Disclaimer: The following may contain vulgar language and content related to drug abuse, sexual activity, violence, and suicidal attempts. Reader discretion is advised!
“Of course you two did,” Justin chuckled on the other end of the phone line.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked annoyingly as I popped my air pods into my ear and flopped down on the bed that just a few short hours ago had changed everything.
“It means exactly that. You are Ann Mathews-Brown, and honestly, I would expect nothing less from you,” he said continuing to laugh.
“I thought you hated calling me Mrs. Brown!” I said sternly not finding his humor in my suffering at all amusing.
“Oh, dear, I certainly don’t approve. Deep down, I will never, ever support the two of you being together. It’s quite strange that we both had a history with the same man, but that’s just who you are. Isn’t it?” he asked, abruptly shifting from lighthearted chuckles to a stern tone.
“That’s who I am?” I chuckled with a tinge of disgust. “I reached out to you because I thought, of all the people on this planet, you’d be the one not to give me shit. I guess I was mistaken,” I responded, clearly irritated.
Justin and I had engaged in more conversation over the past three months than we had in the entire previous decade. This wasn’t to say that we hadn’t communicated at all during those ten years. We had, but it mainly consisted of the occasional text or two to catch up on each other’s lives. Justin and I were the kind of friends who could go for months without talking, and if one of us sent a “911” message, regardless of where life had taken us, we’d be there for each other, no questions asked. That was what I cherished about our friendship.
“No, you called me Mrs. Brown,” he said with enthusiasm on the Brown part. “Because I despise your soon to b x, maybe not so much, husband more than anyone else you know; however, you also know I will give you my honest opinion despite the fact that I dislike that man.”
He was right. I knew that calling Justin and discussing recent events with him would provide me with some clarity. He had a strong dislike for Kristopher more than anyone else, yet I knew he would tell me the unvarnished truth. He had a way of being straightforward and honest, a quality I initially disliked but grew to appreciate in later years.
“I still don’t get why you hate him so much,” I said with a sigh. “It’s been almost two decades now. When will you ever get over the fact Josh liked fucking him more than he did you?”
“You think my hatred for your husband stems from the fact he was engaged to Josh Randolph for three years back in the early 2000s?” he laughed.
“That’s literally what you have said to me for the past 13 years, Justin!”
“Yeah, well, we are not in high school anymore Ann. I could care less that he fucked Josh,” Justin huffed.
Before some of you ask, yes, I’m referring to Justin Lenox, the very same Justin Lenox who inspired my first novel, “Affair of the Mind.” Justin was perhaps the most toxic relationship I’ve ever had, but the Justin Lenox and Ann Mathews depicted in the pages of that novel were not the same people. Life changes a person, as do kids and marriage. To be perfectly honest, it’s difficult to reread the beginning of “Affair of the Mind” and see who we used to be. We were so detrimental to each other, but I’d be lying if I said I wished it had been any different.
“Then why do you hate him? Last time I checked you two have had maybe 2 to 3 conversations in the last 13 years,” I stated.
“You want the honest truth?”
“You chose him. When I was at my lowest point, you picked him over me. I never imagined you would choose someone over me, especially Kristopher Brown, but you did. You picked him, and perhaps I forgave you for that choice, but I’ll never, ever forgive him. Out of all the people in the world, you chose to marry Josh Randolph’s ex-fiancé and abandoned me when we lost the baby. I can’t bring myself to hate you for that. So, I made the decision to direct my resentment towards him.”
As Justin spoke, I found myself drifting back to July of 2010 when Kristopher first asked me out. From day one Justin had hated him. He wasn’t wrong, I did choose Kristopher over him. Which if you read “Affair of the Mind” would be something no one ever saw coming.
July 24th, 2010
“You can’t go through with this, Ann Mathews!” Justin shouted at me in my driveway at 2 o’clock in the morning.
“What’s your issue?” I yelled back.
“You can’t be involved with Kristopher Brown! Out of all the people in this town, you can’t date him!” He continued to shout; his frustration evident as he ran his hands through his dirty blond hair.
“Really? I can’t date him?” I chuckled mockingly. “You don’t dictate my choices, Lenox! I can and will date whomever I please.”
“Are you completely out of your mind, Mathews!” he exclaimed, pacing the driveway back and forth. Honestly, I had never seen Justin so enraged before. We’d had some intense arguments over the years, but I had never witnessed him this emotionally charged. “Do you even understand why you shouldn’t date him? Please, for the love of God, tell me you haven’t already been intimate with him,” he asked, coming to a stop in front of me, his face mere inches from mine.
“He is HIV positive! Yes, I’m well aware of that,” I responded calmly, gazing into his brown eyes.
“Listen, Ann. Being involved with someone who has HPV is one thing, but he’s HIV positive. HIV, Ann! This isn’t some disease that causes a few warts on your genitals. It’s a disease that can be fatal! I understand your attraction to gay men, but he’s not worth the risk!”
“Screw you, Justin! Your concern is quite ironic, considering your own track record!” I exclaimed, stepping backward to free myself from his grip.
“Don’t make this choice, Ann!” Justin protested, throwing his arms up in the air, much like a child who’s not getting their way.
“I can’t believe you right now! You don’t care that he’s HIV positive. What bothers you is the fact he was engaged to Josh Randolph for three years. Just admit it!”
“Okay, fine! I despise the fact that he was engaged to Josh! Yes, I hate it! We made a promise never to get involved with anyone associated with Josh, or did you forget that? Remember back in 2007? We vowed to avoid anyone with ties to Josh, and here you are breaking it! I never imagined that YOU, of all people, would break our agreement!” He emphasized the word “you.”
“Oh, my goodness! Let it go!” I yelled. “Yes, Josh threatened you in 2003, but guess what? He was so messed up at the time that he forgot about it the next day and never thought of it again in his life. So, let it go!”
“You shouldn’t be dating Kristopher Brown!” he reiterated. “It’s not just because he dated Josh, and it’s not just because he’s HIV positive. He’ll shatter your heart, Ann, and on top of that,” he continued, walking to his car, and retrieving a folder filled with documents. “He has a criminal record. He has a history of drug addiction and stays in mental health facilities.”
“Fuck you, Justin!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “You actually did a background check on him!” I chuckled. “You’re absolutely unbelievable!”
“This guy has serious issues! He’s been with men for the past decade. Why on earth would he suddenly want to be with a woman? He’s spent time in mental hospitals, Ann! Just, for once, pause and think about this before you get involved with him!”
“So says the guy who’s been involved in drug dealing for the past eight years,” I chuckled.
“Ann, I’m trying to watch out for you! Getting HIV over him just isn’t worth it,” he insisted.
“Screw you, Justin! I’ll date whomever I choose. I don’t need your approval!”
“You made a promise to me!” he exclaimed.
“I made a promise to you?”
“We had an agreement, Ann Mathews! An agreement that I thought meant something to you. You pledged not to get involved with anyone associated with Josh Randolph!”
“We’re not in high school anymore, Justin! I can’t believe this. Can’t you just be happy for me?”
“No, because you’re making a colossal mistake!”
“You know what? I’m done with this conversation,” I said, turning to head back toward my room.
“Ann,” Justin yelled, rushing up to me and gripping my arm. “You can’t date him!”
“Let go of me!” I sternly demanded.
“No!” he said in a tone I hadn’t heard since the fall of 2003, as he tightened his grip on my arm. “If you date him, we’re finished.”
“Wow,” I laughed, freeing my arm from his strong hold. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Dead serious!” he stated firmly. “It’s either me or him!”
“Well, I’m going to choose the one who didn’t make me choose. So, screw you, Justin!” I said as I turned my back to him and walked inside.
I was aware that Justin harbored resentment over my relationship with Kris because of his history with Josh, but I had no idea that my decision to be with Kris back then had such a profound and lasting impact on him.
The loss of Baby Lambert in 2011 had a profound impact on both of us. We didn’t speak for over a year after that until he reached out one day, seeking my help with Elliot after his release from prison. To be honest, we never discussed what happened with the baby and the aftermath that followed. It was one of those subjects that was off-limits. I think I’ve talked more about it with Elliot over the last decade than with Justin, perhaps because it held too much pain for both of us. One thing I’ll always regret about our relationship is not being there for him when we lost the baby. That’s a regret I’ll carry with me.
Justin was never one to openly express his emotions and feelings, so for him to finally open up after all these years, it held significant importance. “I’m sorry I chose him over you,” I finally said.
“No, you’re not,” he laughed. “If you had to do it all over, you’d still chose him. I know you, Ann. I know you more than he knows you. You will always choose him. So do us both a favor and please stop trying to be someone you are not.”
“I don’t understand what you mean by that,” I replied.
“You’re Ann Mathews-Brown. You’re intricate and chaotic. Your most significant flaw is your unwavering loyalty, which is why we’re having this conversation in the first place. To the world, you present yourself as a sweet, innocent, conservative 36-year-old woman. But behind closed doors, innocence is far from the truth,” he chuckled. “You enjoy secret escapes to fancy hotel rooms on a Friday night, engaging in threesomes with your husband while snorting white lines on a Sunday. This lifestyle contrasts with your conservative job, which you don’t particularly like, but you’re drawn to the money and political drama. You thrive on complexity and drama, and as much as you might wish for simplicity, it’s not in your cards. You appreciate the fact that Kristopher is gay and wouldn’t have it any other way. You also embrace his HIV-positive status because, well, why not? It adds to your narrative. Your life is an exaggerated story that you’ll turn into a bestseller one day because that’s who you are. It’s always been you. You’re a complex, chaotic, and unconventional bisexual who once explored non-binary identity not because you truly identify as non-binary—your love for makeup and dressing up in a very feminine manner is evidence of that. But you’re determined not to conform to the conventional heterosexual norms. Any attempt to conform to society’s narrow standards of what’s considered “normal” leads to feelings of sadness and depression. So, Ann, stop pretending to be someone you’re not,” Justin responded.
The silence at the other end of the phone stretched on, with seconds feeling like minutes as I grappled with how to respond to everything he had just laid bare. It wasn’t a falsehood. He spoke the truth. I was indeed that intricate, tumultuous, and emotionally entangled woman who reveled in the drama that had become my life. “But what if I didn’t want to be that girl anymore?” I asked aloud.
“If you didn’t want to be that girl anymore, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, you wouldn’t have written that memo, and you wouldn’t have gotten that hotel room,” he replied snarky.