Falling Forward: A Novel

Falling Forward: A Novel

by RJ Stastny


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469783253
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/02/2012
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.46(d)

Read an Excerpt

Falling Forward

A Novel
By RJ Stastny

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 RJ Stastny
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4697-8325-3

Chapter One

Las Vegas, Nevada—Present Day

The clock by the bed silently flashes 7:30 a.m. The early morning light pierces the sheer curtains, and a slight desert breeze makes them gently billow like a ship's sails. The dry air and morning quiet reminds me again that I am in the desert. Having moved from LA nearly twelve months ago, I'm no longer in the clutches of urban sprawl, odd-smelling air, and a constant hum of humanity doing whatever humanity does.

For a long while, I would wake up from that nightmare sweating and breathing hard, but it's been many months since its last visit. Now, if I'm to wake up out of breath, it will be due to the man lying next to me.

There's a familiar sense of warmth, and a musty yet sweet smell makes me feel secure under the sheets. A year ago, the man cuddled up next to me would have been an unlikely candidate for a permanent bedmate. This handsome, strong, and passionate lover is still sound asleep, his back and firm, round butt pressing against me as if searching out warmth and protection from the unfriendly world outside. My arm is wrapped around him with my hand resting near his muscular chest. With my head cradled on the back of his neck, the smell of his moist body keeps me aroused, but I just remain still and savor the moment.

Life is good. I'm not analyzing why things happen; instead, I just want to experience and enjoy again what I have gone without for so long. I've always embraced change, but it was usually initiated by me. Now, my life can best be described as a blend of certainty and chance, the planned and the unpredictable. A recent series of unanticipated challenges over which I had little if any control has dramatically changed my course. My life was turned upside down. I struggled to get back up, and when I returned to vertical, the horizon was unfamiliar.

There is a tattoo on my left forearm. It contains the image of a compass with the latitude and longitude of my hometown, Chicago, in the middle. On the edge are inscribed the words "Fall forward." In the past when I've fallen down, I've tried to face toward the future rather than backward into the past. While not always successful, it's what drives me now to build something new while still preserving some of the precious things left from the past.

Above me on the bedpost hangs a gold chain with a small, round locket the size of a nickel. I reach up and grab it, trying not to wake up the sweet and gentle man lying beside me. I open it, revealing a small compass inside. It was a gift from someone who was once a stranger, intending to remind me of where I had been and, hopefully, the new direction toward which I was heading.

This story is about the people and events that carried me through a journey of loss, discovery, redemption, and love. I wasn't looking to change myself. Rather, I was seeking an alternative view of the world, through a different lens. In this way, I hoped to redefine myself. How did I get to this place in my life—a new job, a new city, thrown back into the unfamiliar world of dating, and in bed with a man who helped me rediscover feelings I thought had been buried for good?

Here my story begins, twelve months ago.

Chapter Two

Los Angeles—Twelve Months Earlier

I had been in Los Angeles for almost twenty years. The city had been good to me, providing exciting career opportunities, many good friends, and several boyfriends. Of course, many of my friends were lost to AIDS during that time, leaving a void that would probably never be completely filled.

I was told I looked younger than my forty-two years despite a light field of gray that invaded my short dark brown hair and trimmed goatee. As a former college swimmer, my six-foot frame was still trim and toned. I was proud of the state record I held in the one-hundred-meter butterfly, if only for that one year. I remember that even back then my chest and legs had more hair than the other guys. The coach asked one of them to help me shave once before a meet. It may have been the first time another guy shaved me, but it wouldn't be the last. Since college I had become a gym rat, bulking up a bit and getting more definition in the places the seemed to matter to a young gay man looking for love. As a child, I always had a baby face, something I deplored but others found cute. I envied the other guys who were beginning to look like men. I secretly wished I had a scar on my face to make me look more masculine or menacing. I guess the baby face paid dividends, as getting older left me with a youthful but more masculine appearance. I still appeared more innocent than I actually was and kept my bad boy behavior—along with a few tats—under wraps. In private I could reveal a wild side that often came as a surprise to unsuspecting dates.

Born Wesley Robert Svoboda of parents with Czech ancestry, I grew up in a Czech neighborhood in Chicago's Berwyn area. My father was a construction contractor, my mother a teacher. My father didn't learn English until he was in elementary school. He spoke Czech only occasionally at home but would often speak it with older friends—and especially with waitresses at his favorite Czech restaurant. Both were hardworking individuals. Having struggled in the Depression years, like many parents of that generation, they worked hard to provide those things for my sister and I that weren't available to them. I wouldn't say we were spoiled, but we certainly didn't want for anything. While the ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago had gone through much transformation in recent years, I treasured the fond memories of the Czech businesses that dominated the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood.

After growing up in a relatively insulated ethnic neighborhood, I was motivated to explore the world apart from the Bohemian bakeries, restaurants, and tightknit family gatherings. I was proud of my heritage but longed to get a good education and to experience the adventures that up through middle school I had only read about. I was grateful to my parents for supporting whatever path I chose. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with the odd combination of a BA in botany and an MBA, I returned to Chicago. I took a job in a bank until I could find something related to my field of study. A year later, I accepted a full-time position with the California Department of Natural Resources working with ecologists and eco-scientists to help manage the business of preserving native plant species in the face of rapid commercial development. It was a rare opportunity to combine my love of botany with business. I had interned one summer at the Desert Studies Center in the Mojave Desert while in school. As the idea of creating state and national preserves in desert, coastal, and mountain regions was gaining both public and political support, job opportunities became more numerous, and I gladly accepted the chance to combine my interests in native plant life and business planning.

After seven years working for the state, I found opportunities to do independent consulting with firms and municipal and state agencies who wanted to do development near ecologically challenged or endangered areas. One opportunity led me to accept a "mission" with the United Nations in Ecuador for a year. I worked with the government in strategizing and implementing plans to minimize the impact of tourism on the environment and on native plant life, specifically. While I was only one of dozens of consultants on that project, it was rewarding to be part of such a large effort, and it afforded me the chance to live and work abroad. What resulted in being one of the great adventures in my life also proved to be an experience that would have an unexpected impact on me long after moving back to the United States.

* * *

While in Los Angeles, I had several boyfriends. Only two developed into serious, long-term relationships. The first one lasted five years. He was an outgoing Cuban who introduced me to Caribbean culture, as well as to the sexual freedoms that were emerging within the gay scene. Though we were very much in love, it was an "open" relationship that included three-ways and bathhouses. That such a relationship would eventually fade was almost predetermined. He later moved back to Miami to help resettle family. We remained friends, but our lives grew in different directions. I was grateful for his encouragement to realize my dream to live and work abroad. A few years later, I accepted the mission with the United Nations in Ecuador.

I was with my second partner, Kevin, for nearly ten years. Shortly after returning from Ecuador, we met at the gym, a gym that he would end up managing and owning years later. He was a short, rugged, very proud African American man a few years my junior. He was generous beyond his means and wasn't shy about showing his intolerance for disrespectful and ignorant people. Through his eyes, I saw subtle manifestations of discrimination first hand. When we would eat out, the server would often bring the check directly to me. When making a large purchase together like a car or appliance, many salespeople would make eye contact only with me. From him I learned not to tolerate intolerance and not always to turn the other cheek.

We completed one another's sentences and enjoyed long road trips where we could talk about anything, and anybody. We gave one another a light kiss before leaving for work and another before going to sleep. While life, at times, became routine, we never took one another for granted. We never stopped loving one another, and we fully expected to live the remainder of our lives together. How wrong we were to assume we were really in control of our destiny.

During a weekend trip to Palm Springs, where we often went to escape crowds of LA, I noticed he lacked energy and complained of aches in his legs. It was very unlike him to have aches and pains, let alone complain about them. After several weeks, he went to the doctor, assuming it was some form of arthritis. After that doctor's visit, our lives would never be the same. X-rays revealed something suspicious in the lungs. After an unsuccessful surgery, chemo started. Nine months later, I was planning his funeral.

After Kevin's death, I felt as though my life had been turned upside down. We had been like two trees growing together—when one was cut down, the other was bare on one side. I felt exposed, half of what I used to be. Over the years, I also had lost a number of close friends to AIDS. I felt claustrophobic from the loss and absence of too many people. I knew that I needed a change. Even though LA had been a fertile place for me professionally and socially and I was left with a small core of generous and loving friends, I felt that my life's direction had been permanently altered. I was fortunate that by this time my consulting work and UN experience in South America had left me with some good business contacts. One of these contacts was the US Bureau of Land Management. I was offered a contract in Nevada to work with BLM to educate and help managers and staffers structure their efforts more strategically. Though it was only a one-year contract, I felt it was the open door I needed to make a dramatic change in my life. The BLM was no stranger to controversy, whether it was sale of pristine land to developers or the controversial reduction in the wild horse population in the western United States. But BLM land surrounded the Las Vegas valley and most of the Mojave Desert, offering what I presumed could be almost unlimited work opportunities. Besides, the prospect of spending more time working in the desert was appealing. After all, it's where I got my first internship after college, and it was like a second home to me. Anticipating my move, I quickly completed two small consulting contracts I had in LA. I was hopeful that the BLM contract would provide me some foundation for security in a move where everything else would be uncertain.

The house in Los Angeles sold quickly, and I bought a rundown ranch home on an acre of barren land on the outskirts of Las Vegas. It was open and airy, and the location was quiet, with 360-degree views of the mountains. It was going to be my dream house landscaped with a variety of native desert trees, bushes, and cacti. I rented a small bungalow in LA for three months while the house in Las Vegas was renovated. While I wasn't enamored with the casino strip area of Sin City, the raw beauty of the surrounding landscape could be quite remarkable. The ready access to wilderness areas of the desert, mountains, and Colorado River was unmatched. Las Vegas was close to LA but far enough to make me feel I had made a major change. Some friends tried to talk me into moving to Palm Springs. Yes, PS was beautiful and had an organized gay community, but I wasn't eager to move to a desert extension of LA. I wanted some solitude, and more importantly, the feeling that I had separated myself emotionally and physically from the past. My friends would tease me that the move to my "retirement" house was going to happen much sooner than I had ever expected.

* * *

At Kevin's funeral, I wasn't surprised by the large number of people who came to pay their respects. There were at least two hundred friends and relatives. Kevin had impacted a lot of people. I was deeply touched. Among those many well-wishers were several dear friends: Angelo, my best friend and confidant who I had known since high school in Chicago; Daphne, a friend I met through Angelo; the unlikely duo of Clay, a black man who has spent his adult life advocating for LGBT issues, and his partner, Matthew, a white conservative from upstate New York; Emil, the youngest and most flamboyant member of our "family"; and Jesse, a former coworker and straight friend of Kevin, who had befriended me shortly after Kevin became ill. Familiar with my propensity to make big changes, my friends were cautiously supportive of plans to move to Las Vegas.

Several days after the funeral, Angelo, a well-known bass guitar player and leader of his own band, took me out to dinner at a Thai restaurant in Studio City. Having spent most days as caregiver, I hadn't been in a restaurant in nearly a year. I felt like I had been released from prison. It was a sad and happy occasion—sad about the absence of my partner, and happy to have the social interaction I so desperately needed. Angelo always seemed to know what I needed and when. I had never felt more grateful for a friend like him than during that time.

My friends all agreed to maintain our "family" dinner that we had shared each year for the past ten years. The dinner was a way to keep us all connected at a time when we were all following different paths in our careers and relationships. We cancelled the past year's dinner to due Kevin's illness. I volunteered to host the next one. It would continue to be a small group of five or six: me, Angelo, his date if he was so inclined, Clay, Matthew, Daphne, and Emil.

The experience of losing a long-term partner in such a tragic way changed my perspective on life. I was no stranger to loss, but this was more significant. It came at a time when I naively thought I knew what I'd be doing for the rest of my life. The universe suddenly changed the balance of things. It put me in a suspended state, feeling lost and living without a visible horizon. I wanted to renew my enthusiasm for adventure and the future and avoid becoming a spectator. It was important to remain an active player in the game, but the rules of the game had changed. I was anxious, but I wanted to play again.

Chapter Three


I was caught off guard when Jesse insisted that he wanted to help me move. He was straight, after all, and up to then had been only a work friend of Kevin's. I didn't really get to know him until Kevin became ill. I thought I was just a collateral friendship. He continued to surprise me after Kevin's passing when he wanted to stay connected. I knew he was deeply hurt by the loss of his good friend, one of the few people he would say showed him respect. Angelo, who originally had planned to help me move, was on a tour date with his band in Europe. I told him I'd probably need his support more once I was in Las Vegas.

Jesse had a challenging and troubled life. He never finished high school, was a teenage father out of wedlock, had been a dancer at a strip club and an escort for female clients, and was briefly incarcerated for auto theft. Despite what would have been a downward spiral for many young men with that kind of baggage, Jesse found redemption in his short stay in prison and earned his GED, and the warm, generous, and loyal qualities that were always part of him surfaced and flourished. He worked hard, reconciled with his children, and even got married to a nice young professional woman. He appeared to be making a good life for himself as an airport shuttle driver.


Excerpted from Falling Forward by RJ Stastny Copyright © 2012 by RJ Stastny. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


PART I: Falling....................5
One: Las Vegas, Nevada—Present Day....................7
Two: Los Angeles—Twelve Months Earlier....................10
Three: Departure/Arrival....................17
Four: Connecting Past and Present....................29
PART II: Planned Serendipity....................37
Five: Settling In—Friends, Some Benefits....................39
Six: Anxiety in the Andes....................51
Seven: Dinner's Ready....................66
Eight: Jesse....................100
Nine: Miami Reunion....................109
Ten: Journey to the Center of the Earth....................115
Eleven: Am I Home Yet?....................125
Twelve: Colombia—Forgive and Forget....................131
PART III: Ascent....................145
Thirteen: Doors Close, Doors Open....................147
Fourteen: Flight of Fantasy....................162
Fifteen: Aloha....................169
Sixteen: Sanctuary?....................189
Seventeen: Bel Cielo....................194
Eighteen: Passing the First Test....................199
Nineteen: Las Vegas, Nevada—Present Day....................204

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