. It was uncanny!

The time passed quickly and an intimacy developed between them. The dinner trays had been cleared away and the window covers lowered for the in-flight movie, one of those sado-sickie Dirty Harry films. In the dim light and soft buzz from the after-dinner liqueurs, they spoke quietly as the other passengers watched gory vengeance being meted out in the dubious name of justice.

Sally's face was flushed from the alcohol mixed with growing desire. "Are you going to Japan on a holiday?"

"No, a job. I'm going there to teach English."

"Me, too!" Another parallel!


She couldn't believe her good fortune. "That's wonderful!—that we'll both be teaching in Tokyo."

"What school will you be at?"

"Tokyo Institute of..." she blanked.

"Technical Studies?"

"That's it!"

"But that's where I'm teaching!" exclaimed Chris. "What a coincidence."

It might be a coincidence that they were both going to teach English in Japan, but at the same school? No, this was not coincidence. This was fate.

"Why Japan?" she asked excitedly.

"I've been interested in living there ever since high school. I did a minor in Japanese studies at the university."

"Do you speak Japanese?"

He held up his index finger and thumb closely together. "Sukoshi—Just a little. Just enough to ask the time of day and where the bathroom is. What about you?"

"A notice went up in our college placement office for teaching positions. I signed up for an interview and was accepted."

"I got my position through a friend. Peter. We were in the Japanese Studies program together. After graduation, he left to teach and live in Tokyo. Anyway, several months ago he wrote, saying that he'd be leaving for a new job at the end of the term, and if I was interested in teaching at the school, I could probably have his position. My principal agreed to release me for the last quarter of the school year and gave me a year's leave as long as I promised to come back."

Sally marveled at how quickly destiny had brought them together. She hadn't expected romance so soon—even before she got off the plane! It was nice to have fate on one's side for a change.

"So this was the right time for you to go," she said, and in the dim light she saw his eyes drop, then flicker up again without missing a blink. The excitement in his voice was suddenly absent.

"Yeah. This was the right time for me to go."

He's thinking of her, she thought, remembering the seat-full of failed letters. Emboldened by her curiosity, by fate, and by the three glasses of wine and two liqueurs, she ventured, "You've left someone behind."

He smiled faintly, looking away. "Yes. An important relationship...though I'm not sure what's left of it now."

"Would you...would you like to talk about it?"

He seemed moved by the intimacy of the moment to open up. "Kelly and I have been together for the past two years. Both of us are teachers—in fact, we met as student teachers."

"I see."

"And for the first two years, it was really great..." His voice trailed off. On the screen, someone was making Clint Eastwood's day.

"What happened?"

"I'm not sure..." Over the past six months, things had become strained between them. Chris had wanted to settle down and begin building a life together, but Kelly had felt it was too soon and still wanted to explore other relationships and date other men.

He sighed. "So, at the beginning of the year, we decided that we'd stop seeing each other for a while."

Sally felt her pulse racing, her heart skipping, her tiny bosom swelling. He was so beautiful, so sensitive and intelligent. How could a girl have been so stupid as to throw away a prize like this?

Let her go, Chris. Let her go. You're much too good for her. Any girl would want a kind, devoted guy like you.

He shook his head and laughed a sad, miserable laugh. "I wanted it to work out and knew it couldn't," he said. "We're too different. We've always been different. Perhaps that was part of the attraction: Kelly is so vital and alive, and goes at life with such a hunger for novelty. Always wanting to try something new. I'm the conventional, domestic type; the stay-at-home and curl-up-on-the-sofa-with-a-good-book kind of guy."

Sally imagined curling up next to him on a sofa in Japan...Do they have sofas in Japan?

"And so you decided to leave?"

"Yeah. Peter's offer came at the right moment. I had to get away. I knew I couldn't stay in the same city with Kelly. When we lived apart, I was always wanting to phone or drop by; knew I shouldn't; kept waiting for a call; none came."

You poor darling, thought Sally. A lump was forming in her throat. You poor, sweet, handsome, sensitive, sexy, intelligent darling. You're better off without her. You need someone who appreciates you, who is worthy of your love.

"Anyway," he concluded with a sigh that rent her heart, "we left it that I'd go away for a year. We'll stay in touch and see where we are when I return. You know."

She nodded vigorously, her head heavy, weighted from all the alcohol. She didn't know, but she could imagine. "That sounds very sensible," she slurred.

He turned back to the screen with that distant look. "Yeah," and took another drink of his liqueur. "So we'll both use this year to explore life a bit more—Kelly was my first lover—I'll meet some new people, get some experience, and maybe learn more about myself. And in a year's time when I return, we'll see where the relationship's at."

Tears filled Sally's eyes. She felt so sorry for him. So very, very sorry. She tenderly placed a hand on his arm, leaned closer, and swallowed. "Chris, I hope that this will be the happiest year of your life, Chris." Her voice was low, soft, breathy.

He looked into her eyes and caught her wide, inebriated smile, patted her hand and smiled back, leaving his hand resting on hers. "Thanks, Sally. I'm glad you were on this flight. I'm feeling better already about leaving Seattle." His voice was equally intimate. "Maybe we could be friends in Tokyo."

She waited. A proper pause. "I'd like that," and in a spontaneous move, they leaned slowly forward until their foreheads met and came to rest against each other's.

Her eyes closed, feeling his heat, his breath on her face, Sally's mind swooned in a dizzying spiral. Fortuitous. Fateful. This was how it was supposed to happen.

"You're very nice, Chris. Maybe you'll find another girl to take Kelly's place."

She felt his head suddenly jerk away and caught herself from toppling over the armrest into his lap. She blinked open her eyes. There was a look on his face of—what?—embarrassment? confusion?

"Sally, I'm sorry. I thought you understood."


"Kelly's a guy."

This was not how it's supposed to happen.

"Didn't you hear me say 'he'?"

No, she hadn't. Funny about that.