"Pretty boy," Chris snarls.
Joey takes a quick gulp of vodka. He needs the burn in his throat. It's nothing he hasn't heard from Chris before, all too often these days, but somehow it's worse when Chris is talking about one of the others. Joey sneaks a look at Justin. Justin is sitting back in his chair, his face quiet and composed, looking at Chris.
Chris is having a hard time lately. Joey isn't sure why exactly, a few bad things happening too close together, Busta and his grandmother and FuMan, but things like that usually bring on brooding silences and drunken midnight phone calls, a slow sad spiral down that ends when Chris is ready to let one of them catch him.
Chris isn't letting anyone catch him this time. Joey thinks Chris might not even be falling anymore. This looks an awful lot like the bottom to Joey.
At least Joey hopes it is, as he watches Chris take another drink and cast a slow look over at Justin. They all put up with a lot from Chris these days. "Chris is having a hard time," they tell each other, Joey and Lance and JC, and shake their heads and sigh and swear that whatever Chris said the night before isn't true. Justin will pat Lance's arm and rub Joey's shoulders and curl up with JC on the couch, but he won't join in the rest of their reassurances. He never says Chris is having a hard time. He never says anything about Chris at all.
Justin doesn't say anything now. He meets Chris' eyes steadily but doesn't say a word.
"Hey, Joe," Chris says, leaning toward him slightly, and before Joey can stop himself he thinks, no, stick with Justin, not me, not tonight. To punish himself Joey sits up and looks straight at Chris and doesn't let himself flinch. "You know what I been thinking about?" Joey shrugs and reaches for his drink again. "Oh, I know you must've heard about this. You've seen the pictures, right? Our baby J with that big ass trophy, in with all the girls. He was the prettiest one."
Out of the corner of his eye Joey can see Justin shift in his chair, just a little. It isn't much but Chris turns on him quickly, smile eating into his face like acid.
"Beauty queen," Chris says, and this time it's Joey who flinches.
No matter how much Joey lies to the others or to himself, he knows what the worst part is about the words Chris flings at them on nights like this. What Chris says is rarely fair and never kind, but it's always true.
Justin is a bit of a beauty queen. He's a pretty boy, of course, but they all are, and if it stopped there nobody would think anything of it. But Justin primps in front of mirrors and lenses and basically any reflective surface in a way none of the rest of them ever do. There's a calculated sway in his walk sometimes, as if he's performing for a judge none of the rest of them can see, and he has a wide glossy smile that slides over his teeth like Vaseline. He pulls it out for interviews like a dress that's been kept carefully in plastic until the big night. Justin believes in world peace and feeding the hungry and teaching little kids about music, and he says so, often and eagerly, bending down and shaking out that sparkling smile and placing a practiced hand on a reporter's wrist. Joey remembers JC saying once, as they watched Justin work a room, "Looks like J's running for Miss Congeniality," and Chris laughing back, "Oh, no, baby. Our boy's not going home without the sash and the crown."
Joey can't reconcile that affection and even awe with the contempt in Chris' voice now as he says it again. "Beauty queen."
Justin lays his hands on the table and arranges them carefully, fingers outspread evenly, nails buffed and shining. "So what?" Justin says and smiles at Chris, a hard perfect smile that reveals nothing but a row of white perfect teeth.
Joey made the drive up to Atlantic City one year, spur of the moment with Steve riding shotgun, a fall day that had been full of room service and bad cable until Steve looked up from the paper and said, "Hey, you know what's going on today?" and "It'll be good for a few laughs." A couple of hours in a rented car and then they were pulling off the parkway, driving through block after blasted out block, boarded-up rowhouses with "We Buy Gold" painted on the sides and hookers who looked either thirteen or forty-five hanging out in front.
Just before the city fell into the ocean they hit the boardwalk, bright and shiny, all of Vegas smashed into one half-mile and dropped down in the midst of the apocalypse. It was Indian summer, but the air inside the convention center was so perfectly conditioned that it didn't seem like air at all. Joey figured he'd talk his way into the parties later, but for the moment he and Steve waited in line and bought tickets just like everybody else.
They sat right behind a group from Dubuque, forty or fifty people waving banners and wearing sweatshirts with Miss Iowa's smiling face on them. Joey had seen bits of the pageant on TV before, but he'd never seen this part of the audience, sitting up in the bleachers as rowdy as baseball fans, hooting and hollering for their girl. It seemed more real somehow, instead of just a TV show, something to flip to during the commercials of whatever he was really watching. It was fun.
Then the show started.
Joey had seen bits of the pageant on TV before, but sitting on the metal bench eating his hot dog, he expected something different from what he'd half-seen so many times on the screen. Something a little more raw, a little more real. It was the same, though, exactly the same, the line of women all masked in makeup, armored in silk and duct tape and hairspray. Joey shivered a little at the hard perfect smiles they shone out at the rest of the world, as if they knew how everyone else laughed or shook their heads at them, for wanting what they wanted.
Joey shivers a little now as Justin smiles at Chris and says, "I wanted that trophy, and I got it. You think I'm ashamed of it?"
Chris snorts. "I would be."
Justin pushes his chair back a little further. "You know what your problem is? You think just because you're ashamed of something, everybody is."
"You know what your problem is?"
Justin's chin tilts in a gesture Joey thinks is meant to be defiant, but only emphasizes the clean sharp line of his profile. "No," Justin says. "What's my problem?" and Joey has seen this hard perfect look before, fifty-one times, as fifty-one perfect faces lifted toward the judges.
Chris says harshly, "Your problem," and then stops. He looks at Justin for a moment, and Justin's gaze doesn't flicker, his smile doesn't fade. Chris drops his eyes to the floor and starts to run a hand through his hair. He pulls his hand back from the spikes as if he's forgotten that they're there. The mohawk is a big fuck-you, Joey knows, although he's not sure who it's aimed at, Justin or all of them or maybe even the world. It looks angry, all right, but there's something else there. The shaven sides make Chris' eyes look bigger and his ears stick out, like the kid he must have been long before Joey met him. Somehow Joey doesn't think that was Chris' intention when he sneered into the silence that greeted his new hairstyle, "Punk rock, baby." The only things Joey knows about punk are from a movie Chris dragged them all to a while back, piles and piles of garbage, a cigarette burning clear and bright amid dirty bed sheets, Sid Vicious flipping off the camera, looking younger than Justin had been when they'd started. Justin bitched about the girl in it after, saying he'd expected her to be prettier. Chris laughed at him, happily, messing up Justin's hair and laughing again when Justin swore and tried to smooth it into place. "You don't know what you're talking about," Chris said. "She was the punk Miss America."
Now Chris lets his hand fall onto the table. Justin's face is still raised, waiting calmly, expectantly, for whatever Chris has to say. Joey watches Chris' fingers drum nervously against the scarred wood. "You don't have a problem," Chris says finally, softly. He stands up, his hand still on the table. His fingers don't stop moving.
"Chris," Justin says, and his voice breaks a second before his hard perfect smile. There was a girl there, that night in Atlantic City, a tall dark-haired girl from one of the big empty western states that never win. She tripped on her high heels. Just a tiny stumble, Joey fucks up worse than that at least once a show, but still the crowd gasped. Steve leaned over toward Joey and then stopped, mid-snicker, at the sight of the girl's face on the big video screen. Her smile slipped, just for a moment, and Joey expected her to look angry, at herself for screwing up or at the crowd for seeing it, or disappointed maybe, or even afraid. But what Joey saw, in the few seconds before the girl squared her shoulders and her smile again, was hope. She still thought she could win.
Joey had to look away. He and Steve had been joking all night about how there'd be fifty losers to comfort after the show, but Joey knew right then that he wasn't going to any of the parties. He'd go looking for the Jersey girls who lined the boardwalk instead, pretty imperfect girls whose smiles gaped into raucous laughs, whose sweat bled through their makeup in the heat. Girls who only wanted whatever everyone else wanted, and who would get it.
"Chris," Justin says again, and Joey can't look at either of them. He finishes his vodka and watches their hands on the table, Chris' fingers beating relentlessly, uselessly, Justin's hands large and perfect and impossibly still. Joey hadn't picked up a Jersey girl that night in Atlantic City, hadn't picked up anyone, had fled to one of the casinos and drank and gambled until he'd lost more than even he could afford, until he had a reason to feel angry and unsatisfied.
"I've never been ashamed of what I want," Justin says, and Joey watches Chris' hand stop moving.
"J," Chris whispers, and Justin stands up suddenly, gracefully. He wraps a hand around Chris' bicep and for just a second his fingers tremble against Chris' skin. Then Chris sways on his feet and drapes his arm over Justin's shoulder for balance. Justin stops shaking.
That night in Atlantic City Joey watched them crown the winner, watched her beam through tears that never even threatened to smear her makeup. He watched her and wondered what she'd feel when she was alone that night, when she took off the tiara and let the robe slip from her shoulders, when she washed off her tears and her smile. He thought that she'd be embarrassed, secretly, when it was all over, at having wanted it so hard, so publicly. When she was alone it would have to seem ridiculous, at least a little, to want something like that, something she wasn't supposed to want.
Justin looks over his own shoulder and Chris'. "Later, Joey," he says, and he isn't smiling. Joey watches Justin and Chris walk away, and he knows he was wrong about that girl in Atlantic City. She was never embarrassed at all. He thinks she must have been proud, no matter what anyone else thought about it. She got what she wanted. She knew how to want it.