This story picks up where “Intermission-02: Be Careful” left off.
Justin hadn't been gone twenty minutes before the buzzer rang. Totally irrationally and against my will, my brain jumped to conclusions. Wrong conclusions. It was Michael. He asked if it was safe to come up.
"Sure,” I agreed, then hurried to grab the broom and clean up the evidence of my latest ridiculous drama queen performance: only a coffee cup, flung hastily and angrily at the floor. I dumped the shards of glass into the garbage and had the broom put away before Michael pushed open my door.
"Mikey!" I greeted him with a big smile, "I was just about to go get lunch, want to come?"
Looking askance at me, he replied, "Why weren't you at the gym? You never miss a Saturday." When I said I'd overslept, he asked solicitously, "How's your hand?" grabbing my wrist and twisting it around.
"Ow! It was better till you pulled it."
"Let's change the band-aids," he said, not letting go.
"Fuck it, Mikey, it's fine, don't fuss at me." I have no patience for nursemaids, and besides, I was still mad at Michael. Not mad, just annoyed. I knew I'd get over it, we never stay mad at each other very long. "You hungry? I'm starving."
"Yeah, okay," he agreed, letting go my hand, I could feel his eyes following me as I went to grab the jacket I'd thrown on the bed when I came back from the drugstore. I knew he was aware of my annoyance, and that annoyed me even more.
"Who's minding the store?" I asked, as we descended the stairs and walked into the garage to get the jeep.
"Brady, that kid I hired part-time. He can't stay long though, so maybe we could get a sandwich or something to go and eat it at the store?"
"Sure." I started the ignition and the cassette player came on automatically, blaring Moby loud enough to deafen us both. I must not have heard it last night, driving home. I don't even remember driving home, it's amazing that the jeep was parked perfectly aligned in my garage space. I punched the button, ejecting the tape, grabbed the cassette and tossed it into the back seat. Michael said nothing.
"Harry’s Hofbrau okay?"
"Okay," he agreed, adjusting his seatbelt and stretching out his legs, 'But what's wrong with the diner? It's closer."
"Tired of the menu." We rode in silence the rest of the way to the hofbrau, picked out sandwiches and carried them back to the jeep. At the shop Michael dismissed Brady with smiling thanks, and I leafed through a comic book as I watched him walk out the door. He glanced at me over his shoulder, then blushed and dropped his eyes and hurried out of the shop. He’s young, maybe sixteen, with very red lips, and with long black hair hanging over his forehead. And a thick waist and bad complexion. Probably jerks off while reading X-Men.
“He’s got a crush on you,” Michael informed me as I joined him behind the counter and we unwrapped our sandwiches. “Big surprise. Young kids always want you.”
"So," I changed the subject, "How're sales of Rage going? Sold out yet?"
Michael became animated then, "Almost! I got a ton of orders on e-mail this morning, probably more than I can fill. I'll call the publisher on Monday and order another ten cases."
"When's the new issue going to the publisher?"
Michael's face immediately fell into a heavy frown, making deep creases in his forehead. I should give him some of my French skin cream, he's going to need it soon. "There won't be a new issue," he mumbled, swallowing a bite of sandwich and taking a slurp of soda. "You know that. I won't work with that fucking kid ever again."
Resisting the urge to defend Justin (and why the fuck I should defend Justin, I've no idea), I grabbed the soda can out of his hand, making Mikey look at me. "Why are you mad at him, Michael?"
"He fucking cheated on you, Brian, for Christ's sake!"
"Yeah," I nodded calmly, "He cheated on me. Not you."
"Brian - you're my best friend!" he sputtered.
"I know," I answered calmly, handing him back the can. "And he's your business partner. One thing has nothing to do with the other."
Michael jumped up and slammed the can down on the counter, crossed his arms over his chest. "Why are you telling me this? You don't expect me to go on being partners with that little - "
Glancing at my face, Michael stopped abruptly. I'm not sure what he read in my eyes, but it was enough to make him back off.
"I don't give a fuck if you're partners or not." I stood up too, tossing my half-eaten sandwich in the wastebasket. "But I just spent a fortune to launch your comic, and it could be a huge success - so you're both idiots if you fuck up this opportunity."
Michael stood glaring at the floor, stubbornly frowning and shaking his head. "He won't want to do it either. Unless," suddenly he raised his head and glared angrily into my eyes. "Unless, maybe he put you up to this?"
I shook my head. "Nope. He's probably as determined as you are to be stupid about the whole thing, throw everything away in a childish temper tantrum. But you're adults, both of you. So act like it."
Michael looked at me searchingly for a moment, then sighed and sat down again, took another bite of sandwich.
"Mikey." I put my hand on his shoulder and he looked up at me, then I leaned down and pressed my forehead to his. "Do whatever you want. Okay?" I felt him relax, and he smiled at me, so I kissed him. "Now I've got to get going, see you later."
Jumping up and walking me to the door, Michael asked, "See you at Woody's tonight?"
"Mmm," I hedged, gave Michael's shoulder another squeeze, and walked off down the sidewalk to my jeep.
As soon as I saw Michael come into the diner, I turned around and walked to the kitchen. I stayed there a couple minutes till I realized how ridiculous it was for me to try to avoid anybody, I work at the diner, I’m going to see Michael sometimes. I'm going to see all of them. So I straightened my shoulders and sauntered back in, and was only slightly surprised when I realized that Michael had seated himself at the counter, which he had to know was my section. Okay, I'd wait on the fucker, and he ought to feel lucky if I didn't spit in his food. Taking a deep breath, I approached him and whipped out my pad and pencil. "Yes?" I said, icicles dripping off my tongue.
"Hey," Michael's tone was only slightly less chilly than my own. "How's it going?" I knew he didn't want an answer to that, so I was tempted to give him one, to tell him everything was going great. Which of course it sure as fuck is not.
"Ready to order?"
"Justin," Michael thawed slightly, leaned forward with his hands rubbing together nervously on the countertop. "We - we need to talk."
"No we don't." I could hardly look at him, I sure as fuck didn't want to talk to him. About anything.
"Yeah we do. Don't be - "
"Look, do you want to order, or not? I have other customers."
"Coffee, I'll have a cup of coffee. But would you - "
I turned my back on Michael and grabbed a cup and saucer, poured coffee and brought it back to the counter, turning again quickly for a pot of cream and set it down in front of him. Before I could move away, Michael reached out and grabbed my wrist.
"Brian said you'd be childish, but - "
I froze, my whole body turned to ice. So they'd been talking about me, Michael and Brian. "Fuck off, Michael," I told him quietly and tried to pull my hand away, but he hung on harder.
"Look, Justin, I didn't mean - look, Brian said I was being childish, too. Okay? He said we both are, and I've been thinking about it, about things, about Rage - and I'd just like a chance to talk to you about it."
"Rage is over," I answered, feeling full of rage myself at being called childish by Brian. Even if it were true. Especially if it were true. "And I've got customers, I can't talk any more now."
"Come by the shop when you get off work. Will you just do that?"
I glared down at his hand and he released me. I moved away, went to the pick-up window for one of my orders, and continued doing my job, waiting on customers and giving Michael a wide berth as he sipped his coffee. When he stood up and moved to the cash register, I was forced to wait on him again, Norma had gone out back for a cigarette break. He silently handed me a five and I silently made change and put it in his hand. He took the opportunity to grab my wrist again. "Just think about it," Michael hissed under his breath. "It won't kill you to come and talk to me for a few minutes."
"I have nothing to say to you," I murmured, feeling like a bad actor in a bad play. I felt, in fact, incredibly childish. Brian was right, damn him.
The comic shop was closed and locked when I stopped by, but I could see Michael in front of the counter unloading some boxes, so I knocked. He raised his head and glanced at the door, then he hurried over to turn the lock and let me in.
The knock on the door surprised me, it was after midnight and anybody who wanted me would be looking at Babylon, or in the alley behind it. When I pulled open the door and saw Justin standing there, I was even more surprised. I hadn't seen or heard from him in nearly a week, since he came by after the Rage party to pick up some clothes. I'd steered clear of the diner, which was easy to do - I had no desire to see Debbie or any of the guys, I had no desire to see anybody at all. I was up to my ears in work, and that was fine with me.
"You've got a key," I told him, stone-faced, "No need to knock." I stood back and waved him inside.
"I saw your jeep downstairs, I thought you might be - busy." Yeah, I could guess what he thought I was busy doing.
"I am busy."
He glanced around, his eyes going first to the empty bedroom, then to my desk covered with stacks of papers and reports.
"I'm sorry to bother you, I just need to get some more of my stuff." He stood uncertainly, his hands clutching his backpack, glancing around the loft. When I said nothing, his eyes came back to me, and I felt that jolt, that little electric zap! that just looking into his big blue eyes sometimes gives me. I've never told him about that, and now I'll never have to.
"It's okay," I allowed my voice to soften slightly, to lose the harsh edge that was obviously upsetting him. "Take whatever you need. Are you settled somewhere yet?" Lindsay had already told me, but I feigned ignorance.
Justin visibly relaxed, dropping the backpack and wandering over to his table. I hadn't touched anything. He began sorting through papers and sketchpads - he has half a dozen sketchpads going at any one time - and began making a pile. "I'm staying at my mom's for a while," he said over his shoulder, not looking at me. "Temporarily."
I walked closer. "You'll need your computer. I can drop it off at your mom's place tomorrow."
"Oh, no, I can't take the computer." He stopped sorting papers and regarded me solemnly, folding his arms over his chest.
"Why not? It's yours. I don't need it."
"Brian, I can't. Don't be - nice."
Oh baby, baby. "I'm always nice," I said, thinking I'd get a laugh, but he looked away and nodded.
"No, I'm not."
"No, you're not," he agreed, finally giving me a small smile. "But sometimes you are. I just don't feel right, keeping that expensive computer."
"What am I supposed to do with it?"
"You could sell it."
"Disconnect it, and I'll take it over to your mom's tomorrow." I turned away then, went back to my own desk, sat down and tried to wrap my mind around the pitch I was preparing for Atlas Paints. How do you make fucking paint sexy? I tried to pay no attention to the boy temporarily filling up space in the corner. Soon my dining room would be back to normal, no more clutter and mess. Soon all evidence of Justin Taylor would be out of my loft, out of my life. Christ.
"I'm going now."
I looked up as Justin approached my desk, carrying his backpack and another of my blue pillowcases stuffed with lumps of clothes.
"Need a ride?"
He shook his head, but not very convincingly. "It’s late, I'll drive you," I said, then stood up quickly and went to the closet for my jacket before he could refuse, but he didn’t argue, just waited by the door while I pulled on my jacket and picked up my keys. I thought briefly about offering to load up my jeep with all his stuff, to save him making these trips, but then I wouldn't see him at all. Which would probably be good, yet I said nothing. In silence we descended the stairs and got into the car. I tried to stop myself, but I couldn't, for some reason I couldn't stop myself from reaching over and fastening his seat belt. He still has trouble with some motor skills, doing the seatbelt is one of them, and this was a struggle I couldn't bring myself to watch him make.
"I can do it," he murmured half-heartedly, but I ignored his protest and grabbed the belt, stretching it over him and locking it into place. This brought my body very close to Justin's, and although I averted my eyes on purpose, I could feel the warmth of Justin's skin, could hear his tiny intake of breath, could smell his shampoo and the faint whiff of cigarettes on his jacket. I stopped then, just stopped, like I was paralyzed in this awkward position leaning over his body on the car seat.
"Brian," he breathed, and I looked at him then, and his eyes were closed and his mouth was too close, too near to mine, and I kissed him, not meaning to, not wanting to, not wanting to at all.
Justin's mouth opened under mine, our lips pushing together, and his hands slid up my chest, his arms went around my neck, and he pulled me against him. I grabbed him then, just grabbed onto him tight while we kissed, both of us holding on so tight it hurt, squeezing each other like hungry giant pythons.
"Stop," he whispered.
"Stop," I whispered back.
And then we laughed, for some crazy reason we both laughed, his breath coming in my mouth and mine going into his. We pulled away a few inches and stared at each other.
"Guess that was not a good idea," I managed to say as I pulled away, disengaging myself from his arms, leaning back to sit upright on the car seat.
"Yes - no," he agreed.
I fastened my own seatbelt and started the jeep, revved the engine a few times and pulled away from the curb. “Your Moby tape’s in the back somewhere, remember to look for it when we get to your place.”
We rode along in silence for a few minutes, then Justin said, “We’re going to do some more issues of Rage. Michael and me. Probably.”
“Hmm,” I grunted.
“I know you had something to do with it.”
Silence for another minute, then Justin burst out, “Brian, I know you thought I was ungrateful about the Rage party, but I wasn’t really.”
Damn Michael. “I never said that.” I kept my eyes on the road. “And besides, I didn’t do it for fucking gratitude.”
“Oh, I know you didn’t.” Justin slipped his hand to cover mine on the gear shift. “I know you didn’t,” he repeated emphatically. “But can I – can I tell you why I was upset about it?”
I sighed. We came to a red light and stopped. I slipped my hand from the gear shift and held Justin’s hand in mine, squeezed. “If you must,” I said at last, begrudgingly. He knows how much I hate ‘meaningful discussions.’
“Brian, it was because you never consulted me. Or Michael either, but he didn’t care. I cared.”
“It was a surprise,” I heard the defensiveness in my voice and it annoyed me. Why should I consult anybody about my plans? I never have and I never will. I tried to pull my hand away but Justin held on tight.
“Surprises are cool,” he said earnestly, “But this party – all the stuff you did for Rage – it was so great and yet it was. . .it was like a grown-up surprising a child. Do you know what I mean? I’m not a child. I’m a grown-up too.”
The light changed and I had an excuse to pull my hand away, to shift gears as the jeep started moving again. “My plans are always my own.”
“I know,” Justin sighed, and I heard the defeat in his voice.
A few minutes later we arrived at the Taylor condo and I parked and turned off the lights. “Justin, wait,” I said, before he could open the car door. “Your next term’s tuition’s due in a few weeks, isn’t it?”
Justin released the seat belt and turned sideways to face me. “So what if it is?”
“I need to give you a check, but I didn’t bring my checkbook. I’ll bring it tomorrow when I drop off your computer.“
“Then I’ll mail it to you.” I pretended to misunderstand.
“Brian, I’m not taking your money.”
“Who said ‘take?’ We signed a deal for a four-year loan, did you think I’d back out just because we’re not fucking any more?”
“I can’t – “ he was shaking his head and I quickly interrupted him, my voice cutting sharply through the air between us.
“Christ, Justin, do you know how fucking insulting you’re being?”
That got his attention. “What?”
“You think I offered the loan only because you were having sex with me?”
“No, of course not, I never said – “
“And we’re not having sex now, so you assume I’m backing out of the deal?”
“Brian – “
“Fuck you, Justin.” I turned abruptly away from him and stared out my side window. “If that’s what you think of me, fuck you.”
I held my breath, waiting to see what he’d do.
Justin scooted close to me, grabbed my arm and I shrugged off his hand. “Brian, I never thought that! I didn’t!” he exclaimed earnestly. “I know you always keep your word, it’s not like that! I just need to – I just need to take care of things myself now.”
“Okay,” I nodded, still not looking at him. “How are you going to take care of it?”
“Well, if Rage keeps doing great - “
“It’ll be six months, a year or more before you can count on money from your comic.” I turned around and Justin moved a few inches backward on the seat. “What will you do till then?”
It was dark but lamplight from the street slightly illuminated Justin’s face. He was shaking his head, he looked worried, and I felt myself soften, felt my arms wanting to reach out and pull him against my chest. Then suddenly Justin’s head went up and he frowned. Looking me straight in the eye, he said quietly, “My plans are my own.”
With a rueful laugh, I reached out and grabbed the back of Justin’s neck, leaned my forehead against his and whispered, “Asshole!” He had the grace to laugh, then I said, “But promise me two things. Will you do that?”
“One: Don’t be a go-go boy.” He laughed again and shook his head no. “And two: If you need money – for school or whatever – you’ll come to me first. Promise?”
“Brian – “
“It’s a fucking loan, Justin, not a gift. You know I can afford it. Promise?”
With a sigh, Justin nodded. “Promise.”
We kissed then, just a brief kiss, just a promise type of kiss. Then I released his neck and almost pushed him across the seat toward the car door. “Now get out, before I throw you in the back seat and fuck your brains out.”
Justin opened the door and was halfway out before he turned around and whispered, “Thanks, Brian.” I just nodded and watched him gather his bags, shut the door and walk up the pathway. He turned and gave me a wave and I waved back, then I drove off. Drove off to my quiet, soon-to-be-uncluttered loft, and the stacks of work waiting on my desk.
At a red light I flipped open the glove compartment, searching for a tape, then I remembered the Moby tape on the floor of the back seat. Justin forgot to take it with him. My hand fished around in the dark till I found it, slipped it into the cassette deck, and turned up the volume full blast.