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Just Ask Me
Part II

As I walk into the diner on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh, I am surprised, again, by how little it's changed since I was part time waiter, bus boy and flunky here, seventeen years ago. When it became known that an entrepreneur was going to raze the diner, I participated, from New York, in the campaign to preserve it as a landmark. I even convinced Brian to be the creative force behind the preservation campaign, capitalizing on his skills as an adman to influence popular opinion. We won. Debbie, Michael's mother and my former landlady, now owns the diner. Deb must be close to seventy, but her irrepressible spirit is unchanged by age. She wears the same red, curly wig and outrageous fashion mistakes. She is still the mother confessor to the mostly gay men who frequent her establishment.

"Sunshine!" She shrieks when she sees me, abandoning her post behind the cash register to throw her ample body into my arms and squeeze me like a ripe tomato. She almost pulls me off my feet and I return the squeeze, with a little less enthusiasm. No one but Deb calls me "Sunshine" anymore, and at 34, it's more than a little embarrassing.

She pushes me to arm's length and takes me in with a critical glance. I notice that too much blue eye shadow looks scary on a woman of a certain age.

"You are still as skinny as a mite!" She observes, and then glances over her shoulder at the large booth in the back where the others await me. "Some of them could take a page from your diet book! Speaking of skinny, how is that bad boy, Brian Kinney? You ever talk to him?"

I shrug as my lips draw into a tight line. Deb's all knowing, all seeing eyes bore into me. "You're better off without him, kiddo."

"Don't," I say quietly. Too many years have passed for Deb to be able to offer me that kind of unsolicited advice. She has never approved of Brian, blaming him for many of her son's weaknesses. The group in the booth is each within a year or two of Brian's age, placing them all in their late forties. Michael, the comic book king and eternal adolescent, is oddly untouched by time. He is like a foundling left by gremlins, who will have the heart of a boy forever. His black hair is now steel gray, but worn in the same close-cropped quasi-buzz cut of his youth. He wears a tee shirt promoting his enterprise, Vintage C-mix, with the venerable Captain Astro streaking across his chest.

Brian and I once sat down and put pen to paper to try and determine how much money Michael has made trading old comics and action figures to collectors. A few million clear profit over the life of his business was our conservative estimate. He still lives a blue-collar lifestyle, banking his stash, underwriting the diner for Deb and buying more toys for himself. Brian turned to me the night we reached our financial estimate and said, "I knew I married the wrong groupie."

I smirked at him and replied, "Yeah? What would you do if you had a rich husband? Quit?" He shrugged, his hesitation surprising me, since his career consumed so much of his life. "Maybe."

"To do what?" I pressed him.

"I don't know," he became annoyed. "Eat bon bons all day? Play tennis? Write the great American novel? You think the ad game is all that I can do?"

"I know what else you can do," I reminded him with a smile, and that brief skirmish ended in a session of hot sex. He seemed to brood about that conversation for some time after we had it. Not because of Michael's success, Brian had accumulated a far superior fortune, but because of the question I asked him and his uncertain answer. He had gone as far as he could go in the ad game, and Brian was not satisfied without challenges. He always needed new goals to conquer.

Ted could have told us exactly what Michael was worth, but of course he wouldn't. His ethics as an accountant prevented that. He was a founding partner in his own firm now, and Brian as well as Michael used his services. Brian insisted trust was more important to him than the size of the firm. Since Brian had accumulated funds well beyond any estimate of Michael's value, it was a mark of confidence that he would let Ted manage his money. Ted's pattern baldness was not all bad with his face, and he kept his remaining hair trimmed short. He was a little paunchy, but his long-term lover didn't seem to mind. Ted, who had no luck in love when I first met him, became very lucky later. He built a relationship with a man who still shared his life in perfect symmetry. Ted is a new person because of that love, more confident and serene.

Lindsay and Melanie rise to greet me with hugs and kisses. Both women are still attractive. My two favorite lesbians, and Gus's official parents, they are a model couple now. Lindsay has widened in the beam, slightly, and Mel's serious face is a bit more solemn, but they are still sweet to me and I love them. Like the good women they are, they work hard to stay in touch with me and I appreciate their efforts. "Where's Emmett?" I ask as I slide into the booth. I wind up sitting next to Michael. A cute twink, not unlike I was at his age, comes over to take our order. We choose things from memory, not waiting for Emmett, and the boy leaves, flashing me a flirty smile. Given my austere company, I must look almost young to him. It pays to hang with people who have at least thirteen years on you. Amazing how young that can make you appear.

As if to answer my question, Emmett arrives. And when Emmett arrives, it's always an event. A sable trench coat lined in paisley velvet is open over designer clothes. A tasteful selection of jewelry, watch, ring, and bracelet are probably worth well into six figures. Gone are the days of see through sweaters from Torso. With a personal trainer, chef, dietician and some discreet facial refreshening surgery in Switzerland, combined with a wad of hair transplants, Emmett looks about my age. He has hit the big time. For twelve years, he has been the mistress of a married real estate magnate, now in his sixties. Emmett surprised us all by how shrewd he became. He made sure his penthouse condo was in his name, and that he had a stock portfolio as diversified as his wardrobe. If his benefactor left him today, he could live comfortably for the rest of his life. Fey and fickle, like a fucking fox.

He kisses me in greeting; air kisses the others, and slides in beside me. I stroke the sable and ask, "Was it necessary for these guys to die in order to adorn you?"

"Honey, I tried wearing live ones, but they kept shitting on my sweater," he shoots back, and I laugh. There is no hope of teaching Emmett PC behavior.

"So who called this reunion of the Venerable Old Queens Club?" He insists, leveling a gaze at me. I sigh.

"I'm worried about Brian."

Groans all around, a curse from Mel, but Lindsay reaches across the table and squeezes my hand in a comforting gesture. "Me too, Justin. And so it Gus."

"I know. He came to see me."

"I thought you two were kaput," Michael pouts in that patented way of his.

"That doesn't mean I don't care about him, Mikey," I glare at him. "You should understand that better than anyone." Emmett makes a hissing noise to emulate a catfight, and I retreat. Michael can still annoy me.

"What is it you are worried about, Justin?" Ted asks cautiously and I explain Brian's disappearing act and tell them the futile steps I have already taken to locate him. When I finish, Ted shrugs. "Are you suggesting he's suicidal?"

"Yes, because he just can't stand to live without Justin," Michael says drolly and I ignore that cut.

"Not sure, Ted. Doubt it. But this is weird behavior for him. I'm worried."

"Look, I shouldn't say anything," Ted cautiously begins. "But he did take a withdrawal out of a fund that was sizeable enough to keep him afloat quite comfortably for awhile. He refused to answer my inquiries, of course, reminding me it's his money, after all, but I found it odd. Now it makes sense. Maybe he's on an extended vacation. God knows he's earned it."

"He told me he was going to be away for awhile," Lindsay volunteers. Her quick look at Mel confirms she has not shared this information with her lover. "He said he pre-paid Gus's tuition through the end of next year, and he sent me a lump sum to cover support for awhile. I presumed it was business travel. He said if I needed anything at all, leave a message with his assistant, and he would try to check in with her occasionally."

Food arrives and Emmett orders an elaborate off-menu salad. I just pick at the familiar entrée I so often slammed on dishes all those years ago. Years of fine dining in New York had sharpened my palette. "Ted, are you sure there is nothing more you can tell me?" I persist.

"I really don't know more, and I can't give you dollar amounts, but it was a lot of money."

"He's not suicidal if he's checking in with his office occasionally," Michael points out. "You are still such a drama queen, Justin. I'm sure he's shacked up with a tribe of beautiful boys on some remote tropical island. That would be Brian's idea of a vacation."

"Michael, fuck off," I snap at him. "This is not about you and me, and your perceived competition for Brian. This is about Brian and whether he needs his friends."

"Ladies," Emmett intervenes. "I know something, but I have been sworn to secrecy by the imminent Mr. Kinney."

"You will tell us immediately, of course," Ted says with an affectionate smile. His friendship with Emmett has never paled over time.

"Of course I won't," Emmett responds with an imperious glare. "I can be trusted." We all groan and his glare intensifies. "Well I can!"

I scoot over closer to him and put my head on his shoulder. Cashmere sweater, very nice. "Please Em, this is so important to me."

"Justin," he purrs. "Past thirty, that little lost kitten act does not work!"

I lean back with a laugh. "Ok, then just tell me. If you do, I'll introduce you to that hot gallery owner you like so much. I'll tell him you're the best lay I ever had."

"You've never had me, poor deprived boy." He is interested. He may be a mistress, but he's not dead.

"I'll lie."

"It's nothing much," he allows, his salad arriving to a disapproving glare from its recipient. "He inquired if Jack and I were using our villa in Venice any time soon." Emmett had a way of appropriating his lover's vast holdings into his own community property, as if Jack had no wife and grown children. I told him not until Carnivale in February. I asked if he wanted to borrow it. He declined, but requested I not say anything about his inquiry to anyone."

Something within me tightened. Venice! My thirtieth birthday, the romantic gondola ride, the outlaw sex in a dark close between ancient buildings. Venice was very special to the two of us. I was amazed that he went there, if he did go there. I flipped open my cell phone and called the Hotel Danieli, where we stayed in a room overlooking the Grand Canal. He was not registered. At least not as Brian Kinney. Venice is full of good hotels. I was suddenly determined to go there, to find him, to reassure myself he was all right.

"If he is in Venice, he obviously does not want you bothering him, Justin," Michael snipes at me and I shrug.

"How do you know what he wants?"

"Well, he has been my best friend forever!" Michael reminds me in that annoying Pittsburgh twang that he's never lost.

"Is that right?" I challenge him. "When is the last time you talked? When did you last see him?"

Michael squirms uncomfortably. "I've been busy and so has he."

"He's asked you to New York many times, Mikey, to see a play, spend the weekend, catch up on old times. You are always too busy. Or you don't want to travel. Finally, he stopped asking. You may not know this, but your refusals hurt him very much. It's not your fault, really. You finally grew up. You have your own life, your own loves, and your own business. You don't need him the way you used to need him...so desperately. He groused about your dependence, but it made him feel important to someone. Brian needs to belong."

Michael looks cowed by that accusation, but Melanie laughs derisively. "The only thing important to Brian Kinney is Brian Kinney."

I look at her, and shake my head. "How can you say that, Mel? Are you suggesting he doesn't adore his son?"

She waves me off. "Only when it's convenient for him."

"Oh? Like when he flew in from New York during a hotly contested ad campaign competition to watch Gus in his pre-school Christmas play? Or when he came back from business meetings in Berlin to be there when Gus had his tonsils removed? Maybe it was when he arranged for the limo and the dinner and all those perks for Gus's first prom date? Is that what you mean?"

"Listen cutie," she says in her butch lawyer voice. "You're the one who left his cheating ass! If he's such a fucking saint, why did you leave?"

They all look at me, and I lean back with a sigh. The answer to that question has been torturing me for days. Why did I go? Have I been happier without him? Am I over my love for him? Potential answers haunt me. I haven't let them float into focus. "That is irrelevant,"

I inform her, and the rest of them. "We're not here to talk about my relationship with Brian, or whether we have one. We are here to talk about finding him."

"I'm not," Melanie shot back. "As far as I'm concerned, he can be on the moon and fucking stay there."

Lindsay pats her arm, but she shakes it off. Some resentments die hard.

I refrain from reminding her how Brian signed over his parental rights regarding Gus to Melanie and Lindsay at a critical juncture in their relationship. I was there at the time and I know how hard it was for him to do that. Despite that fact, he has always supported his son, financially and emotionally.

"Justin," Ted intervenes. "I don't mean to hurt you, but isn't it possible Brian is away with another guy and doesn't want to be found?"

I shrug. "If he is, he is. I just want to confirm he's all right, Ted. I'm not going to interfere in his life. I just need to know nothing is wrong with him."

"You could fill a library with what is wrong with him," Mel quips. "Starting with the fact he's a promiscuous sleaze and egomaniac, who has to turn a fucking vacation into a three act drama!"

I decide I should go, and toss some money on the table as I make my goodbyes short and pointed. Lindsay follows me out and stops me on the sidewalk. "Justin, I agree that this is unlike Brian. You're right to try and find him. I'd help if I could. An art professor doesn't make much money, however."

I kiss her cheek. "I don't need your money, Lindsay, and I know you can't participate in the hunt because of Mel. Don't worry. I'll keep you informed."

"Please do," she insists as I wave and walk away, formulating a plan.

February, a few months later...

The light of Venice is like no other light in the world. As an artist, I am acutely aware of how the sun differs depending on the location. Shadows may be blue or gray or in stark black relief. Sometimes the sun casts a white, harsh light, bleaching a landscape to bone. In Venice, the sun's rays are filtered through a peach gel to cast the city in shades of apricot and pale gold while the shadows are lavender and mauve. This natural glow shows manmade structures to their best advantage.

Alabaster bridges over canals are pale pink in this light, the salmon Doge's Palace gleams from every slick tile on its exterior, and the five domes of the Basilica San Marco are guarded by four huge bronze stallions who glisten as if their gilt hides are solid gold. The horses replicate the originals stored safely inside the church, after being stolen eight hundred years ago from the Hippodrome at Constantinople.

Brian taught me that fact when we first came here four years ago. The breadth of his knowledge about history and architecture would surprise his detractors who view him as a superficial idea salesman and sexual scoundrel. He has an insatiable need for knowledge and I enjoyed teaching him all I knew about art and classical Italian painters in exchange for his insight into local history and culture.

Remembering discovering Venice as his lover, his pupil, his fellow explorer, takes away much of the pleasure of it for me, since I'm here alone. Now the wind off the canals feels bitter, and the people seem hurried and cold. I sit at a small table outside Florian's Cafe, facing the Piazza San Marco at sunset. I sip espresso to chase the chill and watch tourists, locals, and pigeons compete for walking space in the crowded square. Small speakers pipe live piano music from inside the café. Brian and I once used Florian's as a staging place, to plot the day's explorations or to meet up if we veered towards divergent itineraries. It was a hop away from the water taxis and within walking distance of most of the city's main attractions.

I open my "Venice at a Glance" guidebook, wincing at his scrawled notations and the circles and stars around attractions he wanted to be sure to see when we came here to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. I feel guilty that it has taken me this long to get to Venice. First, I had to satisfy commitments to the promoters of my art exhibition. Since my work sold briskly, I now have less budget problems to curtail my time abroad. Christmas came next, then New Year's, and now Venice was dressing up for Carnivale, ten days of celebration prior to the beginning of Lent.

Soon tourists would drown the city, and if Brian were here, he would leave. He hates even the most enchanted place when others descend upon it en masse. Shop windows sparkle with ornate masks and costumes, many of which are already being tested by the populace who don't care to wait until the celebration is officially declared. It is not unusual to see the more common costumes of the event, from the beak faced plague doctors in long black robes, to the elegant Columbine who wears Renaissance splendor, but no mask at all. Unlike other costume events I have attended, Carnivale in Venice celebrates elegance with velvet, bangles, feathers and carefully crafted masks, not with humor and outrage.

Brian never left my mind as I fretted over the passage of these last few months. While I became convinced he was not suicidal, I also decided that he is probably shacked up with some young guy. I still feel an incredible weight of jealousy, not that he is with another lover, but that he would dedicate his time to him in a way he never did for me. He extended his leave beyond December, now claiming March as his return to work date. This fact his assistant shared with me. She claimed she had no other clues as to where he was or what he was doing.

He did, however, provide me with one direct clue. At Christmas, he sent me a package with a London postmark. Inside was a small bronze replica of the horses from Constantinople. The card, printed on heavy vellum paper, showed a close up of the head of one of the stallions. Inside there was no pre-selected message, just his handwritten note, quoting a lyric from a favorite Christmas song. "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams. Love, B."

Was the postmark a red herring? Were the horses? Were both? Would he come home for Christmas, or was it just a tease? He didn't come home, which didn't surprise me. I toy with the curled lemon peel I fish from my espresso as I contemplate how unlikely it is to find a man of means who doesn't want to be found. Night falls, and the chill in the air turns raw. I leave money for my coffee and nestle deep within the cashmere confines of my coat as I walk the arched cobblestone causeway of shops and cafes that border this perimeter of the Piazza.

I pause at a stationary shop's window display. Venice is known for fine stationary, most notably the tissue thin flame pattern that lines envelopes and boxes. I see expensive note cards that feature Venetian themes: the pink Doge's Palace, the ivory, covered Bridge of Sighs, the head of one of the horses of Basilica San Marco. Brian's note card.

As I realize the shop is closed, an image suddenly looms behind me in the glass, both frightening and prophetic. He is tall and spare, although yards of lush black velvet embroidered with gold conceal his physique. His face is a white mask with a long bird's beak. A floppy black velvet hat, in the Renaissance style of an oversized beret, covers his hair. The costume of the plague doctor has significance here. The black plague decimated Venice when all of Europe was consumed in pestilence. The plague doctors here wore black to connote death and filled the long beaks of their masks with herbs to filter the odor of decomposing flesh and to provide talismans against infection.

Here, today, the image of this crusader against death is stark and frightening, as if he has become death itself. In the glass, he is a white, terrifying alien hovering above a slight blond man who still clings to an illusion of youth and good health. I feel as if death is inviting me to join him willingly. At that moment, I almost would. And then, as suddenly as he appeared, the warmth of his body recedes, and he is gone.

I whirl around to focus on his retreating form, but the night has swallowed him. "Brian!" I scream his name in the night, certain that he was my sardonic visitor. I ignore the stares of strangers, who find such behavior completely inappropriate in this austere setting. I look for him, but all I find is the mask. It is staring lewdly up from the table where I sat a few minutes earlier. I lift it and run my hand along the beak as if stroking my lover's erect penis. His black clothing has made him invisible in the night, and I know I will never find him in this warren of alleys and closes and tiny streets lining secondary canals.

I press the mask to my face and inhale the claustrophobic interior, as if to pick up a clue from the scent of his skin. Nothing but papier-mache. Tears well up, unbidden. Tears of anger and disappointment and fear. I blink them back and focus on a small black squiggle painted inside the mask. Like all good Carnivale costumes, this mask is hand made, an art object as well as utilitarian. The squiggle is the signature of the artist who molded it and hand painted the face. While a moment ago, I wanted to cry; now I smile. A link. I was the prince holding a glass slipper left by the one he loved. I had a link to the missing plague doctor, and I was determined to follow this trail to its conclusion.

I wonder if it will conclude in the arms of the man who preoccupies my life? When he sees me there in his doorway, will he feel joy or anger or disinterest? Would I prefer that we look at each other and both know we have reached the end of a road? Or would I prefer that we look at each other and realize there is only one road and we are meant to travel it together? Either way, I have to know. The story we thought ended two years ago, when I left him, was not over for either of us. The time had come for it to be resolved, finally. The conclusion should either set both of us free to love others or tighten the bindings that hold us together.

Go to Just Ask Me, Part III

Disclaimer: The television show Queer As Folk and its characters are the property of Showtime and CowLip Productions. No money is being made. Stories and discussion are intended purely for the entertainment of fans of Queer as Folk, the Brian and Justin characters, and Randall's writings.
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July 25, 2004