Justin sat at his drawing board, lost in thought. His hand, clutching a paintbrush, hovered in the air in front of him. Although he knew he needed to finish the painting quickly, as it was a commissioned piece for a favored client that was meant as a Christmas gift, he had other things on his mind. Christmas was fast approaching, and he wanted to get Brian something extra special for this year in particular. It had been almost exactly ten years since the day they had gotten back together for good, after he had found life in New York City too much to bear alone. He’d never forget Brian’s face when he opened the loft door to find Justin standing there, suitcase in hand. Brian had protested that Justin was giving up his future for him, and that wasn’t what he wanted from the man he loved, but Justin fought back. He stated plainly, and to the point, that if he wasn’t a talented enough artist to succeed in Pittsburgh (or anywhere else, for that matter) then he wasn’t good enough to succeed in New York City either. A few torrid kisses, followed by a lovemaking session lasting well into the night, was enough to quiet Brian’s protests.
The couple had shared a home, or two homes to be exact, from that day forward. There was no more talk of marriage for a long time. They decided that if their State wasn’t going to call it legal, then they would simply continue to ‘live in sin’ as partners… partners who had finally come to understand fully what each other’s needs were, each compromising so that both were totally satisfied with their arrangement. Finally, in 2014, same-sex marriage did become legal in Pennsylvania. Without hesitation, the couple got the necessary license and made it legal in a very subdued family and close-friends-only ceremony. They had been married in their hearts long ago, so this gesture just made it official.
The years up until their wedding had been good ones, with both of them having great success in their chosen fields. Also, their long-established friendships had remained strong throughout the years. The only fly in the ointment of their contentment with life had to do with Brian missing his son, Gus, even more than he had thought he would. In truth, Justin missed seeing Gus regularly too. He had grown very fond of the boy during the first five years that he had been a part of Brian’s ‘family’ of friends. And the same held true as that affection grew during the short visits that they paid to Canada to see Gus, or during the occasional visits when Mel and Lindsay allowed Gus to come to Pittsburgh to visit family. Gus had just turned fifteen this year, and Justin recognized that the boy would be a man before they knew it. It broke his heart, knowing that Brian was missing out on so many of the milestones that Gus would experience, as he quickly made his way into adulthood.
As he sat, with his thoughts turning first to the upcoming Christmas holidays and what to do for Brian, and then to how he wished Gus could be a part of their lives far more frequently, an idea suddenly occurred to him. He recalled how the federal government had made same-sex marriage legal in all of the States of the Union only this past Summer. It also came to mind how different things were in the United States now, than it had been only a decade earlier. Sure, there were still plenty of homophobic pricks out there, and there probably always would be, but there was also far more acceptance of the GLBTQ community than had ever existed before. Far more celebrities, sports figures, and those in the public eye were no longer afraid to come out of the closet to declare their truths. There was even the occasional commercial, such as the kind Brian would think of, that used same sex couples in their ads. Open prejudices against them had become far less acceptable, and violence against them punished far more harshly. Justin knew that no one in any community in the world was guaranteed safety, but life was a lot sweeter and less frightening for most, than in the past. As if a lightbulb had suddenly flashed over his head, Justin suddenly knew what he wanted to try and do for Brian for Christmas. It might not be an easy task, but he knew it was worth trying. If he succeeded, it would be the best gift Brian had ever received. He was certain of that. Now that the idea had come to him, all he had to do was begin to implement his plan.
Justin sat on the cushy couch in Mel and Lindsay’s living room and tried not to sweat. He was as nervous as hell, but knew he needed to keep his composure, if he wanted to make his plan seem attractive to his old friends. It hadn’t been easy to get away from Brian without making him suspicious as to what his husband was up to, especially with the holidays in full swing, and so much to get done. Brian’s ad business was booming, and he wanted to make sure that his entire staff, as well as himself, would be free to enjoy plenty of time off for the holidays. Justin had a bit more leeway with his schedule, since he could pick and choose what clients he had, and when he would take the time to create their paintings. This didn’t mean, however, that he could just leave Brian at home and go off on his own without some kind of explanation.
Finally, a solution came to him. Justin enlisted the help of Ben, Michael’s husband, in his scheme. Michael was happy to go along with everything, knowing that if Justin’s plan succeeded, he would benefit just as much as Brian. Once Justin worked things out with Ben, the Professor showed up at Brian and Justin’s house the next day. They made sure that Brian was home, and in a position to overhear the pre-planned conversation Ben and Justin had together.
“Hey, Ben, good to see you. You called and said you had a huge favor to ask of me. It sounded a bit mysterious, especially when you said you preferred asking me in person. So, what’s up? What can I do for you?” Justin asked.
“Well, look, I realize that it is kind of a bad time to be asking this of you, what with Christmas right around the corner, but I have no choice. You see, I have a very dear old friend… a fellow classmate from college… who contacted me a few days ago with a request for me. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and he knew that I had become close friends with an amazing artist, who had a growing reputation for being one of the best young artists today. He wanted to know if this friend was still doing portraits, along with his other paintings. Apparently, my friend had seen some of your work in galleries in New York City and was super impressed. Anyway, the thing is that he told me that he is dying from pancreatic cancer, which had been discovered far too late to save him. He knows his time is limited, and he wants to give his long-time partner something special to remember him by. He was hoping I could persuade you to come to New York City for a day or two, and make a sketch that you could turn into a portrait once you got back home. He would come here instead, but he is too weak to travel. I know that is asking a lot of you, but what do you think? The pay will be very good, I can promise you that.”
Justin ran his fingers through his thick blond hair and looked as if he was pondering an answer to Ben’s question. He glanced over to where Brian was sitting, reading a report from work. He saw no response from that quarter. Finally, he answered.
“I don’t know, Ben,” he responded a little louder than before. “I would certainly like to help your friend, especially under these circumstances, but I don’t think I can leave Brian here alone to handle all our plans for the holidays.”
That got Brian’s attention. He stood up and joined Justin and Ben.
“Hold on, Sunshine, I’m not a decrepit old man yet. I think I can hold down the fort here at home for a day or two. Thanks to you, I know how important it is to show someone you love, just how much they mean to you. And it sounds like Ben’s friend doesn’t have many chances left to do that for someone who is so important to him. I think you should do it.”
Justin smiled inwardly, avoiding showing the pleasure he felt on his face. He knew how much Brian had changed over the years, and how much more empathetic he had become towards others. His plan was working perfectly. By the time Ben left their home, Justin’s decision was made. He would be traveling to New York City, then taking another flight hours later to Canada, unbeknownst to his husband. And now, here he sat in Mel and Lindsay’s home, about to pitch his ideas to them. When he finished talking, the ball would be in their court.
Mel and Lindsay sat next to each other across from Justin, paying close attention to every word he was saying. Occasionally they glanced at each other and smiled. They knew something that Justin wasn’t aware of yet, and they were looking forward to when he finished, so they could pass on this knowledge to their young friend. They were not in the least bit surprised that Justin had come to them with his idea. It was just like him to be so thoughtful and caring, especially if it would benefit Brian. But Justin was also devoted to them and their children. In his eyes, his scheme was a win-win situation for everybody. He was about to find out that their collective minds had been traveling on the same track for some time now. Finally, Justin took a deep breath and stopped talking. He looked at each woman with anticipation, mixed with a bit of trepidation. He silently prayed that they wouldn’t think he had overstepped their bond of friendship with his suggestions. Mel took the lead.
“So, Justin, what you are trying to say is that you think the situation in America has improved enough, to make it worth us uprooting this family, where we have comfortably established ourselves for a full decade, and return lock, stock, and barrel back home. Do we have that right?”
Justin blanched just a little. Yes, maybe he had overstepped.
“I, ah ahhh, well yes, I mean things are a great deal better for all of us than it was when you left. You know, same-sex marriage is fully legal in the entire United States, and crimes against our people have gone down by a lot. Of course, we’ll never be free of haters no matter where we live, but it isn’t as acceptable in the general public to be as threatening to us as it was before. And all you have to do is look at how many more of us are not afraid to come out of the closet anymore, and be true to ourselves. It can’t be any worse in Pittsburgh than it is here. And….”
“Justin… Justin… Whoa! Take a breath,” Lindsay stopped him. “You don’t know this, but you are preaching to the choir.”
“Justin, Mel and I have been talking about this very thing for a while now. We realized this Summer that our boy, Gus, is in high school now and growing up fast. He often talks about Brian and misses him terribly. His visits with you guys have become the highlight of his life. We also realize that there are things he would probably never feel comfortable bringing up with us, but would find it easier to talk to Brian or you about. We began thinking that it would be so much easier for them to connect, if they lived much closer to each other.”
Mel spoke up. “We also considered JR. She loves her Grandma Debbie so much, and we realize that she isn’t getting any younger. Even though she is only in her sixties, her life of exhausting hard work and caring for Vic until his passing, along with worrying and caring for so many others, has taken its toll on her. The holiday visits she used to make here with Carl have become fewer in the last few years, and the Summer visits with JR in Pittsburgh are too short for the both of them. And, of course, Michael misses seeing JR more often too. I know he gave us a lot of shit in the beginning after she was born, but he has made up for it over the years.”
“Anyway,” added Lindsay, “to make a long story short, we think you are amazing and wonderful for even taking a chance with proposing this idea to us, but we were already halfway there. Your arguments have simply sealed the deal for us. Do you agree, Mel?” Melanie nodded.
Justin couldn’t help himself. He jumped out of his seat and rushed over to the girls. He hugged each one tightly. They hugged him back just as tightly. When they finished showing their appreciation of each other, they sat back down to begin discussing what needed to be done. Justin learned from the girls that Mel had already begun putting out feelers with some of the law offices back in Pittsburgh, including the one she had been working with before leaving for Canada. She had received nibbles from a few of the firms, but hadn’t made up her mind quite yet as to who she would follow through with. But now, she told Justin, she thought it was high time she set up some interviews with those firms she found most interesting. Lindsay was in a slightly better position to make the move. Since Mel was by far the more successful bread winner, Lindsay chose to stay home and raise the kids, except for those times when she served as a substitute teacher when called upon. She knew that she could easily transfer her teaching credentials back home to the U.S. and sign up as a temp there too.
Justin asked if Mel and Lindsay had spoken to Gus and JR about their idea of moving back to the United States. They told him of a family meeting they had with the kids right after returning home from a visit to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving. Although Gus and JR both showed some reluctance to leave behind their friends in Canada, they also expressed an excitement at the thought of being around their family more often. Gus was particularly vocal about loving the idea of being around Brian a lot more. Everyone had come to recognize that Gus had begun to think of Brian as his hero. Whenever anyone saw the two of them together, it was obvious how much alike they were. Although Gus was physically as much like Lindsay as he was Brian, his personality was his father reincarnated. The only difference was that Brian became surrounded by love much later in life, while his son lived with love from the very first day of his birth.
As the hours flew by, the three adults continued discussing how they would work all their plans out. They were nearly done for the day when they heard the front door opening. In walked Gus, looking tall, handsome and nearly grown. Right behind him followed young JR. She was a lovely girl, who showed the promise of being a very pretty woman someday. Her smile, which reminded many in the family of Justin’s perpetual sunny look, lit up when she saw Justin. Although she was still a couple of years shy of becoming a tween, she had developed a bit of a crush on Justin, which formed during those visits to Pittsburgh, or reciprocal visits to Canada. Naturally, both kids were curious as to why Justin was visiting, especially when they learned that Brian wasn’t with him. The adults proceeded to explain what Justin’s visit was all about. Mel and Lindsay were relieved that they had already opened the door to the possibility of a move back to the United States with Gus and JR. It made it easier to discuss what was coming next.
Finally, it came time for everyone to declare themselves all talked out. That evening, the girls took their children and Justin out to one of their favorite restaurants for a celebratory dinner. They now knew that they were all on the same page. They also knew that this would probably be one of the best Christmases ever, for more than one Pittsburgh resident. Justin was practically floating on air at the prospect of seeing Brian’s reaction to the news of what had transpired here this very day. The one thing they all agreed on, as they drove through the night back to the house that Mel and Lindsay had bought in Toronto, and were now planning on putting up for sale as soon as they contacted their realtor in the morning, was that no one outside of their little group was to know anything about their plans… not until Christmas Day. It would be a hard secret to keep, but at least it wouldn’t be a long-held secret.
Justin stood in front of the beautifully decorated Christmas tree that he had set up in their living room, facing the large picture window. All the decorations had been accomplished by his own hand, as Brian hadn’t been that keen on making a fuss over the upcoming holiday. He had been in a funk ever since he got the call from Mel and Lindsay, telling him that they would not be able to make it to Pittsburgh for the Christmas holidays, as originally planned. Brian had complained to Justin, in an almost petulant way, that he would have found some way to make the trip to Toronto for the holidays, if only he had known of the girls inability to make the trip back to the States with the kids. Justin had listened carefully, keeping his face firmly set in a sympathetic gaze with some difficulty, but somehow pulling it off. Only Ben, Michael, Mel, and Lindsay, along with Gus and JR, knew why Justin needed to appear so sympathetic. They alone knew that the frowns would be turned upside down this very afternoon.
It hadn’t been easy for Michael and Ben to convince Debbie and Carl to join them for the special Christmas luncheon at Brian and Justin’s place, but they had finally succeeded. In fact, the house would be filled with their closest friends and family by lunch time. Brian had, with a great deal of reluctance, accepted Justin’s pleadings for a Christmas gathering at their home this year. After all, Justin reminded him, each year the gang (or at least those who were able to) would gather at someone’s place for a Christmas meal, and it was certainly their turn to play hosts.
As Justin took one last discerning look at his work with the tree, his thoughts wandered to what would be happening in a few short hours. He had already heard from Mel and Lindsay when they arrived in town with the kids early that morning. They had stayed at Michael and Ben’s house, so that neither Brian nor Debbie would suspect a thing. It wasn’t long before Justin heard the front doorbell ringing, signaling that Emmett had arrived to cater the luncheon. He heard Brian answer the door, make some light conversation, and then disappear from sight. Emmett joined Justin and was directed to where he could set up everything, to begin preparations for the party. Emmett had brought along a couple of assistants he hired, once his catering business became too successful for him to handle alone.
Justin went in search of Brian. He found his husband sitting alone in their bedroom, staring at the flickering images of the large television set on the wall. There was some kind of holiday love story showing on the screen, but it was obvious from Brian’s blank stare that he wasn’t really paying any attention to what was happening there. Justin walked over and stepped in front of Brian. He leaned over and raised Brian’s head to face him.
“I know you aren’t much in a holiday mood this year, but will you at least try to cheer up just a bit for the sake of our guests? They all love you, and it would bring them down to see you so unhappy. I know you were hoping to spend some time with Gus this Christmas, but we’ll see him during Spring Break from school. That’s not too long from now. And we’ll give him a video call later today. As a matter of fact, we’ll call all of them while Debbie and Michael are here, so that they can talk to JR too. They are just as sad about the girls not being able to visit this year as we are.”
Brian gave Justin a half-hearted smile and slapped his butt. “I’m okay, Sunshine. I promise I’ll be a good boy and put on a happy face… for you, if nothing else. Now, you’d better get out there and supervise Emmett. If not, god knows what kind of things he could do to our well-ordered home.”
Justin smiled back at Brian and turned to leave. He turned back at the bedroom door.
“I love you, Brian. I promise that you’ll enjoy this Christmas… that is, if I have anything to say about it.”
“Love you too, Justin,” Brian responded, turning back to the TV and switching the channel quickly.
Justin left the room, feeling a moment of sadness. He hated seeing Brian so unhappy, yet knowing that he wouldn’t be for much longer brought the smile back to his face. He quickly moved on to join Emmett and see what he could do to be of help. Time was going to move too slow in some ways, but much too fast in others.
The doorbell kept ringing, and guests kept coming. There were old friends from way back in the day, as well as newer friends made since Brian and Justin had first reconnected permanently as a couple. There were employees of Brian’s, as well as cherished customers and supporters of Justin’s. The huge dining room of Britin Estate was set up to accommodate the large gathering. The smells of delicious food offerings wafted from the kitchen each time the swinging door opened, with more dishes being set out for the hungry guests. Every seat at the table was filled, except for four empty ones. Brian had just leaned over and whispered to Justin that it was obvious Emmett had miscounted the number of guests on the list he was provided, when the doorbell could be heard again. Brian’s eyebrows furrowed.
“What the hell!” he whispered at Justin. “I don’t see anyone missing from our list. Who the hell could that be crashing the party on Christmas Day?”
Conversation around the table had continued despite the distraction, as more dishes were brought out to the table.
Justin whispered back to Brian, “Do you want me to get the door, or do you want to go instead?”
Brian waved Justin off and rose from his chair. He secretly hoped whoever was at the door had simply gotten the wrong address. If not, and someone they knew was crashing the party, he would be able to give them a more direct piece of his mind than Justin.
Brian hurried to the front door. He threw it open without even looking through the peep hole. Whatever irritated words had been forming in his brain, died a quick death before even being born. There, standing on the front stoop, stood his beloved son, Gus. Next to him stood JR, with Mel and Lindsay right behind them. Their faces lit up when they saw the shock on Brian’s face. It was clear that their ruse had worked, and Brian was caught completely off guard.
“Well, Dad, are you going to let us in or make us stand out here shivering the rest of the day?”
Brian gathered Gus into his arms and hugged him tight enough to make a bear envious. JR, Mel, and Linds pushed past the two of them and entered the house. It was far too cold outside to explain themselves there, once Brian let Gus go. Justin was standing just inside the foyer, so the three ladies hurried over to him and gave him welcoming hugs. Moments later, Brian joined the foursome. Justin could see the light of pure joy on Brian’s face, as he approached with his arm firmly around Gus’s back. Gus, who was now nearly as tall as his father, grinned as they approached.
“Looks like our plan to surprise Dad worked,” he told everyone.
Brian looked at Gus. “Our plan? Who exactly is ‘our’?” He asked, suspecting that Gus meant more than the ladies by the look on Justin’s face. Justin wasn’t looking the least bit surprised to see them.
Just then, Michael, Ben, and Debbie appeared behind them. Brian could tell that neither Michael nor Ben seemed surprised too, but Debbie was obviously caught off guard. She squealed the moment she saw JR, and rushed forward to gather her in her arms, just as Brian had done with Gus. Everyone waited for Debbie to finally release JR, tears streaming down her face. She had been just as bummed out over Mel and Lindsay not coming with the kids as Brian had been. Finally, Justin spoke up, interrupting all the chatter going on, as Debbie and Brian tried to get answers as to what was happening.
“Brian… Debbie, how about we all go into the dining room and eat first? Then we will explain how this whole thing came about. For now, let’s just enjoy the fact that they could come and be with us for Christmas, after all.”
Everyone agreed and headed back to join the rest of the party. All of a sudden, it was a much more festive event when everyone welcomed the late arrivals. The meal was thoroughly enjoyed by one and all. Finally, it ended, and everyone made their way to the living room to engage in spirited conversations. Brian, Justin, Mel, Lindsay, Michael, Ben, Debbie, Gus and JR left the animated groups and made their way to the den. There, Justin began explaining why they had kept the secret of the girls bringing the kids to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Then, Gus spoke up.
“There is a lot more to this story, Dad. Justin hasn’t told you how he came to Toronto to see us, to plead his case for all of us to move back to Pittsburgh permanently.”
“Which,” Mel interrupted, “was something that Linds and I had begun discussing sometime before that. Justin’s timing was perfect. His arguments for us relocating back home was the last note needed to seal the deal. We won’t be able to move until next month, but most of what was needed to make the move has been accomplished. We have our house in Toronto on the market and already had a nibble or two. We just need to find a new home here in the city. I do already have a job lined up here too.”
“And,” added Lindsay, “we’ve already set in motion the transfers from Gus and JR’s schools in Toronto, to one here in Pittsburgh. We just need to see where we will be living, in order to finish enrolling them in the appropriate schools.”
The whole time they were talking, Brian and Debbie looked stunned, yet totally happy. They had both secretly wished this day would happen, practically from the very first day the girls drove away with the children in their car. It had been a rough decade, with not seeing the kids on a regular basis as they grew up. Now, at last their dearest wishes were coming true. Debbie engulfed Michael and Ben in her arms, knowing they had helped keep this precious secret. Brian wrapped his arms tightly around Justin too.
“Merry Christmas, Brian,” Justin whispered in Brian’s ear.
“And a Happy New Year, thanks to you, Sunshine,” Brian whispered back, planting a sizzling kiss of gratitude on his hubby.
And Happy Holidays along with a very Happy New Year to all of you too. May 2020 be your best year ever.