DARK ROOTS


Summary of Part Thirteen:  First, Last, Only: Zander invites Brian for a private meeting where he describes his scholarship offer to Justin for an arts program in Italy.  Justin discovers Brian’s car in Zander’s driveway and adds two plus two to get five – he assumes Brian is fucking the artist.  Brian believes that Justin might leave him again and when Shaughn comes to Pittsburgh, Brian discusses the situation with him.  Shaughn encourages communication, something Brian admits has been lacking in his relationship with Justin.  Meanwhile, Justin discovers that Brian has hidden a card with Zander’s private number under his computer mousepad, and when Brian calls to say, “We need to talk,” Justin’s apprehensive.
  

Part Fourteen:   Truth


Brian

When I push open the door and enter the loft, Justin’s on the sofa holding his sketch pad.  He turns to regard me, the look on his face unreadable. 

When did he stop being transparent, when did he start hiding his feelings from me?  It didn’t happen overnight, but I can’t remember when I first began to notice.  I don’t like to think that being with me has made Justin so guarded.  But after hassling him for more than three years to grow the fuck up, why am I so chagrined to realize that the lad has indeed grown up?

“Hey,” he greets me without inflection. 

“Hey,” I answer, recognizing the same cautious tone in my own voice.  Fuck me. 

Dropping my briefcase by my desk, I move to stand behind the sofa and lean over the back, wrapping an arm around Justin’s neck and gently tilting his head backwards.  Smacking his lips in an upside-down kiss, I murmur, “Mmm, dee-licious,” and let him see my smile.  I can feel his shoulders relax slightly.

“I’m going to change,” I tell him, “Then we can eat.”

“Okay,” he agrees, “The food just arrived a minute ago, I’ll get it ready.”  When I let him go, he sets down his sketchpad and moves into the kitchen while I head up the steps to the bedroom.



Justin

Brian sounded so serious on the phone but he’s acting normal now.  He changes quickly into jeans and joins me at the counter; we eat from the take-out cartons and he brings me up to date with Shaughn’s family news.

“Barbara got a promotion at work, Caroline’s going to be performing at some concerts in Boston and also in the Berkshires; we have an open invitation whenever we can get away.”

“Cool,” I answer eagerly, dropping a sweet-and-sour meatball I’m trying to transfer to Brian’s plate.  It plops onto the floor and rolls a few inches away.

“I’ve got it.”  He leans down to retrieve the meatball and then tosses it overhand into the sink.  “Two points,” he brags.

“Is a basket worth one point or two?”

“How the fuck should I know?” Brian shrugs.  “So, how about Boston this weekend?  Shaughn says Caroline’s performing with some junior orchestra at Symphony  Hall on Saturday.  We’d need to stay for one night at least.  Can you get furlough from your job for a couple days?”

“I guess so.”  I think for a moment, then nod.  “Yeah.  Zander’s pretty easy-going.”

Brian raises his eyebrows.  “He doesn’t hassle you?  About your work schedule, I mean.  Or, you know, anything else?”  

“Why should he hassle me?” I wonder aloud.

Changing the subject, Brian says, “We can stay with Shaughn and Barbara again.”

“Great!  I like their house.  And I like the soft bed in the guest cottage.”

Brian smirks.  “You just like having me roll on top of you every ten minutes.”

“Just like home!” I agree with a grin, and Brian leans over to plant a quick kiss on my lips.

As we carry the cartons and our dishes to the sink, he says, “Let’s leave this mess for now.  We need to talk.”

I was feeling relaxed while we ate, but suddenly my heart lurches in my chest, as once again I wonder what’s causing Brian to initiate some kind of serious discussion.



Brian

Though I tried to keep my tone light, I can see that my words have caused Justin to lose his easy smile, so I grab his hand and squeeze it slightly as I lead him into the living room and pull him down to sit beside me on the couch.

“Okay,” I begin.  “Okay.”  Then I stop as the words dry up in my throat.  I spent a lot of time thinking about this today, about how I was going to approach the subject of DuPont’s scholarship offer to Justin, how I was going to let him know how I feel about it.  But now that we’re sitting face to face, I feel the walls begin to go up around me.

Then I realize that Justin is looking – not scared, no, this man beside me is braver than fuck, but he is definitely looking worried.  And that’s the impetus I need to force myself to go on.

“Okay,” I say again, squeezing his hand.  “It’s like this.  You’re always telling me that we don’t communicate enough.  Well,” I shrug, “That I don’t communicate enough, but I think – I know – that sometimes you withhold information too.  Right?”

Justin looks confused.  “I withhold information?”

“We both do,” I agree.  “Like, about Alexander DuPont.”

“Oh!”  Justin’s face turns pale, he pulls his hand away.  “Oh God.  I knew it!”

“So,” I nod, “If you knew it would come out in the open, why didn’t you say something?”

“I wasn’t sure.  I couldn’t be sure it was serious!”  Justin raises a hand and brushes it over his face, I can see that he’s really upset. 

“Relax,” I admonish him, leaning forward and giving his shoulder a squeeze.  “It’s not the end of the world.  We just need to talk about it.”

“Wh-what’s there to talk about?  Whether you want me to go away?  It’s your call, isn’t it?” 

“Why the fuck is it MY call, Justin?  This is for YOU to decide.”

“What’s there for me to decide?  Just a few weeks ago we were talking about possible monogamy and now suddenly you want me to go away?”

We sit staring at each other, then I emphasize, “I’m not saying that I want you to go.  But if you do, I’m just telling you – it doesn’t have to be permanent.  If you want to come home again afterwards, it’s your call.”

“Afterwards!”  Justin exclaims.  “After you get tired of him?”

“Him?” 

“Zander!  Alexander DuPont.  After you get tired of him, I can come home again?”

All I can do for a moment is stare at Justin, open-mouthed.  Then I leap to my feet and bellow, “Justin, what the fuck are you talking about?”

“Alexander DuPont!” he shouts back, jumping up to face me.  “Your relationship with Alexander DuPont!”

“What relationship?”  I’m dumfounded. 

“I know you’ve been seeing him,” Justin insists.  “I’ve seen your car at his house when you were supposed to be at work, and you have his private number hidden on your desk.”

Then I laugh.  I can’t help it, I start laughing.  “I’m hav- having a fling with Alexander Fucking DuPont?”  It’s so hilariously amusing that it takes a moment to realize that Justin’s not laughing.  I cough up a final chuckle or two, then clear my throat.

“Justin, I am NOT having a fling with your illustrious boss – though I’m curious to know why you’ve been spying on me.”

Clearly he’s not buying it.  “Then,” he spreads his arms wide, “Why do you want me to go away?”

“I don’t want you to go away,” I enunciate clearly.  “Or rather, I want you to know that you can come back home again, if you want to, if you do accept the scholarship and go to that school in Italy.”

“Oh!” Justin exclaims.  “You mean, this is about Zander’s offer to send me to the Accademia?”

“What the fuck else?  He told me about the school and - “

“You’re not seeing him?  You’re not fucking him?”

“Are you out of your mind?  Why would I be fucking him?”

“Duh?”

Oh.  Well, okay, so the idea of me fucking some good-looking guy is not a great stretch.  But I shrug it off and insist, “Well, I’m not interested.  But he told me you turned him down cold – for the scholarship.  Without,” I emphasize, “Even talking to me about it.”

Justin’s pissed.  “Damn it, how dare Zander go behind my back like this.”

“Justin,” I can’t help sounding bitter now, “Why the fuck didn’t YOU tell me about it?”

“Because I don’t want to go!”

“Why not?”

Justin resumes his seat on the sofa and patiently explains, “Brian, I’m finally on track to finish my degree at the IFA.  You know how many times I’ve had to start over!  I’m not going to throw that away for some dopey non-accredited program in another country.”

“Dopey?” I repeat, sitting down next to him.  “From what DuPont told me, it sounds tailor-made for you.  Or should I say, Taylor-made?”

Ignoring my pathetic joke, Justin shakes his head and opens his mouth, but before he can speak I quickly add, “And you’ve complained ad nauseum about the IFA teachers and their resistance to innovation.”

“Yeah, but - “

“And he flat-out told me that staying in the IFA program could even stifle your own creativity.”

“That’s bullshit!” Justin sneers, demonstrating an excellent Kinneyesque lip curl.  “I’m not some little kid who’s going to end up coloring inside the lines because a few lame professors lean on me.  I’ve been developing my own style for years, I’m good at it, and I know exactly what I’m doing.” 

We sit staring at each other in silence for a moment, then I bring up the clincher.  “DuPont said that you were excited about the prospect of going to Italy.”

Justin nods.  “What artist wouldn’t be excited about that?  And I will go there some day.  But I’m not leaving Pittsburgh now.”

“Is it,” I can’t help asking, “Because of me?  Because you don’t want to leave me again?”

“Again?  I only left you once, and that was a long time ago.  That’s not supposed to count any more, Brian!  It was the biggest fucking mistake of my life, I told you that.  I thought you were going to forgive and forget?”

Forgiving was easy. Forgetting, not so much.  Besides, “You left twice.”

“You’re counting LA?  That wasn’t leaving.  That was temporary.  I always knew I was coming back, it’s not my fault you didn’t believe me.”

I’ve run out of arguments and yet I’m not convinced that Justin’s telling the whole truth.  He doesn’t exactly have a great track record for the truth, and I don’t just mean about the fucking fiddler.

“Brian,” Justin says at last, after we’ve sat in silence for a minute just staring at each other.  “You’re pushing me so hard, I’m back to thinking it’s YOU who wants me to go.”

“No, I - “ Then I stop and bite my tongue.  He almost tricked me into saying I want him to stay.  “No,” I repeat then, “What I want is for you to do what’s best for YOU.”

“Leaving you is not best for me.”

“But why, Justin?  The cancer’s gone, I’m fine now.  Or are you worried that some other little asshole is going to trap me into a relationship the minute your back is turned?”

He doesn’t laugh, but he doesn’t get mad either.  Solemnly he says, “It could happen.”

“No, it could not.”

“It could, though.  Now that you know it’s not so terrible to let somebody get close to you.”

“No,” I deny it. 

The truth is churning around inside my chest as I keep my eyes on Justin’s face.  I feel the presence of Shaughn invisible behind me, leaning on me to tell Justin the really very scary truth.  I open my mouth and take a deep breath, but no sound comes out.  I take another breath and then I murmur as quietly as possible, “You’re the only one.”

“Huh?”  Justin leans forward, he didn’t hear me.

Clearing my throat, I speak a little louder.  “You’re the only one.  You’re my first, last and only one.”

“Brian!”  Justin sits up straight and his mouth drops open.  “Brian.”

“So,” I say quickly, almost leaping from the sofa and pacing a few steps away.  “So you see, it’s okay for you to go.  If you want to.  You can come back, if you want to, and nobody will be here.  I mean,” I add quickly, “Nobody will take your place.  Nobody ever could.”

Justin stands up and walks slowly toward me; he’s smiling.  I fight down the panicky urge to turn and rush out the door, pound down the stairs, leap into the ‘vette and burn rubber as I speed away down the street.  Instead I stand still, bracing myself, staring at him unblinking.

Without a word Justin walks right into me, presses his body up against mine and slides his arms around my waist and squeezes.  With his face pressed against my shirt, he whispers, “I love you too, Brian.”



Justin

Even though I’m sort of glad that Brian found out about the Accademia scholarship because it made him talk seriously to me about his feelings, still I can’t help but be pissed at Zander for going behind my back.  I’ve also been wondering about his motivation – why was he being so insistent, did he want to get me out of the picture so he could make a play for Brian? 

I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say to him when I report for work this afternoon, but first I have class with Professor Grant, and he asks me to see him afterwards.  When the other students have filed out of the studio, Grant asks how I like working for Alexander DuPont, but he barely listens to my fairly noncommittal answer before lowering his voice and asking, “Justin, has he mentioned a program to you at the Accademia di Roma?”

“Yes," I'm surprised, "He did.”  Then I realize that of course art professors might know about the school, and since Grant is friends with Zander, naturally he would be aware of the program.

"If you don't mind my saying so," Grant goes on, still keeping his voice low, "I'd like you to consider very seriously before committing yourself to attend."

"Actually, I have thought about it seriously, and - "

"Before you make a decision," Grant interrupts, "You should know that there are provisos that go along with your participation."

"Provisos?"

"Greg Lendor, one of my students last year, participated in the Accademia program this past spring.  He came to see me when he got back to the States, and he was very upset."

"It's a scam?"

"No, no, nothing like that," Grant shakes his head.  "But what Greg didn't realize going in, is that the Accademia owns any work completed during the program.  What the students produce belongs to the school, they can use it in displays or even sell the students' work.  So," he spreads his hands wide, "All I'm saying is, read the fine print before you sign on."

"You mean that's why Zander was strong-arming me?  He says he's on the board of directors.  Do they profit from the students' work?"

"Oh, I don't think it's as nefarious as that," the professor shrugs.  "It's more a matter of prestige, maybe even a competition among the board members, who are all artists in their own right; a competition to bring in the best young emerging artists.  Alexander must think very highly of you if he's 'strong-arming' you to attend."

"He offered me a scholarship," I admit.

"Ah," Grant nods.  "Well, at least you can feel honored, Alexander must regard your talent very highly."

"I guess.  But," I stand up and shoulder my bag.  "I am not going.  I'm staying at the IFA."

Grant smiles then.  "I'm glad to hear it.  You're doing very well, and having a degree from the IFA will always stand you in good stead." 

We say goodbye and I'm on my way.  I do feel honored in an absurd kind of way; but I'm also still annoyed that Zander went behind my back to Brian.  

Zander’s in the studio glancing through a stack of photos when I enter the room, and he straightens up and greets me warmly:  “Justin!” he smiles widely, turning from the table as I approach, and he reaches out to squeeze my arm.

“Hey.”  I move away an inch or two and then drop my bag and move around the table to see what pictures he was sorting.  “Oh, I haven’t seen these paintings before.  Should I be cataloging them?”

“Look more closely - they’re not mine,” Zander shoves his hands in the pockets of his linen slacks and slouches attractively.

“Oh, right.”  I pick up two of the photos and look at them more closely, the style is wildly different than anything I’ve seen the artist do. 

“They’re works by some students at the Accademia, last year’s class.  I thought you might be interested in seeing your competition.”

With a sigh, I shake my head and say flatly, “Zander, I told you I’m not going.  I appreciate the offer and everything - “

“Oh, I know,” he interrupts, “I know.  But I wanted you to see what you’re up against in competition in the art world.  Be aware that the IFA cannot provide the intensive training the wunderkinds at the Accademia receive.”

Shuffling through the photographs of student paintings, I realize that I’m impressed but I also realize, with what Brian calls my artist-ego, that my work is at least as good as what I’m seeing in the photos.  Actually I’m better than most of them.  Dropping the stack of pictures on the desk top, I turn and give Zander a measured smile.  “Nice.  But I’m just as good, and by the time I finish my degree, I’ll be better than they are.”

“Perhaps,” he agrees.  “But I meant, the art world is not as big as you might think, Justin.  Students at the Accademia make influential contacts.  Turning your back on this opportunity could have wide-reaching ramifications for your future career.  But,” he shrugs, “It’s your decision.”

“Yes, it is my decision.” 

I’m annoyed that Zander is trying to undermine my self-confidence and practically threatening me with failure if I don’t succumb.  But all he’s really doing is strengthening my resolve not to be pushed around by someone with his own hidden agenda.  Taking a deep breath, surprising myself with my own daring, I look Zander in the eye and say firmly, “Mr. DuPont, this conversation is over.  Do not bring up the Accademia again.”   

The artist is obviously taken aback, he blinks and stares back at me in silence for a moment.  Crossing my arms on my chest, I stand up even straighter and demand, “So, am I fired?  Do you want me to go now?”

Surprisingly, he barks a laugh.  “Well Justin, aren’t you a tough little cookie!.  No, no,” he shakes his head, “Of course you’re not fired.  You’re the best student assistant I’ve ever had.  Now,” he glances around the room, “Where are those slides of the Washington DC exhibit?” 

He moves toward a cabinet against the far wall and I realize that I’m not going to lose my job after all.  I’m glad; I enjoy it and the pay is good.  And I can’t wait to tell Brian how I stood up to the world-famous artist; I’m sure he’ll be so proud of me.



Brian

“Of course you stood up to him.  I never doubted it for a moment,” I tell Justin, no need to inflate his ego with unnecessary praise. 

“He said I’m a tough little cookie.”

“C’mere, little cookie.”   I roll back my chair, reach for his hand and pull him to stand between my legs.  “Let me have a bite.” 

Justin smiles and rests his hands on my shoulders, leans down and we touch lips briefly.  “No dessert yet,” he insists when I try to pull him down onto my lap.  “I skipped lunch and I’m starving – what are we doing for dinner?”  When I shrug, he groans, “Not Thai again.”

“You choose then.”  I push him gently away and roll my chair forward.  “I need to finish reviewing this proposal, I’ll be done in an hour or so.”

“Okay.”  He wanders away to change clothes, but as he’s about to go out again and collect some take-out from the trattoria down the street, the phone rings.  It’s Shaughn.

“Oh, glad I caught you, son,” he says.

He’s calling to renew the invitation for Justin and I to join them in Boston this weekend.  Justin’s already agreed so I accept for both of us and I hang up after saying I’ll e-mail him our flight information.  Before Justin heads out the door, he offers to make airline reservations after we finish dinner.  He hasn’t been gone five minutes when the doorbell rings.

Pressing the intercom button, I hassle him with: “That was fast.  Forget your key again?”

“Brian, it’s Linds.”  I can hear Gus chattering away in the background.  “Can we come up?”

I press the buzzer and pull open the door, wait for the elevator to reach my floor and move into the hall to raise up the door for them.  Immediately Gus grabs onto my leg, almost knocking me over, and Lindsay reaches up on tiptoe to give me a kiss.

“Justin went for take-out, I could call him on his cell, to pick up something for you and Gus?”

“No, we can’t stay,” Lindsay moves ahead of me into the loft and I grab Gus and hoist him in the air, partly to remove him from my leg so I can walk and partly just to hear his high-pitched giggle.  He throws his little arms around my neck and plants a slobbery kiss on my cheek. 

“I thought you were in New York all week, at some conference for the gallery?”

“I was supposed to be,” Lindsay agrees, “But I came back early.”

We three settle on the sofa and I wait for Linds to explain this unexpected visit; normally she calls first, and besides, it’s early evening, a bit late in the day for an impulsive we-were-in-the-neighborhood type visit.

Not bothering with small talk, Lindsay gets right to the point.  “Mel and I are in a crunch situation,” she begins.  “We’re flying to Florida for a few days and we can’t find a sitter for Gus.  Could you take him?”

“Spur of the moment vacation?” I venture mockingly.

“No, of course not.  Melanie’s aunt had an aneurysm last night and she’s probably going to die.  She’s practically the only family member that Mel’s been close to, so naturally she needs to be there.  We’re taking the baby of course but it would be so much easier not to deal with Gus too, in the middle of this kind of crisis.”

When I hesitate, Lindsay goes on, “You keep saying you want to spend more time with your son.”

“Yeah. . .” 

Gus has slithered down off my lap and is busily pushing magazines off the coffee table.  With that task complete, he wanders over to the CD shelf and starts pulling off jewel cases.  He likes to stack them up like building blocks.  So much for Justin’s alphabetical arrangement.

“But – the longest I’ve had him is overnight,” I remind Lindsay.  “When are you coming back?”

“No matter what, I’ll fly back Sunday night – the gallery is opening a big show soon and I really have to be back at work.  Mel may stay down there longer, but I promise to be back on Sunday.”

Still I hesitate.  Of course I’m not intimidated by the thought of caring for a small child for three days.  Okay, so maybe I am.  I glance over at Gus as his tower of CD cases topples over with a loud crash.

“Justin will help you,” Lindsay reminds me.  “And I think Debbie and Carl are due back from their vacation on Saturday.”  She leans forward to squeeze my arm and give me that melting smile.  “You’ll be fine, Brian.  Please?” 

When Justin returns half an hour later, Lindsay and Gus are long gone.  He’s brought spaghetti for himself and Caesar salad for me.  We set out plates, sit at the counter and dig in.  I wait till he slows down – he really must have been starving, he’s been shoveling wads of spaghetti into his mouth in record time – before telling him about Lindsay’s visit.

“Good new/bad news,” I explain.  “Linds and Mel are flying down to Florida, Mel’s aunt is on her death bed.  Linds asked me to take Gus for a couple days.”

“Oh!”  Justin lays down his fork.  “I assume the bad news is the sick auntie and the good news is that they’re letting you have Gus for the weekend?”

“The bad news is that this means we’ll have to cancel Shaughn and Barbara.”

“Why?”

“What’dye mean - “

“I mean,” he clarifies, “Why do we have to cancel?  Couldn’t we just take Gus with us to Boston?”

“Christ, Justin,” I’m annoyed, “We can’t descend on them out of the blue with a hyperactive preschooler they’ve never met before.”

“I’ll bet they’d love it, Brian.  After all, Gus is Shaughn’s grandson.”

Oh.  I forgot.  “But maybe he doesn’t care about that.  Maybe they wouldn’t like to have a little devil-boy running around their nice house.  Gus can destroy this place in about thirty minutes, imagine him loose in their big yard.  And they have that pool, that could be dangerous, what if Gus fell in?” 

“Quit making excuses, Brian.  Just call and ask,” he challenges me.  When I hesitate, he adds, “Unless maybe you need Linds and Mel to give permission first?”

With a sneer I remind him, “I’m Gus’ father, I don’t need anybody’s permission.”

“Well,” Justin shrugs, “There you go.  Let’s call Shaughn!”





6/6/05