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 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.”
“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?” 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.”
“Quit asking me to explain. You’re always asking me to explain.”
“And you never do.”
“And I never will.”
“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.”
“I’m still in love with Brian.”
“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.”