The arguments (there were more than one) all started over The Tree.
In the Marcus-Petersen household, Lindsay wanted one, Mel did not. Mel’s objection was on religious grounds. She felt that her Jewish daughter should not be subjected to the commercialized rituals of Christmas. Lindsay, on the other hand, wanted to be sure that her non-Jewish son didn’t miss out, now that he was old enough to be aware of all the excitement around him. As Lindsay still felt that she was treading on eggshells in this reconciliation phase, she gave way rather than risk more conflict.
In the Novotny-Bruckner household, Michael wanted a large tree, the larger the better now that he had a decent size room to put one in. Ben wanted something small and alive; a tree in a pot that could later live in their garden. Michael barely heard his objections, and was surprised when Ben showed no interest in helping to decorate the monstrous pine tree he installed in the living room.
In the Novotny-Horvath household, Deb having wrecked her old tree in her bizarre Christmas in February angst-fest, wanted a new one. Artificial. Maybe one of those ones that seemed to be made of lights, where the branches lit and turned all different colors. Carl wanted a real one. Loved the scent, he said. You don’t have to clean up the needles, Deb argued. Besides, a plain green tree is so dull. Carl, knowing when he was beaten, headed off to work knowing there’d be some garish monstrosity in the house by the time he got home.
In the loft (let’s not call it the Taylor-Kinney household, even here among ourselves in case Brian gets wind of it), the subject had been the very icy elephant in the middle of the room for a week. Not, as you might imagine, because Justin wanted a tree and Brian didn’t. Oh, no. That could have been easily negotiated; a few blow jobs, a promise of a marathon fuck fest, and Brian would have given way grudgingly, and everyone would have been satisfied.
No, that wasn’t it at all.
Justin knew damned well that Brian wanted the tree every bit as much as he did, although possibly for different reasons. He knew that Brian had a barely hidden desire to create better memories for Gus, especially at Christmas, than any he had of his own childhood, and that included installing a tree for Gus to admire when he visited Dadda and Dus. A tree with all the trimmings.
The problem was that Brian didn’t want to admit that he was in favor of doing anything as totally uncool as getting a tree. He wanted, as usual, for Justin to “persuade” him. That way, there was no risk that Brian could be accused of being the slightest bit sentimental. He could say ‘no’ and ‘fuck that’ until Justin “forced” him to do what he’d wanted to do all along. Which, of course, would have let him get what he wanted without having to lose one little jot of his so-valued image in the process.
But Justin had had enough. In other words, he simply wasn’t playing the game according to Brian’s rules and was flatly refusing to force, bribe or even coax Brian into getting a tree. He’d decided enough was enough, and that this time Brian was going to have to come out and admit that he wanted one. So they’d arrived at an impasse that neither of them were prepared to break.
The situation might have continued right up to Christmas, except that they received a summons from Linds to visit them at the Munchers’ house because Gus had made Christmas cards for Dadda and Dus and wanted to give them to them. They knocked on a door suspiciously bare of any wreath, and walked into a room with no sign of any decoration - especially no tree.
Brian, tongue in cheek, looked around the room. “So where are all the Martha Stewart pine cones?” he asked.
Mel snorted, and Lindsay gave him a slightly nervous look. “We … we won’t be putting up any decorations this year,” she said.
Brian frowned and Justin, with a look at Gus, said, “Let’s go upstairs and fetch Dadda’s card, Gus.”
Brian said nothing as his partner ushered Gus upstairs, just raised an eyebrow. Lindsay looked across at Mel and said, “Mel just thinks that it’s not appropriate.”
“Why the fuck not?” Brian demanded, sensing something going on that he wasn’t going to like.
Once more, Lindsay looked nervously at Mel and was about to respond, when the other woman cut in.
“Because Christmas is an over-hyped supposedly Christian holiday,” she snapped.
Brian’s eyebrow rose even further and she went on, “And my daughter is not going to get caught up in all that crap.”
Now Brian was scowling at her. “So because you don’t want your daughter exposed to the horrors of Christmas, my son misses out?”
“He’s my son, Brian,” she reminded him cruelly.
Brian sat staring at her for a moment, then looked across at Lindsay. “And you’re going along with this?”
She shifted nervously. “Well, Brian, Mel has a point. Christmas has come to be very commercialized.”
“So … no decorations. What else?” he demanded, memories of how his mother’s supposed piety had made Christmas a time of penance rather than of celebration in the Kinney household sharp in his mind.
Lindsay looked at Mel. “Well, we want to cut down on the gifts, too. Gus will be getting a few things, but we don’t want it to be a big deal.”
“We expect you to respect that,” Mel snapped.
Brian nodded. “Fine,” he said. “So I’ll tell Deb and Mikey to take back that mound of gifts they’ve got for JR, right? I mean, they can give her a small gift each day for Hannukah, but she won’t expect big presents will she? And certainly none on Christmas morning; a good little Jewish girl shouldn’t be contaminated by getting all that nasty Christian commercialism.”
Mel glared at him. “It’s none of your fucking business what anyone gives my daughter!”
He gave a bitter laugh. “Right. So JR gets Hannukah and Christmas - but Gus is supposed to do without one, and cut back on the other.”
“You’re the one who didn’t want him circumcised.”
“Fuck you!” Brian spat, standing and walking towards the door. Then he remembered his son and headed instead for the stairs.
He met Justin coming down, holding Gus’ hand. The little boy was clutching two cards - one for his Dadda and one for Dus.
Brian took his and made a big show of opening it and of being amazed when told that Gus had made it all by himself. He picked his son up and made him giggle when he pretended to think that maybe Gus was a Christmas elf in disguise. He admired the card that Gus had made for Justin. Then, with a challenging look at both of the women, Brian told his son that he would come and get him tomorrow and they could go to pick out a Christmas tree and then Gus could help them put it up in the loft and decorate it.
The little boy was thrilled and gave his Dadda a big hug, before saying a reluctant goodbye.
Lindsay followed the guys out to the car.
“Brian, why are you making a big deal out of this? It’s not as if you …”
Brian turned to her with such an angry glare that she took a step backwards.
“Because I am not going to let you or your wife’s fucked up beliefs fuck up Gus’ life. I’ve been there, and it is not happening to my son.”
“But Mel …”
“Is fucking with your head. She’s no more Jewish than I am Christian, except when it suits her. This is more of her bullshit to see how far you’ll go to keep her appeased and I’m not going to stand by and watch while your little games fuck things up for my son. So get over it!”
He got in the car, where Justin was already waiting for him, and said through the window, “We’ll pick him up at ten o’clock.”
Then the car pulled away, leaving Lindsay standing there. Justin waited a few moments, and then broke the stormy silence in the car, saying softly, “It’s good that Gus has a father who is prepared to look out for him that way.”
Brian sucked in a shaky breath.
Justin let his hand rest lightly on Brian’s thigh.
“You’re right about it all being a power play for Mel. She’s never cared about doing anything Jewish before. I mean, they’ve never celebrated Hannukah since I’ve known them. And they’ve always had a tree.”
Brian shrugged. He felt strangely exposed, as if his reaction at the house had somehow given away whole hosts of the secrets he guarded so zealously.
But he let one hand drop briefly to cover Justin’s, squeezing it tightly.
Then he turned at the next corner and headed towards the mall.
Justin stared at him. “Where are we going?” he asked, disbelieving the obvious explanation.
“We have to get pretty things to hang on the tree, remember?” Brian snarked.
Justin laughed. “Not at the mall,” he said. “Brian you’d never survive the mall this close to Christmas. And anyway you’d hate their decorations.”
“So what’s your brilliant idea?”
“Well, Mom got some great ones from a place on South Main.”
Brian grunted, but turned the car around.
To Justin’s surprise, Brian showed no interest in any of the delicate and tasteful decorations that Justin would have thought would be the only things ever allowed inside the loft. Instead, he headed for a tree which glowed with vivid red and gold, blue and silver and green, and started selecting jolly santas and brightly garbed snowmen and elves rather than minimalistic ice twirls and vividly colored balls and stars rather than severe snowflakes.
Justin found his eyes smarting a little, as he realized that Brian was picking the decorations which he thought Gus would like, rather than those which suited his own notions of décor. Somehow, looking at the intense face which revealed that Brian was giving the same deep concentration to selecting tree ornaments as he normally paid to his work, Justin suspected that maybe Brian was choosing, consciously or not, the ornaments that he would have liked to have had on his tree when he was a child.
Not that Brian would ever admit that, but the thought was enough to make Justin even more determined to make this a perfect Christmas for Gus, and for Gus’ father.
It turned out that the tree decorations were only the beginning. Once Brian had made up his mind to decorate the loft, he went at it, as he did most things, full throttle. Garlands and lights joined the ever growing pile next to the cash register, and they were joined in turn by candles and a wreath for the door.
It was while Brian was getting ready to pay for everything that Justin saw the Nativity set. It was very plain - just the key figures carved in wood with simple, slightly stylized lines. The were set on a wooden platform, the background representing the stable, although, when you looked closely, the roof was actually formed from the outspread wings of an angel, hovering above the scene. He stood looking at it for so long that he attracted Brian’s notice. He came over and frowned when he saw what had caught Justin’s eye.
For a moment it seemed as if he would make some sneering comment, but suddenly he shrugged. “Get it if you like,” he said. “Just don’t make a big deal of it. If he wants to know what it is, just tell him the story, like it’s any other story.”
Justin thought for a moment, and then nodded. He was looking around for a boxed set when the store owner joined them. “Got quite an eye, you have,” he said. “They’re hand carved by the son of a friend of mine. He makes a few every year, but they don’t take most people’s fancy. They’re too plain.”
“They’re lovely,” Justin said softly.
The man nodded, and picked up the pieces reverently. “I think so too.”
He packaged them carefully, and they were added to the hoard. Brian gave a snort as he handed over his credit card again, but refrained from making any other comment.
Then, laden down with boxes of ornaments, garlands and lights, they headed back to the car. Back at the loft, they ordered take out and then started to hang some of the garlands that Brian had selected for the walls, and strung lights around the pillars and across the exposed beams.
By the time the food was delivered, the loft had been transformed.
They sat and ate in a new landscape, deep green garlands of silk holly leaves, dotted with vivid scarlet berries brought color and warmth to the usually severely monochrome space.
After dinner, they applied their combined ingenuity to hanging a wreath on the metal door and then realized that they couldn’t without risking it being scraped off every time the door was opened. So they hung it on the inside instead.
They cleared the space they wanted for the tree and set the boxes of ornaments ready. Finally, Justin placed the Nativity on the ledge in front of the glass doors which closed off the bedroom.
Then, Brian’s self image requiring some reestablishment, they headed to Woodies where he turned down all the hopefuls who tried to pick him up and fucked Justin soundly in the bathroom instead. Then he beat Ted and Emmett at the pool table and, after knocking back several drinks, consented to be lured home on the grounds that he couldn’t afford to be hung over in the morning.
Rather than hung over, Brian was, Justin felt, almost indecently alert and awake by nine next day. He showed neither mercy nor hesitation in applying the vicious tactic of pulling all the blankets off the bed to get Justin up and moving.
Sipping a cup of coffee and trying to slow Brian down enough to eat some breakfast, Justin sat wondering if he should address the issue of just how they were going to transport Gus around, as the corvette clearly wasn’t an option for the three of them. He wondered if he should offer to stay home. He didn’t want to miss out on the Christmas tree excursion, but maybe it was something that Dadda should just share with his Sonnyboy.
While he was debating with himself, Brian’s cell rang. He snapped it open and barked, “Well?”
Justin heard a buzz coming from the phone, and then Brian said, “Well done, Theodore.”
He put the phone down and hummed tunelessly to himself, a habit when he was particularly happy about something.
“Brian, perhaps I should stay here. You know, get things ready. Have some hot chocolate waiting.”
Brian stared at him. Then he grinned and moved around to bump his forehead briefly against Justin’s. “I wondered what the gerbils were scurrying about.”
“Well, we can’t fit Gus into …”
“We’re picking up a jeep.”
It was Justin’s turn to stare. Brian shrugged.
“It’s better to drive in this weather, anyway. Ted’s set it up as a business account. We’re going to lease a couple of them. And he’s told them he wants one fitted with a booster seat. So get a move on. The taxi will be here in about 10 minutes to take us to pick it up.”
Justin was left shaking his head as Brian headed up the steps to pull on his boots.
Their welcome at Muncher Mansion was somewhat frosty, but Gus was all dressed and ready to go, so they didn’t stop to try to thaw things out.
Once Gus was safely installed in his booster seat, they took off for a boys’ day out.
Gus proved to have decided ideas on what he wanted in a tree. He kept shaking his head at one after another, until finally they found one which met his demanding standards. Brian took it all very well, obscurely proud that his son was already showing signs of having decided taste and opinions he wasn’t afraid to voice. Justin cursed himself for not bringing his camera, and mentally stored up images of Brian and his son to be put on paper as soon as he got the chance.
The tree tied to the roof of the jeep, they headed home, where Gus was charmed by the new look of the loft. He wandered around, taking it all in, and his face glowed with joy when Justin drew the curtains and Brian turned on the lights. They had a quick meal of toasted cheese sandwiches before taking on the mammoth task of decorating the tree.
Justin half expected Gus to tank before they were done, but he kept buzzing along, selecting ornaments and hanging them wherever he could reach. When he wanted to hang one up higher, his Dadda and Dus were only too happy to help him. The sound of his little voice, saying firmly, “Not there, Dadda, there!” made Justin’s heart glow. By the look on his face, it was having a similar effect on Brian.
The tree finally finished, and Gus having been held up by Dadda so that he could hang the topmost star, they sat down and had a well earned cup of chocolate with marshmallows. Despite Brian’s feeble protests, he was the first to finish his cup.
The only bad part of the day was when they had to pack Gus up to take him home. He got weepy and pleaded to be allowed to stay. Only Dadda’s promise that he could come back soon prevented a full on attack of tears. The two adults, by the time they’d said goodbye to him, weren’t much better off.
They headed home to “rest” for a while and then spent some time at Babylon, where Brian enjoyed himself vastly making snarky comments about all the tragic queens in attendance, and dragging Justin out to the backroom whenever anyone dared to show the slightest interest in his partner, just to make it clear to all and sundry who that ass belonged to.
They had Gus over the next night for a couple of hours to watch Mickey’s Christmas Carol and to let him enjoy the lights.
As they sat together on the couch, Gus stumblingly addressed some of his fears and confusion. “Why doesn’t Momma like Kwissmass?” he asked.
Then he wanted to know why they didn’t have a tree at home. And if they didn’t have a tree, did that mean that Santa wouldn’t leave any presents? Where would he leave them?
And what if he knew Momma didn’t like Kwissmass and didn’t want to come to their house?
Brian sat quietly seething while Justin did his best to answer the questions. This time when they took him home, Brian walked in and sat down to talk turkey to Lindsay. Which is when Brian found out that Mel had already arranged for them all to spend Christmas Eve at Michael’s house, staying all night so they could share JR’s Christmas morning.
Brian stared at her. Lindsay looked away.
“No,” Brian said, flatly.
“No!” he repeated. “Gus is not spending his Christmas morning being ignored by the happy family man while JR gets all the attention and three times as many gifts. Just … no.”
He sat there shaking his head.
Lindsay looked at him. “Well, you could come over there …”
Brian laughed. “I don’t think that Justin and I would necessarily be all that welcome. Or that us being there would make it any better for Gus.”
Lindsay sighed. “Well, Brian, I really don’t see …”
Brian took a breath, and started a pitch. Lindsay listened, torn between fondness and exasperation. After all the time she’d spent trying to encourage him to spend more time with Gus, why did he have to decide that now was the time. Still … she’d had doubts herself about how much Gus was going to enjoy himself at Michael’s. Michael and Ben were both so besotted with JR, they never paid any attention to Gus at all. And Deb was probably going to be there as well, which would make things all that much worse.
The result of that little talk was that Lindsay reluctantly agreed to let Gus spend Christmas Eve at the loft. She was invited over first thing Christmas morning to watch Gus open his presents. So was Mel.
Lindsay knew that Mel wasn’t going to be happy with her for agreeing, but she also knew that Brian was right. That if the truth be known, Michael would probably be relieved that Gus wasn’t there. And that Mel probably wouldn’t even really notice his absence. Or hers, either, come to that.
But it was Gus who was important here, and Lindsay had no doubt that Gus would have a much better Christmas with his father than he would being made to feel like the fifth wheel at Michael’s.
Brian came home wondering what he’d done. And why.
But then he thought of his son’s face that night when he’d told him that to make sure that Santa found him okay, he was going to spend Christmas Eve at the loft with Dadda and Justin. Gus’ eyes had lit up and his whole little face glowed with delight while he hugged his father so tightly Brian could still feel the little arms around his neck.
Christmas Eve was suitably snowy and Brian made sure that he got to the Munchers’ very early to pick up Gus. He didn’t want any last minute problems because of something as stupid as the weather.
Gus was waiting for him, buzzing with excitement. He waved a casual goodbye to a teary-eyed Lindsay, who was barely comforted by Brian’s promise that if she couldn’t get a cab in the morning, he’d come and get her. Then Dadda and Sonnyboy drove back to the loft, where Justin was just taking the Christmas cookies out of the oven. His mother had dropped them off laid out on a baking sheet, all ready to be cooked, and the smell drifted deliciously through the loft.
They spent the afternoon keeping Gus amused. True to Brian’s prediction, he demanded to have the Nativity scene explained to him. He was fascinated by the angel in particular, and by the baby. He clearly found the story of the couple who could only find shelter in a stable, and of the child born there who was so special that the angels themselves came down from Heaven to celebrate his birth, totally engaging. Almost more fascinating than Santa. After dinner they watched the Muppet Christmas Carol and then turned off the lights, except for the ones on the tree, and by their light they took turns reading The Night Before Christmas to him over and over again.
Hours later, when they’d finally coaxed Gus to sleep, Brian declared himself ready to drive a fork through his hand if he ever suggested such a thing again, but the truth was that, despite the absence of sex and drugs, he’d actually enjoyed his Christmas Eve for the first time in a long time. He displayed a previously hidden talent for making Glühwein and they settled in front of the Christmas tree lights to unwind with the hot drink and an even hotter set of matching blow jobs.
The first phone call came at just after ten, when, exhausted by the task of entertaining his son and knowing that Gus was likely to be even more hyper in the morning, Brian had been ready to actually go to bed before midnight. Answering the phone, Justin was treated by Lindsay to a tale of disaster.
Michael’s wonderful Christmas tree had fallen over. Without Ben’s help, he hadn’t been able to set it up very securely, and when he disturbed it putting yet another present underneath, the whole thing had come crashing down. Several branches had broken off, as had the top of the tree, and most of the ornaments had been smashed. It had also torn down the garlands he’d draped across the room, and when they were coming down, they knocked over a couple of candles which had almost set fire to the living room.
In the end, there was no permanent damage done, but they would all be going over to Deb’s in the morning so that they could open the presents under her tree. If Brian was looking for Lindsay, that’s where she’d be.
Brian tried not to feel smug.
The next call came less than half an hour later.
Deb’s plastic tree had caught fire due to a fault in her old set of lights. No great damage had been done, but it meant that it also was out of commission, having been banished to the yard in a foul smelling heap. So, Lindsay would be at Michael’s next morning after all.
Brian hung up the phone, and recounted to Justin in colorful terms the latest Christmas tree disaster. They both turned to peer at theirs suspiciously, but it serenely twinkled back at them with no sign of contributing to the saga.
Justin sighed a little and looked at Brian. Nothing was said, but Brian picked up his cell. As he did, it rang. It was a very nervous Lindsay.
“Brian,” she said, and then paused.
He let her dangle.
“Um … I know that you and Mel haven't exactly seen eye to eye over things lately.”
“But it’s really important to her …”
That was enough to make Brian cut in. He didn’t want to start on what he thought was important to Mel, which sure as Hell wasn’t spending Christmas morning with “her” son.
“Forget the sales speech, Linds,” he advised.
“But Brian …”
“Justin and I were just about to call and ask if everyone wanted to come over here in the morning. Deb, Emmett, everyone.”
“Oh, Brian! That’s wonderful!” she gushed.
“Yeah, yeah! We can stretch to pancakes and coffee but if anyone wants anything else, they’ll need to bring it.”
“Brian, I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re a good man.”
He snorted again and said, “Not before eight o’clock.”
Then he hung up.
He and Justin looked at each other once more. Then Justin smiled at him, a dazzling “Sunshine” smile and reached to hug him. Brian allowed that for a moment, and then pulled away.
“If we’re going to be invaded by the hoards, we need to get some sleep.”
They climbed the steps to the bedroom and settled either side of the sleeping child.
Justin went straight to sleep, but Brian lay there for a time, thinking about the day just past and the day ahead. He found himself wondering who he was, who he was becoming. He’d never wanted any sort of role as a “family man”, but somehow, tomorrow the whole clan were going to be gathered under his roof to share the ritual of Christmas morning.
What’s more, this wasn’t something that he could blame on Justin. Justin had supported him this week while he fought for his son’s right to have a warm and loving Christmas, the kind he could never remember having himself. But he hadn’t initiated any of this.
Brian had done that himself.
What was most disturbing was that it felt okay. In fact, it felt good.
It didn’t mean that he wanted to turn into a full time family man whose most exciting moments were spent deciding which coupon to use at the supermarket. But he realized finally that he didn’t have to. He didn’t have to be Jack. But he didn’t have to be Mikey either.
He could be a good father, and enjoy some sort of family life without giving up who he was. Without giving up anything. He could have it all. His ability to do that was summed up in the sleeping figures of his son and his lover.
Silently, Brian acknowledged that he’d received a major wake up call with the bombing. He could have lost Justin that night; they could have lost their chance to build a future together. He knew that Justin felt that too. It went unexpressed, of course, as did so much in their relationship, but he knew that the bombing had made them both aware that life was too short to waste in regrets. That had always been his motto “no regrets”. But now he understood it differently. Once it had been a license to do whatever he wanted, and refuse to regret the consequences. Now, it was a call to try to make sure that he didn’t do anything he would have to regret. Didn’t allow his chances and opportunities for happiness to slip away.
In the morning, the assorted family members would gather. In the past few months there had been discord between them, but for a few hours at least all that would be put aside. They would share food and drink and gifts. Would share love and laughter. Deb would bring mounds of food. So would Mikey. The girls would bring their reunion and their daughter, and Gus would get to have all of his family together for Christmas morning.
For a brief space, they would put all their differences aside and work together to make it a joyous and memorable Christmas.
And who knows? Maybe it would help them all recapture the friendships that had been so strained in the past year. Maybe they could take some of that Christmas inspired good will and extend it into the New Year.
Maybe in their little corner at least, they could make the angels’ salutation of “Peace” and “Goodwill” a reality.
After all … that’s what Christmas was really about.
Brian lay in the darkness listening to the quiet breathing of his son and his lover and felt something new beginning.