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Soundtrack of a Broken Heart

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Pittsburgh, late 2004.

 

There weren’t many inheritances or teachings of Jack Kinney’s Brian retained in his adult life.

(Actually, there were many of them, Fuck you very much by the way, Jack, that would inform his behavior late in life, some until his death even, but these he only acknowledged to his own secretive self- and once, misguidedly, to Ted, but he’d been grieving Justin and Michael at the time and he had been vulnerable, so it didn’t count.)

The first one of these inputs, and a somewhat useful at that, was a liver made of steel that allowed him to drink pretty much anyone under the table before getting a slight buzz himself. That was quite convenient, as it would take a keg of bourbon or any other liquor and then some before he was drunk enough to blurt what was really on his mind to his friends, and by that time they were so close to an alcohol-induced coma themselves they never recalled the ill-advised confessions he had made. (Pot was another matter entirely, it made his brain mellow and uncaring, that was why he only indulged in it in safe company: Michael, Deb, and Justin, and not too often with the latter).

Plus Jack had actually taught him to recognize and savor “proper”, good Irish whiskey as opposed to what he called “watered down American piss”. Obviously the man did indulge in and abuse the shit out of the piss in question, as he simply didn’t have the means for his tastes, but anytime he could get his hands on a good old Jameson or Bushmills, he would have his son take a sip (that 12-years-old Brian couldn’t spit despite the burning on his tongue, under penance of a beating) and he would declaim elaborate sonnets about the golden liquid that was without a doubt the only love of his miserable life.

Those were not father-son bonding moments, of course, Jack just wanted him to “man up” and would berate the teen for grimacing like a sissy. “Stop being a fairy, sonny boy”, he’d say, “be a man and drink like one!”. So Brian would force the scorching liquor past his closing throat, he would refrain the tears in his eyes and gulp the shot, and he’d say “ ‘tis good, Dad” if only to see a glimpse of pride flicker in his father red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes for an instant.

He’d never, ever taken a sip of sherry in his life, and never intended to. That was his mother’s poison of choice, and he would never extend the bitch that barest acknowledgment of her place in his childhood. But whiskey had stuck as his go-to drink. Brian usually had the American brands his father had so riled about, as a small act of defiance to the man’s memory, but there were a couple of exceptions to the rule.

One was whenever he had a meeting with Patrick O’Brien, the owner and CEO of O’Brien’s Liquors. He was sure Brian’s knowledge in Irish whiskey had been decisive in him signing with Kinnetik, so it was only smart business to keep the man’s goodwill. When they met, he’d whip out his finest, oldest Tullamore or Redbreast and share a drink with the only person he knew who could actually taste the difference and savor the God-given ambrosia for what it was.

The other exception was whenever he felt in a particularly self-loathing mood - see Mickey’s birthday or the fiddler debacle for examples. He might have saved half of Ireland’s finest distilleries on these two occasions alone.

*

The second input of Jack’s he’d kept for a long time was bowling, and wasn’t that a fucked-up memory and skill to retain. The first time his father had dragged him to a rink, he was eight. Jack had dragged him out of bed at 9pm on a school night and ordered him to get dressed to come out with him and “the guys”, as he called his clique of drunkard friends and colleagues.

They’d been nice, somehow, despite his blurry, sleep-laden eyes, and they’d praised Jack’s willingness to engage with his son and teach him the most important skills to have as a red-blooded American. Brian had been driven, egged-on by their teasing and mockeries whenever his too-thin, tired, weak boyish arms had sent the heavy ball rolling in the gutter; so he’d gone back every time his father had asked (not that he had much choice), and even by himself, to throw the ball at the pins times and times again, until his arms gave up and his muscles ached, until the day when he was able to throw a strike in his sleep, until the guys had applauded at his skill and had looked at him with impressed eyes.

After that, he’d stopped going. He was older, bigger by then, stronger, and Jack couldn’t quite force him anymore. But mostly, he’d accomplished what he had set to do: show these fucking morons that even if they didn’t know, their best player was a fairy, a faggot, a cocksucker and he took a weird, unhealthy satisfaction in that. So much for teaching your son how to be a man, Jack.

*

The third and final thing was music. Only guitar-laden, drum-heavy rock was allowed in the Kinney household whenever Jack was around. Brian suspected it had everything to do with Joanie’s bitter expression, all downturned lip and reproving eyes at the heathen, curse-heavy lyrics and satanic wails of the guitars.

(She on the other hand would rarely listen to any music; only when liquor had worked its magic on her brain would she put any music on, and that would be mass chants or other such religious crap, as if the holy sounds would help her atone for her sins. When she was full of sherry she would sometimes indulge in black gospel chants or some Etta James, the only influences her prejudiced, bigoted mind would deem almost acceptable from what she called ‘colored culture’. Racist cunt.)

Brian had thus grown surrounded by rock music, and he’d been thoroughly educated in all nuances of the genre. For a man who prided himself in his Irish heritage, Jack sure had jumped on the ‘British invasion’ train back in the sixties and seventies, so Brian knew everything there was to know about the geniuses of Brit Rock, from The Stones to The Who to the ever-mythical Led Zeppelin. His father had instructed him in the American side of it too, and he grew up loving Johnny Cash, The Byrds and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Not one to be fazed by his own contradiction, Jack abhorred Pink Floyd as “trippy music for drugheads and fags” but loved Kansas and Jethro Tull. He’d only introduced Brian to the glory of The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon to rail against their so-called “preachy, holier-than-thou liberal bias”, and had the same treatment of and hate for Bob Dylan.  To this day Brian’s contradictory mind still loved ‘Hey You[i]’ and ‘Hurricane[ii]’.

From his years under his father’s musical influence, Brian retained an almost religious reverence for Stevie Nicks’ voice and Tom Petty’s smooth guitar-playing, as well as a platonic but nonetheless endless crush for Pat Benatar’s classy bad-assery.

 

He had Debbie to thank for his discovery and subsequent love of jazz and blues. It was at also at her’s, with Michael, that he’d first seen MTV and had been floored and titillated by the outrageousness and sexiness of the videos. Therefore, their middle and high-school years had been sound-tracked by Depeche Mode, INXS and The Cure. They had been quite serious about their band, and they were half-decent, but only Michael had ever dreamt of going through with it. It was Brian’s father who’d bought him his guitar in one of his only genuine attempts at bonding, but he’d also attempted to break it on his back on one of his latter drunken rage. Brian had to get out of his parents’ claws, and college and a highly-lucrative career were the only option to achieve that.

In college, Lindsay had opened his mind to the refinements of classical music, even if it wasn’t his favorite genre (and if a certain hiccup in his… thing with Justin had definitely killed any willingness to pursue his education in the matter).

These years at Carnegie Melon, in a new environment, had refined his taste and helped him discover new bands or influences he still liked. Whenever he’d had to visit his parents over that period of time, his father had tolerated The Doors (only because Jim Morisson was a ladies’ man and he hoped Brian would take inspiration) but he’d positively loathed his newfound love of David Bowie and Queen. He called them “trannies” - which was positively hilarious considering his own love for KISS and glam rock bands. To this day Brian hated power ballads.

Their first forays in Babylon with Michael at the tail of their high-school years had opened him to a whole new perspective on music. The eighties were a somewhat blessed time in that regard, Brian realized in hindsight, at the crossroads of a variety of genres he gobbled thirstily. Pop was prominent, and Madonna was its aspiring queen but for the club’s patrons, she would never fully replace, only stand beside the glorious queens of disco. Synth and electronic music were growing, heralding the years of dance and trance. Rock was and would remain a thing, always and forever. Out and proud artists were emerging, androgyny and outrageous displays of sexual ambiguity were accepted and celebrated, and the straightest of men and women wore gender-bending clothing and make-up to copy their idols’ looks.

It felt like the community was burning at its brightest, most colorful setting just as it was being mowed down and swept away by the fucking disease, just as their world was torn apart and left reeling in terror and grief at the sheer number of casualties. Still, like the rest of them, Brian and Michael had basked in the chaos of it all, they had celebrated being young and beautiful and they’d moved their bodies while they could, while they were alive, to the sounds of their generation, from the bouncy, happy rhythms of “Just Can’t Get Enough[iii]’ to the sexual echoes of ‘Relax[iv]’ and the angry, angsty wails of ‘Smalltown Boy[v]’.

And Brian had discovered his dormant power in that context, the one that had men swarming around him and stumbling over each other to get to him, to have a moment with him, and he’d embraced it wholeheartedly, fucking like there was no tomorrow, because for some of these men, for the community it seemed there wasn’t. He had honed and used the power his looks and body gave him to fuck, when fucking was so intimately tainted and linked to dying, when one never knew what it could bring, what horrible destiny might lay beyond the overwhelming pleasure of one orgasm. The nihilist in him basked in that paradox, or maybe it was that permanent uncertainty that made him a nihilist, though he never wavered from his strict safe-sex policy.  Despite that, one thought had been clear in his mind: he would be lucky to live to see thirty, so he had no time to spare and he would live whatever time he was given to the fullest. He would be an esthete, an epicurean, a hedonist, and fuck the bitter morons who judged him for it.

(Later, he would make fun of Justin’s booty shaking to Justin Timberlake and consorts, but as it reminisced him of his own breathless spins on the dancefloor and the feeling of invincibility any teenager was supposed to feel, the one he hadn’t been allowed at that age, the same one that had so thoroughly been bashed out of Justin, he let it go.)

Now in his early thirties (Fuck), he only had classic or alternative rock and eighties’ music playing in the car, and smooth jazz or blues at the loft if he had any say about it – which, for a period of time, he hadn’t. It seemed Justin loved to torture him with bubbly, cheesy pop. Brian wasn’t the kind of old, bitter man to say “it was better before” – he could actually go behind Muse and the Foo Fighters, he tolerated Linkin Park and if pushed, he would admit Ben Harper had talent. But the kid reveled in N’Sync and Britney Spears, for fuck’s sake. Worse, he’d almost tricked Brian into listening to those aptly-named emo bands where the singers just vomited their emotions all over the place and oh-so-cleverly gave weird-ass-long, unpronounceable titles to their tracks. The first time Justin had put one of these in the player, Brian had let it pass because he could almost forget the simplistic, over-emotional lyrics behind the guitar riffs, but by the hundredth time he’d had to listen to ‘The Middle[vi]’ he was ready to throw his top-of-the-line set out of the window and he’d forbidden Justin to infest the Jeep with it.  He’d offered him a portable player instead, so he could enjoy his shit without scarring Brian’s ears – after all, he was still young, they all had shameful luggage when it came to music and the kid would learn better someday.

He had to admit Justin had introduced him to some not-too-crappy sounds; for example, he hadn’t been that pissed the brat had forgotten his CD of The Killers in his rush to round up his mess. He might even have played ‘Mr Brightside’ on a loop and shouted the lyrics at the top of his lungs on one of his drunken romps when the kid was playing house with Paganini Jr, but that was between him and his angry neighbors.

Now he had no such problem with the ‘Vette as it had come with a good old-fashioned radio set; as he wanted to keep it vintage, he hadn’t had any modern appliance installed. He only ever tuned it on rock or eighties stations, and it was good to finally be able to listen to and enjoy the music without anyone blabbering beside him.

Except that he could actually focus on the lyrics. That wasn’t so enjoyable. Either if favorite genre was way more maudlin that he had ever noticed, or the DJs of the stations had had their hearts broken recently because every single song reminded him of the man who had decided to walk out on him again (for good).

It had been happening every time he was driving recently, but it was simply and increasingly becoming ridiculous. To the point where he was seriously considering turning the thing off indefinitely or having it removed from the car.

The day before, when Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ had come over the loudspeakers, he’d laughed out loud and let it play. But when it had given way to Fletwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’, he’d had to skip after the first chorus. Too close to home. Tom Petty’s ‘Learning to Fly’ had started, instead, and he had relaxed. He’d even managed to push away any stray thoughts about broken hearts, so he was okay. The respite had been short-lived though as the next song was an oldie from a band he didn’t remember, and fuck if he could listen to anything with the line ‘you’re half the flesh and blood that make me whole[vii]’ and keep his sanity intact. So he’d skipped again hastily only to snarl and turn the devilish appliance off before the chorus of Chicago’s ‘Hard to Say I’m Sorry’ could push him at his wit’s end.

He’d ended up his short ride to the office in sullen silence, and he’d been short tempered the entire morning.

It hadn’t been so bad today, or maybe he had been better at tuning out the lyrics while he maneuvered the powerful RWD in Pittsburgh’s freezing rain. That is, until he had spotted Justin through the wet window and had promptly forgotten where he was heading. The blond had seen him after a minute and he’d come over like the well-mannered, polite young man he was. Their short chat had been less awkward and stilted than when they had met in the street a few days before, they had regained their ability to banter and Brian had instilled enough sarcasm in his voice to convincingly pretend aloofness, but still. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.

When he turned the engine on again and drove away, he tried to push Justin’s face out of his mind and focus on his upcoming trip. But his musical curse decided to rear up its ugly head again.

He ground his teeth through ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ because Pat Benatar, but fuck if it didn’t sound like Justin talking about them. It must have been a ‘badass rock goddesses’ program of some sorts because the music transitioned to Joan Jett’s heavy guitar. Brian’s relieved smile froze and slipped when the lyrics registered and he switched channels before she could growl ‘I hate myself for loving you’. Which meant he perfectly heard Prince singing ‘how could you just leave me standing alone in a world so cold[viii]’ and had just a second to skip again before the rest of the goddamn chorus. A low bass rang instead in the ‘Vette, a sweet counterpoint to the purring of the V8, and George Michael’s smooth voice worked its magic on his neck cramp. For a second only, of course, before the crooner’s voice muttered ‘that all I wanted, just to see my baby’s blue eyes shine[ix]’ and he skipped again with a curse. He was a few blocks away from the loft when the last notes of The Smiths’ ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore’ gave way to the Cure’s ‘In Between Days’, and he cursed again. Fuck, them too, Sunshine? You managed to ruin Robert Smith for me too?

He parked the car in its closed stall in the building’s garage and took the elevator, come back, come back, don’t walk away still ringing in a loop in his mind on his way to the loft. He had a suitcase to finish for his trip, but the encounter with Justin and the music curse nagged at him, so he resolved to exorcise it once and for all before he left. He would allow himself one moment, one song.

Once in the privacy of his home, he took his time setting his coat on the rack and his briefcase on the desk before pouring himself a Glenfiddish. Might as well go full throttle. He only poured a half tumbler, though. He had a plane to board in a few hours and couldn’t appear too intoxicated. He would make up for it on the long flight anyways. He sat the glass on the coffee table and rummaged in the back of the cabinet. He picked U2’s Rattle and Hum and considered it for a second. There was a perfect track for what he had in mind, but that would be too much Irish influence even for him, he mused. A second round of search produced the CD he was looking for. He passed a finger on the case, on the art by Russel Mills. ‘Wound’, it was called, and Brian was sure Justin would love it if he knew about it. He caressed the black title that barred it, and smirked. ‘The Downward Spiral’. Time to put an end to it.

He’d discovered NIN’s ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ in the summer between high school and college and had been blown away. He’d bought all their albums religiously after that, but he didn’t listen to them that often. What they incited in his mind… didn’t sit well with him. Violence, anger, resentment, pain, hurt, despair, the entire spectrum of emotions disturbed him. But this one, this specific song would fit perfectly with his current mood. He set the CD in the player, skipped to the track, and sat in the sofa.

He closed his eyes and let his head fall back on the leather as the strings and Trent Reznor’s dark, sensual, broken voice washed over him. He sipped slowly, letting the burn of the alcohol match the scorching effect of the song on his soul. He felt the tears come to his eyes as the bass set in, but he didn’t let them fall, just noted the heaviness of them push on his lids, and inhaled. The heavy drum resonated in his chest, pushing his heart to adopt the same rhythm. The alternating murmurs and cries matched his broken thoughts. If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way[x].

He spent a few more moments on the couch after the song ended, breathing deeply, letting his heart and mind settle. He eventually blinked his eyes open, sat up, and swallowed the remaining sip in his glass before getting up and setting it in the sink. He took the CD out and put it back in its case, before turning the player off and making his way to the bathroom.

Once there, he slowly took his clothes off and stepped into the shower. He turned the water temperature as high as he could bear and let his head fall down, let the scolding liquid batter his neck and shoulders as he breathed the humid air.  Muscle memory had his hand wandering on his body, on his chest, down to his groin. He kept his mind carefully blank as he palmed his cock, as he felt it stiffen and thicken, as the always-present embers of arousal burned brighter and spread in his lower belly. He took a dollop of body wash in his palm and set to it almost mechanically, not bothering to tease himself and prolong the process. His strokes were pointed, efficient, years of practice and self-knowledge hasting the rush to the inevitable release. When he felt the fire grow to a pyre in his backbone, he brought his other hand to his balls and squeezed them gently, and as he did, his finger touched the almost-imperceptible scar. His mind immediately conjured an image of Justin, kneeling in this very shower as he silently gave just as much attention to both his balls, and the memory of Justin’s bright blue eyes fixed on him pushed Brian over the edge with a groan. He let the shudders rack his back as he watched his come splatter the tiles and wash away with the water, as his breathing returned to normal.

He washed his hair and body perfunctorily before turning the water and drying himself. He’d prepared his necessities that morning, so he set the towel on the rack and exited the bathroom in the nude. He spent a few minutes in front of the closet, picking yet another light outfit for the summer weather in Australia, and pondering between two comfortable yet fashionable and winter appropriate options for the trip. He’d probably change during his layover in Dallas, he mused, before the long stretch of the journey. His choice settled, he dressed unhurriedly, closed the suitcase and rolled it to the door, turning the lights off as he went.

A look at his watch told him the cab would soon be waiting downstairs. He set the keys of the Corvette in the drawer and closed it. As he was about to turn the desk lamp off, his eyes fell on the CD. He lifted it, turning the case slowly around in his hand, before he dropped it in the trashcan under the desk. Raùl would take care of it the next day when he cleaned the loft.

The buzzer rang, and he made his way to the door. As he was about to roll it closed, he caught a glimpse of the painting on the far wall. Maybe it was time to redecorate, too. Or not. He would decide when he came back.

 

 

[i] Pink Floyd, in The Wall (1979)

[ii] Bob Dylan, in Desire (1976)

[iii] Depeche Mode, in Speak and Spell (1981)

[iv] Frankie Goes To Hollywood, in Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984)

[v] Bronski Beat, in The Age of Consent (1984)

[vi] Jimmy Eat World, in Bleed American (2001)

[vii] Mr Mister, ‘Broken Wings’ (1985)

[viii] Prince, ‘When Doves Cry’ in Purple Rain (1984)

[ix] George Michael, ‘Father Figure’, in Faith (1987)

[x] Nine Inch Nails, ‘Hurt’ in The Downward Spiral (1994)