Just Ask Me
It's one of those autumn days in Manhattan, when urban blight and the pressures of life in the big city pale beneath the glory of a simple season. There is a slight chill in the air. Chimneys, dormant through an overly long and humid summer, perfume the air with the first wisps of wood smoke. City parks are ablaze with trees lit red and gold and orange, raining this color on passersby who leave behind the faint scent of mothballs and cedar used to protect their woolen clothing through months of disuse. I should be out in that beautiful setting, or even more productive, at work in my studio. I have a major exhibition at a Chelsea gallery in three weeks, and I fear my portfolio is light.
I am that most fortunate of artists, one who is not forced to starve, only to be discovered posthumously, or not at all. I have a dedicated following of collectors and enough works hung in prominent museums that I can afford a loft in Soho and a studio on a lower, less finished floor of the same converted warehouse. At thirty-four, I have few complaints. I have been very lucky.
The loft, with a view of a meat packing plant, now turned into fashionable condos, is sleek, contemporary and impeccable. I light candles with a faint vanilla scent, and put Coltrane on the extensive sound system. There's a bottle of good chardonnay chilling in the Sub-Zero and a collection of tasty canapés from a local caterer displayed on an art glass platter. I catch my reflection in the Venetian mirror hung above the fireplace mantle. I pause and press my fingertips up to my forehead. Are these wrinkles? I change my expression and the furrows smooth out. I still weigh what I weighed as a teenager, and still have all my hair, although it doesn't seem quite as blonde as I remember it being before. It's grown in a bit darker over the years, strawberry blonde now, instead of platinum.
I've dressed in what must be the official color of the artsy crowd in this city: black. Black cashmere turtleneck, black leather pants, black boots. I turn to the side to confirm my ass is still high and firmly rounded, and no belly pokes over my waistband. I sigh and shake my head. I may be well preserved, but I am no longer a blonde twink, and my expected guest has made me feel every one of my thirty-four years.
"It's not a seduction, it's an inquisition, Justin," I remind myself, and seem to recall an old Monty Python skit that incorporated a similar theme. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! I laugh and then flinch, startled by the buzzer announcing my guest has arrived. My stomach contracts. Suddenly I am very nervous about this meeting, and I wish I had declined the solicitation of an invitation to my home. Too late now. I force one of my more sincere smiles as I open the door and find myself facing a tall, lanky kid who fills me with emotion, just to look at him. He is so like his father, it is heartbreaking. The same classic features, slim physique, fawn-like eyes. Only his eyes are brown, like his mother's, not the muddy dark hazel that makes his father's eyes so unique. But the expression, hawk-like and unrelenting is exactly the same.
His hair is dusty blonde rather than chestnut brown, but the fact that Brian Kinney sired him could never be disputed. He wears his genes in every glimpse, every smile, and every inflection. I swallow the thick emotion in my throat and stick my hand out to shake his. "Welcome, Gus," I say with forced good will. He returns my handshake with little enthusiasm. He seems so glum. I remember what a happy baby he was, and a sunny little boy. I guess everyone gets a little tragic at seventeen. I know I did, from time to time. "It's been awhile. How tall are you now?"
He rolls those angular shoulders that taper into a long torso and slim hips. "I dunno. Six-one, I guess."
He is looking around, trying to take it all in without appearing overly curious, which would blow his studied cool. I realize he has never seen my loft, and that makes me feel sad. I invite him to sit down, and offer him a glass of wine or a soft drink. He opts for bottled water. I suggest he try a canapé, but he just stares at the delicate creations as if looking at wads of dog food on stale chips. I pour myself a glass of wine. A tall glass of wine. I have a feeling I'll need it.
Where the stairs begin their ascent, hung from the exposed brick wall, is an unframed canvas as big as Gus is tall. It's an acrylic rendering of his father, looking pensive as he stands in profile by a window. The light from outside casts his face in gold. I painted it ten years ago, and it's my favorite work. I wouldn't sell it for a million dollars. Gus looks away from it and centers a hawk's gaze on me. "How long have you been in this place?" He asks, and I can answer him precisely. Two years and three months. That's how long it has been since his father left my life. Two years, three months and five days to be precise. If I really thought about it, I could give him an hour and a minute count as well. I respond, instead, with a neutral, "Couple years."
He nods knowingly. "You pay for all this by painting pictures?" In other words, is his father subsidizing my lifestyle?
"Yes," I can honestly answer. "I pay for all this by painting pictures."
"Cool," he says with a nod, a word that has never gone out of fashion. "You still look good, Justin," he says and I have to smile. I know at seventeen, thirty-four seems ancient. He would be surprised to know that to many, I am still a young man. His father was only four years younger than I am now when we first met. I was Gus' age exactly. In fact, it was on the night Gus was born. That emotion creeps up in my throat again and I swallow a gulp of chardonnay.
"So you're at Andover, right?" I ask, referring to his exclusive boarding school. He shrugs as if to say no big deal. It was a big deal to his father, who insisted he have the best of everything.
"Only for one more year, then I'm going to college. I want to go to Stanford."
"Yeah, I'm going to study pre-law."
I conceal my unease. After all, one of his two mommies is an attorney. "Good for you, Gus. How is Mel, by the way?" He shrugs. He had long ago gotten past the stigma of being raised by lesbian lovers.
"She's good. She says you owe her a call."
I am terrible with social obligations when involved in an exhibition of my work. Mel was the first person I called when I left Brian's brownstone that day, a little over two years ago. I went into the first bar I passed, ordered a double neat scotch, carried it to a back booth and flipped open my mobile to call Mel. "I left him," I announced, fighting back a flood of tears, deciding it was unseemly for a man over thirty to bawl into a cell phone in a bar on a Friday evening. She was skeptical as she asked, "Again?"
"For good this time." Tears welled up. I brushed them back. She seemed to read my angst and she sighed.
"I'm sorry, honey. I don't want you to be hurt. I love you. But you should have done it fifteen years ago." Mel had never been a fan of Brian's. I think I needed to hear a Brian-hater that day, because I was pretty fed up with him myself.
"Justin?" Gus is calling me back to the present, and just in the nick of time. I can't relive that day without an intense emotional response. "When did you fall out of love with my dad?"
My eyes grow wide as I settle on his youthful Brian Kinney features. "I never fell out of love with your dad. Why do you say that, Gus?"
"You left him."
"It's not that simple."
"I thought you two were a couple," he sounds like a child being told his parents are divorcing. I recognize that hurt tone and confusion. I went through it myself when I was his age. What strange relationship role models we've given this boy. His father an avowed and openly gay man in a long term relationship with a younger lover, his mother a strict lesbian, legally married to a female for longer than Gus had been alive. Gus himself the result of artificial insemination between loving friends. And yet for all that influence, the conservatives will be disappointed in the failure of their theories about the insidious evils of homosexuality and the dangers of environment. Gus is straight arrow.
"Gus, we discussed all this in detail when Brian and I split up. Why now?"
His lower lip trembles. I know that look so well, the repression of emotion, the need to control no matter what the circumstances. His eyes meet mine. I feel bad that I've let us drift apart since the break up. I still send him an occasional note, some little gifts, call him on his birthday. But we practically grew up together, him from baby to young man, me from teenager to adult. "When is the last time you talked to Dad?" He asks, and I pause. Was it June? Could it have been that long? Yes, June, when he showed up unexpectedly at the Frick's installation of one of my paintings.
My mind takes a detour to that warm evening in early summer. The Frick was always a favorite of ours, intimate, lovely, and a small but important collection. We went there often, just to escape the rigors of his demanding job as the managing partner of one of the largest ad agencies in Manhattan. Sometimes we would simply sit in the garden on a stone bench, stare at the fountain and talk. We wouldn't even tour the collection. That was where I found him at my installation party. Sitting in the garden, alone, smoking, lit by the occasional twinkle of fairy lights strung across the shrubbery.
Brian was almost forty-seven at the time. You wouldn't know it to look at him. He worked out with obsessive dedication to staying thin and toned, and his obsession paid dividends. His stomach was as flat as ever, his body hard and trim. He allowed his hair to gray naturally rather than take horrendous steps to cover it up. The result was just enough silver at the temples and seeded throughout his mane that it made him, impossibly, even more handsome than before. Brian, like Gus, has the kind of features that don't soften and go bad with age. He has a strong nose, chin and jaw. There is no change there, although he had a discreet eye tuck a few years ago when he thought he looked "tired", a euphemism for "old".
He is not the young bitch stud he was when we first met, but he is still a devastatingly attractive man, and he knows it. He was so terrified of growing old when he turned thirty. Now that he is much older than that, and has retained enough of his beauty that he still stops conversation by entering a room, he is not battling the clock the way he once was. Not overtly, anyway. Any seductive power stolen by the aging process was more than replaced by his financial success and power. He maintained his unerring ability to wear styles perfect for his frame and for his station in life, whatever the hell that means.
When I walked up to him in the garden, he raised a single brow in that Brian way. A smile that was almost a sneer momentarily curled his upper lip. "Lots of sparkly people here for your event, Justin."
"Yes, I guess the Frick has a good publicity firm." His agency has that account. He smiles more broadly. He is wearing an Italian designer suit, custom fitted to his lean physique. It is dove gray, as is his shirt and tie. It brings out the touch of silver in his hair and in the pewter frames of his glasses. I love him in glasses. They add, rather than detract, from the power of his eyes.
"Your painting is wonderful." He was always my biggest fan and supporter. He always said my success never surprised him for a moment. His brownstone and office, both, display many examples of my early work. They would probably be worth something now, but I would be devastated if he ever sold any of it.
I sit beside him. My knee casually touches his. He doesn't withdraw. We are silent. Some hurt animal inside of me begins to keen with pain. After two years, I am still so in love with him, it is a physical torture to be this close without more. When the hell does that fade or vanish? "How are you, Bri? We haven't crossed in any of the usual places. No parties, openings, you seem to have dropped out."
He glances at me as if trying to discern if I have heard something. I wonder what he is concealing. "No, I've been traveling."
"Fun or work?"
I know the answer to that. With Brian, its always work.
"I spent two weeks in Singapore with a big banking client, and then swung by Hong Kong for fashion week, which we promoted. Otherwise, just here and there."
"I'm going to the Hampton's next week," I say with a laugh. I don't even try to compete. He nods, staring straight ahead.
"You're welcome to use my place there." He has told me I can always use his place in the Hampton's or his ski lodge in Vermont, but I never do. Too many memories of sharing that space with him. I would be miserable the entire time.
"Thanks, but I'm going with someone." I feel his gaze shift to my face. He asks,
I shrug. I want to tell him it may be. But that would be a lie. It's a gallery owner with a crush. He's young and cute and a nice diversion. That's all it will ever be for me. "Not at all."
He nods. Is he relieved? Is it easier to think of me in a casual sex situation? Or does he even care? Even after all these years of being as close as stamp to envelope with Brian, I can seldom unravel his feelings from his actions.
"Is there a second Mrs. Brian Kinney in the wings?" I hear myself asking, unable to stop the words. All of the friends we have in common, and even a shared hairstylist, masseuse and cleaning lady are only too happy to tell me what they know or think they know about his romantic escapades since our breakup. Lately, he's gone dark. Very little information is filtering out. I wonder if that means he's serious about someone. The idea of that makes me feel sick. He chuckles and shakes his head. "No, Mrs. Kinney, you are the only one. I learned my lesson well."
He is being sarcastic, but his words sting a little. "Was it that bad?"
He places his hand over mine, squeezes gently. "Best years of my life, baby."
The curator, who is determined to whisk me away, explaining I am the star after all, interrupts us to say everyone is asking about me. I glance over my shoulder at Brian who is watching me walk away. As I enter the museum, I see him stand and crush his cigarette under the toe of his handmade shoes before walking towards the exit. That was the last time we saw each other or spoke. Four months. I have heard very little gossip about Brian in that interim. He continues to be strangely reclusive. I glance at his son as a vague sensation of alarm begins to grow within me. "Gus, is something wrong? Is Brian ok?"
"Do you even care?" He snaps at me and I lean back, that vague feeling flaming into rampant terror. I control the tone of my voice.
"I have shared most of my life with that man, Gus. No matter what has happened lately, I will always love Brian and always care what is going on with him. I think you better tell me right now if there's something wrong."
"You mean like cancer or AIDS or a heart attack?" He shoots back at me. "That would be easier, in a way. It's nothing like that. It's not that he's sick or dying or anything physical, but..."
"But what, Gus! Spit it out!"
"He's just.... gone."
I lean back, finishing off my glass of wine. "Gone as in disappeared?"
"No. He goes to his office, sees his trainer, and takes principal clients to dinner, plays, and sporting events. But when I call him, he isn't there, Justin. I hear his voice, he makes the right noises, but he isn't in the room with me. I don't know where he is. I asked him point blank, ‘Dad, are you depressed?' He said, ‘Only pussies get depressed. What do I have to be depressed about?' I said it is a chemical thing, not a weakness, but he changed the subject. I asked him if he was coming to Andover for parents' weekend, like he always does, and he said he might skip it this year. Skip it! I just left his office before coming here, and his assistant said she was so happy to see me because she hoped I could cheer him up. I asked her if his business was down, and she said they couldn't keep up, they had so many accounts. Their best year ever. All because of Dad's hard work."
"Maybe he had a romance go bad on him," I suggested grimly, despising the idea that he could care that much about another man.
Gus smiled gently, that sweet Brian smile I love so much. "I asked him that."
"He said in order to be hurt, you had to let someone in. He doesn't believe in opening that door. I said, ‘You opened it for Justin' and he said, ‘That was Justin'." I sigh, touched deeply by that sentiment. He goes on. "Why did you leave him, Justin? I've never heard the straight story of what happened."
"You should ask Brian that, Gus."
"I have. He says it is none of my business, but that it was his fault, not yours."
"It was no one's fault. It was just an accumulation of things."
"You mean an accumulation of infidelities?"
I meet his eyes. He knows his father. I nod. "It was minor, really. Some good-looking young marketing director, doing business with his firm. They went out for dinner to discuss the account. I was working in my studio. I came back earlier than I expected, just couldn't make the creative side of my brain work. I'm not sure if it was the fact it was in the bed we share, or that the lover was younger than I am, or that it was one more lie after he told me never again. But I knew I couldn't take anymore of it. I had to leave."
"Did he ask you to stay?"
I let my gaze wander to the painting of Brian overhanging the staircase. In his way, he did ask me to stay. My Brian-to-English Dictionary is extensive. I know how to translate what he can't say. He said, "Just think about it until the end of the week. If you still want to leave, then go. But give it a few days thought." I looked up from my packing to ask, "What the fuck will a few days change?"
"Your mind, I hope." He said softly. That was as close as Brian could come to begging me to stay.
"Nothing ever changes with you," I replied with intent to hurt and it did. I saw the pain register in his eyes before he turned away and left me alone.
"After you left, he tried to get you to come back, Justin," Gus reminds me. I nod. He did try, sort of. He called me and apologized. He invited me to dinner and to talk. He said he missed me. And when none of that worked, his pride kicked in and he drifted away.
"Gus, Brian is Peter Pan. The boy who never grew up. Well, I did grow up. I'm past that kind of thing. I need a real relationship, not one I've created in my head and wrapped around a man who never really existed."
Gus stands, jutting his chin out in his stubborn Brian look. "I get it. I'm sorry I bothered you."
"Sit the fuck down! Don't be a drama princess," I have heard his father say those words so often to me. He reluctantly does so. "If Brian is in pain, I will never turn my back on him, whether we are in a relationship or not. Just tell me everything you know, and let me decide how to proceed."
His son sighs and pops a canapé into his mouth, and then another, and one more, talking between bites in rapid fire chatter, and I go into sponge mode, absorbing everything he says.
I never pictured Brian in a brownstone. A penthouse, a loft, but a brownstone? He insisted it was a steal when we first went to look at the little vertical structure off Sutton Place several years ago. When we went inside, I immediately understood the concept of larceny, but it seemed to me it was the relatives of the deceased owner who were the crooks pulling a fast one. It hadn't been remodeled since the seventies. It had horrible shag nylon carpet, harvest gold appliances, wallpaper that curled hair, and a general feeling of neglect and sadness. Brian sprinted up and down the stairs, cataloguing every flaw to include in his low bid, then turned to me and said, "It's perfect." I glared at him and responded,
"Only if you're trying to develop the calves of a Sherpa! You can't get to any room without climbing stairs."
"Maybe it will get your soft ass into shape," he teased me, pulling me up against his body and spreading his long fingers on my ass. That old time thrill erupted as if we were still new at this. I reached up to kiss him, always feeling that divine spark of delight the moment his tongue touched mine. "Tell it to me, baby," he asked softly, and I knew just what he wanted to hear. "Even now," I whispered against his ear and he smiled. We both knew what it meant, although it was too difficult to describe that meaning to anyone outside of our relationship.
We spent over a year renovating the brownstone. That is, I spent over a year governing crews of workmen, turning Brian's detailed ideas into reality. It was horrible. We fought over every throw pillow, every tile, and every light fixture. I neglected my painting and he criticized my project management, but in the end, the brownstone was beautiful. Restored to its ancient hardwoods, stone, art glass underpinnings, but modernized with sleek Italian furniture, a high tech kitchen, subdued modern lighting. Architectural Digest did four pages on it. My favorite thing Brian did was design around my paintings, planning where each one would hang and how the room would unfold around the art. He could not have paid me a higher compliment.
I kept my key to the brownstone, as he told me to do, but I haven't used it since I left. Now I do, because Brian doesn't respond to my knock. Stepping inside, I feel as if I am home. This is the home of my heart, the place where we lived out an important phase of our lives together. It is impeccable, of course. Part of Brian's obsessive need to control is his need to keep his cage absolutely spotless. I go through every room from the gym in the basement to the storage in the attic, and he is nowhere to be found. Gus said he was in town, but that certainly doesn't mean he's home. I pause in his study and look at his sleek computer. He has it locked, of course, and I test his usual password. It opens immediately. I resist the urge to sift though his personal business, and hit his calendar.
I see that for today, he has written one word. "Beach". There is something weird about this calendar, but I can't immediately decide what it is. Then it hits me. There are no entries beyond "Beach". Every day preceding "Beach" is packed with appointments, both work and social. Every day after it is blank. As I lean back in his soft kid leather chair and contemplate the meaning of what I saw, his screensaver clicks into place. It is one of my recent paintings. The gallery sent out an interactive version of the invitation to my show. I am surprised that Brian had it set up as a screensaver. Even more surprising is his wallpaper, an enlargement of Gus and me. It was taken on Gus's fourth birthday and I was helping him whack a reluctant piñata. Brian has long had that shot in a silver frame by his bed. I wonder when he scanned it into his computer.
I pick up the phone and call his house in the Hampton's. I get voice mail. I leave my cell phone number for call back. I then dial another number, this one in Pittsburgh. "Vintage C-Mix. Mr. Novotny's office." I tell her who I am and ask for Michael. He comes on the line almost immediately. Mikey has done very well, turning his obsession with superheroes into a chain of shops in the northeast featuring vintage comic books and toys. He never left Pittsburgh, but he seems happy there. Our relationship has improved over the years, once he came to terms with the fact Brian had chosen to make a life with me instead of Michael. Since our break up, he's been almost obsequiously friendly to me. I think he just wants to be sure no reconciliation is in the works.
We get the pleasantries out of the way, and I ask if he has heard from Brian lately. "Not for about two weeks, why? Is something wrong?"
"I'm sure not," I respond and quickly try to disengage from this conversation. I dial Brian's private line in his office. His assistant picks up and is thrilled to hear my voice.
"Justin! It's been ages! How are you?"
Again, pleasantries, then I said, "Is Brian out of town this week?"
She is silent for a long moment. Finally she says, "Justin, you don't know?"
"He's taken a sabbatical. It started today."
"A sabbatical? Isn't that like an extended vacation?"
"Brian has so many years of unused vacation, he could take a year off, fully paid. But he's only taking three months. He plans to return after New Year's."
I feel a sense of dread. I would have to beg him to take a long weekend somewhere, and even then cell phones and pagers and other tracking devices interrupted it. "Why is he doing this?"
She chuckles. "You know Brian. He never feels compelled to share his motivations with anyone."
True. "Do you know where he went or... " I pause, then add, "...Who he went with?"
She is discreet and would never share any of this information with anyone. But we have a relationship we forged over years of taking care of Brian together and she desperately wants to see us reunited. "Justin, he made all his plans himself. I have absolutely no idea where he is going. And I would be very surprised if anyone is going with him."
I spend a few minutes catching up the inane details of my present life with her, and then hang up.
My hand glides across his desktop. This sterling silver letter opener we picked up at an antique shop in London. Its Art Deco style fits in well with the décor. That London trip was typical. He was in meetings all day, I was visiting the Tate Museum, old and new versions, the National Portrait Gallery, and Harrods. Often at night, I would go to a play, alone, while he entertained clients with fancy dinners. We met where we usually did, in bed. Our suite at Claridge's on Brook Street was an elegant Art Deco throw back and the sex we shared in that romantic setting made the separations during the trip bearable. I most enjoyed sharing breakfast in bed with him, our personal butler bringing us silver trays with an assortment of silver serving dishes and bone china, all brimming with specialties we would never eat at home, unless we were trying to get fat.
He took me to Venice once, after that, a surprise for my thirtieth birthday. He promised not to work at all, and he was pretty good about keeping that oath. We were blatant tourists, seeing everything from the Doge's Palace to the basilica at St. Mark's Square. One night, we shared a romantic gondola ride up the Grand Canal and he kissed me, touched me, got me so excited I slipped his hand under the waistband of my pants to fondle me as Venice glided past, a jewel like fantasy of a city. He pulled me into one of the narrow closes between buildings when we left the gondola, and pressed me up against the cold brick wall, plunging his tongue down my throat and loosening my clothes to get at my flesh.
We seldom did the outlaw sex thing in semi-public by that time, and the thrill combined with the threat of discovery to make it so hot I begged him to fuck me. He lifted me up, wrapping one of my legs behind his waist as he braced himself against the wall with one palm and held me with the other arm, ramming his dick into my ass with the force of a battering ram at the castle drawbridge. I threw my head back, feeling his lips on my throat, my arms tight around his neck as he pounded into me. The pressure was a familiar combination of bliss and pain and an overwhelming need for release. His abdomen, left bare by hastily opened buttons, was now a tool for stroking my erection. When I shot on his expensive, hand tailored shirt, he didn't seem to mind. Within seconds, he too found relief, and then we just stood there for a minute, foreheads pressed together, arms still locked around each other, clothing barely fastened as we waited for our bodies to return to normal.
"I love you, Justin," he whispered in my ear and I sighed and kissed his cheek. He said it so seldom. He really didn't need to proclaim his feelings for me. I knew. But when he did, my heart just soared. Venice will always be perfect to me because of that trip, and I pick up the ornate leather seventeenth century letterbox we bought for him over there. That and the mirror in my loft were our two major finds. He promised we would return for Carnivale, but we never did. In a frame on his desk is a picture of the two of us embracing in that gondola. I have a print of it in my place. If you really examine it, you might see that I have an erection tenting the front of my pants, but you really have to look to see it is not just a trick of the light.
My eyes fill with tears. How could so much love, so many years of a common life be lost to us now? Why was it so impossible for Brian to keep from sharing his dick with the world? Why did it matter so much to me that he be faithful? I had his love, no one else came close to him emotionally, why was it necessary that I have exclusive use of his dick, as well? I convinced myself over and over again that it wasn't necessary that he be true to me. I made excuses for him. I forgave him incessantly. But finally I could take it no more. I was right. We were in a long-term committed relationship. I had every right to expect fidelity. Even if he just slipped from time to time, I could forgive that. I'm not perfect. But as his one hobby, it became too much. I just lost the ability to forgive.
"Where are you, baby?" I whispered, returning the photo to his desk, as I was consumed with the need to find him and confirm he was well. Shouldn't be too hard to do. I only had the entire world as my search area...how big a deal was that? Sighing, I decided big or not, I would take it on and track him down with the determination that only the man who loved Brian Kinney for most of his life could muster.
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July 25, 2004