“IS THIS Justin Jimenez?”
“Yes,” Justin muttered into his hastily answered cell phone. When Katy Perry suddenly began singing “Firework” in the middle of the night, he had quickly picked up the annoyingly loud device without checking the caller ID. He had no idea who was speaking to him, even though the woman’s voice sounded vaguely familiar. All he knew for sure was that he would change the ringtone to something less jarring after breakfast.
“Justin, did you hear what I said?” The woman’s question was tinged with urgency and fear.
“No,” he mumbled in response.
Sleep still clouded his vision, and despite the fact that a late-night call was rarely a good omen, his eyes fought against consciousness. Through sheer will, he forced his right eyelid open enough to note the time.
It was 3:17 in the morning. He had at most three hours of sleep before his blaring alarm sent him into another day as principal of Luther Burbank High.
“Who is this?” he asked, quietly. He didn’t want to disturb Spencer’s peaceful slumber, which appeared to be coming to an end anyway. His partner mumbled a complaint about the “damn phone” before promptly turning over and pulling the majority of the bedcovers over his head. Apparently, Spencer intended to burrow away from the noise.
“This is Heidi Armstrong,” the voice on the other end told him. Her name struck a chord and made him uneasy. “Lukas’s sister. But I think you called him ‘Dutch’ like most everyone else.”
Justin sprang into a sitting position, as if the mere mention of Dutch’s name released some secret, inner catch that spurred his body forward like an old-fashioned jack-in-the-box.
He was wide awake now. The warm folds of his sheets and his desire to return to his Ricky Martin sex dream disappeared. Hearing Dutch’s name over his cell phone was the equivalent of having a bucket of cold water thrown into his face.
He hopped out of bed, jamming his little toe into the sturdy oak bedside table. Cursing and hopping toward the wall, Justin feared his yelps would cause Spencer to dig himself out from underneath his den of warm blankets.
He steadied himself against the bedroom wall with his left hand while he cradled the cell phone in his right until the pain subsided to an angry throb. When he surveyed the bed, he found Spencer sitting up, freshly emerged from the tangle of sheets. He looked at Justin with narrowed green eyes, his blond eyebrows knitted together. It was Spencer’s way of saying what the fuck?
“Sorry, love,” he told Spencer. “You go back to sleep. I’ll take this in the other room.”
Before Spencer could reply, he limped in pain down the hallway toward the kitchen, hopefully far enough away not to be heard talking on the phone. This wasn’t a conversation Spencer was meant to overhear. Dutch was a secret Justin intended to take to his grave.
Heidi’s voice buzzed in the cell phone as he hobbled down the hallway, into the living room, and past pictures of him and Spencer through the years. Their smiling past selves mocked him, as if to say that those days were gone and never to return.
When he opened his mouth to finally reply, no sound would escape his constricted throat. His body, frozen in shock, had yet to recover from the suddenness of Dutch being catapulted back into his life.
It had been months since he last spoke with Dutch and at least a year since he ended their affair.
“Justin, are you there?” Heidi’s voice lost its urgency. Annoyance took its place.
“I’m here,” he replied. He turned his back on the pictures. There was no way he could talk to Dutch’s sister and look at Spencer’s happy face. “What’s this all about?”
“I have some bad news. Dutch has been in a very bad accident.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
Justin felt his head spinning. He felt trapped in a whirlpool of emotions, threatening to rip him asunder.
“The doctors don’t know. His injuries are severe,” she responded.
Justin held his breath. The whirlpool was winning, and he was going under.
Though they were no longer together, he would never wish any harm to come to Dutch. He was a wonderful man with a gentle soul and caring heart, at least he had been when they were together. Since their breakup, Dutch had become someone he didn’t recognize, a fact he’d realized a few months ago when their paths accidentally crossed.
“I’m really sorry to hear about this,” he told her, which was true. But Justin wondered why he was getting this call. Why now? It was a question he didn’t want to voice for fear of dredging up a past better left buried. Still, the words escaped from his mouth before he could reel them back in.
“Why are you calling me? I haven’t spoken to Dutch in quite some time.”
At first, silence was his only answer. He was wondering if they had been disconnected when he heard the faint sound of Heidi’s slow breathing. She was in deep concentration, as if part of her didn’t want to reveal the reason for her call, her urgency replaced with hesitancy.
“He keeps calling for you,” she said at last. “Will you come?”
His fear of Spencer learning the truth ebbed away. In its place, concern for Dutch flowed to the shore.
Kept buried deep within him, like a treasure his heart kept secret even from himself, his love for Dutch remained. It was sealed within a heavily chained chest, buried underneath millions of grains of sand, but it was there. Justin could feel it. Even worse, he felt unseen hands, urged on by the knowledge he just received about Dutch, begin to dig through the sand.
Justin closed his eyes and mentally erected a stone blockade around the chest. He’d buried those feelings for a reason, and he had no intention of exhuming them.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” he said. “You see….”
“Sweetie, who is it?”
Justin swiveled around and saw Spencer standing at the entrance to the kitchen, naked. His sandy-blond hair was a disheveled mess, and Spencer moved his hands through his locks in vain attempts to tame them. The sight of his lover’s smooth, naked alabaster flesh stirred both Justin’s heart and his passion.
“Can you hold on a minute?” Justin asked Dutch’s sister before covering the phone with his hand. “It’s nothing, love. Why don’t you go back to bed?” He knew the suggestion wouldn’t work, but he figured it was worth a try.
Spencer moved his hands from his hair to his hips, his way of saying bitch, please. “When my man gets a call in the middle of the night, you can bet I’m not going back to bed.”
“Fine,” he told Spencer. Justin did his best to school his face and quell the upsurge of panic. “Just let me finish the call.”
Spencer gestured for Justin to finish the conversation and then he sat at the kitchen table.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to make it,” Justin said into the phone. Spencer’s eyes narrowed again. He was wondering what Justin wasn’t going to be able to make. Thankfully, though, his expression was merely curious, not accusatory.
“I understand,” she told him with a sigh of disappointment. “I’m aware of your situation.” She said situation as if he were an expectant teen hiding a pregnancy from her parents. He didn’t know what the correct tone was for an affair, but he was certain the one she used wasn’t it. Adultery and teenage sex were two different offenses. In the grand scheme of life’s violations, his situation was a capital offense, not a misdemeanor. “I know I shouldn’t have called, but I just didn’t know what else to do. He keeps repeating your name over and over. I just thought—” She stopped, a rising sob interrupting her words. She breathed deeply and then continued. “If you change your mind, and I hope you do, Dutch is in ICU at Methodist Hospital.”
“Thanks for letting me know,” he said and then ended the call.
For a few moments, he stood silently in the kitchen, with his cell in hand. The normally cool rubber protective phone case was warm to the touch, heated by the phone during the conversation. Now, Justin waited for a different heat to descend upon him, the inevitable barrage of Spencer’s questions.
“So,” Spencer said, dragging out the “o” for at least five seconds. It was his typical verbal tick that corresponded with either a piqued or pissed Spencer. “Who was on the phone?”
Justin didn’t know how to answer. In a split second, a dozen scenarios ran through his head of how best to avoid suspicion. He had been blessed with a mind capable of quick thinking. But his mind had slowed, either dulled by weariness, pain, or both. He decided to let the answers be honest. “There’s been an accident.”
Immediately, Spencer’s attitude shifted down from pissy to concerned. He rushed from the table to Justin’s side. “Who is it?” he asked in alarm. “Is it your mother? Your uncle? Your grandparents?”
As usual, Spencer worried more about Justin’s family. If the late night call came through on the landline, the welfare of the Harrison’s wouldn’t elicit this much anxiety from Justin’s lover. Spencer and his family had a distantly cordial relationship that stemmed from when he came out of the closet while in high school. Conservative military families didn’t appreciate learning one of their own was a homosexual.
“My family is fine,” he said.
Spencer exhaled in relief and a smile lighted on his lips. The smile, though, was quickly chased away by the winds of curiosity. “Who, then?”
Justin twisted away from Spencer’s tender green eyes. Instead, he stared at the kitchen cabinets, recently painted wine purple instead of the plain white they had once been. Spencer had decided the house needed more color, and the kitchen was where he chose to start. While Justin didn’t particularly like the look, he let Spencer have his way. After all, Spencer was more of a domestic than Justin. If he wanted purple cabinets, then purple cabinets he’d get.
Spencer rested his hands gently on Justin’s bare shoulder. The touch of his dear, sweet man brought tears to his eyes, but Justin refused to let them fall. How could I have been so stupid? he thought. This was never supposed to happen. How did I let this happen?
“Sweetie, what’s going on? You’re scaring me.”
Spencer turned him around and gingerly caressed his face. Always the caregiver, always putting others’ needs before his own, Spencer was the epitome of giving and sacrifice. It always made Justin feel inferior and unworthy of such a man. “Who was on the phone? Who’s been in an accident?”
More than anything else, Justin wanted to lie. A lie would deliver them from pain. A lie would allow them to return to bed and live in the dream of their happy life together. But if he lied, no, if he continued to lie, then their life would only be a dream.
He had no other option. He knew that now. If things were going to get better, if they were really going to mend what had once been broken, he needed to be completely honest at last. He had to tell Spencer. If he didn’t come clean, then their relationship would be rebuilt upon a lie. He respected their love too much to continue on such a shaky foundation any longer.
“Dutch Keller,” Justin finally said.
Spencer stared down at him, confused. “Dutch? The photography adjunct that I helped hire last year at St. Mary’s?”
Justin nodded. As a member of the faculty at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, Spencer was often asked to be on various hiring committees within the School of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. As fate would have it, the dean had solicited Spencer’s help to fill some part-time teaching vacancies, which included photography, a job for which Dutch applied and got.
Having Spencer and Dutch in such close proximity to each other on the same campus had been the final nail in his relationship with Dutch. Their worlds were getting too close to colliding, and there was only one world he was committed to living in.
“I don’t understand,” Spencer said. “Why would anyone be calling you on your cell phone about Dutch Keller?”
Justin didn’t respond. He simply stared at Spencer through watery eyes.
The welling tears melted his vision, obliterating Justin’s stable reality. Spencer’s form turned fluid and wavy; the vibrant yellow kitchen walls became drab. All around him, the familiar house distorted into a foreign landscape seen only in nightmares.
This was no bad dream he could easily wake up from. Justin’s secure life teetered on the edge of disaster, a disaster he’d set into motion one year ago.
This had been the moment he dreaded for months, the moment when Spencer learned he had been unfaithful. He had thought he could hide the affair forever. He’d hoped he could keep it a secret for the rest of his life, but keeping the lie alive would be a disservice to their renewed commitment.
He should have been upfront when he and Spencer had started patching things back up, but he'd been too afraid the news would shatter any chance they had at reconciliation. All he could hope for now was that their relationship was strong enough to withstand one last explosion.
Slowly, as if the world were only advancing one frame at a time, Justin watched as understanding crashed upon the man he loved like a tidal wave. The weight rested heavily upon Spencer’s shoulders, causing them to slouch under the burden.
The only reason Justin would receive such a personal phone call about Dutch was if Dutch and Justin shared a personal relationship.
Spencer’s jade eyes drained of their vibrant green, turning pastel. He searched Justin’s face for confirmation, and deep within the pool of regretful tears, Spencer found the answer neither of them wanted to be true.
Spencer inhaled sharply, as if he had been stabbed in the chest. He turned around and fled the kitchen.
When the bedroom door slammed shut, Justin’s teary eyes dried in response to the numbness that quickly consumed him from within.