Part 2: DECEPTION
As I slide back the loft door, I’m in time to hear Brian growl into the phone, “How hard is it to comprehend that I don’t give a shit?” I move to stand behind him and put a hand on his shoulder, which makes him jump slightly. He twists his head around to glance up at me and I see that his forehead is furrowed and he’s frowning. “No,” he barks into the phone. “No fucking way.”
I raise my eyebrows at him in enquiry but he looks away from me and moves sideways in his chair so that my hand slips off his shoulder. He’s in a foul mood, it must be some problem at the office. It’s Friday and he left work early today, we’re going away for the weekend, but as long as there’s cell phones, the office comes to Brian. He’s promised to leave the phone behind when we head out today, so I shrug and move away, go up the steps into the bedroom and throw my jacket on the bed When I come back, Brian’s off the phone.
“Hey, something wrong?” I move toward him again and he reaches out to grab my hand and pull me close to his chair.
“Nope. Did you remember to tell them to replace the filter?”
“Sure. I had them check everything.” I’ve just come back from filling the ‘vette’s tank and getting an oil change. Brian says old cars go through a lot of oil and he’s meticulous about upkeep. We bump foreheads and kiss briefly, then I tell him, “You’re fanatical about your menopause-mobile.”
Tightening his hand on my wrist till it hurts, Brian threatens, “Call it that once more and you’ll be riding in the trunk with the luggage. Are you all packed?”
“Brian, I was all packed three days ago,” I laugh, but I’m not really joking. I’m so excited that we’re taking a trip together, it’s all I’ve been thinking about for a week. “Are you?”
“Huh? Am I what?”
I laugh again and poke a finger into Brian’s chest. “Is your mind wandering, Alzheimers-man? Are you packed, too?”
“One more age joke and the trip’s off.” Brian releases my wrist and stands up. “I’m packed except for toiletries, I’ll do that now and then we can start loading up the car.” He moves toward the bedroom and I head for the kitchen, picking up the cooler I’ve sort-of hidden in the pantry-cupboard, adding a six-pack of Diet Coke and a couple ice packs from the freezer, then zipping it closed and dropping it over by the door.
Joining Brian in the bedroom, I add two sketchpads and my pencil-pouch to my backpack. Pulling on my jacket, I sling the backpack over my shoulder and grab my duffel bag full of clothes. Brian follows suit and we head for the door. Predictably he stops when he sees the cooler and turns to give me a look. “What’s that?”
“Just a few snacks. For the car.” I’m nonchalant.
“You don’t need snacks, we’re only going a hundred and fifty miles. There’s plenty of places to eat along the way. And besides,” he adds what he considers the clincher, “There’s no eating in the car.”
“Eating in the car is half the fun of road trips,” I insist, grabbing the cooler while Brian slides open the door.
“The first fucking crumb on my vintage upholstery and I’m tossing you and your snacks out – and that is not a joke.” Brian gives me the evil eye to emphasize his point.
“Yes, sir.” I know enough to back off when I’ve won. I wait in the elevator while Brian pulls the door closed, then he stops for a moment, and pushes the door open again.
Brian doesn’t answer so I step forward to watch as he re-enters the loft. He moves toward his desk, grabs his cell phone and shoves it into his pocket.
“You said no phones,” I remind him. “You said - ”
“I know what I said,” Brian sets the alarm and pulls the door closed again. “I just changed my mind.”
As we move into the elevator and descend to the basement, we don’t speak. I’m not exactly mad, just disappointed; Brian promised he’d forget all about business for once, just for the weekend. Finally he breaks the silence. “It’s not for work. It’s in case of emergencies.”
“Oh.” I sigh and nod agreement. “Like if something happened to Gus and Lindsay needed to reach you?”
“Something like that.”
My mind’s occupied with maneuvering the car through rush-hour traffic out of the city, and with giving half an ear to Justin’s prattle about the Arts Festival at University Park. There’s no room in my brain for any thoughts about that fucking annoying phone call from Clare, I am determined to just forget about it and concentrate on having a good time with Justin this weekend. It’s the first time we’ve traveled anywhere together and he’s over the moon with excitement, never mind our destination’s just a couple hours away from the Pitts.
Fucking Clare. Thinking she can guilt me into giving a shit.
I realize that I’m grinding my teeth and a glance at the speedometer shows that I’m heavy-footing it; we’re doing eighty. I also realize that Justin has stopped chattering. We’re on the interstate and the traffic’s lighter now, so I glance over at him and see that he’s staring back at me.
“Brian, is something wrong?”
“No,” I deny it, “Why?”
Tapping the turn signal, I move the ‘vette smoothly out of the fast lane and into the middle, slowing down to sixty. We’ve already come twenty miles and I think of Justin’s cooler full of snacks wedged behind his seat, provisions for a journey of days instead of a mere two hours’ drive east to State College. He’s going to be disappointed if there’s no time on our brief journey to make inroads into his supply of pretzels and gummi bears.
“You just seem kind of preoccupied, is all. Thinking about work?”
With a sigh I force my shoulders to relax and I nod. Easing up still more on the accelerator, I slow to fifty - I’ll try to make the drive last a bit longer. “But we just passed out of worry-range,” I tell him, “So I won’t think about it any more.” I slip my hand over the seat and caress Justin’s thigh. “Tell me again what Daphne said about the festival?”
“It’s an annual week-long event, at Penn State’s University Park campus. Daphne went last year with her boyfriend – remember, she was dating that creepy photography major? He had some pictures in an exhibit so he took her there, to State College.”
“State College is a ridiculous name for a city,” I point out. “But Daphne’s boyfriend was kind of hot.” I’d only met him once but he was a looker; a bit older than Daphne and unrelentingly straight. “Why’d she break up with him?”
“He wasn’t nearly as hot as he thought he was. What an ego! Daph said she got tired of dating long distance – her med school’s in Hershey, remember - like about a hundred miles from his school in State College. Now she’s dating a fellow med student, a third-year guy who’s going to specialize in pediatrics.”
I’m already bored with this conversation about Daphne’s boyfriends so I prompt Justin again to tell me about the festival. Predictably, he’s downloaded information from the internet and he pulls out several folded sheets from his backpack and begins to read them to me. I haven’t really paid attention to his ramblings about the festival but Justin’s enthusiastic so I force myself to listen to him now. He’s planned for us to see the Palmer art museum on campus and to do a studio tour of the resident artists in the area. Since I’ve succumbed to partnership with an artist, I’d better cultivate my own interest in the subject.
It’s not that hard to do actually, since I’d taken a few art classes myself when I was in school – mostly to fulfill humanities requirements, but enough to learn appreciation for the creative process. That’s one reason I was able to empathize with Justin when he thought he’d lost the ability to draw. That, and of course the fact that I was the proximate cause of Justin’s injury.
“Don’t go there,” I remind myself – that guilt is in the past. Not guilt, exactly, I don’t do guilt.
Yeah, right. And I also don’t feel guilty that I refused my mother’s request – transmitted by Clare on the phone this afternoon – to visit Mom in the hospital. She might die. My mother might be dying. It’s not like I care, why should I care? And I don’t – I won’t – feel guilty about it.
“Yeah, good idea,” I say casually, pretending that I’m still following Justin’s conversation.
“Brian, I just asked you to stop at a gas station so I can take a piss.”
“Yeah,” I glance at him sideways, “I said, good idea.”
Justin gives me a look that lets me know I’m busted, but he doesn’t pursue it. “We just passed a sign that says gas-food-lodging, next exit.”
We’re silent for a minute and I know that Justin’s annoyed with me. To distract him I suggest, “We can take a short break, if you want; you can eat some of your stash. It’s been about forty-five minutes since we left home, you must be starving.”
But I made him smile. Then he shrugs. “I’m not starving, but I am thirsty. I’ll have a Coke.”
I raise my arm and rest it on the back of his seat, ruffle the hair on the nape of his neck. “Good thing you planned ahead, they probably don’t sell Coke in the fifty McDonalds we’ve passed so far.”
Justin grins up at me from under his lashes and I feel an involuntary lump in my throat. Christ, he’s beautiful. “Better yet,” I suggest, “Let’s find a roadside rest stop, we can grab a quick fuck in the men’s room.”
“Brian, is it true that guys hang out in rest stops looking for some action?”
“Sure,” I shrug. “Especially in the olden days, when everybody was in the closet. Nowadays it’s probably mostly straight guys who do it, guys who’re afraid to go near a gay bar.” I chuckle then, remembering something. “I even checked it out myself once,” I tell him, “When I was - ” I almost said, “When I was young.” I’m still young. “When I was a kid. Younger than you, actually.”
“Really? It sounds so – so sleazy.”
“Yeah. It was great.”
“Maybe some other time,” Justin suggests, “I’d rather get settled in our hotel and have a shower before we go out to dinner.”
“And we can check out the gay scene in town afterwards. If any.” I’m not optimistic that we’re going to find much night-time distraction in State College PA. Justin confirms my suspicions.
“I checked on line, there’s only one gay bar listed,” he tells me, flipping through his stack of papers. “Chumley’s, on College Avenue.”
If it’s near the university, it’ll be full of college kids. Not that I don’t like college kids, I remind myself, glancing at Justin’s blond head bent over the papers in his lap. But the time might be coming when they don’t like me.
Probably not for a long time yet though, I tell myself, moving my eyes to the rearview mirror to reaffirm the perfection of my reflection. The alliteration makes me smile. Yeah, it’ll be a long time, I’m not old and gray yet.
Not old and gray like. . . .
I am not going to think about her. I’m just not.
Brian’s distracted again, there’s definitely something going on that he’s not telling me about. He said he’s thinking about work, but I have to wonder if that’s true. Maybe he’s had an argument with Michael, maybe Deb is hassling him, maybe Lindsay’s after him to do something for Gus. No matter what it is, he’s not sharing it, and that’s what bothers me. Oh, I know that - as Brian is always reminding me - we’re not joined at the hip. We don’t have to tell each other everything. Mostly I’m okay with that, but ever since the cancer scare, I can’t help worrying when Brian closes up like this.
However, I do know that pushing him to spill will only make him close up tighter, so I try to shrug off his inattentiveness and concentrate on having a good time this weekend.
Brian takes the next exit and finds a gas station with a bathroom. He doesn’t join me, which is fine – I don’t enjoy quickie fucks in dirty public restrooms as much as Brian does. When I get back in the car, I’m surprised when Brian drives down a side road and stops at a crossroads, pulling off onto the verge, putting the car in park and turning off the ignition.
“Have your Coke,” he suggests. “I think I’ll take a walk – stretch my legs.”
“Where are you going?”
“Don’t worry, I’m not ditching you by the side of the road like a litter of unwanted puppies. I’m just going to have a stroll, and a cigarette. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
“Okay.” I twist around in the seat to reach my cooler and pull out a can of soda, and I also watch Brian as he gets out of the car, lights up a cigarette and moves off down the road. He stays in sight and I can’t help staring after him, watching him walk slowly away, smoking and thinking hard about something. What?
When I left for Los Angeles for what turned out to be a seven-month stay, Brian and I agreed that we would both fuck around. It goes without saying of course that Brian would do that anyway, but I was determined to continue being Brian’s equal in the sexual-freedom stakes, to keep our partnership on an even keel. And I did fool around a little bit in LA but not as much as I could have. For one thing, the gay guys I met at work formed a tight-knit group. They’d all slept with each other at one time or another, and getting involved with any of them felt almost incestuous. I met a few guys at parties, I went to a few bars and dance clubs and hooked up, but the truth is, I missed Brian, and fucking around without him was really not much more satisfying to me than jerking off alone in my bed.
I knew it would be different for Brian, that he would revert to his tomcatty ways, fucking anything that moved. Well, that’s not entirely true, because I also knew that Brian threw himself wholeheartedly into running Kinnetik and he didn’t have the same time and energy to devote to getting his cock sucked as often as he used to.
Yet it had occurred to me to wonder sometimes – especially if I were feeling lonely and vulnerable – that Brian might meet somebody else while I was gone, somebody who might lure him into having a real relationship. I tried to reassure myself – Brian Kinney doesn’t do relationships – but the fact is, he does. Only with me, so far. But since I wasn’t there, would he be tempted to hook up with somebody else?
If that had happened, surely I would have heard about it from somebody? Michael in particular, who positively enjoys delivering bad news to me, and he hadn’t even hinted at any such thing while I was gone, or since I got back a few weeks ago. Emmett has no malice but he absolutely cannot keep gossip to himself. Ted works closely with Brian and while he might try to protect “the boss,” the fact is that Ted also has loose lips. So, since I haven’t heard a peep of rumor about other guys in Brian’s life, the odds are definitely against anything like that happening.
Then why do I feel so uneasy? Why do I feel like Brian is hiding something from me? If something important were going on with Kinnetik, or with Gus, or with anybody else in our circle of family and friends, Brian could talk to me about it. He might choose not to, since he still considers emotional conversations lesbianic. But I know Brian so well, and in my gut I just can’t help feeling that something is wrong. Since he won’t tell me, I can’t ignore the niggling little suspicion in my brain that there’s another guy involved.
By the time Brian returns to the car a few minutes later, I’ve finished my Diet Coke, I’ve eaten one and half packages of gummi bears, and I’ve almost convinced myself that Brian is leaving me for another man. He gets into the car and takes one look at what I’m sure is my totally blank face and asks, baldly, “What?”
“Nothing,” I assure him quickly. “I just missed you.”
Brian tsks, but he also smiles, and leans over to smack a quick kiss on my lips. “Mmm, dee-licious,” he proclaims, pushing his tongue into my mouth and tasting gummi bears. “Did you save me any?”
“I’m saving it ALL for you,” I answer provocatively, sliding a hand down to caress my cock that always begins to harden whenever Brian kisses me. He laughs against my lips and we kiss again, then regretfully we pull apart and sigh.
“Shall we go back to the gas station men’s room?” Brian raises an eyebrow.
“No, let’s wait for the hotel.”
“Spoilsport,” he shakes his head, fastens his seatbelt and starts the engine.
Our hotel, the Nittany Lion Inn, is nice enough, not five-star but comfortable and centrally located near the college campus. It’s a white Colonial building with a large reception area and welcoming staff, our room is bright and the king-size bed has four posters, which for some reason immediately provides me with a mental image of naked Justin tied to the headboard. As soon as the bellboy leaves, I turn to Justin and say, “Too bad I forgot the handcuffs.”
Justin laughs and smacks my arm and his cheeks turn pink. How a young man as sexually adventurous and experienced as he is can still blush is both amazing and actually kind of charming. Then he suggests, “Hey, we could use a couple of your ties.”
“No fucking way, not my Hermes silks, they’re two hundred bucks apiece.”
“Why’d you bring ties, anyway?” Justin wants to know. “This is a casual weekend.”
“I told you,” I throw over my shoulder as I remove my black suit and Justin’s gray one from the suit bag and hang them in the closet, “We’re going to dress for dinner at least once. Didn’t you ever attend formal events with studio heads when you were in LA?”
“Nobody’s ever formal in LA.” Justin’s haphazardly shoving underwear into a chest near the bed. “Hey, you going to join me in the shower?”
“Go ahead, I’ll be there in a minute, I want to finish hanging up clothes.” I unpack a couple shirts and put them on hangers, but as soon as the bathroom door is shut, I pull out my cell phone. I left it on mute and now I check for messages. There aren’t any, so I breathe a sigh of something – relief? – and toss the phone on the bed, pull off my clothes, and move into the bathroom.
Brian passed on breakfast this morning and opted instead to visit the hotel’s mini-gym; he left as soon as the room-service breakfast cart arrived. Wearing sweats and grabbing a hotel towel, Brian slipped out the door with a grunted, “Later.” I’d been in the act of pouring a cup of coffee from a white ceramic carafe, but I looked up in time to see Brian grab his cell phone from the night stand before he left.
Why does he need his phone if he’s just going to work out? It’s Saturday, Kinnetik is closed today, so who is he going to call?
Brian seems vaguely distracted, he’s not one hundred percent with me lately. Well, for the past couple days anyway, maybe longer and I just didn’t notice before? Of course I could ask him what’s going on, but something about the way he’s been acting makes me bite back my questions. Brian doesn’t lie, but he’s perfectly capable of telling me to mind my own fucking business. We’ve come a long way in our relationship in the past year, and sometimes it feels like we’re functioning as equals, but then something like this will happen to remind me that Brian’s still holding back, still maintaining a distance between us. Maybe he always will and I’ll just have to accept that about him. We’ve been through so much together and we’ve both changed a lot, but maybe there are limits to change, at least for him.
I’m in the shower when Brian returns half an hour later. He’s deliciously sweaty from his workout, and he joins me, stepping into the tub and immediately pulling me around to face him, to kiss him. Then he slips to his knees on the smooth porcelain and gently and slowly sucks me off. When we’ve dried off and start getting ready, Brian pours himself a cup of lukewarm coffee, drains it in one long swallow, and sets down the cup with a loud thump.
I’ve just pulled a shirt over my head and when my face emerges, I see that Brian is frowning.
“Justin,” he says again, “Remind me, what’s the schedule for today?”
Pulling down the shirt and smoothing it, I sit on the edge of the bed and pick up a shoe. “The museum this morning, then the street fair, and the artists-studio tour late this afternoon.” I wait a second, studying his face. “Why?”
Brian sighs; he’s still frowning. “There’s something I have to take care of,” he tells me, keeping his eyes on my face. “I’ll be gone a few hours.”
“You can decide when – this morning or this afternoon.”
“Brian, what do you have to take care of?”
“There’s just something I have to do, it doesn’t concern you.” He throws back his head and looks down his nose at me. Typical Brian defense mechanism.
Determined to remain calm and act maturely, I remind him, “You promised me the whole weekend. At least tell me what’s going on, why you have to leave. Are you going back to Pittsburgh?”
He hesitates, then says, “Yes. But I’ll come right back, we’ll definitely stay all weekend. All you have to do is decide if you’d rather have me with you in the morning or in the afternoon.”
We stare at each other silently for a moment. Finally I say, “At least tell me why, I have a right to know why, Brian, I’m your partner. Is it Kinnetik, a client problem? Or – something else?”
I don’t really expect him to answer so I’m surprised when he does. “Something else,” he says flatly. “As I said, it has nothing to do with you. And I’d rather go this morning, get it over with. Can you do the art museum by yourself?”
“Of course,” my voice is icy, despite my intentions I’m getting mad. I look away from Brian, pick up my other shoe and slip it on, then I sit back, leaning on my hands and watching him get dressed.
Brian shoves his wallet into his pocket and grabs his keys, then moves toward the door, where he turns and says, “I’ll be back here by one-thirty, two at the latest. We can have a late lunch, then do that studio tour thing.” When I say nothing, he raises his eyebrows. “All right?”
If I open my mouth I’m afraid I’ll say something childish, like, “Maybe I’ll be here, maybe I won’t.” So I keep my mouth closed and just nod.
Brian pulls open the door, then he closes it again. In three strides he’s moved across the carpet to stand next to the bed. Bending down, he gives me a quick kiss on the mouth, then he moves his lips to my ear and whispers almost silently, “Sorry.” Maybe I imagine it, since Brian never apologizes. But I don’t imagine the slight smile he gives me before planting another brief kiss on my mouth, then he turns away and moves out the door without a backward glance.
The kiss and the smile, and the breathy “sorry” that tickled my ear, almost resign me to being deserted by my lover before our weekend getaway has even started. I’m still annoyed but not really angry. Well, I’m angry that he won’t tell me why he’s going back to Pittsburgh, but that’s not out of character for Brian.
Yet I’m also left wondering, all over again, if maybe Brian is involved with another guy?
I’m pissed that something – a sense of duty or some equally ridiculous reason – has coerced me into returning to Pittsburgh this morning at my mother’s urgent request. Yet now that I’m standing at the foot of her bed, I hear my voice soften in spite of myself. “I’m here,” I repeat, “So say what you have to say to me.”
The last thing I want to feel toward my mother is pity. It’s so much easier to blindly hate her and everything that she stands for, than to stare at her now as she lies prone in the hospital bed, illness blurring the harsh features of her face like melting wax. My hands in the pockets of my leather jacket are clenched, and I feel a muscle in my jaw working as I struggle with conflicting feelings tightening my chest – anger, resentment, and other emotions that I can’t – that I won’t – acknowledge.
“It was good of you to come,” Mom says formally. “Please sit down, won’t you?”
Unbending, I merely shake my head, knowing that I’m being churlish when I answer, “No thanks, I’d rather stand.”
“It’s hard for me to speak loudly, Brian, I need you to come over here, sit close to me. Please.”
With a sigh I acquiesce, moving around the side of the bed and pulling up a hard wooden chair. I wish I could light a cigarette, to have something to do with my hands. Instead I glance down and discover that, like so often when talking to my mother, my fingers are playing with each other, twisting together in my lap. By force of will I order them to be still, then I look back at my mother again, and wait for her to begin.
She doesn’t speak immediately, so I decide to ask about her illness. “Clare told me that you need a liver transplant?”
Mom nods. “Yes, but my doctor says I’m not a good candidate for that. It’s risky and the operation is done only as a last resort.”
“Will you get better without it?” I’m blunt but I need to know if Mom’s going to pop off any time soon.
I think of all the teenage years when I wished I was an orphan, but the reality of that happening soon is, in spite of everything, daunting. Of course Clare and I are way past the age when the term “orphan” has any meaning, but I’m not sure what else to call becoming parentless.
Why should I even give a fuck? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
“They say I’ll probably survive this time.”
What else is there to say? Clare told me as much, that Mom was expected to recover from this bout of severe jaundice, but that she’ll continue to deteriorate, without a new liver. When Clare first told me that Mom needs a liver transplant, I wondered if my mother expected me to give her mine. Of course I’d probably have to die first, but I don’t suppose she’d consider that an impediment.
I sit back in the chair and wait. I can’t imagine what compelled my mother to want to see me, Clare’s always been the one dealing with Mom’s affairs. She’s denied needing any financial help from me, so what else can it be? I’m growing impatient, so to get the ball rolling I offer again, “If you need money - ”
Mom purses her lips and shakes her head. “That’s all you can think about, isn’t it, Brian? If there’s a problem, throw money at it. Well, this isn’t something to be fixed with a handful of cash.” She pauses, and when I say nothing, just keep my eyes fixed on her face, she elaborates, “This is much more important than that. This concerns my immortal soul.”
Not that again. I start to stand up, my mouth twisting with scorn, but I stop when Mom says, “Wait, Brian. There’s something that you need to know. Something I have to tell you, and it has nothing to do with God or with religion. It’s about me, but it’s also about your father.”
“Pop’s dead,” I remind her. I’m about ten seconds from leaping up and bolting from the room, I knew it was a fucking waste of time to come here today. What the fuck has Pop got to do with anything?
“No, he’s not,” Mom contradicts me, “Your father is not dead. At least, I don't think so."
The old woman has finally gone right around the bend. “What?” I snort. “Jack suddenly climbed out of the box we buried in the fucking cemetery two years ago?”
Mom shakes her head. She doesn’t take her eyes off my face as she murmurs, “Jack was not. . .”
When her voice trails off, I lean forward in my chair and demand, “Jack was not what?”
”Brian,” Mom lowers her voice still further, until I can barely hear her. “Brian,” she quietly whispers, “Jack Kinney was not your father.”