Actions

Work Header

Family Ways

Work Text:

Family is a construct. It's a puzzle with pieces that don't always lie flat, an endlessly sprawling painting that takes forever to come out right. Family takes time, and sometimes, you absolutely hate the process. 

But in the end, it's worth the struggle.

Probably.

 

I.

 

It was Maureen and Roger, at the start. Nobody believes that, of course; it's the Mark-and-Roger Show now, all scarves and bitter art and late night drunk phone pranks. But at the start? It was Maureen and Roger. 

She thinks life was better then, sometimes.

Roger was always taller, and stronger, and older than her, but it was Maureen who called the shots. He'd never admit it. Roger is stubborn through and through--and a good thing, too. If he weren't so stubborn, the virus in his system might have taken him down long before he could write that stupid song. But there's something beating hard beneath Roger's breast, something angry and fierce and Spartan-like. Roger is strong. Roger is stubborn.

Roger was sixteen and a half when Maureen--then fourteen and three months--talked him into his first tattoo. Roger was sixteen, sitting stock-still in that seat, pretending to be eighteen, pretending not to be scared shitless. Roger, with his dumb spiked-up hair and his dumb rock star t-shirts, all shredded and paint-splattered from helping Maureen build sets for her backyard shows. Roger gripped her hand so tightly, she thought the bones might well crack in half. But he did it. Because she dared him. Because she called him a chicken. And when they stood on the street an hour later, Roger running fond fingers over the blue ink set into his skin, Maureen smacked a loud kiss off the side of his face and announced, "Yeah, kid--you're all right." 

Her dad said it to her all the time, back then, before she gave up on normal jobs and normal haircuts and normal society. It felt right.

Maureen was sixteen and four months the first time she had sex. It sucked. It hurt. She'd known it would; Roger had told her. He said he accidentally made Katie Casbrak cry, and he'd felt really bad about it, but he hadn't known how to help. He said she should be careful. Roger didn't have any siblings, so he liked to impart all of his Wise Guy Advice on Maureen. Maureen thought that was pretty stupid.

Except it had hurt, and she had cried--not in the car, where it had happened, but later, when she was walking home. It had hurt, and she had felt very small, and very vulnerable, and that is so not Maureen. Roger had met her at her mailbox half an hour after she'd gotten up the nerve to call him, and he'd offered her a cigarette, shaken out a match for her, and leaned against the fence until she'd stopped wiping tears away long enough to take the first drag. Roger didn't say much about it, didn't really ask questions or push for details. All he'd said was, "You need me to hit him?"

She shook her head, smacked his arm, stuck the cigarette between her teeth the way detectives did in the old movies. He nodded, hands jammed into the pockets of his worn-out jeans with the holes in both knees. He'd looked tall, and strong, and very uncomfortable. The big brother she never had.

Roger was twenty when April stumbled into their lives, and Maureen knew it was over before she even knew why. They'd been so good before that--talking each other into dumb shit, eating too much fast food, drinking too early in the morning--and she had been happy. Happier than her family's ideals had ever wanted for her. Happier than she'd thought she could be. She had thought Roger was happy, too.

But then there were needles, and stringy strands of April's bad dye job everywhere, and she'd hear them hissing away at each other from the next room in their little flat. Arguing? Making promises she wasn't allowed to intrude upon? She didn't know. She didn't care. She was losing Roger.

Everyone always thinks it was Mark and Roger, from the get-go, but it wasn't. Everyone always forgets how much Maureen had to lose, when it all started to tumble.

 

II.

 

The first time they met, Roger had absolutely no idea how to handle Tom Collins.

It isn't that Roger is necessarily bad at handling brash. Or loud. Or opinionated. He'd grown up running neck and neck with Maureen and her jangling ten-cent jewelry collection, and her flirting, and her raucous laughter ringing in his ears at the height of his worst hangovers. Brash, and loud, and opinionated, he can do.

It's just that Collins was so...unexpected.

Huge. Huge, and black, and with a smile so bright, it could sear the rust off that old junker April insisted on keeping nice. For when we hit the road, baby, she'd say, lit up and laughing in his bed. For when we kick this joint for good. Roger hated that car, but he loved the way it made April smile.

Collins sort of smiled like that, in that wild, uninhibited way only a king can smile. Like he owns the whole city, and sees no harm in renting it out to anyone who needs a place to sleep. Like he loves everything this world has to offer, even the shitstorms. Roger didn't get that smile, not from a guy like Collins. Not at first.

Because Collins really had too much to lose.

Collins was gay. Collins was gay, and not remotely afraid to show it, and Roger just thought that was nuts. Not the fucking guys part, although he's never been able to dig on that, really. But the being so open bit? The running naked through the city, laughing and flipping the bird at anyone who raises an eyebrow? He didn't get that. Still doesn't, if he's honest with himself.

It wasn't even just that Collins was huge, and black, and open. It was how fast he let himself get comfortable. He waltzed right up to their table at the Life Cafe, stuck his boots up next to Roger's order of fries, and greeted them with, "You need a drink?"

Roger, three fries already in his mouth, raised his glass. Still full. Please leave. He didn't have the patience for it that day, not with Maureen grumping across the table, and April itching at her arm. When April itched, he itched, and he had a gig that night. It wasn't a good time.

"You need a drink," the madman called Tom Collins said cheerfully, and before anyone could stop him, he was ordering a round. Two rounds. Three. Collins was huge, and black, and totally unaware of the mess that Roger's life was slowly becoming. Maybe it didn't show as much as he thought in those moments of clarity after a good high, when his forehead shone with sweat and his head pounded. Maybe it couldn't be smelled on him after all, that inevitable sense of desecration that April was sending his way. Maybe.

"Not into that," Roger told him in a low voice, when the man unexpectedly tipped his head to inspect a passing guy's ass. Collins raised an eyebrow.

"Skinny white boys ain't my speed anyway. Drink up, man. You look like you can use it."

Roger hadn't been fond of strangers then--or ever, really--but Collins had stayed put. He'd complimented Maureen on her handmade earrings, had chatted amiably with the waiter until they ended up with another round of fries, on the house. He'd even gotten April to stop itching for a while, talking her ear off about some high-prized intellectual thing Roger couldn't be bothered with. Wasn't usually April's speed, but whatever; Collins was charming. Charm gets you a long way, if you've got enough of it.

And maybe that would have been it--one bizarre run-in, and then a stark period at the end of the sentence. But Maureen, who had still been glaring at Roger over her third empty glass, had invited Collins along to the show. And then back to the apartment. Collins was big. Collins was cheerful. Collins accepted.

He would never have been Roger's first choice, this walking anarchy of a man who winked at other dudes, who bought shots for total strangers with money he probably couldn't afford to blow. He would never have been Roger's first choice at all.

But when the first night of withdrawals hit, and it was Collins' bear hug that stopped his bones from rattling him right into the wall, Roger was grateful. Sometimes, it isn't the choice of the thing that matters. Sometimes, a bit of altruism is worth its own salt.

It hurt far more than he thought it would, watching Collins walk out the door not two weeks later.

 

III.

 

Tom Collins loved the shit out of Mark Cohen.

Not loved the way he would come to love Angel. Not loved the way he'd loved boys in high school, the way he'd loved those who couldn't love him back, or couldn't love him enough, or would get his bones busted up in the process of exploring that love. He loved him the way you love a sickly puppy that must be nursed back to life. He loved him the way you love that cousin you were great friends with, once upon a time, but never quite understood. He loved him relentlessly.

But damn, the boy was dense.

Mark was soft. The edges of him were malleable, the mold not quite firm enough to stand up to Roger's stubborn fury, or to Maureen's harping need for attention. Mark was easy to shift, easy to manipulate, easy to nudge aside. Collins found that funny. Sad, yes; but for a man like that to find his way into a band like theirs? Terribly funny.

And if you can't laugh at life, well, stuff tends to get way too heavy for words. Collins knew it long before he put his feet up on Roger's dinner, long before plowing headfirst into Mark and his rickety bicycle on that sweet summer night, long before the doctor gave him that all too shitty (though not entirely unexpected) news. The world's a heavy place. Collins knew that. So Collins laughed.

He was laughing when Mark picked him up off the ground, apologizing so fast, the syllables all mashed together into one long stream of nerves. He was laughing as Mark tried to brush the gravel off his coat, when he put the pad of his thumb to his forehead and swept away a smear of blood. He was laughing when he slung an arm around Mark's shoulders and led him three blocks over to the apartment.

The kid was freaked out, that was plain enough. He kept pulling at the strap of his bag, as if reminding himself it was still there. Kept flattening his rumpled blond hair with one palm, as if reminding himself he was still solid. And, when Collins dragged the door open and fumbled his way inside, he stood shiftily in the doorway. Uncertain. 

He might even have bolted, if Maureen hadn't been in the kitchen, a white t-shirt that technically belonged to Collins tied above the hem of black panties. Maureen had been eating cereal out of an upturned frisbee. Maureen had been slightly stoned. 

It took thirty-three seconds for Collins to see the shift in Mark's angular, anxious face, and then he was laughing all over again. So, sometimes a kid runs you down on his bike--and then, sometimes, you introduce that kid to the woman who will make his life a beautiful, glittering hell for the next year or so. Even stevens, man. Life's funny that way.

He liked Mark, because Mark was cautious, because Mark was smart, and because--despite those qualities--Mark still managed to be the biggest fool of them all. Mark believed in things like love, and honesty, and film reflecting the inherent perfection of broken things. Mark believed in penance. Mark believed in Roger, and in Maureen's ability to stand still, and in April getting a second chance, and a third, and a fifteenth. Collins loved that. It was damn stupid, damn easy to resent, and it was good. He couldn't stay forever. He had a gig. But Mark?

Mark would stay. Mark would stand firm, despite the softness of him. Mark would smile crookedly, and turn those big blue eyes on the world, and somehow see beauty where everyone else could find only grime. Mark would forgive, the way Collins taught himself to do so long ago. Life's short, right? Life's a wild ride. Best to hug the curves. Mark could do that.

Mark was dense. Mark was insane. And Collins respected that, right from the start.

Maureen's shampoo, and Roger's gravely voice at three in the morning, and April's vibrant laughter were all things to be missed, but when Collins was bent over his desk at MIT, grading the forty-seventh consecutive paper that missed the point, it was Mark's company he craved most of all. Because, of all of them, Mark had the most heart. 

Collins digs heart more than anything else in this world.

 

IV.

 

Mark never really got Benny.

Benny was that kid in the back of the class who never speaks, but always comes up with the best exam grades. Benny was that kid who floats from circle to circle, keeping his head down and his ears perked. Benny was observant, persistent, casually interested in everything the world had to offer.

If anything, Benny should have made perfect sense. Two witnesses, bearing through the world together. Two men with fast friends, fast loves, a bullet-train awareness of how easily the world can come apart. They should have been great.

Mark sort of liked it, that they weren't.

He met Benny the way he'd met the rest of them: tucked away in that loft, a steady fixture in a dingy, not-so-furnished land. Benny had smiled, silent, and given a little wave, and then he'd turned back to his papers. Benny, Roger would explain in those rare moments between highs and violent withdrawal lows, was The Planner. Maureen protested. Roger sang. April burned. Collins laughed. And Benny?

"He's the Idea Man," Roger told him one night, keeping his voice pitched low. Benny was out on the balcony, scribbling furtively away in a notebook. Roger, whose hair was growing a little too long, and who hadn't shaved in about a week, had a hand clamped hard on Mark's shoulder. Too hard, though he hadn't noticed. He was mostly using Mark to stay upright. 

"Idea Man," Mark repeated, slipping capitalization into the words where Roger had done. "What sort of ideas?"

"Dunno." Roger gave a small grin, like a little boy caught in a lie too harmless to get pissed about. "Money stuff, mostly. He thinks he can work out a way to make us all rich. Fuckin' right, y'know?"

He sounded so tired when he laughed. It squeezed a cramp in the center of Mark's stomach. Roger had been looking worse and worse those past few weeks, and April...

Mark tried not to think about April so much. Burning, yes, she was good at that--but all fires go out, eventually. And what would Roger do then?

Money, okay. Benny wanted them rich. Mark figured he could get behind that, if they did it right, if they didn't compromise themselves along the way. And why should they? They all thought along the same lines. Maureen hated franchise efforts. Roger snorted at the idea of commercial impulse. Collins roared with hysterical laughter whenever agents and contracts came up in conversation. Art wasn't about money. Art was about life

But maybe some money wouldn't totally suck, in the grand scheme of things. With money, Mark could buy a better camera. Maybe put in for rehab, to get Roger and April properly clean. Maybe buy something really nice for Maureen--a ring, maybe. If she'd have him long enough for a thing like that. Money wouldn't be so awful, would it?

Except, every time he actually sat down with Benny, actually heard him give voice to whatever was in his head, it all rang so...hollow. Roger wrote music to buffer back the demons. Maureen crafted performances to wake up the world. Collins believed in the tearing down of government corruption for the good of mankind. Benny?

Benny believed in himself.

Was that so bad? Mark could never really settle on an answer to that. Was it so terrible, to be confident? No. Maureen was confident. Roger, onstage, with a guitar humming in his hands, radiated good faith in his own talent. Confidence gave them the courage to create. Mark loved that.

But Benny...

Benny's confidence was quiet. Creeping. Cold. There was something insidious about it, something steely and sharp that Mark didn't like. It made him feel itchy, just thinking too hard on Benny's concept of how the world ought to work. Itchy--and young. Benny made him feel like a child.

Even Maureen on her worst day, sneering and jabbing sharp nails into the spaces between his self-esteem, didn't have that kind of power.

It sucked when Benny went at last, disappearing into a marriage Roger had been scoffing at from the start, but Mark felt a fleeting sense of relief when the door had shut behind him. Because Benny had never made sense.

And with the world imploding around them, the last thing they needed was ice to snuff out their already-dying fire.

 

V.


Mimi was gorgeous. Mimi was curves, and smirks, and eyes too old for her young face. Mimi was everything he should never have wanted.

Benny felt a powerful urge from that very first smile to keep her all to himself.

It wasn't a new impulse. Benny had grown up with three older brothers; if you wanted something in that house, you had to close your hands around it fast, tuck it away beneath a floorboard, claim it with your own secrecy. You can't just wave beautiful things around and expect to keep them. Obviously.

He wasn't supposed to want her.

And yes, that made him feel guilty. After all, what he felt for Alison was love--or something enough like it to pass. Alison was sweet. Alison was accepting. Alison did not look down on him for climbing the ladder, or for having started off on the ground floor in the first place. His so-called friends didn't share that quality, which made it shine all the more brightly in her. Alison was good for him. 

But Mimi was so alive

He'd been around the dying so long, Benny had sort of forgotten what that was like. Roger, with his spluttering, and his vomiting, and his constant tremors--it made Benny feel queasy to look at him, that once-strong man bowed so terribly by his own hunger. Maureen, with her shrill cries and her desperate search for attention--it made him feel tired, watching her forsake herself just to get Mark to look her way again. And April...

God, he couldn't even think of April. April and those open wounds, glaring nastily up at them beneath a single bare bulb. April and those gashes that matched her hair, and the way the water had sloshed and gasped when Collins thrust both arms in and lifted her body out. A body was all April was, in the end. Just more meat. Just a fire that couldn't last.

Mimi sort of reminded him of April, in a way--but it didn't make him feel as sick as it maybe should have. She was dancing, head thrown back, arms above her head. April would never do that again.

He was married. He reminded himself that daily, hourly, the band on his third finger feeling more and more like an anchor each time he was forced to have business lunches with Alison's father. He was married, and that marriage had stripped a lot away. Roger's respect. The mask that had always held Mark's contempt at bay. Maureen's hand on his arm, squeezing in friendship. All gone now, and what was left?

Mimi. This girl with her brown eyes and her smooth skin, and the pretty way she'd kissed him. Self-consciously, almost. A little girl playing a big game.

He felt young with Mimi. Alison didn't make him feel young. Alison and the expectations of her family made him feel worn-down, as though the patches slapped over his skin were bound to wear away at any moment. Alison and the Westport Greys had him on his knees, collared, bound, all suits and ties and pleasure to meet you, sir greetings. 

He loved her. He loved his wife.

But Mimi made him feel real

It was never a combination that could last, true; he'd known it from the start. Still, seeing her with Roger all those months later, he can't entirely swallow the scorn. She had been his first. She had loved him.

And even if he couldn't love her back, really, he misses the way his heart pounded whenever she took his hand.

 

VI.

 

She'd never actually met a drag queen before. 

At first, she wasn't sure what it was she was looking at. A woman with a bob haircut, swaddled in what looked very much like a shower curtain--but rocking it; Mimi could never do what this woman was doing, and even from her distance, she admired the audacity it took, to wear a thing like that. The woman wore heels. The woman had her hands on her hips.

And there was a man. Shaven head, sneering mouth, too many shining bits of metal jabbed haphazardly into his face. He could have been handsome, once. Mimi noticed that about a lot of people in the city. They all could have been so beautiful, if the cold and the wind and the perpetual aggression hadn't warped them so.

The man was talking fast and low, head down, body held back. It was an odd posture--threatening, but almost nervous at the same time. As though he thought the woman might carry some vicious disease that could infect him via proximity alone. Mimi snorted. If he only knew what it felt like to carry the real deal, to have blood that betrays even as it sings through your body. Would he be so cowardly, if he knew what she felt each and every day?

Probably. Only a coward comes after a woman this way, gesturing emphatically, glowering. A break up, perhaps? Mimi edged nearer, curious. If the man took a swing, or pulled out a knife, she wouldn't exactly be an ideal source of help--but two against one? Yeah, she liked those odds a bit better. Especially with surprise on her side.

Surprise really was the word when she got close enough to hear the woman's retort. A faintly amused voice, lined with sass and spunk. She liked it on impulse, liked the warmth of it, the tenor rustling against her ears. But a female voice? 

No. Certainly not.

"Oh, honey," the person was saying cheerfully. "Don't you think you should be getting home?"

The skinhead snarled something. Insulting, Mimi was certain. Inappropriate. The drag queen raised a delicate eyebrow; up close, the jut of jaw was apparent, and Mimi could make out the curve of his Adam's apple. It did nothing to diminish his--her?--beauty.

"Sweetheart, I am more of a man than you'll ever be," the drag queen said sweetly. "Men don't go around picking fights this way. Your mother would be so ashamed."

"Fuck you," the man growled, and the queen raised both hands. Gracious, but not admitting any brand of defeat. Mimi grinned despite herself. 

"I am more of a man than you'll ever be," the queen repeated, more seriously this time. "And more of a woman than you'll ever get."

The man moved as if to strike then, and Mimi wrapped a hand loosely around the drag queen's elbow. Both parties turned to face her, startled; perfectly-applied blue polish sparkled on the fingers that found their way to Mimi's wrist. 

The queen gave her a gentle pat, smiling. "Sweetie, I've been wondering when you'd get here. Are you ready?"

The man, plainly still aggravated, but not precisely ready to hit what he obviously viewed as a real girl, hesitated. The queen swung her free hand up, twinkling her fingers in a brief wave.

"Tata."

They were two blocks away when her shoulders sagged, that free hand pressing against her eyes. The shiver was impossible to miss. 

"Does that happen a lot?" Mimi asked quietly, feeling strangely as though the question was necessary. As though it was something the queen needed to answer. 

Dark eyes met hers. Brave eyes. Surprisingly bright. "People are silly when they're scared," the queen said simply. "They make mistakes."

She gave Mimi's hand a brisk squeeze, face splitting in the biggest smile Mimi had ever seen in her life. "Anyway, I'm sorry. That was terribly rude of me, to take your help without even introducing myself. Angel. I'm Angel."

"Mimi," she'd replied, and accepted the firm handshake offered to her. "Angel, are you hungry?"

"Famished," the queen drawled, and laughed so elegantly, it sent a tingle straight down Mimi's spine. It had been a long time since she'd made a friend. Friends aren't easy to come by when you're nineteen, and jonesing, and your blood sings of an early grave. 

And yet, when Angel laced their fingers together and asked what her story was, looking genuinely and absolutely interested, Mimi got the sense that maybe friendship wasn't a strong enough word. 

 

VII.

 

"You doing okay, honey?" 

Angel was aware of how often she'd been posing this question lately, but she hadn't found reason to regret it yet. The young woman standing with her arms loosely wrapped around herself, frowning after Collins' friend with all the curly hair, jumped a little. Smiled. Nodded.

She was different than the others, Angel sensed. Different from Collins and his unshakable enthusiasm, from Mark and his quiet faith, from Roger and that barely tamped-down anger simmering beneath his smile. Different, but not as though she wanted to be. An upbringing thing, maybe. People are who their parents craft, at first, and go from there as best they can.

This woman was brought up to be stiff, Angel guessed. Stiff, poised, intellectual. This cafe, with its not-so-clean tables and its not-so-polished clientele, was not stiff, or poised, or intellectual in the least. The woman stuck out like the sorest of thumbs.

As a bit of a thumb herself, Angel could sympathize.

"You're here with Maureen," she went on, nudging Joanne into conversation. She'd only met Maureen a few hours before, and didn't have a totally clear read on the woman yet--but even from this distance, the disconnect between the performance artist in her motorcycle jacket and this young lawyer was daunting. Forget Capulets and Montagues; these two were leagues away from stability.

Angel loved them together instantly. Lost causes are the most beautiful things in the world; the greatest art comes in moments of utter uncertainty. These two, blocks with no corresponding sides, puzzles that shared no color or scheme or style, were the picture of uncertainty.

Angel could root for that. She'd gotten behind stranger causes. Hell, she was a stranger cause, in her own right, and she was fabulous for it.

"Yes," Joanne said when she realized Angel was still watching her patiently. "Yes, I'm--with her. Maureen." 

Her eyes narrowed, her mouth hardening. Maureen was wrapped around Mark, making fish-lips at his crimson face. Angel slid an arm around Joanne's waist, leaning gently against her.

"You see how she keeps looking over here?"

Joanne frowned. "Sorry?"

"Your lady friend." Angel winked. "Watch her closely. Watch her eyes."

It was true; although Maureen was snuggling Mark, babbling away about the riot they had all so narrowly escaped, her eyes seemed to ghost right through him. Every few seconds, they flickered toward this end of the bar, meeting Joanne's and darting away again. Come get me, baby, those eyes seemed to dare. Maureen was playing.

How funny, that Joanne couldn't see it. It seemed so obvious to Angel, who grinned and wiggled her fingers in response. The only attention Maureen was really seeking was--

"She wants you," she said simply, bumping her head lightly against Joanne's. "She wants you to go over there."

"What--" Joanne huffed grumpily. "Why doesn't she just come here, then?"

"Because that would be no fun," Angel laughed. "Come on, sweetie. Come join the party."

She dragged Joanne toward the others, making it look as effortless as possible. That's just the way some people are, she reflected. Too cautious. Frightened. It doesn't mean they can't be good company, or have fun; they just need a bit of coaxing. Joanne was kind, she could see, and hard-working, and meant well. Joanne just wasn't used to drag queens and ex-junkies, the sorts of people her girlfriend was so enamored with. Nothing wrong with that.

Angel kept an eye on her for the rest of the night, watching as the walls slowly came down. An inch here, when Maureen settled their joined hands on the table for everyone to see. An inch there, when Maureen slid onto her chair, arm curled around Joanne's neck for balance. Another, when Collins leaned across the table and asked pointed questions about her "intentions for his little girl," and another, when Roger jammed out a few chords that barely resembled "Can't Get No (Satisfaction)" and pointed at her for a solo. Yes, Joanne was lovely. She just took a little time.

And even now, when there is so precious little of a thing like that, Angel finds giving time to people like Joanne isn't difficult at all.

 

VII.

 

Joanne didn't expect Maureen. She didn't expect the woman to come blustering into her life, all leather pants and smudged lipstick, the kiss you never can manage to wipe off your lips. She didn't expect the sex from a seemingly-straight girl to happen at all, much less last, much last be honestly and truly good. She didn't expect to fall in love.

And she didn't expect all the baggage that came along.

Because dating Maureen was one thing. Dating Maureen was cold Chinese food and hot nights grinding on her kitchen floor. Dating Maureen was fistfuls of wild hair and teeth gritted willfully against yet another argument. Dating Maureen was the death of solo showers and the birth of a completely bare-calendar lifestyle, one that made her head spin if ever she inspected it too closely.

Dating Maureen, she could figure out.

But Maureen came with more than just a stellar ass and impeccable sex drive. Maureen came with more than a desperate need to be remembered, and clever wit, and barbs of furiously sexy laughter. Maureen came with...

A family. 

Maureen came with the older brother who would never quite get close enough to look you in the eye, but who might tap you on the shoulder once, after a particularly public argument, and mutter, "She does that. Get her some of that caramel ice cream shit. Make it better."

Maureen came with a former roommate who told stories of idiot students, and who pushed joints casually under her nose, grinning when she waved a hand in dismissal. "S'all good. So. Heard you got a great pro-bono case last week. What's the story?"

Maureen came with an ex-boyfriend who, for everything Joanne had decided so long ago to loathe on principle, turned out to be almost disgustingly sweet. When Maureen passed out on the loft couch, her head nestled in Joanne's lap, her mouth ajar mid-snore, that ex-boyfriend was the one to sweep a blanket over them both, put a finger to his lips, and shrug. What can you do?

Maureen came with the girlfriends and boyfriends of her little clan, and Joanne figured she'd never in her life have cause to get close to a drag queen or a nineteen-year-old stripper--but when the two showed up at her door one Saturday after the Big Break-Up, and invited her on an antiques expedition ("Need me some new boots," Angel had announced, painstakingly adjusting her wig with hands that did their best not to shake), she found herself agreeing. Because they weren't her type of people before, maybe--but they were Maureen's. And what Maureen brings into her life tends to stay put.

Maureen's like that. In and out, exhausting and exhilarating. Maureen revamped everything that was her world. 

When Joanne fell in love with Maureen, she didn't expect any of it. Not the arguments. Not the long weekends spent naked and warm in her bedroom. Not the AIDS, or the funeral, or the parties, or the vibrant need to go go go. And she never, ever expected to find herself a family.

But, if family is anything in this brave new era, it is a construct. You work for your family. You fight to keep them close. Sometimes, you just fight, period. Because family is worth it.

Probably.

They truly are the lucky ones.