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"I'm not looking forward to this," said Brian.
He balked as they approached the door of Jennifer Taylor's condominium. Sunday dinner with the folks had never been one of his favorite things. Dinners with his own parents had often ended in shouting matches or even blows delivered. Once his old man had picked up an entire plate of spaghetti and meatballs and thrown it against the nearest wall.
Not that Justin's mother would ever do such a thing in a million years. She was too WASPy, too well-bred, and too tasteful ever to behave in such a common manner. But it was the idea of the thing that made Brian's stomach ache.
There was no escaping him. Not when he was living with Jennifer at her place.
"We'll only stay as long as we have to, Brian," Justin reassured him. He slipped his hand inside Brian's.
"How about we say 'hello' -- and then escape?" said Brian, not at all joking.
"Stop!" Justin ordered. "You give my mom the flowers and I'll give her the wine, okay?"
"Why do we have to bring this stuff?" Brian asked. "Does your mother really need a bottle of wine?"
"It's a hostess gift, Brian," Justin instructed. "You bring a gift when you're invited to dinner."
"But it's your own mother!" Brian replied.
"All the more reason to put her in a good mood," said Justin, pressing the doorbell. "A nice bouquet of flowers is always appreciated by a lady. Remember that when you go to visit your mom the next time."
"Yeah -- when hell freezes over," Brian mumbled.
"Hi, darling!" cried Jennifer as she opened the door of her condo. She was wearing a fluffy dark pink sweater and slim black pants.
"That's new," said Justin, giving her a kiss.
"Oh?" said Jennifer, happily. "Do you like it? Ronnie loves me in pink!"
"Here's a bottle of wine, Mom. I wasn't sure what you'd be serving, but the man at the wine store said that this is good with almost anything. It's from California."
"Thank you honey!" said Jennifer, taking the bottle. "Rosé. We're having roast beef, so this should be fine! I'll ask Ronnie to open it." Then Jennifer turned to Brian. "You've never been to my condo before, Brian. I hope it meets your expectations."
"It's... very nice, Mrs. Taylor," said Brian, self-consciously. "Here are some flowers. I hope you like daisies." He pushed the bouquet at her. "Justin was holding them, but he started sneezing."
"Justin, you should be taking your allergy pills!" Jennifer scolded. "The flowers are quite lovely, Brian. Thank you so much! I'll go get a vase while you boys get comfortable."
Justin took off his coat and hung it in the closet, then put Brian's next to it.
"Your mother fucking hates me," Brian whispered.
"She does not! Don't be paranoid, Brian." Justin glanced around. "I wonder where Ron is?"
"Probably back there sticking pins in a voodoo doll," said Brian. "That's why my stomach feels the way it does!"
"You are such a drama queen!" Justin laughed.
"What the fuck does that mean?" Brian retorted.
"Just what is sounds like," Justin replied. "Deb calls me a drama queen, but you have me beat."
Ron came out of the bedroom. He stopped when he saw Brian standing in the foyer with Justin. He felt that twist somewhere deep inside his gut, that sinking feeling of regret and lust, but he shoved it aside.
"There you are, boys," said Ron, jovially. "Would you like a drink?" He walked over to the bar in the corner of the living room and pulled out a bottle of vodka. "Vodka martinis are my specialty."
"Could I have a Coke instead?" Brian asked. Justin pulled him over to the sofa and they both sat down.
"A soda? Certainly," said Ron, pouring some vodka into the shaker for himself and Jennifer. He reached for a Coke bottle and opened it. "And one for you, too, Justin?"
"Okay," said Justin. "With plenty of ice, please."
Ron brought the drinks over and handed them to the boys. Then he sat in the easy chair and sipped his martini. "Isn't this... cozy?"
There was a long awkward silence.
"We went shopping yesterday," said Justin, finally. "We went to the mall. To Kaufmann's and Horne's, mainly. Brian got some new underwear and dress pants and some shirts."
"You'll need a suit, too, Brian," said Ron. "For court. But I'll take you to my own tailor for that. I don't want you buying some crummy suit off the rack."
Brian shrugged. "Does that really matter? I mean, a suit is a suit. Isn't it?"
"I want you to look good for public appearances, Brian," said Ron, his blue eyes penetrating. "In fact, I want you to look perfect. And that means being well-dressed."
Brian squirmed in his seat. "Is that really so important?"
"You know it is, Brian," said Ron, coolly. "Ask your boyfriend." Ron's voice took on a slight edge. "Justin knows the importance of making a good impression -- and so do you. To a parole board. To a judge. To reporters. And to the world, Brian. It's all about image. Like the black leather jacket you were wearing the other day at the PLD office. That's perfect for cruising Liberty Avenue, but not so good for showing up in court."
"I'd never wear a leather jacket to court, Ron," Brian returned. "I'm not an idiot! And I don't 'cruise' Liberty Avenue. I don't 'cruise' -- period!"
Ron snorted. "You cruise, Brian. You cruise walking down the street. Or standing completely still. Or simply sitting and staring into space like a fucking zombie! You may not be aware of it, but other guys are. They can't help but be aware of you. Ask your boyfriend and see if he doesn't agree. You're a fuck-magnet, Baby."
"I'm not your 'Baby,' Ron," Brian flared. "So why don't you fuck off about that shit?"
"Whatever you say, Brian," Ron said blandly. "Your wish is my command!"
Jennifer walked into the living carrying a tray with chips, dips, and crudités. She set the tray on the coffee table. "Dinner should be ready in about 20 minutes, so I thought you fellows would like something to nibble on."
"Thank you, my dear. That looks great." Ron stood up and hugged Jennifer. Then he turned to Brian and Justin on the sofa. "The boys don't seem to have noticed, Jen."
Justin had been reaching for a chip, but he paused. "Noticed what?"
"Show them, Jen," said Ron.
Jennifer blushed and held out her hand. On the third finger of her left hand was a very large square-cut diamond ring. It looked like an ice cube.
"Holy shit!" Justin exclaimed. "Mom! When did you get that?"
"Ronnie gave it to me last night," she giggled. "We went to Papagano's and he gave it to me over dessert. So we have something else to celebrate besides Brian's release, honey!"
"Mom, I don't know what to say." Justin has stunned. He kept staring at the garish ring.
"Aren't you going to congratulate me, Brian?" Ron asked. "On my good fortune?"
"Oh, sure," said Brian, doubtfully. "Congratulations. I'm sure you'll both me very happy."
"I know we will!" Jennifer gushed.
"So, you're really getting married?" Justin shook his head in disbelief. His mother -- and Ron! Ron -- his stepfather! Justin squeezed Brian's hand tightly. "Does Molly know?"
"I thought I'd tell her tonight when she comes back from Craig's." Jennifer was grinning. "She'll be so excited! She can be my bridesmaid!"
"A... a bridesmaid?" said Justin.
"Yes, we're only planning a small ceremony," said Jennifer. "But I want it to be perfect! Molly will look so cute in her dress!"
"When are you planning to... to do this?" asked Justin, feeling queasy.
"In May," said Ron. "Brian's trial should be over by then and we'll have time to take off for a nice, long honeymoon. Right, Jen?"
"We're going to Hawaii! Won't that be wonderful, honey?" Jennifer said to her son. "They say it's so beautiful there!"
"Wonderful, Mom. Really wonderful." Justin picked up his Coke and took a nervous sip. He noticed that Brian wasn't saying much of anything. What must he be thinking? And what was Ron thinking? Really? Was he actually going to go through with this farce? Or was it a ploy to get at Brian somehow?
"Of course," said Ron. "I want Brian to be my best man."
Brian blinked. "I don't think so," he said slowly.
"Yes," said Ron. "You will be, Brian. There's no one else."
Brian stared at the coffee table, unable to look at Ron. What the hell? Brian thought. No one else. Shit!
"I better get back to the kitchen," said Jennifer. "I don't want my roast to get too well done. Ronnie likes it rare."
After Jennifer had left the room, Ron settled back into his chair. He smiled at Brian and Justin smugly. "One big happy family!" he commented.
"Ron...." Brian began. "Why?"
"Why not?" Ron snapped. "This is my life. You worry about your own!" Ron took a carrot stick and bit it, crunching the raw vegetable between his teeth. "By the way, Brian, I want you to call Julie first thing tomorrow morning. She needs to schedule something for you."
"Schedule what?" asked Brian, suspiciously.
"Kirk Bradley wants to see you," said Ron. Then he waited, taking note of Brian's stricken face.
"Kirk... Bradley?" Brian swallowed. "Wants to see me?"
"Yes," Ron replied. "Glenn wants to talk to you, Brian. Finally. Privately. I wonder what it is he wants to say?"
"Are you certain that you want to go through with this, Brian?" Julie put her hand on Brian's arm, trying to bolster his courage.
"Yes," said Brian, holding his head up high. "For 10 years I've been waiting to look Glenn in the eye. To ask him why he did what he did. To ask him if...." Brian took a deep breath. "I'm sure, Julie. And this might be my only opportunity."
Julie gestured to the guard, who opened the door of the meeting room.
Kirk Bradley had been held at the County lock-up since he'd turned himself in. He had agreed to plead guilty to a set of reduced charges, so he wouldn't be going to trial. But he would appear in court for his sentencing hearing -- and for Brian's re-trial. Kirk had already made clear exactly what he would be saying. He'd made detailed statements to the prosecutors and the Feds and his 'deal' had been fixed by them and by the PLD, who were representing him. Kirk would be going to a medium security Federal prison in exchange for all he knew about the other Penn State Bombers. One of the other suspects had already been arrested and another was negotiating her own deal with the Feds through her lawyer. Eleven years after the fact, all everyone involved wanted was to finish this case once and for all and clear it from the books.
Brian sat down at a plain wooden table. He tapped his fingers against the surface nervously. Julie stood at his side and looked down at him. Poor Brian, she thought. It will never really end for him. How can a man erase 10 years of his life? How can a person forget such a wrong done to him? The only thing Brian could do now was to move forward with his life. To try to be happy. If that was still possible.
"I'll be waiting outside," Julie told him. "And so will the guard. If you want to leave at any time all you have to do is signal. Otherwise, you and Mr. Bradley will have complete privacy. So say what you need to say, Brian."
"I will," he replied. "And thanks, Julie, for everything you're done."
Julie touched Brian's hair gently. "You're my favorite client, honey! So it's a pleasure to help you." Julie leaned over. "It's almost over, Brian. Your trial will only last a day or two. Everything is in place. Then you'll be free to go. Free to live your life the way you want to live it."
Brian licked his dry lips. "Is anyone truly free, Julie? Sometimes I feel more in a box outside than I ever was in the joint."
"Let Justin help you," said Julie. "And you can help him, too. But always remember that you aren't alone. The past is exactly that -- the past. You and Justin have your whole future ahead of you."
Brian smiled tightly. "Thanks, Julie," he whispered.
Julie gave him one more pat on the shoulder and then she left the room. Brian fidgeted slightly in the chair, wondering if there was still time to change his mind. Then the door opened. And Kirk Bradley was escorted in.
Glenn. He looked old, thought Brian. He must be about 35, but he looked 10 years older. He looked worn out. Beaten down. There were deep circles under his blue eyes. And his dirty blond hair was streaked with gray. He was wearing a dark green jail jumpsuit and he hadn't shaved.
He sat down in the chair in the other side of the table. The guard left the room, shutting the door behind him. Leaving the two of them alone.
Kirk sniffed. "You mind if I smoke?" he rasped.
"No," said Brian. He had remembered a smooth, soothing voice. "Go ahead."
Kirk pulled a crumpled pack of Winstons out of the pocket of his jumpsuit and took one out. "They let me keep my lighter," he said, producing a small metal Bic. He lit the cigarette and took a long drag. There was an ashtray on the table and he pulled it close to him, possessively. "You want one?"
"No, thanks," said Brian. "I'm trying to quit."
"Good idea," Kirk replied. "It's a dirty habit."
Brian blinked. He couldn't stop staring at Glenn. Or Kirk. He didn't even know what to call him. Or how to think of him. This man had been his first lover. He had kissed Brian. Fucked him, Come inside of him many times. Told him that he loved him. But he was more a stranger to Brian than the guard who had brought him into the room. He was a total enigma.
"You wanted to see me," Brian said, trying to keep his voice neutral. "What about?"
"I...." Kirk frowned. "I got a wife. And a couple of kids. They're here. My wife was gonna divorce me, but she changed her mind. She says she's gonna stick with me. Wait until I get out."
"That's... nice." Brian was puzzled. What did Kirk's wife have to do with anything?
"She's great. It's been hard for her. All the shit we've been through." Kirk took another pull on his cigarette. "She was my girlfriend even back then. She's been with me since college. When I came to Penn State she stayed in Boston. And then...." Kirk shrugged.
"So you were never really a faggot," said Brian. "Is that all you brought me here to say, Glenn?" Now Brian was angry. "To make certain that I didn't mistake your intentions?"
"It was all for the cause," said Kirk, blowing out a puff of gray smoke. "Everything I did. Everything we all did. Seems hard to believe now. No one gives a damn about anything these days. No one cares about politics or that the world is going to hell. All they care about is money."
"So I should be happy that you fucked me over for a good and noble cause, is that it?" said Brian, his stomach churning. "That you pretended to enjoy my ass all in the name of the anti-war movement? It was all about idealism. That I was raped and beaten and drugged in prison all for your purity of purpose. I'm so glad it wasn't about money or power or anything so mundane. That makes it all worthwhile! Well, fuck you, Glenn!"
"I don't expect you to understand," said Kirk, his left eye twitching at the corner. "You weren't a part of it. You weren't a member of the cell, so you couldn't know how we all felt. It was the beginning of the Revolution. Or so we all thought. You got caught in it. And I'm sorry about that. But if it hadn't been you, then it would have been someone else. That's the way it was. What else can I say?"
"Nothing," said Brian. "You've made it all very clear. I was never a person to you. I was a thing. That's what I was in prison, too. Do you know that? A thing. Maybe that's what I was born to be. A thing. Always something to be used."
"I read your articles in 'The New Yorker,'" said Kirk. "Someone... some guy gave them to me to read. You got a shitty break." Kirk shrugged. "Lots of people get a shitty break in life. You hate me? Okay, I understand that. But I'm paying for it. And I've been paying for it for a long time. All my ideals turned out to be worth less than nothing. Me and my wife and the kids -- we lived hand-to-mouth, always running. Always scared. And now I'm going to jail. What more do you want from me?"
"I want my life back," Brian breathed. He felt the tears backing up in his eyes, but he couldn't let them fall. He couldn't let this man see them. He couldn't let anyone see him cry. That was the first rule.
"Sorry." Kirk looked down at the table. He couldn't even meet Brian's eyes. "I'm testifying for you at your trial. What more can I do? Hang myself?"
"No," said Brian. "I've tried that. It doesn't work. Someone always comes and pulls you down. Someone always saves you, even when you don't want to be saved."
"Huh?" said Kirk. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing," Brian replied. "Nothing at all."
All of the questions that Brian had wanted to ask Glenn had drained out of him, leaving Brian feeling flat. Empty. There was no Glenn. There never had been a Glenn. He was only a shadow. All that they had done together, all Brian had felt for this man -- it was all dissolved into air as if it had never existed. And the years Brian had spent in the Quad were a shadow, too. Brian's crime had been erased by the Feds and the prosecutors. All of those years were a phantom. But what did that leave Brian with? Some very real scars on his body. And even more scars on his soul.
Even Ron was an illusion now. He wasn't the same person Brian had known in the Quad. Like Glenn, Ron no longer had the power to hurt him.
And Baby. There was no Baby. Baby was dead. Baby had grown up into someone who had no name. No past. Someone who was a void. Who was Brian Kinney? What was he? That had yet to be determined.
But then there was Justin. That was the only thing that was real now. Justin -- and whatever the two of them could make out of their lives.
"I guess that's all," said Kirk, stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray. "I'll see you in court."
"Sure," said Brian. "In court."
Kirk stood up and nodded to the guard on the other side of the glass. The officer opened the door and led Kirk away, back into the bowels of the County Jail. The man never looked back.
Brian sat at the table, alone. His hands were trembling slightly. Then they were trembling violently. Brian felt the tears coursing down his hot cheeks. He couldn't stop them. Couldn't make them go away.
Brian put his head down on the table and covered it with his hands. And he wept like the tears would never end. Never, ever end.
Posted June 30, 2005.