I fucking hate hospitals.
Nothing good ever happens in them.
Well, Gus was born in one, I suppose.
But that’s the only thing.
Everything else? Shit. Giant, steaming piles of shit.
Well, there was that one fuck…
Nope. Still shit.
I sigh and tip my chair back so I can rest my back against the wall, mostly because I want to fidget. Because I’m sitting alone in an exam room in the NewYork-Presbyterian emergency room, waiting for someone to wheel Gus back in -- and for someone to tell me what the fuck’s going on.
I lean my head back and take a deep breath, trying to let it out slowly, the way Rob always reminds me when he can tell I’m getting agitated. I take in another, trying to make it deeper this time, and I count -- one… two… three… four. Then I exhale to the count of six. It gives me something to focus on -- a way to keep myself from chasing down the damn doctor that left me in here alone almost an hour ago when he sent Gus away for tests. It’s weird with a mask on, but it is what it is. Nothing I can do about it. And I’m sure as shit not gonna sit here without one, even if half of this goddamned country wants to believe this pandemic is over just because they’re tired of it. It’s not over. Things are better, but it’s not over. Not by a long shot.
So it’s a good thing Justin bought a whole fucking case of KN95 masks as soon as they started becoming more widely available again. Because I think we’re gonna need them.
My smartwatch buzzes on my wrist with my three hour alarm -- the “hey, you should probably take a piss before your bladder goes rogue” alarm. Shit. I was really hoping Gus would be back by now, so he wouldn’t come back and find me not fucking here. But I don’t have much choice, so I set my casters back down on the ground and push myself toward the door, stopping to look both ways before going out into the hallway. Still no Gus. But I do see the bathroom at the end of the hall.
I stop by the nurse’s station to let them know where I’ll be if they need me -- it’s a little embarrassing and feels stupid, but since it takes me much longer than the average person to take care of business in there, it’s necessary. Because the last thing I want is Gus sitting alone in that room, fucking scared out of his mind.
I know he’s already scared out of his mind -- hell, I am too -- but I want to fucking be there for him. I’ve missed a lot of shit in his life. Sure, I’ve been there for the important things like graduations and school assemblies, but the little things like broken arms and scraped knees, or sick days home from school… I wasn’t there for any of that. Mel and Linds handled those alone. I mean, they’re his moms, and they have sole custody -- well, had, since Gus is an adult now -- so it wasn’t exactly like I was shirking my fatherly duties. But sometimes I still feel like I missed out on a lot, with my son living in a different country. I don’t regret letting him go -- not for a minute, because it was what Mel and Linds needed to feel safe -- but I do wish I hadn’t been so far away. So it would have been easier to be there for the little things that matter, too.
I do what I need to do in the bathroom, trying to hurry as best I can, though there isn’t much I can do to rush the process, really. If there was one fucking thing I could somehow magically get back, it wouldn’t be walking, and it wouldn’t even be fucking. It would be the ability to go to the bathroom like a normal human being again. That is, hands down, the absolute worst effect of this injury. It’s inconvenient at best, and can cause life-threatening problems at worst, and I’ve seen a little bit of both in my time as a paraplegic. Rob has too. I’d bet money that most of us have, actually. And that sucks.
It sucks knowing that no matter what I do to take care of myself, I’m going to have more problems as I age than I would have if I wasn’t paralyzed. Because I know that means there’s going to come a time when I can’t be there for Justin, or for Gus. Or for anyone else I care about. I don’t like thinking about it, but that’s where my mind seems to go anytime I’m in one of these places -- straight to wondering when the next time will be that it’s me in the hospital bed, maybe not getting as lucky as I have so far.
Fuck, I can’t think about that. Not right now. I can practically hear Rob’s voice in my head, reminding me to stay present. Be in the now instead of worrying about the future or beating myself up over the past. I swear, sometimes it’s like he hasn’t even fucking met me. But I know he does it because he loves me. I love him too.
I love a lot of people. I always have. Only now, I’m not afraid to say it.
Spinal cord injury: the great purveyor of perspective… or something like that.
I finish up in the bathroom and throw away the $5 worth of supplies I need every single time I take a piss, then wash my hands for a third time before I actually leave. When I get back to the exam room, there’s still no Gus, so I pull out my phone to text Justin, who I know is every bit as nervous as I am, only he’s stuck at home because the hospital only allows one additional person per patient, thanks to COVID. I text him with an update that’s really not an update at all, because I don’t know shit, and he texts me back a string of heart emojis and an, “I love you. He’s gonna be okay.”
I’m sure he’s trying to convince himself as much as he’s trying to convince me, and that’s the part that kills me. That I can’t be there for him and for Gus at the same time. That either of us has to be alone while we navigate this… whatever it is. We do things together. In sickness and in health -- that was the deal. But there’s nothing we can do about the hospital policies. At least this time, it’s not because the hospital refuses to believe we can both be Gus’ parents.
I slide my phone back into my shirt pocket and tip my chair back again, but before I can tilt my head back and close my eyes, I hear the distinctive soft squeak of wheels on the tile floor getting closer, and then Gus is back. Somehow, he looks even paler than he did when they took him away, and I can tell he’s in even more pain. I now understand what parents mean when they say they wish they could switch places with their kid, because… damn. Having him curled into my side in the back seat of a town car, sniffling because he’s on the verge of tears and whimpering with every pothole we hit between our building and the hospital is not an experience I ever want to repeat. Somehow, my 20-year-old son became a little kid again in the back seat of that car, and it isn’t any better now. In fact, it’s worse, because his eyes are red now, so I know he’s been crying. And that’s not like Gus, at all.
For what it’s worth, he’s a lot like me in that way. I’m not sure that’s always a good thing, but, again… it is what it is.
“Hey, bud,” I say gently, realizing I also sound like I’m talking to a much younger Gus than I am, but it feels right. “How’re you doing?”
I roll forward and reach for his hand, and he curls his fingers into mine.
“Hurts,” he says, simple and short. Straight to the point. Every bit his father’s son.
“I know.” I run the pad of my thumb over the knuckle of his.
The nurse finishes reattaching all of Gus’ monitors then hangs an IV bag on a pole, and I have to let go of his hand while she finds a vein.
“This should help with the pain,” she says, connecting the IV line and taping the catheter down on the back of Gus’ right hand. “The doctor will be in to talk with you both shortly.”
With that, she leaves the room and Gus and I are alone again. I hear him inhale a shuddering breath, and when he exhales, it comes along with a whispered, “I’m really scared, Dad.”
“I know,” I repeat, taking his hand in mine again, this time being careful to avoid the IV tubing. “It sucks to be in pain and not know what’s wrong. But if it is appendicitis, they perform this surgery all the time. You’re gonna be fine.”
“And what if it’s not? What if it’s… I dunno, something else?”
“Then we’ll deal with it. Me, Justin, your moms… Uncle Mikey.”
Gus huffs out a laugh, followed by a groan. “What the fuck’s uncle Mikey gonna do?”
“Make you laugh, probably,” I say, using my thumb to rub small circles across Gus’ palm.
“Laughing hurts.” Gus lets his head sink back into the pillows, his eyes drifting closed. “So tired.”
“I know.” I’m starting to feel like that’s all I can say -- all I can do. Just validate whatever Gus is feeling and try to fucking be here for whatever he needs. Because there’s not another goddamned thing I can do, no matter how much I wish there was.
Gus was up half the night because his stomach hurt, but at the time, we thought it was just a virus. When the pain started to concentrate itself in the lower right part of his abdomen, though, and he was crying on the bathroom floor, we knew it was something else. That was a few hours ago, and those few hours have been absolute torture for me -- again, because I want to fucking fix it, and I can’t.
“That medication will probably make you sleepy if it’s not already,” I say, trying to comfort myself as much as I am Gus. “Let yourself sleep; it’s okay. I’ve got you.”
Gus nods slightly and inhales another breath, but this one hitches, and when he exhales, a tear slides down his cheek. My heart lurches, and I wish even harder that I had some way to take away his pain. I squeeze his hand but don’t say anything. What the hell is there to say?
A light knock on the partially-ajar door prompts me to look up, and I see Dr. Martinez standing in the gap. She pushes the door open the rest of the way and steps inside. “Mr. Kinney?”
“Yes?” Gus and I both say it at the same time, and I can’t help but chuckle at Gus answering to my last name, even though his is technically Marcus-Peterson.
The doctor smiles and gives us both a nod before pulling her tablet from underneath her arm. “So, it looks like it is appendicitis,” she says, addressing Gus directly. “We’ll need to wait for an OR to become available before we can operate, though. I don’t think you’re in immediate danger of rupture, and it shouldn’t be too long -- maybe another hour or two. In the meantime, I’m going to admit you and get you started on some antibiotics, and we’ll make sure we keep you comfortable, okay?”
Gus nods and closes his eyes again. I rub my thumb over his hand and hope it helps at least a tiny bit.
“We’re getting a room ready for you upstairs now,” she says. “Shouldn’t be much longer.”
“Thank you,” I say softly, and she gives me a small smile as she leaves the room, closing the door behind her.
Gus exhales with a sigh, and it looks like the crease between his eyebrows that has been a permanent fixture for the last several hours has finally begun to relax.
“Are the meds helping?”
“Yeah,” he whispers, not opening his eyes.
I stay right there beside his bed, holding his hand, letting him rest. I use my other hand to shoot Justin a quick text to let him know what’s going on and where we’re headed. He’s as relieved as I am to finally have answers, even though nothing is really resolved yet. Answers are good. Answers mean we’re on our way to getting this fixed, and that’s all I want. For Gus to not be in pain anymore.
Thankfully, it doesn’t take too long before an orderly arrives to escort us upstairs, unhooking all of Gus’ equipment again so we can all take a ride in the elevator to the fourth floor. I’m a little surprised they’re letting me just follow, and not making me wait until they’ve got him settled in the room. Maybe it’s because he’s my kid, even though he’s technically no longer a kid.
In some ways, though, I guess he always will be.
The next time I see Dr. Martinez, she’s accompanied by a nurse whom I’m told will be prepping Gus for surgery. In the meantime, she briefs us both on what to expect, and I try to listen and take it all in, but all I really want is for her to just get to it so Gus won’t be hurting anymore.
“We do allow one guest to stay overnight with the patient, if you wish,” she says.
Gus nods quickly, his eyes darting in my direction. “Yeah,” he whispers. “I don’t wanna be alone.”
“You won’t be,” I say, squeezing his hand one more time. “I’ll stay.”
His eyebrows draw together. “But you…” he lets his voice trail off, and his gaze travels downward toward my wheelchair, then he shakes his head. “No, I can’t ask you to--”
“I’ll figure it out.” I cut him off, because the last fucking thing I want to listen to right now is my own son trying to take up for me when he’s the one who’s got a diseased organ inside him threatening to burst. “You won’t be alone tonight. I promise.”
I tighten my fingers around his one more time, then let go. “I love you,” I say, looking straight into his eyes when I say it. “I’ll be right here when you wake up.”
“Love you too,” he murmurs, giving me a tight smile before they roll him out of the room, leaving me alone again.
Then, I’m alone again. I still don’t feel like I can breathe, though -- not really. I probably won’t until the surgery is over and I know Gus is okay.
I should probably call Lindsay. I’ve been putting it off since we got here -- telling myself I’d wait until we knew something. But even now that Gus has been taken back for surgery, I still can’t quite bring myself to do it.
I know she’s going to freak the fuck out, and she’ll want to be on the next plane to JFK. And it won’t just be because she’s Gus’ mother. It’ll be because somewhere in the back of her mind she still doesn’t trust me to be able to handle this shit. And I just don’t think I can deal with that right now.
I sigh and transfer to the recliner in the corner of the room so I can put my feet up. My phone pings a few seconds later with another text from Justin: Did you call Lindsay?
I swear to god, sometimes the little fucker is a mind reader. When he’s not forgetting where he left his phone or his keys or his wallet.
No, I text back. I don’t want to freak her out.
There. That seems like a nicer way to say it. Very diplomatic.
Bloop. Another message.
She’d want to know.
I write back: There’s nothing she can do.
Justin replies immediately. She’s his mom.
I let out a heavy sigh and type back: I know.
The phone rings, then, and it’s Justin.
“Do you want me to call her?” Justin says first thing, as soon as I answer.
“Might be better coming from you.”
“I’m not sure it’s gonna be good coming from anyone, but she needs to know.”
“Just don’t let her buy a damn plane ticket. There’s nothing she can do. He’s gonna be fine. I have it handled. Is the border even open anyhow?”
“I’ll call her. Is Gus still with you?”
“They just took him back. Said it takes about an hour. Hey, can you bring me some stuff?” I don’t bother to specify; Justin knows what ‘stuff’ entails for me. “Gus wants me to stay tonight.”
“Is there an extra bed or something?”
“Just one of those recliners. The usual.” God, I hate that we even know what the ‘usual’ is when it comes to hospital accommodations.
“Brian, you can’t sleep in a chair.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“No, you won’t. You heard what your doctor--”
I roll my eyes. “It’s one night.”
“And that’s all it takes. You know that.”
He’s not wrong, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear it. I want to do what Gus asked me to do and stay, and not have to worry about fucking pressure sores and memory foam mattresses. Justin didn’t see the way Gus looked at me -- didn’t hear the way he sounded when he said he didn’t want to be alone. Justin hasn’t been here this whole time watching him fucking struggle.
“Why don’t I stay with him?”
“Because I’m already here.”
“Yeah, but if I’m bringing you stuff, then I can just as easily--”
“No. I’m staying. End of story.”
I can practically hear Justin rolling his eyes on the other end of the line.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Love you.”
I hang up the phone and let my eyes close for a moment before picking my phone back up to catch up on emails. I know Cynthia, Ted, and Rob have all aspects of Kinnetikcorp under control, but I need to think about something else besides my son being in an operating room. After I get through everything that’s come in since we’ve been here -- which isn’t much, so Cynthia must have told them all in no uncertain terms that they were to email her instead, no matter what it was -- I close my eyes again and try to let myself rest.
What feels like just a few minutes later -- I must have dozed off -- there’s a surgical resident knocking lightly on the door, who tells me that the surgery went well and Gus is in recovery now if I’d like to go down and see him. I follow her down two floors and through a maze of hallways until we get to a room where Gus is propped up on a half-dozen pillows in a bed, half sitting and half lying down. A nurse holds up a small cup of water with a straw in it for him to sip, and when I come into the room, Gus gives me a sleepy half-smile.
“Hi,” he says, his voice raspy.
“Told you I’d be here,” I reply, reaching for his hand. “How do you feel?”
I know better than to try to have much of conversation with anyone who just woke up from anesthesia, so I settle for the obvious. “You’ll have plenty of time to sleep now that we’ve got that appendix out of you.”
Gus nods and his eyes start to close again, and that’s when my phone pings in my pocket with a new text message from Justin: I’m here. Outside the main entrance.
I rub my thumb lazily over the back of Gus’ hand and his eyes flutter open. “Hey, bud… Justin brought me some things so I can spend the night, so I’m gonna go get those from him, and I’ll see you back in your room, okay?”
Gus nods again and whispers, “Okay.”
“I love you.”
Gus hums contentedly, and I can’t help but smile as I give his hand one last squeeze and leave the room, heading back down toward the main entrance.
When I get there, Justin is standing right outside the door, wearing that horrible, oversized hooded sweatshirt he says is the most comfortable article of clothing he owns. I’ll have to take his word for it, because no way in hell would I ever be caught dead wearing anything like that. He’s got that ugly-assed duffel bag -- the one he’s had since he was a teenage squatter in my loft -- slung over his shoulder, and he’s pacing nervously up and down the sidewalk beside a parked town car.
The automatic doors slide open and Justin turns to look over his shoulder, rushing over as soon as he sees it’s me.
“How is he?” he asks, leaning down to give me a quick kiss.
“Doing just fine… he’s in recovery now. I got to see him for a few minutes -- he’s tired, but seems to be in a lot less pain. That could just be the drugs, though.”
Justin huffs a laugh and hitches the strap of the bag further up his shoulder as he says, “Good. I’m glad it went well. You can thank Mel for talking some reason into Lindsay and keeping her in Canada, at least for now.”
“Remind me to buy her a drink the next time they’re in town. Hell, I’ll even go to that dyke bar they love.”
“Wow, you must really mean it then,” Justin laughs.
“Now, care to tell me why you brought my things in that godawful duffel bag of yours, when you know perfectly well where I keep my luggage?”
“I didn’t bring your things in my duffel bag; I brought mine. Because I’m staying, and you’re going home.”
“Excuse me?” I blink, hoping I didn’t hear him correctly.
“Brian, you can’t sleep in a recliner, and you know it. Especially not when you’ve been up in your chair all day.”
“I’ll have you know I took a nap in that recliner while Gus was in surgery and it was perfectly fine.”
“Yeah, for an hour. Overnight is different.”
“Justin, he asked me to stay. I’m his dad.” That’s a low blow and I know it, but I’m desperate.
“So am I, Brian -- you tell me that all the time. You’re not the only one who’s worried about him, you know. He’ll understand that you can’t sleep on that.”
“I told him I was coming back.” Now I’m just grasping at straws.
“And you will be. In the morning. For right now, I asked the driver if he could wait a few minutes until you came outside, so you wouldn’t have to wait out here for a ride.”
I can tell by the look on Justin’s face that I’m not going to win this argument, and since he apparently didn’t bring any of my things, there isn’t much point in it anyhow, but who would I be if I wasn’t stubborn as fuck?
“Are you seriously going to make me go home and get my own damned stuff?”
“No,” Justin says calmly. “I’m telling you that you’re going home, where all of your stuff already is, and you’re going to sleep on the very expensive mattress in our bedroom instead of the lumpy, hard convertible recliner chair in Gus’ hospital room.”
“It’s one night.”
“Yes, and four hours was all it took the last time you got a hotspot, so--”
“God, Justin, that was because I forgot to take the button off the pocket of one pair of pants.”
“And that’s all it takes! Taking care of your skin is important. I am just as capable of staying with Gus, and that’s what I’m going to do. I promise I’ll FaceTime if he wakes up and wonders where you are, okay?”
I sigh and press the heels of my hands down on my tires to shift my ass back farther in my chair. It’s like a fucking automatic response anytime someone talks about pressure sores -- I suddenly remember that I haven’t done a pressure release in a while, because when you’ve already got timers and schedules for umpteen million different tasks, sometimes one more just feels like… too much.
Justin’s expression softens, and he reaches out to rub one hand over my shoulder. “I promise,” he repeats, leaning down to kiss me again, a little harder this time. “I love you, and Gus loves you, and that’s why I want you to go home… and I know Gus would agree.”
After the look Gus gave me earlier, I know he’d agree too, and that somehow makes it feel even worse. I know it’s for my own good, but I’ve never exactly taken well to being told what to do -- call it a holdover from growing up with Jack Kinney, whatever, but it’s true. And no amount of knowing it’s ‘right’ makes it easier.
“Now, go home, get some sleep, and we’ll trade off again in the morning, okay?”
Justin’s bright blue eyes are boring straight into mine in that heated way that tells me he means business. Reluctantly, I nod. “Okay. Love you too. Take good care of him.”
“I will. I promise I’ll call if we need anything.”
“Cross my heart and hope to--”
“Don’t you dare finish that. I’m not Daphne.”
Justin smirks at me and bends down to give me one last kiss, then pulls his mask up over his mouth and nose as he goes inside, the automatic doors sliding shut behind him.
The quiet of the ride home with a driver I don’t know does me no good at all, and by the time we get close to Chelsea, I feel like I’m about to crawl out of my skin. I’m not even sure I could name what emotion it is I’m feeling, because it doesn’t particularly feel like anger or anxiety -- it’s more of just… a general sense of discontent.
We pass the fancy liquor store a couple of blocks from our building and I suddenly blurt out, “You can drop me off here,” before I can think better of it.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m in the elevator going up to our apartment with a paper sack in my lap containing a bottle of Jim Beam, because sometimes you just need the comfort of an old friend. My first stop when I get inside is the kitchen, where I pour myself two fingers of whiskey and quickly down it, just to take the edge off. It numbs me enough, at least, to get through most of my nighttime routine before I settle onto the sofa for an evening alone.
The first sip of my second glass is much smoother going down, and I tell myself I’m only doing it because I’m trying to relax, so I can sleep -- after all, none of us got much rest last night. I remind myself the surgery is over and Gus is okay; I’ve even got a text message from Justin to prove it -- a picture of Gus sleeping soundly, back in his hospital room, that arrived while I was in the shower, washing off all the hospital ‘funk.’ But none of that matters once my brain starts entertaining thoughts of all the things that could still go wrong -- things like sepsis and staph infections and internal bleeding -- and what it might mean if something like that went unnoticed for a while. Not that Justin would willfully ignore it if something was really wrong, but he sleeps like the fucking dead now, so there would probably have to be a half-dozen different alarms going off at once to wake him up in the middle of the night. That, plus the couple of minutes it usually takes him to come out of his own little fog every morning, and let’s just say that the outcome of that equation has me taking another gulp of whiskey.
I want to be there. I should be there. I want to know what’s going on the second it happens, rather than waiting for a phone call or a text message. And I know it sounds stupid, but… this kind of feels like my one big chance to really be there for Gus in a crisis. But here I am, stuck at home, because the skin on my ass and the fact that I spend my entire life sitting on it are starting to not get along too well. My doctor says it’s because of my age, which, well, I’m sure he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t mean I’m fond of reminders that I’m not twenty-one anymore. Nevermind that I’m actually thirty years beyond that now.
Thankfully, I was saved from the “Death Day Party: Big 5-0 Edition,” by a global pandemic, and Michael being literally unable to make a big deal of my birthday is one of exactly two good things to come out of the shitshow that was 2020. The other good thing? Gus coming to live with us. We never thought it would be a long term arrangement when we’d moved Gus out of his dorm on a weekday in March with very short notice. In fact, we’d really thought it would just be a few weeks, maybe a month or two -- and definitely not the next year and some change. But that’s what it has been, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed having Gus at home.
Not that it’s been smooth sailing, because it hasn’t been -- Gus and his boyfriend broke up about six months into lockdown when the strain of long distance got to be too much, and there was a bout with depression that had Gus almost ready to forfeit his soccer scholarship and drop out of school. But we got through it -- all three of us, together. As a family. And I sort of realized just how much I missed out on, being in another country while Mel and Linds were raising Gus and J.R. in Toronto. I know I can’t turn back time -- that all I can do is be here now. But it pisses me right the fuck off that when I finally do get an opportunity to be there for Gus, I’m not able to follow through because my ass can’t handle it -- literally.
I heave a sigh and shift myself upward on the chaise lounge, finishing off my second glass of Jim Beam. I want more. I know I probably shouldn’t have more, but I need something to keep me from imagining every single goddamned worst-case scenario that could possibly be happening at the hospital tonight, while Justin sleeps through it all. I transfer back into my chair, wincing as the ever-present ache in my right shoulder intensifies once I’ve got most of my body weight shifted to my arms. Fuck. Yeah, I probably am getting old. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. After all, I’m not Mikey, who apparently acquired some kind of sage insight the moment he became a grandfather and now claims to be grateful for the gray hairs peppering his temples, calling them “signs of wisdom.” I like to think I was smart when I was younger, too -- not just now that there’s a distinct patch of gray on my chin when I let my beard grow out.
I set my glass on the counter and start to pour, then I stop. I know what I’m doing. I know I’ll be flirting with disaster if I drink much more alcohol tonight, but I feel like I’m going to lose my damn mind if I don’t find some way to numb out, so I end up taking the entire bottle back to the sofa with me. I do still take (and use) the glass -- after all, I’ve learned that lesson -- but by the time my phone rings with a FaceTime call from Justin, it’s impossible to hide the fact that I’m drunk.
I can see the muscle in Justin’s jaw clenching the entire time I’m talking to a still very high, very sleepy Gus who can barely hold his eyes open, and after I tell him goodnight, Justin immediately takes the phone out into the hallway, where the bright light really accentuates the angry look in his eyes.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he hisses, trying to keep his voice as low as possible, I’m sure.
A sardonic laugh escapes my lips, and I know that’s a mistake, but it just kind of… came out. Old habits.
“Brian,” Justin says, and I can hear the distinct edge to his voice. It’s his warning tone -- the one where I know I’d better watch the fuck out. But for some reason, I can’t quite bring myself to care.
“Are you seriously getting drunk right now?”
“Why do you care?” I know that was a mistake, too, but I can’t seem to stop myself. “You’re there, and I’m here. I’m a big boy; I can take care of myself.”
“Yes, I’m here, taking care of our son, in case you forgot. I didn’t send you home because you’re incapable. You know why I sent you home. Why are you doing this?”
“Needed to unwind,” I say, looking away from the screen.
“You’re way past that point, and you know it. Look, the doctor said Gus will probably be able to go home tomorrow, and all I have to say is that I’d better not walk in and find you on the floor in a puddle of your own bodily fluids. Put the liquor in the kitchen, if you haven’t already, then drink some water and go to bed. Please. For Gus and me. Goodnight, Brian.”
With that, he ends the call and my phone goes back to the home screen, and I screw the cap back on the bottle of Beam, though not before taking one last swig. I’m as careful as I can be getting back from the couch to my chair, and I make it, even though it’s sloppy, so it looks like Justin’s dire prediction won’t be coming true tonight. Or, at least, not in the living room.
I take the liquor and my empty glass back to the kitchen and do as I was told, even though everything in me wants to rebel. A part of me knows Justin is right, though, so I reach up into the cabinet to pull down another glass, then fill it with filtered water from the refrigerator. I drink the whole thing before filling up my reusable bottle for good measure. I already know I’ll be setting a couple of extra alarms throughout the night to make sure I don’t piss myself, but it feels like a small price to pay for not having to think about the possibility of anything bad happening to Gus while I can’t be there.
I turn out the lights in the living room and kitchen and make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and take one last piss before bed. I take much more time than usual to set up my chair-to-bed transfer, just to make sure I don’t end up proving Justin right after all. This one takes a little more effort, but I make it. I’m about halfway through stretching my legs when my phone rings again. This time, it’s Rob.
“I was told to make sure you were still conscious,” Rob says as soon as I answer, and I let out a long, low breath. Of course Justin called Rob. “Everything okay?”
“Going to bed just like he told me to.”
“Good.” Rob pauses, then drops the business tone completely, shifting into the voice I swear one day I’m going to patent as his ‘patient, caring friend voice.’ “Anything you want to talk about?”
“Not really.” I shrug, even though he can’t see me. Rob would be a good person to talk to about all the shit that’s swirling inside my head, but the thought of revisiting any of what I’ve been trying to drown with all of this alcohol is enough to make me resist.
Thankfully, he’s been my friend long enough that he gets it, and he doesn’t press.
“You know where I am if you change your mind,” Rob says, and I can practically see the sincere, earnest look he’d be giving me if he was here in the room. “Drink some water. Set your alarms.”
“Okay. And I mean it… call me anytime. Even if it’s three in the morning.”
“I know. Thanks.”
“G’night Brian… take care of yourself.”
I hang up and set my first alarm before I put my phone on the nightstand, then unscrew the top on my water bottle and take a few more gulps for good measure. Then, I turn out the light and roll over onto my stomach, settling in for what I’m sure will be a very, very long night.
The one a.m. alarm comes and goes without a hitch, and so does the four a.m. alarm, and both times I manage to drag myself out of bed and go to the bathroom without incident. The next time my alarm goes off at seven, the first vestiges of daylight are just beginning to filter in between the blinds, and my head is pounding. I sigh and push my hands down the mattress with the intention of rolling over onto my back, but the sensation of wetness against my palms makes me freeze.
I roll myself over anyway, moving to Justin’s side of the bed, which thankfully seems to have been spared from my involuntary indiscretion, and pinch the bridge of my nose, squeezing my eyes shut. So not only do I feel like absolute shit, but now I get to do a shit-ton of laundry, because I’m sure as fuck not in the mood to listen to Justin’s holier-than-thou lecture if I leave it for him, nor am I willing to let him be right.
Justin chooses that exact moment to text me, as if summoned by my musings -- and I wouldn’t put it past him to have figured that out somehow, as much as he seems to be able to read my mind and predict my every thought, even the ones I’d rather he not. I groan and reach for the nightstand to grab my phone, swiping upward to unlock the screen and bring up the message.
Doctor says everything looks good. Getting him switched over to oral pain meds now, and we should be home before lunch.
I glance at the clock in the corner of the screen, mentally calculating the time I’ll have to make the bedroom look like absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened last night -- probably about four hours. Five at the most. Fuck.
I send back a thumbs up emoji and heave myself up to a sitting position with a grunt, transferring to my chair and lamenting the fact that I’m also going to have to wash the cover on my cushion later because there’s no one here to get me a damn towel to put over it. I strip the bed as quickly as I can -- which isn’t quick at all -- and toss it all into a haphazard pile by the door so I can deal with it later, after my shower.
I grab my extra cushion out of the closet purely because that’ll be faster and I don’t have time to waste, then get myself into the bathroom for a shower. Once that’s done, I switch out the cushion and set the other aside for now, then go back to the closet to find clothes. Getting dressed is always a fucking production now, and it’s even more annoying this morning because I don’t have time for this shit. But I get my underwear and sweats up my legs and over my ass -- finally -- and pull on a t-shirt.
I gather up the pile of dirty bedding and head to the laundry room, where I quickly discover that there’s no way in hell this is going to be a single load. Fuck. I start with the sheets, stuffing them into our front-loading machine and tossing a detergent pod in with it. I know better than to try to use the quick cycle, though -- an incident like this always requires the ‘heavy soil’ setting. And yes, I hate that I have a baseline for that. But it is what it is. Shit happens. Sometimes literally. Thankfully not this time, though, or I’d have a much bigger problem than I already do.
Once the washer is filling up with water, I go into the kitchen to make coffee, in hopes that might help quiet the miniature jackhammers that seem to be trying to drill their way out of my skull from the inside. While it brews, I go back to the bedroom to retrieve my phone and find notifications for two more messages from Justin, plus one from Rob.
I reply to Rob’s short “just checking in” message with an assurance that I’m fine, thanks, despite the fact that I’m definitely not fine, and I’m sure he probably knows that already. Then, I open my text exchange with Justin.
The first new message: Good. You’re awake. I’m surprised.
And the second: I just hope you did what I asked, because I’m gonna have my hands full taking care of Gus. I can’t take care of you too. We’ll talk later, but… Brian, you can’t keep doing that shit.
Don’t I fucking know it. But that didn’t stop me last night, and when push comes to shove, I’m sure it won’t stop me again. Never stopped Jack or Joan, either.
I send back an, “I’m fine,” just because the last thing I need is for Justin to think I’m ignoring him -- that only pisses him off more, and pissing off Justin Taylor-Kinney is, well… let’s just say it’s not the best decision.
Then, I go back to the kitchen to start my waiting game -- waiting for the coffee to brew, and waiting for the laundry to finish. The coffee, blessedly, doesn’t take long, but it also doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in my headache. Neither do the two pieces of toast I manage to choke down. I chug another full glass of water and bump up my next bathroom reminder by an hour -- and god, I miss the alcohol tolerance I used to have in my twenties and early thirties. The laundry takes much longer -- and it’s almost ten by the time both loads are dry, and at 10:04, I get another text from Justin.
Discharged now. Just waiting on a car.
I curse under my breath as I bundle the freshly washed sheets and blankets in my lap for the trip back to the bedroom, trying to sort it all as quickly as possible. I’ve never particularly liked making the bed -- that’s why I’ve always hired other people to take care of things like that -- but trying to do it from my chair is a different ballgame. By the time I finally get the fucking fitted sheet secured on all four corners of the bed, fifteen minutes have gone by, and I know I’m running out of time. I try to hurry, but it’s no use, and I’m taking my third shot at tucking the blanket under the mattress -- because holding myself upright and lifting the mattress at the same time doesn’t leave any hands to do the actual tucking -- when I hear our alarm chime, signifying that the front door of the apartment has opened.
Fuck. Fucking fuck fuck.
“Brian?” Justin calls, and I hear him say something else -- presumably to Gus -- in a softer tone, followed by the sound of bags thumping to the floor in the foyer.
I know I’ve been caught, but I try to get it all done anyway, and I’m working on stuffing the pillows back in the pillowcases when I look up to see Justin leaning against the doorway, arms crossed over his chest.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he says icily, cocking one eyebrow upward. “How much did you have last night?”
I pull my lips into my mouth and shrug, focusing all of my attention on the pillows so I don’t have to look at Justin. “Where’s Gus?” I ask, trying my best to sound nonchalant.
“In his bedroom. Don’t change the subject.” Justin steps into the room, uncrossing his arms and picking up one of the pillows and an empty pillowcase. “You can’t keep using alcohol as your primary coping mechanism when you’re upset about something. Frankly, I’m not even sure why you were upset.”
I throw my finished pillow down on the bed and slap my hands against my thighs. “Because I told Gus I’d fucking be there!” I shout, my voice coming out much louder than I intended, but I’ve had all night to stew about this and I’m just fucking done with the bullshit.
“Brian, we talked about this… Gus understood, like I said he would. What I don’t understand is why you came home and got fucking trashed -- which, if the fact that you’re changing the sheets is any indication, I’m guessing you had even more to drink after I talked to you.”
“I didn’t,” I say flatly, still avoiding Justin’s gaze as he grabs the duvet and tosses one end of it toward me. “And if you could wait to yell at me until later, that would be great, because I’ve got the headache from hell.”
“I’m not sure you’re in a position to be bargaining whether or not we talk about this.” Justin’s voice is low now, and there’s a definite edge to it.
“Well, go ahead then.” I throw my hands up, then back up a couple of feet so that I’m in full view of Justin. “Let’s get it over with. Tell me what a fucking screw-up I am.”
Justin rolls his eyes and blows out an exasperated breath. “I’m just trying to understand--”
“What the hell is there to understand? I couldn’t turn my fucking brain off, so I forced it to turn off. That’s it. That’s all it was. Pain management. I was worried about Gus, and I couldn’t make myself not worry, so I drank. End of story.”
“Brian, I was with him the whole time. He was fine. I would have told you if he wasn’t.”
“Assuming you managed to wake up,” I mutter under my breath, averting my eyes briefly.
“What was that?”
“You can sleep through anything and you know it,” I say, louder this time. “What if there was a problem last night -- would you have noticed?”
“Okay, you’re being ridiculous right now.”
“Answer the question.”
“You know what? You’re right,” Justin says coolly -- too coolly. “Let’s not talk about this right now. Since you’re so eager to be there for your son, why don’t you let me finish this up, and you take care of Gus? He needs water and painkillers -- the bottle’s in my bag. I’m gonna take a shower and a nap. Close the door on your way out.”
I shake my head and hold my hands up in surrender. “Fine. Sure, whatever.” I let out a breath and turn around, giving myself a firm shove in the direction of the door while I try to hold back my temper. I know why Justin does what he does; it’s because he worries about me. But that doesn’t make it any easier to have my spouse talking to me like he’s my mother -- god forbid -- or my fucking keeper.
Getting a glass of water and retrieving the pills gives me a little time to cool down, but I still have to pause a few feet from Gus’ door and take a deep breath, trying my best to let go of everything that just happened so I can focus on doing what I’ve been wanting to do for the past fifteen hours or so -- taking care of my son. Once I feel like I’ve got somewhat of a handle on the anger and resentment -- at least enough to not let Gus see any of it -- I push the door open and go in. I find Gus in his bed, looking much younger than his 20 years, curled up on his left side with his knees bent and pulled up toward his stomach.
“Hi,” he says softly, grimacing a little as he shifts positions. His voice still sounds gruff, and he looks sleepy. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing you need to worry about; it’s fine.”
He nods sleepily, his eyes drifting closed. “M’so tired,” he mumbles. “Why’m I so tired?”
“Because you had surgery, and you need your rest. I’ve got your pills.” I pluck the bottle out of my lap and twist the cap off, shaking two out and holding them out for Gus. “Here.”
Gus forces his eyes open and tries to sit up, but it comes with a wince and a pained grunt.
“Not too far,” I say. “Just enough to get the pills down.”
He nods again and takes the pills from me, then the glass of water. When he’s done, I take the water and set it on the nightstand beside his phone.
“Need anything else?”
Gus shakes his head as he settles back down into the pillows and closes his eyes, tugging the blankets up to his chin and making himself look even more like a kid. Which, I guess he still is, in a way. He’s in that strange transition period where you’re technically an adult but don’t really feel like one -- and don’t always make the best decisions. But for right now, none of that matters. Gus is here, and he’s okay -- and that’s all I really care about.
I pull the bedspread over him just because I feel like I ought to tuck him in, and for a split second I feel like I might cry because that’s another fucking thing I never got to do. I clear my throat to get rid of the lump in it and reach forward to lay my left hand over Gus’ right, curled on top of the covers.
“If you change your mind, just yell… or text,” I say softly. “Don’t try to get up.”
Gus’ response is a barely perceptible nod and a whispered, “Okay,” and I can tell he’s already drifting off.
I linger in the doorway for a few moments, watching as his breathing evens out and deepens, then close the door as quietly as I can. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that the door to Justin’s and my bedroom is still closed as well, and resentment bubbles up in my gut again because I can’t quite figure out why my husband is all of a sudden treating me like I’m the child. And now I’ve been banished from my own bedroom, apparently. But I’ll honor it, if only because I don’t want to fight while Gus is trying to sleep -- and maybe a little bit because I’m hoping Justin might come to his senses after he’s had some sleep himself.
I go back to the living room to retrieve my laptop because I’m going to need something else to focus on besides the sudden strife in my marriage -- strife that didn’t exist 48 hours ago. I set myself up at the dining room table and dive into work, heading off an almost immediate message from Cynthia asking me why I’m logged in when I’m off today with a terse, “Don’t ask.” Blessedly, she doesn’t -- probably because she knows me all too well -- and soon I’ve managed to spend well over an hour approving and critiquing copy and artwork for our upcoming campaigns, and my headache, thank god, is finally beginning to fade.
I’ve just cleared my virtual inbox and started looking for something else I can do to keep busy when my phone starts ringing in my pocket, and a coordinating notification pops up in the corner of my laptop screen for a FaceTime call from Lindsay. I guess I figured Justin would have taken care of keeping Mel and Linds informed too, since he’d been so keen on taking everything right out of my hands, but maybe not.
“Hey,” I say softly, seeing my longtime best friend and her wife sitting side by side on their sofa, miles away in a Toronto suburb. “Just a second, let me go outside.”
I hesitate for a couple of seconds, because I wonder if I should maybe stay within earshot of Gus, but he hasn’t made a peep since I left his room. Plus, I did tell him to text me, so here’s hoping he remembers that and doesn’t try to do much of anything on his own -- after all, he is my son, with the stubborn streak to prove it. But I’d prefer my conversation with Lindsay to be private, so… out on the balcony I go, tugging the sliding glass door closed behind me before settling in at our patio table with the computer in front of me.
“How’s Gus?” Lindsay asks, getting right to the point, and now I can see the slight furrow to her brow and the tiny indentation that forms above her nose when she’s worried about something.
“He’s fine,” I say. “Sleeping.”
“Good,” she breathes, looking down and smoothing out an invisible wrinkle in her pants -- a nervous habit of hers. “We’ve been so worried. I hate not being there, but--”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, cutting her off before she can get too far down that road. “Justin and I are doing just fine.”
“Is Justin there? We’d love to see him too.”
I snort and run the edge of my thumbnail along the groove where the glass tabletop meets the metal frame, just to have something to do with my hands. “Not so sure he wants to see me at the moment.”
“What? What’s going on? He seemed fine last night.” Lindsay’s words come out in a rush and I can hear her anxiety level climbing along with her voice.
“He’s fine -- we’re fine -- I just…” I let my voice trail off for a couple of seconds, then I take a breath and the whole story comes tumbling out -- from the argument over who was spending the night and Justin forcing me to go home, all the way to having too much to drink and Justin making me feel like a scolded child. It feels good to get it all off my chest, even though I’m sure Lindsay will probably take Justin’s side, and I don’t think I want to know what Melanie will have to say about my indiscretions.
Once I’ve gotten it all out, though, I look up to see Melanie’s face sitting somewhere between shocked and confused, while Lindsay’s is just confused.
“Wait…” Mel says slowly, cocking her head to the side and squinting her eyes. “Let me get this straight. You asked him to bring the things you needed to be able to stay the night, because Gus asked you to, and then he just… didn’t, because he knew then that you wouldn’t be able to stay? Kind of a dick move, if you ask me. Not to mention ableist as fuck.”
I shrug and look away, but I can already feel my irritation returning, because I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, really. But she’s right. Justin set me up to have no choice in the matter. I went along with it because I didn’t want to fight -- especially not when we were both already stressed about Gus -- but now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t unsee it, and it makes me angry all over again.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way,” Lindsay says, taking up for Justin exactly as I thought she would.
“Maybe not, but that’s exactly what he did,” Mel argues.
Lindsay says something else to her after that, but I don’t quite catch it, and then another notification pops up in the corner of my screen -- this time a text message from Gus, who is apparently awake and needs more water.
I type out a quick reply to let him know I’ll be there in a minute, and there’s a sudden pause in the back-and-forth between Mel and Linds that I haven’t been listening to for the last several seconds.
“Brian?” Lindsay’s voice pulls me back to the conversation, and I shake my head to clear it.
“Yeah, sorry… I need to go. Gus needs something.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s fine; he just needs some water. I told him not to get up.”
Mel huffs out a laugh. “Good luck keeping that going. As soon as he’s back to being fully awake, he’ll be doing whatever the hell he wants. Trust me.”
I’m a little surprised that there’s no explicit stab at me or the less-than-savory personality traits our son inherited from me, but there isn’t. What’s really surprising, though, is the fact that Melanie ended up being the one to point out something I should have seen myself. Something I should have read Justin the riot act about last night, and would have, had I been in my right mind. And now that I’ve thought about it, I’m pissed -- and I feel like I have every right to be, because Melanie’s right… it was a dick move. And kind of unlike Justin, to tell the truth.
“Let us know if there’s anything we can do,” Lindsay says earnestly, her voice once again bringing me back.
“I will… thanks.”
“Tell him we love him,” Mel adds.
“And to call us when he’s feeling up to it,” Lindsay chimes in.
I nod and say, “Later,” as Lindsay blows me a kiss, then I press the button to end the call.
I close the laptop and set it on my thighs, then hurry back through the balcony door and into the kitchen for a fresh glass of water for Gus, dropping my laptop off on the dining room table on the way by. When I get to Gus’ room, he’s stacked a few pillows up behind him and is typing something out on his phone. He laughs, then groans.
“Fuck,” he mutters. “Laughing hurts.”
“Who’re you texting?” I ask, as he sets the phone down on the bed and takes the water from me.
“Cole. Apparently I should be offended that they didn’t offer to let me take my appendix home in a jar.”
“Not sure that’s a thing,” I chuckle. “Unless you’re a cartoon character.”
Gus shrugs and leans over to place the glass on his bedside table, making a face as he twists his torso.
“Careful,” I say. “Don’t want to bust your stitches.” I fucking sound like Deb -- god rest her soul -- but the older I get, the more I realize she was right about a hell of a lot of things. So maybe passing along her ‘wisdom’ isn’t so terrible.
“I know,” Gus says softly, nestling himself back into his stack of pillows.
“Your moms send their love, and said to call when you’re feeling up to it,” I say, suddenly feeling very awkward and out of my element in the silence that follows. I still don’t quite know what to do when it comes to this whole ‘caregiving’ thing. Sure, I’m lightyears ahead of where I would have been 25 years ago, but it still doesn’t come naturally, and at this point, I’m not sure it ever will.
Gus nods again, but doesn’t say anything.
“Can I get you anything else?” I ask. “A snack? Or we could order an early dinner and get it delivered.”
Gus shakes his head. “Not really hungry. Still a little nauseous. And really thirsty.”
“I can bring you some more water,” I say, and I hardly manage to finish the sentence before my phone is buzzing with one of my own alarms, which I quickly dismiss. “Want it now, or later?”
“I’m okay right now,” Gus says, his voice getting softer as his eyelids get heavier. “Think I’m just gonna try to sleep some more.”
“Okay… text if you need me.”
“I will,” Gus mumbles, his eyes now completely closed and his voice barely audible. “Thanks.”
I reach out and lay my hand over his, giving it a squeeze. “Anytime, son.”
After I leave the room, I end up sitting in the hallway for several seconds, just staring at our still-closed bedroom door. I realize I was pretty much told to get the fuck out -- which I’m even more pissed off about now that I’m thinking about how Justin’s spent the last day or so basically running me over -- but the shit I need is in our master bath, so… he’s just gonna have to get over it.
I open the door slowly and push myself inside, and out of the corner of my eye I see Justin roll over to face the windows. Fine, whatever. If that’s the way he wants to be, see if I give a fuck. I go in the bathroom and take my time taking care of business -- viewing it as a bonus if I also happen to be keeping Justin out of the bathroom at the same time. It’s petty, sure, but at this point, it feels like all bets are off.
I unzip the cover on the cushion I discarded in the corner of the bathroom earlier, then open the bathroom door to find Justin still facing the windows, ignoring me.
I’m not sure if he’s awake or asleep -- not that I particularly care -- so I close the door again and go to the laundry room to start my last load of laundry. Once that’s going, I move to our home office this time, so I can be closer to Gus if he needs anything. I hear Justin come out of the bedroom not long after, but neither of us says anything to the other, and that’s exactly how things go for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Justin makes dinner but doesn’t bother plating mine up or telling me when it’s ready -- instead leaving me to take my hint from the fact that he’s left the kitchen with a plate of food for Gus. We eat together at the table, in silence, and I’m not sure I can remember a more awkward meal shared between us. But I’m not willing to give just yet, and clearly neither is he.
I move to the sofa after dinner and stretch out on the chaise lounge like I do every night, then I turn on the TV. That’s our normal routine, and I wonder for a split second if Justin might join me, but he makes a big show of plucking his book off the coffee table and sitting down in the armchair across the room, pointedly ignoring me the entire time.
We sit there together, not saying a word, and the only time anyone speaks in the apartment is when Gus needs something. By the time eleven rolls around, however, it’s been quiet for a couple of hours, with Gus apparently down for the count after his nighttime dose of pain meds.
The credits roll on the ten o’clock news and I click the TV off, intending to get an early start on my bedtime routine, because why the hell not -- but Justin beats me to the punch, snapping his book shut and standing up, then saying the first words he’s spoken to me since this morning: “I’m going to bed.”
And I don’t know what possesses me to say it, other than the sheer frustration that’s been simmering just below the surface for me all damn day -- plus the fact that I’ll never give up an opportunity to be a smartass -- but before I can stop myself, I end up firing back, “Am I allowed to come, or do you want to move my chair to ensure I can’t?”
Justin stops short and looks up at me, confusion replacing the contempt that’s been on his face all day. “What the fuck? Why would I do that?”
“Isn’t that what you did last night?”
“What? I wasn’t even here last night. Jesus, Brian, how much did you drink?”
“No, you weren’t here, and that’s exactly my point.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You didn’t even give me a chance. You just… decided for me.”
“Okay, you’re gonna have to catch me up here, because I don’t--”
“I asked you to bring my stuff, and you didn’t,” I snap, cutting him off. “You brought yours, and you left me no choice. You were staying, and that was that.”
“I stayed so neither of us would have to worry. I thought you were okay with that.”
I snort derisively. “More like so you wouldn’t have to worry.”
“Yes, Brian, so I wouldn’t have to worry about you, and neither of us would have to worry about Gus, but since you apparently don’t trust me--”
“What the hell was I gonna do, Justin?” I know I’m getting louder now, but I can’t help myself -- I’m too angry, and the fact that Justin still isn’t fucking getting it is making it ten times worse. “Go home to pack my own bag, come back to fight it out with you again, and probably get us both kicked out of the hospital? I wasn’t going to do that, so your little plan worked, but in the meantime, it’d be really great if you could refrain from using my disability against me.”
“I didn’t mean it like that and you know it.”
“Well, how did you mean it, then? You know what, don’t answer that. Look, I know I fucked up. I got drunk. My body let me know that wasn’t a good idea. I took care of it so you wouldn’t have to. You know, since you were so put out taking care of Gus all night. I don’t know what else you want from me.”
“I wasn’t put out. I just thought we might all be more comfortable if you went home, that’s all. What I’m not understanding is why you came home and got absolutely trashed.”
“That’s the fucking problem! You thought. You made a fucking unilateral decision and left no room for argument, so you could be more comfortable! Not me. Not Gus. You.”
“No, that’s not--”
“I was fucking scared, Justin!” I hear my voice crack, and I swallow hard to push back the emotion I can already feel building, but hot tears are already pricking at the corners of my eyes despite my best efforts to blink them away. “I was afraid that something would happen with Gus, and you wouldn’t wake up in time to get--”
“Brian, he was fine. He is fine. I still don’t understand--”
“Would you shut up and let me finish? Yes, I know he’s fine -- now. But everything that could possibly go wrong, I thought of it last night. Over and over. So I drank. Because I needed it all to just stop. That’s it. Again, pain management. End of story. And having Rob call me?” I pause and huff out a laugh. “That was like rubbing salt in the damn wound.”
“What? Why? I thought you might want someone to talk to, since you were clearly--”
“I couldn’t let myself go there!” I cut him off, the lump in my throat growing even larger and harder to ignore. “You should have known that. I know you know what that’s like. I needed to numb out and go to bed, so that’s what I did. I could have done without the side of judgment from my husband.”
“I wasn’t judging you.” Justin’s voice is much softer this time -- more sincere -- and I know I can’t look at him or I’ll lose control.
“Could’ve fooled me,” I say, closing my eyes as I pause to take a breath and attempt to gather myself and my emotions, but when I open them again, Justin’s face is already blurred by unshed tears. “You know, this was my one chance to be there for him, and you took that away from me. Didn’t even bother discussing it with me… you just decided for both of us. I’ve been absent for most of his life… I didn’t want to be absent for this too. I thought you would understand that.”
My voice wavers at the end of that sentence, and I squeeze my eyes shut in a last ditch effort to maintain control. I hear Justin start to respond, but before he can, I hear Gus’ voice coming from the end of the hallway, uttering a soft, “Dad? Justin?”
I open my eyes to see Gus shuffling into the living room, one hand pressed against the lower right side of his abdomen.
“What are you doing up?” I ask, cursing the thickness in my voice. “Why didn’t you text me?”
“Dad, I’m fine,” Gus insists, gingerly lowering himself to the couch. “I’m supposed to be getting up and walking some.”
For a few seconds, none of us say anything, and the tension in the room is so thick you could cut it with a knife. I hear Justin sniffle, and he swipes at his eyes with the back of his left hand. And when someone finally does speak, it’s Gus.
“That’s not right, you know,” he says softly, looking down at his legs as he picks a piece of lint off his pajama pants. “That you haven’t been there for me.”
“You heard that, huh?” I can feel the heat start to build in my cheeks as I realize that I’ve just done one of the very things I’d promised myself I would never do around Gus, because lord knows I heard enough ‘disagreements’ between Jack and Joan growing up.
“Kind of hard not to when you two are out here yelling at each other.” He pauses and looks up, and I can see the tears in his eyes too. “I don’t want you guys fighting over me.”
I reach over and lay a hand on his thigh. “We’re not fighting over you, I promise.”
“No, we’re not,” Justin adds, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he swallows hard. I know he heard more than his fair share of fights between his parents too, and neither of us ever wanted to do that to Gus. But now we have, and we can’t take it back.
There’s another awkward silence, and Justin leans forward to set his book on the coffee table, giving me a sad half-smile and a nod before he leaves the room, heading down the hallway toward our bedroom.
“I’m sorry you had to hear all that,” I say, giving Gus’ thigh a gentle squeeze before I slide my hand back to my own lap. “It really wasn’t about you. I need you to know that.”
“Did you really get drunk because of me, last night?”
I shake my head and look down, because I can’t look Gus in the eye when I’ve made him feel exactly how my own fucking poor excuse for a father made me feel countless times growing up. “No, I promise. I got drunk because I was scared… and angry at Justin. Not you.”
Gus nods, still fidgeting with the small pieces of blanket fuzz on his pajamas. “Okay,” he says softly, sniffling. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”
“Why are you apologizing?”
“I don’t know, I just… I didn’t want you to think that I… that I felt like you hadn’t been there for me. You have. You’ve always been there when I needed you.” Gus is quiet for a moment, then looks up at me, and I meet his eyes and see that they’re still shining with tears. “Especially this past year. It really sucked sometimes. And I know it wasn’t easy for you either, but… whenever I needed you, you were there. Even if it was just sitting here talking to me in the living room at two in the morning because I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. Or dragging me out to the park to get me out of the house when I didn’t want to go… and you always promised me it was ‘just’ ten minutes, but once we got there, I kind of didn’t want to leave, because I was with you. It was just us. And I wanted that. I wanted it last night, too, but--”
“I wish I could have stayed. I wanted to. I want you to know that.”
“I know you did. But I don’t want you to, like… risk your health or anything to do it.”
“And I don’t want you to have to worry about shit like that; you shouldn’t have to.”
“I don’t mind, Dad. I want you to be here for a long time.”
I suck in a deep breath, and it hitches a little in my throat. “I want to be,” I say, my voice breaking. “And, god willing, I will be. I’m just sorry you got caught in the middle last night… and today.”
Gus shrugs. “It’s okay, I just wanted… I wanted to make sure you guys were okay.”
“We will be. We’ll figure it out. We always do.”
Gus shifts a little on the couch, grimacing slightly as he does, his hand coming up to press against his abdomen again.
“I think maybe you should go back to bed,” I say softly, and Gus nods. “Justin and I are fine. I promise. And we both love you more than anything in the world. We just wanted you to be okay.”
Gus’ lower lip trembles as he tries to blink away the wetness in his eyes. “I know. I love you guys too.”
I pull him into a hug and hear him sniffle against my shoulder, so I hold on a little tighter, rubbing my hand over his back. “I’m glad you’re okay,” I whisper.
Gus is quiet for a beat or two before he responds with a murmured, “Me too.”
I get Gus settled back in bed with a fresh glass of water and the painkillers he can take in a couple of hours if he needs them, then I turn out the lights in the living room and head back toward the bedroom Justin and I share. The door is cracked just slightly, the warm glow from our bedside lamps spilling out into the hallway through the gap.
I hesitate a little, taking a deep breath before I push the door open, and I see Justin quickly swipe a hand over his face.
“Hi,” he says quietly, and even in the dim light, I can see that his eyes are red. He’s been crying. He takes a breath and blows it out slowly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… I guess I wasn’t thinking. I was just so focused on Gus, and I was frustrated with how stubborn you were being, and I just… I thought if I didn’t give you any other options, I was saving us a fight, not starting one.”
“Yeah.” I pull my lips between my teeth and watch as Justin takes another deep breath, this one stuttering a little.
“I do know how it feels,” he says. “To not be able to turn your brain off. Yesterday was just… I felt like I was going out of my mind, stuck here at home. I knew why we both couldn’t be there, but that didn’t make it any easier to not be able to be there, you know?” Justin pauses and huffs out a laugh. “I guess that’s probably how I made you feel last night, huh? God. I really am sorry. I never meant to--”
“I know,” I murmur, cutting him off. “And I’m sorry too. Sorry I lost control. I wasn’t thinking either, I just… I needed it all to stop. And alcohol seemed like the fastest way to get that. Old habits, I guess.”
Justin nods. “Yeah.” He’s quiet for a couple of seconds before he adds, “So are we okay?”
“Yeah,” I reply, a small smile playing at my lips. “We’re okay.”
The corners of Justin’s lips quirk upward as well. “Good.”
My phone then interrupts our tender moment with my final alarm of the night, and I can’t help but laugh. “It’s always something, isn’t it?”
“Yep,” Justin chuckles, his smile a little bigger now. “Do what you need to do. I’ll be here.”
I complete my nighttime routine before shedding everything except my boxer briefs because I want to feel Justin’s skin against mine -- I just hope he wants the same. When I go back into the bedroom, it’s dark, save for the glow of the city coming in from outside the window. Justin is curled up on his side under the covers, and I can see his bare shoulders peeking out from the edge of the duvet -- clearly he had the same thought. I smile as I slide my body from my chair to the mattress, reaching down to cross my ankles before rolling over to face Justin.
He reaches out and traces a gentle finger down my sternum, then leans in to kiss me, hard.
“I love you,” he breathes as he pulls away before settling into the pillows. “Don’t ever forget that.”
“Love you too,” I echo, rolling over onto my stomach before draping an arm over Justin’s chest and tugging him in close. “And I promise I won’t… so long as you promise the same.”
“Always,” he whispers, his eyes closing as I press a kiss to his right shoulder and let my own eyes drift shut as well, secure in the knowledge that we’re all okay, and that, once again, we got through it… together.