QAF FanFic by Morpheus
Intermission - 06
The Competition, Part 1
Every day, Ethan changes his mind about wanting me with him at the Heifitz competition. I try to tell him he'll feel glad of my support during his performance, how can he doubt that? If it were me and Brian, I would have to have him there with me or die. Oh shit, I have to stop that, just stop it. Brian has nothing to do with this, he has nothing to do with anything in my life any more.
And yet. . .and yet. . .Brian just now walks into the diner and my heart stops - wham! I'm filling a coffee cup and I keep pouring and pouring, almost half a pot of decaf overflows the cup onto the counter before I realize it. Brian doesn't look at me, maybe he doesn't see me there using a million paper towels to clean up the mess I made. He takes a seat in one of the empty booths near the front and unfolds a newspaper on the table top. I deliver the coffee to a customer in the booth right next to him but he doesn't look up. Then I move quickly into the kitchen.
When I glance up from the newspaper, I see Justin walking toward the kitchen, the white apron tied tight around his hips and his really great ass moving in that familiar rhythm. Today he's wearing the blue shirt I bought him, the one he wore to the Sap's party, the shirt that exactly matches his eyes. It looks good on him again, he's put on some of the weight he lost a while ago. Surreptitiously I watch him waiting tables, he's always got a smile and a joke for the customers, Debbie's right, they all adore him. He used to make great tips, I'm sure he still does, that's why he's stayed with this job so long. It's minimum wage, but he makes more in tips than if he were working a regular part-time job someplace else, and with Deb pretty much in charge of the diner he can make his own hours.
I don't know why I stayed away from here so long. I've been surviving on creatine and soy shakes and occasional take-out, but it feels good to be back at the diner, no matter how familiar the menu or noisy the clientele. It's good to see Deb and feel her hand squeezing my shoulder sometimes, it's even good to be sharing a meal with the guys occasionally. They're finally settling down to treating me like normal and are not constantly staring at me underneath half-closed eyelids to see if I'm as miserable as they hope I am.
Jesse would probably call that editorializing.
Jesse's the janitorial supervisor at my office, he oversees the crew that comes in at night to clean. I've been working so many late nights at the office that somehow Jesse and I got acquainted, somehow we ended up sharing cigarettes, paper cups of JB and some conversation from time to time. Jesse says he barely finished high school, but he's knowledgeable about a lot of subjects from what seems to be extensive reading and what he calls 'the school of life.' He laughs when he says that, there's no ego in the man at all.
Just last week Jesse asked about my 'broken heart,' which totally floored me. I mean, he's wrong about the broken heart business, but I don't know how he became aware that I'd recently ended a relationship. I never talk about my personal life at work, so it's not like he's heard office gossip or anything. I said, "What makes you think I've got a fucking broken heart?" and I laughed, but he was somber when he replied, "You do, don't you?"
I just sat staring at him. What I wanted to do was stand up and walk out of the office; nobody gets off analyzing me, or prying into my business. Something kept me sitting there, just staring at him. And I was dumbfounded when I heard myself say, "My lover left me for another man."
Jesse just nodded, there was no smile, no smirk, he just nodded and said, "Man, I'm sorry. That's tough."
"No," I assured him, grabbing my cup and draining it, resisting the urge to reach for the bottle and fill it up again. "It was a good thing really. I don't believe in relationships, it's a handicap most of the time."
"It can be," Jesse agreed, leaning back in his chair. "It can also be the reason for going home at night. And for getting up the next morning."
I couldn't answer that, for some reason I couldn't speak. Then I cleared my throat and looked away, reached for the bottle and uncapped it. "Another shot?"
"No, thanks." Jesse stood up then, crushing his empty paper cup and shoving it in his pocket - no evidence of drinking on the job for Jesse. "Donít work too late," he admonished, his usual parting comment delivered with a half-smile and a wave as he went out my door, leaving me alone again. It was a while before I could concentrate on the presentation I was preparing, I just could not stop thinking about the way it used to be when I went home at night. Knowing that when I pulled back that door, a warm body might come hurtling at me a hundred miles an hour to throw himself into my arms, a welcoming smile lighting up his face, his hungry mouth pressed impatiently to mine.
Then I shook my head to clear it. Actually, I know for a fact that itís much better to go home to beautifully quiet peacefulness, and the serenity of knowing that everything will be the exact same place I left it. No jarring hiphop music breaking the stillness, no raucous Power Puff Girls cartoons on the tv, no piles of dirty laundry in the corner of the bedroom, no smells of fattening food emanating from the kitchen. I've always loved living alone. Always have, always will.
It just never felt so empty before.
Every time I run into Brian, my heart stops. Every fucking time. I'm amazed I haven't dropped dead by now, just from my heart stopping every time I see him. He was at the shop when I turned in my latest Rage sketches yesterday. And my heart stopped just like that, wham! Just stopped. Always it starts beating again right away, but what if sometime it didn't?
It was easier at first, because he never came to the diner at all, at least not while I was there. I haven't been to Woody's or Babylon since I left. It's been whispered to me that Brian doesn't go those places either, but I don't think that has anything to do with me, it's just that he's been so busy now that he's made partner at the agency. In fact I know that's true because the last time I was at the loft, his desk was overflowing with paperwork, and he told me himself that he works a lot of nights instead of going out. It has nothing to do with me.
Since Deb's birthday party, I've seen more of Brian around Liberty Avenue. It seems like we kind of reconnected - in a very nonboyfriend, nonlover, not-very-important way after I spent the night with him when he was drunk. Maybe because I finally said out loud that I loved him, it took some pressure off me somehow. Maybe it took pressure off him too. Like a volcano letting off steam. I just had to say it because it's true, and I know it will always be true. But it doesn't mean anything, it doesnít change anything. We both know that. Probably I will love him until the day I die, but it doesn't really matter because he can't love me back and never will. Not the way I want him to. I mean, the way I used to want him to. I don't want him to love me any more, Iím way past that stage, I'm mature enough now to understand that it can't ever happen. And I'm okay with that.
Now when Brian comes into the diner and my heart stops, all I have to do is go into the kitchen for a drink of water and then I'm okay. Mostly he doesn't sit in my area so I don't have to wait on him. But I can't ignore him, I have to go by his table and say hello, if only to prove to him that it doesn't matter whether he's there or not. And so I can prove to myself that my heart can go on beating normally after that first initial wham!. I feel pretty sure that someday, just seeing him in person won't hurt any more. And soon the wham! will stop too.
I finish drinking my glass of water and go back out into the diner, Brianís sitting in a booth in my station. I give him my professional waiter smile and whip out my order pad. ďHey, howís it going. Hungry tonight?Ē
ďYeah.Ē His hands are folded on the table, heís wearing jeans and a long-sleeved gray silk tee, so heís been home to change after work. Itís only six oíclock, he must have left the office early for a change. Leaning against the back of the booth, Brian stretches his long legs out underneath the table. "What's the special today? Is it good?"
I wonder if he's remembering how I always use to rave about the specials at the diner. Brian teased me about that, he thinks the food is mediocre and maybe it is, but after you work a few hours on your feet you get hungry and almost anything tastes good. "It's turkey meatloaf, I don't know if it's good, I haven't had my dinner break yet."
Brian grabs my arm and twists it, looking at my watch. "It's after six, you must be starving."
"I'm always starving."
"I know. So take your break now, why don't you? You could even sit here, if you wanted to." He shrugs and gestures at the place across from him, and I'm shocked at how strongly, how suddenly, I want to sit there. Well, I am kind of tired, and I'm starving, naturally I'd like to sit down and eat. Anywhere, even across from Brian.
"Um," I hedge, "You want the meatloaf?"
Brian folds his hands again, and I can't help looking at them, he has long, strong fingers and when they're clasped together, it's incredibly beautiful. The urge to draw those folded hands again is almost unbearable.
"Only if it's not greasy. And double vegetables, no potatoes, no gravy, no bread." He smiles then, just a curve of lips lifting his mouth on one side; of course I remember he avoids carbs, and if gravy gets anywhere near his food, he becomes almost hysterical. Nodding, I scribble his order on my pad and turn away toward the kitchen.
Deb's not working tonight, so I go find Marge and ask her if I can take my dinner break. She glances out over the diner, it's only half full. "Sure thing, sweetie, me and Davey can handle it for awhile." She pats my head like Iím one of her three shaggy Pekinese. I turn away, hiding a sigh; older women all want to mother me, it's a burden to look so fucking young.
In the kitchen Charlie lets me fix plates for Brian and me. The meatloaf is warm, it just needs a quick nuke, and I heap a mound of broccoli and carrots on Brian's plate, and a double scoop of mashed potatoes on mine, with plenty of gravy on top. I'm kind of amazed at myself, even thinking about sitting in the booth with Brian, but really, what's the big deal? It's just eating dinner together, nothing weird or intense about it.
Without looking at Brian, I set our plates down on the table and turn away quickly to go fetch us drinks, just Coke for me, a beer for Brian, then come back and slide into the booth.
Brian unfolds the napkin onto his lap and picks up his fork, then points it at my plate. "Is there food underneath all that gravy?"
"It's not that much gravy," I reply defensively, "Only two ladle-fulls."
"First of all," he intones pompously, "It's 'ladles-full,' your grammar is atrocious. And secondly, it's about two cups of gravy, which is precisely eleven hundred and thirty-seven calories."
I have to laugh because I know he's joking, but I'll bet he's right, Brian knows exactly how many calories in every bite of food that goes into his mouth. "I'm a growing boy, gravy is good for me." God, he's smiling at me, his eyes the soft almost-green color they get when he's relaxed. I'm glad he's relaxed, the few times I've seen him around lately, he always looks so tense.
"Gravy is not good for anybody, it's ninety-seven percent fat."
"Pigs are fat, and they're pretty healthy. Babe was healthy." Babe is one of my favorite movies, I almost became a vegetarian after I watched it seven times.
Brian wafts his broccoli-laden fork at me and nods. "So was Babe's mom, and look what happened to her - turned into a side of bacon for Liberty Diner." Brian chews the broccoli and swallows it, then he asks, "So how's YOUR mom? Does she like having you live at home?"
"Yeah, I guess so." I pick up a spoon, I'm missing too much gravy with my fork.
"Do you like living at home?"
I slurp a spoonful of gravy and answer, flatly, "No." Brian says nothing but quirks his eyebrow at me, so I add, "It's okay. I'd just rather have my own place." When he still says nothing, I go on, "It's just that my mom sometimes forgets I'm grown-up now, and my God, you can't imagine what it's like to live with a messy, noisy, bratty twelve-year-old."
At that Brian laughs. "Oh yes, I can."
"Shut up!" I kick him, gently, under the table and we share a smile, the first time we've connected in exactly that way for a long, long time. Brian lays down his fork and reaches across the table to take my hand.
"The time will go fast, till you finish school," he assures me, squeezing my fingers. I squeeze back, it feels so good to be touching him again.
"What the fuck?"
We both jump, we haven't noticed the figure approaching our table till he is standing right beside us. It's Ethan. His face is red, and fire is leaping out of his eyes, looking like nothing so much as a superhero's deathray stare.
"Hey," says Brian casually, releasing my hand and leaning back in the booth. "Want to join us?"
It's harder for me to act casual, I don't have Brian's years of practice. I'm feeling guilty, only for holding Brian's hand, and it makes me angry that I feel guilty. My face and neck are blushing hot with embarrassment, an annoyingly dead giveaway for someone with my coloring. "Hey, Ethan," I say lamely. "You're early." In fact I forgot he was coming by to have dinner with me on my break tonight. How could I forget something like that?
"Um," I add, when he still says nothing, "I went ahead and started without you, I was starving, Iím sorry."
"It's true," Brian turns his voice serious, "Justin was almost fainting with hunger, but we were going to wait for dessert till you got here." For someone who never lies, Brian does a good job of it when he needs to. "Well, scoot over, Justin," he scolds me, in the voice of an impatient elderly uncle, "Make room for Ethan to sit down."
"I donít want to sit down," Ethan retorts, his face and voice grim. Heíll never forgive the way Brian tricked him, dragging him into the diner with the promise of a job offer. He glares at each of us and begins to turn away.
Brian shoots out his arm and grabs Ethan's wrist, then slides quickly out of the booth. "It's okay, I'm finished, you can take my place," Brian says soothingly, gently pulling and pushing Ethan around till he almost falls into the booth. He pulls out his wallet and drops a ten and a five on the table. "See you boys later," he says, over his shoulder.
We watch him walk out the door of the diner, then Ethan turns to glare at me. "Well?" he demands, in the high-pitched voice of an outraged lover.
"Chill," I tell him, "We were just eating dinner, it's not like you caught us fucking."
"It's only a matter of time," Ethan intones dramatically. I am so annoyed I jump up, grab the dirty plates from the table, and disappear into the kitchen. I wait a few minutes, and when I come out again, Ethan's gone. I'm glad he's gone, I don't feel like spending another long evening reassuring Ethan of my undying devotion. I never suspected that the flip side of intense romance is intense jealousy.
I'm so glad that I didn't move in with Ethan, at first I really wanted to but I just could not do it because I couldn't pay my own way. Not that I'm paying my way at my mom's, but I think it's okay to stay with parents when you're in college. I do help out with chores and I help Molly, sometimes walking her to school or helping with homework, or just being at home some nights if Mom needs to go to Deb's or a PFLAG meeting or if she has to show a house at night. And often I help Mom cook dinner, she's teaching me more and more about cooking, in fact sometimes we try out recipes together. Brian always used to enjoy the dinners I'd cook for him. A couple times Ethan has come to the condo for dinner, and he thinks I'm a great cook. Mom says she likes having me live at home.
Sometimes I sleep over at Ethan's, but I think relationships are easier if you're not living on top of each other. If you know you can eventually leave and go home, the little things don't bother you so much. Besides, his bed is so uncomfortable, it's just a mattress on crates. And I love playing with Wolfram, but I'm slightly allergic to cats and I start coughing or my nose begins to run. And sometimes Ethan leaves dirty dishes sitting in the sink and for some reason I just can't stand that, I have to go and wash them. I think musicians are oblivious to their surroundings.
Ethan loves me, he tells me all the time that he loves me, and that's great. It's the greatest thing to hear someone say he loves you. The only really bad thing about being with Ethan, besides the artistic temperament and the constant need for reassurance that I love him, is that he's always digging at me to tell him things. He wants to know every single thing I've ever done in my whole life. Once he asked me how I met Brian, and I didn't tell him. I just think there's some things you should keep to yourself. Some memories shouldn't be shared.
I have no idea what came over me when Ethan showed up at the diner last night. Normally I would have laughed and enjoyed his discomfort, his obvious jealousy; normally I would have held onto Justin's hand, but I didn't. I let him go, and I tried to defuse the situation. I don't know why I reacted like that. But Justin was so upset, his face turned bright red and he was the picture of horrified guilt. And all just because we were sitting in the same booth eating dinner. So I tried to patch it up, pass it off, and get myself away from the pair of them as fast as I could.
What's really kind of funny is that I can't bear to picture Justin in bed with that boy. It's funny because I've seen Justin fucking other guys when we used to do three-ways, in fact I was the one who introduced him to that. He seemed to like it at first, it was only later that I began to realize it was not his thing. But it didn't bother me, not at all, seeing Justin naked with other guys, fucking and sucking them. So it's ridiculous that somehow, I give a shit about Justin with his tiny musical prodigy.
Last year when I thought I was moving to New York, I remember telling Justin that he should find a boyfriend his own age. I meant it then, and I still believe I was right. Justin's only nineteen, he should be out fucking anything that moves. Or if he wants relationships - and Justin's definitely one of those relationship types - he should have a dozen relationships with all kinds of different guys. This Ethan is probably just the first in a long line of boyfriends for Justin. In a way I should be glad. Or at least not give a damn. I think itís better if I stay away from the diner from now on.
There's a knock and Jesse sticks his head inside the door of my office. "Hey," I welcome him, and he comes over to sit on one of the chairs facing my desk. I pull open my desk drawer for paper cups and JB. We toast each other silently, then I relax in my chair and wait for Jesse to start talking - about his dead wife, about the economy, about any of a hundred subjects he enjoys discussing.
"You didn't stay late last night," he says, taking a sip of JB and leaning back in his chair. "Work finally slowing down?"
"I took a night off." When he just nods, I add, "I needed to check up on somebody." I wonder if Justin patched things up with Ethan. Remembering how Justin's face had looked when I left the diner, I get a momentary twinge of something - not remorse, not guilt, I don't do remorse or guilt. But I hadn't meant to interfere in Justin's life, yet that's exactly what I ended up doing.
I shake my head, neither yes nor no. "Jesse, I loathe psychics."
He laughs. "I'm not psychic, Iím just reading your face."
"My face is unreadable," I snort at him. "Like what's-his-name, The Great Stoneface."
"Mmm-hmm." Jesse takes another sip of whiskey.
After a long pause, I ask, "So what do you imagine you're reading on my face?"
"Maybe, regret? Nothing specific. . .just some kind of sad emotion."
"Well," I assure him, sitting forward to reach for the cigarette pack he'd laid on the desk and helping myself to one, "You're wrong."
Jesse nods. "Okay." He also takes a cigarette and I hold the lighter for him. "Did you hear about the train that derailed in New York last night?"
Jesse then talks about trains and that leads to hobos and that leads to the Great Depression and that leads to President Roosevelt. Fifteen minutes later, Jesse gets up to go. Crushing his paper cup and shoving it in his pocket, he says, "Can I ask just one thing about the guy who left you?"
I cross my arms over my chest and brace myself. 'No,' I want to say; 'Fuck off,' I want to say. Instead I ask, abruptly, "What?"
"Was it your fault he left?"
Jesse's question stuns me. I didn't expect anything like that. I don't know what I expected him to ask, but it isn't that. And I have no answer. He just stands looking at me, in that solemn quiet way he has about him, and I really have no answer. Finally I murmur, "I donít know."
"Would you take him back again?"
"That's two questions." I'm starting to get annoyed, I push back from the desk, cross my legs and begin jiggling my foot.
Jesse regards me solemnly. "Sorry, Brian, didn't mean to pry. Or maybe I did. I just hate to watch people fuck themselves over, so I hope you're not doing that." When I say nothing, Jesse walks to the door and pauses to say, "Thanks for the bourbon, don't work too hard."
"Jesse." My voice stops him, he turns back and gives me an inquiring look.
He nods then and smiles. "Yeah, I thought so," was all he says, before giving me a wave and walking off down the hall.
Was it my fault? ĎProbablyí was a good answer. ĎYes and noí would have worked, too. Because yes, I pulled a lot of shit on Justin, but no, because I never pretended to be somebody Iím not. I told Justin from the very beginning that I donít believe in love, I donít believe in commitment, and Iíll never stop fucking around. He was always saying he understood me; my mistake was believing that he really did.
And later, when we seemed to be pulling further and further apart, I admit I was almost relieved. Get the bad stuff over with, thatís always been my motto. Besides, I never wanted to be chained to some sappy teenager yearning for romance. Christ. In a way, I wish Justin had been older, more experienced, as cynical as I am myself. Not that I wanted a relationship with anybody, not at all. But if I had to have one, at least let a man I cared about have his fucking eyes wide open.
In retrospect, I know I started giving Justin little pushes and shoves a long time ago. He made it so easy, because he had all these fucking expectations that I had no desire, no intention, of trying to live up to. He would only be disappointed in the end, so it was necessary to prepare him. Not that I had any idea what I was doing at first. But I look back now and think about all the little stuff I could have done that would have made him happy. Flowers once in a while. His silly floor picnic. A real birthday celebration. But if Iíd done all those things, Justin would have started believing in me, believing I could make him happy. I couldnít. I canít. And I donít want to.
Ethanís leaving for Indianapolis where the Heifitz International Violin Competition will be held. His parents in Philadelphia got him a plane ticket, at first he was going to go by bus but that would have taken a couple days and would have exhausted him, he needs to be in good shape for the competition. In the end he decided he wanted me to go with him, but I donít have money for the airfare and I couldnít ask my mom, I know she doesnít have much in the bank.
The Heifitz is by invitation only, Ethan had to send them a tape three months ago. Violinists from all over the world compete for prizes. Grand prize is ten thousand dollars and a two-year concertizing tour, across the U.S. and Canada, several European countries, Japan and China. If Ethan wins, heíll be leaving almost immediately on the tour. He said if he wins, he wants me to go with him, and Iím pretending to think about it. But we both know I wonít walk away from PIFA, Iíve just started my education, I couldnít throw that away to tag along with Ethan while he wowed audiences all over the world. I have my own career to think about.
I watch Ethan get ready to go, I use my cell to call a taxi, and I wait with him downstairs till the taxi arrives. Heís trusting me to look after Wolfram while heís gone. Ethan kisses me, just a touch of his lips on mine, but heís not behind the kiss, heís already performing his concerto, I can see that in his eyes. I wave goodbye as the taxi speeds down the street.
Walking home slowly in drizzling rain, I feel like crying and yet no tears come. Instead I turn up my face to the sky and let the rain caress my face, run over my forehead and cheeks and drip off my chin, like a veil of sad tears.