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taking off masks


by JD Davis November 2004

Part II

“Be careful what you set your heart upon - for it will surely be yours.

James A. Baldwin

Three months. Ninety-two miserabledays. Two thousand two hundred and eight absolutely fucking miserable hours. Make that nine: not a word, not a trace. Stuart’s life had been in suspended animation ever since he and Brian had fought so bitterly. He had had a long time to think about what had happened, but had finally given up hope of ever seeing Brian again, of being given the opportunity to put things right. He had resigned himself to the fact that he would never be able to tell Brian that he loved him.

He had learned much in those three months. He had discovered just how alone he was: he had plumbed the depths of despair: he had fought nightmares and failed to conquer his fears. He had cried out in loneliness and frustration. He had called Brian’s name in extremis.

The phone rang and Stuart wearily answered. The receptionist advised him he had a visitor, a Mrs. Ashton, waiting to see him. Stuart was not expecting anyone but checked his calendar again in case he had forgotten an appointment. With his mind filled with thoughts of Brian, he had been guilty of forgetfulness more than once. There was no record and Stuart shrugged as he made his way to the reception area.

A small, slight woman with grey hair was waiting for him. Her face looked vaguely familiar but he could not place her.

“Mrs. Ashton? I’m Stuart Winfield, how may I help you?” The woman rose slowly to her feet, her eyes appraising him. Stuart noticed the tension, the white knuckles gripping the purse, and wondered who this woman was.

“May we talk in private?” she asked uncertainly.

“Of course, we can talk in my office.” Stuart led the way, offered Mrs. Ashton a seat and a cup of coffee, poured two cups and then sat down behind his desk.

“So what can I do for you?” he asked, watching the woman as she looked nervously about her. When she failed to reply, Stuart felt a twinge of impatience.

“Mrs. Ashton?” She flinched at his tone, cleared her throat and refused to meet his eyes.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she said finally. “This was a bad idea.” She started to rise to her feet and Stuart noticed how pale she was. In a gentler tone, he said,

“Why don’t you sit and finish your coffee? How can I help you?” She seemed to relax a little and sank back into her seat. Stuart watched as she sipped her drink, obviously gathering her thoughts. Silently, Stuart waited for her to speak.

“You’re nothing like how I imagined you,” she said eventually. “Everything he told me about you seems . . . I don’t know.” Stuart was totally confused by her cryptic comments and strange behavior.

“Who told you about me?” he asked. “Who is ‘he’? What did he say?” Stuart’s patience was wearing thin and he pointedly looked at the piles of paperwork on his desk.

“Mrs. Ashton, I’m really very busy. I’m trying to be civil here, but I don’t have time for guessing games. Please either tell me why you wished to see me or make an appointment for another time when we can indulge in twenty questions.” Stuart snapped impatiently.

“He said you had a quick temper,” she replied.

Who?” Stuart’s voice rose, his frustration very evident.


The breath left his lungs and he fell back in his chair. He could feel his heart pounding as he struggled to find his voice.

“B-Brian?” Was that strangled gasp his voice?

She nodded and looked helplessly about her.

“I shouldn’t have come,” she said again.

“Who are you, Mrs. Ashton? How do you know Brian? How is he? Is he alright? Where is he? Tell me, please.” The words tumbled from Stuart’s lips in a torrent and Mrs. Ashton blinked before the onslaught. She held up her hand and Stuart stopped speaking, the multitude of questions dying out.

“You actually sound like you care,” she said, her tone bitter.

“Of course I care,” Stuart said sharply, biting off any further comment. This strange woman knew Brian but she was teetering on a knife edge and he needed to stay calm in order to extract as much information as necessary. He drew a deep breath and tried again.

“Mrs. Ashton, please tell me what’s going on. How do you know Brian? Everyone has been worried sick about him. He just disappeared into thin air and I’ve not had a moment’s peace since he left.”

Her eyes narrowed at his words and her mouth pursed in a moue of displeasure.

“You don’t deserve any peace,” she said harshly, “you robbed Brian of his peace of mind. Brian deserved better than you!” Stuart sighed and dropped his head onto his clenched fists, sorrow and frustration obvious in his tense body language.

“I know,” he murmured. “I was an absolute bastard to him and I’ve done nothing but regret it ever since. Mrs. Ashton, if you know where Brian is, please tell me!”

“I can’t.” Her tone was gentler, regretful. “Brian does not want to see you and he would be extremely angry if he knew I had come here.”

“Then why did you come?” Brian raised his head and met the watery blue eyes of the older woman.

“I came to see the man who destroyed my son.”

There was a shocked silence as Stuart tried to recover his breath.

“You’re – his mother?” he asked incredulously. He realized now why she had looked familiar, although the name had thrown him. She must have remarried and Stuart vaguely remembered Brian telling him he was taking leave to attend his stepfather’s funeral about a year ago.

“Even Brian has a mother,” she snapped back. “Why are you so surprised?” Stuart ignored her indignation in his anxiousness to hear news of Brian.

“How is he?” he asked again. “Mrs. Ashton, please! Tell me about Brian; where is he, how is he? Put me out of my misery, for God’s sake!”

“Funny, that’s what Brian said,” she replied. “I held him in my arms while he cried and said if he were a dog I would put him out of his misery!”

“Christ!” Stuart yelled. “Stop it, just stop, please.” His anguished plea did not seem to penetrate Mrs. Ashton’s self-absorbed state.

“He was in a terrible state when he came home,” she continued. “It took me days to find out what had happened; weeks before he told me your name. He didn’t want to tell me because he knew I’d tried to contact you.”

“To do what? Torture me? Crucify me? Kill me? You’re doing all of that, believe me!”

“There’s something not quite right about him, now,” she went on, unheeding. “He’s not well. After the first few weeks he seemed to pull himself together, although he was depressed. He started going out again. I encouraged him, thinking it was for the best. He would stay out late at night: sometimes he didn’t come home. I thought he’d met someone. I was actually happy for him.” She covered her face with her hands, obviously fighting back tears.

Stuart got up and walked round his desk. His heart was pounding and he felt a terrifying coldness settle deep within him. He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and said softly,

“Tell me what’s the matter.” She drew a shuddering breath and dropped her hands to her lap, fingers twisting together.

“I think – I think my son – I think Brian has lost his mind!”

Stuart’s hand tightened convulsively and he forced himself to relax as he felt her flinch beneath his grip. “Sorry,” he muttered and patted her ineffectively before returning to his seat.

“Talk to me, Mrs. Ashton. Please tell me what’s happening.” Whether it was his words or just the fact that she had someone to talk to, the dam broke and Mrs. Ashton poured out her story. Stuart listened in growing horror as she explained how Brian had turned up unexpectedly in the middle of the night. He had hardly spoken for days and then had begun to tell her what had happened.

“It was hard for me,” she said brokenly. “I always expected Brian to marry and give me grandchildren. He’s my only child, you see. When his father died . . . I needed him . . . I didn’t know . . . never realized . . . they say it’s caused by dominating mothers . . . I failed my son so terribly!” She choked back a sob and Stuart said,

“Mrs. Ashton, I’m the one who failed Brian, not you! You didn’t ‘cause’ this, believe me. Your son is gay, or maybe bi-sexual. I think he only admitted this to himself recently: I know I did.” Stuart stopped speaking, suddenly realizing what he had said. He had never admitted to himself that there was even a possibility that he was homosexual; he had been in denial for a very long time, but his feelings for Brian would not be suppressed. He owed Brian that much. Mrs. Ashton did not react to his earth-shattering announcement, however, just continued with her story.

“He admitted he was in love with someone at work. He told me he had been in love with him for a long time and had finally gathered his courage and told him. Then he told me about your quarrel. He cried and cried.” She choked again and tears slipped down her face. “I couldn’t comfort him.”

Stuart felt his heart twist and his eyes filled with unshed tears. He did not want to hear any more but Mrs. Ashton was speaking again.

“After a few weeks, he changed. He said that if Stuart – if you didn’t love him – he would find someone else. He was angry, crazy! He started going out and I thought he was better. I was glad he was angry with you. I thought he would get over what happened, maybe find a nice girl. Stupid, I know, but I still hoped, still thought . . . But now I know what is really going on.” She stopped again and Stuart had to force himself to stay silent and let her finish. He knew he was not going to like what she had to say.

“You have to understand,” she pleaded. “He’s not well.”

“Tell me,” Stuart said softly. “Tell me what Brian is doing.”

“I followed him one night to see where he was going. I was worried, you must understand. I did not want to spy on my son but things weren’t right. He goes to these clubs for men - men like him. Sometimes, when he comes home, he has marks on him, bruises. When I first asked about them he told me he got in a fight, but I knew he wasn’t telling the truth. So I followed him and . . .” Her voice trailed off and Stuart’s imagination filled in the missing details. Finally, he spoke.

“Mrs. Ashton, if you want to help your son, tell me where he is.”

“I can’t!”

“You must. I need to see him, to tell him I was wrong. I need to ask him to forgive me.”

“And what about what Brian needs?”

Stuart was brought up short by the question. She was right. He was so obsessed with seeing Brian that he hadn’t considered anything other than his own feelings. He took a deep breath and said,

“You’re quite right, Mrs. Ashton, we have to consider Brian’s needs above all else. But I think he needs to see me, even if it’s just so that he can yell at me or hit me or whatever he wants to do. He needs some kind of closure, don’t you think?”

She thought about it and finally nodded.

“He’ll be furious I spoke to you,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Be honest with him. Tell him you came to see me. Tell him I’ve been looking for him and that I want to see him. Tell him I . . .” Stuart bit back the message of love he desperately wanted to send. He needed to speak to Brian himself to tell him how he felt. “Tell him I’m waiting to hear from him,” he amended. “Then it’s up to Brian.”

“I still think he’ll be so angry with me for telling you all this.” Stuart thought for a moment.

“Mrs. Ashton, if I write a letter, will you give it to him?”

“Yes, I can do that.”

“Then, if you’ll wait in reception for a few minutes, I’ll have something ready in a little while.”

* * * * * * * *

Dear Brian,

Please don’t be angry with your mother for coming to see me. She is genuinely afraid that you will not forgive her for meddling but I am so happy she did! I have been desperate to get in touch with you.

Now that I have the opportunity, however, I do not know what to say. Forgive me? Please? I am so sorry for how I reacted that fateful day and I have had a great deal of time to think about what happened, and about you. I would rather say everything else to you in person. Please let me see you.



* * * * * * * *


Friday, 6.00 p.m., Riverside Café.


* * * * * * * *

Stuart dressed with care, chastising himself for behaving as if he was going on a date, but he wanted to look his best when Brian saw him again. As if what he wore would make a difference, he thought savagely, as he shaved and splashed on cologne. He checked his appearance one more time before leaving for his meeting: faded jeans, a tight black T shirt and his battered black leather jacket. Too casual? Too obvious? It would have to do. He shrugged at his reflection and headed out the door.

He arrived at the Riverside Café at 5.45, found a booth facing the door and ordered a cup of coffee. He was very nervous, anxious to see Brian again but anticipating a difficult reunion. He still wasn’t sure what he was going to say, how he was going to convince Brian that he had genuine feelings for him. He could only try and hope that Brian would forgive him. Could they repair their friendship and maybe move forward from there?

Brian watched Stuart go into the café. He had been hanging around for fifteen minutes, berating himself for even agreeing to the meeting, but at the same time desperately hoping that things might work out. His mother had told him about her conversation with Stuart, about how anxious he had been to see him again. She had, however, omitted one important detail, not deliberately but because she had been too upset to register what Stuart had said. As far as Brian knew, his old friend wanted to see him to apologize, nothing more.

Could they go back to just being friends? For Brian, this was the crucial question, and he still didn’t know the answer. Despite his anger and hurt, he had admitted to himself he still loved Stuart. He had tried to forget him and had launched himself into a pattern of behavior, which he knew was self-destructive. He had got himself into a bad scene but, at the time, it had served its purpose. He had used physical pain and humiliation to counteract the emotional pain and humiliation inflicted on him by Stuart. Only hearing from his mother that Stuart wanted to see him again had stopped the downward spiral. The plain white envelope she had handed to him had changed everything.

Brian laughed at himself. Was he feeling grateful to Stuart? The son of a bitch had almost destroyed him and here he was watching his friend and feeling like he was his rescuer! Was there anyone less like a shining white knight! Should he really go and talk to him? The tiny spark of anger, which had never quite died, suddenly flared within him. Yes, he would go and talk to him: he would tell him what a bastard he was, then walk away!

God, he looked good! The treacherous thought formed before he could suppress it. He watched Stuart’s rear view as he walked into the café and felt a stirring in his groin. No! He could not allow himself to feel anything other than anger! He could not succumb to his desire; if Stuart wanted to be friends again then it was up to him to make any reconciliation work. Otherwise, he would never be able to say what he needed to say. Stuart had to pay his dues. He had been hurt so badly.

Stuart watched as Brian walked slowly into the café. He was pale and thin, and looking around nervously. Finally, their eyes met and Brian came over to the booth. Stuart got to his feet and waited, his heart in his mouth. To his surprise, Brian slipped into the booth without saying anything and Stuart sat down again in confusion. A waitress approached and refilled Stuart’s coffee cup, and Brian calmly ordered one for himself. Then he sat back and glanced at Stuart for the first time before averting his eyes.

“You wanted to talk to me,” he said. “So talk.” The cold tone of voice did not really surprise Stuart, but he had hoped Brian would make things easy for him. How stupid! Why would Brian want to make things easy?

Stuart cleared his throat and tried to make eye contact but Brian steadfastly looked at his hands clenched together on the table. He glanced up as the waitress brought his coffee but studiously ignored Stuart. The silence stretched between them and Stuart groped for the right words.

“Thanks for coming,” he started, and cleared his throat again. “Brian, I don’t know what to say to you . . .”

“You asked to see me and now you don’t know what to say?” Brian interrupted. “That’s just great, Stuart! Well, I know exactly what I want to say to you!” As he drew breath to launch into his angry diatribe, Stuart cut him off.

“Brian, please! You’ll have your chance to call me any name you want to, but not yet, not here! I was trying to tell you that I don’t know what to say to you to make you feel better. I want to apologize for my reaction but you did catch me unawares. Couldn’t you have given me a little time to get used to the idea?”

“So now it’s my fault?” Brian’s voice rose and he bit off his angry words as people looked round at the two men.

“No, I’m not saying it’s your fault.” Stuart struggled to stay calm. Brian was being as difficult as he could be: not that Stuart blamed him, it was just frustrating.

“Look, can we go somewhere else?” Stuart asked. “Somewhere private?”


“Just – no?” Stuart asked incredulously. “Brian, please, this is difficult enough . . .” Brian leaned towards him across the table.

“I don’t want to be alone with you!” he replied in a fierce whisper. Brian was terrified he would break down if they were alone. “Just say what you have to say then fuck off!” Stuart sighed and fiddled with his cup.

“Okay.” He paused and then launched into the most important speech of his entire life. “Brian, please believe me, I am deeply sorry that I reacted so badly when you admitted your feelings for me. I was taken unawares and didn’t think things through.”

“Good way to get an honest reaction, though,” Brian said snidely.

“But not the reaction you wanted, obviously!” Stuart could give as good as he got. He pushed down the flare of anger and continued. “If you’d given me some time to process, I think things might have turned out differently. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what you said, and . . .” Stuart’s courage failed and he stopped speaking. He looked up from his cup and discovered Brian watching him intently. The expression on his face was unreadable.

“And?” Brian prompted.

“And I think . . . maybe I could . . . we were best friends, Brian . . . we spent all our free time together. I miss that. I miss you.” Stuart cursed his inability to say more but he was uncomfortable with having this conversation in a public place.

“You want to be friends again, is that it?” Brian asked. Stuart nodded. “Not going to happen,” Brian said calmly.

“Why not?”

“Stuart, we can’t be best friends like we used to be. I changed that: everything is different now. I told you how I felt about you and that’s going to be between us from now on. Every time you look at me, talk to me, it’s going to be in the back of your mind. If you asked me over to your place or I asked you to mine, you’d hesitate and be suspicious.”

“No, I wouldn’t!” Stuart protested. “I’ve come to terms with what you said to me.” Brian sat back and started to laugh, not the reaction Stuart had anticipated.

“What’s so funny?” he demanded.

“You are, Stuart! You’ve ‘come to terms’ with me being in love with you? That’s really funny!”

“No, it’s not,” Stuart exclaimed, “it’s not funny at all! It’s pain and misery and anxiety and sleepless nights. It’s knowing you told your best friend – your best friend – to go to hell! It’s fighting with yourself and cursing and ranting and raving! It sure as hell isn’t funny!”

Brian stopped laughing as he watched Stuart. He had been trying to hold on to his anger, baiting Stuart so that he could resist the urge to reach out to him. Watching him now, though, he couldn’t stay angry. Stuart looked and sounded absolutely distraught. It began to dawn on Brian that Stuart had possibly been suffering just as he had. Why hadn’t he waited for Stuart to absorb his admittedly stunning announcement? Why had he run off in such a state as soon as Stuart rejected him? He had to admit to himself that he had expected Stuart to react adversely; had anticipated it, in fact, and had been in full flight mode when he had spoken of his love to Stuart, taking off as soon as Stuart raised his voice.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly as he looked at the raw pain in Stuart’s eyes. “You’re right; it’s not funny when you put it like that.”

“Please can we go somewhere else?” Stuart begged. “There’s so much I want to say to you and I can’t do it here!”

“We could walk in the park,” Brian relented. Galvanized into action, Stuart leapt to his feet, threw more than enough money to cover the bill on the table, and headed towards the door. Brian had to hurry to keep up with him as he plunged across the busy street and sought the sanctuary of the park.

“Stuart,” Brian gasped, grabbing hold of his arm. “Slow down, for Pete’s sake!”

Stuart jerked under Brian’s touch and looked around wildly. There was no one in the vicinity and he ducked into a stand of trees a few yards away, Brian still clinging to his arm. Once out of sight, Stuart turned and pulled Brian into a rough embrace.

“I love you, you stupid son of a bitch!” he yelled furiously and kissed him with bruising force.

© j.d. davis 2004