Summary of Part 11 - Run: Brian and Justin visit the Shaughnessys in Boston.
Part Twelve: The Key
When the phone rings in the middle of the night, it's always bad news. Nobody calls to chat at three-thirty-seven a.m., so when the phone rings and my eyes pop open, a glance at the clock as I jerk upright in bed reveals the time and causes me to curse out loud at the interruption of my sleep. But I know that I'm also cursing out of cold-blooded fear - although the press of the warm sleepy lump beside me relieves my mind of at least half that concern.
I curse again as I fumble my way across the bed, scrabbling over Justin as he’s starting to wake up. He moves awkwardly, climbing over the pillows to get out of my way. I grab the receiver and loudly bark, “What?” as Justin slips forward again to put a hand on my arm – perhaps he imagines that he is comforting me. Irritably I almost shake off the hand before I acknowledge that it feels pretty good there after all, bolstering me for what has to be bad news on the other end of the line.
I'm expecting the caller to be Lindsay, reporting that Gus is sick. Naturally there've been a few such calls in the years since Gus was born and it's always with heart in mouth that I dash madly off to the hospital. But I know that now there are other people in my world who could precipitate a late-night call, yet even so, I’m surprised when I hear the voice on the other end of the line.
"What?” I repeat brusquely, and Justin's hand tightens convulsively on my arm so I glance at him, his eyes are wide with alarm. Shaking my head no, I silently mouth, "My mother." He blows out a big sigh – then looks guilty for his obvious relief. Like me, no doubt he was expecting the caller to be Linds or Michael.
"Brian," Mom says again, "Can you come over here?"
"Where's 'here' - are you at the hospital?"
"Of course I'm not at the hospital," she snaps, "I'm at home." When I don't immediately say anything, she demands, "Brian, are you there?"
"Mom," I try for patience - not one of my virtues. "Are you okay? Do you need an ambulance?"
"If I needed an ambulance, I'd call one, wouldn't I? I just need you to come over here."
When still I hesitate (Mom's never called me like this before), she snaps, "I rang Clare and she's not answering the phone. If you don't want to help your mother, just say so."
"Mom," I sigh, "I can be there in fifteen minutes. Are you sure you're okay?"
"I said so, didn't I? Now hurry up." And she hangs up the phone.
Shaking my head, torn between annoyance and concern, I hang up and disengage my arm from Justin’s grip, move quickly off the bed and begin to pull on clothes.
He follows me but hangs back, twisting his hands together.
"Go back to bed," I tell him. "I'll call you later."
Not surprisingly, Justin wants to accompany me. "Can I come?" he asks humbly.
I really don’t want him to come with me, but the humility in his voice gets through to me, catches me off guard. He probably feels that I'm shutting him out of my life, as I've done before - as I've always done. Actually I am amazed that I acknowledge what's happening with him. It's true that I may not care about other people's feelings most of the time, but that doesn't mean I'm unaware of them.
I suppose it must mean something that, in the midst of my anxiety to get on my way, I can be moved by the timbre of Justin's voice and recognize that he's longing to be included, to be my partner in every sense of the word. He wants to be part of everything that affects me and he’s not afraid to say so, even when he knows that I'm likely to snap his head off and tell him to mind his own fucking business.
Over the years, Justin has pushed his way so thoroughly into my life that it gets harder and harder to resist his inroads. I take a deep breath now and blow it out; a couple more minutes won't make a big difference at this point and I don't like seeing Justin look so – how does he look? Tentative. Almost needy.
“Justin,” I put an arm around his shoulders and pull him tight against my chest, his head tilts back and he’s looking up at me. “You - “ I’m going to tell him once again to stay home but looking into those eyes, I can’t do it. “You’d better hurry,” I say instead, then let him go and move into the bathroom to take a piss.
He doesn’t waste time on words, instead he pulls open a drawer and drags out a shirt and the ubiquitous cargo pants. By the time I slip into boots, he’s fastened his sneakers and he’s pulling our jackets from the closet. We move swiftly through the loft to the door, grabbing keys and cell phones as we go, and he’s halfway down the stairs before I’ve got the alarm set and the door locked.
I’ve never been to Brian’s house before, his mother’s house. He parks in the driveway and wordlessly I follow him up the path to the front door, and I’m surprised when he chooses a key from his key ring and unlocks the door, I wouldn’t have expected him to have a key. He pushes open the door and we enter the living room, Brian snaps on a lamp next to a flowered sofa that’s covered with clear plastic. “Stay here,” he murmurs quietly and I perch on the edge of the sofa, causing the plastic to make a crinkling sound. He moves through another doorway and after a moment I hear his voice, though I can’t make out his words.
We didn’t speak much on the way here, Brian drove quickly through the almost-deserted late night streets, and when I asked what was up, he said only that his mother needed him for something but that apparently she was okay. I know – or at least I think I know – that Brian only visited his mom a couple times recently. The time he left me in State College to come back to the Pitts when she dropped the bombshell about his dad, and another time when he confronted her about the identity of his real father.
I glance around the dimly-lit living room and try to imagine Brian as a little boy, living here in this place. It’s immaculate, everything extremely neat and almost no personal touches that I can see. I don’t get a sense of Mrs. Kinney’s personality from this room. Mom has always had a flair for decorating, both our old home and her condo are a beautiful reflection of her taste. Debbie’s house too – while not exactly beautiful – reflects Debbie’s personality, with all her photos and chatchkes and memorabilia filling every space. Michael and Ben’s place is a Zen hodgepodge of comics and literature. This room just feels empty, almost lifeless. It’s also cold, unheated, and I shiver, shove my hands into my jacket pockets. I’d like to stand up, walk around the room, but already I feel like an intruder in the Kinney home, so instead I stay put and just wait for Brian.
“Mom?” I move through the kitchen and go down the back hallway.
Her bedroom door’s ajar and the dim glow of a lamp casts crazy angles of light onto the wall by her bed. I discover that the lamp is lying on the floor with it’s shade tilted sideways, explaining the weird lighting, and it’s then that I actually begin to worry. Mom sounded okay on the phone, but. . .
“Here,” Mom calls, and I hurry around the other side of the bed to find her lying on the floor with her knees pulled up to her chest.
“What the fuck happened?” I exclaim, as I hunker down beside her.
“Watch your mouth,” she mutters thickly, “And help me to get up.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be moved, you might have a broken bone or something - “
“I do not have a broken bone,” she snaps, “I just fell off the bed and I can’t get up.” When still I hesitate, she orders, “Don’t just stand there staring, help me up.”
Moving around behind Mom, I get my hands under her arms and haul her gently to her feet, she sways slightly and I maneuver her toward the bed. She sits down on the edge and clutches the edges of her robe tightly together over her chest.
“Mom, are you okay?”
She doesn’t look okay, her face is flushed and she’s trembling, but her head comes up and she sniffs loudly before looking me in the eye and insisting, “I am perfectly fine.”
“People who are perfectly fine don’t keel over.”
Ignoring me, Mom runs a hand over her hair, smoothing it down, and rearranges her robe around her knees. “Pick up the phone, will you? Fortunately I was able to pull the cord and drag the phone down to the floor with me, so I could call for help.”
“Maybe you need one of those alert things that elderly people wear to - “
“I am NOT elderly. Just pick up the phone and bring me my slippers.”
Bending down to retrieve the telephone, I see under the edge of the bedspread the neck of a bottle. I drag it out, set the phone on the nightstand next to an empty highball glass, and hold out the half-full whiskey bottle where Mom can see it.
“Were you trying to retrieve this when you fell off the bed?”
Mom sits up straight and gives me a look. “Sometimes a little sip helps me to sleep, it’s medicinal, my doctor told me so.”
Yeah, right. I just nod, retrieve her slippers from the other side of the bed and drop them at her feet, she slips them on and stands up. “You can go now,” she says dismissively.
Reluctantly I offer, “Do you want some coffee or tea? I’ll make it for you.”
“Do you even know how to make a cup of tea?” Mom doesn’t wait for an answer but heads for the kitchen and I follow her, leaving the bottle on the night stand.
Mom’s slightly unsteady on her feet but she makes it under her own power, flips on the overhead light and then sits in a chair at the table. I grab the kettle off the stove and fill it at the sink.
“Where do you keep the tea bags?”
When she directs me to a canister on the counter, I pull out a teabag and retrieve a mug from the cupboard. While waiting for the kettle to boil, I tell Mom, “I’ll be right back,” then I move down the hall to the living room where Justin’s still huddled on the sofa. I realize that it’s freezing in the house, the way Mom always keeps it, and Justin is shivering.
“Hey,” I greet him quietly, “Everything’s okay, we can go in a few minutes. Want to wait in the car? You can put the heat on.”
“I’m fine,” he lies in a whisper. It’s his call so I just nod and turn back toward the kitchen, then discover that Mom is standing framed in the doorway, arms crossed on her chest.
“Who is that?” she demands, the ice in her voice matching the temperature in the living room.
I realize that I’m slightly nonplussed but immediately I answer, “This is Justin.” Then I add, “You’ve met him before,” though I don’t suppose she’ll remember her close encounter with a nearly-naked and sweaty disheveled blond in my loft a couple years ago.
“You brought one of your boys into MY HOUSE?”
“I only have ONE boy,” I answer swiftly, “And I brought him along in case I needed help.”
Justin has risen to his feet. “Hello, Mrs. Kinney,” he says politely, almost making me laugh, the brat’s unfailing good manners are endearing even in this circumstance.
She ignores him (of course) and turns back toward the kitchen, throwing over her shoulder, “Tell him not to touch anything.”
I’m angry but I won’t let her see it. And when I look back at Justin, he’s grinning, so I relax a bit and lean down to whisper in his ear, “I’ll let you touch something later.” I’m glad he’s not offended by Mom’s bullshit. I am of course, but fuck it.
The kettle’s boiling and Mom’s at the stove but she’s still unsteady on her feet. “Sit down, I’ll do it,” I tell her and surprisingly she doesn’t put up a fight but returns to her chair and drops onto it. I can tell that the fall has shaken her up, maybe scared her, and even medicated with whiskey, she’s bound to have bruises tomorrow.
I bring the mug of hot water and the tea bag to the table, grabbing a spoon and the sugar bowl as well. I watch while Mom dunks the teabag into the cup and then I ask, “Do you need anything else?”
“Bring me the bottle,” she demands, giving me a defiant look. I hesitate for a moment, then shrug. Once I’m gone she’ll just go get it herself and maybe fall down again in the process, so I do as she asks and retrieve the whiskey from the bedroom. Then I unscrew the lid and pour a small amount into her cup and set the bottle on the countertop.
Smelling the whiskey makes me want to raise the bottle to my lips and chug a mouthful myself, which is probably a sign or a portent or some God-damned thing, but I refuse to acknowledge it. I am not an alcoholic. Not yet anyway.
Mom takes a sip of tea and then says offhandedly, “I suppose I have to say thank you, for coming over tonight.”
“You don’t have to thank me.” God forbid poor Mom would ever feel indebted to her despised sinful son for any reason. “If you’re sure you’re okay, we’ll go now.”
“Of course I’m okay. Good night.”
“Good night,” I repeat, then turn and leave the kitchen, collect my boy from the living room and lock the door behind us as we leave the house.
We don’t speak on the way home, we’re both tired, and thankfully Justin doesn’t pester me with a lot of questions about my mother. He’s shown many times that he respects my privacy and I appreciate it. He says only, “I’m glad I got to see the house where you grew up.” I don’t ask him why he’s glad; that’s veering into touchy-feely territory. Instead I reach for his hand and twine our fingers together. We can still get a couple hours sleep before the alarm goes off at seven.
Once we’re home and back in bed, Justin's gone the moment his head hits the pillow, but I can’t sleep. Being in that house has churned up something in my gut. I turn my back to Justin and stretch out on my side, trying to force my muscles to relax. Usually I’m able to push away unwanted thoughts, but I can’t shake off this melancholy that’s grabbed hold of me tonight.
Just about everybody’s got a hard-luck story, almost everyone had a rotten childhood, my experience was no worse than what millions of other kids go through. I loathe people who dwell on their misfortune, I have no time for self-pity, it’s all bullshit. So then why am I lying here in the darkness remembering another house, while in my mind’s eye I’m watching Shaughn put his arm around his daughter and kiss her cheek?
Brian’s worried that Alexander DuPont is hitting on me. Not that he would come right out and ask of course; that’s not his style. But he skirts around the edges of not-asking and I can tell that he’s trying to sniff out any hint that I’m messing around with my new employer. What I could tell Brian is that I almost wish Zander were hitting on me – it would be easier to deal with than what the artist is doing.
“You’re amazingly talented,” Zander says, for the third or fourth time.
I’ve started to dread the days that Zander coerces me to show him some of my drawings and sketches. Today is no different.
“These are beautiful,” he tells me now as he scrutinizes two of my recent watercolors. He has pulled up a chair near the computer where I’m working on inventory and he’s holding one of my small paintings in each hand, moving his eyes back and forth from one to the other. “Your use of bold colors from a monochromatic palette is especially creative, and very effective,” he enthuses.
“Thanks,” I answer shortly, almost holding my breath as I wait for what I know by now is coming next.
“But,” he says softly, and I brace myself, “But I’m worried that the IFA is going to stifle your imagination, Justin. Adherence to traditional curriculum can have a real deadening effect on creativity. I should know,” he emphasizes, “It was even hard for me after I graduated from the IFA, to break away from its influence.”
“I just have a little over a year left,” I remind him, hearing the defensiveness in my voice. Brian has encouraged me to finish my degree, and I agree with him. I don’t want to be a quitter.
“An IFA degree can open a lot of doors for my career,” I insist, though I feel like I’m parroting the Institute’s recruitment brochure.
“Maybe,” Zander shrugs. “But there’s a glut of arts-degree holders all over this country who don’t have nearly your talent and ability. Do you want to compete with them for a few plum jobs?”
“I - “
“Justin,” Zander leans forward and places his hand on my arm. “Are you limiting your future career because of your current romantic relationship?”
I feel my shoulders stiffen then and I frown, and I open my mouth to tell Zander that it’s none of his business, but he forestalls me.
“I know it’s none of my business,” he assures me hastily, removing his hand. “But believe me, it is imperative that a true artist be completely selfish and solitary, not letting anything or anybody interfere with the pursuit of artistic perfection.”
“Zander - “
“Please give some more thought to the Accademia,” he urges. “Please say that you’ll think about it.”
“Okay,” I agree then, only so he’ll stop hassling me about it.
“Good,” Zander says now, pushing back his chair and standing up. “I’m off to have lunch with the Nelsons. You’ll be here till two o’clock?”
“I’ll return before that, and we can review the museum-works list you’re compiling. See you then.”
“See you.” I keep my eyes focused on the computer monitor as I listen to his footsteps moving toward the door.
Zander has offered me a scholarship to a young artists residency program in Italy beginning next spring. It’s a year-long series of workshops based in Rome, and Zander is on the board of directors. He says that he hosts a couple workshops in his villa in Tuscany each summer for students in the program.
When he told me about the residency, I was literally breathless for a few moments. What artist doesn’t want to study in Europe? But regretfully I said no thanks. I want to finish my degree at the IFA, and besides, there’s no way I am leaving Brian for that length of time. In fact, after our painful separation while I was in LA, I’m determined never to leave him alone again.
Zander pauses in the doorway. “Justin?”
I twist around in my chair to face him and raise my eyebrows in query.
“Just remember, my young friend,” he admonishes, “There are thousands of students your age who are almost as talented. If you do not devote one hundred and ten percent of your soul to art right now, you will never be more than a mediocre talent. And,” he waves his hand before delivering the clincher, “And you could end up sketching caricatures for tourists at Disneyland.”
Zander turns quickly then and goes out the door, and I return my gaze to the computer screen. But I’m not seeing lists and descriptions and locations of the collected works of Alexander DuPont. Instead I’m seeing a crumbling marble ruin with a backdrop of tall Italian pines.
Two days after the late-night visit to my mom’s, I discover that there's a three-hour hole in my calendar at Kinnetik, no meetings, no conferences, no impending deadlines. A very rare occurrence. Telling Cynthia only that I’ll be back in time for the four o’clock meeting with the Sanders & Sons marketing director, I climb in the ‘vette and drive to my old neighborhood. Pulling into the driveway at Mom’s, I stride quickly to the front door and ring the bell.
In a couple minutes the door is pulled open a couple inches and Mom peers out at me. "Brian," she exclaims, "What are you doing here?"
"We need to talk."
Mom pulls the door open wider and I move inside; we stand in the entry and she asks suspiciously, "Are you checking up on me?"
I’m not, but I ask, "Had any more misadventures in the bedroom?"
"Lots of people fall out of bed," she replies. "You've probably done it yourself."
"Not when I'm alone."
"Well, come in if you want," she gestures toward the living room. "Sit down."
I perch on the edge of the plastic-covered sofa, refraining from making a joke about the oversize plastic condoms on her chintz furniture.
Like most kids, I could never imagine my parents having sex. As I got older and discovered that Jack was a lady’s man, I still couldn't picture my mother doing the nasty. In fact once when Jack and I were drunk together, he'd complained that Joanie was a frigid bitch, as if that explained his skirt-chasing habits. While I never wanted to hear about my parents' sex life (or lack of), I also never questioned the validity of Jack's claim. Mom was always cool, reserved; she'd never been affectionate with me. Or with Clare either. Occasionally when we were small, she might pat us on the head or pinch our cheeks.
It wasn't until I began to spend time at Mikey's house that I started receiving hugs. An involuntary sigh escapes my lips, as I remember the feel of Debbie's warm arms holding me close the first time. I was fourteen, and that hug had awakened something inside me, a kind of hunger that I never really acknowledged, not even to myself. And though Debbie's and Michael's hugs seemed to fill some kind of void in my life for many years, it wasn't until Justin came along that I mysteriously became addicted to physical caresses that have nothing at all to do with sex.
Discovering that my mother had a fling with the Tomato Man came as a real shock to me, caused me to re-evaluate Jack's claims that Joanie was frigid. Shaughn said that my mother had been beautiful and sensual. I can almost feel a twinge of empathy for my mother now, realizing that she had found something fulfilling in the arms of another man, something she didn't get from Jack.
Unless Mom had repeated that affair with other men after Shaughn (which I very much doubt), that little fling may have been her only happiness. Certainly she's been unhappy and bitter as long as I've known her. The church apparently gives her some comfort now, and though I'm very nearly an atheist myself and scorn all that religious bullshit, I don't begrudge the comfort she derives from her prayers and candle-lighting. I don’t even care that she condemns me to hell for being gay.
Or anyway, I don’t care very much.
“If this is a real visit,” Mom says now, “I’ll make coffee.”
She sits down in an armchair facing the sofa and I turn sideways to look at her. Silence stretches out between us until finally I say, “I need to tell you something.”
“I suppose it’s too much to assume that you’re giving up your sinful ways,” she frowns. “I mean, if you’re still having relations with young boys, like the one you brought into my house.”
“Justin’s a man, not a boy. And we’re in a committed relationship, not that you’d care about that.” And why the fuck I’m explaining Justin to her, I really don’t know.
She just sniffs and throws back her head, the better to look down her nose at me. “So,” she says, “What is it then?”
Sitting up straight and squaring my shoulders, I look Mom in the eye and announce, “I’ve found Gerald Shaughnessy.”
“Dear God.” Mom’s pale face turns even more pale, her hands press together in her lap. “Dear God, no.”
I just nod and wait for it. Immediately she exclaims, “You promised me, Brian. You promised to keep my secret!”
“I know,” I agree, but make no excuses. “Nevertheless,” I continue, “I’ve found him.”
“How? How did you find him – did you hire a detective?”
I didn’t have to, not with Sherlock Taylor living in my loft.
“It doesn’t matter how I found him.”
“You haven’t – contacted him, have you? You’re not going to contact him, are you Brian?”
Mom’s very agitated, she’s wringing her hands and practically gritting her teeth as she leans forward staring at me, waiting for my answer. Surprisingly, I feel almost sorry for her. Or at any rate, I hear an unexpected gentleness in my voice when I answer, “Mom, I’ve already contacted Shaughn.”
“No!” she exclaims, then she drops her head into her hands and murmurs, “No-no-no.”
And then suddenly she’s crying, her shoulders are shaking with quiet sobbing that’s painful to hear. My mother never cries, I can’t remember ever seeing her cry. A knife twists my gut and I slide across the plastic-covered sofa to get closer. “Mom, I’m sorry that you’re upset,” I tell her. “But I’m not sorry that I found Shaughn. He’s – he’s a good man, Mom. And he spoke very highly of you.”
Her head jerks up then and she glares daggers at me through her wet lashes. “Spoke highly of me? Oh, don’t lie, Brian. You men are all alike, do you think I don’t know that? I know what you’re like! You and he – I can just imagine you and that man, laughing at me behind my back.”
“It wasn’t like that - “
“I trusted you, Brian – I trusted you to keep your mouth shut. What a fool I was, confiding my terrible sin to you.”
“Mom,” I insist, “It was not a terrible sin. You were unhappy and - “
“Shut up.” Her voice is cold, the tears have stopped. “Just shut up, Brian, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s a sin in the eyes of the church – whether you believe it or not. And you had no right – NO RIGHT – to do this to me.”
I move back away from her then. “I didn’t do anything to you.” My voice sounds nearly as cold as hers now. “And I did have a right to find my real father.”
“And who have you told? Who, Brian?” she demands, leaning forward and glaring at me. “Clare? That Debbie woman? All your friends?”
“I’ve told no one. Yet.”
We sit staring at each other wordlessly for a few moments, then Mom clears her throat. “I don’t suppose you have a handkerchief.”
“I’ll get you a Kleenex,” I offer, getting up and heading for the bathroom. I return with a box of tissues and hand it to her, then sit back down again and watch as she dries her eyes and blows her nose.
“Well,” she says when she has finished, “Now what happens, Brian? Are you going to tell the rest of the world about this?”
I have not consciously made that decision until this very moment. Shaughn has called several times – he’s left three voicemail messages, and so far I have not called him back. I needed to tell Mom before doing anything else.
“You want to shame me, don’t you?” she demands now. “You want to humiliate me, don’t you, Brian?”
“No,” I answer quietly. “This is not about you. It’s about me. I want my real father to be part of my life now. Out in the open, not hidden away.”
“So, you’ve actually met Gerald Shaughnessy? You’ve talked to him?”
“Yes. He’s a doctor now, he’s married, he lives in Boston. I like him. And, strangely enough, he seems to like me too.”
Mom studies my face for a moment before she surprises me (why should I be surprised?) by asking coldly, “But do you think he will still like you, Brian, when he finds out that you’re a homosexual?”
I smile then, a real smile, and I don’t even feel anger at my mother in this moment. “He knows that I’m gay. We spent a weekend at Shaughn’s house in Boston, Justin and I.”
“You’re not serious?”
“Well.” Mom clears her throat, sets the Kleenex box on the end table and stands up. “Well,” she repeats, “Then he must be as godless as you are. And there’s nothing left to say.” She turns on her heel and moves toward the front door. With her hand on the knob, she scowls darkly and declares, “Go ahead then, Brian. Tell the world. Make me a laughingstock.” And she pulls the door open.
I stand up and join her by the door. "Mom,” I make one last effort, “No one’s going to laugh at you. And it’s not like you murdered somebody. You had an affair – it happens. Big deal.”
She grimaces and pulls the door open a few more inches. “Go ahead and do whatever you want,” she says bitterly. “You always have. But,” she draws a deep breath and straightens her shoulders, “If you do that, Brian, then I wash my hands of you.”
All I can do is stare at Mom for a moment, then I shrug. “Like you did when you found out that I’m gay? Like you did when your beloved grandson accused me of molesting him?” She stands unmoving as a marble statue, unblinking, saying nothing. I push my face close to hers and repeat, “Like that, Mom?”
When still my mother says nothing, when she just stares at me, her eyes burning with anger and – and hatred, I make a decision.
“Okay,” I mutter, digging into my pocket. “Okay,” I repeat more loudly, as I pull out my keys and remove one from the ring. “Here,” I say, forcing my hand to be steady as I hold out Mom’s house key. Wordlessly she takes the key and clutches it tight in her fist.
Swallowing hard, I turn away then and I’m out the door and moving down the steps, striding quickly across the lawn. When I get into the car and back out of the driveway, peripherally I can see that Mom is standing on the porch by the open door. For a brief moment I imagine that she’s going to raise her hand and wave goodbye. And then a harsh rough noise escapes the back of my throat, sounding almost but not quite like laughter.
4/29/05 Rev. 5/6/05