by Bloodsucking Llama
Clutching the wrinkled, creased, and coffee-ring stained purple flyer, Brent looked up at the Tudorbethan house with raised eyebrows. Mahogany Estate 126, was it? Naturally, Brent had assumed that he would end up in a shoddy, graffiti-embellished district in the middle of the city – that’s where these escapades usually led him, anyway – so unexpectedly finding himself in a well-to-do suburb, complete with white picket fences, made him hesitate.
Brent and rich folks… well, they just didn’t mix. He had little to no respect for the wealthy. Often, the feeling was mutual. Most of them saw him as a street kid who stole CDs from FYE, and some stores on Times Square wouldn’t even let him stand outside the door. With this in mind, he was almost positive that whoever was behind the door of Mahogany Estate 126 wouldn’t need much time to decide that Brent was perhaps less than perfect for the job.
Then again, there were the water and electricity bills. Mr. Svyatopolk had been hounding him for the rent – he would probably kick Brent out if it was late again – and as much as Brent absolutely loved working eight-hour days at Marcello’s Italian Cuisine for minimum wage, he knew that he would really need the extra cash. Conclusion: he had to at least try.
With that, he resignedly stuffed the crumpled paper into one of the pockets of his faded and ripped jeans (and no – he didn’t buy them that way). Without looking both ways, he hurriedly crossed the street, bounded up the four steps leading to the wooden white door, and pressed the round doorbell with his thumb.
He listened to the crisp echo of the bell’s catchy tune and felt his stomach churn when he heard a man yell, “I’m coming!” in return. Deep breath! He cleared his throat and stood straighter, tugged on the edge of his faded INSPI(RED) shirt, and ran his hand through his hopelessly curly dark hair. He was just about to bend over to rub a scuff mark off of his worn, supposedly white sneaker when the door opened with a click.
“Can I help you?”
There it was: the look workers in Times Square loved to give Brent as they eyed every frayed thread and wild strand of hair – except this time, the look wasn’t coming from a bitchy employee. It was coming from a man almost as tall as his doorframe: the tall, dark, and handsome type, except for the fact that he didn’t seem very dark at all. His hair, longer than most conservative grandmothers would like, was dirty blonde. His eyes, behind square-framed glasses, were light green. His light blue shirt with the ABOVE THE INFLUENCE™ symbol also killed the “mysterious” effect.
Brent would bet the last five bucks in his back pocket that this guy fell under the “pretentious college student” category; yet his smile – as bewildered as it was – showed that he, at least, was approachable. He crossed his arms and leaned against the open doorframe with a curious look of interest, as though expecting entertainment – something that would be far more exciting than the biweekly Girl Scouts and their mundane cookies, anyway.
“Um – yeah,” Brent stammered, eyes fastened to the ground; he tried to tug out the purple flyer from his pocket and nearly tore it, but he got it on the second time. “Someone named – ” he quickly glanced at the paper – “Kearney Langdon put this up…”
“Ah,” the man pushed away from the doorframe and reached out for the leaflet. “Ah,” he repeated simply, this time with a bit of an amused smirk as he eyed it. “You know, I put this up over a month ago…”
Brent’s expression of uneasiness slumped with dread. “It’s not too late, is it?”
“I’m afraid so,” the man said sympathetically, peering at Brent over the rims of his glasses and handing the flyer back. “I got everything covered a good three weeks since.”
Grinding his teeth together, he breathed out loudly. It wasn’t exactly the type of thing he’d hoped to hear after traveling almost an hour to get there – especially since it was the only job opportunity he’d managed to find in weeks. Already he could hear Mr. Svyatopolk yelling after him in Russian; and by the looks of things, he wouldn’t have electricity or running water for very long either. “All right, then,” he mumbled with disappointment, retreating down the steps. “Thanks for your time.”
“You’re a bit – young for a job anyway, aren’t you?” the man – Kearney Langdon, that is – asked with a bit of a smirk, eyeing the other as he stopped on the third step down.
“I’m twenty.” Thank you very fucking much.
“Twenty?” Kearney repeated with an arched, surprised eyebrow. “Christ, you could pass for a fifteen-year-old if you wanted to.”
“Really,” Brent said dryly – that was something he’d always absolutely loved to hear. He frowned and turned away again, privately wondering how he could ever willingly walk into a neighborhood infested with rich people.
Kearney, seeing that that Brent was insulted, quickly stepped forward and said hastily, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you – no, it’s just that I…” He paused before continuing slowly, “If you’re interested, I think I can still offer you a job.”
Brent’s ears twitched as his foot, about to drop onto the sidewalk, stopped in mid-air.
“It’s not very different from what’s described on the flyer,” Kearney nodded towards the leaflet Brent still clenched in his hand. “The project might be a bit more… complicated, but it’s still rather straightforward – even for a person with no experience.”
“And the pay? What’s the pay like?” Brent twisted to look over his shoulder.
“I usually offer around ten dollars an hour,” Kearney crossed his arms again, “But right now, I want to say fifteen dollars an hour, just because…” He sighed, cutting himself off, and instead asked, “Fifteen – does that sound fine?”
Brent could hardly speak – and really, that was an incredible feat. Nodding wildly, he was eventually able to get out, “Yes – yes, that would be – that would be good.”
“Great,” Kearney smirked. He raked his hair back, a few of the pale strands glinting in the bright light as he searched the street behind Brent. He squinted a bit, his bottom jaw stirring thoughtfully. “Do you have any time now, by any chance?”
No, he didn’t. If he stayed any longer, he would miss the train back to the city and would end up being an hour late for work; Marcello would never let him hear the end of it. “Yeah, now – now is fine,” he nodded unconvincingly.
“Come on in, then,” Kearney stepped aside, gesturing into his foyer with a spread hand. “I just want to show you the basic setup, and tell you what I expect of you – hopefully you’ll still be interested after all of that,” he smirked.
“As long as the pay stays at fifteen dollars an hour,” Brent murmured to himself as the door shut behind them with a click.
One step in and Brent immediately felt uncomfortable. He was used to one room apartments with torn walls, carpets of mildew, leaking ceilings, and windows that stayed shut to keep the clouds of smoke of the city from spewing inside. He’d never been in a place that looked so rich. He couldn’t help but glance back at the floor to make sure that he wasn’t leaving dirty footprints on the spotless white tiles.
The professional black and white photographs lining the classically white walls reminded him of a gallery that he’d curiously looked into once, but never went into because of the look the receptionist gave him. A black sofa was behind of the glass table, where laid an open book with notes sprawling in the margins and a black pen stuck in the seam. Brent glanced at the top of the page to read The Picture of Dorian Gray. The gigantic, dust-free flat-screen TV took up almost an entire wall; neat stands of DVDs were lined on either side: Y tu mamá también, Farewell My Concubine, Philadelphia, Bad Education… Out of old habit, Brent didn’t get too close to anything – he’d learned that it was the easiest way to avoid being accused of picking up stuff that didn’t belong to him.
Oblivious to Brent’s discomfort, Kearney stepped into the connecting kitchen and opened the humming fridge. “What did you say your name was?”
“Brent,” he answered, hesitantly hovering away from the monstrous TV and the racks of DVDs. “Brent Miller.”
Kearney pulled out a bottle of Smart Water and held it up temptingly. “Would you like anything to drink?” he asked.
“No – I’m fine, thanks.”
Kearney shrugged, opened the bottle, and had some himself – he watched Brent interestedly. Brent was gazing at one of the photographs in square frames on the wall. It was a beach and a silhouetted couple connected by their outstretched arms and linked hands – but what really caught Brent’s attention was the fact that they were both men. He remembered the last time he saw two men holding hands: it was outside of the old theater on 22nd street, the one that was two blocks from the gay club. He remembered fidgeting uneasily and passing by as quickly as he could, but being unable to look away from their tangled fingers until they were out of sight. He still couldn’t look away.
“Do you like it?” Kearney asked as he came to stand beside Brent. “I took that of my two friends maybe… must be about four years now,” he said, as though surprised. “I was nineteen then, I think – so yeah, four years.”
Brent cleared his throat. “Are they…”
“Gay?” Kearney glanced at Brent curiously. “Sure. They’ve been together for as long as I’ve known them.”
Brent almost wanted to ask, “Are you?” That would’ve been a rude thing to ask, though.
Lingering hesitantly, Kearney eventually asked, “Gay men – don’t make you feel uncomfortable, do they?”
When it came to gay men, his hands would get all clammy and he couldn’t be sure of where he should or shouldn’tlook. He could feel his heavy pulse in his neck and the backs of his hands, and his foot – always his left, for some reason – would begin to fidget, just as it was doing as he stood before the photograph. For years, he’d assumed that he, like many other men, simply didn’t like gay men – he’d assumed that they made him feel uncomfortable because of how wrong they were. That was something plenty of people would have easily accepted. Eventually, though, another possibility came to mind, a possibility that not as many would tolerate. He never told anyone – never had anyone to tell, really – but, if asked, he probably wouldn’t say it anyway. It just wasn’t anyone’s business but his.
“It’s a nice shot,” he managed to get out as he turned away. He could feel Kearney watching him. “You said you wanted to show me the set up?”
“Right,” Kearney muttered as though he’d honestly forgotten, putting his bottle down on the counter. He made his way down the narrow hall and past the photographs, waving for Brent to follow him. Making a sharp right after two doors, they walked into an airy room. “So – this is where the magic happens,” he said sarcastically.
He gestured at the wall opposite the door, the only one of the four that was painted white instead of light blue. Bulky white umbrellas rested near a stubby wooden stool placed in front of the white wall while long metal lights stood at the sides. “Generally, you’ll be there while I take the pictures from here,” Kearney walked to a tripod topped with an old-fashioned camera. “Nothing very hard at all – you hardly need any experience. It’s the posing that’ll be the hardest part for you, but I’ll tell you what to do.”
Brent looked at the wide, square wooden table to the side overflowing with props: white candlesticks with dried, dribbled wax on the sides, fake reddish-brown Grecian bowls, colorful velvet pillows, and a maroon Victorian dress were only a few of the things piled onto the table and surrounding it.
Kearney cleared his throat as he also came to the prop table; he looked almost embarrassed by the mess. “I haven’t really had a chance to organize everything after the last project,” he muttered. “You’re going to use a few, but I’m not too sure about which ones just yet.” He pointed at a door that was at the opposite end of the room. “Last thing: that’s the dark room – you know, where the photos are developed. I’ll show you that later, though.” He noticed but didn’t understand the flicker of disappointment.
Walking back to Brent, he clapped his hands resolutely and said, “So, I’ll tell you what you’ll be doing, but I want to describe what my project is first. I’m a student at Sarah Lawrence – it’s only a few minutes from here.” Brent thought smugly about the five bucks he would’ve won had he actually – well, you know – had someone to bet with. “My assignment is to bring the subjects I study together; so, since I study photography, history, and LGBT studies, I thought it would be easiest to compile a collection of historical, homoerotic photos.”
It actually took Brent a few long moments to think about what Kearney had said – he didn’t hear any of what the man added afterwards about some photographer named Wilhelm. Once he processed “homoerotic photos,” however, the words, “I am not going to post for gay porn,” impulsively shot from his mouth; and they didn’t stop there. “I may look like some impoverished kid to you, but that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of me! I respect myself and my body, and that’s one damned thing that I’ll never – ”
“Hold on,” Kearney stepped forward with a startled grin, hands up defensively. “Whoever said anything about porn? I don’t shoot that; never have, never will.”
Baffled, Brent opened his mouth silently a few times before he finally managed to get out, “But – you said that – ”
“Okay, listen,” Kearney interrupted. “I’ll ask you again: do gay men make you feel uncomfortable? Because Brent, if you’re homophobic, then this probably isn’t the best idea, you know?”
“No,” Brent said quickly. “I’m not – I mean… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed… anything.”
“It’s fine – it’s an easy mistake,” Kearney said (a bit sarcastically, Brent couldn’t help but notice). For a moment, he watched the other, much shorter man as though quite thoroughly entertained. “I enjoyed the passionate soliloquy, anyway.”
The last time he felt so embarrassed was – well, he couldn’t remember a time he felt as embarrassed as he did then. He was sure that his cheeks, ears, and neck showed just how mortified he was, though. Kearney seemed utterly pleased with the awkward silence, but it was torture for Brent; so, to end the quiet, he quickly mumbled, “Er – what is it that you’ll have me do, then?”
“Look pretty for the camera,” Kearney muttered with a smirk as he strode to the camera and began to fiddle with it. “I promise you that you’ll be clothed and won’t be found in any compromising positions. Still… Well, seeing that you will be set in a homoerotic atmosphere, this might be difficult if you’re uncomfortable with gay men. That’s why you really need to be sure about this.”
“I’m not uncomfortable,” Brent mumbled in such a way that he managed to convince both Kearney and himself that he really was very uncomfortable.
“Right,” Kearney looked at him worriedly. “Well, would you like to see how the photos are made?” he gestured to the dark room.
“I don’t know,” he muttered hesitantly, though it was clear that he did know: he couldn’t afford to completely miss his shift at Marcello’s. “It’s getting pretty late…”
“Yeah,” Kearney nodded unenthusiastically.
“When should I come back?”
“Today’s – what – Friday? Why don’t you come back on Monday, same time as today? That’ll probably be the best time. By then, I’ll have everything planned out for you. Does that sound good?”
He couldn’t have possibly expected Brent to say anything other than “yes.”
+ + +
Kearney looked a lot different the second time Brent saw him. His hair, pulled back, looked damp – like he’d just gotten out of the shower. He was dressed more casually, too: gray, cotton, loose sweatpants and a white t-shirt reading Sadie Lou. He seemed more relaxed.
As they walked to the studio, he spoke to Brent offhandedly. “I’ve been thinking a lot – I have a lot of ideas,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “I always want to make a statement with my photographs; and for this series, I’m going to show that society will eventually grow out of homophobia and sexual intolerance.” He began to wind his hands, as though summoning everything he’d thought of over the weekend. “Basically, the premise of this series is that you’ll be a boy in different eras, representing various stages of homosexuality in society – that is, from sexual openness, sexual identity and intolerance, a struggle for sexual open-mindedness, and finally, a prediction of the future: a return to sexual freedom.”
They stopped in the hallway outside of the studio door, Brent staring up at Kearney blankly.
“It won’t be too difficult; you’ll just have to portray the ‘personality’ of each era and that period’s stage. One thing, though,” he added as his hand went to the doorknob. “Throughout the series, I expect you to be… obliviously sexy.”
“What do you mean ‘obliviously sexy’?” he asked with an odd look.
“Don’t worry about it; I doubt you’ll have any trouble with that.” Ignoring Brent’s increasingly confused stare, he continued as he pulled open the door, “I got your first costume and props ready, so we’ll start today with ‘sexual openness.’ ”
Immediately, Brent noticed that the prop table had been cleared save for a lonely bundle of white cloth. In front of the white wall was a long sofa with thin, maroon cushions. He hoped to God he wouldn’t have to get on there – it looked uncomfortable as hell.
Kearney brushed past him to the table and tossed him the cloth with no warning – not even a “Think fast!”
“Er – ” Brent managed to catch it and held it out away from him cautiously. “What is it?”
“A chiton,” Kearney smirked. “It’s what the ancient Greeks wore; they were probably one of the most sexually open societies in history, so you’ll be representing them for this section. Change into it, let’s see if it fits.”
Yanking off his ancient M.I.A. t-shirt, he hadn’t even thought to be embarrassed by changing in front of another man; but after hearing Kearney’s quiet laugh he immediately covered his chest with the white cloth, ears red hot. “What’re you laughing at?” he snapped.
“Sorry,” Kearney said with a subtle smirk, reaching out and tugging the cloth away. “Don’t be shy. I just think it’s funny, is all – you really look like a kid, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” Brent muttered, the heat spreading to his face.
“That’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Kearney insisted, lightly touching the side of Brent’s arm – didn’t seem to mind that Brent pulled away on reflex, unused to the sensation that spread over his skin. “It’s – interesting. Not many guys can say that about themselves.”
Unable to look Kearney in the eye, Brent continued taking off his clothes – though a bit more self-consciously than he had before. After pulling off his jeans, he sighed when he heard Kearney say, “The boxers, too.” He understood why: the fabric was so thin the stripes on his boxers would shine through; and, well, the ancient Greeks didn’t wear red and white striped Joe Boxer shorts. Didn’t mean he had to be enthusiastic about it, though, as he pulled on the white cloth and pulled off his boxers, putting them with his shirt and jeans on the prop table.
“Fifteen dollars an hour,” he muttered to himself. “Fifteen dollars an hour.”
He waited expectantly, not wanting to ask, “What do you think?” If he did, he would feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, eagerly awaiting Richard Gere’s good opinion while pretending to be indifferent – which would, frankly, make him feel ridiculous. (Though – you know – he already felt pretty ridiculous standing there in a transparent, short white dress.)
Kearney inspected him like an art student would inspect a kouros: critically, professionally, and with a hint of subdued enthusiasm. One hand on Brent’s shoulder, he turned him around, twisted him to make sure the – chiton, was it? – fit perfectly. Without another word – with no assurance that Brent turned out as he’d planned – he led the shorter man to the hard sofa and gestured for him to have a seat. Within the next few moments, the lights were off and the camera was on and Kearney was fiddling with the lights in the metal cones and the umbrellas on the sides.
It was exactly as Kearney had described on the flyer: he was sitting in a studio and pictures were being taken of him. No hidden surprises there. No, what he hadn’t expected was his pounding heart and nervously jiggling left leg. Reclining on the sofa, metal pressing into his ribs, he thought about how Kearney was watching his every move, staring at the shape of his body and imagining that Brent was a boy in ancient Greece – “sexually open” and “obliviously sexy,” whatever that was supposed to mean. With every snap of the shutter, he could feel Kearney’s stare; and hell, unblinking stares were always uncomfortable, no matter what situation. It was even worse, though, that Brent couldn’t help but think that – if Kearney looked long and hard enough – he would figure out the truth.
“Christ, you’re a natural,” Kearney murmured, eventually breaking the silence with another snap. “You really are. These are some of the most beautiful shots I’ve taken all year.”
“Maybe the camera just loves me,” Brent mumbled sarcastically; but Kearney didn’t see anything ironic in the comment.
“Hard to believe you haven’t had any experience,” the man went on. “Is this why you took the job? So you could begin work in modeling?”
“No,” Brent sighed. “Just interested in photography, is all.”
+ + +
At exactly 6:03 PM, Brent meandered into an alleyway and in through Marcello’s backdoor three minutes late. He got as far as putting on his stained “Marcello’s Italian Cuisine” t-shirt uniform before he had a brusque Italian man in his face, yelling madly and waving his arms wildly – something about important guests at table 5, not enough breadsticks, and a tirade on the capitalism of Olive Garden. For a good hour and 22 minutes, he stood there, nodding his head humbly and ignoring the strong desire to dodge the flying pellets of spit. Exactly one hour and 23 minutes later, however, he was storming from the restaurant, throwing his t-shirt into the nearby dumpster and kicking an empty trashcan along the way. Apparently, Marcello “no longer accepted lateness” – meaning that Brent no longer had a job.
It was times like those when he wondered why, exactly, he’d gone to the city in the first place. He had old memories of desperately wanting to study at some art school – Pratt, Parsons, didn’t matter; but hell, had he known he would be struggling to even get a decent meal on the table, he would’ve stayed right where he was, with the cows and the roosters and his family.
Maybe it was time to leave the city. He’d lived there too long; just as Baz Luhrman said, it made people hard after a while. The blaring lights and noise and icy steel buildings and cold gazes… Yeah, he knew he had to get out. Florida, maybe, or California if he would afford to go across the country. Anywhere but where he was would be good.
Getting to his apartment building, though, he knew one thing for sure: he did not want to talk to Mr. Svyatopolk. He would demand the last three months’ rent, of course; and Brent would have to beg for a little more time, of course. (But damn, he’d really thought that, with paychecks from both Kearney and Marcello, he would be able to catch up by the end of the month. With just a paycheck from Kearney – well, it would take a little more time.)
He glanced around the corner of the empty open hallway. For a second, there was only the sound of the distant, impatient blaring honks of cars – and then his pounding footsteps that echoed against the walls and broken tiles as he rushed past the landlord’s brightly lit window. He turned another sharp corner and sped up the steep, metal staircase that creaked and shifted dangerously with every step; and, sure enough, he could hear Mr. Svyatopolk’s door slam open only moments later.
By the time the Russian man hobbled to the staircase, though, Brent was already safe and sound inside of his apartment. For a second, he stood against his closed door, breathing hard, as he relished his victory. He even grinned a bit to himself. Not many could say that they’d avoided being caught by Mr. Svyatopolk.
His victory fell short, however, when he raised his arm to flip on the light switch – and the light didn’t come on.
His grin was slowly replaced by a frown as he flipped the switch on and off several more times – he just changed that bulb, it shouldn’t have died already – before he finally realized that the inevitable had happened: his electricity had been cut.
Yeah: Florida was sounding wonderful just about then.
He sighed as he carefully made his way to the bedroom, thinking that at least he’d met someone. He wasn’t exactly the antisocial high school kid seen sitting in the corner of the library at lunch. He was just quiet. Not shy, but introverted. However, that didn’t go very far when it came to meeting people in the big city. It got lonely sometimes, so it was nice to know that there was someone he could be open with, even if the guy was his boss.
It was funny, really. Usually, Brent would hate a guy like Kearney. He was tall, he was wealthy – he looked like the ideal pinup for all-American perfection. But how could Brent hate a guy that was offering him fifteen bucks an hour? Even beyond that, how could he hate a guy that had treated him… well, kindly?
+ + +
“Do you know anything about the Victorian era?” Kearney asked as he helped buckle Brent’s straps.
“I know it has something to do with Queen Victoria,” Brent muttered – smiled a bit when he heard Kearney laugh.
“In this age – well, words like ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ had recently been invented, and people were more intolerant towards sexuality in general… You know, talking about sex was absolutely scandalous. So, well, this era was mostly about… restrictions. Gay men had to be particularly careful. Oscar Wilde, for example: he was pretty flamboyant about his sexuality; he ended up being imprisoned because of it.” Kearney had been too busy straightening Brent’s tucked-in white, light shirt and heisting up his heavy, gray, too-wide pants to notice the shorter man’s stare.
“Why are you so interested in this stuff?” he eventually asked.
Kearney shrugged distractedly, putting a few pins into his mouth and sliding one through some folded cloth at the waist. ”
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Brent asked after a brief moment of silence.
He nodded, still focused on the costume pants.
“Are you gay?”
At this, Kearney glanced up with an air of surprise that turned into an amused smile. He took the pins out of his mouth and asked, “What do you think?”
Brent felt his ears burn as he cleared his throat. “I – guess you are.”
“Sorry I never mentioned it,” Kearney went on sarcastically. “I just thought it would be a bit… obvious.”
“Well, I couldn’t be sure,” Brent said defensively. “I mean, there can be straight guys interested in… these kinds of things.”
“That’s true,” Kearney agreed, nodding. “But still.”
Brent cleared his throat, clearly embarrassed. “I shouldn’t have asked, it’s none of my business.”
“Sure it is,” Kearney said with a muffled voice – he’d put the pins back into his mouth. “I want people to know.”
Brent gave him an odd look. “Why would you want that?”
He felt a sharp tug and, finally, Kearney stood up and inspected his work. Taking the pins out of his mouth, he answered, “It’s not something to ignore or hide. It’s a part of me – a part of my identity, you know?” He smiled as he reached up and smoothed back Brent’s tousled, curly hair. “Rake your hands through, like this,” he demonstrated on himself. As he watched Brent do as he was told, he folded his arms and asked simply, “Are you?”
“Am I – gay? No,” he answered too quickly, looking away.
“Really?” Kearney frowned.
“Why? You didn’t think I was, did you?”
“Actually, yeah – I did,” Kearney admitted. “Or a confused closet case, at the very least. I’ve seen too many to not recognize one,” he smirked. He gestured to the white wall, signaling that he was ready to start taking the photographs.
As Brent went to stand against the wall, he took a deep, shuddering breath. The lights Kearney turned on were dazzling; he felt like he was in one of those detective films, with the light swinging into the suspect’s guilty face.
“You know, Brent,” Kearney said quietly as he turned off the room’s lights and went back to the camera to stare through the viewfinder, focusing on the luminous glow surrounding the man, “you should tell me if you change your mind. I’d like to help you and – I don’t know – teach you things. I needed guidance when I was just figuring things out, so if you’d let me, I could make sure you know everything you need to know. Make sure you don’t go down the wrong path like I did.”
Kearney would have to know the truth, though, for that to happen; but maybe he already knew, and had known all along. Brent nodding stiffly was the first image that was captured with a snap.
+ + +
Brent tried to take a nap on the train, but he never could fall asleep in things that were moving – not buses, not airplanes, not taxis or the subway. Instead, he stared at the red sky, the passing hard, earthy, crumbling brick buildings, and faded smiles on washed out billboards; listened to “Lazy Eye” by the Silversun Pickups playing on some kid’s cell phone; and idly thought about anything that came to mind.
Mostly Kearney – of course, he thought a lot about Kearney. That was something he found himself doing too much lately, in fact. Everyday, that man surprised Brent and made him more curious – left him wanting to know more, like some kind of cliffhanger. Maybe he was the mysterious sort with some deep, dark secret after all; also couldn’t get what he’d said out of his mind: his offer, his pride.
Of course, had he known that he had been officially homeless for two hours and thirteen – no, fourteen – minutes, he probably would’ve stopped thinking about the man. Completely unaware, he got off at Grand Central and blissfully walked past expensive hotels and overpriced bag and jewelry stores and sidewalk artists and lost tourists. Into the empty apartment parking lot and to the dreary white building that could’ve been the set for a horror movie, up the creaking stairs and down the hall to his door – he stopped at the three big, black trash bags that glinted in the flickering outside light.
“What the hell is this?” he muttered, peeking inside the closest one. Seeing his INSPI(RED) shirt, Brent fumbled for his key and, shoving it into the hole, groaned when it wouldn’t turn.
“Mr. Syvatopolk!” he yelled as he ran back down the trembling staircase and came to the man’s brightly lit window. “Mr. Syvatopolk!” he yelled again, pounding on the door with cracked, peeling green paint.
Finally, the man with his large beer belly and crawling, white beard unlocked and opened his door a crack, glaring out at Brent from the shadows. Brent had to lean in and peer through the slit to get a good look. “So you’re not avoiding me now, eh?” the man said with a heavy Russian accent.
“I promised you I would get the rent – ”
“No, no, no! You owe me three months, Mr. Miller – four months in two weeks. If you want a free place to stay, there’s a homeless shelter only four blocks away.” With that, the door snapped shut firmly.
Brent slammed an open palm on the door with a yell of frustration and stuck his middle finger up at the little peephole – not that this would help at all, but it definitely made him feel a little better for about two seconds.
With a heavy sigh, he went back to his room – well, really, his former room. He grabbed the one bag with his clothes, as there was no way in hell he was heaving his sneakers and CDs and old books around the city, and stormed down the groaning staircase.
Well, screw Mr. Syvatopolk and his shitty apartment – the rent was way too much anyway. That homeless shelter was probably in better condition, and it was free too! But – well, Brent couldn’t go there. He had too much pride to take charity. (Honestly, he could only take something for free if he convinced himself that he would work hard to pay it back.) There were always the stone benches in the park, but he’d seen too many Law & Order: SVU episodes to know that if he went there, by the end of the night he would end up robbed, raped, and murdered by someone – probably some middle-aged married white man with four children. Same with the train station, except there he would probably be butchered by a man claiming to be Jesus. He was in no particular mood to share an alleyway with some stray cat and a few other homeless men; and if people wouldn’t let him stand on the sidewalks in front of their stores, he was pretty sure they wouldn’t let him sleep on the sidewalks in front of their stores either.
Of course, he knew where he would end up going – probably knew from the moment Mr. Syvatopolk slammed the door in his face. He pretended to explore all options as he dragged the bag of clothes along towards Grand Central, but at the same time, he was also practicing how he would walk up to Mahogany Estate 126, humbly press the doorbell, and smile guiltily up at Kearney.
By the time he got there, it was probably going on 10 or 11 PM. The abandoned town was a lot different at night; he almost got lost on the way to the house. As he crossed the road and walked up the four little steps, he suddenly felt nervous – more nervous than he did the first time he was walking up those steps. After all, then he had been facing the possibility of being rejected by a wealthy stranger. Now, he was facing the possibility of being rejected by Kearney.
Taking a slow, deep breath, he raised his hand and pressed the doorbell. For a while, there was no response, so he pressed it again more urgently – Kearney didn’t leave for the night, did he? – but as soon as his thumb left the round button, light flooded through one of the windows and there was a shuffling sound.
The door opened abruptly, and Kearney once again showed an entirely different side to him. This was his exhausted side: he raked his hand through his bed hair, looked barely awake as he squinted bleary-eyed through his glasses, and didn’t seem ashamed that he was only wearing plaid boxers and a small white t-shirt. “Brent?” He straightened his glasses and looked outside, as though to make sure he hadn’t overslept. “What’re you doing here?”
“Er – ” Brent tensed, thinking that maybe this was a mistake – but it was too late now. “I’m sorry to wake you up, but…”
“Come in, come in, no point in standing out there,” Kearney said, stepping aside and waving him inside. When he saw the other hesitate, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Well, maybe I should ask you first,” Brent shifted on his feet. “I – don’t really have a place to stay anymore,” he mumbled. This wasn’t how he’d practiced it in his head. “So I was wondering…Well, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I mean – could I stay here for a while? Until I figure things out anyway,” he added quickly.
“I guess those are your things, then?” Kearney asked, nodding at the trash bag. He reached out for it and picked it up, taking it inside. “Of course, it’s no problem,” he said over his shoulder, as though it was an after thought. “You’ve been over so often you might as well. Make sure the door’s locked behind you.”
Brent shuffled inside, awkwardly watching as Kearney put down his things next to the sofa – it really couldn’t be so simple. “Are you sure?”
“You want me to kick you out?” Kearney asked – looked like he would really do it, too.
“Thanks… This means a lot.”
Kearney dismissed the formalities with a wave of his hand and asked, “So what happened?”
“I didn’t get the rent in on time,” Brent sighed, sitting down on the couch and pinching the bridge of his nose – not that he had a migraine, but it was something he did when he was stressed. “If he’d just given me a little more time – with your fifteen dollars an hour, I could’ve had enough to pay him.” Well, he could’ve if he still had his job at Marcello’s, but Kearney didn’t need to know he’d gotten fired too. He jumped and almost pulled away from the comforting hand that rested on his shoulder, but sighed and let go – just relaxed and closed his eyes for a second as it gently went back and forth. He wasn’t used to being touched like that, but it felt nice.
“At least you won’t have to pay anymore rent for a while, huh?” Kearney smiled; he’d slipped into the seat beside Brent, his hand still resting on the other’s shoulder.
“I was thinking you could take half of my pay,” Brent said quickly. “I mean, until I leave. It could sort of be like rent.”
“Are you kidding?” Kearney shook his head. “Please, it’s not that big of a deal.”
“It is,” Brent muttered firmly. He wouldn’t take charity. “I… just don’t want to take advantage of you.”
Kearney’s eyes searched Brent’s face before he finally nodded. “Not half, though… How about five? So I’ll only pay you ten dollars an hour.”
Brent grinned and stuck out his hand mockingly, and Kearney laughed as he took the hand and shook it; but it took a while for either of them to let go or look away. Brent was the first, clearing his throat as he jerked his hand from Kearney’s; and as he did, he noticed that Kearney’s hand had been on his shoulder all that time – it was only then that he was pulling it away also.
Brent could feel that was Kearney was staring at him thoroughly, like he did when they were in the studio and he stood behind the camera; except now, he didn’t have a professional excuse for looking at Brent. He didn’t seem to care, either.
“I still can’t get over it,” Kearney eventually said quietly. “You just… look like a boy right out of Caravaggio’s paintings. Bacchus – you remind me most of Bacchus.”
“How does Bacchus look?” Brent asked with a small, nervous smile, grateful that the tense silence was being filled.
“Young,” Kearney grinned. “Charming – beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” Brent repeated.
“Yes – beautiful.”
“You shouldn’t describe a twenty-year-old man as beautiful.”
“Why not?” Kearney smirked. “It’s fitting.”
“That does nothing for my self-esteem,” Brent laughed.
“It’s something you should love about yourself,” Kearney smiled. “It’s something I love about you, anyway.”
“Of course you do,” Brent smirked. “It’s what makes me the perfect model for your photographs.” When Kearney only looked away without replying, he shifted in his seat and asked, “Can you tell me something?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“What did you mean that day, when you said you’d gone down the wrong path?”
Again, Kearney didn’t reply – not right away, anyway. There was such a long pause, Brent was afraid that he’d offended the man; but eventually, he murmured with grim sincerity, “I was just a confused kid, is all. I thought that, to figure out who I was, I had to do stupid things. There’s just this stereotype of gay men, and I thought I had to follow it. Had unprotected sex with strangers, went home with five different men a night. I tried different drugs – almost overdosed once. You know, just stupid crap I did when I was young.”
He stopped for a while, as though giving Brent enough time to let everything sink in – time he definitely needed. “I needed guidance, then – for years, really. I eventually got it. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be alive, let alone going to school and making something of myself.” He sighed and rested his head back – stared at the white ceiling. “Everything I did before, though – that’s a part of me I try to forget.”
“I never would’ve…” Brent began quietly, but couldn’t finish.
“Surprising, right?” Kearney’s smirk, for once, didn’t come naturally. “I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about each other.” He let a reflective silence fall before he sat up and turned to face him. “Tell me about you, then.” When Brent only laughed, he insisted, “Come on – tell me something. You said you were interested in photography, right?”
Brent shifted in his seat and nodded.
“Why are you only modeling, then?”
“It’s the closest I can get to a camera,” he shrugged. “Whenever I’m looking for a second job, I try to get one where a camera is involved. Usually, it’s stuff like helping to build a set – even helped with costume making, once; but this is the first I’ve tried modeling.”
“Haven’t you ever tried being the one behind the camera?”
“For that, I would need to be able to afford a camera,” he smirked. “And – to get good job in photography – I need a college education. It’s kind of a catch 22, isn’t it? I need a job so that I can afford college and a camera, but in order to get that job I need a college education and a camera.” He didn’t look at Kearney, knowing that he wouldn’t like it if Kearney was looking at him with pity. “That’s why I came here to the city. I wanted to be a photographer. That was three years ago, though,” he sighed as he closed his eyes. “Now, I’m just working to get back out of the city.”
When he felt Kearney’s hand on his knee, he opened his eyes – watched as his thumb went back and forth relaxingly – and finally turned his gaze to the man’s eyes. There wasn’t an ounce of pity there; rather, he had an expression of respect. “I know it’s late, but let me show you my dark room.”
+ + +
It kind of just – tumbled out, really, without him realizing that he’d said anything. When Kearney looked at him with an air of surprise, he shrugged and repeated himself: “I’m gay.” Acted like it was no big deal, this confession, even though his heart was pounding so hard his ribs were trembling with each beat. He swallowed and looked away, his left foot swinging – he sat up on the prop table while Kearney put new film into his camera. Felt a bit ridiculous in the costume: nothing – completely naked – except for the Gay Pride flag that was wrapped around him. (According to Kearney, it was supposed to be making a statement. “All we have is our pride,” or something like that.)
“I know,” Kearney nodded, still watching Brent – now with a smile. “What made you decide to say it?”
Quietly shrugged, gestured at the Gay Pride flag wrapped around him – hesitantly gestured at Kearney too. “I felt guilty for lying.”
Kearney laughed as he snapped shut the film door on the camera and stood up from the table. “Don’t. I remember how hard it was to admit to others at first. I’m not the first person you’ve ever told, am I?” When Brent quietly nodded, he continued, “I suppose that means you’ve never been with anyone before either.” Ignoring Brent’s embarrassed sigh, he turned from the tripod and offered sincerely, “If you want, I can be your first.”
“My first what?” Brent asked stupidly; as soon as the words left his mouth, he blushed and said, “Oh,” his gaze falling to the floor.
Abandoning the tripod, Kearney approached the prop table and lightly touched the side of Brent’s arm, smiling when he didn’t flinch away. “I’m not trying to take advantage of you.”
“I know,” Brent nodded.
“I just thought that, since you were ready to admit that you’re gay, you’re also ready to – try new things.” When Brent didn’t say anything, he leaned in slowly – carefully – as though not wanting to scare him away.
Brent didn’t close his eyes as Kearney came closer; he watched as Kearney stopped, waiting for Brent to close the distance. Their lips were barely touching; they met with each unsteady breath. Hesitantly, his lower lip brushed against Kearney’s, he blushed as he felt Kearney smile – but it was hard not to relax as the man’s slow, gentle hands rubbed up and down the sides of his arms. He pulled away, licking his lips, biting his bottom lip – Kearney followed him, pressing his lips against Brent’s solidly. Let out a shuddering breath as he opened his mouth, warm and moist slipping over his tongue; accidentally bit Kearney, but luckily, he didn’t seem to mind.
He could feel the heat pulsing through his veins, feel sweat dampening his skin. The hands left his arms and slid from his shoulders down his spine, to his thighs and under the coarse fabric of the flag – shaking his head, Brent pulled away. Kearney leaned in again, but only caught the corner of Brent’s lips as he turned his head. “Stop for a second,” he muttered, one hand holding Kearney’s shoulder away.
“What’s wrong?” His arms wrapped around Brent’s lower back.
“Just stop,” he pushed Kearney away and stood up from the table.
“I need some time to think.”
“What’s there to think about?” Kearney almost laughed, finally backing off, breathing hard. “You either want to do this or you don’t.”
Damn, he wanted to – he shook his head again and swallowed dryly. “Let’s just get back to work, okay?”
Kearney frowned. “You know what your problem is, Brent? Trust – that’s your problem.”
“I trust you just fine,” Brent muttered.
“No, I know that. But yourself – you know, you’re going to have to trust yourself to let go sometime. Just let go – do what you want to do.”
+ + +
Brent and Kearney had shared a good amount of uncomfortable silences before, but this one – oh, this one – was definitely the most uncomfortable, awkward of them all.
Kearney had briefly and distantly explained the shoot: it was symbolic of how he hoped the future would be. Brent, wearing nothing but jeans, would recline on a sofa of ancient Greece (the same spiny, hard one from the first shoot) – suggesting that he and society had returned to sexual openness. When Kearney said that last bit, it was with a very sardonic tone that made Brent’s gaze drop to the floor.
The shoot itself was torture. Kearney’s eyes were fastened to his every move – inspecting the form of his body in maybe not an entirely artistic way. Yesterday – it had happened yesterday – but he could still feel Kearney’s hands pressing into his skin. He could still hear those words in his mind, too. It didn’t help that the sofa was as painfully hard as ever. He sighed as he shifted, blinded by the glaring lights. Snap – the shutter clicked close and flicked open like a blinking eye.
“What’re you thinking about?”
He hadn’t expected Kearney to say anything; he shielded his eyes with his hand as he shrugged with a frown. He didn’t need to say it; he already knew.
“It’s coming out in the photos,” he muttered.
“Well, so sorry that I’ve ruined your precious photographs,” Brent muttered sarcastically, his frown deepening.
“You know, whatever issue you might have with me right now should be left outside of the studio,” Kearney said firmly with a touch of anger.
“Right,” Brent sat up with a glare. “Because, of course, only taking pictures and feeling me up are allowed in here.”
Kearney paced past the camera and to the sofa, a look of frustration clear on his face. “That’s bullshit Brent, and you know it.”
Maybe it was, but he didn’t care.
“You’re just pissed because you’re too afraid to get what you want.” He paused, hesitated. “Hell, maybe you don’t even really know what you want.”
“I do know,” Brent muttered, stare planted on the floor.
At this, Kearney crossed his arms and leaned against the side of the sofa. “Why don’t you do something about it, then?”
For a long moment, he didn’t say or do anything – before finally, he turned to Kearney and pulled him so that the taller man faced him.
“Promise me something,” Kearney said, raising a hand before Brent could kiss him.
“Don’t suddenly decide to stop this time.”
Brent couldn’t help but laugh as he lifted his arms, elbows resting on Kearney’s shoulders. With the already hot spotlights on them, they quickly became slippery and sticky – it was hard for Kearney to get a good grip on Brent’s skin. Kearney’s lips left Brent’s and wandered to his collarbone, lightly across his chest, over his stomach. Unbuttoned and unzipped, Brent shifted on the hard metal as Kearney’s hand slipped into the front of his jeans.
Kearney was on his knees, tugging the jeans down – they didn’t want to go any further than the knees – and, hands holding Brent’s shins, he took him into his mouth. He grinned, enjoying the noises he pulled from Brent with every lick. Finally, he stopped playing and took him deeply, the walls of his mouth swallowing as he dipped back and forth. When he pulled away, a thin, clear string hung from his bottom lip – Brent’s hands forced his head back down.
+ + +
Somehow, Brent had ended up falling asleep on the rock-hard sofa. His legs and back were sore – so sore that he couldn’t move. (Well, maybe he could, but he didn’t want to try.) Groaning like he’d just woken up with a hangover on the morning after Duffie’s Free Shots night, he buried his face into a pillow. If he had his way, he would stay right where he was for the rest of the day, no matter how uncomfortable the sofa was. Unfortunately, Kearney seemed determined to not let that happen as he tugged the pillow away and grinned down at him, holding up his camera menacingly – he wanted to snap a few shots “for the memories.”
They didn’t have sex. Oh yes, Kearney certainly wanted to, but Brent was adamant that they wait – at least for a little while. He promised he would tell Kearney the very moment he decided he was ready, though – yes, the very moment. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t have any time, though. Chances were, Brent would decide that the suburbia wasn’t such a bad place after all – at least, it wasn’t at Mahogany Estate 126 – and he might just decide to stay there a while… but only if Kearney continued accepting rent, of course.
That meant he would have to start another long, tedious job search. What he didn’t know, however, was that Kearney was secretly planning to teach Brent everything he knew about photography; and, if he agreed, he would hire him as an assistant and train him so that he could become an independent photographer. Funny how things work out, huh?
“Go ahead,” Brent said listlessly, gesturing to the camera as he rolled over. “It’s not porn, right?”