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"I think you'll like this place," said Justin. It was still early in the dinner hour and the restaurant was only about a quarter full. "It really fills up later on a Saturday night, especially if there's a big game. They show all the games on those TV sets."
Justin pointed to the televisions set above the bar and in every corner of the dining room.
"Great," said Brian. "You can't go anywhere without having to watch fucking television! Don't people sit and eat anymore? Or talk?"
"This is a pizza place, Brian," Justin laughed. "People come here to eat and drink beer and watch the game. If they want conversation...? Well, I don't know where they go then. Some place we can't afford."
"I thought I was rich?" Brian sniffed. "That's what everyone is always telling me. But all I have in my pocket is 20 bucks that you got out of that machine for me."
"Don't push it, Brian," said Justin. "That's plenty for tonight. We need your advance money to live on. For rent and clothes and groceries -- and, eventually, a car. Not for fancy dinners! Until then pizza is good enough."
"Yes, dear," Brian answered sarcastically.
He was excited to go out to dinner with Justin, but he was also nervous. It was hard to eat in public. Too many strangers around him. Too much pressure. When they had gone to the diner for brunch Brian ended up taking most of his food home in a doggy bag because his stomach couldn't take it.
The pizzeria was on the outer edge of the so-called gay area of Liberty Avenue, so Brian mainly saw hetero couples and a few families scattered around the dining room. Songs from 'Grease' were blaring from a jukebox next to the bar.
A gum-chewing young waitress approached them, menus in hand.
"Table for two, please," said Justin.
"Smoking or non-smoking?" she asked.
"What's that mean?" Brian eyed Justin questioningly.
"They have different sections for people who smoke and people who don't want to smell smoke while they're eating," Justin explained. "Non-smoking, please."
"This way." The waitress led them to a table in the middle of the room.
Justin sat down and took the offered menu. But Brian stood there, glancing around.
"Brian, what's the matter?" Justin looked around, too, trying to see what Brian was looking at. And then he understood. He stood up. "Can we have another table?"
"What's wrong with this one?" the waitress moaned, snapping her gum.
"We'd like that booth, in the corner. The last one, against the far wall." Justin pointed.
She shrugged and took them to the booth, dropping the menus on the table before she left.
Brian slid across from Justin, looking relieved. "You probably think I'm nuts," he said.
"No, Brian," said his partner. "I should have known that you'd feel uncomfortable sitting out in the open like that, exposed on all sides. I don't blame you. Whatever puts you at ease. But remember -- no one is out to get you. You're safe here. It's all right."
"I know," Brian replied. "My head keeps saying it, but my body doesn't believe it. I still feel like I'm constantly on guard. That anything could happen any minute. That someone could jump up and try to take me out. Or try to hurt you." Brian stared down at the wooden table. "I still have dreams that I'm in the Quad."
"So do I, Brian," Justin admitted. "My psychologist says that's normal. But that's all they are -- dreams. Nightmares." Justin grinned. "Besides, this corner booth is much more private. I can reach over and hold your hand and we won't get thrown out for being faggots. At least, I hope we won't!"
"Maybe we should order our food before we start up a civil rights lawsuit, okay?" said Brian. He opened the menu, swept his eyes over it, and then immediately closed it. "You order. I have no fucking idea what to get."
"Brian, you have to get used to the idea that you can order anything you want!" Justin laughed. "This isn't 'Meatloaf Day' in the Chow Hall. Get what YOU like."
"I'll eat whatever you're eating," Brian stated. "What difference does it make? It's only food."
Justin shook his head in resignation. The waitress came over and he ordered a large sausage pizza with onions and green peppers. "Anything else, Brian?" he asked.
"Whatever you want," Brian replied.
"Two Cokes," Justin finished. After the waitress went on her way, Justin leaned over. "I'm going to kill you, Brian!"
"I know," he said. "Three times last night almost knocked me out completely!"
"Not kill you in bed, you jerk!" Justin huffed. "Don't let me make all of your decisions for you, Brian."
"Why not?" Brian shrugged. "You always make the right decision. That sounds like a good pizza."
"But what if I'd ordered something you didn't like?" Justin retorted.
"You wouldn't have," said Brian. "I trust you."
"I give up!" Justin rolled his eyes.
Justin told Brian about some of his classes while they waited for the pizza. "Miss Peterson said that she's pretty certain I'll get into the Life Studio. I showed her some of my sketches and she really liked them." Justin smirked. "She asked who my model was. I bet she thinks you're hot, Brian!"
Brian blushed. "Why would some female be interested in me?"
"Why wouldn't she be? You're tall and great looking," Justin returned. "Even the waitress was checking you out."
"That's your vivid imagination, kid," Brian said.
"And you have a good personality, too," Justin added.
"Man, now you are really projecting! I've never had a good personality." Brian sat back in the booth. "I've always been nothing but trouble!"
"Then I must like trouble," Justin replied. "Women like bad boys, Brian. And so do I. That black motorcycle jacket definitely helps the image."
Brian snorted. "I don't have an image!"
"That's what you think," Justin whispered as the waitress brought over the pizza and set it on the table between them.
"See?" said Brian, taking a bite. "This is exactly what I would have ordered."
"I am SO going to kill you," Justin sighed.
As they ate the pizza Justin watched his lover carefully. He seemed much more relaxed tonight. They had spent all Saturday afternoon at the mall, which had been an arduous experience. Brian hated trying on clothes. He hated salesmen hovering over him. He hated making a decision about what to buy, what color, and how many. By the time they got back to the apartment they were both in foul moods. Only a long session in bed and then the shower turned things around.
"Brian, I wanted to ask you something," Justin began slowly. "After we finish eating would you like to go somewhere else?"
"Like where?" asked Brian.
"Like to a bar," said Justin, hesitantly.
"A bar?" Brian was puzzled. Neither of them were big drinkers. Brian had drunk exactly a half a bottle of beer since he'd been out -- and Justin had finished the other half. "Why do you want to go to a bar?"
"See, it's a... a gay bar," said Justin. "It's not far from our apartment. I heard the guys who come into the diner talking about it. They have a pool table and a dart board and a jukebox."
"A gay bar?" repeated Brian. He'd never been in a gay bar in his life. When he'd been in college it would have been unheard of. Gay bars were sleazy, semi-illegal places full of creepy characters. The cops used to raid them regularly, arresting the hapless patrons and publishing their names in the newspaper to humiliate them. Brian knew that things had changed since the 1960's, but still....
"Brian, we could sit together there and hold hands and nobody would give a damn!" said Justin. "There would be other gay men there. You'd see that we aren't alone. It isn't only the two of us. There are a lot of queers in Pittsburgh. They come into the diner and they dance at the disco and they go to this bar." Justin reached out and put his hand over Brian's, squeezing it. "We don't have to go there tonight. We don't have to go there at all. But... aren't you curious?"
"I guess I am," Brian admitted. "A gay bar, huh? If you want to go, Justin, then I'll go, too. What's this place called?"
"Woody's," said Justin. "On Liberty Avenue."
"What'll it be, gentlemen?" asked Jeff, the bartender.
Jeff looked the two newcomers up and down. Not bad at all, he thought. Young blond chicken, very tight, very cute. And a tall number. Dark hair, lean body, black leather jacket. They'd never been in Woody's before or Jeff would have remembered. Yes, he always remembered hot guys.
"How about a couple of beers?" said Brian, taking a handful of dollars out of his pocket. He still didn't have a wallet.
"How old is the kid?" Jeff questioned Brian. He looked pretty young. Maybe too young.
"I'm 20," said Justin.
Jeff considered. "One beer. But nothing harder, okay? I don't want to get shut down for serving a minor. Get it, kid?"
"Yes, sir," said Justin. The last thing he wanted was for them to be thrown out of the place two minutes after they walked in. Especially after it had been his idea to come here.
"Maybe he better have a Coke," said Brian. "And another for me. Forget the beers. We don't want to cause any trouble for you."
Brian glanced around the room. It was Saturday, but still very early in the evening for a bar crowd. A couple of men were playing pool, while others were seated quietly at scattered tables. None of the men Brian saw looked any different from guys in any bar, anywhere. Posters of exotic vacations spots -- Key West, Mykonos, Maui, Cancun -- featuring hunky men in revealing bathing suits hung on the walls, and the Village People were playing on the jukebox, but otherwise there was nothing that would tell anyone who might wander inside that he was in a gay bar.
"Here you go," said Jeff, putting two bottles of Rolling Rock on the bar. "On me. I don't want any good-looking guys to get away. We can always use a couple more in Woody's."
"Thanks!" said Justin, picking up a bottle. "This is our first time in here."
"I figured," said Jeff. The kid was real cute. He wondered what the two of them were into. What a contrast they'd make in bed, he thought. Jeff was getting hard picturing it. "Things get jumping in here on a Saturday night around 10:00. Sometimes guys go over to the disco later, but a lot stay here until closing. At midnight we show movies in the other room."
"What kind of movies?" Brian asked. He picked up the other bottle of Rolling Rock. In the low-riders' tip Cisco was always giving him pruno, a homemade alcoholic sludge that one of the bikers put together with left-over fruit and other odds and ends from the Chow Hall. The thought of the disgusting brew made Brian's stomach turn slightly. He sipped the beer slowly, thinking that he would have been better off drinking a Coke.
"We got these reels this guy brings in from New York," said Jeff. "Hardcore action. It's hot stuff."
"Wow," said Justin. "I've never seen a gay porno film before."
"Stick around and enjoy yourself, kid," Jeff advised. "You two should come back tomorrow. There's a drag show every Sunday night. Sometimes they have contests, too."
"A drag show," said Justin to Brian. "That sounds right up Emmy's alley."
"Let's hope that when Emmett gets out that he has much better things to do with his time than go to drag shows," said Brian. "It's one thing to wear drag in the fucking joint and another to do it out in the real world."
Jeff was eavesdropping on this exchange with great interest. "You know somebody in prison? Is that what you're talking about?"
Brian glared. He didn't like strangers butting in on his private conversations. People on the outside were so fucking pushy!
But Justin piped right up. "Our friend, Em, is still inside. He's a really nice-looking queen when he gets all dressed up. But I've never seen a guy in real drag. I mean, with a real lady's dress and a wig and everything. In the Quad it's sort of hit and miss."
"You aren't telling me that you were in jail, honey?" Jeff said in surprise. "You're only a baby!"
"I was in for 10 months," said Justin, almost proudly. "But my conviction got overturned. That's where Brian and I met. We were cellmates."
"I think that's enough chitchat," said Brian. Justin talking about the Quad was making him uneasy.
"No shit!" Jeff exclaimed with excitement. "That is HOT!"
"Hot?" Brian was taken aback. "You think being in prison is hot?"
"Sure!" said Jeff. "We showed a reel in here a couple of weeks ago that showed a very wild shower scene in prison. And then the guards tied one guy up and took turns on him. I like the group scenes best, you know? You guys ever get into that kind of action when you were in jail?"
What the fuck? thought Brian, recoiling. This man had no clue. No fucking clue at all!
Justin saw the look in his lover's eyes. He put his hand on Brian's arm. "Brian, let's sit down at a table, okay?"
Brian shrugged, letting Justin lead the way to a small corner table. They sat down and scanned the room, not saying anything for a few minutes.
"That bartender doesn't know what he's talking about, Brian," said Justin, finally. "People on the outside only know about prison from what they see in the movies -- even porno movies. It's not real. They think it's hot guys having sex all the time. It's a fantasy."
"It's fucked up," said Brian, sullenly. "That guy was getting hard thinking about men getting raped and abused in prison. He was getting hard thinking about the two of us. I know he was. That makes me fucking angry."
"He's not thinking about anything that's true, Brian," Justin replied. "Yes, it's fucked up, but it's only a movie. Some stupid movie."
"I don't want to stick around here and watch anything like that," said Brian. "Or be around people who think that's hot."
"Do you want to go now?" Justin asked. He fingered the paper label on his bottle of beer. He didn't want to go yet. The evening was only getting started. Justin also thought about the disco down the street. He was longing to go there badly, but he knew that he'd never get Brian inside any time soon. And he wouldn't go there without Brian. They were a team.
"Hi there, boys!"
A flamboyant middle-aged man wearing a long pink scarf stopped by the table, staring at the two of them.
"My name is Thommy. What do they call you, dollface?" he asked Justin.
"I'm Justin," he replied, warily. Maybe this was one of the drag queens the bartender was talking about. "And this is Brian."
Then the queen sat right down at their table without waiting for an invitation. "Now that we're old friends, we can get even better acquainted. Anything I can get for you? What are you two boys into?"
"We already have beer, so if you don't mind...?" Brian said shortly. These people, he thought. So fucking pushy!
"I don't mean beer, stud," Thommy laughed. "You into 'ludes? Or grass? A little coke? How much can you afford, honey? Thommy has anything you need. And cheaper than if you try to buy it at Babylon! Anita will charge you double of what I offer. And it's the same shit -- guaranteed!" Thommy leaned over to Justin. "Would you like a sample, dollface? How about one little toot to start the evening off with a bang?"
"Take that shit away from here," said Brian. He reached out and grabbed the queen's arm roughly.
"Ow! That hurts!" Thommy whined, pulling away. "I'm not into rough trade! If you aren't interested, then say so!" Thommy stood up and brushed himself off. "This is a friendly place -- usually. But some guys simply don't want to be friends!" And the queen stormed off in a huff.
"Let's get out of here, Brian," said Justin. "This was a mistake. I... I thought it would be different. I don't know what I thought it would be like, I guess. Fun. But this isn't very fun."
"Live and learn," said Brian. He drained his bottle of Rolling Rock and set it down. "Let's get the fuck home."
They stood up and headed for the door. But Jeff, the bartender, motioned them over. "You guys leaving already?"
"Yeah," said Brian. "We're heading out." He didn't think he owed anyone a fucking explanation about why they were leaving, let alone a fucking bartender.
"The night's only getting started!" Jeff insisted. "Here." He scribbled his phone number on a napkin and handed it to Justin. "If you two want to party, give me a call. My boyfriend's a cop on the Pittsburgh PD and he's really built. We're into any kind of scene -- whatever you like. And we're always looking for another couple to play with. You guys are new around here and I think you're the hottest guys who've come this dive in a long time, so Greg and I'd be glad to show you the ropes."
"No offense," said Brian, taking the napkin out of Justin's hand and putting it on the bar. "But no thanks."
Jeff grinned. "Think about it, fellas. If you change your minds, you know where I am. And you won't be sorry! Greg's got a 9-inch dick!"
Brian took Justin's hand and hustled him out of Woody's and onto Liberty Avenue. A few men jostled them, going inside. Brian noted that small groups of men were heading into the alley down the street, on their way to the disco, Babylon. For all of them, the night was just beginning.
"I'm sorry, Brian," Justin said, hugging him close.
"Sorry is bullshit, kid," Brian replied. "If you want a 9-inch cock, you don't have to go out to any fucking bar looking for it! You have one right in your own bed!"
"I'm not looking for a 9-inch cock, Brian," said Justin. "I'm not looking for body parts. Or hot guys who are nothing but strangers. That's not what it's all about. If it's just going to be the two of us, then that's okay with me. I don't mind at all. We don't need anyone else to be happy."
"No," said Brian. "We don't need anyone else." He buried his face in Justin's clean, soft hair. "But I need you. And don't forget that."
"I won't," Justin breathed, closing his eyes. Suddenly the street seemed empty. It was only the two of them. Men rushed by them, but they were the only ones who mattered. "I'll never forget, Brian, because I need you, too. So let's go."
And they walked down the street, their arms around each other, heading home.
Posted June 30, 2005.