The Shadows of His Past
New York and Pittsburgh_2014
It is exactly eight & one half years from the day he last sees her until the day he receives the call telling him that she has died. He never knows that, never making that timeline connection and most likely wouldn’t have cared much if he had. Just another one of those interesting little life-ironies so often missed by those who are having enough trouble just getting through them.
They got home late, after 3am, after another perfect Saturday night of just the two of them nightclub dancing; only to find that interesting little life-irony waiting for them, the telephone answering machine flashing its red light warning. ‘Messages,’ Brian said and, in a female voice so falsely serene that it was sometimes irritating, the machine answered that there were eight awaiting their attention. In the past 4 hours it would seem, three messages had been left by Michael Novotny and five by Claire Kinney-Matthews with the last having been left at 2:46am. Without hearing them, Brian knew. He knew exactly why they’d called. Leaning against the glass and metal table, thigh pressed against its edge, sharp and cold, grounding him, he hesitated. Looking down at the machine as he gently ran his fingertips over the tabletop’s smooth glass, as he tentatively stroked up and over the machine’s cool steel-gray surface, as he tapped lightly on its silver buttons, he continued hesitating, considering what he should do next.
The matriarch of the Kinney clan was dead. Not dying. Dead. He knew with certainty. He knew without being told. If asked how he knew, he would’ve had to admit that he really didn’t know how. He just did. And so deciding finally that this, his new reality, could wait until morning, Bran turned away, he moved away, away from what he didn’t want to deal with and toward Justin. “To bed.”
Moving with such tranquility down the hallway, he seemed almost to be moving without effort, doing his own physical interpretation of the answering machine’s voice of false serenity. “Brian?” Justin said. “Aren’t you…?” But when Brian turned toward him, Justin stopped; he actually stepped back, just from the look on Brian’s face. It was in that moment that Justin understood, by the pain in Brian‘s eyes, by the confusion moving off of him in yielding waves, what had happened. Taking a jagged breath at the suddenness of his realization, he knew that life had now shifted, would never be quite the same and when tomorrow came; it would bring with it a new kind of truth.
“It can wait. It’s late. Nothing we can do now anyway. I just want your ass in--”
“In a minute,” Justin said, smiling just slightly, shaking his head just slightly as he watched Brian turn and continue on his way down the hallway and into their bedroom.
“I’ll be waiting,” Brian drawled from the doorway before finally disappearing into the darkness beyond.
Sighing, deciding his best course of action was appeasement, understanding that while anyone else would have at least listened to the messages, since Brian hadn’t, he’d obviously shut-down to Pittsburgh. And also realizing that no amount of rational argument would change that, that Brian would move at his own pace, would deal with what the messages had to tell him in his own time, Justin also knew to avoid any direct confrontation. Something that would only insure Brian’s further withdrawal. Something neither of them needed right now.
Every night Brian made sure that their world was protected; that they were safe from any possible danger, either from within or without, but tonight he took on that responsibility. Using Brian’s routine, Justin wandered from here to there, checking this and that, turning on alarms, checking doors, slowly realizing that he was not only sad, not only worried, but that he was also afraid. Finishing his responsibilities, ending his wandering at the large window overlooking lower Manhattan standing before, but without really seeing, the swirl-dance of city lights laid-over a 3am blue-black velvet sky, Justin realized he was, in fact, very afraid. Leaning his forehead against the night-touched glass, he reflected on Brian’s next move and the only conclusion he could rely on was that Brian would act like this new truth was no big deal. Joan hadn’t been in his life for years, hadn’t been even before he’d left Pittsburgh. He hadn’t even told her, at the time, that he was leaving. After he’d moved, they’d bought her a card. He’d even watched as Brian had scrawled across it, ‘Hey mom, guess what?’ His last communication with her, the last words he would ever say to her and Justin now remembered clearly how they both had laughed. They hadn’t received any acknowledgement from Joan. They hadn’t expected to.
Uncomfortable, shifting up, moving away from the window, listening as Brian went through his nightly bathroom routine; Justin knew he still had time so, sitting on the couch, still facing his nighttime painting, he reflected a little more. Reality was, Joan Kinney hadn’t had a relationship with her son or her grandson in years so, she wouldn’t even be missed by Gus. And, since she’d never even acknowledge him as Brian’s partner, then why so sad? So worried? So afraid? For her? No, not for her? Admittedly, he wasn’t really feeling all that sorry for her, since she had made her own choices. Choosing never to try and understand her son, to never know the man he had become, choosing to never know Gus, her own grandchild. No, if he felt sorry for her at all, it was only because of her lost opportunities and the loss of her and Brian’s shared history. But in reality, hadn’t she made her own judgments?
So, for Brian? Was he feeling sad and worried and afraid for Brian? He knew he was definitely feeling all those things for him, because no matter how much he would try and play this to the contrary, he knew Brian was hurting and would be for some time to come. Good Catholic boy that he was, whether practicing or not, whether believing or not, he’d been raised to it, the church’s practices and rituals a part of who he was, just like his being Irish. And just like with most good Catholic boys, he had mama-issues, issues as deeply-rooted and as deeply-buried as anyone’s. Issues that would probably have to be laid open and dealt with, not the kind of situation Brian generally did well with.
For himself though, he felt both afraid and maybe even a little angry because things had been good between them for a while, the way he’d always imagined life could be, but now it was safe to assume, things would change. Brian would change and a lot of the dark shadows from Brian’s past would now get the full rays of daylight shone on them and with that kind of self-examination almost always comes feelings of inadequacy and regret and who knew what else, feeling of Brian’s that he couldn’t have even imagined having to deal with less than an hour ago.
One long hour ago, night-club dancing, sweaty and vaguely light-headed, held tight in Brian’s arms, the thumpa-thumpa pulsing in his ears, the rainbow-colors flashing before his eyes and with a bubble of beautiful, hot, horny men swirl-weaving all around him, life had been understood. Brian would always have his temper, his erratic moods, his frustrations and insecurities which would flash across him like summer storms. He would always have his dark under-layer, his vulnerabilities, he would never be easy, and really, who would want him to be? But for a while, life had been as angst-free as he had any right to expect and now came the change. Still, he knew his role, knew the part he was to play, doing whatever he could to make this transition for Brian as gentle, as uncomplicated, as tension-free as possible, knowing, nonetheless, that troubled times lay ahead. So, when Brian called for him, he went to him and tonight Justin would take Brian just as slow and just as easy as he could.
His clothes were half way off, his shirt unbuttoned, his belt unbuckled with jeans unzipped and riding low, his boots toed-off and kicked away, by the time he made his way into their room. Brian was on his stomach, stretched out lazily, the covers crumpled at the foot of the bed, the entire scene urging him on so, Justin crawled into the warmth surrounding him and moving Brian onto his back, he covered him, his body pressed completely to Brian’s and Brian sighed, a sigh of expectation and of need. Justin understood that tonight Brian needed their love-making to be slow and every part of him craved doing just that. Pulling the covers up, then pushing down under them, he nested between Brian’s legs, beginning his process of comfort. What he wanted for Brian was one drawn-out, mind-numbing orgasm followed by the escape of sleep. And, having noticed that the answering machine’s green off-light was now blinking, Brain having turned the machine off, he knew that that was what Brian wanted also. Tomorrow would be about the consequences, but now, right now, would only be about touch and sound, smell and taste, would only be about becoming as much a part of Brian as he could.
Brian’s skin felt of silk where he stroked lazily along his hipbone and of the earthy taste of honey when he licked over where the bone itself stretched Brian’s skin. And his smell was warm and sweet as he sucked where Brian’s balls lay soft and still yielding against his inner thigh. Moving even deeper inside the cave of downy warmth, his tongue traced each muscle, his teeth nibbled each tendon, while his nails scratched sensitive skin and his lips sucked tender veins. While his tongue licked spit, his lips murmured only vaguely heard words over every inch of firm leg, down one thigh, one calf, one foot and up along the other.
When he finally reached Brian’s balls again, they weren’t as soft, weren’t as yielding and he could hear, he could feel Brian breathing more rapidly, just a little more urgently. His arousal had begun. Without warning, he sucked both balls quickly, but not too harshly, into his mouth and Brian gasped. Curling into him, continuing his sucking, his mouthing, his nose pressed lightly into his pubes, Justin was content. For a while, they both were. But when he felt Brian’s fingers tugging in his hair, his nails scraping along his scalp, after he heard Brian’s whispered, “Justin Justin Justin,” he knew Brian wanted more. Draping himself over Brian’s hip, half inside, half outside the comfort of his spread legs and, leaning over him, onto him, licking from his tightening balls up his cock to its swelling tip, he swallowed him complete causing Brian to jerk up into him, a reflex Brian always had. Dragging his lips upward, slowly twisting from side to side, his tongue dance-licked Brian’s nearly hard cock, while one finger drifted down, down between his balls, down toward his hole and reaching it, when he felt a sudden tightening there, he soothed him. Taking just a little while, soon enough he spread his legs, just as much as he could, spreading himself open, allowing himself to completely feel Justin’s touch. Soon enough, Brian was aroused to the point that he let Justin’s fingers inside him.
“This how you want to come?” Justin whispered, after some indefinable amount of time had passed with his lips gently kissing, with one hand gently stroking, and with two fingers gently fucking.
“I…I want you.”
Shifting his position, leaning toward the bedside table, grabbing, unwrapping a condom and smoothing it down onto Brian, straddling, lowering himself slowly steadily onto him, for a moment, he was quiet, just feeling him. Usually, after a night like this, they fucked hard and fast, the entire night their foreplay, but not this night. Justin wanted this night to last forever so, he moved slow and he moved easy with gentle hips that rocked left and right, with strong thighs that stroked up and down. If they’d been slow dancing, he would’ve been setting their pace; guiding their direction, deciding their moves. He felt every pulse of Brian’s cock, could feel him swell, knew when he was close and since they’d been in this place for a while and maybe awhile was just long enough.
Clenching his ass, stroking himself up one last time, when just at the top of it, he hovered for a second before opening himself up, before bringing himself down hard, arching back, as Brian pushed up just as hard into him and Brian came. Eyes shut tight, bright stars behind them, stroking himself once, twice, he joined Brian in that most beautiful place. Collapsing, being brought into Brian’s arms, he felt as if he were drowning and with Brian’s kisses being the only thing that would save him. Then, they slept.
He awoke to the sound of Brian’s voice. Glancing at the clock, its display telling him that it was 7:30am, realizing that it had only been 2 hours since they’d fallen asleep, he wondered if Brian had actually slept at all. Realizing, suddenly knowing, that he hadn’t, he rolled onto his back, putting both of his arms over his eyes, and Justin murmured, “Ah, shit.”
He listened as Brian got louder, more defensive, like he felt he’d done something wrong, which he had. He should have called last night, he shouldn’t have turned off the answering machine, and now he was paying for trying to make good his escape. The time for consequences had come
“Of course I’ll fucking be there. Do you really think, Claire that I wouldn’t show up for our own mother’s funeral? Christ.” Justin could easily hear him from the other side of the space, still he felt like he was eavesdropping. “Because, seriously, how would that look to all her little church-lady friends if her only son didn’t show. Think I would really do that to her memory?”
Not good, really not good, Justin got up and walked ass-naked to the living room where he found Brian pacing, phone clenched in his right hand while his left raked nervously through his hair. Not, not good.
“Bullshit, Claire, that’s just bullshit because what, you really think she would’ve come to my funeral if the cancer had killed me? You do? Well, sweet sister, then that’s just you being delusional. But don’t worry, I won’t treat her the way she would‘ve treated me. I said good-bye to Jack and I’ll say good-bye to Joanie.”
He slid up behind him, laying himself along his back and could instantly feel Brian relaxing. “Oh, and Claire, will you feel any better about that fact that Justin is coming with me if I promise not to fuck him in the nave of St. Bartholomew’s?”
“Ouch,” Justin murmured.
And Brian went quiet, listening to his sister as Justin soothed along his back, rubbing smooth circles from his chest to his stomach, as he kneaded the heels of his hands over his tense shoulders and when he licked a silken trail from the middle of those shoulders to just inside the waistband of his jeans, he smirked when Brian moaned. He loved making him do that. Especially when it was inconvenient. Like now.
“As soon as we land in Pittsburgh, I‘ll come by the house. Look, I have to go.” With the phone back in its place and for the moment free of any further obligations, Brian turned and taking Justin into his arms, he held him for a moment, but the moment passed quickly.
“What the hell did you say to her?” Justin said, licking slow and wet up into Brian’s jaw.
“Why do you immediately assume I’m to blame?” But at his give-me-a-fucking-break scowl, Brian said, “I may have inferred that we might not be coming. I just wanted to…I don’t know.”
“You just wanted to what, Brian? You just wanted to fuck with her?” he said, running his hands down Brian’s back to his ass and squeezing tight. “‘Because why, she doesn’t have enough shit on her plate already?”
“I know, it was stupid. It’s just that she immediately goes off on me, giving me that ‘you’re bringing HIM to our mother’s FUNERAL’ bullshit. Pissed me off her saying she doesn’t want you there.”
“And your sister’s saying she doesn’t want me there is because why, Brian? Why ever wouldn’t she--?”
“I should’ve called, alright? I get it.”
“Do you, Brian? Do you Get It?”
“Yes, I Get It,” Brian said, pushing him away slightly.
“Good. So now…what? When do we leave? Right away?”
Nodding, Brian walked toward the same window he had stood at last night. “Christ,” he said, rubbing between his eyes. And nothing more.
“Did you sleep at all?” He started moving down the hall toward their room.
And it was only 8am. “I’m going to get dressed.” When he returned, finding Brian in just the same place, Justin asked, “What can I do. Tell me what to do? Make reservations? What?”
“Uhmm,” Brian startled. “I…I don’t know. Yeah, we’ll need a flight, as soon as you think we can make it to the airport. I need to help her. She’s got too much to deal with.”
“Don’t add to that, Brian.”
“I know. It’s just that when I get that tone, that same disapproving tone from her, I always got from mom, I react badly, I react very very badly. I just get so--”
“Pissed? Defensive? Defiant?” All of that. More than that?
He turned to him. “Isn’t there something you should to be doing?” Brian said.
“Didn’t you get enough last night?”
“On it,” Justin said, and over the next half hour, while Brian showered, he arranged everything, booking their reservations, calling for a cab; he even talked with Michael who said he’d be glad to pick them up when they arrived. When Brian came back, clean and sweet smelling, Justin even had their boarding passes printing out and their bags basically packed.
“What would I do without you, my little minion?” Brian said, cupping his face, kissing him softly and bringing their foreheads together, just barely touching. “Tell me.”
“Hopefully, you will never have to find out.”
“I will do my best.”
“I promise, Brian.”
“Good. Now, I need to call work and--”
“Already called them. Yours, mine, ours. Actually, I already called everyone and anyone relevant. We are good to go.”
“Them, too and they completely understand. As per our agreement, they’ll check the mail; pick up the paper and so on. They even asked if we have plants for watering or fish for feeding. I, sadly, told them no.”
“Don’t start with me.”
“Apparently not,” Brian said, obviously both relieved and pleased.
Once in the cab when Brian went quiet, Justin understood. But, once in the airport, when Brian, pretending to read a trade journal he’d brought along, would suddenly tense, would abruptly move, rubbing his hands over his face, when he would pace from their seats to the large window overlooking the runway and back, Justin was concerned. And once on the plane, the flight was much the same, only with Brian’s anxiousness amplified, more focused, since he had nowhere to pace. Having no other way to work off his anxiety, he fidgeted and he bitched instead. He was trapped, having had no sleep, on a journey he didn’t want to be on. Tired and vulnerable and a little scared, still, Brian did his best and so did he. From New York to Pittsburgh, they never argued, and he was pleased with himself, but not too please since Karma was a cruel master, not one to be fucked. Something Justin clearly understood.
It was obvious from the moment they arrived, that Michael would take over some of the responsibility for the care and keeping of Brian Kinney and that was just fine with him. Meeting them at the airport, embracing, murmuring words of condolence and solace to Brian, Justin stood back and watched, knowing now that he was no longer entirely on his own. He stood just inside the quiet pull of their long association, watching as the world, unnoticed by them, moved around them, a world oblivious to the life altering events being played out before it. Finally stepping back, away from Brian, Michael turned and smiled at him, and in so doing, pulled Justin a little more into their center. Inviting him in, Michael said “Hey, Justin, glad you could get off work. Ma‘s expecting us, we better get going.”
Calling her from the airport, Brian told Claire that he’d be at the house in a couple of hours, the conversation short and civil, a man and his estranged sister trying to play by the rules. Wondering how long it would last, Justin chanted his silent mantra, ‘get us through this as easily as possible’ again and again
Debbie’s house was warm and quiet and she was subdued. Carl took their bags upstairs and all Justin really wanted to do was follow him to the guestroom, to lie down in bed and to sleep. He was emotionally drained. Having successfully run interference between the world and Brian for hours had taken its toll, but of course, he didn’t. He stayed where he knew he was supposed to, moving to the edge of things again. He became more spectator than participant as he watched Debbie and Michael surround Brian, cocooning him, understanding him as much as anyone could. And not from having been told, but from having lived his past with him, young when he was young and they talked of old times. He sat at the kitchen table with them, he ate with them and he listened to them, but with little to add and he was really just fine with that. As, so it seemed, was Carl.
After Debbie had fed them, Michael took Brian to see Claire, taking with them a brown paper-bag full of freshly prepared food. He excused himself, counting on Carl’s and Debbie’s understanding, Justin went upstairs to their guestroom and crawled into bed. He was almost settled, just about to turn off the light, when a soft tapping at the door stopped him.
“Justin, honey, you still up? Mind if I come in. I’ll just be a minute?”
His mind realigning itself so that he was more or less alert, he said, “Sure Deb, not a problem.” Sitting pillow-propped in the full-size, four-poster bed watching as she walked almost solemnly to its edge, sitting, Debbie smoothed his hair from his face, stroking him gently and he waited. He smiled and he quietly waited for her to begin.
Then, with both hands in her lap, hesitating, gathering her thoughts, she said. “How’s he doing really, Justin? He says he’s doin’ fine, but I’m not buyin’ it. Not for one minute. A man doesn’t lose his mother, not even a man like Brian Kinney, not even a mother like Joan Kinney, and be able to say he’s doing just fine and mean it. I know he’s hurting. He’s got to be.”
“I’m sure you’re right, but I’m also pretty sure he’d never admit to that, not in so many words anyway. You know how he is? And anyway, let’s face it, Debbie, you were more a mother to him than Joan ever was.” He was pleased to see her easy smile even if in her eyes he still saw concern.
“He was here a lot, Justin, too much. I never could understand it; why she let Jack get away with his shit the way she did, hurting that poor boy like he did. It wasn’t right. Nearly drove Vic crazy sometimes, wanting to do something, wanting to confront Jack in some way, but Brian wouldn’t let him. He’d beg Vic not to, told us the best we could do for him was to give him a place to come when it got too bad. Seems, though, like there should have been something more.”
“You did the best you could, better than she did.” He sat forward a little, toward her and smoothed along her back.
“Yeah, and now we’re putting her in the ground. Tomorrow the wake, next day the liturgy and burial and then it’ll be done. He never got the chance to mend things with her, did he?”
“She never gave him the chance, Deb, she never did. Did he ever tell you how she told him that the cancer was God’s way of punishing him for being gay?”
“No, but I wouldn’t’ve put it past her. She was just mean sometimes, so closed off, so angry. She never did like me.”
“Because she knew that Brian had found a real mom, a real friend, in you.”
“Could’ve had something to do with that, but I think I was probably also a little too flashy for her, maybe having a little too much fun being alive for her. Still, I don’t understand how acting that way is doing God’s work, I really don’t. Allowing a man to hurt his child, making it so the only way he could be safe was if he ran away from home. I really don‘t understand it.” He tried not to, but Justin yawned and Debbie noticed. “I know you must be dead tired, baby, I’ll let you go. You need your sleep; we’ve got a couple of tough days ahead of us. You up for it?”
“Have to be, Debbie, I have no choice. He’s going to need me. He’s going to need all of us. We have to be there for him.” Turning off the light, he scrunched down into the comfort of old cotton sheets. “Were you and Carl and Michael…?”
“Oh, heavens, no! Joan Kinney would’ve thrown a fit if she ever thought the Novotny clan showed up for her funeral. Sorry, I shouldn’t laugh.”
“It’s fine, Deb. Everything will be fine.”
Pulling the worn comforter up around him and standing, getting ready to leave, when she opened the bedroom door only the hallway light, a brush of yellow, was visible behind her. “I’m sure it will. G‘night, sweetie, sleep well.”
So he did until, almost by instinct, he felt Brian settle in next to him. “You okay?” Justin said. And even though he’d tried to keep his voice soft, Brian had startled.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Not a problem. Come here.” And Brian did, enveloping himself in the safety of his arms. “Wanna talk about it?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Brian, talk to me.”
“She’s had everything arranged,” Brian said. “Vigil at the house, mass at her parish church--”
“Claire? Claire’s had--?”
“No, mom. She’s had everything arranged for fuck knows how long?”
“With that same priest?”
“Father Tom,” Brian said, chuckling, “He’ll be at the vigil. He’ll preside over the liturgy, the burial. She’s had it all arranged down to what she wants wear, that same dress she wore to pop’s funeral.”
“I didn’t see her, remember? I wasn’t--”
“There. Right, I forgot.”
“Strange to think, though, that you never met Jack.”
“Met your mom, though.” Curling into Brian’s side, his mouth, his lips within a milli-inch of Brian’s ear, Justin whispered, “Embarrassing.”
“More than just that”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You understand, it wouldn’t’ve mattered how she found out, she would’ve reacted in exactly the same way. No matter what, Justin, she would’ve rejected me. Not your responsibility, mine for not telling her sooner.”
“If you insist.”
“I do insist.” Brian ran his fingers through his hair. “Still, I think it’s kind of messed up that she didn’t even trust us to handle any of the arrangements.”
“Is strange. Claire must be kind of hurt, right? Still, while I really don’t know much about this kind of thing, maybe she was just trying to make it easier for you guys. Plus, this way she gets just what she wants, right? No possible fuck-ups.”
“Claire’s okay with it, I think, and maybe you’re right, because she even seems a little relieved. All we had to do was put in the calls and people knew just what to do. Anyway, I’ll explain later how this all goes down, but you should know that the wake will be tomorrow during the evening at the old house. You’ve never even been there, have you?”
“I have not. Can’t wait to see John again though. Shit, he’s what, 20 now?”
“More like 21, 22. Unfortunately, he’s away at school and so…”
“Won’t be returning? So…so sad.”
“My sentiments exactly. In fact, Claire isn’t bringing home either of my darling nephews. Neither will be in attendance.”
“Again…so so sad. Now, kiss me,” And Brian did. “Now, go to sleep.” And when he heard Brian’s soft wheeze, he was relieved enough to be asleep himself fairly soon afterwards.
Next day, Michael closed Red Cape Comics early, spending until late-afternoon with Brian and Claire, not only getting the house ready for the wake that evening, but also helping them start the immense job of clearing out, and getting ready for sale, a house that had been lived in by the same woman for over 45 years. They didn’t know what to do, where to start and, unknowingly, the job that lay ahead of them would begin the process of bringing a brother and his sister, who had been lost to each other for too many year, back to each other. The immense job of going through the house of their childhood reminding them, if only indistinctly at first, of a time when life had been right between them, of a time when things had been different.
“I know this much,” Brain said. “There’s nothing here I want,” tossing another romance novel into the Goodwill box. “Not A Thing.”
“There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, anywhere in this whole house you want. No pictures, no books, not a single album, nothing,” Claire sighed
“Maybe, alright?” he said. “Maybe there’s something here. Somewhere.” He glanced doubtfully around the room.
They worked together to make the house right for Joan’s vigil because; after all, her church-ladies would be there, would be bringing the food, and also a few of the neighbors had said they would stop by so, the house must be spotless, must be made immaculate. All the right phone calls were placed; all the right preparations were set into motion. After making sure everything was as it should be, Brian, Claire, and Michael returned to Carl and Debbie’s for a late lunch-early dinner feast with Ben, Jennifer, and Molly joining them. Sitting together, Brian and Claire talked, small talk, filled with meaningless words, but friendly and, Justin realized, maybe the beginning of a new, of a better, chapter in their lives.
Still, when 7:45pm came around and it was time to go, Brian and Claire left together to begin the final chapter of their mother’s life with Justin in tow. Father Tom was at the house by 8pm, with Joan’s friends arriving shortly thereafter, bringing with them the warm smell of food, the sweet smell of flowers and the soft sound of reminiscing. They came to honor Joan Kinney and to offer prayers of comfort to her on her journey home. Justin stayed close to Brian, always at hand should Brian need him, and he watched as the first part of a ritual he only barely understood, was revealed to him.
This vigil, this wake, would consist of prayers and of Scripture readings with Father Tom performing the introductory rites, the liturgy of the Word, offering prayers of intercession, finally ending with a concluding rite. If Joanie could have been there, she would have been pleased. She was remembered. Claire didn’t have to ask for her mother’s stories the way she’d had to do for her father, the stories came easily with the neighbors, especially, telling about a woman Brian and Claire barely remembered. And with each story told of a young woman, a happy, pretty woman, a woman in love with her husband and proud of her children, the veil of the intervening years was drawn back and they both relived another time, a time when they had been young. Where had she gone, this woman they only barely remembered and why? Why had she left them on their own when they had needed her the most?
They stood together at the door, on either side of Father Tom, thanking everyone for coming, everyone leaving with promises of tomorrow. Tomorrow, we’ll see you at St. Bartholomew’s. Until tomorrow.
Then, tomorrow came, a warm, sweet day of letting go. This occasion was more solemn even if the same women, now accompanied by their husbands, were in attendance. All the story-telling of the night before was replaced with quiet grief and with an almost unacknowledged fear. Today they would bury Joan Kinney, but tomorrow…tomorrow it would be one of them, one of these who were now still alive, and no one knew who. Joan had died with no warning, sudden. And alone, and in some hidden place, deep within each, the truth, the reality, of her passing made them afraid.
Still, the funeral liturgy, including mass, was beautiful, performed perfectly and how festive St. Bart’s looked decorated with the most gorgeous of fresh flowers, some from the night before, some newly added. The service was handled with an attention to refinement and moderation deserving of such an occasion, with Father Tom looking so handsome, so understated in his white vestments, his voice strong and clear, his tone both solemn and uplifting. The casket, polished and draped in its white pall, exuding a sense of forever, was placed at the front of the nave for viewing. Mass included the reception of the body, the liturgy of the Word, the liturgy of the Eucharis while the final commendation would take place at the cemetery.
Leaving the parish church, driving the short distance to the cemetery, Justin held Brian close. “What’s next?” Brian explained about the committal, the last step of their part of Joan‘s journey, words told to him by rote in the back seat of a shiny black limousine. Claire sat across from them and watched, silent and learning.
The cemetery was so different from that day ten years ago, a harsh day of snow and wind, beautiful yet severe. Today the sun shone, warming them. No umbrellas or overcoats, the weather was mild. When Claire spoke in remembrance of their mother, she was brief with only a few silent tears. Brian, standing beside her, looked lost. Father Tom concluded with the commendation and, in so doing, the committal of Joan Kinney was done. For some, the memories of this day would always be clear and precise. Justin would be one of these, while for others, the memories would be only vague and scattered; Brian would be one of these. Yet each would come away with their own story to tell of the day Joan Kinney was laid to rest.
Brian and Justin stayed one more day, leaving the next afternoon, the need to get back home almost overwhelming. Justin didn’t need to run interference as much this time. Brian was calmer, more contained, more able to cope. It wasn’t until late that night, when he woke from a frightening dream, that he knew that Brian wasn’t coping as well as he pretended. He found him in front of the large window, that same dance of colored lights across the blue-black void before him, with silent tears of regret.
“She loved us once, Justin. She loved me once. Why’d that change? What did I do to make her change?” Brian said, with a false calmness that reminded him of why he’d been afraid. It felt like all this time he’d just been holding his breath waiting, wondering when the cracks in Brian's defenses would reveal themselves. He'd held it together as best as he could and the effort of doing that was starting to show.
“Nothing, Brian. You didn’t do anything. Talk to me, alright. Just…talk to me.” So, Brian did and at first, Justin felt as if they were moving in shadows, fumbling and unsure. He didn’t understand enough to know if what he was trying to say, to do, helped or hurt. What he did know to do, though, was to listen. And eventually because he listened, really listened, he began to understand how to help them find their way out of the shadows and into the daylight. And Brian gratefully went with him. Eventually, with Justin's help, he would forgive, but not only with Justin's help, but with Joan's as well.
Brian spent the next two months with weekends in Pittsburgh as he and Claire dug through the bits and pieces that had been saved not from just of their mother’s life, but from theirs as well. Discoveries were made, some physical like the hidden journals kept at the back of Joan’s closet, one for every year since she’d been eighteen, and some of the mind as they reminisced, pulling together the pieces of their shared time in the Kinney home. Being older, Claire remembered more, remembering how it had been when it had been their mother, not him, not Brian, that Jack had lash out at, hurting her with words and more but how, when Brian had gotten older, Jack had instead turned to venting his frustrations, his disappointments with his life on his son.
“We tried to make him stop, but I don’t know, Brian, what we did only seemed to make him madder. He hit me once, do you remember? He hit me so hard he knocked me out. When I came to, you made me promise that I’d never do it again, that I’d never interfere again. I wouldn’t make you that promise, not at first, but when I realized trying to help you only made him worse, I backed away. It hurt too much…I…I didn’t know what to do.”
“Brian, you remember? He’d come home so drunk that any fucking thing would set him off and he’d come looking for you. I don’t know why, I still don’t.”
“He never wanted me. He wished mom--”
“Don’t alright. I never…I …I just didn’t know what the fuck to do and neither did mom so, I started staying away while mom, well, she started drinking and going to church even more, turning to the Lord, y’know? Must all be in her journals, but I haven’t started reading them, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. Not yet.” They’d been going through boxes in the house, in the attic and now in the garage, finding odds and ends, holiday decorations, homework and tests saved from elementary school, from middle school, from high school. All the bits and pieces from their collective if discarded, or maybe not so discarded, past. Neither of them wanted much of it.
“Claire,” Brian finally sighed, “why did you--?”
“Brian,” Claire said too fast as if she’d only been waiting for him to bring it up. “I don’t know why I…” And hesitating, she focused her thoughts out of the garage door and toward their once so familiar neighborhood as if trying to understand why herself. “I don’t know why I believed John, I really don’t.”
“How could you think I would do that to any kid let alone to my--”
“I was so confused, mom was so convinced, so…adamant and I really didn’t want to believe John would do something like…would tell us such a horrible lie, would put you at such risk for no reason. I didn’t want to believe I’d raised that kind of child.”
“So, it was better to believe that I was that kind of man?”
“No, it wasn’t. But mom kept going on and on about Justin. I know…I know, but she never let up. Finally, she had me convinced that the relationship you had with him was so wrong, that you had seduced him when he was almost a child himself and after he was hurt at that prom, the things I read that his father said, he called you a…”
“I know what he called me, Claire. I also know that there’s a hell of difference between 17, almost 18, and 13.”
“I know that too, I know there is.” She shifted toward him, next to him, “I’m so sorry. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I think one of the reasons I’ve stayed away from you all this time is because I just didn’t know how to deal with the guilt. John swears he wouldn’t’ve let them put you in jail and I have to believe him, Brian, I--”
“I don’t, Claire. Thing is, I don’t have to believe him.”
“I know you don’t, but please, Brian, maybe now we have another chance. I‘m not asking you to forgive us, not yet, but maybe…maybe you could think about giving us a another chance?”
“Maybe,” he said. They were sitting on the cold concrete garage floor, surrounded by chaos becoming controlled, by order slowly being restored as all the useless bit and pieces of their past were being thrown away. “We’ll see.” And when she smiled, so did he.
When the house sold, Brian gave his sister his half, just his way of saying, ‘maybe’. And while sharing their mother’s journals, while learning of her reality, her attempts, even if futile, to protect him from Jack, and of her guilt at her inability to do so, of her confusion at not knowing what to do or who to turn to, and, strangely, of her initial thankfulness that Brian had found a safe place to run, they were drawn even closer to each other. They learned that over the years Joan had become bitter, growing resentful, growing even to hate Debbie Novotny exactly because she had been able to provide Brian with the kind of safety and care she never could. They read it all in her own written words, words that showed more and more as time went by, how the pain she hid, her sense failure, and her confusion, were drowned in drink and church.
The church had told her that her son was a sinner, one of the damned, had told her that Brian was no longer even worth the effort of saving and her drink had numbed her enough to allow her to believe that what they said was the truth. And so, after reading all her journals, after learning that deep within herself, Joan never had forgiven herself for the harm she felt she had allowed to be done to her children, perhaps the saddest epitaph to her life was that she would never know, would never understand that both of her children had forgiven her. That not only had they forgiven her, but also each other.