"And you're paying back every cent you charged on my credit card."
Justin was unfazed by Brian's words; he had every intention of repaying Brian - hadn't he told Daphne so, in Liberty Diner, yesterday morning before he ran away? No, no, 'ran away' was wrong. He'd simply taken charge of his own life and moved to New York. He would definitely have found a job, too, he was sure of it. Either that morning, or maybe a couple days later. But Brian appeared and Justin's plans came to a screeching halt.
He'd opened the door of his hotel suite to find Brian, darkly angry and scowling, framed in the doorway. Justin's heart had lurched in his chest, almost choking him. Brian had pushed roughly past him, glancing quickly around the rooms, before Justin pulled himself together and asked cheerfully (he hoped), "Wanna come in?"
Actually, Justin was relieved that Brian had followed him to New York. Breezily kissing Daphne goodbye, jumping on the bus to the airport, his head had been full of grandiose plans for taking the Big Apple by storm. He would become a famous model, everybody always told him he was beautiful, he'd go to the big modeling agencies and decide which one he wanted to work for, and soon he'd be earning hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars a day. Then he'd come back to Pittsburgh, and everybody would be very sorry for how badly they'd treated him.
Those rosy plans had not lasted more than a few hours before reality set in. He'd claimed his ticket at the airline counter in the airport and sat in the coffee shop sipping a Coke and waiting for his flight to be announced. By the time he boarded the plane, he knew he was making a mistake. Justin was not stupid; he knew he could not really just waltz into some talent agency and find immediate fame and fortune. He'd heard the horror stories about teenagers living on the streets of New York, turning tricks for a few dollars, getting hooked on drugs. He'd seen the after-school specials and the 20/20 reports, and he shivered in his seat on the overheated airplane, suddenly sensing the enormity of what he had done. He'd stolen Brian's credit card. Brian had every right to have him arrested. Instead of flaunting himself on the fashion runways of New York, Paris, and Milan, Justin would more likely be spending time behind bars.
New York City overwhelmed him. He'd been there before, on trips with his parents; climbed the Statue of Liberty with his dad, roamed the halls of the Modern Art Museum with his mom. But stepping alone off the airport bus, onto the streets of the city teeming with billions of pushing, noisy, boisterous people, sobered Justin. A taxi emptied of its passengers near the bus stop beckoned to Justin; he'd gotten in and instinctively chosen his destination - the Hilton Hotel, where he'd stayed with his parents. Once ensconced in his room, his suite, he'd been literally paralyzed by indecision. Part of him wanted to burst out of the confining walls and explore the great metropolis; part of him wanted to pull the walls even closer, protect himself from the unknown evils lurking outside the door. Justin remembered hearing the term "cocooned," and that's exactly what he did his first night in New York City: he'd cocooned himself, holing up in the hotel, ordering room service and watching tv. Surely trepidation would not have lasted very long, Justin thought; but he would never know for sure, because next morning, Brian showed up to rescue him.
It didn't feel like a rescue at first. Brian was furious, no doubt of that. But underneath the façade of anger, Justin sensed Brian's innate kindness; he softened toward Justin, promised help instead of punishment, he did not even ridicule Justin for being afraid to leave the hotel room. Most people didn't see that kindness in Brian - which was the way Brian wanted it. When Justin, with bravado covering an enormous fear of rejection, dropped his robe and moved close to Brian - naked, vulnerable and needy, Brian gave Justin exactly what he craved: redemption.
Afterwards they showered, and while Justin was packing, Brian sequestered himself in the suite's sitting room to make some phone calls. Later Justin realized that he must have been making arrangements with Debbie and his mom, because it was all settled when they'd arrived back in Pittsburgh.
The guys were pretty decent to him when he and Brian left the hotel and met up with them on a street corner in SoHo, Emmett giving him hugs and kisses, Ted gravely smiling, even Michael restraining himself from the lecture Justin could tell he was dying to deliver. Justin was embarrassed at making a fool of himself, running away, stealing the credit card, so he was grateful not to be raked over the coals. They had lunch at an outdoor café in SoHo, sprawled in metal chairs under a red-and-white striped umbrella-table. When it came time to pay the bill, Brian grabbed it and handed it to Justin. "Use your credit card," he said. Justin blushed, but everybody laughed, even Brian. Sheepishly Justin had handed over the card, and Brian paid the bill.
The trip home from New York was uncomfortable at first. They all piled into the jeep, Justin squeezed between Ted and Emmett in the back seat, which was not meant to hold three men, even if one of them was a slim teenager. Nobody complained, but after they'd gone about fifty miles, Brian, who, Justin noticed, kept glancing at them in the rear-view mirror, pulled over. "Mikey," he said, "You drive; Ted, you ride shotgun." They were all surprised, but rearranged themselves as ordered, and Brian climbed into the back seat. He pulled Justin onto his lap. "Relax," he said, and Justin was happy to do just that. He relaxed against Brian's chest, enjoying the feel of Brian's arms around him. After while, he fell asleep, his head on Brian's shoulder. Justin had not really slept last night in New York, but in Brian's arms, he let himself go. He woke up a short time later, and was surprised when Brian bent his head and kissed him. "Go back to sleep," he said, so Justin did.
Debbie and Vic made Justin feel immediately welcome in their home. After Brian had called from New York, Deb said she'd done a quick-n-dirty cleaning job on Michael's old room, made up the bed with fresh sheets, and baked an enormous pan of lasagna for dinner. She scolded him, but gently, for running away, and made him promise never to do it again. She assured him his family still loved him ("Not my dad," he murmured, but she shushed him), and repeated a lot of comforting platitudes like "time heals all wounds," but coming from Deb, they did not sound trite. At bedtime, she gave him a rough hug and kissed his forehead. Tucked up in bed in Michael's old room, listening to the creaks of an old house settling in the night, Justin allowed himself a few tears. He was grateful that Brian had rescued him, he was grateful that Deb had taken him in; but he wanted desperately to be back in Brian's bed. He'd really fucked that up; Brian would never let him live there again.
Justin was greatly surprised when he came downstairs next morning to find Brian sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee with Vic. Brian was in his usual grouchy morning mood, and greeted Justin with a frown. "I'm driving you to school, but today you're going to find out about buses and figure out how to get around on your own."
"Okay," Justin agreed, accepting the glass of milk Debbie handed him. He quickly ate a bowl of cereal and some toast while Vic talked about one of the neighbors, then carried his dishes to the sink. Brian hurried him out of the house and into the jeep for the ride to school. Justin remained silent for a few minutes, knowing better than to chatter while Brian was in a mood.
"Sleep okay?" Brian spoke at last.
"Yeah. The house makes a lot of creaking noises."
"I remember," Brian agreed. After a moment he said, "Justin, I expect you to start making payments on the credit card bill right away. You need to get an after-school job."
Justin was surprised. "Okay," he agreed, but he realized that he had not really expected Brian to ask him to pay back the money. Suddenly he was overcome with embarrassment, and turned his head to stare blindly out the window. What a spoiled brat he was. Justin remembered all the times his dad had given him advances on his allowance, then didn't hold him to repayment; all the times his mom had bought him something while they were shopping, saying he could give her the money later, and he never had. Justin realized he'd been expecting Brian to do the same thing, and he was ashamed. He could feel a blush spreading up his neck and over his face. Struggling to keep his voice normal, he said, "I'll look for something tonight."
"There's a job open at the diner, working with Deb, if you want it."
"At the diner?" Justin asked. "What kind of job?" When Brian said 'busboy," Justin exclaimed, "Gross!"
Justin flinched from Brian's raised-eyebrow, icy stare. "I mean - I just mean. . ."
Brian returned his eyes to the road and said, his voice dangerously quiet, "Oh yeah, you're too good for menial labor, I forgot your background. Maybe we can find an opening for you as a CEO or a bank president. I'll check the want ads today."
"I didn't mean that! I'm not. . . I didn't mean anything." Justin swallowed his pride. "I'll do it."
"Good. Deb says you can start tomorrow morning. She'll tell you about it tonight."
"Okay." Justin was silent the rest of the drive. When the jeep screeched to a stop at the entrance to St. James, he mumbled, "Thanks for the ride," and pulled up the door handle.
Justin twisted around in the seat and waited. Brian glanced out the windshield, sighed heavily, then turned, raised his hand, and caressed Justin's cheek. He smiled slightly. "Things will get better. They always do."
Justin swallowed and nodded and got out of the jeep. He couldn't speak over the lump in his throat, but somehow Brian's brief touch on his face made him feel a whole lot better.
Debbie had called him at the crack of dawn next morning - actually, BEFORE the crack of dawn, rushed him to get showered and dressed, and she drove them to the diner through dark and quiet streets. Deb was so solicitious of him that Justin forced himself to fake a cheerfulness he was far from feeling. She showed him how to tie on a big white apron, and turned him over to Timmy, the busboy getting ready to go off-duty. Timmy was a teenager, too, maybe a year older than Justin. He had acne and scruffy long hair and wore extra-baggy jeans from the Gap. Tim showed him the basics of table-bussing and departed.
Grimly, Justin struggled with the gray plastic tub used to collect dirty dishes from the tables, it was amazingly awkward when full, the dishes tipping over and water sloshing around; he worried about dropping it. He hated handling dishes sticky with syrup and picking up used napkins and cleaning up spills and crumbs left by the incredibly messy customers. Justin had never given a thought to the mess he left behind at restaurants, it never had occurred to him that somebody had to clean up after him. Now Justin was that somebody, and he hated it.
After almost two hours of concentrated effort, Justin felt he was getting the hang of things, when he glanced up to see Brian, Michael and the others come in and take a booth near the back. Deb told him 'the boys' had breakfast together at the diner almost every day, and a stab of resentment shot through Justin, that he was not a part of that group of friends. When Brian yelled out to him, "Hey, busboy, could we please have some water?" Justin glowered and flipped him the bird.
Debbie was standing at the booth talking to the guys when Justin returned with four glasses of water and set them on the table. He hadn't realized he'd stuck his dirty fingers inside the glasses as he maneuvered them, but he was somehow meanly glad that he did. He was sweaty and tired and hungry, and when Michael went off on him, demanding to know why he was working at the diner, Justin glared at Brian and flicked water at him as he complained, "HE'S making me do it!" Brian smiled, and explained that Justin was working to pay off his credit card debt. Against his will, Justin smiled back at Brian, and he felt more cheerful. Debbie bragged that all the customers were hot for him, and he went back to the kitchen with a lighter step and feeling not so very tired, after all.
Debbie turned in the guys' breakfast orders to the cook, and told Justin it was time for him to eat and get ready for school. He gobbled down an egg and pancake sandwich, then hurried to change into his school uniform in the employee bathroom. A row of lockers was squeezed into a corner of that room, and he grabbed his backpack from his locker and scurried out through the back entrance, reaching the bus stop just moments before the bus arrived. He had to transfer to another bus midtown, it was a forty minute ride to school. He was sure his hair smelled like bacon grease, he felt sweaty and dirty, and when Professor Cooper surprised first-period Calculus class with a pop quiz, Justin's previous gloomy mood returned. After school, Justin had to retrace his bus journey backwards, return to the diner, and work two more hours, before going home to Deb's for dinner and a marathon homework session. Lying in bed that night, Justin wanted to run away, all over again, and this time, NOT get rescued.
It was a grueling schedule, and during the first few days, Justin was sure he'd never get used to it. Then somehow it got easier. He liked the companionable silence he shared with Deb, driving to the diner through the early morning streets. He quickly learned how to manage the bussing tubs, he discovered he liked talking to people, and soon he was helping to wait on the customers. He learned the cash register, and even convinced the cooks to let him watch them make some of the diner's more adventurous dishes. Guys flirted with him, and people started leaving him tips. When he got his paycheck on Friday night, he gaped at the total, almost a hundred dollars! He was thrilled.
That weekend was lonely. Brian had flown to Atlanta on a trip for the agency, Daphne went with her parents to a wedding in Philadelphia. Justin didn't want to go to Woody's or Babylon if Brian wasn't there. He asked for extra hours at the diner, and worked ahead in his textbooks, and spent hours in his room drawing pictures of Brian.
Monday morning when the guys showed up for breakfast at the diner, Justin approached their table and proudly handed over his paycheck to Brian. "My first payment!" he beamed.
Brian glanced at the check and handed it back. "Good. Now go across the street to State Bank and open a savings account. Put your checks in each week and show me your bankbook. When you've saved enough to pay me back, I'll let you know."
The wind somewhat taken out of his sails, Justin asked, "I can't just give you my checks? Deb says I can sign them over to you on the back."
Shaking his head, Brian said dismissively, "I'm not going to hassle with checks every week."
"I could cash them and give you the money instead. And here's my tips, I changed them into paper money for you." Justin pulled out a crumpled ten and three one dollar bills.
"Tips?" Michael asked. "Since when do busboys get tips?"
Justin smiled proudly. "I'm waiting tables now, too, sometimes."
Debbie stopped at the booth and gave Justin a quick hug. "Sunshine's gonna be running the place in a few more weeks!" she bragged. "The customers love him!"
"I don't want your tips, keep 'em." Brian paused, then added, "And try to remember you're being punished, you're not supposed to enjoy yourself."
Justin laughed and punched at Brian; surprisingly, Brian laughed back. "If you're ready when I am, you can have a ride to school today," he said.
"Cool! I will be!" Justin rushed back to the kitchen to pick up the order for table three.
Every week Justin showed his bankbook to Brian; the total was growing fast, and it was earning interest, too. Always Brian glanced at it and said, "Mmm-hmm," but he would never tell Justin exactly how much money he was owed. At first he'd been waiting for the charges to show up on his credit card bill, but after that, he just kept putting Justin off, as if the subject bored him.
One Monday evening, Justin was at the loft, studying for a big calculus exam. Sometimes Brian let him come over to study; Deb's house was so noisy most of the time, and the tv was on a lot, it was hard to concentrate. Justin still had a key, but he never used it without permission. Sometimes Brian would be out cruising, though he never brought a trick home when Justin was there; sometimes Brian worked at home in the evening, and they maintained a companionable silence. Living with Brian those few weeks had been a revelation; Brian liked to maintain his image as an insatiable sex machine, but Justin had discovered that not only did he work at home a couple evenings a week, at other times he liked to simply relax, watch a DVD, or just listen to music. They had discovered a mutual passion for Jeopardy! and enjoyed competitively shouting out the answers - in the form of questions - while they lounged on the sofa drinking beer. They'd even played Scrabble one night, though Justin had to promise on his life (giggling all the while) never to tell a soul. Sometimes Justin got to spend the night, or at least spend some time in Brian's bed, but not often enough, not nearly often enough.
When his head was filled to bursting with calculus, Justin threw down his book, stood up and stretched. Wandering over to the dining table, where Brian had spread out his own version of homework, ad sketches and pages of statistical data, Justin dropped his hands on Brian's neck in an impromptu massage. He half-expected to get yelled at, but Brian just said, "Mmm" and relaxed under Justin's touch.
"Are you in a good mood?" Justin asked him.
Twisting his head round, Brian regarded him balefully. "What?"
"Brian, I don't mean to nag you - "
"Yeah, you do. What?"
"Well, it's about the money I owe you. I need to know when I'll be paid off."
"Why? Quitting your job?"
"No, why would I quit my job? It's just that, well, I want to buy something, something expensive, and I want to start saving for it."
"Jeez, Brian, I'm 18, I don't need people's permission to do stuff any more."
"Yeah, you do." Brian stood up and grabbed Justin's shoulders, leaned into his face and enunciated slowly, "What-do-you-want-to-buy?"
Hearing the tolling of the death-knell of his dream, Justin answered, "A motorcycle."
"NO FUCKING WAY."
"Brian - "
"NO FUCKING WAY."
Justin pulled away and paced around the table. "I'm sick of riding the bus, it takes HOURS out of my day, every fucking day! I need transportation, I need it! Tim, the other busboy at work? His brother has a bike for sale, cheap he says, and - "
"Absolutely fucking NOT. Your mom will say no. Deb will say no. And I say no. So forget it."
"I'm 18! I can do what I want - "
"YOU'RE NOT TOO OLD TO SPANK, YOUNG MAN!" Brian grabbed Justin's arms, raised them above his head and held them in a tight grip with his left hand, and with his right hand, he started tickling Justin's sides, his underarms, his ears.
"No fair, no fair," Justin screeched, doubling over, trying to pull away, laughing and gasping for air.
Brian wrestled him backwards, up the stairs and onto the bed. Justin fought back, weak with laughter, while Brian roughly undressed him and continued his tickling campaign. When Justin was almost naked, Brian spread out full-length on top of him, stopped to catch his own breath, then lowered his head and kissed Justin hard on the mouth. Justin stopped struggling; this was a battle he wanted to lose. Brian pulled off his own clothes, with a little help, and soon they were rolling around naked on the bed. Justin cried, "Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me!"
"Okay," Brian laughed agreeably. "Okay."
In the shower later, washing Brian's back, caressing his sinewy muscles with a bar of glycerine soap, Justin said, "Brian - "
"No. Motorcycle. Ever."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever, no motorycle NOW, I won't agree to never, so shut up! But I still need you to tell me, when I can pay off the money I owe you. I just want to - "
Brian turned around and grabbed Justin's shoulders, shook him gently. "All right, I am sick of being nagged to death. Jesus! I haven't told you, because I was sure you'd blow it all on CDs or something stupid. The money in your savings account is YOURS. I hope you'll save it for college, but that's up to you. The money is yours to keep."
"Mine? No, Brian, I want to pay you back."
"Forget it." Brian turned around, grabbed the shampoo bottle, dunked his head under the shower. Justin grabbed the bottle from his hand and pulled Brian out of the shower spray.
"Brian, I NEED to pay you back! For ME. Brian, I STOLE from you!"
Wiping his hands over his face and hair, blinking water from his eyes, Brian kissed Justin gently. "I never blamed you, Justin. You were in a tight spot, you had no place to go. Nobody to help you. I never blamed you for that. It was my fault, really, I lost my temper, I kicked you out on the street." He paused, then went on, "And I know you meant to repay me, even if I hadn't found you that weekend. Right?"
Justin nodded. He couldn't speak, his throat was full of tears.
"Your punishment was to take that shitty job. You took the job, and you turned it around, made a success of it. I. . .everybody's proud of you. And the money is yours. You earned it."
Weeping now, unable to hide his tears, Justin put his arms around Brian's neck. Brian hugged him tight, but he couldn't resist teasing: "Allergies again? In the shower?"