Good news, family stress, and an unhappy separation

I puzzled over Mike’s request to the point I had trouble sleeping and to distraction during the day. I had few responsibilities to keep my mind otherwise occupied. The upcoming commencement was the only obligation I still had at Tech. I was tempted to skip it, but I knew my father and Jane, Gwen, and Mike were all looking forward to it. Jane planned a Saturday party at her beach house.

I kept up with all the Physics journals but spent much of my time with the twins. It was a luxury no other father I knew had. Even changing diapers was fun. Typically, the only way to get them to cooperate was to make a game of it. I enjoyed every minute. Well, almost every minute. I gagged and felt queasy if I had to change Sara’s diaper if she pooped. For some reason, it didn’t bother me to change Seth’s diaper no matter what was in it. I still changed Sara’s diapers and made a game of it with her, but sometimes it wasn’t fun. I knew fathers who were remote from their children, present in the home but not involved in their childrens’ lives except as the disciplinarian. I didn’t want to be that way.

Paulette’s job was easier with me home most of the time. I helped with meals, baths, play time, nap time. Paulette also got more time off. She had become an important part of our household in a short time and we treated her as family. Though we gave her more freedom than the agency had suggested, she never failed to be there for us. I think she was a little overwhelmed at times by the affection showed her by all of us.

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Time with Seth and Sara allowed me to avoid my dilemma to a point. But spending so much time with them also drove home why Mike wanted a child. Watching Gwen with the children gave me a sense of what being a mother meant, though I understood it was only from the viewpoint of being a father. I’d never understand a bond developed while growing new life inside you.

To their credit, neither Mike nor Gwen pressured me for a decision. When the subject did come up, it was Gwen that brought it up. And she only asked for my thoughts. Mike and Paulette were watching the twins while Gwen and I went for groceries. We were in the car when Gwen broached the subject.

‘Have you been thinking about Mike?’ she asked.

‘Almost every waking moment,’ I told her, ‘too often instead of sleep. I want to say yes but I’m afraid to. I’m afraid to say no, too. I don’t want to break Mike’s heart. Or yours.’

Gwen slid across the seat and leaned against me. ‘If you decide you’re willing to father Mike’s baby, there’s no chance you’ll break my heart. You’ll be making Mike happy.’

‘And if I decide against it?’

Gwen didn’t answer right away while she gathered her thoughts. ‘You’ll hurt Mike, which will hurt me. But not irreparably. I know what she’s asking is a big deal. People frown on unwed motherhood. Our situation will be even more scandalous. People just can’t fathom polyamory. I think adultery is far worse because of the dishonesty and deception. It’s publicly denounced yet not uncommon. Our friends may desert us once they know you’re the father. I don’t know what my parents will think about my husband fathering a child with my best friend. Especially since they consider Mike part of the family. They’ll struggle to understand how I could be happy about it. But I think they’ll eventually learn to live with it. I think Mike’s parents will be troubled that you’re the father. But eventually, they’ll be happy they have a grandchild.’

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‘What about us? How do you think my being a dad to a child that isn’t yours will affect us?’ I asked. ‘If I father Mike’s baby, I’m going to be Dad, not ‘Uncle Jonas’, who’s not really an uncle.’

‘Are you kidding? Look at how Mike is with the twins. She treats them like they were her own children. That baby will be as much mine as Mike’s. And I know you’ll be its Dad. For Seth and Sara, I think it will be little different from having a brother or sister. At least until they’re older and understand more.’

‘How will things change if I say no?’ This was where my biggest fears resided. I could risk losing both Gwen and Mike if I said no.

‘When you married me, Mike was already inseparable from us. I didn’t think of it that way at first.’ Gwen stopped to gather her thoughts for a moment. ‘If you say no, I’m afraid Mike will leave us, which will break her heart. And mine. She loves me, but she loves you, too. You and I will be okay but losing Mike will sting.’

My conversation with Gwen didn’t make my dilemma any easier to resolve. If anything, it made it more difficult. And I knew any conversation with Mike if I said no would be gut-wrenching.

Mike kept busy with work and fund-raising. She often returned late, sometimes so tired she skipped dinner and went to sleep. She hadn’t joined us in bed since making her request, except for the night she asked me to father her child. Before her request, she often joined us in bed, even if only to sleep next to us.

The phone rang Tuesday morning, a couple days before commencement. After I said hello and gave my first name, the caller identified herself.

‘Good afternoon,’ she began. ‘I’m Debra Messenger, calling for Dr. Charles Tenney. Am I speaking to Dr. Jonas Taylor?’

‘Technically, no. I’m not officially Dr. Taylor quite yet,’ I responded. I knew of Dr. Tenney by reputation but had never met him. He was a prominent member of the Physics Department at UCLA.

‘Then you’re who I’m looking for,’ she said. ‘Dr. Tenney would like to meet with you on Friday morning at ten if you are available.’

‘May I ask the reason he’d like to see me?’ I asked.

‘Dr. Tenney is looking for a physicist for a post-doctoral research project. Are you interested?’

‘I’m certainly willing to talk to Dr. Tenney,’ I replied. ‘I can’t know if I’m interested until I know more.’

‘Should I tell Dr. Tenney you’ll be in his office at ten on Friday?’ she asked.

‘I’ll be there,’ I told her.

Commencement was overly solemn, foolishly optimistic, hot, and boring. Filled with ceremonial gravity and pomp. It was also oppressively hot. The temperature was in the high eighties and the humidity was unusually high. The sun and temperature were stifling for the spectators and punishing for graduates wearing commencement gowns over their clothing. I sat, wearing the ceremonial robes of a soon-to-be anointed academic and roasted, just like the handful of other doctoral recipients. I can’t imagine it was any better for those officiating. By the time the ceremony was over, I couldn’t wait to get the robes off. My suit was sweat-soaked and uncomfortable.

Jane and my father had planned a celebration with our friends for Saturday. All I wanted to do after commencement was get out of my clothes and take a cold shower. Though there wasn’t a large crowd, I had some trouble finding Gwen, Mike, Jane, and my father. Once I located them, we all walked back to the house.

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After showering and changing, I met everyone on the patio. As soon as I made my appearance, my father handed me a beer and clapped me on the back. Jane and Mike both kissed a cheek. Mike winked at me conspiratorially. Gwen was beaming and for the first time in several months looked relaxed and carefree. We had a backyard cookout and spent a quiet afternoon on the back porch, out of the sun. Jane and my father left just after dinner.

The next morning, I drove to UCLA to meet with Dr. Tenney. Debra Messenger was a stocky, matronly woman of about fifty, conservatively dressed, with dirty blonde hair and haunting gray eyes. She was all business when she greeted me. She apologized for Dr. Tenney who had been detained and wouldn’t be available for about fifteen minutes. It was closer to an hour.

When Dr. Tenney arrived, he greeted me cordially and apologized for keeping me waiting. He ushered me into his office, closed the door, and motioned for me to sit. Tenney was very tall, several inches taller than me, but his posture was slightly stooped. His full head of hair, once red, was now dulled to brown and turning white around the sides. Bushy eyebrows and mustache were still mostly red brown. He fidgeted continuously after he sat behind his desk. He was imbued with a nervous energy, his movements rapid and birdlike. He had long, narrow hands that he gestured with incessantly when he spoke and a florid complexion. I guessed he was in his sixties though he could have been older.

‘It’s nice to finally meet you, Dr. Taylor,’ he began. ‘I’ve been hearing about you for almost two years now. Dr. Packer and Dr. Bennett speak highly of you. I understand you studied and worked with Dr. Augustus at École Polytechnique. How is Ferdinand?’

‘Last I knew he was well,’ I responded. ‘We’ve exchanged letters at Christmas since I returned to the States. I’ve told him what I’ve been up to but each year I only get a short note telling me he and Mrs. Augustus are well and telling me a little about doings at Polytechnique. How do you know him?’

‘Physics is a small community, Dr. Taylor. We met in 1923 when we were doing post-doctoral work at Kaiser Wilhelm Society,’ Tenney told me. ‘Now, why don’t we discuss why I wanted to see you.’

Dr. Tenney spent the next half hour asking questions about my thesis research. Some questions suggested he knew more than he should have. I was evasive. I’d been warned I could face imprisonment if I divulged the contents of my thesis. Tenney seemed frustrated by my responses and pressed for more information. But my answers remained ambiguous.

‘I’m not going to get a straight answer, am I?’ he finally said, sounding exasperated.

‘I’m sorry, Dr. Tenney. I really cannot discuss my thesis with you.’

‘Why not?’ he asked, sounding annoyed. ‘Is it a military secret?’

I didn’t respond.

Tenney got up and went to a small painting behind his desk. It pivoted away from the wall like a door, exposing a small wall safe. He dialed in a combination and opened it. He took a thick document out of it and handed it to me. ‘Take a look at this,’ Tenney told me.

Stamped across the cover in large red letters were the words ‘Secret’. I looked at the cover only briefly then dropped it on his desk. I wasn’t going to read it.

‘Pick it up and open it,’ Tenney told me. ‘I promise you will not get into trouble.’

I wasn’t going to look at a secret document no matter how much he insisted.

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Tenney pressed a button on his intercom. ‘Make the call we discussed earlier, Mrs. Messenger,’ he said, then sat behind his desk and smiled at me. ‘You’re not going to look at it. Aren’t you curious?’

‘I know better than to be curious, Dr. Tenney,’ I responded. ‘I’m going to leave now. I’m not comfortable with the direction of this interview.’

Tenney’s office door opened. I turned to look at who opened it. A man with gray hair, cut in a crisp flat-top came in. He wore a black suit, white shirt and blue tie. He carried himself much like my father did; an erect posture, athletic grace, and a confident bearing that bordered on swagger and arrogance but stopped short of it. He wasn’t tall. maybe five eight or five nine but looked like he could kick my ass without breaking a sweat. I knew he was military immediately. He took the seat beside me. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pocket-sized leather folder and handed it to me. It held an Army identification card. It identified him as Lt. General William Q. Mackle.

‘Open the document and read it, Dr. Taylor,’ he said. ‘I’m authorized to allow you to examine the contents.’ I still hesitated. After a moment, he repeated himself, ‘Pick it up, Dr. Taylor.’

I reluctantly reached for the document and nervously opened the cover. I looked down at the cover page of my thesis. I looked back and forth between Tenney and Mackle in disbelief and with a sigh of relief. I didn’t think I’d get in trouble for reading my own research.

Tenney pressed the intercom again. ‘Take the rest of the day off, Mrs. Messenger. Lock up on your way out. I’ll see you Monday morning. No one said anything until we heard the outer office door close a few minutes later.

Dr. Tenney spoke first. ‘I’m sorry about the way things started out, Jonas. I had to pressure you discuss your paper. If you said anything at all about it, the interview would have ended. General . . . ‘

Mackle, Tenney, and I spent the next two hours talking about my experimental results and conclusions in more detail than I’d ever discussed the information. But they focused on aspects that I already knew had practical applications.’

Mackle got to the reason for our meeting. ‘We’re setting up a new lab at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It will have its own staff and will not interact with other development programs on site. We’ll discuss the nature of what we want you to do later, once the lab building is ready. You’ll be one of three research leads but will not be privy to the work being done in other parts of the project, though the work is all related to our end goal. Project work begins in the fall, though you will be considered on staff and draw a salary beginning the first of June when you’ll come to Washington for two weeks of meetings and orientation. The lab building is expected to be completed by the end of August. The instrumentation and equipment from your lab await installation under your supervision. Additional equipment has been ordered and is being fabricated. There’s a budget for anything that will have to be developed as additional avenues of investigation and additional practical applications are identified.’

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