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You're Only as Old as You Feel

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Justin wakes up the morning he turns 18 and finally feels like an adult. He’s always been mature for his age, he knows that. But now he knows he’s truly, legally an adult in the eyes of the law and everything. He can vote. He could get married if he wanted to. He could join the army (not that he ever would). He stretches and grins, pleased with himself. He hears Deb calling him, telling him to get his perky little butt downstairs for breakfast. He doesn’t get out of bed just yet though, taking a moment to savor the memory of just what Brian had done to his perky little butt last night in the backroom.

Justin had hoped to go home with Brian after Babylon, but had to settle for coming back to Deb’s. The sting of Brian’s rejection had all but disappeared though when Brian had pulled him close, kissed him hard, and growled “tomorrow night, birthday boy” in his ear before pushing him out of the Jeep. He hadn’t been too bothered even before that though, flushed as he was with the success of his plan to save Brian’s job. It had actually worked! Justin figured Brian suspected something but Justin hadn’t volunteered any information. If he ever found out exactly what Justin had done to get Kip to drop the suit, well… that would just prove to Brian how much he loved him. Justin wasn’t going to gloat about it though. Just knowing he’d helped Brian was enough.

Debbie hollers again and Justin sighs and rolls out of bed. Vic had asked him last week what he wanted for his birthday breakfast. Justin had told him just waffles, but knowing Vic, they are going to be the most incredible waffles he’s ever tasted and Justin is looking forward to them. He can’t help feeling a little pang though as he gets dressed. His mom has made him blueberry pancakes for breakfast every morning on his birthday for as long as he can remember. Justin knows he could have asked Vic to make them, but somehow he just couldn’t bring himself to.

Vic’s waffles are indeed delicious and Deb fusses over Justin at the breakfast table, making sure he gets enough to eat. His day at St. James is actually decent. Chris Hobbs tries to trip him when he walks into American Lit but Justin is ready and easily walks around him, garnering a few snickers from others in the class happy to see Hobbs’ bullying tactics fail on someone for once. Justin sits with Daph at lunch and they talk and Daphne giggles about what they think Brian might have planned for Justin tonight. They have a sub in Sociology and Justin finishes the busy work their regular teacher left quickly so he gets to spend the rest of the time sketching in his notebook.

His mom picks him up after school and brings him a blueberry muffin. It’s not quite as good as pancakes but it makes Justin smile all the same. He munches on it happily as she drives them across town to an art gallery they used to like to visit together and they spend a couple of hours enjoying the exhibits. Before she drops him back off at Deb’s, she hands him a birthday card. Inside is $100 cash. It’s signed “Love, Mom and Dad” but Justin is sure his father knows nothing about it. Justin forces a small smile and kisses her cheek before slipping out of the car.

When he heads down to Liberty Avenue that night, he stops off to buy a pack of cigarettes even though he still has some left, just because he can do it now without using a fake ID. Emmett buys him a couple of drinks at Woody’s and a bottle of water at Babylon after Brian slips him a tab of E during a deep kiss. Brian pulls Justin close when they dance and only disappears into the backroom once all night.

When they arrive at the loft Brian informs him that it is unconscionable that a young gay man could reach 18 years of age and not have his own dildo. Justin bites his lip in an attempt to keep his smile at bay and nods in solemn agreement with the dilemma Brian has just pointed out. A dilemma which is soon rectified when Brian reaches into the drawer next to the bed and pulls out a brand new, bright blue dildo. Eight inches long, five and a half inches around. To start small and work his way up, Brian informs him and pushes his tongue into his cheek.

Later, after Brian has fucked him thoroughly with first Justin’s new dildo and then with his cock, Justin is starting to drift off when he realizes this is the first birthday of his life that he didn’t have a cake and blow out candles. He ponders that for a moment and then decides it doesn’t matter. That’s kid stuff really anyway. And all things considered, Justin would much rather wake up in the morning and blow Brian instead.

*********

The day Justin turns 19 is the day he first lays eyes on the person he would later refer to as “the biggest mistake of (his) pathetic, stupid life.” But at the time all Justin knows is the way Ethan captures his interest with the intensity with which he plays. The way he so easily offers up one of his CDs as an impromptu birthday present to someone he just met. The obvious pleasure he takes in Justin’s small drawings, sketched haphazardly in the blank spaces of a printed program.

He returns to the loft and to his birthday “gift” of a hustler wrapped in a red ribbon bow. And he aches.

*********

Justin turns 20 and life couldn’t be much more different than it was a year ago. Justin believes, really knows in his heart, that this is the happiest he and Brian have ever been despite the specter of Stockwell hanging over Liberty Avenue. He thinks about how pleased with himself he had been to turn 18 two years before and shakes his head and laughs a little at just how young he had been. To think that he was an adult then. What a difference a year makes. What a difference two years make.

Brian wakes him up with a blowjob in the morning, then rims him and fucks him senseless before getting up and admonishing Justin not to be late for work, lest Brian have to fire his recently fucked ass. Justin groans in response and pulls the duvet back over himself but hops out of bed once he hears the loft door slide shut behind Brian. He really has a lot to do today. Breakfast and a strategy session with Daph in preparation for Stockwell’s appearance at the Gay and Lesbian Center tomorrow, work at Vangard, lunch with his mom, dinner at Deb’s tonight with the whole gang, then possibly Woody’s and definitely Babylon. Also, somewhere in there he wants to put the finishing touches on his next anti-Stockwell poster so he can get them printed and he and Brian can hang them tomorrow night for maximum impact immediately following Stockwell being confronted at the GLC.

Justin doesn’t expect a gift from Brian, despite Brian’s joking a couple of nights before. He meant what he said; he knows what to expect from Brian now. So when his first issue of ArtForum arrives two weeks after Brian is fired and Justin is suspended from PIFA, he stares at it for a long moment before a smile comes to his lips. He wants to thank Brian or tell him it’s not necessary, that he should cancel the subscription and see if he can get his money back. But he doesn’t.

A few days later Justin is reading on the sofa when Brian comes in from wherever he’d wandered off to in his suddenly vast quantities of free time. Justin glances up at him and gives in a “hey” of acknowledgement before returning to the article in front of him. Brian gets a beer from the fridge and sits down in front of his computer.

“Well, it’s not quite O,” Justin says after a bit.

“Hm?” Brian replies distractedly.

Justin lifts the magazine so Brian can see the cover and then returns it to his lap, never taking his eyes off the page.

“Ah,” Brian nods once in acknowledgement. “Yes. Fewer douche ads.”

*********

Justin almost forgets his 21st birthday. He doesn’t remember it until his mother calls a couple of nights before to invite him and Brian to dinner. But Brian’s just started his second week of radiation and Justin knows there’s no way he’ll be feeling well enough to go. And asking Brian to go to dinner with him at his mother’s is something Justin would he hesitant to ask of his partner even under the best of circumstances. Which this most certainly is not.

He also turns down an invitation to a joint birthday dinner for him and Ben at Debbie’s. It’s hard to do. Justin knows she’s still grieving heavily over Vic’s death. But he also knows that even if Brian was well, he wouldn’t be welcome there. Justin isn’t sure what he can do about that situation, if anything. He supposes really it’s up to Brian. Justin figures Brian will tell their family about his illness eventually. Probably when it’s all over with so there’s nothing they can do except berate him for not telling them sooner.

He knows Brian will be finished with treatments in less than three weeks, but right now that seems as far away as a year to Justin. Brian is sick. He’s weak and he’s pale and he’s in pain. And there’s nothing that Justin can fucking do. So he sits by his side and offers him water and a hand up off the floor when he’s done vomiting. He changes the sheets on the bed when Brian wakes up drenched in sweat from nightmares he won’t admit he’s having. He warms up bowls of chicken soup when Brian’s stomach is calm enough to attempt accepting food again. And he waits. Waits for this to be over. Waits for the scenery to fucking change again.

Sometimes Justin feels so very old for his age, for everything that he has been through. The bashing, and the Posse, and now his partner having cancer.

Justin spends the evening laying on a futon cushion on the floor of the loft with Brian, watching movies. The worst of the nausea has subsided for now and Brian drifts in and out of sleep, his head in Justin’s lap as Justin strokes his hair. When the next movie ends, Justin tries to ease himself out from under his dozing partner without disturbing him but Brian stirs. Justin asks him if he has a preference for the next movie and Brian laughs softly. “Yeah… Yellow Submarine.”

Justin pauses. “Brian?” Brian hates that movie.

Brian closes his eyes again and settles his head on his arm. “Happy birthday, Sunshine.”

Justin turns to get the DVD case and keeps his back turned for a couple moments longer than necessary just in case Brian opens his eyes again. He swallows hard and blinks against the stinging in his eyes. He takes a slow deep breath and then walks over and pops the disc into the player. He returns to the cushion on the floor and curls up behind Brian, propping his head up on his hand so he can see the screen.

Justin is finally fully legal, a day he realizes just about every young person he knows looks forward to greatly. But Justin doesn’t feel young and he finds turning 21 doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. The only thing that matters is that Brian gets well.

*********

On his 22nd birthday, Justin paints. He wakes up at 6:30 in a fit of inspiration and waits impatiently for the sun to rise high enough in the sky for the weak winter light to illuminate his grimy little studio. He paints all day long, not even stopping to eat, only finally giving in and cleaning out his brushes when the sun starts to set in the early evening. He curses the short days but when he checks the time he knows he should get ready anyway. He takes a lukewarm shower in the dreary, cramped bathroom down the hall and puts on clean slacks and nice shirt.

He arrives on Ben and Michael’s doorstop promptly at 7:00. His mother is already there, as is Debbie. And Eli and Monty. They have a nice dinner filled with polite conversation. After the plates are cleared, Debbie brings out a cake she has baked for he and Ben to share. She claims it won’t be nearly as good as Vic’s cakes always were and Justin notices she can mention him now with a little bit of a smile. That’s good, he thinks. He and Ben blow out the candles. But Justin can’t think of a single thing to wish for.

Hunter isn’t mentioned once all evening.

Neither is Brian.

Justin knows it was the right thing to do. He wonders when it’s going to start feeling like it.

*********

Justin spends his 23rd birthday in New York. His mom really wanted him to come home but he honestly couldn’t afford to. Even when she offered to pay for his air faire, he still had to say no because he couldn’t afford to take the time off work at the restaurant where he waits tables full time.

It’s been a rough ten months for Justin since he moved here. Not impossible by any stretch of the imagination, good things have happened for him, but it’s been a ton of fucking hard work. He works full time at the restaurant, paints whenever he can (which never feels like nearly enough), and in between he pounds the pavement going from gallery to gallery, trying to get his work shown. And slowly, little by little, it’s starting to pay off. He’s had several pieces in a few group shows at a handful of small but well-regarded galleries and all have sold.

Two months ago he got the chance to take over the lease of a former co-worker who was getting married and moving to Wyoming of all places. The rent was a bit high for his income, but Justin had gone for it anyway because if he set up his bed in the living area, there was enough space for him to have a small studio in the bedroom alcove which had two large windows with an eastern exposure that gave great light in the morning (a time that Justin was usually home). He kept the spot he already had in a shared workspace because he was limited in the quantity and scale of work he could do in the tiny apartment, but the chance to do away with annoying roommates and to have a workspace, no matter now small, where he lived was more than Justin was willing to pass up.

The rent payments are stretching his budget to the last penny though. He makes great tips and the canvases he sold in a show last month helped some but he can’t count on that money all the time and he doesn’t have any shows coming up in the near future. He’s trying like hell not to have to dip into his Hollywood earnings any more than he has already had to. But he’s really not sure how he’s going to afford fresh supplies of canvas and lumber and he needs to stretch new canvases soon. He’s almost out.

So when Paul asks him if he’d be willing to cover his lunch shift, Justin doesn’t hesitate to take it even though he’s already working the dinner shift that night. He’s working 11 ½ hours on his birthday, but really what else does he have to do? Sure he has made some friends in the city, but most are in much the same position as him moneywise. They’d like to go out and have lunch or dinner or a few drinks to celebrate someone’s birthday and sometimes they do. But all in all it’s usually a better idea financially to stay home.

It’s twenty after ten and Justin’s shift is finally supposed to end in ten minutes when Becca passes by him in the kitchen and asks if he could please, please, please take the drink and maybe the appetizer orders for her Table 7. She knows he’s off soon but she’s swamped and Justin sighs and rolls his eyes but gives her a long-suffering “yes” and laughs a little at her happy squeal of gratitude.

He walks out of the kitchen and stops dead in his tracks when he sets eyes on the man seated at Table 7. Then his face splits into a wide grin. He forces himself to walk slowly the rest of the way over to stand in front of Brian, who Justin is sure is biting the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling just as wide in return.

“Come on, birthday boy. Let’s go,” Brian says as he stands.

“I’m not off for another…” Justin starts to say but Brian tilts his head in the direction of Justin’s manager who just nods her head and smiles.

“Where to?” Brian asks a few minutes later as they slide into a cab.

Justin groans. “God, Brian, I would really love to go out but I’m so tired. I just want to go home and get out of these clothes.”

“Well that works out well then,” Brian says. “Because I want to take you home and get you out of those clothes.” He gives the cab driver Justin’s address.

When they get there, Brian lets them in with the key Justin had given him on his first visit after Justin moved in. Justin somewhat unsuccessfully tries not to let the glee he feels at such a small thing show. But it is absolutely hands down the best thing about having his own apartment in New York. Brian now has a key. And when he visits they stay together at Justin’s place. Not that Justin minded the nice hotels and the room service, but this just feels right. The way it should be.

Justin shrugs out of his coat and moves towards the fridge. He thinks there’s still some beer left from Brian’s last visit and he opens his mouth to ask him is he wants one as he pulls the door open and pauses. The fridge is filled with food. Fresh vegetables and cheese and lunch meat, milk and juice and bottled water and, yes, beer (though definitely more than Justin knew had been there when he left for work today). The freezer is likewise stocked with frozen chicken breasts and ground beef, packaged dinners, and ice cream. A check of the cupboards reveals a plethora of cookies and chips and sugared cereals the likes of which the cupboards of the loft will never see. He laughs and turns to Brian for an explanation.

“You know, ‘starving artist’ is just supposed to be an expression,” Brian says quietly as he walks over and pulls Justin close.

He was hardly starving, but Justin appreciates the gesture all the same. Not having to buy groceries for the next month is going to make all the difference in the world in Justin’s budget for the next little while.

It takes almost twenty minutes for him to realize he’s not cold without a thick sweater on and Brian must have turned up the heat. He has no doubt his heating bill will be paid for accordingly. He definitely plans to enjoy that for the rest of the month. And if it takes him a full hour to notice the new iPod sitting in its dock next to his computer, he certainly has a good excuse. He was more than a bit preoccupied during most of that time. Justin’s a little embarrassed and mentally blames it on his state of near exhaustion that he feels tears prick his eyes when he spots it. He’d known it was going to take him forever to save up enough money to buy a replacement for the one he’d lost (or the one he suspects one of his former roommates had stolen, to be more accurate).

He’s about to turn around and express his thanks when he feels Brian press up against his back, his cock already hard again against his ass. And suddenly Justin doesn’t feel so tired anymore.