The flight attendant handed me my whiskey and gave me a simpering smile as she looked with soft eyes at Justin, drooling on my shoulder. As if this set-up revealed anything nice about me other than a desire to get this kid from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. I narrowed my eyes and she looked away. Justin and I had become a well-oiled machine and had gotten these red-eye flights down to a science over the past four years. He has always been a nervous flyer and took what basically amounted to a horse tranquilizer that blessedly knocked him the fuck out. He steadfastly refused to take them until after the safety presentation video, which he would stare at as though trying to memorize it and as though his intense attention was the one thing that would keep the plane up in the air for the entirety of the flight. As soon as the video announced “So fasten your seatbelt, sit back, and enjoy the flight” with its false cheer, Justin would dry swallow his pill and be out by the time beverage service came around.
As always I ordered my two double Beams, neat, and as a concession to the only maternal advice Joan Kinney ever gave me, also asked for honey and lemon as she always claimed whiskey, lemon, and honey could cure anything. I washed down the antibiotics I was taking for an upper respiratory infection. It was a small piece of luck that I had somehow gotten sick and not Justin with his for-shit immune system. Last time Justin had flown with congestion, he had gotten an ear infection that had subsequently given him vertigo for two weeks. So we were grateful it was me who had gotten sick this time, but penicillin can be passed through semen (learned that one the unfun way), so we were also in a period of forced abstinence, at least between the two of us. So grateful, but not that grateful. As far as small favors go, it was a very small favor.
We were back in Pittsburgh often, as we had promised everyone when we moved. Or, let’s be real, as Sunshine had promised everyone when we moved. Kinnetik business brought me back a lot, obviously, and Justin tried to accompany me whenever he could, usually when he was between jobs. He had been working as a freelance assistant storyboard editor on various shows since he graduated from Cal Arts, all while continuing to develop Rage. He often used my business trips to the Pitts as a business trip for him and Mikey to be able to meet and work together in person. Ted was always pleased when the whole trip could be written off. We also traveled back for various family events deemed too important for us to miss, including every time Debbie had a “this time it’s for real” retirement from the diner party, the number of which was beginning to rival that of Cher’s farewell tours. This time we were traveling for Gus’s tenth birthday, which, thus far, I had been able to avoid anyone mentioning the significance of this little milestone.
Despite all the travel back and forth, our lives were firmly in LA and that magnetic pull Justin has that started this whole messy adventure ten years ago, had brought a lot of his people to the city. Molly was in her junior year at USC and would house and catsit for us when we were out of town. We would pretend we didn’t know she threw parties in our absence and she was so scared of being caught, we would come home to a house cleaner than we had left it. It worked out well for all involved. Daphne was in her second year of residency at UCLA in immunopathogenesis and had just moved in with her boyfriend, Stefano, an oncology nurse. And, finally, Tori and Ana had come to visit in July and to attend the Lilith Fair revival and then, after years of just paying lip service to moving to LA, were moved into a small house in the Valley by August. Tori was working at a hospital in Glendale and Ana had reunited with her old band and was regularly playing gigs at the Kibbitz Room right by our house. Molly often babysat for them and liked to steal their books and put them on our shelves. Or at least I can’t think of another logical reason why On Our Backs Volume II would have wound up there. .
Kinnetik was doing amazingly well, if I do say so myself. During the writer’s strike in 2007, Quinn’s show, like all shows, had gone on indefinite hiatus and that was just around the time we were beginning to need a LA-based art department so I, in my infinite generosity, had offered them what was supposed to be a temporary position in the art department. They had near-Justin Taylor talent and managerial skills that are just a little more difficult for Justin to master. They now headed the department and were so competent it made firing Art with any kind of regularity nearly impossible. But not entirely impossible. The business was doing so well that Ted was making grumblings about expanding further, maybe to Chicago.
And before you come at me, Justin was doing just fine. I already told you, his career was going well. He was eager to move on from assistant to just storyboard editor but these things take time. My little fucker was just as impatient as he’s always been to move forward, do something, get someplace. And I know people want to hear that he figured out his medications and therapy and everything has been hunky dory but this is real life, sorry to disappoint you. There had been harder times, especially during transitions, and easier. And he’s fine, just fine, thanks for asking. Lord knows he takes the ups and downs of his illness with more grace in his pinky nail than I ever would in my entire magnificent body. As we will see on this next little twist in our story here. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment, he was pleased as fuck that he had leveraged the connection of a coworker’s girlfriend’s college roomate and gotten a shit ton of Sponge Bob swag for Gus for his birthday since that was the party’s theme. No accounting for the taste of either of these kids, and that’s my burden to bear.
We landed and Justin revived enough to manage himself and his bags while we picked up the rental car and headed to the loft to grab a few hours of sleep before the party. And we needed it. No amount of sleep can prepare a reasonable person for twenty ten year olds running around fueled by cake and soda. There were a lot fewer adults at Gus’s parties these days, now that he was actually a person with friends, so most of the guys weren’t around. And just for a moment and not sound too-Justin about the whole thing, but it’s just so cool that this kid with likes and dislikes and an attitude had been that tiny infant on that night that seemed like it had just been last month. Mikey and Ben were there since they used any excuse to see JR and Mikey used any excuse to catch up with me. I sipped my drink and nodded as I listened to him wax poetic about Hunter’s experiences at college, where it turned out that he’s somewhat of a computer programming wiz. Debbie and Carl and Jennifer and her latest boyfriend were also in attendance as the grandparents. The new boyfriend was a dentist or orthodontist, or something else having to do with mouths. Justin had elbowed me hard in the ribs when we were introduced. As if he couldn’t trust me. Kid’s a genius.
A moment later, Mikey went running after JR who had decided to turn on the garden hose. I watched, biting my lips, when I felt an arm snake around my waist and a blonde head rest on my shoulder. “Gus is so thrilled you’re here,” Lindsay said lightly, an accusation implied in her soft, polite voice.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” I said tightly, not that she would notice my tone.
“Can you believe it’s been....” Lindsay began dreamily.
“Uh, uh, uh. Don’t even say it.” I cut her off. “There’s nowhere near enough booze here for that.”
“Brian! It’s a children’s party!” I had properly scandalized her; my work for this trip was done.
“I don’t think that’s the argument you think it is.” She groaned and tightened her arm around my waist and I squeezed her shoulder.
“Justin really won the day, huh?” She asked, referring to the absolute glut of cheap plastic Sponge Bob toys he had brought.
I bite back a smile and said, “It’s all those Hollywood connections finally paying off in the form of bribing a child for his affection and love.”
“I imagine with his looks and charm, he has no trouble networking.” All of which was true but certainly not why Justin had been successful at his career.
“He’s also fucking talented.” Lindsay hummed in response. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of brown hair and red t-shirt coming running toward me and I quickly unwound myself from Lindsay and crouched down. I had seen Gus barrel into Ben at full speed, and the man hadn’t so much as had to take a step back. I certainly wasn’t going to be knocked over by my own kid.
“Dad! Dad!” Gus was waving around a piece of paper.
“Did you see what Justin drew?” Gus showed me the piece of paper on which Justin had drawn a portrait of Gus in the style of the Sponge Bob cartoon.
Melanie walked up and looked over Gus’s shoulder. “He’s drawing these for all the kids. Seriously, Brian, he’s incredibly talented.”
“He’s not too bad.” I allowed.
Melanie rolled her eyes. “I don’t know how he’s put up with you for all these years.”
“You and me both,” I said because, frankly, it’s true.
Melanie shook her head slightly. “I couldn’t believe when you turned up at the hospital with your trick du jour in tow.”
I grabbed her glass of wine and took a swig, before handing it back to her. “As much fun as this walk down memory lane has been, I think I saw one of these kid’s dads over there looking awfully alone and uncomfortable. As one of the birthday boy’s parents, it’s my duty to make sure he feels at home.” I trotted over to aforementioned single dad and gave him a tour of the bathroom and my cock.
The party wound down after Gus opened his millions of presents, between the grandmothers and me, we pretty much purchased every toy on his wish list, which had taken up several notebook pages. It was nice to see advertisements were hitting their key demographic so well and, you know, go capitalism.
We headed back to the loft to shower and change before meeting the adults at Woody’s. Even Melanie and Lindsay joined us, having gotten Jennifer and Debbie to watch the kids, not that it took much convincing. Drew and Emmett were already there. Drew had retired from the NFL and taken a job coaching at a Division III college in Central Pennsylvania and lived there, while Emmett continued to live with Debbie and Carl - “if it ain’t broke” he would sing in his Southern lilt - and traveled to see Drew on the weekends. Unless there was something happening in Pittsburgh and then Drew would come here. I got the impression that they spent as many weekends here as they did in Carlisle. Justin immediately migrated to Emmett, who drew him into a hug, and Justin started downloading all the celebrity gossip he had accumulated at his Hollywood-adjacent job. “Apparently Mia Kirshner is exactly like that in real life,” he whispered, his eyes wide, like he was imparting the secret to life. And Emmett responded in kind.
The rest trickled in slowly and we were listening to Ted and Blake’s adventures in real estate as they shopped for a home that had enough space to qualify for the foster-to-adopt program they were planning on joining. Ben and Michael and Lindsay and Melanie were each launching a campaign to convince them to move to their neighborhood and if that isn’t the most goddamn boring conversation in the world. I started to get restless, I mean can you blame me? I glanced over at Justin and he smirked at me over his rocks glass, which is such a Kinney move, this kid , and rolled his eyes. We began playing a drinking game where all the rules were decided by looks. Drink every time someone mentions the school district. Drink every time someone mentions property taxes. You get the idea. Needless to say, Justin was drunk and I was well on my way to tipsy by the time the group decided to migrate to Babylon. I slipped a tab of ecstasy in my mouth and raised an eyebrow at Justin. He shook his head slightly. Some of his medication prevents him from feeling the pleasant effects and then make the comedown even worse, he really can’t catch a break. I was already slip-sliding into rolling by the time we got drinks and made our way under the lights and began to feel the pulse of the thumpa thumpa course through my veins.
I was on the dance floor, having recently returned from a trip to the backroom with a redhead with curls, with Ben and Michael and Emmett, when I overheard, “Did you see that guy go running when that blonde kid freaked out about him not using a condom?”
Not using a condom will get you thrown out but there’s no one exactly back there enforcing the policy. At the words “blonde kid” the guys looked at me in alarm. Justin was 27, not exactly a kid anymore, but yeah he’s going to be described as “that blonde kid” for the rest of his life and that’s unfair, particularly to those of us who age like regular mortals. I looked up to see some tall dark and handsome hightail it out of the backroom and towards an exit. Moving like he was being chased by Cerberus combined with Justin’s taste in men being so goddamn predictable, I moved towards him and finally understood what the expression “seeing red” really meant. Ben and I got to him right outside the backroom and Emmett had pushed through the crowd that had circled in the backroom. He was at my side a moment later and he and Ben were pulling me back. Ben’s built like a brick shithouse and was finally using that strength for something remotely useful beyond being an immovable mass for my kid to run into. And Emmett had the scrappy strength of someone who had lived for years in which he alternated between invisible and under the spotlight of hostile attention - and survived.
What we later pieced together from some eyewitnesses (thank you, Todd) was Justin went to the backroom with this guy and as the guy was fucking him, he thought the condom broke and said something. With the cacophony of music and moans and the confusion that can be the backroom on busy night and, well, Justin’s anxiety, he seemed to have misunderstood and thought this guy - Tim, his name was Tim - wasn’t using a condom. Tim said that Justin whipped around and started shouting about him not wearing a condom and Tim didn’t want some reputation to start about him and was trying to shut Justin up, calm him but mostly shut him up and raised his arm up, he says to touch Justin’s shoulder, and Justin, of course, of course, of course, dropped down to the ground with his arms over his head. And then just froze.
I saw Justin just sitting on the floor of the backroom, which fine this was the night he acquiesced to style and was wearing the two hundred dollar jeans I had bought him, with a blank look in his eyes. He was clearly panicking and had frozen, his brain’s way of keeping him safe at all costs. I crouched down and lifted him in my arms up off the floor and stood with him and ignored everyone’s stares as I carried him out. Outside the back room, the lights and music faded to a blur as I made my way through the crowd to the exit. A second later, Ted was at my elbow. “Michael went to get his car.”
I nodded without breaking pace. Blake touched my shoulder and I swung around. “I think he should get checked out at hospital.”
I turned and continued to press through the crowd. Shaking my head, I said firmly, “No, no hospitals.”
Blake’s forehead furrowed with concern - caring about people will give you wrinkles. “Brian, if the condom broke, or if there was no condom -“
“We’ll go to the clinic tomorrow. A few hours won’t make a difference. He’s fine...he will be fine.”
Michael and Ben had brought their car around front and they drove us to the loft. Ben carried Justin from the car and Mikey helped me with the keys, my hands were shaking too badly to manage them. As we slid the loft door open, I brushed the hair off of Justin’s forehead and looked him. “Couch or bed, Sunshine?” He didn’t respond and Ben made eye contact with me. I nodded towards the bed and I went to the fridge to grab two bottles of water and then followed. Ben laid him gently on the bed and I set the water beside him and pulled the duvet around him. Ben and Michael looked from him to me with twin worried expressions painted across their faces. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding and shrugged. “It’s okay guys, just a panic attack. Nothing we haven’t seen before. He’ll be fine.” I clapped a hand on each of their shoulders and guided them to the door.
Mikey turned to hug me good-bye and whispered, “Just take care of him okay? We hate to see him like this.” I blinked and swallowed against the burning in my eyes and lump in my throat. I pulled out of the hug and focused on a point behind them both and whispered, “Thank you.” Michael looked at me with those eyes and that expression that’s a dead giveaway that he going to be sentimental so I added, “I’m going to go check on him, give him his meds.” They both nodded and left.
When I got to the bedroom, Justin was still curled up where we had left him, staring at seemingly nothing. I cleared my throat and sat on the edge of the bed, and softly placed my hand on his shoulder. He startled easily during the best of times but especially when he’s panicked. He often doesn’t want to be touched at all and you have no goddamn idea how difficult it is to keep my hands away from him when I know he’s struggling, when I know he’s distressed. “Hey. You think you can sit up so we can dose you with some Klonopin, get you feeling better? Mm?” I helped him to sit up and shook a pill into my hand and tipped it back into his mouth followed by the water. He’s usually trembling so hard that the pill bottle and water bottle tops are hard to maneuver. After he swallowed the medication, I helped him lie back down, readjusting the duvet around him. “I’m going to jump in the shower, okay? Shout if you need something.” He didn’t respond much but his eyes flicked to mine and that was enough.
I cannot emphasize enough that none of this was out of the ordinary.
It was weird to shower without Justin when he was just feet away from me. I couldn’t remember the last time that happened.
I showered as quickly as I could. Which wasn’t hard. Without Justin with me, what’s the point of lingering? As I toweled off, I listened and heard no noise from the bed. It’s not unusual for Justin to fall asleep after a panic attack. That parasympathetic nervous system rushes in and shuts the whole thing down, giving him a chance to recover. By the time I got back to the bedroom, I noticed Justin hadn’t moved an inch. But he wasn’t asleep either. His eyes were open. I followed his gaze to see what he was looking at because I can probably count on both hands the times I have entered a room and Justin’s eyes have not gravitated towards me. And if we eliminate times when he was actively trying to ignore me, one hand. As far as I could tell, the kid was staring at nothing. And the expression on his face was one of pain, physical pain. I went and sat down next to him on the bed, my towel pooling around my hips, and gently laid my hand on him. “Justin?”
I shook him gently. “Justin?”
I shook him less gently and raised my voice. “Justin?”
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, the way I’ve coached him to do. “Justin? Kiddo, you’re freaking me out.”
Justin and I may joke with each other. We might even play practical jokes. Laughing with him is one of the best parts of being with him - top of the list if you restrict the list to purely non-sexual things - but I know Justin and he would never try to make this into a joke. He wouldn’t find this funny. He sure as fuck knows I wouldn’t find this funny. Not after the night he had.
“Shit,” I breathed out. “What the fuck. What the fuck.”
I looked at him again and he blinked. For whatever reason that clinched it for me. Without shifting my gaze away from him, I grabbed my cell phone. “Yeah, I’m going to need you to come back. Justin’s ... we need to go to the hospital.”