*This one covers a seven year span, starting at the end of ep. 513 when Justin left for New York City at 22 and ending when he moved back home to Pittsburgh at age 29.*
Title: THE MAKING OF AN ARTIST - COMPLETE STORY
New York City brims with humanity, its boundless energy welcoming you in, eager to see what you're made of. Determined to succeed from the moment your plane touches down, you're reminded yet again of the age old saying you've adopted as a personal motto: Uplifting art arises from suffering.
You figure you've got a lock on that department, armed with enough resources to make art so uplifting it'll float away if you don't bolt it down. You're going to choreograph a ball, compose a symphony, direct an epic film.
But first you need to find your way to the East Village.
Arriving at your destination much later than you should have, thanks to confusing subway routes through unfamiliar territory, you pray to fuck you've finally found the place where you can crash. Letting out a heavy sigh, you compare the building's address with the one on the crumpled paper in your hand, only hoping you're not waking Daphne's friend when you ring the buzzer for 317. He'd been jovial enough on the phone after your plane landed, directing you to his little corner of the world and assuring you that getting there was easy, but that was two hours earlier.
It's an unexpected female voice that greets you, jarring you from thoughts of fluffy pillows, warm duvets, and Brian's body wrapped around yours. "Yes?" it calls through the panel, one of the grunge bands whose popularity soared when you were in grade school blaring in the background.
"Uh, I'm sorry. I must have the wrong apartment number." You drop your duffel bag on the ground and reach into your pocket. Rechecking Daphne's scrawl, you read 317 once again.
You look up. "Yes, I'm Justin. Is Josh there?" Slinging your bag over your shoulder, you hurry into the building when the gate unlatches. The elevator's seen better days. You hope it gets you to the third floor safely.
You can't mistake the door you're looking for, finally placing Kurt Cobain's guttural delivery of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as it blasts from behind it into the hall. When it swings open on your third knock, an attractive, aging hippie is smiling at you. Well, you guess by her attire you've come face-to-face with a real live hippie. The only reference you have to go by is ancient footage you've seen of Woodstock. The pungent aroma of weed wafting up your nostrils supports your theory.
"There you are! We were beginning to think you'd gotten lost!" Her smile widens while she checks you out from head to toe. Subtlety not included.
"I, um, didn't really know where I was going." You swipe a hand through your hair and glance at your watch. "Josh said it was easy to find, but, uh, is he here?"
"He'll be back in a few. He's out on a beer run." She waves the bottle in her hand at you and winks. "Come on in."
"Thanks." You still have no idea whom you're talking to. Taking in the modest space, you unload your bag on a chair while she flits off to the kitchen, graciously accepting the last beer when she comes back. You're too tired to fight as she pulls you down on the sofa with her.
"So, you're from Pittsburgh, huh?" She kicks off her shoes and gets comfy by your side. "You're gonna love the East Village art scene." Her knee touches yours when she lays her hand on your thigh.
You'd kill to lie down before the sun rises, but the couch will probably double as your bunk. And she seems to be firmly planted on it. Stifling a gaping yawn, you miss your side of Brian's bed with a passion. "I just need a little time to figure out the city."
Reaching for the joint in the ashtray, she relights it and nods at the CD player. "Nirvana. Crying shame about Cobain, don't you think?" She takes the first hit and offers you some.
You go back. Way back. "I was like eleven when he died. No, that's okay." The last thing you want to do is get high with someone you don't know.
How fucking far does Josh have to go to find beer?
"Jesus, Aunt Meg! What the hell are you doing?"
You snap your head toward the door just in time to catch the horrified look on your new roommate's face.
Evidently aghast at his overly-forward relative, who's spent the past thirty minutes shedding every inhibition she's ever possessed, he drops a six-pack on the counter and glares at her. "Button up your shirt!"
"And open some windows!" Airing out his apartment, he finally makes it over to you and shakes your hand. "Hi. I'm Josh. Sorry about this."
"Justin." You stand to meet him, more than a tad relieved to be rescued.
Josh spies your duffel bag on the chair and turns back to his aunt. "You didn't even show him his room? I'm sure Justin's exhausted! God, I'm sorry," he apologizes to you again. "My brother moved out last week, so you're in luck. It's small, but there's an empty bedroom."
"Great! I thought I might be sleeping on your couch until I find a place of my own."
Meg scouts around for her shoes, bummed that the party's over. "We were just getting to know each other, weren't we, Justin? I was behaving myself. Tell him."
"Right . . ." Collecting her paraphernalia from the coffee table and depositing it in her hands, Josh shoots you another regretful look while he ushers her to the door. "Come on. I'll help you home. Say good night, Aunt Meg."
"You're no fun, Joshua. See you boys later."
You begin to understand that omen for what it is when he walks her across the hall and waits while she fumbles with the key to her own apartment. "This is perfect," you tell him when he returns and shows you around. Thanking him again, you promise to be more human in the morning, hitting the mattress in your tiny room the second he makes himself scarce.
Maybe leaving Pittsburgh at ten p.m. for parts unknown wasn't the most well thought-out plan in the history of plans, but you booked the last flight of the day for a reason. You think about your long good-bye in Brian's loft and muster a sleepy grin, your ass still thanking you for the proper send-off he made sure you received.
You need, well, everything. You'd crammed your duffel bag with clothes, toiletries, sketchbook, and pencils, which seems to be roughly three days' worth of stuff when you wake up and empty it into a drawer. Ideal if you'd been going on a long weekend.
Fortunately, before you left Pittsburgh you'd packed linen, pillows, and towels in two large boxes and the rest of your clothes, computer, and art supplies in several more. You'd mailed them to yourself at your New York address, figuring that was the easiest way to relocate your life. By early evening, you're pacing the floor and glancing out the window every ten minutes to check for the UPS truck because hey, you didn't pay through the nose for your shipment to arrive eighteen hours after you did for nothing.
You've used up half your sketchbook drawing detailed likenesses of Brian from memory by the time you're reunited with your belongings, the driver wheeling stack after stack of boxes up to your door on a dolly and disappearing as soon as he obtains your signature. Scooting them inside one at a time, you look forward to sleeping on your own sheets and having more than three shirts to choose from the next time you get dressed.
"Looks like Christmas. Or else the building's been converted into mini storage units while I was at work."
You're partially hidden behind a mountain of cardboard when you hear your neighbor's friendly voice. "Meg. Hi." Stepping out of obscurity, you scratch the side of your head and smile. "My stuff finally got here. Oh, sorry."
"Big move, isn't it?" She waits for you to clear a path to her door and unlocks it. Then she turns to face you again. "Justin, I want to apologize for last night. I don't usually drink that much. I didn't mean to . . . act so . . ."
"No problem. Don't worry about it." Giving her a pass on the bizarre scenario she'd put you in just seems like the right thing to do. You push a few more boxes out of the middle of the hall and into your apartment.
She's still there when you come back out. "Why don't you be my guest for dinner tonight? Let me make it up to you. I've had beef stew cooking in the Crock-Pot all day." Her flower child look's been slightly upgraded to boho-chic for work, the weirdness of your first meeting evaporating away. "Joshua used to have dinner with me all the time before he started working nights."
Your first instinct is to politely decline, although the mere mention of homemade beef stew makes your mouth water. Hanging around all day for the UPS guy prevented you from venturing out to find food, and you didn't want to just help yourself to Josh's sparsely stocked cupboards. "Well . . ." You raise one shoulder and scratch at the side of your head again. "I guess I could do that."
"Good! How about a half an hour from now? Does that work for you?"
"Yeah, sure! Thanks, Meg." You grab a pullover out of the last box you bring inside and wash your hands and face in the bathroom. With twenty minutes to kill before you can walk across the hall to a hot meal, you break down and eat a couple of crackers to tame your growling stomach. You promise you'll replace them in the morning, a trip to the nearest grocery store at the very top of your to-do list.
"It smells great in here. Thanks again for inviting me." You step into Meg's homey apartment and instantly recognize the lived in look, macrame hanging plant holders, lava lamps, and other vestiges straight out of the seventies kind of comforting when you glance around.
"You looked hungry." She pats you on the back and closes the door before she goes to the kitchen and grabs a corkscrew out of the drawer. "I was just about to open a bottle of red. Would you like a glass?"
A thousand warning signs flash in your head, an overabundance of exposed skin leading the pack. "Well, maybe just one." You don't want to come off as rude. Besides, you have an escape this time if things get out of control.
"Go ahead and sit down." Meg gestures toward the table and busies herself with opening the burgundy and ladling up two bowlfuls of piping stew.
Your eyes bug out of your head when you see the magazines scattered in front of you. "You read Art Forum?!"
"Sure. Doesn't everyone have a subscription to the best publication in the field?" She tosses them on the sofa and brings the bowls and wine glasses to the table, settling into the other chair.
"Thanks." You smile at her and dig in. Wondering just how much information she'd had on you the previous night when she referenced the East Village art scene, you begin to put two and two together. You look over at the couch. "So, um, do you have like every issue?"
Meg peers at you and drinks some wine. "If you're asking whether or not I've read the review Simon wrote about you, the answer's who hasn't? Considering all the buzz it's generated in the art department here at NYU, I'm surprised you've waited this long to hit the Big Apple." She nods at your dropped jaw. "You're very humble, Justin. With a write-up like that, I was expecting a little attitude."
"Simon Caswell? You know him?" You wipe the sneer from your face with a napkin. Thankful you didn't nix the alcohol when you had the chance, you lift your glass and take a big sip. "You know he's a cunt, right?"
Peals of boisterous laughter indicate her agreement. "Come on! Tell me what you really think! It's nice to finally meet you, Mr. Taylor!" Thrusting her arm out across the table, she gives you a firm handshake.
"Sorry to be so crude, but his lecherous manner—"
"Is well known," she jumps in. "Simon has a harem of young men at his beck and call. His stable of handsome blonds is impressive. I could tell you're his type the minute I saw you last night. I'm sure he'd love to add you to the fold."
"How do you know him anyway? NYU art department? What exactly do you do, Meg?"
"I work at the Grey Art Gallery." She holds the bottle of burgundy out toward you, pouring more for herself when you tell her you're fine. "I've been the director's personal secretary for years. We've gotten to know Simon from the guest lectures he presents every semester at the gallery for the art department's senior class."
"The Grey Gallery?!" Your head is swimming. "I've always wanted to visit NYU's fine arts museums. Grey has the largest collection, I think. Something like five thousand objects? I can't believe you work there!"
"Neither can I at times. I get to view hundreds of famous works every day. I pretty much lucked out, though." Meg starts to laugh again and nearly polishes off her second glass of wine. "My art sucks, but my art degree came in handy for something!"
You can just imagine her stash making an appearance from some quaint little hiding place any time now. But that's not what makes you wince.
"Of course, with your talent and degree from PIFA, Justin, the art world is your oyster, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I'm finding my way around a little better now. I hung out in Tompkins Square Park all morning. That place is amazing." You walk out of your room and head to the kitchen for a soda, bragging to Daphne on the phone about all the discoveries you've been making in New York. Mouthing hi to Josh while he slaps an assortment of cold cuts between slices of wheat bread, you reach into your side of the fridge and listen to Daph complain about her major crisis at work. You wait for a lull and then change the subject. "So, have you seen Brian lately? No, we haven't broken up! It's just different now. We're gonna work this long-distance thing out." Eyeing your roommate and his jumbo sandwich, you decide it's time for your own lunch. "I'll call you tomorrow, Daph, okay? I'm starving. Yeah, he's right here." You hand Josh your phone when she asks if she can yak at him for a minute.
You can't be accused of eavesdropping as you open the cabinet and scan through the groceries you'd bought. He's sitting only ten feet away from you at the dinette set, sweet-talking his way through the conversation with Daphne giggling so loudly that even you can hear her. They must have rekindled whatever they had going during that term she studied here in the city. You microwave your Cup-O-Noodles and plop down on the other side of the table just as Josh ends the call.
"Hey, I'm glad I don't have any classes today. I've been wanting to talk to you." He pushes a mound of NYU letterhead paperwork out of your way.
"Yeah?" You're happy for them even if it's kind of strange that Josh is going to tell you about it instead of your best friend.
He washes the last bite of his sandwich down with half a glass of milk and gets right to it. "I'm sure you can tell she has a problem. Never met a drop of booze she didn't like. Beer, wine, hard liquor. Anything she gets her hands on. She just doesn't know when to quit."
"What?!" You wrinkle up your forehead and stare at him. "Daphne doesn't drink. Well, no more than the rest of us. She doesn't have a problem."
"Not Daphne. I mean Aunt Meg."
"Oh! Jesus, I thought you meant . . . Um, well, I did watch her go through a bottle of burgundy almost by herself when she had me over for dinner. I only had one glass, but she kept refilling hers while we talked. And we talked for a long time."
"She insists it's nothing to worry about every time I bring it up, but it's getting worse. Like the first night she met you. She's totally embarrassed about drinking so much while she was over here waiting for you."
You shake your head and laugh. "I didn't even know who she was."
"She knew who you were, though. As soon as I told her Daphne's artist friend was going to be my new roommate and told her your name, she showed me the article and said all the art majors at school had been talking about you for weeks. I guess your story's encouraging because they're hopeful something like that could happen for them, too. Aunt Meg couldn't believe you were really going to move in with me."
You're not exactly sure why you find yourself grimacing. It could be that the mention of the review brings up thoughts of the critic who wrote it. Or maybe it's the pressure of learning from first Meg and now Josh that NYU's art department's been following your every move. Identifying with you for Christ's sake! It's more than a little daunting. "I didn't realize that I'd, um . . ." You scratch at your ear out of habit.
"Hell, yes, Justin! Your reputation precedes you! If it makes you feel any better, the business school doesn't have a clue who you are. Except for me. And that's only because of my aunt. God, I hope I can convince her to check out some AA meetings." Josh finishes his milk and glances at the forms he'd swept out of your way, remembering something he's supposed to tell you just before he gets up to toss his sandwich plate into the sink. "Aunt Meg said to give you these."
Skewing an eyebrow in curiosity, you look down as he pushes them back over to you. NEW YORK UNIVERSITY STUDENT ENROLLMENT PACKET is stamped on the top one.
You've known all along that locating a work space would be your biggest hurdle, but that doesn't really help when you're traipsing around the East Village and adjacent areas tracking down one disappointing lead after another. Refusing to let the poor results dampen your spirits, you tuck the classifieds into your messenger bag and light a cigarette, soon flopping down on the bench at a nearby bus stop to regroup. Inhaling a long drag of tar and nicotine, your dreams of taking the art world by storm are just as vivid as they'd been when you hit town a week earlier.
You smile when the scheduled bus pulls up in front of you to let its passengers off, an ad for the Grey Art Gallery splashed across its side deciding your next move on the spot. Of all the artistic riches New York City has to offer, this one's in your own backyard, its profusion of fine art just waiting to be explored. Pocketing the lighter still in your hand, you find yourself in front of the building on Washington Square East after a short hike, awed from the instant you step inside.
"I'm sorry. Meg's not working today." The girl at the information desk looks up and peers at you through her thick glasses. "She called in sick. Again." She assumes you've never been there before when she sees you scanning through a couple of brochures from the display, suggesting you might want to take the guided tour that's slated to begin in ten minutes from the very spot where you're standing. "Billy's working the tours all this week. He's the best. Brings so much perspective from an artist's point of view. I think you'll really enjoy it."
Billy . . . Billy . . . You leaf through your mental file of well-known artists and nod, not wanting to sound ignorant in your field of expertise because you can't come up with anyone by that name who could be working at the Grey. "Too bad Meg's sick today." You go back to the original conversation while you wait. "She wanted me to say hi when I finally made it in. She knows I've been anxious to see this place ever since I moved here." Idly thumbing through a pamphlet, you hope it's nothing serious. "I'll check on her when I get home."
"You live with Meg?"
"With her nephew. Her apartment's across the hall from ours." You don't know why this revelation causes the receptionist to study your face in detail, memorizing your features as if she were going to be tested on them tomorrow.
"You're not . . . No, you couldn't be." Blinking twice, she adjusts her glasses and starts over. "Um, you're not Justin Taylor by any chance, are you? Oh, my God! You are!" She laughs when you confirm her suspicions. "I knew it! I'm Andrea, by the way."
You wrinkle one side of your face and raise the same shoulder. "How do you . . .?"
"Billy! You're not gonna believe this!" Spotting him over your shoulder when he enters the lobby to collect his four o'clock guests, she hurriedly waves him over. "Guess who this is?"
You're quite sure Billy's no famous artist when you lay eyes on him, willing to wager both he and Andrea are no older than you. Shaking his eager hand when she discloses your identity, you're already forming a hunch as to why they're so excited to be in your presence. "How do you guys know who I am?" you flat out ask.
"Are you kidding? Everyone's talking about you in our circle. We've all read the review by now. So have you really uprooted yourself from Pittsburgh and come to New York to make it big?"
You find Billy's enthusiasm and interest sincere, automatically downplaying the celebrity status he seems to think you inhabit. Starting out on his tour with a few other people who've gathered around, you learn that he's one of a handful of seniors in NYU's art department to have been offered the prestigious position of guiding first-time patrons through the gallery.
You're inspired beyond measure by the smattering of works he points out, promising yourself you'll come back several more times and roam on your own until you've seen everything. Not surprisingly, your walk home is packed with budding concepts in desperate need of expression. On canvas. Soon. Which brings you back to square one as you think about the folded-up classifieds in your bag.
Your knocks on Meg's door go unanswered, but the malady that kept her from work is all too evident as soon as you step through yours. Sacked out on the sofa, her disheveled white sweater and turquoise calf-length gypsy skirt, along with the tangled tresses falling across her face, are dead giveaways.
"She's out cold." Josh looks at you from his recliner in front of the TV. "She's probably been drinking since this morning. Stumbled over here an hour ago to tell me something and never made it off the couch."
You drop your messenger bag on the table and eye his aunt with compassion. "I went to the gallery after checking out a bunch of studios that won't work for me. The receptionist, um, Andrea said she'd called in sick."
"Yeah, she does that a lot. I wish she'd admit she's got a problem and get some help."
"I've got a problem, okay? It's this splitting headache. Would one of you stop talking about me and get me an aspirin? Please?" Meg rubs the back of her neck and gingerly sits up, careful not to rattle her brain in the process. "How long have I been out?"
"Since five. I bet you feel like hell." Josh ignores the piercing glare she gives him.
"You know what, Meg? I think I can help." You go to the kitchen and start hunting for things. "My grandmother used to swear by this concoction she'd mix up every time she had a hangover." Pouring as many of the called-for ingredients as you can find into a large glass, you stir them vigorously with a spoon because you haven't seen a blender anywhere since you moved in. "Here. Drink this." Bouncing onto the sofa beside her, you mutter a quick 'sorry' when her body language indicates you're making her seasick.
She gets a whiff of the stuff and cringes. "This reeks, Justin! I don't know if I should thank you or smack you!" Draining the glass with a shudder and handing it back to you, she smooths out her clothes and pushes strands of unruly hair behind her ears. "So no luck finding a studio, huh?"
"Not yet. I do like this one loft in SoHo. If I could have it all to myself. Three other artists living there are looking to make some cash by renting out a corner. Not exactly what I had in mind. I'm gonna keep looking, though."
"Hmm." Meg's lone syllable is loaded with wisdom you've yet to pick up on. "Did you give him the enrollment forms, Joshua?"
Flipping through every channel his basic cable service provides, he settles on ESPN. "Yeah. They were on the table."
"Well, but . . . I didn't come here to . . ." You avoid the fact that the papers in question are currently lining the bottom of the small waste basket in your room. "Thanks for thinking of me, but I told you what happened. School and I just don't get along."
"Right. You told me about your partner and you teaming up to thwart that homophobic politician. An admirable feat. But don't you think the unique circumstances that led to your expulsion from PIFA shouldn't color your outlook on universities in general?"
Fuck! You can't believe your alcoholic grandmother's elixir works this quickly, Meg clearly back among the land of the living. "I haven't really thought about it."
"I know how to paint. I don't mean to sound arrogant, but what good will going back to school do me now?"
"Ahhh." Another lone syllable. She understands that boys your age do best when they figure things out for themselves. "It's true you might not necessarily need more education to get where you're going, but what is it you do need? Right now."
You almost think you're cruising for a lecture, and then you suddenly get it. "Studio space! I'd have all the space I need if I went back to school, but . . . I don't know . . . "
"Free space. The art department seniors practically cakewalk through their last year at NYU. Come and go as they please. Work on anything they want. Didn't you say you were only a couple of credits shy of graduating when the shit hit the fan in Pittsburgh?"
"Well, I'd had two years done when the Stockwell thing blew up. Brian was always trying to talk me into going back. He even cheated on a bet one time so I'd have to do it. Then I got another year done before I went out to Hollywood to work on the movie."
Meg thinks about that for a minute. "So you could join the senior class here at NYU right away. That would solve your immediate working space problem, but the other benefits are nothing to scoff at. The networking, the connections, the exposure. It's a nurturing environment, designed to launch young artists into the art world to start their careers. In your case, you may not need a degree from NYU, but working toward it could be your ticket to success."
"Jesus, Meg! You better shut up. I just might take you seriously!"
She feels around under the sofa for her shoes, ready to make it back to her own apartment. "What was it Simon wrote? New York is waiting to be conquered? Good artsy-fartsy prose that his editors love, but the real world doesn't work that way. You need a game plan. So where're those forms?"
You're pretty sure they're crusted with Popsicle juice, the wrappers and sticks permanently bonding to them by now. You're also pretty sure you've got a game plan. "Meg?" Your future shines brighter by the second. "It's 2005. Everyone knows you apply online."
"So, Daph, one more day and you'll be here in his arms. Got the spermicidal foam all packed?" You can't resist a little good-natured harassing at the end of an hour-long call, laughing right along with her when she curses and tells you to shut up. "I think it's great you guys are getting back together! Josh is really nice."
You don't mind taking credit for the match. They've both told you it probably wouldn't have happened if you hadn't picked Daphne's brain about where to stay in New York, their endless Skype sessions and text messages heating up the on-again, off-again romance once more. After a month in the city, you find yourself as anxious as he is to see her when she visits this weekend.
You just can't figure out why she insists you keep your Friday night free and join them at the steak house after she gets in. "Don't you guys want to be alone for a romantic dinner? If it were me . . ."
"Come on, Justin. Josh and I have talked about it, and he knows how much I miss you."
"I miss you, too, Daph. But I gotta get to school now. Don't forget the condoms!"
Heading out in time for your afternoon classes, you tighten the scarf around your neck as a light dusting of snow flurries clings to your lowered lashes. You recognize Josh's boots plodding toward the building from a few feet away.
"Justin. Hey." He narrows the gap between you and stops. "I've got reservations at the restaurant tomorrow night. You're coming with us, right?"
"Yeah, sure. Thanks, Josh." Why the hell do they want you to tag along? You guess they're not going to find the nearest bathroom as soon as they see each other and fuck.
"THEY ALWAYS SAY TIME CHANGES THINGS, BUT YOU ACTUALLY HAVE TO CHANGE THEM YOURSELF." - Andy Warhol
With Daphne's plane scheduled to land in two hours, you shower and shave late Friday afternoon, flashbacks of home dancing before your eyes as you dress. Hearing Josh rush in from work and grab a quick shower in his own bathroom, you're looking forward to going with him to meet her at the airport and on to a big steak dinner from there. You're finishing up your beer in living room when he comes out. "Ready for a big night? I know Daphne is!"
"Hell, yeah! Let's just say bye to Aunt Meg before we take off. I haven't seen her since yesterday."
Your sense of uneasiness goes from bad to worse when Meg doesn't respond to your knocks, an eerie silence the only thing you encounter when you try to check in with her.
"Aunt Meg!" Josh pounds on the door with his fist. "What the fuck is she doing in there?" He sighs and looks at his watch.
"God, I hope . . ." You're reluctant to voice your growing fear. You know something he has yet to learn, having seen her earlier in the day and heard all about the mess in which she'd just landed. "Are you okay, Meg?" you yell out, jamming your finger into the doorbell getting you nowhere.
That's when Josh remembers they'd given each other emergency keys to their apartments when she first moved in and hurries back into your place to get it.
"Oh, my God." You had a feeling it wasn't going to be pretty.
"Jesus." Josh avoids stepping on the shards of glass that were once a gin bottle and crouches down beside his aunt where she lies on the kitchen floor. "I've told her not to keep the hard stuff in the cabinet over the fridge. She has to climb up to reach it." He takes her wrist and feels for a pulse.
You wade through the spilled liquor with squishy footsteps and right an overturned dining room chair when he says she's still breathing. Moistening a handful of paper towels under the faucet, you kneel down to wipe the dried blood from the bottom of her heel. "I guess she stepped on a piece of glass when she fell. This is a bad cut."
"She hates shoes. She'd go to work barefoot if they'd let her." Josh thanks you for cleaning her foot. "It takes hours for her to get this smashed, but she should have just been getting home. The time element doesn't add up."
Since Meg's managed to drink herself into a stupor and knock herself out, it's up to you to explain. "She left the gallery early today. Well, actually, was asked to leave was how she put it. I'd just finished my last class around noon and was passing by the Grey when I saw her come out. We walked home together, and she admitted to me they'd smelled alcohol on her breath. And that it wasn't the first time. Her boss told her she needed help and to consider herself on a leave of absence until she got it." You can tell he's not too surprised about her predicament, correctly gathering as you've come to know them that he takes more care of her than the reverse. You see him ready to dial 911 when the foot you're dabbing with wet paper towels starts to squirm. "Josh, look. She's waking up."
Meg's eyes peel open one at a time, a pained moan escaping from her core.
"Don't move, Aunt Meg. I'm calling for an ambulance."
"I'm fine. Really." Slowly raising her head and shoulders, she looks around and frowns at the damage. "I must have slipped. I remember scooting the chair over . . ."
"Are you sure you're all right?" You lob the bloodied wad of towels into the trash.
"Yeah . . . just . . . maybe if you guys can help me up." She sinks into the sofa as if it's her long lost friend after you and Josh ease her over to it. Pinching in on her temples, she grumbles something about the room spinning and totally screwing up this time.
"We're gonna talk about that," Josh assures her, "but first I gotta text Daphne. Her plane's getting in, and she's expecting us to be there." Thumbs swiftly typing, he revises the arrangements, asking Daph to hop in a taxi and come to the apartment. Adding that he'll pay the fare and explain everything when she arrives, he turns back to his aunt and shushes her when she starts to apologize for ruining his plans. "You know you need to get this under control, Aunt Meg. We can't ignore it any longer. Justin told me what happened at the gallery."
"Did he tell you my job is on the line? I swear, I'm gonna kick this thing. I have to."
At least she's facing her problem. You offer to whip up your grandmother's magic potion to help her recover from this latest blunder. "If you can stand it. Last time, the stink freaked you out."
"I don't know what's in that crap, but it worked like a charm. I can force it down to get off this merry-go-round."
"I'll see what I can do. Hang on." You walk across the hall to your own kitchen and start mixing away.
A much needed cigarette before you go back takes you out to your private little retreat on the fire escape, where you pull up the stool you'd bought on your second day in the city and stashed there for times like this. Lighting up, you suck in a most satisfying lungful of toxins, watching the never-ending parade of vehicles crawling up and down the street. You expect one of the Yellow Cabs to stop any minute now and let Daphne out.
Your curiosity piques when you spot a sleek black limousine inching its way over to the curb right beneath you, seriously doubting that any of your neighbors would have chartered such a lavish ride. Exhaling a thin plume of smoke as evening falls, you're stunned to observe one Daphne Chanders emerge while a uniformed chauffeur holds her door open with a white-gloved hand. 'What have you done, Daph?!' is all you can think of as you picture Josh coughing up the extravagant expense, but that image vanishes into thin air when you see what happens next.
It feels like a lifetime since you've held him. Kissed him. Made love to him. And yet there he is three stories below, ducking as he follows her out of the back of the limo. Impossibly more handsome than the last time you'd seen him, Brian straightens up elegantly and towers over the driver, going for his wallet in the inside breast pocket of his full-length camel hair overcoat.
Joining your blown mind, your heart bursts out of your chest.
You stub out your cigarette in a state of near shock, just about to race down to the sidewalk and fling yourself into Brian's arms when a wiser thought prevails. Murphy's Law guarantees you'll miss them in crossing. Watching Daphne point to your building before they walk inside, you clamber back in from the fire escape and hurry over to the elevator bay, gnawing on the side of your thumbnail while you try to guess which one they'll step out of.
Your eyes tear up without warning, a gut reaction when you and Brian are wordlessly drawn to each other in a matter of minutes. Sealing your lips together, neither of you wants to break the silent spell.
"See? I told you he'd be surprised!" Daphne takes it upon herself to do the honors, fearing the kiss will drag on forever if she doesn't. "You're surprised, aren't you, Justin?"
Brian grins like a loon. "Surprise."
"I saw you getting out of the car, and I . . . this is so fucking great!" You turn to Daph and hug her tightly. "You never said a word every time we talked. How long have you guys been planning this?"
"Hey, I can keep a secret. Especially when Brian holds the threat of death over my head if I sing!"
He folds his lips inward and feigns innocence. Throwing an arm behind your back as you lead the way to Meg's door, Brian making the first move to bridge the three hundred and seventy-mile gap between you is downright dizzying. Or maybe it's his fingers pressing into your rib cage. All you know is that the dull ache of missing him the past month has instantly vanished, handshakes, small talk, and lighthearted laughter taking its place when he meets your new friends. Learning they'd helped keep you in the dark about his visit completes the perfect picture.
"So where's my miracle cure?" Meg wants to know before long, her appearance still in disarray even though Josh has done a quick cleanup in the kitchen. "Or did the arrival of this good-looking guy make you forget all about me?" Nodding in Brian's direction with a twinkle in her eye, she wouldn't blame you if she happened to be right.
"Oh, sorry, Meg. I'll go get it. It's all ready."
Brian recognizes the stench in your hand when you return with the foul mixture. "Granny Taylor's secret recipe," he identifies it by name. "That shit always works for me!"
"Oh, yeah?" Thanking you, Meg guzzles it down in one breath. "You, um, drink?" She judges from the giggling and eye-rolling you and Daphne can't control that she must be onto something. She raises the empty glass toward Brian in a mock toast. "A true Irishman."
"You've gotta admit, nothin' beats the smooth burn of that first shot of whiskey after a long, hard day."
Meg couldn't agree more. "A kindred spirit," she says with a smile. "I'm quitting, though. As of now. You and Daphne had to take a cab from the airport because of my . . . problem. Justin and Joshua were on their way to meet you, but . . ." Lowering her eyes, her voice trails off.
"Oh, Brian doesn't do cabs." Daphne looks at him and laughs. "We took a limo!"
Swallowing hard, Josh blinks. "H-how much was that?" He sighs and reaches into his pocket before Brian mentions his unlimited expense account and tells him to put his money away. Checking his watch, Josh sees he guessed about right with the restaurant. "Well, I don't know about everyone else, but I'm starving. I called and changed our reservations to an hour later, so why don't you come with us, Aunt Meg? A good meal is just what you need tonight."
"Yeah, Meg, come with us," Daphne says. "I haven't seen you in forever. We need to catch up."
Hesitating briefly, her appetite coaxes her into accepting. Meg pries herself off the sofa and goes to change, the pledge that she's loused up for the last time sounding awfully sincere.
"We'll be over at our place." Josh picks up Daphne's weekend bag from the corner where she'd dropped it. "Just five minutes, okay? Then we're outta here."
You've never been so grateful to anyone for stretching five minutes into twenty, finding your back slapped against the fridge in your apartment as soon as Josh takes Daphne to see his new computer and you offer Brian a beer. Your mouths are inseparable while your hands grope at each other in familiar patterns, desperate to burrow beneath the clothes in their way. You're ready to scrap the foolish notion of moving to New York and march back home where you belong, the intense love you have for him all that's ever mattered.
"God, Justin." He breathes you in, nuzzling the sensitive skin on the side of your neck. "I've missed you."
Tingling all over, your grip tightens around him. "Brian, I . . . I'm so sorry . . ." It's unplanned and stammering, a whisper escaping from you don't know where. "Sorry that I left . . . Left us."
"We'll always be us."
His words etch themselves into your heart, the nagging anxiety you've felt about the survival of your relationship swiftly packing up and waving good-bye forever.
You're not even fazed when Daphne and Josh stumble out of his room after their quickie and try not to gawk at your boyfriend devouring you in the middle of the kitchen.
He's fucking unbelievable. He's been fucking unbelievable so many times you've lost count, although you honestly felt that anything else he'd ever come up with would pale in comparison to his buying you a country manor six weeks ago and convincing you to marry him.
But then tonight happened.
Tucked snugly under his arm in the back of the limo, you share a look and a smile with your best friend, who's sitting equally contentedly in Josh's lap. You're still trying to digest the events that unfolded at the restaurant when Meg launches into another round of undying thanks to the fucking unbelievable Brian Kinney.
"And I don't wan't you to consider it money that you're just throwing away." She wiggles out of her shoes and relaxes back into the seat across from you. "I mean it, Brian. I'll repay every cent, with interest if you like, as soon as I'm earning a living again."
A peck on your lips prefaces the simple method to his madness. "I figure it's the least I can do for the clever soul who got Justin here back into school. Fuck knows I tried several times. Getting a degree from NYU is the smartest move he can make right now. And from what I've heard tonight, we owe it all to you, Meg."
Nodding in affirmation is all you can do. The decision to fast-track your way to graduation at the prestigious university was definitely motivated by the first person you'd met on this adventure to New York City. You could have done without all her raving during dinner about the hype that surrounded your enrollment and the stir you can still cause some days when your classmates cluster around to watch you paint, but you guess Brian was bound to hear of the flap sooner or later.
"Justin has a gift, but even the gifted have a hard time breaking into this business. I've been around long enough to know that NYU's art department is crawling with influential bigwigs who can open doors for someone with Justin's talent. And trust me, it's gonna happen for him." Meg smiles at you before she looks Brian in the eye. "Now, with your kind generosity, I'll be back in time for the annual senior show to witness the official start of his career."
"Just get well out there, Aunt Meg. I know you can do it. Betty Ford's one of the best facilities in the country." Josh turns toward Brian as if he were some kind of divine redeemer. "You have no idea what this means for our family. Thank you."
You're proud of him for accepting their gratitude. You know from experience that saving the day behind the scenes and claiming no involvement are more his style. Listening to Meg and Daphne gab about how nice it will be to dry out in sunny Rancho Mirage, California, you take in the scenery along Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan from the car's tinted windows. You can hardly believe you're on your way to spend the weekend holed up with your boyfriend at the five-star Peninsula Hotel, soon visible up ahead.
"Well, it's been fun." Brian watches the driver jockey for space in front of the Peninsula's doorman. "But this is where Justin and I get off."
"Ha ha," you reply to Daphne's lewd comment. No doubt she and Josh will put their privacy in the apartment to good use.
Lowering the partition as the limo rolls to a stop, Brian settles up with the chauffeur to the tune of a couple hundred dollars. "This should cover everything. Plus one more trip. Just take these fine people back to . . . what was it?" He looks at Daphne. "Alphabet soup? Avenue Q?"
"Oh, my God!" Daph shrieks. "I told him Avenue B in Alphabet City when we were leaving the airport! So he'd know the neighborhood!"
"Close enough. Later, guys." Brian flashes his killer smile amid heaps of appreciation for footing the transportation bill. He pulls you out of the car with him and hangs his arm over your shoulders while you wait for the doorman to get your carryalls out of the trunk, almost more impatient than you are to get you alone.
You've never seen him hand over his credit card as quickly as he does at the front desk, finally stepping into the elevator with him on your way to his prebooked penthouse suite. "Jesus, Brian!" You tackle him from behind while he jabs the button for the top of the hotel, pinning him into a corner before the doors seal together. "You're so fucking unbelievable!"
"Why? Because I want to fuck you in luxury for two days straight?" He interlocks his fingers behind your waist, his eyes sparkling with lust.
"No!" You laugh and kiss his lips when he rests his forehead down on yours. "I mean paying for Meg to go to Betty Ford. Where did that come from? You just met her tonight!"
Brian shrugs. "I don't know. For some reason, I took an instant liking to her. It's obvious she really wants to get sober. And then I was sitting there eating my steak and thinking about what alcoholism's done to my mother. I might not have turned out this fucked up if she'd had some professional help when I was a kid. Besides." A wry grin comes over his face. "Meg reminds me of Stevie Nicks. I used to think she was hot."
"Who the hell is that?"
"Stevie Nicks? The hippie-chick singer with the raspy voice in Fleetwood Mac? They practically dominated top forty radio in the seventies and eighties."
"You do realize I was born in 1983, right?"
Brian exhales a stifled groan. "Christ. Remind me again why I'm with you?"
You don't need a more blatant invitation, promptly reaching out for the panel and halting the elevator mid-climb. Sinking to your knees as it lodges between floors, you don't know how you've managed to keep your mouth off his dick this long.
If you'd asked yourself a year ago what you'd be doing tonight, the answer most assuredly would not have been mingling near eight of the original pieces you created for New York University's annual senior art show with your mom and boyfriend. The path you intended to take after deciding not to marry had nothing to do with school, yet here you are set to graduate in a week. Funny how life works sometimes.
Observing from a few feet away, you watch the group of people admiring your work steadily expand into a well dressed mob and resist the urge to play referee every time a cordial argument breaks out over who saw a particular painting first.
"They're selling like hotcakes, just as I predicted! Everyone wants to own a Justin Taylor!"
You turn to face the whirlwind who just blew in, caught up in her huge bear hug a moment later. "Meg, you made it. I wasn't sure if we'd see you here."
"I'm not gonna let the recent developments keep me away from your big debut. Last time I checked, I was still a card-carrying member of John Q. Public." She thrusts her arms out toward Brian and gives him the same bone crushing treatment. "And how's my favorite benefactor tonight? Handsome as ever, I see."
"Meg. You look . . ." Cocking his head, he gives her a thorough once-over. "I take it sobriety agrees with you. If only I were straight."
"But you're not, Brian. Meg, I want you to meet my mother." Laughter and introductions are the order of the day for all of you, chatting with lots of your milling classmates and professors who come up and congratulate you on such a successful show. You're truly humbled when the dean of the art department makes it a point to stop and dole out his praise. Fond memories you'll always cherish.
Maybe none as much as the one you're about to make with Simon Caswell. Spotting the loathsome critic examining your framed canvases with a fine-tooth comb, you square your shoulders and stand a little taller.
"Ah, Mr. Taylor. Prodigious work, as expected." His eyes roam up and down your body. "What's it been? About a year since we met at the Pittsburgh Gay and Lesbian Center?"
You'll be damned if you're going to stand there and converse while he openly ogles you, fawning fucking review or not. A terse 'I guess' is all you can spare.
"I was rather disappointed you didn't attend my presentation at the Grey Gallery last week. I was looking forward to getting reacquainted when I saw your name on the class roster."
"Yeah, well, I must have been busy or something. If you'll excuse me." Pivoting on your heels, you go to the men's room and relieve your champagne-filled bladder, wondering what the hell you ever did to attract such a reptile. You're washing your hands when you look up and realize he's followed you in, Simon Caswell evidently not one to give up so easily.
"Justin." He parks himself entirely too close to the basin you're using. "We seem to have started off on a bad note. I'd like it very much if we could change that. May I take you out for coffee after the show?"
You've encountered a lot of wrong in your twenty-three years, but what's happening in this bathroom is so wrong you just might have to double over and puke. Your features are still wrenched in disbelief at this laughable man when the door suddenly bolts open. Your boyfriend fills the tiny gap between you without a word.
His kiss is quiet and soft at first. You're more than certain it won't end that way. Closing your eyes while he unbuckles your belt, you hear the water turn off and the sound of fading footsteps.
You haven't looked away from the fascinating waxy blobs floating around in Meg's lava lamps in, um . . . Well, it doesn't really matter how long you've been zoned out because, uh . . . Oh, fuck it. Who wants to think?
"Want another hit? It's almost out." Josh pinches the roach between his thumb and index finger and extends his arm out to you.
"No. No, I'm good." You cough and pass it to Meg, catching a glimpse of the rounded flesh her skimpy tank top doesn't conceal as she leans toward you. No big deal. You actually respect her youthful freedom. "I'll take some more Kool-Aid, though."
"I'm proud of you, Aunt Meg. I never thought I'd see the day you replaced booze with purple sugar-water. Or smoked for the last time."
"You're seeing it." She drops the end of a joint she'd hidden in her desk long ago into the ashtray and pats the top of Josh's head. "I just ran across this one I'd forgotten about and thought I'd share with you guys. But I'm not going to buy any more. One thing my stint at Betty Ford taught me is that I don't need to get drunk or high. I don't need anything."
Josh grabs the pitcher of grape Kool-Aid after you set it down. "Except gainful employment?"
"So sucks that the Grey terminated you while you were getting help. I'm gonna do a portrait of your lava lamps tomorrow, 'kay?"
"Such is life, boys. I'll find something else. I love you, Justin, but you're not staining my carpet with oil-based paint." Meg empties a package of cookies into a bowl after the three of you quit convulsing in waves of laughter. "Now if you had a studio, it'd be a different story."
"Yeah, I'm getting one. I made enough money from my pieces in the show to cover the first few months' rent. And I have three more in my room. They wouldn't let me hang them because they said eight was the limit for each student. If I can sell those . . ." Your sentence dangles in limbo while you cram an Oreo in your mouth.
"If?! You're fucking kidding me, right? The way your stuff moved?" She twists a chocolaty cookie apart and seems to be studying the creamy filling before it works its magic on her sweet tooth. "Three more? Word would have to get out in all the right circles. With my contacts . . . Your own studio, huh?"
"Uh-oh." Josh reaches into the bowl with both hands. "Weed always drives her brain into overload. Let's see who can shock the other two the most with a single true statement. Loser has to run to Seven/Eleven for more Oreos. I'll go first. I'm gonna buy Daphne a ring and propose." He looks over at you, challenging you to go one better.
"Brian and I had to make sure my mom's suite at the Four Seasons was on a different floor from ours after the show so she wouldn't hear us fucking. She told him she knew that was the reason on their way back to Pittsburgh."
"That's two statements, dickhead."
"Shit." You turn your head at the same time Josh does, both of you staring at Meg and waiting for her shocking truth.
"I'm going to make Justin a wealthy man."
"EVERYTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE IS REAL." - Pablo Picasso
"God, Justin. How can you find anything in here? It looks like a war zone." Meg lets herself into your airy SoHo loft with the key you'd given her when you first moved in. She negotiates her way around the living quarters through scads of clothes and shoes littering the carpet as well as books, papers, and practically everything else you own piled on the furniture and kitchen counter. "Don't you know what closets are for? Do you even possess a hanger?"
"And hello to you, too, Meg." Your brush never leaves the canvas as she approaches you in the immaculate half of the open space, the side where neatly ordered file cabinets and supply shelves line the walls. Where easels sit in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows and display paintings in various stages of completion, each precisely equidistant to the work table in the center of your studio. Ironically, you can't paint under any other circumstances. "When are you gonna chill about the mess over there? I keep telling you, it's organized chaos. I know where everything is."
"Artists." She stops behind you and regards your work in progress with a knowledgeable eye. "Nice. I've got just the buyer for it, too. He purchased the two similar abstracts you did last year. Maybe we can put it in the William Bennett show on the 18th. I told you about that one, right?"
"Come on, Meg. You know I'm not good with dates. That's why you're my agent and my manager. We've done extremely well for ourselves. Let's not fuck it up by trusting me to remember anything important."
"Amen to that." Meg spends some time contemplating the pieces on the other easels while you busy yourself with shading, purposely withholding her comments.
You don't notice that she's moved on to silently observing the ant-like civilization down on the street from your ninth story windows until you prop your brush in a former soup can and reach for the rag dangling halfway out of your back pocket. Ready to take a break, you dab at the smudges of wet color on your thumb. "So what'd you want to talk to me about? The wedding? You sounded excited on the phone."
She waits for you look up and focus on her, wanting your undivided attention. That's when it hits you. She never brings up anything important while you're working. Didn't she once put off telling you about Josh's emergency appendectomy for hours, burying herself in the invoice catalog and accounts receivable rather than interrupt your wildly productive spree? She's considerate like that. Or a shrewd businesswoman.
Stuffing the rag back into your pocket, you motion for her to come join you on the settee in the corner. "I'm all yours. Spill."
"Okay. The wedding's going to be beautiful tomorrow, but that's not it. I need to know if you were serious when you were kicking around the idea of opening up your own gallery. No sense even getting into it if that was just idle talk."
Your eyes widen. "Oh, I was definitely serious about that. Still am. Why? What's up?"
"Well, you know Fuller's bookstore in front of that old hole-in-the-wall studio where you started out?" Meg rids herself of her shoes and sits on one leg, her favorite position for delving into heavy topics. "I was browsing in there yesterday and heard him say he's retiring after forty-seven years. I started talking to him about it, and he said he's probably going to let the lease go when it's up next month, but he's willing to sublease if someone wants to take it over. He remembered you when I suggested you might be interested."
"Yeah, I'm interested. It almost sounds too simple, though. It can't be that simple, can it?"
"I'd call it luck more than anything else. Most of the shops down here in Lower Manhattan have been grandfathered in for generations. Fuller said he always liked you. Recalled you being a hardworking kid and said he'd be happy to strike a deal with you."
At twenty-five, you're not a kid anymore. Your mind reels at the opportunity knocking on your door. Maybe you should let it in. "I've been thinking about it for awhile now. All the different galleries you've arranged for me to show in. The Village. Here in SoHo. Uptown. Do you realize how many owners have made a commission off of me?"
"That's the name of the game. How everyone breaks into the art world."
"I know. And I'm so grateful to be a part of it. But if I open my own gallery, we cut out the middleman. I may not be good with dates, but I know that's a shitload of cash we keep for ourselves."
Meg laughs and stretches out her bent-up leg, immediately drawing the other one under herself. "Talent and brains. You really do have it all. It would be a logical next step, Justin. If you're ready."
"I'd love for my paintings to replace Fuller's books, but . . ." You can't ignore the only snag you see in this rapidly forming plan. "I'd still work here, and you'd operate from there? Could you do the nine-to-five route again? You've been free to get things done on your own time for so long."
"Hey, selling your art is what I do best. A structured day won't kill me. Truthfully, having everything under one roof will make my life a lot easier. And it's in a perfect little niche location near NYU. I'd enjoy the hell out of it."
Scanning your canvases in the fading afternoon light, you mull over your options. Keep lining the pockets of gallery owners throughout New York City, or take control of your finances. And your future.
You haven't been labeled a genius for nothing.
"You better be dead. That's all I have to say to your ass at three forty-five in the goddamned morning, Justin. You better be fucking dead. You know I have to fly to Chicago at the crack of daw—"
"Briannnn! You picked up! I miss you sssooo much! Wanna have phone sexxx?"
"Now? I'm trying to slee . . . Where the hell are you? It sounds like you're in the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve."
"Oh, that? That's just Josh and all the rowdy guys in this straight bar. They're straight. Stripper just jumped out of the cake, so they're all yelling at her and shit. I kinda don't fit in. Like a square peg in a round hole. Oops! I said hole. Wwwanna have phone sexxx?"
"Christ, Justin. How fucking drunk are you?"
"Fffucking drunk. That's funny, Brian. I'm fffucking drunk like everyone else in here 'cause it's a batch . . . it's Josh's bache . . . hic . . ."
"Josh's bachelor party. I get it. Now how are you supposed to look your sunshiny-best tomorrow as Daphne's maid of honor if you're all hung over?"
"You know what, Brian? Naked girl is naked standing on the table. I can never unsee that. I should go home. I'm gonna go home and have phone sex."
"I hope you throw the phone away after."
"Wwwith youuu! Can't you blow off that meeting with Leo Brown and come here for the wedding instead? Never mind. I know. I know. I'm mature now. Business comes before pleasure. I'll just be all stag without you. Brian? Briannn? Can a gay guy be stag? Or does it just mean a straight guy without a date? Briii-an?"
"Quiet. I'm sleeping."
"Shhhhh. Remind me to tell you something when you wake up. Impooortant, Brian. I did a lot of thinking today, and . . . Life changing, Brian. It really is. Bye. I love you."
"JUSTIN?! ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? WAKE ME UP AT THREE FORTY-FIVE IN THE GODDAMNED MORNING DRUNK OFF YOUR ASS AND LAY SOME CRYPTIC LIFE CHANGING SHIT ON ME AND THEN HANG UP? JUSTIN?! WHAT ABOUT THE PHONE SEX?!"
Continue with the New York City years