Joey and Lance fell in love at first sight. The tall dark handsome stranger met the shy, slender, pretty young thing, and bells rang and birds sang and confetti fell and Joey said "hey man," and Lance said "pleased to meet you," and they didn't so much shake hands as clasp them, sealing a deal as electricity jumped over and back between their fingers.
That was the beginning of the story.
Joey invited Lance and his mother home for dinner, said his Mom always cooked enough for twenty people anyway. He sat Mrs Bass down at the kitchen table with his mother, and made them a fresh pot of coffee and then he took Lance upstairs. They made out on Joey's bed until they were both gasping, and Lance said, "you wanna go all the way?" and Joey said, "hell yeah." So Joey went down on Lance and then Lance spread his legs for Joey, and it all felt so good that Lance thought he might die from it. When he came back down from it, Joey was open-mouthed in shock, and they kissed some more with lips that couldn't stop smiling.
They went back downstairs and Mrs Bass said, "my goodness, what were you doing up there?"
as Lance said,
and both moms laughed at their enthusiasm and Joey and Lance ran out to the pool before anybody noticed that they smelled like sex.
It was a perfect summer evening, clear sky, gentle breeze, lights under the water surface and golden rays of setting sun bathing their skin from every angle, casting everything in warm soft focus. They kissed underwater and then came up for air, laughing.
Back in Clinton, Lance went to school during the week, and then flew to Orlando on the weekends. He phoned Joey every night, and then Joey called him back an hour later, or in the morning, or in the afternoon. They sang and talked, and it seemed miraculous to Lance, sitting by the window in his bedroom, laughter caressing his ear, that he was discovering his future, getting to know the one he was destined to be with forever.
Lance sat in class during the day, fidgeting. He looked around at his classmates with newly sharp eyes. None of them were really in love, even if they thought they were, because none of them had Joey for a boyfriend. Clive Parker, who was tall and blond and the choir star, was suddenly a boring small-town dork with a boring small-town girlfriend. He wanted to go to Agricultural College, for chrissakes.
Lance kept coming back from Orlando feeling more different, and knew it wasn't just that he had a new haircut and new clothes and a huge new bunch of people that he knew and a new bunch of stuff he was doing. He could feel himself growing up in his own skin, turning into his future self, becoming the other half of Joey Fatone as Joey became the other half of him.
On Friday nights Joey always met him at the airport, and they made out as soon as they got to the car. They stopped halfway back to Joey's place and got Kentucky or Taco Bell and then went to a church hall Joey knew, a loose window they could climb through and an old couch out the back where they could make love until they were exhausted.
One night they noticed that somebody had left the door to the church open, and they walked down the aisle hand in hand. When they got to the altar Lance felt suddenly strange and embarrassed and foolish, but Joey said, "hey," and tilted his chin up, and kissed him. Joey's eyes were misty and bright, and Lance thought he heard angels singing.
The next day, Lou gave them a credit card and told them to go shopping for clothes. They had a list of stores they were allowed to buy from, and a list of items they were expected to buy, and a list of allowable colours, but it was still fun. Chris and JC taught Justin and Lance how to shoplift, and Lance followed Joey into a changing room and they kissed and cuddled and touched until they had to tear themselves apart again.
At Macy's, Joey dragged him away from the others, and bought them two plain silver rings. They left them in their little fake velvet pouches at the bottom of their backpacks, but when they held hands under the table, laughing at Lou and their good luck, they rubbed each other's fingers like the rings were really there.
When they got to Germany, Joey and Lance insisted on sharing a room. Justin and JC, who still knew each other best, didn't argue, and Chris, who wanted a single, didn't argue either. They could probably have said nothing, but it was suddenly so hard to get time alone, they didn't want to take any chances.
When they'd been in Germany for a week, Chris walked through the connecting door at two in the morning and found them curled in the same bed together.
"Aww, babies," Chris crooned, and crawled on top of them and hugged them.
"Crs, whaffuck?" Joey mumbled. Lance rubbed his tired eyes and tried to pull the blanket over their heads. Chris crawled under it with him and wrapped his arms around Lance's neck.
"Chris," Joey said, a little more awake now, "what are you doing here?"
"I just wanted to check on you," Chris said. "Make sure you were okay."
"We're okay," Lance said, curling into Joey's bare chest.
"Hey, hey," Chris whispered. "It's okay, I'm homesick too."
Joey blinked. "You're homesick?"
"I'm miserable," Chris said. "I'm lonely and tired and I can't sleep."
"Oh," Lance said, and shared a look with Joey. Joey's face said 'oh' back, and he reached across and rubbed Chris' shoulder.
If Chris noticed that Joey and Lance were naked, he didn't seem to think anything of it.
The next night, Chris came in as Lance was brushing his teeth, and climbed into the bed with Joey. "Justin and JC are coming too," he informed them. "We have to stick together."
Joey and Lance hadn't had five minutes alone for twenty-four hours. "Uh, Chris," Joey said, but then JC and Justin wandered in. Justin was carrying his blue blankie, and looked desolate. He climbed into the bed between Joey and Chris, and JC took his pajamas off and got into the other bed.
"I didn't want to admit it," JC said, "but I hate it here."
Joey and Lance exchanged agonised glances, and then Lance got into the bed with JC and turned off the light.
They had their first fight the next day (this is the middle of the story).
"Why didn't you say something?" Joey asked.
"You're the one who doesn't want to tell them," Lance said back.
"Oh, baby," Joey said. "If Lou finds out, he'll separate us."
"I know," Lance said. Joey came over and hugged him.
"I'm so sorry. It made me crazy, you in bed with somebody else."
"I only want you," Lance promised.
As a first fight, they agreed later, it went very smoothly and ended well.
They told Chris, who shouted "aha! Hence the nakedness!" and didn't seem at all concerned by the fact that he'd slept in their bed with them. Chris sat JC and Justin down in front of Joey and Lance and said, "they're a couple and if either of you breathe a word to anybody I will know who it was and I will do evil, evil things to him."
JC squealed and hugged them, and Justin promised solemnly never to tell.
They loved Europe, although they could hardly admit it to the others. It was like a honeymoon, thrilling and tiring and deeply satisfying. Joey loved the cold, and the fact that he looked European. He felt like a New Yorker here, he said, and grinned whenever people yelled abuse at one another in foreign languages. Lance loved that it was old and sophisticated and different. They stared out the windows of the cars which ferried them here and there, pointing out buildings and statues and people and even pigeons, which looked different in Europe.
They loved the music and the fashions and the fact that they were living the life, late nights and hotel breakfasts and spinning lights which seemed to follow them around. At night, they'd sit together and hold hands and tell one another all the times they would have kissed, and described the plays they saw advertised on posters, Brecht or Beckett or some playwright even Joey hadn't heard of, making up the plot if they didn't know it, and criticising the cast and direction as they described it to one another.
They vowed to one day buy an apartment here, maybe in Rome, where they only spent two days, or maybe in Vienna, which Lance loved. Their first house was going to be in Orlando, though, and Joey said their second place should be in New York, so they could go to the theatre anytime they wanted.
Lou found out; of course Lou found out. He watched them all with little piggy eyes and by the third week they slipped up, and he pounced. He burst in on them kissing in a change room, and screamed at them until they were both crying, and called them sick and perverted and put them in separate hotel rooms and told their mothers. Chris told Lou to leave them alone, and Lou grabbed him by the chin and slapped him repeatedly.
Lance's mother made him go to church, and wouldn't let Joey speak to him if she was around. She said things to Lance about Joey corrupting her son, and got upset if Lance tried to tell her it wasn't like that.
After a few days, Joey didn't even try to speak to him. His eyes went dead and glassy. Lance took out the ring from the bottom of his knapsack, and started wearing it. He watched and waited and prayed, but Joey didn't put his on.
Lou took him aside and was a lot nicer this time, and said Joey had real potential, if nothing got screwed up by rumours and gossip. Justin brought a letter from Joey which begged him to concentrate on their careers and try to be friends again. Don't make this any harder for me, Joey said.
Chris and JC and Justin all told him to fight for Joey, and Lance shook his head numbly. Lou hadn't let Joey do any solos on their first single. "I don't want us to get back together," he said, tasting ashes.
Lance took his ring off again, and pretended to date a girl who wasn't Joey, and only ever cried by himself in bathrooms where nobody else could hear.
That was the end of the story.
This is the strange and untidy neverland which stretches on after events, which doesn't tie up neatly or nicely, and never gets shown in the movies.
Joey had introduced Kelly on Lance's first weekend in Orlando.
"My best pretend-girlfriend," he'd said proudly, and she giggled and grinned. She'd come with them to the movies a lot, and Lance hadn't even minded that they held hands. Kelly even held his hand too, sometimes, and he'd liked it, and she was a great dirty-dancer.
Now she avoided him.
It made sense, Lance thought numbly. That's what best friends are for.
Lance slept with somebody in Dresden. He couldn't remember the name or the face. He just knew that in Dresden, he touched a body that wasn't Joey's, and tasted lips that weren't Joey's, and let somebody who wasn't Joey push a cock inside him. He came from it, and that surprised him.
Justin threw a hotel-room party to celebrate one year as a group. Justin was only fifteen but he'd saved up his allowance for a month and bought party hats and hot dogs and five blocks of chocolate, which they weren't allowed. It was hard to pay for anything without Lou, but Justin had wanted to keep it a secret for the five of them. Chris and JC pulled out their wallets and figured they could afford a sixpack, and Joey convinced Johnny to order them a cake from room service. It was a great party, and Justin and JC and Chris were really into it. Lance sat on the bed and tried not to remember everything else that happened one year ago, and hugged his knees to his chest, and eventually Joey came and sat beside him.
A long time later, Lance realised Joey was holding his hand, and almost started crying. He hadn't cried for a long time, though, so he pulled his hand away and tried to pay attention to the game Chris and Justin and JC were playing.
The game was to put a piece of chocolate on a piece of paper, and take a fork in your mouth and pierce the chocolate. And if you did that, you had to move the fork around with your tongue until you got the chocolate end in your mouth. It was a pretty stupid game but it was funny watching them try to do it.
Joey moved to sit on the other bed. Lance kept watching.
Joey wrote him another letter, begging to be friends. Lance wrote back and said, in ten days we'll wake up and be friends, as if none of this ever happened.
On the tenth day Lance was tired and crabby from not sleeping, but he played snap with Joey and they talked about going to the movies on Monday if they were allowed, and Joey put his arm around him and Lance smiled through gritted teeth and Joey smiled back the same way. That made them laugh for real, and they hugged and promised each other it would get better with time.
With time, Lance got better at pretending.
This part of the story goes on for a long, long time. How long, after all, does a half stay a half, once it's no longer a whole?
Lance tried to write songs sometimes. He saw JC and Justin scribbling away, fiddling with guitars and keyboards, staring morosely at notebooks, chewing on pens, and envied them. He tried to write songs, and sometimes he thought they weren't too bad, but they were always elegies to lost love, mournful remembrances of happiness forever lost, in keys that only suited a bass voice. He never showed them to anybody.
The ring was still ever-present, in its plastic-velvet pouch. He didn't carry it with him anymore--he didn't carry anything which might get lost in an airport or stolen from a hotel room or left in a corner of a bus. He built a house to put a safe in it, and put the twenty-dollar ring in there and covered it with stocks and bonds and contracts and some gold and some cash.
When he got home after a tour, he crossed the floor and pulled away the painting and dialed the combination and then stood there, cheek pressed to cold hard iron, and never opened the door. He had been married, he told himself, alone in his empty house. He had been married, and that made it worthwhile, because he loved before he lost. If he never loved again, then so be it, because nothing could hold a candle to the hot white flame which had sparked and flared incandescent and then, as a fat fist closed over it, sputtered out.
It seemed to him sometimes like Joey was trying to say something. He never said it out loud, but Lance imagined that some undisclosed significance lingered in the air between them. There was something, Lance thought, in the way Joey buried himself in women, who adored him and wished he'd stay longer. There was something in the way Lance buried himself in work. There was something in Joey's relationship with Kelly, who was fond and tolerant and thought he would be a good pretend-father to her child. There was something in the way Lance never dated, just fucked the nearest available body when he couldn't take it anymore. There was something in the way they shared a bus but still clung to opposite sides of the room when they were drunk.
Then Lance would look at himself and his life, and tell himself with bitter scorn to get over it. They'd been teenagers, wild with hormones and dreams--it wouldn't have lasted anyway. He was just a child, then, playing at being adult. He was still a child, now, playing at being adult while pretending to himself that he could have the old dreams back.
He drained his champagne glass and stood on wobbly legs and made his way back to the party, in time for the countdown and screaming and confetti, and joined in as everyone sang Auld Lang Syne.
This year, he vowed to himself, alone on his hotel room balcony, watching the sun come up; this decade this century this millenium, he would finally let go of these childish things.
Lance sat beside Joey in the car, on the way to the studio to record redubs for the movie. Today was their wedding anniversary, if he were to keep track of such things, which Lance didn't anymore. So, it wasn't their wedding anniversary after all; it was just another Tuesday. Joey, who had been quiet since breakfast, took a sudden sharp breath and said, "remember when we pretended to get married?"
You didn't have the goatee back then, Lance thought. You had your eyebrow pierced and wore a silver sleeper instead of the Superman stud. You were wearing a red Violent Femmes t-shirt. We'd eaten Big Macs in the car on the way to the church, and afterwards, you tasted like sugar and salt and vinegar.
He looked up, and Joey was watching him. Lance shook his head.
This is the epilogue to the story.
Lance was buying a club in New York, so next time he was in Orlando at the same time as Howie, he dropped in to talk business. Howie shook his hand and told him a few useful things, and they talked about the LA club scene, and he passed on the name of a Puerto Rican singer Lance might want to hear.
Howie had bought a vineyard in Chile, and he opened a bottle of cabernet, which was superb. They were well into it when Nick came in and kissed Howie on the cheek and settled in Howie's lap and said, "hey, Bass."
Lance dropped his glass.
"You didn't know?" Howie said mildly, as Nick snickered and got up to fetch a cloth.
"I," Lance said, and keened over, clutching his heart. Seven years, he thought, in a black and red wash of pain and insomnia and bile over wounds that had never healed. Seven years and two months and eight days since it started. Six years and ten months and twenty-six days since it ended.
Nick and Howie were looking at him, vaguely alarmed.
Lance sat up again, hard-learned composure settling around him like armour. "Sorry," he said, gesturing to the shattered glass splattered redness. "Went down the wrong way."
"You did know?" Howie said, and Lance shook his head calmly.
"I'd heard things, but Lou was--" he shrugged, like it was long in the past. "Lou."
"Lou was a sick motherfucking son of a fucking bitch," Nick said, hints of warmth as he mopped up Lance's mess. "But he couldn't stop me."
"He had me fucked up for years," Howie added, pouring two more glasses and pushing them toward Nick and Lance. "For Nick's own good! For the sake of the others! Nick's young and you're a pervert! You'll ruin his career! Then he made me write this letter about being friends--he was going to send Nick away if I didn't. I puked when I finished it."
Nick shook his head. "I puked when I got it."
"I got one too," Lance said, feeling strange and distant and lost.
"I tore it up," Nick said, laughing. "I was insane. I threw it out and went into Howie's room and broke half the furniture and told him I didn't care what he wanted, and I didn't care about his career, and he was never getting rid of me."
Howie kissed Nick's neck. "He was out of control, back then. In the end even Lou was scared of him."
"Oh," Lance said. "oh."
"Oh," Howie said, eyes suddenly wide. "Oh, honey, no!"
"No," Lance whispered, feeling six years break open inside him, spilling behind him like blood and ink and mercury to colour and poison everything that had gone before. "No."
This is the epilogue to the epilogue.
Lance stands outside Joey's door, clutching a rose. He's not wearing his ring, but it's in his pocket. He can hear Sesame Street on the TV inside, and Kelly on the phone to a girlfriend.
He runs through it in his mind, every moment of every day of every year for seven years. That first meeting when his whole body shivered with joy, when he looked into mahogany eyes and touched a trembling hand and just knew. Their last parting in New York, when Joey hugged him and said, call me as soon as you're back.
Lance has been back two days, and hasn't called.
Lance has been away for six years, and hasn't called.
He's calling now.
This is the beginning of another story.