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Simon Iskander

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  1. Simon Iskander

    Chapter 2

    Love can be described as a restlessness of the mind. At least, that is how it felt to me. And I did not hesitate to call what I felt love, because what part of what I felt towards him be any less? Had the Greek elders been at my table for dinner, I would not have changed my mind. Lust, infatuation, desire; they were merely subcategories, geni in the family of that miracle that Sophocles said frees us of all the weight and pain of life. But I was not restricted to any one of these. What I felt was a mix of romantic and brotherly love that had taken a new dimension since Stan and I had started training together. The restlesssness showed itself in the way I’d obsessively check his online status, the way I’d scroll through old pictures, the way I’d examine the lyrics of a song he told me made him think of me because he, unlike me, has no inhibitions, or perhaps, has no reason to have any as I do; no reason to put on a mask or turn the volume down on his personality or outward behavior. And the restlessness today was brought about by the thought that had wedged its way into my mind and had kept me ruminating late into the previous night and through today, and that was the look we shared at the gym. Had I seen something that was not there at all? That I maintained an ability to retain some modicum of rational thought even when overwhelmed by emotion was an upside of having loved and lost; and I understood that, when blinded by love, we see things we want to see. But this felt real. And yet I was so sure of his sexuality. It was so concrete and immovable that the very idea that it could be budged was as real as the probability of me being able to push a brick wall down with my bare hands. But these things could happen, right? Brick walls aren’t immovable, they can be destroyed by immense force. But what force could I or my actions probably exert? Worse still, what if, with that look, Stan was probing into my soul to discover what I was feeling at that moment? What if he had an inkling, a notion, or even a suspicion of my true affections, and that, with that look, he took aim at the deepest chambers of my inner heart to elicit a reaction that would give him the clue he was searching for? Had I given away a tell? I resigned myself to believing that it was all nothing; that I was overthinking the whole thing. It was that rational part of the brain again, but this time I let it take full control, partly out of self-pity and partly to stop myself from spiraling. I was feeling in layers. Soon it would start again. It would start, and I’d kick into life again, as though I’d been dormant, as though there was nothing else in my life, or as though the things that were in my life had either ceased to matter or had become blurs on the periphery of my vision. There was an air of hopelessness about it all. An uncle of mine used to warn me not to gamble; so much so that it seemed his life purpose. He had no other advice to proffer, no other wisdom to pass down. At times it felt as though he was imploring me to avoid the vice. At such a young age, I thought nothing of it; shrugged it off with a laugh. And as I matured and found vices that appealed to me more than sitting in front of a roulette table or playing high-stakes card games with friends, I grew convinced that I could not be touched by addiction; that I walked with an invisible barrier that deflected both the physical and psychological urge to come back to these vices again and again. Yet here I was, unable to resist the temptation to see someone off limits over and over again. And so the layers of hopelessness and addiction were cloaked in all-encompassing self-hatred. Hatred in my inability to stay away, hatred in my pining for those who cannot reciprocate. But brick walls are not unbreakable. Right? *** A block of weights comes crashing down, causing me to jolt. I’ve been looking at nothing in particular, lost in thought. From the far end of the room, a pair of eyes quickly unglue themselves from mine as soon as I spot them. I lay back on the wall’s corrugated iron and gym music floods my ears again. From directly above, the Spin instructor’s voice shrieks motivations, and I wonder why I sat here. Shuffling over to my right, I try to resume what I’d started, but cannot recall where I’d left off. It wasn’t important. What was important was I had the lesson plan memorized. There was no way I couldn’t. I was once told that repeating something 28 times guaranteed you’d remember it, and had always wondered at the haphazardness of the number. 28 – like it was plucked from a hat. Perhaps they thought the randomness lended credibility to the number, or perhaps there was some real science behind it. But if double the repetition was required in thought rather than speech, I would still have been covered fourfold. There was no priority greater than this; no work, study, play, that could take precedence over my time with Stan. There is still time to spare; time to ostensibly be spent stretching, and yet I cannot remember what I have been doing or what should come next, nor can I feel the afterburn of the last stretch I’ve done. It’s all random now – thoughts have taken priority. Around me, most re in their own world, with the exception of a group of regulars by the monkey bars that I dubbed the calisthenics club; a gaggle of young guys, around 3 to 5 of them, depending on the day, that regularly took up that particular territory to perform handstands and other amateur gymnastics. No matter how much I looked, or how much they peacocked, nothing could make me attracted to them. There was something in the explicit and obvious symmetry of their bodies, the perfectly toned and sculpted muscles, that paradoxically repelled me rather than lured me in. It may perhaps have been the deliberate and systematic routine by which they openly and explicitly sought to make their bodies attractive, the very bluntness and predictability of it, or perhaps it was that I didn’t know them personally and therefore could not develop an attraction. Or perhaps both. Their animal urge to sculpt their bodies stood in stark contrast to what I believed to be Stan’s virtuous desire to improve his health and physical ability, his pure, innocent desire, which is all I thought him possibly capable of. The pair of eyes that I’d met when I’d snapped back are long gone. I don’t care like I would have used to. Shallow things are of little interest to me. Slips of the tongue, faux pas, small social miscues – they no longer bother me. The substitution of emotion, the reordering of priority, is something I am no stranger to. Whether the change is detectable to others is more of a concern. I look down at my watch. 5 minutes late. Nothing to worry about. My foot starts tapping the floor involuntarily. Behind me, two young guys, one younger than the other, carry free weights towards a leg press machine with considerable difficulty and set it up. "You said you don’t use this machine for leg press. So which do you use?” The older one has an Australian accent. The other, shaggy haired and fresh-faced, muddles through a response with an Italian accent, unsure of himself. Immediately, I surmise that they must be flatmates; my common theory about any duo of training partners I occasionally observe at the gym. How else could two male friends who don’t live together, or even in the same neighbourhood, consistently arrange to meet and exercise? Surely it would be strange if that were the case? People would surely draw assumptions about their relationship? The thought struck me like cold ice. “You know, after we were alone, she was telling me about her ex-boyfriend, that is also from Italy, and she thinks Italian boys are the best. ” The Italian boy speaks in a more cocksure tone “She wants it, man.” “Yeah, I know.” They smile at each other like hyenas. All it took to dispel the awkwardness between them was the one subject that unites all boys with nothing else to say. The Australian spots the younger one and they intersperse their training with more testosterone-fuelled talk. My eyes home in on the calisthenics club again, and on one of the members in particular. He, like the rest of his group, has the ability to draw attention from both men and women, almost against their will, but there is something about his aura that separates him from the others. His shoulders sit perfectly in his blue tank top, his biceps have a natural form, the potential of which training only brought to fruition. And he executes handstands and front levers with the greatest of ease. He is one of those – a gifted one. “Just go for it tonight. I’m telling you, she wants it.” Their voices have grown louder. Unable to listen anymore, I begin to walk towards the break station, and from there I see him striding in, late by 10 minutes. Excused. Excused completely and wholeheartedly, no questions asked. What was another 10 minutes of waiting? “I’m not doing planks again.” “Hello to you too. Did you buy those training gloves?” “Ah shit, no, I forgot.” “It’s ok. Just means your hands are going to get a little more calloused.” I attempt to smile and when I do, I am caught up in such mental gymnastics, torn as I am between indicating that I am speaking in jest and appearing friendly, that what comes out is a grotesque fusion of grimace and grin that drudges up so much self-revulsion that I quickly look away and march towards the exercise mats. Convincing myself he didn’t notice is something I’m used to, and I find myself having to do it again as I wait impatiently for him to emerge from the changing room. Why didn’t I wait to be in there with him? The amount of time it takes him is no consolation – he stays in there for at least 10 minutes. Imagine all the things I could see in 10 minutes… “OK. So what are we doing?” 28 times. Repeat 28 times. Had I only done it that many times, the blank in my mind may have lasted longer, but as it is, I pause for a second, and it hits me again. “I’m going to get you started on some shoulder training. Sound good?” “I think it’s my weakest point, though.” He grabs an exercise mat from the rack and places it next to mine. I try to tell myself that he does it to be near me and not because the paucity of space on the floor has forced him into that position. “Even more reason to work on them. What have you done previously for shoulders?” “The machine that you push upwards, you know –“ Before I can respond I need to pause. He’s beginning to take my breath away, to start me on that inevitable spiral that threatens to crash land into the tell, whatever that may be. Sitting on the mat, he hugs his legs, his hands grasp the impossibly soft translucent brown hairs I wish I could touch, his eyes innocently betray the self-consciousness he feels when talking about himself. “Shoulder press.” “Yeah, that one. And the one where you’re sitting on a bench and raise dumbbells over your head.” “Overhead dumbell press.” “OK. I get it. You know the names of things.” He claps sarcastically, and my head sags in embarrassment. “Is that all?” He nods. “OK. I’ve got some ideas.” Stretching is one of the most difficult pleasures to endure. The way Stan contorts himself, the way his body twists and bends, so tantalizing, so alluring, his every muscle aching and straining under his warm peach skin, makes it difficult for me to restrain myself. He kneels in a child’s pose and passes one arm through the bridge of his torso under my instruction. Lower, I command, and when he doesn’t bend low enough, I push him gently down from the middle of his back, feeling the warmth of his body through his t-shirt, that same grey t-shirt he wore almost every time, the one I vowed to replace, but only when I had the courage to do so. Invariably, he would grimace and breathe in sharply every time I pushed him that little bit further in a stretch, and every time, it hurt me to hurt him. But what hurt I felt causing him pain was made up in the euphoria of that physical contact, that rare gift that Stan had conferred to me when he had agreed to these sessions. “Can we get to the lifting already?” Stan’s impatience is uncharacteristic, and again I find myself looking for the fault in my actions. Simple conclusions are no longer easy to reach in such circumstances. I can no longer see that stretching is boring, or that people have other things to do in their lives than spend two hours at the gym, or that the impatience to see one’s body grow is as natural as metabolism’s tendency to drag progress down. Instead, I ask myself why I haven’t been able to make it as exciting for him as it is for me. But Stan’s personality has a cooling effect – it is impossible for him to bring harm on anyone, physical or otherwise, and so I am soon relieved when he clarifies that it is the stretching that is boring him, and not my routine. “See this? Ever used this before?” “Sometimes, but not for shoulders.” He looks up and down the cable & pulley machine I’ve brought us to, passing his fingers over the carabiners. “Well we’re using it for shoulders today.” It must be against some code of conduct to enjoy watching poor form on a trainee; but I wasn’t a professional, and this wasn’t a paid arrangement. And where some trainers relish it as an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, or, in the worst of cases, to feel better about themselves, for me it was an opportunity to correct Stan’s technique hands-on, which is exactly what I was now having to do. I undertook the task with no reluctance whatsoever. From cable pulls to lateral arm extensions, Stan needed instruction, and even if he hadn’t, there was no guaranteeing I wouldn’t provide it anyway. “OK, this one’s a bit challenging. Bring the pulley down to shin level.” I watch him unclip the pulley and clumsily bring it down a few notches before fiddling to snap it into place, and I do so so intently that it almost feels like I lose track of time. “Let me guess,” he says, and this time he sits on the ground and performs the same exercise he’d been doing standing up. “No,” I laugh, “not this again. Bring it down.” He’s laughing at himself. The comic relief is a bit of a respite, which surprises me. I explain that we’re doing shoulder presses, just like the ones he’s used to doing on the bench, except with a cable & pulley this time, and instruct him to grab both handles with his palms facing outwards. Per my command, he brings them up to waist level. “How’s the resistance?” He nods to show he’s up to it. “Good. Now lift them up over your head.” One rep in. “Hey, hey stop. You know what I’m going to say.” He sighs, handles back down at his mid-section. “Yeah. Keep the core stable.” “That’s right. That’s what we do planks for. That’s what we do core training for. Everything stems from the core. So next time, don’t underestimate the importance of planks, will you?” “Alright. I get it. Core is important. Can I continue?” He goes in for another rep, this time with a clear focus on keeping his back straight, but on the second, he falters, and I take the chance to hold him with one hand on his stomach and the other on his back, stabilizing his core as he lifts, and, feeling the warmth of his body, the contraction of his muscles, I melt. By the fourth rep, I am having to clutch his torso with considerable strength, and so I tell him to stop. As much as I desire to help him improve, and with that, to build a dependence on and appreciation for me, it hurts me to see him fail, or see him go through what he perceives to be failure. Yes, he struggled to perform a full set of overhead presses at only 27 kilos, and yes, his muscles were not as developed as everyone else’s in the gym, as he was only in the early stages of bodybuilding, but to me, he’d already ascended above everyone else in stature. “I’m going to ease up on the weights a bit, OK? But don’t you dare let that get you down.” He puts his hands on his hips, looking away and shaking his head. “Hey, look at me.” He turns his head reluctantly. His blue eyes shimmer slightly with emotion, and it kills me. “Don’t even. In 3 weeks you’ll be doing double this. You’re going to improve at the speed of knots. I promise.” I know that even if he doesn’t buy it on the spot, he will come around sooner rather than later, astute and level-headed as he is. And besides, at this very moment, he has no option but to trust me. On the new weight, Stan gets through a full set with only slight banana’ing towards the end, and I pat him on the back – he seems pleased. “Good job. Trust me when I say that even half a set at the lower weight is far better for you than a full set of what you were doing before.” “Yeah, yeah. So you keep saying.” “And so I will until it sinks in. Now go back and do a circuit from the beginning, one set of eight each, while I go to the toilet.” Leaving him alone is harder than I imagine. I turn back to monitor him, and, seeing him adjust the handles to the right height, I can’t help but feel proud. Would he remember the technique? The sequence? The resistance? And if so, for how long? Until long after I’ve outlived my usefulness as personal trainer? Do I want him to remember, so that I can feel I’ve made my imprint, or do I want him, like an oasis that reappears every day on a desert trek, to be a constant quenching to my thirst? If my guess was correct, he would be on lateral arm extensions by now. As I turn the corner and come within sight of the cable machines, what I see sends a cold shiver down my spine.
  2. Simon Iskander

    Chapter 1

    “Jack the legs, keep your elbows steady, and, most importantly, keep the core stable.” Stan’s head tilts towards me, jaw slack, paying close attention. A single drop of sweat slithers down his chin and liberates itself onto the mat below. I look around to see if anyone has overheard, not knowing whether I’m paranoid for my own sake or on behalf of my tutee, sensitive as I am to his potential embarrassment about being guided but also to the sound of my own voice, particularly if I’d doled out advice that was ill-informed. Nobody was looking our way. “It’s important that you keep your core stable. Don’t bend. Stay rigid. And make sure that you feel your abs working.” He nods, but I know he’ll get it wrong, and am preparing to correct him with as much tact and decorum as possible. Grunting, he spreads his legs open in one sharp movement, and, sure enough, his mid-section sags towards the floor. Bringing one foot back to its initial place and then the other, he jacks again, and not only is there was no improvement, but it seems to take a lot out of him - so much so that I am unsure he’ll be able to do even a couple more. I stop him. He lays with his legs on the mat, torso arched, shooting me a what-did-I-do-wrong look. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to maintain your technique. It’s better to do 2 reps correctly than 10 with poor form.” He looks down and sighs. A bead of sweat runs down the right side of his face. “Now let me see that posture again.” He mounts himself on his forearms and holds his body in a stiff plank, center of gravity slightly too high, which I correct by pushing down on the back of his right thigh. His shorts feel like they look – starchy and papery, as though past their expiry date. The t-shirt, hanging sadly from his mid-section, isn’t much better. It may have been fished out of his father’s wardrobe, or is perhaps a hand-me-down received when he was much younger and which he hadn’t had the wherewithal or motivation to replace, and his sneakers were much in the same league, equally outmoded. “Go.” The third time around is a vast improvement. Maintaining form, Stan executes 4 perfect jacks before giving up. Panting, he falls flat onto the exercise mat. “That’s all I can do.” A muted wave of elation rolls over me like a brief cocaine kick and I grin from ear to ear. “Hey,” I say, extending my hand out for a high-five, “that was perfect.” He returns it, but doesn’t look happy. Before I have the chance to say my next words, he interrupts me. “Don’t say it. I already know.” I laugh, open my mouth as if to retaliate, but decide against it. I can’t help but smirk. We look at each other for the longest two seconds, a knowing look, communicating something beyond the restraints of speech but to which we are both finely attuned; a common language that could only evolve in time, time spent together observing idiosyncrasies, behaviors, the subtle reactions and tells of body language observed closely – too closely, and through which, in its evolution, had turned our signals into pictures so vivid we were terrified of giving anything deeper than superficial away, and so we turn our heads, almost simultaneously, focusing our attention elsewhere. **** The opportunity to sit opposite each other doesn't present itself, so he sits one seat to the left across the aisle. Directly to my right, an elderly Korean lady scolds a young man wearing headphones for leaning against the pole, leaving her no room to hold on. The entire carriage is a synchronized wave of heads turning to look, but nobody says anything. Stan’s eyes meet mine and we share a muffled chuckle. An uninvited feeling runs down my gullet like ice-water. We’ll always be apart. He’ll always be just a bit out of reach. Always nearby, never opposite. What I wouldn’t give to see the band of his boxer shorts peeking over the slim sweatpants he was still wearing; to get another glimpse of what I’d had the nerve and audacity to peek at in the changing room. It was still burned in my mind – the blonde trail on the flat of his lower abdomen, the ridges of his hips trailing lines into the most special of places. All the imagery resonated harder than it had for anyone else as physical desire melded with pure, unadulterated love like it never had before. Somewhere down the carriage, a melody I haven’t heard since I was a child plays. It is only slightly louder than the ruckus coming from the train, and is being played in a way I’ve never heard it being played before. I look at Stan to see if he’s caught wind of it. He has, and we exchange a look of curiosity. It’s a gypsy band. On my solo rides, they provide joy and entertainment, if my mood so allowed, but on this occasion I’m only concerned about Stan’s reaction. He looks over, curious, and eventually, once he truly understands what is going on, happy. He looks over at me and smiles. I smile back. Money collection is my least favorite part of the whole affair. As always, I pretend to search my pockets as the band approaches, but I don’t anticipate Stan’s charitable gesture as he lures the panhandler away from my side of the carriage to his with a donation of what I could only guess was just under a fiver. He smiles as he does so, and glows with satisfaction as the trumpeter tips his hat to him. Right then I had a fleeting thought – that Stan and I would never work. Like a hollow-point bullet, the realization of my arrogance and selfishness pierces through my skin, and the stark contrast of his openness, generosity and warmth of spirit, pushes the bullet deeper, causing further, irreparable damage to my insides. And so strong a thought it is that it overrides the most obvious obstacle: that of his unwavering sexuality, until, like a kick to the chest, it too comes back to the forefront. The specter of inevitability once again drags me down like an anchor. But how to hide it? There had been situations where I’d been forced to put on a front, but I could never feel comfortable playing a role. And now, I was to be expected to play the most demanding of roles. To contain the uncontainable; to repress a natural urge and instinct so transcendental, so sublime. An incendiary concoction of atoms colliding. A force so strong it slices through time and age and culture and wealth and permeates the song, dance and written word of the giants of humanity and turns men into miniscule creatures forced to gaze in wonder at this thing that they can only describe, when the voice comes back to their throats, as otherworldly. The next station, is Portland Street. This was to be it for another day. As quickly as it had come, it would be gone. No sooner had I watched him stroll smiling through the gym turnstiles than he was standing up on that train and reaching out his hand to me to say goodbye. I feel the warmth of his hand fade slowly from mine. **** The store somehow still managed to retain a young crowd – not as trendy as those in the fast fashion outlets upstairs, but nonetheless a demographic the place enjoyed at the peak of its popularity, for the most part. The mission, which once sounded simple, but had eaten into a significant chunk of my day and left me frustrated, was to find a jacket both stylish & warm; utilitarian and attractive in equal measure, and affordable to a degree, though ‘affordable’ was entirely flexible when I thought about my audience. I wondered if it was still raining. It hadn’t been when I’d arrived, so it was unpleasant surprise to see water streaming off the domed skylight in the mall atrium after exiting the umpteenth shop, compounding my frustration. At the same time as wanting to leave this place, to be done with the endless search for an item of such apparent rarity so as not to be existent in an enormous mecca of consumerism, the thought of going back to an empty apartment was not much of a motivator. The brand had gone stale to a degree, but here and there was a rack of decent-looking items, just enough to keep the place relevant, and its jackets, though I couldn’t yet see them from where I stood, could almost certainly be relied on for warmth and utility, which is why the place deserved a second chance. There was a sense of camaraderie in this place; a sort of union of experience, a general airlessness catalyzed by the store’s haphazard clothing arrangement. A wave of sympathy bound me to my co-shoppers. Such was the random placement of clothing that I found myself in the sport section, and, perhaps by design, felt compelled to stop and browse, for myself at first, and yes, there were some attractive pieces, but soon I found my thoughts wandering to Stan. My hand found its way to a grey running top, fingers drifting over the soft, sweat-wicking cotton. A perfect fit, I thought, and then my eyes wandered to the surrounding tshirts, and I couldn’t find one I thought wouldn’t look less than perfect, for all any of them would do is serve to accentuate an already perfect figure, like a glacier, the fabric gliding over his silken skin, begging to cling on but yielding to it, its suffering a cosmic injustice. Medium. It couldn’t be anything else.
  3. Simon Iskander

    Chapter 2

    @Tonyr Yes, that's it
  4. Simon Iskander

    Chapter 2

    “Wanna jerk off together?” I blew a cloud of smoke out of the side of my mouth towards his general direction. He instantly reeled back and laughed sharply, arms still crossed. I didn’t budge. I didn’t even smile. My pokerface was contagious; he fell silent and looked into my eyes, trying to figure me out. “Are you serious?” It might’ve been my imagination, but I could swear his accent had become more pronounced for the occasion of that question, as though reverting back to its boarding school days of curiosity and discovery. I shrugged. “Yeah, why not. Neither of us are gonna get laid tonight, let’s not kid ourselves. Not with the bunch of weirdoes we’re out with tonight.” It was a tall order, a daring move, and only now had that suddenly hit me. I was doubtful. That I expected him to say yes immediately was naiveté; alcohol-fuelled wishful thinking, and I was almost scrambling to justify myself. He stared at me. I had no idea what he was going to say. It was a polar moment – it could either go terribly, or fantastically. “Where?” My heart pounded so hard and fast it hurt, but I replied instantaneously. “My place.” “Where do you live?” I barely finished my sentence before he shot the question at me. “10 minute walk from here.” I matched his speed. The line of questioning ended. I brought my cigarette up to my mouth and started walking straight ahead. He turned and walked by my side, hands buried in his jacket pockets, shrugging his shoulders up to his neck from the cold. I pulled a cigarette so that it poked out of the 10-pack it called home, and pointed it at Jack’s general direction as we made our way down the cobblestone. He looked at it for a second, said “Fuck it”, and grabbed it. We stopped for a second to light it. Flame reflected off his cupped hands and flickered across his face. I noticed again how full and pink his lips were, and his expression seemed different; like I hadn’t seen it before that night. It was almost as though he was…older. My mind travelled back to a few minutes ago, when we were at the bar, yelling inanely into each other’s ears – me, Joe, Alejo, Jack. Jack had been talking more nonsense. It wasn’t about pigeons this time, heck, I can barely remember what it was, but it was just as goofy. “I like you, Jack,” I’d shouted into his ear, feigning pity, but perhaps I meant it. Our walk to my place, flanked by bouncers and partygoers, was particularly odd. We’d both turned quiet, and it almost felt as though the confidence I exuded not longer than a few moments away was a façade that had by now almost completely faded away. I was self-conscious. We talked about anything but our mission on the way. The topic of his relationship with Joe and Suni featured heavily, as did a discussion on the various physical features of the girls formerly in our company. “I didn’t wanna stick around for that party,” said Jack as we turned the corner into a quiet street, smoking his cigarette like the complete novice that he was. Was he making excuses? I was winning. I had played my cards perfectly, and as a reward, I was taking a boy home, and not just any boy, a straight one. I’d worked my magic again. If he needed to convince himself that he was making the right decision, or if he needed to psyche himself into it, so be it. I would aid and abet his self-deception. “Yeah, same, it was pretty lame. You can just sleep over at mine if you want, I think I’m actually super tired – I’m just gonna pass out.” I looked at him to gauge his reaction. As I’d hoped, he looked taken aback. “Oh?” He said, turning his head to me. Then, he paused. “Oh, yeah, thanks man, I think I’ll just hit the hay too.” I doubt he ever called anyone ‘man’, and I wouldn’t chalk it up to his English nature that he was suddenly being diplomatic – a departure from his demeanor towards me earlier that night – but rather to a shyness born of accepting, or appearing to accept, my salacious offer. In reality, I’d never made him formally accept the proposition, I’d simply put it out there and led the way back to my place. He could still realistically back out of this and come out unscathed. What I learned from his response was that he was still very much up for experimentation. The front door echoed open and every sound seemed amplified, ricocheting off the walls of our awkward silence. I thanked grace there were no stairs to climb. Inside, the apartment still smelt of home cooking. “Hey, is that a recliner?” asked Jack, pointing to a chunky leather armchair sitting by a sofa that complemented it neither in color nor style. Yes it is, and I can give you a blowjob while you’re reclining on it, if you’d like. “Yes.” “Cool,” he said awkwardly. Any silence was far too loud. I reached for the TV remote like a desert nomad finding water and turned the radio on on the TV. It was some late night deep house show, and I nodded my head to the beat. Jack took off his jacket, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and leaned over it, straight-backed, legs spread wide, and tapped away. Every motion was nervous. I walked over to the kitchen and as soon as I’d crossed the threshold, moved at double speed, not wanting to give Jack any time to reconsider and head back out. He’d looked settled enough, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. “Here,” I said, shoving a cold bottle of beer into his arm. He accepted it, looking surprised, and took a sip and placed it on the coffee table. His heel tapped the rug subtly, nervously. In the background, the music played on, and I took a seat next to him. Under the jacket, he’d been wearing a crimson sweater. Harvard? I entertained the notion, and, in my mind, it was wholly possible, and made him that much more desirable. Black jeans hugged his long legs, but weren't tight enough to produce any discernible bulge a little further up, a fact I’d made sure to check. We hadn’t discussed our liaison on the walk home. It was as though our plans existed in the blur of some memory indiscernible from dream or reality. I didn’t know what was going on inside his head, and I didn’t dare ask. Instead, I came at his blind side with a gratuitous H-bomb. “Show me yours I’ll show you mine.” It wasn’t a question, nor was it an order, but rather, a statement. A question would allow him to opt-out, or attempt to preserve or prove his masculinity. It was best not to prompt him into acknowledging he was just about to partake with a member of the same sex. I broke the proposed order of actions by unzipping my trousers first. We were seated half a meter apart on my white leather sofa. The music didn’t feel appropriate anymore, so I fumbled with the remote with one hand while still fiddling with my zipper, muted the TV, and got back to business. I dared not look directly at Jack, but from the periphery of my vision I could see him turning his head at least slightly to get a look at the action. Silence gripped the room again in the absence of radio noise, and it was uncomfortable. I felt I needed to say something. I’d just pulled my penis through the front hole of my boxer briefs and was extracting it from my unzipped jeans, button still done up. “You cut?” I’d practiced saying it a couple of times in my head beforehand, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, I still stammered my way through, but took solace in the fact that, whatever I did, I probably couldn’t be more awkward than Jack. “No.” He spoke low and grave. There was no enthusiasm in his voice. By this point I’d extracted my member and had started rubbing it and playing with it slightly awkwardly, turning it in small circles, half-covering it with my palm as if there was any tact or modesty left to be salvaged. His answer shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but I nonetheless felt nervous about what Jack was about to present, having never been in the presence of an uncut penis. The question had afforded me the opportunity to look him directly in the eye, and with that, I could estimate what he was thinking, and get a feel for the situation and how far we could go. As soon as I’d turned to ask, I saw him looking at my meat, and he somewhat lazily reeled his eyes back up, reactions slightly impaired by the alcohol in his system. My penis had been at half-mast since I’d handed Jack the beer and taken a seat next to him, and didn’t take long at all to reach its full potential after I pulled it out. It was all too exciting for me – I hadn’t felt a rush like this for a while. It was almost worth being single just to have this: this rare opportunity to do things with a straight guy. The holy grail. I wondered how long it’d take Jack to get started, and began to doubt whether he’d even do it at all. He was almost unabashedly watching me pleasure myself now, and, as a courtesy to him, I refrained from eye contact. I went slow, not wanting to finish early. To my relief and delight, he unbuttoned his pants. A thousand fuses lit up around my body in a wave that left every inch of my skin in goosebumps and weakened my muscles until they quivered. Was there any point in hiding my excitement? Were we still playing it cool? Should I just fall into the moment like and wag the tail I’d been hiding for the past God-knows-how-long? And then, finally, the grand reveal - worth every second waited, worth every word carefully selected that paved the way to this moment, worth every anticipatory drop of sweat on my forehead. There it was, almost exactly like I’d imagined it: as pink as the skin of his cheeks, thicker than two index fingers held side-by-side, and moan-inducingly long. Jack was already sailing at full-mast, the long fingers of his right hand surrounding his thick meat, rubbing up and down, shifting a thick yet subtle foreskin that barely reached the bottom of its head. A sharp exhalation from my nose probably expelled some of the tension I’d been feeling earlier, and I wondered whether Jack would take offence to my chuckle, but to my delight, he grinned right back. “What the fuck?” Jack said. It was low, guttural, and forced through a grin. In that one short phrase, I understood exactly where his mind was. It was a strange place to be, especially as this didn’t feel like natural conclusion to the narrative we’d followed that night, it didn’t feel like the destination we’d cut a path to get to, but here we were, and it was surreal. Jack had just expressed that, but what I also knew from his words was that he wanted to be here. No – I’m wrong – it wasn’t strange. I can see that now. I can see why that was the way I framed it. Everything I’d seen, heard, been told, believed in, blowing through the wind tunnel of my memory – everything I knew to be normal, to be within the boundaries of acceptability – but why did I accept it? There we were, two guys in our early 20’s, both of us having a night to remember, one of us knowing that going in, and the other hopefully about to discover it, having an intimate moment of human connection heightened by shared physical pleasure, no harm done to anyone or anything, and yet I feel uneasy looking back. I’m better than that. “I dunno, man,” I replied, smiling, and we both sputtered out laughs that we had no control over, our muscles trembling, almost at the point of vomiting from sheer excitement. Our laughter faded out rapidly, and soon we were dead serious, watching each other stroke ourselves. I wanted to look into his eyes so badly, but only allowed myself to lift my glance upwards after he had done the same. It might’ve been the nerves, or the alcohol, but I knew I was going to last a long time. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d experience the paradox of being earth-shatteringly sexually excited and at the same time unable to reach orgasm, but I took solace in the fact that it was better than finishing too soon. The more I rubbed, the deeper I felt for Jack. I leaned my head on the sofa in pleasure, looking over lovingly at the tall, cute nerd sitting next to me, his legs widening and closing gently in pleasure like an accordion, his face gradually getting more flushed, and I wondered if it was just my hormones that were doing this, and if, once I’d flushed them all out, I’d go back to normal. I looked down again and tried to force myself to make this purely sexual. I estimated his dick to be just under 6 inches long, but where it really stood out was in the girth department. Jack’s member was about two and a half fingers wide, and would be a tight squeeze in any hole – though I absolutely wouldn’t have minded trying my luck anyway. It was an aesthetically perfect penis, the perfect size, no large unsightly veins, a perfectly-shaped head, and it stood at a perfectly straight angle as it jutted disproportionately out of his thin frame. He’d pulled his pants midway down his thighs and had extracted it out of the hole in his boxer briefs, so he’d gone a step further than I had, but I found myself desperately wanting to see more, and I didn’t know if it would happen – nor could I ask. Or could I? Maybe there was a way to accomplish it. During our walk home, I’d thought of where our activities might lead; whether we’d simply do what we’d agreed on the spot and deal with the aftermath as it spun around in our minds and dried up on our clothes and skin, or if, perhaps, in the heat of the moment, (obviously, because I was irresistible to any man, straight or gay) Jack would want to take things a step further. One thought persisted in my mind; a fantasy in which I’d occasionally indulged, and stood out at that moment as being within the realm of possibility. I wanted Jack to come all over me. I wanted him to stand over me, long legs trembling as his thick member rained thick white juice over my head and shoulders. “Can you come on me, please?” I breathed. If I felt ashamed of what we were doing, I had put it on hold for that moment in time, though not consciously, for the words spilled from my mouth without a second thought. He wasn’t taken aback, but rather inquisitive. The combined look of pleasure and shock he’d been holding since we’d started our activity faded for a second, and his stroking slowed. I could tell he was intrigued. “Can you just stand over me…you don’t have to anything different,” I spoke in a whisper, “just stand up and finish on me. Please.” The words came out more diplomatic than desperate or impassioned. He appeared to be thinking about it, and I don’t know what reasoning, what justification he was employing, but it didn’t take him long to stand up and shuffle over to me. I guess, on the scale of weirdness and discomfort in the realm of same-sex experimentation, ejaculating on your playmate didn’t rank that high. It didn’t necessarily require an attraction on your behalf, merely a wish to fulfill a request. In a way, it represented a shift in the balance of power towards the experimenter, if such power games were in play - but I didn’t particularly feel that Jack needed that confirmation. It certainly helped, however, that this was an activity we could both take pleasure in. “Take them off,” I whispered, pointing to Jack’s jeans, and, to my excitement, he obliged. I slunk off the sofa and got down on my knees with Jack standing to my right, facing slightly away from him and to the left, so as not to make him feel uncomfortable by directly facing his groin. The jeans were stubborn. He hopped around on one foot pulling his legs out of the tight denim, and I couldn’t help but watch his penis swing around out of the hole in his boxers. There’d been a droplet of pre-cum sitting on the slit which now strung out onto the fabric of his underwear and formed a connection back to his member. It took everything in me to restrain myself from springing my head up and grasping the dick between my lips. Once the pants had come off and been hastily discarded towards the general direction of the TV stand, Jack held his penis and started rubbing quicker than he had been all night. He was so close to me now, the lower half of his naked thighs bouncing gently mere centimeters away from my face, his hard penis above me and to my right. I looked up at its perfect symmetry as it poked tantalizingly out of his underwear. A few golden hairs peeked out where the base of his shaft touched fabric. Four fingers curled around its length left plenty of spare flesh, such was the size of his member, and there was no odor coming from his groin, only a radiation of heat and strength. I looked up at him like a starstruck devotee, basking in the intense, silent, sexually charged atmosphere. Even the way he pleasured himself was perfect. There was no moist smacking of slick, precum-lubricated foreskin against glans, none of the desperate tugging I’d seen from past sexual conquests, just a smooth, controlled grip sliding up and down his thick shaft, occasionally twisting at the apex. At times, he couldn’t control his pleasure, and bucked his weak knees and arched his pelvis so that his cock towered almost directly above my head as he let out uncontrollable, panted moans. My penis throbbed from out of my zipper, threatening to erupt even untouched. I dared not move my hand down to it, as I feared one rub would send semen flying across the rug. As it pulsed, the base of my shaft grazed the fabric of my underwear and sent a small wave of pleasure through my body, and that was enough. Jack’s moaning grew more frequent, and he’d now formed a ring with his thumb and index finger and was sliding it up and down his penis rapidly. He didn’t point it down at me, nor did he appear to pleasure himself any differently than he would when alone. The only difference was that he would shuffle towards me slightly when he felt he lost the angle or distance required to fulfill my request. I tried to look at his face as neutrally as I could, careful not to show signs of pleasure of lust, afraid that it might make him feel uncomfortable. My rationale was that if I cast myself as simply an instrument in his experimentation, it’d make him feel more at ease about the whole situation. Avoiding eye contact as much as possible was key to that, and so I shifted my focus to the base of his penis, to the protrusion on the underside of his shaft, wishing I could feel it rubbing against the underside of my tongue. But that’d have to be put on hold – possibly permanently. Things were coming to a head. Jack seemed to be losing control of his legs, his knees bending involuntarily, his toes curling. He brought his left hand down so that his palm pressed against the side of his boxers and his fingers were pointed downward. To my surprise, he had a bit more length to spare. I unabashedly looked up at it in admiration, enraptured by its length and thickness, and Jack must have either read my expression or tried to put the brakes on an orgasm, as he removed his hand from his member, leaving it rocking slightly in its place. It throbbed gently with every heartbeat, and had been rendered a deep pink by Jack’s rubbing and the constriction by his boxer briefs. What did he want? Was he waiting for me to touch it? Did he want me to admire it? It took everything in my system not to reach up and grab it, and to finish the job for him. The fact I really grappled with was that I had no idea what he’d be up for, nor could I ask. There was a good chance he’d wanted me to join in, that he’d wanted this experience to be more interactive, but he wouldn’t say, and I wouldn’t ask, and I was making a concerted effort not to force him into anything, and so caution was the bearer of frustration. An indication, a sign, anything to let me know what he was thinking or where he wanted to go, with my forced mutedness, would have been invaluable, and so, when he finally spoke, I felt like I’d struck gold. “Do you like it?” he asked hoarsely, holding the cock between two fingers and thumb, vibrating them slowly. It wasn’t something I’d expected him to say. What didn’t surprise me, and what I was thankful for, was the lack of a tone of dominance, or even one of sexual pleasure. He sounded more like a curious teenager, insecure about his own desirability, seeking confirmation, trying to glean how he was perceived. “Yeah.” I didn’t draw it out, didn’t express lust and didn’t look at him; my answer was brief and to the point, but sincere. Giving his penis a moment to rest had allowed his precum to recharge, and, as he intensified his masturbation, a thick drop emerged from that perfect head. He noticed it, stopped for a second, and then leaned down and wiped the tip of his cock across the skin of my right temple and up towards my forehead while pleasuring himself with two fingers. It was completely unexpected, and I absolutely appreciated it. My cock was struggling to contain itself. This was a taster for what was about to come; the first droplets before a shower, and, in this heat, I couldn’t wait for the downpour. If this was anyone but Jack, I would’ve interpreted the move as a power play, but, as it were, the man standing over me, stroking himself to completion, was not the type to be playing such games. No; Jack did it purely for pleasure, which made it all the more exciting and erotic to me. It meant he wasn’t doing something he was ashamed of – he wasn’t self-conscious. And, most of all, he felt able to do it with me. That I was able to instill that level of trust, that I’d made myself someone Jack, a straight guy, deemed worthy of experimentation with, at that level of comfort, was so hot. The liquid turned cold and sticky on my face. Jack was edging now, his face blushed, his pelvis thrusting forward spasmodically. I couldn’t wait to be covered in his sperm. Everything that had happened up to that point had made that moment more alluring, and by that point I was practically begging for it, mouth ajar, genuflecting before the object of my desire. “OK, now,” he whispered, shuffling for what he thought was perfect position, but what I knew would cause him to overshoot, and I didn’t want to miss a drop. Trying desperately not to ruin the moment, I gently pushed him a half step back by the naked right thigh, and lifted a single finger towards the underside of his penis, whereby he stopped stroking for a second. I pushed a finger gripping the penis upwards, so that it was tilted right, and Jack acknowledged this, holding his cock at the new angle and resuming his masturbation. He was moaning softly now – against his will, I could tell. I reached down and gently rubbed the underside of my shaft at the moment that Jack had his head tilted back in pure pleasure. The sensations heightened tenfold as a result of my tactile stimulation. I looked up at Jack like an idol; there was no-one else I’d want standing in that spot at that very moment, testes squirming, pelvis grinding the air slowly, his meaty white thighs and baby-fur arms the epitome of sexuality. It was as though I could sense its arrival; as though I could hear the semen building momentum in his sac, ready to coat my face and shoulders. I hurriedly stripped my t-shirt off, exposing my tight, toned torso, my chest contracting and expanding rapidly with my heavy breathing. The constriction of my vessels and my heartbeat pumping heavy just underneath the skin of my chest, aching to stretch out from its cage, summoned a dull wave of euphoria. I turned my head up just as Jack released the loudest, most uncontrolled moan yet, and ejaculated. The first burst arced upwards, some of it overshooting my body and landing on the floor to my left, the rest streaking across my cheek and right shoulder. My mouth was open. He kept coming. The next burst coated my lower lip and right cheek, and soon my chest and neck were baptized with Jack’s thick, white juice. When I wasn’t closing my eyes to protect them from getting smeared, I turned and watched the cum glop of his pulsating cock, his hand lightly grasping the lower half of his shaft, trying to aim his ejaculation towards me despite being in the total grip of euphoric orgasm, which was apparent in his face. It was an impressive amount of semen. There wasn’t much of my face that was dry, and yet there had been enough liquid to cover my right shoulder and chest. My eyes were closed, not for protection, but to take in the sensations. Jack’s sperm was thick, warm and substantial. I felt it viscously gloop down the side of my face leaving a cool, sticky trail. Some of it had settled on my upper lip, and I attempted to goad it into dribbling downwards into my mouth, and yet more was perched on my chin, beginning to drip onto my chest. I opened my eyes. Some semen had caught my right eyelid and I squeezed it so it came down the side of my face like a thick white tear. I hazarded a look up. The ejaculation had stopped, and Jack’s penis was slowly getting softer, but a thick white drop sat on his glans. This was a critical moment – the ecstasy of orgasm had passed – for him at least – and he was faced with the very real, very stark post-coital reality of what he’d just done. It took everything inside me to stop basking in sexual heat for a minute and consider how he was feeling. Would he be ashamed? Neutral? Maybe, by some miracle he’d even be positive or jovial about the whole thing? I got something of an answer when he shuffled towards me, raised his penis over my face and squeezed. I tilted my head up to accept his offering, closing my eyes and waiting. He found an unblemished spot on my face, atop my left cheekbone, and deposited his final emission, touching the tip of his glans lightly to my face with a quick swiping motion. I opened my eyes and smiled, not looking at him directly. Just when I’d thought things couldn’t have gotten any hotter, they had. That small action had just solidified Jack’s enjoyment of the whole affair, and to me, that was the ultimate turn-on. Still, I didn’t want to push my luck, so I wordlessly stood up and walked to the bathroom, tilting my head back slightly and cupping my hand midway down my chest, so that none of the semen fell on the floor. My shuffle to the bathroom, cock poking solidly out of the hole in my pants, must’ve been amusing, but I was so in thrall that I didn’t care. I closed the door behind me and looked into the mirror. The amount of cum on me was astounding. My heart pounded mercilessly and my cock was on the very brink. It was perhaps the most exhilarating sexual experience of my life. With two fingers, I scooped up a substantial amount of thick semen from my forehead and right cheek, brought my hand down to my cock and coated it with the cream. With my other hand, I gently pushed the thickest globs of cum into my mouth as I gently rubbed my lubricated penis. I let the cum rest on my tongue, bringing the image of Jack’s face to my mind to intensify the feeling. It was truly a privilege to have such an intimate part of him in me, and I felt touched that he had so willingly shared it. Closing my eyes, I swallowed. The most explosive orgasm I’d ever witnessed from my person or anyone else ensued, as cum shot out of me and onto the tap and mirror at bullet speed. The mirrors had fogged up. I sat on the edge of the bathtub, utterly spent. Thick splodges of human emission were Pollocked across the sink and floor, a stark externalization of what I thought I’d unleashed. What could Jack possibly be thinking out there, alone, in my living room, at the mercy of his own self-consciousness? Would he even be there when I got out? Five achingly silent, solitary minutes passed, with me perched pathetically against the bathroom wall. ruminating over what’d just occurred, aftermath dribbling out of me, staining my thigh. I was ready. I walked up to the door, and turned the handle.
  5. Simon Iskander

    Chapter 1

    It was strange. Real strange. I don’t even know how I pulled this one off. Well, I have a general idea, but the details are blurry. Whether or not he’ll be up for it again, I didn’t know. Heck, I don’t even know if I want it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was great, but also very strange. Neither of us are in a relationship, which makes it okay, but, he’s just, so – straight. Part of me is ashamed to think back on the whole thing, but another feels a pressing need to understand the emotional factors at play, the thought process leading up to that strange, amazing night. I needed to know if it could happen again. What clues could I dig up to come to that conclusion or otherwise? * The whole affair had inauspicious beginnings. Em, a girl friend of mine, had chosen to celebrate her birthday at one of the oddest bowling alleys I’d ever seen. I’d arrived early, walking gingerly into the bar & dining area looking for a large group, only to be met by Em & her boyfriend, who had been sitting alone at a large semi-circular red-leather booth in the corner of the room furnished with four uncomfortable looking stools surrounding a low, circular pine table. On the other side of the room, two patrons occupied the eight available barstools and only two other tables in the place were occupied. Em’s shrill scream of delight at my arrival caught me off-guard, but soon I was in her embrace, wishing her happy birthday while peeking over her shoulder at her timid looking boyfriend, who was waiting his turn. It was to be the first time I’d meet him, and I sized him up from head to toe. Decent body. Alright face. Great hair. Any fear of developing a crush on him, at least a superficial one, dissipated, and was replaced by the relief of not having to feel unwarranted envy towards my close friend for being able to snap up someone I couldn’t. “This is Sam!” she squealed, and, grinning, watched us greet each other with her hands firmly clasped and held against her chest like a proud mother. Sam and I exchanged polite hellos and sized each other up, each for his own reason. I had, in the past, been perceived by men as a threat to steal their girlfriends, by their own admission – which was often of the physical variety. It was at times like those that I saw a benefit in being effeminate, but that was never me. I took a seat and played the part of trophy friend as Em gushed about me while I downplayed her exaggerations and attempted to divert the conversation towards Sam and his work. Em didn’t seem too perturbed by the paucity of attendees so far, assuring us that everyone would ‘all pop up one after the other’ in the span of 5 minutes, ‘anytime now’. She asked us both what we wanted to drink, and I put an order in for a Martini, but when she turned to Sam he stuttered and told her he’d come to the bar with her, clearly not wanting to be left alone with me. An awkward moment ensued where Em looked confused and asked what he meant. Sam laughed nervously, played it off with a ‘let’s just go’, and shuffled a less-than-amused Em off her seat and towards the bar. I raised my eyebrows privately. The alley was far busier than the restaurant, both in custom and décor. The theme was space - I should have known – the place was called Cosmos – and kitsch dripped from every corner. Bowling balls specked with stars and galaxies and the skittles glowed in the dark, a cartoonish plastic Sputnik replica sat in the far corner of the rectangular room and the clatter of pins breaking was punctuated with laser-gun sound effects. Strangely, the theme did not continue in the red-and-white diner-style bar area which paid no tribute to the universe and its exploits, except with a single framed photo of Neil Armstrong on the moon sitting sadly above a sorry-looking jukebox. I must’ve looked like a lame duck, staring blankly through the glass at the many odd and garish artifacts littering the bowling alley, when a voice over my shoulder interrupted my gawking to ask if this was Em’s table. Looking up I saw a bearded, Mediterranean-looking man of about Em’s age standing over me. He smelled of cigarettes and cologne – probably Davidoff on both counts. Em’s crescendoing squeal answered his question before I did. She hobbled over with jazz hands and greeted him with a kiss on either cheek, grabbed him by the side of his arms and expressed her appreciation at his arrival. “Max, this is Alejo!” she practically forced him around to meet me, but he took it in stride and, smiling, extended a hand towards me, and I half-stood up to shake it. His densely-lashed eyes were a flat mocha and his skin olive, and, from his demeanor and general air, he looked like he had never worried or particularly cared about anything in his life. I wasn’t out for romance that night, but it’d been a while since I’d done anything, and my eyes were undeniably open. Alejo was attractive, certainly more so than Sam, but not to the level where I’d be searching all night for clues about his sexuality, as was my habit. “Hey, you’re Em’s colleague, right?” I already knew the answer to the question; Alejo’s reputation preceded him. “You don’t work in the same department though, do you?” Again, making conversation. “Yes, that’s right.” His Castellano accent was strong. “I’m in QA”. “Oh that’s interesting, what’s that like?” He was about to continue before Em interrupted us by shoving my drink in my hand, apologizing to Alejo about not getting him a drink, and inviting us all to sit down. I sipped Martini out of a cocktail glass that leaned to the effeminate side to an almost uncomfortable degree as Alejo handed me his jacket and asked me to put it aside. He said hi to Sam, and they all exchanged pleasantries and happy birthdays and I’m-so-glad-you-cames. Em turned to me and told me what I’d already learned from Alejo a minute ago - that they were colleagues working in different departments. “Yeah, so Em does all the proper lab and research work,” Alejo continued, now addressing Sam as well, “and my team is responsible to test and make sure we are compliant.” There was something charming about the way he spoke about his job; he did it with a real flair. It might just have been the accent. In the middle of Alejo’s monologue about pharma regulations, two well-dressed people I didn’t recognize approached our table and greeted Em enthusiastically. She sprung up with complete disregard for Alejo’s train of thought and hugged both newcomers. They wished her happy birthday then waved at the rest of us at the table. “Guys, this is Paul & Devika!” said Em, who then rotated on the spot and pointed us out one by one. “That’s Magnus, Alejo, and you know Sam! Oh, Dev, you know Sam, Paul, this is Sam, my boyfriend!” A handshake and a couple of pleased-to-meet-yous later, we had all taken and retaken our seats. Em and Dev held hands, leaned in towards each other and tittered away like schoolgirls, leaving us men to come up with our own conversation. Alejo copped out by asking if Paul wanted a drink and then heading to the bar. I took the lead. “So, Paul, how do you know Em?” “Through my girlfriend Dev, they’re university friends. We live about 5 hours north though so we don’t get the chance to see each other that oft-” He was interrupted by the arrival of another couple, and, not skipping a beat, Em jumped up and squeezed them both unforgivingly. The girls squee’d and the new guy laughed. They were introduced to us as Greg and Kira, and, as before, they went around the table with polite hellos and introductions. It appeared nobody knew who they were but Em. Alejo walked back to the table carefully gripping two pints, and introduced himself to the new arrivals. It was a much smoother interaction than I personally could’ve managed with drinks in either hand. Alejo was effortlessly smooth. I sat back down and observed Paul’s behavior - I was curious to see if he’d continue his story or if he’d use the interruption as an escape, and what he did would affect how I interacted with him for the rest of the night. Indeed, he didn’t bother to continue to address me, even after Greg & Kira had introduced themselves and there was a lull in the conversation. I was in a brutal mood that evening. More and more, my focus drew to guys – guys I was interested in, to be specific - and Paul wasn’t one. Him having a girlfriend was the first nail in the coffin, but his lanky frame and odd-shaped nose did nothing to help. The opportunity to make new friends was there, but tonight I wasn’t interested in putting in that effort, unless it could lead to something further. I’d prefer to let it come to me. Greg’s name had already departed my head now, and again, it didn’t matter to me. As he led the conversation, my eyes started to glaze over. Traffic this, directions that. Route talk, completely banal stuff. He didn’t come off as a bore, but he certainly wasn’t my type, nor was he that physically attractive either. He wore glasses that bordered on the old-fashioned and was showing the first signs of balding. I excused myself to go to the bar. As I straddled a bar stool with one leg and thought about how quickly I’d finished the martini, I took a quick headcount of our party: 8 people so far, including myself, and Alejo was the only other single guy there, and he was straight to boot. “Single whisky & soda on the rocks, please.” When asked which whisky I preferred, I was taken aback, not having conceived that an establishment such as this would stock more than one brand. I opted for the Red Label like I knew what I was talking about. In the time it took me to pay, our party had grown. Three guys had walked in together, and I recognized one of them: Joe, Em’s ex, who I’d met before and got along with. Beside him was a tall, nerdy looking fellow with straw-cultured hair, not lanky like Paul though, and wearing glasses that much better suited his face than Greg’s did his. His greetings to the seated guests were as awkward as I expected them to be. Standing next to him, and waiting for his turn to introduce himself, was a chubby, dark-skinned guy with a kind face, who looked a few years older than his pals. He wasn’t much smoother in his introductions. I picked up my drink and went to say hi, but was spotted in advance by Joe, who came striding up to me, clasped my hand and gave me a semi-hug. I was taken aback. We weren’t that close, but I must’ve made an impression on him the last time we met - he was very happy to see me. I enjoyed the feeling of male contact and really started to wonder just how desperate I was. “Max! How you doing, cunt?” “Hey Joe. How’re things? You want a drink?” We chit-chatted on the way back to the bar about what we’d been doing since we last saw each other. He ordered a beer. “Who are those guys you came with?” I asked “Oh, that’s Jack and Suni, they’re work colleagues. Come, I’ll introduce you.” Suni didn’t get up to shake my hand, but I chalked it up to awkwardness, as he seemed generally polite and affable. Jack was sitting on the edge of the curved booth closest to the bar. He stood up to greet me in an English accent, which caught me by surprise, and I was also surprised to find that he was taller than me, but only by a couple of inches - he was about six foot three, and his frameless glasses shielded grey-blue eyes. He’s pretty cute, I thought. Up close, I could see his boyish features and smooth skin. His ears and nose were in proportion, his cheeks high & plump and his lips full and pink, but he definitely had a look that I decided - and the only word that was running through my head - was…goofy. There wasn’t much talent at the table, and I was pretty sure Em had said that the amount of guests that had shown up by this point was the amount she was expecting, so that’s what I had to work with. In response, I scolded myself for thinking with my genitals and forced myself to get into a more social mindset, so I sipped my whisky and started making conversation with the girls. Kira and Dev were sitting side-by-side opposite me, and I chatted with them about work, the bowling alley, and their relationship with Em, all the while not having a clue what their names were. By this point I was already feeling the drink, not a worry or concern as to how it’d affect my bowling, and was loose and chatty. Inevitably, my thoughts turned sexual. Maybe the waiters are hot, I thought. Looking around, I saw no evidence of that. As the conversation with the girls had died down, I went back to doing what I loved to do in social gatherings: observing people. You could tell a lot by the way a person moves, speaks, interacts. With only a few minutes of people-watching and I could produce character summaries which I bet would be almost dead-on. Joe was entertaining his own entourage plus Alejo with a story, and he was very animated about it, waving his arms and speed-talking over any interruptions and comments, and while he did so, he’d occasionally shoot glances at me, which I reckoned was to see if I was paying attention, almost as though he was trying to get in good with me, like he craved my attention or respect. In a way, it was flattering, and I smiled and pretended to be interested in what he was talking about. Jack was Joe’s sidekick in the story, adding bits and pieces here and there and smiling all the way through. The guy is the opposite of bad-boy, I thought, watching him. Yeah, that’s a mama’s boy if I’ve ever seen one. Any single sentence from this boy’s mouth gave away his nerdiness immediately. In a way, it was endearing and oddly attractive, in a guilty-pleasure kind of way. “What’re you drinking there?” Jack’s question came out of the blue after Joe’s story had come to an end and his audience was desperately looking for a distraction. He was seated right next to me and his goofy smile was within elbow distance. “Erm, whisky. Whisky and soda.” I turned my head and looked down at my drink as I swiveled it around in my hand. “Oh that’s an odd combination! What whisky is that?” There was nothing ingenuine about his curiosity. “Yeah,” I replied, trying to muster up some enthusiasm, “I thought straight whisky would be a bit too intense and I’m not a fan of Coke. The whisky’s…” I paused for a second trying to remember what I’d ordered. Something beginning with J…J&B? “…Johnnie Walker.” “Good choice. Red label or black?” Oh god, I thought. He’s going to be a whisky nerd, isn’t he? I’d met guys like these before. It’s just a drink, pal, I’m not that into whisky. “Red, I think.” I chuckled. “Not like I’d know the difference.” “Neither would I!” Jack’s demeanor and attitude made me realize that I was being way too uptight and concerned about how I came off to others. He was carefree and definitely not watching his words as much as I was, and I took it as a cue to loosen up. “Well, cheers.” We raised glasses and clinked. “Are you competitive?” he asked. I looked confused and didn’t reply, so he continued, “I mean, at bowling.” “Yeah, I’m generally competitive. But I’m resigned to the fact that I suck at bowling.” He responded with a goofy laugh and added that he too, was not a talented bowler, and then went on to describe his last, gutterball-ridden game in detail. I don’t know what the matter with me was – maybe it was the drink – but I was actually enjoying the conversation. It was freewheeling and there was no need for pretense, and like a filling meal after a long day of exercise, warmed me up inside. “Oh hey –“ he cut himself off mid-sentence, “we’re up!” He was referring to the bowling. “Let’s go get shoes. Hey – do you know what a UK size 12 translates to?” I didn’t know exactly what shoe size that was, but I knew it was big. Really big. It made sense considering his height, but I found myself looking at his fingers and trying to figure out whether...everything was in proportion, and stopped just short of looking directly at his crotch. My interest was piqued now. Wow, I really am desperate. “Not sure. Hang on, let me check my own shoe,” I responded, and lifted the lip of my right sneaker to look at the size chart underneath. I was wearing a size 11.5 UK, and gave Jack the conversion for that, from which he extrapolated roughly what he should be looking for. We’d splintered off slightly from the rest of the party and were making our way slowly to the shoe rental desk. “…and I swerved like mad, I swear, if there was a car there, I’d be in hospital right now.” Resting my elbows on the counter, I turned to face Jack. I was in no rush to get the shoes now. “Yeah, that’s one thing you gotta watch out for in this city. The pigeons. They don’t give a fuck,” I said, and apparently he found it funny, because he burst out laughing. It felt like the first time in a while anybody found my offbeat humor funny. “There’s so many of them!” he added. “Seagulls too.” “Yeah, but pigeons are way worse than seagulls.” “Really?” asked Jack. “I don’t think so. I mean think about it: would you rather find yourself in the company of a pigeon or a seagull?” A part of me wanted to stop and acknowledge how ridiculous the conversation was, or at least how it must appear to those around us, until I realized that I was enjoying it more than any other I’d been having, and that, around Jack, there was no need to pretend I didn’t. Yet my desire to be cool could not be suppressed. “I did not think I’d be having this discussion tonight,” I laughed. I half expected him to back away from the topic and slink back to social norms, but he persisted. “No no, really. Think about it!” “OK, I guess seagulls are pretty aggressive,” I conceded. He raised his arm to declare his point proven. “There you go. And you can eat pigeons too. Bonus.” I was amazed at how shamelessly persistent and ludicrous his statements were, to the point where I’d given up completely on waving the conversation off as stupid and moving on. “I doubt I’d ever eat pigeon,” I said, laughing. There’d been opportunities to cop out of the conversation, yet for some reason I had chosen not to. More surprising to me was the fact that Jack even wanted to continue talking to me. “It’s not that bad, mate, really. I’ve tried it. Not city pigeon, of course. Woodland. You’re telling me if that was served up to you in a Michelin starred restaurant, you’d refuse it?” “No, I mean…yes of course I’d eat it.” “Well there you go! Pigeons aren’t that bad!” I was incredulous about how far we’d gone with this, but we were about to start bowling, and my turn would be up after Suni’s, whom Jack and I watched take the first shot side-by-side. “He’s a bit of a klutz, our Suni,” remarked Jack. “Wouldn’t be surprised if he guttered 2 in a row.” Indeed, Suni guttered the first, and, given his form, it seemed almost inevitable that his second ball would meet the same fate. I watched as he awkwardly shuffled back to the ball dock to try his luck again. Was it just me, or was Suni kind of cute? I mean, if he wanted it, would I really say no? I observed his gawky trot to the ball dock, his awkward fist pump to the guys applauding him mockingly from our section. There was something slightly attractive about his vulnerability. When he turned to square up with the alley, my eyes went down as I checked him out from behind. Chubby butt. Cute. Wouldn’t say no. My thoughts were running amok, probably thanks to the whisky. It was ludicrous to even begin to sexualize him, I thought, but here I was doing it. His second ball found the gutter again, and again he faked celebration as he walked back to take a seat behind the dock. “You’re up!” said Jack, pushing me along gently from the back. I pointed at him on the way to the parquet. “Watch this”. A 6-kilo purple ball adorned with constellations I couldn’t recognize felt good in my hands, so I took it to the lane and drove it with conviction into the pins. Eight down. Not bad. I turned and raised a single arm. Most of the group were applauding and giving the thumbs up, including Jack, but some were completely disinterested in the bowling and had instead had turned inwards into their own little pairs. “Spare! Spare! Spare!” Jack started a chant, and a couple of the other guys, including Joe and Greg, joined in. Joe seemed especially enthusiastic. I clapped along with the chant and then waved my arms up from my sides over my head to rouse them further. The purple ball finally rolled back in, and I took my stance in the middle of the lane and aimed for the 2 remaining pins, which were lined up back to back at the far left. The ball clipped the rightmost pin which in turn knocked the pin behind it. Spare. My audience showed their appreciation. Joe came up and gave me the most painful high-five ever and patted me on the back, and Em pushed me playfully. I was having a blast. “Great shot M! Hey, I got this for you!” Joe handed me a glass of whisky, and appeared utterly sycophantic, as though awaiting approval. Nobody ever called me M either. “Hey, thanks Joe,” I said flatly, and raised my glass. “You’re really good!” “Nah, just a bit of beginner’s luck I think. It won’t last.” I took a large gulp of whisky. It was burning less than it would’ve an hour earlier. “Doubt it! I think you can win this!” “Maybe. We’ll see. Hey I think you’re up,” I said, not actually knowing whose turn it was, but by the time he had turned to look at the overhead monitor, I was already walking away. The whisky was a lot better than my last one, or maybe that could just be attributed to the absence of flat soda water. I milled around behind the dock, basking in my triumph, and wondering who I’d impressed. Alejo caught my gaze and gave me a wink and thumbs up. I walked up to him and shot the shit with him about bowling for a bit, learning how often he did it and how good he was at it, all the while inching slightly closer as I struggled to hear him over the cracking of pins and space-age ruckus, until I could almost feel his breath on my shoulder. My own breath grew slightly heavier and my eyes sagged as Alejo’s words slowed my heartrate. It was strange – I hadn’t been this…thirsty for a long time, yet the smallest stimuli were setting me off. My next few bowls were good enough to propel me to the top of the leaderboard, and I retained a relatively loyal trio of fans in Alejo, Jack and Joe who cheered me on despite being hot on my tail in the standings. After my last shot was taken and my victory all but decided, Em approached me, palm up, looking for a high five. “Oh my god! You never told me you were this good at bowling! You’re amazing!” She was borderline frantic. “I assure you it was luck. I haven’t bowled that well in…well, ever.” There was no modesty involved; I fully believed what I said. “That being said, what did I win?” I downed the last of the whisky and grinned. She slapped my arm playfully. “You’re so silly!” We both turned when we heard a thud from a ball landing heavily on the parquet. It was Joe playing the last turn, and he failed to hit a single pin. “Classic Joe,” sighed Em. “Hey why did you ever break up with him, by the way?” I asked, a little too casually, though watching his behavior that night, I could guess the answer. “Oh my gosh, I never told you? He’s gay!” Something jolted inside me when she said the words, and in an instant I found myself gawking at Joe incredulously. “No way. There’s no way. Oh wow, I’m so sorry he led you on,” I said, and I was truly sympathetic, and at the same time extremely intrigued. “Oh it’s alright, I’m over it now, but back then it was definitely a shock. I mean, he was fine when we were together – it never felt like he was pretending. I think he might have been so far in the closet that he convinced even himself that he was straight. But yeah, I can tell you the gory details over a drink later. It’s just funny to me now.” She laughed, and I tried to laugh back, but there was so much on my mind. I looked over at him again, observing his movements, trying to detect something. Even though nothing had changed, having this knowledge made me look at him in a completely different light, and, to my own surprise, I found myself searching for redeeming features in him physically. Suddenly, he was the only available guy in the vicinity, and I smelt blood. We seemed to wrap up the bowling in record time, and soon there was another party ready to take over the very second we cleared the lane, and we moved back to the dining area where a gaudy looking foot-high cake covered in borderline fluorescent icing stood waiting on our table. Em shrieked and ran towards it, and, upon discovering that it was Sam who’d arranged for it, squeezed him like a python. It was topped with two number-candles, a two and a four, and we gathered around it and started singing. I’d deliberately maneuvered my way towards Joe so that we were standing side by side, and to my surprise, he placed his arm over my shoulder. His grip was clammy and nervous, and his singing almost indescribably bad. To make things worse, he occasionally looked over and directed his voice towards my ear, and I tried my hardest not to grimace. At that moment, I couldn’t believe that I’d even fathomed making a move on him. I felt like as though I was going through regretful post-coital with a bridge troll. Shots! Shots! Shots! Someone had ordered a round and a chant started, and I happily grabbed a glass off the waiter’s tray and downed what turned out to be vodka. Looking across the circle I saw Jack suffering from liquor burn. Bless him. Joe was attempting to engage me, but I was having none of it, and immersed myself fully in cake. “So how do you know Em?” asked Jack, after I’d made a slick escape from Joe and moved over to his side. I was grateful he was making smalltalk now rather than earlier, as, before, I may have blown him off. “We take dance classes. Tango,” I replied. He raised his eyebrows and took a half-step back as he chewed. “Mmmmm!” He swallowed. “Wow. Tango eh? So I guess your ideal girl is a Latina, long flowy evening gown, rose between her teeth?” “I’m gay,” I proclaimed brusquely, turning my head away and dropping my eyes down into my drink. It was an odd way to come out, granted, but trial and error had proven that getting right to the point was often best. “Oh! Sorry!” said Jack, and I identified that he was far more concerned with his own faux pas than my sexuality. “Really sorry! I didn’t know!” “Don’t sweat it,” I said, still avoiding eye contact. We were interrupted by a timely speech by Em, to which we both turned our attention. The evening’s events were to conclude in a nearby bar that Em had only decided upon at the end of her speech, and soon we were walking, skipping, and hand-holding our way through the main street according to our respective levels of inebriation. It was only now that I was walking alone between two pairs, breathing cold black city air, that I realized how much I’d had to drink. ** “Hey…hey J-. Hey JACK!” There was no way I wasn’t louder than the music this time. He turned to face me, looking confused. I pulled his ear to my lips and continued. “Hey Jack! When was the last time you got laid?” The goofiest smile came across my face as I let go of his shoulder, and I felt no shame. He gave me the finger, turned back and put in the order, finally, after which I tapped him on the shoulder again. “No, for real though, Jack. When?” This time I looked dead serious. He smiled, hesitated a second, then pulled me in. “Well, if you must know, two months ago,” he said in my ear, and sprang back. I pulled him back immediately and asked with who. It was an odd line of questioning, granted, but Jack was an unusual guy, and he’d drunk himself to the point of all-encompassing normality anyway. “I knew that question was coming. It was with my ex. Well, we’re still kind of together. She was seeing other people, and I let her do it as long as she’d still sleep with me. We’re still doing it, but we’re not an item any more, per se.” Only Jack could deliver such a story so willingly in this kind of environment, and I was glad he did. It was a remarkable insight into his character, and left me reeling slightly, for several reasons. He grabbed the drinks and I grabbed his shoulder. “Come outside,” I yelled. It was a slight relief to turn the blaring pop trash into a feeble muffle, if only temporarily. Reaching into my back pocket, I extracted a pack of cigs and lit one up while Jack awkwardly held my drink up and aimed it at my general direction. “Thanks Jack.” I grabbed the beer. His bloodshot eyes widened when he saw the cigarette. “You smoke?” He seemed almost shocked. I filled him in on my occasional smoking habit that I almost exclusively indulged after a few drinks. “Why do you do that to yourself?” He asked. “Why do you do that to yourself?” I fired back, jabbing a pointed index finger straight into his solar plexus. He looked confused and asked me what I meant. “That bitch. Why?” The question was pointed and accusing. I’d only known the guy for an evening, but we were operating at this level and tone. “Cause…the sex is good,” he replied, smiling tipsily. There was something unnatural and slightly unnerving about the way he said it. It was like watching a kitten pretend to be a tiger. “Then why haven’t you done it in two months?” I asked. His smile faded and there was a tinge of sadness in his expression. He didn’t reply. “It’s OK. I don’t like to tell people how they should behave, or how they should live their life, or what’s right and what’s wrong. I just want people – I just want you – to value yourself, and to not let yourself be degraded by people who don’t hesitate to use those around them for their own benefit.” I lifted the cigarette to my mouth and inhaled deeply. Jack laughed sharply. “I don’t know how you managed to figure all that out from what I told you.” “Listen Jack, I’ve seen my fair share of dysfunctional relationships, and while the number’s gone down over the past couple years, whether that’s ‘cause my friends are getting older or ‘cause I choose not to surround myself with that shit anymore, I still see it happen and I hate to see it happen.” He was wide-eyed; borderline hypnotized. “She’s no good, Jack. She’s already chewed you up, spat you out and come back for seconds. Are you just gonna let her toss your emotions around like a ragdoll?” It was a bit of a punt on my part, hinged on my surmisal of the situation, and the accusations were rolling out like rockfall – there was no stopping this landslide. I had his best intentions at heart, though the whole thing was giving me an adrenaline rush that was rather refreshing. All Jack could offer was a slack-jawed stutter. I put a consolatory hand on his right shoulder. “Hey man. That was a little harsh. Sorry. Hey, what’s your number?” I wrestled my cellphone out of its skinny-jean pocket prison. In truth, I wasn’t sure how the conversation was to continue. The rubble had toppled down, caused its damage and left a cloud of dust in its wake, and only a few sorry pebbles trickled helplessly down the cliff wall. Neither I nor Jack would have much more to say in the aftermath. The numbers Jack recited failed to penetrate my ears, which felt as though they may have been filled with cottonballs, damaged by the iniquitous speakers indoors, so I handed Jack the phone to do the honors himself. I prised it from him before he had a chance to insert his name. “Oi!” he shouted. “I already have some Jacks on here, I need to save it under something different or take some Jacks off which I can’t be bothered to do. Jacks off. Jack- offs.” We laughed. “I was about to say.” “Jacks-on, Jacks-off,” I said, riffing off The Karate Kid, sweeping one hand clockwise and the other anti-clockwise in the air in front of me. He laughed. We laughed. The dorky humor rocked on. Time-out. Late third period, game’s going good. We’re in rhythm, we’re cruising. Just play it out like we have been up ‘til now and we’re home and dry. Emotion-check. I don’t love him. Wow, awesome, am I growing up? I must at least have a crush on him? Well… It is getting kinda hot here. There’s something about his body that’s urging me reach out; to touch, to squeeze. There’s something about that pudgy 6”3 frame. Imagine what he looks like under that t-shirt – baby-fat stomach, odd patch of brown fuzz on the chest; I can feel my heart throbbing as my hand runs over it, the heat from my body fogging up his glasses, obscuring his wide-eyed, open-mouthed, deer-in-the-headlights gaze. Well, Jack, you’ve done it. You’ve single-handedly broken down the barriers of superficiality and explained to me 90% of marriages on this planet. What are you gonna do now? When he’d commented on the venue - how trashy it was, on the people - how shallow they were, on the music - how loud it was; that was all too predictable, I could see it coming a mile away – he was just that type of guy. And yet he didn’t do it with any vitriol, he was more a man of science, of observation. Those long legs, that awkward stance, that untouched, unstyled hair; everything about him screamed Ivy League nerd. Or Oxbridge, I should probably say. If it were true, it’d render him hot an un-hot in equal measure. At that point, though, I was all-in. “Come to think of it, I haven’t jerked off in a while.” That was Jack talking. Not me. “Cum…to think about it?” I offered, leaning my head in slightly and tilting my right temple towards him, awaiting recognition of my uber-adroit humor. “Heyyyyy” He elongated, pointing one finger at me like a gun. I loved this place. Guys were so open towards each other. Bromance was ubiquitous and the same-sex experimentation gap was narrowing to the point where it was almost as acceptable for guys to try stuff as it was for girls. Never had I felt so willing and unabashed about inviting guys to try things with a member of the same sex without so much as making an attempt to glean their sexuality beforehand. And so, I didn’t cringe, hesitate or stutter when I next opened my mouth. “Wanna jerk off together?”
  6. Simon Iskander


    ** George finished tying his shoelaces, leaned back on the bed, and stared at the ceiling, fingers clasped behind his head. Down the hall, he heard the shower being turned on. In his mind he replayed the conversation he’d had with the supervisor just a few hours ago, when he’d cornered him after the football game. It took some persuasion, but the supervisor finally revealed to him, under oath of secrecy, why Magnus was feeling so down. It was a relief when George found out it was only about money, but still, he wished he could do something. He lifted himself with his elbows so that he was sitting up, and looked across towards Magnus’s bed. The clothes Magnus had just extracted from his wardrobe were folded neatly on top of his blanket. Something clicked in George’s head, and he got up, opened the top drawer of his desk, extracted his wallet, and pulled out two notes of five hundred. He held them out in front of him for a few seconds, heart racing, then dropped the wallet back into the drawer, turned around, and made his way towards Magnus’s bed.
  7. Simon Iskander


    “Woah! That’s a proper bush!” The three kids surrounding the boy with his arm up were fascinated, but he himself remained neutral. He couldn’t understand what they found so interesting. The way he saw it, underarm hair was something everyone had at that age. He put his arm back down and buttoned up his shirt. Magnus stood a few feet behind the other boys, not really part of the group, but a spectator nonetheless. He hadn’t joined them in coaxing George into showing his pubescent fuzz, nor had he commented when it was revealed. Instead, he had observed from a distance and, though he said nothing, had felt just as awestruck as the other boys. Reaching under his t-shirt, he stroked the bare skin under his arm. I’m 4 months older than him, he thought. Why don’t I have that? All was forgotten when George forced the ball from under Nick’s foot and dribbled it down to the makeshift goalpost on the other side of the square. They all chased after him, but could not prevent him from taking it right to the goal and smashing it through. As he celebrated, the boys chided him, calling him a cheater and attempting to discredit the goal. All Magnus could do was watch the black-haired boy jump around in delight, his cheeks having gone the distance from white to full blush in a matter of seconds. Magnus started to slink off towards one of the cobbled alleyways, but was called out by one of the boys. “Hey, Magnus! Aren’t you playing?” Only half-turning back, he muttered, “Er, umm – no, I have to go back. See you later.” “What? Why?” The boy raised his arms up, incredulous, and by that point had drawn the attention of the other boys, who looked towards Magnus but said nothing. “Sorry! Got to go!” He didn’t bother looking back this time, and continued downhill until he reached the stone staircase leading down to the beach. It was a long way down, and a sea breeze blew salty and damp against his body as he plodded towards the white sand. In a way, he wished he hadn’t seen it. It was another reason to feel inferior to the other boys. Managing to get invited to the game of football had been hard enough, and he had felt like an intruder throughout, especially standing in George’s shadow; George, that confident, popular kid whom he deemed the epitome of coolness. And now there was proof that he was more of a man than Magnus. Why was it all so unfair? The sand under his feet was cool. It was almost evening, and the sun no longer scorched it to a furnace heat. The waves came to their final rest on the sand softly, rhythmically, and the only other sound was the faint hum of a tavern somewhere in the sleepy whitewashed village above. Only Magnus and his thoughts occupied the beach. In the past year, his emotions had taken on a life of their own, and had become almost impossible to rein in, no matter what he tried. What’s more, he felt completely alone. Nobody has the same problems as me. All the success and happiness he saw around him was directly mirrored by his misery and misfortune. Boys in his class seemed happier, more popular, more confident. They had girlfriends and gadgets and pool parties at their house to which he wasn’t invited. And they didn’t have to deal with all those crushes, those weird, heartbreaking, soul-destroying infatuations that seem to last a lifetime and threatened to split the earth underneath his feet and swallow him whole. Nobody understands me, he would think. Impulsively, he threw off his t-shirt and ran at full speed towards the water, getting a couple of meters in and turning and falling over on his back voluntarily. Time slowed as he plunged flat into the cold saltwater, looking up at the surface and the setting orange sun piercing it weakly. He let his arms and legs relax so that they floated upwards, and exhaled and watched the bubbles rise in slow motion until they broke free on the surface. He darted up to the surface and broke through, gasping for air. ** The road up through the town center was crowded on account of a nearby fete, and the supervisors frantically ran around trying to corral the kids and make sure nobody was lost. Traditional music spilled out of every alleyway and local children were running amok. One of the boys in Magnus’s class broke off from the group to tackle a younger kid playing football nearby, and he managed to gain possession of the ball and proceeded to dangle it teasingly in front of the three local boys who had come up to challenge him. It was not a friendly gesture - he did it to impress the girls. Typical Ross, thought Magnus. He was undeniably skilled, and managed to outdribble all three kids, which was impressive, despite their age. The stunt achieved its desired effect, as the girls cooed and shrieked. Even the ones who feigned disinterest couldn’t help but take a peek at the action and pass comment to their girlfriends. The sideshow was brought to an abrupt halt when one of the supervisors stepped in and forced Ross to give the ball up. He returned to the group red-faced, not from embarrassment, but rather fatigue. The boy was not at all apologetic. Magnus didn’t appreciate the move; he considered it bullying, but, as he watched his classmate receive high-fives from his friends, he couldn’t help but feel envy – that familiar envy that hit him like a sledgehammer and left him brooding for hours. Ross was superior in every way, Magnus told himself. Look at that immaculate blond hair, that perfect face. And who taught him to dress that well? No-one had ever taught Magnus, who had thrown on some cargo shorts and an orange t-shirt he’d never even bothered to read. His lack of self-esteem drove him to quietness and withdrawal. A souvenir shop provided relief from the blazing sunshine. Magnus would much rather have spent the morning at the beach, but, under instruction from the school to provide a cultural experience, the supervisors had decided that a trip into town was the best course of action, much to the group’s chagrin. Magnus gripped some loose notes from his pocket, uncrumpled them, and tried to estimate their value. It was his first encounter with the strange currency and he still hadn’t got his head around it. So, a hundred equals six – so that means I have…thirty on me, plus these coins – I think these are worthless… He turned pieces of copper around in his fingers and, though he considered throwing them out on the street, pocketed them, and kept two of the larger silver ones in his palm. He thought about how much he had back in his room, but could barely remember – it was his first solo vacation, and never before had he had to manage his own finances. He thought he must have at least four thousand stowed away for the rest of the trip – 5 days – which would be more than enough. Everyone around him was picking something up for their friends and family back home – a keychain, a magnet, a snowglobe. Magnus had already bought something for each one of his siblings, but nothing yet for his parents, and so felt an obligation to make a purchase. Looking around, he settled on a watercolor print of a museum that looked familiar – it might’ve been the one they visited on the first day. The old lady at the till beamed at him as he came over and pointed across the room at his choice, and she sent her young daughter to the supply room to fetch a copy. When the girl came back and placed it on the counter, Magnus peered over at the price sticker and his heart skipped a beat when he saw the number: three hundred, much higher than the price he though he saw listed on the display. Turning around, he saw that a small queue had formed behind him, and, panicking slightly, he pulled the notes from his pocket and handed them over to the lady, who accepted them, smiling, without returning any change, and thanked him in a language he didn’t understand. He walked away sullen and empty-handed, having forgotten to take the picture, and embarrassment ensued as the shopkeeper alerted him to the fact by shouting over to him in front of his classmates. Heart racing, he rushed back to the counter, accidentally bumping into a lady in the queue on his way. Apologizing without looking at her, he continued to move on at speed to the counter, chuckled awkwardly, grabbed the item and made a beeline for the exit. He felt absolutely awful. It felt like pure providence that nobody brought up the souvenir shop fiasco for the rest of the day. Maybe they were keeping quiet out of respect, or maybe it wasn’t as big a deal as Magnus made it out to be. He did have a knack for exaggeration, but it was undoubtedly linked to how strongly he reacted to everything, how badly he took every loss and how emotional the slightest setback or mishap made him. It was natural, therefore, that throughout the rest of the day’s activities - the beach trip, the boat journey, the restaurant meal - he remained meek and withdrawn. As he retired to his villa, he thought about the day’s events and was glad that, despite everything, people seemed friendly towards him around the dinner table at the end of the night. Things seemed normal, despite how he felt inside. He remembered Andrew offering him the rest of his soda, which he accepted gratefully. He recalled George and the gang talking about the football and not mentioning Magnus’s departure. Maybe things are picking up, he thought. The stone path snaked its way around the villa complex, lit white by the lightposts dotted around the grass. Cicadas chirped hypnotically in the bushes, and there was no other sound, as he’d been making his way back alone, having left the restaurant early. Above him, rainclouds gathered. Feeling around in his pockets for his keys, Magnus wondered how much cash he’d had left, and found after some digging that only coins remained. He panicked slightly. Where has the rest gone? Furiously performing the calculations in his head, he realized that the dinner bill must’ve eaten into what little he’d had left after the souvenir shop debacle. Picking up his pace, he made his way down the path and turned right at the signpost indicating villas 14-19. George was still in the restaurant, so the lights were off at number 16. Fumbling through his keys, he unlocked the blue wooden door and jogged over to his safe. 4-2-1-9. He unlocked it and grabbed the notes within. One thousand, two thousand – where was the rest? Magnus pawed furiously through the safe, but couldn’t find any more notes. He tried the pockets of all his shorts but found nothing, and a dreaded thought came to his head: Could this be it? Could I really have spent that much money? It took a while to finally sink in that that was truly all he had left; there was no way George had accessed his safe, or that he, Magnus, had lost any money. He tried to play back all his purchases in his head, but was too panicked to think clearly, so he did the only thing he could do: he picked up the phone and called home. The kids had been given strict orders not to use the phones for international calls, which amplified Magnus’s anxiety as he keyed the number in. After five rings, his mother picked up. He was frantic. “Mom!” She picked up on his panic immediately, and asked what was wrong. “I don’t have any money left! I mean I only have 2 thousand!” Upon discovering that her son was not in mortal danger, his mother breathed a sigh of relief, told Magnus not to scare her like that, and said that it wasn’t a problem and that she’d call the supervisors the next day to sort it out. “Mom, I’m so sorry! I don’t know what happened! I’m sorry!” Again, she told him not to worry, and when he started sobbing and telling her that the call they were on was against the rules, she assured him that she’d make it alright with the supervisors the next day. They talked for another five minutes, and she attempted to put his mind at ease before they finally said their goodbyes and I-love-yous. Magnus put the headset down and lay flat on his mattress. His crying had subsided towards the end of the call, but a sadness persisted, one that was entwined with deep guilt for having spent that much money so quickly. In a way, he felt as though he had let his parents down. How would he have coped if George was in the room as he made the discovery? It would’ve added injury to insult on one of the most insulting days of his life. After wallowing briefly, he made his way to the safe and solemnly replaced the items that had fallen out during his rummage. One of his cards had fallen onto George’s unmade bed, the foot of which sat perpendicular to the workdesk which held the safe. Magnus’s hand lingered on the fabric of George’s quilt as he grabbed the card, and suddenly, he’d given himself a reason to start sobbing again. He held the card under his nostrils – it bore a trace of George’s scent. Magnus sunk down against his roommate’s bedpost, closed his eyes and held the card against his chest, sobbing. The human brain is odd. It flinches at any hint of danger, urgently spurs the muscles it controls into fight or flight, protects our physiological integrity when threatened by injury, and even brings us back to balance when our psychological chemistry is out of whack. But when it comes to emotion, it has the tendency in some to stoke the flame and perpetuate the wallowing. Despite having been kicked down by circumstance that day, Magnus chose to close his eyes and summon painful memories of the boy on whom he’d had a crush for two years. Through the slightly open window by Magnus’s bed came a patter of rain that jumpstarted him back to the present. He stood up and walked over to it and discovered that a few drops had found their way through the gap and onto his exposed bedsheets. Reaching over, he pulled the window down and made his way through the corridor to the bathroom to ready himself for bed. He placed both palms on the edge of the sink, and, with his elbows extended, leaned towards the mirror. His eyes were puffed up and red, and he splashed them with cold water to hide any evidence of crying, though he felt the floodgates could open at any time. George was still not back, to Magnus’s relief. It was best he didn’t see him in this state. Standing at the foot of his bed, he took off his pajamas, leaving only his boxers on, slipped into bed and turned off the light. It was half past eleven by the time George came back, soaked and panting after having sprinted to the villa in what had turned into a fully-fledged rain shower. All the lights were off, and he was careful to be quiet coming in. He kicked off his shoes, pulled off his socks, which were thoroughly soaked, and wiped his wet feet on the rug. He snuck into the corridor and peered through into the bedroom, where he saw Magnus’s unmoving outline under his blanket, and moved quietly to the bathroom, where he took off his clothes and lay them over the side of the bathtub, leaving only his underwear on. He toweled himself off, brushed his teeth, and made his way to bed without turning any of the lights on. Through the closed window by Magnus’s bed came the faint sound of raindrops beating down on the windowsill. George slipped under his quilt and waited for sleep to come. As he lay silently, he heard a sound coming from Magnus’s bed. Is he…crying? He thought. He turned over to face the bed against the wall on the other side of the room, lifted his right ear slightly so that it wasn’t pressed against his pillow, and strained to listen. The blind was pulled down three-quarters of the way, and some light seeped in from outside, allowing George to see the outline of his roommate’s body, and he could tell from that way it arhythmically bobbed up and down that Magnus was crying, but crying so lightly that he could barely be heard. George felt heavier inside, like a weight had been dropped straight down his throat to his gut. He didn’t sleep until Magnus did. ** The sun blared relentlessly on the boys during their morning game of football. Last night’s weather had not carried over, and the only evidence of its passing was an odd stubborn puddle here and there. Magnus didn’t have to ask to partake in the game, as he’d been summoned over by Nick, who’d found him wandering the hotel grounds after most had vacated them. He, Magnus, wasn’t particularly in the mood for sport, or entertainment of any kind for that matter, as yesterday’s events still weighed heavy on him, and he wouldn’t have minded being left alone the entire day, but he couldn’t say no when Nick dragged him over to the park, as he was in no mood to argue. “Nice shot!” Magnus’s strike was accurate and powerful, but was skillfully stopped by the goalkeeper. One of the older kids had given him encouragement. On the next possession, George, who was on the opposing team, received the ball, outdribbled two defenders, and struck the ball through the posts cleanly with the outside of his foot. It was a masterful shot, and he celebrated accordingly. Magnus looked him up and down, observing his genuine smile and pink cheeks. He hadn’t been in bed when Magnus had woken up that morning, and, as soon as he did, he had begun to think about the night before, and whether or not George had heard him crying. He’d tried his hardest to be as quiet as possible, and decided that there was no way he could’ve been heard. George glanced at Magnus as he walked back to his half of the makeshift pitch. His smile was fading now, and he noticed that Magnus was glum. He gave him a second glance, and this time he caught his eye, and Magnus could swear he felt sympathy coming from the boy. It was short-lived, however, as George turned around rapidly in response to the ball rolling towards the back of his feet, and the game continued. Despite his mood, Magnus was playing better than ever before. He had already scored a goal, and was dribbling past defenders with confidence on his way to a second. He passed the ball accurately to the wing and made a skillful run to receive the tail end of a one-two, which he tapped home with the inside of his foot right under the keeper’s arm. He was about to start celebrating, but restrained himself, and just smiled and jogged back to his half with one arm raised. On the way back, he turned and glanced at George to see his reaction. He was just upset at having conceded the goal, and was readying himself for the next play. Magnus felt slightly disappointed, so it was a consolation when Ross gave him a high five, which boosted his confidence. The game went on normally until, as Magnus was making a run down the left wing, he tripped over one of the more overzealous boy’s outstretched legs and tumbled over. He’d scraped his knee, and it wasn’t major, but a few of the players asked if he was OK, and George came jogging over, squatted down and looked very concerned. “Hey, are you OK?” he asked sincerely, his voice low, his eyes worried. It was the most welcome sight, and it picked Magnus right up. “Yes, I’m fine, just a little scratched.” Satisfied that the injury was only minor, George stood up and offered his hand forward, and Magnus gratefully accepted it and used it to pull himself up. It was a small gesture that left Magnus glowing. Throughout the evening, Magnus noticed that George seemed to be watching over him, like an older brother. They didn’t talk, but George would occasionally watch Magnus’s expression when he felt he may have been catching flak from the other boys, and saw to it that he, Magnus, stayed with the group and remained very much a part of its dynamic. When the match was over, he approached Magnus, pointed to his knee, and asked him if he felt any better. “Yes,” said Magnus, smiling. Towards the latter part of the day, some of the kids retreated to their villas to prepare for dinner or to kill time. George and Magnus had gone back to number 16, but not together. George was there when Magnus walked in. “Hey,” muttered Magnus, without looking up. “Hey.” George was tying his shoelaces. “Do you need the shower?” asked Magnus, retrieving fresh clothes from the wardrobe and placing them gently on his bed. “No, just used it,” he replied. Magnus grabbed a towel and made his way to the bathroom, and as he did, George turned his head slightly to watch him walk out of the room, and he felt sad. Time alone in the shower forced Magnus to retreat into his thoughts, which he did not particularly want to do. The money situation still lingered over him, despite the fact that, earlier that afternoon, he’d been pulled aside by one of the supervisors and had been told that as soon as he ran out of money, all he had to do was ask for more. He wanted George to still be in the room when he got out, even though he, George, probably wouldn’t want to walk up to the hotel with him, and, even if he did, Magnus wouldn’t have been able to strike up a conversation, and was too glum to be decent company. As it so happened, George was already gone, leaving only a messy bedspread and a pair of sneakers behind. Magnus sat on the edge of his bed looking at George’s, and his breath became quick and heavy as he caught a flotsam of his scent. It was only their third night sharing a room together, and they got on well, but would have been closer were it not for the crippling combination of Magnus’s low self-image and his romantic feelings towards his roommate. They’d been randomly matched in the same room, and it was not the worst pairing, as they were in the same peer group, but, put alone together, they didn’t have much to say. Magnus got ready and made his way up to the main hotel building, dreading the meal ahead and all its social obligations. There’d be Ross, showboating and talking to all the girls, there’d be Nick and Andrew talking about football and Panini stickers, with George and the boys chiming in every now and then. And all the girls, dolled up and ready to judge anyone and anything that came into their view. At least the food was good. The meal went by mercifully fast and without major embarrassment from Magnus’s side. In fact, he was praised for his play in the morning game of football, and was the butt of only one, light-hearted joke. The plate holding the remnants of his rabbit stew was cleared by the waiter, and soon it was time for the dreaded bill to be paid. Magnus dug both his hands into his pockets, and, to his surprise, found two extra notes of five hundred each. He desperately racked his brain thinking about where they may have come from, looking around wide-eyed as though the table might somehow hold the answer. He’d only brought 300 with him – he was sure of it – but somehow now in his fist he clutched over triple the sum. Could he have left them in that pair of shorts by accident? He hadn’t worn them since the first day, so it was possible, but it still seemed unlikely. He didn’t share his discovery with anyone, instead choosing to celebrate internally. His heart was racing and his mood was lifted, and, after he’d chipped in for the meal, he became chatty and engaged. The walk back to the villa provided ample time for Magnus to reflect on his luck. While the supervisors had reassured him that he needn’t have been concerned about the money, they could do nothing to alleviate the guilt of wasting all that money, of being so irresponsible the first time he was entrusted to go on holiday without his family. Now he felt relieved; he hadn’t wasted as much as he’d thought, and, while the remaining sum should still have been larger, it felt good regardless. Another thought crept into his mind: what if, in his rush to go out that evening, he’d grabbed more cash from the safe than he thought he had? What if the extra money he’d found in his pocket had been absent-mindedly withdrawn from the same, meager reserves? Picking up his pace, he made his way to the villa, slightly fearful of the possibility. The lights were on. He swung the door open and stepped heavily through the corridor. George was sitting on the side of his bed reading a comic book and eating a KitKat. He hadn’t yet changed into his pajamas. Magnus shot him a quick look, said hi, and went straight over to unlock the safe, trying not to look too panicked as he rummaged through the contents. George looked over, half-interested. 1000, 1500… Everything seemed in order – he hadn’t over-withdrawn. Trying to look as casual as possible, he closed the safe and sat at his desk, mind at ease. “Hey, everything alright?” George asked from behind him. Magnus turned around furtively to see that George had set the comic book down on his lap and was leaning back with chocolate in hand. “Hm? Yeah, fine, thanks,” he replied brusquely. George continued. “What was that about? With the safe? Did you lose something?” A moment ensued where it felt like time stood still. “No, I found something.” Magnus caught himself saying those words, and instantly regretted it. “Wadduyu mean?” He backtracked. “Nothing, it’s nothing. What are you reading?” Changing subject was the best course of action, he thought. George shuffled himself upright with his forearms and picked up the comic book with one hand. “It’s Teen Titans. The latest edition, I think. My brother gave it to me.” “Teen Titans? Who’s in that?” asked Magnus, arm rested on the top of the back of his chair and body turned to face George. “Oh, it’s pretty random,” replied George, “come take a look.” George was actually beckoning him over to the bed. It was the most excited Magnus had been for a while. George’s mattress felt the same as his own, but considering how Magnus felt being invited on to it, it may as well have come from a different planet. George casually flipped the pages over to show Magnus the cast of characters. “Here they are,” he said, pointing at a page where the ensemble cast all made an appearance in a single caption. Magnus could barely think straight, but made an attempt to identify the characters. “Is that Storm, and - Hawkeye?” he guessed. George chuckled, but not maliciously. “No, that one is Nightstar, and that’s Red Hood. But yeah, they look like Storm and Hawkeye. This is DC though, not Marvel,” he explained. “Oh.” Magnus was surprised and a little taken aback, and George noticed. “It’s OK, I didn’t know who they were 'til yesterday. This is my first DC comic ever.” They both smiled. “Hey, do you want a KitKat?” He held out the pack of four chocolate fingers, from which two remained. In Magnus’s mind, George may as well have asked to be his boyfriend. The gesture was that touching to him. He felt weak. “Thank you,” he gurgled, accepting it and snapping off one of the fingers. As he reached over to hand back the last finger, George pushed it back towards him and told him to keep it. He savored it slowly, disbelievingly. He was actually sharing George’s chocolate. Suddenly, it wasn’t like any other KitKat he’d had before. It carried more meaning. It was a beacon of friendship he’d never thought would be passed to him, and it seemed almost a shame to eat it and watch it disappear. “These white KitKats are amazing,” said Magnus, twirling around the remaining half of the finger he’d just bitten into . “Yeah, they’re my favorite. I can eat them all day,” said George, looking over at Magnus and smiling. Magnus responded by shyly looking down and smiling. George wagged his feet, causing the bed to bounce slightly. “Who’s that?” asked Magnus between bites, pointing at the muscular blonde costumed man who appeared to be the leader. “That’s Darkstar. He’s cool.” He certainly looked cool to Magnus, and attractive to boot. “What’re his powers?” asked Magnus, still holding the chocolate bar. George had scooched up nearer to him and their bodies were almost touching. “Well, he’s got this thing, it’s called an Exo-Mantle. It’s like a special suit, and it makes him super strong and lets him fly and shoot energy beams,” he explained, getting slightly excited. “Cool,” said Magnus. He didn’t have much else to offer, being this nervous. George flipped through the pages idly, saying nothing as he did, and Magnus felt he needed to say something to keep the conversation alive. “So, you’re into superheroes?” “Kinda. I watch the X-Men cartoon sometimes-” Magnus smiled and nodded his head profusely at this tidbit, indicating he was familiar with the series, “- and some Spiderman and stuff. But I’ve never read a comic before this. I get most of my info from my brother. He’s a huge nerd.” Magnus giggled. He was absolutely ecstatic about where the evening had ended up; where he now found himself. The only thing that brought him down was knowing that this would eventually come to an end. “But, like, what I like about superheroes is, they’re just normal people, right?” George’s voice took on a more serious tone. “They could be anyone, just walking around. And they have to keep their identity secret. They’re so awesome and everyone would think it’s so cool if they knew who they were. But they don’t tell. They could be anyone walking around.” Magnus’s grin had rapidly subsided and he was now totally mesmerized and slightly slack-jawed as he listened to George speak. He almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was like the layers of cool that made up George were melting away and they were just two humans, on the same level, sharing real feelings, without pretense or theater. At the end of George’s speech, Magnus could offer no response, and for a couple of seconds they sat silent, until Magnus snapped out of it and agreed with George, telling him that he’d had that thought before. “Cool,” responded George. “Hey, want another KitKat?” Magnus smiled and nodded enthusiastically, and watched as George leaned over, opened the bottom drawer of his bedside cabinet, and rifled through it. He caught a glimpse of a pair of George’s boxers that lay among the heap, and his heart jumped. “Here it is,” said George, pulling out a four-finger pack of white KitKats. Magnus reeled his body back sharply and desperately tried to make out like he hadn’t been staring. As George sprang back, his left hand grazed Magnus’s right accidentally. It was pure magic. Of course, Magnus reeled back as though the contact was undesirable, and George apologized sharply without paying too much mind or even raising his head. The contact raised Magnus’s pulse and sent him into a state of euphoria. He accepted the KitKat meekly and unwrapped it. “Hey, what do you think of Ross?” George asked, accepting the single chocolate finger Magnus had just offered him. What did Magnus think of Ross? He pictured Ross in his mind’s eye, summoning an image of the 5”2’ blonde kid who was as popular as he was attractive. He’d known him since the last year of primary school and had remained in the periphery of his friendship circle ever since. To Magnus, he was a role model, someone to emulate; to be jealous of. To obsess about. To cry himself to sleep about. Of course, he couldn’t say any of this to George. “He’s OK – he’s fun. I like him. Why?” George’s mouth sagged slowly as his expression changed. “Really? I think he’s a bit of a dick.” This was unexpected. Magnus had thought that George and Ross were quite close; that they were of the same tribe. Eyes wide and intrigued, he said, “You do? Why?” Suddenly, he felt the image he held of Ross being shredded apart. “Like, that thing he did on Sunday morning, with the football. And just the way he acts around girls,” replied George. Magnus wanted to pick George’s brain on the matter, to find out everything he felt about their classmate. When George spoke, his words formed a trail of gold that streamed from his mouth and became enshrined in a special corner of Magnus’s mind. “Don’t you think?” George chewed his chocolate much more slowly. “Yeah, I guess – you’re right. I mean, he’s a bit of a douche to girls but he doesn’t really act any differently to them than any of the other boys.” George looked away from Magnus, turning his attention to the other side of the room and lowering his voice. “Yeah, I don’t really like it though. From anyone.” A short silence followed. “I don’t think many people like me either,” murmured Magnus. George turned his head sharply, looking confused. “What? I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about you.” Magnus perked up. “Really?” “Yeah, everyone likes you. You’re just really shy and never talk. This is silly, but I was kinda afraid to talk to you just now. You look like you’ve been pretty down for the past couple of days. Are you OK?” Magnus was elated. George obviously cared about his wellbeing, and it seemed the only thing that held back their friendship was Magnus’s timidity. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just…I just-” He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to tell the truth about the money, lest he come off as irresponsible, and he struggled to make up an excuse on the fly. “Just a little homesick,” he finally said. “I’ve never been away for this long.” “Oh. OK. It’s just four more days.” It was all George offered, and it appeared it wasn’t the confession he was seeking from Magnus. They both looked around aimlessly and slightly awkwardly. “What’re we doing tomorrow?” Magnus asked to break the silence. “I think we’re going to a new beach, then going on some kind of bus trip to a museum later,” replied George. “Hey, do you wanna sit next to me on the bus? We can read this,” he brandished his comic. It was a complete no-brainer for Magnus, who immediately and excitedly accepted. He had wondered how long it’d be before George asked him to vacate the bed, and was dreading the moment, but now, with the promise of further time together the next day, he felt it appropriate to announce that he was going to bed, and slipped off George’s mattress, wiping the crumbs on his lap onto the floor. George got up to go to go the bathroom, and Magnus sat in his bed basking in warm ecstasy. His emotions were pumped up to capacity as serotonin flooded his system like water out of a broken dam. George’s presence, his aroma, his aura persisted in the room after his departure, and Magnus was fully caught up. When he emerged out of the bathroom, it was as though George radiated an energy that caused such a stir in Magnus that he was almost intoxicated. Looking at him with new eyes, he felt such love emanating from every ounce of his being. He wanted to care for, protect and nurture every part of the boy. After they wished each other goodnight, turned off the lights and retreated to their beds, they both lay awake in silence. Magnus watched George’s breathing in the dark quiet. After a couple of minutes, George spoke unexpectedly. “Magnus.” It was almost a whisper. “Yeah?” “Do you feel better?” “Yeah.” This time he really meant it. ** The Mediterranean stretched upwards from the edge of the limestone cliff ahead of Magnus and out into infinity. It was a scorcher, with not a wisp of wind to blow cool the beads of sweat dotting his exposed torso. He begged for sweet relief, but water was a ten meter drop away, and discomfort had not yet trumped fear. The other boys had remained surprisingly docile, not goading each other into jumping quite as aggressively as Magnus thought they would. A few hundred meters down the coast, on the sandy beach, was the rest of the class – mostly girls – and some watched, but most were indifferent. Magnus stepped gingerly over to the edge of the cliff, his bare feet painfully navigating sharp pebbles and shrub, and peered over the edge, occasionally looking over his shoulder to make sure nobody had a notion to push him off. It was uncomfortably high, and the cliff jutted out over an ominous-looking array of slippery rock platforms and exposed jumbles of fallen stone that should not have rendered any jump at a normal trajectory dangerous, but that scared Magnus nonetheless. Some of the boys had already taken the leap and had come up and around to tell tales of their bravery, or to shrug it off like it was nothing and go for a second or third jump. Of course, Ross had been fearlessly tumbling and flipping every which way, leaving Magnus slack-jawed and heavy-hearted. The way he viewed Ross had changed following his talk with George the previous night, and while the feeling of envy and hopelessness persisted as he watched Ross continuing to be better at everything than him yet again, George’s words echoed in his mind and had planted the seeds of aversion to the boy he once looked up to. “Come on, Magnus! Your turn!” Nick was being as annoying as usual. “You’re bone dry, mate,” retorted Magnus. “I don’t see you jumping in!” Nick gave a sarcastic ‘Ooo’, and then broke into a sprint and cannonballed over the edge. Magnus was the last man standing, and George had just climbed over and around after his jump, and was dripping wet. Magnus watched him ruffle his beautiful jet-black hair as seawater dripped down the stretched skin of his torso into the navy boardshorts hugging his hips and legs. The most beautiful smile was drawn across his face as he looked up to Magnus and shouted over to him. “Come on Magnuuus!” He’d changed his tone when speaking to Magnus. It seemed like, overnight, they’d formed a brotherly bond, and now, when George talked to him, it felt familial and warm. There was nothing condescending or mischievous about the way he coaxed Magnus in – it was more supportive and encouraging, and Magnus could sense that. He had all the courage he needed now, and, taking a deep breath, he ran up to the edge and jumped in, flailing his arms and scrunching his face up for what felt like a whole minute, and landed heavily into the cool water, plunging uncomfortably deep before darting to the surface and immediately swimming away from the point of impact so as not to be crushed by the next jumper. He breathed heavy and his heart raced as he swam his way over to the rocky underbelly of the cliff he’d just defeated, navigating his way around the jagged rocks to find the shortcut back up that the boys had been using. If he’d known how treacherous the climb back up was, he may never have jumped in the first place. A series of makeshift platforms and narrow gullies carved in rock formed an upward path that had to be climbed with care. Magnus knew he had to be making his way up slower than any of the other boys had, but he didn’t care; he’d allow anyone to pass him by at their leisure – and peril. The path led up to the back of the cliff, after which a painful walk to the jump spot was in the books. Counting his blessings for having avoided injury, Magnus hoisted himself over the final edge, put his hands on his knees and caught his breath. That was not worth it, he thought. Just as he readied himself for the remaining walk, Nick darted past him towards shore, and he heard a commotion up ahead. There was a lot of shouting and calling, and the voices were panicked. He heard two consecutive splashes followed by more shouting, and started to feel nervous, and so hurried back to the edge, the pain in his feet subdued by adrenaline. The boys came into view. They were leaning over the edge and yelling, and, as Magnus approached and called to ask what was happening, only Andrew looked back. “George! It’s George!” It was like he couldn’t find the words to say what had happened. Magnus’s heart dropped at the sound of George’s name and he began to shake. He didn’t wait for Andrew to elaborate, instead speeding to the edge of the cliff and looking over. Below, Ross was guiding George’s motionless body towards the rock platform, while another boy, Chris, escorted them. Magnus’s heart stopped, and his head spun wildly. He was paralyzed; he wanted to run in every direction at once, and as a result went nowhere. “Nick went to get help!” one of the boys nearby shouted, possibly in response to someone, or maybe to answer an unasked question from Magnus. He didn’t know – he was in shock. The boys around him seemed equally as helpless, some flailing around, some running as if heading back to shore, but turning around sharply and coming right back. Underneath, Ross had pulled George out of the water and placed him lying face up on one of the flat rocks that just peeked out of the surface. Waves submerged the platform and surrounded George’s lifeless body with water as Ross examined his body in panic and Chris flailed around, not knowing what to do. Andrew lay flat on the edge of the cliff, arching his head downwards and yelling as loud as he could. “Nick’s getting help! Just hold on!” Tears gathered in Magnus’s eyes. “What happened?” he shouted to the boys, voice shaking. “I don’t know!” replied Andrew frantically. “He just landed weird and floated up limp!” Magnus started to openly and unashamedly cry his eyes out. He was the only one on the cliff in tears. He kept looking back to see if help was coming, and finally spotted some movement in the distance. It appeared to be a pickup truck with a lightbar, trailed by several people who were running. Looking back down, he saw Ross attempting to administer mouth-to-mouth, and he was experiencing such a dizzying cocktail of emotions that it felt strange that envy should creep in, but it was far eclipsed by the guilt and weakness he felt for being unable to help in any way while Ross was doing all he could. All Magnus could do was watch the scene unfold, and it was hard to bear. Rescue came in the form of two lifeguards emerging from the pickup truck, one running into the sea and the other up the cliff towards Magnus and the boys, while Nick, who’d been riding in the back, followed suit. A small crowd had formed by the beach consisting of the supervisors and some of the other schoolkids. The lifeguard arrived at the edge of the cliff with Nick in close pursuit, asked where the victim was, and all the boys pointed and yelled towards George’s direction. He looked down, examined the situation for a few seconds, and then got on his walkie-talkie and said something that Magnus couldn’t hear. Another pickup truck was pulling up to the beach, and Magnus could also see the second lifeguard swimming rapidly towards the rock shelter under the cliff. A boat was approaching from the marina to the east too. Below, the lifeguard had reached the rock shelter which held the boys, and he examined George, taking his pulse and checking his breathing, and, to Magnus’s surprise and outrage, he did not perform CPR, instead being very careful not to move the boy and telling his rescuers not to touch him. The boat took five minutes to arrive at the scene, and carried two muscular, surly lifeguards who moved with purpose. They brought the boat parallel to the rock platform, anchored it, received a quick briefing from the lifeguard crouched over George, and then moved to bring a stretcher down to where George lay, and the three of them very carefully lifted his body onto the stretcher, right side first, and then left, fastened him in, and proceeded to place him on the boat deck, where one lifeguard crouched down and attached something that Magnus couldn’t see to the top half of George’s body, as another held the stretcher down securely. Magnus was lying flat across the rock, head peeking down over the cliff edge, feeling helpless. His crying had subsided as George received aid, but he was still overcome with emotion. The lifeguard watching over the scene down the way from Magnus reported the rescue into his walkie-talkie as the speedboat zoomed into the distance, and jogged back to shore without any regard for the group of boys who’d been observing the scene in panic. A swell of feelings rushed over Magnus as the scene died down. He was in disbelief about what had happened; it felt a dream to him, the boat’s slipstream and anxious nattering of his peers the only proof of its passing. That he had not been present when it happened, that he’d not witnessed it, only exacerbated the feeling, and he could not help but feel guilty that he had not been able to do anything to stop it from happening. He wiped the tears from his eyes and turned his head away from the boys, as he was suddenly conscious of his appearance. He lifted himself off the chalky rock and patted the residue off his front. The possibilities of what had happened to George raced through Magnus’s mind. Had he broken his back? Had he drowned? If so, why wasn’t the lifeguard performing CPR? Magnus thought himself dizzy, each new theory contradicting and superseding the one that came before it. The boys were already halfway to the coast, and Magnus stood alone, hands powdery with chalk and eyes blood-red and burning. ** The Alexander the Great hospital was a behemoth of a building standing alone on the outskirts of the capital city. Its weathered walls and barred windows bore the hallmarks of public sector neglect, and its sour-faced doctors did not have much patience or sympathy for foolhardy and reckless tourists. Magnus naively thought that George would be a special case; that he’d be given VIP treatment and that hospital staff would stop at nothing to provide him with the utmost of care, but, as he crowded around with the rest of the kids at reception, the sulky nurse behind the counter didn’t even look up at the supervisor asking for direction’s for George’s room, instead pointing him down the east hall with her pen and spitting a couple of foreign words brusquely. The rest of the staff weren’t much better. Throughout the day, rumors had been going around about the state of George’s health. At first they were ominous – he’d broken several limbs or been paralyzed. Baseless and sensationalized hearsay. But, as the day went on, the information had become more credible, and, after grilling a supervisor, Magnus learned that George had broken several bones and suffered a concussion. He was the first to find out, and soon everyone knew, and they’d arranged a trip to the hospital to wish him well. Some of the girls carried flowers, but the boys had brought nothing. Many of them had not shown up either, including some who were on the cliff that morning. It might’ve been pride, shame, or guilt, but whatever it was, to Magnus it was inexcusable. He’d taken a tally on the bus on the way – the bus that was meant to be ferrying him and George side-by-side to the museum that day. “In here. Be quiet please, he must rest.” The nurse spoke in a heavy accent, pointing the well-wishers to one of the doors towards the end of the wing. George was out cold. He was sedated on a gurney and had a brace around his neck. A pulse monitor by his bed beeped steadily, and an IV drip was attached to his wrist. The kids had been warned by the supervisors that George may not have been conscious, and that they were to drop off any gifts they had brought for him enjoy when he came to, and to provide words of encouragement, if they so wished, even if he wasn’t awake to hear them. The girls crowded the table by his bed with bouquets of flowers and spoke to George quietly, wishing him well. Some even touched or patted him lightly. It was clear to see just how popular George was. The boys, on the other hand, hung back, shuffling their feet or clasping their hands nervously. Hanging a few meters back, Magnus stood by them, and he could barely stand to look at George in this state. It was unnatural. It was wrong. Just two nights ago he’d been sleeping like an angel in his room, and now his face was a ghostly shade of yellow and cables twisted and coiled eerily out of his body. It was not the state a boy like George should be in, thought Magnus. For the first time, he appeared vulnerable, and it put Magnus at profound unease. He turned his head to look at the flowers brightening up the side of the room by George’s bed, and slid his hand down his left side and fingered the outline of something in his pocket. He looked down, looked back at the table, and then sighed, and decided against it. Surrounded on one side of the bed by a semicircle of girls, George cracked his eyes open slightly. There were gasps and quiet murmurs from the girls, and the boys took a step closer to see what the commotion was about. It was almost too much for Magnus to take; he didn’t know how to react. One of the girls stroked George’s shoulder, beaming from ear to ear, and George, smiling, turned his head slightly to look at his guests. As he scanned, he caught Magnus’s eye briefly, but didn’t react in any way. All Magnus could do was stand rooted to the spot and observe. The girls offered him encouraging words, and told him to rest. In the back of the room, the supervisor stood by the doctor’s side, arms crossed and smiling, overlooking the scene. George only had his eyes open for a few seconds before resuming his repose, and it seemed like he was back to sleep within seconds. “Come on everybody,” the supervisor whispered from behind them. “Let’s leave him to rest now. He needs to recover.” Everyone seemed pleased that George had shown signs of life, and it seemed enough for them to leave him now, content that recovery was within reach, but for Magnus, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to sit by George’s side for the rest of the night – if he wanted me to, he thought, feeling insecure. And part of him was upset that George hadn’t acknowledged his presence in the room. The kids filed out, Magnus lagging behind and turning around for one last look before he left. He felt the outline of the object bulging through his pocket, and a lump formed in his throat. All of a sudden he felt a sense of urgency, as though he was about to miss something important. The air hit them like an oven as they left the air-conditioned hospital. The feeling of urgency threatened to completely overwhelm Magnus as the kids made their way to the bus stop, and finally, it pushed him to march towards the supervisor, almost against his will, and ask when George would be discharged. “Magnus,” the supervisor started, almost searching for a way to say the words, “George’s being flown home tomorrow. He’ll be in hospital over there a while longer.” Magnus’s heart sank. He was struck with a feeling of disappointment and sadness so intense it felt like a bottomless pit in his stomach. He swiveled his head around to look at the hospital, as though it may provide some kind of answer, and then back at the bus stop, heart pounding, body urging him to take action. Without realizing it, he’d been nervously bouncing on the spot. He turned around one more time, and then, barely taking the conscious decision to do so, he darted back towards the hospital, legs moving at their own will. The supervisor’s protestations were a faint blur in the background as he zipped through the automatic doors and ran up through the sterile, white hallways to the east wing on the second floor. As he approached George’s room, he slowed to a brisk walk so as not to arouse suspicion, found the door, held onto the knob, looked around to see if anyone had spotted him, and when he’d confirmed that it was all clear, he pushed the door in gently. George was still asleep, the heart monitor beside him beeping steadily. As he shut the door behind him, Magnus felt a certain gravity, being alone with no sound but George’s simulated heartbeat. It was a wholly different experience to sharing a hotel room with him. The lights were dimmed, and George was still out cold. No sound leaked in from the door behind Magnus. He stepped forward towards the bedside table adorned with bouquets and cards, slipped his hand down his left pocket and extracted the pack of white KitKats. He looked down at them, then back at George, and a lump formed in his throat. Whether he wanted George to see him do it or not, he didn’t know. The chocolate found a home in a gap between a single rose and a bouquet of white germini, and bore no label or trace of its origin. “Magnus.” He’d been staring at the chocolate and hadn’t noticed George’s eyes open, and as soon as he heard his name whispered wearily, he whipped his head and saw George slowly closing his eyes. His heart beat at a hundred miles an hour, and he stood perfectly still, staring at George, checking for signs of life, but the boy lay in suspended animation, as he had been earlier. He had no idea what to do next. The pulsing of the heart rate monitor on the other side of the bed was echoing furiously in his head. Magnus stood rooted to the spot, trying to figure out whether George had consciously called his name. Surely he was still concussed, still dazed, not yet aware of his surroundings? Surely he was half-asleep, and just dreaming? Only a few seconds after he’d shut his eyes, George turned his hand around slowly so that it was facing up. It felt deliberate to Magnus. Something inside him stirred him into action. Breathing heavily, he took a step forward, raised his shaking arm slowly, and turned to look at George’s face. His expression hadn’t changed. He lifted his right hand, heart threatening to beat clean out of his t-shirt, and put it on George’s. The emotion was so intense that he started to shiver. The pulsing of the heart rate monitor began to pick up speed, so much so that Magnus was afraid it may alert the hospital staff, and he wondered if George was conscious of what was happening. Then, George tightened his grip and held on to Magnus’s hand, and Magnus knew that he was.
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