maybe (the ocean)

by >>Jae

It will be a question when Justin starts, but he will catch himself before the end and it won't be one by the time he finishes.

"Maybe," JC will echo, and in JC's voice it will never be a question. Justin will be pulled to his feet as the word washes over his skin. He will not want to go but he will not say it. He will go.

JC will shrug and hold out his hand for the keys. Justin will give them to him. He wouldn't give them to anyone else, with anyone else he'd argue and he'd bitch and he'd win, but with JC it goes without saying. It will go without saying.

Justin will drop the keys into JC's open palm and watch as JC walks down the driveway. He won't follow until JC looks back over his shoulder. JC will look back. JC will look back and wait for him and they will walk together for a few steps, shoulders almost touching, until they reach Justin's car.

Justin will stop for a moment, marooned in the driveway, a thousand new demands dragging at him just beneath the surface of his skin. He will have studio time at six o'clock and three interviews before that and a hundred thousand million things he should do must do wants to do. He will stop for a moment, frozen in place by the unfamiliar chill of resistance as JC slides past him to the car. He will not want to go.

He will want JC to say a thousand things, or one thing. He will want JC's voice to drown out a thousand new voices licking at him from all sides. He will know that JC will not say anything. Instead JC will look at him, and a thousand desires will sink beneath the easy pull of JC's smile.

Justin will get in the car, and he will go without saying anything at all.

He always does.

JC's sheets are soft and blue, deep dark ocean for Justin to sink into, and his walls are a lighter cooler blue. Justin likes to lie in bed and watch the early sun lick at the chill of the walls and crash over the bed, over them. He likes to feel it warming his skin in streaks and splashes, bursts of sunlight on his skin as sudden as crocuses, and underneath it all a low slow bloom spreading through his body, radiating out from JC's hand open on his stomach. All Justin wants is to lie in bed as the sun breaks over them, dazed and drunk with sleep, lie in bed as the sun fills the room and then rolls back out, blue shadows drifting over them in its wake. Justin remembers a day when they stayed in bed from before the sun rose until the room was drowned again in blue.

Even in the absence of the sun Justin was warmed, through and through and through.

"It's all so tangled up," JC said. "It's hard to believe."

It wasn't near the beginning, because Justin knew to be worried by the restless flutter of JC's thigh under his cheek. It wasn't near the end, because Justin still asked, "What is?"

"That we could still - that you could." JC's voice was soft and dreamy, filled with something like awe, and if he hadn't slid his hand down into Justin's hair and tilted Justin's face up, Justin might have thought he was talking to himself. "You and me. All of us. You and me. It's hard to believe."

"I know," Justin said. He did. He was still taken aback sometimes at the vastness of desire, at all the accommodations of his heart. He was surprised and almost proud of all the love he was capable of.

It wasn't near the end.

"Hard to believe," JC said, and it wasn't awe in his voice after all, "all these years, and we're still living in such a small way, in such a small space. We're still all wrapped around each other. We can have everything we want except room to move."

Justin closed his eyes and felt his breath coming in sharp shocks, twitching exactly in time with JC's thigh. "I know," Justin said. He did. Back home in his grandfather's yard there was a tree that bent in on itself, the branches still reaching toward the light. His mother had told him there were other trees there once, planted too close together, and they'd grown in on each other, crowding and curling around one another. Even after the others were chopped down, the last tree still held its shape, the trunk curving elaborately over nothing.

When Justin goes home he will run his hands over the rough bark and take the measure of what was once there and will never be again.

Joey will take his side. Justin will be surprised, because Joey is JC's, has been since before Justin knew either of them, but Joey will never understand JC's explanations.

Justin will have no explanations, will be able to say nothing except, "Please," helplessly, hopelessly.

Joey will understand that.

Lance will say he won't take sides. "I'm on the side of peace and quiet," he will say, but he will take Justin out drinking and take Justin home when he's drunk. He will rub Justin's back gently as he retches and he will say, just as gently, "You'll feel better when it's over."

Lance will be lying.

Chris will listen and say nothing. He will say nothing when Justin swears and he will say nothing when Justin punches a hole in Chris' garage wall and he will say nothing in the emergency room. He will say nothing until Justin throws himself down on the floor in front of the couch, knocking his head against Chris' knees and cradling his bandaged hand. When Justin says, "Why?" Chris will answer.

"J, baby," Chris will say, "J, I don't know why you ever thought it could."

Justin will say, "Why?" again and Chris will answer.

"It's never gonna work, J, when you and him don't want the same way." Before Justin can protest Chris will say, "The same way. You may want the same thing, but you and C don't want the same way."

Justin will not understand. He won't say that, though. He won't say anything. He will want to say that Chris doesn't understand, the way he did when he talked to Chris about Britney. He won't say that, though. He will never be able to say that Chris doesn't understand JC.

It's frightening.

For his first earthquake, Justin is asleep in JC's bed. He starts out that way, at least. He ends up on the floor, trying to remember whether you're supposed to stand in the doorway or if that's for tornados like in The Wizard of Oz. He's pretty sure you're not supposed to run out into the yard without even a sheet like JC does, his eyes wide and reckless.

It's not much of an earthquake, Justin guesses, although it's enough to make him want to go straight home where the ground stays put like it's supposed to. The walls don't come tumbling down. All that breaks is a slender etched vase that sat on the shelf above the bed, too delicate to survive even the short fall to the mattress. It shatters in mid-air, glass scattering over the sheets in a bright spray.

Justin is trying to pick up the shards when JC comes back inside. "The ground moved, J," he says. He leans against the wall and shakes his head in wonder. "The earth moved."

"I don't think I'm gonna be able to get all this glass," Justin says.

"What?" When Justin tells him, JC says, "Leave it."

"But it's all over the bed."

JC walks over swiftly and bundles the sheet up in one smooth motion. He takes it out to the yard. Justin follows him uncertainly. He still feels off balance. He doesn't need JC to tell him that the earth moved. He can feel the shift in the air around him, the ground beneath his feet, all over his skin. He doesn't like it.

JC snaps the sheet out in front of him, and flecks of glass sparkle and float in the sun. He balls the sheet up and lets it drop to the dirt. When he turns back, his eyes are reckless again, restless. Justin backs up as JC walks toward him, backs up until he falls flat onto the bare mattress. JC doesn't stop. Justin thinks about stray shards of glass still stuck in the bed, the open French doors, aftershocks.

JC doesn't stop.

Afterwards JC lays his hand on Justin's stomach and rubs idly at a red mark left by a seam in the mattress. "One day, J," he says, "I swear, one day this whole place is just gonna break off and sink right down to the bottom." His voice is low and longing.

"I know," Justin says. He believes it. He believes anything could happen here.

After all, the earth moved.

JC used to collect things. Lots of things, menus from restaurants and set lists and signatures on a program from everyone on the tour crew. He was painstaking about what he gathered, taping everything neatly into scrapbooks labeled carefully with dates and places. Justin was a collector, too, although he was never as systematic as JC. He had a box, though, of music scores and scribbled notes, a box he hid in one of the back bedrooms in his mother's house. JC used to let Justin page through his scrapbooks sometimes, leaning down over him and laughing and saying, "Do you remember?"

Justin never showed what he collected to anyone.

He wasn't sure what happened to JC's scrapbooks. They weren't in JC's house, he knew. JC's house was stark and spare and everything was brand new. There was nothing that Justin recognized from before. JC bought only a few things, a bed, some chairs, a few paintings. Justin thought he could tell what was important to JC by what he brought into the house first. Two days after JC moved in Justin came over to help him set up the stereo system.

JC picked up anything that caught his eye but somehow his rooms stayed empty. If something started to look used or shabby or broken, JC threw it out. If he got bored with something, he gave it away. Justin tagged along for endless days of wandering through galleries looking for exactly the right picture for the bedroom, only to have it disappear from the wall two months later.

"You get tired of it?" Justin asked him.

"No," JC said. "No, I just - there wasn't anything left in it for me to see."

Justin started to ask something more, but his question was lost in the familiar warmth of JC's lips.

Justin will remember this later and he will not sleep for two days.

Justin will remember just in time to swallow the end of his question. He will not ask. Instead he will say, "Are you getting up?" and he will look away so he won't see the answer to his first question in JC's restless eyes.

"Yeah," JC will say. "I gotta get out of this room."

Justin will trail stubbornly behind JC to the shower. He will see the way JC flinches when Justin follows him but he will not stop. He will dress quickly, watching JC steadily, his gaze only interrupted by the brief flash of blue over his eyes as he puts his shirt on. JC will not look at him.

Justin will not stop.

He will feel his heart beating feverishly, the same reckless rhythm that JC's impatient fingers tap on the wall. He will wait for as long as he can bear it, until JC shifts and starts to turn toward the door. Then he will ask. He won't be able to help it.

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know - down to the ocean, maybe. I just want to get out of here. Go where I can see clear out to the horizon, the end of the world. The end of everything."

Justin will go with him.

There will be nothing Justin wants less. He will want to wait, wait until JC gets tired of what he wants, wait until JC sighs and looks at him and takes him back to bed. He will want to wait while the room drowns over and over again in blue. Justin will always want, and he will always go.

That's why.

"Why are you smiling?" JC says, the question catching him half-dressed with one hand on the mattress. His necklace dangles over Justin, almost close enough for him to stop it with his lips.

Justin doesn't tell him. He keeps smiling and says, "All this time, I've never seen you completely naked," and JC is still looking at him, still caught. Justin isn't going to tell him, but he can't help tracing the mark on his collarbone, the imprint of JC's pendant pressed into him like a tattoo. JC catches him.

"Yeah," JC says, and starts to stand up.

Justin says, "You always wear this," and reaches up to touch the necklace. JC pushes his hand away.

"No," JC says, and then, "yeah, I guess I always have, with you." He puts two fingers against Justin's skin and rubs at the red mark there until it fades away.

"Do you ever -" Justin says, and stops as JC stands up. "I mean, of course you don't, if it was a gift, and you promised not to, of course you would never. I mean, if there was a promise -"

At the door JC says,

"There wasn't."

The first time JC left Justin hardly noticed. Everyone left, Justin left, and he didn't think about much except trying to get out again until the first time JC came back.

When he saw JC again, waiting on the steps of his momma's house, he stopped dead in the middle of the driveway. He looked up when JC said his name. JC was staring at him, frozen, waiting. Finally JC said, "Are you glad to see me?"

Without thinking Justin said, "Maybe."

"Maybe?" JC said, and he smiled and walked toward Justin. A reckless need crashed against Justin, over him, as JC came closer. There was a shift in the air, an almost imperceptible thrill of motion like the earth falling away beneath his feet. Justin recognized it. He didn't want to want it.

He murmured, "Maybe," again, helplessly, hopelessly. JC kissed him.

"Yes," Justin said. The word rushed out of him, treacherous, relentless as the undertow, that strong current flowing just beneath the surface of the waves. He had been warned about it, the first time he ever went down to the ocean, about how it could pull you out to sea before you realized how far you'd gone, before you even realized you were leaving the shore.

"Yes," JC said, "you remember that."

Justin will.

It will not be a question when Justin starts, but JC will turn and catch him and it will be one by the time he finishes.

JC's eyes will narrow and Justin will expect him to echo his word, cruelly, like a bet he knows Justin can't afford to take. Instead JC will look at him and say, "Well, if you don't know, J, I don't know who does."

Justin will know. He will know but he will not want to say. He will be tired of fighting the siren call of a thousand new dreams dragging at him, a thousand desires threatening to sink him still and deep. He will tell himself that he wants nothing more than for JC to drown out the thousand new voices in Justin's head, to say something, anything. One thing.

Justin will tell himself that that is all he wants and that he will never get it. If Justin doesn't say it, it will go without saying. JC will go without saying.

Justin will not say it.

JC will turn and smile at him and Justin will resist that easy pull with all his weight, digging his fingers and toes into the bed. Need will rush past him like the tide but Justin will not say it.

JC will stop smiling. He will stand up and lean down over the bed, his necklace drifting in lazy circles just out of Justin's grasp. JC will reach up and close his hand around the pendant, anchoring it in place. He will hold it pressed against his throat for a moment before he lets it go. Then he will say, "Will you come with me?"

Justin will not say anything. He will watch JC catch his breath in sharp shocks, suddenly, a swimmer who's just caught sight of the coast so far behind him. Justin will remember that feeling.

He will say,


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