The details of what happens while Murray is gone I won't find out until years later, when he is hit with a rare bout of drunken honesty. This is what, with only slightly slurred speech, he tells me.
By the time Murray's cell rings with my call, he's already pulling to a stop outside the rented house in Woodland Hills. He fishes the phone from his coat pocket, sees it's me, and promptly clicks "end," sending me to voicemail, where I'll leave some babbling message about my busted stomach and Jessica and in which circle of Hell I'll end up owning a beach house. He puts the cell phone back into his pocket, and steps out of his car onto the street.
The phone rings again on the way to the front door, just as he passes a tired-looking Geo Tracker parked in the driveway. He shuts off the phone without looking at it -- he knows it is me again.
He stops and stands on the step just below the door. He's sweating. He tells himself that it's just the heat, and the fact that this suit is really too heavy to be worn in Southern California outside of the brief "winter" that usually lasts about 6 weeks in February and March. He turns and looks back at his car, and down the street in each direction. There's no reason anyone would follow him, and it appears no one has.
He checks his watch. He's been gone 45 minutes. The afternoon staff meeting is at 4:30, so that gives him a little over two hours to finish his business and get back. It should be enough time, even with afternoon traffic.
Murray looks back at the house. It's bigger than he expected, but not well-kept. The front door is badly scarred, paint is peeling from around the front windows (which sport cheap vinyl blinds, closed from the inside against the blazing sun), and the hibiscus bushes on either side of the walk are water-starved, and near ready to give up the ghost. The garden hose lies on the ground next to the step, unrolled and haphazardly pushed out of the way. A large spider web covers the spigot and connects to the house.
47 minutes, according to the watch. He pushes the doorbell button.
Just as he's about to knock, he hears footsteps inside. The door opens. Gary Modesto looks surprised only for a split second, then he composes himself.
"Mr. Modesto," Murray extends his hand, but doesn't smile. "We haven't met, but I'm Michael Murray. Am I here at a bad time?"
"No. Not at all." Gary's hand is warm and a little wet. Murray squeezes a little too firmly, holds a little too long, then lets go.
"May I come in?"
"Um...sure." Gary steps back to let him in. "It's a mess. Sorry."
Murray steps into a small living room. The sofa and two chairs are worn but not cheap. A TV sits on a wheeled stand in the corner. The carpet is emerald green, and thin as paper. He takes off his jacket and folds it over the arm of the sofa. "I wanted to thank you for coming down to see Justin today."
Gary follows him into the room. "Absolutely. Hey, I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help to you guys. I ... uh ... my contacts at the Times aren't what they used to be." He manages a sincere smile, and Murray remembers that Gary majored in Acting at university. "Please, sit. Can I get you a soda or some water?"
"Some water would be great, thanks." Murray remains standing. He watches Gary walk out of the room. He's got about 6 inches and 50 pounds on Gary, but he can't stop sweating. He wipes his forehead with his sleeve.
"I don't have any ice."
Gary returns with a glass of water and hands it to Murray, who drinks it down with one smooth gulp. He hands the glass back to Gary, and their eyes lock. Neither man moves. It's hotter inside the house than outside, despite the buzzing of a crappy wall-unit air conditioner.
"How many people have you told?"
Gary looks startled at the question. "What?"
Murray steps closer. "Don't be stupid. How many?"
"No ... no one."
"And the reporters?"
"Just one called. Twice last night and once about 20 minutes ago. I let the machine get it."
Murray nods. He narrows his eyes. Gary meets his gaze at first. They stare for what must be a full minute. Gary looks away, and crosses the room to put the empty glass on an end-table next to the sofa. After looking at the glass a minute, he sits.
Murray stays where he is, but raises his voice just a bit. "What do you plan to tell her?"
"I don't know yet."
Gary leans forward on the couch. "Are you here to beat me up or something?"
"I don't know yet."
"Are you still very mad at him?"
"No." Gary sits back again. "Yes." He pauses. "It was a long time ago."
"And you've told no one."
Gary shakes his head. "Do ... when I cried ... when I tried to stop him, when I told him I loved him and didn't want him to leave, he called me a fag."
"It was a long time ago."
"And people change."
"He thinks you have a boyfriend. Some kind of gay activist support system. He thinks you've got 'ideological support.'"
"I have a dog."
"A Norfolk terrier. He's out back, probably sleeping by the fence."
Murray crosses to Gary, and kneels down in front of the sofa. "When she calls again, this is what you are going to say: that you were inseparable in college. That you were best friends. That Justin helped give you the courage to come out of the closet and when you did, a lot of people were suspicious, but it was not true. Justin was a great, supportive friend at a time when you desperately needed one, and that is all."
"It's a lie."
"It's the best thing. For him. For you. For your future boyfriend."
Gary is trying not to cry. "I think I still hate him."
"Quit being small. Quit being petty. Think of more than just yourself." Murray leans in close and drops his voice. It's low, menacing. "What can I do to convince you?"
They stay that way while Gary looks at his knees and quietly cries. The minutes crawl past. The sweat drips off Murray's chin onto his tie. He can feel it pooling in the small of his back. He doesn't move. The sweat stings his eyes.
Gary looks up, wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. "I'm ... I've never been hit by anyone."
Murray places a hand on the couch on either side of Gary, and slowly stands. He grabs his jacket from the arm of the sofa in one hand. He steps back, and smiles. "I've never hit anyone."
Five steps take him out the door. Sixteen more get him to his car. He's back at the building a little over an hour later. He parks on the third level of the parking garage, which is deserted, and throws up in the garbage can beside the elevator door.