Watching the scenes of devastation unfold in startling Technicolor, the magnitude of the destruction awesome in its scale, he cast his mind about for something human-sized and stable to hold onto and came up with a face and a name: Matt. Christ. He shut his eyes. Matt worked there. Just some guy he'd fucked a couple times in college. Went to New York to work in the financial district. Emailed him, what? This past year? Year before last? Wanted to know if they could get together sometime. And he'd emailed him back and asked him, What for? Now, he was probably dead. Brian started to cut off the TV when he heard Justin come in and throw his bag down on the floor by the desk. As he looked over at him, he could tell that the teen was shaken. Without a word, Justin came and curled against his side. Sliding a strong arm around him, Brian lowered the volume on the television, dropped the remote, and held him.
"If you had gotten that job, you could have been there," Justin said against his chest, trembling ever so slightly.
"I would have been on Madison Avenue."
"You don't know. You could have been there to see someone for a meeting, to have brunch... anything."
And Brian thought, Matt and decided not to tell Justin he'd actually known someone who'd worked there. Instead he tried to reassure him. "But I wasn't. I'm here and I'm fine." And he thought of the plane that had crashed not far from Pittsburgh. Maybe fine was a word that didn't really mean much anymore.
Justin raised his face and glanced at the news, then looked away, the sight of the collapsing tower too much. "All those people, Brian. All those people..."
"I know, baby."
Why indeed. That was the question only a few people could answer, yet the answer would never be enough to explain this. He shook his head, having no answer at all.
Justin tightened his arms around him. "I don't know what I'd do..."
"You don't have to think about that." He looked down into his tear-stained face. "I'm not going anywhere. Neither one of us is," he said, remembering the frantic nights he'd spent worried that Justin wasn't going to make it even after he'd woken up, sitting by his side, watching him sleep, and he held him even closer, the teen all the more precious to Brian for nearly having lost him.
In a soft voice, Justin asked, "Can I stay here tonight with you?" and
Brian kissed the top of his head and inhaled his scent, the fragrance of
Someone was yelling. At first he thought he had cried out in his sleep but it wasn't him. It was Justin. Again. Another dream about Chris Hobbs. "Justin." Brian gently shook him. "Wake up. Justin. Baby, wake up." The teen opened his eyes and jumped, then slumped against his lover. Brian held him. "I'm here," he said soothingly, stroking Justin's hair and face, knowing how disconcerted he was when he woke from one of those dreams, Brian's presence the sole grounding element in his environment. He kissed the boy tenderly. "You okay?"
Despite shaking a little, Justin nodded his head. "Yeah," he whispered, wrapping his arms around Brian's waist and laying his head upon his chest. "I dreamt I was in one of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center... and just as we were about to hit, this baseball bat came at me." He shuddered. God, what would he do when the trial started? How many dreams would he have? "If I hadn't jerked him off--"
"No," said Brian in firm voice. "Fuck that. That's bullshit. If he didn't want you to do it, he should have said so, he didn't have to take a fuckin' baseball bat..." Brian hugged him. "You didn't do anything wrong. Those people today didn't do anything wrong." He held Justin tight. "I wanted to kill him," he confessed. "I was holding that bat in my hands and I wanted..."
"I'm glad you didn't. That's not you." He sniffled and raised his head. Smiled crookedly. "I love you."
"What else is new?"
"You wanna fool around?"
"No, I want you to go to sleep." Yeah. Right.
Lifting both eyebrows, Justin asked, "You sure?"
"Yeah. Now, go to sleep." He added a beat later, "We can fool around in the morning." Justin settled down and for a moment Brian actually believed he would get back to sleep. Then, as he'd feared, the teenager spoke.
"We were in class. Another boring lecture on modern art. Rennie had drawn this picture of LaGrange in drag. He was the ugliest fuckin' drag queen in history." Brian chuckled. "And then someone came in and said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center."
Cynthia had buzzed him and he'd gone to the conference room where there was a television. Everyone on their floor was there. Watching in disbelief as the second plane crashed into the other tower.
"It was like something out of a movie. One minute we're listening to LaGrange drone on about European modernism and the next we're listening to the radio over the intercom. They cancelled the rest of our classes and we went to the auditorium. Someone had hooked up a TV to the projection system and we watched the towers fall."
Brian absent-mindedly rubbed Justin's shoulder with his thumb as he spoke. "I remember the first time I saw them up close. It was weird because they used them in King Kong, the one with Jessica Lange. Me and Mikey, we watched that on TV one Saturday. And to be in New York, looking up at the two towers... it was unreal."
"Did you go inside?"
"No," Brian replied. "And now I never will."
Holding an empty tray in one hand, Debbie poured Brian a cup of coffee with the other. "He stay over at your place?"
"Yeah." Reached for the sugar. "He was really freaked out by what happened."
"Join the club," muttered Ted.
"I called David," Michael said. "I don't even know why. I just needed to know he was okay. Even after everything that's happened."
No one said anything, they all understood the impulse.
"His mom called, looking for him."
Emmett said around a strawberry, "Uh-oh."
"We didn't hear anything from her." Brian took a cautious sip of coffee. "What did she expect?"
"You know," he continued, feeling the anger mount, "we try. But I'm getting really tired of having to tiptoe around like we're doing something wrong. I know he's in school, I know that comes first but, fuck it, what about..." He let it go, trying to let go of the anger.
"What about you?" suggested Michael.
"What about us!" he exclaimed and immediately clamped down on the surge of rage that threatened to explode. Studying the coffee cup in front of him, he felt the tension lessen, explained quietly after a moment, "He has these dreams..."
"I know," Deb said.
"Sometimes he holds me so tight, I can't breathe."
Ted ran his finger around the rim of his cup. "Blake used to do that. When the cravings got real bad." He looked away, moisture gathering at the corner of one eye.
Emmett put down his fork. "I can't believe they're gone."
"The towers?" asked Ted.
"All those people," Emmett replied. "Imagine how their families must feel. And their kids. And they just keep showing that fucking clip over and over again. Hasn't everyone seen it already?"
"I knew someone who worked there," Brian said quietly.
Michael's head whipped around. "Who?"
"Guy named Matt. Used to fuck around in college." He pushed his coffee away, done with it.
"You should have something to eat," Deb said.
But he shook his head. "I'm not hungry."
"Starving yourself won't change anything."
Catching and holding her gaze, he replied, "Nothing anyone does ever changes anything." Standing, he laid some money down on the table. "And if you don't believe it, ask those people who died." Without saying anything else, he left, Deb and the gang speechless for a while.
"Wow," said Em. "He's really upset about this."
""Did you know this Matt guy?" Ted asked Michael.
"He's not upset about Matt."
"Then what is it?"
Michael laid his fork down upon his plate and admitted, "Beats me."
Having decided to skip lunch, Brian remained in his office, trying to focus on work that had suddenly, in the wake of yesterday's events, become trivial. He had just decided to give up when Michael knocked and came in. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to present you with your award for 'Best Drama Queen Performance before 9 a.m.,' " said Michael, handing him a bag from the diner.
"Fuck you," he replied, but he took the bag and opened it. Found a sandwich inside. Turkey on rye, cut into two halves.
Having produced two sodas as well and a couple of lemon bars from the bag, the two best friends sat at Brian's desk and ate. "So what was this morning all about?"
"Fuck if I know."
"Maybe you and the Boy Wonder need to do it more often."
"We did it this morning."
"Okay, maybe less often."
"We're down to weekends as is." He picked at his lemon bar, then added angrily, "They're not coming between us. I won't let 'em."
"Them who?" asked Michael.
"The world," he answered. "Everyone's just waiting for us to crash and burn. His mom, his dad, my mom, Ryder, you--"
"Don't deny it." Brian fixed Michael with a deep-seeing stare.
Michael met his stare, clear-eyed. "It's not true. I don't understand what the fuck you're doing with him sometimes but I'm not waiting for you to break up. Or trying to break you up, like you did to me and David."
"I got you back together again too, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did." Didn't matter though, they still ended up on opposite ends of the country.
"I love him, Mikey," he said. "That's why I'm with him."
Michael chewed his lemon bar before asking, "But why, Brian? Why him?"
"You were there, Mikey. You've been there from the beginning and you don't understand." He chuckled bitterly. "So what kind of a chance do we have convincing anybody else that this isn't just a game?" he asked, looking away, not wanting Michael to see the pain in his eyes but Michael could see it in the set of his shoulders, hear it in his voice.
Alarmed, he said, "Brian, he's just a kid. I know he's mature and all for his age and he loves you, but he's only eighteen. Do you remember what we were like at eighteen?"
"I was trying to fuck every hot guy I could get my hands on."
"Justin's not like that."
"Then what's wrong?" Michael asked.
"Between my job, his job, school, and Gus, we hardly ever see each other anymore and--" He raked his hand through his hair and started to speak, then paused, began again. "You think... you think he's going to leave me, don't you?"
"I hope that he doesn't." After having said that, Michael wondered if he was really telling the truth and decided not to face that demon today.
"But you think he will."
"So do I." Brian stood and paced the room, not seeing the awards, the prints, the furniture. "Nothing lasts forever. Isn't that what we're supposed to learn from all this? I mean, the fuckin' Pentagon with a hole in the side and the World Trade Center towers, gone. Nothing's forever, nothing's promised to you, not even the next moment, so why put my faith in an eighteen-year old kid? I should just enjoy it while I can, huh? Is that all there is to us? Just fucking and being together right now? Being in love right now?"
"You used to not even believe in love," Michael pointed out.
"It was a lot fucking easier." He stared at nothing in particular. "What happens when he's gone? What do I have left?" Taking a deep breath, he said, "Sometimes I look around at my life and I wonder what the fuck do I really have? When I'm gone, what will I leave behind? Look at Matt. He's gone and what? Did anybody other than me even remember him? I don't want to end up like that. I don't want to look back on my life and realize that I had nothing. That I did nothing."
"You've got Gus."
"And I didn't want to do it except that I felt like I owed Lindsay." Brian sniffled. "Gus is the one right thing in my life. Gus and Justin. And if Justin leaves..."
"You'll still have Gus and all of us." Michael stood and crossed to Brian, took him in his arms. "You'll always have me. Friends forever, isn't that what we promised each other?" Brian nodded. "Okay, then, no more of this depressing shit."
But Brian didn't tell him what he really believed: that if buildings
meant to last forever fell apart, what chance did people have? And if
Justin left him, he didn't think he'd really care who else was left
behind. He just didn't think he'd give a shit anymore.
"Okay, Batman or Superman?" asked Emmett, carefully lifting a forkful of Orange Chicken to his mouth. That was the one thing about eating over at Brian's loft, everything was fucking white and you were terrified of dropping something. Each mouthful was an exercise in muscle and mind control.
Ted swallowed. "Which Batman and which Superman? There's Adam West--"
"Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney," finished Michael.
"George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, or Dean Cain? Plus that new guy in Smallville," Ted said.
With a wave of his hand, Emmett replied, "Take your pick. Everybody has to pick someone." He stared at Brian, who had so far refused to play. "Everyone."
"Fine," he grumbled. "Dean Cain."
"Good choice," said Ted, "but a little pretty for my tastes."
"Then it's a good thing you'll never have to worry about turning him down."
"Who would you pick?" Ted asked Michael.
"Christopher Reeve. Brains and good looks. What about you?"
"Michael Keaton. He's cute but not too cute. Plus, his eyes were so intense." Ted smiled and asked of Emmett, "And madam?"
"Madam would like George Clooney and Val Kilmer."
"Well, Val sucked as Batman but he was the best Doc Holiday the world has ever seen, so it balances out. George sucked as Batman too, but he was totally hunkalicious on ER. Dr. Ross could give me CPR anytime."
Michael turned to Brian who was sitting on the sofa behind him and Emmett. "Do you have the Batman movies?"
"I think so. I know I have the first one." As Michael got up to see, Brian said, "Don't bother. I have to replace the DVD player. Gus jammed a banana in it." The guys stared at him. "Don't ask me how the fuck he did it, he just did."
Michael went, "Um, what were you and Justin doing at the time?"
"We were not fucking," Brian replied. The guys waited. "Okay, we might have been making out on the couch."
Laughing, Emmett tut-tutted. "The pains of parenthood. Hey! Isn't it Gus' birthday soon?"
"Yeah, Lindsay's having a party at her place and you're all supposed to come. Next Saturday."
Michael pushed Brian with his back. "Thanks for the notice."
"You've got a whole week."
"Do you know how hard it is to find a present for a one year old?" asked Michael and the guys nodded in agreement. "What did you get him?"
"I haven't gotten him anything yet. Justin's coming with me this weekend to find something."
The other men all voiced a collective sigh of relief.
"What? Are you saying I'm not capable of finding a gift for my own kid?"
"I don't think Gus is into dildos," Em said.
"Actually, I think he gets a kick out of Lindsay taking his temperature," Brian said making a motion with his finger.
Michael almost choked on his soda. "Brian!"
"What? Like he ever had a chance to be straight," he said.
"Straight guys like dildos," Em said. "Least the ones I've slept with do." Brian laughed.
Ted scraped around in his carton for the last of his Kung Pao Chicken. "Okay. Ponch or Jon?"
All of the guys in unison said, "Ponch."
Looking around to find Xavier at the door, Justin put down his sketch pad and let his friend in. "What's up?"
"You wanna grab something with Rennie and me or are you doing something with Brian tonight?"
"I'm supposed to meet him later but I can get something now and have something later. That's the benefit of having the metabolism of a gerbil on speed."
Xavier laughed. "That sounds like Brian."
"That was Brian." Justin smiled. "Where's Rennie?"
"Outside probably, scaring little children."
Justin locked the studio. "Bledsoe'll kill me if I leave it open. He seems to think everyone else in the Institute is trying to co-opt his art. He even made me sign a non-disclosure form."
"Nah." Justin laughed and Xavier pushed him.
Rennie met the guys outside and they walked to a pizza place not too far from campus where the boys divided a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese and Rennie had a medium veggie one by herself. "So what are you and Brian doing this weekend?" she asked. Although she realized she could never have Brian, she liked living vicariously through Justin.
"Going shopping to find a present for Gus' first birthday."
"I thought you only had a sister," Xavier said.
"I do. Molly. Gus is Brian's son."
Pausing in the middle of raising her soda to her mouth, Rennie said, "His son?"
"But I thought..."
"One of Brian's best friends is a lesbian and she and Melanie wanted a baby, so Brian donated some sperm and nine months later, there was Gus. I named him."
"You were there?"
"After he was born. That's the night Brian and I met."
"At the hospital?"
"No," he said shaking his head. "I met Brian outside of Babylon. We were at his place and we were doing it--actually, he was jerking me off--"
He smiled and finished, "When Melanie called and said Gus had been born."
Xavier frowned. "So Brian was at a club the night his son was born?"
Justin popped a pepperoni slice in his mouth. "I know, it sounds kind of harsh but Brian's changed a lot since then. He never thought he'd actually want a kid. He just did it for Lindsay. But now, he really loves Gus. You should see them together. It's so cute. Gus looks just like him." He got out his wallet and dug out a picture of Dadda and Sonny Boy. "This is when Gus was still really small. He's bigger now. He's even walking. And talking. He calls Brian, 'Da da.'"
Justin's two friends marveled over the picture and Xavier said in amazement. "I still can't believe you've got a thirty year old boyfriend who has a kid. You'd never be able to tell from looking at you."
"Be able to tell what?" Justin asked.
"That you live the kind of life most people couldn't even begin to imagine."
"It's just life. I guess most people are like that. You don't really know what their lives are like until you get to know them." He laughed. "You could have some secret life that we don't know about."
Rennie joined in the teasing. "Yeah, Xavier, you could be an ordinary art school student by day and a... a rent boy by night." Justin laughed imagining Xavier in a pair of ripped jeans and a muscle tee trying to pick up closeted businessmen.
"No, I couldn't. I'm not gay," he said and there was something in his voice that was different, something tight.
Justin looked at him with concern in his eyes. "We were just joking."
"Yeah," said Rennie. "Lighten up. You're not cute enough to be a rent boy."
And even though Xavier did seem to relax and laugh and cut up with them
the rest of the time they were together, Justin still felt as if something
had changed between them, all in the space of a moment. Kind of like that
airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. Nothing would ever be the
Brian pulled out a yellow 4x4. "What do you think?"
Justin took one look at it. "No way."
"I know, it's not black but--"
"You cannot get that for Gus."
"I can afford it."
"It's too big. He's too small. His feet'll slide through the opening and he could hurt himself. Melanie and Lindsay would kill you."
"Besides, I think he likes riding with his Da da in his Jeep."
"Next year, then. I'll get him one of those baby Jeep Wranglers. But they only have red and blue. I wonder if you could special order--"
"So what are you going to get him this year?" You kind of had to keep Brian on track sometimes.
The proud papa took out a piece of paper. "The official list of Mommies' approved toys. Boring as shit."
"He's one. Life is exciting enough."
"I think you showing up period is enough for him. I can't wait until he starts to talk so you can understand most of what he's saying."
"I love it when he says, 'Da da.' " The baby had begun to talk a little and had mastered da da, ma ma, and beh which was what he called the leather teddy bear Brian had gotten him. They were inseparable, to Melanie's chagrin. It also annoyed her that Gus went into a sing-song when Brian showed up, chanting "Da da da da da da," whenever his daddy came over for a visit or called.
"He's enough trouble as is. I still can't figure out how he got a fuckin' banana stuck in the DVD player without either of us seeing him." He glanced around and spotted another ride-on toy. "What about this?" Brian pulled out a little red fire truck. The baby was supposed to sit on top and use his feet to propel it forward or someone could push him. "ABC Sing Along Buggy," he read on the box. "It's on the list."
"I like it. It's small enough and he won't get his feet hung up in anything." He picked the box up and put it in their basket. "Come on. I still have to find something."
"This is from us."
"Hand over your money." Justin laughed and pushed the cart towards the front. "I'm not kidding," said Brian. "I want cash."
"I'll give you something better."
Brian paused and grinned as he pulled out his check book. Definitely
They sat on the floor wrapping Gus' presents. Of course, Brian had gotten him a number of the toys on the list and some things that weren't on the list. He noticed that Justin was quieter than usual. "What's wrong?"
"Something weird with Xavier."
"You'll have to be more specific."
The teen held his finger down in the middle of the ribbon while Brian tied it tightly. "We were eating pizza yesterday--"
"You had dinner with me yesterday."
"I had pizza too."
Brian shook his head. "Amazing."
"Anyway," Justin said, annoyed to be interrupted, "we were talking about how you can never really tell anything about a person from the outside and Rennie made this crack about Xavier secretly being a rent boy and he got kind of pissed."
"What the fuck does Rennie know about rent boys?"
"She saw that special on Showtime."
" 'No limits.' Yeah, right." Turning his mind to the issue at hand, he said, "Maybe he's in the closet."
"It's possible. Look at Mikey. No one at his job knows he's gay."
"Could you do that? Be in the closet?"
Brian thought about it. "I guess I kind of was. I mean, my parents didn't know."
"But everybody else did. And if they had asked you, straight out, would you have lied?"
"No. I would have told them." He finished writing their names on the gift cards and taped them onto the boxes. "There. I've done my daddy duty."
"Until next week."
Groaning, Brian dropped back against the sofa. "Don't remind me."
"Did you ever take Gus over to see your mom?"
Brian glanced away. "No." He waited for the inevitable.
Like there hadn't been time before they went on vacation and then after they got back he'd gone over and taken the crystal decanter to her and things went okay but then two weeks later he'd called her and she'd acted bitchy on the telephone and he hadn't called her since. "I don't think she really wants to be a part of my life."
"Give her a chance."
Thinking about his own strained relations with his dad, Justin replied, "As many as it takes."
Just at that moment, a fire truck went by, its siren announcing its
passage and Justin and Brian both froze for an instant, gripped by an
irrational fear that seemed to rise up from their bellies to burn in their
throats. Justin inched over to Brian and leaned against him, each
reassured by the reality of the other, the feel of his body, solid and
As Lindsay handed Gus to his daddy, she asked, "You sure you don't want me to come with you?"
"I can do it."
"I know you can." Lindz smiled. "This is a good thing you're doing."
"You hope." Brian held onto Gus' hand. "You ready, Sonny Boy? We're off
to see the Wicked Witch."
He pulled into the yard and climbed out. Unstrapped Gus from his car seat and picked him up. Held him in his arms for a moment, the baby's face soft against his own. Giving him a quick peck on the cheek, Brian grabbed his leather bear from the back seat, locked the car, and strode up to the front door of his mom's house. Hesitated a little, then pushed it open.
Joanie waited in the kitchen until Brian had entered the living room. Taking a deep breath, she smoothed her clothes and came out. And stopped. Brian stood in the middle of the floor holding his son. His son. Brian's son. With eyes and lips just like his daddy's. Only the nose was different. Must come from the mother. Lindsay. Lindsay was Gus' mother. One of them. The other was the dark-haired woman, Melanie. Two mommies and a gay father. But all of that aside, the baby was beautiful and she longed to hold him. "Could I?"
Telling himself that it was his mother, that she had held him--presumably--when he was a baby, Brian gave her his son. Gus, never bothered by the number of strangers who handled him, looked up at her with Brian's bold, hazel eyes.
"He's beautiful." She smiled. "He looks just like you."
Ten minutes later Gus had completely won over his grandmother. Holding onto her knee and bending to pick up his Beh, the baby exercised his considerably charm without even being aware of it. Brian watched him, amazed as always that the baby was part of him, a part of him that would live on even after he was gone. He hoped.
"Lindsay and Melanie are having a birthday party for him next Saturday if you want to come."
Joanie glanced over at her son, remembering the news stories, the conversations she'd had with him. "Who's going to be there?"
He knew what she really wanted to know. "Justin's coming." As Gus squatted and dropped to his butt having lost his balance, Brian waited to see if the baby would cry. But he didn't. Instead he got to his knees and crawled over to his Da da. "You got a problem with that?" he asked, reaching for the bear and putting it within Gus' reach.
The picture before her, of her child and his son, alternated with the vision in her head, of her son and someone else's child in a less innocent pose. "We'll see." She held out her hands to Gus and the baby stood and stumbled back to her.
Although he knew the answer would hurt, he had to ask anyway. "Did he ever..." He paused and asked himself again if he really wanted to know. "Did he ever love me at all?"
Joanie was aware of Brian's eyes on her and she knew he would detect any attempt on her part to lie or soften the truth. "He used to sing 'Sonny Boy' to you when you were a baby." It was one of the few pleasant memories she had of Jack and Brian. When there are gray skies/ I don't mind those gray skies./ You make them blue, sonny boy.
Thinking on the picture his father had given him of the two of them when he was a baby, Brian asked, "What happened?"
And she replied, "Life happened."
There was no one around in the cemetery. It wasn't exactly one of the
more popular places to go. Even on a Sunday. So why he was there instead
of home with Justin, he didn't know. Except that he had felt driven to
come here. With Gus. Holding the baby in his arms, he studied the
tombstone before him. How many times was he going to come here before he
found the answers he needed? Gus started to stir and he said, "This is
where your granddad is buried. Remember him? Remember your granddad? No?"
He blinked. "No, I guess not. It's okay. He was a right old sonofabitch,
if you want the truth. I still remember every time he ever hit me. Every
single time. Even though it's been fourteen, fifteen years." Not intending
to go down the same road for the hundredth time, he nevertheless couldn't
help himself. "He never once told me that he loved me. And even though he
was proud of my 'fancy job' he never told me he was proud of me." Gus laid
his hand upon his daddy's face and Brian kissed his fingers. "I may not be
there everyday and I may forget to tell you sometimes... but I do love
you. Never forget that, that your Da da loves you, cause I do. And no
matter what, I'm proud of you. Because you're my kid. The only one I've
got in the whole world, and I'm the only Da da you've got. So we stick
together, you and me, okay? And if Mel starts riding you about something,
you call me and we'll take her on together cause she's tough. And sneaky.
Deal?" He looked down at his father's grave. "It's too late for him and
me. We're never gonna settle things. But me and you, we're just starting
out. We can't fuck this up, you hear? Now, come on, let's get the fuck out
of here." He wiped at his eyes. "And don't tell the Munchers I said 'fuck'
cause your mom doesn't want you picking up my bad habits. Like who the
hell doesn't say fuck?"
Although he'd been disappointed that Brian hadn't invited him to go visit his mom, he understood why. Probably better to start slow and build up to him. Only, he didn't want anything to happen at Gus' party and he didn't know if it was the best plan in the world to have him meet her there. But Brian had said that he could only deal with one thing at a time and today he was dealing with her and Gus and that was all he could do for now. So he'd have to wait. Passing the time by sketching on the dining table and straining to hear Brian's key in the door. Brian had been gone two hours when he started to get worried. Any contact with his mother usually left the man distraught and there was no telling what he'd do. He'd been so good lately about the drugs and the alcohol, smoking a joint every now and then but nothing stronger than that, his designer drug box closed and gathering dust. But Joanie had the potential to send him searching for a quick fix, for a little instant oblivion. Finally, he heard Brian at the door and prepared himself for whatever. Turning, he watched as Brian locked the door and dropped his keys on the counter. Shrugged off his leather jacket and draped it over the back of the sofa. Crossing the floor to where Justin sat, he lowered his head and kissed him with a sigh. "You okay?"
Justin studied his eyes. "You sure?"
Brian nodded. "It went all right. She loves Gus."
"Everybody loves Gus." Cupping Brian's face, he said, "I think you deserve a reward."
Brian smiled. "You're fixing dinner?"
Pushing him away, Justin stood and stripped off his shirt. Tossed it
over Brian's head and giggled. Removing the shirt from his face, Brian
chased Justin into the bedroom and tackled him. They fell upon the bed,
laughing and kissing, family problems and dinner forgotten.
Justin balanced a tray of nori rolls on Brian's belly and used his chopsticks to pick them up and carry them precariously to his mouth. "If you drop wasabi sauce on my dick, I'm going to spank you. And I don't mean in a good way," Brian threatened.
Justin carefully finished his dinner and set the tray and chopsticks on the bedside table. "I wonder if I'll ever have any kids."
"Maybe you and Daphne can have one. You've fucked her once already."
"Yeah, and she made me put on like three condoms. I couldn't feel shit."
Brian rubbed Justin's bottom. "Poor baby."
The teen laid his head on Brian's stomach and thought, then said, "Sometimes I feel kind of weird when we're with Gus."
"Because you're his dad and Melanie and Lindsay are his moms but I'm not anybody."
"Gus loves you."
"But nothing. Labels don't mean shit." He drew Justin up against his chest. "Besides, you're someone to me."
"A pain in my ass."
Justin straddled Brian's waist and held onto his shoulders. Dipped his head and kissed Brian softly, feeling his lover's hands on his back and hip. "I wish tomorrow would never come," he said, referring to the fact that it would be Monday and they'd be apart again for the entire week. "Come to the studio."
"If I have time."
"Make time." He kissed Brian again. "Please."
"I'll see. I have a meeting tomorrow afternoon and I don't know when it'll be over."
"Try," pleaded Justin.
Of course, Brian didn't show. Justin, begrudgingly, put away his pencils and began packing his knapsack. "Fuck," he grumbled and Bledsoe peeked around the partition dividing their studio.
"Nothing," he replied.
"So what are you doing for the memorial show?"
The Institute had decided that it would hold a show in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks featuring artwork inspired by recent events. All students had been encouraged to participate.
Justin shrugged. So far nothing had come to him and the show opened in two weeks. If he didn't come up with something soon, he wouldn't be able to participate. Not exactly the auspicious beginning he had hoped for when he walked through the doors of the Institute for the first time. Besides that, his mom would take it as direct proof that he was spending too much time with Brian. His stuff packed away, he threw up his hand. "Later."
A couple hours later Rennie and Xavier showed up at the diner and hung out while he zipped around waiting on four tables at once. Like Daphne, the two were amazed at how popular he was and amused by the lengths to which various guys went to get his attention and his interest, but they could have told them he only had eyes for one man. Who dragged in around nine thirty long after they had gone back to the Institute. Still wearing his work clothes. Taking a seat at the counter, Brian waited for Justin to finish busing his table and to return from the back. Kissing briefly, they both smiled softly and Justin asked, "Meeting run long?"
"I had to take her out to dinner."
"Yeah. Margaret Raynor, Raynor Electronics. Ever since they came on board, she seems to think I'm her personal property. I told Ryder I'm not fucking her. I don't care how much the account is."
Justin brushed Brian's bangs from his forehead. "You tell her that you belong to me and I don't like to share." He kissed Brian again and ran his finger over the man's lips.
"Sorry I couldn't come this afternoon."
" 's okay," he replied, his tone unconvincing at best.
"Hey!" Deb popped Justin on the butt. "Your shift isn't over yet. Stop making kissy faces with Brian and get a move on."
"And don't call me ma'am," she ordered.
Standing, Brian stretched his neck and dug his keys from his pocket. "Later."
As he watched him leave, Justin felt as if he'd never see him again. Which was stupid. He'd probably see him tomorrow. Only, it was how he felt and he couldn't shake the feeling all throughout the rest of his shift.
The moment he got home and climbed the stairs to his room, he whipped out his cellphone and called Brian.
Justin felt guilty because it sounded as if Brian had been asleep. "Hey."
He cleared his throat. "Hey."
Even though he couldn't see him, he imagined Brian sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes.
"I just wanted to talk."
And he heard a noise, probably Brian reaching for his cigarettes. Sure enough, he heard him flip the top on the Zippo lighter. "How many of those have you had today?"
"Then why ask?" Brian took a long draw and exhaled most of the smoke. "About what?" he asked again.
"I missed you."
"I know, but..."
"I feel like I never see you." He hadn't intended to say that, to make it sound so desperate, but it was how he felt.
"Don't. Don't call me baby when I'm not there with you. I just want to be with you."
"What do you want me to do about it? It's your mom's rule and you said you'd deal with it."
"Well, I can't."
"Yes, you can." He stubbed out his cigarette, most of it untouched. "We both can."
"You don't miss me at all."
"I'm not gonna do this." Brian waited for Justin to argue and when he didn't, asked, "What's really wrong?"
Justin hesitated, then said, "I can't think of anything to do for the memorial show. And I was in the studio this afternoon and Bledsoe was talking about what he was gonna do and I went to see Rennie and Xavier and they were all excited about what they were doing and I couldn't think of anything. Except you and how much I wanted to see you."
Closing his eyes, Brian said, "Justin we can't do this. We can't--you have to concentrate on school."
"How can I when all I do is miss you? If I were with you I wouldn't miss you so much and..."
Brian could hear him sniffling and knew he was sitting in bed crying
and he threw back the covers. "Give me fifteen minutes. Be outside."
Unsurprised, Brian looked up to see Jennifer Taylor barreling through his office door. "Have a seat."
"I don't want to sit," she replied and took a deep breath and then sat down.
He put down his work and looked at her. She was pissed. Even more pissed than she'd been when she'd come and dropped off Justin's things that time. And offered him that check. Hell, he'd give her a check if she'd leave without reaming him. "So."
"So, you said that you'd back me on this and then I find out he's been spending nights over at your place--"
"He called me up, he was over there fuckin' crying, what the hell did you expect me to do?" he asked, his brows drawn, eyes dark.
"To keep your word," she said, voice quivering a little, the way it did when she was extremely angry.
"I gave my word because I thought this was the best thing for him, but I'm not so sure anymore."
"The best thing for him or for you?"
Brian looked away. "He can't concentrate on his work. Is that what you want?"
"He would, if you weren't involved," she pointed out.
"Well, I am. I am involved in this, I'm involved with him. And no matter how much you hate it, that's the way it is."
Neither denying nor confirming his accusations, she asked instead, "So what do you suggest?"
"Don't make such a big deal about him coming over. So he stays at my place a couple nights a week, what's the problem?"
"The problem is, he should be concentrating on his art."
"He does. What do you think we do? Fuck all the time?"
"I try not to think about it," she said, images of the two of them in intimate situations emerging unbidden.
"Well, maybe you should. Maybe you should ask him why he wants to be with me."
"Justin has his entire life ahead of him. I don't want anything getting in the way of that."
"I have no intention of--"
"It might not be your intention, but if it happens, if being with you keeps him from doing the things he should, then what?"
"I would never stand in his way."
"And you're capable of deciding that?"
"And what happens when you get tired of him? When you move on to your next adventure?"
"Is that what you think this is?"
"You're thirty and he's eighteen. You have a child, responsibilities" And she thought, This wouldn't be happening if Justin had gone to Dartmouth. "Do you really think Justin's ready to settle down? If you were serious about him, you'd know that it's never going to work. But you're not, this is just play time for you. And one day you're going to hurt him."
"I would never do anything to hurt him. But I'm never going to convince you of that, so what's the point in talking about it?"
"You think he's ready for company dinners--"
"He's already been to a cocktail party with me."
"The corporate world is conservative. How far do you think you'll go with a teenaged lover?"
"I'm not worried about my career."
"Maybe you should be. Maybe you should think about the things you're giving up by being with him."
"I'm not giving up anything. I do my job, that's what I get paid for, that's what people see: my work."
"You can't be that naive." She knew how the business world was, knew how cruel it could be.
"I'm not ashamed of Justin. I'm not ashamed of Justin and me."
"You say that now but what if--"
"What if what?" He shook his head. "What if that plane that crashed outside of Pittsburgh would have crashed inside the city? It could have slammed into this building, killed all of us. There's no point in playing 'What if.' Justin and me, we'll either make it work or we won't. Just like everybody else." He stood and crossed to the door, opened it. "Now, if you don't mind, I have things to do."
Lips pressed in a thin line, Jennifer stood and marched out of his
office. Giving into the anger, Brian slammed the door.
"Justin, honey, I'm not angry with you." They were seated at her kitchen table.
He glanced up at her. Oh, yes, she was. "It's not Brian's fault."
"He agreed with you."
"I know you think I'm being unfair--"
"I just want to be with him. I need him."
And she could hear the honesty in his voice, the raw need that he made no attempt to disguise and it frightened her that he believed his words, that the truth resided somewhere in his flesh and not just in his head. "That's what I'm afraid of, that you need him too much. Justin, you can't live your life for Brian. There's so much for you to do and see, I don't want you to shortchange yourself because of him."
"I wouldn't be in art school if it weren't for Brian. I wouldn't even be alive for that matter."
"I know you're grateful--"
"I love him." Justin paused to savor the words. They were so solid, so real that even if he were to forget all that he knew about the world, about himself, they'd be there before him to remind him of the only truth, the only reality that mattered. "I've always loved him and I'm not going to stop loving him. No matter what. And all the rules in the world won't change that." He thumbed the corner of his eye. "It hurts me, being apart from him."
Alarmed, she said, "This isn't healthy."
"Didn't you want to be with Dad? Isn't that why you got married in the first place? To be together?"
"You're not married."
He chuckled. "No. We can't be. But we can be together. And we will be. I don't care what you or Dad say. You can cut me off, stop paying for school, and I'll still be with him. I'll find a way."
"Justin, no one's talking about not paying for school--"
"Then let it go. I know what I'm doing." Jaw set, he put the issue to rest.
But Jennifer knew better, she had experience on her side, hard-won wisdom. "No, honey, you don't. You think you do, but there's so much you don't understand."
"Then I'll learn." He was willing to grant her that much and no more. "With Brian."
Having failed to bring him around to her way of thinking, she quizzed him about his intentions. "Are you moving in with him?"
"No." Justin watched her closely for any reaction: there was none. "I just want to be able to see him when I want. To be with him when I need to. That's all I'm saying."
"Fine. I can't stop you." She pushed away from the table.
"Mom--I wish you could understand."
Pausing as she turned, Jen replied, "I do understand, Justin. More than
"Can I come over?"
Brian cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder and dumped pasta into a colander. "No."
"I know you're mad--"
"I'm not. I'm just tired." He drained the pasta and plated it. Poured on red sauce and shredded a little Romano cheese.
"Justin... I'm exhausted."
"What about Friday?"
"What about it?"
"I was supposed to come over. For the weekend."
"And do you still want me to?"
He started to say something sharp, then curbed the impulse. Said instead, "You know I do." He could visualize Justin smiling, heard it in his voice when he spoke.
Brian ground some pepper over his pasta. " 'Night." Cut off the phone
and stood holding it in his hand.
Deb wasn't surprised at all to see Brian walk through the door. "He's gone," she said. "I think he went back to school. I heard him talking with Xavier."
"So, what's wrong?" She put down her scissors. Christ, she hated clipping coupons but with a second mortgage on the house and a teenager to feed, every cent helped.
Brian perched on the arm of the couch and Deb smiled. She could count on her hands the number of times Brian had actually sat in a chair in her house. It was as if he was always poised for flight. "I've known you since you were fourteen. You were a piss poor liar then and you still are."
"He won't move in with me because he says we're not ready, and he's right. But then he calls me up and..." And cries and pleads and reminds me why I love him, why I need him.
"He's a teenager. Don't take everything he says so seriously. Half the time he doesn't know what he wants, the other half he just wants to get laid. Stop running over here every time he throws a hissy fit. You know what a drama princess he is."
"He has his moments," he said with a chuckle. Justin definitely had his moments.
"Then stop indulging him. So he jerks off three or four times a week, it won't kill him."
Brian laughed. "Jesus, Deb."
"What? Seriously, it won't kill him to do without you until the weekend. He's just a little scared with what's been happening. Hell, we're all scared. And he's still finding his way at school. Give him another week and he'll be too busy to whine and moan."
Softly, he said, "Yeah."
Some of what he was feeling must have shown because she added, "It doesn't mean he'll love you any less. Or need you any less than he does now. It just means he won't hold on quite so tight."
Not wanting to dissect his emotions right then and there, he said, "I should go," and made for the door.
"Brian." He stopped. "Honey, he loves you."
"So what's wrong?" Deb watched him struggle with the impulse to unburden himself.
"Nothing." Pause. "I don't know." Another pause. "His mom came to see me."
"Yeah, well..." She'd known Jennifer would head straight to him when she found out about Justin's sleepovers.
"She thinks I'm just playing with him. She said that if I were really serious I'd realize he's not ready to settle down."
Deb smirked. "I don't think you're ready to settle down."
"She said I have responsibilities."
He hung his head, unable to look her in the eye. "We're at two different places in our lives... " Swallowed. "And we're never gonna get those twelve years back."
"No. You won't. But maybe they won't matter so much."
Looking up, he asked, "When? When I'm fifty and he's thirty-eight? When he's fifty and I'm sixty-two?" The implications angered him. "Shit!"
Standing, she neared him and peered up at him. "So maybe he's not the only one who's afraid."
"I want to be with him all the fuckin' time because I don't know how long this is gonna last." Deb stared at him, not believing that he'd just confessed what he had. "I keep turning around and he's not there and I'm never sure if he's coming back and I--I don't want to care because--" He stopped abruptly, afraid of saying what he felt, even to Deb.
"Because it hurts."
"I just don't know what I'm doing. I'm just--" God, he did not want to have this conversation.
She laid a hand upon his sleeve, rubbed his arm through his shirt. "You have to have faith, kiddo. That things are gonna work out."
Looking up at her, he smiled faintly. "I've never had faith in anything
or anyone in my life... that didn't eventually let me down." He paused and
added, "Including myself."
Turning, he saw Justin at the door of the studio and waved him in. His new friend pushed through with a sad look on his face. "What's up, Joostan?" It was a joke of Xavier's to call him that after Justin Wilson ever since he found out that Justin cooked. "The Gay Boy Chef," he added as Justin knew he would.
"Sorry. You're cute but you're not that cute." Justin laughed as Xavier had intended. "Man, you look like shit."
"Feel like it too."
"You and Brian ain't gettin' it on?" He put down his work, turned his attention to Justin.
"My mom went to his office again and bitched at him so..."
"No more weekday nookie."
"I don't see what the big deal is. It's not like I'm there every day. It's just that--sometimes I need him, I need to be with him so badly it hurts. Sometimes I need to spend the night with him, I need to fall asleep next to him. I don't know why, I just do. And she thinks I can just store it up until the weekend--well, I can't." Justin found a chair and sat in it backwards.
"So what does he want?"
"He's trying to please the both of us and it's not working and I know we're driving him crazy."
"He doesn't seem like the type to take a lot of shit."
"He's not." Justin laughed. "You should have heard the way he used to tear into me. About anything, everything."
"Must have been tight."
Xavier looked as if he wanted to ask a question but didn't know how and then he just came out with it. "So when did you know? That you were in love with him?"
"From the very beginning." A smile spread across Justin's face. "That first night we spent together was incredible. I had never felt anything like it in my life. I knew right then that I loved him."
"But it could have just been really good sex. How did you know?"
"I just did. Even when everyone said I was crazy, that Brian didn't do boyfriends, even when he pushed me away and told me it didn't mean anything, that he didn't believe in love, I still knew that it did. There was something about the way that he touched me, the way that he talked to me sometimes, it made me realize that this was different, that it wasn't just sex, it was something else for him, something that mattered to him, and I couldn't give up on us." He smiled. "And I didn't."
Shaking his head, Xavier asked, "But wasn't it hard, not being sure if he even felt anything for you?"
"Sometimes he'd say or do something and it would hurt so bad, I didn't think I'd make it, and I wanted to tell him to fuck off, that I didn't need him, but I couldn't." Justin's eyes darkened. "One time he was really mean to me and I did something totally shitty to him. I wanted to hurt him, I wanted him to feel the way he made me feel sometimes."
"Did it work?"
"Yeah," he replied softly. "It hurt him all right. I could see it in his eyes." He remembered the way Brian had looked at him in the diner and at the loft the day after the King of Babylon contest. "And I never wanted to make him feel like that again. I never wanted to hurt him again. I shouldn't have done it."
"But he's done the same thing to you."
"He's had a really hard life. The things he's been through... It's not an excuse but I understand. And he does try. Sometimes," he added. "Even before we got together, he treated me differently from the other guys he slept with, and I knew it. He let me into his life; even if he never really meant to, he did."
"I can't imagine loving someone like that, to put up with that kind of shit."
"It's kind of scary. Not knowing what you'd do, how far you'd go, not being sure if you even have limits."
"Do you?" Xavier toyed with a block of wood.
"I can't think of anything I wouldn't do for him," he answered and he remembered the hard hour he'd spent in Drew's office and he thought, No. There's nothing I wouldn't do.
"So what do you have planned?"
"For your anniversary? Didn't you say that you met--"
"Fuck! I totally forgot."
"So what you gone do, J?"
"I wish we could go away, even if it was just for one night."
"Go to one of those swank hotels downtown," Xavier suggested.
"Yeah, but we've been to one of the best resorts in the Caribbean."
"La dee fuckin' da. I guess you--"
"I got it!"
"No, Brian'll see. I'll just hear about it." He put down the block.
Justin's ears perked up at the choice of words. "You don't mind, do you?"
"That I talk about me and Brian?"
Xavier cocked his head. Smiled. Usually you couldn't tell that Justin had been affected by the bashing except for moments like this, when he wasn't sure about people or how they'd react to him. "It's cool."
"I just.. I feel like I can talk to you. You know?"
"No problem, J." He bobbed his head. "No problem at all. Just bring me
some birthday cake."
Before they even entered the yard, the two men could hear Lindsay yelling something to Mel. Brian paused and rubbed his face.
"Okay," said Justin, "promise you'll be good. No arguing with Mel, no yelling, no smoking, no cursing--"
"Am I allowed to have a good time?" asked Brian, rolling his eyes.
"As long as it doesn't involve any of the above."
Luckily, Lindsay had been reading all the best baby books and they all suggested that the first birthday party be restricted to family and close friends since the baby wouldn't really remember any of it and would be overwhelmed by strange people. Basically, the party was for the parents, the kid wouldn't care. Therefore, other than the parents and their partners, the only guests were the guys and Deb and Vic. Joanie hadn't put in an appearance yet so Brian could breathe freely for a while but he fully expected her at any moment.
As soon as Gus saw his daddy he began calling out to him and trying to get away from Lindsay. She released him and he stiff-legged it over to Brian. He was still an unsteady walker at best but he did manage to make it all the way over to the door where Brian caught him up in his arms. "Hey, Sonny Boy."
"Da da da da," Gus said in his breathless baby voice.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, " groaned Mel.
Brian grinned and said, "Look, Gus, Justin. Can you say, 'Justin?' "
The baby laughed and so did the teen. "Beh."
Carrying Gus over to where his bear was, Brian lowered the baby to the floor. Justin put their gifts with the others and made his way to the buffet table after getting kisses from both Lindsay and Mel. "I've told him to be on his best behavior," he informed them.
"Yipee," Mel responded. "He'll only be half the asshole he usually is."
In between eating off Justin's plate, Brian took pictures of the birthday boy and the other guests. Gus giggled as his Da da waved at him and took his picture. Brian couldn't believe how excited the baby was. Of course, with all the noise and bright colors, he was surprised Gus didn't just spontaneously combust. How much Winnie-the-Pooh could one kid stand? Any moment now, he expected Gus to shut down. But, meanwhile, the baby kept going full blast. Jesus, he didn't remember ever having that much energy--unless it was chemically induced.
From the buffet Justin laughed. Although he didn't want to admit it, Brian was having a ball at the birthday party and Gus, Gus was in seventh heaven. There was no doubt in the teenager's mind that the baby knew who his Da da was and loved him more than anything. The way his face lit up when Brian smiled at him... Of course, Justin's face lit up too when Brian smiled at him. He shook his head, amazed. A year ago who would have ever thought that he and Brian would end up at Gus' first birthday party? Together? He couldn't wait until the party was over. Brian caught his eye and snapped a picture of him, then turned back to the adults who were putting on an impromptu fashion show. In addition to Brian's capturing everything on film, Mel was videotaping the party as well and they worked around each other trying to get the best shots.
Gus watched from the floor, amazed by their antics. Em picked him up and helped him do a supermodel walk. In his bare feet. Lindz said that was one way you could tell he was Brian's kid: they both hated wearing shoes. "And here we have Gus, the hottest male model this year, showing off the latest in fashionable baby wear."
"Wait," protested Michael, "I thought you said I was the hottest male model this year?"
"Darling, you're fabulous but I lied."
"My career is over." Michael placed a limp wrist over his forehead. "What'll I do?"
Ted piped up. "Become an actor. You can walk. That's half of it. Now, you just have to learn to read."
Taking a break from documenting the joyous occasion, Brian slipped away and sat in the kitchen. Lindsay saw him and followed. "Hey, Da da."
"Hey, Ma ma." He grinned.
"You think she's coming?" He'd told Lindz about inviting his mom.
"I don't know." He shook his head. "I don't know if I even want her to show up. Jesus."
"I think it's great that you're trying, both of you." She tugged on his sleeve. "Come on, you don't get to wimp out on the party. That's what being a parent means."
He stood. "Christ, I need a cigarette."
Ten minutes later, he needed an aspirin too. Emmett had decided to sing and Gus was doing his best to keep up. Both were screeching at the top of their lungs and Brian didn't know who he wanted to shut up more: Gus cause he couldn't understand what he was saying or Em cause he could. Just then, Joanie showed up. Lindsay let her in and introduced her to everyone--except Deb and Justin, because Joanie knew Deb and Lindsay figured Brian would introduce Justin.
Taking a deep breath, Brian signaled to Justin and accompanied the teen to where his mother stood. "Joanie Kinney, Justin Taylor; Justin, Joanie."
Justin didn't know whether to offer to shake hands or what; he just stood and waited for her to make the first move. Somehow, miraculously, everyone had migrated to the dining room leaving the three of them alone in the living room. Not that they couldn't hear everything that was being said.
"I understand you're attending the Institute of Fine Arts," she said finally.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, grateful for such an innocuous opening.
"You must be very talented."
"I love art."
"What do your parents think?"
"My mom's sorta okay with it sometimes."
"And your father?"
"He hates Brian." There was no way to soften that at all.
Joanie glanced at her son. "Well, his own father hated him, why should yours be any different?"
Brian felt like someone had thrown ice cold water over him. His mouth opened as if he were going to say something, but he didn't. He just turned and left the room. Climbed the stairs to the second level, Justin behind him.
Although they were pretending not to have heard anything, Deb just couldn't keep quiet. Marching into the living room, she lit into Joanie. "You've got some nerve."
"He's having an affair with an eighteen-year old boy who looks like he's fifteen."
"He's lucky he's in a relationship at all. He's lucky to be alive."
"Jack would never have--"
"That he didn't kill himself!"
Michael came towards them. "Ma--"
"Jack Kinney was a piece of work but you let it happen. You stood by and let him beat the shit out of your kid and you never did a fuckin' thing!" Turned her head, "Sorry," she said to Lindz and Mel.
"No," replied Lindsay coolly, "don't apologize."
"Justin is the best thing to ever happen to Brian besides Gus. I've never seen him so happy. And he tried to do something right, inviting you here today when he could have said, 'Fuck it.' So you keep your goddamn opinions to yourself."
Silence blanketed the room. Finally, Joanie said to no one in particular, "I'm sorry."
Stepping out from behind Deb, Michael suggested, "Maybe you should tell
that to Brian."
Who sat on the bed in the guest room with Justin next to him. The teen stroked his hair. It usually calmed Brian a little, took a lot of the edge off, which was what he needed most. "It's okay. I'm here."
"Just when I think maybe, maybe this time I won't get kicked in the head..." He grimaced and willed himself not to care, but he didn't quite succeed.
"It's hard for people to change," said Justin. "Look at you. It took a whole year almost for you to admit that you loved me. Give her time. She wants to do better; she came today, it's a start. You just have to be patient."
Brian gave a faint smile. Patience was not one of his virtues. He wasn't actually convinced that he had any although Justin assured him he did. "How'd you get to be so smart?"
"I've got a really trying lover." He smiled and laughed as Brian grabbed him and nuzzled his neck. Their lips met and they kissed, more for comfort than from passion--at first. Growing aroused, they lay back on the bed, heedless of the fact that the door to the room was open. Brian unzipped Justin's jeans and slipped his hand inside. "Oh, yeah..." Justin whispered.
As Joanie neared the room, she heard sounds. Not sure if they were in there talking, she glanced inside. And saw them on the bed. Stepping back, she closed her eyes and paused, then fled downstairs, grabbed her purse, and left.
Deb watched her leave in amazement. "What in the hell happened to her?"
Looking up, Michael asked, "I wonder where they are?"
"And what they're doing," Vic clarified. Emmett covered his mouth to stifle a giggle.
Deciding it was a mystery they'd eventually get an answer to, everyone continued with the party, hoping the two men would return soon so they could have cake and open a few of Gus' presents before the party came to an end. Within ten minutes the missing couple returned, goofy smiles plastered on their faces.
"Oh, shit, you didn't," commented Michael.
"Didn't what?" asked Brian. "Where's Joanie?"
"She came flying down the stairs like the Terminator was after her," he replied.
Brian and Justin exchanged looks. "Oh, hell," said Brian.
"What the fuck were you doing?"
"We were just fooling around."
"With your clothes on or off?"
Mel neared them. "Not on the guest bed?"
Brian smirked. "We didn't get anything on it."
She covered her eyes. "I do not want details."
He picked a potato chip from her plate and she looked both astounded and annoyed. "I washed my hands." As she returned to Lindsay's side, Brian said, "I guess I should go over there after this and talk to her," referring to his mother.
"Do it next week," Justin suggested. "We've got plans."
Brian raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah?"
The Boy Wonder smiled. "Yeah."
Finally, the moment arrived that everyone had been waiting for since the party began. With Mel and Brian recording his every action, Gus stuffed his face full of Winnie-the-Pooh birthday cake and, like every one-year old before him, made a complete mess of it. But no one minded. In fact, the adults encouraged him and Michael, Emmett, and Ted joined him in smearing cake all over their faces too.
Then came the presents. Lindsay let Gus tear open a couple of his presents, saving the rest for later. Of course, he was more interested in the wrapping paper and bright bows than anything inside. But when he got to the ride-on fire engine Brian and Justin had given him, his eyes seemed to lock on it so she put him on the back of the toy and the teen pushed him around while the baby shrieked with joy.
"You read the list," she said to Brian.
"I read the list."
A half hour later, it was obvious that the guest of honor had hit the wall. Plopping down between Mel's feet, he began to nod off, prompting her to carry him upstairs. With the birthday boy tucked away, the adults helped Lindz clean up and gradually trickled home. Brian and Justin were the last to leave. Lindsay pecked them both on the cheek.
"You did good, Da da." Then added, "Justin too."
"Don't let her get to you," she said, referring to his mom.
Justin assured her, "Don't worry. I'll keep him occupied for a while."
Lindsay shook her head, a twinkle in her eye. "I just bet you will."
As they walked to the Jeep Brian asked, "What plans?"
Justin removed a blindfold from his pocket. "Put this on."
"How can I drive with this on?"
"I'll drive." When Brian hesitated, Justin said, "I'm a good driver."
He slipped on the blindfold. "Two words: company car."
All during the drive Brian kept asking Justin questions which the teen refused to answer until the man decided to just shut up and wait until they got wherever they were going. It took an hour--after a brief stop at home during which Brian fidgeted until the teenager returned with a overnight bag--but they finally arrived at their destination. Justin told Brian to wait and hopped out. Returned and drove a little ways then stopped again. This time after he got out, he opened Brian's door and led the man from the car to the front door of a building. Opened it and nudged Brian inside. Closed the door. "Okay," he said, "you can take it off now."
Brian did so and looked around in amazement. They were in a little two-room cottage filled with fresh flowers. There was a bottle of champagne on ice and two flutes next to the king-sized bed. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Happy Anniversary," Justin replied.
"Anniversary?" Brian frowned then he smiled, then he looked contrite. "I forgot. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." He reached into his backpack and handed Brian a present. "For you. For your birthday too. We never really celebrated it."
Tearing open the paper, Brian couldn't stop smiling. When he had completely unwrapped it, he paused. "Robert Mapplethorpe: Pictures. Thanks, baby."
Justin grinned. "I predict it'll become one of your favorite books." He drew Brian's head down and kissed him. "I love you." Brian pulled away. "Brian...?"
"I'm sorry," he said, sniffling a little.
"What is it?"
Brian didn't say anything for a few moments and then he said softly, "I love you."
"So what's wrong?"
"I should tell you more often." He looked at Justin, his eyes shiny with unshed tears. "I know I should."
"No, it isn't. We don't have time to fuck around. You never know what's gonna happen. One minute you're out walking your dog and the next you're dead," he said, referring to the co-pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. There'd been a story about him in The Advocate along with articles about a businessman from San Francisco who was on the flight that crashed outside of Pittsburgh and who may have fought with the hijackers, a couple traveling with their three-year old adopted son, a man who worked for National Geographic, and a British citizen in America on business. All gay, all gone. "Anything could happen." A tear slipped from beneath his lid, streaked his cheek.
"So we don't waste any time." He wiped Brian's face. "Especially being sad or regretting anything." Giving Brian another kiss, he moved into his arms and said, "I know that you love me. Even when you don't say it. It's the one sure thing in my life."
Brian held him tightly, afraid to let go, afraid that if he did the
teen would just disappear, leaving him alone.
That night they spent in bed sipping champagne; planning the itinerary for their grand tour of Europe in the summer; leafing through Brian's birthday/anniversary present; and making love slowly, sweetly, tenderly. Justin didn't think he'd ever heard Brian say he loved him as many times in all the months they'd been together as he did that night. Kissing the soft flesh along his neck and whispering, "I love you," in the hollow of his throat; teasing his nipples, lips forming the words, "I love you" around the tips; "I love you" lost among the folds of his belly button, lingering along the length of his cock, slipping back between his cheeks. Brian painted his shoulders, his spine, and buttocks with "I love you;" dipping his tongue inside his hole to coat the inner surface with the three, short words. By the time the man reached his toes and individually anointed each of them, Justin was completely immersed in, yet buoyed by, each and every utterance and he knew that no matter what happened he would carry the words with him, in his flesh, for the rest of his life.
Brian sank down into him and he sighed and opened his lips to be kissed, to be told without words how much he was loved. And Brian did. With each kiss, each thrust, each breath, each drop of sweat, he professed his love and devotion. Gratefully did Justin receive it, hands and hips, belly and thighs saying what his lips could only echo in pale imitation, "I love you. I need you. I want you."
Feeling Justin tighten around him, Brian braced himself for the teenager's orgasm. Justin clenched his teeth and grunted, his cock sliding against Brian's belly. It erupted, cum overflowing the tip to drip down upon both their skins. His lover having come, Brian redoubled his efforts and thrust hard into the teen. Burying his face in the space between Justin's head and shoulder, Brian bit down gently upon the youth's flesh and cried out as he climaxed.
After they had come, the pair remained joined for a while, unwilling to
part; and when, at last, they did part, they wrapped arms and legs about
one another and stayed like that for the longest time, hearts pounding yet
continually slowing to a regular, steady beat. Justin slid his hand along
Brian's cheek and felt his lover's lips against his palm.
The next morning they awoke and made love again, then showered, slipped on their robes, and waited for breakfast to arrive. Feasting on Belgian waffles with strawberries and cream, chicken and garlic sausage, and scrambled eggs served over asparagus spears, the two enjoyed a long, leisurely repast. Afterwards they dressed and went for a long walk. "I can't believe I'm out walking in the country," Brian grumbled and Justin bumped him with his shoulder.
"You know you like it." Brian refused to look at him. "Go on. Say it. Say you like it."
"It's... peaceful," the man confessed, but didn't say if that was a good or bad thing.
Gazing at their surroundings, at the green and golden foliage and the sudden eruptions of colorful wildflowers, catching glimpses of squirrels scampering around and birds flitting through the branches overhead, hearing an occasional snatch of a song... Justin wondered what it would be like to live in the country, to wake up every day and look out of your window at this. To have a studio that overlooked a lake maybe or a river or faced the mountains. He laughed. What in the hell would Brian do out in the country? Grow vegetables?
"Nothing. I was just imagining you down on your knees pulling weeds from your garden."
Brian looked shocked. "My what?"
"Your garden." He eased the man back against a tree and studied him as he was wont to do. "All sweaty and dirty. Tanned from having your shirt off." Brian smiled and Justin got up on his tiptoes and kissed him. "And when it was time to come inside, you'd strip and I'd hose you down until you were nice and clean..." His next thoughts were lost in a kiss and a sigh. Then Brian drew away slightly and grinned.
"Maybe I'd pull you down in the dirt with me instead. Forget about being clean. Just roll around in the mud."
"Mmmm," said Justin in agreement and they kissed again, him pressing hard against Brian. The tree shook and bits of leaves fell into their hair.
Returning to the cottage, they packed their things and checked out, and headed back to Pittsburgh--Brian driving this time.
That night, after having dinner with the guys at Deb's place, they
lounged around the loft just enjoying one another's proximity. Justin
sketched, scribbling ideas for the memorial show although nothing really
came to him; and Brian studied the Mapplethorpe photos, wondering if he'd
ever produce anything as startlingly focused and affective. He'd taken the
book with him to Deb's and shown the guys. Emmett had sworn he used to
know one of the models. Looking at the photos, at the various acts
portrayed, most of which he'd participated in at one time or the other,
Brian marveled that in light of such complicated pleasures, he was able to
find fulfillment in the simple act of sitting in his apartment. With
Justin at the table. Maybe this was what Lindz had meant when she talked
about people needing to feel loved, to feel that they belonged to
something other than themselves. Even when things appeared their worst,
when everything seemed to spiral out of control, he could look at Justin
and feel safe, steady, centered. Closing his book, he placed it on the
coffee table and rose. Justin's head shifted slightly in response to his
movement. Without saying a word, they retired. To dream of life.
Running along the beach in the Bahamas and slipping into the water.
Gus smearing his face with cake as they cheered him on.
Fixing dinner together while Gus watched from his seat on top of the
Buried deep in the covers of their bed, making love in the early
Laying on the sofa, asleep, as the rain fell in sheets outside.
Daphne showing them her college library at Princeton.
The two of them surrounded by a hundred men at Babylon, dancing up a
Brian's face looking down at Justin's as the teen lay in a hospital
Running along the beach in the Bahamas and slipping into the water.
Gus smearing his face with cake as they cheered him on.
Fixing dinner together while Gus watched from his seat on top of the dining table.
Buried deep in the covers of their bed, making love in the early morning light.
Laying on the sofa, asleep, as the rain fell in sheets outside.
Daphne showing them her college library at Princeton.
The two of them surrounded by a hundred men at Babylon, dancing up a sweat.
Brian's face looking down at Justin's as the teen lay in a hospital bed.
All of these moments and more made up a life, their life. Entwined
about them, binding them together tighter than the strongest steel. And
this life, this love, would not melt under heat or buckle under pressure
or crack or collapse or fall apart.
He stood outside of the house for the longest time, sure that she was inside watching him or, at least, aware of his presence. Finally, he opened the front door and went in to find her sitting in the living room. Waiting.
"Brian--" she began but he cut her off.
"I just need to know, one way or the other. You don't have to be part of my life. We can go back to the way things were. There's no rule that says families have to be close. Only, you tell me how it's gonna be because I don't intend to keep getting kicked in the ass. I'm not ashamed of us, of me and Justin. And he's not a child, he's a man. He's young, I know that. And he's always gonna be younger than me. We're never going to be the same age, never. But it doesn't matter. It doesn't mean shit. What matters is that I love him and he loves me. He loves me more than anything in this world and I--" Hesitating for a moment, Brian continued, "I can depend on him. I trust him. I would trust him with my life." He stopped, feeling raw and exposed and more vulnerable than he'd ever felt with her. When she didn't respond right away, he said, "So you think about it and you let me know," and started to go.
"Brian..." Joanie paused. So did he. "I'm sorry." He waited. "I wish I could tell you that I understood. But I don't. I wish I could tell you that I accepted your life. But I can't."
He nodded his head sadly and swallowed. "Do you have Lindsay's number?"
"Yes." He had given it to her on the eve of Gus' party.
"Call her sometimes. He's still your grandson." Brian reached for the
doorknob and held it in his grip for a few seconds before walking away
from his mother's home for what would probably be the last time.
The images emerged from the paper almost effortlessly now. After struggling the week before, he'd finally realized what he wanted to do for the memorial. Working frantically--a controlled frenzy--he endeavored to make up for lost time. Even Bledsoe was impressed, and nothing impressed Bledsoe--except Bledsoe. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights he'd stumbled home late to Deb's place and fell asleep after a brief, sleepy call to Brian. Tonight looked no different. He even thought that he might have to forgo going over to Brian's Friday night too. Working on the picture's central figures, he was concentrating so hard that he failed to hear the knock on the door the first time. Then it came again and he looked up thinking he'd see Xavier or Rennie coming to see if he wanted to make a pizza run.
It was Brian.
Rising from his stool and flipping the top on his sketch, he went to open the door. "Hey," he said surprised and pleased.
"This isn't bad," Brian said, looking around. "Add some tacky wallpaper and cheap carpeting and this would feel almost like home." Justin elbowed him in the side before sliding into his arms.
"What are you doing here?" he asked after they kissed.
"You invited me, remember?"
"That was last week."
Brian pulled away. "The invitation's been revoked?" He peeped around the corner but saw little--Bledsoe kept his work covered under canvas when he wasn't there.
Not buying an innocent visit for a moment, Justin asked, "You wanna go eat?"
Shrugging, the man let the teenager lead him from the studio in search of dinner and a place to talk.
They ended up at a tiny Lebanese restaurant squeezed between two larger buildings, literally a hole in the wall. Over hummus and bread stuffed with cheese and spinach, the couple caught one another up on the happenings of the week. Brian was quiet as he listened to the teen's excited account of going into the studio desperate for an idea and having his entire piece flow from the end of his chalk like magic. Deceptive magic because he worked hard at first to nail down the composition of the figures and then even harder to capture just the right expressions on their faces.
"When can I see it?" Brian asked.
"When it's done." He didn't need to find out if Brian were coming Sunday.
"I liked watching you work," the man said softly, tearing off a piece of bread.
Justin suddenly felt guilty. "Brian... What is it?"
He smiled. "Nothing."
"What is it?"
Taking Justin's hand in his for a moment, Brian released it and sat back in his chair. "So what are Xavier and Rennie doing?"
"Fuck Xavier and fuck Rennie."
"I don't think Xavier would like that. Rennie, I don't know."
Justin didn't crack a smile.
"I saw my mom today." He ran his finger along the outside rim of his water glass. "I won't be going back," he said simply and Justin understood.
Brian's eyes fixed on a point in the middle of the table. "She... she... wasn't ready to deal with us." He blinked and looked up. "That's okay. You know?"
Before Justin could say anything, the waiter returned with their identical entrees. Wanting to continue their conversation, Justin nevertheless realized that Brian didn't so he kept his comments to himself and enjoyed his mixed grill of chicken, beef, and lamb. Brian picked at his order and, in the end, pushed it away half-eaten.
The bill paid, they stood outside while Justin tried to decide what to do. It was imperative that he work on his piece and yet he really wanted to be with Brian because it was obvious that the man needed him and didn't want to be alone tonight no matter how cavalier he tried to appear. But just the teen was about to offer to go home with him, Brian said, "I guess I should get you back to the studio," and he didn't disagree. Maybe the best thing for the ad exec was to be by himself.
At the front of the Institute, Justin leaned over and kissed him and climbed down out of the Jeep. "See you tomorrow?"
"I'll meet you at the diner."
Still Justin couldn't shake the feeling that he should have gone with him. It nagged him the rest of the time he was in the studio. Around ten he packed away his stuff and caught the bus back to the house. Tossed his backpack in the corner and dropped onto the bed. Opened his cellphone and dialed Brian's number. No answer. He tried his cell but it was turned off. Don't panic, just keep calm. He just doesn't want to talk to anyone. It doesn't mean anything. He's probably knocked out. Probably had a couple shots of Jim Beam and fallen asleep. But as much as he wanted to believe that, Justin worried that it might be something else. What, he didn't know. Just then, there was a knock at his door. "Come in." Leave it to Deb to be up and about and wanting to talk.
Brian pushed through the doorway.
"What are you--" Justin asked as he stood and Brian hugged him, cutting
off his words and squeezing him so tightly. The older man shook as he
cried silently and Justin stroked his hair and just held him, letting him
take comfort from his embrace. Eventually they crawled into the bed, the
twin bed filled to overflowing. But they lay so closely entwined that
there wasn't a space between them. Head against his lover's back, Justin
whispered, "I love you," and Brian laced his fingers with his and closed
his eyes, finally at peace.
The whole gang, including Jennifer Taylor and Molly, showed up for the memorial show and instantly adopted Justin's two new friends. Rennie fell in love with Gus and declared that she'd be willing to wait until he had grown up if he looked like Brian and was straight, despite the seventeen year difference in their ages. Both Brian and Justin cornered Em and quizzed him about Xavier. "So?" asked Brian.
"Got me," the men's apparel professional professed and he gave Xavier the once-over once more. "Wish I could get him. He's a hottie."
After the Dean of the school gave a short speech about the events of the past few weeks and the responsibility of the artist to interact with life, to respond to the times around him, the head of the Art Department led visitors into the gallery space.
Brian noticed that Justin hung back a little. "You nervous?"
"I want you to like it."
"I will," he said and gave the teen a peck on the lips.
Deb passed them. "Jeez, don't you two ever quit?"
Grinning, Brian grabbed her and kissed her as well. "There. Satisfied?"
Slowly they made their way through the exhibit until they came to Justin's piece. Most of the other works in the show dealt with the horror of the attacks, the fear engendered by them, the sense of helplessness, the anger, the sadness, but Justin had chosen something different as his theme. The placard next to his sketch said simply, "Life. 2001." And that's what he showed. People in a park. A straight couple on a bench. A group of kids on roller blades. Two women with their arms around one another's waist. Scattered figures across the landscape, all looking at an event that happened just outside of the frame of the picture. And dominating the middle of the composition, a man and child, the toddler seated on his father's shoulders, both of their faces hidden from view, but the strength in the man's arms visible and the love between the two undeniable.
Jennifer slipped her arm through Justin's, holding on to Molly's hand
as well. Michael moved closer to Deb and Vic. Even Emmett and Ted found
themselves standing together, Em's hand on Ted's shoulder. Lindsay slipped
her hand in Mel's and squeezed it. Looking down, she watched as Gus eased
from her grasp and clung to his Da da's leg. Brian, eyes still on the
picture, reached down and picked his son up, held him in his arms. This
was all that mattered. Here was his family. Justin, standing just in front
of him, turned and smiled. Here was his life.