One afternoon in his apartment, Justin is sitting on the floor looking through a thick stack of old drawings deciding what to throw out and what to keep. He is thinking of maybe framing one to send to Melanie soon when her birthday is coming up, if he can find something that he can see looking nice hanging in the kind of house he imagines her and Lindsay having in Canada. Every once in a while he comes across something he so strongly dislikes that he instantly crumbles it into a ball and tosses it in the trash, but others he stares at for a while trying to make up his mind about whether it's decent or complete shit. He's looking at a drawing of a horse when he hears a knock on his door, accompanied with a voice calling from out in the hall.
"Mr. Taylor? You home?"
Justin gets up and goes to the door, opening it up to see a thin man in his 60s. "Hey, Mr. Riven."
"Oh, pardon me," he says. "I wasn't sure if you'd be here. I know you've been gone."
"Yeah, but I've been back for almost a week," he says with a smile.
"Oh. No kidding."
"Well, I just wanted to let you know, the first morning you were gone that alarm clock in there was going off for the whole morning."
"Oh, shit...I'm sorry, I didn't even think to turn it off."
"It's no problem. It was the lady who lives under you banging on the ceiling to try to get you to make it stop that was bothering me more than anything."
"But see," he goes on, "after I kept knocking and you didn't answer, I got the landlord to come up here and open your door but it wasn't even locked. You've got to be careful, you know."
"Oh, yeah, I don't really worry about keeping it locked all the time," Justin explains. "There's nothing in here anybody would want to steal. Unless they have a taste for abstract paintings."
"Ah...I see." He glances over his shoulder into the room for a second and says, "Say, that's pretty good."
Justin turns around and sees he's looking at a painting he has propped up against one of the walls. "Oh, thanks. I tend to hope so. Well...thanks for the warning."
"Sure. Take it easy," Mr. Riven says, walking away from his doorway. Justin closes the door and goes back inside, shaking his head a little.
He has sat back down and is just about to make up his mind about the horse drawing when he hears another knock on the door. Knowing how Mr. Riven is, Justin bets he just forgot the real reason he came to talk to him and actually wants to borrow a stamp or something. But when he gets back up and opens the door again, he is so surprised to see who is there that he stands frozen and speechless for a moment.
They just look at each other for a while at first, before Brian finally says, "Hey, Sunshine."
"What are you...?" Justin is so surprised to suddenly have Brian standing in his hallway that he can hardly put together a complete question.
"Well, are you going to let me in or leave me out here listening to your neighbor's music?" he asks, pointing toward Mr. Riven's door.
Justin unsurely steps back away from the door so he can come inside and closes it. He sees that he's messing with his car keys in his hands and asks, "Did you drive here?"
"Yeah," he answers.
"I came to see your show," he says. "This Wednesday from 6:00 to 7:30 at the Promenade Art Gallery. Which is...somewhere on Philadelphia Drive. Is that right?" At Justin's confused expression he says, "I looked up their website."
Justin gives a short laugh. "Why didn't you just call and tell me you wanted to come?"
"I was afraid you'd tell me not to bother."
"Well, I have to say, it does seem a little like you're just trying to prove something, especially with you choosing to drive all the way here."
Brian shrugs. "I got tired of airports. I almost did have to call you about half an hour ago, though. This place is fucking hard to find."
"Yeah, it can be."
He looks at him a long moment. "So...you doing okay?"
"Yeah, I suppose," Justin says. "Better, at least. You were right. I needed to get back here and start doing something again. And as much as I don't like being alone in this apartment most of the time, it's kind of given me a chance to think about some things."
Brian nods, and then says, "Oh, I was...listening to that CD you made me on the way over here."
He smiles a little. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. And you know...You have good taste in music."
Justin laughs. "Brian, it's not like you've never heard what kind of music I listen to before."
"I know, but...I was just thinking. Because I was telling Mikey a while ago that you and I don't really have anything in common. But I guess we like a lot of the same music. I mean...what did you put on there? Beck. The Dandy Warhols. Even...what the fuck? Joy Division? You're too young to know who Joy Division were."
He grins, and for a second it looks like that old light has finally come back into his smile. "You may think so."
A whistling sound comes from the kitchen, and Justin looks behind him and says, "Oh, hang on. I've got tea. Do you want some?"
"No, that's okay," Brian says, and Justin leaves the room.
Brian looks around the apartment, glancing down at all the drawings piled up on one part of the floor, and then noticing a large painting sitting against the wall. It is of a little girl in a light green dress standing on a beach in front of the seashore. She has red hair in two pigtails blowing in the breeze and large, expressive eyes that very thin, almost unnoticeable tears are running out of down each cheek, glimmering brightly just like the waves behind her sparkling in the sunlight. Sitting against the frame is a piece of notebook paper with a poem written down on it, which Brian picks up and reads.
"maggie and milly and molly and may"
maggie and milly and molly and may and maggie discovered a shell that sang milly befriended a stranded star and molly was chased by a horrible thing may came home with a smooth round stone for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
went down to the beach (to play one day)
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and
whose rays five languid fingers were;
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles; and
as small as a world and as large as alone.
it's always ourselves we find in the sea
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
milly befriended a stranded star
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
may came home with a smooth round stone
for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
Looking back down at the child in the painting makes Brian feel a sudden, uncomfortable stab of sadness, like all the feelings he has had but not fully realized his entire life are all flooding back into him at the same time. When Justin comes back out of the kitchen with a cup of tea, he stays with his eyes on the canvas for a moment like he has been stupefied by it, before placing the sheet of paper back down on the floor in front of it.
Putting his cup down on a desk, Justin says, "That's kind of a last-minute addition to the show. Did you see the poem that goes with it?"
Brian nods as he comes and stands next to him to look at it.
"I read that poem sometime when I was in high school," Justin explains. "And I always remembered it reminded me of a day when my family was on vacation in Florida and we went to the beach. I guess Molly was four or five. She was going all around the beach collecting shells, and she found one that actually still had something alive in it. She wasn't expecting to open it up and find something slimy inside so she screamed and dropped it and ran to my mom crying. We just laughed about it a lot...I've always thought it's kind of interesting how adults are just amused by little kids crying about little things like that. Because they're just kids. They have no idea how bad life can get. But still...I can't think of anything much worse than dying before you even get the chance to find that out."
Brian looks away from the painting, meeting eyes with him. Once again, they just look at each other for a long time. Then Justin goes back over to the desk to take a drink of his tea. "It's pretty cool that they're letting me put that in, especially since it doesn't really go with anything else I have. And they're going to have the poem next to it with the title and everything."
"And what's the painting's title?" Brian asks.
He shrugs. "No need to come up with anything clever. Molly. So where are you staying?"
"Hilton," he says. "Nine blocks away from here."
Justin nods. He puts down his mug, sitting down in the chair at the desk, and looks down a little. "God, I can't believe you're here...You know, if you'd called first, I wouldn't have told you not to come."
"Well...good. Now I don't have to feel like an asshole." Brian goes over to the mattress and takes a seat on the edge of it.
Justin turns the chair so that he is facing him and crosses his legs up on it. "One of the first nights I was back here," he says, "I had this really fucked up nightmare. Of course, I wasn't used to being here because I'd been sleeping in my room at home, so when I first woke up I kind of didn't know where I was at first, and it just felt really terrible...A few years ago, back when I started having nightmares practically every night, I just got used to you always being next to me when I woke up."
"Yeah, I remember," Brian says in a sort of dark voice. "...I hated that. Sometimes you didn't even want me to touch you."
"But even when you didn't hold me, at least you were there," he says. "And as long as you were I was able to calm down and think, It's over, I'm never going to have to go through that again, I'm here now and I'm safe. This time...it just didn't feel right that you weren't there."
Brian sits silently for a moment, biting his lip, and says, "You could have called me if you wanted to. I wouldn't have cared."
"Yeah," he says with doubtful sarcasm. "After what happened. What I said."
"You were absolutely right about everything you said."
"But none of it should have been important then. It shouldn't have mattered to me what the reason was that we were able to be that close again after how much we'd kind of grown apart. I should have just been grateful that you were there for me through everything when I needed you and thanked you for that."
Brian shakes his head insistently. "You were being perfectly reasonable to assume that my sudden change in behavior toward you was only because of Molly's death. I guess in a way, it was. And with how many times I've pushed you away before, it's no wonder you would doubt it was going to last this time..." He crosses his arms on his knees, sighing heavily like he is exasperated with himself. "Now that I look back on it, even when we were living under the same roof as a couple I still always kept you at a distance in some ways. And in the past few days as I've been almost sure that I've really lost you for good this time and there's nothing I can do to fix it, I've been thinking about that and it all seems so fucking ridiculous. I honestly don't know how you put up with all that for five years, much less can I imagine how you could risk getting yourself back into it again instead of running as far away from it as you can."
The room is expectantly silent for a while, until it is not clear if either of them has anything more to say about that. Justin stares down at the floor for a long time, thinking hard. Then he just says, "Well...neither can I. But I guess that's just something about people that doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
Brian looks up and meets eyes with him, seeming to not dare assume that means what it could, his face staying the same.
Justin taps his fingers on his knees a second, thinking more, and asks him, "What would you think of canceling your reservation at the Hilton and...just staying here?"
Brian stares at him with a fixed, meaningful look. "Really?" he says quietly.
Justin nods. He gestures toward where he's sitting and says, "The mattress isn't that bad, as you can see. It'll be like your college days."
Brian smiles. "The only lumpy mattresses you could feel a pea through I slept on in my college days were on other people's beds."
"I'd figure as much," he says with a light laugh.
Brian's smile gradually falls and his face turns serious. "I guess this is kind of a strange twist of fate."
"Well, I was always the one who thought it was crazy to enter into a committed relationship, it being doomed to fail, based on bullshit and lies, bound to just cause misery and all that...But this time around, I'm the one asking you to do something crazy. You're the one who has all these reasons to run away."
"I guess it's a good thing I don't have the same opinion about love that you do," Justin says.
Brian takes a few seconds to see how that doesn't register quite right in his head and says correctively, "Did...I mean, bullshit maybe, and misery, but lies? I can't exactly keep living with the comfort of believing that after everything that's happened. I wish these horrible things didn't have to happen for me to be able to open up to people. I wish all human beings could know what they have without it being taken away. But maybe having love kick the shit out of us is the only way we know it's even real. Maybe if I had never almost lost you, I could have gone on pretending you meant nothing to me and actually believing it myself for forever, or at least too long for you to keep sticking around instead of getting sick of being taken for granted and moving on. But you can't say love is not real when it's making you feel like...Well, you know what it can make you feel like."
"Like your soul is being torn to shreds?" Justin offers.
"Yeah, like that...Maybe love isn't what a bunch of straight morons crack it up to be. It's not some fairy tale in which once you actually find it you live happily ever after and that's that. Sometimes, when you're lucky, it's hearts and flowers and laughter and all that cute stuff they associate it with. But sometimes it's seeing somebody who means a lot to you have to go through something so bad you can hardly bear to watch it. Sometimes it's screaming at each other. Sometimes it's crying all over each other. Sometimes it's...well, it's hell. But it's real. And for some crazy, fucked-up, stupid reason, all of us need it. And that's why I did something insane like went to see you in the hospital, even though I didn't really want to see you then and just wanted to forget everything that happened. And that's why even though after I thought I knew we couldn't be together anymore I came to meet you at the airport. And...I guess that's why I'm here now, even though after driving all this way you could have just told me to fuck off and I would have completely understood."
Justin only looks at him a long time, the room seeming to ring with an internal, mental echo of all those words he just said in the silence that follows. He uncrosses his legs, stands up from the chair and goes over to Brian, sitting down onto his lap with his legs on each side of him. He puts his arms around his shoulders and leans down to kiss his neck. Then as he rests his head on his shoulder they each close their eyes, holding each other tightly. They sit this way a long time saying nothing, just feeling themselves meld together again at last, each becoming more whole again with every deep breath.
"Brian?" Justin then says softly.
"Do you ever think about how things would be if we never met?"
"...Sometimes," Brian admits.
"Things could have been a lot easier for us, you know."
Brian pulls away a little to look Justin in the face, one of his hands going up into his hair. "Fuck easier," he says.
Justin's smile comes onto his face gradually, like a revelation, before he leans in again and they kiss, slowly and leisurely like they have all the time in world. For that is the only way to enjoy anything when time may be all you don't have for all you know. And Brian thinks to himself that he will be glad to wake up with Justin beside him the next morning, even if it is in a cramped apartment room instead of at home and it is not something he will be able to have every day.
A long time ago on his 30th birthday, Michael showed up at just the right time to save him from nearly casting his life away like it was nothing, and he tried to get him to see all the things he took for granted when he told him, "You will always be young and you will always be beautiful," and it almost sunk in and got through to him. It must have a little, because he went to Justin's prom. But it did not completely permeate into his head until after the scarf that was around his neck when Michael had to come stop him was then around Justin's neck as he nearly got killed and Brian was then the one who had to save somebody else. And in his mind now, he is still always wearing that blood-stained scarf against his skin under his clothes, because life is such a precious thing that is not to be thrown away, and that is so easy to forget without being painfully and cruelly reminded, but he cannot let himself forget. He has to remember.