“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.”
“It’s late, it was impulsive…seemed stupid on reflection.”
“You’re in Toronto?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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 miss you.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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’m having a hard time, Justin,” he practically whispers and I feel his pain scorch me all the way to Pittsburgh.
“I’m going to let you go, now. Have a nice Christmas with your family.”
“Brian, give Gus my love.”
“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.