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Chapter 28

That Friday evening Mary beeped her horn outside of Kristin’s cottage.

“They only live a few blocks away, but I talked them into letting me make my famous coconut cake so we can’t risk walking,” Kristin told Mary when she’d called earlier.

Anders sat behind Mary and gave directions. Four blocks later, Mary pulled into the driveway of an older, single story, wood and glass framed house on a small lot overgrown with palm trees and colorful plants lining the walk way, right on the Gulf of Mexico. Mary’s eyes widened, taking in the scene.

Kristin followed her friend’s stare and smiled. It truly was a lovely entry garden. Multi-color crotons, purple jacaranda trees, red hibiscus and birds of paradise floating on top of thick green shrubs. Everything was amazingly coordinated. A wild, seemingly uncared for landscape that could only come about with constant loving care and pruning.

Anders jumped out of the car as the front door opened and a petite girl in a bright yellow jumpsuit and straw-blonde ponytail came to greet them.

“This is Berit,” Anders said, introducing her to Mary as they followed the walkway to the door.

Mary stood in the open doorway, riveted by what she saw. Kristin put her arm around her friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Mary. Everyone is speechless the first time they come in here. The view is just too spectacular.”

Just then an older man in a white apron joined them. He had a freckled face, thinning red-grey hair swept over a bald spot, and a welcoming smile.

“And you, of course, are Mary. I’m Ron. Kristin, why don’t you ask Jackson, who’s in the kitchen, to find room in the refrigerator for that cake. It looks delicious.” He waved a spatula in the air. “I told her we had fruit and cheese for desert, but if you know Kristin…well…she has to get her way, but she does do a good coconut cake. Now, what can I get you to drink or, as we usually say, white or red?”

“Red, thank you. But Ron, if I seem speechless it’s because I’ve never seen such a perfect sunset framed by all your plants and trees, not to mention the colorful art and the sculpture pieces. Add to that the smell of good food, and my senses are overwhelmed.”

Kristin laughed, returning from the kitchen holding the hand of a tall man with a well-cut Afro that matched the curly black hair on his bare brown chest. He wore bleached chinos and sandals. “I’m Jackson,” he said, extending his hand to Mary, “and I’m heading to the bedroom for a clean shirt.”

“Mary, there simply weren’t adequate words to describe this house or my two good friends, Ron and Jackson, not to mention precious Berit,” Kristin said, taking in the scene with a slow, widening grin. “I purposely didn’t say anything to you so you could get the full impact.”

“Wow. You succeeded. I hope we have time for a tour of this art gallery. I’m guessing Mexico or Central America?”

“Actually Berit and Anders could give the tour. They’ve done it often enough,” Jackson answered. “But let me get my shirt. Ron uses an apron; I just take my shirt off. Either way, saves on spot remover.”

Berit and Anders came in from the deck.

“Do you want to introduce Mary to your parents, Berit?” Kristin asked.

“Sure,” she beamed. She walked over and grabbed the hands of Ron and Jackson. “This is Dad,” she said, raising Ron’s hand in hers. “And this is Daddy,” she said, raising Jackson’s hand.

Kristin felt as though her heart might burst with joy. She had it all: beautiful children in her life and the best friends a woman could ever ask for, including Mary. She knew she had to have a goofy grin on her face, but she didn’t care, no one seemed to notice. But would Mary still be her friend when she knew the truth?

“This grouper is delicious,” Kristin said, “though I didn’t need the tomatoes au gratin, or the homemade garlic bread. I’ll have to run an extra mile tomorrow morning.”

Ron laughed and pointed his fork at her. “And who made a billion calorie cake that none of us will be able to refuse?”

Mary laughed with them all, then nodded at Ron. “Are you the artist, Ron?”

He shook his head. “No, I own an art gallery and frame shop in downtown St. Petersburg. Makes it convenient for me to bring all the artwork home.”

“And Berit told me you are a teacher?” Mary asked Jackson.

“Yes indeed. I teach computer science at Eckerd College. I, of course, am the one who works the hardest in this family, I assure you,” he said with a wink at Ron.

“The paintings on the wall that dazzled you when you walked in are really fairly inexpensive prints of the work of the most famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. The bright colors and bold brushstrokes that define him lend themselves well to beautiful reprints. Jackson developed the software to do that in partnership with the museum in Mexico City that houses most of Rivera’s works. That’s how we met,” Ron smiled at Jackson, “fifteen years ago.”

“Ron sells the reprints in his gallery downtown,” Jackson added. “It makes this wonderful art affordable for most people. We couldn’t afford even one original Diego Rivera, but we think having many reprints is even better. From the look on your face, Mary, I think we are right.”

While Kristin helped with the dishes, Anders and Berit took Mary on a tour.

“This one is The Flower Vendor,” Berit said, pointing to a colorful Mexican woman handing flowers to children surrounding her. “And this is Grinding Corn,” she said of a whole family clustered around a woman corn grinder.

“This is a naked woman with flowers,” Anders giggled.

“Nude with Calla Lilies,” Berit corrected, elbowing him in the side. He giggled even more.

The sculptures placed gracefully on shelves and small tables were replicas of ancient Mayan statues and pyramids.

“I’m going to have to visit your Dad’s gallery. My home has some perfect niches for these beautiful sculptures,” Mary said to the children.

“Well,” said Anders with a very straight face, “don’t get that naked lady. You’re much prettier than she is.” Then he doubled over in laughter again.

“Coconut cake for kids on the deck,” Jackson interrupted, carrying two huge slices of frothy cake while shooing Anders and Berit out the door. “Then you can watch a DVD. I’ve got it all set up outside.”

Kristin and Ron carried trays of sliced cake and coffee into the living room.

“Kristin says you are one smart psychologist who really cares about kids,” Ron began. “She thinks it’s time for the three of us to share our story.”

“I think you have amazing children,” Mary said.

“Then let me begin to tell you how they got here,” Ron continued. “Jackson and I have been a committed couple for fifteen years, actually from the moment we met. We shared business interests, an art collection, and a love of good food and Florida beaches. We bought this house together. Our lives were very full, but very empty. We both always wanted children, or at least a child.

“We met Kristin when she was halfway through Stetson law school, working part time as a waitress and bartender at the Hurricane, a famous Pass a Grille restaurant. You know of it?”

“Of course,” Mary nodded.

“So what’s not to like about Kristin? This hard working, beautiful, smart ‘orphan’–that’s what we called her–from Norway. When she told us her landlord had sold the house and the new owner didn’t want tenants, we offered her the apartment above our garage, rent free.

“Yes, there was a motive behind our generosity. We’d been talking about contracting with a surrogate, a woman who would carry and give birth to our child, impregnating herself with our sperm. We met with a lawyer, reviewed some form contracts and were about to start interviewing some women, but it all seemed so clinical and impersonal. The more we got to know Kristin, the more we wanted her to be the mother of our child. Her egg with our sperm.

“I have to jump in here, Ron,” Kristin said, looking only at Mary. “Everything Ron says is correct, but neither of them understood what I was going through at that time. I was dating a man named Chad, who made his living buying and selling beach properties in a complicated scam that involved fraudulent financial affidavits, bribing mortgage brokers, inflated appraisals and off shore bank accounts. Of course I didn’t know that at the time. As you might recall, Mary, everyone was drunk on escalating prices for beach property, and Pass a Grille was no exception. Borrowing, buying and flipping. Over and over. Again and again. It was a bubble no one thought would burst.

“To me, Chad was an attractive, wealthy man. I’m ashamed to admit that I liked his money as much as anything else. It meant security for me. I referred customers to him, in exchange for money.

“When I discovered the extent of the cheating, and a law school friend of mine lost a lot of hard-earned money, I contacted the FBI. They promised me informant money if I kept the relationship going longer–longer than I wanted to–until they could get a search warrant to put a wire on me. I agreed. I actually felt safer living above the garage here. I felt protected by Ron and Jackson, but when they asked me to give birth to their baby–”

“She said no,” Jackson interrupted. “We didn’t like Chad. He seemed like such a phony. But we didn’t know the extent of the fraud. We gave Kristin the surrogate contracts to read over but . . .”

“I didn’t like the contracts,” Kristin said. “Just like Ron, I felt they were so impersonal. They might have been legal, but they made me feel like a baby seller. They included stuff like a complete physical before insemination, escrow accounts set up for periodic payments. It seemed like one big business. I couldn’t do that.”

“Then Chad was arrested, charged with multiple counts of wire fraud, tax evasion and perjury, sent to Federal prison. We were all relieved,” Ron added, “and to our surprise Kristin changed her mind, although she wanted to do it ‘off the books.’”

Kristin lowered her eyes. She hoped they would think it was out of embarrassment rather than the shame she lived with each day.

“For friendship, not a legal contract, I meant,” she said, looking up again. “Based on our relationship, not a business deal. Nothing in writing, no physicals to undergo, no escrow accounts. So soon after, we gathered here in this house, away from each other for a little privacy. Ron and Jackson ejaculated into sterilized glasses and mixed their sperm. I took the sperm into their bedroom. A midwife friend of mine suggested using a turkey baster. Ron and Jackson didn’t know if it would work.”

“But it did…only too well,” Jackson laughed.

Kristin smiled. “Yes, I soon knew I was pregnant and six weeks after that we found out I was going to have twins. We were all shocked. We hadn’t planned for that. Ron and Jackson were wrecks. They felt they could only raise one child. I was just finishing law school, with a mountain of student debts. I certainly couldn’t raise twins. We had no contract. Nothing was in writing, nothing enforceable. We were operating outside the law.”

“But inside Kristin’s heart,” Ron said, taking her hand. “Kristin didn’t tell us but she was having second thoughts from the beginning of the pregnancy. Could she give up her only child? Most surrogates, you know, already have a family. For them it’s a business deal. Kristin was beginning to feel she couldn’t go through with our agreement.”

“Until I found out I was having twins,” she finished for him.

“One for each of you. Anders and Berit, named for your parents.” Mary exhaled deeply. “Wow, what an amazing story.”

“Yes, Mary. I insisted that the twins be named after my deceased parents. To honor them.”

“And we insisted that she take the fifty-thousand dollars we had set aside,” Ron added.

“Which, together with the FBI informant money, paid off my student loans,” she finished. “We put Ron’s name on the birth certificate, for obvious reasons.” She gave Jackson a poke in the ribs.

“But I got the last laugh.” Jackson smiled. “A few years ago, a brave circuit judge in Miami ruled that gay men or women could adopt kids, despite Florida law that said otherwise. The governor appealed the ruling, but then dropped the appeal. Because Florida banned legal marriage between gays, we couldn’t get married here. We thought about getting married in New York City, but Florida has been our home for so long and, as you know, the ban on gay marriage was successfully challenged. All the way to the United States Supreme Court. A new legal decision in Florida recognized gay stepparents. So, I plan to adopt Berit right after Ron and I are married here in Florida. We’re working on plans for both of those events as we speak.”

They smiled at each other.

“What an amazing story,” Mary repeated, looking to the deck at the twins laughing at something on TV. “I feel honored that you shared it with me. It’s a secret that I can certainly keep.”

Kristin felt as though she could take a deep breath again. She smiled at her friend who was getting to her feet.

“Perhaps we should be leaving,” she said. “That cake was more than delicious. The whipping cream was a great addition, despite the extra calories,” she said to Kristin.

Ron stood, putting his hand on her arm.

“Mary, the three of us talked something over last night that’s been bothering us for a while.” He pointed to the twins on the deck. “They are best friends now, but don’t they deserve to know the truth?”

Jackson and Kristin rose too, surrounding her. Kristin spoke for the three of them.

“Mary, you’re the best child psychologist I know, a dear friend and colleague and someone we trust. We want you to meet with Anders and Berit, whenever and wherever you feel comfortable.

“We want you to tell them the truth.”

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