Still Life.


(“I’ve bet you’ve long since passed understanding

 what it takes to be satisfied…”  --Liz Phair)


I never had a family portrait.  Maybe it’s just one of those things that everyone else takes for granted; a staple that can be found on every mantle or coffee table or living room wall from here to Seattle, yet in my home, on my mantle…it’s not.  I have family pictures, of course, a few shots of my sisters, some shots of my mom, random pictures of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, but they are all separate.  Fractured.  Each confined to their own frame, their own set of ideals.


I guess I never really noticed it until now.

My best friend’s parents are getting divorced, and he’s beside himself with grief.  It’s odd, because he’s well-past the emotional instability age, and yet I found him sitting on his bed, head in his hands, sobbing his eyes out.


Strange when I stop to consider that his family—JC’s family, of all fucking things—is the one I’d call the most normal.  It’s sort of like the ideal American stereotype…three kids, two boys and a girl, a mom who works in magazines and a dad that works in computers, growing up together in a suburb of America’s Capitol.  Growing up with God and family playing central roles in his young development, but with the freedom to dream the impossible, whatever it might be. 


JC’s family was fucking Disneyland…but now…I don’t know what it is now.


Maybe I’ve come to believe in them more than my own family, my own muddled way of being a latchkey kid.  My mom worked her ass off trying to support us and with the brave front she constantly wore I, in turn, learned to hide behind a tight-lipped smile and a sweeping sense of humor.  Affection was scarce in my family…maybe, when others were around, we’d offer the hug and occasional kiss, just to remind each other that we were alive, but it was nothing like the bear-hugs JC would get from his mom, or the hair-ruffling thing his dad would do that made C roll his eyes constantly.


I get wistful when I think about JC’s family, and my heart hurts knowing what he’s going through now.


It’s funny; the first night I found out about the impending divorce, we talked a lot about family…about love and loyalty and why relationships go wrong.  He seemed certain that this was a passing phase; some sort of curable condition his father had that would eventually clear up and they could go back to being normal.


I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there is no “normal,” not at all…but JC just looked at the rumpled family portrait in his hands with a far-off gaze, and said nothing.


I think I’ve spent all my life searching for some sort of family…for someone to trust…for someone who isn’t going to walk off or cop out or disappear just when I’ve drummed up the courage to need them.


Don’t think I’m not grateful for what I have.  I know, okay?  I remember the nights spent wrapped in my own laundry, dreading the moment when the sheets cooled down and the winter’s chill set in, and I would be shivering, on the floor, pretending not to hear my mother’s tears.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I know exactly how lucky I am. 


But…sometimes…I keep thinking that maybe life has dealt me a foul hand.  That maybe I should have been able to grow up with a father’s influence.  Maybe my deeply-ingrained skepticism of love would have disappeared had my parents’ marriage not faltered.  Perhaps I would have grown up to be a stronger man had I had an example to emulate in front of me. 


It’s in the past, though.  My heart has healed, though the scars are still there.


JC…he’s just muddling through this as best he knows how.  Funny that he trusts people even less than me, and the stubborn bastard won’t ever ask for help.  Not ever.  He just mopes and stares out the window and refuses to do anything except listen to old records, first the Moody Blues and then CCR, anything to remind him of home and old times and that strange sort of happiness he had before this madness hit.


I keep telling him that he has a family with us, and any one of us would do anything for him, but he just mumbles about things falling apart and then shuffles off to some corner somewhere, not saying a word.


Those are the times I feel lucky, because I went through all that crap early.  Sure, the developmental psychologist in me screams that having to endure the destruction of my nuclear family at such a young age has had an untold influence on my fractured little brain, but I learned to deal with it.  I didn’t have a stable family life long enough to get comfortable with it, and I guess that, in turn, prepared me for the life I have now.


I remember some reporter somewhere asking JC what his childhood was like, and C, being C, went off on some tangent about taking road trips when he was younger and how that prepared him for the life of touring he knows now.


Oh, C…you’re wrong.  So very wrong.  Because C is wide-eyed and earnest and fundamentally honest, and a life of touring will break people like that, and it hurts to watch it happen.


Maybe I should amend my earlier statement: C trusts less than I do, but those he does trust, he trusts unconditionally, and when they betray him, it destroys him unequivocally.  I wouldn’t call his parents’ divorce a betrayal; it really has nothing to do with JC…but he is taking it hard, and he’s withdrawn himself from everyone who might try to help.  And it’s beginning to affect the rest of us.


We’ve all tried to draw him out, one by one.  Joey drags him to expensive Italian restaurants, luring him with the promise of excellent food and drink, and no bill to speak of.  Lance barks at him about this schedule or that opportunity, forcing JC to focus even when he doesn’t want to.  Justin will take him into the studio and make him play, or kidnap him and go for long drives with the stereo blaring, almost oblivious to the vacant look on the older man’s face.  And me?  I wait.  Eventually, I know, he’ll come to me.


We’re the most unlikely of pairings, some say.  C’s too rigid and I’m too loose, or we’re both too right for our own good, or whatever other excuse people like to offer…but…we understand each other.  And C’s now part of a special bond that Justin and I share: C can no longer pretend to be from the perfect family.


Justin and I don’t talk a whole lot about family life, but when someone starts babbling about how their parents are pissing them off or how they caught their mom and dad screwing, any sort of “regular family” activity, we share a knowing look.  We don’t have the luxury of being pissed at our happy, perfect parents.


Justin’s case is a little different then mine; after all, both of his parents are remarried, but he’s still in the “club.”  He’s still the child of a broken family.  And now…C joins us.


I’ve been sitting outside his house for twenty minutes, watching the light on the alarm system blink against the inky backdrop of night, watching his shadow dance back and forth as he paces a groove into the carpet.  Waiting.  Wondering.  Thinking. 


I know, without a doubt, what he’s doing.  He’s walking back and forth, wineglass in hand, conducting a trial with a brutally biased jury in the courtroom of his muddled head.  Examining evidence.  Cross-examining witnesses.  Delivering a guilty verdict, with a life-sentence of loneliness, for a crime he didn’t commit.  JC plays the role of the guilty lover to its tragically glorious hilt.


He’s thinking, I’m sure, of the nights his girlfriend spent alone while he writhed next to some blonde on an over-packed dance floor.  He’s remembering the lies he told, the hearts he broke, the times he refused to listen and then traded talking for yelling, tossing logic out the window in a fit of rage.  He’s seeing the tears of his lover as he walked out the door in a fit of rage, hearing the sound of her soft sobs as she lay alone at night, while he lay hunched on the bus, caught in reckless dreams.


He’s hearing his own voice, detached, resolute, telling her that she will always be second to his four best friends, and if that’s not good enough then perhaps she doesn’t love him.


He’s tasting regret on his tongue, heavy and bitter, and wondering how many of his failures he can blame on his parents.


I see him come to the window, his disheveled hair sticking out in a dozen directions, moonlight teasing his torso as he gazes into the waters of the pool like they’re a crystal ball.  He’s thinking.  He’s remembering.  And he’s hurting, I’m sure of it.


His mouth moves to form words that I can’t quite decipher, and it’s when he brings his fingers to his eyes, angrily batting away tears, that I am spurred to action.  Quickly I exit my car, hastily punching in the series of numbers on his alarm panel before opening the heavy door and entering his house.


It is pitch black inside and I stumble against furniture, tripping over piles of dirty clothes and crunching my feet into old pizza boxes.  The stale smell of old air is heavy in the house, and I cringe inwardly, knowing that this is not like JC, not at all.  He’s obsessed with appearances while simultaneously proclaiming his hatred of the superficial, and like many things the contradiction suits him.  But this…this haphazard way of living, the remnants of garbage and other bits of life’s detritus marring what should be the epitome of perfection…this is not JC.  My worry intensifies.


I take the steps two at a time, thanking the lord above and Lance Bass for installing the night-light at the foot of the stairs.  I have no desire to go stumbling into the balcony and tumbling onto the floor below, especially with JC in the state he’s in.


I take a deep breath to steady my nerves before knocking lightly on the door to his bedroom.  I neither expect nor receive a response, and cautiously I enter the darkened room, wishing my eyes were sharper than they are, because I can’t see a damn thing.


I listen intently for any sign of life, and a second later a bare whisper greets my ears.


“Hello, Chris.”


His back is to me, the long lean lines of his spine barely visible from beneath a shadow’s kiss, and when I squint more forcefully I can make out his hands fisted beside him, his entire posture screaming tension and stress.


The air is heavy with some sort of misguided anticipation, like the moment you watch a star fall from the sky, wondering when and where it will hit.


“Get you a drink?” He offers, and I can’t suppress a chuckle.  Always C.  Always polite.  Always gracious.  Something else, I’m sure, he’s learned from his parents.


“No, C,” I whisper quietly.  “I don’t need anything.”


“Then why are you here?” He asks, and I am taken aback.  JC’s the type of person who will allow you to stay in his house all day so long as you stay out of his way and maybe cover him with a blanket while he’s napping.  If you do that, he might even make you dinner, although his efforts will be largely inedible.  But the point is, JC’s not one for questioning people when they come to call nor kicking them out once they’ve arrived.


“I came to see you,” I say earnestly.  “I’m worried about you, C.”


“You’re worried about me,” He echoes.  “How nice.  Everyone is always so fucking WORRIED about me.  Like I’m a goddamned ticking time bomb.  Like I’m some kind of pariah.  So NICE of everyone to be worried about me,” He spits, coiled and hissing, an agitated serpent.  I am worried and bewildered and frightened all at once.


“Why would you be WORRIED about me, Chris,” He asks heatedly, whirling around to face me with undiluted emotion in his eyes.  “Am I so monumentally fucked up that I can’t be trusted to take care of myself?  Is that it?!”


“, C,” I say nervously.  He’s reduced me to stammering, and it nearly knocks me off of my feet.  I pride myself on being able to read people, to judge the intents and motivations hidden below the layers of congeniality most people wear like masks.  Looking at him now, an eerie tinge in his vapid blue eyes, I can’t tell night from day, nor do I have any idea what he’s thinking. 


“She thought I was fucked up.  Did she tell you that?  Did she tell you that before she fucking LEFT ME, Chris?” He snarls, and I recoil, just a tiny bit.  JC’s ex-girlfriend was a sore spot between us, a thorn in an infinitely tangled briar patch of lust and mixed emotions.  When it got to be too much for her, she came to me, and I comforted her as best I could while keeping it hidden from JC for fear of hurting him, but as with most dirty secrets, the truth eventually came out.  He accused me of sleeping with her, which I denied, and then he accused me of being in love with her, for which I had no response.  I loved her, of course I did, but it was, as they say in cheesy romance novels, a “different kind of love.”  It was love borne of shared backgrounds and experiences, not love borne of passionate desire.  Eventually, JC said he understood, but I was never sure.


“I’m sure she didn’t think you were fucked up, C, I mean, she was hurting, but…”


“’How can you claim to love someone by hurting them, JC?!  It’s fucked up!  You’re fucked up!’”  He spat her words verbatim at me and a surge of pity washed over me in waves.  Joshua Chasez will never be accused of holding his cards for the world to see.  He plays his hand too close to his chest…and time and again, it costs him.


“I loved her, Chris.  Did you know that?  I fucking loved her,” He whispered, voice wavering, hands trembling with barely restrained emotion.  “But what does love get you, anyway, huh?  Pain.  Suffering.  Maybe a few years of fleeting happiness before it crashes down in a FUCKING divorce…”


His voice breaks on the last words and a moment later he is on the floor, head in his hands, sobbing convulsively.


I am frozen in place, terrified to move but loathe to stand there, watching one of the strongest people I know reduced to a quivering pile of tears.  In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve seen JC cry like this twice.  On the night we realized that the lawsuit wasn’t a joke, and we might in fact lose everything we’d poured our souls into, I watched JC cry brokenly for hours, curled in a tiny ball, inconsolable…and a few weeks ago, when he found out his parents were going to divorce, he did the same thing.


I know he’s cried since then, but he never lets us see it.  He’ll show up with red, weary eyes and a nose stuffed from hours of sniffling, but he’ll allow no tears to escape onto those porcelain cheeks.  On stage, during shows, he may be overcome by emotion and allow the music to break down the barriers into his heart, but he chalks that up to showmanship and “the moment,” and refuses to discuss it with anyone.


My rambling reflections are halted abruptly by a shaky sob that sounds like my name, but it is so riddled with agony I can barely tell.  In an instant I am on the floor, my arms filled with trembling, sobbing JC, and I pull him close and hold him for all I am worth.


“Chris…Chris…Chris…” Over and over he says my name, each time softer and softer until it fades, a thunderstorm melting into a warm rain shower, and at last he calms.


Gingerly I pull him to face me, but he will not meet my eyes.


“C…” I say gently, but he interrupts me with a soft, “don’t, Chris,” and I allow us to slip into silence once again.


“You should get into bed,” I say quietly, and wearily he nods, mumbling his thanks and brushing off my attempts to assist him in the task.  It’s a habit ingrained from my childhood: I help those that hurt, even if they don’t want it, and in turn, I feel better.  It’s a selfish form of altruism, I suppose, but as I said before, nothing comes without a price.


When JC is finally tucked into bed, covers pulled to his neck and breathing slow and even, I allow myself the barest indulgence of watching him sleep, if only for a moment.  It is in repose that his features are the most relaxed, that the innocence robbed from years of mistrust returns fleetingly, and the lines of worry that pull on his face disappear.


“Good night, C,” I whisper softly, and a drowsy murmur is my response.


Closing the door behind me, I wander down the hall into the waiting guest room, heart weary with the strains of a friend.  It is a burden that I bear willingly, because so many others, in turn, have carried my weight, and for that I am immeasurably grateful.


Removing my clothing and slipping into an old pair of shorts from the drawer JC keeps in each room for each of the four of us, I look with interest upon the mantle, where pictures catch the moonlight’s glow as it slithers in through the blinds.


I pick up a frame from its resting place, delicately tracing the faces trapped in time, reflecting on the image that stares back at me with eternal youth.


JC.  Justin.  Lance.  Joey.  Me.


My family portrait.  I swallow hard, blinking back tears that form without warning, realizing that I had been wrong all this time.  That maybe what I had wanted all along was in fact right in front of me. 


“S’gonna be okay, C,” I think to myself.  “You’re gonna be just fine.”


Some bonds, it seems, are stronger than family.



© 2002 ~A.