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"Craig, I think we need to talk about this Family Visit thing," said Jennifer.
"I already told you, Jenn. I'm not going." Craig put his newspaper in front of his face. The last thing he wanted to do was meet his wife's eyes.
"Craig, this is our son I'm talking about. OUR child!" Jennifer answered, trying to keep her voice even. "This is an opportunity for us to spend time with Justin. We can have a 48 hour visit. I can bring food and we can have dinner together -- like a family! Please, Craig!"
Craig Taylor threw his paper aside and stood up. He was tired of being badgered by Jennifer about Justin. Sick of having her constantly laying on the guilt about the fact that he didn't want to drive for an hour to go to some prison and see his son there. Inside it. A convict. HIS son! There was no way! Justin had made his bed, now he was going to have to lie in it!
"Craig! Please discuss this with me! This is about our family!" Jennifer begged.
"I don't want to hear another word, Jenn!" Craig shouted. "Forget it! If you want to go and sit in some room in jail and cook TV dinners for your son, then do it. But don't expect ME to go along with it. And you aren't taking Molly there, either! So don't even consider it for a second!"
"It isn't a room in jail, Craig. It's a trailer on the prison grounds. It's... it's just like a motel room. But that doesn't matter as long as we can spend time with Justin." Jennifer wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Doesn't that matter to you anymore? Doesn't Justin matter? You... you used to be so proud of him when he... he was an Honor student. When he won awards for his art. When he was accepted into the Pittsburgh Institute of Fine Art. I thought you were so proud of him then?"
"I was, Jenn," said Craig, his face strained. "But things are different now. I can't forget what he did."
"He made a mistake! Any kid can make a mistake! But he's still our son, no matter what he's done! I love him just the same, Craig? Don't you? Or did you only love him because he was a 'perfect' reflection of YOU? Not a person, but a THING to boost your ego? Is that it, Craig?"
Jennifer felt her face getting red, the way it always did when she was angry. Just the way Justin's did, too. Her son. "And now that Justin is paying for his mistake, he's an embarrassment, isn't that right, Craig? You are ashamed to face your 'buddies' at the country club and your colleagues at the office because you have a son who is in prison. Isn't that it, Craig?"
"You have no idea how I feel, Jenn!" Craig snapped. "And if YOU want to pamper Justin with special food and homey little visits and buying crap and sending it to him so he'll have all kinds of luxuries in jail, then be my guest!"
"Luxuries? You think that sending Justin socks and batteries for his radio and books so that he can try to keep up his studies and art supplies so he won't waste his talent -- you call those luxuries?" Jennifer couldn't believe her husband. He was like a man she didn't even know. "Our son is locked in a... a tiny cell! Do you understand that, Craig? Do you know -- or care? -- that his cellmate is... is a convicted murderer? Do you? Answer me, Craig!"
But Craig still wouldn't look her in the eye. "You may have mentioned it. But I'm sure he's safe enough. It's only a medium security prison. His lawyer said Justin was in no danger there."
Jennifer swallowed. "No danger? That's what Justin's lousy lawyer told you? No danger? Well, let me tell YOU something, Craig Taylor. Justin's cellmate isn't merely a convicted murderer, among the other things he's in prison for. No that isn't all! He's also Justin lover, Craig. Do you hear me? Justin is having a relationship with this man. Having SEX with this man! Does that mean nothing to you? Nothing at all?"
"You're hysterical, Jenn," Craig scoffed. "You've been listening to too many stories from those other women who go to that prison. Like that crazy Mrs. Novotny. I wouldn't believe anything she tells you!"
Jennifer's face was set and her heart felt like lead. "It wasn't Mrs. Novotny who told me that, Craig. It was Justin himself. He told me that he loves this man. This Brian! That when he gets out of prison that they want to be together! That's what prison has done to him, Craig! And if WE don't do something to counteract this man's influence, then... then I'm afraid for Justin! Afraid of what he might become!"
Craig stared at his wife coldly. "If he's a goddamn queer, then prison is where he belongs, Jenn, with all the other perverts. And if Justin is a fag when he comes out of jail, then he isn't returning to this house and that's final. I don't care where he goes or what he does, but he's not coming back here. I don't want him around me -- or around Molly." Craig paused. "And YOU can do whatever the hell you want!"
Craig stalked out of the room and went upstairs. Jennifer sat down on the sofa. She was shaking. She didn't know what to do anymore. It was as if she were being forced to chose between her son and her husband and it was tearing Jennifer in two.
She took a deep breath. And then she picked up the telephone.
"Hello?" Jennifer said, when a woman answered. "May I speak to Mr. Rosenblum, please?"
Justin looked forward to Movie Night. Brian facetiously called it 'Date Night,' but Justin didn't care. He loved the popcorn, and the queens parading in their best gear, and he especially loved the old movies that they showed.
He'd never really watched old black and white films when they came on television, but it seemed different now. Seeing those classic pictures on a large screen, sitting in his seat, practically wrapped around Brian, felt so romantic. And Justin was also seeing many of the old stars for the first time. The Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe -- Justin watched them all avidly. They seemed so much more beautiful and magical than movie stars today. Their faces glowed on the screen as Justin stared up at them, his mouth open.
"Christ! You're becoming a real little movie queen!" Brian teased. "You and Em can sit around and swoon over Clark Gable and Greta Garbo all day!"
"I really like the old films, Brian," Justin defended. "I can't help it! The people just look so... so glamorous!"
Brian rolled his eyes. But then they showed up for the latest Movie Night. Michelle was there, hanging all over her new jocker, Juice, and Emmy had a new baby blue sweater that she was flaunting in the face of her rival, Loretta. Brian and Justin sat down next to Wesley and Al, and the two boys whispered about their classes while they waited for the film to start.
But when it began, it was Brian who sat up straight in his seat and hushed Justin when he started to ask a question. Because the movie for that night was 'Rebel Without a Cause' starring James Dean. Which was Brian's favorite film of all time.
Justin observed Brian watching the film and his lover's reaction to it fascinated him. Brian seemed transfixed by the image of James Dean, in his blue jeans, white tee shirt, and red windbreaker, his face strained and his eyes haunted. Dean played a tortured teenager who no one understood except a troubled girl and an even more troubled -- and obviously gay -- boy.
Justin stared as Brian mouthed the dialogue along with Dean. "You're tearing me apart!" he cried as his parents argued and ignored their son's psychic pain. And Brian clutched Justin's arm as the boy, Plato, was shot dead and Dean zipped up his red windbreaker. "He was always cold," he said as the film ended.
Justin wasn't expecting that sad ending. Wasn't expecting the gay boy to be lying dead in the final scene. But even more unexpected was the very existence of the gay boy, so nakedly in love with Dean's character, in such an old movie. Justin couldn't remember any gay characters in any old movies, except for a few silly sissies for comic relief. But no one like the doe-eyed Plato, who couldn't stop touching James Dean.
"Who is that, Brian? That actor?"
"Sal Mineo," said Brian, after the lights went back on. "He was a fag in real life, too. He's dead now. Someone killed him."
Justin cringed. "For being a queer?"
"I don't know. Maybe. He was killed on the street. No one knows why. But he's dead. Just like poor Plato. Just like James Dean himself. He was a queer, too." Brian shook his head. "But Dean died before this movie was even released. Crashed his car. And that was that."
"James Dean was... beautiful, Brian," Justin said hesitantly. He could tell that the film had upset Brian for some reason. "So was Plato."
"I know. They were both beautiful. And they both died young. Beautiful things should always die young, Justin. Before they have a chance to be destroyed."
Brian sat and stared into space for a long time, until finally Justin gently tugged at his arm. Brian did that occasionally -- just sat and zoned out, as if he were looking into another place that no one else could see. Justin longed to be able to see into that place, too. To be there with Brian. Just the two of them, together.
They walked back up to the third tier. It really was Date Night. All the jockers were anxious to get back to their cells for a Friday night fuck, so men were hustling their punks along, quickly passing Brian and Justin, who were moving slowly, thoughtfully.
"I liked the movie," said Justin. "Even though it was sad."
"It wasn't sad," said Brian. "It was true. Something that's true isn't either sad or happy, isn't good or bad. It just IS."
Justin smiled. "Is that something you learned when you were a Philosophy major, Brian?" Justin had taken a couple of books on Philosophy out of the prison library. He wanted to see what about the subject had so interested Brian. But it seemed boring to Justin. Except the chapters on Aesthetics.
"No, I learned that from experience," he replied. "Do you ever wonder about... about Fate, Justin?"
"I don't know," Justin admitted. "I never really thought about it. What about Fate?"
Brian closed his eyes. "Like maybe you were meant to be in a certain place, at a certain time, but you didn't know why. And maybe you had to live through something horrible in order to find something beautiful later on?"
Justin shivered. "Yes, I can believe something like that." Justin thought about Brian's life in Stanton and what he had lived through -- only to be there when Justin needed him. To be able to share their common experience and help Justin survive it. And to be with him now, against all possible expectations. To find love in such a place as Stanton Correctional. "Yes, I think Fate could work that way."
Brian put his arm around Justin as he opened the door to their cell. Lockdown was always later on Friday night because of the movie, but it was already beginning to get quiet on the tier as the men settled down.
Justin turned on his little transistor radio, very softly. If the C.O.'s thought it was too loud they might confiscate it, so Justin set it very low and leaned it on the shelf next to the bunk so they could hear it in bed.
They undressed without turning on a light in the cell. Even when lights-out came there were still the floodlights from the Yard and the tier lights to cast a slight glow on the small space.
Brian stretched out on the bunk and Justin climbed on top of him, face to face. Justin always liked to begin that way, covering Brian like a blanket, rubbing his young, pale body up and down against the man. Justin's ivory skin was iridescent in the darkness. Brian put his strong hands on Justin's round bottom and stroked it gently, but relentlessly. Kissed his soft face in the dark. Let Justin move his body as he pleased, burying himself in Brian's hard surfaces until the two melted together, merged, and then carefully, lingeringly, came apart again.
And then once more. And then again, even more slowly.
There was no hurry at all. In fact, it seemed as if they had all the time in the world.
Neither sad nor happy. Neither good nor bad. Just true. It seemed that way. For that brief, brief moment.
"So," said Juice as he and Brian strolled out on the Yard on Sunday afternoon to shoot some hoops. "What time does the big birthday party start tomorrow night?"
"Keep your voice down!" Brian laughed. "I'm not supposed to know about it, remember?"
"Oops," said Juice. "I forgot. But Michelle has been running around like a chicken with her fucking head cut off, making decorations and whispering with Emmy and Barbie and the other queens. It's hard to keep pretending that I don't know what's going on."
Brian shook his head. "Queens always assume that guys are idiots and don't notice shit like that. So it's best to play along." Brian bounced the ball a few times, testing it out, as they walked. "I guess I should have put a stop to the whole thing, but Justin is so excited about planning the party and keeping everything a secret, that I didn't have the heart. Justin and Emmy and Michelle are down in the kitchen right now, haranguing the cooks. He told me that he couldn't come out to the Yard with me this afternoon because he had to 'study'!"
All the jockers had gone out of their way to inform Brian about his punk's 'secret' preparations for Brian's 30th birthday party. But Brian told them that he was well aware of it and asked them all to clam up about it. Let the kid make his plans, if that made him happy. And Brian kept away from the cell when he knew that Justin and the girls were confabbing about the details, not wanting to spoil the big surprise.
Actually, it would be interesting to see what the kid could accomplish. He'd certainly gotten all the queens in the East Wing involved, and most of the punks, too. Justin was smart and he was organized and people listened to him. Brian had to smile. If Justin were a little older and if he wasn't a punk, he'd be running this prison in a couple of years!
Brian thought about Ron, with all of his machinations and deals, his bargaining and his demands. Yes, Brian had seen just how someone with a brain and the will to make the most of his environment could actually succeed in prison and beat the System -- at least somewhat. Maybe that's why Ron seemed so frustrated now that he was outside. In Stanton, Ron had been a power. He used his Legal Aid office -- with the back-up of the Prisoners' Legal Defense -- to control the Fates of prisoners, to pressure Warden Horvath, and even to challenge the entire authority of the penal system in Pennsylvania. In prison, Ron was a man of be reckoned with -- and he did it all without using violence.
But to most people in the real world Ron was nothing but an ex-con. He was continuing his work for legal reforms and prisoners' rights with the PLD, but now Ron was one of many. That must be intensely galling to a man who liked to be on top -- both figuratively and literally. And Brian's refusal to see Ron or call him or answer his letters was undoubtedly adding to the man's frustration.
"So, how are things going between you and Michelle?" Brian asked, as he and Juice waited for their turn at the basketball court. It was a beautiful early April day and Brian was feeling good.
Brian smiled to himself when he thought about waking Justin up a little over a week before and telling him, "I want you to move out today. I've finally decided to hook up with Emmy instead of you." The look on Justin's face was priceless -- fear, anger, denial, despair, all at the same time. Until Brian added, "April Fool!" And then he had to make it up to the kid right then and there!
"Things are going great!" said Juice, as he walked up to the free throw line and took a shot. "Michelle couldn't be sweeter!"
Brian took his shot, too. "I'm glad. I think you two are suited to each other."
"I was wondering," asked Juice. "Michelle and Emmy spend a lot of time together. So how come Em isn't hooked up with anybody? Most of the queens are."
Brian took another shot. It ringed the rim of the hoop and went in. "Em was hooked up with a guy named Floyd. But he was a bastard. He used to rough Emmy up quite a bit... until...." Brian shrugged.
"Until what?" said Juice, taking the ball in his large hands.
"Until my cellmate and I cornered him one day," Brian said. "Floyd had been in trouble before and Ron warned him that if he didn't lay off Em then it wouldn't be too pleasant for him. The guy was pissed off, but he did quit hitting Em -- at least in front of anyone. Not long after that he got into a scuffle with a guard. Ron and I went to Horvath and suggested that Floyd might be better off at another facility. He was transferred and Emmy was actually very relieved that he was gone. So Em isn't in a big hurry to hook up again. I think she likes her independence too much."
Juice frowned. "I heard that she's turning tricks."
"Sometimes," Brian admitted. "For cigarettes and other swag. But that's Emmy's choice. No one's forcing her. Not like some of the punks around here, mainly in the South Wing."
"I heard that Big Chuck is making his punk trick."
"Yeah, little Lee. He's in Justin's classes. Chuck lost a lot of credit on football last fall and he's got to pay up, so he's using Lee to make up some of the difference. Poor kid."
Brian's face was grim. "You don't know the half of it. Guys who pimp out their punks are the lowest of the low in my book. I've got no use for them at all." Brian tossed the ball one-handed. It went right in.
"Hey, you've been practicing, Bri!" said Juice.
"Nothing to it," Brian laughed, spinning the ball.
Brian and Juice walked off the court and headed for the snackbar to get something to drink. A small knot of low-riders were loitering near the softball diamond. Brian's radar always went into alert whenever he got too close to the bikers. He noted that Hoss and Elvis were laughing it up with some new guy Brian didn't recognize. A hulking low-rider with a large beer-gut and long stringy hair that was thinning on the top. Suddenly he turned around and looked in Brian's direction.
Brian stopped dead in his tracks.
"What's up?" asked Juice. But Brian didn't answer. He was just staring. "Hey, Bri? What's the matter?"
Brian blinked. "Nothing, Juice. Let's get that drink." He began heading quickly for the snackbar and Juice had to hustle to catch up with him.
Shit, thought Brian. Shit. Shit. Shit.
He never thought he'd see that face again. Prayed that he'd never see it again as long as he lived. The man was older, grayer, and out of shape, but he was also unmistakable. And now it was only a matter of time until he recognized Brian. Until Cisco realized that his old punk, Baby, was still in the Quad.
"Emmy! What am I going to do if Brian's presents don't come before the party tonight?" Justin wailed.
Justin and Em had been down in the kitchen first thing that Monday morning, checking on the arrangements for the cake, ice cream, and other treats for Brian's birthday. Everything seemed to be in order, with the guys preparing the food promising a first rate spread.
Em put her arms around the boy. "Honey, then you'll just go ahead with a nice, bright smile on your sweet face in front of all your guests. I'm sure that Bri won't even notice that anything is missing. Why, he'll be so surprised by the party that he'll want to grab you up in his arms and -- um -- kiss your brains out right there in the Rec Room!"
"But I want those presents!" Justin pouted. They stopped by the mailboxes. Justin unlocked his box and pulled out a letter from a teacher and a postcard from Daphne on Spring Break. But no package slip. "Damn it!" Justin felt like crying.
"Honey, did you call your mom about it?" asked Em.
"The last time I called the house my father answered. He acted like he hardly even knew who I was," Justin said quietly.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," said Em.
Justin unlocked Brian's box. Another big envelope from the PLD, another copy of the 'New Yorker,' and some other junk mail. And a package slip.
"Hey," said Justin. "This is weird. Brian never gets packages."
"Maybe it's more paperwork that wouldn't fit into the box?" suggested Em.
"Maybe," said Justin. "Let's go over and get it."
Justin and Em walked through the passageway to the Administration Building and the Mailroom. Emmy waved to a couple of the guys working there, while Justin handed over the slip. The clerk returned with a large box. Like all packages, it had already been opened and searched for contraband.
Justin looked at the return address. "It's from Ron!" he said, looking up at Em.
"Happy birthday, Baby!" said Emmy sourly. "I wonder what brought Ron to finally send a birthday present? I guess Brian ignoring him is finally paying off!"
Justin knew that he shouldn't look inside the box, but he couldn't help it. He'd already read Ron's letter to Brian, so what difference would it make if he took a peek at the contents of the box?
Justin and Em carried the package back to Emmy's cell and locked the door behind them so they wouldn't be disturbed. Justin opened the flaps. There was a bright blue envelope on the top. Obviously a birthday card for Brian. Justin set it aside. Then he began pawing through the box. A new red sweater. A pair of black and white Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. Some more wifebeater tee shirts, in black. A pair of green gym shorts. Sweatpants and matching sweatshirt. A portable radio with headphones. And paperback books -- Jack Kerouac's 'The Subterraneans,' F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'Tender Is the Night,' Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five,' Mary Renault's 'The Persian Boy,' and Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22.'
Justin sat on the floor of Emmy's cell, gaping at the items. "This is everything, Em! Everything on my list. It's all here!"
Em frowned. "But how did Ron get your list, hon? I don't understand!"
"Neither do I," Justin replied. "I gave that list to my mother and nobody else knew what was on it. Brian didn't know anything about it. He couldn't have told Ron! He couldn't have asked for all these things! I was even specific about the color of the sweater. And that I wanted the tee shirts in black! And all these books! These exact books!"
Em made a face. "The only possible answer is that Mister R. got hold of your list and appropriated it for himself."
"Why would he do that, Em?" But Justin already knew the answer.
Emmy picked up the sweater and checked the label. It was a nice blend for spring. "What are you going to do, honey?"
Justin set his jaw. "Beat Ron at his own game, that's what. Get the wrapping paper, Em."
"But what happens when Ron asks Brian if he got all the presents he sent him?"
Justin snorted. "Screw that! I'll worry about it when -- and if -- it happens! But these are MY presents! From MY list! And I'm taking them!"
"That's the spirit, sweetie!" Emmy encouraged. "Let's do it!"
And Justin and Emmy set themselves to the task of wrapping Brian's presents so they would be ready for that night's surprise birthday party.
Posted November 26, 2004.