As soon as Justin could struggle his computer out into the hall, he closed the door behind him. Metal rasping against metal, it slammed with a solid finality that echoed in the empty loft. Well, I thought to myself, thatís that. Win some, lose some.
"Youíre so full of shit, Kinney," the boyís voice startled me, his claim followed by a soccer ball that rolls across the hardwoods and slams into my shin. I look up at a slip of a kid. He has skinned knees that look like two small red apples, baggy soccer shorts, one sock pooled in his shoe, his shaggy blondish-brown hair creeping into his eyes, one of which is blackened like a redfish in a Cajun restaurant. He has an impish face with a few fading freckles and ears like the handles on a sugar bowl. How the hell did he get in here, who is he, and can he read my mind?
"Read your mind?" He retrieves the ball. He smells like grass, the kind you play soccer on, not the kind you smoke. I remember that smell. "I donít have to read your mind, Kinney. Donít you remember me?"
"You look familiar."
"Because Iím you. When you were eight. See?" He turns around, the name KINNEY is spelled out across his narrow back along with a number and his team name, the Wildcats. I was a Wildcat once. I had a shiner like that, too. Lots of them.
"Am I dead or just crazy?"
The kid version of myself shrugs. "I donít know. Maybe itís a dream or something. But youíre full of shit."
"About not caring that Justin left."
"I didnít say I didnít care. I said Ďwin some, lose someí. Actually, I thought Ďwin some, lose someí, I didnít say jack shit. And what does a kid know about Örelationships?"
"You were going to say Ďloveí, but youíre chicken."
Brian didnít like this version of himself very much. No wonder he was always getting smacked. "Love, then. What the fuck do you know about love?"
"I know I never had it," the kid says wistfully. "I know I never felt loved, except by Rags."
Brian winced as he remembered his dog, a raggedy mutt aptly named. "He loved you because you were the one who fed him."
The kid straddles the chaise with his spindly legs, and bounces the soccer ball on the floor in a steady rhythm. "Bullshit. He loved me because he loved me. He trusted me to do the right thing and he comforted me when I was sad. Rags was my friend."
"Until he ended up decorating the front bumper of a 1972 Chevy Malibu. I remember that day."
The boy throws the ball at him and Brian deflects it. "It wasnít my fault!"
"Sure it was. You were supposed to tie him up in the backyard when you left for school. But it was raining and you didnít want to go out in the mud and rain, and Rags was in his doghouse, so you left without doing it."
The kid tilts his jutting chin out as his lower lip trembles precariously, showing his pain. "I didnít think he would come out of his house. He hated the rain."
"But he did, didnít he? When he heard your voice as you walked to the school bus, he came out and he tried to follow you and he got hit crossing the street. Remember that sound? That thump and the squeal he made?"
"Shut up!" The boy-Brian pounds an impotent fist against the leather tufting on the chaise. "Itís not my fault!"
"He loved you and he followed you and he paid for it. Because you were too selfish to take the time to tie him up."
"You think you donít even deserve the love of a dog, Kinney. Youíre so pathetic. It was an accident. Shit happens. Little boys donít always foresee the results of what they do or donít do."
"Thatís an excuse. You were careless and someone died. Someone you loved. Remember what Jack said?"
The boy-Brian touches his bruised eye with his fingertips as his fatherís name is mentioned. A tear falls and he brushes it away. "When I got home from school, my father made me go out in the rain and the mud and dig a hole and put Rags in it and cover him up. Rags felt stiff and cold and his neck was all bloody and his bones were broken and he was very heavy. I didnít want to leave him in that hole. In the cold rain. In the dark."
"But you did. You covered him up with dirt and left him there. And what did Jack say to you when you came back in, shivering, wet, crying and covered in mud?"
"He said ĎStop acting like a crybaby girlie and go clean yourself up. Youíre disgusting. You donít deserve a dog. You donít deserve dinner or a warm bed or a roof over your head. Youíre a selfish piece of shit who killed the only friend youíll ever have out of sheer laziness. It should have been you who was hit by that fucking carí."
Hearing the boy-Brian say those long hidden words caused Brian to wince. "So what did you learn about love?"
"Love hurts," the boy-Brian responds in a soft whisper. "And you can only hurt those you love."
"Love is bullshit," a cynical voice comes from the kitchen. I look up as a teenager shuts the refrigerator door and pops the top of a beer. Heís all of fourteen, but tall for his age with a slim elegance that most adolescents can only envy. Already, he is handsome, and he knows it. Acne never darkens his door. His luminous hazel eyes project his keen intelligence and a false maturity. There is something sensual about his lips. They belong on a girl. He is often teased that it looks like heís wearing lipstick, but the coral color is natural and enhances how full his mouth is. He wears tight jeans and an old Led Zeppelin t-shirt.
He takes up the place where the boy-Brian once sat. That apparition is gone now, along with his soccer ball. "People made love up because they were embarrassed about sex."
I stare at my teenaged self and frown. I find my own cockiness annoying. No wonder others did too. But I know that arrogance hides an oozing insecurity. "What do you know?"
"I know I can look at a man in a certain way and heíll do anything for me. I know when my cock gets hard, I can find someone to touch it. They love me. They tell me so."
I laugh. "They donít love you. They never loved you. They wanted to fuck you because you were a pretty boy with a big dick. Because you liked cock. You were a wet dream for those older men you seduced, the coach, the choir director at church, the guy who owned the diner. None of them loved you."
The teenaged-Brian looks up and his faÁade of sophistication falls away to show his vulnerability. "If I was very, very good, they would love me. They would kiss me and tell me they thought I was beautiful and make me feel good."
"Sure, so they could FUCK you! You were looking for Dad in all the wrong places. The only thing you learned was that sex is all there really is. They all left, didnít they? And what did you have after they were gone? No self esteem and a fear of AIDS or some other nasty disease. The only one who taught you a valuable lesson was the coach. Remember what he said when he left?"
The teenaged-Brian sighs, looks down at his untouched beer. "Never let them know youíre a fag."
"Right. What he taught you was that your basic self was so bad, you had to keep it a secret. Thatís not love, kid. Thatís hate."
"But you didnít listen to that advice, did you, Kinney?" A man comes from the bedroom area, wrapped only in a towel. Heís wet from a recent shower. His hair is long, and frames his handsome face from a natural center part. Heís reached his full height, and his body has gone from thin to lean and muscular. "Nothing makes you happy," the nineteen-year old Brian says as he sits on the chaise, the younger version of himself now gone. "You could have had a loving relationship with Mikey, but you were afraid. You thought if you let him love you the way those other men did, he too would abandon you once he figured out how unworthy you are. Then youíd be alone again. So you held him off while you fucked every hard dick in every backroom or gay cinema or tearoom you could find. You learned about the power of the face, of the body, of this," he squeezes his crotch. "What else did you learn, Kinney?"
I frown. "Sex is predictable. Sex is easy."
"You were still afraid. You didnít want to accidentally fall into an emotional trap. And then I met Lindsay. Lindsay loved me."
"Lindsayís a dyke. Lindsay loved the idea of you. You never let her see the real you, the dirty you, the backroom, glory hole, tearoom, cocksucking you. You think she could love that? And who were you kidding with that anyway? Youíre a faggot. You were never going to settle into a hetero relationship with anyone. Not for long."
"Mikey wasnít the one, Lindsay wasnít the one, was it love you feared, Kinney, or the lovers?"
"I donít fear anything."
"Thatís a fucking lie," another voice. I turn to see a recent version of myself leaning against the window. He wears a dark suit with a navy shirt and a maroon bow tie, unknotted. Against his lapels hangs a white silk scarf, covered in blood. Justinís blood. "You fear everything. You fear being alone, you fear being in a relationship. You fear being abandoned, you fear being committed. You fear love, you fear loneliness." I look anxiously for that more callow version of myself, but he was gone. "Donít look away from me, Kinney. You know me. Iím the one who understands it all."
"Youíre the one who almost had him killed."
"Aw, guilt, your motherís milk."
"Fuck you. Go away."
"I canít go away, because Iím the one who busted all those fears, all those reservations, who had the courage to go to that dance and face up to those adolescents and claim your love."
I laugh cynically. "And what a success it was."
"You remember how it felt that night? To hold him in your arms and lift him off his feet and twirl him around you while his smile held you in awe?"
"I remember," I whisper. "He doesnít, but I do."
"Do you remember when you kissed him on the dance floor and you knew, you just knew this was it?"
"Do you remember how you felt in the garage before he got hit, the exact emotion you experienced when you kissed goodbye for now and he walked away and smiled at you over his shoulder?"
"Yes," I whisper.
"This is love."
"Yes, Brian. This is love. And how did it make you feel?"
"And now? When you saw him walk away with Ethan at the Rage party? What did you feel when you ripped off your mask and looked at him?"
"What did you say to him in your head when he looked at you at that party?"
"I love you. Donít leave me."
"What did you say out loud?"
"Because he made his choice."
"No, Brian, because you got what you DESERVED, right? You got what you deserved for seducing him and going to that dance and making him a target. Right? You had to be punished. You deserved to be punished. You never deserved to be loved, right?"
"Right," the boy-Brian reappears. "Not even by a dog."
"Or Mikey," the adolescent Brian offers.
"Or Lindsay," the younger version of Brian confirms.
"Or Justin," the bloody Brian says.
"I donít believe in love, I believe in fucking," I say softly, turning away from them. I feel sick, my stomach churning, my hands shaking as I stuff them into my pockets.
"So what do you intend to do when youíre my age and no longer the beautiful stud and no longer finding it so easy to get laid? Whatís left for you then?"
I turn to see an older version of myself, fifty maybe, with gray in my hair and lines around my eyes and mouth. Iím still thin, but the skin stretched over my bones is not so supple.
"The Ghost of Christmas Future? I donít intend to live that long."
"But you will, Kinney. And youíll be alone and lonely and pathetic, paying for sex and pretending theyíre your dates. Being laughed at by the young men in clubs and rejected. The pain that youíve carried around all these years will overtake you in an endless spiral of depression. And why? Because you didnít fight for what you wanted so desperately. The only man youíve ever loved. The one you let get away."
"So what am I supposed to do?" I insist, but the older version of myself was gone, along with all the others. I shake my head, wondering at this trip Iíve been on. I wonder if I was asleep or cracking up or just losing it? I turn off the television Iíd been watching when Justin came over and I walk towards the bedroom. Fuck this. I just need to sleep it off. Forget it. Let it go.
There was a knock, and I go to answer it, anxious for any intrusion. I slide open the door to find Justin standing there. My heart flipped at the serendipity of his sudden reappearance.
"I forgot to leave my key," Justin said, extending it to me.
"You could have given it to me at the diner or something," I donít reach for it.
"I wanted to do it while I was thinking about it."
"You came all the way back to give me the key?"
"What do you mean? I just now closed the door. I havenít been gone for two seconds."
I wince, unable to explain. "Oh."
"Are you okay?" Justin looks concerned and I nod.
"Why wouldnít I be?"
"I donít know. You just look kind of funny."
"You want a drink or something to eat?" Iím desperate to make him stay.
Justin grimaced at that offer. "You never have any food."
"We could order in."
"Why would we? Ethanís waiting for me."
"Right. Okay. See you."
"Brian, wait. The key?"
When I still made no move to take it, Justin put it in my pocket. I felt a shudder of desire and need roll through me, just from that small contact between us. Justin took a step back. I started to close the door when a soccer ball suddenly rolled across the hardwoods to bang against my bare heels. I footed the ball and met Justinís expression with a shrug. "Iím thinking of taking it up again."
"Right. That sounds plausible," he responds with a confused smile.
"Sure you donít want a drink?"
"Positive. See you, Brian."
"I love you, Justin."
Justin pauses, turns around, stares at me with a look of absolute awe. "What did you just say?"
"I said I love you. I just want you to know that. I love you."
Silence stretches into infinity and then Justin walks past me, into the loft. He says, "Maybe just one," as he removes his coat.