The other episodes in "The Angel Stream".
Pittsburgh, November 2005
"You're late," Clarence snapped.
It was the start of the Sunday dinner rush at the Watermark and they were two waiters short.
"I'm sorry," said Justin, grabbing his pad and tray from the station. "But my boyfriend is still in the hospital. They were supposed to release him this morning, but the doctor decided that he needed more tests. Then I had to talk to my mom about some things. And then I had to go back to the loft to change my clothes. And..."
Clarence put up his hand to stop Justin's babbling. It had already been a hell of a day -- and it was swiftly getting worse.
"I don't give a damn about your personal life!" Clarence hissed. "Or about your fucking boyfriend! Or your mother! Or any of that other b.s. that has nothing to do with this restaurant! I gave you time off and what did you do? You screwed me over by not coming back when you said you were going to. You left me short on Saturday night -- our busiest night of the fucking week! And now you're late! So I don't want to hear any more excuses. Just get your ass out on that floor. Now!"
"I said I was sorry," Justin returned. "What more can I do?"
"You can go out there and attend to your tables," Clarence said. "Sam has been covering for you, but he has his own work to do. Now get busy!"
One of the other waiters shook his head in sympathy, but then he turned away. Clarence was in a bitch of a mood and he didn't want to get reamed out, too.
Justin's face was hot with mortification. He had always taken pride in his work, whether his schoolwork, his art, or waiting on a table. He wasn't used to being treated like he was worthless. Yes, that's the way he felt. That's how Clarence made him feel. And Justin didn't like it.
But he steeled himself and went out onto the floor. That's what Brian would want him to do. To do his job and do it well. To focus on the job and fuck everything else! If he could only get through this shift, then it would be okay. Tomorrow Brian would be coming home for sure. He had to come home! Life would be back to normal. They could decide what they were going to do for Thanksgiving. Maybe start making plans for Christmas. That would be something to look forward to. Maybe they could get a tree for the loft. And he and Gus could decorate it. Maybe...
Justin almost collided with one of the busboys carrying a large tray of dirty dishes.
"Sorry." Justin jumped out of the way.
Jesus. He better be careful. His mind wasn't completely on what he was doing. Not at all.
"Waiter? Can I have another glass of wine? And my wife is still waiting for her appetizer!"
"Certainly, sir," said Justin. "I'll bring them right out."
It was chaotic on the floor. And things were crazy in the kitchen. Everything was backed up and the customers were impatient for their food. Justin had only been working 45 minutes and he was already in the weeds.
He saw the hostess seat a couple in his section. A young man in a blue suit and a heavily made-up blonde woman, obviously on a date.
Shit, Justin thought. I know that guy. I went to St. James with him.
He'd been a big jock. Star of the football team. Justin had even had a little crush on him, but he never acted on it, of course. After all, he wanted to survive until graduation!
Maybe he won't recognize me, Justin thought. Why would he remember me? We were in a couple of classes together, but it wasn't like we hung out with the same people. He was a popular jock and I was a sad closet case in the fucking Art Club!
"Good evening," said Justin, mustering up a smile. "I'm Justin. I'll be your waiter this evening. Can I get you something to drink while you look over the menu? Specials are on the first page."
"I want a glass of wine," the young woman said to her date. "Something sweet and not too dry. I hate anything too dry!"
The guy frowned as he perused the menu. "You got something like that?"
"The house white is very good. It's a California chardonnay," Justin suggested. If it isn't sweet enough, you can always put some sugar in it, he snarked to himself.
"Yeah, that'll be okay. And bring me a beer. Old Pitt, if you got it on tap."
"Of course, sir." Justin wrote down the drink orders. The two diners squinted at their menus like they had never before been to a restaurant that didn't put your food into styrofoam containers. It was going to be a long night at this table, Justin thought.
Clarence was hissing at him again from the bus station next to the kitchen door.
"Yes, Mr. Ramsey?"
Clarence glared at him. "One of the women at Table 9 just sent her steak back. She said it was rare when she ordered it medium rare."
Justin felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Now Clarence was looking for ways to harass him.
"That's not my fault, Mr. Ramsey," Justin replied. "That's the kitchen's problem. I don't make the food -- I only serve it!"
"Your attitude stinks!" said Clarence. "You better shape up or you'll find your ass out on the street!"
Justin wanted to lash out at Clarence. The man was a fucking bitch and a creep who never missed an opportunity to grope Justin when his hands were full. But he was also the boss. Justin counted to ten and took a couple of deep breaths to steady himself.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ramsey. It won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't!"
Justin hustled to the bar to put in the drink order. Then he went to pick up a main course for Table 11. Then back to the kitchen to get a new steak -- medium rare this time -- for the woman at Table 9. Then the drinks for the couple at Table 8.
"I hope you enjoy the chardonnay," said Justin as he set the glass in front of the blonde woman. Justin could see it was a bad dye job. She sipped the chardonnay and shrugged.
"Don't I know you?" Her date looked Justin up and down as he reached for his glass of Old Pitt. "Weren't you in my class at St. James? Taylor -- right?"
"Right," Justin answered tightly. "Justin Taylor."
"What are you doing working here? I thought you went to some Ivy League school?"
"Dartmouth." The last thing Justin wanted was to have this conversation with Chris Hobbs. He didn't know what the guy had been doing since he graduated from St. James' Academy. He knew that Chris had gotten a football scholarship somewhere out west, but Justin had no idea if his college football career had matched his high school success. Following college football hadn't exactly been on Justin's agenda.
"What happened? Flunk out?" Chris smirked at his date across the table.
"No," said Justin, trying to keep his face blank. Trying to focus on the task at hand. That's what Brian would tell him to do. Never let them get to you. And if they do get to you, never let them see that they have. "I graduated with Honors."
"Then what the fuck are you doing here?" Chris made a face.
"Working." Justin took out his pad. Breathe in and out. One. Two. Three. Four. "May I take your orders now?"
Pittsburgh, November 2005
The Night From Hell ended around 1:00 a.m., when Justin Taylor, Waiter Extraordinaire, dragged his once perky, but now whipped and exhausted ass out of the Watermark and into the Jeep.
He sat in the driver's seat for about ten minutes, unable to move, unable to think.
At least twenty times during his shift he'd almost quit. Almost taken his pad and his tray and thrown them across the room -- or at Clarence's head -- and walked out the door, never to return.
But he didn't. Instead he gritted his teeth and stayed. Held his breath, held his tongue, held his peace -- and stood his ground. Served all his tables. Shut out the sniping of Clarence. Even endured the grinning, nasty jeers of the homophobic Chris Hobbs, who seemed to get off on running Justin down in front of his brain-dead bimbo of a girlfriend. And then fucking Hobbs stiffed him out of a tip on an $85 tab. That was almost the last straw. Almost.
But then Justin thought about Brian. Brian in the hospital. Brian puking his guts out in the bathroom of the Boston guesthouse. Brian burning up with fever. Brian clutching at him in the dark, pleading with Justin not to leave him alone.
That is what's important, Justin thought. Brian has taken care of me so many times. Now it's my turn to take care of him. And that means doing my job. That means not being a fucking pussy because someone bitches at me. Because some jerk stiffs me for a tip. Or another sends back her fucking steak. That means sucking it all up and being a man. Because it's not important in the long run. It's a pain in the ass, but it won't impact my life. I won't let it.
But what would impact my life -- our lives! -- would be if I lost my job. Justin leaned his head against the steering wheel. I can't cry. I can't let it get to me. I have to think about what really matters.
He needed to go home and get some sleep. It felt like days since he'd slept and he was bone-tired.
He started up the Jeep and drove.
But not in the direction of the loft.
Towards Allegheny General.
"I didn't think I'd see you here again tonight," said Ray when he came in shortly after he began his shift to check Brian's IV .
"Lucky you," said Brian. He had tried to sleep, but it was impossible. He felt too lousy and had too much on his mind. And his roommate's coughing and restless movements were driving him up a fucking wall!
"Let's check your temperature." Ray gently put the probe into Brian's ear and then looked at the reading. "Normal. That's what we want to see."
"Why do you think it spiked last night?" Brian asked. He knew that was the main reason they kept him another day -- his fucking temperature taking a sudden hike upward.
"Don't know," Ray conceded. "But they're always afraid of an infection getting into you, especially when you're on an IV. You get a staph infection and chances are it's going to be worse than what you came in with."
"Fabulous," Brian huffed. "That's just what I need."
"They do more tests today?"
"Yeah," said Brian. "But they never tell you anything. They must teach everyone in the medical profession the art of the stony expression. Never let the patient know shit! That's their motto. I found that out at Johns Hopkins."
"Johns Hopkins, huh?" Ray looked impressed. "That's a first rate hospital."
"I know. That's why I went there for my cancer surgery." Brian watched Ray's face. But he didn't show any surprise. Either he had read through Brian's complete medical record or else his mastery of the stone face was equal to the best of them.
"I think you'll do fine," Ray said carefully. "You can go home soon and enjoy the Holidays."
"Now I've got you!" Brian sniffed. "I never enjoy the Holidays. In fact, I hate the fucking Holidays! Whenever possible I lock my door and hide until sometime in the New Year!"
Ray smiled. "Now you're kidding me, aren't you?"
But Brian only shook his head.
After Ray left the room Brian settled back on the pillow and finally drifted off.
He began to dream that it was summer. He and Justin were on a boat somewhere. Brian was driving while Justin sat close to him, wearing a tiny blue Speedo, his hair bleached almost white by the sun. The boat was knifing through the water, splitting the waves. Water sprayed up on either side and Justin grinned in delight. Brian put his arm around Justin and pulled him closer. His body was warm and he smelled like sweat and green tea shampoo. And something else. Something heavier. More acidic. Tomato sauce?
Brian opened his eyes. For a moment he thought he was back in the loft and Justin was lying next to him after his shift at the Watermark had ended.
Then Justin sighed and moved closer to Brian in the narrow hospital bed.
"Justin," he whispered. "What the fuck?"
"Shhh!" Justin whispered back. "You don't want to wake up your roommate. Or have all the nurses come running in here."
"Fuck my roommate!" Brian breathed. "How the hell did you get in here?"
"I didn't feel like going home after I left work," Justin explained. "So I drove over here. I sat down in the lobby for a little while. I thought maybe I'd just sleep there for the rest of the night. But I saw people going up in the elevators. Going to the ICU, I guess." Unlike the other floors, the Intensive Care Unit was open to relatives at all hours. "So I took the elevator to the ICU floor and walked down one flight to this one. I waited until I didn't see anyone, then I sneaked down the hall and slipped into your room. Lucky for me you're at the end of the hallway, far from the nurses' station."
"You're going to get both of us kicked the fuck out of here!" Brian said.
"Isn't that what you want?" Justin reminded him. "To get the fuck out of here and go home?"
"Good point, twat," Brian admitted. "And I can't think of a better way to get booted out."
Brian held Justin against him. He DID smell like sweat and tomato sauce. I'd like to lick him all over right now. Lick him and suck him and fuck him right here in this crummy bed. Except...
What IS wrong with me? Brian asked himself. Why am I so happy that he's here? What the fuck is happening? I'm turning into a goddamn lesbian!
"I missed you," Justin said in a low voice.
Brian swallowed. Fuck it. "I missed you, too."
"I couldn't sleep in the loft alone," Justin continued. "All I could think about was that you were here and that you were sick! I kept picturing horrible things happening to you. Thinking that... that you had cancer again. I was scared shitless, Brian! I'm still scared shitless!"
"I don't have cancer again," Brian reassured him. "I got a virus somewhere and it fucked up my stomach. That's what they did all those tests for -- to see if I have an ulcer. Or hepatitis."
Justin started. "Hepatitis? Shit, Brian! That's serious!"
"Don't worry. I've already had it. About ten years ago," Brian informed him. "So I'm pretty much immune. I know what hepatitis feels like -- and it was a lot worse than this!"
"Worse?" Justin cringed, thinking of Brian puking up his guts.
"Much worse. Believe me."
Brian shuddered as he remembered his bout with the strain of hepatitis that had worked its way through Liberty Avenue a decade before. The fatigue that put him flat on his back for almost two weeks and unable to function for much longer. The muscles that ached until he thought he'd scream. The pounding headache that wouldn't quit. His piss turning brown. And -- most frightening of all -- the jaundice. He'd almost freaked out when he saw the yellowish cast to his skin and eyes. This is the end, he thought as he lay in bed, barely able to lift his head. I'm only 24 and my liver is fucked forever!
It had taken Brian months to recover fully. But getting sick also brought home to him that it could easily have been even more disastrous. There was a much nastier virus out there, but he'd managed to dodge The Big One. His sex life didn't slow down after that, but he definitely was a lot more careful. That's why he never stopped reminding Justin that he should be careful, too. To be safe. Always.
Brian kissed Justin on the top of his head. His hair felt like silk against his dry lips.
"I want you to come home," said Justin, shutting his eyes.
"So do I," said Brian. He pulled the thin hospital blanket up around them. "More than anything. But for now, let's see if both of us can get some sleep."
Pittsburgh, November 2005
Justin felt himself being nudged.
He opened up his eyes and saw a strange dark face leaning close.
"Wha...?" Justin gaped. "What's going on?"
"It's almost time for me to go off my shift," Ray whispered. "Get yourself up and I'll make sure no one sees you. But you had better move your ass! And I mean now!"
Justin felt Brian shift next to him. "It's okay. Ray's my buddy."
"Yeah, until I get fired for letting your friend stay in here all night." Ray glanced around. "I'll be back in a minute. But you better be ready when I do. You hear, son?"
Justin nodded. "I hear."
Ray nodded back and left the room.
Justin slipped out of the narrow bed and searched for his shoes on the floor.
"Thanks for stopping by," Brian smirked. "Come again soon!"
"Shut up!" Justin sat on the edge of the bed and put on his shoes. "You're coming home today."
"Why, Doctor Taylor, I didn't know you'd been assigned to my case." Brian raised an eyebrow.
"See? I know you're feeling better," said Justin. "Because you're being a dick."
Brian made a little bow. "Glad to uphold my sterling reputation as a smart-ass."
He watched as Justin straightened his rumpled clothing and ran his fingers through his tangled hair. "I'm a fucking mess!" Justin griped. "And I stink, too."
"You do?" Brian said. "Come over here and let me smell you. And lick you, too!"
Justin snorted. "Now I'm positive that you're feeling better!"
Ray poked his head in the door of the room. "Come on!"
"Bye, Brian." Justin leaned over and kissed him. "I'll be back later to bring you home."
"I said move your ass!" Ray urged.
"Bye, bye, Sunshine," Brian waved.
The dim hallway was empty and the elevator open. Ray pushed Justin inside and then stepped in next to him. "I'm making sure you go out that front door and don't come sneaking back up the stairs!" The door closed the elevator went down.
"I won't," Justin promised. "I hope you don't get into trouble."
Ray shook his head. "You go home and get some rest, son. Even if they decide to release your boy, they won't do it until almost noon. The doc has to see him and they got papers to sign and all that. You come back around 11:00 -- but not before then."
The door opened onto the lobby and Justin got out. "I appreciate this. You don't know how much."
"I take care of my patients," Ray said simply. "And you -- take a shower when you get home, son. You reek!"
Justin laughed. "Thanks for the advice, Ray."
The elevator door closed.
Justin walked out of Allegheny General just as the sun was beginning to rise.
At exactly 11:00 a.m. on Monday morning, having gotten a few hours of sleep, showered, shaved, and wearing clean clothes, Justin strode into Brian's hospital room.
Brian was standing next to the bed in the sweats he'd gone to the hospital in. He was no longer hooked up to the IV pole. And he was glowering as only Brian Kinney could glower.
"Did you bring me some clothes?" were the first words out of his mouth. "I can't walk out of here in these filthy rags!"
"Good morning to you, too," Justin smiled sweetly. That was the only way to react to Brian's grouchiness. "And yes -- I brought you something else to wear. And your razor, too."
"Thank God!" Brian softened. "They won't let you take a shower in this fucking place!"
Justin hoisted a leather Gucci carry-all onto the bed and dumped out the contents. "Your shaving kit. Brush and comb. Toothbrush and toothpaste. Deodorant. 501's. Underwear. Socks. And a sweater."
Brian grabbed the brown sweater out of Justin's hands and checked the label. "Geoffrey Beane? You brought me a fucking Geoffrey Beane sweater? What did you do? Dig it up from the bottom of my closet?"
"I took it out of your dresser drawer, Brian," Justin said calmly. "Next time I'll bring a Prada suit for you to wear on the way home from the hospital."
"There won't be a next time!" Brian vowed. "I'm never coming to a hospital again as long as I fucking live!"
Brian gathered up the toiletries and stomped into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Justin heard water running and the unmistakable sounds of Brian's morning routine.
The roommate seemed to be gone. Justin peered around the white curtain. The other bed was empty. He'd never even known the man's name or why he was in the hospital.
"Where's Mr. Kinney?" A woman in a dark orange polyester suit bounced through the door. She set a folder and a ballpoint pen on the bedside table.
"He's in the bathroom, cleaning up."
"Well, he needs to sign these papers," she chirped. "I guess I can leave them here and come back in a few minutes. Tell him to read them over carefully before he signs them." And then she was gone.
Brian emerged from the bathroom looking much like his old self. He had taken off the sweat shirt and his chest was damp where he'd washed up. He'd also shaved and run a comb through his hair. In other words, he looked sexy and perfect. "When I get home I'm taking a shower for a fucking hour to wash the stink of this place off me!"
"A lady came by. She wants you to sign these papers." Justin pointed to the folder.
Brian shrugged. Then he picked up the pen and signed.
"Aren't you going to read them first?" Justin asked.
"What for? They won't let me leave until I sign, so I signed." Brian flipped the folder shut. Then he stripped off his rumpled sweatpants and tossed them on the bed. His body was pale and he looked thinner than usual, but otherwise unscathed from his ordeal. "Give me my jeans. Fuck the underwear."
Justin grinned as he handed them over. "What if that lady or one of the nurses comes in and sees you standing here naked?"
He cocked his head. "I'll make her day. Or his!"
Brian had just finished dressing when the woman in orange returned. "We need Dr. Banerjee's approval before we can release you, Mr. Kinney."
"He was here to see me this morning and said it was okay," said Brian. "Can't we just leave?"
"The doctor has to sign off on your papers. And give you your follow-up instructions. Sorry," the woman said before she marched out.
"Fucking bureaucracy!" Brian huffed. "We should just take a hike. I'm sick of this place! And fucking sick of being sick!"
"I know you are. So am I." Justin touched Brian's arm. "Sit down and relax. We're not in any hurry."
"Don't you have a class today?" Brian questioned.
"Thanksgiving Break," Justin reminded him.
"Oh." Brian sat back down on the bed. "I'm sorry, brat. I don't mean to be such a fucking bitch, but I want to get out of this place." He smiled slyly at Justin. "Were you really here last night? Or did I dream it?"
"Maybe you have very realistic dreams," Justin smiled back.
"Not realistic enough," Brian confessed. "Or they really would have thrown us out of here last night!"
They waited another 45 minutes before Dr. Banerjee finally came into the room. "All your tests came back negative, Brian. But I want you to see your primary physician in two weeks. You may not have an ulcer -- yet! -- but your blood pressure is elevated and you seem to be under very much stress. Your gastroenteritis may have been brought on by a virus, but it was exacerbated by too much drinking -- and too much tension, as well."
"Tell me something I don't already know!" Brian replied in a subdued voice.
"You need to reduce the level of stress in your life. Relieve your anxiety. Otherwise, you truly are at risk for a ulcer or some other stress-related illness." Dr. Banerjee signed the release papers and handed the folder back to Brian. "Do you have any hobbies?"
"Excuse me?" Brian blinked, not certain he heard right. "Did you say hobbies?"
"Yes," said the doctor. "A hobby. Something that relaxes you."
"You mean like... bird-watching? Or collecting stamps?" Brian looked at Justin, who was stifling a laugh. "Or bowling?"
"If you like," said Dr. Banerjee. "Something to occupy your time and reduce your high level of stress. Something you enjoy doing."
"I already have a hobby like that," said Brian. "In fact, he's sitting right here in this room!"
The doctor glanced at Justin and then back at his patient. "Yes, healthy sexual activity is important, Brian. But perhaps you need something a bit more -- er -- cerebral. Something to alleviate your anxiety when your partner is not available."
Yeah, right, Brian thought, rolling his eyes. Maybe I'll take up knitting. Or origami. "Whatever the fuck you say, Doc."
"Thank you, Dr. Banerjee," Justin interjected. "We'll think of something for him to do."
The resident shook both their hands. "Good luck, Brian. And follow that diet I gave you for the next few weeks. Remember: no spicy foods, no alcohol, and no smoking!"
"Of course, Doc," Brian nodded. He could hardly wait to get into Jeep and light up his first cigarette in days. And have a good stiff belt when he got home. A double.
"I'll make sure he follows it," Justin said firmly. "No exceptions!"
"Good," said Dr. Banerjee. Then he went to call the attendant to bring the wheelchair that would take Brian downstairs.
"Traitor," Brian muttered under his breath.
But Justin was unrattled. "That's what I'm here for, Brian. To keep you in line!"
"I knew having you move in with me was a fucking mistake!" Brian moaned.
"Keep telling yourself that," Justin declared. He put his hand out and touched his lover's arm. "Because I'm not going anywhere."
"I know," Brian said.
And he really did know. That was the wonder of it.
©Gaedhal, March 2007.
Posted November 5, 2007.