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Silence and Tears

Chapter 1: Justin POV

"Brian."

He pretends to be asleep, pretends he doesn't hear my voice. I know he isn't sleeping. I can read the tension in his beautiful body as he lies, stomach down, naked, across that big platform bed. I grant him this small dignity. I understand. I don't know what to say, anyway. What can be said? If those supernatural hazel eyes meet mine, and if they reflect the pain I know he's feeling, I might cave.

Caving would be a disaster.

"I love you, Brian," I whisper as I slide open the heavy door to the loft, maybe for the last time. Perhaps he heard me, perhaps he didn't. It doesn't really matter. He already knows. This isn't about my not loving him. This is about my loving him too much.

No one will see it that way. I'm the villain. I wear the black hat. I valued my career over the love of my life. Perhaps I even gamed him, pursuing an impossible commitment until I got it, and then, I grew bored with my victory. That's probably the ugliest spin on what I'm doing, and I'm sure there are many who will embrace it. Why not? It makes sense.

If our lives were a television show, I would be the one you'd love to hate. It's supposed to be Brian, but you'd find out, as I did, that his big bad outlaw routine is all an act. Underneath that façade is the damaged soul of a child. On the other hand, I had it all, or so it would seem. You might root for me at first, feel sorry for me, later, as I try to navigate the dark corridors of Brian's refusal to believe in love. You'd bleed with me when I suffered a significant gay bashing, and cheer when Brian helped me heal. But then you'd scratch your head in wonder when I let him push me off a cliff, and went for someone who promised what I thought I wanted, but who delivered nothing.

That's when you'd lose faith in me, as he did, as I did in myself. From then on, every move I made was misguided. I floundered. I wanted Brian back, and I got him. But the distrust, the lack of connection, was always there, expressing itself by his putting others between us to maintain a distance. To protect himself from pain.

There was a brief moment when it seemed everything was right between us, even though everything else was going wrong around us. We had each other, and that was enough. We had become a team. But life isn't a television show, and it didn't resolve that easily.

What you might have seen by observing a small slice of our relationship onscreen wouldn't give you the facts you really need to see what's happening between us. All this background doesn't really matter, anyway. Let me be the one you hate.

I'm the unlikely man who broke Brian Kinney's heart.

For those who think he has no heart, or that it can't be broken by love, guess again. I did it. I know that. And now I'm leaving the pieces for others to reconstruct. I pray that his unreliable friends will step up to the plate, for once, and help him get through the pain he will never even show them. Another man might get that chance, I know that's a big possibility. I've penetrated barriers that Brian never thought could be penetrated, and that leaves him vulnerable for someone new to waltz in and take my place.

Don't think I haven't considered that outcome. Someone more his age, someone equal to his financial status. Someone who has enough experience in life to accommodate his needs without feeling hurt or betrayed. What would I do if I came home to visit and found Brian in love with another man? I don't know. I'd be devastated. But I'd also understand. His new lover would never know that I made it possible for him to be loved by Brian. Before me, those doors were tightly closed. Once I unlocked them, they'll never close quite as tightly, even when he's bleeding behind the barriers.

My timing sucks.

Lindsay's gone, and more importantly, Gus went with her. Better for me if everything else in his life was perfect, now, but things seldom work out that way, life is imperfect. I have a sense of perverse pride in how well I've handled this. I've been brave. I've put on a happy face. I've pretended to be enthusiastic about the adventure that is the big city. I even played along with the faint specter of a long distance relationship.

But tonight we made love for the last time. And I will never forget the way it felt, the way he held me, the way he breathed against my shoulder, clenched tight in repression of his sorrow.

They say your first love is never the love of your life. Not true. The minute I saw him on Liberty Avenue, when I was a seventeen-year old virgin, I knew he was the one. He was, and is, the love of my life. What they don't tell you, is that finding the love of your life doesn't mean you'll have a perfect partnership forever.

They don't tell you that loving someone that much can shatter you. They don't tell you that loving someone that much means that sometimes you have to sacrifice your own happiness in order to save the soul of the only one who matters.

But that's another story, and you won't believe me, anyway.

Just think of me as the heartless, ungrateful, self-absorbed little careerist who played Brian Kinney and then handed him his heart at 10:15 p.m., when the heavy door of the loft slid shut behind me. I suspect he will, when the pain recedes and the bitterness sets in.

As soon as I hit the street, the cold air feels like a sword's blade cutting me in half. I fold over, hanging onto the railing of the stoop to keep from collapsing. The pain is so intense. No physical ailment could be this painful. It has to come from that secret portion of the heart that medical people can't find on an MRI, but poets know only too well.

When I inhale, it sounds like a sob. When I exhale, it sounds like a gasp. Tears that I dammed up, flow at last, an open wound. I can't stop them, even as the car he arranged for me pulls up to the curb and I slump onto the back seat.

"Are you alright?" the driver asks.

I stutter the airline I'm flying, and ignore his question. Just leave me alone. Everyone, leave me alone. Merging into the traffic of Tremont, I don't look back, can't look back. I left the best part of me in that building. I left Brian Kinney there.

A poem Lord Byron wrote, that made no impression on me in my advanced lit course in high school, returns with eerie accuracy. A stanza from that poem "When We Two Parted" depicts my mood exactly.

"If I should meet thee,
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears."

As the city melts into the anonymity of the highway, Byron returns to me once more in the aching darkness: "In silence, I grieve." Grief is all that I deserve.


Chapter 2: Brian's POV

Three months later.

Justin.

I'm thinking about a dream I had last night, a dream I've had often since... since things changed. In the dream, I awake in bed in the loft, only it's still under those damned blue lights I used to hang on the wall. I slide my hand across the bed and I touch his hip. Naked, he doesn't stir. I spread my fingers on the firm mound of his butt. I feel his warmth, and I smile. I'm content. I sleep again.

That's all it is, just that.

But when I have that dream, I sleep well. Whatever happens to be wrong in my world smooths out so long as the contentment of the dream stays with me. I'm not fucking him or sucking him or even waking him. I'm just lying in bed with him, my hand on his hip, and that's enough.

When I wake and he isn't there, nor has he been, my fingers spread out on cool sheets, not warm flesh. I'm discontent. I'm alone. This is what it's become, my life. I'm alone.

Because this solitude is what I choose. This solitude is what I deserve. This solitude is what I want.

"Let's talk about love," Emmett says with that Sandra Dee look on his face that makes me want to strangle him. My memory of the dream fades. Maybe I'll have it again tonight, but probably not. It doesn't happen as often as I'd like.

"Check, please!" I snap at the waiter, who completely ignores me in the best tradition of the Liberty Diner. If there's one thing I'm not doing tonight, it's listening to Emmett gush about love. First of all, Em falls in love more often than I shop for shoes, and that's saying it all. Second, Em stays in love for about as long as my lust for my new shoes lasts, which is only until the first shine. My guess is that Emmett has never been in love. Emmett has been in lust. Emmett has been in "want to be in love". But since I've known him, Emmett has not been in love. I know love. What he had with that rich old man and with Teddy is not love.

He thinks he's in love, now, with some old high school fuck buddy, but what's new about that? When does he not think he's in love? Michael, sitting next to me in the booth, gives me that droopy, sad dog face of his that silently asks, "Are you okay? Are you really, really, really okay? Is this hurting you?"

His concern would mean a lot more to me if I thought it was sincere. My outward reaction may be the same, disgust, but at least it might mean something. Yet it's not sincere. I know that now. He has his image of me, and it doesn't include my being in love. Being in hurt is fine. Being alone, even better. But being in love? Forget it. That's his turf. He gets to be the happy one, the settled one, the family man. I get to be Peter Fucking Pan. The fact is, I don't envy him at all. Ben's okay, I guess. He means well, but their little suburban faggot-next-door life in Breederville is a fucking nightmare.

Any time I go over there, and I don't often do so, I want to fall on my knees and thank Justin. You were so right. You were so, so right about me. That life would have strangled me. Killed me. I'm not a breeder or a faux breeder. I'm not meant to live in some big faux Tudor mansion with a faux marriage and faux respectability. Thank you for that, Justin.

But you went too far. You didn't have to leave. Did you? Isn't there some way we could be together without destroying who we are? Are our choices really that narrow? Pittsburgh is not New York. Not in any alternative universe. So yes, he really had to leave, I answer my own internal question yet again.

"Are you okay?" Michael verbalizes his droopy dog look, reaching over to cover my hand with his. I pull away. God, I hate this. Don't you fucking dare feel sorry for me!

"Why wouldn't I be? You guys talk about love until you turn blue or red or pink or whatever color love is. I have to go to work." I put money on the table to cover my portion plus tip plus more. Not worth the wait for an even split. As soon as I hit the cold night, I light up and squint down the block to the beckoning doorway of Babylon. Even in this chill and snow, a serpentine of hopefuls lines the curb. The queers are back. You can bomb us, kill us, humiliate us, hate us, but we'll never go away. We're here, we're queer, get over your fucking prejudice.

I start walking in that direction, and in my head, Justin falls in step with me. It's this little game I play. He's here, I'm not alone, I can hear his voice, feel the comfort of his presence, even see his face. "Let's go home," he says, looping his arm through mine. "Let's just throw a blanket down on the floor and fuck."

I smile. Sounds like a plan. He'd be wearing black underwear, so would I. We'd leave it on. "Cotton mouth me," he'd tease, and I would fill my mouth with his dick, covered in the soft cotton of his Calvin's. I'd suck him through the fabric. I can close my eyes and imagine the way he tastes, precisely. I look down at my imaginary lover as we walk. I say to him, in my head, "Later. Let's dance, drink, get on each other in the back room."

"Did anyone ever tell you that you're an exhibitionist?" he asks and I nod.

"You."

"Right again."

He disappears as the troll at the door greets me. "Evening, Mr. Kinney." Justin can't be in my head when other people are around. They may pick up on something and think I'm crazy. Maybe I am crazy. I don't know anymore.

"Evening, Jack. Nice crowd."

"Big crowd. Tequila Shooter night always brings 'em in."

I go inside the rebuilt bigger and better Babylon. My fuck you in the face of every evil radical anti-faggot who would try to stop us from living. The music and the smell of hot, sweaty men and whoosh of energy takes my breath away. I unzip my leather jacket and lean against the bar, surveying the crowd.

Hot guys in silver briefs and silver cowboy hats circulate the crowd. They wear two six-guns strapped to their hips and a leather bandeleer over their chests, with cartridges of tequila where bullets belong. For a price, they load up their plastic six guns with the cartridges, rub a slice of lime across your lips, and shoot a stream of Cuervo Gold down your throat. I watch them work. One comes up to me. He's like a bronze carving; he's so cut, so shiny, so smooth and so unreal.

"Want a free one, boss?" Deliberate double entendre. I decline both offers. I've had his ass and I don't do reruns. As for the tequila, I'm working. I don't want to get drunk, at least not this early.

"We're cleaning up again tonight, Brian," Theodore joins me at the bar and eyes Shooter Boy's fine ass as he walks off.

"Do you mean we're making money or do you mean the cleaning crew is fucking off again?"

He smirks at me. "Cute."

"So they tell me."

I adjust my package inside the crotch of these tight leather pants. Sometimes the plastic ball presses in on the real ball and it hurts. Talk about unreal. Since I lost a testicle to cancer, acclimating to my silicone faux sperm manufacturer is a source of unending joy. Theodore, or Igor, as I sometimes think of him, my devoted sidekick, looks around. "Who would believe what a shambles this place was after the bombing? Look at it now. Bigger, shinier, and more crowded than ever."

"You can't keep a good queer down. Well, not for longer than a blow job, anyway."

"Seriously, Brian, you really boosted the community by giving Babylon back to us. We showed the crazy element of breeder society that they can't run us off, or as Em says, 'make us hide our shine'."

"It's not about hiding shine, or not hiding shine, Theodore. It's about money. No alternative plan for Babylon showed the same yield as re-opening it, bigger and better than before."

"Brian, you may be able to make that work with others, but I do the books, remember? I was there for the financial analysis."

"Oh yeah," I motion to the bartender to refill my club soda and lime. "I thought we were doing well, however. Am I wrong?"

"We are, but you had some other offers of sizeable profitability."

"Not nearly as many opportunities to skim off the new stuff, however," I smile at a pretty young thing. He smiles back at me. A glance over his bare shoulder catches me as he turns. He wants to see me look at his butt. I don't disappoint. I know what I'll be doing later tonight.

"What have you heard from Justin?" Theodore throws it out there like a steaming wad of shit, melting the snow on which it lands. It always amazes me when Theodore touches that third rail, over and over again. It's almost as if he gets a sick thrill from the pain. I glare at him, not giving it away. Try as he might, he'll never get me to give anything away. He doesn't have that kind of power.

"I thought you had a financial quarter to close for Kinnetic. Shouldn't you be burning the midnight oil back at the ranch instead of soaking up the rays at the spa end of our business?"

"But... "

"On my desk, nine a.m., Theodore."

He bottoms up his drink and skulks out of the club. Bastard. What do I hear from Justin? Do these people enjoy being cruel or are they just stupid? Both, maybe. I lose the connection with the nice new piece of ass on the dance floor. It just isn't in me tonight. Or rather, I don't care if I'm in him. I see that jerk-off, Brandon, slink over to him. He gives me this little half-smile of triumph. Like I care what he does. Never have, never will. I made my point with him long ago.

I light a cigarette and walk past the memorial to the bombing without looking at it. It's a corner of the original bar, broken and singed by the devastation. The names of everyone who died here are engraved in the wood and the whole thing is kept under glass. I never go by when someone hasn't left a rose, a rainbow ribbon, some token of remembrance. They never caught the bomber. I suspect they never looked very hard. Dead queers don't really count.

I go upstairs to the private room, and this door troll smiles and waves me in. You have to have a card that I personally issue to get past this troll, or, in my case, you have to own the place. Every night I give out temporary cards to the hottest guys in the club, but only a few have permanent passes. The interior is a cross between a Turkish whorehouse and an opium den. I spread out on a silk couch and light a joint.

To my left, a new hottie is being fellated by a regular, also hot. On my right, three naked bodies writhe on the cushions. I don't watch them long enough to identify them. I yawn. I'm bored. I have a lot to do tomorrow, at the agency. Being an ad man by day and a gay dance venue owner by night is a ridiculous undertaking. Pick one, Brian, but I can't. I love them both.

"Guess who?" Soft hands come from behind to cover my eyes. The smell is sweet and familiar. I don't know who it is, someone I did once, I suppose, but I do know who it isn't.

It isn't him.

Here it comes.

The tsunami.

Rolling up from the soles of my feet, twisting through my gut, gripping my heart in icy claws, and reminding me again that he is good and truly gone. Gone. My breath comes in filtered through clenched teeth, and my face grows uncomfortably warm. I twist out of this man's touch. "I don't like that." I seethe at him as he smiles. He's young, pretty. Yeah, I've done him.

"But Brian... "

I send him off by sweeping my fingers forward, back of my hand facing him. I need this pain. I welcome it. I want it. It reminds me of something very important, something that has a way of eluding me, most of the time.

The pain reminds me that I'm still fucking alive; alive enough to hurt. And that must mean something, right? That must mean something. I just don't know exactly what it is.

"Let's go home and fuck," Justin's shade whispers to me in a voice no one else can hear. I close my eyes.

"Yes," I answer in my mind. "Let's do."

Someone touches my crotch. Someone else kisses me. Some third man clamps my nipple through my shirt with his teeth. I close my eyes and let them have my body. My mind is somewhere else. Somewhere familiar. A place that no longer exists for me, except in a walking phantasm or a sleeping dream.

Who needs reality? In fantasy, control is absolute. Control, I remind myself, has been my one constant friend.


Chapter 3: Jennifer's POV

Who the hell buys or sells real estate during the Christmas holidays? Everyone, it seems! My phone won't stop jangling and my assistant is off to visit her family. I thought it would be quiet. I thought I could leave early and stop at the grocery store and then go home to prepare a nice dinner for Justin's homecoming and finish my gift wrapping, and so on and so forth, the life of a working mother. The stress of this particular Christmas is miserable.

Molly is at that hateful age, not a kid, but not yet a woman, and Justin is still bleeding over the whole Brian Kinney debacle. Brian is, too. I can't blame either of them for what happened, because I don't have all the facts. Those two are so stubborn, so foolish to risk what appears to be the "real thing" over the inconveniences of establishing a life together. They're young, they don't understand how rare that "real thing" really is, how unlikely either of them will find it again.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of lesson you can teach people. This is the kind of thing they have to learn for themselves, and often, they learn it too late. I hear the buzzer, telling me the front door has opened, and I wave in that direction to signal I'll be right with them. I'm trying to tie up a phone call with a title company. Putting on my best, non-frantic face, I turn and smile at my visitor when I hang up. I see that it's Brian.

My almost son-in-law.

He looks predictably tall and devastating in his black cashmere long coat, dusted with snow. A red cashmere scarf forms a bleeding wound around his long, elegant neck. The cold temperature gives him a flush, and he disguises his eyes behind dark glasses. Gloved hands hold a small box wrapped in silver paper with a red velvet bow. I walk over to greet him, feeling him tense as I put a hand on his arm and stretch to kiss his cold cheek. "Sorry, Brian. I've just been buried today." The phone rings. I ignore it.

"Need to get that?" He tucks his glasses into a pocket. His eyes, he does have the most beautiful, expressive eyes, are still carefully shielded. I feel sad that he feels the need to hide his emotions from me. Sad, but not surprised.

"No, they can call back. Sit down. Do you want some coffee? It may be a little strong, but... "

"No thanks. I can't stay," he hovers, but doesn't sit. "I just thought you could give this to Justin. It's completely impractical, but I don't believe in practical gifts."

He thrusts the package at me, but I don't immediately take it. "Give it to him yourself, Brian. Come to dinner this evening."

"I can't," he sets the package down on my desk. "I'm on my way to the airport."

"You won't be here for Christmas?" I know this will be a blow to Justin. I'm sure he was hoping to see Brian. How could he not be? Do they never even talk? God, I wish I understood what was happening between these two. Whenever I try to approach the subject with my son, up goes the Great Wall of China. I know better than to even try and pierce Brian's armor.

"I'm going to Toronto to see Gus."

"Oh. I was hoping the girls were coming here."

"No, they want to establish a home base for the kids. Get them accustomed to their new environment. They see the holidays as part of that process."

"Is Michael going with you?"

"No." The "thank God" is implied in his tone. "I think he and Ben are driving up after Christmas."

"When will you be back?"

"I'm not sure. I'm going to fly to Banff from there and ski for a few days. I need a break."

A very smooth, superficially disconnected way to avoid Justin. "He'll only be here for a few days, Brian. I know he wants to see you."

"Did he tell you that?" The hope in his voice, in his eyes, is so raw that I almost lie and say 'yes'. I know Justin does want to see him, despite the fact they've imposed this cone of silence. Or whatever the hell it is. But I can't lie. It just wouldn't be fair.

"No, but... "

"Yeah," he cuts me off. "Give him that, okay?" he leans down to kiss my cheek. "Merry Christmas to you and Molly, too."

"Brian, what's going on with you two?"

"Nothing," he says with a flat smile. "Nothing at all. Ciao." He gives me a little wave and then he's gone. The ringing phone startles me out of my melancholy.

"Jennifer Taylor," I answer, back on auto-pilot.

"Jesus, Mother, do you ever pick up? I've called three times!" My son's annoyance is clear.

"I'm sorry. I was talking to Brian."

Pause. "Brian?"

"Yes, he dropped off a present for you."

"Is he still there?"

"No, he just left."

"Why did he give it to you?"

"Justin, do you know he's going to Toronto to see Gus?"

I can hear his slow exhale. "No. But I guess it makes sense."

"You two never talk?"

"We've talked."

"And yet you don't even seal plans to meet at Christmas?"

"Mother, if my visit is going to be an unending inquisition about what happened with Brian and me, forget it. Not interested."

"Ok, calm down. Where are you?"

"I'm on the plane, about to be told to turn off my phone so we can take off. You're picking me up, right?"

"Of course. I have all the information."

"Okay. I'll see you in a little while."

"Safe trip, honey."

"Mom, how did he look?"

"He's Brian. He looked gorgeous."

"Right, of course. Okay, later."

As we hang up, I rethink my Christmas gift to my wonderful son. Instead of a gift certificate to that art supply house in the Village that he likes so much, and some money on his rent, I should give him a group discount to a marriage counselor, and make sure Brian gets in with him for free. Maybe they aren't married, but they need something to break this log-jam of stubborn determination that blocks their happiness. If I thought Justin didn't love him anymore, or vice versa, I'd be less bothered. It would hurt, I'd be sad, but I'd move on.

He does love Brian, and Brian loves him, which makes this all the more ridiculous. It also makes me angry. No one has the right to waste love. It happens so rarely and is such a precious gift that we all have a stake in nurturing it. If I thought they were better off apart, or happier, I'd stay out of it. But they aren't.

"What's this?" Molly has come into my office and she picks up the package, examines it, shakes it, until I finally take it from her.

"It's for your brother."

"I thought you already got him what he's getting," the two of them still measure their gifts against each other like little children.

"It's not from me. It's from Brian."

Her big blue eyes grow wide and she flips that red hair behind her shoulder. She's as pretty as Justin is, in her own way. That worries me. She's not that much younger than Justin was when he met Brian and his whole life changed. "Oh. Why do you have it?"

I explain the drop-off and she sighs. "They're so weird."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," she says with all the wisdom of someone who's never experienced great love. "Why don't they just sit down together and figure it out? What's the big drama?"

I smile at my daughter. May she always have such clarity about her own love life. "Sometimes that's easier said than done, Molly."

"Whatever," she shrugs. "Can I have twenty-dollars? I need to get another present for someone."

"Who?"

"Someone, Mother!" She sees no need to explain and I see no need to give her twenty dollars, so she leaves in a huff. I pick up the present Brian left. I give it a little shake. I recognize the store on the silver label. Not cheap. He's right, it's impractical, but so Brian. The door opens and in walks a delivery man carrying a huge pot of white poinsettias. "Where do you want this, lady?"

I motion to the window that faces the street. The flowers have a card attached, and I open it to read, "Merry Christmas, Brian". I sigh and slip it into my pocket as my fingers drift over the velvety petal of a bloom. Pretty poison, that's what poinsettias are. Lethal to pets, but pretty to look at. Once, I would've thought the same thing about Brian Kinney. Not anymore. Now I see Brian as every bit the victim as Justin, if not more so. Because Justin believes in love, and for Brian it was a big leap of faith.

This has got to be fixed. But what can I do besides "butt out" as my son so delicately puts it? I phone a familiar number. A familiar female voice answers. I identify myself and say, "I need your help in a conspiracy."

Her laugh convinces me that my instinct in calling her was correct.


Chapter 4: Justin POV

When I walked into Woody's, I felt like I did the first time I went there after I got bashed. I no longer belonged. Everyone was staring at me. People whispered. I scanned the room for Brian, even though I knew he wasn't there. I don't see any of the old gang, but a couple distant friends greet me. A couple strangers cruise me. Living in New York for even a short period of time has imposed a distance, but I feel much more relaxed here than I do in the few gay bars I've visited in my new home base. Maybe it's just familiarity.

At the bar, I order a beer and my memory slips to a moment when Brian was seated beside me, wearing a sleeveless sweater vest to show off his beautiful arms. He touched my forehead with his. It doesn't matter why, it doesn't matter what he said, what was our issue "du jour." I just remember how it felt when he touched my forehead with his. How sweet that gesture was, and how loving.

I've done well up until this minute, being back in Pittsburgh. I had dinner with my mother and Molly, who's become a little bitch. I don't know how my mother puts up with her, but then, my mother put up with me when I was a little bitch, too. I saw Brian's gift, took it to my room, but didn't open it. Couldn't open it. That was tough. But I did okay with the rest of the evening, and now I'm here.

Why am I here? Why not. This was home for me, for so long. Woody's was always welcoming, always friendly. Babylon has so many other memories attached to it, good and bad, but Woody's is far more emotionally neutral.

"Aren't you Justin Taylor?" A man sits next to me. He's hot, but I'm not in the market for company. I don't recognize him. He smiles. I nod. He extends a hand towards me. I automatically shake it, a victim of good breeding. He says, "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For kicking Brian Kinney to the curb."

I draw back from him. "What are you talking about?"

"Are you serious? You're a hero to a lot of men in Pittsburgh who fell victim to the Brian Kinney hit and run machine. It's nice to see the tables turned on him. And by someone so young. Good job!"

I stand up, clutching my beer in one fist, wanting to crack the bottle over his head. "I never kicked Brian to the curb or anywhere else. Our relationship is none of your fucking business, but if you think there was a smack-down on Brian, you're in for a disappointment." I walk away before he can answer. I sit down at a table, still fuming.

"Look who's here!" Emmett's voice intrudes. He's with someone I don't know, a cute guy who seems to be hanging on him like a shawl. He kisses my cheek, introduces me to the new boyfriend who gives me a warning glare as he leaves us to get drinks at the bar. As if he has to worry about my macking on Emmett. How sick would that be?

I explain that I'm home for Christmas and Emmett says, "But you missed Brian! He left for Toronto today!"

"I know." My tone suggests he should leave it there, and he does.

"So tell me about your fancy artist's loft in Tribeca and all the exciting things you've been doing in the city!"

I laugh. Emmett is an exclamation point factory. Everything he says has that kind of emphasis. "I share a fourth floor walk up in East Village with three roommates, Em."

"Hot?"

"Two are female and the third is straight. Well, all are straight, except me."

"That's bad planning."

I laugh. "It's all I could afford. I do have a loft, sort of. I work part time at a poster shop on Houston Street and they let me use their attic for my work. It's unheated and no running water, but it has natural light and space. I need a lot of space to work. It's not liveable, but it's great for painting."

"From the perfect loft on Tremont to a fourth floor walk up and an attic? You are so brave!"

Brave? I shake my head at that. "It's not about being brave, Emmett. It's about doing it on my own. I have to do it on my own. You understand that?"

He blinks in such a way that I know he doesn't get it, but I can't explain. It makes perfect sense to me. I can't let Brian bankroll my life in New York, even if he wanted to. It's not a matter of pride. It's a matter of doing what's right. The new boyfriend rejoins us and he even has a fresh bottle of beer for me. He must be fairly new at the gay thing if he doesn't understand that Emmett and I are on the same side of the ledger. I'm not his competition.

After a drink, they decide to go to Babylon for some fun, but I am totally not in the mood for that, and I'm meeting someone here. I'm curious to see what Brian's done to the place, but the memory of smoke and blast and bombs is still fresh for me. I don't want to be there without him.

We stood outside that devastation the first time he told me he loved me. That is, the first time he said the words. He's told me he loves me in so many ways before then, but I was young and didn't hear him. The words meant a lot. They still do. I think of that moment every day. The intensity in his eyes, the catch in his voice, the pressure of his strong body against mine.

"Lost in space?" Daphne gives me a Deb smack on the back of my head and I glare at her. I can't stay mad, though. I've missed her.

"You look twelve," I tease, as I take in her bulky sweater, jeans and those big fur-lined boots that girls swear by. Her hair is in two braids and she's so tiny that she looks younger than Molly. I shouldn't tease her. I still get carded everywhere I go.

"So do you, Goldilocks," she tugs on a string of my hair. I know I need a haircut, but things like food and rent keep interfering with my beauty regimen. We're going to a Christmas party at one of her friend's places, something I agreed to in a weak moment. Straight parties are such a drag. But staying home with my mom is even worse. She keeps staring at me like she expects me to open up and tell her everything. It's not happening.

Only when I take Daphne home after the party and we're lounging at her place, do we really talk. We're lying on her bed, on our backs, side by side, sharing a joint and staring up at the water spots on the ceiling. My artistic mind makes shapes out of them. A snowman. A lamb. The head of a lion. "I had lunch with Brian yesterday," she shoots me in the eye. I turn to look at her.

"And?"

"And?" She shrugs. "And nothing. He gave me these," she hops up, retrieves a pair of black kid gloves lined in cashmere. "Aren't they the most elegant gloves you've ever seen? I'm afraid to wear them," she flops down on her side, watching me admire the gloves.

"Why did he give you these?"

"I sent him a box of Godivas."

I wince. "Brian doesn't eat junk."

"Godiva is not junk. I don't care. I didn't know what to give him, but I wanted to give him something and this was such a beautiful box all wrapped up with gold ribbons and stars."

"He probably just re-gifted it to a client."

"Justin, I don't care what he does with the candy. It was the thought."

I nod and hand her the gloves. "It was a nice thought, Daph."

"What are you giving him?"

"What makes you think I'm giving him anything?"

"I know you."

"I painted a very small canvas for the bathroom at the loft. He always wanted something for the blank wall. I put some red in it to warm up the dark colors. He'll like it. But then I find out he's in Toronto, so I guess I'll just leave it with my mother to give him."

"You can't leave without seeing him."

"I may not have a choice. I have to get back. I need this part time job so I don't lose my studio." I take a toke and then ask, "How did he seem?"

"He's Brian. He's always cool, always confident, always gorgeous, always snarky. But there's something missing under that shell, Justin. Some emptiness in his eyes. When he asked if I heard from you. When he talked about Gus."

"I know how he feels."

"Then why are you two apart?"

"Because we have to be, Daphne."

"Explain."

"Quit asking me to explain. You're always asking me to explain."

"And you never do."

"And I never will."

"Why?"

"Because no matter how I try to put it in words, it never sounds right. I know how I feel. I know what's right, but I can't make sense of it when I try to explain. Can we change the subject?"

"Are you dating anyone?"

I laugh. "I'm not looking to date anyone."

"Why not?"

"I'm still in love with Brian."

"But... "

"Have I tricked with anyone? Yeah. So? He has too. It's meaningless."

"This is so fucked up."

"I know." I sit up and reach for my jacket. "I guess I'd better go. I'd stay over but my mother would be hurt. She wouldn't say anything, but I'd know. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Are you spending it with your folks?"

"Yeah, but I'll call you. Maybe we can escape and see a movie or something."

"I'll be ready for a break," I pause at her door. "Daphne, thanks for being a friend to Brian."

"Don't thank me, you dweeb. I love Brian. More than I love you."

I grin at her. "You so want to fuck him."

"And that makes me different in what way?"

"None," I reply with a shrug. She's right. They all want to fuck him, male or female. Even some so-called straight males find him pretty irresistible. And doesn't he know it? I walk out into the cold, and get into my mother's borrowed car. I plan to go straight home, but some homing signal makes me drive past the loft on Tremont. There's a low light burning behind the closed drapes, but no one is home. How many men have crossed that threshold since I've been gone? Only to be shown the door after they performed their function? It doesn't matter. None of them matter.

"I don't believe in love, I believe in fucking," he told me, standing right there, barefoot and beautiful in his t-shirt and jeans. I cried. He looked wistful. Did he know then, even that early, that there was something different about what he felt for me? I think he did. I think he knew that first night. I think I scared him to death.

"I believe in love, Brian," I whisper as I put the car into drive and pull away from the loft. "And so do you."


Chapter 5: Brian's POV

I'm finally alone with my boy.

It's not that I haven't wanted to see Lindsay. I've missed her. And while I don't care if I ever see Melanie again, she has behaved pretty well (for her) during this visit. The only poison I'm getting from her is her poisonous glare. The forked tongue hasn't made an appearance yet. Michael's kid was very needy, clinging to me without invitation, which made Gus mad. He wanted my undivided attention, and that was pretty much my plan, too.

But men are a rarity in this house, something exotic, so I can't blame the kid for finding me irresistible. At least in Pittsburgh the dykes had male friends. Gay, yes, but still male. There was a dick influence in the house. Here, their world appears to be all female all the time, except for poor little Gus. I worry about that. It's not that I think dykes can't be good mothers, or that Gus will grow up twisted, but I still think a gender balance helps with any child.

Now I'm alone with Gus in his room, huddled up in his bed, with the pop-up version of "The Night Before Christmas" open between us, an early gift from me. He smells so sweet, that "clean baby" smell that nothing else can mimic, even though he'd be pissed at me for thinking of him as a "baby". He feels familiar in my arms, that little bundle of muscle and grit. But I swear to God he's grown in the short period of time that we've been apart.

I kick off my shoes and fold a pillow behind my back. I'm tired, more tired than I thought, and being here with him is soothing. "Read it to me, Daddy," he says as the first image pops up with a man in a nightshirt and stocking cap going over to a window.

"Why don't you read it to me, Gus? I'm tired."

"Cuz I don't know all the words."

"Make them up," I pull him against my arm, watching his creative mind take over the challenge.

"This man wakes up because Santa Claus and his reindeer are making noise at his house," he says with a slight condemnation in his voice for Santa's antics. He then explains the collateral information. "See, the mouse is asleep there, too, Daddy, inside his little mouse hole. And the children are dreaming about candy and stuff."

The next page pops up. I'm into his version of the tale. This one shows the fat man's sleigh and reindeer. "See this is where Santa Claus and his reindeer land up on the roof. Have you ever seen Santa on the roof, Daddy?"

"Can't say that I have, Gus."

"I have."

"You have? When?"

"I don't remember, but I have," he says firmly, and I see no reason to question him. I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point in time, Gus's rendition of the poem put me to sleep. When I awoke, the only light on in the room was the carousel nightlight that cast a carnival shadow on the walls. The blanket was pulled over both of us and he slept cuddled up to my mid-section. This small twin bed wasn't meant for a man my size, let alone a man my size and his squirmy son.

I carefully sit up, repositioning him on the pillow, and then swing my feet to the floor. I consider settling back down, even though I have a luxurious room waiting for me at the Four Seasons. At this moment, there's no guy I'd rather spend the night with than Gus. Well, maybe one, but that's not happening. There's an incredible comfort I get from my son, one I really undervalued until he was gone. There is such a connection there, such a pull, that it makes me wonder again how my own father could so completely disregard his connection to me. Sad.

I slip into my shoes and kiss his plump cheek. He squirms a little, but doesn't wake up. I'll have more time with him tomorrow and facing morning's light with the lesbians is more than I can stomach right now. I make my way downstairs in this little salt box house of theirs that is so like their old house in Pittsburgh that it's eerie. Or maybe it's just that any house with their shit in it will end up looking the same. The only thing I really like about their décor is the painting Justin gave them. I wish I had that painting.

I plan to get my coat, and slip away in my rental car to go to the hotel, and return tomorrow at a sensible time. But Lindsay surprises me. She's seated by the fire in the main room, reading a novel. Wrapped in a red velvet robe, she looks a little like Mrs. Claus when the Clauses were newlyweds. Or maybe Gus's reading made a bigger impression than I thought.

"I thought you might be down for the night," she says with a smile. "I didn't have the heart to wake you."

"I think I outgrew twin beds a few inches ago," I sit down on the couch, straightening my hair with both hands. "I hope they held my room for late arrival."

"Want to call?"

"No, it'll be fine. How many people travel to Toronto for Christmas? The hotel will be empty."

"I'm glad you came here, Brian. It means so much to Gus."

I glance at the Christmas tree in the corner, the colored lights twinkling with more merriment than I feel. "I miss him, Lindsay. I need to have more time with him."

"You're welcome any time, you know that."

"Not as long as Melanie shares your bed. But look, I have a business to run, two businesses to run. I thought it might be nice if we worked something out where Gus could come stay with me occasionally."

"And who would take care of him when he was there?"

"I would," I respond with a scowl. "I'm not incompetent."

"No, but like you said, you have two businesses to run."

"I'd make it work."

"It would've been easier if you'd kept that big house in the country. Your loft isn't really set up for children."

The Tudor Mansion rears its ugly head once more. I've done some stupid, impulsive things in my life, but that was one of the dumber moves. How long before that ridiculous house turned into "The Shining" and I was chopping down doors with an ax and chasing Justin through the maze? What was I thinking? Once again, I'm grateful for his foresight. I'm also thankful for his mother's ability to get the deal canceled and keep my loft for me. I owe Jennifer big time for that, and I know it cost her a fortune in commissions.

"My loft is fine," I tell her. I'm not letting her get away with that one. "So what do you think?"

"I'd have to talk to Melanie. He has school, we're trying to get him settled here, so it's not all that easy."

"When you left, it was with the understanding that I'd be able to see Gus, remember? I pay child support like clockwork, Lindsay. I deserve better than this. You promised you wouldn't let him forget me. You promised he could come see me."

"I'm not saying he can't. I'm just saying things are a little different, now, Brian. You didn't keep that nice house with all the room, and you were part of a stable relationship, then, and now you're not."

I can't get my brain wrapped around this logic. "I can only see my son if I have a country place and a partner?"

"Your sexual escapades are not exactly the right atmosphere for a boy, Brian."

"My sexual escapades have nothing to do with Gus. I would never bring that around him, I think you know that."

"I thought I heard voices," I tense as Melanie comes downstairs in her drawstring pajama bottoms and wifebeater, the little "man" of the family. "You're still here?"

"Not for long."

She sits on the arm of Lindsay's chair with a proprietary air, as if I'm competition and she's pissing on her stump to mark her territory. "What's the problem?"

"The problem is I was trying to explain to Brian that it's not as easy for Gus to spend time with him alone in Pittsburgh now that he's in the loft and has no partner."

"What would he do with him?" Melanie observed with a shrug. "Take him to Babylon?"

"I don't need that shit from you," I remind her. "Look, you promised me, Lindsay. I'm asking you to live up to that promise."

"And I'm telling you things changed since then. It's not as if Justin is coming back, Brian."

That hits me like a speeding bullet. "How do you know?" Whether it's true or not, what the fuck? Why would she say something like that? Does she know how hurtful it is? Does she know how important hope, even when it's unlikely, is for me?

"When I told him he needed to get his butt to New York... "

"When did you tell him that?" I interrupt.

"What?" Her innocent look has an edge of tension, as if she realizes she said too much.

"When did you tell Justin he should get his butt to New York?"

"About the time that article came out praising his work."

"That same article that you made sure that I saw?"

"It was a milestone for him, for any artist."

My gaze travels to his painting over their mantle. I remember looking at it in their home in Pittsburgh when they were packing, and being told I hope I knew what he was sacrificing for me. At the same time, he was being told he needed to move to New York? A very unpleasant truth that's nagged at me for some time just crystallized in my thick head.

"What were you more jealous of, Lindsay? Justin having the success as an artist that you never had or Justin having me?"

"What are you talking about?" She responds with a glare as Melanie laughs.

"It's his colossal ego again, getting control of his mouth. Haven't you heard? Everyone wants Brian Kinney, at least for a little while. They soon learn that it's not worth keeping. Justin did, Michael did, even you, finally, saw him for what he is."

I stand and slip into my coat. I suddenly feel like a pawn in a very ugly game. A game with no point that I can see, other than to drive a wedge of uncertainty between two people in love. I'm ashamed that I let myself be manipulated, even a little. I always knew Lindsay had unrequited feelings for me. I never let myself believe they colored her feelings for Justin. But when I combine that with her frustrated career as an artist confronted by his talent, the whole thing becomes painfully clear. This isn't the time or the place. I need to get away by myself and think. I feel betrayed.

I feel really betrayed.

I don't continue the fight. I just leave. I want to see Gus tomorrow. I don't want that door slammed in my face. I need to think about the rest of it, about my options. I get in the car and drive towards the hotel. Without considering the hour, I reach for my cell phone and dial a number. Finally, he answers. Sleepy voice. I suddenly can't think of anything to say. I want to hang up, but he says,

"Brian, I know it's you. I have a ring assigned to your number."

I smile slightly. "What is it?"

"Save the Last Dance for Me."

I wonder if he can hear my heart break across the miles?


Chapter 6: Justin's POV

"Were you just going to hang up without saying anything?" I ask him. He's in a car, I can hear the faint drone of traffic behind him. He answers with a low laugh.

"I was considering it."

"Why?"

"It's late, it was impulsive... seemed stupid on reflection."

"You're in Toronto?"

"Yeah."

"Late to be visiting Gus. Have you been hitting the club scene? I heard it's pretty good," I'm careful to avoid sounding judgmental or jealous. It's funny, when Brian and I were together, the club scene that was such a siren's call for him was less troubling to me than it is now. Now I wonder if he's looking for someone new, even subliminally. Back then, he never wanted more than a sexual encounter. I even shared the scene with him when we were a couple. Now, he prowls alone. I worry, but I have no right to condemn.

"I fell asleep with Gus. I'm on my way to the hotel. Shit, I think I just missed my exit. Pulling over so we can talk without my becoming even more lost."

"Is it safe where you're stopping?"

"Quit being my mother, Justin. I hate the one I have."

I smile. "How's Gus? How are the girls?"

"I woke you up, didn't I?"

"Yes, but so what? I'm staying with my mom. Not much to do but sleep."

"Did you open your present?" He means the one from him, of course.

"Not yet. I'm saving it for the day. I have something for you, too. I'll leave it here with my mom."

"Thanks."

"So... are you avoiding my question?" It's so wonderful to just be talking to him, hearing his familiar voice, the whisper of his inhalation of cigarette smoke, the whoosh when he exhales. I close my eyes and can almost feel him here with me. Smell him. Taste him. I stop before this call takes an unexpected twist.

"No, Gus is fine, seems bigger to me. He read me a bedtime story."

I laugh. "Isn't that wrong way round?"

"He liked doing it and it put me to sleep."

"If only I'd known that was the trick."

A chuckle. "It only works when it's a kid reading to me. I'm sure I would've found something erotic in your rendition. And then we'd start working on the distraction."

I smile at that fact. "So how are the girls?" He takes too long to answer, and then says,

"I think they're a pair of perfectly matched cunts."

Whoa. That surprises me! I know Brian has no love for Melanie, but he does for Lindsey and dropping her in that expletive is a shocker. "What happened?"

"Let me ask you something. Did Lindsay talk to you about moving to New York after your review came out?"

"Yeah."

"What did you tell her?"

"I told her I would rather stay in Pittsburgh with you than follow that dragon to New York." He's quiet for a moment. I can read what he's thinking. I did tell her that, but it was before everything started getting weird. "Why do you ask?"

"Because she made sure I saw the review and that she told me how important it was, and then Melanie reminded me of how much you were sacrificing for me."

I sigh. I see where he's going with this. "I didn't move to New York because Lindsay thought I should or because Melanie believed it was where I should live. I know there's an interpretation that they were manipulating us, trying to cause trouble or force a separation, and maybe it's true. But it wasn't my motivation in going."

"Whether it was or wasn't, they were playing us. And now Lindsay's telling me Gus can't come see me in Pittsburgh because I didn't keep the big house and because I don't have a partner."

"That is just fucked up!" I can't believe she's being so punitive and in a way that is sure to hurt Brian most. Not only is she keeping his son away, but she's underlining for him that his own personal losses are why Gus won't be allowed to visit.

"Yeah, it is."

"What are you going to do?"

"I don't know."

"I'm sorry."

"Yeah."

"I miss you."

"Yeah."

"Is that all you can say?"

"No. I miss you, too."

There's a keening silence between us, bony fingers clawing at our hearts. "I left for you," I manage to say and he answers,

"I know why you left."

"You do?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because you knew the whole marriage thing was just wrong for us, for me, and so was the house and all of that bullshit. You were right about that."

I exhale, feeling a great weight lift. "It isn't just you, Brian. I realized that it was wrong for me, too. I thought it was what I wanted, but it isn't. Not at this stage of my life, anyway. I don't need to be a poster boy for same sex unions. But I also had another reason for going. A more selfish reason."

"Because we hit a wall and there was no real path for us to be together?"

"Damn, is that what you think? That we hit a wall?"

"I don't know. It sure felt like a wall."

"I had to prove something to myself. And I think you have something to prove to yourself, too."

"Dying to hear," a little of the Kinney sarcasm seeps into that remark. I smile.

"I have to prove that I can do this. I can be an artist. On my own, calling my own shots, make or break, all on my own talent. It didn't have to be in New York. I don't buy that New York is some mecca for artists. A lot of famous American artists never lived there, even if they showed in the city. Most, in fact. There's only one Andy Warhol, and I'm not him. I don't need to go from Pittsburgh to New York and try to create myself as some media maven. That's not my idea of art. I could have moved to Philly or Chicago or anywhere. But New York seemed logical, and I had a connection for an apartment. I knew that I had to move out of Pittsburgh because as long as I stayed here, it was too easy to let you support me."

"Is that so bad?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because I want to be your equal."

He laughs. "I'll always be older, taller and more heinous than you. You'll never catch up."

"Not in those categories, maybe, but to be your partner, I can't be your protégé, Brian. I can't be someone you want to turn into the best homosexual I can be. I have to find my own evolution and come to you on equal footing so the balance between us isn't so one-sided. To do that, I have to prove to myself what I can do with my talent."

"And what? I'm supposed to wait? For how long?"

"That's the hard part, I know. I can't ask or expect that. It scares me, the possibility of losing you while I'm trying to find myself. But if I caved and came to you half-formed, it isn't fair to either one of us. I need to know who and what I am, and you deserve nothing less in a partner."

"When did you have this revelation?"

"Before I left."

"You never expressed it."

"I sort of did. But it was hard to say anything when every inch of my body was in agony over leaving."

"You seemed together enough," he doesn't mean for it to sound like an indictment, but it is.

"So did you. We were both lying."

He says nothing. I know. Finally, he says, "So what is my big quest while you're off evolving into my equal? Which is ridiculous, but I don't want to start a fight."

"You're already on it."

"Am I? If so, it's a mystery quest."

"You're finding out what those words you said to me on the night of the bombing really mean to you. What they mean to your life. What, if anything, they mean for our future. And it isn't marriage. And it isn't a big house in the country and surrogate children. What is it? That's your quest, Brian. Because no one can figure that out but you. And on the way, you may just learn that getting older doesn't mean the end of everything you value about yourself."

"Easy for you to say. I gave you an option for a life with me, and yeah, maybe it was wrong. But why do I have to figure everything out on my own? Shouldn't two people be doing this together if there's any purpose in it?"

"I'm working on it too, Brian. This isn't all about my becoming an artist. It's about becoming my own man and being my own man includes what I want from my partner."

"Or whom you want."

"I know whom I want."

"I'm sorry, but that's hard for me to swallow right now."

"I know."

"I'm having a hard time, Justin," he practically whispers and I feel his pain scorch me all the way to Pittsburgh.

"Me too."

"I'm going to let you go, now. Have a nice Christmas with your family."

"Brian, give Gus my love."

"Yeah."

"And Merry Christmas to you, too."

"Ho, ho, ho. See you, Sunshine."

He ends the call and all I can do is stare through the darkness until my vision gets blurred by tears and the phone begins to demand it be hung up by broadcasting an annoying sound. Sometimes doing the right thing feels so fucking wrong.


Chapter 7: Brian's POV

The conversation with Justin, coupled with the internal revelations about Lindsay, left me feeling ragged. I can fool other people about how I feel, but there's no fooling the man. I let the hotel valet park my car. I don't want to deal with even a minor hassle. The hotel is predictably nice, gracious, and while I tell them I need no help with my luggage, a bellman volunteers. It's late, it's quiet, and again, I'm too tired and stressed to deal. As we await the elevator, I stare at the all-white Christmas tree decorating the lobby. It's wired with white lights and decorated with silver ornaments and it makes me feel sad for some reason. It's an illusion of a Christmas tree, a perfect reflection of what should be lopsided and messy and littered with a collection of family and homemade ornaments.

This is the kind of tree I would have, if I had a tree, a perfect reflection of what doesn't exist. And that makes me feel saddest of all.

"In town on business?" The bellman tries to distract me. He's young, he's cute, he's cruising me, but right now I'm not sure if the cruise is to gauge my tip meter or because he wants to fuck me. I'm not sure I care.

"No," I answer, not feeling compelled to explain further. We board the elevator and he pushes the button for my floor. I stand at the back with my hands braced on the polished brass bar, my eyes closed. He says,

"Do I know you? You look like an actor."

Please. Without opening my eyes, I respond, "No, you don't know me."

"You're handsome enough to be an actor."

I do not respond. Definitely, aggressively, cruising me. Slow night. He leads the way to my room and opens it with a flourish. He proceeds to explain the mysteries of the HVAC system, the remote controls for the electronics, even the fucking bathroom amenities. He offers to get a bucket of ice for me after pointing out the wonder that is the mini bar. Fine. He's getting a ten-dollar tip. That's it. He can adjust my thermostat, bring me ice, even lick the film off my soap, but he's getting a ten-dollar tip. I guess that makes it a little more in Canadian currency. I throw my coat and scarf on the bed and stand at the window, staring out at the crescent of lights before you hit the black void of Lake Ontario. Water views may be lovely in the sunlight, but at night, they make you feel as if you're perched on the edge of an abyss.

Which I am.

He returns with my ice. I hand him the ten. He smiles as he takes it and causes his hand to brush mine. "Anything else I can do for you, sir?" he says with a knowing smile. I sigh. What the fuck? I'm too tired to go out, too wired to sleep, and he's hot enough.

Five minutes later, he's seated on the edge of the bed sucking my cock. I rest one hand on his shoulder, the other behind my neck, my eyes closed and mind elsewhere. He's maybe a six on the cock sucking scale. No blow job is bad, unless they bite you or gag on it, but some are better than others. He rates a six, enough to get me off fairly quickly, which he does. Afterwards, he starts to undress, but I shake my head.

"Don't bother."

"That was just the preliminary," he leers at me. I zip up and walk towards the door.

"Tonight, there will be no encores. I'm tired, I'm going to bed."

He looks disappointed as he leaves and tells me to ring the bell desk if I change my mind. I won't. It took the edge off so maybe now I can sleep. I close the drapes, take off my clothes, climb under the heavy down comforter and instantly fall into that void.

Christmas Eve.

Gus and what's-her-face, Michael's kid, are so hyper over the holidays that they don't notice the tension between their mommies and me. Which is good. I don't want to spoil their joy, none of this is their fault. I shipped my presents to him early so I wouldn't have to deal with excess baggage at the airport. The plan is that he will open them today, and I'll fly to Banff on Christmas morning so they can have their little lesbo holiday without my testosterone poisoning their home.

I spent a lot of time, with Cynthia's research assistance, selecting gifts online that seemed appropriate for a kid his age and with his interests. A couple choices missed, but most were direct hits. I even bought a few things for his sister so she wouldn't feel left out. I have one for Lindsay in my bag, but I'm rethinking it. They give me one from Gus. He watches expectantly as I shred the paper and then says, "It's goggles for skiing, Daddy."

"Gus!" Lindsay reprimands him with a laugh. "It's supposed to be a surprise!"

The exposed box gave it away, anyway. It's not like I don't have state-of-the-art goggles, but these have some sentimental value, coming from him. I try them on to his appreciative giggles. "You look like a monster, Daddy!" he compliments me and I go into monster mode, chasing him around the room and up the stairs, then down again to his delighted laughter and Melanie's glare. He finally makes a lunge for his newly acquired super water canon and slays me with it, even though it's not currently loaded with liquids. I fall on the floor with a groan and lie very still until he comes over to me and pries the goggle off my eyes and asks,

"You dead, Daddy?"

I spring up with a growl and grab him, laughing at his squeal of surprise. I roll him onto the rug and tickle him until he squirms free. "Can we have a little less rough house and more inside-appropriate fun?" Lindsay cautions. I slump onto the sofa, returning the goggles to the box as Gus climbs up on my lap.

"Mommy is no fun," I tell him. She glares at me.

"Mommy has to live with a hyper-stimulated child. Daddy gets to go back to his fancy hotel and crash."

"Gus will go skiing with Daddy!" Gus suggests. Not exactly the ski trip I had in mind, but I shrug.

"Why not? Could be fun."

"Absolutely not," Melanie says. "And how dare you say that in front of him so that now we get to be the villains again."

"But I want to go!" Gus puffs up to signal an impending crying session that Melanie cuts short by snatching him off of my lap. She carries him into the kitchen, saying,

"It's time for your dinner."

I can hear him protest and cry a little, as Lindsay shakes her head. "Did you have to do that?"

"It was his idea."

"He's a child, you're not. It's Christmas, Brian. Do you honestly think I wouldn't want Gus here with his family on Christmas?"

"I'm his family too."

"You're a drop-in father."

"Only because that's the way you fucking want it!"

"As do you, Brian. You just want me to provide you with the way out."

"Do I? Okay, Lindsay. Here it is. I'm happy to take Gus to Banff with me. Period. Pack him up and we're gone."

"We don't even trust you to care for him in your home," Melanie rejoins us after settling Gus with his food in the kitchen. "Do you think we'd let you take him up on a fucking mountain?"

"Yeah, Melanie, that's what I would do. I'd take him up the Black Diamond slope with me and watch him tumble down the mountain. That's such fun and so like me."

"You wouldn't know what the fuck he was doing while you were off chasing the ass of some Scandinavian ski instructor."

Enough. I see Gus enter the room, his face and hands bearing the traces of spaghetti sauce. His large, Bambi eyes look from the women to me. His lower lip trembles. He looks like I did at that age. I've seen the pictures. I don't want him to have the same fucked up memories I have of childhood Christmases with the Kinneys. I hold up my hands in surrender. This isn't going to be settled in this manner. This is going to be much more complicated than they think. But the one thing I won't do is to traumatize my son. I pick up his water canon and say, "Come on, Sonny Boy. Let's go upstairs and test this out in the bath tub. You look like you could use a blast or two."

He lights up at that possibility and Lindsay calls after us, "Don't let him soak the bathroom!"

I just ignore her. I've run out of things to say to her that would be considered civil.

One of the sadder places to be on Christmas Eve night is a gay bar in a strange city. One of the more miserable aspects of these places is that there are a lot of people gathered there, because their homosexuality has alienated them from their families and the greater community. Those of us without partners, those of us without ties, shunned by organized religion, congregate here to drink and cruise, but mainly to avoid being alone.

In Toronto, the gay part of town is clustered around Church Street. It's bigger than I expected it to be, with the usual rainbow identified buildings, shops, bars, clubs, and even condos, with rainbow flags displayed on terraces. It's bitterly cold and I go into the first bar I find, just to escape the chill. It's more Woody's than a fern bar or slick big city dive, which is fine. The crowd is homogenous, white, very Canadian.

The bartender is cute. I'm not really in the mood for company, but he seems to be flirting, so I'm rethinking my options. Anything to turn off the mind, to stop the pain for awhile. And then I feel a strong hand close on my shoulder. "Brian Kinney. Of all the gin joints in Gayopolis, you come into mine."

I glance over my shoulder at someone I definitely didn't expect to see. I know I did him, but I can't remember exactly where and when. It seemed like a good encounter, one he obviously remembers, and then he says, "You said you were going to call me. That was, what? Four years ago? Lose my number?" His smile is more mischievous than accusatory.

He's handsome, probably my age but well-preserved, well-dressed, understated. "You're going to have to help me," I tell him. "I've slept."

He laughs and sits on the stool beside me, motioning for refills for us both. "Let me set the scene for you," he says. "You have a friend in the hospital, close to death. Comatose." I wince. Justin. The bashing. He goes on. "You apparently were chosen to make the decision on whether to pull the plug."

I brighten up at that. Ted, not Justin. Suddenly the tiles fall into place. The handsome intern, the empty bed next to where Ted vegetated in a drug-induced coma, precursor of things to come for him in that arena. While I'm plowing the doc, Ted decides to revive. Funny story. And this is the doc. No clue what his name is, although I'm sure he told me, once. He says it again as he extends his hand to me.

"Brent Matthison. What the hell are you doing here on Christmas?"

I shake his hand and say, "Visiting my son. What are you doing here?"

"You have a son?"

"The first time you cruised me was in a hospital corridor on the night my son was born."

"Interesting."

"Why are you here?"

"I live here, now. I'm an orthopedic surgeon. My partner was Canadian, so it made sense for me to start my practice here."

"He let you out on Christmas Eve?"

"He let me out a year ago," he said with a laugh. "And changed the locks. You?"

"Single," I say, ignoring the internal wince.

"Of course."

I want to defend that it hasn't always been like this, but I don't bother. A half hour later we're in his waterfront condo that is very Bauhaus, faggot style. Like I should talk. Ten minutes after that, we're recreating the scene in the hospital, only the mattress is Tempur Pedic and there's no vegetating Ted beyond the curtain. Lying side by side, afterwards, I smoke, he doesn't, and then he says,

"What are you doing tomorrow?"

"Catching a plane to Banff."

"Ah, skiing. More work for me."

"Not from me. I'm an expert."

"They're the most likely to need my services. Take more chances."

"Maybe you should relocate to be closer to the slopes."

"There are plenty of amateur athletes in Toronto. Maybe I should look into a ski trip. I haven't been in years. It sounds inviting. Some rigorous exercise followed by hot buttered rum and fireside fucking."

I cast him a sharp glance. "I'm not looking for a ski date."

He smiles. "You're not the only hot top at the lodge."

I get up and dress, reminding myself of why "do-overs" are such a stupid idea. I tell him I can see myself out and escape to the elevators. I'm ready to leave Toronto, now. I feel disconnected, angry. Angry at Lindsay, at my circumstances, just angry. Alone and angry. Potent combination.


Chapter 8: Justin's POV

"Merry Christmas, honey."

My mother greets me with a mug of piping hot chocolate and melted marshmallow as I make my way downstairs sometime on Christmas morning. I didn't sleep well last night after Brian called, so I could barely drag my ass out of bed this morning. In the old days, Molly and I would be up before dawn, jonesing in the doorway of the parents' bedroom, demanding to go downstairs and open the spread of presents waiting for us. We were so spoiled. Now, I just want to sleep in.

"We had to wait for you," Molly says with a sour glare as I flop down on the sofa. The Christmas tree looks a little lopsided to me. It fills the room with that fresh pine scent that used to send me into an asthma attack, but I've finally outgrown that sensitivity. I sneeze. At least I think I outgrew it. The ornaments are a combination of school projects, family projects, souvenirs from family trips and a few heirlooms. It's an odd collection, but strangely soothing to me. Memories, I guess. We used to have a lot of fun decorating it together. I suppose my father didn't get any of the ornaments in the divorce, nor would he care. He's put all that behind him, now. All of us. We were just deitrus as he starts his new life. Asshole.

There are fewer presents now that we're both grown up, but our stockings still hang on the mantle and my mother still fills them with small goodies. Mother, as always, is determined to put on a happy face and make the ceremony at least reminiscent of our childhood heydays. I can smell her favorite coffee cake recipe baking in the kitchen, and later there will be turkey.

"I'll play Santa," she volunteers, slipping on that dreadful fake fur Santa Claus hat that always designated the one who distributed the gifts. She metes them out in order, making sure each of us has one to open at all times, until all are revealed. Mine are practical. Gift certificates and cash cards, just what I need, really. But also a new parka, that I probably don't need, and insulated gloves and a stocking cap, a heavy sweater, wooly socks. I glance at my mother.

"Do you think I relocated to Antartica?"

"I worry about you in that artist's garret and New York gets cold."

I laugh, picturing myself dressed up like an Arctic explorer as I paint. Oh well, I'll get some use out of this stuff. New York does get cold, but no colder than Pittsburgh.

Molly's gifts are mostly clothes, more suitable to normal weather patterns. When she goes upstairs to try something on, my mother hands me an envelope.

"This is special," she says with a smile. "I think you need a little break."

I expect money, but when I open it, I find an airline ticket and a hotel voucher. "What's this?"

"I know how you love to ski. It's a paid trip to Banff." Now the warm clothes make more sense. Too bad the gift doesn't. There's also a voucher for renting ski equipment and for lift tickets.

"A ski trip?"

"Yes. You work all the time, you have no real break, no extra cash. A little vacation will be rejuvenating and that's always good for the creative process."

I stare at her. Who is she? Where is my mother? What does she know about the 'creative process'? This little vacation can't be cheap. I know this lodge, I've heard of it. Brian and I even talked about going there someday, one of the things we always said we would do and never did. He never stays at any place with less than five stars. "Why Banff?"

"Why not? It's beautiful and they say the skiing there is wonderful."

"Wouldn't it have been cheaper to just send me to Vermont?"

"Justin, it's not about being cheap. It's about your having a wonderful time in a beautiful location."

I sigh and shake my head. "You can't afford this, Mom. It's way too extravagant."

"I had a good year. Just accept it graciously, please. And get packed. Your flight leaves in two hours."

"Today? I'm flying out today?" There goes the turkey. This is just plain weird. I guess it's good that I left my passport and other important papers here. Chances are a lot better they'd be lost or stolen in New York than here. And it was never likely that I'd be hopping a plane to Paris any time soon.

"Yes, I got a break on the price if you travelled on Christmas day."

I shake my head. This is the goofiest, most unexpected present she's given me, since that football when I was in fifth grade. If it makes her happy, I can force myself to ski and luxuriate in some fancy lodge, I guess. But I'd rather have the money. I gather my new wardrobe and trudge upstairs to pack. I'll have to borrow a bigger suitcase. I didn't come prepared for puffy clothes. Brian's gift waits on the table beside my bed. Why am I delaying opening it? I don't know. I want to see what's in the box, but then again, I don't. At the last minute, I stick it in my messenger bag, deciding to wait.

The plane is empty. There are probably twenty passengers, total. Who the fuck travels on Christmas day? I'm able to stretch out in a row of empty seats in coach and I sleep until we land. After I claim my bag, I wind through the customs line, and call Lindsay while I wait to be admitted. I wish her Merry Christmas and ask, "Is Brian there?"

"No, Justin. He left today."

Oh swell, this is perfect. He's on his way back to Pittsburgh just as I leave town. We're like the stars of one of those schmaltzy movies where the lovers keep passing each other, unseen, in train stations. "He flew back?"

"He went to Banff to ski."

I almost drop my phone. I have to juggle it to keep from watching it bounce on the cold, linoleum floor. Could Jennifer Taylor really be that devious? "Banff?" I repeat.

"Yeah," she sounds surprised by my surprise. "He said he was going to ski for a few days."

"Do you know where he's staying?"

"No, I really don't."

I make inane chit-chat for as long as I feel is necessary to be polite, remembering what Brian said to me last night about Lindsay, and then I clear through customs, dragging my overstuffed bag behind me. A van with my name in the window is waiting outside at the curb and the driver takes over for me, loading my luggage, after offering me a bottle of water. The cold is intense but it wakes me up, at least.

"Make yourself comfortable," he tells me. "The heat is on in the van. We just have one more passenger to pick up and then we'll be on our way. He's due any minute," my name comes out of the window and he shifts some paper to find the other passenger's placard.

"His name's not Kinney, is it?" I wonder just how well this little shanghai was planned.

"No," he says with a smile. Just as I begin to relax, he adds,

"Mr. Kinney arrived early this morning."

Shit. Someone in Pittsburgh is going to die, and the first name on my hit list is Jennifer.

Continue to the next chapter

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