"Failure: it's like the desert, it's like Windex, it makes everything clear."
He's surprised by how fast it happens.
One minute he's in the thick of things, recording, doing publicity, sitting up late with the familiar knot of nervousness in his throat the night before the record drops.
This time, he keeps that vigil alone.
This time, the knot doesn't loosen when the first sales figures come out.
He thinks that it's like when you forget to pay the electricity bill and all of a sudden the lights go out, the TV goes dark, the low hum of the refrigerator cuts off. You didn't realize how much noise they made until you're sitting in silence.
He still has things to do, of course. There's even more press, frenzied at the sight of blood in the water. There's a tour to cancel. There are a thousand calls to make. He thinks he hates it, until he's finished and there's nothing left to do.
He goes home. There's nothing to do there either, but at least there aren't disappointed eyes watching him do it.
He's never had this much time to spend in his house. It's bigger than he remembers. He pulls his blanket and pillows out of the bedroom and camps out on the living room couch. He's having trouble sleeping. He can't seem to turn his mind off long enough to rest.
He remembers last year when his grandfather died. His mother ran around until she was exhausted, planning the funeral and calling relatives and taking care of all the tiny niggling details that anyone could have handled. He told her so, and she sighed and said, "It's good to have a distraction. Just while it's so fresh." He knows what she meant.
He wishes he had a distraction.
When he's been home a month, the guys start to call, Chris and JC and Joey. Lance doesn't call. He doesn't expect him to. He knows they waited this long to give him a chance to recover a little, and he appreciates their discretion. He still doesn't want to talk to them.
After another week the calls come again, more frequently now. He listens to their messages on his answering machine. He hears the concern in their voices, the love, and the guilt. He knows that after he left, each one of them secretly imagined this happening. He forgives them because he knows they never really believed it would. He didn't, either.
After two more weeks they are calling every day, and he knows that if he doesn't answer soon they'll start showing up on his doorstep. He takes the phone into the bathroom and stands in front of the mirror as he talks to them. Watching his face in the smooth flat glass is almost as good as watching himself on a video monitor. He can tell by his expression if he's hitting the right notes. He has to sound together enough that they'll leave him alone, but not so together that they think he's faking. He gets it exactly right. He's not that great an actor, but they are an eager audience. They want to believe he's fine.
When he gets off the phone with Joey, he thinks about the day he told them he was quitting. It wasn't as hard as he had expected. They were kind to him; they eased things for him the way they always had. After all, he was the baby. It was time anyway, he thinks. Chris and Joey wanted to get off the road, and JC was starting to feel a little stifled. Only Lance was caught by surprise.
Lance had waited for the others to finish congratulating him, reassuring him, had waited until they had all turned away from Justin. Lance had smiled and said calmly, "Justin, I hope you get exactly what you deserve."
Everything happened at once then. Justin was on his feet and in Lance's face, Joey was dragging him back, Chris was swearing at Lance. JC looked around helplessly and said, "Hey, hey, we're all a little upset." Lance stood there, still smiling, until they were all quiet again. Then he said, "It's interesting, isn't it, how we all knew that was an insult." Lance left them shifting uneasily, silent, unwilling to meet each other's eyes.
He shivers when he thinks about it.
He still can't sleep. At first he could nap during the day, but now he can't even manage that. Sometimes if he pulls the shades in the afternoon and mutes the TV, he can turn his mind off for a while, sink into a stunned heavy stupor. He thinks that maybe if he got some exercise, did something, he'd be able to sleep. But he doesn't want to leave the house, doesn't want anyone to see him, and he can't think of anything to do.
He's living in three rooms now, the living room, the kitchen and the downstairs bathroom. He hasn't spoken to anyone in days. He orders groceries instead of takeout because they let him use his credit card without signing for it and they'll leave the boxes outside his front door.
He still gets a phone call or two that he never answers, and he gets mail sometimes. Scripts arrive occasionally from his agent, but after the first few he never bothers to look at them. He can tell from their crisp covers that they are coated with the sickly sweet tang of failure. He thinks they probably taste like the inside of his mouth.
While his days aren't exactly what he'd call full, they're a million times better than his nights. His house gives him the creeps when it's dark out. He thinks that if he could do it over again, he'd go a little easier on the marble and the stark white walls. By about two or three in the morning, he can't watch any more TV. Listening to music hurts him. He's never been a reader.
He stretches out on the couch and tries not to think about what he's going to do for the next sixty years. He tries to think of what regular people do with their lives. He could sell things, he guesses, he might be good at that. People like him, or they used to. He could teach maybe, but he thinks you have to have gone to college for that. Maybe he could be a lawyer. No job seems real to him; when he tries to think of what a working day would be like, he sees it in half-hour or hour blocks, like a TV show. He knows he'll probably never be forced to work, but he can't bear to think of spending the rest of his life like this. A scrap of nursery rhyme circles in his head in an endless loop: "doctor lawyer Indian chief."
When he can't take it any more, he gets up and wanders upstairs. He doesn't turn on the lights. He opens doors and drifts through rooms, touching things that once meant something to him. He can't remember what. He feels like he's haunting his own house.
The morning Lance appears in his living room, he hasn't slept in days. He thinks he's forgotten how. He wonders if he can die from not sleeping, or go crazy, or if he'll just exist forever in this dreamlike dreamless state, floating like a wraith through abandoned rooms. He's not sure which would be worse.
When he sees Lance standing on the threshold, lips pursed, he thinks he must be hallucinating. "So it's crazy then," he says.
Lance says, "Jesus, Justin, you're a fucking mess," and the disgust in his voice is so real, so Lance, that he knows Lance is actually there. He sits up and looks at Lance. It's been over a year since the last time Justin saw him. Lance is heavier than he was, not fat at all but he looks like he's given up the relentless working out that kept him lean and buff. He looks solid, the way he did in the old days. He has a new haircut, and his hair is light brown. Justin thinks that's maybe his natural color but he's not sure. He's wearing khakis and a dark jacket. Justin always used to forget that Lance was older, but he remembers now. Lance looks like an adult.
"Did you come here to say I told you so?" Justin says.
"Yeah," Lance says. "Yeah, that's why I'm here." He doesn't say anything else.
Justin hasn't been around people in so long that it's hard to tell, but he thinks that this is what anyone would call an awkward silence.
"So why are you here?" Justin says.
"Come on," Lance says. "We're leaving."
Lance looks at the dirty dishes, the tangled sheets, the muted television. He raises an eyebrow. "You had other plans?"
He makes Justin take a shower, even though Justin is actually pretty clean. He can make a shower last half an hour, and if he takes one in the morning and one in the evening, that's an entire hour of his day filled.
By the time he's done, Lance has packed a small bag for him. He hands it to Justin.
"Where are we going?" Justin asks.
"Does it matter?" Lance says, and leaves. Justin follows. It doesn't, really.
They drive to the airport. When they get to their gate, Justin figures out what's going on. He's heard that Lance has moved to New York, but he's never seen Lance's new place. Lance takes out his laptop and puts on headphones. Justin looks out the window.
When they arrive in New York, it's dark out. As the taxi pulls up to the curb, the relief Justin feels at being out of his house, at being in the presence of another person, is beginning to be replaced by a small nagging pinch of dread. He's not sure this is a good idea. He thinks about his chilly empty house, and he doesn't care.
Lance's apartment doesn't look like Lance, Justin thinks, then realizes he's in no position to judge. Maybe this is what Lance looks like now.
It's not very big, but the ceilings are high and the rooms are airy and open. Spare, Justin thinks, is the right word for it. There are a few paintings hanging, but there are a lot of plain white walls as well. It doesn't feel oppressive the way Justin's house does, doesn't loom over him and make him feel small. It feels clean, Justin thinks, clean and clear. He likes it.
Lance comes and stands next to him. He gazes at the room like he's never seen it before. For the first time Lance looks a little unsure. It reminds Justin of the old Lance. Lance had a thing for him once, Justin knows that. Lance had spent the year Justin was seventeen staring at Justin when he thought no one was looking, sitting close to him, blushing when Justin talked to him. It was cute, and Justin had thought sometimes about what it would be like, how happy and grateful Lance would look if Justin put a hand on his cheek and kissed him, how sweet and pliant Lance would be in bed. But a lot of things were thrown at him that year, and all he had to do was open his hand to catch exactly what he wanted. He had lost sight of Lance in the rush.
Things are different now. He puts his hand on Lance's cheek and kisses him.
Lance pushes him away hard, and wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Justin says, "I thought." He doesn't finish. He can't really say what he thought.
"What did you think, Justin?" Lance says. "Did you think I went down there to rescue you and bring you home and confess my love to you in your darkest hour, and we'd live happily ever after?"
Justin looks at the floor. It does sound kind of far-fetched when you say it out loud.
Lance laughs. "You never change, do you, J?" he says, but his voice is not unkind. He walks into the kitchen. "I'm hungry. Do you want something to eat?"
"I think I'll just go to bed," Justin says.
"Third door on the right," Lance says lightly. "Your bathroom's attached. Holler if you need anything."
The bedroom is small and snug. There is a bed, a dresser, a rocking chair. All the furniture barely fits inside. If Justin stretches his arms out, he can almost touch the walls.
Justin climbs into bed and stares at the ceiling. He can hear Lance walking in the other room, talking on the phone. Lance turns music on, low. Justin sleeps for twelve hours.
He dreams that he is onstage again, in his harness from the No Strings tour. He is flying.
He tells Lance, who laughs. "Freud said dreams about flying are actually dreams about sex."
Justin says, "He must never have flown." Justin has, though. He knows what it's like to soar above a crowd, high and free, thousands and thousands of eyes on him.
Lance says, "Yeah," and Justin smiles at him.
Lance says, "Where do you want to go today?" When Justin doesn't answer, Lance says, "I'm not going to sit around all day. If you don't pick, I'll pick for you."
Justin wants to go shopping. Lance rolls his eyes. "I need some more clothes. You're not a very good packer," Justin says. He realizes that he is assuming he'll be here for a while. Lance doesn't correct him.
It feels good to shop again. There's something reassuringly normal about handing over money and getting something back in return. It makes Justin feel like a part of human society again. Like a consumer. Like things have changed in the world, just a little, because he passed by.
Justin doesn't protest when Lance takes him to the museum. He lets Lance lead him through the huge echoing halls. Justin stops in front of a painting he vaguely recognizes. "I like this one," he says.
"Starry Night? You're a man of simple tastes, Just."
"I really like it."
Lance looks at it with him for a while. "You know, he only sold one painting his whole life," Lance says. "All this beautiful work, and only one person ever bought one."
"Thank you for the fucking object lesson, Professor Bass," Justin says and storms out. He has to wait for Lance outside because he's not sure how to get back to the apartment. When Lance catches up to him, he looks slightly ashamed of himself. Justin thinks he should be.
"Sorry, Justin. That was a little. Yeah." He hands Justin a small bag. There is a postcard of Starry Night inside. "It's not, like, a reminder or anything," Lance says nervously. "It's just because you liked it."
"Thank you," Justin says. He tapes it up on the wall across from his bed.
Lance takes him out to dinner. Justin is a little underdressed for the restaurant in his T-shirt and jeans. Lance is wearing a suit. Justin wonders if people think they're on a date, think they're a businessman and his grad student boyfriend. Halfway through dinner, Justin realizes that no one has recognized him since he got to the city.
Lance says, "Does it bother you?"
Justin looks at his plate. "I'm not sure."
Lance shakes his head a little. "Oh, J," he says, and his voice is gentle.
Lance takes him to the beach. Justin says, "New York City has a beach?" and Lance laughs.
"Manhattan's an island, Just."
"That doesn't mean it has a beach." Lance opens his mouth and then closes it, laughs again.
It's too cold for swimming, so they walk down the beach. Lance doesn't ask any questions, and Justin is grateful. The ocean is grayer and choppier than Justin is used to.
When they get home, Justin asks where they're going the next day. Lance sighs. "I have to get back to work, Just."
"Oh," Justin says. "Can I come?"
"It's work, Justin. It's boring. You won't like it."
"Just for a little while," Justin says.
Justin sits in a corner of Lance's office and listens to Lance deal with artists, with record labels, with other managers. He says hello to Stacy when she calls. Lance tells some men who work for him that Justin will be "sitting in" on their meeting. Justin looks down at his shorts and T-shirt and smiles. The presentation fascinates him, although he doesn't understand what it's about. He can't tell if the men know who he is or not. He wonders what it would be like to wear a suit and work all day with numbers that don't mean anything to his life.
Justin doesn't go to work with Lance again. He sits in the apartment and watches TV. He pulls books off Lance's shelves and puts them back. He looks at Lance's CDs but doesn't play any. After three days, he is bored out of his mind.
"Well, go out then," Lance says. "No one's keeping you here." He gives Justin a set of keys and a subway map.
Justin stays close to home at first. He's never really been on his own to wander around a city. It's a little intimidating, but he likes it. He goes running in the park. He goes back to the museum, but he avoids the room with the Van Goghs. Museums make him a little uncomfortable. He likes looking at the art, but the atmosphere makes him edgy.
Lance laughs at him. "So many beautiful things, and none of them for sale."
"That's not it," Justin says seriously. "It's just. So many beautiful things. Somebody worked so hard on every one, and now they're in the museum and people can look at them. And remember them. It just. I wonder if I'll leave anything behind for people to remember."
Lance looks down at his hands. Justin's eyes follow. Lance's nails are carefully manicured, but there are calluses on his index fingers and a patch of rough skin above his left thumb. Lance says without looking up, "Do you think you might try music again, J?"
"It worked out so well for me," Justin says.
"It did for a while. You could try again," Lance says softly.
"Yeah, give people another good laugh."
"Why do you care?" Lance says angrily. "You have money, you have time, you can do pretty much whatever you want. Who cares if people don't like it, if they make fun of you? Why not do what you want?"
Justin doesn't say anything. He knows he shouldn't care, but he does. He always has.
"Justin, you got everything - we got everything so young. And I mean, it wasn't easy. But compared to other people. I just hate to see you giving up. It's worth another try."
"I don't think. I have. That was all." Lance looks up at him. "It's not in me any more, Lance."
It feels strange to have said it out loud. He says it again, just to hear it. Lance puts his hand over Justin's. They are quiet for a long time.
"Can I ask you something?" Lance says. "It's okay if you don't want to tell me."
"Okay," Justin says.
"Why didn't you ask JC to produce anything for you?"
Justin closes his eyes. "I wanted to. He asked me. But they said. You know, too much 'n sync, not different enough. I got scared. Fat lot of good it did me too, listening to them."
"Yeah, well." Justin can tell Lance wants to say something, tell him it's a good lesson, that he should do what he wants and not what people tell him he should do. But Lance doesn't say it, and Justin is glad.
"I wish I had," Justin says.
"Well, we've all got regrets, Just."
Justin wants to know what Lance regrets doing. He asks.
"It's more things I didn't do." Justin wants to know, but Lance has been good about not asking him too many questions. He lets it go.
He goes to the movies during the day. He finds a comic book store and goes back often enough that they learn his name. The weather is getting nicer, it's warmer and sunnier. Justin takes his shirt off when he runs. He starts doing errands for Lance, dropping off dry cleaning and picking up groceries. Lance says he has people who do that, but Justin likes to do it. It gives his days a shape.
He thinks about learning how to cook but decides that would be pushing it. He orders out, though. He knows what Lance likes and he has dinner waiting when Lance comes home.
After a few weeks, Lance looks up at him when he's finished eating and says, "What are you doing, Justin?"
"I'm eating," Justin says, but he plays with his fork. He knows what Lance means.
"I think it's time to move on," Lance says quietly.
Justin looks up in alarm. "You want me to go?" He sounds a little more panicked than he might have hoped. He seems to have lost his cool with his record deal.
"No, no," Lance says. "I didn't mean you have to leave. I just meant. Well. What are you going to do next? Like, with your life?"
Justin studies his plate again. He has an idea, but saying it out loud seems like a commitment. But Lance is right. He can't do this anymore. "I was thinking. Maybe. I thought I might go to school."
"That's. Um. Wow." Lance's amazement, Justin thinks, is not exactly flattering. He says that to Lance and Lance shakes his head vehemently. "No, no. I just. I didn't believe you'd really give it up."
Justin drops his head again. "I didn't." He traces the edge of the table with his finger. "It gave me up."
"Just because people -"
"Not people, Lance. Me." Justin watches his finger skate around the rim of his glass. "Inside me. I don't." Justin trails off.
"It's okay, baby," Lance says softly. "I'm sorry." Justin nods. After a minute Lance clears his throat. "But I think school would be great. Really. It's a really good idea. You should, you should go. Definitely. Do you know what you want to study?"
Justin is still a little shy, talking about it. "No, I just thought. I don't really know anything, and you know, I could learn. I don't know. I think I might be too old."
"You're twenty-three, Justin."
"Yeah, well. You really think it's a good idea?"
"I do," Lance says, and smiles at him.
Lance takes him to the NYU campus, and they poke around the bookstore. Justin tries to imagine reading any of the books of the shelves. He really doesn't know anything, he thinks. Lance just laughs. "That's why people go to school, Justin. To learn things they don't know."
They walk around Washington Square Park and Lance shows him the surveillance cameras, tells him that people protested when they were first put in. "I don't mind them," Justin says. "They make me feel, I don't know -"
"Safe?" Lance says.
"At home," Justin says, and he can feel Lance's disapproval. "I'm trying, Lance, I am. But, you know. It was half my life. I can't. It's not that easy."
"I know," Lance says. He takes Justin's hand, in front of the cameras and everybody, and they walk through the park. A woman smiles at them, then does a double take and comes back.
"I know who you guys are," she says. They sign autographs and she tells Justin she liked his album. He wishes she didn't sound so defensive about it. "And I'm glad to see that it didn't come between you two," she says, and Justin waits until she's out of sight before he starts laughing.
"Right now," he gasps. "No one's recognized us in weeks, but right now, of course, right now."
Lance smiles at him. "Maybe it's a good omen." He brushes up against Justin lightly as they start walking again, but his hands remain at his sides.
Lance brings him home college catalogues, and Justin sits on the floor and looks at them while Lance works on his laptop. They are all from New York schools. He brings Justin books sometimes, novels and expensive oversized art books. Justin looks up from the couch one night and says, "This is nice, you know?"
"Domestic," Lance says.
Justin keeps the forms and information he gathers in a folder Lance gave him. He's keeping track of other things too. Lance is watching him again, all the time. Justin knows because he's watching too. Lance puts his hand on top of Justin's while they're eating, drapes his arm around Justin's shoulder while they're sitting on the couch. When they watch TV, Justin's head is in Lance's lap. Two days ago, when Lance asked Justin to hand him a bowl, he called him baby.
Justin goes down to NYU during the day now. He browses in the bookstores, drinks coffee, lies on his stomach in the park and watches people. He knows it's silly, but he feels like he's practicing, trying out being a student to see how it fits. It feels better than he thought it would. He sits on a bench and grins around him. It's been so long that he almost doesn't recognize the feeling. He is happy.
A guy his age or a little younger walks by and smiles at him. When he sees Justin's grin, he doubles back. Justin leaves the park with him. There are other things he needs to practice.
It's been a long time, since before Britney, but it's not like it's changed any. The guy is cute, and nice, and Justin is glad he remembers a condom. The rubbery taste in his mouth makes him feel even more like it's a rehearsal, like it's not the real thing.
The guy lies next to Justin in bed and gives him a cigarette. Justin hasn't smoked in years, but this seems to be that kind of day. "That was nice," the guy says, rolling over and putting a hand on Justin's stomach. "And I always feel like an ass doing this, but I'm Scott. What's your name?"
Justin smiles. It almost doesn't hurt any more. "Justin," he says.
When Lance comes home, Justin is waiting for him.
"What's up, Just?" he says, and Justin kisses him. Lance doesn't kiss back, and when Justin lets him go, Lance just stands there, stock still. "Oh," he says, in a startled voice. Justin fidgets a little. This went better in his head.
Lance pushes him back against the wall and kisses him hard, like he's been waiting his whole life to do it, and it's Justin's turn to be startled.
Lance's mouth is rough on his, demanding, and Lance is in a hurry. He has Justin's shirt off before Justin has a chance to catch his breath, and his hands are moving hard and restless over Justin's hot skin. He fumbles with the zipper on Justin's jeans, and Justin gasps, "Wait, wait," against Lance's lips.
"Waited long enough," Lance says, and yanks Justin's pants and underwear down. He shoves Justin back a little but doesn't let go of him. He looks him up and down, and then pushes him to his knees.
Justin feels Lance's hands wrapping tightly in the curls that are starting to grow back. Lance tugs sharply, and Justin chokes a little as a small voice in the back of his mind whispers, They used to call us the babies. He thinks wildly that if JC could see them now, he'd have a heart attack. He wonders if all of them, if all of it will always be so tangled up with him and Lance. "Pay attention," Lance says, and runs a hand over Justin's cheek.
After Lance comes, Justin sits back on the floor and pulls his jeans the rest of the way off. He looks up. Lance is still fully dressed. He can't believe he once thought Lance would be docile and tame in bed. Lance grins down at him, like he knows what he's thinking. He reaches down and pulls Justin easily to his feet. He kisses him. "Bedroom," he says.
Once in the bedroom, Lance slows down. Justin wouldn't mind a little more of a rush at this point. Lance runs his tongue from the base of Justin's neck to the curve of his ass, and Justin decides that slow has its place. Lance's lips, his tongue, his fingers are everywhere, and Justin is moaning and begging in a ragged small voice.
Lance rolls him onto his belly and runs a hand up the inside of his thigh. "I was thinking of fucking you now," he whispers lazily into Justin's ear, and Justin shivers at the vibrations that deep voice sets racing through his body.
"Yeah, good," Justin says as Lance's hand moves higher. "You know, um. Oh. First time. Oh." Lance takes his hand away and sits back. Justin props himself up on an elbow and looks at him indignantly.
"You've got to be kidding me. Seriously? I thought you lost it when you were, like, fifteen."
"Well, you know, other things. Just not," Justin says.
Lance wraps a hand loosely around Justin's cock and says softly, "We don't have to. We can do something else."
"It's okay," Justin says, and Lance smiles. Justin rolls back over onto his stomach and feels Lance move over him.
"Glad you waited for me," Lance says.
Afterward Justin curls into Lance and puts his head on Lance's chest. "Love you," he says, and feels Lance's fingers gentle in his hair.
The next morning Lance is already up when Justin wakes. Justin finds him working at his laptop. "I meant it," Justin says, and kisses him.
Lance doesn't look up. "Yeah, I know. You love me, and I love you too, of course."
Justin stands up straight. "What do you mean, of course?"
Lance sighs and runs his hands through his hair. When he speaks, his voice is tight. "Let's not start lying to each other. I mean, this wasn't exactly in the plans, was it? Don't get me wrong, it's nice, and I'm happy, but there's no point pretending it's something it's not. You're settling."
"I'm not settling," Justin says.
"Justin," Lance says, "come on. You fucked up, and you crawled back here to lick your wounds." He is staring at a spot on the wall just to the right of Justin's head.
"I'm not. It wasn't. I'm not."
"It's okay," Lance says, still watching that spot on the wall, "it's good, I'm all right with it. But don't tell me it's something it's not."
"And you're settling for me?"
"Justin," Lance says, and puts a hand on his arm.
Justin watches him carefully. Lance finally returns his gaze, his green eyes wide and honest. "So I guess I'm finally getting exactly what I deserve," Justin says. He sees Lance flinch.
"Yeah," Lance says. "I guess we all eventually do."
Justin keeps watching him. Lance puts a hand over his mouth, closes his eyes, clenches his fists. He sighs again. "I want to go home," Justin says. When Justin leaves, Lance doesn't try to stop him.
He goes back. His house has been cleaned, but it still has a deserted, ghostly air. He doesn't want to stay. He sits at the table and thinks about what Lance said. He wants to go home.
He still has keys to Lance's apartment. When he walks in, Lance is sitting on the couch. A small part of Justin is gratified to see that Lance looks like hell. "What are you doing here?" Lance says.
"Do I have to drag you back to Florida, or can we do this here?" Justin says.
"I've come to rescue you and bring you home and confess my love in your darkest hour and we'll live happily ever after," Justin says.
"Seriously," Justin says.
Lance laughs again. "Good," he says, and takes Justin to bed.