Part 1: Changing History
After shaking hands with the vice president of Raceway Tires and watching him leave the restaurant while I waited for the server to bring my credit card receipt, I thought about getting the phone number of the wine steward, a muscular Latino with a penchant for subtly pressing his cock on my shoulder as he leaned over me to fill my wine glass. He’d cut his eyes at me several times during lunch, and he was a looker. But when I pocketed my receipt and saw him suggestively lingering near the men’s room giving me a knowing smile, suddenly I lost interest. I remembered the Mowry account mockups I have to red pencil tonight, and the Castlemont Paper Company presentation to rough out before Wednesday. I really had no idea that becoming Vance’s partner would turn me into such a celibate workaholic dick.
Not that I’m really celibate of course, I go out sometimes, as I told Debbie. I’m just tired of the usual places, tired of intercepting smirking, faux-sympathetic glances from regulars who were used to seeing me with Justin, tired of Emmett’s and Ted’s subtle bon mots about older men, and to be honest, I’m tired of Michael constantly trying to distract me from whatever the fuck he imagines I am “going through.” Christ, if he says one more time, “I know what you’re going through,” I’m going to pull his fucking Captain Astro off the wall and throw it out the window.
Passing the hunky Latino without a second glance, I held the door for a couple entering the restaurant, and as they passed me and I went outside, I was greeted by lilting music coming from an elfin figure fiddling away just a few yards up the street. I recognized the song, as well I should, it was on the CD that Justin had played over and over for days after he’d attended the fateful music recital. I had to smile at myself when I realized I’d just called it “the fateful music recital,” an overdramatic affectation if ever I heard one. Which proves that I’ve been thinking way too much about Justin and about his doe-eyed waif with the giant musical talent.
He is talented all right, if he gets some breaks he’ll probably make it big. I stood watching him for a few minutes from a discreet distance, wondering what Justin sees in him, besides the talent, and the miniature Lord Byron appearance. Then I remembered that Justin had said the fiddler loves him, only wants to be with him. I sighed and shook my head. Teenagers think the world well lost for love. Justin would discover eventually that love was a crock of shit, and then. . .Christ, I almost said, “Then he’ll be sorry.”
Lost in thought, I didn’t notice that the song had ended, and I was startled when I realized that the violinist (I suppose I have to start calling him by name, which for some reason I have not been able to do) had put away his instrument, picked up his case, and was walking down the street straight towards me.
I saw him hesitate when he recognized me, and I took a deep breath, preparing myself to give him a cool hello and walk past him very casually. He forestalled that by stopping right in front of me and saying, not very originally, “Hey.”
“Hello,” I answered, moving slightly to the right to go around him, but he quickly spoke up.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?”
I was sure I did not want to talk to the violinist. Okay, Ethan, that’s his name, what’s so hard about that?
I stopped and gave him my phoniest smile. He’s quick, I’ll give him that, he immediately recognized the snub and blushed, with embarrassment or anger, I’m not sure which.
“I just wanted to say, you know, thanks. For the other night. For coming to help Justin. I think it was really cool of you.” He was gripping the handle of his violin case with both hands, and seeing signs of his nervousness relaxed me.
“It was ‘really cool’ of you to call me,” I said graciously, inclining my head.
Ethan flushed even more. “You don’t have to like me, I don’t blame you for not liking me, I’m just trying to make things easier. For Justin.”
“I don’t understand,” I shook my head. “Make what things easier for Justin?”
“I don’t know. Just maybe, if it happens again or something, maybe you could tell me what to do. How to make him feel better.”
‘Put him in a cab and send him to my place.’ That’s what I wanted to say. Instead I said, “You saw what I did. Get him to talk about it. Find out what triggered the nightmare. Once he figures that out, he’s okay.”
“He wouldn’t listen to me,” Ethan said quietly, staring at the sidewalk. “It was like I wasn’t even there.”
“Look,” I said, glancing around and wishing I’d never run into this damn kid, “It’s because Justin thinks I ‘rescued him’ the first time. The time he got bashed. That’s all. He thinks I’m the only one who can rescue him now. It wasn't really me he needed, it’s what I represent.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Ethan raised his head and looked directly into my eyes. “Christ, how can you be so blind?”
“Don’t.” I felt my temper about to flare. “Don’t fucking analyze me, got that? Mind your own business.” I stepped around him then and moved off down the sidewalk.
Ethan called after me, “Justin is my business. And he’s your business too.”
Picking up speed, I didn’t answer him, just hurried down the sidewalk and around the corner to the parking lot, unlocked the jeep, pulled open the door and almost threw myself inside. I tried to put the key in the ignition but I kept missing and missing. Finally I got it in and started the engine, immediately turned it off again, then gripped the steering wheel with both hands, as hard as I could. “He is not my fucking business," I said out loud; "He is not my fucking business.”
Every time I see Brian Kinney, I feel sick to my stomach.
He’s one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever met, but that’s not the reason. It’s because I know Justin’s still in love with him. When I see Brian, I’m reminded that Justin could change his mind at any moment and run back to him. At first I felt safe because I couldn’t imagine that a man like Brian Kinney would forgive a boyfriend who cheated on him. But now I’ve seen them together and I know different. Now I've seen that Brian loves him too, and it shakes up my insides.
I’ve always been pretty confident – you grow up hearing you’re a genius every day of your life, it gives you a healthy ego. But I don’t feel confident about Justin. I never wanted to get involved with him. Not really. Oh, I was attracted to him the first moment I saw him. He was walking across campus carrying his portfolio, so I knew he was an art student. He was wearing a blue jacket, unzipped, and he kept looking up at the sky as he walked along. I was going the same direction so I watched him for a few minutes, and I finally figured out that he was staring at the clouds, like maybe he wanted to paint them. I turned aside then, heading for the music building, but I never forgot my first sight of him. He looked like a Botticelli angel in those moments, with his fair skin and beautiful blond hair.
At my recital I saw him immediately, and I told him later that he messed up my performance by staring at me. In reality I think I played my best, because I wanted to impress him. Then afterwards he gave me his program, he’d drawn sketches of me while I played, and he was good, damn good. We flirted for a minute, then somebody came over to congratulate me, and when I turned around, he was gone.
When Justin came by the practice room to see me I knew he was interested, but right away he told me he had a boyfriend. I was disappointed but not surprised. Then we kept running into each other, and there was this pull between us. It was more than physical attraction, and it was mutual, I never doubted it. So when Justin showed up at my door late one night and asked me to play for him, I knew what he was doing. I'm not sure that Justin knew, or maybe he didn't let himself know. But I made no moves on him, he was the one who came after me, who climbed up on my bed to stand close to me, with this look on his face that was lust and need and hunger and pain, all mixed up together. I didn't want to kiss him, maybe I would not have kissed him, but he kissed me first. Then I was lost. I fell into Justin and he fell into me and we drowned together in a sea of passionate kisses, cries and moans. Dear God, I fell in love with him that night while we died together in a jumble of blankets on my bed.
I kept waiting for Justin to leave his boyfriend, but I never really believed he would. He'd come to me between classes, and nights when he was alone, and I couldn't resist him. I didn't try to resist him. At first I was willing to settle for stolen hours, for stolen kisses, but pretty soon I wanted all of Justin's kisses to belong to me. Yet I never thought he'd leave Brian.
Naturally I knew Justin was unhappy, he didn't tell me much but I could read between the lines. His boyfriend took him for granted, and I think there was a lot of fucking around, well I know there was. Justin told me once that they used to bring guys back to their apartment. Raven and I did that too, for a while. I got tired of it pretty quick but he wouldn't give it up, so in the end I left him. And when Justin said that he was tired of it, too, I began to hope he'd leave Brian and come live with me. But he refused to even spend the night, and I started to resent being just some guy he was fucking behind his boyfriend's back.
The trick Brian played on us, on me and Justin, really took my breath away. It's the kind of thing you see in movies, not something done by real people. He set us up, both of us, he planned how he'd lure me into the diner and get me all excited about a job offer, and then as soon as Justin showed up for work, Brian introduced himself. Justin came over to the booth, and Brian introduced me to Justin. And then he sat there smiling at us, like some gloating, clever mastermind sleuth. I jumped up and practically ran out of the diner, blown away, just blown away, by the evil trick he played. I was embarrassed and humiliated and just plain mad as hell.
When Justin came to see me that night, I was still fuming over the way Brian had played me for a fool. And I felt that Justin had been playing me for a fool, too. When he said he finally wanted to stay with me, I turned my back on him. He left and I wanted him to leave, I couldn't bear to look at him. He'd come into my life, fucked me up and fucked me over, stealing my concentration from the most important thing in my life: my music.
A few days later, I knew I'd made a mistake. I needed Justin. I couldn't concentrate on my music, my fingers felt clumsy on the violin strings, my insides were in raging turmoil when I thought of my beautiful angel in the arms of that man. So I swallowed my pride and went looking for him, walking into the middle of this incredible party his rich boyfriend gave him, never daring to dream that Justin would leave with me. Brian watched us kiss, Brian took off his mask and stared while Justin kissed me, while Justin took my hand and we walked away.
It was such a perfect romantic fairytale ending, going home to my apartment, making love for hours, waking up with golden morning sun slanting in through the window while we kissed and made love yet again. I was thrilled to have Justin permanently in my bed. We got up and made coffee and sat at my little table naked, sipping coffee from big blue cups I'd found in the trash behind the Chez Marquise restaurant. Smiling at my angel over the rim of the cup, I said, "Let's get your things so you can move in here right away."
"Umm," Justin swallowed a big gulp of coffee. "Ow, I burned my tongue." He jumped up and ran to turn on cold water in the sink, leaned his head over and took a slurp, swished it around his mouth.
"Yeah, sure." He came back to the table, picked up his cup and looked at me solemnly. "I don't think I can live here, Ethan."
My heart sank and I couldn't breathe for a moment. "You're going back to him."
"No!" Justin's voice exploded, then he said more softly, "No, I'm not. I'm not. I just need to think about where I'm going to live."
"I don't know. I don't think so."
I felt defensive then. "I know it's not much, I know it's not like. . ."
Justin laughed then. "Don't be a dope, you have a great place, you know I like your place." Then he grew solemn again. "But I don't have money for half the rent, or - or almost anything else."
Leaping from my chair, I pulled Justin up from the table and into my arms. "The rent's paid already, with my scholarship money. And we can eat really cheaply. You don't need to pay for anything!"
He pulled out of my arms then and began to pace, something he does when he's thinking about serious stuff.
"Justin - "
He stopped pacing and came back to me, put his arms around my waist and we kissed. "Thanks, Ethan, thanks. But I have to start taking care of myself, paying my own way. I can't keep living off other people. Having other people take care of me."
'But I love you," I said simply. "We'll take care of each other." Justin kissed me again, then pulled away.
"I'll think about it," he said. "Meanwhile, I need to go over to - the loft. I need to get some of my clothes and things."
"Let me go with you," I said, but he refused. I was afraid Brian might do something, hurt him, but he insisted Brian would never do that. I wasn't so sure, but I've seen them together since then, and I believe he is right. Justin insisted he needed to go alone, so in the end that's what happened.
I have to admit - I was scared he wouldn't come back. I watched him get dressed, we kissed good-bye, and I took my coffee cup to the window, watched him walk away down the street. I stood there wondering if maybe I am just an intermission in Justin’s life, a pause between the end of his relationship with Brian and whatever the future holds. The sun streaming in through the windows was warm on my bare shoulders, but I shivered.
All afternoon, during an endless boring production meeting, a calendar planning session with Cynthia about upcoming client visits to Cleveland and Chicago, a strategy meeting with Vance about Raceway tires, and late into the afternoon and early evening after everyone in the office had packed up and gone home, I worked steadily through an endless pile of presentations and reports, keeping my mind free and clear of any emotional bullshit. It's easier to do that at the office, which is why I often work late there rather than going home. I love solitude, I've always loved peace and quiet, and while Justin was living with me, it was seldom quiet. Now I had the solitude I was sure I had been missing, yet the quiet in my loft is not the serene calm that it used to be. Instead my loft feels empty, sounds echo against the brick walls, shadows hide in dark corners.
When I look backward now, I can see the chain of events that brought me to this place, wherever or whatever this place is. This kind of limbo-land of fucking misery. Not all the time misery, mostly all the time I’m numb, and not from drugs. Not even from Stoli or Jim Beam, though at first I tried my usual arsenal of anesthetics to numb the very considerable and almost agonizing pain of losing him. They didn’t work this time.
And anyway, I didn’t lose him, I pushed him away. There’s a difference. A difference in choice. My choice. My free will, my decision. Not his. He didn’t leave me, I’m not some pathetic loser whose. . .whose. . .whatever the fuck Justin was to me, NOT a boyfriend. NOT a lover. Just a somebody. I’m not some pathetic loser whose somebody left him for another man. I pushed him out. It was an act of free will. An act of strength, really.
Strength is something I've always had, always. I got strong very early in my life and everything I've done since then has only made me stronger. It's like the way iron is made. You take some basically soft metal and you burn it and you beat it till it's hard. Hard and strong. Like me.
It’s the strangest thing that I can’t seem to get back on track, back to the real me before Justin happened. I had everything I ever wanted. Success. Maybe big-fish-in-a-little-pond success, but for Pittsburgh, I was IT. The best. I still am. Even my dad was proud of me - or at least, he acknowledged what he called my "fancy job" whenever he needed some cash. It's funny that I kept giving it to him, and even let him think I believed he'd pay it back.
I’d created the perfect life for myself, success, plenty of money, the kind of clothes I’d always dreamed of wearing, as many men to fuck as I wanted every night of the week. My own home, a place that belonged to me, a place that reflected the clean lines of my life, unfettered with clutter, human clutter, emotional clutter, obligation clutter.
The key to being uncluttered is to never be responsible for another person. Justin fucked that up eventually. But it was not Justin who fucked up my life in the beginning, it started with Lindsay, it started when I stupidly agreed to give her my sperm. A weakness in me caused that to happen, a weakness of ego or some ridiculous idea of immortality, and Gus was the result. Gus is my Achilles heel. Justin was too, but I got rid of him. I can't get rid of Gus, but I try to stay away from him. I'll only fuck him up if he's around me too much, and I want him to be normal. Normal people think they're happy and they think their lives have a purpose. I hate normal, I resist normal, I reject normal. For me. But I want it for my son.
Christ, I hate introspection. I'm waiting for Justin to get here, he called and asked if he could come talk to me, about school. I know he needs the tuition money, and I want to give it to him. Or loan it to him, sign the loan papers he so meticulously made up last term and will doubtless want to do again. We could have settled it on the phone, and then I wouldn't have to wait for his knock on my door. He doesn't need to come over here. Why didn't I tell him that? Instead I am wandering around the loft like some fool whose plane crashed in the desert, wandering round in circles, lost and alone. Nothing to take my mind off. . .things.
It's ridiculous, the way I fall into this web of self-pity and introspection when I don't have a million things to fill up my brain. I've been working late every night, I've become this workaholic holed up in my office at Vangard, after hours when everybody’s left and I can enjoy the silence, the echoing silence of a large empty office suite. That is, till the cleaning services arrives. Often the janitors pass my door and glare at me, no doubt I’m keeping them from whatever shit they get up to when no one's around. This one guy always plays the most annoying hiphop music as loudly as he dares, hoping it'll drive me out of the office. Till Jesse comes by and stops him.
I never used to know people's names, I don't want to know names, Justin always knew everybody's name. Jesse came into my office and introduced himself, shook my hand, and try as I might, I didn't immediately forget his name. He’s the supervisor, an older guy, early fifties, his face lined like a cowboy who’s spent a lifetime in the sun. And he’s straight. Even straight guys want a blow job occasionally, at least some of them do. Not Jesse. He just likes to chat. At first I tried to freeze him out, but he refused to take offense. Eventually his friendliness wore me down. Not an easy thing to do.
So now I look forward to Jesse’s visits, he offers me a cigarette, I share a shot of JB in a paper cup, and for fifteen or twenty minutes a couple times a week, I listen to Jesse talk. He likes to talk about women, it’s his favorite subject. I told him right off that pussy is not my thing, but it’s not pussy he talks about. It’s women’s intuition, and the forgiveness that women are capable of, and their strength. Jesse’s widowed, his wife died a year ago, but he doesn’t want sympathy, he just wants to talk about her.
Nobody who knows me would believe I sit around with some old coot who talks about women. But actually I enjoy his visits, I enjoy our talks. For a few minutes it takes me outside myself, I can stop not thinking about how fucking miserable I am and that it’s all my own fault. Jesse doesn’t know the real me but then, with Jesse, I’m not the real me. It’s like an intermission in my life.
Jesse does most of the talking, but once I told him about my mother. Funny, I never think about Mom if I can help it, but Jesse wanted to know about her. I didn’t realize how bitter I feel toward Mom until I started telling Jesse about her. How she used me when Pop came home drunk, putting me between them. A few months ago, when Mom and I were wrangling about her priest and I was sure I would tell her that he’s gay and I fucked him, Mom declared that she'd always protected me from Pop. We were sitting there in church, with statues of her Jesus all over the place watching her, and she lied. I remember just staring at her, I’m sure my mouth was hanging open with amazement. Then I realized that she was not lying. She honestly did not know that she was lying. She just changed history, turning it upside-down, making herself the hero of my childhood.
And now I wonder, am I going to change history, am I eventually going to convince myself that this misery I feel is all Justin’s fault?
Here's Justin at last, knocking on the door, thank God I can stop thinking so damned much. I open the door, we say hello, and he walks in, surreptitiously glancing around, taking inventory I guess. Nothing's changed since he left, though I've thought about redecorating, but I'm never home very long at a time so it's hardly worth it.
"Want a beer?" I ask and he follows me to the kitchen, hoisting himself up on a stool while I pull a couple beers from the fridge and open them. Handing him a bottle, I stay put, keeping the counter space between us, removing any temptation to put my hands on him. He looks good, which I don't tell him of course. He'd gotten so thin in the days before the Rage party, while he was struggling with deciding what he wanted to do. He looks more peaceful now, less uptight, and for some reason I'm glad about that. He's nervous, though, and I know why. He's going to ask for the tuition loan and I know he doesn't want to.
Justin takes a sip of beer, then sets down the bottle and gets right to the point. "Brian, if you're still willing to - "
"Of course I am," I interrupt him, nodding. "It's a business deal, remember? I'm not going to reneg."
"Thanks," he smiles, obviously relieved. "I've made up more loan papers for us to sign."
"Sure." I won't argue with him this time, he wants to feel responsible, I can understand that. "I'll get my checkbook." When I come back, Justin has papers spread out on the counter and I sit on the stool next to him. Being this close, I breathe in his Justinsmell and it brings a lump to my throat. Later I can laugh at how silly it is to react this way, but right now I concentrate on being businesslike, flipping open my checkbook and poising the pen mid-air. I raise my eyebrows inquiringly, and he tells me the figure.
"Justin." I hesitate, before writing out the check. "If you need more than this - more than just the tuition, I mean - would you tell me?"
"No. I mean yes." He's flustered now, looking away. "I just mean, no, I only need the tuition."
"You said it yourself: A man knows when to ask for help," I remind him gently.
Then Justin turns to look at me and smiles, and suddenly we're both remembering what happened when he said that - the morning after Gary Sapperstein's party. The morning I let Justin fuck me, long and slow in the tumbled blue sheets on the bed behind us. Sometimes good memories are painful, but sometimes they're not. We share this moment, this memory, and it's good. Justin slips his hand across the counter to cover mine and we lean forward simultaneously and kiss. Just a touching of lips, just a recognition of the feelings we used to have, and it's okay. Then I pull my hand away, write the check, rip it out and hand it to him.
"Sign the papers," he reminds me, so I do that, then he takes the pen from me and signs his own name. In triplicate. And hands me a copy, folding up the other two and shoving them in his backpack along with the check. Then he hops down off the stool and I walk him to the door.
"Michael says the next issue of Rage is going to the publisher this week."
"Yeah," he agrees, "Have you seen it? I think it's a good one."
"Not yet. I've been busy at work, a lot of late nights." I pull open the door but Justin doesn't leave.
"Brian - "
"Are you going to Debbie's 50th birthday party next week?"
"I don't know." God knows I don't want to be thrust into the middle of a big family party, yet I need to go, for Debbie's sake, she's always been so good to me, and for Vic, who said she'd be upset if I wasn't there. Then it occurs to me, as if it hasn't occurred to me at least a dozen times before, to wonder if Justin will be there. With him.
"You going?" I ask casually, shoving my hands in the pockets of my jeans.
"I'd like to," Justin says slowly, "But I feel kind of funny about - things."
"Don’t," my voice is brisk, "Don't feel funny. You're part of Deb's family, you always will be."
He nods, then adds, 'But Debbie invited Ethan. I mean, she asked me to invite him. I don't want to make things uncomfortable for - anybody."
Christ. "Anybody who's uncomfortable is an asshole," I say with feeling; and yes, yes, I know who Justin means. He means me. And maybe Michael. A sudden thought makes me laugh.
"You want me to talk to Michael?"
"No! Jesus, Brian, no!" His eyes are wide, I've upset him. "We're hardly speaking to each other as it is, if you say something to him, I don't know - "
"Okay, okay," I agree, putting my arm around his shoulders, "Calm down." Immediately he calms down, his shoulders relax, and then he turns towards me, his arms go around my waist. Christ, here we go again. I hug him to me, hold him against my chest, feel his heart beating, and it's really almost unbearable. Not quite, but almost. "It'll be okay," I whisper, "Don't worry so much." We stand like that, hugging, just holding on, for a moment that goes on and on.
Finally Justin pulls away, gently disentangles himself from my arms. Without looking at me, he whispers back, "Thanks, Brian. For the tuition, and everything."
"Welcome." I let him go, and watch him go out the door, watch him walk down the stairs.
"Good-bye," I say, though I know he's out of earshot. I close the door and look around for something to break. Then I remember how Justin got cut on the broken ashtray I'd thrown at the wall, and I remember how much it cost to replace the bathroom mirror. With a heavy sigh, I decide I need to find a different outlet. Grabbing my jacket, I hurry downstairs to the jeep and quickly drive cross-town to the Sure Thing.