THE GREAT DIVIDE
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana
Sitting on the grass in Central Park, the blond young man squinted his eyes against the sun as he glanced up at his subject. The tramp was fast asleep, stretched out on a bench, his head pillowed on a filthy backpack which probably held everything he owned; mouth gaping, ragged, nicotine-stained teeth clearly visible. His long, straggly grey hair stirred in the wind and the newspaper he'd draped over himself flapped forlornly. The soles of his cracked shoes were held on with a turn of Duck Tape.
People hurried past, their coats and scarves pulled tight against the raw November air, as unheeding of the old man as they were of the pigeons that scavenged around them. Less so; at least the birds got thrown the odd crust of bread or cracker from their lunch bags.
The artist frowned in concentration, using his right thumb to smudge charcoal into gaunt shadows around the hollows of the old tramp's eyes and cheeks, grey with stubble and cold. He found himself wondering if the old man should die there on the bench of starvation or hypothermia, how long it would be before anyone actually noticed; or if there'd ever be a Debbie to find out the name to put on his grave.
He felt a sudden deeply empathic connection with his subject; he might have a roof over his head and food in his belly, but he felt every bit as disregarded, as apart. As alien.
He rubbed at his eyes wearily with his charcoal darkened fingers, unknowingly replicating on his own face the shadows he'd just drawn on paper, and then glanced down at his watch.
He'd got an hour before his shift started; he'd have to get a move on. He stuffed his sketchpad and charcoal into his backpack and rose awkwardly, his muscles stiff and cramped from the cold grass. He stamped some feeling back into his feet, slung his pack onto his shoulder and hesitantly approached the bench. He pulled out his wallet, took out a couple of bills and carefully tucked them into the tramp's coat pocket. He hoped the old man would spend it on hot food and not a bottle of gin.
He began to walk away, pulling on his gloves as he did so. Christ, he'd thought Pittsburgh was cold, and it wasn't even winter yet. But then, even at its worst, Pittsburgh had so many things to warm it.
When he'd arrived two months ago he'd been excited despite his misgivings. Who wouldn't be? New York wasn't a monster – it was bold, brash, vibrant, filled with a thrillingly dangerous energy: it was noise and colour and smell: and it never slept.
But the city was also utterly impersonal, incurious and unfeeling. It crushed his soul with its height and its depths and its fucking weight; it cared no more for the millions swarming through its concrete intestines than the pigeons did for the crumbs they picked up. It just swallowed them, took the sustenance it needed and then shat them back out.
The young man hurried on. He reminded himself that this part of his life wouldn't last long; it was just another experience. He could endure it, as he'd endured so much before; he could learn from it, he could take away something worthwhile even from this deadly place.
It was, after all, only time.
This was how he comforted himself, and so he believed in his warm, hopeful, loving heart.
But of course, that wasn't how it turned out.
In the canyons of the Great Divide,
Familiar places we can run and hide,
And filled with strangers, walking our houses alone.
In the Great Divide,
Nothing to decide,
No-one else to care for or love –
In the Great Divide
You don't fit in too well.
- The Great Divide - Neil Young
- Keeping us here isn't going to make up for lost opportunities.
- I want a second chance … I want him to know who I am.
- He will.
- I don't want him to forget me.
Of course, Gus was the one we were talking about. Mel and Linds were fleeing the country and taking the kids with them, and I didn't have an answer. Because, much as I might love my son – and the possibility of losing him had finally brought home how much I did – I knew I could never commit to being a full-time parent. Yeah, I spoiled him rotten whenever I had the chance – I enjoyed pissing Mell off almost as much as I liked to please Gus - and fuck knows I was proud of the little tyke. But the kid was as headstrong as his old man, and a handful when he couldn't get his own way, and I have to admit that I was more often than not relieved to hand him back to his Mommies. I accommodated him as much as I could, but I was (and still am!) way too selfish to be able to make the changes in my life-style that I'd have to if he were ever to become a more permanent fixture. Even Justin saw that. It was far too late in the day – not to mention hypocritical - to suddenly start putting on the devoted father act. Better to let him go with two parents who were able to give him the time and attention he deserved, and know that when he did come to visit his old man he'd have a fucking great time at Britin. Yeah, I'd miss him – fuck, I'd miss them both – but I knew that in this, as in so many other things, Linds was right.
She'd just shown me the article in Art Forum, her face alight with pride and eagerness. At the time I'd felt only a warm rush of surprise and pleasure, although I'd kept my expression carefully neutral and had given Justin's review only a cursory glance. But you can bet that I pulled up at three newstands on the way home before I managed to get a copy, and I read it twice before I even drove away.
And while I was so fucking happy at the complementary tone of the whole piece, so proud that Justin was beginning to get the recognition he deserved, I couldn't help but feel the first chill premonition that this was really the beginning of the end. Because … New York was waiting to be conquered. And suddenly my earlier conversation with Linds seemed to apply equally well to Sunshine as to my son.
Waiting for him, that evening, I did a lot of thinking. I knew I had two choices. I could say nothing and let the fairytale continue. Or I could front Justin and deal with the consequences.
He hadn't shown me the article, although Linds had obviously known he'd read it; they'd probably discussed it, and its implications for Justin's career. Linds had put it down to modesty, but I knew better. He hadn't wanted me to see it because he understood, too, how it would work out. How did Shakespeare put it? There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
And this was Justin's tide, wasn't it? Hadn't Linds always told him that New York was the place to be recognised, where the galleries were, the agents, the publicity? The shows? The one thing he'd wanted longer than he'd wanted me … to be an artist. And Christ, how he'd suffered for his opportunity.
But he wouldn't take it. He'd made a commitment to me, and I knew the stubborn little shit intended to honour it. That was another lesson I'd taught him. He would put on his Sunshine face, persuade himself and everyone else how happy he was … and he'd never know. He'd never know whether he could have been the second Andy fucking Warhol.
That was the way the kid was. So fucking loyal. If the fiddler hadn't shown his true colours so early, Justin wouldn't have walked on out on him. He'd have settled for a semi-out relationship, done his supportive partner bit, tried the best he could to make it work until either his heart broke or he finally couldn't stand it any more. Which was what had happened when he was living with me after he was bashed, and why he'd left me for the fucker in the first place.
After all, I'd finally given him what he wanted. After four years of fighting him, denying him, throwing him out of every metaphorical window I could think of, I'd admitted it. I loved the little twat, and I wanted to marry him. Sure, at first he hadn't believed me; he thought I was suffering from PTSD or some fucking thing, and he'd even laughed at my first fumbling proposal. But he'd been wrong: the bombing was only the catalyst. I suddenly realised that I could have lost him that night, lost him forever, and I'd never be able to tell him just how fucking important he was to me. I'd persuaded him at last by the simplest of methods; I fucking meant it. He knew I hadn't been bullshitting him when I'd proposed for the second time at Britn, when I'd finally come clean and bared my bleeding heart for him. I'd bought him a mansion, for fuck's sake. Was he really likely to throw that back in my face for his own chance at fame and fortune? Was he fuck.
So he hadn't told me. And now I was up Shit Creek without a paddle.
I always knew it would happen, which was why I'd never allowed it to. The Prime Rule of the fucked-up universe is that once you find the thing you've been looking for all your life, someone will take it away from you. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be happy. To be blissfully, deliriously, hopelessly in love. To walk around with a sappy, goofy smile on my face, feeling my heart racing just at the thought of seeing him again. I realised that I hadn't fucked anyone else since the bombing – I'd been too busy fucking Justin into every available surface. And I loved it. And him.
And now I was going to stand in the way of his talent … the talent I'd always recognised, always encouraged; the talent I had fought for when he wasn't capable of fighting for it himself. How the fuck could I do that? And the kid was only twenty years old, for Chrissakes. He might be an amazingly mature twenty-year old, but still, he'd never really done anything or been anywhere. He still had a whole life to live – and now the world had opened up for him, and I couldn't deny him the opportunity to experience it. How would I be able to live with it?
The simple fact was, I couldn't. Couldn't allow him to just settle for being a country hausfrau, be he ever so willing. As Mel had pointed out, he was sacrificing so much for me. And letting him do so for my own selfish reasons wasn't love. Somehow I had to make sure he took the bright, shining jewel that Life was offering him, because it wouldn't be offered again. Because love was … caring enough to let him go.
Alone: because I was always the weak link, not him. I couldn't stand a long-distance relationship – I'd proved that when he went to LA, and that had only been for a few months; but I'd had no trouble at all in convincing myself that he was gone for good. And fuck, if the movie had gone ahead he probably would have been. It would take much longer for him to establish himself in New York, probably years. What was he going to do, keep running home to the Pitts every weekend or month or whatever; fretting about what or who I was up to when he was supposed to be concentrating on his art, not wasting his time and money? I'd have to let him go again and again, the blow falling harder each time; sharing less and less of his life until at last the inevitable happened. The visits would become fewer and fewer, as would the phone calls. Because he's never been able to separate sex and emotion the way I do; tricking would never be a long-term option for Justin. He'd eventually find someone more accessible, less complicated – someone who could follow his footsteps the way he'd always followed mine. I didn't doubt his love. Not for a second. I knew nobody would ever take my place in his heart; but I also knew he'd never be alone, because he wasn't built that way. He would always love and be loved, even if the person he was with wasn't me; he'd live with that, because he was strong. And then I would die.
Even if I went to him, what then? I'd still be distracting him, and I'd still have to come back because I had Kinnetik to run, and Babylon. And while I'd only too willingly give up both for my boy, where would that leave me? No matter how much I loved him, I couldn't see myself as some kind of … hanger on. I was as driven, as ambitious as he was. Even if I sold everything and moved to New York, I'd still have to do something. For the first time in my life I was my own boss, and I loved it … I wasn't about to go back to working for someone else, assuming, of course, I could fucking find a job at my age. They thought I was too old the last time I tried, and that was four years ago.
If only the timing had been different. A couple more years, and Kinnetic might have been big enough to branch out, to maybe open a New York office. Then we could have gone together, as equals. But then we always had shit timing.
When Justin came home, I casually started reading the article aloud, watching his face carefully as I did. And it was exactly as I thought; he wasn't buying it. He'd said he'd already made up his mind; I was what he wanted, not the Big Apple. And I could see that he meant every fucking word of it.
So it would come down to me after all.
The next day I began. Not so long ago, I would have simply fucked and drunk and ignored him until he gave in and did what I wanted. But the old tried and tested methods weren't going to work now: not just because he was onto them and would expect them, but mainly because I simply couldn't hurt or humiliate him that way anymore. I'd shown him too much, pulled down too many fences. I couldn't look into his face and lie anymore, so I couldn't take back the love I'd finally admitted. But I understood him as well as he understood me, and I knew that the only thing that would make him pull out of marrying me and settling for Pittsburgh for the rest of his life was if he honestly believed that I would be the one to suffer if he didn't. So I began to subtly change my attitude; saying all the right words, doing the right things but always with a little sigh or eye roll to let him know that my heart wasn't in it. Implying that yes, I'd go through with it because I'd promised him I would, that I was prepared to even sacrifice the Great God Kinney on the altar of Christian matrimony and monogamy rather than break my word. I think it was my stag night that really got him, my turning down that hot trick to go home with my fiancé instead. I thought Justin's head was going to explode. It would have been hysterical if I hadn't been feeling so fucking sick.
He was beginning to realise that if an attentive, romantic, devoted husband was what he wanted, then that was precisely what he was going to get. Permanently.
But of course, Justin had never wanted that. The Great God Kinney was the one he'd fallen in love with, not a rich adoring sugar-daddy. And he balked, just like I knew he would; dug his toes in and refused and took off to New York like he was supposed to. His very lack of protest only confirmed to me how much he'd truly wanted to go, and I knew I'd made the right decision.
He only wobbled a little that last night, when he couldn't hide his tears or his emotion; but of course, he thought he was coming back. I was the only one who knew that this love-making was our final act, that the curtain was finally coming down on our little drama. Because it had to be a clean break; I'd never have the strength to do this fucking twice. I had no defences against Sunshine any more, so all I could do was reassure him and smile for him, and hope he couldn't hear my heart shattering.
He hadn't been suspicious when I told him I wouldn't visit for a while so that he could focus on getting work and a place to paint and an agent. Hell, I hadn't gone to see him when he was in LA either, for the same reasons as far as he was concerned. I made it seem no big deal. It's only time, I said. I even managed to smile.
We'd agreed that I wouldn't go the airport with him … No fucking tearful goodbyes, I'd told him. I'd even pretended to still be asleep when he crept out to get his flight, and held back my own tears until I heard the elevator start.
I thought I knew what pain was. I'd felt it enough through the years. But Christ, I had no fucking idea. Not until I could finally sit up, and look around, and realise what I'd done. When I understood how silent, and cold, and lonely my home had suddenly become … although, if home was really where the heart was, then mine had just walked out the door. Do you know the two saddest words in the world? The two which carry the most grief, the most regret? Justin said them a long time ago. Now I've said them.
The only truly good thing I'd ever found in my shit-filled life; the only person that really belonged to me
And the time is coming for the final break. I've kept in regular touch for a while; I didn't have much choice. Fuck, I'm not a total idiot; I knew it was going to be hard on the boy leaving his friends and family and planting himself in the middle of New York City with nothing but his talent and a rave review going for him. Financially hard, too. I wasn't going to just cut him off until I knew he was working and could stand on his own feet. One of his major problems is still the fact that he never graduated, which rules out most of the better employment opportunities.
But Justin has never been work-shy, and he's landed a job waiting tables at a French Restaurant near his rooms. He seems quite happy there, and I'm sure it's a step up from the diner, and the wages are lot better. He's looking for a small studio so he can start painting again. And although he hasn't got anyone to show his stuff yet, he's had a lot of really good interest.
Like I told him, if anyone can make it, he can. All he has to do is keep trying and be patient, and he'll get there.
Sometimes when I hear his voice or read his mails I can almost forget that we don't exist any longer. That there is now only him and me.
And me? As far as the rest of the world knows, I'm doing fine. I spend my days (and a lot of nights) at Kinnetic or the gym; or at Babylon, overseeing the re-construction. I'm glad Mikey persuaded me to re-open it, because it gives me something else to do to fill the hours.
The fucking endless hours.
I guess I'm kind of numb, nowadays. Except for when something I see or hear or smell or taste reminds me … which is just about all the time.
I honestly didn't know (although I may have suspected) that I couldn't go back to the way I used to be … the tricking, the drinking, the drugs. In all honesty, I've never had the same enthusiasm for tricking since the cancer – there's always been this lurking fear that someone will realise that the Stud of Liberty Avenue is now a one-ball wonder – which is why I'd chosen Mardi Gras in fucking Australia for my great Cum-back! Okay, I know it's pathetic. So shoot me. But all of that shit … I just don't seem to have the same taste for it now; I can't help the feeling that I'd be somehow disrespectful. To Justin … to those few happy weeks we had together.
And now … now he's gone … well, I can't help comparing everyone else to him. And they all fall horribly short. And whether or not I want to admit it, despite what Mikey says, I'm getting older. I'm even beginning to feel it. I'm becoming more aware of how my back aches sometimes when I wake up, or my knees get stiff if I sit for too long. I've even found a couple of grey hairs.
So here I am. And now I can't even lie to myself anymore. I'm tired and lonely and fucking cold, because the Sunshine's gone away. All I have left are those fragments stored away in the safe where I never see them: his sketch of me asleep; our rings; a couple of photos; the deeds to an empty house. The house I can't bring myself to sell, even though I can't really afford to keep it. Things I can't let go because I invested too much of myself into them.
But still, I have to stop being a fucking pussy by postponing the inevitable and end it soon, because Babylon's opening is next month and there's no way he'll miss it. And I can't see him. Because if I do, I'll never let him go again.
No, I always knew cutting Justin out would hurt. I just hadn't realised that the pain would go on and on, like the phantom ache of an amputated limb. Or an excised ball.