This is Chapter 1 in the series called "Queer Theories".
The narrator is Debbie and it features Justin, Michael, and a bit of Vic. It's Rated PG for language only (mainly Deb's) and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Brian is gone -- don't ask where just yet -- and Justin is spending more and more time alone at the loft, to Deb's dismay.
Author's Note: This story follows the canon only up to about Episode 209 -- from there it is completely off the rails, so bear with me.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
I see the Jeep pull up and park at the curb and for a minute I feel myself getting mad. I want to run out and grab him. Shake him until he yelps like a dog. Give him a big old whack in the head.
And then Sunshine hops out of the driver's side and slams the door.
I watch him walk carefully around the Jeep, looking for any dings or dents. Hints of mud or salt. He flicks some non-existent piece of shit from the fender. Kicks a bit of ice off the rear tire. Pumps a couple of coins in the meter. Turns and looks the big, old, ugly thing over once more until he's satisfied it's still perfect.
If it was me, I'd run it straight into the nearest wall. But that's just me.
He slept at the loft again last night.
At first he wouldn't even go over there, except to pick up mail and check for messages.
Then he started to stay longer into the evening. Watching the big TV or listening to music. He'd tell me he was going out to Woody's or one of the clubs, but I'd call the loft and he'd answer immediately.
"Just picking up some stuff, Deb," or "Just cleaning up a little here, Deb." Then it was "I'm just using the computer, Deb," or "I'm working on an art project and I don't want to mess up your place with it, so I'm doing it here" -- that was the funniest one: the thought that he could mess up my place!
Then I thought that maybe he was bringing tricks back to the loft. Using the 'famous facilities' for his own benefit -- I thought that would be only fair.
But I could tell he was alone -- you can tell. And I found out from the boys that they hardly ever saw him out at the bars or at Babylon, or if they did he left alone, climbing up into that big, ugly Jeep and driving off early.
And he kept going back to the loft more and more until he was hardly ever at the house anymore except to drop off his dirty laundry and pick up clean clothes. And to eat, of course.
In fact, he was at the loft more than he ever was when Brian was there. That was the thing. The thing that really worried me.
He's always on time these days. Even on days when the weather is dicey, and at this time of year that's quite a bit, he comes in the door a few minutes before his shift. Never late. Never giggling over whatever it was he did that made him late. I don't need to ask and don't need to know, thanks. But now he comes in early and he comes in quiet. And Sunshine quiet is just not right.
"We missed you last night. Vic made some popcorn and we watched that video Ben suggested. What was it...?"
" 'Wonder Boys.' That's okay - I've seen it." He ties on his apron and fusses around under the counter a bit.
"Tobey Maguire. He's real cute. And Michael Douglas -- now he's more my speed, if you know what I mean. A little gone-to-seed but still hot, I think."
"Yeah, it's good. The book's excellent, too." That's all he offers. Ordinarily an opening like that would be good for a twenty-minute monologue on the virtues of the movie versus the book, but he doesn't continue. He just gets out some glasses and starts to fill them with water.
"Get a lot of work done last night?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty busy. I want to keep up with my projects and keep my grades up. That's all I'm interested in right now."
Ouch. That sounds like a real dismissal to me. I know when I've been told to butt out. The problem is that there's nothing for me to know, really. He really is just sitting in that cold loft, working silently on his projects and waiting for the phone to ring.
I know that because of the way he answers when I call over there. Like someone waiting for word from the Lottery. "Hello?!" Not a question, but a demand. "Oh, hi Deb." The drop in his voice breaks my heart. What can he be thinking of? That he will get a call out of the blue? He's still living in a dream world. For about the millionth time in the last few weeks I think about someone I would like to not-so-quietly murder.
The diner's starting to get busy, so I don't have much time to brood on my problem child for the rest of the morning. At about 10:00 I see him taking off his apron and putting on his jacket. It's started to snow a little.
"Don't forget your gloves, Sunshine," I call as he heads for the door, but he just grunts and pushes outside. I peek out the window and watch him clean off the Jeep and then drive away to class. The thing always lurches just a tad when he shifts it into second, but he's getting the hang of it.
A little while later Michael shows up. Since he's his own boss now he can eat when he wants and he likes to avoid the morning rush. Plus, I get the impression that guys who read comic books aren't exactly early risers, so mornings over there are slow anyway. He's alone, so he plops himself down at the counter. I realize that I can't remember the last time all the boys came in and had breakfast together the way they used to. It makes me kind of sad. I wonder if Michael feels it, too.
"Boy Wonder already gone?"
"Stop calling him that. And, yes, he left for class about twenty minutes ago." I put a huge glass of orange juice down in front of him.
"Ma, if I drink all that I'll be floating through the rest of the day."
"You need your Vitamin C in this weather, Michael. Remember when I wouldn't let you out the door until I put your Flintstone Vitamin in your mouth?"
"Yes, and I was the only kid in high school with a purple tongue every morning. Jeez, Ma!"
"Hey, if I don't take care of you, who will?"
"I'm a big boy -- I can take care of myself now." He says it a little forlornly and we both turn and look at the booth where the boys used to sit. I don't tell Michael that it's been taken over by four new guys who meet there every morning and eat and laugh and compare notes about the night before.
"Tell Ben that Vic and I watched that movie he lent us. It was good. I'll give it to you when you come over tonight for dinner. I used to just love Michael Douglas in 'The Streets of San Francisco.' "
"I thought Justin was going to watch it with you."
"He went over to the loft after dinner and never came back. Besides, he said he already saw the movie." I watch Michael drink down the orange juice as I get the rest of his breakfast ready.
Michael frowns and works his mouth around like he always does when he doesn't like something. He used to do it when he had a mouthful of broccoli. He used to do it whenever Sunshine was around -- at first. Like the poor kid left a bad taste in his mouth, like the broccoli. No need to guess what that was all about. But I haven't seen it in a while.
"Why is he over there all the time? What is he doing over there anyway?"
I have to smile because I've heard this speech before in such different circumstances. But it all comes down to the same thing. The same person.
"He's studying over there, Michael."
"But why? He has a perfectly good room to study in at our house - my room."
"I thought you get pissed off thinking about him in your room. Touching your stuff. Breathing your air."
"Huh." He pulls out some sort of catalog and starts paging though it. It's full of dolls -- excuse me, 'action figures' -- of different comic book characters and he's trying to decide which ones to order for the store. He turns a page and eats a forkful of scrambled eggs and then turns another page. Then he stops and looks around. "And why is he driving that fucking Jeep? I mean, the Jeep, for fuck's sake?"
"Well," I say. "You'll have to ask your friend Brian about that. If you ever see him again. If you ever even hear from him again." I pick up a clean cloth from under the counter and wipe at a wet spot that only I can see. "Then you can ask him why the fuck he packed a suitcase, put the key to the Jeep in an envelope, addressed it to Sunshine, and took off without saying a word to anyone. You know where he is, Michael. You call him and ask him."
"I can't." He pushes his food away, only half-eaten. That makes me sorry I'd opened my big, freaking mouth. "It isn't any of my business."
"Well, you're supposedly his best friend. If it isn't your business, then whose?"
"I don't know, Ma. Don't ask me."
"I've got a kid on my hands who's dying here - dying on the inside. Get Ben to call -- what's-his-name?"
"Tell him to call his friend Ron and have him make Brian call."
"Oh, right. Make Brian do anything. Right." He gets up and fishes in his pocket for some bills.
"I've got it, sweetie. You didn't even finish your food."
"That's okay, Ma. Here." He put the money down. "I'll see you tonight." Michael stomps out into the cold, his face already frozen.
I think about all the times I'd cursed Brian Kinney for being around, fucking things up. But it is nothing compared to the way he is fucking things up by being gone.
Since Michael is coming for dinner I make lasagna. There's something soothing about making it, layering the noodles, thinking about how the sauce and the meat and the ricotta and the mushrooms will all come together just so. It was one of the first things my Nonna taught me to cook and I always say a little prayer for her when I make it. And then it always turns out just right.
I tried teaching Michael to cook when he was a kid -- Vic learned right along with me when were both kids and it served him well. Italian men don't have hang-ups about cooking the way some guys do, gay or straight. But Michael wasn't interested. Everything he touched turned out a mess, even when he followed the recipe exactly. I guess you either have the touch or you don't and he doesn't.
Now, Sunshine, he does have it. Even when he screws up the basic recipe, he always comes up with something edible. He's an artist and I think he sees cooking as a kind of art, which it is. Which is why the Italians are both the greatest artists AND the greatest cooks. Not just my opinion, but fact.
He comes in as I'm putting together the second casserole dish of lasagna. With the way these kids eat, I always make two big dishes of it. He immediately comes in and takes over layering the noodles, the meat sauce, the ricotta. He always cuts the noodles precisely to fit the pan -- mine are a bit uneven, but it doesn't matter once it cooks. But he's very finicky about making the lengths fit exactly. Maybe that's a WASP thing. They seem pretty anal to me. Everything has to be in its exact spot. His mom, Jennifer, is like that: trying to make everything fit just so. Doing that can make you crazy, let me tell you.
Sunshine seems in a good mood for once. I guess he got a compliment on one of his projects from the professor and it made the day. He puts a lot of store in the opinion of his teachers, which is something I never did. I was no student. Neither was Michael, for that matter. So school was a torture for both of us. But Justin is different: he's one of those 'high achievers' -- maybe it's the WASP thing again -- and getting the grade, being the best in the class, getting the teacher's praise means everything to him. No wonder his last year at St. James' was such torture: for the first time in his life he wasn't the golden boy of his class. That must have been almost as bad as the physical and mental abuse. But I put that out of my mind right now -- I don't want to ruin the good mood in the kitchen.
But as he sits at my table and helps me cook -- I'm cutting a big loaf of Italian bread that I picked up on the way home from the diner to make garlic bread while Sunshine does the lasagna -- I have a flashback to another kid sitting in that exact same chair at the exact same table. He sits and looks at his plate of lasagna like it's alive, his eyes huge and green like a scared cat. Like, THIS is food? You expect me to eat THIS? He watches Michael dig in and pile it into his mouth, watches me take a bite, too.
"What's the matter, honey? Don't you like Italian food?" I can tell he's starving, but this is too much for him to take.
"Don't you like spaghetti? And meatballs? This is sort of like that, except all mixed up."
"I've had Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. From a can. I like that."
I cringe at the thought. "Just try it, honey. If you don't like it, I'll make you a peanut butter sandwich."
He takes a little, grudgingly. He's so skinny that I can't imagine he's ever finished a plate of food in his life. His chin is so sharp and pointed that it could cut paper. He eats a bit more and looks at Michael, who, naturally, has already finished one helping and is reaching for more, the little glutton. Finally, he gets going and eats the whole thing, with some good Italian broad beans and garlic bread to wipe the plate. He stares at his empty dish as if he can't believe it. Like there's something wrong here. I offer him another helping, but he shakes his head. He never did eat enough to keep a bird alive, I swear. When I bring out a peach pie for dessert, it's almost too much for him.
"Is it somebody's birthday?" He asks.
Michael looks at me and shrugs.
"No, honey, it's just dessert."
I start to get really miffed. Unlike here, there's plenty of money at his house. The old man is a drunk, but he's a union guy and very well paid. They have two cars. Freaking lace-curtain Micks, I think. St. Rocco's up at the corner is not good enough for his mother -- she has to go three miles out into the suburbs to St. Brigid's. But we won't get into that. So why is this kid hungry? And not just for food.
"You're welcome here any time. But we don't serve food from a can," I say.
Sunshine finishes the casserole, covers it with aluminum foil, and puts both pans into the oven, setting the timer. He's a natural.
"I knew you were going to make lasagna when you told me Michael was coming for dinner. I was thinking about it all the way over here!"
"I guess I'm just too predictable for my own good."
"No...," He pauses a moment. "Sometimes predictable is just what you need." Then he goes quiet for a while.
"Hon, why don't you stay here tonight. It's getting really cold out and it's nice and warm in your room." I think of that cold loft -- cold not just in the temperature, but in the atmosphere, the very walls of the place.
He doesn't answer, just puts his head down and goes through his backpack, looking for some piece of paper or notebook or anything to keep from having to reply.
He's saved by Michael blowing -- literally -- through the door.
"Now, it's REALLY coming down," he says, stamping the snow off his boots. "I skidded halfway down this street and couldn't see what the hell was in front of me."
Justin bolts out of his chair. "You didn't hit the Jeep, did you?" He's practically yelling.
"No! I didn't hit the fucking Jeep." Michael is puffing. I can see he's a little flustered by the ride over in the snow and by Sunshine's obsession with the Jeep. I almost wish he had rammed into the thing.
"Okay, okay! Everything is fine. Michael, you're fine. The Jeep is fine." Sunshine sits back down and lets out a sigh; Michael looks daggers at him. "Michael, why don't you go upstairs and wake up your Uncle Vic. Tell him to get his ass down here for dinner, pronto."
Michael ambles upstairs and I put Sunshine to setting the table. He lays the places with that same precise way he does the lasagna: every fork and knife exactly so, the paper napkins folded just right, the plates centered perfectly, the wine glasses positioned...
"Just like at the Country Club," I say.
"Boy, that's somewhere I haven't been in a long time!"
"Yes, but it's still in you. The table always looks so nice when you set it. When Michael sets it it looks like a tornado deposited the plates on its way through town." I get the bowls out for the salad while Justin opens the wine bottle like a pro. "I was going to tell you to leave that for Vic, sweetie."
"Oh, I know how to do it, no problem."
"You know, Sunshine, the weather is getting so bad -- I think you should really stay here tonight. I'll worry if you have to drive back in this weather."
His face is a perfect blank. "I have to go back. My stuff is all there. I'll be fine. The Jeep is great in the snow."
I leave it there -- for the time being.
We eat and it's a good dinner, a good time. The best in a long while, I think. There's something about sitting in a warm house, eating a warm meal with people you love while there's a blizzard going on outside that seems comforting. At least to me, it does. Vic has a strong appetite, and that always puts me in a good frame of mind. Michael and Justin are sniping at each, but like brothers, not enemies, and that does my heart good. I used to worry about Michael being an only child -- he was such a solitary kid and always like a lost waif. 'Dondi' -- that's what Vic used to call him. Does anyone remember that old comic strip? The Italian kid with the big, black eyes who was always helping people -- that was Michael. Seeing him and Sunshine go back and forth makes me think about what Michael missed by not having a brother or a sister. I think of what I would have done without Vic -- or what he would have done without me. It's important to have someone who is always a part of you, who you can depend on.
Of course, that's not true for all families, not even for ours. I think of my sister, who won't speak to either me or Vic, and I know that. And Brian -- as much as Michael always talks about them being like brothers, it was never that way at all. It was too intense from the beginning, nothing at all like a brother. Justin is much more like it for Michael: a bratty younger brother who gets on your nerves and plays with your things and is always in the way when you want something.
We finish up dinner and Michael and Vic head into the living room and turn on the TV. "You're going to miss 'Access Hollywood'!" Vic yells to me, while Michael groans.
"I thought we were going to watch 'The Daily Show'!"
"I can't miss 'Access Hollywood'! I'm a dying man and you won't even let me watch my favorite trash television show? How will I be able to continue to face the world if I can't get the latest on Joan Collins' new boytoy husband?"
The two of them go at it, arguing over the remote, while Sunshine helps me clear the table. He keeps looking out the window at the snow coming down in the darkness.
"Sunshine, if you get snowed in here it won't be the end of the world. You have clothes here and your stuff for school. And you can stop back at the loft in the morning and pick up anything else you need. By then the roads will be clear -- and if they aren't at least it will be daylight and you can see where you are going."
He begins to roll up pieces of left-over garlic bread in a big strip of plastic wrap. He's thinking about something terribly important and terribly far away, you can just tell. But everything at that age seems terribly important. And I also know what's terribly far away.
"I have to go back... in case...," he hesitates. "It's silly, I know. But I have to." The words seems so final.
"Honey, are you waiting for a call, by any chance?"
He looks up at me, startled. "Why do you say that?"
"I don't know. I just get the feeling that you are waiting for someone to call the loft. Someone who hasn't called. Someone who isn't going to call...."
"But you're wrong. Totally wrong." He turns away from the living room and lowers his voice, as if Vic and Michael, who have settled for watching a rerun of 'Everybody Loves Raymond' as a compromise, were eavesdropping. When his voice is soft, it's very, very soft -- I have to lean close towards him to hear what he's trying to tell me.
"Are you saying that Brian has been calling you at the loft? Is that why you need to go back? Why didn't you tell anyone? What is going on?"
"I don't know. I don't know what's going on." He looks almost ready to cry.
I pull him down into a kitchen chair and pull another up close, sitting right next to him with my arm around his shoulder so he can't get away. "I want to know every detail. What has he got to say for himself?"
"Nothing? He's calling and he's got nothing to say?"
"Literally." He stares down at the table so he doesn't have to look me in the eye.
"Justin, honey, I'm an old lady and you're got to humor me, but I don't know what the hell you are talking about."
"It started a few weeks ago." He pauses to take a couple of large breaths. "I was in the loft, just sitting there, reading some homework or something. I wasn't planning on staying there. It felt, I don't know, creepy to stay there too long. It felt haunted to me." He picks up his wine glass and I pour a little more into it -- he barely touched it at dinner, but now he seems to need it to continue.
"Anyway, the phone rang and I was sitting right near it, so I picked it up. Without thinking, really."
"And who was it?"
"No one. It was like one of those scare movies where you answer the phone and the killer is on the other end, but he never says anything." He gulps a little more of the vino. "So I said: 'Is anyone there? Hello?' But they didn't hang up. I just kept saying 'Hello, hello?' and they kept saying nothing. Finally, they hung up. I went around and rechecked the door and all the windows and the alarm and everything was okay. So, I turned on the television and watched for about a half-hour. And then the phone rang again. I picked it up -- and it was no one. Again."
At this point I would have called the fucking cops -- but I'm not about to tell Sunshine that.
"I muted the TV and said into the phone, 'If anyone is there, just say something!' I didn't want them to think I was afraid, so I tried to sound pissed off. But I really was scared. The loft makes a lot of weird sounds at night, especially in the winter or when the wind is blowing, and although there are other people in the building you really feel that you are totally alone up there. So, I was about to hang up when I heard it...." He is almost whispering.
"Heard what, honey?" I whisper back.
"That sound -- that peculiar wheezing sound that he does when he breathes heavily -- or when he's drunk. I'd recognize it anywhere. And I remembered that time when he and Michael weren't speaking to each other: Michael told Ted at the diner that he was calling him five and six times a day and not saying anything. Just breathing. But Michael knew. And I knew, too. So I said: 'Brian, you might as well talk, because I know it's you.' But he didn't say anything. So I stayed on the line and he stayed on the line for five minutes, maybe longer. Then the connection broke and that was it. For that night."
This time I pour myself a glass of wine. "You mean he really has been calling all this time -- and not saying anything? At all?"
"Not a word. At first he called a couple times a week -- I never knew when it would be. Sometimes early in the evening, sometimes much later. I kept trying to figure out the time difference to guess when he might call -- but it was never consistent. So, I started to sleep at the loft and found out that sometimes he'd call really late -- and I'd always answer so he would know I was there."
"After a while I gave up trying to get him to say something. So I would carry on an entire conversation. He would never hang up as long as I kept talking. I'd tell what everyone was doing. The weather. My classes. My art projects. How the Jeep was running, that kind of thing. I mentioned something about the cost of gas and getting an oil change -- and about a week later I got a registered letter at the loft. I opened it up and there was a credit card in it with my name on it and a Post-it note that said: 'Jeep.' "
"Holy cripes, Sunshine." I pour myself another hit of wine and drink it down, trying to fathom the man, but it is all beyond me. I've always suspected that Brian Kinney's elevator did not go all the way to the top floor, but now I am certain of it: the man has gone completely off his fucking rocker.
"Tonight I could tell him about all the snow. And about how my project is coming along. And that Michael came over for dinner. And how Vic is doing..." He drains the last of the vino and puts down the glass, staring off somewhere into space. "And about the lasagna, of course. How good it turned out and what we had with it. So, you see why I need to get back. I don't want to miss a call in case... in case he finally decides to say... to tell me... what... why... when...." He stopped. "Don't make me stay here." He turns away and won't say any more.
We finish cleaning up the kitchen and sit with Vic and Michael for a while as they try to settle on something to watch. But then I notice that Sunshine is looking out the window, watching the plow go down the street. The snow has stopped. Michael decides to try the roads and, naturally, Justin puts on his coat, picks up his backpack, and heads out as well.
Before he goes, I wrap up a large portion of the left-over lasagna and put it in his hands. It always tastes good late at night, when you are sitting up, waiting for a call.
©Gaedhal, April 2002
Pictures of Sharon Gless and Randy Harrison from Showtime 2002.
Continue on to "Red Shirt" , the first part of Chapter 2 in my "Queer Theories" series.
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Updated April 30, 2002