This is Chapter 20 of the "Queer Identities" series.
The narrator is Michael Novotny, and features Tim Reilly, Ben Bruckner, Others.
Rated R and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: The truth hurts. Pittsburgh, June 2003.
Disclaimer: You know the drill. This is for fun, not profit. Enjoy.
"I have almost everything
A human could desire:
Cars and houses, bearskin rugs
To lie before my fire.
But there's something missing,
Something isn't there,
It seems I'm never kissing
The one whom I could care for...
I want something to live for,
Someone to make my life
An adventurous dream..."
I don't know what to do.
That's an understatement!
There have been times in my life when I felt like I'd painted myself into a corner -- the first time David and I started having trouble comes immediately to mind, but there have been others, too. The first time I realized I was in love with Brian. The second time I realized I was in love with Brian. The one hundredth time I realized I was in love with Brian. You get the picture.
And the way I screwed things up with Ben.
I try not to think about that. Because I'm so happy with David.
What the heck?
Now I have this thing in my hands. This gift.
This comic book.
Twice a day, when I come in first thing in the morning and then again right after I close the door at the end of the day, I open up my safe and take it out, just to look at it.
It's a beautiful thing.
Almost as beautiful as the Captain Astro comic Brian gave me for my 30th birthday. That was even more beautiful. Not to anyone else maybe, but to me it was. It wasn't as valuable as this comic, a near-mint copy of 'Detective Comics Number 27' from May 1939, the debut of Batman, but it was more meaningful to me. First, because Brian gave it to me, and second, because it brought in the money that helped me buy my store.
That was my dream for so long. My own comic book store. And that book made it possible -- Red Cape Comics.
But this comic book... this is on another level. This is more money than I've ever dreamed of. Right in my hands.
How much is it worth? At least $100,000. Probably double that. Maybe as much as $250,000. Or more.
I can't think.
And I haven't told anyone about it. No one. Not even David.
I don't know why I haven't...
Yes, I do know. I'm afraid. Afraid of what it'll mean. Afraid of how it could change things.
Change my life.
Because that's what this comic will do. It will change my life.
It's how it'll change it that scares the piss out of me.
I hear someone knocking at the front door.
"We're closed!" I yell.
"Michael! It's me! Tim. Can I talk to you?"
My Uncle Vic's partner, Tim Reilly. What does he want?
I put the comic back in the safe. I need to call someone. A lawyer, maybe. Someone. I can't keep this thing in my safe and just keep looking at it. I have to do something about it. Soon.
"Just a sec, Tim! I'm coming!"
I unlock the door and let Tim in. "We closed about twenty minutes ago, but if you need a copy of 'X-Men' so badly, I think I can accommodate you."
Tim laughs. "I didn't come for a comic book. I need to talk to you about something."
I hold my breath. "Is this about Uncle Vic? Is he okay?"
Tim touches my shoulder reassuringly. "Vic's fine. We're both fine. Don't worry, Michael."
I close my eyes in relief. I'm always worrying about Uncle Vic. That something might happen to him. He's come close to death so many times I can't even keep track of them. I know he's doing great on the new retrovirus drugs, but still...
If anything happened to Vic I think Ma would not be able to deal with it. I think I wouldn't be able to deal with it!
"That's not why I came over here," says Tim. "It's not about Vic. It's about Ben."
That's when my heart stops.
"Is... is Ben sick?" I try to keep the fear out of my voice, but it's impossible. "Tell me! What about Ben?"
"Can we sit down somewhere?" Tim says gently.
I nod and lead him back into my office, which is really more a storage room/office. But I have some old chairs there. Tim sits in one and I sit in another. With the money from the comic book I could buy new furniture. I could remodel the office. I could remodel the whole store. I could buy a ticket and run away somewhere. Where's that place Brian was always talking about? Ibiza! That's the place! I could go there. All by myself.
If anything happens to Ben...
"Tell me about Ben."
"He's fine, Michael," says Tim. "I talked to him yesterday and he told me his health is great."
I frown. "Then what's this all about?"
Tim seems nervous. He fiddles with his shirt and pulls at a strand of his greying blond hair. "This is probably none of my business, but that's never stopped me before."
I have to chuckle at that. "No, it sure hasn't!" Tim is infamous for getting mixed up in other people's problems and personal lives.
"The thing is," Tim says. "I've been doing outreach to a group home for homeless gay teens. Some of them are ex-hustlers or addicts. A number of them are HIV+."
I know about this. Vic told Ma all about it. Vic's proud of the work Tim does. He may not be a priest anymore, but he still sees it as his mission in life to help people. Especially people with HIV or AIDS. And especially kids.
"There was one boy who particularly caught my attention. His name is Jimmy. He's about 16. He'd been on the streets for a number of years, hustling. The police picked him up a few months ago. He'd passed out on the street in the middle of winter. He was only wearing a thin jacket. No gloves, no boots. He was quite ill. And he was HIV+."
"That's tough," I say.
"Yes, it is," Tim agrees. "After he got out of the hospital he was sent to the group home. He ran away almost immediately. He went back to the streets. The police picked him up again a few weeks ago. They were going to send him to Juvenile Detention, but a friend of mine in Social Services called me to try to intervene. I went down there and talked to the boy." Tim pauses. His hands rub together. "This boy reminded me of another boy I knew a long time ago. Tough-talking, but terrified. Independent, but also desperate for someone to care about him. Desperate for someone to reach out and give a damn."
"Like Brian." It isn't even a question.
"Yes," says Tim. "That same attitude. That same fire. But instead of being an addict, this boy is positive. That's not something that can be cured by rehab. It's forever. I knew he'd never stay in that group home. Jimmy needed a real home. He needed someone to be a real parent. Someone who understood what he was going through."
"Okay. But why are you telling me all this?"
"Because I immediately thought of Ben Bruckner. I knew he'd make the perfect foster parent for this boy."
Ben. That's why Tim is here.
"I called Ben and told him the story of this boy. Ben came over to my office and I gave him all the information I had on Jimmy. He insisted on going straight over to the group home with me and meeting the boy. I could tell they had an instant rapport. Jimmy swaggered and talked a lot of street bullshit -- and Ben called him on all of it. The next day he went back and talked to the boy some more. The day after that he applied to be Jimmy's foster parent."
"And Ben wants the boy to live with him?"
"Jimmy's already moved in. In fact, he's been living there for over a week and so far, so good. I think it's a wonderful opportunity for both of them. Ben has been quite down recently. The suicide of his friend, Ron, hit him harder than he likes to admit. They apparently had a lot of unfinished business between them. That's always difficult. And he went through a break-up with someone who was very dear to him. That also hit him hard."
Tim pauses, waiting for me to respond. But what's there for me to say? That I fucked up with Ben? That we both fucked things between us? That's a no-brainer!
"It's great that Ben is moving on with his life," I say slowly. "This kid seems like a good thing for him. Ben always used to say how much he wanted a family. Kids of his own. This is one way to do it, I guess."
"Yes," Tim agrees. "One way. I thought you would be interested to know what was going on, Michael." He stands up. "Well, I better be off now. Vic and Emmett have a big party they're catering tomorrow and I promised I'd be their taste-tester. I have the best job, don't you think? No work, but all the eating pleasure!"
"You said it, Tim." I walk with him to the door. "Say hi to Vic and Em. I owe Emmett a phone call, but he's always so busy I only get his answering machine."
"I'll tell him to give you a call. Bye, Michael."
I close the door behind him. Then I take out my cellphone.
"Hey, David! Listen, I'm just leaving the store, but I have a few errands I still have to run, so I'll be kind of late... Yeah, don't wait for me. You and Hank go ahead with dinner. I'll eat when I get home or catch something on the way... Okay, then... Yeah... I love you, too. See you soon."
I put away my cell.
Five minutes later I'm on my way to Ben's apartment.
I walk up and down in front of Ben's apartment building for ten minutes before I have the nerve to go inside.
This is really stupid. I have no idea what I'm doing here.
Goddamn that Tim! Why did he come over? Why did he have to tell me about Ben? He's always sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. Thinking he can fix things. Thinking he can right every wrong.
Well, some things don't need to be fixed! Some wrongs are better left the way they are.
Like me and Ben.
We never belonged together in the first place. David came back at just the right time in my life. Everything is going great with him. We're having a commitment ceremony in August. All our friends will be there and it'll be wonderful and I'm going to be happy, damn it! Really, really, fucking happy!
I walk into the building and climb the stairs to the second floor. Knock on the door.
It's opened by a shirtless, sullen teenager who glares at me. "What the fuck do you want?"
"Can I speak to Ben, please?"
The kid looks me up and down, as if he's sizing me up. Then he shrugs. "Ben! There's some dude here for you."
Ben comes out of the kitchen and stops short when he sees me. "Michael, what are you doing here?"
"I..." I have no idea why I'm here. Except that I'm here. "I was just passing by, so I thought I'd stop and say hello. So... hello." Now I feel like a total jerk! I better make a quick exit. "So... bye."
"Wait," says Ben, grabbing my arm. When he touches me it's like an electric shock goes right through me. "Come in. I was just getting ready to serve dinner."
"You better like tofu on a stick, because that's what we're having," says the kid. "Personally, I'd wrestle a polar bear for a fucking Big Mac and some fries."
"But this is much healthier, pal," says Ben.
"Hunter, please go and put on your shirt before you come back to the table," Ben directs.
The kid rolls his eyes and stalks off to the guest room, which I suppose is now his room.
"Hunter? I thought his name was Jimmy?"
Ben smiles. "So, you already know about Hunter. Let me guess -- Tim Reilly?"
"Tim may have mentioned something about you taking in a kid," I reply, avoiding Ben's gaze. "I thought he said the kid's name was Jimmy."
"He prefers to be called Hunter. In fact, if you call him Jimmy, he won't answer. Or he'll get up and leave the room."
"To go and put on a shirt, hopefully!"
"We're working on that!" Ben laughs. "It's good to see you, Michael. You're looking well."
"And so are you." In fact, you look great, Ben! So fucking great! I want to tell him how much I've missed him. How much I've thought about him. Even dreamed about him. But I can't. It wouldn't be right. It would be so not right that I feel guilty even thinking about it. Like David can feel what I'm thinking even ten miles away.
"Would you like to have some tofu kabobs? With lentils and rice?" Ben asks.
"There's still time to escape and go get a greasy burger and some fries," drawls Hunter, coming out of the bedroom. He now has on a shirt. It's one of my old Wonder Woman tee shirts. I must have left it here a long time ago.
"Sit down, Michael," says Ben. "I'll get the food." He goes into the kitchen.
"So you're the old boyfriend, huh?" says Hunter. "Stupid move, dumping Ben. But he can do so much better than you."
"I didn't dump Ben!" I insist. "We came to a mutual agreement to end our relationship."
"Sure," the kid sniffs. "Guys like you always come to a 'mutual agreement' to break up with guys like Ben all the time! Because dweebs can always get hot guys any day of the week! Like I said, stupid move. But you don't look too bright."
"And you're so smart?" I huff. "You're just a punk kid!"
Hunter sticks his tongue out at me. "Takes one to know one!"
"Oh, yeah?" I return. "I'm rubber, you're glue! Anything you say bounces off me and sticks to you!"
"Boys!" says Ben. He's carrying a plate of shish kabobs and a bowl of rice and sets them on the table. "Stop right now! Hunter, say you're sorry to our guest."
"He started it," the kid mumbles. "Sorry."
"Hunter, please go out and bring in the salad."
He slinks away from the table and goes into the kitchen.
"Cute kid," I tell Ben. "What does he do for an encore?"
Ben sits down and passes me the bowl of rice. "He's a fantastic boy, Michael. He's funny and smart and he's actually very sensitive. We're getting along wonderfully."
"I'm sorry, Ben. I didn't mean to be snarky. I think it's great that you're doing this. It's typical of you to try to help some kid."
"I'm not doing it for Brownie points, Michael. It's not a good deed. Hunter and I have a lot in common. I think we can help each other."
"I know. Tim told me he's positive."
"You don't have to whisper," says Hunter, bringing in the salad. "I can hear you." He plops down in his chair. "So, are you a member of the club, too?"
"Club? What club?" I ask.
"You know -- Future AIDS Victims of America?"
"Hunter, that's enough," says Ben. "Michael is negative, if you must know."
"Figures." Hunter picks up his fork and tastes the rice. "Not too bad."
"Thank you, Hunter," says Ben. "How's the tofu?"
Hunter makes a face. "I'd still rather have a Big Mac."
I taste the food, too. It's okay. Ben's vegetarian meals aren't my favorite, but I know it's healthy stuff. "Very good, Ben."
"Thanks, Michael. You know, Hunter, Michael's partner is a doctor. A chiropractor."
I wince. Why did Ben have to mention David?
"What the fuck's a chiropractor?" Hunter asks. "Is that one of those guys who probes your ass?"
Ben tries not to laugh. "That's a proctologist. A chiropractor manipulates your body to make you feel better."
"Sounds like what I used to do." Hunter shoots me an evil glance. "But I bet I did it better."
"David is very successful," I retort. "We have a beautiful home."
"And Michael and David are getting married this summer," Ben adds.
I look at him in surprise. "I didn't know you knew about that."
Ben gazes back at me. His eyes are sad. "Tim told me. I forgot to congratulate you. Congratulations. I know you'll be very happy."
"Thanks." I set down my fork. I'm not hungry anymore.
Hunter makes a scoffing noise. "Since when can dudes get married?"
"It's a commitment ceremony. Uncle Vic and Emmett are catering the reception. Planning all the food and decorations." I hesitate. "I hope both of you will be there."
Ben licks his lips. "If we get an invitation, we'll certainly be there. Won't we, pal?"
Hunter looks unsure. "You aren't going to serve tofu, are you?"
"No," I say. "I can guarantee that. David is more a filet mignon kind of guy."
Hunter frowns. "What the fuck's that?"
"Steak," says Ben. "Very expensive steak."
Hunter brightens. "I can get into that! A steak would hit the fucking spot! What about cake? Are you going to have a cake?"
"Of course. My Uncle Vic makes the best cakes in Pittsburgh!" I say proudly.
"Awesome!" Hunter nods. "Then I'll be there for sure!"
I look up and see the clock. It's almost 8:00. "Shit! I have to get going." I stand up.
"You haven't finished your tofu kabob," says Ben.
"I'm sorry, but I have to get home. I'm already really late."
Ben walks me to the door.
"You seem happy, Ben. Really happy. And Hunter is a brat, but he seems like a good kid at heart."
"He is," Ben confirms. "Having him here is good for both of us. It gives him a future and it gives me a purpose in my life beyond just my own selfish needs. He gives me something to live for. Something worthwhile."
"That's... great," I nod stupidly.
Ben touches my hand. "It was nice seeing you, Michael. And I mean that."
There's something in my throat that makes it hard to answer. "It... it was nice seeing you, too. I... I miss you. I mean, I miss talking to you."
"I miss talking to you, too, Michael"
Ben is so close to me. And I want to touch him so bad. I want to kiss him so bad! I know it's wrong. It's fucked up! I love David! I'm committed to David! That's my life now. Not here. Not with Ben.
I stumble down the stairs. My head is pounding. And my heart is pounding, too.
There's something in my eyes. But they aren't tears. No, they aren't tears.
"Oh, what wouldn't I give for,
Someone who'd take my life
And make it seem
Gay as they say it ought to be.
Why can't I have love like that
Brought to me?
My eye is watching
The noon crowds,
Searching the promenades,
Seeking a clue
To the one who will someday be my
Something to live for.
Something to live for."
(Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn)
Continue on to "Idealize".
©Gaedhal, May 2008.
Posted May 26, 2008.