He told me to meet him at the jeep, and I see it parked down near the end of the alley. The streetlights are so dim, must be a power outage or a brown-out, when I look down I can barely see the pavement, I'm trying to hurry but I keep tripping over bottles and rocks, little bits of things I can't make out in the darkness. It's cold and I shove my hands into my pockets and huddle down in my jacket, wondering where I left my scarf, the cold air seeps down my collar and swirls around my ears.
I'm almost at the jeep when I feel someone behind me. I turn around, hoping it's Brian, that he's caught up with me, then he can unlock the jeep and get the heater going, I’m freezing. But it's not Brian, it's somebody much bigger, wide-shouldered, I can't make out his face in the darkness but his hulking shape is ominous somehow, he's getting closer, walking with a lumbering step, he must be wearing heavy boots, his footsteps are so loud and seem to echo in the quiet alley. I can just make out the fog of his breath, which puffs out ahead of him in big noisy bursts like a chugging locomotive, chuff-chuff-chuff.
Turning back around I pick up speed, feeling silly that a stranger in the darkness can scare me, make me shiver as much as the biting cold that has seeped into my bones and is slowing me down, making my legs feel stiff and heavy and hard to move forward. I wish Brian would hurry up, I wish I'd waited for him at the exit, but he wanted to take a piss and he said he'd catch up with me. He'll probably laugh when I tell him how scared I got just because somebody was walking behind me, there's always dozens of guys walking down this alley, it's perfectly normal. Except not tonight, tonight it's not normal, tonight the alley is empty, maybe the cold has sent everyone scurrying away.
Finally I reach the jeep and breathe a sigh of relief at the familiar shape of Brian's car. I keep walking, walk around the front of the jeep to wait by the driver's door, somehow I want to get out of the pathway of the stranger still lumbering along behind me, he's come closer and my ears echo with the loud tromping sound of his boots. I don't look at him as he reaches the jeep and goes past, somehow I don't want to see his face, I don't want to remember the way he made me feel so scared and, and -
He's not going past, he's turning aside, he's coming around the front of the jeep, walking right up beside me! I look at him then, I can feel my eyes widen with surprise and - fear, real fear, because I realize he's wearing a mask, a black mask is pulled over his eyes, why is he wearing a mask? I take a step backwards, then another, staring and staring at the man in the mask, then he smiles, an incredibly horrible wide gaping smile that looks like a huge hole has opened up in his face, and I open my own mouth to shout, to call out to Brian, I can feel the words form in my brain, "Brian, help! Brian, help me!" but no sound comes out of my mouth, and the stranger's smile widens and he starts to laugh, a deep bellowing laugh and then he reaches out his hands and I see it, my scarf, I see that he's holding my blue scarf between his hands, holding it taut, and laughing.
Suddenly the stranger loops the scarf over my head, just shoots out his hands and loops it over my head and pulls it tight, choking off my breath, and I push my arms against him, he's close to me now and I reach out my arms and push on his massive chest, it's like pushing against a brick wall, he doesn't budge, and he pulls the scarf tighter around my throat and I try with all my might, try to scream for Brian, my lungs fill with air and I try to scream and scream -
"Brian! Brian! Brian!"
Somebody grabs me from behind and starts shaking me, shaking my shoulders, now there's two of them, and I scream,
"Justin, wake up! Justin, wake up!"
"Brian!" I hear my voice screaming, it's so dark, so dark, then suddenly a light goes on, and I open my eyes and I'm not in the alley, I'm in a bed, a strange bed, somebody is shaking me, talking to me, I can hear the voice but I can't make out the words, it's not Brian's voice, it's a stranger.
"Justin, wake up!" the stranger says again, giving my shoulders another shake, and I turn to look at him, really look at him, and it's not a stranger, it's Ethan. I'm in Ethan's bed, in Ethan's apartment. And somehow that makes me feel so terrible, I know I'm safe yet I'm feeling so terrible that I start to cry. I bury my head in my hands and cry, and I'm sobbing, and I really, really have to stop. I have to stop crying. Somewhere deep inside my brain I know I have to stop crying, I have to get hold of myself, I have to stop calling for Brian. He's not here. He can't rescue me this time. I hear my voice murmuring, over and over and over, "Brian, Brian," and I really have to stop, I have to.
Then Ethan pulls my hands away from my face, I can't look at him, I'm embarrassed and I don't want to look at him, then I realize he's shoving something at me, it's a phone. It's my cell phone.
Then I have to look at Ethan, I have to look at his face, I don't want to see him angry, but he doesn't look angry. He's not angry, he looks upset but not mad, then he sits next to me in the tumbled blankets on the bed and puts an arm around me. "Go ahead and call him, Justin. If you need him so much, then just call him."
"No, no, I'm okay," I lie, still trying to catch my breath, "I'm sorry, sorry."
Ethan takes the phone away from me and asks, "What's his number?"
"No." If only I can stop shaking, I'll be all right. I don't need to call Brian, it was only a dream, I will be perfectly okay if only I can stop shaking soon. I'm upsetting Ethan, I'm acting like some kind of deranged helpless wailing whacked-out baby.
When I glance at Ethan, he is studying the phone. "Speed dial," he murmurs, "I'll bet he's number one, huh?"
"Don’t," I say, hearing the lack of conviction in my voice, hating myself for wanting him to call Brian. If only I could stop shaking.
Ethan punches buttons on the phone, then he hands it to me. Hating myself, really hating myself, I take the phone from him and hold it to my ear. He probably won't answer anyway, he hardly ever answers the phone; if the machine comes on, I'll just hang up, and -
It's Brian, he's home and he answered the phone. But I can't speak, I don’t know what to say, what is there to say?
"Who is it?"
Then I start crying again, Jesus I am so embarrassed and so angry at myself and I can't say a fucking word.
Ethan takes the phone from me and says, "Brian? It's Ethan. Gold. Umm, well, something just happened and. . .no! No, he's okay. Sort of okay. Just like, really, really upset." I feel Ethan looking at me but I keep my hands over my eyes, trying to stop the damned fucking tears from leaking out.
There's a pause, then Ethan says, "Yeah, a dream, a nightmare, how'd you know? Yeah. Well, I don't know what to do. Yeah, I guess. I guess so. You know where I live? Okay. Thanks."
Ethan puts down the phone and says, "He'll be right over."
"No," I manage to moan, I don't want to see Brian, I don't want Brian to see me like this. I thought those fucking dreams were over, over and done with, it's been months since I had a nightmare, well a bad one anyway.
"Do you want a glass of water?" Ethan asks, and I just have to turn away from him, I just slip down on the bed and pull the covers over me, on top of me, blocking the light, huddling down in the darkness, dying inside with embarrassment and anger at myself and still, still on top of all that, overriding all that, just the overwhelming unreasonable ridiculous meaningless fear. I will myself to throw it off, to stop crying, to stop shaking, before Brian gets there.
I don't know how much time passes before there's a knock at the door. "No," I whisper to myself in my cocoon of blankets, Christ, I don't want Brian to see me like this, and yet, I need him. Need him so bad, he's the only one who has ever been able to rescue me from these awful unbearable nightmares. I can hear voices but I don't want to move, can't move, then the blankets are pulled off me and Brian is there, sitting on the edge of the bed and pulling off my cocoon of blankets.
Brian reaches for me and pulls me up, pulls me into his arms, and I just grab onto him like I'm drowning and he's my life preserver. "Brian!" I cry, hating myself, hating to have him see me like this, hating Ethan to see me like this, but I cry again, "Brian!" and he holds me tighter, going shh-shh in my ear. "You're safe," he whispers, and I start to feel safe. A few minutes pass, and I feel myself letting go of the fear, feel my tense muscles start to loosen, feel my breathing grow less ragged, calmer, I'm getting calmer and more relaxed. Finally I'm able to pull away from Brian, to let go of my stranglehold round his neck.
I use both hands to wipe my tear-streaked face, then take a tissue Ethan hands me and blow my nose several times. "God, I'm sorry," I say to either of them, to both of them. I raise my eyes and look past Brian at Ethan standing behind his shoulder, and "I'm sorry," I repeat.
"It's okay," Ethan murmurs, turning away and going to look out the window. I wonder if he'll ever forgive me, or if he will forever see me now as this damaged, childish wimp screaming with nightmare fear. If he will ever forgive me for wanting Brian. For needing him.
I've pulled away from Brian, but I'm terribly aware that I still have my hands on his arms, still need to feel him sitting there next to me on the bed. The fear is gone now - or anyway, it's receding, further and further away; each time I think it's gone for good. The periods in between the nightmares are so far apart now, I was sure I was free of them for good.
"So," Brian says briskly, causing me to look at him directly, something I've been avoiding - I'm always afraid I'll see something awful in his eyes, something judgmental and angry, but it's not there, it's never been there, it's not there now. "What was the trigger?" he asks me, his face serious but not angry.
"I don't know," I admit, shrugging my shoulders.
"What happened today? Did something remind you of that night?"
I shrug again, trying to think. "Walk through your day," Brian tells me. We've done this exercise many times before, in the early days when I came to live with him and the nightmares were frequent. His psychiatrist friend told him about this technique, and we'd done it lots of times.
"I fixed breakfast for Molly, Mom was running late. I walked with her to school, then went and caught my bus, to PIFA. I didn't have a morning shift at the diner today."
"Somebody on the bus look familiar?"
"No, I don't think so." I shake my head. "I had life class at nine, then a couple hour break. I worked in the studio, on a section of a mural that Dr. Jimenez assigned last week. Then I went to the cafeteria and had coffee and a donut."
"Two donuts," Brian corrects me, and I glance quickly at his face and we smile. One donut's never enough.
Then I pull my hands away from Brian and struggle to get free of the sheets, to get out of bed; I need to pace, it helps me think sometimes. Ethan turns from the window and glances at me, and I realize I'm naked. It doesn't matter, but maybe it matters to Ethan, so I find my jeans in a pile on the floor and pull them on. Then I start pacing between the bed and the kitchen.
"I had a graphics class at one, and I did some research in the library after that." I pause. "Oh."
"What?" Brian's voice nudges me.
"The book I needed was in the stacks. I had to go downstairs, into this kind of big empty warehouse type basement room where there's rows and rows of bookshelves, close together. It's totally black-dark except for lights in each row that are on some kind of timer device, they go on when you enter a row, and go off when you leave. It was - kind of creepy. There was nobody there and it was dark all around me, except for my row." I stop, and suddenly feel myself shiver.
"Talk about it, Justin."
I nod, not looking at him, remembering. "It wasn't scary, of course - just creepy, to be all alone in that huge place, but it was okay, I was looking for this one specific book about DaVinci. It was on the top shelf and I couldn't reach it, so I got one of those little stepstools and got up on it and reached for the book - and the lights went out."
I stand stock still and shiver again. Brian gets up and comes over to me, takes my hands in his. "You freaked?"
"Not - not freaked, it wasn't that bad. I mean, big deal, the lights went off, that's nothing. I'm not scared of the dark, Jesus." I try to pull away but Brian holds on tight.
I nod then, feeling embarrassed again. "It was nothing, nothing. It's so fucking stupid."
"You were in a strange underground area alone and the lights went out. That would startle anybody, Justin."
"Startle, okay, but not - not panic!"
"Did you panic?"
I think for a minute, remembering, then answer honestly, "No. I got down off the stool and felt my way to the end of the row. I went into the next row and made the light come on. I guess the light in my row burned out or something. But I - but I couldn't go back for the book. I just left. Duh." I look at Brian's face now and try to laugh. "Anybody else would go back, not be so creeped out like that. It's not - it's not normal."
"Maybe," Brian nods agreement, "But remember what Dr. Fuckwitcha said, people with PTSD don't always react in 'normal' ways to different events. You could be in a car accident, or be in a burning building, and you'd probably be totally calm and collected. But it's the little events that can trigger memories and freak you out." When I say nothing, Brian shakes my shoulder. "Right?"
Then I look at him and nod. He's smiling, and I feel my face respond by smiling back, and I relax even more. It's true, most of the other times it was little stuff that triggered the bad memories, the nightmares. Then I feel suddenly depressed, all over again.
I'm filled with gloom. "Maybe I'll never be normal."
"Justin," Brian's voice is brisk, almost sharp, "That's true, maybe you won't. But you haven't had a nightmare for months now, have you?" When I shake my head no, he goes on, "And at first you had them all the time. So suck it up, accept that you're getting better, and just deal with one thing at a time."
I feel my shoulders straightening, Brian's rough honesty is hard to take sometimes, but other times, it helps me feel stronger. "Okay," I agree. "Yeah, you're right. Sorry to go all pity-party, I'm okay now."
Brian nods, and suddenly I'm aware of the three of us, this weird, uncomfortable triangle of men that's all my fault, standing in the middle of Ethan's apartment in the middle of the night. Ethan must feel it too, like the air has changed in the room, and he comes forward out of the window corner where he's been standing, and says, "Um, anybody want a beer, or something?"
"No, thanks," Brian glances at him, and I shake my head no.
"Brian - thanks so much for coming over," I tell him, "I should've - should've handled this myself, I don't know why I -
"Shut up," Brian interrupts, "That's enough." He tilts his head and gives me his serious stare. "It happened, you needed me, I was home, I came over. It's no big deal."
It's a very big deal, but I do as he says and shut up, just nod and try to smile. Brian doesn't smile back, but heads for the door. I follow him and hold the door open, and then, even though I know Ethan's watching, I have to put my arms around Brian's neck and hug him, I just have to. And he kisses me, just a peck on the lips, it means nothing, Brian kisses Michael and Debbie and Lindsay and Gus, it's just that kind of kiss, nothing else. Then he turns away, goes out the door and down the stairs.
Closing the door, I turn around to look at Ethan. "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry - "
He shakes his head, smiles at me. "Hey, it's okay. I didn't know you had dreams, nightmares, like that. You freaked ME out."
"Sorry," I say again, "I started having them in the hospital, and when I first moved in with Brian, I had them all the time. It hasn't happened for three or four months, I thought it was finished."
Ethan moves toward me, takes my hand, and leads me into the bathroom. He rinses a washcloth under warm water, then washes my face with it. His hands are so gentle, so soothing, and suddenly I realize how tired I am, how sleepy. "What time is it?"
"I don't know, maybe three o'clock? Let's go back to bed, okay?"
"Yes, let's," I agree, and I follow him to the bed, we throw off our clothes, climb under the covers and our bodies slide together, Ethan's asleep in about thirty seconds. It takes me longer to let go of everything - of the nightmare, of Brian coming to the rescue, of the feel of Brian's arms around me and the taste of his mouth when we said goodbye. And I try to let go of my regret - regret that I couldn't go home with Brian, couldn't sleep with his arms around me, making me feel safe.
Yet just as I'm sliding down into the darkness of sleep, I realize that I don't really want Brian to make me feel safe. I want to feel safe completely on my own. I want to be a strong man in my own right, not needing anybody to protect me. And I will be. If sheer determination can do it, then I will be.
Driving home, my head was filled with thoughts chasing each other around in circles. Partly I was laughing at myself, because for a moment, as I hesitated in the doorway, I had a terrifying image of me flinging Justin over my shoulder and carrying him down the stairs, stowing him in my jeep and bringing him home to my bed, where he could sleep safe in my arms.
The only thing that kept me from doing just that, was the fact that Justin didn’t want to come home with me. Instead, Justin wanted to crawl back into that disgusting ugly bed in that hideous apartment with the oily-haired fiddle player.
Of course I’d made it my business to find out where the musician lived, as soon as I knew Justin was fucking around with him. The kid is poor, on scholarship apparently, living in a rundown neighborhood not far from the PIFA campus. I don’t blame him for that – I’d lived in even more hideous, more spartan campus housing when I was in college. I knew what it was like to struggle with not enough money for food, for beer, for condoms. So I didn’t blame him, not at all. But it made me angry to think of Justin living there too. He isn’t used to that kind of miserable poverty.
I was greatly relieved to find out that Justin was not going to live there after all – he moved into his mom’s condo. If Lindsay knew why, she didn’t tell me, and naturally I didn’t ask. All news about my former roommate delivered in hushed self-important tones by my alleged friends is met with supreme indifference and disinterest. Unfortunately, some of them can see right through me, damn them all to hell.
Lindsay’s the worst, but I can never get angry at her. While Mel was away at some lawyering conference, Linds had me over for dinner with her and Gus, and she gave me an annoying lecture on all the things I’d done wrong to lose probably the only man in the world who would ever love me. Useless to tell her I don’t want or need love, she’s never believed in my credo.
Debbie was next.
Who the fuck was banging on my door? I asked myself, one night about three weeks after Justin moved out. I’d insisted that the building management company reinstall the foyer locking system, and even though the other tenants didn’t want to, it was in the contract and they had no choice. Too many people were walking into the building and showing up at my door, knocking and knocking as if I were required to open up merely because I was at home. Too many people had keys too, and I keep meaning to change the locks, or at least collect keys from everybody. But somehow I never got around to it.
Whoever was banging on my door had a key, whoever was banging on the door probably saw my jeep parked outside and knew I was at home. Whoever was banging on my door could decide just to fucking unlock my door and let themselves in, if I didn’t answer soon. Shit!
Finally I marched to the door and pulled it roughly open, it screeched loudly, I keep forgetting to spray some WD-40 on the skids.
“Jesus, Brian, you need to spray some WD-40 on that door,” Debbie cheerfully informed me, pushing past me and charging into the loft, to stand, hands on hips, glancing around at the stacks of papers spread all over the sofa and the floor. “What a mess, kiddo, don’t you have a cleaning lady?”
“It’s not a mess, it’s a project I’m working on, and you know damn well I have a cleaning service, and anyway, what the fuck are you doing here?”
“Well, you really know how to make somebody feel welcome,” Deb replied, undaunted. I’ve never been able to daunt her.
“You’re not welcome,” I exclaimed, running a hand through my hair, then gesturing at what she’d called a mess, “I’m in the middle of a big project that’s already over deadline, I don’t have time for visitors.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she said cheerfully, removing her hideous red jacket and throwing it over the back of a chair. “From what I hear, you never have time for visitors, and you haven’t been in the diner for almost a month now. So I came to see if you’re okay.”
“Now you’ve seen that I’m okay, so you can take off.” It came out sounding too harsh, and when Deb threw a concerned-mom type glance at me, I sighed and said, “Sorry. But I’m really swamped right now, I need to finish this presentation for tomorrow. Please go home.”
“Okay,” Deb agreed, “In a minute.” She carefully moved a stack of papers off the chair and set it on the floor, then sat down, crossing her legs and swinging her ankle. She was wearing purple stretch pants and short white boots with spike heels and gold tassels. Where does she buy this stuff?
Giving up, I threw myself down on the sofa. She wouldn’t leave till she damn well felt like it.
“Michael says you’ve stopped going out.”
Fuck Michael. “No, I haven’t,“ I contradicted. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’ve been putting in long hours at work, and working here at home most nights. I’m a partner now, in case you forgot.” When she continued to stare silently at me, I continued, “I don’t have much time to go out, but I have been going out.” Christ, why does Debbie always make me feel like a teenager explaining why I played hooky?
“Not to Woody’s. Not to Babylon.”
“There’s other places, you know. It’s a big city. Besides, I’ve fucked everybody in the old places.”
“Michael says Justin never goes to Woody’s or Babylon, so you don’t have to worry about seeing him.”
Christ! Shaking my head, I replied calmly, “Deb, I am not worried about seeing Justin. Do you imagine I’m pining away for him? Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m doing fine on my own. Better, in fact. I’ve lived alone most of my life, and I like it that way.”
“Tell it to the judge, sweetie.” Deb gave me a sympathetic smile and continued to shake her foot. I stared almost hypnotically at the quivering boot tassel, then pulled my eyes away and stood up.
“Do you want something to drink?”
“Sure, I’ll take a beer, or a Coke.” She followed me into the kitchen, hoisted her ample butt up on a stool while I pulled a couple beers from the fridge and opened them. “Cheers!” she toasted me, then glanced around the loft. “Whew,” she whistled, “You got rid of every sign of him, didn’t you? Not a picture, not a sketch, nothing.”
She wasn’t cornering me that easily. “Deb, he moved out. He took all his stuff. That’s what happens when somebody moves out.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Debbie took another drink, then set her beer on the counter and rubbed condensation off the sides of the bottle with both hands. Without looking at me she said, “So, Brian. You going to tell me how you fucked things up so bad?” When I didn’t answer, she raised her eyes to mine and I kept my gaze even, unflustered. Blank.
“Ah well.” She smiled and shook her head. “Didn’t think you would.” She raised her bottle and drained it, then slipped down off the stool and went into the living room to collect her jacket. I met her at the door and slid it open.
My arms were crossed over my chest, but Deb reached out to squeeze my elbow. “I love you, kiddo, you know that, right?” When I nodded, she laughed. “You always were a tough little bugger. Now that you know I’m not going to cut off your balls, come and see me. Vic misses you too.”
“Okay.” Leave Debbie, leave.
She stopped in the doorway and held up a finger to wag in my face. “Come for dinner Thursday. Just me and Vic, I promise.”
I shook my head, “Debbie, I can’t, I have some projects that are – “
“Thursday, seven-thirty. Just me and Vic, and a big pan of putanesca. That was always your favorite.”
With a sigh I gave in. “Okay. Okay.” I bent down to kiss her cheek and waited till the elevator came, she waved and blew me a kiss.
Driving home from Brian’s, I keep thinking, poor little bugger. Not so little really, he’s past thirty now. I remember overhearing Brian once tell Michael, when they were teenagers, that he knew he’d never live to be thirty years old. At the time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – it was silly, of course, but Brian always was such a moody kid, that some of the things he said used to scare me.
Still do. He says he’s not pining for Justin. Wonder if he ever looks in the mirror? His face looks so hard. If Justin did anything for Brian, it was to soften him. Make him bend that stiff backbone of his, loosen the fuck up.
I remember the time everyone was over for dinner, and they were all betting on Brian and Justin’s chances of sticking together. That really pissed me off, but I guess the others knew better than me. Even Vic put down a bet. And Vic’s telling me now, leave it alone. But how can I? I’m afraid that Justin was Brian’s only chance at being happy. Being normal. And Justin. . .
Justin’s acting so – shut down. Sometimes I look into his face and it’s like he’s pulled venetian blinds down over his eyes, so you can’t see inside. He acts happy enough, it fools most people. But just like Brian, Justin’s face looks hard to me, too. Except when that kid comes to meet him, then he softens up.
What’s funny is that I always thought, all along, that Justin should run away from Brian, ‘run, don’t walk,’ I used to hear this voice inside my head. I truly thought Justin would be better off with someone his own age. But this Ethan. . .I don’t know. Maybe he’s good for Justin. I need to get to know him. Maybe I’ll invite the boys to dinner.
Not Thursday though. I’ll keep my promise to Brian.
Sliding the door closed after Debbie gets into the elevator, I go up the steps to my bedroom and sit down on the far side of the bed. Pulling open the bottom drawer of the chest, I move aside a folded up sweatshirt and draw out a framed 8x10 photograph. The faces smiling out at me are almost unrecognizable.
It was just a summer picnic in Debbie’s backyard, no special occasion. I’m sitting in one of those white plastic lawn chairs and Justin’s sitting on my lap, his arms around my neck. Nothing special. But we’re laughing, which somehow I can’t remember us doing. He had just finished feeding me a hotdog, only the wiener, no bun, but slathered with mustard. Looking at the picture, I can remember the taste of the hotdog, and the yellow mustard all over my mouth, and all over Justin’s mouth when I kissed him. Lindsay sneaked up and snapped a picture, this picture, and Justin and I, we’re laughing with our mouths wide open, sticky with mustard and happiness. I remember the picnic, I remember Lindsay taking the photograph. But I can’t remember being happy.