Three Seconds, Maybe Four
Christ, I just slammed the door in his face. I hear him smacking the door with his hand, demanding "Why? Why?" He needs to give up and go away soon, or I won't be responsible. Go away, Justin, before I open the door and grab onto you. Go away. Go away.
Thank God, I hear him leaving, I hear his feet on the stairs. I won't look out the window to see him walking away.
His mother was right, of course. Mrs. Taylor, Mrs. Refined Lady Taylor, who sat in the living room of her Refined Lady House and let Justin's father rant on him about being a homosexual. You didn't stop me from taking Justin away that time, did you? I saw your face, you were fucking RELIEVED that I took him away. You didn't have to stand up to that fucking bastard of a father then, did you? You didn't save your son from HIM, did you, but now you're saving him from me.
I wouldn't have hurt him. I wanted to help. I wanted to make him smile again.
But she was right. In the end, she was right. It really was my fault that this happened to Justin. It's ironic that Justin is the only one who doesn't blame me. Everyone else does, I've seen it in their eyes. And maybe other terrible things would happen to him, if I was around. I can't protect him. I failed pretty fucking badly at that already. Three seconds, maybe four seconds earlier and I could have grabbed that son of a bitch's arm, grabbed the bat away from him before he could. . .
DON'T FUCKING THINK ABOUT IT. I've smashed the memory of that night, thrown it into the river, burned it, buried it in the deepest vault under the mountains. Yet somehow it comes back again, playing reruns over and over and over on the screen of my tightly closed eyelids. Three seconds, maybe four. I couldn't save him.
"I'm going to bust your balls," I threatened Cynthia.
"But I don't have any."
"The fuck you don't. Now go back to your desk before I fire you!"
Cynthia chuckled. "You can't fire me, you'd never find anybody else to take the shit you dish out, MR. KINNEY."
As she went out the door of my office I snorted, but the truth is, she's right. How many assistants did I go through my first couple years at the agency? About twenty-seven. Cynthia's been working for me for what? Three years? She is irreplaceable, but the trouble is, she knows it.
I took a deep breath and sat down behind my desk, waiting for Lindsay to come through the door and chew my ass, which is all she's been doing since Gus was born. Well, mostly she's chewed my ass about Justin, and I know that's what she'll do today. I specifically told Cynthia no outside visitors, I've told her that a hundred times these past six weeks and till now she's followed orders, but today she announces she gave Security permission for Linds to come up and see me. Shit.
Here she is. "Bri!" she greets me with a big smile, and I stand up to let her hug me, kiss my cheek, but I brace myself. Linds has never let me off easy all these years we've been friends. Luckily she did not bring Gus; I don't want the office gossips to get a glimpse of my son.
"What do you want?" I demand of her, my usual churlish, charming self.
"Thanks, I'd love to sit down." She settles on a chair and dumps her purse on the floor. With a silent groan I sit behind my desk and await the onslaught. She doesn't waste any time.
"Justin's home now," she informs me with an implacable smile. "He's home from the hospital."
"You have to go and see him."
"Have to?" I raise my eyebrows, lean back casually in my chair.
"Brian." Lindsay sighs, shakes her head. "Brian, he needs you now. He's needed you all these weeks, but now that he's home, he needs you all the more."
"No, he doesn't." I rummage in the top drawer of my desk, pull out a crumpled cigarette pack. Technically we're not supposed to smoke in here. Fuck 'em, they can fire me. I hold out the pack to Lindsay, knowing she'll decline; she pays no attention, just watches me light up.
Lindsay is eyeballing me and I meet her gaze, insouciant. She is not fooled.
"Don't you want to see him?" she asks gently, slipping under my guard.
I want to say no. Why can't I say no? Because I can't lie to Lindsay. Never could. I have to look away.
"Brian. . .you need to see him, for your sake too. Not just for his sake."
"Brian. . ."
"Besides," I decide to tell her the truth, or some version of it, and sit up in my chair, look directly into her face. "I have seen him."
She's surprised. Amazed. "Brian, that's wonderful! I knew you'd - "
"But I won't be seeing him any more. His mother asked me not to."
I take a deep drag of my cigarette, hold it in my lungs as if it's pot. I need the nicotine charge. Then I exhale a blue cloud that seems to hang over my desk for minutes. "She thinks I'm bad for him. And she's right. So it's no big deal."
"Brian - " Lindsay's eyes are wide, I'm afraid she can see the pain in my face, though I twist my mouth into a smile. Or more likely a grimace.
"So," I tell her, standing up quickly, "So, you can go now, your good deed is done. And I've got a report due this afternoon, I'm very busy, so you really do need to leave." I gesture toward the door, and she stands up too.
"Brian. . . I'm so sorry." She reaches a hand toward me but I back away quickly and laugh.
"Hey, it's no big deal. But I've got to get busy on this report, so if you could just. . ."
"Okay," she agrees, bending down to retrieve her purse. "But call me, will you please? And come see your son one of these days - before he graduates high school."
"His birthday's coming up and I need your help, Brian."
"We bought him a swing set, and I want you to help me assemble it. Maybe tomorrow after work?"
"Me?" I'm incredulous. "I can hardly change a light bulb." Slowly I'm moving her toward the door but she digs in her heels at the last minute.
"Brian Kinney, it's your duty as his father to assemble his first swing set. You promised you'd help with father things."
I did promise, damn it. What the fuck got into me, to make promises to anybody about anything?
"All right," I agree, mostly to get her moving out the door.
I let Lindsay kiss my cheek again and say good-bye. She waves at Cynthia and I watch her walk down the hall toward the elevator. Cynthia jumps up and starts to hand me a thick file, the Magruder account, but when I throw out my hands to ward her off, she glances at my face. I don't know what she sees there, but she sits back down as I say nothing, only turn to go back into my office. And shut the door. And lock it.
I have no right to be mad at Michael, and he has no right to be mad at me. Yet we're mad at each other. That's happened a few times over the years, it's never lasted very long. Mikey once said we have giant magnets in our hearts pulling us together. The kind of ridiculously sweet thing he would say.
I’m mad at him for going away, for leaving me alone, at the worst fucking moment of my life. I told him to go, but that’s irrelevant. I insisted he go, I drove him to the airport, and I was relieved when he was gone. But he shouldn’t have left me. Now I’m mad that he came back, just when I was getting used to being alone.
He’s mad at me for letting him go, for encouraging him to go, for insisting that he join David in Portland. He’s mad at me for being right about the doctor. His heart got broken, just like I knew it would, and he blames me for knowing it.
And he blames me for Justin. Not for the bashing, but he blames me for caring about the little shit. I was never supposed to care about anybody but him. That’s not rational and he’d deny it – but it’s true. And I know that it’s true because that’s how I felt about him and David. I never dreamed Michael would fall in love with somebody else, and he never dreamed that I. . .that I. . . .
Michael’s mad as hell and he needs me and I just can’t be there for him. We’ve always been there for each other, until now. I know he’s going through shit right now, he’s hurting and he has no job and he’s floundering. He’s doing drugs and fucking his brains out every night and he won’t listen when I try to stop him. Why should he listen to me? I’ve been doing drugs and fucking my brains out for years.
The last straw was last night. He tried to get me to dance, and when I wouldn’t, he said something about me liking to dance with Justin. I was speechless. Speechless. All I could do was get up and walk away. I know he’s sorry. Michael hasn’t got a mean bone in his body. I know he wants to talk about it, but I just can’t right now.
This trick du jour is getting on my nerves. I don’t know why I brought him home. Hell, he’s a looker, he’s slim and hard and young and beautiful. But stupid. That makes me laugh. Since when do I care if a trick has a brain or not?
Christ, just get dressed and get out, I want to tell him. I’m bored, I reach for a cigarette. Then he starts critiquing my performance. As if I care about a guy with the IQ of a gnat. I walk him to the door, pull it open, and Jesus Christ, who is standing there but Justin’s mother.
She flinches, well I’m naked. It’s my home, I’m allowed to be naked in my home. The trick rushes out and I turn away, pull on my jeans. What the fuck does she want? I decide to be casual. I was going to fix a sandwich anyway so I saunter over to the kitchen and pull out a loaf of bread. “He’s not here,” I tell her.
She’s not looking for him.
“I want to ask you a favor,” she says. Fucking nerve. She gets no more favors from me, and I tell her so. Then she says, “This one’s for him.”
She’s got my attention, but I’m not nearly ready for what comes next. She asks me to TAKE Justin. Apparently she means, take him off her hands. He’s bad she says; nightmares, anger, and he won’t let anyone touch him.
That makes me remember the other night when I brought him home from Woody’s and we talked about the bashing. He hugged me, he put his good arm around me and hugged. It felt strange, but I was so far gone trying to keep from breaking down that I didn’t realize till later, well not really till now, that it felt strange when Justin hugged me. I can’t define what ‘strange’ means, or I couldn’t, till Jennifer explained about the touching. Jesus, it must have been hard for him to touch me that night.
I need to be clear with her though, I need things out in the open. “You want me to fuck him?” It’s a serious question. She’s shocked, but I need to hear her answer.
“He trusts you,” she says. Yeah, I know he does. “If that’s what it takes. . .”
“I thought you never wanted me to see him again.”
Blunt answer, but at least I understand. She hates me, but she loves Justin. She’ll do what’s best for him.
Am I best for him?
We stand staring at each other a while. “What about a psychiatrist?” I ask.
“He refuses, absolutely. You’re my only hope.”
Finally I say, “Okay.”
“Good.” She becomes all business-like now, tells me to come over tomorrow afternoon; can I get off work early? I can. She’s not going to tell Justin until I get there.
Great, we’re going to ambush him. I’m tempted to say, “And what if he doesn’t want to stay with me?” But he will. He loves me. And I – I don’t know how I feel. But I want to help him. I need to help him. “Okay,” I say again, and she turns abruptly toward the door and walks out, the heels of her chic Dolce-Gabbano shoes staccato-clicking all the way down three flights of stairs.
I’m not hungry any more, but I force myself to finish making a sandwich and eat every bite. I have a feeling I’m going to need all my strength tomorrow.
What have I got myself into? I asked myself, driving home from Woody’s, sober for a change, my brain reeling from the assault by Dr. Fuckwitcha. An old friend, an old fuckbuddy, we met in the baths years ago, I’ve done him a few times. He’s one trick I’ve enjoyed spending time talking with afterwards. For years he would not tell me his real name, back in the days when I bothered to ask names. He called himself Dr. Fuckwitcha and I’ve never called him anything else. He’s a good shrink though, or so I’ve heard. Do I dare to take his advice now?
I went looking for him, feeling pretty desperate to find help, after the disaster in bed.
I didn’t know how to approach Justin. He was so silly this afternoon, driving home from his mom’s condo. So childish, so bratty, so overconfident. It was a sham though, a laughing, happy-go-lucky front that died down as soon as I said it was bedtime. He decided to take a shower, so I lay reading a magazine, waiting. The boy who came out of the bathroom, wearing boxers and a sweatshirt, was a stranger to me. Shut down, withdrawn, deathly quiet and pale. He fumbled his way into the covers, and when I said, “Come closer,” he hardly looked at me.
“Take off some of those clothes, you’ll get overheated,” I joked, giving him a smile. He halfway smiled back, wriggled out of his shorts while I helped him pull off his shirt. I leaned in for a kiss and he slightly kissed me, but not really. Jennifer had told me he couldn’t stand being touched, so I didn’t know whether to touch him, rub him, pull him close, or not. He wasn’t responding to me at all. Which was sure as hell not the Justin I knew. The Justin I knew would have had my cock in his mouth within ten seconds of hitting the bed.
“Roll over,” I said, and he did. Maybe I should just start fucking him, I thought; maybe if he got turned on he’d respond, maybe I could wake up this half-asleep, tense little body. It started okay, I rolled on top of him, used a knee to spread his legs, reached down to slip a finger inside, then suddenly he squirmed away, mumbled “No, don’t, don’t.” I stopped and he quickly scooted away from me, sat on the edge of the bed, dropped his head in his hands. “I can’t,” he said.
Jesus. I felt so fucking helpless. I sat up next to him, tried to tell him it was okay, but he wouldn’t listen. I needed to touch him, but I felt him flinch away from my fingers on his back as if they burned like fire.
I’ve always thought psychiatry was a crock; well I still do. Unfortunately, Justin remembered hearing me say it, so when I suggested he should talk to somebody, he went off on me. “No-no-no-no,” he said, no matter what I suggested. Then I thought of Dr. Fuckwitcha.
I got up, dressed, and told Justin to go to sleep, that I had to go do something important. He nodded, he was pulling on his sweatshirt, he wouldn’t look at me. Probably he thought I was going out to get laid. A logical assumption, all things considered. I’d never been less horny in my life.
Luckily, I found the doc in Woody’s, and he gave me some suggestions for dealing with Justin. He explained that the childish behavior, the rages, the anger were all normal reactions, not only to brain injury, but to the psychological blow of being physically violated. Justin had apparently shut down his feelings, locked everything away in a tower. Dr. Fuckwitcha couldn’t resist teasing me, calling me a Handsome Prince whose job it was to rescue fair Justin from the demons haunting him. I couldn’t laugh.
I almost freaked out when I got home and discovered Justin packing his bag. Christ, if I’d gotten there a few minutes later, where would he be? That scared the shit out of me, but I didn’t let him see it. I led him to the kitchen, made him drink some milk and take an anxiety pill. His face was flushed, he was sweaty and tense. We sat on the sofa, and I told him Dr. Fuckwitcha’s advice, about doing things to trigger his memory. He was skeptical. Or scared. Or both. But he agreed, and when we went back to bed, I was careful to turn over facing the wall, to give him the space he needed. He was asleep in minutes, the pill doing its job. I lay awake for hours, trying to decide what to do now.
I didn’t remember Daphne’s last name, but efficient Cynthia was able to find out and get in touch with the girl. She agreed to help me recreate the prom scene in the loft, to try and help Justin remember something. She tried very hard, we both did. Justin remembered nothing. When Daphne told him we’d kissed, the surprise and amazement on his face twisted a knife in my heart. “You should have been there,” I told him. Christ.
We took Daphne home and then drove to the parking garage. Reliving that scene for Justin was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It all came back so fresh, as if it was just happening at that very moment. The fear leaping in my throat, the desperate dash toward the boys, the crack of the wooden bat smashing Justin’s skull, the sound of his limp body dropping to the pavement. Three seconds too late. Three seconds, maybe four.
He remembered nothing.
Justin felt bad that I was upset, he felt bad for not remembering, and I was silently cursing Dr. Fuckwitcha and feeling at the end of my rope. We decided to let it go for a while; maybe we were trying too hard. I asked Justin to go out to dinner, to Luigi’s – his favorite restaurant. They all love him there, fix him special treats not on the menu, spoil him rotten. He refused, maybe scared Luigi and the others would rush forward to hug him. I didn’t push it; we just went back to the loft and had sandwiches. A quiet evening watching TV. I sent him to bed and let him fall asleep before I climbed in beside him.
In sleep his face is so angelic, I’ve often laid awake and watched him sleep. He looks like a dozing marble cherub, with his pale perfect skin and his blond eyelashes curling against his round cheeks. In sleep he looks as innocent as Gus. Tomorrow Gus will be a year old. And a year ago tomorrow I picked up this hot little one-night-stand, leaning on a lamppost outside Babylon. He didn’t know he was a one-night-stand, and I didn’t know he wasn’t.
I was a little worried about leaving Justin alone while I went over to help the munchers get ready for the party, but I asked Lindsay to call and talk to him, and I listened to their conversation. I could tell she was calming Justin down, and she got him to promise to come to the party. Lindsay has a way about her, so soft-spoken and gentle but persuasive as hell. When I got back to the loft, Justin had just emerged from the shower, and he decided he needed a shave. I didn’t tell him his face was about as smooth as Gus’ little bottom, instead I got out my razor, and surprisingly, he let me shave him. We had a bite of lunch and then drove over to the party.
I’d already prepared Mel and Lindsay, and they promised to tell everyone else not to come rushing at Justin, but just to stand back and smile and say hi to him from a distance. He was very nervous and wouldn’t join the crowd on the lawn; instead he stayed close to the back door and I stayed with him, standing guard to fend off anyone who approached and glad-hand them out of his vicinity.
Michael and I sort of nodded at each other across an expanse of grass; he looked very sad - I’ll have to deal with that situation pretty soon. I wish I could talk to him about Justin, but I’m on shaky ground there too. Why do people have to be so fucking complicated?
Things were going well and Linds and Mel were helping Gus open the mountain of gaudily-wrapped presents. He was more interested in the paper and ribbons, which all the mothers present pointed out was normal. Then they opened a box and pulled out a plastic yellow baseball bat, and Linds joked with me that Gus was going to be a ball player.
I swear to God I never made a connection, a connection with the baseball bat and the attack on Justin. I heard Justin’s indrawn breath, turned around, then jumped up and grabbed onto him, just as he went over the edge. I held him in my arms and I felt him clutching me tight and gasping for air, then he started sobbing. Quickly I pulled him inside the house where we could be private. “Shh, shh, you’re okay,” I assured him inanely, helplessly. He continued to cry, these horrible gasping sobs, scaring me. I wanted to pull away, go for help, but he wouldn’t let go, and gradually his crying slowed down and then stopped. He still held onto me, till his breathing was almost normal. Then he pulled his head away from my shoulder and stared into my eyes.
“I remember,” he said calmly.
I just nodded, mute, afraid to say the wrong thing.
He pulled out of my arms and began to pace around the room. “I remember,” he repeated. “Not everything. But I remember some of it.” He stopped and looked at me. “I don’t want to talk about it yet though. Okay?”
“Sure, sure,” I nodded. “Do you want to go home now? Go to the loft?”
He halfway smiled. “Yeah. Do you mind? You’ll miss the rest of the party.”
I snorted, “I don’t care about that. But why don’t you sit down here a minute,” I pointed him at a Windsor chair in the corner, “And let me go tell Linds that we’re leaving. Okay?” He nodded and sat down, so I hurried outside. When I came back, I was shocked to see how pale and tired Justin looked, he was really sagging in the chair.
“Come on,” I said, grabbing his good hand and pulling him up. I dared to put my arm around him and he didn’t shrug it off; truthfully, he needed my help walking out of the house, he was nearly collapsing. From reaction maybe, or exhaustion; he’d sobbed for so long and so hard, maybe he wore himself out. We were silent in the jeep, I kept stealing looks at him and he seemed okay, just tired.
We took the elevator up, and Justin managed to kick off his shoes and pull off his pants before almost falling onto the bed. I pulled the duvet over him; he was immediately asleep.
Justin slept for hours. I called Linds as I’d promised to do, and she said she would call Debbie to reassure her that ‘little Sunshine’ was all right. I didn’t tell her about Justin’s experience, about him remembering the baseball bat; I had no idea what Justin would remember tomorrow. I did some work on the computer, then cleaned up the kitchen, and finally it was dark outside so I decided to go to bed. I was pretty beat myself.
When I entered the bedroom, Justin was sitting up. He said he felt better. I went and sat beside him on the bed and told him, truthfully, that he’d really freaked me out. He smiled. Looking into his eyes, I thought I saw the real Justin at last.
"I remembered walking away, and hearing your voice," he said. "You tried to save me. You never told me that." He leaned forward slightly, took hold of my shirt collar, pulled my face forward, and we kissed. Then I felt his hand slip inside my shirt.
Fuck, I’d forgotten the damned scarf. I’d put it on automatically this morning, it had become such a habit, I never meant Justin to see it. He pulled it off and looked at it a moment, then looked at me. It was too intense, I had to look away. Justin dropped the scarf unceremoniously onto the floor. He scooted closer and whispered, “I want you inside me.”
I could hardly breathe. “Are you sure?” I whispered back and he nodded. He tugged at my shirt, we kissed again, and slowly we peeled off our clothes, pausing for soft gentle kisses. Soon we were naked, sliding together so naturally, and we kissed again and again, in slow motion, no passionate rush for release, only this gentle touching, sharing, being together. We lay molded together, my hand on his hip while I moved inside him like he asked me to do; my other arm around his shoulders, his neck, and he twisted his head back to kiss me again and again.
When we came, it was together – and not a heated, passionate explosion, more a gentle ripple of release and pleasure. We shivered and moaned together, our bodies rocking slightly, holding tight. It was like nothing I have ever experienced. I can’t put a name to the warm tide of feelings flooding through me at that moment.
“Brian,” Justin whispered.
“Don’t let go.”
“No,” I promised. “No, I won’t.”
We were asleep in three seconds. Maybe four.