This is Part 9.
Other recent stories in the "Queer Theories" series.
Go back to "Nowhere Man -- Part 8.
Features Brian Kinney, Debbie Novotny, Others.
Rated R for language and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Brian decides to take a ride -- down to Liberty Avenue. September 2000.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
Wednesday, September 6, 2000, continued:
Brian sat in his motel room, attempting to digest the dinner his mother had fed him and trying to decide what to do with himself. Between the tasteless chicken and Joan Kinney's tactless questions about Ron, which he dodged as best he could, Brian could hardly wait to get out of the homestead and back to his room.
But when he finally reached his little sanctuary, Brian was at a loss. He got out his laptop and read over his article on John Rechy. He moved a few commas around and saved the article. Then he checked his e-mail. Of course, there were fourteen messages from Ron, another from the departmental secretary, asking for a copy of his syllabus, and one final message from the university bookstore, telling him that the books he ordered for class were on the shelf. He deleted the messages from Ron and saved the other two.
Ben had called the motel that afternoon and left a message because Brian had his cellphone turned off while he was with his father at the medical center. Ben made it clear that Brian was more than welcome to come over to his place for the evening. Or for the night, if he wanted. Brian listened to the message and considered calling Ben back immediately. Considered going over there. Maybe he and Ben could have another heart-to-heart talk. Or maybe not. That gave Brian pause. The last thing he wanted to do was fall into a mindless -- and possibly risky -- screw with one of his few real friends. Or else have to rebuff Ben's advances. Either way, it would be a disaster. Brian would be embarrassed afterwards, Ben would probably be upset, and their friendship was certain to suffer. And that was all he needed -- another broken relationship.
Brian was sorry now that he hadn't taken that doctor up on his offer of dinner. It would have gotten him out of having to eat Joan Kinney's food -- and his father would have backed him up, saying that they were going to discuss Jack's case. Brian took out the prescription slip and called Dr. Kumar's number. He got an answering machine. Brian left a message saying that he knew it was too late for that night, but that Friday for dinner sounded good after all. That Brian was looking forward to it. And as he said it, he realized that it was the truth. He WAS looking forward to dinner with a nice, attractive man who actually seemed to find BRIAN nice and attractive, too. Then he left the numbers of the motel room and his cellphone. At least that would be one night that he wouldn't have to sit alone in the room or spend the evening fending off his mother's interrogation.
Brian took a shower and decided to watch TV. That lasted about twenty minutes. He was too restless to lie quietly on the bed, too keyed up even to try, with or without a Xanax. Besides, it was too early to go to sleep -- it wasn't even 8:30 yet! Brian thought about going to the mall and walking off some of his nervous energy. But by the time he drove out to the Monroeville Mall or anywhere else it would be time for the place to close. So instead he paced around the room for a while and then actually had the phone in his hand, ready to dial Ron's number, when he thought of Liberty Avenue.
Liberty Avenue was the local gay ghetto. A seedy area of bars, clubs, and stores catering to a queer clientele, as well as anyone looking for cheap drugs and cheaper sex. Brian had sniffed around the edges of the place back when he was a wild and rebellious teenager, usually looking to buy some weed from a character named Mole, a low level drug dealer who had an apartment in the neighborhood. A few times Brian had even exchanged a blowjob for a lid of grass. Yes, that had gotten him into worse trouble, eventually. But that was something Brian put out of his mind. Something he always put out of his mind. The part of his past that Ron had so carefully erased -- and made sure stayed that way.
Anyway, Brian had never really been back to Liberty Avenue since then. He didn't go to clubs and he didn't hang out in gay bars -- and he had never been looking to pick anyone up, especially on the infrequent occasions when he was in Pittsburgh on Kinney family business. So spending time on Liberty Avenue had never really been an option.
But maybe now it was.
Perhaps a beer at one of the bars wouldn't be too bad. The only remaining alternative, going to a movie by himself, seemed the ultimate and desperate act of a pitiful loser. And Brian wasn't ready for that. Yet.
Brian looked through his clothes, trying to figure out what to wear to a gay bar. It was so stupid, he thought, having to 'dress up' just to go and have a drink. But he also knew it was an important decision. How he dressed signified exactly what his purpose was -- if only in Brian's own mind. So, was he really dressing just to kill some time -- or to get fucked? It was a vital distinction.
Brian decided that killing an evening was the most likely thing. The other scenario was just too... calculated. Brian had already mentally rejected the only guy in town he knew and was attracted to -- Ben -- so he couldn't imagine stumbling over some stranger and falling into bed with him. That was just impossible.
So Brian got out a pair of Dockers and a clean shirt and put them on. Then he shook out his tan corduroy jacket and threw it over his arm. He glanced at the black wifebeater he'd slipped into his suitcase at the last minute. He briefly pictured himself wearing it and a pair of jeans. And a black leather jacket. If he'd had one. Looking not too bad. Maybe even hot. But he couldn't bring himself to change his clothes. He'd be too self-conscious in that black tee shirt, no matter how good he knew he looked in it. This wasn't about looking good, Brian thought, it was about... well, Brian wasn't certain what it was about. He just knew he had to get the hell out of that room. Now.
Brian drove the old Volvo in the direction of Liberty Avenue. It was a Wednesday night, but the area seemed to be quite busy. It also looked different then he had remembered. More prosperous, brighter. The whole place had been revitalized from the semi-skid row Brian recalled. And the men walking around didn't have the furtive look Brian recollected from his teenage years. It was all in the open now. People weren't ashamed to be there. They weren't hiding their sexuality on the edges of a shadowy street. These men were smiling, some were even holding hands, as they strolled down the sidewalk freely.
Brian tried to imagine walking down the street, holding Ron's hand. Where, he wondered? In southern Indiana? The tail end of the Bible Belt? No way -- they'd be bashed before they made it two blocks. But even in New York, in the Village, where he and Ron would often meet Ron's NYU friends, Ron didn't show affection in public. At home, maybe, or at his mother's place, or in the apartments of his friends from his Queer Film group. But out on the street like that? No, Ron would probably say it was undignified. Or childish. And just watching the parade of men made Brian feel a little uncomfortable. And he realized yet again how isolated he was from the mainstream of gay life. Because these men certainly weren't uncomfortable. Not at all.
There were more bars and clubs there, too, than Brian remembered. He heard loud music coming from a large warehouse that had been converted into a disco. Yes, that had been there before, but under a different name. Traxx, it had been called then. Now it was called Babylon. It figured. Probably a picture of decadence and debauchery inside. Just the kind of place Brian would have been dying to see inside when he was sixteen. Now the loud music and loud people exiting and entering just put him off.
And Woody's. That bar had been there before, too. Same name, same look. Some things hadn't changed at all. Brian parked the car and began walking.
It was obvious immediately that Brian wasn't exactly dressed in the latest Liberty Avenue fashion. He'd definitely miscalculated there. His Dockers, carefully pressed Van Heusen shirt, and cord jacket made him stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Or else what he was -- an out-of-place academic who had wandered down the wrong street.
He paused at a clothing store, Torso, and glanced at some of the so-called clothes displayed in the window. If this was queer fashion, then Brian was doomed to be out of style. See-through shirts and tops with rude slogans spelled out in glitter and sequins seemed to be de rigueur. And leather pants with huge chunks cut out of them to reveal -- just about everything! Did men actually WEAR these clothes? Or was it a joke? Brian found himself blushing just looking at a pair of pants that left the butt cheeks completely bare. Brian shook his head. He'd been a boy for hire on the streets on New York, but no one had ever expected him to wear something like THAT! No way!
Guys passed him dressed in tighter-than-tight jeans, black leathers, bright silk shirts, skimpy tank tops, and even a few in those sequined blouses and semi-drag. They cruised Brian in pairs and small groups, laughing and generally having a good time. Many of them threw a look at Brian, curiously.
And Brian wandered up and down the length of the street on both sides, feeling distinctly alone -- and definitely lonely. This was the 'gay' community and he was a gay man -- but he couldn't fathom this life at all. He'd been around other queers ever since he was sixteen, but it was always something quiet. Something of a closed circle, even in New York. Ron, as active as he was in the gay academic community, never marched in parades or waved banners, and he certainly never encouraged Brian to do it, or to associate with those who did. If anything, Ron disdained people who flaunted themselves and made some big show of being gay. Ron proclaimed that queers would never be accepted by the mainstream until them were so 'normal' that no one even looked twice at them.
Guys who were 'obvious' or 'flaming' or spent their time hanging out in clubs, having sex and doing drugs, were a black eye to the larger community Ron often said. An embarrassment to 'normal' queers. Like Ron. Like Brian. Which was one reason why Ron was fussy about what Brian wore. Nothing too 'faggy' or weird or -- God forbid -- campy. Brian tried to imagine what Ron would say if Brian were to show up in a pink sequined tee shirt that read 'Cum Here Often?' like the one he'd seen in the window of Torso. He'd probably faint dead away.
As Brian walked up and down Liberty Avenue, more than one man stopped to ask him for a cigarette or a light. And Brian was so out of practice at that sort of thing that it never occurred to him that he was being propositioned until one man -- a tough-looking blond with a crewcut and leather vest -- grabbed him tightly around the waist and whispered, "Forget the smokes, beautiful! You up for a fuck?"
Brian was so taken aback by this confrontation -- and by the aggressiveness of the crewcut blond -- that he retreated to the nearest refuge he could find -- a brightly lit restaurant, the Liberty Diner, at the end of the street.
He sat down at the counter to get his bearings. The diner was also full of men -- the whole Liberty Avenue area seemed to be teeming with nothing but attractive guys! A number of them craned their necks when Brian entered the diner, checking him out, making him feel self-conscious. But at least Brian didn't feel quite as exposed inside as he had on the street.
Brian vaguely remembered a diner in this spot when he had frequented the street as a kid, but he'd never gone in there. And this colorful establishment, filled with the smell of warm comfort food, was the antithesis of the depressing pizza joint where he'd spent many hours during the particularly horrible time of his youth. Yes, the contrast between this place and Nick's Pizzeria down on the Bowery was stark.
Brian shuddered when he thought of Nick's -- and he felt a pang of guilt about Ron. Without Ron he might never have gotten out of that place or that situation. That life. He probably wouldn't even be alive. Wouldn't have the education, the career, the privileged life that he enjoyed. Or had enjoyed up until now. That was something he always thought of whenever he was angry at Ron. And remembering the bleak alternative that had faced him back then usually helped to dispel any bad feelings about Ron. Remembering how good Ron had been to him and how much Brian owed him for that goodness. Remembering how low he'd been -- and how much Ron had loved him, in spite of it all.
But thinking of that didn't seem to be working this time. Brian still felt as hurt and as betrayed as he had before. Maybe, he thought, he would have been better off remaining out on the streets, eventually disappearing into the anonymity of the lost and the nameless. Having nothing, owning nothing, owing nothing. And, in the end, being nothing.
Brian tried to shake off this mood. It felt poisonous to him. He couldn't think clearly at all. He picked up a menu off the counter and opened it.
The waitress, an effusive woman in a garish red wig and clashing purple tee shirt, took his order for coffee, black, with plenty of sugar.
"That ALL you're having, honey?" she clucked disapprovingly. "That won't keep your strength up for a full night of cruising! How about a nice burger and some fries? Or a big plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes? And a couple of lemon squares for dessert, huh?"
Brian looked up at her. "No, thank you. Just the coffee. And I'm not cruising. I'm just drinking coffee."
The waitress let out a raucous cackle. "Honey, with a face like THAT, you're cruising just by sitting in that seat!"
Brian blushed a deep red and looked down at the menu. He wanted to hide behind it, but it was impossible now. The waitress had him in her sights and she wasn't about to let him go. She'd obviously identified him as a clueless stranger and had decided to have a little fun with him. And a lot of the men in the diner were looking over at them, listening to their exchange with interest.
"Oh, sweetie, I didn't mean to embarrass you!" The woman tapped her pen on the counter. "How come I've never seen you in here before? Because, believe me, I would have remembered you!"
"I don't live in Pittsburgh," said Brian. "I'm just visiting my parents."
"Where are you from then, honey?"
Why was this woman so interested, thought Brian. Why does she care who I am and where I'm from? But he had no one else to talk to. Unless he went outside and looked for the guy with the crewcut! "Well, I grew up here, in Pittsburgh, but I live in Indiana right now."
"Ooo!" the waitress squealed. "Lots of hot guys in Indiana, hon?"
Brian grimaced. "None whatsoever."
"Except YOU, sweetie!" She cackled again and slapped her hand on the counter at her own joke.
Brian attempted a small smile. "As I said -- none whatsoever."
The woman looked at him kindly. "Think again, sweetie," she said, softly. "Don't sell yourself short."
"Can I just have my coffee, please?" Now Brian just wanted to get out of this place and go back to the motel. Coming down to this area had been a huge mistake.
"Coming right up."
The waitress set a cup down before Brian and poured. Then she set a large sugar dispenser next to him. Brian poured the sugar in and stirred, aware that the woman was watching every move he made.
"Honey," she said, finally. "You look so familiar to me. Are you SURE you've never been in here before?"
Brian met her eyes. "Never. I've never been in this diner before. In fact, although my parents live here, I haven't spent much time in this city at all. Not since I was about sixteen years old. When I was in high school." The coffee was hot and Brian kept stirring it, waiting for it to cool a bit. "So unless...."
Brian paused. Then he looked at the woman again. Something was stirring in his memory. Brownish hair, just turning gray. A little thinner, maybe....
"Mrs.... Novotny?" he ventured.
Now it was her turn to stare at him. Her eyes narrowed, fixing on his face. And then her mouth dropped open. "Brian?" she said. "Is that YOU?"
Brian instinctively drew back -- but not in time.
"Oh my GOD!" The waitress lunged across the counter and had him wrapped in her arms before he was able to evade her. "Oh my God!" she repeated. Now Brian was simply trying to avoid being suffocated -- and avoid the cup of hot coffee tipping into his lap. "My God! My God!" she kept exclaiming.
"Please... Mrs. Novotny. I can't breathe!" Brian begged. "Please let me go!"
"Debbie! Call me Debbie, honey!" she said, finally releasing him. "All the boys call me Debbie!"
Brian shook his head, trying to clear it. Yes, the woman in front of him WAS someone he knew -- or had known back when he lived in Pittsburgh. She was the mother of a boy who had been his best friend -- his only real friend -- in high school. Also the only other young fag he had known back then. Little Mikey.
Mrs. Novotny. Yes. This woman had been nice to him. Always. Fed him. Let him stay at her house when he could no longer deal with his own. Protected him from his own parents. Sheltered him more than once when Pop had given him the wrong side of his hand a little too hard. In fact, it had been to her house that he'd been headed the night the old man took him down and broke his ribs. That was where he'd tried to run to from the Kinney house that last time. He hadn't intended to leave town. Not at all. He was headed for Mikey's. Only he never made it as far as the Novotny house, in a working class neighborhood not far from Liberty Avenue. Brian's drug dealer friend, Mole, had found him first, passed out in an alley not that far from this very spot....
"Brian -- honey -- where have you BEEN all these years? I mean, where did you go?" The woman -- Debbie -- was leaning over him, speaking softly to him now, as if she didn't want to share this with the entire diner. "You just disappeared! Poor Michael almost went out of his mind, worrying and crying for you!"
Damn it, thought Brian. More explanations. Everyone always thinks they deserve an explanation. And also something else to feel guilty about. Another person's expectations to live up to. Mrs. Novotny's. Mikey's. 'Worrying and crying' -- that's all Brian needed to hear. A boy who had almost gone out of his mind with missing him.
Brian closed his eyes. Mikey. He recalled a short, vulnerable boy, with soft, sad eyes. Like a hurt puppy. A boy who looked at him worshipfully. And Brian had played on that worship, he admitted to himself. He had needed someone to look at him like he was worth something. Because he didn't get it at home. And he was always an outsider at school, purposefully. It wouldn't do to let too many people get too close, least they discover what he really was.
But he didn't fear that with Mikey. With Mikey, it was obvious to Brian, the new kid in class, from the first day he met him in school. Brian recognized that they were alike, even when no one else did. That they were both queers. Brian knew it even before Mikey knew it himself.
And in return for Mikey's adoration, Brian provided a shield. He made certain that the local bullies didn't injure the smaller boy. Made sure that he at least passed his courses. That he was able to make it through each grade without too much emotional damage. And he made certain that Mikey loved him constantly. Unconditionally. Until that night when Brian skipped town on a bus, in the company of a sleazy drug dealer who promised him the moon in New York City. Never to return. Until now....
"I went to live... out of town, Mrs. Novotny."
"Debbie! Please, Brian!"
"Debbie. To New York. I finished school there. And I went to college in the city, too."
Debbie stood back and regarded Brian happily. "You're SO tall! And so grown up! And SO gorgeous!" Brian felt himself blushing again. She was looking at him with such pleasure, such delight. And such intense interest. But after twelve years, Brian felt only apprehension about such scrutiny. He didn't want to answer difficult questions or be put on the spot for explanations by this woman who was, after all, virtually a stranger.
"I just can't get over it! Brian!" she continued. "And you went to college, too. In New York! You always were a smart kid. What do you do in Illinois, sweetie? It must be something important!"
"Indiana, not Illinois. I teach. At a university there. English literature."
"A professor!" she breathed. "No shit!" Debbie nodded her head. "And poor Michael never even finished high school."
Brian was surprised. "He didn't? Why not?"
"Nope, sweetie. He dropped out after his junior year. Right after you left, in fact." Debbie smiled a little sadly. "I think he didn't want to be there anymore. You know -- all alone."
"But... but that's ridiculous," insisted Brian, troubled. "Everyone should have a high school education! Michael should have finished...." Brian paused. He couldn't comprehend it. Didn't want to comprehend it. He suddenly had a picture in his mind of a boy, small for his age and already marked out as a fag, trying to survive in their urban high school. Alone. "I hope that I... I mean, that I didn't really have anything to do with him leaving school."
"Don't you worry, honey," said Debbie, patting is hand. "Michael was never anybody's idea of a student, that's for sure! Books and studying were just not for him. It wasn't your fault he dropped out."
"But... but Mikey was always so interested in comic books. Anyone with a passion for something like that certainly has the ability to succeed in school. To channel his energy into his education!" Now Brian was getting upset at the thought that his friend had really left school because of him. Because he was depressed by Brian's departure. Or because he couldn't pass even his basic courses without Brian's help with his schoolwork. Or maybe because the vulnerable boy couldn't deal with the harassment he suffered in Brian's absence. "I... I hope he's doing well now, Mrs. Novotny."
The way Debbie was gazing at him so intently made Brian very uncomfortable. The way a lot of people in the Liberty Diner were staring at him -- and listening to every word they were saying -- made him ill at ease. A couple of the men put their heads together and Brian knew that he was being discussed.
"Hold on one minute, sweetie," said Debbie, touching his hand. "You wait right here!" And she disappeared into the back of the diner. One of the other waitresses stood nearby, watching him curiously. Brian thought this would be the perfect time to bolt out the door. He could leave a few dollars to cover the coffee and tip and just escape. But they were ALL watching him now. He couldn't simply get up and leave, as much as he might want to.
A few minutes passed before Debbie reappeared, accompanied by a short, muscular man with clipped dark hair. He had a hard, strained-looking face and he was wearing jeans, a sweat-soiled tee shirt, and a greasy apron. He looked over at Brian with disbelieving eyes.
"Ma was right! It IS you!" he said. "Brian!" The man grinned at him, devouring Brian with his gaze.
"Hello, Michael." Brian didn't know what else to say to this total stranger who had once been his best friend.
Continue on to "Nowhere Man -- Part 10.
©Gaedhal, November 2002
Posted November 2, 2002