The Phantom speaks: "How ya doin'?" Scott asked as I burrowed into his trailer. SHIT! "We all know about you," he went on. "How you keep trying to find Gale's trailer and screw it up every time. He thinks it's hilarious." Swell. Scott offered me a snack. He is such a sweetie! "I hope you write a hot boyfriend for Ted into your virtual season!" He called after me as I said goodbye and resumed the search for the elusive Mr. H.
Last week on QAF: Transitions: Brian sought help from Vic in his quest to win back Trevor's business. He and Vic shared a heart to heart conversation, revealing a secret from the past. Lindsay and Justin had a long talk about Brian, including her past affair with him. Justin expressed confusion about his feelings. Ethan confronted Brian in Brian's office and told him not to call Justin anymore.
Scene 1: The Novotny House, Evening.
Brian saw Ben's car as he pulled up in front of Debbie's house. Good, he thought to himself. He could say hello to Mikey. The front door was unlocked, so he went inside, holding the empty Tupperware cake carrier in one hand. He heard laughter and inhaled the scent of garlic and tomato sauce drifting from the kitchen. He smiled, recalling many happy times he spent in that kitchen over bowls of Deb's pasta. That's what he needed right now, a touch of family. Family helped ease his lonely isolation. At least, his adopted family of friends provided that comfort. His biological family only added to his anxieties. Since he was a boy, Deb's house was like coming home.
"Yes, I'd love some pasta, Deb! I'm absolutely starv..." Brian stopped mid-sentence when he saw Ethan seated at the table. They were all there. How had he missed their cars? Justin, Michael, Ben, Vic, Deb, Lindsay, Mel, Emmett and Ted . There was a moment of tense silence. Then Deb spoke.
"Come in, honey! There's plenty. I'll get you a bowl."
"No," Brian refused her offer as he felt a strange iciness form on the surface of his heart. "I, uh, I can't stay. I was just dropping this off for Vic. " He sat the Tupperware on the countertop. "I have to go."
"Nonsense! It's your favorite, Brian! Penne and Italian sausage," Deb was still trying. Others picked up her thread to encourage him to stay, but Brian saw Ethan's smug smile, and he knew he had to leave. Immediately. If he didn't, someone was going to bleed.
"Can't. Gotta go," he walked out of the house. Michael trailed him, stopping him at the curb.
"Brian, please come back in and eat with us."
"Fuck you, Mikey!" Brian pulled free of him as if swept away by a tsunami of sudden, intense rage. "Fuck all of you!"
"Whoa!" Michael tried to calm him. "Back off, Brian. You know how crazy about Justin my Mom is. He's like a son to her and..."
"And what the fuck am I?"
"No, Brian...she loves you too! But you can't expect her to never see Justin anymore just because you two broke up. If she invites him to dinner, she has to include his...." he hesitated, searching for the right word.
"His boyfriend?" Brian filled it in for him. "His lover? His partner? His squeeze? His significant other? Pick one! Anything will do!"
"Brian..." Michael said helplessly but Brian flipped him off and slid in behind the wheel of his Jeep. He drove two blocks, then pulled up to a stop sign and rested his forehead against the steering wheel. Why was he so furious? So his surrogate mom, his best friends, and the man he loved, were entertaining that...that...asshole. And in the kitchen of the only home that had been his sanctuary as a boy, when his own home had been so unwelcoming. Even now, it was the one place where he could always be himself. Had he lost that too? Was losing Justin also losing his support structure? Someone honked, and Brian frowned and put the Jeep into gear, unsure of which direction he should take. He had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide from this pain. His safety net failed him. Brian was in a freefall, and he didn't know how to stop the plunge.
Scene 2: Cynthia's Condo.
Cynthia was exhausted. She had endured a long, trying day at work, toiling on her boss's plan to win back Trevor Rainer's confidence, while having to contend with Brian's uncharacteristic moodiness. She forgave him for that, given his breakup with Justin, but she was still tired and delighted to be safely ensconced in her small condo in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Dressed in sweats with her hair held off her neck with two banana clips, she was impatiently awaiting the arrival of the Chinese food she ordered. Her game plan was to eat sweet and sour shrimp and pan fried dumplings while watching Sleepless in Seattle for the hundredth time. This combination was a sure fire stress reliever for her.
When the doorbell rang, she picked up the money she had ready and opened it, expecting her usual courier from the restaurant. Instead, she found Brian leaning in the doorframe. His sleek urban cool was completely out of place in this plain vanilla slice of suburbia.
"It'll cost you more than that," he teased, unenthusiastically, and Cynthia stared at him.
"What are you doing here?" She had no idea he even knew where she lived, although he had her home address, of course. He had never been to her home, nor she to his.
"May I come in?"
"Uh..." she tried to remember how messy her place was, but she knew it didn't matter. It was not as if she could refuse him entrance. Her hesitation hit him hard.
"Oh. Is this a bad time? I should have called, I...I'll go."
He seemed so un-Brian, kind of like a lost boy. She stepped back, motioning him inside. "Don't be silly. Come in, Brian. Pardon the clutter."
He looked around at the small room designed around a fireplace and built in entertainment center. The soft French blue velvet couch was reflected in the burgundy and blue print upholstering on two wing chairs. Silk flowers in a brass vase picked up that color theme. The carpet was the same shade of burgundy. It was a girlie room, he decided, but not in a dismissive way. Sometimes he grew tired of the stark interiors preferred by most of the men he knew, including himself. A gray cat sauntered over to him, sniffed his boots, rubbed against his jeans, then went back to a rattan basket near the hearth. He didn't know Cynthia had a cat. But then, what did he really know about Cynthia and whose fault was that?
She invited him to sit down as she switched off the television and turned on the stereo. Michael Feinstein's clear, compelling voice softened the atmosphere. His classic love ballads were slightly sad, haunting, just what Brian didn't need. She offered him a drink, which he gratefully accepted, asking for neat scotch. She had to go into the kitchen since she kept her liquor in the pantry, taking the time to loosen her hair and shake it out. He may not care, but she had some pride. Changing clothes would be too obvious. He was stuck with her sweats. She poured his scotch and mixed a gin and tonic for herself. He was staring straight ahead, as if watching the blank television screen, so tense she could almost hear the strum of his nerves.
She sat beside him as she handed him his drink. She wasn't too close, not wanting to crowd him. Something was terribly wrong, but she knew she couldn't force an explanation. He sipped the drink gratefully, his eyes closing and brows knitting together as if he had been hit by a sudden, powerful cramp. Cynthia's dormant maternal instincts took over and she slid closer, reaching out to rest her hand on the back of his neck. His skin felt hot and his muscles were like rods of steel. She watched his classic profile as she stroked his neck gently, looking for a sign that the old Brian was back, along with his ‘touch me not' policy.
That Brian was nowhere to be found. Just this wounded, beautiful man whose dreamy hazel eyes reflected such profound pain that Cynthia felt sympathetic tears spring up in her own eyes. He took another sip of the liquor, and when he blinked, a single tear balanced on the thick fringe of his lashes, and then broke free to streak his smooth cheek, down his throat, finally absorbed by the turtle neck of his sweater. That single tear was all that his tight controls would allow him to shed. She sighed, moving her hand up to his hair, spreading her fingers on the side of his head and gently urging him towards her. He resisted slightly then gave in, craving the human contact of someone who cared. He turned and took her gently in his arms, pressing his forehead to her shoulder. She stroked the back of his head gently as she held him. She was now crying now for both of them. The pain was his, but his inability to express it touched her so deeply, she couldn't help but cry.
Brian closed his eyes tightly, absorbing her warmth, willing himself to hang onto his dignity, refusing to be humiliated in front of her. He just needed this warmth, this comfort, this proof that someone, anyone, gave a shit about his feelings and about him. He wasn't sure how long the embrace lasted, but it took the doorbell to interrupt them. He leaned back, looking into her face with a questioning expression. Company was just what he didn't need. She wiped her tears on her sleeve and said,
"It's ok. It's just the Chinese food I ordered earlier."
Her delivery man was used to a more upbeat Cynthia. When he saw her tear- streaked face and the somber man seated on her sofa, he shook his head and said to her in a low, heavily accented voice, "Love suck."
She nodded her agreement and closed the door. Now came the awkward part. They had shared an intimacy in many ways more personal than sex, and they were both uncomfortable because of it. Food was a great common denominator. "Have you eaten, Brian?"
He shook his head and she forced a smile. "Perfect. I always order enough for two whole meals. That takes care of dinner twice. I usually eat from the cartons, is that ok? You want chopsticks?"
He nodded and she came from the kitchen with some napkins and two sets of ivory chopsticks capped in silver. "Garage sale," she explained where she got them and sat close to him on the couch so they could both reach the open cartons of food. Brian didn't think he'd be able to eat anything, but to his surprise one bite of sweet and sour shrimp piqued his appetite. They went through the food without talking, and then broke open their fortune cookies. Brian smirked at his and handed it to her. She read it aloud. "You will have great fortune in love and work."
"See? Things are picking up already," she said with forced brightness.
"Yeah," Brian responded, helping her carry the debris into her small but nicely appointed kitchen. "I feel the love all around me."
"Did something new happen tonight?" She watched him refill his glass with the scotch she left out on the counter. He shrugged.
"Besides going over to my surrogate mom's place and finding all my friends gathered around the table for dinner along with Justin and the Chin Rat? No, nothing."
Cynthia winced. "That's cold."
"Is it? Or is it just me? After all, shouldn't Debbie feel free to invite Justin to dinner? She loves him. And if she does, doesn't she have to include his...his...boyfriend?" he was trying to see Deb's side of it.
"Ok, fine, so have the two of them over. If she invites your whole gang, you should be at that table, not Chin Rat. You've been their friend forever. This way only one person got excluded, and that was you. You're also the one who needs family comfort the most right now, not him. He's on to his next big thing, and you're all alone. It's just wrong."
Brian smiled and leaned down to kiss her cheek. She blushed, wishing she didn't experience such a blip in her heart over that simple gesture. "What was that for?"
"For being my friend when I really needed one. Thanks."
"Oh Brian," she threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly, feeling him tense under this show of emotion. "Are you absolutely, positively sure you're gay?"
He moved her to arm's length and looked deeply into her eyes. He couldn't mislead her. He liked her too much to do that. "Absolutely, positively, Cyn."
"Shit. Because I wouldn't treat you this way."
"I know. But you wouldn't last a week with me, real time. I'm not easy on the romance front. Believe me."
"Maybe not, but you're that kind of hard ass man with a soft gooey core that all women want to drill down to, Brian. Nothing turns women on more than that outlaw kind of man. Because you know if you hit the core, you'll get the best man in the world."
He cocked his head to one side, considering that statement. "Justin drilled down to my core. He wouldn't agree."
"Honey, Justin is a) a baby, and b) he never knew he hit it. He is so young and so naïve that he thought when he hit the bullseye, lights would go off and bells would ring, and you would shower him with flowers and love poems and boxes of chocolate. I've been kicked around enough to know it doesn't work that way with guys like you. Sometimes it's nothing more than a small gesture, like they may rest their head against your shoulder for a moment. Sometimes it's even less. The trust and the revelations are so slow but so beautiful."
Brian smiled slightly. "Are you sure you're not a guy? Because I would so fuck you right now."
She smiled and pulled out the waistband of her sweats, looking down. "Nothing there. Sorry."
"Since you're here, want to talk about Trevor and your ideas? I've got some more information and some prices."
"Sure," Brian was grateful for the change of subject and for the opportunity to stay and not face that empty loft for awhile.
Scene 3: Ethan's Apartment
Ethan was annoyed by Justin's abrupt change of mood after Kinney showed up at Deb's house. Justin became quiet, withdrawn, not even speaking as they drove back to the apartment. "What's your damage?" Ethan finally demanded. Justin was seated at his computer, listlessly drawing with the stylus. Justin looked up, surprised by that comment.
"What do you mean?"
"Ever since Kinney barged into the dinner party, you've been a sullen bitch."
"That's not true."
"Yeah, it is true, Justin. Just look at yourself."
"Did you see his face? I felt like we each plunged a knife into his back. How do you suppose he felt to walk into that room and see all of his closest friends, and us, and know he wasn't included, but you were?"
"Am I supposed to apologize for being your boyfriend? Stay in the background? Hide, so that Brian's little feelings will never be hurt?"
"I'm not saying that, Ethan. I'm suggesting that it's not inhuman to feel bad that he's in pain. I do care about him, you know. I don't get any pleasure out of hurting him!"
"Tell me about it. Well, at least he won't be calling again," Ethan confidently threw out that remark as he picked up his violin and began bowing it.
"What does that mean?" Justin wanted to get an answer before Ethan lost himself in his music.
"It means I went to his office today and told him to stop calling you or I'd call the cops."
Justin's eyes grew wide. "You WHAT?"
"I knew you were too soft-hearted to stop it yourself. I had to take the initiative."
"You went to his office? You told him that? You...you had no right!"
Ethan lowered his violin to glare at him. "I have every right. You're my boyfriend. Your ex-lover calling you in the middle of the night is not okay, Justin. So I told him so."
"What did he say?" Justin was forcing himself to remain calm until he had all the facts.
"Nothing. He just glared at me in that superior way of his and told me to get out."
Justin nodded. He knew Brian would never give Ethan the pleasure of an argument. "You can't tell me who to talk to or who can call me, Ethan. You don't fucking own me! Brian is adjusting to the break up and it's not easy for him, for either of us. You won, Ethan. I left him for you. Rubbing his face in it is not very sportsmanlike, is it? And it pisses me off. How dare you! Brian would never..."
"Brian would never what?" Ethan demanded.
"Brian would never pull something like that. He always opened his hands to set me free to make my own choices. You're closing your hands around my throat and that just won't work with me, Ethan! Leave him alone!"
"Where are you going?"
Justin pulled on his coat. "Out. I need some air." He left the apartment as Ethan glowered and positioned his bow over the strings, furiously playing to block out what had just transpired.
Scene 4: The loft.
Brian was awakened by the shrill ringing of his phone. A glance at the clock told him it was almost three. "What?" he said groggily into the receiver. He heard traffic noise and then Justin's voice.
Brian sat upright, suddenly awake. "Hi yourself."
"I'm sorry to wake you up."
"Turn about is fair play."
"Brian, I'm sorry about tonight."
"What do you mean?" Brian acted dumb, resisting the wave of pain that followed his recollection of the scene in Deb's house.
"Don't try to act like it didn't matter. I saw your face. I know you."
Brian was silent for a moment. He scrubbed his fingers through his hair and lit a cigarette. "Whatever."
"It was very spur of the moment. I saw Deb at the diner, she asked me over for pasta..."
"Stop," Brian interrupted. "I can do the math."
"Anyway, we all felt bad, we..."
"I don't need you or any of you to feel sorry for me, ok? I'm just fine."
"I know you are, Brian."
Brian sighed. They both knew he was full of shit, but he appreciated Justin's not calling him on it. "Why is there so much noise on this phone?" he shifted the subject.
"I'm at a pay phone."
"At this hour? Why? Forget to pay your phone bill?"
"Ethan and I had a fight about his coming to your office and making that demand. I'm sorry, Brian. I never had a clue he would do something like that."
"Yes, it does. He can't tell me who to talk to and when."
"He's right. I shouldn't call you in the middle of the night."
"Like this, you mean?"
Brian sighed. "Yeah, like this."
"You want to hang up?"
"No. Are you in a safe place? You're not living in the greatest neighborhood. I'm a little worried about your being out alone at this hour."
"I'm fine. I'm close to the school," he paused, his voice growing small. "Brian, I don't know what to do."
"Go home," Brian forced himself to say. "Work it out. Quit worrying about me and my feelings. I'm fine."
"How do I do that? I love you."
"You have a partner, Justin. This is a man you lied to me about in order to be with him. He made you want to risk whatever it was we had together so you could give it a shot with him. You came to my bed smelling of this man. You made a choice. Live with it." Brian winced, wanting to tell him to run home to the loft, let him enclose him in his arms, give him a chance to make things right. Instead he said what he thought was the right thing, as painful as it was to say.
"You don't love me anymore?"
Brian chuckled. "I feel exactly the same way about you that I always have. I want you to be happy and healthy and living your life. That's what matters."
"Ok, Brian. I'll go home."
"And I'll tell Ethan not to bother you anymore."
"Look, Sunshine, Ethan was right. I shouldn't call you in the middle of the night that way. But tell him if he ever gets in my face again, he'd better bring a bodyguard because I hate it when I have to punch out a little guy. But I will. Not in my office, not in my home, and if he sees me walking down the street, he'd better cross over."
Justin sighed, knowing Brian could back up his threat. "I'll tell him. Goodnight, Brian. Um, are you alone?"
Brian let his arm fall across the empty expanse of the bed, as he said "No."
"That's what I figured. Sorry to have bothered you."
"No problem. Goodnight, kid."
Brian fell back on his pillow, one arm spread across his face, finding the satisfaction for doing the right thing elusive.
Scene 5: Luxe, a private dining club on the top floor of a skyscraper in downtown Pittsburgh. Business executives populate the tables, and Trevor and Brian are seated in a red leather banquette with a panoramic view of the city.
"I recommend the crème brulee," Brian suggested. "Just the right amount of vanilla, and the crisp top is matched only by the smooth interior."
Trevor smiled slightly. "Your other recommendations were spot on. Why not?"
The waiter nodded, then looked expectantly at Brian. "The usual," he said, then went on. "Espresso with a twist."
The waiter walked away and Trevor smiled wryly. "No sweet?"
"No," Brian patted his stomach. "Watching what I eat. That slice of cake I ate with you in your office the other day was a splurge and will be my dessert quota for a year or so."
"You're slim as a mink, Brian. No worries."
"I want to stay that way."
"You've never been here before, have you?" Trevor asked with a sly smile. Brian winced.
"What gave me away?"
"You weren't sure in which direction one might find the men's room, and then when you told the waiter the ‘usual', he appeared stricken before you cleverly filled him in."
Brian leaned back and wondered how Trevor felt about his acting as if this club was his home turf. "I am a member," he quickly explained. "The firm bought me a membership when I made partner. I just haven't had the time or a good reason to come here. Not my kind of place, really."
"Then why bring me here?"
"Frankly, it seemed more suited to you."
"Now that's flattering," Trevor said with a laugh.
Brian smiled. "I just meant it was a more sophisticated place than most of the restaurants I frequent." As the dessert and espresso was delivered, Brian wound up for his pitch. "Do you play golf?"
"You know I do. You've read my dossier. Do you?"
"I caddied at the country club for a few years during the summer, when I was a kid. Just to make some extra bucks. They'd let us play occasionally, off hours. I won the Caddies Tournament one year. But I haven't kept it up."
"You should. It sounds as if you have a natural talent."
"I'm one of those guys who was born with a certain built-in athletic ability. Soccer is my sport, but I was always pretty good at whatever I tried."
"Not I. I've had to struggle just to be adequate at every sport I've attempted. Two left feet, I suppose. Terrible football, that is, soccer player, always tripping up on lateral moves. My golf swing is abysmal, no matter how many lessons I take. And when I ski, I almost always come home with an injury."
Brian smiled. "And yet you keep going."
"Not good at admitting defeat."
"Neither am I, Trevor. I would like to invite you and your team to join me and my team for a little working holiday. There's a private resort not far from here, with a great golf course and a huge lake, suitable for sailing. Our treat, of course. Just a chance for the players to get to know each other better and hopefully craft an ad campaign that will more than satisfy you as a result of that education."
Trevor smiled at him. "Very clever. Off site meeting, trapped audience, you really want this business, don't you?"
"Yeah, I want it. And I don't think you should make a business decision based on the fact we had a sexual encounter that disappointed you."
"The sex didn't disappoint me, Brian. You did. I wonder if your inability to commit to anything in your personal life filters through to your business performance."
Brian thought of Justin and sighed. Was that an inability to commit? No, he saw it more as an inability to fulfill an expectation. "I keep my business life separate from my personal life. If you prefer, I can remove myself from the account. We have lots of clever ad men on board. The firm shouldn't be punished because you have an issue with me."
Trevor offered him a bite of his dessert, but Brian declined. "I don't want another ad exec, Brian. And I'm not making the decision based on the fact you tricked and ran. Honestly, I didn't like the campaign you pitched."
"So let me pitch another. Come on this retreat this weekend. I think it will be good for everyone involved."
"On condition, Brian."
"You don't pitch during the retreat. And you don't try to seduce me."
Brian met his eyes. "So long as you give us one more chance to pitch when we get back."
"Why so worried about the seduction angle?"
"I don't trade business for dick."
"And I don't fuck for pay, so I think we'll be fine."
Trevor nodded, calculating how clever Brian was, a fact which only added to his mesmerizing appeal.
Scene 6: Michael's Comic Book store.
Justin felt uneasy entering the store, despite the fact he was there by invitation. Michael was with a customer, so Justin waited until he could talk.
"I've sold out the Rage comic," Michael announced as he joined Justin behind the counter. "That's a good sign."
"Yeah. Have you talked to Brian?"
"I called him today but he wasn't in. Look, let's not do this. Let's not bring Brian into it or we'll never get any business done. In fact, we should probably never talk about Brian."
Justin shrugged. "Whatever. So, what did you decide?"
"I think we'd be crazy to give up on what appears to be a successful project."
Justin lit up at that declaration. "Me too!"
"No reason why we can't work together. We don't have to talk about Brian."
"Ok, Michael. Fine. When do we get started? I have some ideas."
"Me too. Why don't you come over to Ben's place tonight? We can work there."
"Sure. What time?"
"I'm going to Babylon with Em and Ted while Ben works on his lecture, so let's do it early. How's seven?"
"Is Brian going with you to Babylon?"
"What did we just say about not discussing Brian?"
Justin sighed and nodded, regretting that this important conduit to information about his former lover was being sealed off. He hoped it wouldn't last. When it came to Brian, Michael found it difficult to keep quiet.
Next week on Transitions:
Brian heats up his campaign for Trevor's account by combining their teams for an off site "retreat". While Brian is away, Justin suffers an unpleasant surprise.
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July 25, 2004