* * *
My fingers twitched uncontrollably, hovering over the receiver. I stared at the keypad, going over each number in my head over and over. Do it! Do it! my mind was screaming. My hands just had a mind of their own. Okay, one...two...three...
I grabbed the receiver and rushed through the first six numbers. Now the seventh number. Press the two! I hesitated, then slammed the phone back down. No!!! It was so silly, a grown man so scared to make a call.
I rehearsed what I planned to say again in my head, took a deep breath, and dialed all seven numbers. And then . . . it was busy! Busy! Of all times for a phone to be busy, he just had to pick the exact moment when I had enough courage. Fine, I don't want to talk to you either. But I knew I couldn't rationalize it like that. I was the one who cut him out of my life.
Tried to get a hold of you last night (called you on the phone)... my sudden lyrical memory startled me. Funny how real "Giddy Up" had suddenly become. Thinkin' to myself something ain't right... Apparently the song I had written with the other guys so many years ago was very true, just a bit premature. ...Letting little things come between us... Well, maybe not little things, but . . .
Okay, one more time. I quickly dialed, holding the receiver several inches away from my face as if it might bite me. One ring . . . Two rings . . . Three rings . . . Shit! What if I have to leave a message? Oh, right, I can just hang up. But what if he has Caller ID? Damn . . . My thoughts were interrupted by a woman's voice that I didn't recognize on the other end.
* * *
It was finally set. This was it. Finally. And I was freakin' out. I mean, like, scared as hell. Johnny said it would work. They'd love it. Minor backlash, no biggie. Right. I'm still freakin'.
Almost an hour after I had talked to him, Johnny had already planned everything for me. A secret deal was made with our management team and record company so there wouldn't be any lawsuits; I'd had my fill of those with the group. Everyone knew, and had a contract to keep their mouths shut. Well, everyone knew except for the other guys. It had been just two short, agonizing weeks since we had appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell Show and I had subsequently asked Johnny to be the manager of my solo career.
It truly was scary as hell, wondering if everything would work out. I didn't want to abandon the guys, I really didn't. In fact, it was thinking about them that almost made me change my mind on more than a few occasions. It was just that I couldn't take the constant tension anymore. All the "Gee, I hope Chris doesn't get rid of our management company today." Or "Gosh, Joey/JC/Lance looks mad. Hope it's not at one of us. That would cause problems." I just wanted to be by myself. It was easier that way. Interesting that I never stopped to think whether it would be easier for the rest of *NSYNC.
When the day finally came, I was literally pissing in my pants. We had worked it so I called a press conference to announce the next school that would receive a grant from my Justin Timberlake Foundation. And I was really going to give one, I was just going to announce that I was quitting *NSYNC as well. A minor detail.
"And now, the man of the hour," Johnny was announcing to the huge roomful of photographers, reporters, and journalists. "Please welcome Justin Timberlake!"
Everyone clapped politely as I entered the room. The bright lights and anxious stares suddenly intimidated me, like I hadn't been doing this for years. "Hi, um, thanks for, a, coming," I stammered, totally unlike my normal eloquent self. "You're here today because I want to announce the newest recipient of the Justin Timberlake Foundation's grant to preserve music programs in schools.
"This time, we will be awarding $50,000 to a school that I've had the opportunity to visit a few times while in New York; Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Queens. They will use this money to make their music program one that everyone can be proud of." There was more polite clapping, then a rustle of bags as everyone started packing up. I knew this was it. I glanced back at Johnny, who gave me a thumbs-up, and proceeded.
"I have one more thing to share with everyone today," I began, wiping my drenched-in-sweat palms on the sides of my jeans. The disinterested crowd looked up at me again, obviously bored out of their minds. They wouldn't be for long. I couldn't think of how to put my next statement nicely, so it came out quite rushed and very blunt.
"After a lot of careful consideration and planning over the past few months, I have made the gut-wrenching decision to leave *NSYNC and instead embark on a solo career." The room was dead silent. You could have heard a feather drop. Every mouth in that room was practically resting on the floor. I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there, looking as dumbfounded as my audience.
Suddenly, as my audience slowly regained the use of their senses, I started to realize the magnitude of my statement. It scared me more than anything had ever scared me before. If my legs hadn't felt like lead blocks, I would have ran for my life. And then the chaos erupted.
"Justin, who's going be your manager?"
"Does the rest of *NSYNC know about this?"
"Why are you leaving?"
"When will you put out your first record?"
"Can you confirm reports that you and Chris aren't getting along?"
"What about the reports that punches were thrown between you and Lance backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards?"
"Will you and Britney Spears record a duet together?"
"How do the other guys feel about you leaving?"
"What will happen with *NSYNC's upcoming tour?"
"Will you take a leave or go right into your solo career?"
"Is it true that you and Britney are taking a vacation together soon in Bermuda for your honeymoon?"
That did it for me. Britney? Honeymoon? What? I looked pleadingly back at Johnny, who immediately ran to my side.
"Justin will answer no more questions at this time," he broke up the screaming of questions. "All of your concerns will be addressed as we release a written press report tomorrow." He glanced at me, then looked back at the crowd. "Thank you everyone."
As soon as we turned around, the crowd erupted with controversy all over again. I barely noticed, however, as I was having a hard enough time making my legs transport me off the stage, even with Johnny's help.
"Was it that tough?" he asked me, after helping me onto a couch backstage from the press room. I sighed and attempted to lift my head to make eye contact, but couldn't because my head hurt like it could explode if I wasn't careful.
"Yeah, it really was," I answered, forcing the words out of my mouth. "Can I get some extra-strength asprin?" Johnny quickly grabbed me three little tablets, then left me in peace for a few agonizing yet glorious minutes. Suddenly, his head popped in the door again.
"Hey, man, you, uh, have some . . . visitors," he looked seriously uncomfortable. I shot him a questioning glance, but all he could do was shrug sheepishly. Just then, Chris and JC busted past him and into the room. He shurgged again, then slipped out to leave me with my two former groupmates.
I froze. In my mind, this was the moment where I calmly explained my decision, wished them the best of luck in continuing *NSYNC, and went about my buisness. What the hell was I thinking? I can't even explain what regret I felt, nor can I even begin to comprehend what Chris and JC were thinking at that moment. All I can say is that emotions were flying in that room, and none of us were in a position to discuss anything. Yet we did, though "discuss" is not the word for the frenzy that exploded at that moment.
"What the hell was that?" Chris finally yelled. "I mean, what . . . where . . . what the hell was that?"
I was speechless. What was I supposed to say? I was trying to find words, any at all, to say when JC broke in.
"So you have absolutely nothing to say, is that right Justin? 'Cause I thought you just told the entire world that you were quitting *NSYNC. I'm obviously mistaken. We must have heard wrong, right Chris?"
"Must have," Chris piped in.
"Well, since we heard wrong, you better go tell those press people differently," JC continued, his volume rising with every word. "Otherwise, they'll go tell all our fans that the unbreakable *NSYNC has just collapsed. And you wouldn't want that. Especially since you didn't even speak to us about this before you did it, and we ALWAYS talk about everything to avoid misunderstandings like this one. Don't we, Justin? So, go, quick, catch them before they leave! You don't want them printing more lies do ya?! Now go!" JC was gasping for air by this point, his face a deep shade of red. He was staring me down with such utter rage that I was too scared to even look away. I finally did all I could in taking a deep breath and addressing them with the little voice I had left.
"I'm so sorry," I practically whispered. "I, I, I don't even know what to say. But what I said out there was true." I flinched after murmuring this last sentence, like they would beat me up after hearing that statement.
"What . . . Are you . . . But . . . You . . . " Chris stuttered for a while, before he finally regained his compsure. "You bastard!"
"Are you serious?" JC asked, getting a bit calmer. "We almost thought you were joking because of how pathetic that was! What, I mean who, I mean, explain!"
"It started that one night in Orlando . . ." I began, and it all came pouring out. Everything. Concert mistakes, Johnny, what happened on Rosie, even the little thing with Johnny and Chris, it was all out on the table when I got done. It was weird, though, after I got done, I was even more convinced that I had made the right decision, like going over all my reasons reinforced what I knew was right. However, Chris and JC didn't se it my way. At all.
"Are you for real, man?" Chris asked me again. I softly shook my head yes, and he lost it. "That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard! You must be joking. I thought I knew you, Curly. Guess I was wrong. You're just like everyone else this group's had to deal with. You're nothing but a despicable, manipulative, deceitful coward, Justin. A coward, man, do you hear me?! You're just like everyone else, man, don't you see? I can't believe you. You asshole. You fucking asshole. I just, I just can't believe you." With that, he shook his head and left.
"Dude, I think Chris said everthing that needed to be said," JC murmured. "And it was all true." He walked out after Chris. I sighed and thanked God that I had survived that. As it turns out, that would be the last time in over a quarter-century that I would talk to any of my groupmates.
* * *
"Hello?" the voice asked again, impatiently.
"Hi, um, is . . . JC there?" I stuttered. This, like almost everything in my life since I was 19, wasn't going according to plan.
"JC? There's no JC at . . ." the woman's voice trailed off and I could hear a man's voice in the backround. After several long seconds, she mumbled an "Okay..." and I could hear a shuffling as she handed the phone to someone else. Sudddenly a voice that I easily recognized came on the line.
"Who is this?" the man demanded; I could tell he was more confused than angry.
"JC . . ." was all I could manage. I sounded like a love-struck fourth grader, barely able to speak.
"Look, I haven't been called 'JC' for over 20 years - is this some kind of joke? Who's calling? Please, give me your name."
"Man, oh, jeez, I don't even know how to say this, but, well, it's . . . it's Justin," the words came pouring out of my mouth before I had time to think about them and realize how dumb they sounded. When I recieved total silence as my answer, I realized I had shocked my former groupmate as I had shocked the world back in 2000. I didn't know what else to say, so I waited it out until JC finally spoke.
"What, what is this? Some kind of sick joke? I haven't talked to Justin Timberlake for God knows how long. Do you honestly expect me to believe that he's calling me after all these years, on some Thursday night, just to say 'hey'? C'mon - who is this?"
"JC, I'm sorry, but, um, it's me. Look, believe me, I've been working up the courage for years to make this call. Hell, I've wanted to call you since that day you and Chris left me backstage in the press room, that last time I ever saw any of you guys. Just, just let me say something, then, well, you can never talk to me again. But I can't wait any longer to say what's been on my mind since I was 19." Whew. I know, I was quite bold; I had no clue in the universe how else to handle it. I guess I just said what came to me, and prayed I didn't hear a dial tone.