"Let me come with you."
"No!" Quickly I caught myself, lowered my voice. "No. I need to go alone." I hadn't meant to sound so harsh. But I didn't want Ethan in Brian's loft, for lots of reasons.
"Justin," Ethan said patiently, brushing the hair out of his eyes and then slipping his arm around my waist. "Justin, what if he's there?"
"He won't be." I leaned in for a quick kiss while gently pulling away from Ethan's encircling arm. "But it doesn't matter if he is, it's not like I need a bodyguard or anything." I grabbed my jacket from the sofa and shrugged it on.
Ethan shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and regarded me solemnly. "He might hurt you."
I shook my head. "He'd never do that." Brian has hurt me plenty, but he'd never get physically violent. He could be rough sometimes sexually, but I knew he'd never really hurt me. "Besides," I added, winding the muffler round my neck, "I need to talk to him sometime, so if he's home, I can get it over with."
"What will you tell him?"
I just turned away. I had no idea what to tell Brian. "I'll see you later. Don't worry."
Ethan followed me to the door, kissed me goodbye. We’d wakened that morning in each other’s arms, and we’d made love slowly, sweetly, with the sun streaming in the windows warming the bed. “Justin,” Ethan murmured, "Just be careful. Okay?"
Hurrying down the stairs and out into the street, I thought about Ethan's last words. "Be careful." I've never been careful around Brian, not until recently anyway. Ever since I met Brian, I've been pushing him. Pushing and pushing, and while he never seemed to bend, somehow the pushing usually worked. Until recently. I think Brian reached a place where he couldn't bend anymore, and then he started pushing back. We were both pushing at the same time, and he was stronger than me. So in the end I lost our battle of wills, and now it was over.
"Don't think about it," I admonished myself silently, "Just don't." Then I spied the bus approaching, and I ran to the bus stop. Luckily there was a seat, and I collapsed into it, out of breath from running, out of breath from trying not to think about Brian and I being over.
I should have checked the garage to see if the jeep was there, but most of the time Brian parks on the street and when I didn't see his car, I breathed a sigh of relief. Despite what I told Ethan, I was nervous about seeing Brian. Not scared, nervous. I still felt too raw and just climbing the stairs and using my key made my insides quiver. I should give him back his key, I thought, as I pulled open the door, crossed the threshold and came to an abrupt halt. Brian was standing in the kitchen, pouring coffee. Wearing his black silk robe.
We stared at each other in silence for a moment, then Brian set down the coffee pot and lifted his cup. "Want some coffee?" he asked conversationally, glancing at me over the rim of the cup.
Trying to slow down my heart, which had jumped when I saw Brian and which was now battering away inside my chest like I'd run around the block, I cleared my throat and said, "Yeah. Yes, please." Brian set down his cup, pulled another from the cupboard and filled it, then held it out to me. I crossed the floor toward him and took the cup with a hand that I ordered NOT to shake. I was calmer then, I just hadn't prepared myself for finding Brian at home Saturday morning, he should have been at the gym. I couldn't think of anything to say.
Brian's always in command of every situation and this morning was no different. "So," he drawled, crossing his arms over his chest. "What did you think of the party?"
Nerving myself with a sip of hot coffee, I answered honestly, looking him in the eye, "Brian, it was fantastic. Thank you."
"Your comic's launched now. You and Michael should have no problem selling out the first edition. When's your next issue going to the publisher?"
With a deep breath I set down my cup, mirrored Brian's action by crossing my arms over my chest. "There won't be a next issue."
He was shaking his head, smiling. "Don't be fucking stupid, Justin." He said it gently, catching me by surprise.
"I - I don't want to work with him any more," I said, sounding lame.
"Justin, business partners don't have to be buddies, most business partners aren't buddies. You think I like Gardner Vance? I hate the fucker. But it's business."
I just stubbornly shook my head, I didn't want to talk about it. I dropped my eyes and studied the outline of the planks on the floor, I really couldn't talk about it right now.
Brian came close to me, reached out his hand and grabbed my chin, tilted up my head, making me look at him. "Don't do anything stupid. Give it some time."
Now I wasn't sure if he were talking about the comic or about us. This was the moment to speak up, to make it clear to Brian that we were finished. I drew a deep breath to answer him, then I caught sight of Brian's right wrist, there were band-aids all over it. "What happened to your hand?" I asked, forgetting whatever else I was going to say.
He looked at his hand, as if surprised to see the band-aids. "Oh, nothing," he said dismissively, turning away to retrieve his cup and taking a drink. "Little accident."
"What kind of accident?"
Brian laughed. "I had a trick here last night, I was fucking him in the bathroom." He paused and I kept my face noncommittal, unconcerned; Brian had a trick in the loft last night, like that was a surprise.
"He was really hot, and we got a little carried away. My hand slipped off his shoulder and hit the bathroom mirror. It broke, and I cut my hand." He laughed, tilting his head and staring hard at me.
I had to look away. "Brian, I - I came by to get some of my things."
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "And is the little fiddler downstairs driving a U-Haul truck?"
Shaking my head, I still couldn't look at him. "I just need some clothes."
"You moving in with him?"
I turned quickly then and studied Brian's face. As usual he wasn't giving anything away. "No," I answered at last. "I don't think so. No." I was just deciding, right that minute. I wanted to be with Ethan. But not to live in his apartment.
"I don't know.” I felt my shoulders drooping, and tried to pull them up, to stand tall. I didn't want to look as pathetic as I was feeling. "But I'll get my stuff out of your way as soon as I can."
"Whatever," Brian said then, turning away. "I'm going to take a shower. Lock the door when you go out." He went a few steps, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "Don't - you don't have to rush into anything. Your stuff's not in my way." Then he went on, up the steps and into the bathroom.
I just stood there like a statue for about two minutes. Brian was making things easy for me. Not pushing. And because he wasn't pushing, I felt my determination slipping away. Last night, this morning, I was so sure what I wanted. Seeing Brian with a trick in Babylon's back room last night was just exactly the final push I needed to leave him. I was so tired of waiting for Brian to give me what I wanted, what I needed, and finally I gave up. Brian reached the limit of bending, and so did I. It was time to walk away.
With a deep sigh, I went up the steps to the bedroom and pulled a jacket from the closet, some khakis and jeans from the bottom drawer of my chest, added some underwear and my Addidas, making a pile on the bed. Some of it fit in my backpack, together with some of my books and papers, but I didn't know how I was going to carry the rest. Then I thought of borrowing a pillowcase, so I pulled out one of the older ones from the bottom of the linen drawer. Brian doesn't really have any old stuff, the minute anything starts to fade or get worn, he throws it out and replaces it.
I heard the shower being turned off, I needed to hurry up and get out of there. Glancing around the loft, I tried to think of anything else I might need soon, and remembered my Yellow Submarine videotape. Brian had offered to buy me a DVD version, but there was something special about the old tape that my mother had made for me years ago when I was a kid. I knew it was in the bottom cupboard of the television shelf unit, so I rushed into the living room and threw myself down on the floor in front of the tv. And cried out in surprise and pain when something cut into my knees.
I wasn't aware of Brian hurrying across the loft, but suddenly his strong arms were picking me up, he just grabbed me right up and carried me quickly to the bedroom and set me down on the end of the bed. I could see blood seeping through the fabric of my khakis in half a dozen places, and there was stinging pain. "Ow!" I complained loudly.
"Fuck me," Brian growled, reaching over to unbutton my khakis. "Here, lift up, let me get your pants off," he ordered, pulling them roughly down my hips and then very, very gently over my knees and legs.
"Oh!" I exclaimed involuntarily, when I saw chunks of glass sticking out of the skin on the front of my legs. It made me feel creepy. "Ow!"
"You're okay, you'll be okay," Brian assured me, in the voice he reserves for Gus. In spite of the pain, that made me laugh, and he jerked up his head and looked at me in surprise.
"What's funny?" he demanded, his eyebrows arching high on his forehead.
"Nothing. Nothing's funny, it hurts, Brian."
"I know, I'm sorry, I forgot to clean up that fucking broken ashtray."
"Why was - "
"Never mind, it's not important. I need to pull out these glass chunks, it's going to hurt. Okay?"
"Yes. Ouch, but yes." He gently took hold of the biggest piece of glass, embedded in the front of my right knee, making me gasp. "Brian - ouch - Brian, you can't use your bare hands! Duh!"
He looked down at his hand, surprised to see a drop of blood on his index finger. "Yeah, right."
"Maybe use a washcloth?" I suggested, and he nodded, jumped up and went into the bathroom. "Use a red one, then the blood won't stain it."
He was shaking his head when he returned. He’d been naked, but he’d taken a moment to wrap a towel round his hips. "Aren't you practical? A red washcloth." He was holding a white one, and he bent down again at my feet. "Ready?"
"Yeah," I agreed, a bit breathlessly. "Go ahead." Then I gritted my teeth and leaned backwards a bit on the bed, averting my eyes. It hurts less if you don't look at painful things. One by one Brian pulled out the pieces of glass and it hurt like fucking hell.
At last he was done. "I think that's all. You okay?"
I nodded, and he reached out to take my hands and pulled me to my feet. “Can you walk?” That made me laugh again, in spite of the stinging pain.
“No, I’m crippled – carry me!”
Brian dropped my hands and led the way into the bathroom. “Sit,” he ordered, pointing at the toilet, so I put down the lid and sat. Then I noticed that the mirror was almost completely gone.
”Wow, you must have hit it pretty hard,” I said, “Did it scare you?”
“Nope.” He was digging around in the bottom drawer and pulled out a box of band-aids. “We should put some medicine on, but I don’t think I have anything.”
“How about that cortisone stuff you got for my butt, after the Viagra day?”
He shot me a look then, an almost-angry look that somehow turned into a laugh. I laughed too. It had been an incredibly crazy day of non-stop fucking and laughing, though it ended badly when his mom showed up at the door. My ass had been sore for three days, we’d had to make do with blowjobs.
Brian turned back to rummaging in the drawer. “Here it is,” he announced, pulling a tube from the drawer and squinting at the label. “Cuts and abrasions,” he read. “Yeah, I guess this is okay. Except - you really need something antibiotic, I think. Can you wait till I go get something, or – are you in a hurry?”
I was in a hurry, already I’d stayed too long. Ethan was probably starting to get worried. “I can wait.”
“Good,” Brian said decisively, jumping up and pulling off his towel, tossing it toward the hamper. “Get in the shower now, let the hot water beat on your legs, as hot as you can stand it. I’ll run to the drugstore on Lincoln and be right back.”
“Okay,” I said, to his back. I sat on the toilet, watching Brian pull on jeans, grab a tee from the drawer and pull it over his head.
He glanced in the bathroom and said, “In the shower – now!”
I got up and limped to the shower and I heard him go out the door as I stepped into the enclosure. The hot water hurt but I did as he said and let it beat on my legs. He was back in about five minutes, he must have run the whole way. I turned off the water and stepped out, grabbed a towel and dried my hair and shoulders, wrapped it around my hips and resumed my seat on the toilet.
Brian was pulling stuff from a small paper bag. “Hydrogen peroxide, the druggist said, then this antiseptic ointment. Do this again tonight, and keep band-aids on the cuts for a couple days. Got it?”
I nodded. Watching Brian kneel at my feet, so gently washing the cuts and using a Q-tip to spread ointment, then press on band-aids, moved me somehow, made me sad again. This was a Brian I hadn’t seen much lately, care-taking Brian, the man who’d protected me after the hospital, who’d walked the streets with me till I got used to crowds, who’d held me tight in his arms every time I’d awakened from a nightmare. I thought this gentle Brian had gone away, but I guess he had merely withdrawn behind the tough Brian’s walls.
He glanced up then and our eyes met, he blinked – and in that blink, I saw him withdrawing again. “Don’t,” I said impulsively.
Brian raised his eyebrows, looked down his nose. “Don’t what?”
I reached out and grabbed his arm. “Don’t.”
Brian stood up quickly and turned away. “Need some help getting dressed?” he asked gruffly, as he walked out of the bathroom. But he didn’t stop in the bedroom, he kept on walking, down the steps and into the kitchen. I limped into the bedroom and watched as he opened the closet and got out the broom, then strode purposefully into the living room and cleaned up the broken glass. I followed him and perched on the arm of the sofa.
”Watch where you step – there’s glass shards everywhere.”
“What happened, Brian, how’d the ashtray get broken?”
“Thought you were getting dressed,” he threw over his shoulder, sweeping up a pile of crunchy sounding glass bits into the dust pan, then striding into the kitchen to dump it in the garbage can.
I trailed after him into the kitchen. “Did somebody throw it at you?”
Putting away the broom and closing the closet, Brian demanded, “Why are you following me? Go get dressed. I’ll drive you.”
“Drive me where?”
“Wherever you want,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t you need to get back to your fiddler?” When I didn’t answer, he asked, “Where does he live, anyway?”
“Ha,” I replied humorlessly, “You mean there’s something your detectives didn’t find out about him?”
“You were pretty obvious, Justin. Obvious and predictable. I didn’t need detectives.”
“No,” I agreed bitterly, turning to walk away at last, I’d had enough now. “All you needed was to read my journal.” I got to the top of the steps before Brian caught up with me, grabbed my shoulder and whirled me around to face him.
“I didn’t read your fucking journal. I have some scruples.”
“Scruples!” I laughed, before I realized that I was the guilty party here. I was the cheater, I was the liar, not Brian. I shook my head. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I should have known you wouldn’t do that.” I felt near tears, realizing that he had left me some privacy after all.
Brian sat down heavily on the bed ledge. “I did read one page,” he admitted. “But it wasn’t about him.” He looked at me and a sad smile turned up the corners of his mouth.
“What was it?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, then he seemed to make up his mind to tell me. “You wrote about this one time we fucked. . .made love. You called it making love.” Brian looked over my shoulder toward the living room windows. “We were on the sofa, with the windows open, the curtains blowing in the wind. It was – a good memory. A special memory. I couldn’t read anything else, after that.”
He just looked at me, and then he opened his arms and I walked into them. Or I walked toward him and he opened his arms. I don’t know which came first, and in that moment, it didn’t matter. Our arms grabbed each other tight, and our lips found each other, and we kissed, and kissed, and kept kissing. We forgot Ethan and Rage and Babylon and all the good and bad and terrible things that we didn’t want to remember, and I fell onto his lap and we kissed some more.
I don’t know if we would have made love, or fucked, or what else might have happened, what else might have been said. The door buzzer started ringing, and it rang and rang and rang and rang, until finally Brian pulled away from me, gently pushed me off his lap and stomped to the door, his bare feet slapping the wood floor with resounding thumps. “What?” he barked into the speaker.
I joined Brian at the door just in time to hear the answer. “It’s – it’s Ethan. Is Justin still there?”
I turned and ran back to the bedroom, quickly pulled on jeans, murmuring “Ow-ow-ow” as the rough fabric rubbed against my sore legs, shoved my feet into shoes, pulled on my shirt and grabbed up my jacket, my backpack, and the pillowcase stuffed with clothes.
Brian stood silently, watching me. He pulled open the door, not saying a word. “Brian, I – “
“Go ahead,” he said, then cleared his throat and repeated. “Go ahead.”
“Brian – I have to!” I told him breathlessly.
He didn’t answer, just looked at me. I had to leave. I had to. I felt him watching while I ran down the first flight of stairs. When I turned the corner, I heard him close the door. When I reached the bottom of the second flight of stairs, I thought I heard a crash coming from above, a sound like glass shattering.
But I had to go. I had to! I couldn’t cheat on two men in the same day.