Three minutes left. The big red numerals still glowed despite the gray-blue frost that leaked into the room around the cheap plastic Levolor-look-alike miniblinds Michael had gotten for next to nothing with his employee discount at the Big Q store. He had three minutes. Then the alarm would go off and it would all start again. He closed his eyes and debated whether to wait for the alarm, or turn it off and get up, or just turn it off and try for a few extra minutes.
"The party," he sighed as he remembered. He'd have to get up; too much to do to start the day behind. If he started out fifteen minutes behind schedule, the whole day would run fifteen minutes behind schedule, and there would be too many people jamming his minuscule apartment at eightish to spare fifteen minutes. He peeked.
He still had two minutes. He squeezed his eyes shut and ground his morning erection into the pillow he'd wrapped his legs around. He pulled it to his chest and pretended he wasn't alone in the bed. The thought made him sad.
"It's just another day without you," the DJ's voice cut into the blue darkness of Michael's bedroom from the speaker in the radio alarm. "The latest from Jon Secada here at BZZ 93.7 FM just our way of saying good morning, Pittsburgh, it's seven o'clock."
"Morning alone," Jon sang into the hazy blue room. Michael put the pillow over his head as much to dry the tears suddenly on his face as to block out the way-too-apropos sound track that was beginning his day.
"I breathe a little faster, every time we're together," Mr. Secada managed to interject into Michael's morning before Michael hit the snooze button and shut him off.
He put his feet on the cool wooden floor and his face in his hands. He yawned violently and ruffled his hair ferociously as if to force the sleep from his body.
"Great," Michael sighed, and fell back onto the bed, his feet still on the floor. "I'll be singing that in my head all day now," he said out loud in an effort to dispel the haunting lyric from the room.
"Don't want to hold on to never, I'm not that strong," Jon sang in his head.
7:02. It had all started again.
"Oh God, oh God, oh gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa..." The strangled cry trailed off as Brian put a pillow over the face of the guy who was doing the screaming. It was too early, and the guy's bedroom technique had mainly consisted of reciting the dialogue from Powertool. I gotta find another place to crash tonight, Brian thought, his mind wandering as he continued to plow the porn star wannabe moaning into the pillow beneath him.
Brian's dorm privileges had ended three weeks earlier following graduation, and he had been in no mood to return to the arms of the family he had neither seen nor spoken to since the sophomore-year Christmas-tree incident. He smiled thinking about the looks of horror on the faces of those present when the tree went up like a torch as Brian touched it with the tip of the flame from his Zippo.
His father had been in a drunken rage, and after smashing all the still-wrapped presents, he had shoved his son into the tree, nearly toppling it, so that he could slap his wife, a frequent enough holiday occurrence to be a Kinney Christmas Eve tradition. Brian had felt foolish saving the tree from falling as the blow landed on his mother's left cheek and knocked her backward into her favorite chair.
"I know you don't appreciate it, you little bastard," Brian's father had said, gesturing grandly, raising his half-filled glass of whiskey. "There may be no presents under the tree for you today, you ungrateful son of a bitch," he went on, turning to direct the word bitch directly at Brian's mother. "But I've worked all my life so that someday, someday, all this will be yours."
Setting fire to the Christmas tree had seemed the only possible response to that, it being his house and all. He lit the tree and then a cigarette and headed for the door.
"Brian, please don't smoke in the house," his mother had said, the last words any member of his family had spoken to him, though some colorful phrases did follow the blazing tree thrown out the front window onto the lawn as Brian made his way to his muscley little Nova wedged into the heap of snowplow leavings at the curb.
"What's so funny?" asked Wannabe, making Brian aware that he was not only laughing out loud but that he'd stopped what he'd been doing.
"Christmas," Brian snarled, slamming himself back into Wannabe and eliciting yet another porn star quote. "Better -- watch -- out -- Santa's -- coming," Brian grunted, punctuating each word with another thrust as he tried in vain to fuck the guy hard enough to get him to shut up or ask Brian to stop, neither of which happened.
"Oh, fuck me, yeah, that's it. I love that big cock," Wannabe aspirated, trying to catch his own reflection in a nearby mirror.
Brian began to run through the names or, in some cases, just the faces of possible new temporary hosts to distract himself from the constant inane stream of obscenity. His mind drifted. Thoughts of staying at Michael's reminded him of Michael's face at graduation.
Brian had refused to participate in the commencement ceremony at Carnegie Mellon in part because he was afraid that his family would find out and attend. Michael and his mom had been disappointed but understanding when Brian had informed them of his decision. "I've gotten what I wanted and so have they. I played soccer on that field for them for four years, and now I can put their name and the words cum laude on my résumé. I can't see putting on a silk gown that doesn't fit well enough to show off my body and standing in line for two hours to pick up an empty leather folder, 'cause they mail you the diploma, you know? Why is it that people always need a ceremony to prove what they already know?"
That's what he'd said was his reason anyway.
And he'd completely fallen for it when Michael had asked to meet him at Gesling Stadium where the commencement had taken place several days before. Michael, his mom, and his uncle Vic were waiting for Brian on the empty field with a boom box blaring "Pomp and Circumstance" and a diploma cut in the shape of a sheepskin that they'd made themselves proclaiming that they the undersigned, Deb, Vic, and Michael, were "hereby officially way fucking impressed."
That had been all that really mattered; they were the family that counted. He remembered the pride on Michael's face and the celebratory kiss they'd shared unabashedly in the middle of the soccer pitch where Brian had been the star for four solid years.
He found himself kissing Wannabe with an intensity that surprised them both and which, Brian was thankful, had finally gotten the guy to shut up. He was hot, but he was really only a means to an end -- more so than usual. Brian had spent the two weeks following his dorm departure with Michael, Deb, and Vic at their summer rental on Lake Harmony in the Poconos. After that he'd not really had any place to go. He could have stayed at either Novotny's -- Michael's apartment or Deb's house -- and both had offered, but their old friend Emmett was on the way to stay with Michael, and Vic had been living with Deb since his HIV had turned south two and a half years earlier. Both still had room for him, but Brian had grown accustomed to coming and going when and with whom he chose and was not ready to live with anyone. For that reason, he'd avoided the roommate question with Michael as well as several others from school. So, he'd dropped his stuff at Michael's and proceeded to do what he'd have been doing anyway.
"Yes, yes, yes," Wannabe said, sounding for all the world like Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in the deli in When Harry Met Sally. Did he have any original material? Brian wondered as he rolled off.
"What about you?" Wannabe asked. "You didn't finish."
"Oh, yes, I did," Brian said, reaching for the cigarette he'd wanted since he'd first been awakened by Wannabe's persistent but uninspired blow job.
"Oh, come on," Wannabe began, grabbing for the prize and licking a nearby nipple.
The phone rang. They exchanged a look and Brian took the opportunity to light his cigarette. Wannabe sighed wistfully, then turned to get the phone. Brian exhaled a cloud of smoke and a sigh of relief and mentally began to narrow his list of possible new residences.
"It's for you," Wannabe said, thrusting the phone irritably at Brian.
"Hello?" Brian asked.
"Brian, it's Michael."
"Michael," Brian said, visibly relaxing. The smile that spread across his face accomplished what Brian had been trying to achieve all morning. Wannabe shut up and fucked off, flouncing into the bathroom, closing the door a little harder than necessary. Brian heard the shower come on.
"Listen, Brian," Michael said, his voice pinched in a way that Brian knew meant he had the phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder while doing three other things. "I need a favor."
"Name it," Brian said.
"Could you pick up Uncle Vic for Emmett's welcome-home party tonight?"
"Isn't he coming with Deb?" Brian asked, idly drying himself with a corner of the sheet.
"She's got a PFLAG committee thing and he's in vocational therapy at the center. I'd do it but I've only got three hours from the minute I get off at the Q to hit the bakery, get the hot stuff in the oven, lay out the food, and get a cab out to meet Em at the airport. I'll probably still be wearing my work smock and name tag as it is."
"Well, I love a man in uniform, but how about if I pick up Vic and Emmett?" Brian said, blowing smoke at the ceiling as he lay back on the strange bed.
"That'd be great but the airport -- "
"I don't have anything after the interview at Inverness/Muir and I have a car," Brian interrupted.
"Right." Michael's voice lit up. "The apprenticeship. That's today? Good luck. Anything I can do to help?"
"Paid internship," Brian corrected. "Thanks, I've got it covered. Leave the door open, would you? I've got to stop by your place -- I need my suit."
"It's in the closet in the little hall behind the Captain Astro cutout," Michael said, tossing hot toast onto a plate and licking a scorched fingertip. "I don't know why you don't just stay here."
"Because I'd never leave," Brian said.
"Find the right lines, to make you stay forever," Jon Secada sang in Michael's head during the longish pause that followed.
"You stayed here half the time while you were still in school," Michael said quietly as much to shut Jon off as to make his case again with Brian.
"That's different," Brian said. "It was just a dorm room, but I had a place to go then."
"So, you could stay here if you had a place of your own?" Michael asked with a snort of laughter as he poured his coffee.
"Count on it," Brian said, smiling at the welcome and familiar laugh.
"When do we start apartment shopping?"
"Right after I land this job," Brian said.
"This weekend then."
"It's a plan."
"I gotta eat breakfast," Michael said. "I'll write out the time and address for Vic's class and Emmett's plane and leave them on the fridge for you."
"Perfect. Big wet one."
"I want mine in person," Michael said primly.
"Later then," Brian said, hanging up.
"How's your boyfriend?" Wannabe asked, taking a playful cut at Brian with the wet towel he'd had around his waist. The tip of the rat tail snapped harmlessly in the air too near Brian's face to be truly playful. Brian put his cigarette out in a plant on the nightstand.
They exchanged a look.
"I've got to go to work," Wannabe stated by way of indicating that it was time for Brian to leave. "What are you going to do all day?"
"Job interview," Brian said, peeling back the sheets and looking idly around for his clothes.
"The Art Department at Pitt is hiring life models if you're looking," Wannabe suggested, toweling his hair so vigorously that his cock flopped around crazily. "A friend of mine does it part-time."
"Nude models you mean?" Brian asked, pulling on the underwear he'd only just untangled from the bedclothes.
"Mmmm," Wannabe said, tossing the towel over the back of a chair. "It's actually a state job. Like The Naked Civil Servant."
Brian gave him a blank look.
"Don't they teach anything at college?"
"How to be a nude model apparently," Brian said, pulling on one shoe as he scanned the room for the other.
They finished dressing in relative silence. It was over, like a seventy-two-hour flu. Both knew it. Wannabe cared only in so much as it meant that he'd have to find a new infection. Brian cared not at all.
"Will I see you tonight?" Wannabe asked, making it final.
"Probably not," Brian said. "I've got a party, friends, may be out."
"Something to eat?"
"Meeting a friend for breakfast."
"See you around then."
"You bet," Brian said, pulling his backpack over his shoulder and making for the door.
Lindsay paused at the gallery window as she made her way up Liberty Avenue to the diner. She knew the artist. A woman just her age who'd skipped college to get a head start on her "real" work. Assemblage -- high-concept collage. It was crap, Lindsay thought to herself with a rueful smile. Just a lot of wood scraps and typeface glued together and daubed with acrylic paint to evoke clichés.
"She any good?" Brian asked, suddenly behind her.
Lindsay's focus shifted and she saw instead of the trivial art her reflection in the plate-glass window of the gallery and Brian's where he stood looking over her shoulder.
"Like Louise Nevelson with no talent. But her work is in a gallery."
She smoothed her hair unconsciously and turned to move toward the diner and away from the reminder that not only was her work not hanging in a gallery, but that she'd devoted the two years since graduation to working as an itinerant elementary-school art teacher.
"Bitter party of one," Brian teased, following her.
"You smell like your last trick," Lindsay said.
"So do you," Brian laughed, trotting playfully around her. "And Rebecca dumped you two years ago."
"Did you come specifically to ruin my day?" Lindsay demanded, getting a little heated.
"I think you beat me to it," Brian continued, teasing her.
Lindsay smiled despite herself and took a playful cut at Brian, who caught her hand and turned it into a hug. "Good morning, grouchy."
"Morning, slut," Lindsay said.
"So, what brought on this mood?" Brian asked, making to open the diner door for her. "The Miss No Talent installation at the Who Cares? gallery in the heart of beautiful downtown Palookaville?"
"A little yeah."
"Hey, kids," Deb called, looking up from her side work. "Grab a seat; I'll be right with you. Coffee?"
"At least," Lindsay sighed, throwing herself into the nearest booth.
"So, what's the deal?"
"I don't know what you're -- "
"What did Mr. and Mrs. Peterson do this time?"
Lindsay smiled sadly more for Brian's insight than the answer to his question.
"Lynette is getting married and Mom and Dad are footing the bill for a big wedding, a reception, and the honeymoon."
"Those bastards," Brian said playfully. "Wait a minute, not the guy I..." Brian trailed off with an expressive hand gesture.
"The one you fucked on the kitchen counter at my parents' beach house, that New Year's? The same."
"She's marrying him?" Brian asked, incredulous.
"Where are they going on their honeymoon? Da Nile?"
Lindsay laughed again despite her determination to be in a bad mood. When Brian wasn't the cause of her mood, he could always be counted on to pick up her spirits. Their brief and inadvertent affair in college had blossomed into a strange friendship that bore even stranger fruit. He'd become her gay mentor in as much as that was possible. Setting her up for her first girl sex and then sponsoring her as she came out. He was even there to hold her hand as she inadvertently came out to her parents and to cheer her up in his own unique way when she'd broken up with her first lady love, Rebecca Tucci. He could be quite nice when he wasn't being a total bastard.
"Straight people are so weird," Brian muttered, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Watch it, buster," Deb said, giving him a playful pop on the back of the head as she leaned in to pour their coffee. "There wouldn't be any new gay boys for you to boink if it weren't for us weird old straight people."
"And for that I'm truly grateful," Brian said, rubbing his head. "But Lindsay's sister is marrying one of my former boinkees, and her good old mumsy and dadsy are underwriting the wedding, reception, and honeymoon cruise down Da Nile while pleading poverty when it comes to helping Linds with the rent money so she can get under way as an artist. Which they had previously promised to do. A promise they forgot as soon as they found out she prefers cleaning rugs to polishing knobs."
Lindsay cuffed him mildly.
"God, straight people really are weird," Deb said, sitting beside Lindsay and putting a reassuring arm around her. "Cheer up, hon. Not all parents feel that way and lots come around over time. My PFLAG group has some former hard cases who march with us every year in the Pride Parade."
"Thanks, Deb," Lindsay said with a small, sad smile.
"You need some French toast," Deb declared, pounding the table and chattering the cups and setups.
"Oh, I don't think so," Lindsay began, trying to wave off the big meal. "I think just some Special K and skim -- "
"It's on me and you're having it," Deb said, rising.
"But, Deb, I'm trying to -- "
"Listen to your mom," Deb said with a wink. "I know what's good for you."
"There's no point in arguing," Brian said. "What am I having, Mother Novotny?"
"Cornflakes, whole milk, bananas, and a short stack," Deb said, writing it down as she spoke.
"Carbo-loading. You'll need the extra energy for your big interview today." Deb smirked.
"You remembered," Brian said, tugging Deb down to sit on his knee.
"It must have been that ad in the paper or maybe the fact that you talked about it the whole time we were at Lake Harmony," she said, pinching his face in one hand and giving him fish lips, which she kissed. "Good luck."
"Thanks." Brian grinned, releasing her, trying not to let on how much it meant.
"I'll be back in a jiffy," Deb said, sailing back toward the kitchen, topping off coffees along the way.
"I feel like such a big baby." Lindsay frowned. "I'm jealous of Lynette. I'd planned to get married all my life and now it's never going to happen. And I don't mind the working. I just feel like maybe I'd have done things differently if I'd known they weren't going to be there for me. I can hardly make ends meet as it is, let alone having the extra time for my work."
"Well, I heard about a great part-time job this morning," Brian said with an evil grin. "Working in the Art Department at Pitt."
"Michael Novotny," the intercom echoed through the store, and startled Michael back to reality. "Michael Novotny, call the operator." Michael stuffed his pricing gun into the pocket of the blue, polished cotton Big Q flak jacket he wore and crossed the few feet of harshly lit terrazzo to pick up the wall phone, mounted on the poorly disguised steel girder that was also holding up the roof. There were no dials on the floor phones, and it began ringing the switchboard as soon as he picked it up.
"This is Michael," he said when the store operator picked up.
"Oh, hey, Michael," the operator said, recognizing. "There's a supplier calling about the big Kotex order? He specifically asked for you."
"Oh, he did, did he?" Michael said suspiciously. "Well, then, I'd better talk to him about it, hadn't I?"
"Well, duh," the operator said, switching the call.
"Allo?" the voice crackled through in a stilted French accent. "Is zis zee beeg Q in need of zee Kotex Grand Deluxe?"
"This is Michael Novotny. Can I help you?"
"Are you zee beeg Q who needs zee beeg Kotex?"
"I work at the Big Q." Michael nodded, pricing the back of his hand idly with the pricing gun.
"Oh, zis beeg Q is a place?" the caller guffawed. "I thought you were just having a really bad day because your ami, how you say, friend Emmett, she was coming to visit and stay with you."
"No." Michael smiled. "He's not coming until next week and by then I can be in Canada or New Jersey even."
"Oh my God, Michael, I'm already at the airport in L.A.," Emmett wailed. "Is it next week?"
"What happened to your accent?"
"Cut it out, Michael, I'm serious. One time back in Mississippi I showed up in drag at the Royal Ambassador's hall for a friend's wedding, but I came on the wrong night and spent the most excruciating evening at a funeral for a Baptist minister who'd accidentally drowned in this bizarre baptism accident. It was tragic. Though I did meet that cute deacon who took me to dinner a couple of times."
"A baptism accident?" Michael found this more dubious than the French accent.
"Michael," Emmett shrieked. "Don't change the subject."
"But I didn't change the -- " Michael began, but thought better of it and cut himself off. "Sorry. No, you're right on time. Tonight's the night. All Pittsburgh is aflutter with nervous excitement in anticipation of your return."
"Whew," Emmett sighed. "That's a relief. I'm sorry to schiz out on you but it's been quite a week what with getting the new line delivered and preparing for the fall show. It's the dead of summer and I'm already planning what people will be wearing in winter in a city where there are no seasons at all. I don't know what time it is anymore."
"It's June," Michael said flatly. "Still."
"Bridal season," Emmett moaned. "Don't get me started."
"I'll try not to," Michael said, trying not to sound as edgy as the conversation was making him feel. He was glad for Emmett. He'd finished his associate's degree in fashion merchandising at Allegheny and parlayed it into a job with In Gear, one of the hottest and gayest clothing lines since International Male applied for a passport. There were catalogs as well as showrooms, and the company was growing as fast as Gap and taking Emmett with them. From a small job with promotional in-store merchandising, Emmett had rocketed into a position in charge of fashion styling for all In Gear promotions. A fact Emmett never missed an opportunity to work into the conversation. And Michael was glad for him. Most of the time. When he didn't think about it.
"So, you called me, missy, I'm just returning," Emmett said with a gaspy little laugh that sounded more like he was fighting for breath than laughing.
"Oh, right," Michael said. "I'm getting as bad as you. It must be the suntan-lotion display I set up earlier throwing me off where I really am."
Emmett made the gasping sound again.
"Brian and Uncle Vic are picking you up at the airport," Michael said, fighting off the negative thoughts that the pretentious little laugh evoked. "Just so you know who to look for. I have to work right up until the last minute, so I'll meet you at the house."
"Oh, honey, I can just take a cab. I don't want to be any trouble."
"It's no trouble," Michael cut him off. "Especially since Brian is free after his interview today and he's picking up Uncle Vic anyway."
"How is he doing?"
"Brian's great, cum laude from Carnegie Mellon," Michael said ruefully.
"No, I meant your uncle."
"Uncle Vic's fine. I mean, he's too thin and frail. But he's still fighting."
"Is he well enough that your mom could help you get back to school?"
"Listen, Emmett, I really do have to get back to the sales floor; it's kind of busy here," Michael said, looking around at the vast and largely abandoned store. "We'll catch up tonight."
"I'm looking forward to it," Emmett said with a sigh of relief. "See you for cocktails."
"The gimlets are already chilled," Michael said.
"Tah." Emmett was gone.
Michael held the receiver for a minute and tried to breathe. More and more lately he was having the feeling that everyone around him was passing him by at high speed. He loved his uncle Vic and his mom, and so he had been more than willing to quit school after only a year and a half to help out, which turned out to be mostly just supporting himself. He was living on his own in his own place, but despite all his hard work the burdens and reasons not to go back to school seemed to grow each year, rather than lighten. He'd completely stopped writing more than a year prior, and the dream seemed only that, fleeting and ephemeral when it had seemed within his grasp only two and half years before.
"Trying to find exactly what I miss," the Jon Secada song came back to him.
"Michael? Hello?" the operator said, coming back on the line, chasing the song away and waking Michael from his daymare. "Are you still there?"
"Oh, sorry," Michael managed.
"What do you need, Michael? An outside line?"
Michael took a minute to survey the apartment. He'd come to love the place even though he'd only moved in because it was such a great deal so he could still give Deb a big chunk of his income and get the breathing room from her that he needed. He didn't know it then and he hadn't realized it at the time he'd signed the lease just after his twentieth birthday, but he'd still be living under the same roof when he turned thirty.
Everything looked great. The candles were lit. The discs were shuffling a nice mix of house favorites, and everything but the hot food was laid out. He reached to straighten the In Gear catalog he'd worked into the centerpiece along with a couple of pairs of brightly colored In Gear underwear among the white glads. The place looked great. He wrapped his arms around himself and held on tightly, imagining that someone was behind him, with him, that he was not there alone. He could almost see that someone's reflection in the window, mirrored against the night outside.
"Michael," Deb called, easing the door to Michael's apartment open a crack. "Are you here?"
"Yeah, Ma, I'm right here," Michael said, looking back into the room.
"How are you, sweetie?" she asked, steaming in and mauling him. "The place looks great. Oh, there are underwear in the flower arrangement. Fabulous."
"It's In Gear, in Emmett's honor," Michael said, fussing with the arrangement.
"Em Gear," Deb said with a little laugh. "I brought some of those lemon bars he loves."
"Great, thanks, Ma." Michael took the white paper bag from her. "Fix yourself something to drink; I set up the bar on the console behind the couch."
"Thanks, hon." Deb moved to take him up on it. "What can I fix you?"
"Nothing now," Michael said, banging around in the cabinet to try to find a nice dish that wasn't already in use. "I'll get something in a minute. Thanks though."
"You have to have something to toast me with," Deb said, popping a beer. "We're celebrating. You are in the company of a PFLAG committee chairperson."
"Chairperson?" Michael said solemnly, emerging from the cabinet under the sink with a metal Rolling Rock beer tray Brian had given him to clean pot on when they rolled joints. "Good luck."
"Aren't you happy for me?" Deb demanded.
"I am, and I am not being on your committee," Michael said in one breath.
"And why not?" Deb slumped into one of the mismatched dining chairs Michael had lined up opposite the couch for extra seating.
"I'm busy that night," Michael said, wiping the tray down.
"You don't even know what night it is," Deb pouted. "You just don't want to have anything to do with my PFLAG group."
"Ma," Michael sighed. "We've been over this before. Everything you guys do is always so public, and I have to work at the Big Q, where, despite the name, they don't exactly welcome Big Qs with open arms. I'm sorry, but I just can't."
"And you'd be so good at decorations," Deb said, trying to tempt him.
"Oh, yeah, you'll have such a tough time rounding up people to help decorate in your line of work," Michael snorted as he arranged the lemon bars on the tray.
"I just thought it would be fun to do together."
"So, what's the event?" Michael asked, not going for it.
"It's called the Red Dress Ball. It's near Halloween and the idea is that everyone who comes to the party has to wear a red dress."
"Yeah, it's gonna be tough getting queens on board to do decorations for that," Michael said with a fake sigh. He added the tray to the table with a self-satisfied little "There. Now I'm ready for that drink."
"Too late," Deb said, taking a pull on her beer.
"Well, we've done guilt and seduction," Michael said, crossing to the bar. "I guess punishment had to be next."
"Oh, Michael," Deb said, giving it up. "I just want you to be as proud to be my gay son as I am that you are my gay son."
"Thanks, Ma," Michael said with a conciliatory smirk.
"Hi, honey, I'm home," Emmett called from the door. "What is all this?"
"Emmett," Deb bellowed, charging him.
"Hi, Deb," Emmett said, nonplussed. "Michael? It looks like there's going to be a party."
"Surprise," Vic and Brian called from the door, bringing up the rear as they struggled up the stairs.
Vic was pushing the wheelchair he should have been riding in. Balanced across the arms was an enormous cake designed to look like the Hollywood sign in the hills above Los Angeles.
"Oh my God, Vic?" Emmett said. "Did you make that?"
"Yep," Vic said. "I'm honing my skills as a chef in classes in my vocational therapy program at the center during my sabbatical from the world of haute cuisine. But the tricky part was hiding it from you in that tiny car."
"It's beautiful," Emmett said again without much enthusiasm. "Michael, can you help me put my bags away?"
"Sure, Em," Michael said. "Where are they?"
"Here you go," Brian said, thrusting the heavy bags he'd been dragging up the stairs onto Michael, who dropped several of them in the transfer. "The rest are in the car."
"The rest?" Michael said, trying not to make a face. "Okay, well, right through here. I put a bed in my old office a while back so Brian could have overnight guests without my having to sleep on the sofa."
"There's a sales pitch." Emmett shuddered as he followed Michael through the archway.
"Here you go," Michael said, more or less dropping the overloaded bags he was struggling with.
"Michael, darling," Emmett said with a retail smile. "You didn't tell me there was going to be a party."
"It's halfway a surprise," Michael explained, unsure of how to respond to Emmett's odd behavior. "We all wanted to celebrate you home. No one's seen you since the big promotion, and I'm not sure how long you'll be here, so I figured this way everyone would get to see you at once."
"Great," Emmett said, still not sounding very pleased, the smile not moving.
"I'm sorry, Em," Michael said, unable to think of anything else. "I thought you'd be pleased."
"Emmett," Deb called. "Come out here. The guests are arriving.
Despite his initial trepidations about the party, once he got rolling, Emmett had an insufferably good time.
"And so I said to her, 'Honey, Cindy Crawford doesn't have a beard that heavy!'" Emmett said, howling at his own wit. "And she said, 'Well, not since he lost all that weight to do Pretty Woman!'"
Michael smiled patiently and effected his escape to the kitchen shielded by a tray of hors d'oeuvres that didn't really need to be freshened. It had been a funny story three tellings earlier that evening, but it was growing old.
"So, Emmett, what celebrities have you met out in Hollywood?" Vic asked, perched in his wheelchair as if on a throne. "And by that I mean, who's gay that we don't know about?"
"Well, there's only one celebrity I know about for sure," Emmett said, putting a hand over his mouth.
"From personal experience?" someone asked. The laughter mercifully covered his answer as Michael began trading warm for tepid chicken-asparagus tarts. He felt almost invisible, like a cater waiter at his own party. Most of the guests were Emmett's friends from the small world of Pittsburgh fashion and from the black book of Emmett's mentor, the notorious drag queen Godiva, whose belated arrival promised to be the event of the evening.
"Darling, you'll be faaaaaaaaaaaaabulous," Deb's voice rose above the din as did her very vocal Italian hands. She was holding forth about the Red Dress Ball and gathering recruits from among Emmett's fashion schoolmates to help out as well as to attend modeling their own original creations. She was aided and abetted by Brian, drawing them into Deb's evil plan like Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer. Michael had barely been able to get two words out of him about the interview.
"Lindsay," Brian called, spotting her sneaking in the door. "Over here."
She closed the door and squeezed through the crowded apartment as Brian squeezed to meet her midway, just outside the kitchen.
"So, how was the interview?" she said, giving him a little hug and taking his drink to get a sip. This familiar gesture made Michael's blood run green, and he was not sorry when she began coughing violently.
"Jesus," she gasped as she regained her breath. "What's in that?"
"Everything." Brian smiled. "You want a Shirley Temple?" he went on, reaching into the nearby refrigerator to get her a beer, inadvertently knocking Michael out of the way.
"And a stomach pump," she said hoarsely. "So, are you celebrating?"
"Always," Brian answered with a little grin.
"It went well then?" she prodded, sipping her beer gently as she began to breathe more normally.
"The interview?" Brian shrugged. "It was just a prelim with the HR lady, but it must have gone pretty well."
"What makes you say that?" Lindsay continued the interrogation. It was always like this with Brian, she thought. He'd make you work for every shred of information, and even then it was like salad for dinner: you always wanted more than you got for your trouble.
"Mmmm," Brian went on as if trying to figure out the riddle of the Sphinx. "They had me call in this afternoon, and I've got an appointment with the creative director tomorrow."
"Brian, that's wonderful," Lindsay said, giving him a hug.
Michael was stung that Brian hadn't shared the news with him.
"We'll see," Brian said. "Now on to the important business. There's a dyke over here you've got to meet. She's an industrial designer who came with one of Emmett's gaggle of girlie boys."
"Oh, Brian, give it a rest, will you?"
"Linds," Brian said sotto voce. "We were both still in college when you broke up with Rebecca. It'll grow back together if you don't get a girlfriend soon."
"Brian, gross," Lindsay said, striking him on the shoulder.
"Sorry, I'm not really sure how girl things work." Brian grinned sheepishly.
"That's not how I remember it," Lindsay chuckled nastily.
The hors d'oeuvres tray shattered as it hit the floor.
"You okay?" Brian said, turning to look at Michael, then back to Lindsay. "Did you get any on you?" he asked, guiding her away from the kitchen.
"I'm fine, thanks," Michael said genially as he walked out the door of the apartment unnoticed.
Woody's was never crowded on Tuesdays. It was karaoke night at Pistol and dollar margaritas at Boy Toy. It wasn't that no one was there, but the yuppies, the twinkies, and their cream-filling fans were otherwise occupied and so you got a truer Woody's crowd on Tuesdays.
That Tuesday was no exception. Michael sipped his light beer and regarded the sparse room's reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He liked Woody's. It was his Cheers bar. He knew the crowd. His mom and his uncle were regulars as were most of his friends. It was between the diner and Babylon and so it made a perfect stopping-off place between the two. You couldn't be early for Babylon without looking desperate, and Woody's was close enough to allow for a perfectly timed entrance; it was the greenroom for some. And for plenty of others, it's more established older crowd, it was a final destination. With shows on the weekends, Godiva worked as both the bouncer and an entertainer, depending on which drag she wore.
"It'd never be the same, if you're not here. How can you stay away so long," Jon Secada's voice pumped out of the speakers.
Michael put his face on the bar. Isn't this where I came in? he thought as he tapped his forehead lightly on the bar ledge.
"That's attractive," a familiar voice said.
"Is that working for you, Mikey?" another friendly voice said.
Michael looked up. "Emmett? Brian? What are you guys doing here? The party..."
"It's at your house, dude," Emmett pointed out.
"We didn't invite all those people." Brian shrugged, signaling the bartender.
"Yeah, we only came to see you," Emmett said, sliding onto the stool beside Michael. "So, once you left, we figured there was no reason to be at the party."
"But we don't want to cramp your style," Brian said, pointing to Michael's beer and writing on his palm. "I mean, pounding your face on the bar looked pretty hot." The bartender nodded at Brian and gave him the thumbs-up as he caught the gesture and added Michael's beer to Brian's tab.
"I'm sure it was just a matter of time before Mr. Right came running across the room to get some of that," Emmett giggled.
"Wait a minute," Brian said, holding up a hand to his ear. "I think I, yes, I do, it's our song, Mikey." He grabbed one of Michael's arms and Emmett grabbed the other as the two dragged him out of the bar.
"But my beer," Michael protested. "I haven't paid..."
"Your money's no good here, Michael." The bartender grinned as he waved at the three. "Good to see you, Em. Sorry I missed the party."
It's just like old times, Michael thought with a grin as he leaned against the glowing neon backlit bar at Babylon flanked by his most constant companions. It had been a while since Emmett had been a part of the posse, but judging from the fixed look on Brian's face, one of the reasons Michael missed Emmett the most was just about to happen.
"I'll see you guys in a few minutes," Brian said, knocking back the last of his drink. "I think I see someone I don't know yet."
He plowed onto the dance floor with the focus and certainty that made him Brian Kinney, Big Fish, Pittsburgh, PA.
Emmett laughed. "Some things never change."
"More like nothing."
"Okay, Miss Crawford, what's the arthropod in your posterior?" Emmett demanded, turning Michael to face him. "And so help me, if you say nothing, I'll fill your closets with wire hangers."
"No, not that," Michael said, making a cross with his two index fingers and thrusting them at Emmett.
"Seriously," Emmett said, grabbing the two fingers and bending them back toward Michael, not enough to hurt but enough to get his attention. "What's the deal, Lucille?"
"That's Miss Leseur to you," Michael said, dusting himself off. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to wear my heart on my sleeve. It's just been one of those days I guess."
"Nice try, very convincing, not buying it," Emmett said, stacking arms and shaking his head. "You've sounded like a Cher ballad every time we've talked for months, dude."
"Well, you've sounded like Mary Hart at a Hollywood premiere," Michael said. "I mean I'm glad for you. And I'm glad for Brian. And I'm doing my best to be glad for Mom and to help out with Uncle Vic. But I'm not very glad about me."
Emmett regarded Michael a moment before putting his arms around him. He rocked Michael back and forth for a minute before Michael realized that Emmett was crying.
"Jeez, Em," Michael sighed, holding Emmett at arm's length when he realized. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it. I really am glad for you. It just reminds me that I haven't done much with my life."
"No, it's not that," Emmett managed, laughing a little even though he was still crying. "It's me who should apologize. I try to do the right thing and get the wrong result every time. All that stuff about L.A.? Bullshit, all of it. I made it up. Well, not that part about the straight movie star at the bathhouse, but most of the rest of it, because I didn't want you to feel bad. I worked at the In Gear store for a few months doing window displays, and then when I wouldn't sleep with the troll manager, I got canned. Well, that and the spandex snafu. If he'd only been cute, but darned my heart. Anyway, I've been shelving tapes at Video West for a year and a half and making up good news for you and Godiva. I finally couldn't take it anymore so I came home -- well, here, anyway, I think it's too late to go back to Mississippi. I'm really glad I have a place that feels like home. Thank you, Michael."
"God, Emmett," Michael said finally. He felt enormous relief though he'd never admit it. "You made the whole thing up?"
"Well, they did hire me and put me into their training program." Emmett shrugged. "But that apparently consisted of blowing senior management. And while I do have some experience and genuine skill in that area, fashion is in my blood. Well, that and a fair amount of lime juice. Waiter, could I get another gimlet?"
"So nobody knows?"
"No," Emmett said. "Touch pearls and nobody better find out. I'm only telling you 'cause I can't stand for you to be hurt by lies I only made up to please you."
"So, what are you going to do?" Michael asked, his own troubles temporarily forgotten.
Emmett leaned in with a confidential air, looked both ways, put an arm around Michael's shoulder, and inclined his head right next to Michael's ear. "I have no idea."
Michael lost it. "God, I've missed you," he said, putting an arm around Emmett's shoulder. "I tell you what. One, this will be our secret and I'll take it to the grave with me. Two, you can stay at my place until you're back on your feet. My life may be depressing as all hell, but it's stable. And three, I think that we need to get really stinking, throw-up-in-the-cab-on-the-way-home drunk."
"Here's to hurling with old friends," Emmett said, raising his new gimlet and toasting Michael's light beer.
Copyright © 2004 by Showtime Networks Inc.