Pairing: Brian/Jennifer friendship
Summary: 5 things that did happen to Brian and Jennifer.
It starts the moment it falls apart; she accepts the intractability of his presence in their lives the same moment she resolves that her son will never see him again.
She knows everything from his face, before she speaks to any doctors or listens to any ragged words of consolation. Brian’s face and his shirt – there is blood on his shirt, and it isn’t his but she wishes it was – tell her more than she wants to know. His eyes are glazed and shining but he isn’t there, he’s retreated somewhere inside of himself.
No, she wants to say. You don’t get to do that, you don’t get to hide, you have to experience every moment of what you’ve done. Michael sits awkwardly beside him.
‘We don’t know anything yet, Mrs. Taylor, we, just, we—’ He stops and clears his throat. But she knows everything, and she can’t take her eyes from Brian’s face.
She wants to tell him that this is his fault, and he has no right to be there. She wants to tell him that she doesn’t deserve this; she has been endlessly patient, she has loved Justin unreservedly for every day of her life, and he’d always been safe until he met Brian.
She doesn’t say this. ‘You can go now,’ she says, and the voice doesn’t sound like her. ‘Thank you for waiting, but you can go now.’
Brian shifts his eyes to her face as if he’s only just noticed her, but doesn’t move, and in an instant she realises that now, after this, he’s always going to be a part of their lives. He could get up and walk away and move across the country, but how to explain the scar on Justin’s head, the memory of this night? (That’s all there’ll be, she tells herself. A small scar, a memory.) Her son’s blood is on Brian’s shirt and now he’s always going to be part of her family, even just as a memory, an invisible presence that she tries to ignore but can’t. He has smashed his way in. He did this. They will never be able to forget him.
The first time she met him, that’s all she wanted. For him to be a phase, a bad phase, like the time Molly wanted her nose pierced. It would pass, and they would all forget it. Brian would slip out of memory and she’d never have to think about him again.
No chance of that now.
Later, her anger will subside, will gently rise and lapse like waves at odd moments when she thinks about him - but right now she hates him because she will think about him, will think about him every day. It is no longer possible to erase him from her life.
Brian still hasn’t spoken. There’s no sound but her heart pounding in her ears and footsteps. The doctor is walking up the white corridor to meet them, shoes squeaking against the floor, coming to tell them if Justin is alive.
He tells her: ‘I met this guy.’
He’s visiting, and she’s in the kitchen chopping vegetables. ‘Oh?’ she says, trying to keep her voice neutral. Justin shifts his weight from foot to foot and looks worried, and she doesn’t know what he wants her to say. ‘That’s nice,’ she says.
‘His name’s Ethan, he’s a music student, he plays violin.’ His words trip out on top of each other, and a quiet hope flares in her chest. He’s a student; he will go to student parties and worry about homework. He will be young and safe.
She meets Ethan. She likes Ethan, although somehow she knows it won’t last. But why should it? Justin’s too young to settle down. Brian was a learning experience, and although Justin probably learned a little too much, she’s got things to be grateful to him for. They both have.
That’s the only reason she feels a twinge of something – not guilt, but something not entirely pleasant – when she sees Brian in the diner, and she insists on buying him coffee. He accepts with a dry smile.
‘He’s nothing to do with me anymore,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to pretend to like me.’
She doesn’t know what to say, so she pays for the coffees and holds hers carefully in her hands, watching the steam rise from the top.
‘Well, this has been delightful,’ says Brian. ‘I think I’ll take mine to go.’
‘He seems happy,’ she says, and Brian hesitates.
‘Good.’ He says flatly, and looks at the door. ‘Thanks for the coffee.’
As he’s leaving, coffee in hand, she says, ‘Brian,’ and he stops and turns. ‘If you ever – if you ever want to come for dinner, or—’ She falters. She knows it sounds insincere, and she doesn’t want Brian to know she feels – what? Sympathy for him? After a few strawberry daiquiris, Debbie has told her horror stories about Brian’s own mother, which she pretended to take interest in only for the sake of knowing what Justin was getting into. The truth is, she’s a little fascinated by Brian. He didn’t just drop out of the sky and into their lives, he had a life before that, a childhood, parents. Something turned him into the person he is.
And she has what Debbie calls the universal mother instinct. She hates to think of someone uncared for, eating dinner on their own. Even Brian. He’s an inescapable part of her life, and she wants him to come to dinner so she can find out who he is, without the distraction of worrying about what he’s doing to Justin.
He won’t come, of course. ‘I’ve got a lot of work right now,’ he smirks. ‘I’m sure our boy and Ian would appreciate some home cooked food, though. Can’t be easy living on tinned soup.’
He’s gone before she can respond, the bell on the door jingling behind him. It doesn’t matter. She knows she’ll see him again. Justin can’t slice him out of his life any more than she can.
She knows Brian isn’t telling her everything.
‘This Cody,’ she says. ‘He scares me.’ Where is his mother, she wonders.
‘His fashion sense scares me,’ says Brian, but he isn’t smiling. They’re at the loft, in the kitchen, and Jennifer is pretending to help Brian with the papers for the new office.
‘Listen, you would tell me if Justin was getting into something he couldn’t handle,’ she says. ‘You would know, Brian, you live with him and eat with him and sleep with him—’
He raises an eyebrow.
‘And you would know before me, Brian. I don’t know anything anymore.’
‘You know plenty,’ says Brian. ‘And he can handle it.’ His voice is calm and steady and he looks at her evenly. He’s trying to reassure her. They are allies; they have the same objective. Cody is the new intruder, the threat, the boy she hopes she’s going to be able to forget.
‘It’s not that I don’t understand,’ she says. ‘I get angry too, I understand.’
He nods. They both understand. They have a shared experience.
‘I just think he’s having too much influence. He’s – he’s too angry.’
Brian takes two beers out of the fridge and offers her one. She accepts.
‘Are you alright?’ she says, tilting her head and studying him. ‘You look like you’re getting sick.’ There’s something, something no one would notice, like a gray shadow hovering over him. She saw it on Justin three weeks before he got pneumonia in ninth grade. It’s an instinct.
‘I’m fine,’ he says. ‘I’m fabulous.’
She shakes her head and clears the image.
‘Justin had this friend in middle school,’ she says. ‘Dylan. Dylan something.’
‘That’s – nice.’
‘And they cheated on a test together, they found the answers and cheated. And the principal guessed they’d done it, but he didn’t have proof, so he took them separately and told them if they turned their friend in then they wouldn’t be punished.’ She’d forgotten this story until now, but she suddenly remembered how much she’d disliked Dylan. ‘So Justin, assuming Dylan would do the same, said he didn’t know what the principal was talking about.’
‘But Dylan turned him in and Justin took all the blame,’ Brian finishes, rolling his eyes. ‘Sucker.’
‘The point is,’ she says, and bites her lip. ‘Sometimes – sometimes Justin isn’t a very good judge of character. He puts too much faith in people.’
‘I know, I know,’ says Brian, sounding tired and giving her a wry smile. ‘He chose me, right?’
She looks up quickly. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘But sometimes he’s a better judge of character than I’ll ever be.’
It starts when Justin doesn’t come home, it starts after the seventh month when it becomes obvious he’s not coming back. The postcards have stopped, have turned into phonecalls and letters; you don’t send postcards from the place you live.
She gets a new address book at Christmas and after a moment’s hesitation, doesn’t bother rewriting the number of the loft by Justin’s name. She writes his number in LA, his number at the studio, where he always seems to be.
Each month spills into the next and Jennifer reads the letters and the newspaper clippings and knows Justin is walking into great opportunities on every corner, and isn’t coming back.
With this realisation, she goes to the loft to see Brian, who looks at her blankly.
‘Of course he’s not coming back,’ he says. ‘Did you ever think he would?’
‘I—yes. Of course. After six months.’
She feels like she’s walked in halfway through the movie. ‘You knew he wasn’t coming back?’
‘L.A. is the new black,’ he drawls. ‘No one’s coming back from that.’
L.A. is the new black, the new Brian, the new force to take her son away.
‘I’d have been disappointed if he did,’ adds Brian. He smirks. ‘You want some coffee?’ She’s got him out of bed - what did she expect at 9am on a Saturday? He leans across the counter in only jeans, hair spiking in ten directions and dark circles around his eyes.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says. ‘It’s over?’
Brian picks up the coffee pot and turns away from her. ‘It’s never over,’ he says. And she believes him. She wants to.
In Justin’s absence, they sometimes have dinner together, and Brian always buys wine. Half-drunk, they both talk more than they should, beginning with how happy they are for Justin, and then – after Brian signals for the second bottle – they turn dark and talk about murderers and strange drugs in L.A, and the evils of the movie industry. Los Angeles is the new Cody, the new Brian, the new threat to the thing they love most. They know they’re being ridiculous, but in dark corners of restaurants with no one to know, they allow themselves.
Brian always pays, takes her coat and holds the door open, smiling that charmingly sarcastic smile that’s meant to disguise any mutual recognition that he’s doing something nice.
If I was ten years younger, she sometimes thinks, and then blushes and laughs at herself. It’s a ridiculous thought, not just because Brian is gay and her son’s boyfriend, but because apparently ten year age gaps aren’t the obstacle they once were. She’s starting to learn that.
He calls her two months later. ‘I’m going to L.A. I need you to look after the loft. You’re the only person left with any sense.’
She goes to the loft. ‘You’re going to visit him?’
‘Nope,’ says Brian. ‘I’m going to go and get him.’
‘Brian, you’re – you can’t bring him back. He’s happy.’
‘I’m not bringing him back,’ says Brian, looking at her steadily. ‘I’m not coming back.’
She opens and closes her mouth.
‘He followed me around for long enough,’ he says. ‘He deserves someone who’s going to follow him for a change.’
She doesn’t know what to say, so instead she helps him pack up, putting everything into boxes that he’s going to send for.
‘That’s the plan, at least,’ he says. ‘If he kicks me out I’ll be back next week and we can unpack all this shit again.’ He’s joking, but she hears something fragile in his voice, hope, and for the first time in her life, she hopes that Justin doesn’t hurt Brian. She doesn’t think he will.
She sorts through papers and books and then gets deeper, into all the evidence that Brian was a real person long before she knew he existed. School reports and tense family photographs, and already cynical job applications. She flips open a photo album and finds a bag of pot taped to the inside.
‘Wow,’ says Brian mildly. He’s standing behind her. ‘Wonder how long that’s been there.’
She slams it shut and turns around. ‘You could at least lie to me. Tell me it’s not yours, just pretend that you and my son have never sat around this place taking drugs together.’
Brian looks solemn. ‘We don’t take drugs together,’ he says. ‘We do decoupage. That’s oregano.’
She wants to smile, but forces herself not to. ‘Thank you.’
He laughs, and wanders away.
‘You know, Brian, most people try and impress their in-laws. They’re on their best behaviour.’
Brian says nothing about the in-laws comment, and suddenly she likes the idea of being someone’s mother-in-law. She’d like to introduce Brian as her son-in-law at civilised parties and watch the reactions.
‘Apparently my sister fucked her father-in-law after she met him,’ Brian says. ‘That’s the rumour. Could be why Billy Bob didn’t stick around too long. Or could be he realised he married the spawn of Satan.’
He stops in the kitchen and leans on the counter, tapping a teaspoon against the surface. She watches him, smirking at his own joke and looking at his reflection in the spoon.
‘Brian,’ she says. ‘You’re every mother’s worst nightmare.’
‘Including my own,’ Brian says, with a hard grin that doesn’t reach his eyes. She hesitates.
‘You were,’ she says. ‘You were my worst nightmare.’ He was: he was drunk drivers and meningitis and paedophiles and everything else that kept her awake at night, and all the new, half-formed threats that gathered in the corners when she knew Justin was gay, AIDS and homophobes and children with baseball bats.
There’s a long pause. ‘And what am I now?’ He isn’t looking at her, eyes averted in case she notices that he genuinely cares what she thinks.
She smiles, and looks around the loft. ‘Are we done?’ She looks around for items straying from their assigned boxes, but the floors are clean and the boxes are sealed and neatly stacked.
‘We’re done,’ he says.
‘This is really an amazing space,’ she says, trying to view it dispassionately, but every surface is infused with Brian. This space could never belong to anyone else. ‘It’s so – it’s so—’
‘Me,’ he says.
She nods, and doesn’t look at him. ‘It’s wonderful. When I first saw it I thought it was too sparse, there was nothing warm about it.’
‘I don’t know. You start to love it, don’t you?’
He grins at he, grabs the keys from behind him and tosses them to her. ‘Well, he says. ‘Have it. Keep it safe for me.’
In the end he leaves with only one bag slung over his shoulder. ‘I’ll be sending for the rest,’ he repeats, and she nods, and kisses his cheek.
‘I know you will,’ she says.
‘So don’t sell my loft,’ he says. ‘I’ll be back.’
Of course he will. He’s walking away and moving across the country, but she can’t get him out of her life.