This story is nothing like real life--but one of the main characters *is* loosely based on a guy who grew up in my neighbourhood back in the States. In essence, it's a story about friendship and self-destruction.
She sat in the club, waiting for the show to start, and admitted that it had been good so far. Not exactly her style of music, but good anyway, and she could hardly complain. If only they’d played some Aerosmith, ah, then she would have had no room to complain at all.
Then the stage went dark, then light again, and she started to watch the show, her brown eyes alert, almost excited, in spite of the fact that she’d had less than four hours sleep in two days. Babysitting a drug-taking, free-loving, egotistical drag-queen, no matter how draining, was something she was strangely good at. Free tickets to the show, just for keeping the star out of trouble, had seemed like a good deal at the time. After watching the first couple of minutes of the show, it had become a fantastic deal. No wonder it was $200 for a front-row seat.
For starters, she could barely tell if the person walking—nay, strutting—across the stage, was male or female. The hair, a shining curtain of darkest brown, appeared to be the owner’s real hair, not a wig. The eyes, wide green pools of water, were surrounded by lashes that were so long and black they had to be fake, but weren’t. Black mascara was echoed by thick, but flawlessly applied, eye-liner. Lips, thin but kissably soft and defined, were coated in a pale lipstick, a color somewhere between pink and purple, and the face was a lovely, feminine oval, covered in pale, smoothly perfect skin. The nose, smaller than the eyes or lips, made no great contribution to the overall effect of that strikingly pretty face. The face was undeniably female, at least with the make-up in place.
Some of the body actually gave more of a clue to the owner’s gender; then again, some of it was just as confusing as the face had been. Narrow hips were offset by a firm, small, somehow mannish butt. Long legs, encased in sheer metallic tights and a mini-skirt that was more like a low-hung scarf, were too smooth to have been shaven, and too delicately proportioned to be a man’s . . . yet they were too long to be a woman’s. Once you realized how long the legs were, you could figure out the height of the person onstage, and it was over 6 foot. Not many women were that tall, but it was certainly possible. Besides, the large, perky lumps on the chest, which actually swayed slightly with their owner’s movement, looked for all the world like real breasts, the full, firm chest of a busty, athletic woman.
But the thing that really made the show worth seeing was the performance. Not just the erotic, swaying dance moves or the graceful, flirting movements of the hands, but also the vocals that went with the dancing. The voice that purred from the lilac lips wasn’t the coarse, simpering shriek of a drag-queen—the person on stage was actually singing, and it was a pure, mezzo-soprano sound, not unlike a young Dolly Pardon. The only reason the brown-eyed girl knew he was male, was because she actually knew him. She knew him, and she had known him, since they’d been children together.
It’s possible to love someone so much that you’d do anything for them. Possible to care so much, you’ll give up your heart, your whole life, even your soul, if it will help them. Staring up at the flamboyant figure above, the girl sighed and shook her head, all the pleasure leaving her face. What a situation to be in. What a guy to be in the situation with.
In the privacy of her own thoughts, the girl, whose security badge read ‘Jocelyn Janey’ in short, chunky letters, admitted that she hadn’t agreed to take care of Bry because the club manager had offered her money and a front-row seat to the show. She admitted, if only to herself, that she was taking care of Bry because that was what she’d always done. From the time they were old enough to play outside alone, she’d been there, holding his hand, pulling him back when he was too close to the edge, making sure he never really hurt himself, ensuring that no one else hurt him, either.
When she’d graduated high school and gone straight into the army, she’d expected Bry to finish his last year of school and then keep himself out of trouble until she got back. After her two years were up, she’d come back home to find that he’d dropped out of school 3 weeks into his senior year, joined what passed for the chorus line of the local gay club, and gotten heavily into drinking and drugs. The drinking he’d done since he was 14. The drugs were new. In spite of everyone always saying that Bry wouldn’t fall apart without her to hold his hand, as soon as she’d let go, that was exactly what had happened.
It hadn’t really been a shock to find out that, yes, he really did need her to keep him out of trouble. He’d always been self-destructive, and deep down, she’d always known he wasn’t playing. He was serious about it. She just felt bad that she’d let everyone, her family, his family, their mutual friends, talk her into letting him fend for himself. He couldn’t, and she’d always done that for him, and for 2 years, he’d paid the price for her neglect. She knew he’d never actually prostituted himself, but from the stories her friends told, he’d come close. There were men in the club he danced at that had learned a snort of coke, a hit of Ecstasy, or an invitation to an exclusive party were worth some time in the back seat of his car, and maybe a blowjob. When Jocelyn had come back to town, to find Bry’s already loose reputation in tatters, and his ever-shaky self-esteem all but vanished, she’d made it her personal crusade to save him from himself.
Now, she’d been back in town less than 6 months, and somehow, he’d gone from being a sometimes-backup -dancer/singer in one of the local gay clubs, to being the main headliner for THE gay club in town. Jocelyn understood life well enough to know that she wasn’t the reason he was in that spot—he was just that damn good, not just as a drag-queen, but as an entertainer, period, and to quote one of his favorite musicals, he had ‘a little touch of star quality’—but rather, she was the reason he’d cleaned himself up enough to realize at least this facet of his own potential. She sat back and smiled, some of the pleasure returning to her face, as she acknowledged that in his own way, Bry loved her as much as she loved him, and depended on her more.
When the show ended, he mingled with the crowd for a while, even signing a few autographs in his stage name, Anastasie LaRue (pronounced a-na-sta-ZEE, he always insisted). Jocelyn wondered for the hundredth time if he’d be as pleased with the name if he knew it meant ‘resurrected street,’—as always, she had to admit it sounded good, and didn’t bother telling him.
Jocelyn felt him walking up behind her a moment before he heard her, and turned her head just in time to hear his energized, “Jo!” over the noise of the club. She smiled at him, a lazy, sexual look, even though she knew their relationship would never, could never, be that.
“How’s my favorite lesbian?” he asked, his tone electrified by the thrill of performing, of feeding on the audience’s adoration, and just one shade away from biting. It was catty of him, because he knew she wasn’t a lesbian, never would be, was just an ordinary, too ordinary to be noticed, straight girl.
Raising her deep brown eyes to his, the warmth in them calm, controlled, but always there, she smiled a greeting. “About as good as her favorite fag,” she answered, to the amused titters of his entourage. There could be no other word for the gaggle of fans, back-up performers, club staff, and even rivals that encircle Bry, clucking and squawking like so many empty-headed fowl.
“Come here, I want you to meet someone,” he said, with that abrupt energy that always poured from him like electricity.
Standing, Jocelyn found herself face-to-face with one of the few guys she’d ever met, who was possibly more attractive than Bry. Possibly more attractive, and definitely more exotic.
The first thing she noticed was his hair. Longish, the ends it played around the line of his jaw, and was such a deep red she could see the color even in the half-light of the club. His skin, the palest she’d ever seen, was so fine it appeared translucent—she was sure she could see the delicate tracing of veins beneath the surface of his wrist when he extended a hand to her, mockingly, expecting her not to take it. He was like something out of an Anne Rice novel, all seductive looks and gentle sarcasm and hidden meanings.
She clasped his hand firmly in hers, giving him her best perfect handshake, which was a lot like her best perfect handjob—firm, yet gentle, with just enough pressure to give the maximum amount of pleasure. Her hands were softer than they looked, and her grip was warm and solid. She saw him react to the surprising comfort of her handshake even as she looked more closely at his face and reacted to the fact that his eyes were the exact same shade as hers.
Staring into the warm, shining brown orbs, she felt for the first time in her life what people must’ve felt when they looked into her eyes, and she understood every guy who’d smiled at her when prettier girls were present, every child who’d trusted her instinctively, every girl who’d ever given her instant friendship. Looking up into eyes that were a mirror of her own, she understood everyone who’d ever liked her without knowing why, and she smiled with the sudden joy of understanding that there was something special, something beautiful, even about someone as ordinary as her.
Immediately following the joy was the shocked realization that she had, without meaning to, used her eyes to seduce, to distract, to pacify, whenever the mood struck her. When she realized what the trick was, how it was done, she realized it was happening to her in that very moment—she was being pacified, with no more than a look—and although it hurt her to stop smiling at him, she did.
“Does your new toy have a name?” she asked, still staring at the redhead, but speaking to Bry.
“My name is Michael,” the redhead said smoothly, and Jo thought to herself what an unlikely name it was for him. Giovanni, Alexis, Keanu, these were names that suited someone so unusually beautiful—not Michael. Noticing the slight, self-deprecating shrug of his shoulders as he said it, Jo saw that he used the very simplicity of his name as he used all the more exotic features of his persona. As his features, both facial and those of his body, made him unusual and beautiful, so he used the plainness of his name to contrast with, and to highlight, that beauty. It was, she reflected, a complete reversal of what her name did for her—for years, she had known that when people looked at her, they automatically thought that ‘Jocelyn’ was far too uncommon and lovely a name for such a common, unlovely girl. It was fascinating, and exquisitely painful, to see it in reverse.
Michael, with the innate perceptiveness of the deeply intelligent, saw what he had done to her, and his smile widened ever so slightly. Shocked, though she’d dealt with casual cruelty all her life, Jo felt her eyes widen, even as her lips curled into what could only be described as a snarl. From that moment on, the two of them were engaged in a constant battle, he to hurt her, she to ignore him, and both of them to control Bry. By the time the battle was won, it was too late for all of them.
* * * * *
Her eyes are quiet now, sober, but still filled with the warmth that they held what seems like so many years ago. Bry is on the narrow hospital bed; his eyes are scared and tired, and he complains of being cold now, all the time, even though it’s been summer, hot Savannah summer, for three weeks. Jo holds his hand between both of hers, and doesn’t flinch when he coughs, doesn’t pull her hand away, doesn’t even wipe the fine spray of spittle from her skin when he’s done. She only looks at him, and her eyes are sad, so unbearably sad. Can it have been only three years ago, three years since he was king—or queen—of Savannah’s nightlife, the name on every clubber’s lips, the golden boi of the local paparazzi? Can it have been only three years since she was begging him to slow down, to stop with the drugs, to party less, to eat more, to sleep for just another hour or two each night?
And always Michael had been there, Michael urging him to have just one more drink, just one more hit of X, just one more boy in the back of his car or on the floor of his hotel room, Michael telling him that he was like a young god, that he had the stamina of an angel . . . Michael, the most beautiful man she’d ever seen, telling Bry that he was the most beautiful man alive, and Bry doing anything Michael wanted, just so he wouldn’t leave, just so he wouldn’t take away the love, the sex, the adoration, of one young god to another. Michael had been the voice of beckoning pleasure, and Jo’s voice, the voice of reason, had always seemed small by comparison—no matter how she shouted.
The first year after meeting Michael had been a wild one, and at the end of it, Bry had been at the peak of his popularity, his fame, you could say. But the press is fickle, local media almost as much national media, and by the end of that year, no one from any media was around for Bry’s trips to the clinic, his repeated blood tests, or the short scared talks in a claustrophobic doctor’s office where he learned the bad news. There was no Michael, either; he was gone, on a plane to Atlanta after the first blood test, and there was only Jo. She’d finally won; Bry was hers; and so she stood next to him in the white-on-white, stinkingly clean room, and listened with her stomach rising in her throat to what the short, sad doctor said.
“You’ve had Lyme Disease before, you see, and it never really goes away once the victim’s infected,” he was saying, all the sadness of the words conveyed by his quiet, careful tone, as he stuttered out the truth. “And Lyme Disease attacks the immune system too, that’s why it’s so hard to treat, and also why your immune system is so vulnerable now. It’s already been damaged beyond repair, you see, and that’s why you started having seizures last year, and why you got sick so quickly when this happened. The Lyme Disease, that’s also the reason that we can’t be sure, that is, we’re not certain how effective the drugs will be. That is to say, if you have any dreams to fulfil or any urgent financial matters to clear up, you should get to them as soon as you can. Time is no longer your friend, I’m afraid.”
And Jo had stood there, friend to a friendless man, and thanked the doctor for seeing him. Then she’d pulled Bry away, turning just at the last moment to ask, “You’re sure he caught it within the last few months?”
“Oh yes,” the doctor said, simultaneously saddened by the diagnosis he’d given, and pleased that he could answer her question affirmatively. “His immune system was far weaker than normal after the attack of Lyme’s last year. If he’d had the virus then, he would almost certainly be dead by now.” And Jo, comforted in some way she didn’t understand, had thanked the doctor and left.
That next year had been the hardest—for almost an entire year, she slept half as much as her usual 4 hours a night, because Bry was sleeping less than that, and she watched him constantly to make sure the only drugs he took were prescribed. She forcibly took alcohol from him when he bought it, only let him smoke a couple of cigarettes a day, and cooked badly-seasoned meals for him that were nevertheless full of nutrients and protein. She nagged at him to conserve his strength, bullied him into going for soothing, slow-paced walks, dragged him off the local train tracks one miserably cold, traumatic night, and listened to his screaming fits of rage.
“I wish you’d leave me the fuck alone!” he’d screamed, the night on the train tracks. “It makes you feel so good to watch out for me, like you think you’re some kinda hero or some shit—let me tell you, everybody knows that you’re just doing this to make yourself look better, that the only reason you stay here is so you can brag to all your friends about what a good person you are, staying with some poor dying queer!”
Speaking softly, Jo had tried to calm him down, and he’d only screamed louder.
“No!” He shouted it, and took a breath to continue the tirade; then, he started to cry. “No, you’re not gonna do that, not tonight. Don’t try to calm me down—I’m dying, Jo, I’m gonna be dead soon, and I can’t do anything about it. I’ll just be dead, a year from now, and no one will even remember me. No one will even care that I’m gone.”
And then they were both crying, and Jo held him, her strong 5-and-a-half-foot frame cradling his increasingly slender 6-foot-2 build. They stood there for a long time, and as they cried, Jo admitted to herself that in a way, he was right. She didn’t stay with him out of noble intentions; she didn’t stay because she was too good a friend to leave; she didn’t even stay because it was the right thing to do. She stayed with him because she was in love with him, and she always had been, and she couldn’t imagine life without him. Without Bry, her life had no meaning, and for the first time ever, she admitted that to herself. When there was no more Bry, there would be no more Jo, either.
After that night, things had gotten better, and worse. Both of them had slept more—in the same bed, no less, and for 5 or maybe 6 hours a night. Jo got part of what she’d always wanted, as she lay curled around Bry, stroking his chest, his arm, his hip with her small capable hand. If she ever felt the nearness of his body, if she sometimes rolled over and touched herself after he slept, and cried at how good she could almost pretend things were, she never told him.
Bry stopped drinking, and almost stopped smoking, and ate without complaint the nauseatingly healthy food Jo cooked for him. He took long, slow walks when she told him to, and she stopped telling him to do things and started asking. They made a life out of renting twisted black comedies, downloading old country songs, and watching Jerry Springer at 2 o’ clock in the morning. Bry started singing again, and his voice was as beautiful as it had always been; it was better, in a way, because he sang with his real voice, a sweet high tenor, and not the voice he used for his shows. Between Jo making his life comfortable, and Bry living his life as peacefully as possible, sometimes, they could almost forget what was going to happen . . .
But they never forgot. It was always there, in the back of their minds, that Bry was only a year, maybe 2, away from never watching another movie, never wailing along with another sad song, never again shaking his fist at the screen and chanting ‘Jerry, Jerry.’ Sometimes the absurdity of it all hit Jo, and she had to explain to Bry that she was laughing, apparently for no reason, because she was going to miss him. Then, they usually fought, and cried, and made up . . . and Bry had to take a nap, because he was tired, and as soon as he was asleep, Jo cried again. Yes, that year had been so, so incredibly hard on both of them—but not as hard as this was.
Pulling herself back into the present, Jo smiles down at Bry. “What were you thinking?” he asks, and Jo’s smile broadens. “I was thinking about you,” she answers, making it seem as though it was a pleasant memory, and Bry returns her smile. After a moment, Jo thinks she will leave soon, to let Bry nap in peace, but as if he’s reading her mind, Bry looks at her and says, “Don’t go.”
Jo makes a face, as if to ask, why not, and Bry just smiles a slow, sad smile. Jo is astonished by the beauty of that smile, the peaceful maturity of it, and then Bry says, “It’s going to happen tonight.”
Jo’s eyes widen, the tears threaten to fall, and all of a sudden Bry’s the one reassuring her that everything will be alright. “Jo, Jo, it’s okay,” he says, coughing loudly and trying to stifle it. He has pneumonia. “Jo, we’ve known this is going to happen for a long time now—to be honest, I almost want it to happen. It hurts so much to be alive now.”
And Jo weeps harder with the realization that Bry has just told his first lie to spare her feelings. Usually his lies are calculated to hurt, amuse, or impress. Seeing the good man he could have been, Jo’s shoulders begin to shake, and she begs him to take it back.
“No, you can’t die, don’t say that,” Jo pleads, and Bry grips her hands as tightly as he can.
“Jo,” he says softly, “I need you to hold me, just one more time. Can you hold me?” It is the one thing that takes her mind off her pain—the realization that his is worse. Holding him, she struggles to stop crying, and he keeps talking.
“Jo, you know I always loved you,” he says, and smiles when she affirms that she’s always loved him too. “I know you love me, and I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me. I’m sorry things weren’t different . . . if I could have loved you the way you loved me, I would have. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Jo is sobbing again, wishing he would shout at her with the irritability of the invalid. It is easier to take than kindness, consideration, from a dying man. But Bry keeps talking.
“Jo, no matter where I go after I die, I’ll never forget you. Be happy, so that I can watch you from the clouds of Heaven and know that good things happen to good people.” It is lovely and poetic, if a little trite, and a side of him that she hasn’t seen in years, and it slows her tears. She holds him, holds him, holds him, for the rest of the afternoon, saying nothing, until his breathing slows and she thinks he’s going to drift off to sleep. Just before the monitor hooked up to his chest goes off, he forces his eyes open and looks up at her. He wants his last words to be a sincere, peaceful, ‘Be happy, Jo.’
Meeting her eyes with his, he instead squeaks out, “Don’t forget me,” as he starts to cry one final time. Jo swears she won’t, even as his face goes blank and the monitors go off and all hell breaks loose in the hospital room. Stepping back from the body (the body?!?!) Jo looks at the controlled chaos around her, and hopes that Bry’s in a more peaceful place now. Smiling, wiping away a tear she wasn’t aware of, Jo thinks of Bry alive, and changing her mind, she instead wishes that he’s in a crowded, sparkling, glitzy place where he can be the centre of attention for the rest of eternity. Then, after one last, agonized look at the body(?!?!), she turns and walks away.
Night comes quickly this close to the equator. When Bry died at six pm, the sun had only just started to set, and now, at ten past ten, the sky has been pitch-black for almost three hours. Jo has just reached Atlanta, and now she drives, searching through unfamiliar territory, main highways and back-streets of the city, looking for someone to blame. She hasn’t seen him in months, but she knows his name, she knows his face, and if she sees him, she knows the only thing she can do. Even in her mind, what she is planning is extreme, but the balance in her life, the only thing that could keep her focus away from herself in her darkest hours, is gone, and she can’t seem to get her equilibrium back. The thought that she is crazy rolls through her head, and she laughs quietly, amused by the absurdity of it all. She’s not crazy, insane, nutso, whacked—she’s grieving, that’s all, and she deserves some empathy and consideration—and she certainly doesn’t deserve the men in the white coats and the jacket with wrap-around sleeves. Ha ha. She is still giggling when she pulls into his driveway.
She doesn’t bother knocking; they have never knocked at each other’s doors, and it seems ridiculous to start now. She simply walks inside, through a door which, it seems to her, Fate has left open, and heads for the centre of the house. In it, she finds the living room, and in the living room, she finds him.
He is just as beautiful as she remembered. The dark cherry of his hair, the delicate curve of his face, the liquid warmth in his eyes, all of that is there, and more. He has aged well in the past year, while Bry was dying.
“Bry’s dead,” Jo says, not realizing that she intends to speak.
Michael lifts his slender, elegant shoulders in a small shrug, and the last piece of Jo’s mind that could have been reasoned with snaps. He opens his mouth, intending to say, We knew this was coming, or something equally pathetic, but before he can, Jo pulls out her handgun and fires 2 shots at him.
Both shots take him in the torso at point-blank range. In the army, Jo had been very interested in marksmanship and where her bullets were going; and as she looks at him and thinks calmly that one bullet has almost certainly pierced his left lung, and the other has destroyed much of the tissue of his stomach, she smiles a bit. She hadn’t intended to kill him . . . well, maybe she had. She’d brought her gun, after all.
Not waiting to see if Michael dies, Jo walks into the kitchen and fixes herself a glass of iced tea. It's too sweet for her tastes, but it’s wet, and driving 300 miles in a Georgian summer is thirsty work. She thinks she will have another glass before she checks on Michael.
When she finally goes back into the living room, she is unsurprised to find that he has stopped breathing. His eyes had been unfocused, his breathing too fast, when she left the room—this utter stillness was the natural end to the process that started when she shot him. The only thing that nags at her now is the idea that somewhere else, on some obscure plane of existence she can’t reach, Bry and Michael could meet up again, without her. If they wound up together in the afterlife, Jo thinks bizarrely, I’d have to kill myself, just so I could go sort things out. Killing herself is a thought to keep close in any case; the last few bullets in her gun could come in handy when the cops find her.
But, as Mama used to say, she’ll cross that bridge when she gets there. For now, it’s too late and she’s too tired to be worried about it. Climbing into her car, Jo thinks how odd it is that she feels so much better now—Bry’s not alive again, after all, it’s just that Michael’s dead—but banishing that thought with a twist of her radio dial, Jo cranks up the music, and heads back home. After a minute, she recognizes the song that’s playing, and Jo starts to laugh so hard that she loses control of the car. She has already accelerated to nearly 90 miles per hour, and even the fleeting realization that she’s going to die in a car crash can’t stop her shrieks of glee.
When her car flips and lands in a ditch and Jo’s head is slammed through the windshield with 10 times the force the glass can withstand, Steven Tyler is still screaming out the lyrics to, “Janie’s Got a Gun.”