"I don't have to speak to the class or anything, right?" Justin asked and shrugged timidly in that way of his that always shocked the hell out of me. In so many ways he's such a typical 20 year old kid-cock sure of himself, swaggering through life with an air of entitlement that stops just on the other side of arrogance.
But sometimes there's a loud noise, the flash of a red napkin, a sudden, unexpected crowd, and I remember that there is very little "typical" about Justin Taylor. Especially when you compare him to the majority of my CM students.
Superficially, they are almost interchangeable-white, upper middle class, well schooled, well heeled, poorly dressed. Their good intentions are often masked by laziness and selfishness, yet I see a greater willingness on their part to walk their talk than I see in my own generation. Perhaps that's youth, but even so, unlike many of my colleagues, I harbor no fears about a future in the hands of my students. Some of them will do great things and some of them won't, and the world will keep on turning in spite of it all.
What sets Justin apart, I think, is that most of my students have no first-hand knowledge of how capricious their lives are; no real understanding of how fragile it all is; of how one small step to the left or the right can irrevocably change everything; can very nearly ruin everything. It's that knowledge that seasons all of us as we age; it's simply come to Justin sooner--and more fiercely-than many kids his age.
I forget that about him, then am reminded, like when I invited him to audit one of my classes. He shrank into his shoulders and moved a step behind and to the right of Brian and asked if he would be required to speak to the class.
I assured him he wouldn't
have to say anything unless he wanted to, and he seemed fairly excited with the
offer. Weeks after the mayoral election, it seemed like Justin was the only one
still feeling the effects of all the upset. Michael and Hunter had returned
unscathed, and Hunter was now safely under our guardianship. Brian had started
a consulting service and already had more work than he could handle. He'd lured
away his former assistant at his old ad agency, and was in talks to hire
another one of his peers. Justin was still out of school and while he'd taken
on extra shifts at the diner, was also waiting tables at a more upscale
A class in The Meaning of Art in Modern Society seemed like a good fit for him.
It was interesting to observe Justin outside of the context in which I'd always seen him-namely as Brian's companion or Michael's partner on their comic book, Rage.
He always took a seat near the back of my classroom, close to the door. A pretty co-ed had her eye on Justin most of the semester, and often times sat in "his" seat in an attempt to garner his attention. All he ever did was spare her an irritated glance as he took the seat across the aisle. I teased him about her once, and he had no idea what I was talking about.
Justin was what I always called a "scoper." He listened intently, but held back commenting. I didn't get the sense that his opinion relied on the voices of others, so much as hearing the opinions of others helped him refine what his own opinion was.
After the first few classes, Justin would loiter around by the door until the last of my students had filed out, then he would thank me and maybe offer an impression or two. By the third or fourth week, he was actively bringing discussions to the table.
He was vehemently opposed to the labeling of art: high-brow, low-brow, pop or otherwise. He thought it elitist and condescending and an effort by "culture nazis" to try and impose their taste on the world at large and force a caste system whereby some measure of worthiness was attached to artistic endeavors. Whew. We spent nearly three class periods exploring the topic.
"It comes down to this," he said, as we walked from the lecture hall back to my office, "If the work doesn't resonate with me, if it doesn't stick with me and challenge me and make me think, then it doesn't matter that some group or some critic somewhere has dubbed in an "Important Work." It still failed to move *me*. So what good does it do to try and separate art into these categories when the criteria for those categories are completely and utterly fluid-when the categories themselves are completely and utterly fluid!"
"But Justin, what do you really think?" I teased when he stopped for a moment to take a breath.
He blushed and laughed and ducked his head. "I'm a total geek, aren't I?" he said, wrinkling his nose.
I shrugged. "Takes one to know one," I said. "Come on-you can regale me further over a hamburger at The Union."
An invitation to coffee after the first class had segued into a lunch date after the next class. It became a regular occurrence if Justin didn't have to work, and I had no meetings or other appointments to attend to.
I never brought up the subject of Brian-though it came up often enough without my help. I just felt like Justin spent enough time justifying, deflecting, excusing and defending when it came to that relationship. I didn't want my voice added to the noise.
One of the sections of my class discusses how love is depicted in modern art, literature and other pop-mediums. It led to a lot of interesting discussion about how much of our ideas of love come from some sort of intrinsic, natural source, and how much was simply dumped on us by the media. Justin was fairly silent in class. I'm sure he was the only student there whose 31-year-old lover had provided most of his lessons on the tragedy and triumph of love.
But later, as we ate lunch, he spoke very openly about it. "I used to think it was about finding someone who'd do anything for me, like that was some measure of something. But the thing is, with Brian? He makes me feel like *I* can do anything. God, I feel so fucking fearless, you know? Reckless, some people would probably say. I don't know. It feels great, though. Especially when you understand how fucking terrified I was after the bashing. Just all the time flat-out terrified of everything. That I can walk into a room and think, 'all right, you fuckers, deal with *me* is, like, a miracle or something."
I nodded, but felt compelled to add, "And maybe, too, a testament to your own resilience? To how fucking strong you are, all on your own."
"Maybe," Justin said, with an easy shrug. Then his eyes widened with exaggerated concern. "God, don't say anything like that to Brian, though. He'd be crushed!"
We shared a laugh at that, then I said, "Bring that up next session, why don't you. It's a really interesting concept. So often we look to the other person to give us something-some sign, some gesture, when if we simply stopped and thought about how they made us feel, maybe signs and gestures wouldn't be so necessary."
Justin nodded eagerly, obviously agreeing with me. "I read something once-probably the signature on some stupid e-mail, but it said something like it's not how much you love someone that matters, but who you are when you're with them. And I was like, 'Oh my God, that's it. It feels so right when Brian and I are together because *I'm* so right when we're together. I don't need a bunch of shitty offerings that would somehow *prove* to me how he feels because it's all wrapped up in how I feel. In who I am. Does that make sense?"
"Perfect sense," I said. "You are a wise young man, Justin Taylor. I'm lucky to have you in my class."
The casual sentiment seemed to touch him. He blushed and smiled shyly, then cocked his head to the side. "Could I draw you sometime?" he asked.
I laughed at the idea, but he was serious, and somehow, a week or two later, there I stood in my office, feeling like an idiot as Justin walked slowly around me trying to decide how he wanted me to pose.
"You're so beautiful," he said softly, and any embarrassment I'd felt at standing before him was pretty much alleviated. "I wish I was buffer," he said conversationally. "Stronger."
"You want to come to the gym with me sometime?"
Justin wrinkled his nose and shook his head. He looked like a delighted little kid as he said, "I'd feel dumb!"
"Hey, are you callin' me dumb? What's dumb about taking care of yourself, huh?"
Justin laughed. "No, nothing, it's not that! I don't know. It's just not my thing, I guess. Not yet, anyway. Brian says it'll all catch up with me eventually. He gets so pissed when I put on a pair of pants, and they're too big. You'd think I drop weight just to make him shit."
"He's just jealous," I said. "Now that I break bread with you regularly, I am too. Your metabolism is out-of-this-world."
I remember that at the end of that day, that first day that I posed for him, I walked Justin to the door, and he paused as he was leaving, then turned back around and kissed my cheek. I swear to God that was just about the sweetest kiss I've ever known.
Several weeks later, on a rare occasion when Michael and I met they guys out at Babylon, I found myself leaning against the bar next to Justin, watching Brian and Michael share a dance. Justin leaned over and said into my ear. "The next time I draw you, will you take off your clothes for me?"
I paused, only slightly taken aback, and smiled at him as I said, "Then all my secrets will be revealed."
He smiled back and said sweetly, "Please?" and I laughed again, wondering if Kinney ever refused him anything in the face of that smile and those eyes.
Posing for Justin, even before I disrobed, bred such an air of intimacy between us. Standing before Justin as he drew, I felt exposed, I felt *known* in a way few men have ever known me. It made it easy-effortless, really-to talk to him about things I rarely talked about to anyone.
We compared senses of outrage, helplessness and eventually acceptance that came with my HIV-positive diagnosis and his bashing. My diagnosis had come with an almost paralyzing self-hatred. I had a masters degree, was on my way to being a tenured professor at a top-notch university. How could I have let this happen? How could I have been so fucking, fucking stupid? Well before I fostered that same sense of anger toward my partner, I aimed it all at myself. I couldn't stand to look at myself in a mirror; couldn't stand to spend a moment by myself it was so overwhelming.
"I know just what you mean," Justin said, his intense gaze flowing from me to the page before him back to me, then back to the page. "I hated myself for awhile. Like, everything about me. That I'd let it happen in the first place, that I was so messed up about it, that I couldn't just put it behind me. That I was so fucking, fucking weak. Everyone was so understanding about my hand, but most people don't have a lot of patience for all the emotional shit. You can see it in their faces, this whole like, 'Get over yourself already,' thing, you know?"
"With me, it was more a look that said, 'Well it's your own damn fault.' Maybe some of that was projection, but it's an attitude that's there."
Justin smiled. "People suck," he said, eyes twinkling at the entendre.
"Thank God," I said. "At some point, I had to let most of that anger go," I said, philosophically. "It wasn't productive, certainly. If nothing else, I'm determined to have a real sense of what I can and can't control in my life; what I can and can't change."
"But what if you think you can't change something when you really can?" Justin asked. "It's so easy to tell yourself I'm just one person, I'm just one voice, I can't make a difference. I understand that you have to be realistic, but it seems like the older you get, the more you tell yourself there's nothing you can do about anything." He grinned then, and shrugged. "Debbie notwithstanding, of course."
"Of course!" I agreed, laughing along with him.
He never asked me not to mention anything about my posing, and I never said that I wouldn't, but we both knew Michael well enough to know he wouldn't understand, and we both knew Brian well enough to know he wouldn't appreciate it, so it was something we kept between the two of us.
Still, toward the end of the semester, he presented me with a framed charcoal nude. It was beautiful and real-it was me, only better. More.
"That's how Michael looks at you," he said, and the explanation sent chills down my spine. I don't think I'll ever look at another portrait on the wall of some gallery the same way ever again.
"It's for both of you," Justin continued, "But maybe you'd better wait to give it to him until he's totally in the dog house for something, then he won't be able to get mad at you for posing for me."
I'll admit to feeling a little regret when the semester came to a close. Justin was happily returning to PIFA for the summer session. He was dropping the job at the GLC, but felt like the tips were too good at Rothe's to forfeit, so he planned to keep waiting tables there and at the diner.
After one of our last classes together, we went to the diner for lunch, since Justin started a shift right after. He'd been fairly quiet in class and on the ride over, and he excused himself to go back in the break room as soon as we got there. He was back seconds later, looking pissed.
"Shit, I fucked up," he said.
"What's wrong, Sunshine?" Deb asked.
"Headache," Justin said.
"You want an aspirin, Sweetie?" She started to head toward the back herself, but Justin shook his head, wincing as he did.
"It won't work. Fuck! I knew this morning this was coming, but I kept thinking maybe I just needed a cup of coffee and something to eat! I was sure I'd left some shit in my locker."
Debbie rolled her eyes. "You think any kind of prescription medication is gonna just sit around this lot of fuckin' addicts?" she asked. "Sunshine, how the hell long have you been hangin' out here anyway?"
Justin looked up at Deb, his face a study in misery. "I gotta go home, Deb. I'm gonna be puking all over the place in a few minutes."
"Okay, Honey. Ben can take you home, right?"
"Of course," I said.
"Sorry," Justin said. "Shit, why didn't I take something this morning? I'm such a fuckin' idiot."
He didn't say anything else the rest of the way home, save a moan whenever the car went over a bump.
Justin had moved into his own apartment several months earlier. He laughingly told me of the most expensive work he'd ever done-expensive because his canvas was one of the walls of his apartment, which meant he was forfeiting his $450 security deposit. He called the work Naked Guy Redux, though I'm not quite sure what the whole "redux" meant.
It was the first thing I noticed when we walked in the door--an amazing piece of work. It was simply a man, nude of course, sitting on a bench or a chair, staring right into the eyes of the observer. It took up nearly the whole wall, and I thought it a shame the piece would be painted over when Justin moved.
By then, Justin wasn't in much of a condition to discuss his painting. "Lights out," he whispered on his way to the bathroom. "God, God, lights out."
While Justin hung out over the toilet bowl, I closed all of the curtains and straightened his bed. During a lull, I got him to tell me where his medication was, and I doled out two pills to him.
He only kept them down a few minutes. We tried a second dose, which he lost even quicker, and I started thinking maybe the emergency room was a good idea. My aunt used to get really nasty migraines, and if she couldn't keep pills down, she'd have to go to the hospital.
I made the suggestion to Justin before we tried a third set of pills, and he grew upset. "No, Ben, shit, no! It's a fucking zoo. I can have a shot here, Brian can give it to me. Not the ER, okay?"
I knew what Justin meant-a trip to the ER meant waiting around, a load of paperwork, and a host of other inconveniences. I didn't comment one way or the other, simply offered him a third dose of pills.
When ten minutes passed without any more puking, I helped Justin to his bed. "I'm good now," he whispered groggily. "Brian's coming," he said, and my face must have registered some doubt. He smiled vaguely. "Deb calls him. You don't have to stay."
But of course I did. I stood up when the door opened, and Brian stopped short when he saw me. "Christ, what the hell are you doing *here*?" he barked, and by his tone, you'd think my presence was forced on him at every turn.
"I wasn't going to leave him alone until someone else was here."
He pushed past me into the apartment, tossing his brief case on the couch without even looking that way, then removing his suit jacket and tie on his way to the kitchen. "Just what sweet little Sunshine needs-another well-meaning sap treating him like a fucking two year old."
"He had a migraine, not a temper tantrum because his fries were greasy." I followed him into the kitchen. "It came on too quickly for him to do anything about it. He just stopped throwing up twenty minutes ago."
"He shoot the painkiller or swallow it," he asked nonchalantly, as he opened and closed several cabinet doors.
"Pills," I answered. "Eventually. He lost the first two doses, and I'm not sure how much of those got into his system. I wanted to take him to the emergency room, but..."
"But his tearful blue eyes were just too much for you to resist?" he helpfully supplied. "'I'll be okay, Ben,'" he mimicked in falsetto. "'Just give me a minute, and I'll be fine, I promise.'"
"Your shtick is so old. I'm not going to run out and blab the dirty little secret that Brian Kinney was worried about his boyfriend."
He stopped rooting around the kitchen and very slowly set down the plastic tumbler in his hand. "Don't tell me what I'm doing or why," he said in a low voice.
"Would you relax? I'm not playing out one of your soap opera scenes just to indulge your sense of the dramatic. Justin was sick and I helped him..."
"I don't need your help," Brian said.
"Well that's great because I wasn't helping you. This is obviously a difficult concept for you to grasp, but you don't figure into my relationship with Justin at all."
"Your relationship," Brian sarcastically repeated. "What fucking relationship? He prances over to Carnegie Mellon a couple of times a week and sits in on some lecture..."
"And writes beautifully insightful papers and voices interesting opinions and manages to look at books and movies and articles that I've been teaching for years in ways that constantly surprise me. And none of it, not one bit of it, has anything to do with you."
Brian's eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared and he answered in a low voice, "Then you don't know our boy as well as you think."
I almost chuckled, thinking back to the conversation Justin and I had about recognizing things you have control over and things you don't. "Right," I simply said. "I can see Justin's in good hands now. I'm gonna go."
I guess I shouldn't have denied Brian his drama because now he was determined to get it. He followed me to the door. "You think I don't see the way you look at him?" he said. "The way your eyes ride his ass out the door; your oh-so-joyful smile when he lights up a room with his little presence? You think I'm buying any of this mentor-big brother horseshit? Do you really think I don't know?"
I shrugged at him. "What the hell do you want? You're whole attitude toward Justin is *Just Deal.* Deal with your fucking and your indifference and your selfishness. Well you know what? You have to deal with the fact that every time you turn around, someone's gonna be falling a little bit in love with him."
"Someone like Michael's perfect professor for instance?" he asked, feigning shock and disbelief.
I rolled my eyes. "So what? They haven't measured me for a pine box yet. Justin is young and smart and pretty-who wouldn't let their mind wander now and then? I'm not going to jeopardize what Michael and I have; I'm sure as hell not going to embarrass Justin by coming on to him. So there you go, Brian. Yeah, I look. I think. I wonder. So what."
"This conversation is so fucking lame it needs a cane," Brian said, rolling his eyes and returning to the kitchen to search for whatever the hell he was looking for.
"Brian?" Justin called weakly from the bedroom.
"Christ, he shouldn't be awake," Brian said, glancing at the clock on the stove, then glaring at me like it was my fault. I shrugged at him as he stalked passed me to the bedroom.
"Hey, " I heard him say softly. "How you feelin'?"
"Mmm, ask me tomorrow, okay?"
"Give me a number on the Kinney Hangover scale."
Justin chuckled. "Fifteen."
"Ouch. Professor Beefcake almost took you to the emergency room. You've got to fucking wear that id bracelet. One of these days they're gonna shoot you up with codeine, and your head's gonna explode."
"Don't lecture me when I'm practically dead," Justin whined.
"Why didn't you go to the loft? Your bed is for shit. I'm gonna have a fucking crick in my neck all day tomorrow. And where the hell is the whisky I brought over here? You are the hugest fucking alcoholic I know."
"Shhhh, practically dead, remember?"
"You are such a princess."
"Just shut up and sit here and rub my head 'til I'm asleep again."
"One of these days I'm gonna wise up and exchange you for a poodle."
"Like the humane society wouldn't be on your ass in a heart beat. Is it the concept of 'shut' or 'up' that you're having the most trouble with?"
Shaking my head, I left them to it. The funny thing is the more I've come to know Justin, the less I scratch my head over the puzzle that is Brian and Justin. I don't think any of us will ever really understand that relationship, but I don't worry that Justin is outmatched or in over his head. He seems to know exactly what he wants to be; he seems to be exactly where he want to be. Most people twice his age can't say that.
Grinning to myself, I headed home, making a last-minute decision to pick up ribs from Jimmy J's on the way. Michael and Hunter loved them as much as I did, plus they always got a kick out of my throwing my healthy eating ideals out the window. It was never a bad idea to keep those two on their toes.