Thanks to Alan, Roz, Pfyre and Jen. The saga continues. Hope you enjoy! Posting early because I have to go somewhere later. Have a great Passover or Easter! Love, Ran
Brian waited until Justin went to sleep that night to make the phone call. He was feeling better, if not well. He was able to eat some food other than BRAT and keep it down, but was also still weak and easily exhausted. Shea remained their temporary guest, also asleep, in the guest room at the end of the hall. After two rings, Ben answered.
"It's Brian," he said and Ben turned down the music in the background.
"Brian, how're you doing? Unfortunately, Michael is at the shop, conducting inventory. You can reach him there. Let me tell you myself that I'm very sorry about your job. That just sucks. Michael's been torturing himself trying to find the ‘right' words to comfort you, even though I assured him you'd rather just hear his voice rather than hear a speech. You know that he supports you. If you need anything..." he didn't find it necessary to complete that thought.
"Ben..." Brian didn't want this to become a pity session focusing on his unemployment status. "I didn't call to talk to Mikey. I called to talk to you. And I don't want to discuss my job. It's not important. I'll handle all that."
Ben hesitated. "Okay. Is something wrong?"
There had always been a little tension between Brian and Ben ever since Ben became part of Michael's life. Some of it had to do with the fact they were once casual lovers, unexpectedly thrown together again, but most of it was just the natural tension between a man's lover and his long-time best friend. Michael had similar issues with Justin, only Mikey was far more childish about his jealousy. Brian basically liked Ben, and vice versa. "You can tell me to fuck off and I would completely understand if you did. I want to talk to you about AIDS."
Ben was silent for a moment. "Why?"
"Because I've spent my life, once I became sexually active, doing the smart thing to avoid AIDS so I wouldn't have to worry about what it is and what it does. I'm not trying to be in your face with this, Ben, or suggest that you were stupid and I wasn't. In fact, I was stupid often enough to realize that I'm very lucky. But I have this tendency to deny unpleasant truths and one of those unpleasant truths is that AIDS is still a menace to society, especially to the gay subculture."
"I have no idea where you're going with this, Brian."
"Sorry, I've been really sick, and I think my brain is still impaired by dehydration or something. Let me try again."
"Wait," Ben interrupted. "Sick? Brian, are you..."
Brian was confused for a minute, and then he winced. "No! God no, it's not me. I had the stomach flu. It's this kid...long story, won't bore you with it. The fact is, he's HIV positive and he says he's more than that, that he has AIDS, and I'm confused by this whole sliding scale of sickness thing. When does HIV become AIDS and what does that mean for a seventeen year old boy? Is he right to be so tragic? Is he as good as dead?"
"Brian, are you involved with this kid?" Ben's curiosity was tinged with uneasiness, as if he sensed a disaster was brewing.
"Not the way you mean. Not as lovers. He's here, as a guest, in our loft, but that's just temporary. I feel sorry for him. He has no one. And I'm trying to understand what he's facing."
"Has he been tested?"
"Yeah, he's sure."
"Well, I'm no expert in this area, although I guess I've read everything out there that I can find in order to ensure I'm doing all I can do to stay alive and healthy for as long as I can."
"Understood, Ben, and we want you to do that."
"I can tell you he needs to find a doctor who is very well-versed in treating HIV disease, because most of them aren't. That's the only way he can be sure to get the latest treatments and ensure attention is paid to important factors. Any good AIDS resource center can recommend doctors with that specialty."
"Okay, but when does HIV-positive become AIDS and what does that mean exactly?" Brian was intent on pinning him down on certain facts he needed to know if he was going to be of any use to Shea.
"Again, I'm no doctor, but in layman's terms, being HIV-positive is not the same as having AIDS. You can be positive for years and not get sick. Still, you have HIV disease and even when you're healthy appearing, the disease is wearing down your immune system. Opportunistic infections, viruses, fungi, bacteria, things that exist everywhere and in everyone's body, have no effect while you're healthy, but when your immune system erodes, they take hold and make you sick."
"Even if you're on the cocktail?" The panacea that men like Brian liked to believe made AIDS no more dangerous than a bad cold suddenly seemed less or a miracle to him as he viewed it from the kid's perspective.
"Let me get to that. Most doctors will tell you that you've gone from HIV disease to AIDS when your T-cells drop below 200, or when you develop one of the opportunistic infections the Center for Disease Control has identified as being AIDS associated."
"Like what? That skin cancer thing?" Brian recalled pictures of men leopard spotted and wasting, forcing that image out of his mind's eye.
"Karposi's sarcoma, yes, that's one. PCP, which is a form of pneumonia, CMV, candida...there are a bunch of them. Some are treatable. Some, like MAC are serious, and then there's PML, which hits the brain, and is usually fatal."
"So what do they do to prevent all that from happening?" He was beginning to feel as hopeless as Shea. The more he learned about the disease, the more grateful he was for safe sex.
"Brian, each case is unique. Everyone reacts uniquely to therapies. Some respond well to anti-virals and nukes and even herbal infusions, others don't. The goal is to reduce the viral load and strengthen the T-cell count which enables the body to ward off infection on its own. Other than that, all they can do is treat the infections as they pop up. Most are treatable if not curable. Not all."
Brian frowned. "So when you go from HIV disease to AIDS, what's the prognosis? How long do you have? Is this hurting you, Ben, to discuss it? Because I don't mean to do that."
"Not at all," Ben, the teacher, was glad to inform and educate. Even on a topic this personal. "Believe me, I deal with these demons every day, Brian. You don't deliver a death sentence with an AIDS diagnosis, not anymore. Many people live years and years even after being diagnosed with AIDS, assuming they can respond well to the treatment of infections. Others don't last more than a few weeks. It all depends on your general health, how you react to treatment and whether you have an infection you can't resist."
Brian exhaled slowly. "So, I'm seventeen and I've just been told I have AIDS. I want to live because...?"
"Because the alternative will catch up to you soon enough. Take advantage of the good days and when the bad days start to outnumber the good, then you can weigh your exit options. But don't be premature. The good days can go on for years. Depression is a big part of this disease, Brian, as it is with any potentially fatal chronic disease. I even suffer from depression on occasion. Teenagers tend to be melodramatic anyway. He needs to monitor his mental health as closely as his physical well-being. I'm a big believer in diet and exercise. Maintaining muscle mass combats wasting, and wasting robs you of the final barrier of defense against viruses. I would be very happy to talk to this kid, Brian. Would that help?"
"I think it might," Brian agreed, picturing Ben and how healthy and handsome he appeared. "To see you, how good you look, how happy you are with Mikey, that would be encouraging to him. He seems to resent Justin and me for being healthy, at least he acts that way sometimes. Why don't you two come to New York for a long weekend? I haven't seen Mikey in a long time. You could take the train. Stay with us."
"I thought Linds and Gus were with you, and now this kid..."
"Long story. Plenty of room. Check with Mikey and let me know. I'd really like it if you could."
"Okay, one of us will call you tomorrow. Brian, he needs to be on a treatment plan right away," Ben cautioned. "Every day that passes, his system gets weaker, his viral load increases and his T-cell count drops."
"I know. Thanks, Ben, you were a big help." He hung up, startled when Justin said,
"Shouldn't you be in bed?"
Brian glanced over his shoulder at him. "I'm coming. I was talking to Ben."
"I heard part of it. Is Shea in trouble?"
Brian stood, turning off the lamp as he walked over to Justin and spread his arm across his shoulders. "Yeah, he's in trouble."
"What do we do?"
They walked together to the bedroom, closed the door and slid into bed. Justin rested his head on Brian's chest, his arm flung across his belly. Brian let his long fingers drift aimlessly through Justin's flaxen hair. He was still too weak and too flat to attempt sex, but it was nice to be able to feel this closeness to Justin even without doing more. "First thing we do is see that he goes to a good doctor."
"How does he pay for that?"
Brian shrugged and Justin raised himself to gaze down at him. "No, Brian, you can't afford it."
"I can't afford to pay a hospital bill, or for his continuing treatment, or for all the drugs, but I could afford to pay for a diagnosis. If he gets started on a course of treatment, then a doctor who volunteers his time could probably monitor his progress. I'm sure there are social services to cover his drugs."
"You've already paid for him to stay at the Center. Remember, Brian, we're supposed to be on a budget to EXTEND your current cash flow, not to take on new responsibilities."
"I know, I know, CHRIST! I hate being out of work! I'm such a fucking loser! If not for the fact I was out of work, I could do so much more and..."
"If not for the fact you were out of work, you wouldn't even know about Shea. Stop beating yourself up." Justin kissed him and Brian went into his lover's open arms, finally drifting into a troubled sleep.
Brian awoke the next morning to the sound of Justin retching in the bathroom. As he got up he realized most of his strength had returned. Justin was draped over the bowl, puking. Brian dampened a towel and pressed it to Justin's forehead, stroking between his shoulders with his other hand until his vomiting stopped. Justin leaned against Brian, his body flushed with fever and trembling slightly from the effort of being sick.
"I've got it," Justin stated the obvious and Brian nodded.
"I want to die."
"It gets worse. Rinse your mouth out. I'll put you to bed with a big bowl and a bottle of pedialyte."
Justin groaned but followed his instructions, too sick to argue. An hour later, Brian looked up as Lindsay entered the loft, using her key. She hesitated in the entry as Brian said, "Where's my boy?"
"At day care. I'm trying out a place near the gallery. Is it okay to come in? You look pretty healthy. A little pale."
"You really shouldn't. Justin has it now. It's like the plague. Trust me, you don't want it."
"I'll just pick up some clothes for the two of us and leave. I'll breathe through a beak stuffed with herbs," she walked past him and down the hall before he could intercept her. He followed, starting to explain about Shea as she opened the door to the guest room. But no one was there. The bed was neatly made up. Everything was as she left it. She opened a suitcase and began folding clothes into it. Brian went into the bathroom attached to the suite. No Shea, but there was an envelope propped against the mirror. It bore Brian's name and return address in embossed letters. Obviously it had been taken from his computer desk. The front of it was addressed, "Brian and Justin" in neat block print. He slipped it in his pocket as Lindsay came in and removed some bottles from the cabinet.
"You sharing a bed with Mick?" he teased. "She obviously has the hots for you."
Lindsay glared at him. "Women are so much more evolved than men. I'm sharing a room with your son. And Mick's daughter lives there, too, which has been a godsend for me because she loves to babysit Gus when she's not in class."
"You plan to stay there?" Brian carried the suitcase for her. It felt heavier than it should, reminding him of how weak he still was.
"Eventually I'll get my own place. But if it's easier for you if I stay with Mick..."
"I'm not saying that."
She smiled slightly. "Right. Has Melanie called for me?"
"No, Linds, I would've told you if she had." Her hurt expression touched him and he put down the suitcase to pull her into his arms. "She's been weird since she lost that baby she and Mikey were having together. Isn't there some kind of syndrome attached to miscarriages? Maybe you should cut her some slack."
"That was over a year ago, Brian. This isn't post-partum depression, this is fucking around."
He shrugged. "What should I say if she calls?"
"That I'm not home," Lindsay said with a tight, glacial smile.
After she left, Brian checked on Justin, who had fallen into a deep sleep, after yet another round of vomiting. Brian covered him up, then sat on the edge of the bed, opening the letter. Shea's neat, block print continued.
Brian and Justin.
Thanks for everything. I have to do this on my own. I hope you guys are always happy the way you are now. I took a bottle of water and a banana, hope that's okay. Love,
"Fuck!" Brian said aloud. Justin stirred but didn't awaken.
After trying unsuccessfully to find someone to care that Shea was missing, including the police, child protective services and the AIDS resource center, Brian alerted Frankie in case Shea showed up at Patrick Donovan's, and then returned to the bedroom. He stretched out beside Justin and quickly fell asleep. An hour later, the phone rang and Brian picked it up before it bothered his lover.
"'Yes'?" Michael repeated. "You answer your phone ‘yes'? Whatever happened to ‘hello'? Is this a New York thing?"
Brian sighed, his heart hammering from his sudden awakening. He carried the portable into the main room to avoid waking Justin. "I was asleep, Mikey."
"At this hour? Out late last night?"
"I've had stomach flu. I'm still tired."
"What's up with that? You never get sick."
"I guess I do now. But I'm over it. Justin has it, though."
"You guys really do share everything."
"Very funny. What do you want?"
"There's the ever-friendly Brian Kinney we know and love. I wanted to give you our travel plans. We're coming to New York this weekend at your invitation. We'll leave around two on Friday, after Ben's last class. We decided to take the train. We should be there in time for dinner. We want to take you guys out for Italian, assuming you're both well by then."
"Who's minding the store?"
"Uncle Vic. He volunteered."
"I'm glad you're coming," Brian said, although his reason for inviting Ben earlier had now vanished. Brian was still happy to see his best friend, even though Shea's departure had stilled the urgency. "But dinner's on me. I'm not broke. Not yet, anyway."
"Brian, I'm so sorry about your job. It's just fucked up."
"A lot of things are fucked up, Mikey. I guess this is fairly minor in the scope of what's not right in this world."
"Very philosophical. Of course, it's also bullshit."
"Whatever, Mikey," Brian pinched the bridge of his nose. Mr. Headache was back.
"Brian!" Justin called out from the bedroom and he stood up.
"I have to go, Mikey. Justin needs me. See you this weekend."
Later, Justin was soaking in the tub, his head propped up on a terrycloth pillow, his skin pale under the flickering candlelight. Brian came into the bathroom and laid some folded sweats on the counter. "You should get out of there soon. The water's probably getting cold, and you need to go back to bed."
Justin looked up at his lover. "I'm sorry, Brian. I can't believe I threw up on the floor like a kid. I just woke up and was instantly puking."
"Forget it, I did it too. It's all cleaned up. The beauty of hardwood floors. How do you feel?"
"Praying for death."
"I understand. When you get out, I'm ramming a suppository up your ass."
"The hell you are."
"I talked to Bill. He told me to. I've stuck my tongue, my fingers and my dick up your ass, not to mention a variety of sex toys, so this little silver bullet is no big whoop," he held up a bullet-shaped and sized cylinder.
"I can do it myself."
"And deprive me of the fun?"
Justin met his teasing smile with a roll of his eyes. "Help me up."
Brian helped him out of the water and opened the drain after wrapping Justin in a large bath sheet. "Do you wish we never left Italy?" Justin asked and Brian shrugged, rubbing the towel briskly to soak up the moisture from Justin's skin.
"Not really. Italy was great, but this is life, Sunshine. If we plan to make it together, we have to be able to get through things like stomach flu and job losses and financial strain."
He helped Justin into the sweats, and then pulled the waistband of his pants below his firm butt and leaned him over the slate countertop. Gently, he inserted the suppository, shoving it higher in Justin's rectum with his index finger. Considering the fact Justin routinely took Brian's hard nine inches up that same opening, the discomfort was minimal. Brian stroked his ass before pulling the pants back up. "Keep your butt cheeks clenched until it dissolves."
Brian rinsed the medication off his hand and escorted Justin back to the bed. Not only had he cleaned the floor, but he changed the linens, which caught some of the flow. Brian handed him a bottle of pedialyte and positioned the mixing bowl nearby.
"What's wrong?" Justin asked as Brian rubbed his lover's stomach in soothing circles.
"To go where?"
"I don't know, Justin."
"He can't! He needs to be on medication."
"I know. I called the police. I called everyone I could think of and no one cares. He didn't go back to the center, I checked with Frankie. What can we do? It's a big city."
"Do you think he went home? To Iowa?"
Brian shook his head. Justin felt tears well up in his eyes, unsure of the source, but unable to stop them. Brian used his knuckle to brush those tears off Justin's cheek, then took him gently into his arms. "We did what we could. We can't save the fucking world."
"When I was a kid, we had this cat. I was allergic, so he stayed outside, but I loved him. My dad built him a heated dog house, where he loved to spend his time. He carried around this old jack ball, just like a dog. He was more canine than feline. As I grew up, the cat got old. He got progressively bonier and less active, but he still kept that jack ball nearby. One day, he disappeared. He left the jack ball by the door and took off. My dad explained it was his time to die and that cats just wandered off when it was time, to die alone. That upset me even more, thinking of him alone somewhere, dying and then left to rot."
Brian squeezed him gently, and held him as he cried. He remembered what he had told Shea, repeating the words his sister Claire said to him so long ago. "Don't be scared, you're not alone." But now Shea was alone and he was scared, and Brian felt like a fucking liar.
Brian invited Cynthia, Lindsay, Mick, Mick's daughter, Gail, Frankie, Leo and Bill to the loft for a casual dinner honoring Michael and Ben, who were arriving that same evening. The flu had finally exited the loft, although both still felt a little tired and gaunt from the attack. Brian catered the food and Justin bit his lip to keep from criticizing the cost. Everyone arrived before the guests of honor. The mood was lively. Canapes and alcohol filled the void before dinner. After being fed early, Gus was lulled to sleep on Brian's bed by a story from his mother.
Lindsay was glad to see Brian and Justin feeling well enough to slip into a sexy little dance together in an open part of the room as the music throbbed in the background. Gail, a tall willowy brunette, was beautiful enough to model part-time while attending NYU. She watched them move and whispered to Lindsay, "Are you sure he's gay?"
Lindsay gave her a sad little smile. "Trust me. That train has left the station."
"Come on, girl, let's see if you can still shake that thing!" Mick pulled Lindsay to her feet and they joined the boys in a dance. Dressed in faded jeans and a workshirt that flattered her mannish figure, Mick looked ... attractive. Lindsay moved with her as Brian leaned in to kiss Justin hard on the mouth. Gail watched them with a sigh. He was gay, alright. Leo leaned over and patted her knee gently.
She smiled. "I'm used to it. Sometimes I wonder if my mom even knows any straight people."
The buzzer sounded and Brian released Justin, exclaiming "MIIKEY!" with a delighted smile. Barefoot, he ran down the stairs to greet them at the street level, opening the door and then opening his arms to Michael who fell into them for a prolonged bear hug. Ben stood by, smiling tensely, as the two friends shared a platonic kiss. Brian finally released his best friend and put an arm over Ben's shoulders in greeting. "You look good."
"You too, Brian."
"Yeah," Michael said with a perplexed expression as they stepped into the elevator. "You don't look tragic at all."
"Why would I look tragic?"
Brian laughed. "I'll get another one. I survived stomach flu, Jeffrey's in jail, life is good."
The evening waned until Cynthia was the only guest left who wasn't staying at the loft. She helped Justin in the kitchen as Brian sat and talked with Michael and Ben. "So how much does a place like this cost?" Michael mused, taking in the enormous room with eighteen foot exposed ceilings, antique brick walls, gleaming hardwoods and a series of sailcloth screens that divided the space. Amid all the new trappings, Michael was pleased to see that the painting of the ugly naked man was still prominently displayed.
"That's rude," Ben chastised him while Brian smirked.
"Remember that apartment you and Emmett shared on Liberty?"
"About ten times that rent."
Michael's eyes grew wide. "NO!"
Brian nodded. "It's Soho, man, and it's HUGE."
"Are you moving out?"
"Not until they make me."
"You're so good at what you do, Brian," Ben said with a smile. "I can imagine your former competitors are dying to hire you."
He shrugged. "I sent out some resumes. As sick as we were, I let that slip. I need to follow up." Cynthia announced she was leaving as Justin dimmed the kitchen lights. Brian got up to walk with her to the door. "I'll put you in a cab."
"I can do it myself."
"I wasn't raised that way," he said, and when they were gone, Justin sat down heavily in Brian's vacated chair.
"How is he doing, really, Justin?" Michael asked.
"He's reacting the way anyone would react. He's angry and he's worried, but he's not just sitting by and letting things drift. He hired a lawyer, obviously, he's meeting with them Monday about a settlement, and he's looking for a job."
"You can't live this way with no income," Michael observed and Justin glared at him.
"Please don't keep telling him that, Mikey. He knows exactly what he has to spend. We visited his financial planner early on. It just makes him feel like a failure if you keep telling him he can't afford his lifestyle."
"Well he can't! I'm sure you like living like this, who wouldn't? But you're breaking him."
"Why am I breaking him? This was his place before I ever moved into it with him. I'd live anywhere with Brian! Are you EVER going to get over the fact it's the man I love, and not his fucking lifestyle?"
"I will when you do!"
"What the fuck?" Brian looked from Justin to Michael as he re-entered the loft.
Ben sighed. "Just more of the eighth grade Mikey meets the seventh grade Justin."
Brian shook his head and lit a joint. "Well shut the fuck up. I don't want to listen to you two snark at each other all weekend."
"He started it," Justin moped and Brian laughed and pulled him up and then back down onto his lap, turning his face to kiss him deeply. Michael looked away, never reconciled to the Brian and Justin saga. Ben patted his knee gently, reminding him of his own partner.
"I think I'll turn in," Ben said, standing up with a stretch. "I'm tired. You and Brian catch up, Michael." He leaned over to kiss him and Michael smiled up at him.
"I won't be long."
"Take your time. You haven't seen each other in ages."
Justin took the hint and whispered something erotic to Brian, reminding him of what was waiting for him later, casting a sly glance at Michael as Brian followed him out of the room with his gaze. "Earth to Brian," Michael said and he turned back to his friend, offering him a toke.
"Sorry, he just has such a fine ass."
"I thought you'd be pretty used to it by now."
"If the day comes when I don't want to stare at his ass, stick a fork in me."
An hour later, the music on the sound system shifted to stuff popular when they were in high school as their marijuana-influenced patter turned back time. They were seated on the couch together, Brian's bare feet propped up on Michael's thigh. A platter of munchies positioned between them, was almost empty now. "Remember when you made that stink bomb in eighth grade chemistry lab and we all got to go home for the day?" Michael asked with a laugh. Brian giggled at the memory.
"I got to go home for a week. Suspended."
They both giggled. "It's amazing you ever got out of high school."
"Hey, I was a National Merit finalist, you twerp."
Michael smiled at him. "Geek."
They giggled together again. Brian then said, "How's Ben? He looks good."
"He always looks good. He's been very healthy. Not even a cold. His t-cells are high and his viral load is low. We're going through a good period. I hope it lasts."
"Me too, Mikey. Me too."
"Are you happy with...you know..."
"Justin? You can say his name."
"I love him, Mikey. Enough said."
Michael sighed and nodded, wishing he didn't still feel a glimmer of pain over that fact. "I guess he'll stick around."
"What does that mean?"
"I mean with you out of work and all. That changes so much. He's used to being married to a rich guy."
"Justin loves me. He's not here for.....this..." Brian gestured vaguely to the loft. "He's with me. If I believe that, why can't you?"
"I want to."
"Then do us both a favor and DO."
The phone rang and Brian picked it up. "Mr. Kinney?"
"Yeah?" A woman's voice, unfamiliar. He glanced at his watch. It was after one.
"I'm a nurse at City Hospital. Do you know a Shea Hennessey?"
"Yes," Brian sat up straight, feeling a sudden chill. "Why? Is he there?"
"He's critically ill. You may want to come down here."
"On my way." He hung up and Michael looked confused. "It's that kid I told Ben about. The one who's been missing. Hospital said he's there and very sick. I have to go. I'll see if Justin wants to come with me. Sorry Mikey, but..."
"It's okay," Michael said with a sigh, watching Brian disappear into his bedroom. Seeking out his lover. Responding to an emergency as a couple. Feeling suddenly alone, he walked down the hall to his own room, his own lover, his own life.
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July 25, 2004