"What if ..."

Brian had stayed in the closet?


“The rumors are that you’re gay.”


“The rumors are bullshit, and even if they weren’t, who I fuck really isn’t any of your business.”


“I also hear that you’re the best account exec here.”


“You hear right.”


“You have a week to prove it to me.”


“That long?”


Brian walked out of the conference room in something close to a controlled panic. Shit. The agency had been sold, it looked like his partnership was down the toilet—probably along with his job and it would seem that despite his efforts, he hadn’t been as discrete as he thought. The new owner thought he was gay.






OK, he was, but he’d always gone to tremendous pains to hide the fact, even going so far as to use Lindsay and Gus as his beards at company parties and business outings. He made a point of having the infant’s latest picture prominently displayed in his office and always read the stupid sports section.


Somehow the damn rumors had followed him anyway.


Goddamn it.


Fine, a lot of people didn’t seem to think that it made any difference, but the truth was that it did. It affected people’s perception of him and, by extension, his work. His work mattered to him. He was his work, he was the job and he was good at what he did, the best. He wouldn’t let that be threatened by some piece of ass or some homophobic asshole with an ax to grind.


What he did in the privacy of his home or in some back room—who he did it with was no one’s fucking business.


No one’s.


He’d always made a point of staying as far in the closet as he could, only venturing out when he believed himself to be ‘safe’, when he was surrounded by gay friends or in a private gay club or something along those lines.


Somehow he had always known he was gay, even when he was a kid. There had been no sudden flash of insight, no lightning striking, he had just always known, just as he knew his hair was brown or that his parents were alcoholics—alright, he hadn’t always had the ability to articulate it, he hadn’t always known the words or what the reality would become for him, but he had always known.


When he was about ten he had become an alter boy at St. Catherine’s. The young priest, Father Dave, had been so kind, always willing to stop and talk, always ready to listen to what he had to say, always careful when he saw the new bruises from Jack. He had never asked about the injuries, of course, a father was the head of a family and that was the way it should be, but he had seen them and tried to let Brian know that if he wanted to talk about anything, his door was open. Sometimes, haltingly, Brian would tell him of being hit, of wishing that his parents could like him more, wondering if he got better grades or won more trophies if things would get better.


He had encouraged Brian to join CYA and had taken a personal interest in his catechism classes. He would suggest books he might enjoy and allowed him to help around the office and changing the numbers on the sign that let the parishioners know what hymns were being sung that week.


Sometimes he would hug the boy, or pat his cheek or let his hand rest on the boy’s shoulder a bit longer than one would expect, but there was never more than that. Well, hardly ever.


He was always kind.


Then one day Father Dave simply disappeared, transferred because too many parents had complained that he was behaving ‘inappropriately’ around the youngsters, especially the young boys. He was replaced by a stern older man, cold and remote. Brian disliked him on sight, became a behavior problem in the cloaking room and finally simply left the church, rarely to return.


When Brian was about twelve, he developed his first real crush when a new boy moved in from Cleveland. Mark Helmken was in some of Brian’s classes in seventh grade. He was almost as smart as Brian, tall and thin, good looking and instantly popular with almost everyone. Shyly, the first day, Brian had asked if he would like to join him at his table for lunch. Happy to be asked, Mark sat down and an instant friendship was formed.


Within a week they were inseparable. They shared the same sense of humor, the same love of books and music, the same unhappy home life. They were similar enough in looks that when they were out together they were often taken as brothers. They would both get passed notes from girls during study hall. Mark was excited by the thought, Brian less so.


The close friendship continued for a year and a half.


On Brian’s fourteenth birthday he and Mark were cutting through the woods after school on their way to Mark’s house. They stopped by a small stream, sitting on some rocks to sneak a couple of cigarettes.


“So are you going to do anything for your birthday?”


“Like a party?”


“Yeah, I guess—are you?”


“Nah, my parents don’t believe in birthdays. They say any idiot can get born.”


“God, that sucks.”


“It’s OK. It doesn’t matter.” Besides, he was used to it.


“Well, shit—what would you like to do? Is there something you’d like?”


Brian just shrugged. There was but he couldn’t ask.


“C’mon, Bri—it’s your birthday, what do you want?”


The two boys were sitting close together, less than eighteen inches between them. Terrified, taking a breath, Brian leaned in, kissing Mark on the mouth, his hand coming up to lightly hold his neck, keeping him in place. The kiss broke, the boys looking at one another.


Brian was certain that Mark would be furious or confused or something, but he just half smiled. “Somehow I didn’t think that was what you had in mind. I was thinking more like a tape or something.” Barely breathing, Mark leaned back across the now scant three inches separating their faces.


He had heard of French kissing from his brother and his tongue licked across Brian’s closed lips, opening them enough so that the tips of their tongues touched, barely grazing one another.


Neither had ever done this before, it was incredible, amazing and they were really doing it.


They both opened their mouths a bit more, allowing more contact, they both stroked, gently wrestling with their mouths, each afraid to break away because the other might not want to continue.


Tentatively, they put their arms around one another, afraid to move their hands, to stroke along one another’s bodies, just carefully holding one another.


After a few minutes they were going further, starting to move a bit, beginning to nuzzle on another’s neck when they heard sounds about a hundred feet away. They broke apart, scared and embarrassed.




“Hey, Kinney—what are you guys doing here?”


“Hey, Ted. Just hanging, want a smoke?”


“No, I quit a year ago. Fuck, did you get what the Hell Lynch was talking about in chemistry today? He gave us like four pages of homework about some bullshit on the periodic chart.”


“It’s was easy, the answers are all dealing with the electrons.”


“You get it?”


“Yeah—call me tonight, I’ll go over it with you.”


“Thanks. I’ve got to get home, I have a dentist appointment. See ya.” Ted kept going.


Mark stood up, “I should get going, too. I told my Mom I’d be home right after school.” He glanced at Brian still sitting on the rock before going.


The next day at school Mark ate lunch with Matt and his friends. When he was supposed to work with Brian on a project for English, he made an excuse and was assigned to another group. He never called Brian’s house, when Brian called he could never come to the phone.


Neither one ever mentioned what had happened that day in the woods and though Brian would have liked there to be more, he never admitted it. The friendship was over without another word.


A week later, Brian had his encounter with the gym teacher in the shower. Two months later his father informed the family that he’d gotten a new job and they’d be moving.


They left the town before any rumors could catch up with him.


The two boys never saw each other again.


They moved to a neighborhood with some slight diversity. Brian’s family was in an area of solid looking lower middle class homes, the kind with neatly tended patches of lawn with a statue of the Virgin and bikes in the driveway. It was a neighborhood of coal miners (now retired), electricians, plumbers, waitresses, housewives, and deliverymen. Blue collar and hardworking people who would have cookouts and block parties and go to church weekly. It was the sort of neighborhood where kids played in the street and no one minded.


The new family, the Kinney’s didn’t seem to fit in. The house was always neat, Brian and his sister always reasonably well dressed by local standards. His mother didn’t work outside of the home, as his father wouldn’t hear of it. Her hobbies consisted largely of prayer and wine. His father’s hobbies were bowling and scotch. Brian and his sister, who mostly ignored one another, spent as little time as possible at home, preferring to be anywhere else. They rarely had any real contact with anyone else on the street and seemed content to keep it that way.


In return, when the neighbors would hear the shouting and occasional crashes and loud fights late at night, or when the boy would run out in an effort to get away, no one did anything other than shake their heads and wish it would stop. Perhaps they would just move away.


Brian felt the same mixture of apathy and antipathy for his new school that he’d had for his old one, seeing no real difference between the old and the new and finding almost no one in the student body he could bare to spend any time with. Partly it was his own well hidden shyness and mostly it was his fear of being thought queer if anyone got to know him too well.


Though it was obvious that he was one of the brightest students in the school, Brian had been marked as a potential troublemaker and so the guidance department was relieved when he was befriended by the Novatny boy—seeing him as a calming influence. The two seemed to have nothing in common but somehow had become the closest of friends.


In a way, they were right. If Brian hadn’t met Michael, if he had stayed on his own without the sanctuary of the Novatny’s, he would likely have ended up either on the streets or dead. He had developed an air of fatalism about him, taking chances and not really caring about consequences. He smoked and drank and probably used too many of the drugs that were available if you knew who to ask. He saw no reason not to. Certainly his parents didn’t give a rat’s ass about him and he had isolated himself enough that no friends would have stepped in to prevent him going too far.


No one bothered to realize that the link between the two boys was simply that they were both gay—though Michael was able to accept the fact while Brian still did everything in his power to hide. The girls in their classes, misunderstanding, simply thought him kind and sensitive to befriend the elf, causing them to redouble their efforts to get his attention.


To throw any possible suspicion away from himself, he would, occasionally take one of them to a movie or have dinner at their house, but it never went further than a couple of goodnight kisses and the girls liked him all the more for it.


Michael was the one he talked to and, later, to his mother when he realized that she wouldn’t criticize.


Michael, shy and insecure would have been the obvious one to hide, but his mother had let him know that it was alright, that she loved him, that all she wanted was his happiness where ever he found it.


Brian liked Debbie—maybe he even loved her, but he could never get over his wall of suspicion to tell her. Oh, she knew, of course. She didn’t need to hear the words and was intuitive enough to know that he could never actually say them to her or anyone else, for that matter.


He’d learned early and all too well that loving someone meant that they would kick you in the teeth and that to make yourself vulnerable emotionally only guaranteed that pain would be the next step.


He was twelve when he first started to believe that was true and nothing in his life—and he gave it a lot of thought—had ever done anything to make him think otherwise.


So he kept the walls that he had started up, year by year added to them. They became high and thick and strong and almost no one saw through or past them. If they did, they would be cut off. No one got close other than his adopted family and even with them he kept some secrets.


Now that Brian had a place to go and with the knowledge that he could get away when he had to, his grades—which had always been good now earned him high honors as he aimed for the scholarships he knew would be his passport out.


At seventeen he received the letter from Penn State. He was being offered a three quarters academic scholarship. He would be responsible for the remaining quarter of the tuition and room, board, books and expenses.


The next September he reported for orientation, met his roommate and settled into classes and two part time jobs. The roomie was an EE from Scranton, quiet and no trouble. Brian spent almost all of his time either working or studying, making few friends and only going to a cheap campus movie once in a while for entertainment. He had almost no time—if his grades fell the scholarship would be taken away.


The student union was running an old copy of Dirty Dancing one spring night. The half dozen white sheets that had been sewn together and hung from the side of one of the classroom buildings served as a screen, the student audience sitting on the grass or blankets. Brian was there alone, deciding at the last minute to take a two-hour break from an English essay. Later he would tell Mikey about it, making the evening sound better than it really was.


He noticed the boy/young man sitting under the tree, watching him lying on his side on the grass, his head propped up on his hand. He was as tall as Brian, as slender, and in some of the same classes. They had never spoken.


They exchanged small smiles, nods. They smiled again and the other boy got up, walking the twenty-five feet to Brian’s patch of lawn. Carrying an old quilt, the other one asked if would like to share a blanket. The meaning was clear. The darkness hiding his blush, Brian gestured for him to spread it out on the ground, both of them settling down about a foot apart.


“I’m Jon.”




“We have history together.”


“I’ve seen you, over by the windows.”


“Yeah, you sit up front.”


“I need Kostrow to give me a recommendation to get into the seminar next year. I want him to notice me.”


Jon took a closer look at Brian in the dark. “I was hoping to get noticed, too.” With no real warning, he leaned over, kissing Brian’s mouth, several times, in fact. When they broke apart Brian seemed to almost be in shock.


“Why the fuck did you do that?”


“…You are gay, aren’t you?” There was no answer. “Hey, OK, shit. Sorry, man. I guess I had you pegged wrong. No hard feelings?” He stared to get up, apparently not wanted when he felt the hand around his wrist.


“No, you were right.” Pulled back down they were kissing again while the Time of Your Life played in front of them.


That was the start of the affair they two of them maintained for the next three and a half years.


They were discrete, but inevitably, people found out. The most amazing thing to Brian wasn’t just the happiness they found being together—though he’d never he would be that happy—but the fact was that no one gave a fuck who he was sleeping with beyond mild curiosity. He had always assumed that he’d be mocked, taunted, called names, possibly attacked—something was bound to happen. Nothing did. No one cared. It didn’t matter. He still wouldn’t admit to anyone other than to Jon that he was gay.


His roommate’s only comment was to snidely ask them to fuck somewhere else, he was trying to study, Damnit. That was the closest they ever got to censure but it was enough to throw cold water on Brian’s tentative thoughts, if he had any, of outing himself.


They happened to both be in the Business School, they had a lot of the same classes, they moved in the same circles, they were even both on scholarships necessitating jobs to make ends meet. After their freshman year they decided to save money by moving out of the dorms, renting a cheap student apartment together, cutting costs even more by needing only one bedroom.


Though they became inseparable, Brian was still hesitant to display any affection in public. They would always be together, at meals, at movies or walking back and forth to class, but they would never hold hands or kiss if someone else was around. Brian would refuse, letting Jon know that he did want him and that as soon as they got back to their place he’d make it up to him, but he wouldn’t do anything in public. Should anyone bring it up, he would refer to Jon as his roommate, nothing more.


For a while Jon was amused, then angry and finally he simply stopped caring. He let the matter drop.


They had talked about grad schools, knowing that they would apply together, or at least applying to schools in the same city. Brian had thought that they would finish their schooling in a couple of years, find decent jobs, find a place together in New York or LA or someplace and things would go on as they had been—but with more money and the time to finally have some fun together that didn’t involve pizza and cheap beer.


Then on afternoon in April of their senior year he walked into the crappy basement apartment they’d shared for three years. He saw his mail on the table. The letter from Pitt was on open top.


He’d been accepted to their graduate program for business and marketing. Based on both his academic record and his financial need, he had been awarded a full scholarship, including housing and food. He was also being offered a teaching assistantship, which would pay him seventeen hundred dollars a semester.


Holy fuck—they were paying him to go to school.


“Jon? Jon, you here?”


“Yeah, Bri, in the back.”


Jon was sitting out back in the miniscule back yard with a book. He had planted a garden the last couple of springs, enjoying the flowers. They were blooming and that afternoon the sun was shinning.


They kissed, “Did you fucking see this?”


“Yeah, it’s great.”




“I got turned down at Carnegie.”


Brian’s elation evaporated. Shit. “…What about Pitt or Duquesne?”


He just shook his head.


Brian knelt beside him. “You can reapply or start the job search early. They’d be lucky to have you, anyone would be.”


“I was accepted to Arizona. I’m going there.”


“But…I can apply out there, too. I don’t have to accept this.”


“Jesus, of course you do, you asshole.”


“I don’t. I can just go somewhere else.”


“Fuck me, Brian. You are just so Goddamned stupid some times. You have to go to fucking Pitt. It’s the best offer you’ll get and you know that as well as I do. I’m going to lameass Arizona and that’s the way it is.”


“No. I want us to be together. The rest of it is just bullshit if we’re not…”


“Not what? A couple of dykes holding hands in the movies? Jesus, Brian, you are such a twat. This was a nice little college romance. College is over. This is over.”




“What, did you think we were going to walk off into the sunset together? We’re queers, even if you still fucking pretend that you’re not. I thought that you were starting to understand that. We’re not married—there’s no ‘whither thou goest I will go’ crap.  We had some fun and now you go your way and I’ll go mine.”


“I thought that you loved…”


“That I loved you?” Jon looked like he couldn’t decide between anger and laughter. “Haven’t you learned yet that a fag will say anything to get his dick sucked?”


“I don’t believe you.”


“Come graduation next week? You’re yesterday’s fuck.”


Brian moved out that afternoon, staying with his friend Lindsay until his last exam was finished three days later.  Skipping the graduation ceremony, he packed his few possessions into the old Datsun and left the school without bothering to say goodbye to Jon. They never spoke or saw one another again.


He took two years to get his Masters from Pitt. During that time he never once saw anyone more than once, on the rare occasions he actually had time to go out. He never went to a gay bar or club. He knew there was a fair chance that he’d end up with a job, at least for a while, here in Pittsburgh and wouldn’t risk anyone knowing that he was a fag.


Occasionally, when he had a Saturday night free, he would force the old car to make it to Debbie’s house for one of her pasta dinners. Usually she was the only straight there and so he finally stopped going, pleading any excuse and knowing she saw right through him, but saying nothing. It was too close to home, he might see someone other than the inner family and word could spread.


He would, once in a while, take one of his female classmates out to a campus movie, politely kissing her goodnight and always telling her that he either was tired or had reading to do so, thank you, but he couldn’t possibly go in to her place for a late night cup of coffee.


If he was lonely, he didn’t complain and if his basically honest nature rebelled at the hypocrisy of his life, he ignored it.


He graduated with honors, accepting an offer from Ryder Agency downtown.


He found a large loft he could manage, barely, to make the mortgage payments on. He went to work early every day and he stayed late. He brought in new accounts and he made more money than he would have thought.


His family, his parents had still not been told and just thought him a lady’s man playing the field. In fact they had even expressed dismay at his choice to have a child outside of wedlock. That he would allow his son, their grandson to live with someone else and be raised without both parents around had moved his mother to tears and prayer more than once.


Lately, at every Goddamned Christmas get together or cookout they would corner him and tell him that he should think about settling down and he would smile and just say that he was still looking.


His sex life was minimal, at best. If nothing else, he simply didn’t have time to cruise or to even make friends outside of the office. He had begun his lifelong habit of sixty to seventy hour workweeks and his maintained his rule of never getting in any way involved with anyone he had business dealings.


The few men he had were always, always one-night stands, never repeats. He never exchanged names; he never even looked—well, for more than a second or two—at anyone at work or a client.




Sure, sometimes he went to Liberty Avenue and frequented some of the bars there, but he could always say, in the unlikely event that he saw a someone he knew there, that he was just a tourist like they were, enjoying the show.


Shit, he had even taken Cynthia out a few times so she would think the rumors couldn’t be true. He had sat on her couch and made out with her, though he did draw the line at actually screwing her.


There was only so far he was willing to go. She did tell him that he was a good kisser, though. In fact, she wasn’t half bad herself.


After a few dates, they had reluctantly agreed that they would just be friends. It was better to keep things simple and, frankly, the chemistry just wasn’t there.


Yeah, no kidding.


After seven years at Ryder, expecting an announcement that he would be named partner, he was told that the agency was sold.


But, shit.


If the new owner had heard the rumors, it meant that everyone had heard them. It meant that the old power knew them, too, and he had no idea how or who had said something. He had done everything he could think of to maintain the lie, but somehow he had missed something. The knowledge sent him into a depression that lasted weeks.


He had one week to save his job and—oh—his new boss was wondering if he was gay.


His cel rang.


Michael, “Shit, Brian, you’re completely fucked.”


“Not necessarily. He may not be a homophobe. He was probably just trying to throw me. You know, he’s handing me curve, trying to see how I react.”


“Sounds like he succeeded.”


“Fuck you. I’m fine.”


“Meet me later for dinner?”


“Sure. The diner, Six.”




It would be taking a risk to go to the Liberty diner that early, but shit, he wanted to touch base.


He spent the day with Cyn, finding out what they could about Vance’s weak spots, trying to find a chink to use to their advantage. Brown athletics seemed to be the key. It was the one that got away. Landing the account would either impress the Hell out of him or piss him off completely. Either way, it was the only shot he had.


Walking into the diner he waved at Mikey but passed him by for the next table, a couple of the hottest guys he knew were there, and four more were at the booth at the end. Shit—perfect.


He half noticed the new busboy, a young blond Debbie seemed fond of, but then she was always adopting strays.


He was a beauty, though, a standout even in this crowd. Shame he looked like he was about fifteen.


He spoke to the hotties in the window booth, made a couple of calls and they were at the gym inside of forty-five minutes. A call to Cynthia and she was purchasing plane tickets to Chicago. Richard, the photographer, was returning a favor by being there and had promised the pictures within two hours—they turned out better than Brian had hoped. Shit, he had hot contacts.


One of the models, the one with the curls and the incredible eyes tried to slip his phone number into his pocket. Taking it out, handing it back, he just smiled. “Not interested.”


“Why? You got something better at home?”


He had nothing at home. “Just not interested.”


“You know, man, you spend all your life in the closet, you’re gonna end up wrinkled and moth eaten and fucking out of date.”


He put the ads together while on the plane and in his hotel room, working on his laptop. He matted the damn things himself.


Two days later, having fucked Brown’s secretary to get the headman’s lunch location and make the pitch, Brian was a partner with his salary doubled and, unless he royally screwed up, his employment guaranteed for at least two years.


To celebrate he decided to throw caution to the winds, joining his friends at Babylon for the evening. They drank, danced some, Brian deciding at about one that he’d had enough and would head home. About to get into his car he paused when he saw the blond by the street post, the same blond he’d seen at the diner. As he remembered, he was beautiful.


Well, what the fuck, this was a celebration. “Where are you headed?”


“No place special.”


“I can change that.”


When they got back to the loft, the boy haltingly confessed that it was his first time.


Brian had assumed as much.


Using more care than most of his acquaintances would have thought him capable of, Brian initiated the youngster, going slowly, stopping when asked, continuing when the boy’s body told him he was ready for more.


Brian surprised himself by letting the boy—Justin was his name—stay the night. He never did that, never let anyone stay over, always aware that someone could come over or the trick might think there would be more when he knew that he would never allow that.


The next morning, with the boy no longer burdened with his virginity and hiding any soreness he might be feeling, Brian didn’t object when the plans were made for them to spend the day together taking Gus to the park. While Brian was finishing dressing and talking on the phone about the details of picking up his son, Justin made breakfast.


Sitting down at the table, Brian was handed a plate filled with bacon and eggs and a slice of cantaloupe along with a cup of freshly brewed coffee. It was more than he would normally eat, but for some reason he didn’t want to hurt the boy’s feelings. He cleared his plate.


“Aren’t your parents expecting you home?”


“They think I’m at a friend’s house. I can probably stay all weekend—well, at least til about dinner on Sunday. I have homework to finish.”


‘Stay til Sunday’? Shit. Who said anything about that?


“Look, you can hang today and help with the kid if you want, but then you leave.”


Justin looked at him like a puppy who had just been kicked. “I sort of thought that maybe we could—you know.”


“Well you sort of thought wrong.”


“Yeah but, after last night—I thought…”


Shit, shit, shit.


“I don’t do boyfriends, I don’t do repeats. I let you stay last night. You’re going to the park with me, and then you go home. That’s more than anyone else has gotten. Take it or leave it.”


Justin was staring at him. Pain and hurt obvious. He actually looked like he was about to cry when he seemed to suddenly understand. His expression changed from hurt to surprise.


“No one knows you’re gay, do they? You’re in the closet.”


“That’s none of your fucking business.”


“I bet no one at your job knows, either—have you even told your family?”


“I just said that’s none of your fucking business.”


“Jesus, how can you live like that? You’re like lying to everyone you meet all day long.”


Brian stood up; he’d had enough of this. “You do what you have to do.”


“You are so completely full of bullshit. Why do you care what anyone thinks?”


This was ridiculous; he wasn’t listening to this crap. “I care because my job is on the line—something you wouldn’t really have a grip on yet, Sonnyboy.”


“Like Hell. I deal with the assholes at school everyday—it’s the same thing. What makes you think you’re so fucking important that anyone gives a rat’s ass who you screw?”


That was it. He’d had enough.


“OK, You don’t know shit and it’s time for you to scamper on home. Get your crap and get out.”


Justin just shook his head, putting on his shoes and picking up his jacket. “I know this: I know that I won’t go through life too piss in my pants scared to admit who I am.” He was at the door, sliding it open. “If you ever grow balls, give me a call.”


He left, the door still open. As Brian was going over to close it, the phone rang. Gardner Vance.


“Brian? I think I owe you an apology from the other week, one I hope you’ll accept—I asked you a rather insulting question and you quite rightly were annoyed. I was talking to Marty Ryder last night and he set me straight about you.”




“Yes—would you allow me to make it up to you? Dinner tonight at my place, and bring that young lady you’re seeing, won’t you? Bring your son, too if you’d like. He can swim; my new place has an indoor pool. In fact we can all swim.”


“…That would be nice, thank you, Gardner.”


“No hard feelings?”


“Of course not, rumors happen. They don’t mean anything.”


“Good. I’ll see you about six then, you know the address.”


He slid the heavy door closed.




He was about to put the phone back in the recharging stand when he noticed that Justin had left his gloves sitting there.




He dialed the phone, still in his hand. “Hello, Linds? I need a favor…”

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