Trials and Tribulations
"Michael! Michael! It's time to get up." Debbie was hard pressed to keep the annoyance from her voice.
"Wha' time is it?" Michael mumbled.
"Heading for nine o'clock."
"Shit!" Michael responded. "I didn't sleep very well," he added as he stood and tried to straighten his back.
"Maybe you would if you'd go to your place and sleep in a real bed," Debbie scolded.
"Any coffee?" Michael asked instead of answering Debbie.
"When you make it," Debbie snapped.
"You heard me. I'm not your servant. Make your own coffee."
"Don't fucking whine at me. You need to get your shit together and get on with your life."
"There's no but about it. Michael, you've been here for days. Go home and take care of yourself." Debbie's voice became softer as she finished that sentence. She wanted her son to get on with his life.
"I'm waiting for Ben to come back," Michael stated.
"Then wait at your own place."
"Are you kicking me out?" Michael asked in disbelief.
"This place is too small for all of us. So, I guess I am kicking you out. Go to the log cabin or go to Pittsburgh. It doesn't matter. Just go."
"Ma? I can't believe you're doing this to me."
"Start believing because it's happening ... now."
Michael stood in silence shaking his head. He couldn't believe his mother was pushing him out of her house, especially when she knew how much he needed her right now.
"You'll be sorry you did this," Michael said forcefully as he gathered up his meagre belongings from behind the couch.
"Maybe so, Michael, maybe so. But right now, you need to man up and deal with things. I'm not helping by letting you wallow here on the sofa."
Michael glared at her before stomping to the front door and leaving. He stood on the porch in the chill January weather wearing only his sleep shirt and pants and no shoes. He shivered involuntarily and then ran for the log cabin down the lane. His feet were freezing as he reached the front door of the cabin. He opened the door and quickly ran inside. It was freezing in there too, since he had told John not to turn up the heat. He found the thermostat and cranked it way up. He prayed there was hot water as he headed for the master bath and turned on the shower. He continued to shiver as he had to wait a bit for the water to turn warm then hot. He adjusted it to suit him, shed his clothes and stepped under the hot water. It felt heavenly after his run down the lane in the January cold. He let the water hit his face and wash away the tears that had somehow started to spring from his eyes. What was he going to do? Where was Ben? Why was everyone abandoning him? Michael let the tears come as he stood sobbing in the shower until the water started to turn cold.
"Morning," Brian said as he entered the kitchen. Uncharacteristically he had slept in, but it had been great to be in his own bed on his own lane. He had slept like a baby.
John and Bree replied with "Morning" in response.
"Shouldn't you be at school?" Brian asked as he frowned at his daughter.
"We're waiting for Patrick to finish printing a paper he wrote," Bree said.
"I'm driving them," John volunteered. "We can just about make it on time if Patrick would get a move on."
Patrick ran into the kitchen and they all headed out leaving Brian alone. He shrugged his shoulders and headed for the coffeepot. His favorite blend was just finishing brewing when Justin came into the kitchen. Brian immediately turned on the kettle for Justin's tea.
"Everybody gone?" Justin asked.
Brian nodded. "It's so quiet."
"You think so?"
"Don't you?" Justin asked as he made his tea.
Brian grimaced. He knew if nothing was going on at home he would have to deal with Michael.
"Chicken," Justin chuckled, noting the look on Brian's face.
"You want to talk to him?" Brian asked only half joking.
"I thought not," Brian replied sipping his coffee.
"You know that Michael has never really liked me. What could I possibly say to him?"
"The truth," Brian replied using Bree's words.
"I'm starving," Justin said batting his eyelashes and effectively ending Brian's foolish idea. "Could you make me an omelet?"
"Your wish is my command, sire," Brian said with a big flourish of his hand and a bow. When he stood up from behind the counter he had a big frying pan in his hand. "Let's see what's in the fridge that can be thrown into an omelet."
"Sounds yummy," Justin said with a soft smile.
It wasn't long until both men were seated at the table, omelets in front of them, and toast buttered and ready.
"As much as I enjoyed French cuisine," Justin said, "I've missed your breakfasts." He took a big bite of the omelet and groaned in appreciation.
"You sweet talker you!" Brian chuckled.
"Okay, thanks, but you don't have to butter me up."
Justin giggled. "I'm just trying to be encouraging."
"I know. I wish I could think of something profound to say to Mikey. He's going to go berserk ... or worse."
"What could be worse?" Justin asked with a frown.
Brian sucked in his lips. "A total meltdown."
"Oh, I see.”
"What do you see?"
"I know that emotional outbursts aren't exactly your thing," Justin admitted.
Brian snorted. "That's putting it mildly." Brian looked thoughtful for a moment. "What am I going to do if he falls apart?"
"You'll think of something."
"Is Debbie at home?"
"I think so."
"I guess I could send him to his mommy then."
Justin almost choked on his last bite of omelet. "Brian," he chastised.
"What? I mean it. I'm going to bale if he starts crying. Let Debbie look after him."
"You know, we don't know for a fact that it's totally over between Ben and Michael. All we know is that Ben needs this time in Paris to decompress and think."
"Can I quote you on that?" Brian asked with a smirk.
"What would I ever do without you?" Brian asked with a chuckle.
"You wouldn't know what to do without me."
"You got that right."
"Just remember that I'll always be here when you come home ... no matter what happens."
Brian nodded. That was one thing he could rely on.
Michael finished drying himself off. He felt a little better after his session in the shower. He went to the closet and found some warm clothes that he had left there. As he dressed he mulled over his choices. He wasn't sure he wanted to stay on the lane, but that would be where Ben would come when he came back ... if he came back. So maybe it was best to stay in the log cabin. He would need to get some groceries since his mother had forced him out of her place. Michael knew Brian and Justin were returning yesterday, but no one had called him. Did that mean that Ben hadn't come with them, or was he in Pittsburgh? Michael needed some answers.
Fully dressed, Michael went downstairs and turned the heat down. It was now delightfully warm through the whole house. He rummaged in the pantry and found some instant coffee. He made himself a mugful. He looked in the freezer and found some bread. He toasted a couple of slices of bread and found some jam in the pantry. He sat at the kitchen table eating his meagre breakfast, wondering what to do next.
Michael went over to the pile of belongings he had brought from his mother's place. He found his phone and noted there were no messages. Letting out a sigh, he went back to the table and sat down to finish his coffee.
"I'm going to call him," Michael stated out loud, like that gave him the courage to do so. He hit Ben's number and waited, holding his breath.
In Paris Ben felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at who was calling. He hesitated, tempted to answer. Then he summarily shut it off.
Michael felt his heart racing as he drew in a breath. The call went to voicemail. He opened his mouth to leave a message. Then he clicked off and dropped his head onto his arms. Ben wouldn't even answer his call.
Carl answered the gentle knock to his front door. When he opened the door, Carl was startled to find Brian on his doorstep.
“Come in,” Carl said as he stepped aside to allow Brian to enter. “For some reason, it always surprises me that you knock.”
“Why?” Brian asked as he loosened his scarf and coat. While they hadn’t had snow so far, it was still cold and frosty.
“Back in Pittsburgh, you had a habit of just walking in,” Carl noted.
“That was then and not so much after you and Debbie got married. I really didn’t want to interrupt any old people hetero sex,” Brian said with a smirk. “Besides, we practically live in each other’s pockets, we value privacy here on the lane. Where is your wife?”
“Right here, kiddo,” Debbie said as she walked into the living room to give Brian a kiss on the cheek and a slight cuff to the back of his head. “How was Paris?”
“Very French. Justin was a hit.”
“Of course, he was,” Deb stated with confidence. Brian followed Debbie into the kitchen; he sat as he watched her put on a pot of coffee. “He’s not here. He ran off to the cabin. Barefoot! The idiot. I won’t be surprised if he’s lost a few toes.”
“John didn’t turn up the furnace yet,” Brian commented.
“Michael’s a grown man and a homeowner,” Carl began. “He knows how to turn up a furnace.” Brian nodded as Debbie slid over the sugar bowl and a fresh cup of coffee.
“How is he?” Brian asked. Debbie and Carl exchanged looks. Carl nodded to Debbie.
“Not good. He doesn’t understand why Ben won’t return his calls. I don’t think he understands any of it. He truly believes their life was perfect. He has no clue what went wrong.” Carl handed Debbie several tissues as she began to tear up. Brian stared into his coffee cup to avoid watching her cry.
“Are you planning to speak to him?” Carl asked. He gently took Debbie into his arms. Brian nodded.
“Can you tell us why Ben didn’t come home with you?” Debbie asked, hoping for some explanation. Brian preferred not to break a confidence.
Seeing the war going on in Brian’s eyes, Carl said, “Honey, Brian may not have permission to tell us.”
“Is it a secret?” Debbie asked belligerently.
“No, it’s not a secret,” Brian began. “I just feel uncomfortable talking about it.”
“Is there anything you can say?” Debbie asked with desperation.
“Ben needed a break,” was all Brian could say.
“He needed a break! What the fuck does that mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like,” Brian responded. “He needed to get away. He’s finally on that sabbatical he wanted and close to finishing his book. He just wants to be in a stress-free environment for a while.”
“Oh, well that explains it,” Debbie snarked with heavy sarcasm. “Michael’s been going nuts.”
“Maybe if he had gone to couples’ therapy when he was given the chance,” Brian grumbled.
“What?” Debbie shrieked.
“Fuck! Ben’s going to kill me,” Brian mumbled, scrubbing at his eyes with his palms. “You do know that Ben’s been seeing Alex on a professional basis for months. Alex suggested couples’ counselling; Michael wasn’t happy with that suggestion. Look, Deb, I can’t say more; I don’t know more. All I know is that Ben was exercising his way to a major breakdown if he didn’t take a time out. Taking him to Paris seemed like a good idea at the time. We were going to stay longer until Ben told us to go home.”
“And you just left him there,” Debbie sneered.
“We didn’t 'just' anything! Do you think this was easy for me; for us to leave? If it wasn’t for Bree, Justin and I would still be there. Michael’s not the only grown man in this equation. Ben takes responsibility for his actions.”
“And what kind of actions is he taking responsibility for?” Debbie was getting angry as she assumed the worst.
“He hasn’t broken his wedding vows, if that’s what you’re asking,” Brian growled.
“And how would you know?”
“Because I asked him and he denied it. I believe him.”
“You believed him; that’s rich,” Debbie stated with disbelief.
“Debbie, Ben is one of the most honorable men I know,” Brian said not realizing he said the same thing to Debbie that she said to Michael.
“Yes, he is,” she said as the wind was finally knocked out of her sails. “Yes, he is,” Debbie repeated. “How can we help them?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure we can,” Brian said. He finished his coffee then washed his cup. “I’m going to the cabin now. I don’t know what good it will do but I’m going to try to get him to go home. I don’t think him waiting around in that cabin is going to do him any good. You know how quiet it is here. It’s great for some but not Michael. Not now, anyway.”
“All right, honey,” said Debbie, finally calm enough to hear reason.
“Thanks for the coffee,” Brian said as he bundled back up then left to cross the lane to the cabin.
“Do you think he’ll do any good?” Deb asked her husband.
“I’m not sure,” Carl honestly replied.
Ben stepped into the Simone Gallery. The layout of the displays was pleasing to his eyes and psyche. Ben enjoyed visiting the other galleries but shared Brian’s opinion regarding The Avant Garde. Ben wandered the gallery until he found himself confronted by the life-sized nude of Brian. The portrait was the central feature amongst all the nudes which included one of Ben. He sat on the small bench opposite the painting to study it. It was Brian in the shower, his neck slightly arched back and his hands in his hair. Justin perfectly captured the effect of the water sluicing over Brian’s lean body. The water obscured most of Brian’s assets but somehow still left little to the imagination. Brian was never heavily muscled except for his soccer thighs and yet his pure masculinity was obvious.
“He is stunning,” a fellow admirer stated as he sat on the bench.
“Yes, he is,” Ben agreed.
“And I recognize you,” the gentleman pointed to Ben’s portrait. Ben blushed. “You are magnifique.”
“Thank you,” was the only thing Ben could say. “I’m Ben, and you are?”
“Please forgive me, Armand Simone. I am Simone’s brother.” At Ben’s curious expression, Armand further explained. “Simone does have a first name but we rarely use it. He has always been called Simone even by our parents. However, I prefer Armand.”
“Armand it is,” Ben said as he politely extended his hand.
“Do you know the artist well? I’ve met him; he seems very amiable.”
“Yes, I know him very well; he is a true gentleman. And I know his partner.”
“Partner?” Ben indicated the large portrait. “This beautiful man is the partner of Justin Taylor?” Ben nodded. “That explains the love I feel when I look at the painting.”
Ben smiled. “Yes, there is love. They are in love and have been from the very moment they met.”
“Have they been together long?”
“Yes, just over twenty-five years.”
“Incroyable! To have a love like that. I imagine the artist is always painting his model.”
Ben chuckled. “Yes, Brian is Justin’s favorite model.”
“And have you known them long?”
“Yes, they are my closest friends.”
“It must be wonderful to have such friends, to share in such love.”
“Yes, it is,” Ben murmured as his thoughts drifted.
“I see you are deep in contemplation. It happens often when one is surrounded by beauty. I will leave you to your thoughts,” Armand said as he stood. Ben was only partially aware of what Armand was saying. “It was a pleasure to meet. I hope I will see you again,” Armand said as he extended his hand.
“Yes,” said Ben as he automatically shook Armand’s hand.
Twenty-five years, thought Ben. He and Michael had been together for almost that long and legally married in Canada for over twenty years. Almost a lifetime. “Maybe I should go home,” Ben murmured to himself. “I can at least call him.” Ben took the phone out of his pocket then realized where he was. An art gallery wasn’t the best place for a personal conversation. As Ben stood to leave, he gazed at his family that adorned the gallery wall. Justin painted them all. Ben’s heart began to ache for home. To be in his beautiful cabin, for uninterrupted writing, and for the peace on the lane.
Ben left for the hotel.
“Mikey,” Brian called out as he knocked on the cabin door. He tried the door knob and found it unlocked. Not unusual for the lane inhabitants. He called out again as he entered the main room of the cabin. “Mikey?”
“Go away,” came a bland response from somewhere near the kitchen.
“Come on, Mikey, can’t I visit with an old friend?”
“Ha, you finally said the “o” word.”
“It’s not so bad, but I do avoid it whenever possible.”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t know, The Steelers?”
“What the fuck so you know about football?”
“Nothing but ask me about football players,” Brian proudly pronounced.
“Do you have coffee?” Brian asked as he inched his way closer.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, Ben prefers…”
“Tea, I know. Some weird Asian blend. Justin keeps a can of it just for him.”
“Yeah. Justin goes to Ben’s herbalist when he’s in the Pitts. So where’s my coffee?”
“You hate instant.”
“It’ll do for now,” Brian grumbled as Michael rinsed out the kettle then filled it with water and placed it on the stove. “Mikey, how are you?” Brian gently asked.
“What do you care?”
“I care, Mikey, you know I care.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is. Even my own mother threw me out of her house.”
“You do have your own house to stay in; two of them. And the B&B is always there.”
“A lot you know,” Michael said with a huff. Brian was ready for Michael’s arms to cross over his chest when he was saved by the loud whistle from the kettle. Anticipating the rancid aroma of instant coffee, Brian was further saved when Michael’s cell phone rang as he was turning off the stove.
“It’s Ben!” Michael said with a gleeful smile. “I gotta take this.”
“Of course, you do. I’ll see you later, Mikey,” Brian said as he quickly left the cabin for the safety of his own cottage.
“Please be good news,” Brian prayed to the gods as he hustled his way up the lane.
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