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"Brian," said Ron, sitting up straighter in the hard wooden chair. "You came." Ron broke into a broad smile.
But Brian wasn't smiling. He slipped into his seat, across the table from Ron. "Yes, I came."
Brian was nervous. He put his hands on the table, trying to keep them still, but it was impossible. Brian desperately wished that he had a cigarette, but it wasn't allowed in the Visitors' Gallery.
"You look good, Brian," said Ron. Now he was nervous, too. He'd never felt ill-at-ease with Brian before. "But you always look good. Your hair looks longer."
"Maybe a little. I haven't had time to get it cut." Brian kept glancing around, trying to look anywhere but at Ron. He touched his hair, unconsciously, pushing it back from his face.
"It looks fine. Just fine." Ron fumbled with the paper bag on his lap. "I brought more cookies. I know you like them. Cookies, I mean." Ron took the tin out of the bag and pushed the it across the table.
Brian frowned. What was it with Ron and the cookies? Oh, well. Justin and the other kids would eat them. "Thanks." Brian gestured to one of the C.O.'s to check the tin. Anything the visitors brought had to be checked for drugs or other contraband.
"So, how does it feel to be 30, Bri?" Ron noticed that Brian was wearing the red pullover. And the Chuck Taylors. Ron was hoping that Brian would mention them. Would thank Ron. That would be almost as good as an apology.
"Same as it felt to be 29. And 28." Brian shrugged. "I don't get the whole fuss about birthdays. It's just a day." Brian paused and saw Ron's expectant face. That made him feel a tinge of guilt. After all, Ron had sent that birthday card. He'd never given him a card before. But Ron had never been outside on Brian's birthday before, either. "Thanks by the way. For the card."
Ron smiled again. "I knew you would like it. I picked it out myself."
Brian tapped his fingers against the table. Ron seemed so focused on this birthday stuff and the stupid card. Brian couldn't even really remember the card. Some cartoon animal and a silly saying. Justin had all the cards pasted up on the wall and he looked at them, cared about them, much more than Brian did. "Yeah, thanks."
"And?" said Ron. Damn it! Getting Brian to say anything these days was like pulling teeth. "The sweater? It looks great, by the way."
"Yes, it does look good, doesn't it?" said Brian. He touched the soft fabric. "Justin always knows what I like."
"Justin?" said Ron. A chill went through him.
"He got me this sweater and these shoes, too." Brian lifted his foot to show the Converse sneakers. "For basketball. I'm playing on the third tier team, now."
"What else did JUSTIN get for you, Brian?" Ron was trying to keep his voice even. That fucking kid had stolen his package! Of course he did! He must have picked it up with the other mail and taken it for himself. The little bastard!
Brian looked at Ron strangely. "Why are you so interested in Justin all of a sudden?"
"Just making conversation," Ron replied tightly.
"He gave me some books. A radio. Some other clothes. Things that I needed," Brian answered candidly. "Things I've needed for a while."
Ron gritted his teeth. "I could have gotten those things for you, Bri. You know that! All you had to do was ask!"
Brian gazed back at Ron. His eyes were so green and the gold flecks were like points of fire. "But with Justin I didn't have to ask. He KNEW. He looked and he saw what I needed. Just like you would have known exactly what I needed -- what might have made my fucking life in here a tiny bit easier -- if you'd only taken two minutes to think about it, Ron. That's all it would have taken. Two minutes. But you never bothered. You had better things to do. More important things to do."
"That's such a fucking lie!" Ron retorted. "Everything you had was something I gave you!"
"Yeah, something you didn't want or didn't need anymore," Brian answered. "Better to give it to me than throw it out. Thanks, Ron. I appreciate it."
"Don't twist things, Brian! You love twisting things!" Ron felt himself getting hot. The Visitors' Gallery was stuffy. "You love making me squirm, don't you Brian? Why are you acting like this? Why?"
"I don't know, Ron. Maybe I can see things more clearly now, without you in my face all day and all night." Brian's hands were twitching now.
"And that kid helps you see things clearly, is that it?" Ron was angry now. Angry with Brian. With Justin. And with himself. If he hadn't made so many stupid moves, all of this wouldn't be happening! If he had only paid Brian a little more attention. Brian was in there by himself. He was lonely. No wonder he'd latched onto that kid!
"It has nothing to do with Justin, Ron. It has to do with you. And me." Brian touched his prison tattoo lightly. 'Resist.' "And that letter you sent me. Was THAT supposed to make things all dandy again? Wasting your time trying to wrangle a stupid Conjugal Visit? I never read such a load of horse shit in my life!"
"I... I wrote that letter when I was upset, Brian!" said Ron. "When you wouldn't see me!"
"And I'm beginning to think I was right last month," Brian said sadly. "That I shouldn't have come here today, Ron. Because you are starting it all up again. What IS your damage? You don't need me, Ron! So why do you keep coming here?"
Ron wanted to jump up and shout. "I come here to see YOU! Why else?"
Brian sighed. "Go home to your wife, Ron. And all those women you told me you were looking forward to fucking when you got out. Did you manage to nail good old Julie?"
Ron nodded weakly. Brian knew him too well. "Yes. I nailed Julie. We... we've been having sort of an affair since I started back to work."
"I figured that. She's always had a thing for you." Brian rubbed his eyes. "And you probably have plenty of other women, too. I can't imagine that you wouldn't. Well, I say enjoy yourself. Why the hell not?"
"But they aren't YOU, Brian!"
"I'm NOT one of your females, Ron!" Brian was tired of this discussion. "And you aren't a fag, Ron! So get over it. It was prison shit. Prison sex. And now it's OVER!"
Ron leaned across the table, his voice low. "I know you aren't just some female, Bri. But it's different with us! It ISN'T about sex! It's about... about...."
"Don't say 'love,' Ron, because that's fucked up!"
"Why not about love?" Ron breathed heavily. "Why not?"
Brian looked at Ron's face carefully. "How many guys have you fucked since you've been out?"
"What?" Ron drew back.
"You heard me," said Brian. "Tell me the truth. How many times have you gone down to that place in Pittsburgh? What's it called? Liberty Avenue? Gone to a bar there and picked up a guy? How many times?"
Brian would know if he lied. "I... a couple of times. A... a few times. It was nothing, Bri! Nothing!"
"I knew it. Maybe you're a fag after all, Ron. Congratulations." Brian stretched his long fingers and then balled them up into fists. "You act like you hardly give a damn about me. You're out there doing whatever and whoever you feel like doing. You don't care. Until you find out that I'm hooked up with someone else. Trying to reclaim your personal property, Ron? Is that all it is?"
"You aren't anyone's property, Brian!" Ron asserted. He didn't want Brian to get angry. When Brian got angry he got stubborn. And then he wouldn't listen to anyone. "You hit me with that stuff about the kid from out of left field! All you talk about now is that kid! You want me to be jealous? You want me to feel hurt? Okay, I'm jealous! I'm hurt! Are you happy now?"
Brian swallowed. "No, I'm not happy, Ron. I don't want you to be hurt. But I don't see why you should feel hurt. You're OUTSIDE, Ron, in case you hadn't noticed. That's what you had been planning for and dreaming about for the last four years of your sentence. Getting out. Getting back to your real life. Your wife. Your kids. Working with the PLD. That's what you wanted."
"Isn't that what every guy wants, Bri? To get out?" Ron couldn't understand what Brian was getting at.
Brian blinked. This was harder than he'd thought it would be. Much harder. "Yes, that's what every guy thinks about. And I don't blame you for it, Ron. But how did you think that I would feel when you left? How I felt, watching you get ready to go, knowing that... that I'll be here until my fucking hair turns gray? That I'll be here so long I won't even remember what it's like to be on the outside. Because I'll never have a 'life' to return to, Ron. I'll never have a family, or anyone else, waiting for me to get out. That's MY reality."
Ron felt like someone had sucker punched him. "Brian...."
Brian looked down at his hands. "So if I'm trying to grab whatever little piece of life I can, while I can, why is that a threat to you, Ron? I know you're working to get the kid a new trial and I thank you for that. Julie's been keeping me posted on your progress. I know you're doing what you can -- and I don't give a damn what your motives are! I only want Justin out of here as soon as possible. So on that we're all on the same page." Brian paused. "But when he's gone... that will be it. And I hope that Justin does what I... I wish you would do, Ron. Go -- and never look back! Forget you ever knew me. And I mean that."
Brian stood up. He looked over to where Justin was visiting with his mother. But Mrs. Taylor was sitting alone, crying. Justin was gone. Brian had never even seen him leave. Brian felt wave of fear pulse through him.
"I have to go."
"Brian! Wait!" called Ron after him. "Baby! Come back! Come back!" Ron was shouting, but he didn't care. "Baby!"
But Brian didn't turn around. He left and he never looked back.
When he left the Visitors' Gallery Brian wanted to run, but he wasn't certain where he was running to.
"Justin!" he called out. Brian headed for the passageway. It was the only way to get back to the Quad from the Administration Building unless you went outside and that wasn't permitted.
"Brian." He heard a small voice under the stairwell.
Justin was huddled there, his knees drawn up to his chin, his face hidden.
"Justin! Are you all right?" Brian dropped to his knees and gathered the boy up into his arms. "Are you hurt?"
Justin nodded. "I'm okay. I ran out... but when I got down here I was afraid to... to walk through the passage." He shuddered. The passageway was long and dark.
"Why did you run out like that, kid? You scared the hell out of me!" Brian held him tightly.
Justin blinked back tears. "My mom... I told her that... that.... We had a fight. She's so fucking clueless, Brian!"
Brian smiled. "Most mothers are, Justin. It's better that way, sometimes."
"Brian... I need to tell you something. Something important." Justin couldn't look Brian in the eye. He was afraid to tell him the truth about the presents. But he had to. They couldn't have secrets from each other. But... but what if Ron had already told him? Then Brian would think that Justin was a liar. And a thief.
"Come on," said Brian. He stood up and pulled Justin to his feet. "This is no place to talk. Let's go out to the Yard. It's a beautiful day."
They walked together back through the passageway and down to the East Wing door. It was quiet in the Yard. Most of the men were at work or in the Visitors' Gallery, but a few guys were shooting hoops or standing by the snackbar, drinking pop and eating popcorn.
Brian led Justin to an area of open grass. The stubby lawn was just beginning to come back to life again after the harsh winter. The grass was a little damp and cool, but Brian sat down and Justin stretched out beside him.
"Okay," said Brian after a long silence. "Spill it."
Justin swallowed. "I had a list. Of things that I wanted to give you for your birthday."
Brian nodded to himself. He knew about the list. He'd even seen the list. Justin wasn't all that good at hiding things, especially from Brian. "So, you had a list."
"Yes," Justin continued. "I gave it to my mother. So that she could get me the stuff and then I could wrap your presents and have them ready for your birthday party."
"Okay," said Brian. "The presents were great." He frowned. "So what's the problem?"
Justin took a deep breath. "My mom never sent the presents. I waited and waited. I even called the house and tried to talk to my father. To give him a message for her to get back to me. But... but he hung up on me." Justin sniffed.
"He's an asshole." Thinking about Justin's father made Brian angry. What a fucking jerk! "Forget him."
"He's still my dad," Justin whispered. "I can't forget that."
"I've forgotten mine," said Brian coldly. "It's easy. Let's talk about something else."
"No, Brian! I have to tell you this... before I lose my nerve."
"I'm listening," Brian said softly.
"I kept checking for the package every day, hoping that she would send it. Then, on the morning of your party, you had a package slip in your mailbox. Em and I went over to pick it up." Justin paused. "It was from Ron."
Now Brian was surprised. "From Ron? A package from Ron?"
"Yes," Justin admitted. "From Ron. The box was... was open. They'd searched it and okayed it. So it wasn't as if I opened it myself, Brian! It was already open! Em and I took it up to her room. And... and...."
"What was in the package, Justin?" Brian put his hand on Justin's arm.
"Everything. All the stuff on my list." Justin's full lips were trembling. "Your sweater. The sneakers. The tee shirts and sweats. The books. Everything that I wanted to give you. Everything I told my mother to get!" Justin looked up at Brian. "Ron stole my list!"
Brian raised an eyebrow. "But how did Ron get your list? I don't understand."
"My mother," Justin whispered. "My mother gave it to him. She was the only one who had a copy. She was the only one who could have done it. So I... I asked her. Asked her why she did it. And she couldn't answer me. She couldn't look me in the eye."
"Ron is working for the Prisoners' Legal Defense, Justin. And they're working on your case," Brian offered. "Which means that they have to work with your mom. That's the connection, Justin. Ron probably saw the list while they were consulting together and took the opportunity to appropriate it. That's a very Ron-like thing to do."
And a very shitty thing to do, thought Brian to himself. Ron must be even more desperate than I had imagined. But Justin -- the kid has balls! He took back the box and gave it to Brian anyway. He beat Ron at his own game!
"No," Justin insisted. "She gave it to him! My own mother gave Ron my list! I saw the look on her face." Justin stopped to gather himself. "My mother... she... she's fucking Ron. She's having an affair with him! With your old lover."
Brian started. "No, you're wrong. That can't be true."
"It IS true, Brian. I know it is. I know my mom. She and my dad -- they're having problems. Big problems. And now...." Justin's voice choked.
Brian tried to think. Tried to think of another possible explanation. "You don't know that is what's happening, Justin. It might be something else. There could be another... another reason that... that...." But Brian couldn't think of one.
"No, you ask your old boyfriend, Brian," said Justin firmly. "You ask Ron why he took my list! Why he pretended to give you all of the presents that I wanted to give you! And ask him what he's doing with my mother. Ask him THAT, Brian! Because I'd like to know the answer."
Brian didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "I can't ask him that, kid. Because I told Ron today I didn't want to see him again. I told him to walk away and never look back. Because it's over. Whether Ron believes that or not, I don't know, but I'm finished. I can't deal with him any more. And this thing with the presents -- that's just the icing on the birthday cake."
"So, you aren't mad at me, Brian?" Justin asked with relief. He leaned his head on Brian's shoulder.
"No, I'm not mad." Brian smiled. He rubbed Justin's leg gently. He wanted to do more. He wanted to kiss the kid right there. Make love to him right there in the soft, damp grass. But he couldn't. They couldn't. "How can I be mad at someone who scammed the Great Ron Rosenblum? You have a legendary career ahead of you, kid, if you decide to pursue a life of crime." Brian turned to gaze at Justin. His eyes were as blue as the sky. "Of course, I'd have to kill you, then. Because you're going to get out of here and go back to school and never get so much as a fucking traffic ticket for as long as you live. Am I right? Do you promise me?"
"You're right, Brian," Justin replied. "Not even a traffic ticket. I promise."
Brian stood up. "Good. Let's go back to the tier. We still have over a hour until 4:00 head count. I can think of a couple of things we could do in that hour."
Justin jumped up. The sun was shining on his face. "Yes! Come on!"
And Justin started running, that funny little girlish run that he had. His hair was like pure gold in the afternoon light. And Brian ran after him. He knew that he would catch him in the end.
Posted November 29, 2004.