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If You Needed Me


I once sat on a plane next to this guy who thought that time was not constant. He held up as proof the fact that sometimes one hour felt like ten minutes and other times it felt like ten hours. I was young then, and didn't realize the folly of engaging in conversation with the mentally ill while held captive at 30,000 feet. I replied that just because we might feel time differently doesn't mean it's actually ticking by at different intervals. I was then treated to a two hour dissertation in support of the guy's 'time really is relative' spiel.

Which is a long winded way to say the last five hours have seemed like a fucking eternity, and maybe, just maybe, they were.

It's dark out now, but luckily, I'm in London this week, which is only six hours ahead of the States. I will make my phone call at four o'clock Eastern Standard which is only ten o'clock here, so it's not like I won't get to bed at a decent hour.

Assuming, of course, that the phone call I make leaves me with good news, which it will, because it has to. It just fucking has to.

I've been feeling guilty lately, like maybe I should have known something was wrong a long time ago. But the first time Justin had a migraine it was no big deal. I mean, he caught it early, and took something that knocked him out for, like, 18 hours, but that was it.

The next morning, he had to record a bunch of stuff in this notebook--things like what he'd had to eat the last few meals, how much sleep he'd had lately, if there were any unusual stressors in his life. We both laughed over that question and played around with how much detail to go into.

We talked more about the bashing that morning, about how it echoes again and again in his life--when he gets a headache, when he compares a piece he's working on now with what he imagines it would have looked like before, when he feels a sudden, overwhelming sense of dread or panic that can't be traced to anything specific. We didn't even go into how the bashing had precipitated the year he spent with The Fucker, at least not that time.

I don't remember everything we talked about as much as I remember how...grateful Justin was to talk about it all. It kind of pissed me off when I heard about the way everyone put him off when he tried to talk about it. I remember him kind of laughing and ducking his head and saying, "I guess I should just forget about it, huh?"

That just killed me. I mean, how the hell do you forget about the most major, life-changing event that's ever happened to you? And who in the hell would ask you to?

Jeez, I still get mad when I think about it. Whenever I said that to Justin, he always said, "Then don't think about it." And I always smiled and said, "So give me something else to think about."

Anyway, the second time Justin had a migraine, he didn't get to the pills fast enough, and we ended up in the emergency room.

I got home from a morning class and found him curled up on the bathroom floor. He'd been throwing up for awhile and couldn't keep the medication down so the pain was unbearable. He couldn't stand up, couldn't talk, couldn't stop crying. I was scared shitless. I kept asking him what should I do, what should I do, but he couldn't tell me.

I was just about to totally freak out when he had a seizure, and then I didn't have the luxury of freaking out anymore. I dialed 911 and fifteen minutes later we were at the hospital. Looking back on it, the seizure was somewhat of a blessing in disguise. I had no idea what I needed to do--I was panicking so badly, I almost called The Fucker, so you know I was pretty much at the end of my rope. Not that the seizure didn't scare me shitless, it did. It was awful. I thought Justin was going to stop breathing, that he was dying. He wet his pants and threw up and it was terrifying. But I had no car, no way of getting Justin to a doctor, no idea if I was supposed to call his actual doctor or go to a hospital. I just didn't know what I was supposed to do.

We had to wait awhile in the emergency room before we saw a doctor. Justin had regained consciousness in the ambulance on the way over, and though he was a little fuzzy, he wasn't critical, so they shoved us in this room and kind of forgot about us for awhile. Justin kept dozing off, which one of the nurses said was common after a seizure. I gave them as much information as I could about the head injury he'd suffered the previous spring. They were able to call up his records on the computer, which was a relief, because Justin has all of these drug allergies, but I didn't know the names of any of the drugs.

They didn't have to give him anything, though. By the time a doctor finally got around to seeing us, Justin said he felt fine-just a little headache, not even a migraine or anything. Because of the head injury from the bashing, they wanted to run some tests anyway, so they were admitting him when his mom got there.

After Justin's mother showed up, I was (happily) relegated to doing things like fetching coffee and making phone calls. The first call I made was to Michael Novotny to tell him Justin wouldn't be in to work on the comic book. It felt weirdly grown up to be making a call like that for my lover, and I remember feeling kind of nervous when Michael picked up the phone.

"Uh, yeah, um, this is Ethan Gold, Justin's boyfriend? He won't be able to work on the comic book today..."

Without waiting to hear why, the guy totally went off on me. "Oh for Christ's sake you have got to be kidding! Jesus, what is it this time? Is hisums widdle tummy hurting? Jesus!"

I was kind of taken aback by his vehemence, and I stuttered a bit, "Uh, no, actually, that's not..."

"Well you know what? I don't give a fuck what it is! This is the third time in the last two weeks he's canceled on me and it's getting pretty fucking old. If he doesn't want to draw the comic book, maybe it's time I find somebody who does!"

And damn if the guy didn't hang up on me.

That fucking asshole! I guess I should have just left it alone, but I was just too damn mad to let it go, so I dialed the number back. "Uh, yeah, it's Ethan again." I was so pissed my voice was shaking. "Look, I don't want you to waste your whole fucking day unable to get anything done 'cause you're so, like, concerned or anything, but Justin had a seizure, and they admitted him to the hospital for some tests, but everything's okay, he can come home in the morning. You know, in case you wondered."

I slammed the phone down as hard as I could, barely resisting the urge to rip it out of the wall and hurl it across the room. Damn him, that self-righteous fucking prick! Damn, I wished Justin could quit! It wasn't like the comic book was some huge dream of his--he'd started it more as a lark than anything else. Now, he was trapped because he needed the cash.

I walked around outside for a few minutes until I cooled off a little, then went back to Justin's room and told him everything was fine. No way was I going to tell him what a dick Novotny had been.

They took a ton of blood and put him through an MRI and a CAT scan, but everything came back okay, so the next morning, Justin was cleared to go home.

His mom wanted him to come to her house for a few days, but he scoffed at that idea and asked her to drop us off at my apartment. She finally did, with a stern warning to Justin to take it easy and a stern warning to me to see that he did.

And I took that warning to heart, too. I spent that whole first morning totally catering to Justin-bringing him juice and toast in bed, reading the newspaper to him. He kept asking me for more and more and more, and I figured he must really be feeling bad if he was asking me to do all this stuff for him.

It wasn't until I was getting ready to make him some fresh squeezed orange juice (he said it tasted better than store-bought) that I realized he'd been playing me the whole time! I looked up from the counter to see him grinning at me and shaking his head, and the light finally dawned in my dim little brain. "You fucker!" I yelled and raced over to catch him. He took off around the couch with a shout of laughter, but I jumped over the coffee table and cut him off at the pass. I wrapped my arms around his chest and wrestled him over to the bed, throwing us both down on it.

Justin somehow landed on top of me. He kissed me hard then pulled away. "I'm fine, Ethan."

"I know," I said, feeling embarrassed. "It just scared me, you know?"

"I know. Sorry."

"It's not your fault. Don't..."

"Well then...I'm sorry for taking advantage of you."

"Yeah, I'll accept that apology, you shit."

"It's not my fault you're so easy."

"Yes it is. I was never this easy before."

"Mmm. I guess I just make it easy for you to be easy."

"I guess so."

You can pretty much guess what happened here, so let's just fade to black, okay?

I can't really think now what to say about the next four months. We never fought, not really. One of us might get irritated about something, but our voices were never raised in anger. That seems kind of remarkable to me now, seeing as we came together surrounded by a lot of grief and strife. It didn't intrude upon us though. Mostly I remember laughing--just busting a gut laughing all the fucking time. Neither one of us had ever had some huge entourage of friends; we had both always been solitary people, content with a few very close friends. His closest friend was a girl from high school, and they had already begun drifting apart when Justin and I met. My best friend Will was at Stanford, and we were lucky to trade e-mails a few times a month. The truth was, after Justin and I found each other, we didn't really need anyone else. We just fit together so damn perfectly--and on every level, too. Emotional, physical, spiritual.

I hated when we parted in the morning and rejoiced when we were together again at night, and if that sounds shmoopy and queer, so be it, because it's the truth. I couldn't wait to tell him what I'd done all day, to hear what he'd done. I loved going to coffee shops with him, I loved watching him tilt his head over his sketchpad and ponder what to do next. I loved the way he stroked my ego and my cock, very often at the same time. I loved fucking him and being fucked by him, I loved when we made love and when we rutted like fucking barnyard animals, down and dirty on the floor because moving it to the bedroom would have taken just too damn long. I loved playing for him and posing for him and sleeping next to him and lying awake next to him.

One of my most favorite things was our mornings. We almost always got up together, even if one of us didn't have a class or have to work until much later. We'd fool around and shower together, then kind of putter over bowls of cereal. Sometimes Justin would read a story from the newspaper, and we'd have these amazingly brilliant conversations where we fixed everything that was wrong with the world. Sometimes we made fun of the pictures in the paper, laughing at pathetic haircuts and horrifying fashion choices. Sometimes we outlined our day for each other and made plans to meet for lunch or a quickie before work. Sometimes we outlined the next 20 years and made elaborate plans for the dazzling futures that awaited us. Sometimes we talked about the nightmare that brought Justin screaming out of a deep sleep. Sometimes we talked about the inexhaustible pressure I felt to be perfect, whether it came from outside sources (I'm looking at you, Mom) or internal.

I remember one time, Justin got up from the table and came to kneel before me. He touched my hand and looked up into my eyes and said, "I want you to mess up some time, to fuck up so spectacularly you can't even believe it, because I'll still love you, I'll love you even more than I do right now, and I want you to experience that because it'll make you feel amazing." I swear, I started to bawl like a baby right there, because it was the most beautiful thing anyone ever said to me. And because it made me sad.

I don't think Justin got a lot of second chances when he screwed things up. I mean, it just seemed to me that whenever things got shitty, people washed their hands of him. After he came out at home, he spent the next two years ping-ponging from his parents' home, to The Fucker's, to Debbie Novotny's, back to his Mom's, then to The Fucker's again. And maybe some of the time he ended up where he thought he wanted to be, but it was still someone else kicking him out of one place and foisting him off on another. How in the hell do you develop a sense of trust when the next dumb move you make could very well get you kicked out of your home?

And yet there he was, promising me, fucking on his knees promising me that I could screw up as royally as I dared, and he'd still love me, still be there for me. How beautiful is that?

Justin, little cherub-faced cynic that he is, said once that the fates always waited until everything was just about perfect before turning everything to shit, so maybe that's what happened next. Things didn't really go to shit, but they changed, irrevocably.

That I was going to enter the Heifitz Competition had been a given since I was ten years old, so it kind of floored me when I realized the sudden ambivalence I felt toward it. One of my instructors had given me a rare dressing down one afternoon, and Justin and I were talking about it over a dinner of plain noodles and peanut butter toast.

Justin had been listening to me bitch from the moment I walked in the door and finally he leaned back in his chair and said, "Are you mad at Finley because you don't deserve the criticism or mad at yourself because you do?"

That shut me up for a minute. I sighed finally and admitted what he already knew. "Me. I don't know, the Heifitz has been the goal for so long, maybe I'm just freaking out because it's so close."

"Maybe." I could tell Justin didn't buy that, and I didn't either.

I looked over at him and because I didn't have to censor myself (or my ego) around him, I said, "If I enter I'll win."

Justin nodded. "I know." He sighed then and reached across the table for my hand. "You have to enter, though. You know that. You know it, Ethan. You have to. You have to enter, and you have to win, and it sucks for us, but you have to."

"It's not fair!" I said. "Why now? Shit, it's just not fair!"

Justin kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, imagine that."

"We would have made it," I said. "I believe that with all my heart. We would have made it."

Justin was still holding my hand. He sighed again, and brought my hand to his cheek where he nuzzled it for a moment. "Yeah," he whispered. "I think so too."

So I concentrated on the contest, and I won, and two weeks later, I was packed and ready to fly out to Germany, where the first leg of the tour would begin.

We spent that last night-well really that whole last day-in bed, saying good-bye over and over again, trying to soak up any last vestige of each other that we possibly could.

At one point, Justin leaned up on his elbow, and grabbed my hand. "I'm so fucking proud of you." He said it kind of urgently, like it was something he almost forget to tell me. "I know that's dumb. I have as much to do with your winning as Wolfie does, but I'm still fucking proud."

I leaned in and kissed him and loved him and missed him so much, so damned fucking much, you can't imagine it. You can't fathom how much I felt right then, how deep it went, how fucking ageless and timeless and boundryless it was. "I would have won without you," I said. "But I wouldn't have felt it. Joyless victory is lonelier and emptier and...and more desolate than losing. I've only ever felt the winning through you. Because of you. And I'll never forget it. Every time I play for someone, every time I take that last deep breath and put my bow up on the string, that's what I'll be remembering. Every time, Justin."

"I love you."

"I love you too."

And then I repeated what I'd been saying all day, because it was so true, because it was all so fucking, fucking bittersweet. "I wish there was some way we could..."

Justin kissed me quickly and whispered into my mouth, "I know, me too. Me too, I'll always wish it too."

I sighed and swiped the tears in my eyes. "Good thing you're so damn ugly--I don't have to think about anyone ever hitting on you."

Justin threw his head back and laughed in surprise, and I joined in. He nuzzled my cheek and said, "Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing about you. I'd really be worried if you had talent to fall back on. Glad I don't have to worry about that."

"So I guess if you're the same unattractive, unattached loser in two years we can pick up where we left off?"

Justin smiled at me in absolute delight. "Assuming you're still as hopeless and untalented as you are now, sure."

"Good. That gives me some hope, then."

"Yeah, me too." He laid his head down on my chest, and we rested for a minute, and then we began our good-byes all over again.

The weird thing is we got closer after I left. We e-mailed two or three times a week and told each other everything, just every fucking thing that we were doing and thinking and feeling. We'd parted with the understanding that we were free to see other people, but neither one of us rushed in to anything. We joked about which one of us would have to write that first "very difficult letter" when we started dating someone seriously.

I was pretty sure Justin would find his way back to The Fucker, though that's one thing I never shared with him. I think it would have hurt Justin if I told him that, as if I was saying that our time together wasn't...real or valid or something like that, which I'll never, ever think. I guess I have to admit, too, that I didn't want it to look like I thought it was okay for him to go back with The Fucker either.

But seven months after I left Pittsburgh, it didn't look like that was going to happen. Justin mentioned The Fucker in passing from time to time, but nothing major. Justin still worked on the comic book with Michael Novotny. It was a partnership that ran hot and cold; sometimes Justin felt like Michael's friend and other times like a mere convenience due to his drawing skills. Justin was busy with school and a new job at an art supply store. One of his art shows had been reviewed--very unfavorably--by the school paper. He was really pissed about that, until the following day when a ton of students and even a couple of local gallery owners flocked to see the "dreck" he was creating. He said The Fucker gave him a framed copy of the review which was now hanging in his apartment.

That's about the time I decided I should tell Justin about the guy I'd been seeing. I was pretty nervous about it because I still felt so close to Justin, and I didn't want to lose the relationship we now had. The first thing I did most mornings was check my e-mail to see if he'd replied to my last note. I still needed him in ways I would never need a boyfriend, but we'd never really talked about what would happen if one of us fell in love again. Still, I needed to tell him, so I sat down in front of my laptop and began to type.

Justin, I wrote, I guess it's time I write you that "Very Difficult Letter(tm)" we always talked about. I sort of always thought your letter would come first so I'd have a template to go by, but shit that you are (or procrastinator, which is it?) I guess that's not going to happen.

I met Win (short for Winfield. How's that for la-di-da, huh?) about six weeks ago. He's a dancer with the Royal Ballet--remember my group started touring with one of their dance troupes in October. He's sweet and funny and unbelievably talented. I still find myself holding my breath as I watch him on stage--and I've seen the routines probably a thousand times already.

He's good to me and good for me and I like him a lot--enough to tell you about him, which I've impressed upon him should make him feel very worthy indeed.

Win and I were friends first, at a time where I did nothing but go on and on and on about YOU, so he knows that we're still friends, fucking BEST friends, and that I don't want to lose you, I don't want anything between us to change because I'm with Win now. Is that possible? Please say it is, Justin, because I need it to be. I need you, and I always will, and I'm going to stop now before I sound like some little teary-eyed queer!

There's not much else going on anyway, but I'll tell you about it after I hear back from you, okay?

Miss you.

Love you,

Usually, I'd get a reply from Justin within a day or two of my sending an e-mail. After I hit the send button on this note, three days passed, then four, then five. I was pretty upset. I thought maybe I should have told him by phone, maybe I should have told him differently, maybe I shouldn't have told him at all. I was damn near beside myself when I finally found his e-mail sitting in my inbox.

Hey, Ethan, sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you, he wrote. I guess I should say I've been expecting a "Very Difficult Letter(tm)" for awhile, but it was still kind of a bummer. I am glad for you--I can't say happy yet. Give me a few days, okay? Months? Just kidding. Sort of.

Win sounds wretchedly perfect, and I hope you understand that I imagine him as five-foot-two, three hundred pounds and grossly hairy. How about I picture Fat Bastard (in a tutu, of course) every time you mention him?

I hope he'll always be good to you; don't stand for it if he's not, because you're the easiest person I know to be good to; so there's no excuse not to be.

I don't want things between us to change either, and I was relieved to read that Winfield (Fat Bastard!) doesn't have a problem with it. Of course, there IS an ocean between us, which is probably pretty reassuring, but even if there wasn't, he wouldn't have to worry.

I feel like I've aged 15 years in the last two, and I learned a lot in those two years. I wish now that I'd handled the start of our relationship differently. I hate the position I put you in, the fact that I was so dishonest--I hate that. I should have ended the other relationship before I started ours. I'll always regret that I didn't handle it that way, but since I can't change the past, I can only be determined not to make the same mistakes in the future. I don't know if that pacifies Win (Fat Bastard!) any. Has he seen pictures of me? Does he know how fucking fabulous I am? Probably nothing puts him at ease where I'm concerned, right? :p

We're okay, Ethan. We'll always be okay, so write again with all of the dumb stuff and we'll just go one from here like we always do, right?

Miss you.

Love you,

And then, thankfully, happily, gloriously, things just continued on from there. E-mail allowed us to be an almost daily part of each other's lives. I told him about the different European cities where we stayed, talked about my performances, what I was learning, how I was progressing. Sometimes I dragged Win to art museums just to see the great works that Justin wanted me to report back on. Justin told me the latest news from PIFA, often going to concerts at my request to report back on some of my fellow musicians. He described the projects he was working on for class and the dramas that always seemed to be popping up around him. He rarely wrote about guys he was seeing, and I often teased him about how I must have ruined other guys for him, but it's not like I went on and on about Win, and we just had so much other stuff to talk about that it never struck me as all that odd. In October, he wrote of some trouble he was having with his drawing hand. He wrote less about his hand than about the friction it was causing with Michael Novotny, his partner on the comic book. Michael suspected he was faking it in an effort to get out of the project, which Justin (and I) found laughable. Justin didn't dwell on the topic, though, so I didn't think much of it either. It was a shock, then, when in early November, I opened up an email with the subject "News," and began to read.

Ethan, he wrote, now it's my turn to write one of these Very Difficult Letters(tm). I half-wish I could reach you by phone, but only half. I feel kind of dumb every time I have to tell anyone--some things just sound so stupid when you say (or write) them out loud!

Okay, so here goes. I've been in the hospital for close to two weeks now, and in another three weeks, I'm having surgery to remove a small brain tumor. Now isn't that the most ridiculous thing you've ever heard?

I didn't really feel sick or anything before I was diagnosed. I'd had a couple of bad headaches, but just figured it was stress. There was that trouble with my hand, but I passed that off as overwork. Then I had another seizure a few weeks ago. They gave me an MRI and, well, the rest as they say...

I'm going through radiation right now to shrink the tumor before they operate (don't worry, they're, like, 99.99999% sure it's not malignant, the radiation is just part of the process). The radiation makes me feel crappy (but I felt a lot worse about shaving my head! What if it grows back {GASP} brown?! No offense, of course :p)

After a treatment, there's this window of time, before I fall asleep, before I start throwing up, and I always listen to one of your CD's--usually An Early Night, but sometimes After the Fall or Just Beginning. I know the sound quality is better on the later (read: professionally engineered) cd's, but I like the familiarity, the homeiness of the ones you recorded here at school.

The worst thing is just how fucking BORING it is to lie around in a hospital all day. I can't really draw right now, and sometimes it's kind of hard being around everybody, which sounds ungrateful, but there you are. Making everybody worry about me (again!) is the only really unbearable part about all of this. Their concern can be so oppressive, it sucks the air out of the room sometimes.

My mom's putting up a brave front, Deb's a basket case, Vic's a fucking rock. I'm getting a huge kick out of Molly. She's 11 going on 25 and so bitter and resentful about all of this that it's pretty hilarious. She thinks I got sick just to keep her from meeting her friends at the mall. And Mom thought I gave her a run for her money!

Michael's feeling shitty because it turns out the trouble with my hand is linked to the tumor and he was pretty crappy about it when it first started. Remember how he thought I was faking? (As if! Like I'd be too afraid to tell him to stuff the fucking comic book if I wanted out? Come on!). Anyway, nothing like a little Mikey-guilt to get me some ice cream from Diebles (which is way, way, WAY across town!) or a totally counterfeit latte once in awhile. He's even easier than YOU are, and that's saying something! I'll be bummed when (if?) he's finally onto me!

Daphne was by the other day, but her visit was more awkward than anything else. We're just living such different lives--we don't have much in common any more, and it feels more and more forced when we see each other. It's like we both know we should be friends, we should feel close, but maybe we aren't and we don't. It's just not like is used to be.

And then, as always, there's Brian. God, who ever knows what's going on with him. Imagine a very very long, drawn out sigh here. It's never smooth sailing for us, and I should have known that with everything humming right along like it was that there was some huge bend in the road waiting for us.

The guilt's kicked in big time for him. He's convinced the tumor is tied to the head injury from the bashing, and maybe it is, but unless he conspired with Chris Hobbes how the hell could any of it be his fault? I've told him a million times that if his ego was just fractionally more manageable, he'd be a hell of a lot easier to deal with. And it is so tied to his ego that somehow he would have something to do with me getting a brain tumor. He's so infuriating when he's unreasonable (and let's face it, that's a hell of a lot of the time!) I alternate between wanting to kick his ass from one end of the hall to the other to...well, come to think of it, I don't really alternate. I just want to kick his ass from one end of the hall to the other. He's such a prissy bitch about everything. God forbid a guy puke on his fucking Pradas, you know?

Some day, when you and I are in the same room together, we'll talk about...everything. Should I have written you a Very Difficult Letter (tm) when Brian and I got together? Probably so. Just so you're not too pissed, though, it happened AFTER your VDL, so you still had to write the first one (tell Win thanks from me!).

Okay, this is, like, the 700th time Brian has pretended to need something on the tray where the laptop is and about the 10,000th time he's said, "Don't you think that e-mail's long enough?" And then he acts all insulted when I point out how totally cool he just ISN'T! I guess I am blabbering on a little. I'm nervous. I don't want this to upset you and every time I tell someone I'm afraid they're going to be mad at me, which I know is dumb, but...okay, okay, I'm signing off.

Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. I am fine.

E-mail me back right away, okay? I'm going to be a nervous wreck until I hear from you and know you're not mad or anything.

Miss you.

Love you,

I just sat there for a long time, staring at that one paragraph, that one sentence. I'm having surgery to remove a small brain tumor. The room got smaller and smaller, and the words on the screen seemed to get larger until all I could see was the word "tumor" over and over and over again.

Win found me like that when he returned from rehearsal, just sitting there, starting blankly at the computer screen.

He could tell by my face that something was terribly wrong. The minute I started to tell him, the minute I spoke Justin's name, I lost it and started to cry.

Win asked me what did I want to do, what did I need to do, and I said that I had to go see him. Immediately. Now, right now, before any surgery, before anything else happened. I had to see him. I had to.

Thank God for Win. He took care of notifying my instructors and booking the flights. His parents are loaded, and he wouldn't even hear a word about the expense of the airline tickets.

I wasn't sure what hospital Justin was in or how to contact him other than through e-mail, but I managed to get in touch with his mother who assured me that Justin would be thrilled to see me. I gave her my itinerary and the name of the hotel where we'd be staying, and she promised to leave word at the hotel about when to come see Justin.

Two short days later, Win and I were in Pittsburgh. We checked in to the hotel and there was a terse message waiting for me from The Fucker. It said merely, "Be here at 9:30, no earlier, no later. Come alone. He'll meet your ballerina some other time."

"Charming," was all Win said.

"Now you know why I call him The Fucker," I replied.

The next morning, Win rode with me to the hospital, which turned out to be near PIFA. He said he'd roam around campus while I visited Justin, then we made plans to meet back at a nearby coffee shop.

The minute I walked through the hospital doors, my stomach started to ache, and I could barely swallow. I walked slowly to the elevators and rode up to the 12th floor. Justin was in room 224, and I walked toward it with more than a little trepidation. His door was propped open which, in hindsight was a blessing, because it gave me a minute to get over the shock of his appearance. I would have hated for him to see that shock in my face which undoubtedly he would have.

He looked...awful. I guess that's not very kind of me to say, but it's the truth. His skin was this terrible gray color, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he was way too thin. I knew he'd shaved his head, but the radiation had also made his eyelashes and eyebrows fall out as well. He looked like a little kid, like a really sick little kid, and I barely recognized him.

Then he turned his head and saw me and smiled, and he was Justin. I swear, I looked out the window to see if the sun had finally broken through the thick gray clouds.

"Ethan? Oh my God, you're here! I can't believe you're here!"

"I'm here!" I said and opened my arms, moving in to hug him.

His right hand, clenched in a fist on his lap, remained there unmoving, and he hugged me rather awkwardly with just his left arm. We kissed, briefly, then he pushed me away and stared at me with exaggerated scrutiny. He wrinkled his nose as if finally putting his finger on what was bothering him and teased me, saying, "Aren't I important enough for a shave?"

My mouth felt like I'd been snacking on sawdust all morning. I gruffly cleared my throat and scratched the rough stubble on my chin and shrugged in reply. "I rebel every time I have a week or two off and put a moratorium on..."

"Bathing?" came an amused voice from behind me.

And there he was, in the flesh--or rather, in a ridiculously expensive designer suit--The Fucker, just as beautiful as I remembered. He gave me a condescending smile as he strolled in the room like he owned it. He tossed his ten million dollar overcoat onto a chair and set down a cup of coffee just out of Justin's reach. He didn't kiss Justin good morning or even look his way. He just continued to eye me up and down as he settled in like he was hunkering down with a good book. "You're early," he said, no longer sounding the least bit amused. "You're supposed to be here at 9:30."

I looked at my watch--it was 9:15--and shrugged. Justin rolled his eyes at me and tried to reach the coffee cup, but The Fucker snatched it away from him without even looking at him.

Instead, he was still looking at me with his head tilted to the side. He scratched his chin, reminding me of Wolfie after he'd trapped something intriguing under his paw. "I thought you might have used a little of your prize money to buy something decent to wear," he said finally.

I stared at him like he was from outer space. I couldn't believe he'd walk into Justin's room, his hospital room, where he's lying with a fucking tumor in his brain, and all he could do was make some lame ass comment about my clothes. He lifted a single eyebrow at me, and that's when I got the weirdest vibe, like he was kind of...egging me on, you know? Like, encouraging me to respond, sort of like he was saying, 'Okay, now it's your turn.'

"It doesn't matter how you dress when you're a genius," I said, and my voice still sounded kind of lame, but it was getting stronger.

The Fucker gave me an exaggerated look of surprise. "Oh my God, do you hear that? Liberace is spinning in his grave. It always matters how you dress, my boy."

I lifted my chin, and 15 years of being told I was brilliant helped add a good dose of arrogance to my tone. "Not if you have talent."

Justin smiled at me, clearly amused by the exchange. Maybe I won, because he made some room for me on his bed. I sat down and laid my hand over his right one. The Fucker stood up then to retrieve the morning paper on Justin's nightstand, and he did the oddest thing. Instead of taking the two steps necessary to reach the paper from the left side of the bed, he came over to the right side where I was sitting, and reached across it to grab the paper. As he stood back up, he moved my hand from atop Justin's right one and placed it over his left.

For a minute there, I thought he was ticked that I was touching Justin, but then I didn't know what to think. Justin just kept smiling at me, now lacing his fingers through mine and happily squeezing my hand. "I can't believe you're here, that you came all this way! God, it's so great to see you!"

"You too," I agreed. "This is an awful lot of shit to go through just so I'll come home and visit. You should have just called."

The Fucker grunted at that from behind the front page. "And relinquish his title as Drama Princess? I don't think so."

"So, what's going on?" I asked. "When's the surgery? What are they going to do? Are you sure it's not..."

The Fucker interrupted again. "Blah blah blah, could we have one morning that didn't start In the Beginning Was the Tumor?"

I turned and frowned at him, shocked that he would just discount what Justin was going through. He moved the paper and offered me a sickeningly sweet smile. "Why don't you tell us all about you?"

"That's what I want to hear!" Justin said, leaning into me with the most endearing look on his face. "Tell me about Italy, and the sculptures in Florence. Your e-mails were so beautiful--I felt like I was there with you."

"Yeah, take him there again, would you?" The Fucker said, poking his tongue in the side of his cheek and smirking.

Justin didn't really look at him, just longingly eyed his coffee cup and reached out a hand toward it. "You're such a dick to flaunt that in front of me. One sip."

The Fucker ignored him, saying instead to me, "Come on then, transport us to the land of pasta and poetry. Isn't that what you called it in one of your epistles?"

Justin tried again. "Come on, Brian, one sip. Just one."

The Fucker finally deemed him worthy of a response. "Who's cleaning up your puke today--Anita? Or is it Rochelle? Not that it matters 'cause either one of them will have your balls in a sling in about two minutes flat."

"One sip won't make a difference."

"Yeah, well, for some reason they're happier when you spew oatmeal than when you spew coffee. Take it up with them."

Justin gave an exaggerated sigh and slumped back in the bed. A second later he was smiling at me again. "Start at Santa Maria Novella. Did you bring the guide books?"

I had, indeed, brought the requested guide books. I took them out of my satchel, and we began going through them, revisiting Justin's favorite works of art. It felt like only a few minutes later when a nurse came in and said it was time for Justin's radiation treatment. Justin looked stricken for a moment, and I'm sure I did too. It was too fast, just too fast, and I wasn't ready to leave him.

It didn't look like I had much choice though, so we made vague plans for me to come back in the morning, and then I left. I met Win at the coffee shop but couldn't even think about eating anything. I had no appetite for the rest of the day and could do little but sit and fret over Justin. With The Fucker lurking everywhere, controlling our conversation, controlling where I put my fucking hands, I hadn't had a chance to talk to Justin, to really talk to him about what was happening and how he felt about it.

Win suggested I make another trip back to the hospital. I tried to call Justin's room, but there was no answer. I double-checked the visiting hours with the receptionist and headed back to the hospital, promising Win that later I would show him my deepest appreciation for his support.

Again, the door to Justin's room was open, and I could see The Fucker helping him from the bathroom back into bed. If anything, Justin looked worse than he had that morning. His coloring was way off-it just looked wrong, and he was breathing really heavy, like the trip to the bathroom was a cross country run.

I know it was wrong of me, but I couldn't help wanting to eavesdrop for a minute, to gain some kind of insight into what Justin was doing with him. I stopped just short of the doorway. I couldn't see in without being seen myself, so I leaned against the wall and shamelessly listened in.

"Jesus, why can't you just use the fucking bed pan?"

"No way! I can still get myself to the bathroom."

"No you can't. I can still fucking get you to the bathroom, but it's getting old, and I need to finish this."

"So quit hovering every time I make a move."

"Quit falling down every time you get out of bed."

"Fuck you, I do not. Okay, I'm good. Jeez, get off me already. Is today Michael or Emmett? I think Ben's getting back from that book thing. Michael's picking him up so he's swapping with someone. We used to go to Martha's Vineyard every August, but that was before it got so touristy."

"I will give you five hundred dollars if you don't say another fucking word for the next 30 minutes."

"Starting when?"


"Well it can't start until I agree. Five hundred cash?"

"No, five hundred rubles, what the hell do you think? Now shut the fuck up!"

"What if one time you told me to shut up, and I did?"

"Your ass, your ass, your ass, your shrimp scampi, your ass..."

"What are you doing?"

"Listing the top five reasons why I haven't killed you yet."

"When did shrimp scampi replace my ass in the top five?"

"I wondered the same thing when I was eating dinner the other night. Have I told you to shut up lately?"

It was quiet for a minute, and I hated The Fucker for shutting Justin down like that. He was sounding more and more out of breath, and he was kind of moaning every time he exhaled. And then, all of a sudden, I could hear him getting terribly, violently sick. He was retching and coughing and choking and it sounded like he was dying.

I started to come in, to try and help or do...something, anything to make it better. The Fucker had one arm around Justin's shoulders, while holding a bedpan with his other hand.

I thought he might be relieved to see me, because if nothing else I could run get a nurse or something, but The Fucker's head shot up, and I found myself paralyzed by the most murderous glare I've ever seen in my life. I don't know how Justin ever had trouble communicating with the guy--he didn't have to say a fucking word and his meaning was abundantly clear. He was saying, 'Get. The. Fuck. Out.'

I quickly backed out of the room and leaned against the wall just outside Justin's doorway. I was breathing almost as heavily as Justin, and felt almost as sick.

A few minutes-that felt like hours--later the retching stopped. "I'm good, I'm fine, I'm fine," Justin said, his voice hoarse and pained.

And then there was this moment, this, like, instant of humanness from The Fucker. "Jesus, this is such fucking shit! Let's move you this way." I heard the sound of movement and a brief cry of pain from Justin. "Shit, sorry. You're all right, Sonny Boy. You're okay, now. You're doing great, okay? Just a little bit further, just a little bit."

"You promised not to do that," Justin said, sounding sulky and put out, and I wondered what it was The Fucker had done.

"God, you're a pain in the ass," he muttered, then I heard him take a deep breath. "Dammit, Justin, this tie is fucking Versace, would you watch what you're doing?"

"That's better." I swear, I could hear the smile on Justin's face when he said that.

I figured there must have been something wrong with the way The Fucker had been moving him and while they were talking, he managed to get Justin into a more comfortable position. All the while complaining about his clothes, like they fucking mattered in the face of all this misery.

"Look, are you gonna be okay for a second?" The Fucker asked in a totally bitchy voice.

"Mm, yeah. You need to get out for awhile?"

"No, I need to find some fucking club soda for this stain. I'll be back in a second."





"Get out already."

The Fucker came tooling out of the room. I expected him to blow by me, but instead he grabbed my elbow and like, forced me down to the other end of the hallway.

"What the fuck are you doing!" I finally asked, yanking my arm out of his grasp and turning around to face him.

"You can't come when he's not expecting you. It's a little rule we have around here."

"I'm flying out tomorrow afternoon. I just wanted to see him one last time."

He rolled his eyes. "Jesus, don't tell me you came here to play out some drama princess, movie of the week farewell scene. I'm up to my eyeballs in nausea as it is."

I just couldn't understand how he could continuously be so callous toward Justin and, I guess, toward me as well. I wanted to prove something to him then. Make him feel something or understand something about why I was there. "I wouldn't have bailed on him. I'd still be here, we'd still be together if I'd lost the competition."

He just smiled a humorless smile. "But you didn't. And you aren't."

"I would've stayed with him!" I sounded like a petulant kid, and The Fucker responded to me that way.

"What the fuck, you want a medal? A gold star in your permanent file?"

I was seething at his cluelessness, at the casual, dismissive way he'd been treating Justin, at his bitching at him, fucking bitching at him because he messed up his stupid fucking tie. My anger made me exceptionally articulate. "You don't even...You talk to him like...he needs someone who..."

He kind of laughed then, and interrupted me. "Ah, no."

"No? What?"

"No, you're not going to tell me what he needs. Because you don't know. And you won't ever know. You can, however, come back tomorrow morning at 8:15. That's 8:15, not 8:00 or 8:30 or..."

"I can fucking tell time!"

"Another gold star for you then. So you show up at 8:15, and you tell him how nice it was to see him and how much you'll miss him while you're away, and that you will see him the next time your schedule finds you in the Pitts. No faggotty weepy scenes about the infinite unfairness of the universe."

I was so pissed! Who the fuck did he think he was trying to control what I said to Justin. He wanted me to act like Justin was in the hospital to have his eyes done or something, like this wasn't some fucking serious life or death situation. "Don't tell me what to say to him!"

That's when I saw where Justin got the inspiration for his comic book super-hero. The Fucker started out talking in a low, deadly voice, but he got louder and louder until he was red-faced and shouting. "We're not going to indulge your melodrama--that is not how we're playing this. So you come back tomorrow and you tell him you'll see him later and you fucking mean it or you stay the fuck away from my kid's sick bed!" He had advanced on me as he spoke, until I was backed up against the wall, and he was standing menacingly over me.

And then, as quickly as that storm cloud came on, it was gone. His expression faded away to absolutely nothing, and he turned to one of the nurses walking by and said, calm as you please, "Hey, Cheryl, could I get some club soda? The vominator is at it again. Carlson said he could have the anti-emetic at nine. Let's fudge that a little, okay? Would you ask about starting him on some fluids, too? I don't think he's kept anything down since this morning."

I skulked out of there, and showed up the next morning at 8:15 on the nose, hating myself for acquiescing to The Fucker. Justin was sitting up in bed, a bandana tied around his head, and looking nothing like the guy who'd spent the night before so awfully sick. Suddenly I understood the tight control placed around his visiting hours. He didn't want to be seen like I'd seen him last night. So why couldn't The Fucker just tell me that?

I'd brought my violin which delighted Justin, but The Fucker didn't like it, and let me tell you how great that felt. I was giving Justin something he'd never be able to give him, and he hated it.

He gave me that superior and oh-so-insincere smile and said, "I'm surprised you didn't bring your ballerina along to provide some interpretive dance."

"Next time," Justin said to me with an endearing smile that asked me to forgive his begging off meeting Win this time. His hand briefly stroked the handkerchief on his head. "On a better hair day."

The Fucker didn't like that either, I could tell by the way he ducked his head and bit the inside of his cheek. Justin probably wasn't supposed to remember that he had no hair. It dawned of me then what considerable effort The Fucker expended trying to manage all the things about Justin's situation that simply couldn't be managed.

He should have been concentrating on those things that he could control--namely how he treated Justin. It was so obvious to me that Justin should be comforted and reassured and entertained, rather than rebuffed and ignored.

I grabbed Justin's hand--his left hand--and said, "You're as beautiful as ever, Justin."

The Fucker rolled his eyes and snorted at that, and I wanted to hit him, to wipe that arrogant smirk off his too-pretty face. What the hell did he think I should do, say, "Yeah, Justin, you do look hideous right now. Good call on not seeing Win!"

"Don't you ever have any place you, like, have to be?" I snapped.

The Fucker smiled at me in genuine amusement and said, "You don't think I'd let you leave without saying good-bye, do you?"

I sat down on the edge of Justin's bed, turning a little awkwardly so my back was completely to The Fucker. "Win's a little bummed that you'll still be able to think of him as Fat Bastard in a tutu," I admitted to Justin.

"Not me," Justin said so happily, I had no choice but to laugh. Justin laughed too, then nestled back into his pillow. "Play me something...amazing." We traded knowing smiles at the shorthand he used. 'Amazing' meant Ravel, so I played him the Ravel he'd always loved and then some Paganini which The Fucker seemed to hate, and finally finished with some Bach.

I was a little worried that someone might come in and tell me to can it, but no one did. In fact, a little crowd had gathered outside of Justin's room. The Fucker looked at all of the people and said, "You want me to take up a collection so you can buy a shirt that's not missing buttons or a pair of pants without holes in them?"

At some point a nurse came in and reminded Justin that his radiation treatment was in another hour, and the atmosphere turned more somber.

I started a couple of different pieces for Justin, but all of them seemed to make him cry and it made me feel awful so I'd stop and try and think of something else to play. Justin shook his head after about my third attempt and said, "No, it's not...it's not the music. It's all beautiful, all of it. It's just...I don't know. I get 10 minutes of self-pity a day." He shrugged as if that explained everything and maybe it did.

"Just as well," The Fucker said. "Ethan's got a flight to catch"

Justin gasped and sort of hyperventilated for a few seconds. He bounced up and down, biting his lip as the tears started coming down his cheeks faster. "Thank you," he whispered, reaching for me. "Thank you for coming, thank you for playing. I can't believe you came for me, I can't believe you did this."

"I love you," I whispered, into his neck, and that did explain everything. "I miss you, but I'll see you soon, I promise. I promise, 'cause you fucking owe me the biggest, longest talk about everything, right?"

Justin glanced over my shoulder at The Fucker and laughed and said, "Right. It might take a week or two."

"I've got the time, and so do you."

We kissed each other and hugged again and kissed again and started laughing at ourselves until The Fucker pulled me away. "I'll make sure our little music boy finds the elevator," he said, and followed close behind me toward the door. He stopped right before we were out in the hall and glanced at his watch. "Ten minutes, Sonny Boy, then we're back in the saddle."

Justin continued to wipe his eyes and said, "You'd bite my head off if I made some dumb-ass cowboy crack like that."

"Yeah, and I might even yell at you, too." He bared his fangs at Justin who sort of laughed and motioned us out the door.

Damn if The Fucker didn't walk me all the way to the elevator, and it killed me how inscrutable he remained to me. Was he jealous that I was there? Touched that I still cared enough about Justin to fly over from fucking Europe? Had he spent any time wondering what would have happened if I hadn't won the Heifitz? Did he ever think it might just as easily have been me helping to clean Justin up after he got sick? Did part of him wish it was?

He pushed the button to call the elevator up and gave me another once over. I rolled my eyes, imagining his inner horror at my faded jeans and old flannel shirt. He finally pulled a business card out of his pocket. There was a hand-written phone number on the back of it. "That's Michael Novotny's cell phone. You can call that on the 14th to find out how the surgery went. It's scheduled for eight in the morning and will run three or four hours. Call after four in the afternoon."

I was irritated for a second. It was like he was giving me some kind of reward or something, like I'd passed some test he'd set up, and I was deemed worthy of making that call. Who the fuck was he to control that? What, like, if I hadn't followed his stupid rules and played along with his little games, I wouldn't be entitled to find out how Justin was? How in the hell could he be so fucking arrogant? Why, a thousand times WHY was Justin back with him?

My look was dark when I glanced up at him, and he lifted that eyebrow at me. I'm not all that mysterious, so I'm sure he could read the thoughts that passed through my brain. I wanted to call him on it, to just...flame him for putting me through some fucking trial, but in the end, I just said, "Thanks," and put the card in my wallet. As the elevator door opened, I added "I'll be back." It came out too resentfully to maintain any illusion of "cool."

He gave me a kind of gentle shove into the elevator then and backed away so the doors would close. "I know," he said, and I got one last look at that fucking enigmatic smile of his. "We'll be here. Buh-bye now." And then the doors closed and in a few minutes I was launched back into my regular life.

I have to say, I thought he'd have me walk away with more...what? Peace of mind? I thought he'd want me to go feeling assured (convinced?) about the viability of their relationship. Okay, that's pretty laughable now that I read it over, like The Fucker was sitting around worried about what I thought about anything, especially given everything that was going on with Justin.

If nothing else, I thought the vindictive drama queen in him would have wanted to rub my nose in their reunion. The thing is, he didn't give a damn what impression I walked away with or what I though of his being back together with Justin, if he really, actually was back with him. I mean, if I didn't know the two of them, if I wasn't aware of the history between them, I might not have even guessed that they were lovers. I'll tell you this, Justin Taylor is in for the grilling of his life over this, then I'll be able to decide once and for all if he's okay. Is he loved? Is he fucking cherished like he should be? Because if he's not, if he *isn't,* then The Fuckerís going to answer to me. Somehow.

Yeah, right.

I guess there's not much else to say, at least not right now. Besides, it's almost four o'clock over in the States, and I've got a phone call to make.

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