"I've been screaming for years about the power of music and how the beauty of it is that it can bring all kinds of different people together -- different races, different cultures, different sexual orientations."
The first thing that happens is that the album only sells moderately well. Nostalgia, the new boom, whatever, everyone still sells at least a moderate number of records, even Nick Carter. But it takes Justin a month to move as many units as he did in an hour when he was nineteen.
The second thing that happens is that the tour gets scaled back. Clubs and art deco theaters and places that wouldn't have even been able to seat the crew of the Pop Odyssey tour, let alone a fraction of the audience. Justin doesn't care, though, he's got a plan and a barstool and a guitar. He tells himself he's a go with the flow kind of guy, he never said the next level always had to be up.
The third thing that happens is that the tour doesn't sell, not even moderately. The people who bought the new album don't want to pay to watch Justin find his way through the new material with just an acoustic guitar and one foot on the floor. The people who bought the old albums don't want to hear their favorite songs re-worked into folk tunes.
The fourth thing that happens is that Justin comes out. Quietly, fumblingly, like an out-of-tune guitar, but still. And then that's news, because Justin's still famous for who he was, if not for who he is.
And so now he gets interviewed as much as ever, but no one even pretends itís about the music anymore. They all say, "How does it feel to be twenty-five, now that you've had some time to get used to it?" and they all mean something else. The headlines call it a desperate bid at the end of a flagging career. But Justin's used to being misunderstood.
"I was raised just outside of Memphis, in Millington, Tennessee. There weren't a lot of gay people there."
He'd tried, because he thought it'd be a nice story to tell, but Justin couldn't remember the first time he met JC.
This is what he remembers instead:
When Justin started on the Mouse Club, it wasn't like he was some kind of amateur. He'd done pageants and showcases and he'd even been on TV before, real TV, Star Search, he knew stuff. He did.
But he didn't know how to scrub off whatever pancake thick stage makeup that they used on the set. The makeup artists packed it on before the show, but after the day's taping was over, Justin found himself alone in the boys' dressing room with a wet wash cloth and darkened eyes that wouldn't wash off. The harder he scrubbed, the more it seemed to smear, under his eyelids and up near his brow.
In the mirror, Justin saw JC slip through the door and he quickly looked down, busied himself with moving around different bottles and jars on the makeup counter. He didn't want JC to see how red his eyes were, or try to explain that they were just red from rubbing them with the wash cloth.
He was still looking down when he felt a hand across his back. He glanced up to JC's cautious smile. "Hey, kid," JC said, "you havin' trouble gettin' the makeup off?"
"Yeah," Justin muttered, because JC was 17, he'd already been on the show for two seasons, he probably knew everything.
JC spun Justin around so that they were facing each other. He took the cloth out of Justin's hand and laid it on the counter.
"It's like, for clowns, isn't it?" JC said, grinning, and Justin nodded and found himself returning the smile weakly. "The trick," JC continued, grabbing one of the bottles from the edge of the counter, "is that it's, like, grease paint. It's not, uh, water-soluble. So you gotta use the cold cream, it'll work better." He handed Justin the bottle and Justin turned it over nervously in his hands. "And cotton balls, too, that works," JC added. "Here, I'll show you."
He took a cotton ball, dabbed it with cream and began to wipe gently around Justin's eyes. Justin looked straight ahead and thought there must be a word for someone like JC, some other word besides "beautiful."
"There was never a plan beyond making songs that a lot of people might like."
He doesn't want to talk about it. Not that he isn't willing, just, everything has already been said and so when people ask him to repeat himself again and again and again, Justin finally snaps. And, like every major moment in his life in the last ten years, it's on live television.
"Listen," he tells the latest MTV graduate, who was probably barely mailroom when NSYNC was first on TRL, "I've done a lot more interesting things in the last three months than start a new relationship even if it is with a guy, oh, wow, gee, do you think he's, like, queer?"
The VJ blinks and tries to chew his tongue off. "I didn't mean--"
"No, it's okay," Justin interrupts. "I know, it's big news. But, I've got a new tour. And if that's not news, I mean, JC has an exhibit, Joey's got a new show. I still talk to Joey, you know, even though we're not sleeping together." The VJ stares blankly and so Justin adds, "Let's talk about that. Let's talk about something that hasn't been said yet."
They talk about the show the night before, the one Justin did in Boston. The VJ delicately avoids asking what kind of a turnout Justin got, because the numbers were something like 80% of the tickets sold. Numbers like that don't translate well on MTV.
"Paula Cole was in the audience in Boston," Justin tells them. He doesn't say that she sent a dozen white roses to his hotel room that night, with one of his own lyrics attached to the tag. He doesn't say that because he wants to keep it for himself, he wants to know that it meant something. Nobody really understood what Paula Cole was trying to do, either, after the critics stopped paying attention. That secret, he wants to keep.
The next show is New York City, at Irving Plaza, and to most people, that isn't a bad thing, not even a step down. The show's actually sold out, too, and Justin can peer out into the audience and see a wash of people. Christina Aguilera is in the balcony, in the VIP boxes, with a drag queen friend from Lucky Cheng's. She introduced them backstage before the opening act.
At the intermission, Christina gets backstage and congratulates him. "I never thought I'd see you with a guitar," she tells him. "But you're killin' this show."
"You wanna sing something with me later?" he says, wiping his face with a towel and taking a long swig of something cold.
"Won't your promoter freak about a change in the show?"
Christina is still doing arenas, only this year she's the opening act. "Nah," Justin tells her. "No one will care."
"Beyond that, one of my best friends from when I was 14 was gay."
From the time he was just a kid, Justin's mother called the two of them a team. "We make a pretty good team, don't you think?" she'd say and he'd nod and grin.
So when Lou said they needed Lance, Justin and his mom were a tag team, Justin selling Lance and Justin's mom selling Lance's mom. Justin knew how to work an audition and so when the first thing Lance said over the static was, "Yeah, I remember you from the Mickey Mouse Club," Justin brightened his tone like a sunny smile through the wire and said, "Yeah, man, me and JC, too, he's in the group, too."
So Justin sold Lance and Justin's mom sold Lance's mom and Lou said, "You two make a pretty good team," and Justin's mom placed her hand on Justin's shoulder before Lou could.
When Lance and his mother got out of the car, Justin recognized in Lance's eyes what he'd seen before in the eyes of audiences, in living rooms and on sound stages. It settled on him first, but it stayed on JC.
Justin shoved JC forward like a proud parent and said, "Lance, hi, you remember JC, right? We're really glad you're here." Justin knew how to work an audition.
"If I was going to let everything that people say hurt me, I'd go crazy."
Justin calls JC from a hotel room in the dark. He always makes himself wait until exactly two hours after the end of the last interview, because otherwise he'd just fill up the conversation with his own negative energy, and talking to JC shouldn't be like that.
Still, today was longer than usual and there were questions about Britney like he's still seventeen and so when JC answers on the fourth ring, Justin says, "I'm thinking of only answering questions with other people's song lyrics, from now on. 'What do you have to say to all the women who grew up wanting to marry you, Justin?' And I'll say, uh ...."
"No April rain, no flowers bloom, no wedding Saturday within the month of June," JC offers.
"Yeah," Justin says, "Yeah. Baby, did you just call to say you love me?"
Because they're doing this. They've been doing this. For a little while, now, ever since they figured out that their sharp edges might be places where they could fit together. Ever since Justin called and said, "I'm tryin' something different. They think I'm crazy, but I thought maybe you'd be able to hear it."
"I thought -- you were the one that called me, though." JC says.
"Yeah, well. It's been a long day."
"Okay," JC laughs, "I did just call to say that."
"I actually asked my mother once what she would feel if I came to her and told her I was gay."
Justin asked Lynn what she thought of people who were different before his voice started to break. It wasn't really a surprise, given that he was a show kid. What he really asked was, "Do you think that Greg in make-up is a little..."
Lynn looked at him for a minute, and then sat him down. "Different?"
"I like Greg, honey."
Justin nodded. "I like him too. And his boyfriend."
And that was the end of that.
Justin never actually considered the possibility that he was gay, though, not back then. He didn't actually start thinking about himself, questioning himself, until he met Lance. He'd known gay people, he'd suspected about friends of his from MMC even, but Lance, Lance kind of made him realize. Something. Because Lance was someone just like him.
He read a book later, about coming out and the different stages people go through, and realized that he was a textbook case, right down to the fact that he started thinking about sexuality when he was fourteen, fifteen. Maybe that was just the one author's opinion, though, Justin couldn't ever tell. It seems kind of stupid to think that anyone could be textbook as far as being gay or straight goes. People just were.
He asked his mom about it after JC had an argument with his dad. Justin said to Lynn, "Did you hear what happened with JC?"
Lynn frowned, looking kind of sad. "Yeah, it was kinda hard not to. Walls are thin here."
"So." This was always the kind of opening he used with Lynn, or she used with him - never a direct question, just an invitation to talk.
Lynn said, "I think it's really sad his dad can't just accept that JC isn't going to change."
"It's, yeah," and then Justin pictured arguing with his own father, trying to explain a boyfriend, trying to deal with his dad and his daddy and his brothers and explaining everything when it just, when it was, and he gulped. "What would you say if it was me?"
"I'd say," his mom said, "that he better be treatin' you good, baby," and that was that, too. His mom was good for that kind of thing.
"He just wanted to be normal. I related to that."
He actually stops by Much Music's video countdown on the Thursday he's in Toronto, and spends an hour kicking back with Rick. After the single tanked, Jive said they should wait on doing a video, so he doesn't even have any real reason to be there. But it's okay, Justin can remember Rick from what they're supposed to think of as the glory days. Eight years since the first time they were all lined up on Much like monkeys and Rick remembers him as something other than the figurehead of a blazing trail of fame. Instead of it being awkward and stupid, it's kind of nice.
"So," Rick says first off, "I haven't seen you in ages, man. Where've you been?"
"Well, you know," he says, and he remembers going downtown one time, in Toronto, going out with the guys and Rick and going dancing. Rick is actually a nice guy off television, too. "It's too cold up here for me. Y'all are braver'n I am."
"It is cold," Rick agrees.
They cut to commercial, and Rick leans over to double check his questions. Justin nods. He'll answer those things, all of those things.
"It is cold in here, man, I never realized it," Rick says as they're back on the air. "People have been kinda giving you the cold shoulder, though, am I right? I mean. The GLAAD awards."
It's not a very good pun, which Justin forgives him for because the guy has no really funny bones in his body. It's not a very good segue-way either, but it's way more intelligent than the MTV flunky last week. It's a tough question, even, but Justin doesn't mind because Rick is smiling at him, and waiting for an answer, not waiting for his chance to speak again.
Justin says, "Yeah, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation awards. I was there a few weeks ago, right before the tour. I just had some time, so, you know, I stopped by. They're a great organization. They do great work."
"What happened?" Rick says, and Justin remembers, that Rick is a nice guy, Rick is a nice guy and he's asking because he's allowed. Justin almost believes he genuinely wants to know, because they were friends, way back when, and Rick is a nice guy. "Because, I mean, I can't believe anyone would cold shoulder you, man. You're like, y'know."
He leaves the statement hanging, and Justin grins a little sourly. "Well, there were some people who spoke up, about my previous involvement with hip-hop, and how I could have done more for the movement, y'know, before." He pauses, not wanting to say, 'when I was on the cover of every magazine in the check out stand.' Then, "I was just in the audience, man, though, I wasn't even presenting. It's not like I brought a rapper as a date, either, or anything. Just a spectator."
Rick nods, seriously, and doesn't crack one joke. Justin could almost kiss him for it. "People, though, there are people who don't get it all over, I bet. Because, I mean, they love gossip, right?"
"Yeah," Justin says, and shrugs. "I guess."
"And it's not fair," Rick says into his microphone. Justin danced with Rick, once or twice. He thinks Rick is straight, but a pretty good dancer. Rick's a nice guy. Much Music is a nice station. They didn't once call it a flagging career, when they reviewed the album.
"No, but I mean, it's part of being in the spotlight, I guess," Justin replies, even though his personal life is the only thing that's in the spotlight anymore.
Rick nods again, and looks into the camera, then back at Justin. Justin almost believes he genuinely wants to know. "Anyway, let's talk about the album and the tour. Before we get to the fan questions, I have to ask. Is, what kind of things were you trying to put into these songs? Obviously they were very personal the single, it's quite a departure, it's got real soul, it's very personal." Rick is a nice guy, who won't say, 'Did anyone tell you it might be a bad idea to write a song that's so clearly about your big gay love with your ex-band-mate?" Instead, he says, "Was it, did you put more of yourself into this album than the previous ones?"
This is territory that Justin actually wants to cover. He smiles. He says, "I think, as a musician -- well, me anyway, I always set out to tell the truth when I write a song. if I don't feel that a song is genuine -- wherever the inspiration is from, it just doesn't sit right with me. So, yes, this album is very personal."
"What about the single?"
"It, yeah," Justin says. "That in particular I took from a conversation I had, so it has a lot of me in it."
Rick tilts his head. "I, okay. Bottom line -- there's been a lot of talk, neutral talk, and other stuff, too, about the tour and album. What do you think of them?"
Justin blinks. That's the last question he's expected anyone to ask him, ever. People don't ask you whether you think you did well. They let the charts decide, they let ticket sales decide. He shifts around in his chair. "I, I love performing," Justin says, and Rick nods. Rick keeps his eyes on Justin as he speaks. "And this, performing differently, this different kind of show, and this different album--" and he realizes he can't lie, doesn't even want to lie. "I do, I love it."
Rick nods, and there's something strangely sympathetic in his eyes.
After the interview, Rick manages to catch him in a commercial break right before Justin leaves to hit the venue. "Listen," he says, and glances at his shoes.
"Yeah?" Justin asks.
"I liked it," Rick says. "You should do a video. George Michael did a video for 'Faith'."
Justin answers, "Elton John hates video shoots," and grins. Justin makes sure Rick gets tickets to the show, and passes for backstage. He knows that Rick's genuinely interested in both his welfare and the album, and it's nice for a change.
"I always knew. It just took him a while to get up the courage to tell me."
Sometimes, Justin added things up in his head. To see if he could backtrack, pinpoint critical mass. Sometimes he just did it to remember. Like this:
Two band members.
One hotel room, slight spread of mildew emerging from the far right corner of the ceiling, carpet worn where it isn't stained, stained where it isn't worn.
Two beds, six inches apart, with paper thin sheets and pillows like mashed potatoes.
Five hours of sleep every night for the past seven nights.
Ten hours of rehearsal, every day for the last fourteen days.
Seven channels with semi-decent reception, all of which broadcast only in German.
Two sets of schoolbooks, one for grade 10 and one for grade 12, both cast aside in a heap on the floor as soon as the mothers were out the door.
Twelve bottles of beer, smuggled into the room under someone else's sweatshirt.
Eighteen months since they put every single other thing on hold for the group.
Three band mates who won't be home until dawn.
One porn magazine, naked boys, purchased in Amsterdam six months prior, hidden in the back of one rarely opened trigonometry textbook.
Five steps from the bathroom to the bed.
One clumsy slip-up.
One secret revealed.
No matter how Justin added it up later in his head, it all added up to this:
"I -- JC. I think about him sometimes," Lance said, but swallowed up anything else that might have come after that.
"Yeah," Justin said, "Maybe that doesn't make you gay, though. Maybe that just means you're alive."
"I don't see what all the fuss is about."
The tour only has five trucks, and one of them is just for the piano and his instruments. Justin insisted on that one. He made them pack his instruments in special packing foam, told them that he'd pay for the foam himself, but he wasn't going to risk damaging them. He said it nicely and so they agreed, especially when he agreed to take out the revolving stand for the piano. He doesn't budge on having a professional piano tuner travel with them. But other than that, Justin pretty much resigns himself to nothing but himself.
As far as the other four trucks go, one is for the lights, one is for the amps and things, and he thinks the rest are those other bits and pieces that the crew can name and he can't. His stage has drapes in different colors, but they're not very big and they're the only real props he has.
In St. Louis, Nelly holds the CD up to him during the sound check, and grins wide. "Gonna autograph it, dirrty?" He's still got himself a niche.
Justin holds his hand out. "You got the limited edition double CD," he says, as he opens the case. The album art is simple, JC did most of it for him, and the CD is green and black. It was just what he wanted, so every time he opens it up it makes him happy.
"Bought it on the first day," Nelly answers him. "Had to fight three girls off."
Justin grins at him. He knows it's not true, but Nelly bought his album. "What'd you think?"
"It's got soul," Nelly says, flopping back in one of the chairs on-stage. "You do the blues, yo. I wanna rap on the one, uh--." He sings a little bit of the chorus, and that's the last track, so even if he can't remember titles, Justin thinks he's probably listened to the whole thing. "It was in my head, I think I got three verses already."
"Come onstage tonight," Justin replies. Nelly still has the right to say I want when it comes to creative material. Justin gave that up to him a long time ago and has never ever wanted it back.
"You gonna sign it?" Nelly asks expectantly, and Justin thought he was kidding, but Nelly's just waiting. So Justin signs his album and makes it out 'hugs and kisses, dirrty', kind of a joke but not very funny. It feels a little weird, but Nelly just puts it in his pocket like it's the most natural thing in the world.
The two of them hang out onstage, and the concert goes on for twenty minutes longer than it's supposed to. Justin placates everyone by saying he'll pay for it out of his own pocket, at which point the promoters hastily bid a retreat. He's figured out that the best way to prove that he's serious about what he's doing is offering to pay for it. They never make him.
Nelly and him sing the single together, and he comes back out again for the encore, and Justin's glad that he forced the sound techs to record each concert, too. That was the other thing he wouldn't budge on, he wanted to be able to prove next year that the tour happened, that he did it even if no one showed up.
"Suffice it to say that I have amazing people around me and some of them are gay."
Mr. Turk, his fifth grade teacher, but Justin didn't realize until he died unexpectedly when they were over in Germany.
Greg the make-up artist from MMC, who had a boyfriend that used to pick him up after taping ended no matter how late.
A lot of dancers. TJ, Nancy even. A lot of people that Britney danced with were gay. He suspected about Darren, a little.
The assistant tour manager from the NSA tour. The director from Lance's movie. That producer from Germany, who wanted to remix a bunch of their old stuff.
Johnny wasn't, neither was Joey. Anthony was married and he loved his wife. AJ McLean apparently wasn't, he was getting married. Brian wasn't. Brian McKnight wasn't, either.
Nelly wasn't. Max Martin, actually, wasn't either.
He was saving judgment on Chris.
That guy from the VH1 Fashion Awards after-party, who worked at either Elle or Vogue. Justin was sure about him, he'd tasted good.
Ryan Gosling. Elton John. He was saving judgment on Michael Jackson, too.
"A chance to step outside myself."
"Justin," the grip says, "it's all set, your amps are all done."
He nods, munching on a hot dog. The catering on this tour is actually better than some others he's been on, but it still sucks. He stopped asking for much and ends up eating a lot of macaroni, chicken soup and hot dogs. It's still pretty gross, like when he was a kid and his mom couldn't afford groceries, but it's not limp lettuce and spinach salad, at least.
He and JC had sex in the back of the theater while the techs were setting his mics up last night. St. Louis liked him, and at three PM, four hours to curtain call, JC blew him. He stuffed a fist in his mouth first, then clamped his palm over his mouth, to keep absolutely quiet. When JC was finally done, pulling his hand away from his mouth left a muggy dampness on his palm.
Justin wiped it on the seat arm, and draped himself back to watch the lighting people fiddle with the spotlight some. JC hummed in his ear, and he was grateful for yet another art deco theater with a balcony that wasn't lit up.
Chris and Lance sit in the audience with JC that night, and afterward they go out to dinner. They've got some business they're doing together these days, but mostly Chris and Lance are still running around together, causing trouble and getting their picture taken. When Justin told them about him and JC, Chris hooted and laughed and pointed, but Lance smiled quietly and looked down at his hands.
Justin thinks they'll figure things out soon enough.
"I don't think I've encountered anyone who's afraid to come out as much as they've chosen not to at this point in their lives."
Nick Carter told Justin when they still had time to hang out together that he didn't want to do anything to screw up the Backstreet Boys' career. Justin thought it was really sad, at the time, that Nick thought coming out would damage his career. He was still pretty young, then. Nick also didn't want his mom to know. Justin hugged him when he said it.
Lance was just plain private, simply didn't feel the need to allow people to see that side of himself. Really, Lance didn't let people see much of himself at all, especially the public. Justin thought that was sad, too.
He knew that JC wasn't afraid, that wasn't it. And he knew that JC didn't worry about his career, really. Not because of bad publicity. He worried about their career in the way that he spent twenty hours perfecting a song in the studio, not by keeping his mouth closed.
"Music can most definitely change the world."
One thing that hasn't changed is that there are still gift baskets in the lobby. Except now, instead of stuffed animals and pink panties, he gets compilation tapes and books of poetry. He gets a lot of mix CDs, some of them are good, he tries to listen to them while he's alone on the bus. But in Memphis, someone slips him an official release from the New Radicals.
Justin remembers the band. Kind of. He thinks. Back then he was still singing "I Want You Back" in concert every night. Trace made Justin tapes of cool songs he heard on the radio back home, so that when they finally made it big in the states, Justin would still know what music was cool and what wasn't.
The CD's good, even if the single he thought he remembered was by someone else. Justin feels awful for not having any clue who this band is, or why someone would track down a copy of an out of print record to give to him. One day, for something to do, he looks up the band on mtv.com. The only thing mtv.com says that Gregg Alexander, the lead, has done since the New Radicals were disbanded in 1999 is wrote and produced a song for Ronan Keating. Justin remembers that track even if he doesn't remember Gregg Alexander himself and he thinks he knows why someone sent him the CD.
He and JC are driving from Memphis to Austin in three days, just the two of them, and people are meeting them each place they stop. He makes JC stop at a roadside barbecue stand and he buys one of their menus from the guy, and folds it up carefully, along with one of his bucket hats, his favorite, and tucks it into the pocket of his suitcase in the trunk.
"What're you doing?" JC says as Justin stuffs the two things into a padded envelope, along with a copy of his own CD.
"Makin' up a parcel," Justin answers, and tapes the envelope messily shut.
He addresses the package to MCA Records, for Gregg Alexander, and sticks the postage on. He has no idea whether it's going to get there or not, whether he'll ever actually receive it. It's maybe not as important as the sending itself. When they get to the hotel, he goes to the corner first thing, opens the mailbox to drop the parcel in.
The lid clangs closed and it feels good.
"I'm sure there's someone at some tabloid right now writing that I'm gay and the whole thing with Britney was a smoke screen."
Justin and Britney hooked back up again when Justin was seventeen and they were on tour. It was early enough that they could go out on a real date, to a McDonald's in Hamburg with only one of Lou's guys at another table.
It was their first date, it was also the last real meal he saw Britney eat. She ordered whatever passed for a McChicken sandwich and fries and he paid for it with carefully counted out marks. A gold album and three top ten singles and he still got an allowance.
When the wrappers were crumbled and the ketchup smeared, he took her hand under the table and said, "So, we can totally keep doin' this, your momma is a smart lady, but you should know that I might be queer. I think. Maybe." Because Justin watched Lance watching JC, sometimes, and saw something that he recognized, maybe.
She grasped back and smiled, said, "Okay, honey, we'll see what happens."
So at first, it hadn't been hard to wait. And then, when they had sex on his nineteenth birthday, it was nice, it was great and everything was just wonderful between them. And if she sometimes joked about having "cured" him, he didn't bother to correct her. Because she was his girlfriend and she was beautiful and he loved her.
But, he'd said, "queer," which didn't mean "100% gay," it just meant "not entirely straight." Still, he really did love her.
When he broke up with Britney, JC said, "Good."
Justin looked back, rubbing his hand over the back of his head. "Why do you say that?"
"Ever since I've known her, she's always had something to prove," JC said slowly. Justin waited. His palm started to feel raw from the freshly buzzed stubble. "You're not a math problem," JC finished, and Justin knew that everything was gonna be all right.
"People who work with me know ahead of time I don't deal with any kind of negative energy around me."
There's a newspaper reporter, in Austin, waiting in the press circle. He's got that look, and he wants to know whether Justin thinks coming out as a queer artist will help his career enough to counter the bad sales this year. He almost yells it out, as Justin's talking to various people, so impatient to get his question out his cheeks are pink with excitement. Excited about asking some hurtful question and a question Justin's already been asked and answered, but excited to hear it come out of his own mouth.
Justin ignores him, for a few seconds, but he won't quit. "What do I think?" he says finally. "I think that you're a little too eager to ask me something that's designed to be awkward and mean. That's what I think." Somewhere in the back of his head, Justin hears Lou say, 'Don't ever give a reporter an answer they don't think they've asked for.' Justin tells Lou to fuck off under his breath, and the reporter, too.
To his credit, the guy leaves without being escorted out of the venue. Justin sighs in relief. JC went home for a few days, so there isn't even that. The audience is maybe half-full tonight, maybe three-quarters. There won't be any familiar faces in it, anyway.
He pulls his guitar out, gets on his stool. By the second song, people are clapping, people are cheering, and people are giving off that kind of positive energy you only get when you know a show's going well. These shows have all gone well. And they're letting him sing, they're listening to his voice and going crazy once the songs are done.
Justin wrote a song about the media, this record. He hasn't really improvised much in the shows, not without someone else onstage. But he starts adding in lines about MTV and Austin Gazette-Times and thinking up words that rhythm with "weasel fuck" right off the tip of his tongue. And people are going crazy with it, clapping along in time.
People love it. It fills him up and people love it and he gets something out, screeching and moaning and the audience is still lapping it up. He's a god for five seconds and it's sweeter than anything he's felt before because this time it's really just all him, his voice, his songs. There's pain, but it's all coming out of his mouth and echoing around the theater, an exorcism of his soul. The words are coming out and it feels good. And the audience is right there with him, he can feel it.
He tells the radio station the next morning, "Austin? Oh, yeah, I love it here. Y'all rock."
"Just, twenty-one, it's tough."
With the first album, the buzz built up slowly, like electricity across a highway wire. And then he was being asked to defend songs from an album that was still being pressed and Justin knew that he probably had something big. Justin didn't really talk about the album with JC. JC sent his compliments in a round-about fashion, telling everyone who asked and anyone else who would listen how proud he was and telling Justin, "It's cool, man, we do our own thing, you know?"
The truth, maybe, was that JC didn't really understand unsubtle gestures of heartbreak. Things between him and Lance had fallen apart by failing to come together right around the same time Justin and Britney imploded, and he hadn't written a single line about it, not one note. Justin didn't think he ever would.
JC came to the release party in LA because he was that kind of guy and six months of break up rumors hadn't changed that. The party itself was crazy, Justin was caught up in a whirlwind of back slaps and upturned thumbs and other signs in the body language of success. He looked across the room once, though, to JC standing at the listening booth, eyes closed and hands crumbled together.
Later, when everything else died down, Justin said to him, "So, honestly, I want to know what you thought."
JC considered this carefully. "Did you tell the truth?" he asked, and Justin knew that approval would never be reduced to a pat on the back and a thumbs up when it came from JC.
"That's not what they want to hear," Justin said, because that was the truth, even if everything else wasn't.
"Yeah," JC said sadly, one hand pressed on Justin's shoulder, "but they will someday."
"I know in my heart, if I can make a decision my parents would feel good about, I don't have to worry about anything else."
His mom comes out to see him, in San Francisco. She doesn't bring anyone with her, just some home baked brownies and a small suitcase. The two of them wander around the city, because Justin has four days before the actual show here. He drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco in six hours. For once, LA didn't have anything to offer.
San Francisco is nice. He and his mom actually get some time alone. She's coming to the show, which makes him so proud. "Thanks for coming," he tells her, on the trolley. "Just, thanks."
"Of course, sweetheart." She smoothes her hand across his cheek and grins. "Wouldn't miss a chance for a free vacation."
"There's better shopping farther south," he answers.
"But you're here," Lynn says, and they get off the trolley and go back to the hotel Justin's chosen. It's smaller, almost quaint. Has a great view.
"Listen, JC's coming in tonight," Justin tells his mom at dinner later. JC's supposed to arrive tonight, and the label said they'd take care of his car arrangements. Justin just has to get the roses and the food sent to their room. JC laughs when he does it, every time, but Justin likes it, like being able to make him smile like a song.
"Oh?" She doesn't seem very surprised. "What time?"
"About nine-ish, I think?" He plays with his mashed potatoes. "I haven't seen him in a while, and. uh."
"Say no more," and she grins mischievously. "I wanted to catch a cabaret act while I was in town. You won't see me till lunch-time tomorrow."
JC doesn't get to say anything before Justin pins him against the wall, against the bed. His mom approves of JC, he thinks, once he's got JC pinned on his back. His mom likes JC, JC's here, they're here and it's like another exorcism. He arches his back as he comes.
The next morning, Justin wakes up early even though he doesn't have an agenda for the day. "You want some waffles or something?"
JC stretches. "If you want."
Justin thumbs through the room service menu. His mom's gonna be in the audience tomorrow night, and that makes the complete lack of quality reviews and the luke-warm first-week sales and Jive saying, 'Maybe we won't push for you to perform at the AMAs' matter about as much as breakfast. Justin skips breakfast to lie in bed with JC and listen to records.
"I'm not going to understand what it's like to be a gay male."
The thing is that it's not like there was one particular last straw that made Justin decide to pick up his guitar and go home. Because it's not like he didn't appreciate everything he had, everything he'd been given. He didn't think there was one particular moment when it all started being ... less.
But the interview with the Advocate was maybe the first last straw. Or something. It was one more interview all on his own, with nobody else to help him spin circles around the truth without stomping it out entirely. No matter what it looked like later, no matter what people said, he didn't lie in that interview once. Not really.
Too many years selling it with wide eyes and a big grin, and Justin was a terrible liar and he knew it. He got used to letting Chris do it for him, or Lance, who was so good he made you wish his lies were the truth, just to help him out. Once, Justin asked JC what he thought he should do, and JC said, "Just believe your own truths."
And that's what Justin tried to do. He was a guy with a really photogenic ex-girlfriend who liked making a living off singing and dancing way too much to pick up guys and take them home for anything real. The mail boy who winked at him when he showed up at the magazine offices for the interview, he didn't know what it was like to be him at all.
"Be the person you are."
JC flies out to every third or fourth date, says he doesn't want to be a permanent distraction. When he's there, Justin likes to drag him out to gay bars, says they have a lot of time left to make up for.
JC will never come out. Not like Justin did, with statements and pull quotes and interviews and one arm stretched around Rosie O'Donnell in a photograph. Justin used to think it was his parents, or his childhood or his issues. He read books, and left passages underlined in pink highlighter were JC could find them. But now Justin thinks he knows that it's just that JC doesn't think of things that way, doesn't see himself as an orientation to be defined.
Justin's New Year's resolution was to love things more simply, so he loves JC for going out with him to gay bars and drinking fruit drinks with little rainbow flags. It's enough.
Justin's been in Seattle for one day and two nights, and tomorrow night will be the last show. He'll miss the audience, but not the promoters tearing their hair out and the reporters trying to tear each other apart for a chance to tear him apart. Tonight, they're at Neighbours, and the DJ is playing a killer old school techno set. JC's carefully sipping a drink with a funny name and six different rainbow colored layers of syrup, but his feet are already tapping against his stool.
The bartender asks Justin if he wants another, before recognizing him. He passes a Jack and Coke across the bar and says, "on the house," and then adds, "Sorry about the album, man, that's a tough break."
Justin runs his finger around the edge of his glass. "Why do you say that, man?" he asks.
The bartender twists his towel between his hands, embarrassed. He's young, maybe young enough that he didn't ever have to dance to "This I Promise You" at his prom, if he even went to his prom. "Just, you know, that it didn't sell," he says.
"Did you like it?" Justin asks.
"Yeah, I loved it, seriously, I did."
"Hey, then," Justin says, "me too. That's all the matters."
The bartender nods vigorously and shakes his head toward a guy waving his hand down at the other end of the bar before shifting away. But Justin's already turned back to JC, who's got the makings of a smile playing across his face. Justin waits for JC to try and say something about the album. Even though he doesn't need it, he knows it's important to let JC get it out. Instead, "Did you tell the truth?" JC asks.
"What, to that guy?"
"No, the whole thing," JC says seriously.
Justin knows the answer this time. "Yeah. I did."
"Yeah," JC says in agreement. He pulls Justin up from his seat. "Come on. Let's go dance."
"Maybe I'm naive, but I think so."
Justin couldn't wait to turn twenty-five. Twenty-four had been an okay year, but scary. Twenty four felt strangely old because that's how old Chris was when Justin met Chris, and Chris had seemed impossibly mature and cool, then. Justin turned twenty-four and realized he'd never really risked anything for everything, everything for anything, the way Chris had way back when. He had success, sure, but he was twenty-four and he'd never really gone for something crazy in a big way.
But twenty-four ended up being a couple of acting jobs, a few guest vocals and a soundtrack co-produced with JC. He doesn't regret any of it, but now, twenty-five, it's maybe gonna be a new start. He just doesn't know what direction to angle toward yet.
Twenty-four had been a year for building things up. Maybe twenty-five would be a year for something else. He hoped.
"What's up, bucko?" JC said. "You look like you're at the dentist."
"Just tired," and Justin smiled, because it was his birthday party and everyone managed to show up. "I had three shows last week, you know. I'm not sitting around in an air conditioned studio all the time like you are."
"Hey, now," JC said, bumping his elbow. "I'm not just sittin' around. I'm working my tail off!" And was true, JC was writing all the time, producing and only recording when he really felt like it.
"How's it going?"
"Good, good." JC squinted. "How's your birthday?"
"You're here, dork."
"No," and JC followed Justin's gaze, out to the dance floor. He wasn't even really staring at anything in particular. "I'm not where you are. I'm having fun."
Justin leaned against the post. There were lots of posts in that particular club, it was supposed to be some kind of industrial faux-worker class design. Architects had pissed Justin off, ever since he had his last house done. "I am having fun," he said, convincing himself as much as JC.
"No, fun was your twenty first, with the circus animals." JC grinned fondly, and Justin blushed. "Good times, good times."
"Good times," Justin echoed. "No, really, I'm good."
"You're good." JC nodded. "You're restless." He circled Justin, studying him. At first Justin though he was scrutinizing his clothing. "You're dissatisfied. Something is amiss." JC peered at him, looking for whatever JC knew to find. "You're good, but something's off."
Justin realized that JC wasn't wrong.