Just Ask Me
With help from the concierge at the Hotel Danieli, I locate the shop of the mask maker in a small close in the Rialto Quarter of the Grand Canal. This area was christened in honor of the Rialto Bridge that spans the green ribbon of water, and is the commercial center of Venice. The classical thirteenth century Byzantine villa belonging to Emmett's boyfriend, Jack, is nearby. Although Emmett assured me Brian was not a guest in that villa, I visited it myself, and eliminated it as a possible haven.
Even early in the day, the narrow streets of the Rialto are crowded with customers and vendors. The many cafes are overrun with people wanting to start the day with large cups of sweetened coffee and pastries. Northern Italians are fairer than their Southern counterparts, but even here, my blond hair and blue eyes draw stares. In a culture that reveres beauty, it helps to be attractive and a little exotic. That fact makes up for my rudimentary language skills and rank Americanism. Even at thirty-four, the big smile still sells. As Brian used to tell me, "Use what you got, boy."
I use it on the mask maker, who also, luckily, seems to prefer the company of men. I flirt shamelessly with him, flatter his artistry as depicted by the mask I brought with me. I assure him its owner must desperately want it back. It's not just part of a costume, I tell him, it's a work of art, and I should know. I'm an artist too. He offers to return it to his customer, but I demur. I insist he is much too busy for such errands, with Carnivale around the corner. I buy a fancy, decorated mask for myself. I am losing patience, but I know I can't show him my frustration.
"He's a tall American man," he finally says, his English far superior to my Italian. He holds his hand up above his own head, to mark Brian's height. "Handsome, quiet, older than you."
I nod, eating my impatience. "Do you know where he's staying?"
"Sure I know. I have it deliver to him. He want the special touches on it, so I make it special for him. Let me see if I can find his card."
I watch him dig through a shoebox full of tissue receipts. I am reminded of why I have a business manager. Artists should never be left alone to tend to their own finances. Just when I am about to offer to help, he pulls a receipt from the box with a flourish, waving it in the air. "Here she is, the ticket!"
I try not to appear too eager as he smoothes it out on the counter. I see his name, misspelled as "Brian Kenny", and an address that does not appear to be a hotel. I glance at the mask maker.
"Do you know where this is? This address?"
"Sure, sure, in the Cannaregio sector."
I look blank, and he motions for my guidebook, pointing out a quiet residential part of the city with nothing to recommend it to tourists. I can't picture my high living former lover in this middle class neighborhood, but the mask maker is absolute. He tries to date me, I use my charm to elude him, and leave a disappointed artist behind as I catch a water taxi to Cannaregio.
The splendors of palaces, villas and the Venetian modern art museum donated by Peggy Guggenheim give way to small quiet canals shrouded with trees. Here the shops sell groceries and necessaries, not fancy dress masks. Clean wash is strung across the water to dry. Locals, not tourists, crowd the bars and cafes. I feel like an invader as I wind my way to the address I was given. I find a narrow house overlooking the canal named Rio Madonna Del `Orto. The windows are shuttered and an old woman dressed in black is methodically sweeping the stoop.
I ask if she speaks English, and she shrugs, non-committal. I ask if Brian Kinney lives here and she narrows her eyes at me, "Not home," she barks and I nod.
"But he does live here, right?"
"Not home," she repeats, causing me to wonder if that is the extent of her English.
"Do you know where he is?" Nothing. I try another tactic: the age- old method of persuasion, money. It costs me way too much money to get through that door. The house is narrow, dark, the furnishings old and worn, but expensive. Certain things remind me of Brian. The fresh flowers on a central table in the entry hall are blood red callas. He always said the prominent stamen in these blooms reminded him of a tumescent penis. A modern Bose wave CD player is surrounded by jewel cases containing some of his favorite recordings. Brian has to have his music. In the brick floored kitchen, the ancient refrigerator stores Evian, an assortment of cheeses, and a couple bottles of wine. His usual stock.
I climb the gently curved staircase to a landing with three doors. The first is a bedroom. The double bed is freshly made up, probably by the old woman in black. A heavy brocade duvet littered with velvet pillows makes for a lush, old world setting. I can picture Brian having sex on that bed. He likes a little drama with his sex. A bronze replica of Donatelli's David is on the table beside the bed. While studying Italian art, I once remarked that he resembled a grown up version of that sexually ambiguous masterpiece of a pre-pubescent boy, and he was pleased by my comparison.
Beside the statue are two framed photographs. One is a recent school portrait of Gus. The other is a black and white profile shot of me, taken for the brochure to promote my latest gallery exhibition. I wonder how he got it and experience an unreasonable thrill to find it there.
The second room is a bathroom with a claw-footed tub, marble fireplace, and pull-chain toilet. His paisley Sulka robe hangs from a hook on the door. I lift the expensive silk fabric to my face and inhale deeply. It retains the clean and slightly medicinal smell of Kirk's Castile Soap, the one brand he always uses. The next room is perhaps the most pleasant of them all. A bay window looks out over the canal and a desk is situated close to that view, fronted by a heavy leather chair. A computer and printer are set up, and when I turn it on, I realize he has password protected it with a code I don't know. That surprises me. He is usually so lax about cyber security. I sit in his chair and open the lap drawer of the desk.
On top of a few invoices is a sealed envelope from the stationary store where I saw the image of death in the glass. The address is simple: the letter J. Any note he has ever left for me has used the shorthand of the first letter of my name, signed by the first letter of his name. I slap it against my palm. For some reason, I fear opening it. Finally, curiosity wins out and I rip it open. The fine thin paper floats out to rest on the desk. I fold it back and read the following: Harry's Bar. The most amazing thing to me is that he knows me so well, he is certain I will open his desk drawer and snoop deep enough to uncover this cryptic message.
I smile at his manipulation. Brian is, above all else, a master gamesman. His whole life revolves around the game. Work, sex, even love, he values his gamesmanship above all others and makes sure he always wins. But does he? I'm the one who left him. Even now, the game is underway. I tuck the note in my pocket and leave the narrow house containing his ghost.
I know Harry's Bar, everyone knows Harry's Bar. There are Harry's Bars in Paris, New York, London. But this is the original, where Hemmingway hung out and glamorous ex pat's used to gather and drink. I am disappointed, but not surprised, to find the bar crowded with tourists willing to spend an obscene amount on lunch just to be able to say they dined at Harry's Bar in Venice. Not Brian's kind of place at all. I walk through the downstairs bar area, then scan the upstairs, crowded with small tables, and back down again. I lean across the bar where the Bellini, a peach and champagne cocktail, was created. I ask the hunky American bartender if he knows Brian Kinney. He narrows his eyes at me like a rival sizing up the competition. I have seen that look many times on the faces of young men drawn to my lover. "Who are you?" He demands.
"My name is Justin Taylor."
He nods, his expression relaxing. "So you're THE Justin, huh?"
I glare at him. "Not sure what that means."
He smirks and reaches under the bar, pulling out a thick eight by ten inch envelope. "This is for you."
It is at least three inches thick and very heavy, filled with paper. I look at him, confused, but he just shrugs. I read Brian's handwriting on the envelope that says, "J, Open Privately. B." I numbly leave the bar, walk to my hotel, go up to my room, stretch out on my bed, stomach down, and rip open the thick envelope.
By the time I quit reading, it is dark outside my windows. My mind is whirling with what I just read. I neither ate nor drank since breakfast. I peed once, but only because I had no choice. I feel disoriented now, as I place the envelope in a drawer. I suck down a bottle of water and change into a warm sweater, dark slacks and my heavy coat. I leave the hotel and walk straight to Florian's, our old staging site.
Only one customer has braved the chill to sit at an outdoor table, the bell jar around the flickering candle diffusing the low light. His lanky frame is too tall for the metal chair. His long legs are stretched out in front of him. He is smoking, and a glass of red wine is in front of him. He wears a bulky Aran Islander sweater, a tribute to his Irish heritage, over softly worn jeans. His overcoat is loosely draped across his broad shoulders. The wind lifts his salt and pepper hair, that has grown longer. It matches a newly added and very flattering goatee and moustache that is precisely trimmed. As I stare at his perfect profile, the light reflects in the lenses of his glasses, setting his gaze afire as he settles it on me. "Are you just going to stand there or are you going to sit down, boy?" He asks, and I drop into the chair beside him, resisting the urge to embrace him.
The piano music being piped from inside the café fills the silence. A waiter appears, obviously annoyed by having to come outside in the chill to serve us. I order espresso and he scurries back to the warm interior of the café. Finally, I trust my voice to speak.
"It's brilliant," I say bluntly and he raises a brow in that "bullshit" way of his. I hold my ground. "It's brilliant," I repeat. Despite his best efforts, he gives away his pleasure with a slight smile that he extinguishes with a sip of wine.
"It's still rough."
"My hands were shaking when I finished it. It was alternately funny and sad and moving and sexy. You've written a novel about an open and unapologetically gay man, from the ground up, and you've managed to make his struggle universal, not somehow unique because of his sexuality. The hero is an asshole, but you have to love him, root for him, because he is fundamentally good. Yet you pull no punches. You depict all of his warts in lurid detail. It's `The Fountainhead' for this age, Brian."
He winces, my compliments making him uncomfortable as much as they please him. "Don't be ridiculous. It's just a semi-autobiographical account of a life lived on one man's own terms, good or bad."
"Semi autobiographical? Brian, the things your hero went through as a young man, and the love story with the man he lost to his ambition and his promiscuity, it's you and then it's us."
"Not really. But all writers draw from life, Justin."
"His lover says to him, as he is leaving, that he won't stay because what would that change? The main character says, `Your mind, I hope'. Those were your exact words to me that night." He exhales a mouthful of smoke. "Is it too close, Justin? Are you embarrassed by it? Exposed?"
I sigh and slump back as my steaming espresso arrives. "After my character leaves, your character picks up the gloves his lover carelessly left behind and holds them to his face. He lies back on the bed, pressing the gloves between his cheek and the pillow. He falls asleep that way. I left my gloves in your bedroom that night, Brian."
He looks uncomfortable. "Poetic license."
He looks over at the floodlit horses atop the Basilica, then back at me. "No," he says softly and I nod, my throat too thick to speak.
"I knew you could write jingles and ad copy and campaigns," I'm finally able to say. "But I had no idea you could write a brilliant novel." I hesitate. "Why have you never written before? You're so talented."
"I never had time. I was too busy fighting the corporate battles and rising above the pond scum in the agency. It never seemed important to me to do something else until you left."
"How did that change anything?"
He reaches across the table and covers my hand with his long fingers. An electric shock zaps me to this metal chair and he smiles sadly. "It changed everything, Justin. I forced myself to re-examine my life. What I had accomplished and where I failed."
"What did you conclude?"
"Like with everyone, there was good and bad. I had fun, I won, I succeeded, and I had pain, doubts, uncertainty, loss, and failure. That story is indeed universal. I have always envied your success doing something you love to do. I have always believed I had a creative ability that was being wasted in the ad game. I was in a considerable amount of psychic pain. Work no longer made sense. Anonymous sexual conquests no longer affirmed some fundamental truth for me, nor did tricking stop the bleeding."
He releases my hand and lights another cigarette, staring at the Doge's Palace, the one time seat of power in Venice, and I wonder where his mind has wandered before he says, "I began to write as a cathartic. I would do it in the early morning before I went to the office or late at night. Eventually, my ramblings began to take the form of a novel. Remember that night at your installment at the Frick?"
"Yes, I saw you in the garden."
"I saw my young lover, that clueless kid who was leaning against a light pole on Liberty Avenue all those years ago, and realized he was going to be immortal. A hundred years after your death, people will see your painting at the Frick and admire your talent. I found it highly unlikely that a hundred years from now, people will be discussing the impact of the ad campaign for the new Mercedes."
I am surprised that he has ever felt any competitive threat from me. He was always the mentor in our relationship, my teacher not only in the ways of sex, but in love. For I always knew, in his outwardly resistant, kicking and screaming way, Brian loved me deeply. He just couldn't love me to the exclusion of wanting others. He was a huge financial success long before I sold a painting, and even now, my earnings as an artist are a fraction of his earnings as an executive. No one would look at the two of us and declare me the winner. "So you decided to take a sabbatical and write this novel?"
"Yes, I decided to give it one shot. It was a purge for me emotionally, exorcising all my old demons. But it was also an outlet for my dormant creative side. Finally, my ad man side kicked in when I realized, hey, this may be commercially feasible. I can sell this son of a bitch."
I smile, the old Brian very apparent in that proclamation. "Better get a nom de plume for the book jacket, Bri. Because it is a very revealing story. Everyone will see through it to you."
"That's kind of the point," he says bluntly. "I can back what I write with the credibility of my lived life. At least that's what my publisher says."
My eyes grow wide. "You have a publisher already?"
He smiles. "Surprised? I thought you believed it was a masterpiece."
"It is, but..."
"International publication firm. I've been working with their London office, but they are also out of New York."
Thus the postmark at Christmas. "Do you have a deal?"
"Of course I have a deal, Justin. You think I would tell you about it if I didn't have a deal?"
"Is it a good deal?"
He laughs. He draws the waiter out of the doorway of the café and speaks to him in rapid Italian. His Italian has improved significantly since he began to live and work in Venice. I pick up on the fact he has ordered a refill of our drinks, but the rest eludes me. "The advance is more than my performance bonus at the agency last year, and if the book sells, I would never have to don the gray pinstripes again."
"Congratulations, Brian. You must be very proud. I feel like an idiot."
"Because I thought you were depressed and hiding and acting weird. I was worried about you. I wanted to make sure you were all right. And here you are writing this beautiful, important work."
The music drifting out from the café changes to a familiar tune. I meet his eyes and he smiles and stands, holding out a hand to me. I shake my head and he waves his hand, not taking no as my answer. "Here?" I ask incredulously, and he nods. I smile and stand, my hand in his as he leads me away from the table into the piazza and pulls me into his arms. With a preternatural symbiosis, we move into a slow dance that has a great deal of history for us. The song, "Last Dance", was playing the night he invaded my high school prom, danced with me, and moments later watched helplessly as I became the victim of a hate crime.
He could never tolerate the sound of that song after that event, but tonight he requested it and I wonder at the meaning it holds for him as I move under his lead, my body in complete sync with his. "Catharsis," he whispers against my ear, and I shudder and look up to receive his kiss. People pass by, stop and stare at the mismatched couple dancing and kissing on the piazza, but they have no meaning for me. I am completely absorbed by him.
At his house in Cannaregio, I lie back on that brocade duvet cover, buffeted by velvet pillows and watch the ancient ritual of his undress. How many times have I seen him peel away the expensive layers of the well-heeled gentleman, to reveal the hard, powerful body of the predator? How long since the last time? Over two years. But none of that matters. Whether I've seen it a thousand times or one, whether its been two years or ten, it excites me as it did the very first time he exposed his flesh to me in his loft in Pittsburgh and doused himself in Evian water. Time may not be kind to most men, but Brian kept time at bay, his body still hard and strong. He undressed me first, his eagerness apparent beneath his cool veneer.
Somewhere in the background, Bill Evans, the timeless jazz pianist, is playing on the Bose. Somewhere outside the windows, a couple is arguing in Italian. Somewhere, someone is happier than I feel at this moment, but I can't imagine who that would be. Naked, he lies above me and pins my arms above my head by grasping my wrists tightly in his fists. I wonder how many beautiful Italian boys have been in this bed, and as if to answer my unasked question, he whispers against my ear, "I haven't had sex with someone else in almost a year."
I laugh. "Yeah, right." Even when he had a bad case of flu, Brian couldn't go three days without a conquest.
He raises himself on his arms to peer down at me as he says, "Why would I lie about that?"
I narrow my eyes at him. "But...why?"
"I had to know," he says, gently rubbing his stiff penis in the cleft of my thighs as he tells me. "I had to break the cycle, Justin. I had to see if I had the strength of character to deprive myself."
"Why?" I ask again and he dips down to circle my nipple with his tongue his desire glowing like a red lamp beneath the white velvet cover of his skin. I squirm beneath him, as I realize, again, how much I've missed his touch.
"Because I've had my quota, Justin. My quota, your quota, ten other guys' quotas. I've proved I can seduce. I've proved I'm attractive to other men. I've had men every way a man can be had. I realized the real challenge is to try and make a single relationship succeed in a world determined to rip it apart."
"Brian, what are you saying?"
He begins to stroke my cock in his fist as if he absently ran into it on his way downtown and saw that it needed stroking. "Does a house have to fall on you?" He quips and I sigh, covering his hand with mine, stopping his motion.
"Maybe it does. Tell me."
He groans and rolls over on his back, his cock stiff and straight up against his belly. I turn on my side to look at him, resisting the urge to press my lips to that turgid flesh. "I can do it, Justin. I can give it up."
He glances at me, his dark hazel eyes, a color he describes as Georgia mud, sparkling with a mischievous glow. "No, not sex. Even during this year of celibacy, I have been whacking off like a deranged teenager. Extracurricular sex. I've done it. I'm bored with it. You're the only one who kept me coming back."
I feel my heart surge at that statement, the words I have wanted to hear for so many years. Even now, I feel as if this is a dream. "Your ego is so incredible. You think I'd take you back if you pledged to be a good boy? After two years of living apart?"
He lets his own hand drift down his flat belly to titillate his hard cock, as if bored with waiting for me to move. "Of course you will," he says, his eyes closing and lips parting under a moan as his dick responds to his stroke.
"Ego!" I declare, moving down to kiss the fingers covering his dick, then kissing the head of the dick itself as it moistens under his manipulation. He moans again, then says, "Not ego at all. Consider the evidence. You come all the way to Venice to find me after doing a great deal of detective work to find out I may be here. Once here, you were as inept as Inspector Clouseau. You going to blow me or what?" He asks impatiently and I cross my forearm over his long thighs and rest my chin atop my arm, as I smile coyly.
"Or what for now. Go on."
"You're going to get a face full in a minute," he warns, speeding up his stroking, his need for release so close to the surface, I can almost believe his celibacy story. In fact, I do believe it, despite that barman's leer at Harry's. It's not the kind of thing Brian would lie about. I move up, slip his dick into my mouth. As it glides across the surface of my tongue, I feel his body stiffen, his back arch and he ejaculates with such sudden force that I taste nothing before it's gone down my throat.
"Mr. Kinney, you've lost your technique of perfect control." He smiles and pulls me on top of him, kissing me hard on the mouth, his tongue slipping against mine, gluing our bodies together with passion.
"Next time, bitch," he whispers against my ear. "Next load, I'll show you control..."
I can already feel him stirring beneath me as I tease him by grinding my groin against his. "Why was I so inept and how do you know?"
"Because I watched you, Justin. Finally, I had to hit you over the head with the obvious. Once you had the mask, you could finally follow the clues."
"What made you think I would find that envelope in your desk?"
"I know you. When you couldn't crack my computer, you'd look for other clues."
"What if I didn't?"
"Then it wasn't meant to be."
"You'd let a trick of fate keep us apart?" I have to know and he sighs, his long fingers tracing the curve of my ass.
"You know I'm a fatalist. What else could I do?"
I take his face between my hands and stare down into his eyes. He is so complex, so maddening, and so elusive. For two years living apart from him, my work has improved because I have had time to devote to art instead of to Brian. For two years, I have become reacquainted with friends who used to complain that I was unavailable to them. For two years I dated men who appreciated my looks, my charm, my personality. Men who chased me, not men who took me for granted while chasing others. For two years, I proved to myself I could live very well without Brian Kinney, could survive, even be happy.
For two years, I woke up thinking about him, wondering where he was, whom he was with, what he was wearing. For two years I picked tall men out of crowds and wondered if the were Brian. For two years, every lover had to compete with his ghost, and failed the test. For two years, I ignored a love that had absolutely no intention of dying.
"Brian," I say quietly, leaning over to gently kiss his lips, then moving back once more. "There is something else you could have done."
"What's that?" He asks, erect now beneath me, his hands rove more rapidly over my body. Outside, the arguing couple has gone away. Occasionally we hear the putt-putt of a motorboat circumnavigating the canals, or the musical laughter of lovers strolling past our windows. Outside, Venice is beautiful again, her ancient mysteries restored. Inside this room in this old house on the same street where Tintoretto once lived, a love as timeless as Venice is being painstakingly restored to its formal glory. Like the gilded horses of Constantinople.
"You didn't have to go away, you didn't have to become celibate, you didn't have to write a best seller," I tell him. "If you want me back, just ask me." He rolls me beneath him, his weight thrilling and familiar as he kisses my neck, and then says, "I had to do all those things to be able to ask you, Justin."
"Then ask..." I plead. I want to hear him say the words. I deserve that much from him.
To my surprise, he smiles and responds, "I love you. Come back to me." Before I can reply, he kisses me, touches me, and winds me up in his erotic web. I relent, my responsive passion the only answer he needs.
|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