Porto Cristo, 4th June 1997
Rafa turned eleven the day after he saw his grandfather conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Manacor. That day, the music still echoing in his head, he stood on a rock on the shoreline by the house in Porto Cristo and dived deep and then bobbed to the surface. He floated, arms spread out wide like a Vitruvian boy, losing himself in the depths of the sky. It was only when his uncle Miguel Angel came splashing towards him, calling his name, that he realised he’d been caught in a current and was floating out to the vast sea, and that was the last time Rafa ever allowed himself drift into unknown depths. He still thinks of that occasion with fear. And yet sometimes, when he falls to the ground at the end of a hard-won final, that moment inexplicably comes to mind. The sensation of floating somewhere between the earth and the sky, free in a great blue expanse, nothing in his mind but joy.
Porto Cristo 1998
In the night, the voices of his parents and his uncle come up from the deck below, rising on the glow of outdoor lanterns. They grate against his eardrums with their sharp edges. He surrounds his head with his pillow but he can still hear them, their muffled cadences failing to hide the fact that they are arguing again. He hears a fist on the table--his father’s, his uncle’s, he doesn’t know--and his mother’s voice saying “Stop! You’ll wake him!”
“I’m awake,” he murmurs under his breath, releasing his grip and letting the pillow fall away.
He lies on his bed in the half-light, his sheets sweaty and tangled, and stares at the shadowy posters on his walls. Real Madrid players, every single one of them. And on a shelf, dimly gleaming, the trophies he’s won. His father put the shelf up earlier in the summer, and when Rafael asked if there’d be enough room for the trophies he was going to win next year, his father laughed and ruffled his hair. “We’ll put up another shelf whenever you need it,” he said.
Now his father is down on the deck, his voice tight and choked with the effort not to shout. “He’s too young, Toni,” he’s saying. “You push him too hard.”
“Nonsense,” says Toni, gruffly.
“It’s not nonsense,” says his father, followed by a murmur from his mother, and then his father again, more quietly. “It’s not nonsense. He’s exhausted. He’s hardly able to talk when he comes home in the evenings. You don’t see him here, so tired.”
“If he’s tired, it’s because he’s getting too much homework,” says Toni. “Pointless him doing that. His future is tennis.”
“His future is whatever he wants it to be,” says his mother, almost hissing in her effort to keep her voice down. “And we will give him every opportunity possible.”
A quiet moment, then. The slosh of wine in a glass. His father, thinks Rafael. Not usually one to drink, but when he’s angry, he’ll finish any open bottle.
“Look,” he says then, in a tone that conveys an exhortation to be reasonable. Rafael knows it will annoy Toni even more, the way it always does. “There’s something wrong. He comes home exhausted and then at night he hardly sleeps. I see his light on at two, three in the morning.”
“I know what’s wrong with him,” says Toni. Something flashes in Rafael’s chest at that. Anger that Toni would say that to his own parents, acting like he knows him better than they do. Maybe if he had more energy, he’d get up, lean out the window, and scream, shut up, Toni. “He’s tired because he’s going to school, he’s playing tennis, he’s playing soccer. He has to pick one.”
“Two,” says his mother. “He’s twelve years old, Toni. He’s staying in school.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” says Toni. “School. And between tennis and football, tennis is the obvious choice. He has skills as a footballer, but Miguel Angel will tell you, his future is not in La Liga.”
Another stab of anger. Toni should shut up, and everyone should stop talking about him as if he didn’t exist. Miguel Angel, too. Rafael looks around at his posters in the half-dark. He could play in La Liga if he wanted. If he didn’t have the natural talent, he’d just work till he was good enough.
“It’s Rafael’s choice,” says his father. “Not ours or yours or Miguel Angel’s. We’ll ask him.”
A reluctant grunt from Toni, and the sounds of wine glasses on the wooden table.
It’s not long after that that he hears the scrape of chairs against the deck and the stalemate goodnights that always punctuate these arguments, followed by the bang of the side gate that signifies Toni leaving. Then the clink and scrape of glasses and dishes as his parents clean up the table.
“He means well,” comes his mother’s voice, her tone suggesting that she’s trying to convince herself as much as her husband. “It’s just how he is.”
“He doesn’t know what’s best for our son,” says his father, closing the door into the kitchen, clicking the lock closed behind him. The deck falls quiet, nothing but the occasional chirrup of a late cricket or the call of some nocturnal bird breaking the dim silence. From further away, at the base of the slopes that tumble to the rocky shore, comes the rhythmic hush of the sea. It sounds restless to Rafael, a ceaseless susurration.
He’s sixteen. July is warm and heavy, even this late at night, and he’s down on the rocks with Xavier. He’s just back from Wimbledon, where he reached the semis of the Juniors. “Worth a drink, isn’t it?” said Xavi, earlier, when their parents were on the deck talking. He sneaks a bottle of white wine down to the end of the garden and they scramble down till they’re just above the sea. Then Rafa waits ten minutes while Xavi goes back to get a corkscrew. He shimmies back up the rocks with his lithe swimmer’s body. He used to play tennis with Rafa, Tomeu and Miguel Angel--a friend, not named after his uncle--before he took up swimming, the only sandy-haired, blue-eyed boy in a group of dark-eyed Mallorcans. They called him il Madrileño, the boy from Madrid, even though it’s only his grandfather who is Castilian.
“Do you even know how to use one of these?” says Rafa, when Xavi scrambles back.
“Sure,” says Xavi, but he doesn’t. He mangles the cork, and every now and then, as they’re passing the bottle back and forth, they have to pick bits of it from their lips and tongues and flick them into the sea.
“So were there lots of girls? In London?” says Xavi, when they’ve drunk about a quarter of the bottle and it’s already making their heads swim.
“No,” says Rafa, too quickly.
“Come on,” says Xavi. “There were, weren’t there?”
Rafa’s never been comfortable talking about these things, even with Xavi, but maybe the wine is making him feel mellow enough. “Yeah,” he admits, grinning. “There were some girls. Two girls.”
“Not at the same time,” he clarifies, taking a swig of wine. He makes a face thinking about that. He wouldn’t know what to do with two girls, if he’s honest. “One before the tournament. One after I lost.”
“Did you… you know?”
“No,” says Rafa. “I mean, like, not all the way.”
“Tell me,” says Xavi, sitting close to him on the rock. He gets really touchy-feely when he’s drunk.
“No,” says Rafa, squirming a bit, though not away from Xavi. Just from the idea of telling him.
“Come on!” Xavi take two mouthfuls and Rafa wrenches the bottle back from him.
“Don’t drink it all,” he says.
“Did they suck your dick?”
“Shut up, Xavi,” says Rafa. He doesn’t know why other boys always want to talk about this stuff. He remembers the girl on the night after he lost with her dark brown, kind of curly hair, and her pink lip gloss that tasted of strawberries when he kissed her. One of the junior girls who was staying in the same hotel. They couldn’t really talk much, since his English was so bad and her Spanish was about the same, with an appalling accent. It hardly mattered, though, since it wasn’t like he had brought her up to his room to chat. He was happy making out on his hotel bed, getting his hand inside her jeans and hers inside his, but then she went down on him and left him blissed out and he fell asleep. Later, when he woke up, he wondered if he should have repaid the favour and gone down on her, but he hadn’t thought of it and she was gone, so he was left with a vague sense of foolishness, a suspicion that she thought he was just a kid who didn’t know what he was doing.
“Come on, Rafael,” says Xavi, sighing and putting his arm around Rafa, squeezing his shoulders. “You never tell me anything.”
“Why do you want to know?” says Rafa.
“Because I don’t get to kiss anyone,” says Xavi. Rafa knows this isn’t true--Xavi has been with girls from school and girls in Madrid, when he goes there with his parents--but he lets it lie. “Hey,” continues Xavi. “Did you hear that Tomeu and Miguel Angel kissed at Marisol’s party last week?”
“Seriously?” Rafa feels a sudden stab of something that he can’t quite place. Annoyance, maybe. Or jealousy. Something.
“Yeah. They made out in front of everybody for a whole minute.”
“What, like… they’re...?”
“No, no. It was a dare. Marisol said she’d raid her parents’ wine cabinet if they did.”
“Oh. And did she?”
“No. She got some more beers though.”
“I hate missing everything.” Rafa sighs and takes another mouthful of wine. It’s getting lukewarm now, a little sickly sweet, but he’s too tipsy to care.
“You nearly won Wimbledon,” Xavi points out, squeezing Rafa again and pressing his head against his temple.
“Ha,” Rafa says. “No, I didn’t.”
“I lost in the semifinals of the Boys’ Singles, Xavi. I didn’t nearly win anything.”
“Well, it’s still worth missing a stupid dare for, isn’t it?”
“Mmm,” says Rafa, noncommittally. It is, of course, but right now his heart is aching for his friends and the things they do together that he doesn’t get to be part of. “A minute is a long time to make out with someone just for a dare.”
“Yeah,” says Xavi. He takes a deep mouthful of wine and passes the bottle to Rafa, who does the same. It’s half gone now, and it’s turned syrupy and warm with the heat of the night and their hands. Out across the sea the moon is hanging fat over the horizon and the water beneath it licks and ripples like liquid silver. “Do you want to?” says Xavi, pushing his nose against Rafa’s ear.
“Want to what?”
“Make out. For a minute.”
Rafa turns to look at him. Xavi is almost too close to see properly, he’s just a collage of hazy eyes and soft lips. “Are you crazy?” he says, but without as much vehemence as he was expecting to feel.
“Whatever,” says Xavi, sighing and leaning his chin on Rafa’s shoulder. “You just seemed so bummed to have missed it, that’s all.”
“That’s not…” Rafa sighs. “That doesn’t make sense, Xavi.” He takes a deep gulp of wine, still watching Xavi from the corner of his eye.
“Hey,” says Xavi, grabbing for the bottle before it’s all gone, but Rafa places it carefully into a crevice in the rock behind him and then kisses Xavi on the mouth.
The streetlights are flickering on across the street, where it’s already getting dark in the shadows. The sidewalks are deserted; it’s too late for shopping or going home from work, and too early for going out, so Miguel Angel’s voice echoes in the street. “Rafaaaaaaa,” he says, holding his arms open wide and flinging them around Rafa’s shoulders.
“When did you start calling me that?” says Rafa. He hugs him back and smacks a wet, affectionate kiss on his cheek.
“Gross,” he says, wiping it off with the back of his hand, but he’s grinning and patting the side of Rafa’s head. “Since you’re becoming a famous tennis player. Rrrrrafa Nadal. It’s got a ring to it.” He leans in like a conspirator and says, “By the way, I already had a drink.”
“No shit,” says Rafa. “Xavi’s already here, and Tomeu. Come on.” He drags Miguel Angel in through the entranceway to the courtyard of the apartment complex where the Nadals live, right in the centre of Manacor.
“You have your own apartment now?” says Miguel Angel, following Rafa up the stairs.
“Yep,” says Rafa. It’s on the third floor. Rafa just moved into it a couple of months before, but already it’s full of his clutter. Inside the door are piles of trainers and tennis shoes, and in the kitchen he has a collection of empty water bottles and energy drink bottles and jars of Nutella. He calls it a collection, anyway, because he cannot seem to find the time to sort it all for recycling. “This way,” he says to Miguel Angel, bringing him through to the living room, where the floor by the TV is a tangle of wires connecting up the Playstation and the DVD player. Xavi is on one end of the couch and Tomeu on the other.
“Bro,” says Tomeu, jumping up and hugging Miguel Angel.
“Get off me,” says Miguel Angel, hugging Tomeu right back. He ruffles Xavi’s hair, saying “How’s it going, Madrileño?” and sits heavily into the armchair. “Are there beers?”
“Asshole,” says Xavi, running his fingers through his hair to straighten it. “Here.” He passes a beer from a cooler. “Rafael was sitting there.”
Miguel Angel looks up, all faux-innocence, opening his bottle of beer and drinking deep. “Oh?” he says. “I didn’t see him here when I came in.”
Rafa shakes his head and takes his bottle of San Miguel from the coffee table in front of the armchair. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “I’ll sit here.” He sits down between Tomeu and Xavi.
They play soccer games till late. Rafa is nursing a his one beer--he has training in the morning, always training--but he loves it when Miguel Angel and Tomeu become garrulous and giggly, losing more and more as the night continues and their reflexes slow down. He and Xavi clock up win after win. Rafa is aglow with victory. Soon Miguel Angel has abandoned the armchair to sit on the floor by Tomeu, where they pass the controller back and forth, but Rafa doesn’t go back to the armchair. He likes the feeling of Xavi beside him. He can’t help but wonder if the frisson he feels when they touch is just his imagination, or if the looks Xavi gives him after a particularly fine goal or after they’ve won a game carry the weight of meaning he thinks they might. They never spoke about what happened that night in the summer. They kissed on the rocks for what seemed like a long time, squirming closer to each other, panting now and then with lost breath and then getting back to it. There was a kind of energy there that thrilled Rafa far more than the girl in London had, a kind of abrasiveness that set his nerves alight. But they had done no more than slide their arms around each other’s waists when voices came across the lawn calling Xavi to go home. They sprang apart, suddenly burning with embarrassment, their ears hot and their lips bruised and shining in the moonlight. Xavi wiped his mouth and laughed, which broke the tension a little, and Rafa grinned and picked up the wine bottle and tried to hide it behind his back as the two of them crossed the lawn towards the glow of lights at the back of the Porto Cristo house. “Here,” said his father, holding out his hand as they ascended the three steps to the deck. Rafa sheepishly handed over the bottle, nothing but a warm swill left in it now. “You’ll regret that when Toni comes to get you in the morning,” said his father, as Xavi said goodbye, his parents ushering him towards the car. “You better drink some water.”
Rafa did regret the wine but he regretted nothing else. Yet he and Xavi had never spoken about it or come close to it again. At the time, he had meant it as a mischief, a game between him and Xavi, maybe to see who would flinch first, who would draw back and call it enough. But neither of them had, and now it’s an unspoken history between them. Sometimes he lets himself remember it, really call to mind all the sensations of Xavi’s lips and his tongue, the light stubble on his upper lip and his chin, his hands placed on Rafa’s waist like he was holding something he was trying to claim but wasn’t sure how. Rafa wants it again. So he sits beside Xavi and allows himself to accidentally brush against him, to whisper game strategies close in his ear, his hand curled against Xavi’s cheek, their legs and bodies pressed together.
Eventually Miguel Angel has enough of being beaten. “No more!” he says, flinging the controller dramatically to the floor.
“Watch it!” says Rafa.
“It’s fine,” Miguel Angel replies. “But I’m not! I’m sick of losing. I want to watch a movie. What have you got? Have you got The Matrix?”
“Oh my god, Miguel Angel, not again,” groans Tomeu, but Miguel Angel is already rummaging through the DVD boxes to find it. Rafa doesn’t care what they watch. He’s suddenly distracted by the feel of Xavi’s hand brushing up his thigh over his sweatpants in a way that might have just been an accident as he shifted in his seat or might have been intentional. The uncertainty tightens his stomach and churns up his thoughts. As the opening credits to the movie roll, he calculates in his mind the way Xavi is pressing against him, trying to discern some secret message in it, and wonders if they are so close together because even though Miguel Angel is on the floor he’s still managing to take up half the middle of the couch, or if it’s something else. The movie is just a backdrop to this far more important drama playing out in his mind, so when the end credits roll, Rafa is almost taken by surprise. “Are they asleep?” Xavi murmurs.
Rafa looks across at Tomeu, who is gently snoring, his neck at an awkward angle against a cushion on the couch. Miguel Angel is sprawled out, still leaning up against the couch, but his breathing is even and he is still. “I think so,” says Rafa.
When he turns back, Xavi is looking at him intensely and he says, “I think I’m a bit drunk.”
Rafa knows he isn’t, because neither of them even opened a second beer, but he’ll play along. “Me too,” he says, hoping he looks fuzzy-eyed enough to make it believable.
Apparently he does, because with that, Xavi kisses him.
They make out just for a moment, hardly more than a press of mouths, until Miguel Angel moves and grunts and they freeze, terrified for a moment that they’ve been seen, but he’s just shifting so he’s lying down on the rug, his head pillowed on his arms. “Come on,” whispers Rafa, standing up and taking Xavi’s hand. It’s sweaty against his own and Xavi is clutching at him in fitful spasms. Rafa closes the door to his bedroom and turns to kiss Xavi again.
And there it is. That sensation he remembers, the one that feels like something has ignited in his belly. He feels like his skin is electrified. The surge of Xavi’s tongue in his mouth is a delicious shock. He feels like their bodies slot together in ways he has never experienced before. He drags Xavi towards the bed and then pulls back and says “sorry”, since it’s unmade and a mess. Xavi shrugs and lets Rafa pull him down onto the tumble of sheets and duvet.
They kiss and squirm some more, side by side. Rafa can feel Xavi’s dick in his sweatpants. His own is hard, too. He rolls his hips, and when Xavi gasps he pushes a hand between them. He feels Xavi through his pants and rubs him up and down, and then feels Xavi fumble between them and do the same for him. He is lost in the sensation and is hardly aware of what he’s doing when he shoves his hand inside Xavi’s waistband and takes a hold of his cock for real. All the hot, silky hardness of it in his fist. It feels incredible. It fits perfectly in his palm. And then Xavi copies him, wrapping his hand around Rafa’s cock, and it feels like bliss. They jerk each other off, hardly kissing any more, just open mouths panting close to each other.
“This is so gay,” says Xavi, half-breathless.
Rafa doesn’t know what to say to that so he just laughs a little.
“I like girls, you know,” says Xavi, after another moment’s feverish jerking off.
“I know, me too,” says Rafa. He ignores the lurch of his treacherous heart and kisses Xavi again as if that’s all he wants, just sensation in the absence of girls, when more and more he knows what he wants is Xavi.
He’s back at practice before Christmas. “Focus!” barks Toni, when he daydreams. Rafa hides his blushes, almost believing Toni can see the images in his mind. Rafa has long accepted Toni’s insights into him, as if he is a language that Toni is particularly adept at reading. When he was a child, Rafa believed it when Toni told him he could make it rain and turn himself invisible. Toni would tell him stories: “When I won the Tour de France,” he’d begin, with the repressed glee of adults misleading the young. “Of course, that was before I climbed Everest,” he’d tack on to another story. Little Rafael filed all these facts away in his mind, only to be recalled by the teenager as embarrassing pinpricks of foolishness. “How could you learn to sort truth from lies if no one ever lied to you?” Toni says, with his outlandish pragmatism. So different from his father, who keeps his own counsel, or his subtly astute mother. Toni is philosophy in action. Doing, saying; for him there is no difference. His soul is iron, unbendable and resonant, and in the end it’s this iron that Rafa feels in his bones, making him stronger.
He forges through 2003, climbing up the rankings, winning two Challenger titles, and ending the year in the top fifty. He’s climbing into the tour proper. 2004 begins in Australia, then Stuttgart, Indian Wells. After that, Miami. Miami, where the sun shines on a shiny world, where colour is salt-saturated, where people have tried to build paradise over swamps and backlots. Key Biscayne feels half-real, a satellite of the city but outside of its limits. The shimmering sea surrounds it like a mirage. Rafa practices and plays and feels himself fierce, playing entirely inside himself, his body like an overpowered dynamo. He cuts his way through the first and second rounds, both matches intense. Then, in the third round, he’s going to play Roger Federer.
“Play to his backhand,” says Toni, for the tenth time. “That’s where you’ll wear him down.”
Rafa doesn’t mind the repetition. It’s like a mantra. Play to his backhand. Play to his backhand. “Yes,” he says, nodding.
“He’ll serve past you. He’ll come to the net and pass you. Just accept it and move on. The next point, that’s all you have to worry about.” Toni straightens his cutlery on his plate. They’re in the hotel restaurant, where the windows look out over the nighttime sea, glimmering in the lights from the shore.
“Yes,” says Rafa again. They’re used to the routine. Over and over, so by the time Rafa walks on court it’s ingrained in his mind. In his muscles. Every nerve ready.
The next day he warms up with Carlos Moya. He sees the court like geometry, the shapes he needs mapped out on it across the painted lines. The air sticks to him, the day windless and humid. He hits through it. Perfect arcs, perfect spins. He’s ready.
Roger Federer. He’s so cool in the tunnel, like he doesn’t even break a sweat. Rafa stands behind him, the cameras focusing on Roger, his ponytail neatly tied over his bandana. Rafa has tried a ponytail but he doesn’t feel like it’s him. It’s very Roger, so controlled. Roger nods a polite hello and Rafa nods back. If he wasn’t already in the zone, he might be shy to be near him. He might be intimidated, even. Thirty-sixth in the world against number one. But nothing can reach him here. All that exists is him. Everything else is a momentary distraction.
He plays like a dream. Roger Federer, number one in the world, humbled by his forehand. At the time it seems so obvious. Of course Roger can’t return his forehands, of course his one-handed backhand doesn’t work against his spin. Of course he wins at the net. Rafa feels it fill him up, the confidence, the certainty, until that’s all that’s left in him. Certainty. Roger is going to lose. He is going to win.
“You beat Federer!” says Toni, hugging him one-armed as they go through the airport. “That’s important.”
Rafa grins. “Yeah, I did,” he says. He can’t even feel too down about the loss to Gonzalez after that. It’s natural, he supposes, to feel an anticlimax after such an important win.
“Straight sets over the world number one.” Toni is almost gleeful. “That’s it, that’s the right way to go. Up the rankings.”
He’s hardly home a few hours before he goes out to a club with Miguel Angel and Tomeu and some of the others. Xavi is there. He doesn’t care how badly he dances. He beat Roger Federer, everything is good. Marisol is dancing with her girlfriends, Maria Francisca and someone else. In the sweaty press of bodies Rafa leans into Xavi and says, “Want to hang out together after this? You and me?”
Xavi says “Okay” in his ear. Rafa keeps dancing till the club throws them out. They stumble through the streets of Manacor, high and tired, and everyone drifts off till it’s just Rafa and Xavi left. Rafa slings his arm around Xavi’s neck. They walk hip to hip, passing late night coffee places, people still spilling out onto the street, and alleys that smell of damp stone and piss. They pass under the neon lights of old tobacco shops and shuttered newsagents. Rafa pulls Xavi towards him as they walk through a pool of shadow between streetlights and kisses him on the cheek. Xavi laughs a little and says, “You weren’t even drinking.” He doesn’t need to, to feel like this. He’s just happy to be close to him.
It’s been nearly two years now. Two years of never knowing when it’s going to happen because they never talk about it. Sometimes it’s twice in one week, sometimes it’s months apart, when he’s away on the tour or Xavi is in Madrid, or when they’re both home and it just doesn’t happen and Rafa almost thinks it’s over when they start it up again. They’re one thing when everyone is around and another when they’re alone. It started with secretive handjobs, but by now he’s sucked Xavi’s dick countless times and Xavi has sucked his. They go to one house or the other to play video games and they both know that means they’ll play for a while and then act like it’s an accident when they blow each other. “My mouth fell on your cock,” Xavi says, and they both laugh at a joke worn familiar.
“Quiet,” says Rafa, as they stumble into the courtyard of the apartment block. It’s pointless, they giggle and laugh and hiss “shhhhhh!!” at each other all the way up to his apartment. Rafa slips his key in the door and shuts it behind them and presses Xavi against the wall. None of the pretence of video games. Just mouths together, a surprised grunt from Xavi, before he melts into it.
They go to bed. This time, Rafa has condoms and lube, and Xavi’s eyes open wide when he sees them. “You want to…?” he says.
“I want you to do me,” Rafa says. He’s naked and hard and he’s too intoxicated on the night to be nervous asking.
A look of relief passes over Xavi’s face, and then he frowns again. “Have you ever…?” he said. Rafa shakes his head. “Fuck,” he says, and then he takes the lube. “What do I do?”
“Just…” Rafa takes the bottle back and picks at the plastic wrapping, tearing it off. “Just put this in me. And on you. Then fuck me.” He’s never done it before but he knows what he wants.
“Son of a bitch,” whispers Xavi. Rafa turns over, leaning on his elbows on the bed. He’s breathless. He can hardly wait.
His ankle starts to hurt in Monte Carlo. “A stress fracture,” says his doctor. “I’m afraid the rest of the clay season is out.”
“Don’t worry,” says Toni, though his own face is riven with anxiety. “It’ll heal.”
“Take the weight off it for a while,” his doctor says. He spends the clay season going to and from Barcelona for monitoring, with intensive physio at home. But even with that, there’s so much time sitting bored on the couch, watching movies or playing games. Miguel Angel and Tomeu come by to hang out with him, and Xavi, too. But it’s one of those times when nothing happens, even though it could. Rafa can never explain it, the drawing back that occurs between them, though on the surface they talk and laugh as usual. Well, maybe not quite as usual. Maybe there’s an extra strain to the laughter, an extra second before they make a joke.
Maybe he pushed it too far, asking Xavi to fuck him. Rafa lies in bed in the dark at night and remembers it, the feeling of it. Not just the physical sensation of his body being penetrated--though that’s something he often dwells on, trying to recreate it with one hand while the other is wrapped around his cock--but the feeling he had, pressed down against the sheets, grunting into the pillow. It was like finding himself unexpectedly in a photo he didn’t know had been taken, or hearing people mention him in passing when they were unaware he was around. A sense of recognition so profound that it feels like coming home.
Maybe it’s too much for him, too. Maybe they both know it. Maybe that’s why Xavi sits on the other end of the couch when he comes to hang out.
The torpor of injury, the endless time for thinking, it exhausts him. The disappointment of a stunted clay season. He hardly sleeps. It’s June by the time he goes for a last check-up in Barcelona. “Rafa,” says Toni, in the car on the way back to Porto Cristo from the airport. “Go to bed when we get home. Sleep, okay? You need it. We won’t start training till Monday.”
“Yes, Toni,” he says, with their familiar to-and-fro of order and obedience. This is one of those times when it’s more than just words.
He sleeps till midday. He hardly knows how. He never sleeps so late. When he wakes up he realises the house is strangely quiet; his mother is tiptoeing around in the kitchen, carefully putting lunch together, and it’s a moment or two before she even notices him in the doorway. “Ahhh,” she says, when she sees him. She comes around the island and hugs him. “There you are. Are you hungry?” She’d seen him briefly before he went to sleep and they’d said all they needed to say about his ankle and tennis then.
“Starving,” he says.
“I have your favourites,” she says, going back to the spread of food she’s laying out. “Salami and bread and olives, and I can cook you up some pasta, if you like.”
Rafa shakes his head. “This will be fine,” he says. There’ll be enough pasta when he’s back to training, fuelling up. He sits at one of the breakfast chairs and begins to tuck in. “Thanks, Mama.”
She kisses him on the forehead. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” she says.
“No, don’t worry. I can’t believe I slept so late.”
“You needed it, Rafael,” she tells him. She watches him eat for a moment. “Xavi came by earlier,” she says.
“Yeah?” He folds salami onto slices of bread and stuffs them in his mouth, washing them down with orange juice.
“I told him to come back later, when you might have resurfaced.”
He nods, chewing. “I’ll text him in a bit.”
She pushes his hair back behind his ear. “He’s a good friend, isn’t he,” she says. She’s looking at him fondly, but he can hear a note of concern there, too. “I’m glad you have someone you’re close to, away from, you know. All that.” She makes a gesture indicating tennis, the whole world of it.
He nods. “Yes, Mama,” he says. “It’s good.” He smiles at her, trying to reassure her, though he’s not entirely clear about what. Maybe she knows. Maybe this is her way of telling him.
“Anyway,” she says, drawing back and smoothing out her blouse, even though it’s not wrinkled. “I’ll let you eat. Do you want anything else?”
“Is there anything left over from dinner?” he says.
She smiles indulgently. “I’ll look,” she says, and goes to the fridge.
He’d probably tell her about Xavi if there was something to tell, but he can’t be sure. They’re probably nothing now, anyway. They haven’t touched each other like that in months. All the same, he slips his phone from his pocket. “Hey, Xavi,” he texts. “I’m awake. What’s happening?” Five minutes later his phone buzzes: “We’re at the beach. Come on!”
There’s a bunch of people there - Miguel Angel and Tomeu, of course, and Marisol with a few of her friends. Maria Francisca is there. Rafa has noticed her before, noticing him. She’s pretty and she flirts shyly with him, but then she backs off and pretends to be distracted by some of the other girls before it gets to be too much. He watches Marisol flirting with Xavi, the way she always has in the last year or so, but this time it seems more serious. She puts her hand on his back when she’s pointing something out to him down the beach and he sits close to her on a towel when they’re taking a break after swimming. Xavi calls her “babe” and smiles at her.
“What do you think of Maria Francisca?” Xavi says to him, later, after they’ve kicked a ball around for a while and they’re heading towards the water to cool down.
“What about her?” says Rafa. He knows what Xavi means but he’s feeling sullen.
“She likes you,” says Xavi.
Rafa smiles, trying to hide the clench of his stomach. “So you and Marisol?” he says, instead of giving any kind of answer. Xavi just shrugs.
Later, when they’re heading towards Marisol’s house along the beach, Xavi hangs back to walk beside him. “I wanted to tell you,” he says.
Rafa shakes his head. “It’s fine.”
“It’s just, you know. With the injury and everything.”
“Yeah, I get it,” says Rafa, trying to cut him off.
“Rafael,” says Xavi, stopping him with a hand on his arm. The others have gone on ahead. He doesn’t miss Maria Francisca glancing back at him and then leaning in close to whisper something to Marisol. “Look. The thing between us.”
“Don’t,” says Rafa, through gritted teeth.
“It wasn’t real, was it? It was just an experiment. Just because we…” He looks uncomfortable. He can’t say it. “Well, it doesn’t mean we’re gay, you know?”
Heat flares in his chest. “Xavi,” he says, looking him in the eye. “I’m gay.” It’s the first time he’s ever said it out loud and he feels it washing over him like a wave, like maybe he’s never even really properly thought it before even though it’s been a whisper in his mind for a long time.
Xavi drops his hand. He looks down at the sand, then up along the beach, following the path of the others, and then eventually back to Rafa. “Oh,” he says.
“Yeah,” says Rafa, turning away and continuing on up the beach.
“Wait,” says Xavi, catching up with him. “Does… have you told anyone else?”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“I don’t care,” says Rafa, though he does, so then he says, “Don’t.”
“I swear. I never told anyone about us.”
“I didn’t think you had,” says Rafa, and when Xavi looks a little stung, he’s glad.
A party evolves in Marisol’s place and at first Rafa does his best to hide the foul turn his mood has taken. “You okay?” Tomeu says to him. “Fine,” he answers. Tomeu shrugs and lets him be. Then Marisol kisses Xavi in the kitchen and he stalks out to the deck, where Maria Francisca is standing with a bottle of beer. She’s holding it against her chest with her hand curled around it, taking shy sips now and then, like she isn’t used to it. “Hey,” says Rafa, standing a little closer to her than he might if he hadn’t just seen Marisol and Xavi together.
“Hi,” says Maria Francisca. “So,” she says, as if she’s casting about for a subject. “How long will you be around?” He tells her he’ll be in Porto Cristo for a few weeks, practising before North America. “Cool,” she says. He feels like an asshole, but the way she looks at him with her big, sadly-sloped dark eyes is a distraction, so he stays talking to her. He even goes to get her another beer when she finishes her bottle, sticking a slice of lime in the neck, and she laughs and says, “Thank you.”
“So are you going to be around for the summer?” he asks her.
“Yeah,” she says. “My family just bought a house down the beach.” She points vaguely towards a spot near where his own house is situated.
“I guess I’ll see you around, then,” he says. Her shy smile when he says it is enough to make him feel like an absolute shit.
“Rafa,” says Carlos Moya in Alicante. “Rafael should play.” It’s the Sunday of the Davis Cup semifinal against France and Moya is sick in his stomach, sitting in the locker room hunched over, half way to throwing up.
“Charlie,” says Rafa. “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”
“We need to win, Rafa,” he says, grinning a sickly kind of grin. He’s pale and sweating. “Oh my god. What did I eat?”
No one else is sick but Moya is convinced it’s food poisoning. He’s also convinced Rafa should play in his place in the final singles rubber of the weekend. “Look, Charlie,” says Rafa quietly to him. “Are you sure it should be me?”
“Rafael,” he says. “Why are you here? Here with the team?”
Rafa shrugs. “Because you asked me,” he says.
“No.” Moya shakes his head. “Why are you here? Why did you come?”
Rafa rests his elbows on his knees. He’s here because he doesn’t play football anymore, because he loves being part of a team. Because he loves Spain, as trite as it sounds. “Because I want to be,” he says. “Because it’s important to me.”
“Right,” says Moya. “I’ve known you since you were fourteen. And I have faith in you. I have faith that you can win.”
Faith. Moya’s faith fills him up like an elixir. “Alright,” he says. “If you think I should, I’ll do it.”
“I think you should,” says Moya, so Rafa does.
He wins it 3-2 for Spain and it gets them through to the finals against the US. They choose Seville as the site. It’s not pretty, half an athletics stadium jury-rigged for tennis with stands all around a clay court laid in the vast space. It is such a small thing, a tennis court, amidst the biggest crowd ever to watch tennis. It’s the closest Rafa has ever seen to a gladiatorial ring. This is where they will fight for their country. In Toni’s words, for their lives. For Toni, the language of tennis is the language of life and death. Rafa is suddenly struck with the weight of it. He’s eighteen years old and this is where he’ll fight for everything that matters.
He’s picked for the singles against Andy Roddick. “This is crazy, Charlie,” he says to Moya in the hotel room the night before the first two rubbers.
“The decision is made, Rafa,” says Moya. “What are you going to do, refuse to play?”
“No, no,” says Rafa. “Of course not. But what about Tommy? What about Juan Carlos? They’re older than me. They should play. I shouldn’t.”
“Don’t be a dumbass, Rafa,” says Moya. “Enjoy the opportunity. Play the way you know you can play.”
“I’ll have to play better than that,” says Rafa, laughing a little. “No, but, really, Charlie?”
“Really. Play. Play as well as you’ve ever played, and you’ll beat Andy on clay. I know you will.”
Always Moya’s voice of reason. Always his faith. It’s enough. Rafa hardly sleeps in anticipation.
The match is a chaos of adrenaline, of screaming crowds, of fistpumps and celebrations. He becomes ebullient, borne on the ululations of the crowd, unstoppable. Roddick has no response to his game in the end, falling in four sets. Spain are 2-0 ahead. He loses the doubles with Tommy Robredo against the Bryans, but they expected that. Moya beats Roddick again the next day and they win. Spain, the Davis Cup champions of the world.
The winter hiatus is short, with the Davis Cup, and it flies by. He sees as much as he can of Tomeu and Miguel Angel, though he only sees Xavi twice when he goes out to bars in the town with the whole group. They don’t really talk. Before the New Year, he heads off to Chennai. From there he goes to Melbourne, where he loses in the fourth round to Lleyton Hewitt, but before that, he starts sleeping with Feliciano Lopez. Feliciano, model-handsome, always so much cooler than Rafa feels himself to be. It’s nothing like how it was with Xavi. The Spanish team is a bubble on tour, a world all of its own. They all hang out in each other’s rooms and play video games, like he would with his friends at home, but this time Rafa is surprised to find that he doesn’t have to hide what’s going on. No one cares when Feli flings his arm around Rafa’s shoulders or kisses him sloppily on the cheek. Feli treats him like some kind of prize, like he wants to wear him around town. He’s four years older than Rafa and Rafa likes that too. It feels more grown-up. It starts when Feli leans over towards him one evening, while the others are raucously shouting at the Playstation screen, and says, “Hey, want to have sex later?” Rafa is surprised into silence for a moment but then collects himself and says, “Yeah.” Feli fucks him like he already knows what Rafa wants. Rafa wonders if he’s that obvious.
After that, that’s what Feli says in his texts. “Want to have sex?” They soon get truncated to “Sex?” Rafa sends back a yes or a later or a no (depending on his schedule; “no” is rare) and a few minutes later Feli comes in the door of his hotel room and kisses him and pushes him to his knees. Then he takes him to bed and fucks him hard.
Sometimes Rafa is astonished at how much he loves being in someone’s arms, how much he loves being urgently turned over, his face into the pillow, being fucked. He wonders if he is wired differently from other men. How could he want this so much if he was the same? How could other men forego this if they were like him? Xavi didn’t want it, that was obvious. Feliciano says he prefers topping, so if Rafa really wants to, he’s game, but if not then they’d keep doing it as usual. It has to be something physical, he thinks. He knows his body better than most people ever know their own physical beings--part of being an elite athlete--but this he doesn’t know and he has no idea how to find out.
“God gave you such an amazing ass,” says Feli one night after Rafa has sucked him off and he’s waiting to get properly hard again. Rafa is almost squirming against the mattress with impatience.
“I wish I hadn’t finished you,” he says. He’s lying on his stomach, head cradled in his crossed arms, and Feli is tracing the tips of his fingers over Rafa’s body. “Anyway it wasn’t god. It was me. In the gym. My whole life.”
“We all go to the gym,” Feli points out. “We don’t all get blessed with glorious asses like this.” He leans down and bites it, scraping his teeth and raising goosebumps. Rafa laughs and squirms some more, rolling his hips up against Feli’s face. “Hey,” says Feli. “Want to try something new?”
“What is it?”
“You’ll like it, I swear,” he says, pushing Rafa’s legs apart and kneeling between them. He places his palms on the cheeks of Rafa’s ass and spreads him open. That’s the first time Rafa gets his asshole kissed and licked and he can’t believe how good it feels. From then on it becomes another staple.
Being beaten by Roger in the Miami final in such a close match seems to warm Roger to him, as if there had been a rift he was unaware of but his loss patches it up. Roger hugs him at the net and says, “Too bad,” and Rafa says, “Congratulations.” After that it seems like Roger has decided that they’re friends. In Monte Carlo he asks Rafa for seafood restaurant recommendations, because he wants to bring his girlfriend somewhere amazing, so Rafa tells him about this place he knows a little way along the coast. The next day Roger is in raptures about their prawns and their calamari and their baby octopus salad.
“Your girlfriend liked it?” asks Rafa.
“Yeah, she loved it. We both did.”
Roger’s girlfriend has her own mythos. Nothing like Roger’s, far more aloof and mysterious. Mirka Vavrinec, a constant presence, her face stony watching Roger play. Chewing gum while wearing thousand-dollar diamond earrings. A rock on her ring finger even though they insist they’re not engaged. A tennis player once, then his manager, and now fulfilling a role that is all her own. The role of Mirka Vavrinec.
“Can you even imagine them having sex?” says Feli.
“Shut up, Feli.” He’s packing his bags on the practice court, the old walls of the tennis club looming over him. There’s already clay on everything.
“I bet she’s on top.”
Rafa shakes his head as if he’s completely fed up of the conversation, but then he can’t help thinking about it. “Yeah, probably,” he concedes.
He won Barcelona, now he wins Monte Carlo. After that, Rome, where he hoists the trophy, too. It’s a blazing season, nothing but dirt in his teeth and beneath his feet. Raw energy on the court. He gets to Paris and it’s burning inside him. His first Roland Garros. He can’t wait to get on court and play best of five. Prove himself. And he does. He cuts swathes through the draw. He feels on fire. He doesn’t want to be thought of as a specialist, but he knows the clay gives life to his game like no other surface.
He beats David Ferrer in the quarter final. “Bad luck,” he says to him, at the net.
“You played fantastic, Rafa,” says David. It’s always tough to beat a friend.
“And you’re going to beat Federer in the semi,” says Feli, later, when they’re alone. “And you beat Agassi’s record wins on clay.”
“I don’t know if I’ll beat Roger.”
“You will. You’ll demolish him. I’m fucking the best claycourter in the world.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Feli,” he says. He punches the pillow into a more comfortable shape under his head.
“Don’t want to talk about tennis, or fucking me?”
“I always want to talk about fucking you,” says Rafa. He’s glad Feli stuck around. He misses the sex when he’s gone.
“You want me to turn you over, hmm?” Feli pushes closer to him. “Or do you want to be on your back?”
Rafa sighs out a groan. He pulls Feli on top of him and lets his legs fall apart. “I don’t care.”
Afterwards, when they’re sweaty and still panting a little, stretched out on the bed, Feli looks over at him and says, “Are we boyfriends?”
Rafa’s still in a haze. “No,” he says. “Are we? No, I don’t think so.”
“We just fuck and hang out all the time.”
“Yeah, but, you know.” He tries to gather his thoughts. It’s difficult; his ass is aching gorgeously, and he wants to get up and pee and then fall back into bed and sleep for ages. “Like, do you miss me when I’m not around?”
“I miss the sex,” says Feli.
Rafa lets the back of his hand fall on Feli’s chest. “Exactly. But not me. Because we don’t feel that way.”
Feli looks up at the ceiling in the dim light. “I guess not,” he says.
“Fernando feels that way about you, though,” says Rafa. He’s noticed Fernando Verdasco watch them when they’re all together in someone’s room. He’s seen the fleeting disgust on his face when they sit together on the same armchair and he recognises it. It’s the way he used to look at Xavi and Marisol.
“I know.” He curls around Rafa, putting his head on his shoulder, an arm across his chest. His underarm smells almost spicy with sweat.
“And you?” says Rafa. “Do you like him?”
Feli sighs deeply. He’s witnessed Fernando’s barbs directed towards Rafa, the way he’ll say something scathing and is only half-heartedly apologetic afterwards. The moments of apparent friendship followed by frosty silences brought on by some innocuous touch of hands or a passing reference in conversation that reminds him of their intimacy. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
“Okay,” says Rafa. “Then get off me. I need to take a piss.”
“Usual game plan,” says Toni, the next night.
“Yes,” says Rafa. It’s all he needs to say. Play to his backhand. Play to his backhand. The mantra that works. He and Roger had done a publicity photocall together before the tournament began. It was a beautiful day, the deep green smell of ivy on the outside walls of Chatrier carried on the airy sunshine. The spectators who had wandered in for the Qualifications had mostly abandoned the stands on the outside courts and gathered around watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Roger smiled and put his arm around Rafa, and Rafa grinned and played with his racket and tried not to fidget too much. Above them a small plane dragged a banner around the sky, wispy with cirrus, proclaiming Roland Garros to have begun.
“You looking forward to your first French Open?” says Roger.
“Yeah,” says Rafa, shyly. It’s one thing among the Spaniards, to be able to talk so frankly about tournaments where one of them may very well be required to beat another, but it’s a different thing with Roger. It’s not something he’d ever say out loud for fear of sounding arrogant--a cardinal sin in Toni’s catechism--but he feels too close to Roger, he wants too much what Roger has. And yet Roger is all easy smiles, a friendly embrace, small talk about this and that. Maybe he has no such ideas. Maybe he thinks he’s nowhere near him.
Somehow, then, it’s Roger’s friendliness that fuels his practices. He quietly wants to make sure Roger knows he’s a threat. He is disciplined and he knows the value of thinking only of the next match, the next opponent, but he considers it foolish to ignore the possibilities ahead of him. So, when finally it comes, after four rounds and the quarterfinals, knowing he’ll face Roger across the net brings him the calm of an expected trajectory. Everything is on course. He’ll play to Roger’s backhand, over and over, till Roger is buried far behind the ad court, and if that doesn’t draw an error then he’ll hit it down the line into the deuce court, where Roger hasn’t a hope of reaching it.
“Happy birthday,” says Toni, barging into his bedroom in the morning. “Get up.” He opens the curtains and sun streams in. Feli groans, complaining, shielding his eyes with his arm. Rafa sits up, the tendrils of a dream just out of reach still fogging his mind. He feels like it’s one he’d like to remember, and if he could just lie down again and doze, maybe he could, but Toni is already fiddling with the windows and flinging them open. “Time for breakfast,” he says. “Practice at 10am. Get up, both of you. It stinks in here.”
“You can’t talk to me like that, you’re not my uncle,” says Feli, squinting out from under his arm, and at Toni’s raised eyebrow he quirks a grin.
They get to the club around nine, ready for practice on Chatrier at ten. They’re serious and quiet, watched by only a handful of people in the stands, and they’re off by eleven so the court can be prepared for the day’s play. Rafa does a little more work on an outside court and he sees Roger nearby, working on his backhand. He watches it for a moment but doesn’t see anything particularly troubling. Roger misses a shot, lands it in the net, then he turns and waves, smiling broadly. Rafa waves back.
He has to do pre-match media, stumbling through English soundbites and then allowing himself to relax into the Spanish ones, wishing they were the other way around so that he could at least organise his thoughts before trying to articulate them in a foreign language. Finally he’s done, and can start his real preparation.
It’s the exact same in Roland Garros as it always is. The rituals of physio, showers, dressing, moving, listening to music, working himself into flow. He barely notices Roger, who has taken up a place in a different alcove of the locker room, though now and then, between songs in his headphones, Rafa can hear him banging his locker closed or carrying on a conversation with someone while running on the spot, warming up.
He says later that it was a closer match than the scoreline suggested and it could have gone either way, but mostly he says that out of respect for Roger and out of his eternal fear of sounding arrogant. In all honesty, once he walks on court, he has a deep-down certainty in his guts that he’ll win, even if he knows it will be tough, as Roger proves in the second set. In the final two sets, he feels as if he’s locked into some kind of private choreography, where each of his moves is working and he is wrenching the lead from the world number one.
Roger leans his head against Rafa’s at the net, a kind of rueful look on his face, and Rafa wonders briefly if Roger is less surprised by the loss than Rafa might have expected him to be. “Congratulations, Rafa,” he murmurs. “Good luck in the final.”
“Thanks, Rogelio,” says Rafa.
Through the adrenaline, he registers a brief look of surprise on Roger’s face, and it’s only later that he realises that in the moment he’d used out loud the name he uses in his head for Roger. Not the Roger he faces across the net but the Roger who hugs him during photocalls and looks at him with warm eyes. He doesn’t know whether to be mortified or not, but later, in the locker room, Roger says “What did you call me? ‘Rogelio’?” and Rafa nods. “I love it,” says Roger, laughing. He clasps Rafa’s hand and hugs him and says, “Congrats again, Raf. See you in Halle, yeah?”
“Sí, for sure,” says Rafa, grinning and hugging him back, and then Roger waves over his shoulder one last time and he’s gone.
He beats Mariano Puerta in the final. He stands in front of the cameras hugging the Coupe des Mousquetaires, a moment he’s been waiting for his entire life. He feels like he’s finally arrived, where he needs to be, and this is just the beginning.
After the tremendous effort of such a season, he’s not surprised that his grass season is a little stunted, so again he goes home, and again he goes to clubs with Tomeu and Miguel Angel. Xavi and Marisol are there too, their arms wrapped around each other, but even though it still stings a little, it has mellowed in Rafa’s chest. Maria Francisca is around as well, though she spends the first night or two vaguely avoiding him.
Then, one night, they find themselves walking side by side down the beach while Tomeu and Miguel Angel clown around ahead of them and Xavi and Marisol dawdle behind. Silence falls between them so that all Rafa can hear is the pounding of blood in his own ears and the soft hush of the waves. Soon after Marisol’s party he’d taken Maria Francisca out a couple of times, but always where there were other people, always where it was loud. “Are we ever going to go on a date, just the two of us?” she’d said to him when he walked her to her door after the second night at the club.
“Probably not,” he’d replied.
“I see,” she’d said. Apart from a few lukewarm hellos, that was the last time they’d talked to each other.
He tries to look at her sidelong and she’s got her arms wrapped around herself, her eyes on the sea. “Look,” he says. “We can be friends, can’t we?” She glances at him but says nothing. “I mean, it’s kind of awkward.”
“Can we be friends?” she says. It sounds like she’s saying it rhetorically, like she’s composing the title of a philosophical thesis. “You used me, you know.”
He nods, burying his hands in his pockets. “I know,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
She glances at him with a smile that isn’t a smile at all, but a recognition of his apology that at once acknowledges and dismisses it. “It was a long time ago,” she says. “But it really hurt. I mean, it’s not like I was in love with you.” She looks up at him earnestly. The lights of the houses they’re passing illuminate her face softly, making her dark eyes gleam. He can’t tell if the sad expression in her eyes is some profound window into her feelings or just the look her eyes always have, exaggerated by the shadows. “But realising what you were doing, the thing with Xavi--”
Rafa stops walking. “What thing with Xavi?” he says. Maria Francisca glances behind them to where Xavi and Marisol are walking with their arms around each other and Rafa realises they might be overheard if they stand still. He starts walking again. “What thing with Xavi?” he repeats, more quietly.
“You’re not a complete mystery, Rafael,” she says to him. She’s still speaking in the mild tones of someone musing on some abstract hypothesis. “You were so angry that night. Later I couldn’t figure out why, until I remembered the way you looked at Xavi and Marisol. But you’d never seemed interested in Marisol at all, so I couldn’t imagine what the matter could be. I thought, it couldn’t be Xavi. And then I realised, why not?” Rafa feels choked. “I mean, I’m not being arrogant, really I’m not. But you asked me out twice and we hardly talked, just the two of us. You barely touched me. At first I thought you were being a gentleman, but then you were so cruel.”
He doesn’t think of himself as someone who can be cruel. “I’m sorry,” he says to her again.
This time she just shrugs. “I know.”
Those days of turmoil after Xavi well up inside him. “It wasn’t you…” he begins, trying to organise his thoughts. They feel caught up in a fog, his brain flooded with emotion. “It wasn’t you.”
She places her palm on his arm and rubs him a little, as if she’s the one comforting him. “I know.”
“Hey!” shouts Tomeu from up ahead of them. “What are you all so slow for? We’re going to build a fire.” He and Miguel Angel have started picking up driftwood from the beach, cradling it in their arms. “Help us make the pit!”
Miguel Angel starts clearing a space and ringing it with stones he’s gathering from the edge of the beach. They’ve done this before, plenty of times, so they all fall into roles, Maria Francisca gathering twigs and small sticks and Marisol running into her house for a lighter. She brings out the long-nozzled one that her father uses for the barbecue. Maria Francisca hunkers down and coaxes the smaller twigs into flame, letting them slowly light the bigger sticks. They sit around the crackling fire in the warmth of the night drinking cokes and mineral water. Marisol is tucked up close against Xavi and Rafa sits between Miguel Angel and Tomeu, with Maria Francisca the other side of Miguel Angel, sidelong to the water. Overhead the sky is starry, with the Milky Way stretching above them and the moon hanging over the still sea.
“What a perfect night,” says Miguel Angel, stretching out. They murmur their assent. “What were you two talking about so seriously?” he says to Rafa and Maria Francisca.
“Nothing,” says Rafa, but he says it too quickly. There’s nothing more likely to pique Miguel Angel’s curiosity than a secret.
“Come on,” he says, nudging Rafa. “We’re all friends here.”
Rafa breathes out a laugh. He looks around his circle of friends and realises he’s never told them. The team knows, all the Spanish guys on the tour, even the ones he doesn’t really confide in. Even Tommy Robredo, who still seems to think of him as an upstart kid, and Fernando Verdasco, who looks at him now and then with venom. The night seems to blossom in his chest, a secret unfurling. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll tell you.” He takes a deep mouthful of coke and waits for his nerves to settle, before realising that they’re not going to. So he forces the words into his mouth. “I’m gay,” he says, simply. He keeps his eyes on the fire, looking at no one in the quiet that falls. “I should have told you before, maybe, but… anyway. I’m telling you now.”
Another moment of terrible silence, panic about to well up inside him, but then Tomeu puts his arm around Rafa’s shoulders. “Hey,” he says. He kisses Rafa on the cheek and ruffles his hair.
Miguel Angel slaps his hand on Rafa’s knee. “You crafty fucker,” he says. “All this time I’ve been jealous of all the girls you must be banging, being a sports star and all.”
“No,” says Rafa. “No girls.”
“Fucking hell,” says Miguel Angel. “What a waste.” It’s so obviously a joke that Rafa has to laugh. “Who are you banging, then? Don’t tell me you’re celibate. That would be really awful.”
“No, not celibate,” says Rafa. He hesitates for a moment, not because he doesn’t want to tell them, but because he’s so unused to feeling able to. Then he says, “Feliciano Lopez.”
“Whoo,” says Miguel Angel. “Well, at least he’s pretty, eh?”
Rafa laughs again and shrugs. He is suddenly light and giddy. His heart feels unweighted and open and he’s flooded with adrenaline and it feels an awful lot like happiness.
Tomeu nudges him. “Tell us more,” he says. “Who else? Only Lopez? Was he the first?”
Rafa shakes his head and shrugs, and he’s about to say something noncommittal when Xavi says, “I was the first.” He says it quietly and silence falls again. Maria Francisca is hugging her knees and Marisol is staring at the fire, her hand clutched in Xavi’s. It’s obvious she already knew.
“Oh,” says Miguel Angel. It seems like this is the real bombshell.
Tomeu is frowning. “Ohhhhh,” he says. “That explains… a lot, actually.”
Rafa is just staring at Xavi, and Xavi is holding his gaze. “Rafa,” he says, reaching out towards him with his free hand, and they touch fingers, like a gentle high five around the fire.
“I once kissed this guy,” says Miguel Angel, reaching around Rafa to punch Tomeu’s shoulder. “Did nothing for me, though.” He pretends to look rueful.
“Yeah, well, you’d do anything for more beer,” says Marisol.
“True,” says Miguel Angel. “I’d kiss you now if you went in and got some.”
“I once kissed a girl,” says Maria Francisca, out of nowhere. Everyone turns to look at her. “She was on holidays here. I met her when we were out one night and we drank too much and we came down here to the beach and kissed for ages.” She’s biting her lip, her eyes a little glazed, like it’s a fond memory.
“Tell. Me. More,” says Miguel Angel.
“Shut up,” she says, laughing. “It was just one time. I don’t want to do it again. But it was nice.” She looks as if she’s surprised even herself by saying it. Rafa feels a surge of affection for her, this delicate girl and her unexpected revelation.
“I guess I’m the boring one,” says Marisol. “I’ve only ever kissed guys.”
“How many?” says Xavi, feigning jealousy.
“None as good as you,” she says, pretending to mollify him.
Xavi kisses her and grins and suddenly Rafa finds that it doesn’t sting anymore. He can’t begrudge the easy love they have.
“So what’s the deal with Feliciano?” says Miguel Angel. “Are you guys dating? Boyfriends? What?”
“No, no,” says Rafa, shaking his head. “Not boyfriends. Just, you know.”
“I get you,” says Miguel Angel, with a salacious grin. “You’re just hitting that. I respect your choices. Staying available for all the other hot dudes.”
“Rafa’s a romantic,” says Maria Francisca. “He’ll wait for the right one and some day he’ll find him.”
“You’re such a sap,” says Miguel Angel, laughing, but Rafa smiles at her across the fire, at her lovely face suffused with such faith, and he feels the bone-deep happiness of being truly known.
The summer is a breeze after that. His heart feels lighter, and with that his limbs. His game is lifted and he’s ready for North America, where he beats Andre Agassi in the Canada Open final. “Agassi, kid!” Toni says to him, hugging him and scrubbing a hand through his hair. He lifts the trophy with an ebullient sense of belonging here on fast hardcourts, supposedly his worst surface. The whole second half of the year opens up gloriously and he wants to keep playing his heart out.
They arrive in Cincinnati on late on Sunday night and he hits with Carlos Moya the next morning. It’s hot and muggy, and when they get back to the hotel they sit out on the balcony of Rafa’s suite, mixing up isotonic drinks from powder and water. “Stay hydrated,” Toni tells him, as if he doesn’t know how important it is, before muttering something about having to call home and leaving the suite. It’s a torpid evening, the sounds of the city muffled in the heavy air, and everyone seems to drift off. Rafa stays with Moya at the table looking out towards the city, their feet up, muscles tired out from training.
“So you like tour life?” says Moya.
“Yeah, sure,” says Rafa. “It’s fine. I mean, I miss home, but I love tennis, so.”
“Yeah,” says Moya. “You’re going to be a great tennis player, Rafa.” Rafa shrugs. It’s not something he doesn’t know, deep inside himself, and he wants it more than anything, but it’s embarrassing to talk about. “The kind of player everyone’s going to know.”
“Household name,” says Rafa, in English. A reporter had asked him how it felt to become one, now that he had reached number two in the rankings, and he had to have it translated for him. The term had stuck in his head.
“Yeah,” says Moya. “And, look, you know, there’s a lot that comes with that.”
“Sure,” says Rafa, shrugging again. He’s seen it with Miguel Angel. He knows what that’s like, at least second hand. People coming up to his uncle in restaurants asking for autographs, mobbing him at Palma airport.
“So you have to think carefully about what you want people to know about you.” Moya is looking at him intently and Rafa suddenly realises it was no coincidence that everyone disappeared from the suite at once, except for Moya.
“What are you talking about?” he says.
Moya sighs. “Look, Rafa, he says. “I know you’re close with Feli. And that’s fine, it’s great, really. I’m glad you have someone. But you have to think about whether or not it’s something you want people to know about you.”
Rafa says nothing. He feels himself turning mulish, provoked by the careful tone Moya is taking. Talking to him like he’s a boy.
“It’s a tough life at this level,” continues Moya. “The press, they’re going to want to know everything about you. And the guys in the locker room, too. Now that you’re number two, people are going to talk about you. And I mean all the time. The tour, it’s all gossip. Everyone has so much down time, so much time just sitting around and talking. You have to think about what you want them to be saying.”
“And what are they saying, Charlie?” he says. He wants to sound jaded and worldly but instead it comes out peevish.
Moya shakes his head. “You know how stupid and ignorant guys can be,” he says. “You know what they’re saying.”
“That I’m gay?”
“I am gay,” he says. “So what if they’re saying it? It’s true.”
“They’re going to treat you differently if they know you’re gay, Rafa. It’s shit, I know, but that’s the way it is in the locker room.”
Moya looks like he’d go punch someone for Rafa, if that would solve anything. Rafa’s stubbornness suddenly feels childish and he lets it dissipate. He shakes his head. “Did you lose a bet or something, Charlie, that you’re the one who had to have this conversation with me?”
Moya breathes out a laugh. “No. Toni was going to talk to you about it with Carlos Costa. I said I’d talk to you instead.”
“Well,” says Rafa. “Thanks for that, at least.”
Moya nods with a rueful kind of smile. “Back in the nineties, there were rumours about a few guys on the tour. I don’t think they had an easy time of it. They’d make a point of being seen with women everywhere they went, but somehow that would just make it worse.” He sighs. “It’s a tough thing to deal with.”
“Were they really gay?” asks Rafa.
“You know, I don’t even know. I mean, I guess some of them had to have been. The top hundred, hundred and fifty guys, doubles too, there are always so many guys around. Some of them had to be.”
“Feli likes girls, too,” says Rafa.
“Yeah?” says Moya. “And you? Girls too, or…?”
Rafa shakes his head. “No,” he says. “No girls.”
“Back when I was younger, I tried,” says Rafa. His shyness has faded a little here with Moya in the quiet of the evening. There’s a kind of relief in actually talking about it. “But it was no good.”
“No. I didn’t…” He gropes around for the words to describe it. “Like, some things felt good, you know? I mean, it’s sex.” He shrugs, laughing a little. “But I just didn’t really like it. Not the way I do now.”
Moya smiles. “Funny how we’re all wired our own ways,” he says.
2005 - 2006
After the win in Canada, he loses first round in Cincinnati and third in New York. Feliciano shrugs and Toni tells him not to worry, there’s still plenty of the season to go. Toni’s right: he wins Beijing, both his Davis Cup matches against Italy, and then in Madrid on indoor hard. That’s when the pain comes in his left foot.
He travels to Basel anyway, even though he can’t play. “We’ll just meet with the tournament directors,” says Carlos Costa. “Keep your foot in the door, so to speak.” He gives Rafa a wry smile.
Benito agrees. “May as well keep them as happy as we can,” he says.
Toni nods. “We’ll tell them you have tendonitis,” he says. “Let’s keep this under wraps till we know what’s going on.” They arrive in Basel late on Sunday evening, Rafa taking care to walk delicately on his foot, and on Monday he has media commitments that Benito advises him to keep. “Sure,” he says. He has nothing else to do. A Spanish journalist comes to his room around four in the afternoon for an interview. He’s hardly begun when there’s a knock on the door.
“Sorry,” says Rafa, getting up from the bed where he was sitting to answer it. Roger is standing there, one foot gingerly raised as he leans on the door jamb.
“Hola, Rafa!” he says.
“Hi!” says Rafa, trying not to sound as astonished as he feels. “Rogelio! How are you?”
“Not too good,” says Roger, holding up his foot. “You? Limping around like me?”
“Sí,” says Rafa, ruefully, ushering Roger into the room. The journalist says hi, trying to mask his delight at witnessing the moment. Roger nods a polite hello.
“So you can’t play?”
“No,” says Rafa. He doesn’t want to trot out the tendonitis lie so he just gestures to his leg, as if that says it all.
“It’s a pity,” says Roger, and he seems to mean it.
“Hey, thanks for the text,” says Rafa. Roger had texted him congratulations for the win in Madrid and he’d meant to text back that morning, but he’d forgotten.
Roger shrugs it off. “It was a great match,” he says.
“I thought I was going to lose, most of it,” Rafa says.
“You didn’t look like it,” says Roger. “I wish I had time to show you around the town. It’s my hometown, you know.”
“Sí,” says Rafa. “I know. Looks beautiful.” He’s hardly seen any of it but on the drive from the airport he was struck by the town’s Northern European beauty. So different from Mediterranean towns, but a similar old-town feel, a place redolent with history. “Sad you can’t play, no? They will miss you.”
“Look at this,” says Roger, toeing off his shoe and lifting his foot to the edge of the bed. He uncovers his ankle and it’s swollen and bruised, still painful looking. It’s the kind of injury that makes people wince and gape at the same time.
“Oh my god,” says Rafa. “Looks terrible.”
“It is terrible,” says Roger, with feeling, though his eyes are lit up like he’s showing off a battle scar.
“Will you play Paris?” Rafa asks.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t look like it.” Roger covers up the swollen ankle again, wincing a little when he puts his foot back on the ground. “It should be fine for Shanghai though.”
“Good,” says Rafa.
“How about you?”
Rafa shrugs. “Not Paris, I think, no?” he says. “Shanghai maybe. Going to see the doctor tomorrow and wait for tests.”
“Yeah,” says Roger. “I hope it heals up quickly.”
“Me too,” says Rafa.
Roger hugs him as he leaves, wishing him good luck with the doctor, and Rafa says, “Thanks.”
“See you soon, okay?”
“Yes, I hope,” says Rafa, and then he’s gone, limping a little as he heads down the corridor towards the elevators.
The journalist is still sitting at the table by the window, looking astonished. “Does he usually visit you like that?” he asks.
“No,” says Rafa. “First time.” Typical of Roger to be so friendly, so at ease. He wishes he could talk to him more easily, the way he might in Spanish, but his English is awkward and he feels tongue-tied and inarticulate.
It turns out that the injury in his foot is more serious than he ever imagined. The doctor explains it in simple terms as an overgrown bone in his foot, a genetic anomaly that he may never even have known about if he hadn’t become an athlete. He sends Rafa to a specialist in Madrid who tells him frankly that there may be no solution. Back in Barcelona, Dr. Cotorro says to let him research it and think about it. Rafa nods silently and returns home to Manacor. Christmas is a gloomy time. Rafa feels pain all the time and whenever there is a quiet moment he sinks into a contemplation of a future without tennis. “You’re good at golf,” says his father. “You could take it up competitively.”
Rafa knows he could never play golf professionally. He’s spent years of his life playing tennis, training to be the best. He’s won Roland Garros. And now this one overgrown bone might end it all. He sits on the stairs in the house in Porto Cristo, hand in his chin, tears streaming down his face, staring at his left foot. He sits there as if it’s some physical representation of the limbo he finds himself in, not upstairs and not downstairs, not a tennis player and not not a tennis player, either. A tennis player without tennis. He imagines the bone inside, the secret time bomb that has been in there since he was born, slowly crippling him.
“Rafa,” says Xisca to him, kneeling below him on the stairs. “Come on.” She’s been coming round on her own sometimes, since the summer. Rafa’s mother likes her and she gets along well with Maribel. “Let’s go outside. I’ll get you some orange juice. Or do you want a beer?”
“May as well give up, start drinking, get fat?” says Rafa. He wants to take it back immediately at the look on her face. “Sorry.”
“Just to stop your mind churning,” she says. “I know how you are. Come on.” She pulls him up despite her diminutive size and manoeuvres his crutches onto his arms. “Get outside. Get some air.”
He follows her out to the deck, the same deck where Toni once decided he would be a tennis player when the treacherous bone was still a secret in his twelve-year-old foot. She sits him down in a chair and takes his crutches, leaning them against the wall of the house, and puts a blanket over his knees. It makes him feel like an invalid. She pulls a chair alongside him and sits there, her heels up on the edge of the seat, her arms curled into her sweater. The wind is cold and the sea is a deep brooding grey flecked with foam from winter storms far out in the bowl of the Mediterranean.
“I got you something,” she says. She digs in her pocket and takes out a keyring, a kitschy kind of thing meant for tourists. It’s gold coloured, in the shape of the island, with “Mallorca” written across it in red. “So you can have it with you on tour.” He takes it in his palm and rubs his thumb over it. “It’s stupid, I know,” she says, shrugging. “It’s just a thing.”
“No, it’s great,” he says to her. “I love it.” He keeps it in his hand, closing his fist around it.
“Your father told me you’re getting new shoes.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Nike are making them.”
“Good. That’s perfect. You can play again.”
Rafa shrugs. “Maybe,” he says. “We haven’t tested anything yet.”
“I just…” she begins, sighing and shaking her head. She pushes her hair away from her face. “I can’t believe you can be so good at this one thing and it could be taken away from you. It’s not fair.”
He’s cried about it for so long, he feels like his eyes are dry. “It’s not fair,” he agrees. “But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.”
She’s the one with tears in her eyes now. She doesn’t look at him, she just keeps staring out at the fuzzy grey horizon, where the sea seems to rise into the sky. “Did you know,” she says, after a moment, “that in ancient times, they thought that the sky was water?”
“No,” says Rafa.
“We learned it in school.”
“I was probably training.”
“Yeah,” she says. He doesn’t know why she said it, but it feels comforting to look out at the sea and into the grey sky and feel himself surrounded, water like a dome around him, living in this pocket of the world that is his own. He wishes he could be happy with that.
Enrique intensifies his physio and Rafa continues fitness training with Joan Forcades, and then heads out to the court, getting used to the new shoes. They cause his thighs and his back to ache at first but soon that goes away. He’s not ready for Australia, but he can get back to the tour in February. In Marseille, he makes it to the semis. After the ordeal of Christmas and having to miss Australia, he’ll take it. Then on to Dubai.
The city is a wonder. A glimmering congregation of spires in the desert, edged by the turquoise, sandy sea of the Gulf. Even in March the heat is already palpable, seeping into concrete and asphalt. It rises from the practice courts, smelling like hot tar and rubber. Feli pours a bottle of water over his head and Rafa can’t help watching the way it runs over his throat and soaks his shirt. “Be careful here,” Toni had said to him when they arrived, and it had made him shiver. Rafa looks away, across the courts, towards the crowds gathered at the other side of the fence.
Roger is on his way. It’s easy to tell. There’s a particular buzz, a kind of anticipation that intensifies whenever he’s around. The volume of voices increases, people start moving in unison, crowding around some unseen centre, until he emerges from a phalanx of security and comes onto the practice court. He flicks his hair back from his forehead and scans the courts from under his heavy brows to see who else is around. His eyes land on Rafa for a moment and he smiles and waves. Rafa waves back. Andy Roddick is hitting with Marat Safin on the court near the gate and Roger stops to talk to them, all easy friendliness. After a couple of minutes Andy slaps him matily on the arm and Roger follows his team to an empty court at the far end of the practice area.
“Sizing up the enemy?” says Feli, at his shoulder.
“Don’t be stupid, Feli,” says Rafa. He bounces some balls up from the ground with his racket. Andy and Marat are hitting with metronomic rhythm, a thock-thock that measures the beat of every other sound. It stops as abruptly as it began when Marat nets a forehand.
“He is, though, isn’t he? You’ll have to fight him for number one.”
Rafa shakes his head. “If I get to number one, it’s because I beat him in tennis,” he says. “That’s not a fight.”
“Yes, it is.”
Rafa tucks a ball in his pocket and heads back to the baseline. Across the courts, Roger is warming up, stretching and jumping. He’s laughing with Severin Luthi and Tommy Haas, who has joined him for a hit. Roger seems to approach practice in an almost lazy way. Sometimes he acts as if it’s all sort of a joke. Maybe it is to him, reflects Rafa. Maybe he’s just that good.
“Alright, come on, then, dreamy!” calls Feli across the net.
Rafa narrows his focus down, serious and calm, the way he has to be at practice, and serves.
“Hey, Rafa,” says Andy Roddick in the locker room. He’s just out of the shower, towel around his waist. “What’s today’s lesson?” He had asked Andy to explain some English to him back in Melbourne and Andy had decided to make it a constant thing. He’d swap English phrases for Spanish ones and then promptly forget the Spanish, while making Rafa repeat the English.
“I don’t know, Andy,” says Rafa. “You the teacher. You choose.”
“You’re,” says Andy, with comical emphasis. “You’re the teacher.”
“Sorry, sorry. You’re the teacher.”
“That’s better.” Andy is scrubbing his hair dry with a towel, his torso glistening with water. Sometimes Rafa silently reflects that gender-segregated locker rooms were not invented with gay people in mind. Andy is robustly heterosexual, however, so whatever thoughts he might have about his abs and his hands and his broad shoulders are fleeting and easily forgotten. “Okay, we’ve covered swear words and basic grammar,” says Andy, throwing his towel onto a bench. “Let’s do some applied use. Arguing with the umpire. Repeat after me: That was out! It’s obvious! What do they pay you guys?”
Rafa laughs. “I would never say this, Andy.”
“You should sometimes. I’ve seen you get the shit end of the stick.”
“Ahhh, idioms!” says Andy. He proceeds to explain the meaning of “the shit end of the stick” to Rafa, who is trying to picture this foul stick in his mind.
“I think it’s ‘the short end of the stick,’ Andy,” interjects Bob Bryan, but that’s even more confusing.
“Whatever,” says Andy.
Rafa figures he’ll never get the hang of this one, but he’ll try. After he beats Rainer Schuttler in the semis, he texts Andy, “He got the shit end of the stick?” and Andy replies, “Yeah, it’ll do. Nine out of ten!” He follows that with a string of smile emojis.
It’s Roger in the final. He wins the first set, but then Rafa wins the second. In the third, he fights for every point as if he’s fighting for his life. In the ninth game he pulls the trigger. Roger has no answer, and he serves it out for the title.
At first it’s a rush of emotion. He falls to the ground, feeling like he’s floating, and then jogs to the net. “Congratulations, again, Raf,” says Roger. He seems more disappointed this time than in Roland Garros. These are the moments when joy is tempered with regret. It’s hard to be completely happy when someone else looks so downcast. He leaves his own seat while the tournament director is giving his speech and joins Roger on his. Roger looks surprised, shifting a little, but he says something and laughs and Rafa is pleased for that, at least. There is a balance to be found between the brutality of a zero-sum sport and the harmony of friendships off the court, and he is still seeking this balance with Roger. For some reason it’s one he desperately wants to find. He doesn’t care about Tommy Robredo and his supercilious glances or Janko Tipsarevic being an asshole in the locker room. He cares about Roger, though, as if there’s some kind of light inside him and he wants to keep it burning.
Being back on the tour and winning a title has changed something inside him. He feels like his core, once hot and molten and crashing to and fro with energy, has become cooler and more steady. The fierceness in him serves him now as ballast rather than causing him to pitch forward through tennis and through life. “What are you doing, Feli?” he says when Feli follows him to his suite in Monte Carlo. “Ferru is in his room desperately wanting you and you’re here with me for fun. What are you thinking?” Fernando has become worse, no longer acerbic but instead dead in the eyes when he sees Rafa and Feli together. He is listless and sad.
“What?” says Feli, taken aback. Then he sags into the couch and sits there hangdog. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Come on,” says Rafa. “I’ve seen the way you look at him.” Fond and terrified, like Fernando is a pool he’s too scared to dive into but if he did, he knows it would be beautiful.
“What’s it to you?” says Feli. “Aren’t you happy enough like this, getting nicely fucked whenever you want it?”
Rafa shrugs. “Sure,” he says. “But you’re wasting your time with me. You’re treading water. Go be with him. Be in love.”
“Don’t be a sap,” says Feli.
“Don’t be stupid,” retorts Rafa, cracking open a bottle of water from the minibar and flopping down into an armchair. “We’re all saps, you idiot. Deep down. Pretending not to be is a total waste of time.”
Feli regards him coolly for a moment or two. “That bone in your foot has turned you into a philosopher, is that it?”
Rafa stares at it again, his foot in his loosely-tied shoe. He is used to the thick soles by now but it’s still strange to look at them and think about the lines of force, the cushion for the centre of his foot. The mechanics of saving him. “Maybe it has,” he says. “I’m lucky every match I play. Makes it seem like a very stupid thing, to waste time.”
Feli falls silent, picking at his fingernails. “It’s just a lot,” he says, then.
“A lot what?”
“He’s been in love with me since we were boys, Rafa,” he says. “He used to follow me around, this look in his eyes. He gets the same look now sometimes. I don’t know if I’m ready for something that serious.”
“Of course you are. You just have to do it.”
“You sound like Toni.” Feli’s tone is slightly accusatory.
“Yeah, well, sometimes Toni knows what he’s talking about,” replies Rafa.
In the silence that falls again, Rafa turns on the TV and flicks through the channels, looking for something in Spanish or Catalan, or even Mallorquín, if he can find it. He glances at the keys thrown on the sideboard where the TV sits. The keyring Maria Francisca gave to him gleams amongst them. He slips his phone out of his pocket to text her, just to say hi. She’s become one of his daily rounds of texts since the winter, when she came over nearly every day before he finally got the shoes. Tomeu and Miguel Angel are also on the list, and of course Maribel and his mother. He knows his mother will pass on every message to his father, and she signs all her texts from both of them.
“So I guess this means I have to start actually using the hotel rooms I book?” says Feli.
Rafa presses send. “Yeah,” he says, looking up. “I think it’s time, no?”
“Alright,” says Toni, on Saturday night, over empty plates of pasta. He leans forward, his elbows on the table. “We know he won’t come to the net so much, so you take your chances. What about his serve?”
“I’ve got a feel for it now,” says Rafa. He’s found he can sense when Roger’s going to mix it up, when he’ll throw in a body serve or send it down the T. Other players say it’s intuitive, the way Roger serves, but Rafa thinks there’s a pattern and he’s beginning to figure it out.
“Alright. We’ll accept he’ll probably win a set, maybe two. Doesn’t matter. Just focus on the next point. Always the next point. That’s how you live or die.”
“Yes,” says Rafa. He already feels himself slipping into the focus he’ll require for the final. Finals are different. They’re five sets, and they’re for the title. And this one is against Roger. Already his matches against Roger feel like something special. The press talks about them differently, building up the rivalry. The crowds feel like they’re anticipating something out of the ordinary. Every match is billed as an opportunity for Roger to put this kid in his place, but on clay there’s always a sense of skepticism that he’ll manage to do so. After Dubai, the press aren’t sure which side to call. Will Roger, with his cerebral, graceful game succeed this time? Or will the muscular Spaniard, all guts and physicality, prevail?
“Have you ever noticed the way they characterise you, Rafa?” says Benito, once the strategy talk is over. “Always physical, muscular, as if that’s all you are. Federer’s always the thoughtful, intelligent one.”
“Yeah,” says Rafa, though he’s not sure what Benito is driving at. Benito is a reader, devouring daily newspapers, and his awareness of things tends to be far sharper than Rafa’s own.
“It’s kind of offensive,” he says. “As if you don’t strategise or develop tactics. As if you’re not cerebral, too. A genius on the clay, how do they think you got that way, just by accident? Without really thinking?”
“Let them think that,” says Toni. “It can work to our advantage. If they underestimate us, we have an edge.”
“Sure, sure,” says Benito. “It just bothers me, is all.” He sits back and crosses his arms, frowning a little.
Rafa can’t afford to let it bother him. These things are for Benito and Carlos Costa to worry about. Especially in Monte Carlo, where he feels a sense of familiarity in his Mediterranean bones. Even its smells and sounds put him at ease. At night it’s clamorous with late night cafés and restaurants, the darkness imbued with the smell of espresso and narrow alleys where drunken tourists piss on the way back to their hotels. In the morning, through the open window, come the smells of early baking, of the exhausts of trucks that pull up outside shops and cafés and roll their shutters open to unload the coffee and wine and oysters and everything else for the day. Traffic whispers through narrow streets and behind that is the endless sound of the sea. Up in the club, it’s the deep-baked smell of clay, damp and newly watered. The breeze is laced with salt.
Rafa no longer needs his credentials to get through the gates and doorways to the locker room. He can greet most of the guards by name, exchanging a word or two about the beautiful sky. “No rain today, Rafa!” says Arnaud, who lets him into the clubhouse.
“Hope not, no?” he replies.
Roger is in the Players’ Lounge. He’s drinking coffee and shifting from one foot to the other, talking intently to Mirka and Tony Roche. They’re sitting relaxed at a low table and it’s only in comparison with them that the thrum of tension in Roger is visible. Rafa can’t touch coffee before a match, terrified of anything upsetting his stomach, but he’s not surprised Roger can. “Hola, Rogelio,” he says, and Roger turns and smiles.
Toni always stands by with his arms crossed when they talk, an air of approval emanating from him that Rafa secretly resents, as if he’s friendly with Roger just out of a sense of duty to Toni’s principles of sportsmanship and good behaviour. Rafa can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to be friendly with Roger. The fact that they can chat so easily about the weather, even mentioning how nice it will be to play on such a lovely day, is proof that Roger is a good guy in a way that is out of the ordinary. Most players are grim-faced before a final, and here’s Roger draining a cup of coffee and making jokes and clasping his hand in a half-hug before Rafa heads off towards the locker room.
“Seems it’s always me congratulating you, Raf,” says Roger later at the net. Rafa hoists the trophy again in the sunshine, and then heads to Barcelona after he does his press. There, he plays Tommy Robredo in the final and lifts the trophy again, this one huge and unwieldy, and he loves the weight of it in his arms. He gets flung in the pool and he floats and grins, the sky wide and blue above him. The whole season is a streak of red and blue and he’s on to Rome, where the stones are old and the Foro Italico rises from ancient ground. “Hey, Raf,” says Roger when they meet on media day, “do you want to go to dinner?” It’s not an invitation he was expecting but he says yes, absolutely. “And…” Roger frowns minutely. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
The question takes him aback. It’s always Spaniards he hangs out with, so he’s forgotten that other people don’t know. “No,” he says.
“Ah, okay. I was going to say, if you did, we could make it a foursome. But I’ll tell Mirka it’s just you and me.”
“Okay,” he says. Toni raises his eyebrows when he tells him but says nothing.
That night he gets a cab to a place Roger texts him about, a tiny place with sheltered tables in alcoves lit by candles and dim lights in antique-looking sconces on the bare stone walls. “This place used to be a cellar,” says Roger, who is already seated when he arrives. There are shelves stocked with wines and the tables are plain wood, with plain wooden chairs around them. The air is redolent with basil and sugo al pomodoro. Waiters move brusquely from table to table but then stop and chat in animated Italian with the patrons as they pour their wine. Roger orders a bottle of mineral water while Rafa asks the waiter if the chef can make him plain pasta with fish.
“You are Rafael Nadal?” says the waiter in Italian, and Rafa responds in Mallorquín, the languages having enough in common to be understood. The waiter glances curiously at Roger and back to Rafa, and then he smiles and says he’s sure the kitchen can manage it.
“You don’t like anything fancier than that?” asks Roger.
“I don’t like tomatoes, no? Everything with tomatoes.”
“Wow. No tomatoes? I guess I asked you to the wrong place.”
Rafa just laughs and shakes his head. “Is perfect,” he says.
They eat bruschetta with artichoke hearts and basil pesto and bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and they talk about the weather and the city. When the main course comes Roger eats slowly, savouring it. Rafa wants to devour it, always in a rush to eat, which Toni always frowns at, muttering darkly about his stomach, but he makes himself take it easy.
“So you don’t like tomatoes. What else don’t you like?” says Roger, twirling tagliatelli onto his fork.
“Mmm,” says Rafa, thinking. “I don’t like cheese. Or ham. Or big dogs.”
“No,” Rafa laughs. “Near me. They are scary, no?”
Roger just quirks his eyebrow, as if the idea that Rafa can be scared is news to him. “Anything else?”
“Dark. Deep water.”
“Deep water? But don’t you go out on boats all the time?”
“Sí, sí, I like boats,” says Rafa. “I like swimming. But not too deep.”
“I see,” says Roger, nodding.
“You? What don’t you like, Rogelio?” He feels they have wandered into deeper waters than usual here, but these waters aren’t frightening. They’re thrilling, somehow, as if it’s a rare opportunity to get this close to Roger. To talk about real things.
“Hmmmm,” says Roger, frowning in thought. “I don’t like… photos of me with terrible hair.” He laughs.
“When you have terrible hair?”
“Oh my god, Rafa. You never saw my hair bleached?”
“You bleach your hair?”
“Bright blond. Awful. And that ponytail.” He shivers in mock disgust.
“You don’t like the long hair?”
“Not on me,” says Roger. “Suits you, though.”
Rafa is self-conscious all of a sudden and pushes his hair back behind his ear. “I think it suit you too, no? But…”
“But is nicer now,” he concedes. Roger’s hair is glossy and curls elegantly, as everything about him is elegant now. Even the way he’s sitting in his chair so easily, his fork and spoon held in long fingers, fingers that curl around his water glass as he lifts it to take a sip.
“Are you interested in fashion? Style?”
“No,” says Rafa. “My mother, she buys clothes for me.” Suddenly that feels like a desperately childish thing to have said. “And of course Nike give me a lot.”
“What about your kits, though? They’re pretty unique.”
“Sí,” says Rafa. “I like the kits. Yes. I talk about them with Jordi. My Nike rep.”
“White glasses, always in your box?”
“Yes,” says Rafa, laughing. “That’s him. You like fashion?”
“Yeah,” says Roger. He tells Rafa that he didn’t always, but Mirka started shopping with him, telling him he had to tailor a look, and he got into it. “We’re doing this thing for Wimbledon, like a blazer,” he says. “With a logo on the pocket. It’s really cool.”
“Blazer?” says Rafa.
“Yeah, you know, a jacket. Classic look, like old-fashioned Wimbledon.”
“Sounds great,” says Rafa, and he means it. There is something classic about Roger, something timeless. If anyone could make a blazer work on the grass, it’s him.
“Anyway,” says Roger. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”
“I tell no one, Rogelio,” says Rafa, and Roger smiles.
Out on the street afterwards they look for taxis. Roger’s going towards a luxury hotel in an old part of town, where the streets are cobbled and wooden shutters are closed over in the daytime to keep out the afternoon sun. Rafa is staying on a ring road outside the city, in a business Hilton on a road that gets them to and from the club quickly. “Isn’t the traffic bad?” he says to Roger.
“Yeah,” he replies. “But I love the city. On days off we can just go for a walk. Go to the shops, have a coffee.”
It does sound good, Rafa has to concede. Roger hugs him goodbye in their familiar way and then gets into a taxi, waving at Rafa as it pulls away.
“Did you have a good time?” says Toni to him over breakfast in the morning.
“Sure,” says Rafa, chewing a croissant.
“What did you talk about?”
Rafa shrugs. For some reason he feels reluctant to share too much about the evening. “Just this and that,” he says. “Not tennis.”
“Hmph,” says Toni, looking a little put out, but Rafa ignores him.
That night is the Players’ Party. He looks at himself in the mirror straightening his jacket and trying to smooth out his hair with his hands. He never cares about it, but sometimes, like now, he wishes he had some product or other that would stop it looking like a mess on his head. Too late. He bundles himself into a taxi beside Benito and heads into the city. On the way he calls his mother and talks to Maribel. “Are you coming?” he asks them.
“Let us know when they schedule you,” says his mother. “We’ll be over then. Your father can’t come until Wednesday, anyway.”
“Okay,” says Rafa. When they hang up he looks out the window, watching as Rome turns from the new developments and wide roads of the suburbs to the narrow, cramped geography of the ancient city. It’s already getting dark and the amber street lights somehow give it an air of greater age, the shadows of doorways and alleyways and shuttered windows hinting at unlit histories and forgotten times. Outside the hotel on the Via Vittorio they have set up the usual red carpet, which Rafa treats like a gauntlet he must endure before heading inside. The absurdities of fame always strike him at moments like this, the photographs, the endless repetition of the same questions and answers. “Hola,” says Feli in his ear from behind him on the carpet.
“Hey,” says Rafa. The noise is clamorous and it’s impossible to say another word, even if this was the place for a conversation. “See you inside?” he says, and Feli nods.
Benito is waiting for him inside the magnificently baroque lobby. The ballroom, where the party has begun, is walled with mirrors with veined marble columns between them. The tables are laid with silverware that’s really silver and they’re covered in heavy linen tablecloths. “You want a drink?” says Benito.
“Maybe one,” says Rafa, and Benito goes to the bar.
“What do you think?” says Roger, appearing beside him.
“Hola, Roger,” says Rafa. “Is amazing, no?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty splendid.” Roger takes a sip of champagne from a glass he’s holding delicately in his fingertips. “I’m staying here. The rooms are like this too.”
“Wow,” says Rafa, in genuine wonderment. It’s the kind of place he thinks suits Roger, though he himself would find it a little stifling. He prefers clean lines and open spaces and in general less gilded decoration, even if it means the dull carpets and nondescript furniture of ring-road hotels.
“Roger, Rafael,” says Sergio Palmieri, taking a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. He’s the tournament director, a man who has gone grey prematurely and whose face is florid in the way of middle-aged men who spend too much time in the sun. “Wonderful to see you both here.” He shakes hands warmly with them. “How are you? Well prepared, I think, Rafael, no? What a season you’re having.”
Roger glances at his shoes and Rafa is a little embarrassed, but he expresses his gratitude all the same. “Always can lose the next week, Sergio,” he points out. Roger looks back up at him then, something soft and fleeting in his eyes.
“Here, let me introduce you to someone,” he says, directing them to a small group a little bit away from the bar. “Luca, come and say hi to Roger and Rafa.”
The boy who turns around is beautiful. Rafa is almost dumbstruck for a moment at his softly handsome face, his deep brown eyes, his lithe frame, his tan set off by the easy elegance of a white shirt and dark grey pants. He has a light beard, little more than scruff really, that somehow makes him look more youthful than a clean-shaven face might. Roger greets him first, and then Rafa. “Hi,” says the boy. “Luca. A pleasure to meet you.” He holds out his hand and Rafa takes it. Honestly, he’s no more a boy than Rafa himself, maybe nineteen, twenty. His English is mellifluous and gentle, far less accented than his father’s.
“He’s just back for the week from England,” says Sergio, with an ebullient sort of pride. “He’s studying in Oxford.”
“Wow,” says Roger. “What are you studying?”
“English and Italian literatures,” he replies. “Now I’m reading Calvino, Eco, that kind of thing.”
Rafa can’t tell if Roger has heard of them or not. He himself is not a reader, though he suddenly wishes he was, to have some way of conversing further with this boy. Man. Luca.
“You probably have far too much to do to sit down and read a book,” Luca says to him, as if reading his thoughts.
“I prefer movies,” says Rafa. “But my PR agent, Benito, he reads a lot, no? Right now…” He wracks his brains, trying to remember. It was an Italian-sounding title. “Something with a Captain and a… guitar? No, not guitar...”
“Ah,” says Luca, his hand on his heart as if in raptures. “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the best books I’ve ever read.”
“Sí, that’s it,” says Rafa.
“I loved it,” says Luca. “Lots of wonderful Italians in it, too.”
Rafa shrugs a little exaggeratedly. “Maybe I watch the movie,” he says, and Luca laughs. His nose scrunches up in a boyish way that Rafa suddenly finds unbearably attractive.
Later, after they’ve both put in a little time mingling, they find themselves together again by a column between two mirrors. Rafa has found the endless reflections a little unnerving and is trying to stand where he can’t see himself. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” says Luca. “All these mirrors.”
“Yes,” says Rafa. “Very.”
“Maybe it says something about the narcissism of the rich,” says Luca, and then he laughs a little self-deprecatingly and shrugs. “Not that I can talk.”
The room is still crowded, some people sitting down, socialites and tournament officials and other players. Feli has been nodding to him across the room now and then but mostly he’s been standing around awkwardly with Fernando. David Ferrer is there too, talking earnestly to the wife of someone or other, and Andy Roddick is talking to Roger in his jokey way that is only slightly barbed. Roger is never needled by it, like he knows that Andy needs something when he can’t beat him at tennis.
“So I guess you go to a lot of these,” says Luca.
“Yeah,” says Rafa. “Every tournament, no?”
“Does it get boring?”
He’s loathe to seem ungrateful, but he can’t in all good conscience say no, so he just shrugs and smiles a little and says nothing.
“How late do you usually stay around?”
“Not late, no? Always there is training to do tomorrow.”
“Oh,” says Luca, and he bites his lip in a way that Rafa suddenly realises is a question all of its own. “Are you staying here?”
“No,” says Rafa. “I stay outside the town, easier to get to the club, no?” It’s mostly just words while he’s untangling the other unspoken question, trying to find a way to answer it.
“Right,” says Luca. Rafa drinks the last sip from his champagne glass but keeps his eyes on Luca, and when he sets his glass down on a nearby table, he hopes the question is answered clearly enough. “You know, I’m staying here,” says Luca, then. “It’s not exactly my kind of place but I think my father just wanted to treat me. On a break from university and everything.”
“That’s very nice,” says Rafa.
“Yeah. You should see the room, it’s ridiculous. All gold and marble.” Luca laughs a little, and Rafa does too. “You know,” continues Luca, quieter now. “You really should see it. If you want.”
Rafa just holds his gaze and smiles.
They leave it a little longer while Rafa says his goodbyes. “You’re going?” says Roger, and Rafa nods so he doesn’t feel like he’s lying outright. He’s leaving the party, after all, if not the hotel. Luca slips him a key murmuring that he’ll be up soon. Rafa goes upstairs unseen and finds Luca’s room. It really is opulent, but in a calmer way than the ballroom without the mirrors or the clamour. He kicks off his shoes and opens another button on his shirt. It’s a little thrilling to be waiting here in the room of someone he’s just met, knowing what’s going to happen. There are books everywhere and while he waits, Rafa flicks through one. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller… It’s covered in pencil notes and underlines. He can’t make much sense of it. He’s just replacing the bookmark where he found it when the door opens and Luca comes in. “Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” says Rafa, and they kiss with no further preamble.
The bed is huge and comfortable and Luca’s mouth is hot on his dick. His beard is lightly grazing the inside of Rafa’s thigh. “Can I ride you?” he says, looking up at him, his lips sheened with spit.
Rafa nods. “Anything… anything you like,” he breathes, as Luca dips his head again. He’s ridden Feli before but he’s never had anyone straddle him. Luca’s thighs are slim and up near his groin they’re pale, and he spreads them over Rafa’s hips. He moves up and down on Rafa with a lush enjoyment, like he’s savouring it, looking down at him through dark, heavy-lidded eyes, his mouth open, hands splayed on Rafa’s chest. Before long Rafa flips him onto his back and enters him again. He wants to fuck Luca the way Feli used to fuck him, make him feel that good. Luca’s head is flung back against the pillows, his legs bent up either side of Rafa’s hips, and he’s letting out short, sharp groans every time Rafa hits home. Rafa has hardly ever wanted this before but now he’s drunk on it, the ability to make Luca come apart in his arms.
After, Luca reaches for the tissues beside the bed and they clean themselves up, as much as they can manage. Rafa feels boneless and Luca lies beside him, looking at him in the dim light filtering through the curtains from outside. “Do you want me to speak in English or Italian?” he says.
“Either one is fine,” replies Rafa in Mallorquín, “as long as you can understand this.”
Luca nods. “I can,” he replies in Italian.
“Good,” says Rafa. “I’m too tired to speak in English.”
“Do you want to stay here tonight?” says Luca. “I know you have to practice, but you can, if you like.”
Rafa pulls Luca towards him, till his chin is resting on Rafa’s shoulder. He can’t imagine moving from this bed, not yet. “Maybe I’ll stay for a while,” he says. They smile at each other the smile of conspirators, secrecy thickening between them.
The week is riven with anxieties. Every tournament he wins has a double effect on Rafa: it buoys him up with confidence, but also sets his mind ticking over its own kind of statistical analysis. How likely is it that he can win every tournament on clay? How likely is it that he can remain unbeaten? Is a string of wins indicative of further wins, or is loss inevitable and therefore more and more probable? Toni says wins mean more wins, how could they mean anything else? Benito tells him he’s getting tangled up in quantum probability. Luca, in the calm of the night, just says, “You don’t look much like losing to me.” He’s stayed in Rafa’s hotel room on a few nights and has sat in his box during a couple of matches. No one wonders about the tournament director’s son sitting beside Toni Nadal.
“So you and Sergio’s boy,” says Toni to him in the car on the way back to the hotel after he beats Gael Monfils in the semi final. Rafa can’t tell if Toni is gruff because he disapproves or because he is naturally reluctant to comment on emotional things. “He’s a good kid,” Toni says then.
“Yeah,” Rafa says.
“Handsome, too,” says Toni, and Rafa can’t decide if he’s mortified or amused at Toni trying to tease him. Later he hugs his uncle goodnight and Toni looks surprised and then pleased and then ruffles his hair and tells him to stop being daft and get some sleep.
The immediacy of the match is nothing Rafa can ever describe after the fact, but when he’s in it, when things are going well, it feels as if he is occupying a space devoted to him and him alone. As if the universe has carved out his shape in its fabric and he fills it perfectly, moving in it and owning it as he plays. This is the feeling that grips him now. Roger wins the first set, but then Rafa wins the second and third. It’s so close, it’s like grappling on the edge of a cliff. He keeps his eyes on Toni in his box, alongside his father. His mother and Maribel are there too, and the rest of the team, and they are all part of his flow. He feels them with him on the court. Even Luca, whom he’s barely known a week, is a little part of him right now. Roger wins the fourth 6-2 and it’s a blow when he goes up in the fifth, too, but Rafa keeps fighting till he takes it to a tie-break. Roger rushes a couple of forehands and the match is his, the title, the trophy. He falls to the ground once more and looks up to the sky and for one more week he’s free, he’s free, he’s won.
When he cries at the edge of the court his tears are born of relief and sadness and joy. It seems no victory can be entirely free of some sense of loss anymore, especially not when it’s Roger’s defeated face he sees the other side of the net. They’ve said all they can say at this point. Congratulations and commiserations like the printed messages in greeting cards and Rafa wants to say something more personal, more real, the hand-written message underneath. But how can he, when every time he plays him, he wants to beat him? What can be said? Hard-fought victories are the sweetest and hard-fought losses the most bitter, and so Roger is more subdued in the locker room than he has been before. He still holds out his hand, though, saying “I’ll see you in Paris,” in a kind of mockingly grim way.
“For sure,” replies Rafa. He tries to convey something of what he feels in his eyes, in the clasp of his hand, in the way they share their usual half-hug before Roger steps back and swings his bag onto his shoulder, but he’s not sure he succeeds at all.
“The week is over already,” says Luca in the morning.
“Sí,” says Rafa, as he flings his things into suitcases. He keeps finding socks abandoned under furniture and hopelessly looks for their pairs before stuffing them into his laundry bag for his Mama when he gets home.
“Fair creature of an hour,” says Luca.
“What?” says Rafa.
“It’s just…” Luca shrugs. “From a poem.”
“I don’t know these things,” says Rafa. “Poems, books, the things you like.”
“You know some of the things I like,” replies Luca, seductively. “And you did like the movie of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.”
Rafa affects a shrug and says, “Was alright,” and they both laugh a little. They’re aware of the fragile moves they’re making.
Luca is sophisticated in a way Rafa has never known before. None of his friends are like this, with words on the tip of their tongues, quotations, a way of understanding the world that is at once gentle and open and yet seemingly labyrinthine. Luca can have conversations with Benito that leave him behind almost at once. “Look, I have to go back to Oxford tomorrow, but I was wondering if I’d see you in London.”
“You want to?” Even though they celebrated together with Rafa’s team at dinner the night before, and even though after that Rafa brought him back to his room and knelt by the bed while he sucked his cock and Luca groaned and came and then crawled back on the bed so Rafa could fuck him, even after a week of that, for some reason now he feels uncertain, a little nervous. They’re like kids at the end of a summer fling, each one tentatively hoping the other wants to stay in touch, write letters, tell each other they’ll meet again sometime.
“Of course I do,” says Luca. They’re not kids, though. By the time they meet again Rafa will be twenty years old and Luca is nearly twenty-one. Meeting again is no teenage dream. “Do you?”
“Yes,” says Rafa, and despite his doubts and tentativeness he finds he doesn’t even have to think about it.
Luca kisses him softly, deeply, and sighs against him. “Call me when you get to England,” he says. “And I’ll be watching you in Paris.”
“See you soon,” says Rafa, as Luca kisses him once more and leaves.
Rome has left him loose-limbed and happy. Victory, Luca, a week of good tennis and good sex. He arrives in Paris with a sense of profound calm. The feeling ripples through his team, everyone smiling and joking, mellow, unpacking in a cluster of rooms and suites in their hotel just off the Champs Elysées. Toni wants to get out into the city on afternoons off, walking to museums and exhibitions. “This year I want to go to the Louvre,” he says.
They pick up their credentials at Roland Garros and Rafa is directed into doping control. It’s always a clinically intimate procedure. They take his blood and urine and render him down to a yes or a no. He’s never nervous--he’s absolutely rigorous in what he ingests, what medications, what supplements--but it’s a jarring experience all the same. To be eyed by white-gloved medical staff as a potential cheat. He recognises none of them because they constantly circulate the staff between sports and events to prevent personal relationships developing. You never know, Rafa imagines the doping officials thinking, when your own staff will turn cheat. What a cynical world.
It’s not their fault, though. He duly pees and lies back while a young man, his face largely obscured by a medical mask, tightens the tourniquet on his arm. Rafa doesn’t look at the blood spurting into the test tube. It’s not something he likes to watch.
“Well?” says Toni afterwards. Rafa just shrugs and they go to the players’ lounge so he can drink orange juice and replace his lost fluids.
He first notices Mirka hunched over her phone, and then Roger is there, almost bounding over to him and hugging him and saying hi. Rafa believes himself to be someone capable of dealing with losses but Roger is something else. Every time they meet it’s as if whatever slate had been marked between them the last time they played is now wiped clean again. Of course, mentally for him, it’s a good strategy. Forget losses, that’s what Toni says and that’s what Roger seems eminently capable of doing. Toni never mentioned how wrong-footed it could make the other guy feel, though, to forget them so quickly. If it was anyone but Roger, Rafa might be knocked off kilter by the friendly greeting every time, but Roger’s face is so guileless and genuine that Rafa cannot believe there is an ounce of gamesmanship in the way he smiles and clasps Rafa’s hand for a second or two longer than anyone else might, just to say hello.
“Hey,” he says. “Come meet Mirka.” Rafa has never met her properly before, just hellos in passing when he and Roger are too busy to stop and chat in clubs and hotel lobbies.
Mirka slips her phone in her bag and stands up and Rafa says hi, and she says hi, and Rafa casts about for something more to say but she takes over and says, “You played great in Rome.”
“Thank you,” he says, feeling like he has to be extra polite, as if she’s a beat away from scolding him for winning, but then she smiles broadly and her cheeks dimple and the feeling dissipates. He beckons Toni over and introduces him. Even smiling, she still has the effect of putting people on their best behaviour; Toni is his most charming self, a kind of performance Rafa has rarely seen, usually only when they’ve met important politicians or the first time they talked to Prince Albert of Monaco. He’s treating Mirka like royalty. It seems about right.
And yet, not unlike Roger, there is a disjuncture between her image and her reality. They’re soon sitting down again, the two teams mingling, and she’s patiently prompting Toni through a conversation in a mix of German and English about the best restaurants in Paris--Mirka has a list of favourites that Toni notes--and the hell of getting stuck in traffic around the Place de l’Étoile. “This is the reason I like to walk,” says Toni, and Mirka agrees. She shows him a blister on her heel.
“Yesterday,” she says. “New shoes.”
Toni makes a sympathetic face and says, “Ouch.”
“When did you get here?” says Roger.
“Today. Just got this,” he says, holding up his credentials. “And gave piss and blood.”
Roger bursts out laughing. Rafa intended it to be funny but jokes in foreign languages can be treacherous. This one hit the mark. Roger is wiping his eyes. “Me too, me too,” he says, through the last hiccups of it.
Once the draw is out they don’t really stop and chat much anymore. Rafa gets it. Roger has to pull back a little, give himself the mental space. Not that Rafa banks on getting to the final, but he assumes Roger does. Why wouldn’t he? For Rafa, it’s a sign that Roger believes he too will get to the final. That’s okay with him, even though it’s nothing he assumes himself. The rhythm of the first week becomes clinical. On match days he wakes up early, eats breakfast, then heads to the club to have a warm up hit on an outside court. Then he goes through his usual rituals, working himself into being Rafa Nadal, el toro, the player without nerves, the player who can win. And win he does. Then shower and press and the one-on-one interviews requested by various networks worldwide. On off days, he gets up, goes training sometime mid-morning, has lunch in the club, and then they head back to the hotel where he calls his Mama and Tomeu and Maria Francisca and talks sometimes for hours, if they have the time, and then he watches movies and has a late dinner with the team. Sometimes he goes out to the city and walks along the Champs Elysées and looks in the window of shops, but he feels somehow apart from the city around him, like these walks are just a distraction from his real purpose. He feels like a spectator. “Flâneur,” Benito says to him, and then he explains what that means, telling Rafa about Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge, the fin de siècle scene in Paris, the history of a city of artists and poets. One afternoon Toni disappears and returns later with a heavy canvas bag full of glossy coffee table books of paintings from the Louvre. “Look, Rafa,” he says, flicking to various pages. “You should see this one in real life. Amazing.” But he doesn’t invite Rafa when he goes back a few days later alone and returns this time with postcards which he writes to his entire family and posts in the hotel lobby.
Rafa’s mother and father arrive in the second week. His father has business contacts in the city and they have dinner together one night, but everyone understands when Rafa excuses himself and leaves early. It’s not that he doesn’t want to socialise but rather that he needs to maintain his bubble of focus, even when he’s not playing the next day. “Goodnight, good luck,” they say to him when he leaves and ducks into a taxi alone. He flicks through the hotel’s movie channels and falls asleep to The Matrix, thinking of Miguel Angel and his obsession with this movie and the rants he can go on now about philosophy and the way the trilogy was spoiled and the fact that it’s better to ignore the second and third movies altogether. He wakes up to a blank black screen and the remnants of a dream about Xavi, who was somehow Luca in his mind.
After warming up, he watches the end of Roger’s semifinal against David Nalbandian in the club. David has to retire with what is obviously just a game to go, unable to continue. No one wants to win by retirement but Roger obviously earned the match. In the late afternoon Rafa goes on court against Ivan Ljubcic and wins in three, the last going to a tight tie-break. For the first time he’s going to go into a Grand Slam final as the defending champion, and for the first time he’ll play that final against Roger.
He barely sleeps and wakes up nervous. “Of course you’re nervous,” says Toni. “This is Federer.” The way Toni frames nerves as sensible is one of his most helpful habits. He gets to the club early to warm up and give himself time. The sense of occasion is palpable, even with so few people there at this hour. “Hey, Jaques,” he says to the security guard who checks their credentials on the way in. Jacques has been on the gate for the duration of the two weeks. Sometimes Rafa wonders when he sleeps, if he sleeps as little as Rafa himself does. The place has the familiar early morning smells of coffee and damp clay. Chatrier echoes with silence as if the court itself is anticipating the crowds and waiting for the day to begin. Rafa’s shots feel solid, the sounds ricocheting around the arena like gunshots. Toni nods and says little.
After lunch he begins to focus down into relentless flow, where he becomes fierce, indomitable, one with the ground and the air and the court itself. It’s a ritual of lighting a perfectly contained fire in his belly, igniting his limbs and his mind in unison, bringing them together in ways they rarely are off the court. Sex, maybe, is one of the few comparisons when it comes to the synchronicity of body and mind. Or the end of a long training session, or leaping from a rock into the embrace of the sea, floating mind and body and spirit in its depths.
The roars on court are the clamour of battle. He finds his father’s face in the crowd, and Toni’s, and his mother’s and Maribel’s. He feels them there like points on a compass. Roger is a magnetic force, too, but now it’s as if their poles are opposed and the match is a battle to see who can push harder. I can, snarls Rafa in his mind. Me.
That quiet voice of ferocity is a secret he’s divulged to no one. He is almost ashamed of it.
Roger wins the first set easily, 6-1, and dread threatens to settle in Rafa’s belly before he pushes the set out of his mind. There is nothing more to do now than there was a set ago, he reasons. Win three sets. Win the match. Easy.
The next set seems to prove his point. Now 6-1 in his favour. They pass at the net during changeovers, both of them with their heads down, focused only on the match, but Rafa thinks he sees in Roger’s face a grimmer expression, a fear, even. The fear of losing that is always there lurking in himself, even under the calm of flow. It shocks him momentarily to see Roger Federer afraid on a tennis court but he has to stop thinking about it, put it away until later. He plays on and on, grinding out his ruthless game, and takes the third. The fourth is a closer affair with Roger refusing to let him go, let him sprint to the finish line, and in the end he wins it on a tie-break.
And then the clay on his back, the sky above him, the great chords of euphoria swelling in his mind, in his heart, in his soul.
Someone has opened champagne in the locker room and passed it around. Rafa offers a glass to Roger, but he shakes his head and says that Mirka is waiting somewhere. “Anyway, I lost, I shouldn’t be celebrating,” he says. He says it with a kind of set to his jaw as if he’s being self-deprecating and laying down a challenge at the same time.
“Was a good match. Very close,” says Rafa. As usual, off the court, he’s abashed. His fierce desire to win, to have beaten Roger, is dissipated.
“I’ll get you next time.” Roger has let the challenge go and he says this with a kind of affection that might have seemed out of place if it wasn’t him saying it.
“Will happen, Rogi, I’m sure of it,” says Rafa.
Roger smiles and dumps his bag on Rafa’s bench and hugs him. Not one of their usual hand-clasp half-hugs but a full body one, arms around him, and after a moment of surprise, Rafa reciprocates. “You played amazing,” says Roger, almost into his ear, like he’s whispering a secret. Then he draws back. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” says Rafa, still a little astonished.
Roger is holding him out at arm’s length, as if he’s examining a work of art he’s just bought. What he sees seems to impress him. He slaps his hands twice on Rafa’s elbows and nods. “See you in Wimbledon,” he says, and then he picks up his bag again and leaves, one hand uplifted and a smile behind him before the door swings to a close.
This year Rafa goes to Queen’s Club instead of Halle, so he settles into London for a month. It’s raining when he arrives, a grey heavy downpour, but the week clears up soon after that and by the time he plays his first match it’s the usual English patchwork of blue sky and grey clouds. In his twenty-sixth match on a winning streak playing against Lleyton Hewitt he feels a twinge in his shoulder and has to retire. “Alright, kid,” says Toni. “You’re doing great. We’ll take a break before Wimbledon and get that shoulder back into gear.”
“Okay,” he says, and if he’s honest he’s happy to take a few days home with his Mama’s cooking and the gang around at his place, playing games and relaxing. By the time he gets back to London the house in Southfields is ready and he piles in with the team, the shoulder back in good order.
It’s in the house on a Wednesday evening that Enrique takes him and Toni aside for a chat. They’re in the TV room just off the kitchen where it’s Carlos Costa’s turn to make dinner so he’s clattering pans and cursing under his breath. Enrique shuts the door. “Listen, guys,” he says. “I wanted to tell you first. Sofía is pregnant.”
Toni takes a deep breath and smiles. “Congratulations, Enrique,” he says, full of warmth. Rafa echoes the sentiments. They hug and kiss him on the cheek but Rafa knows what’s coming next.
“Which means I’ve got to give this up. I’ve thought about it a lot. I need to be home with her, you know? I can’t be travelling half the year when we’ve got a baby.”
Toni nods. Rafa can’t deny it’s a blow, though he wouldn’t for a second begrudge Enrique the decision. “Of course,” he says. “You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks, guys,” he says. “Listen, I can stay till the end of the summer. After Wimbledon we can start looking for someone to take over. I’m not going to leave till you have a replacement.”
“Sure, sure,” says Toni. “Don’t worry about that. This is cause for a celebration.”
Dinner that night is full of cheers, tempered only with the vague sadness of a change. “We’ll miss you,” says Rafa, holding aloft a glass of sparkling water. “Salud!”
Wimbledon always has an air of nostalgia. There is a sense that the buildings have been there for a long time, especially Centre Court, looming over the rest like an ancient behemoth, stable and eternal, as encrusted with time as it is with ivy. Rafa doesn’t know if he’s imagining it or not but the place even seems to smell green, the grass courts everywhere perfuming the air. He always likes this quiet week before the Championships proper begin, the place populated with the sparse crowds that come to watch the Qualifiers. The locker room is almost empty--the qualifying players are relegated to a secondary locker room--and everyone but the top players are still in Nottingham or elsewhere on grass.
On Thursday Rafa calls Luca. “Hey,” comes his gentle voice on the other end of the line.
“Hola,” says Rafa. He’s nervous, this thing between them still fragile. They haven’t spoken since they both left Rome, just a text from Luca congratulating him on Paris and then commiserating with the injury at Queen’s.
“How’s the shoulder?” he says.
“Better,” says Rafa. “No problem.” He hesitates for a second, unsure of where to go from here. “How are you?”
Luca laughs a little. “All the better for hearing your voice,” he says. He has a confidence that Rafa lacks.
“Are you in England?” asks Rafa, a little uselessly, since he knows the answer.
“Yeah,” says Luca. “In Oxford.” There’s silence on the line for a second. “I was thinking maybe I’d go to London. What do you think?”
Rafa feels a rush of adrenaline in his veins, which surprises him with its strength. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
“Okay,” says Luca. “I’ll come down tomorrow. What time should I get there? I assume your days are busy.”
“Free in the afternoon,” says Rafa. “I’m training in the morning.”
“Okay,” says Luca. “I’ll let you know when I’m around Southfields. Text me your address?”
“Of course,” says Rafa. “See you soon.”
“Yeah,” says Luca. “See you.” Rafa hangs up charged with anticipation. It’s quite like anything he’s felt before, not for Feli and not even for Xavi. He wants to take Luca to bed and kiss every inch of him.
He’s fierce at training the next day and of course Toni seems to intuit his mood. “Your boy coming to see you?” he says as they pack up. Rafa just smiles and nods, shy still, even though Toni seems to approve of Sergio’s son as a… well. Rafa doesn’t even know what to call him yet.
Roger’s in the locker room when he goes in to shower and change. “Rafa,” he says, their customary half-hug coming easily, the full-bodied clasp from Roland Garros a one-off thing. Certainly here among other players. Novak Djokovic, the young Serb, is in another corner talking closely with his coach, a strange, silent man who regards the world through narrowed eyes. Novak is different, his eyes always wide open, and Rafa has the sense that he sees more than he might let on. He nods hello and Novak returns the short greeting.
“How are you settling in?” Roger has the air of a host welcoming someone to his home. He has two Wimbledon championships and Toni has speculated he’ll rack up a lot more, something Rafa agrees with, even if he intends at some point in the future to try to get in the way of that. For now, though, he considers it a good result if he gets to the second week.
“Great,” says Rafa. “The house is… great, no?” He’s grasping for another word but whatever it is eludes him.
“Good,” says Roger. “I think you’re near me this year.”
“Yeah?” He heard that Roger rents the Borg house but he doesn’t know which one that is. Southfields is a warren of residences hidden behind tall hedges and locked gates.
“Yeah,” says Roger. “I love not having to get a car, you know? It’s so nice.”
“Yes,” says Rafa, with feeling. “And food, no? Can cook.”
Roger laughs. “I don’t do much of that,” he says. “Mirka cooks a bit, though. It’s good. Do you know the Waitrose to go to?”
Rafa shakes his head and Roger proceeds to give him directions that later he manages to vaguely remember when they get a taxi there that afternoon, even though he doesn’t need them because the driver knows the way.
Luca arrives just as they’ve come back, food piled on the island in the centre of the kitchen. Carlos Costa answers the door and shows him into the kitchen just as Rafa is about to open the tub of olives. He puts the tub back down on the island unopened and says, “Hi.”
“Hi,” says Luca. After a month’s separation Rafa is struck again with Luca’s effortless beauty, the darkness of his eyes, the soft curve of his jaw, the way his body is lithe and fluid in his clothes. They just stare at each other wide-eyed for a moment until Toni breaks the silence.
“Luca,” he says, shaking Luca’s hand. “Welcome. How’s your father?”
“He’s well,” says Luca. “On holidays now after Rome. He’s probably going to be here for the second week, though.”
“Hopefully we’ll be here long enough to see him,” says Toni, smiling. “Hey, Rafa, why don’t you show Luca upstairs and we’ll put these away?”
“Yeah,” says Rafa, flashing him a grateful look, and he takes Luca’s bag. “Come on,” he says. He leads him upstairs wordlessly, straight to his room, where he puts Luca’s small suitcase on the floor beside his own and turns to him, closing the door behind them.
“I didn’t know how much to bring,” says Luca, gesturing to the case, and that tiny uncertainty is all it takes to make Rafa take him in his arms and kiss him.
Their reunion is intimate and careful, a delicate rediscovery. Rafa wants to quantify this man, like he’s a mystery that he will never quite solve but that may be slowly revealed to him. He peels his clothes from him and kisses his chest, his stomach, his wrists, the inside of his elbows. He nuzzles his hardening cock, pressing kisses to his balls. Luca inhales deep then shallow, watching him, his breath laced with tiny whimpers. “Oh, god, I’ve missed you,” he says, pulling Rafa up again and kissing his mouth. He turns them over in the bed and nestles between Rafa’s legs. “I want to fuck you. Can I fuck you?”
“Sí, yes, please,” breathes Rafa.
Luca licks his own fingers, coating them in spit, and then locks his gaze on Rafa’s while he reaches down and presses inside his body. Rafa groans deeply, earthy and profound. “I’d put my mouth on you but I want to kiss you,” whispers Luca.
Rafa nods urgently. “Yes, sí, is good this way, oh,” he says. He reaches into the bedside drawer, scrabbling for the condoms and lube, and presses them into Luca’s hand.
Luca fucks him desperately slowly, their gasping breaths between them, until Rafa is aching to come. “God, this is amazing,” says Luca, clasping Rafa’s hands against the pillow and speeding up, fucking him harder, faster, till Rafa cries out and comes, and Luca follows him, his face pressed into the curve of Rafa’s shoulder, his shuddering voice loud in his ear.
“Come to the club,” says Rafa the next morning. He doesn’t want Luca out of his sight, if he’s honest, though he doesn’t want to say it.
“Won’t I be in the way?”
“You play tennis, no?” says Rafa. “Hit with me.”
“Rafa,” says Luca, laughing. “I play in uni. I’m basically a club player.”
“Come on,” says Rafa, biting his shoulder, grazing his teeth along Luca’s skin. “Hit with me. Show me.”
“I have to read. I have work to do.”
“Take the morning off.” Rafa tries to look as seductive as he knows how. “Come with me.”
“Mmmm,” says Luca, nuzzling against Rafa’s temple. “Usually when I come with you, there isn’t an audience.”
Rafa laughs. He doesn’t want to take his hands off Luca, doesn’t want to walk out the door, even for a morning, without him. “Come to the club,” he says, again.
Luca kisses him. “Okay,” he says.
They have to stop in registration while Luca gets his photo taken and his credentials are finalised. Rafa feels a little odd walking through the club, as if he’s somehow exposed, but no one blinks an eye at one more southern European man in his entourage. Not that he himself thinks of Luca, or indeed anyone around him, in those terms, but right now he’s thankful for the camouflage. “Am I allowed in the locker room?” Luca says.
“Sure,” says Rafa. “You’re with me, no?” They smile a little after that, bright and wide-eyed. “But not once it starts. Then it’s only players.”
The Spaniards stake out a section in South Locker Room. Rafa could be in No. 1 Locker Room this year as second seed but he prefers to hang out with the other guys, so this is where he goes. Feli and Fernando have already arrived but there’s no sign of them today. Rafa shoves his gear into a locker near the corner. “Put your stuff in with mine,” he tells Luca.
They practice on Aorangi Terrace. Rafa warms up with Carlos Costa and then Luca steps in. “See, I told you,” he says, after ten minutes hitting. “I’m no good.”
Rafa shrugs. “You hit the ball where I need it, no?” he says. “Good enough.”
“You’re being kind,” says Luca, but he’s happy to continue for a while. Then Carlos Costa takes over again. His shots sound cleaner and have far more spin, and in truth they’re far more useful than Luca’s, but Rafa is still glad he’s here. He has a book on his knee but he doesn’t read it. Instead he leans his elbow on the book and watches, and takes his turn retrieving balls, and Rafa has a feeling he’s got an insight into the game that is more than casual. He grew up around tennis, after all.
“What now?” says Luca, as they pack up at the end of practice.
“Lunch, then I have media,” says Rafa. “Interviews.”
“Not your favourite,” says Luca, laughing at the face he makes.
“No,” says Rafa. “But part of the sport, no? If you want to go back to the house, it’s okay.”
“No, no,” says Luca. “I’ll wait for you.” He puts his hand lightly on Rafa’s back and it’s just a friendly touch, nothing anyone would notice, but it feels to Rafa like a grounding. The feeling of Luca’s gentle, easy touches stay with him through his pre-tournament presser that afternoon and through the one-on-one interviews he gives to the BBC and the Spanish broadcaster. Later, Luca is still there with his team when they all go back to the house. That night it’s Rafa’s turn to cook so Luca helps him, peeling the prawns with his fingers and putting together a very decent salad. “Don’t you think avocados look a bit like dinosaurs?” he says, taking two halves and pretending they’re roaring like a tyrannosaurus rex. Rafa laughs.
“Was this your first time to Wimbledon?” Enrique asks him, when they’re sitting down at the big table in the kitchen.
“No,” says Luca. “We came a couple of times when I was younger. It was my first time into the locker rooms and the players’ areas, though.”
“It’s a beautiful club,” says Toni.
“It certainly is,” agrees Luca. “You just get this sense of history there. It’s almost nostalgic, even when it’s full of life.”
Rafa agrees. He gets that feeling too.
They develop a routine during the first few days of the tournament. On match days, Luca sits in Rafa’s box, in the back row behind Toni and the others, quiet and unnoticed, though he cheers loudly for every win. When Rafa is practising, Luca usually goes with him and helps with the balls and now and then steps in to hit, if Carlos Costa needs a break and they’re not training with Feli or Moya. That’s rare, though, as Rafa reluctantly concedes that he’s not quite at the level required for Grand Slam practice sessions. He is handy at tennis football when they’re winding down and sometimes claims to win, even when no one is entirely sure of the rules. In the afternoons he goes back to the house and works on his final year thesis while Rafa plays playstation downstairs with whatever Spaniards have inevitably come to visit. “What’s your thesis about?” Rafa asks him one evening when he comes upstairs flush from playstation victory while Luca is still buried in books, the cursor on his laptop screen blinking at him.
“Medieval philosophy as represented in Eco’s Name of the Rose,” says Luca, holding up a thick paperback full of post-its and underlines.
Rafa flicks through it. “This is a long book. Is there a movie?”
“Yeah,” says Luca. “But honestly I don’t think you’d like it.”
Rafa insists on going to buy the DVD the next day on a high after his win against Agassi but he falls asleep before the end.
“Hey,” says Luca on Middle Saturday, late at night in bed after they’ve had sex. “Guess what Toni said to me the other day?”
“What?” says Rafa. He’s drowsy and boneless, lying against Luca in bed.
“He said, ‘Luca, try to get him to bed early these nights, would you? He needs to sleep more.’” Luca laughs. “As if I’m your minder or something.”
Suddenly Rafa is no longer sleepy. His temper can be sudden and incandescent and that’s what it is now. “Are you serious?” he says, sitting up, staring down at Luca, who is still lying against the pillows.
“Yeah,” says Luca. “I mean… I didn’t take him seriously.” He frowns. “Are you angry? I didn’t mean to make you angry.”
But Rafa is. He feels utterly betrayed. By Toni, by Luca, he can’t even say, a diffuse kind of rage. He throws back the covers and gets out of bed, pulling on the shorts he discarded earlier on the floor.
“Rafa, seriously, I just meant to tell you as a joke. It’s no big deal.”
It is, though. Rafa says nothing and leaves the room, looking for Toni in the kitchen, but by now the house is dark. He leans on the kitchen island, debating whether or not to go and wake Toni up to yell at him. How dare he? How dare he try to co-opt this one thing? Outside, the garden is dim in the half light of the suburbs, made of shadows and silhouettes against the cloudy sky lit up with London light. One single bird is singing, a nocturnal lookout who never seems to sleep. He goes to the sink and pours himself a glass of water from the tap. The water always tastes vaguely like chlorine so they usually filter it, but tonight he doesn’t care. He drinks gulp after gulp till his breathing calms down.
“Rafa,” comes Luca’s voice at the door. He’s pulled on his own shorts and is standing there in the dark, leaning against the door frame. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to make you angry.”
Rafa shakes his head. “It’s not you,” he says, and he finds as he says it it’s true. His anger is pinpointed directly at Toni.
“And, you know, I’m pretty sure he was joking.”
“You don’t know my uncle,” says Rafa. He puts the empty glass on the draining board and then picks it up again and puts it in the dishwasher. Luca comes closer, the other side of the island.
“You’re right,” he says. His tone of voice is gratingly reasonable, almost enough to make Rafa annoyed at him again. “I don’t know him. But you know me, don’t you?”
Rafa leans against the sink. In the dim light, he can make out Luca’s expression, soft and concerned and apologetic. No one has ever looked at him like that before, not a lover, at least. Xavi was young and thoughtless and a little cruel, he knows now, and with Feli it never mattered this much. “Are you my boyfriend?” he says.
Luca looks taken aback. He comes around the island and stands opposite Rafa. “If you want me to be,” he says. “I want to be. I want us to be boyfriends.”
Rafa heaves a sigh. Of all ways he imagined having this conversation--and he’s imagined it often in the last week--this isn’t it. He goes to Luca and wraps his arms around him, hugging him, chest to chest, chin over his shoulder, kissing the side of his jaw.
“I’m sorry,” says Luca, pulling back to look him in the eyes. “I should have realised it wouldn’t be a joke to you. I should have known.”
“No,” says Rafa. “I’m sorry, no? I shouldn’t be angry at you for something he said.”
“From now on I promise to tell you anything like that straight away, and it won’t be a joke.”
“I want us to be boyfriends, too,” says Rafa, and when he kisses him, he hopes he’s telling Luca just how much he wants it, how happy it makes him, how perfect this feels.
The next day Luca doesn’t come to practice because he says he has to catch up on writing. “You have much more to go?” Rafa asks him, hanging his chin over Luca’s shoulder as he sits at the desk he’s set up in their room by the window.
“Lots,” he says, a little grimly. “It’s never ending.”
“When is it finished?”
“End of August,” says Luca. “That’s when I hand it in. That’s when I’m free.” He reaches back over his head and hugs Rafa. “Go and practice. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Rafa kisses him softly and then slings his kit bag onto his back. “We have all afternoon,” he says, grinning.
“I’ll do my very best to get today’s work out of the way by then,” he says.
He practices with Feli at Aorangi. He’s cool with Toni but he doesn’t feel like a confrontation. Feli ducks close to him when they’re wrapping up and says, “Hey, Rafa,” in a way that indicates a close conversation. “You were right about Fernando.”
Rafa looks at him closely. “Shit, Feli,” he says, noticing a small bruise on his neck. “Is that a hickey?”
Feli touches his neck shyly. “Yeah,” he says. He shrugs. “Fernando.”
Rafa laughs. “I knew it,” he says. “You guys are good together.”
“Yeah,” says Feli, a little dreamy. “It’s nice.”
“Yeah,” says Rafa, thinking of Luca at home.
“You’ve got a new guy, too, huh?” says Feli.
He can’t help the grin that spreads over his face. “Luca,” he says.
“I’m glad, Rafa,” says Feli. “You deserve it.”
Later that evening, after they’ve had a leisurely meal in the kitchen, Rafa slings his arm possessively over Luca’s chair. He glares at Toni. “Well, I guess I won’t be cleaning up,” he says. “I should get to bed early, huh? Match tomorrow.”
Toni covers an abashed smile and adjusts his cap on his head. He knows he’s been caught out. That’s all that needs to be said.
On Monday he makes it through the round of sixteen, and on Wednesday the quarter finals against Jarkko Nieminen. Then the semifinals in straight sets against Marcos Baghdatis. He likes Baghdatis, feels a little sorry at the moment of victory, but he cannot be sorry he’s made it to the Wimbledon final. Toni is gleeful in his subdued way and the team is buzzing with the win. Luca fucks him stupid that night, all he can do to lie there, face against the mattress. “Oh god, Rafa, you were magnificent,” he says, his dick so deep in Rafa’s ass. Rafa groans and comes in racking waves, Luca following soon after and collapsing against his back.
They don’t talk much about the final on Saturday. They know what’s coming. Toni just nods at practice, where Rafa is hitting cleanly, with power that Carlos Costa can’t possibly match. They’re used to it; by this time in a major, Rafa has to hit as well as he can. “If only you could practice with Federer, huh?” says Toni.
That night they don’t talk about it at all. They play poker on the dinner table after it’s been cleared. Rafa wins, and even if deep down he suspects they let him win, he ignores the feeling and clears the matchsticks from the table and counts them out, gloating with victory.
“You have a match tomorrow,” says Luca, when Rafa lies in bed with him and shoves his hand into Luca’s shorts.
“I’m not going to sleep,” says Rafa.
“And so I’m not going to sleep either, huh?” says Luca, gasping a little when Rafa thumbs the head of his cock.
“Put your mouth on me,” breathes Rafa.
Luca does until Rafa comes, then he fucks him till he comes again.
The day of the final dawns clear and sunny, a yellow English sunshine with a gentle breeze blowing from somewhere warm. There is more heat in the sun than there often is at this latitude. It’s as if the weather itself is playing its part today, opening up the sky to tennis. Rafa did sleep after all, several hours in fact, satiated as a cat in Luca’s arms. Toni wakes him up to have breakfast and then they pack up and go to the club.
It’s the first time he’s woken up before a Grand Slam final with someone else in his bed. It’s the first time he’ll have his boyfriend sitting in his box for any match. It’s Wimbledon. He’s moved up to No. 1 Locker Room now that the others are gone and he and Roger have taken opposite ends of it. At this stage of the tournament, no one stops teams going in with the players. It’s only the two of them in No. 1, after all. Rafa works through his routine with Toni and Enrique there with him, while Luca waits outside with Benito, Jordi and Carlos Costa. His parents and Maribel are there too. He showers in cold water and pees and towels off and showers again. His parents met Luca during the week, his mother hugging him and his father shaking his hand warmly. Maribel giggled. It was a little embarrassing. Luca didn’t mind, though. He could talk eloquently about almost anything, and he could listen. He listened raptly as Sebastian talked about various business ventures, always soaking up knowledge. It’s a quality about him that Rafa envies a little, the ability to be interested in anything, to ask insightful questions in conversation. Rafa zones out at so many things. He wonders if he would if Luca talked about them. Later, when they were clearing up, his mother hugged him and said, “You certainly chose well.”
He laughed. “I think he chose me, Mama,” he said.
“Well, he did, then,” she said, leaning up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek.
It’s his first time having his bags carried onto Centre Court. He carries his own racket so he doesn’t feel naked and unprepared walking down the corridors of the club out to the court. Roger is behind him, calm and quiet, nodding hello and then retreating back inside himself. Rafa jumps and stretches, feeling like a tensed bow. He is familiar with finals but there’s nothing quite like this. Inside Centre Court almost has the air of a cathedral. “Like the Pantheon,” Luca said. “Open to the sky.” Rafa has no truck with gods but here he feels something like awe. The ritual of it, too: neatly dressed attendants, thousands of congregants, here for one reason.
He is somewhat overcome by awe in the first set, which he loses 6-0. He lets it go, the way he knows how, and the next two are more competitive, both of them going to tie break. When Roger wins the second, all Rafa wants is to win the next, so even if he loses it’s not a three-set final. He throws everything at the tie-break and wins it a glorious 7-2. He’s almost happy with that and loses the fourth, and the match. It doesn’t matter, though: when he hugs Roger at the net, he feels that today they added up to something great. They delivered the tennis the crowd wanted to see. They circle the court holding aloft their trophies, and when they pass, they touch hands, a small acknowledgement of the match they just played together.
He wants Luca to come with him to Mallorca. He wants to book him a flight on the same plane and take him, books and laptop and all, to the house in Porto Cristo, and from there to the beach. “You really can’t?”
“I have so much work to make up. I have to spend the next week working like twelve hours a day.”
Rafa is shoving his clothes into his bags willy-nilly. They have a flight at midnight. “You can’t work there?”
“Come on, Rafa,” says Luca, coming up behind him and hooking his chin over his shoulder. “You’ve had your two weeks of work. I need to do mine now.”
Rafa crumples a little. “Shit,” he says. “Sorry. I’m selfish.”
“You’re happy. You want to celebrate. I want to celebrate with you, you know I do.” Luca presses a kiss to his neck, to his cheek. “Why don’t I see how it goes in the next week and then visit you? How’s that?”
Rafa turns in his arms. “I have to train in a week,” he says.
“Then I can work while you train and in the evenings we can eat well, and in the night…” He grins against Rafa’s mouth. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” says Rafa, conceding. “Okay.”
They say goodbye at Southfields tube station, in a car with darkened windows, where they kiss and then Luca gets out of the car. “Bye,” he says.
“See you soon,” says Rafa.
Luca texts him from the platform and they keep texting till Rafa gets on the plane.
Luca visits towards the end of July, a case of books with him. They spend a week together before Rafa has to go to Canada, where he’s beaten in the third round. Then on to Cincinnati, where Juan Carlos Ferrero beats him in the quarters. “Never mind,” says Toni, genially.
“I won this last year,” says Rafa.
“You’ll win it again,” says Toni, and they head on to New York. That’s where Luca joins them again.
“I’ve handed in,” he says.
“Your turn to celebrate, no?” says Rafa, taking him to bed.
He trains on Arthur Ashe. It’s so different from Wimbledon, a broad and open stadium where the crowds are clamorous, drunk on beer rather than Pimms. Now it’s empty apart from a few people watching him practice, a few photographers low in the stands. He’s hitting well, even though he’s tired. He feels fatigue in his bones. He says nothing about it but Toni can see it well enough. “Run, Rafa,” he says to him quietly.
“I know, I know,” he says.
Roger comes on just as he’s leaving. “Hey, Rafa!” he says, and he lifts Rafa’s spirits just with his smile.
“Hola, Rogelio,” he says. These days he uses that name just to see Roger’s soft eyes when he says it.
“Hey, I wanted to say to you. Why don’t we go to dinner? Here in New York?”
“Sure,” says Rafa. “Yes. I like that.”
“Are you still single or what?” He nudges Rafa playfully. “I can’t imagine you’d be single for long.” He says it almost flirtily.
Rafa thinks of Luca back in the hotel, sleeping off sleepless nights of work until Rafa gets back. “No,” he says. It’s a strange exposure to say it.
“Ha, I knew it,” Roger says. “Bring her, yeah? You, me, Mirka, and your girlfriend?”
Rafa says yes and doesn’t correct him. They make plans to meet at a Japanese restaurant Roger knows that evening and Rafa leaves with his heart on fire, something in him burning, some deep down excitement lighting him up. “What did Roger say to you?” Toni asks.
“We’re going to dinner,” says Rafa, trying to quell his grin.
“Good,” says Toni, with his infuriating air of approval. Rafa doesn’t tell him the rest.
“Are you sure?” says Luca. He seems almost nervous. Rafa looks at him, standing in their hotel room in a white button-down shirt and jeans, looking like he’s just walked out of a fashion shoot.
“I’m sure,” he says. “Roger is a friend. Good guy.”
“But you didn’t tell him I’m a guy,” says Luca.
Rafa shakes his head. He can’t really explain it. He wants to see Roger’s face. He wants to be a surprise. He wants to show off this beautiful man, to shock people with the knowledge that Luca is his boyfriend. Well, not people. Shock Roger. He wants to see him realise. “It would be weird if I said it then,” is all he says, even though it’s not quite the truth.
They take a cab to Ukiyo. They’re a little late and Rafa’s hair is still damp from the shower. He’s tried to look handsome too, in a black polo shirt and jeans, but he feels like his clothes never quite fit right. His jeans strain a little around the ass. He doesn’t mind that, he knows it looks good, but it still feels like he’s less elegant than Luca. Than Roger, too. Definitely less elegant than Roger. His hair curls around his ear and in the New York humidity it’s drying frizzy. For the millionth time he wishes he could come to grips with hair product, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to.
The cab pulls up outside the restaurant and they walk inside, a discreet distance between them, so if there are paparazzi around they seem to be at a friendly distance, nothing more. Rafa almost enjoys the dissimulation. The frisson of secrecy. They don’t have to tell the maitre d’ who they are there to join; they are ushered straight to a table in the back, where the booths are sheltered by the spheres of bonsai orange trees. Roger and Mirka sit on one side of a dark lacquered table, deep in conversation about something, Roger’s arm casually over the back of the bench seat behind Mirka. He looks up when he sees Rafa approach. Rafa watches his face, the flicker of confusion, before he resettles his face into a smile. “Hey, Raf,” he says, standing up and clasping his hand across the table as Rafa and Luca take their seats. His glance flickers to Luca and back again.
“Roger,” he says. Somehow in front of Mirka saying “Rogelio” feels wrong.
“Your girlfriend couldn’t make it?” says Roger.
“Roger,” he says again. “This is Luca.” He can feel the words in his mouth before he says them. “My boyfriend.”
He can feel Luca’s eyes on him but he can’t stop watching Roger’s face. The shimmer of surprise, shock, and then something like curiosity. He finally settles on a broad smile.
“Luca,” says Mirka, holding out her hand across the table. She’s retained a cool demeanour, nothing of Roger’s flickering emotions. “Lovely to meet you.”
“And you,” says Luca in his mellifluous way, taking her hand briefly. Mirka looks charmed.
Roger has still said nothing. He takes Luca’s hand and shakes it across the table. He finally says “Hi,” like an afterthought, like he’s too busy measuring Luca up to have remembered sooner. “You’re Sergio’s son.”
“Yeah,” says Luca. Then come the usual questions, asking after his father, asking what he’s up to, if he’s in town. Luca must tire of that, Rafa thinks, but he never shows it. He’ll get the same questions a hundred more times when he shows up at the tournament.
“Anyway, what’s the good food here, Roger?” he asks, opening a menu. All the dishes have Japanese names with small descriptions underneath in English.
“Do you like sushi?”
“Yes,” says Rafa.
“Then I’ll order sushi to start with, what do you think?” Rafa nods and Roger calls a waiter. He orders a bottle of Asahi beer too, though when it comes he pours it only for Luca and Mirka. He catches Rafa’s eye and they share a rueful smile, even though to tell the truth Rafa doesn’t miss beer. It’s food he loves more than alcohol and he can eat as much sushi as he likes. Toni approves of both rice and fish, even though perhaps he’d advise to ease up on the wasabi. Rafa doesn’t. “Shit, that much?” says Roger, watching him dip it in. Rafa grins and puts the salmon sushi in his mouth all at once, and then laughs through the dry heat of wasabi in his nose. When Roger tries to do the same thing he ends up spluttering, tears coming down his face.
Despite the laughter, there’s an edge to the atmosphere that Rafa can’t quite place. Conversation feels more barbed than it otherwise might be. Roger is now and then acerbic, though he then seems to retreat from his comments, waving them away. At other times he leans forward, elbows on the black lacquer, listening intently while Rafa tells some story or other as if there’s no one else there. Mirka reaches for something or vocalises agreement and he notices her again, leaning back, once more laying his arm across the back of the booth until the next time he is distracted. Luca is quiet, in one of his absorptive moods, listening and learning. Rafa wonders what he’s noting. “No,” he says in response to a question Roger has asked. “I don’t play. Well, not really. I play a little in university.”
“So you do, then?” says Roger, almost as if he’s caught him out in an untruth rather than a moment of modesty.
“He’s better than he thinks,” says Rafa, looking at Luca sidelong, and Roger takes a drink of mineral water. Rafa can’t quite read Roger’s mood.
“I used to suck,” says Roger, suddenly conciliatory.
“I doubt that,” says Luca, laughing a little.
“No, really, Mirka will tell you. Smashing the racket, shouting, doing nothing for my game.”
“He did,” says Mirka. “The first time I saw him, people told me, he’s the future of tennis. Then I saw him smashing his racket and swearing at himself. I figured either people were wrong or tennis had a bleak future.”
“When did all that change?” says Luca.
Roger blows out a breath. “I guess it was my father,” he said. “We were playing one day at the club in Basel and I was screaming, yelling, the usual. I was eleven years old, something like that. Dad put five francs on the bench and told me to find my own way home, and he walked off. I watched him go, you know, I thought for sure he’d come back. No way would he just leave me. I waited for like half an hour.” He pauses, shakes his head a little. “I finally realised he wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t believe it, you know? So I took the money and got home by myself, it was like two trams and a bus or something. It took me nearly two hours. My mother told me when I got home that he was so upset with me.”
“Wow,” says Luca. “That’s some tough love.”
“I deserved it,” says Roger.
“My Dad did something like that to my brother when he snuck out one night in Rome. He missed all the last trains home and had to call Dad, so Dad sent a taxi and made him pay for it himself. We didn’t get a lot of money as teenagers, Dad’s philosophy to raise us right. I think it cost him most of what he had at the time. Once you’re out of the city, those drivers can charge you anything.”
Roger looks at Luca across the table. “And you?” he says.
Luca laughs. “Me? No. I never dared to do anything like that. Anyway all I ever did was read books in the day and hang out in cafés down the street at night. I’m not the club type.”
“I once skipped a ballet class to hang out with my boyfriend, when I was fourteen,” says Mirka.
“You’re such a rebel. That’s what I love about you,” says Roger, smiling at her with a mixture of teasing and fondness. “What about you, Raf? What’s in your rebellious past?”
“Pfft,” says Rafa, shaking his head. “Nothing. Well. Maybe stealing a bottle of wine and drinking it by the sea with my friend one time, no? When I was sixteen. That’s probably all.”
“Probably? Who was this friend?” Roger is teasing him now, with narrowed eyes, like he’s trying to ferret something out of him.
Rafa looks at Mirka, feeling a momentary affinity, and then back to Roger. “First boyfriend, I guess,” he says, shrugging. “Yeah, kind of first boyfriend.” He hasn’t mentioned Xavi to Luca, but then again, Luca hasn’t told him anything about previous boyfriends either. He doesn’t even know if Luca had someone in Oxford before they met and he feels a sudden pang of guilt that he never wondered before now. He’ll ask later. For now it’s Roger who’s smiling and nodding his head, something suggestive in his eye.
“Sneaking down to the beach with a boy and a bottle of wine, huh?” he says. “I would never have imagined that, Rafa, to be honest.”
The abrasive atmosphere has dissipated. “I was young,” he says. “It was a long time ago.” It feels it, too. It feels longer ago than four years, though that’s all it was. He puts his hand on Luca’s thigh under the table. “Don’t need to sneak around anymore.” Roger raises his eyebrow. “Well,” Rafa amends, drawing his hand back. “Not all the time.” He breaks the silence that falls by reaching for the menu. “We order something else?” he says, and Roger agrees, so they choose some teriyaki chicken and zaru soba and Roger calls over a waiter.
By the time they leave, Roger is sleepy. “You Spaniards, you stay up later than I’m used to,” he says, stifling a yawn.
“Sí, is true,” says Rafa. Luca takes his hand and then drops it again, just a touch. “Anyway. See you at the club.”
“Yeah, Raf,” says Roger, smiling in a way that Rafa thinks might be just for him. “See you there.”
Luca is quiet on the way home. Rafa reaches for his hand but Luca pulls away, gesturing towards the driver. Rafa draws his hand back and looks out the window. The streets are full of yellow cabs and groups of people on the sidewalks, Thursday in New York, almost the weekend. Here and there groups of smokers gather behind ropes outside clubs and music flows out into the night. The car pulls up to the hotel and they walk apart up the steps and into the lobby. They share the elevator with tourists, leaving before them into the corridor of the seventh floor. Rafa feels the silence heavy between them. He slides his key card into the lock and goes into the suite, Luca following him.
“Rafa,” says Luca, as the door closes. “You wanted to see his face when he saw me.” Rafa is shucking off his shoes, kicking them under a chair. “When he realised. That’s why you didn’t tell him. Not because you thought it would be weird.” Rafa turns on a lamp by the desk--covered in books, because Luca reads even when he’s not studying--and turns around. “You used me as some kind of, I don’t know, some kind of shock factor.” Luca shakes his head. He sits down on a chair and takes his shoes off carefully, unlacing them before he does so. “That’s how you decided to come out to him.”
Rafa hadn’t thought of it that way. Coming out. It has such a formal sound to it, as if it’s some kind of ritual. “Not coming out,” he says. “No. This wasn’t my thought.”
“What do you call it then? Someone assumes you’re straight and you tell them you’re gay. That’s what coming out is.”
He hasn’t had to come out a lot. Not as such. His friends, yes. Around the fire, half of them knowing already. His mother always seemed to know, and so he assumed his father did too, and Maribel. The other Spaniards knew he was fucking Feli without him ever having to say a word. “No,” he says again. “No. Luca. I…” He wishes they spoke the same language now, not the overlapping mix they get by in.
“You wanted to see the way he’d look at you.”
“Yes,” says Rafa. “Yes, I wanted to see.”
“Because…” He sighs, groping for the right way to say it. “Because I trust him. I like him, no? I wanted to do it this way because it’s not…” Again he reaches for the right words. “It’s not coming out. Not like that. Is just… it’s just being me. Me and you together.”
The frown on Luca’s face fades. He stands up again in his bare feet on the beige hotel carpet. “You and me together,” he echoes. “This is really how you think of it? Being gay?”
“Yeah,” says Rafa. He can’t imagine another way to think of it.
“It doesn’t make you lonely, just being gay by yourself? No community around you, no people like you?”
“Community?” He thinks of Feli, of the other Spaniards who don’t care. He thinks of Tomeu and Miguel Angel and Xavi, of Xisca and Marisol. “I have my friends, no? They all know.”
“I mean other gay people. Queer people. Who know what it’s like.” Rafa is the one confused now. “Like, in Oxford, I’m in the LGBT society. We get together, go out together, we know each other. It’s important to us that we understand each other in a way, you know? We know each other in a way straight people just can never quite get, much as they might try.”
There’s a stab of jealousy in his heart. “Did you have a boyfriend in Oxford?” he asks.
“You’ve never asked me that before.”
“I slept with Feli for a while,” says Rafa. It spills out of him. “And there was Xavi at home, but he’s not gay. He’s straight.”
“How long were you with him for?”
“A year and a half. Nearly two years.”
“Maybe not as straight as he claims,” says Luca. He undoes a few buttons of his shirt. “I had a boyfriend.” He pulls his shirt out of his jeans and takes it off. “He was from here, New York, actually. I was still with him when you and I slept together in Rome. I broke up with him after that.”
Rafa doesn’t quite know what to say to that. “Oh,” is all he manages. He wonders what this man was like. Probably smart like Luca, probably elegant. He could probably talk about books and all the things Luca loves. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Luca says. “We both knew what could happen when we were apart. We could have stayed together, really.”
“But you didn’t.”
“No.” Luca pushes a hand through his hair, a little distraught. “We didn’t. I knew, when I met you…” He shrugs. “Well, there was no point.”
“No.” Luca looks quizzical, as if he can’t quite see what Rafa is failing to understand. “Don’t you know what you’re like, Rafa? Don’t you know how attractive you are, how…?” He sighs, his bare chest rising and falling. He has a sprinkling of hair on his chest, thicker than Rafa’s own. His shoulders are broad. “How you glow? I feel you like a magnet near me, like I don’t know how to tear myself away from you.” Suddenly he looks abashed. “Sorry,” he says. “This is probably stupid, telling you these things.”
“No, no,” says Rafa. “Not stupid. You’re never stupid. So smart, no? I don’t know…” It’s his turn to search for words. In their mangled mix of languages he hardly knows how to say what he feels, so he says it in Mallorquín and hopes Luca understands. “I don’t know why you want to be with me. I can’t understand these things you do, the things you love. I can’t even stay awake for a movie when you read the whole book.”
“Wait,” says Luca. He’s the one puzzled now. “You think that matters to me? That you can’t watch The Name of the Rose?”
“You watch tennis all the time,” says Rafa. “You’re there for me, in the box. Is important. So important to me. But I can’t be there for you.”
“You are there for me, Rafael,” says Luca. He comes towards him, taking Rafa in his arms. “You are.” He presses their foreheads together. “I don’t want anyone else.”
“Me neither,” says Rafa, exhaling with a gasp. He’s flooded with relief. “Just you, no? I just want you.”
“That’s good to hear,” says Luca, pressing a kiss to his mouth. “The way Roger Federer was looking at you tonight…”
Rafa untangles himself from Luca’s arms and takes a step back. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “No, Roger, it’s not like this.”
“Are you sure?”
“He has a girlfriend,” says Rafa.
“You’ve had a boyfriend before and you tell me he’s straight,” says Luca. “I think you don’t quite know the effect you have on people.” Rafa can’t think about that tonight. He can’t think about the look on Roger’s face, and he can’t think about why he wanted to see it. It’s a tangle in his own mind and in his chest and he wants nothing more than to ignore it right now. “A man could think he’s straight till he sees you,” says Luca. His tone has changed, though. It’s become seductive, a little joking. He takes Rafa in his arms again and Rafa melts against him.
“I don’t care about them,” he says, and it’s true when he says it. All he cares about is Luca pressed against him, his hands snaking around his hips and his palms pressed against his ass. “I just care about you, no?”
“Good,” says Luca, kissing him again and bringing him to bed.
Luca sits in his box for every match. No one comments. Rafa begins to feel as if they’re invisible, as if they could do anything and no one would notice. He would never test it but he is buoyed by the thought. The lightness in his bones takes him further into the tournament than he really expected, though not as far as he hoped. He makes it to the quarterfinals, where Mikhail Youzhny beats him in four sets. He’s exhausted in the fourth; it’s a 6-1 washout. “That’s Youzhny,” says Toni.
“That’s me,” says Rafa, dispirited. “I’m so tired.”
“Come on, my boy,” Toni says, his hand on Rafa’s shoulder. “Take a break and we’ll be ready for the rest.” They head to the airport as soon as they can get a flight. Luca comes with them, integrated into the team now. He reads under his own spotlight in the dim cabin while Rafa sleeps all the way to Barcelona, and from there they fly to Palma and then by car across the island to Manacor.
“Yeah, he’s here,” says Rafa, who is lying in bed with Luca plastered to his back, dozing gently. The morning sun is slanting in through slats in the shades and dust is swirling slowly in its early autumnal light.
“Bring him,” says Tomeu. “I want to meet this guy.”
Rafa laughs. “Okay,” he says. He hangs up and elbows Luca awake.
“What?” he mumbles, wrapping his arms around Rafa’s waist. “I’m jet lagged. Let me sleep.”
“Waste of time,” says Rafa, kicking the covers back. Behind the shades, the window is open and the air is cool on his sweaty skin.
“You’re a maniac,” says Luca, turning over and grumbling into the pillow.
“We’re going to a barbecue this evening,” says Rafa. “With my friends.”
Luca flops onto his back as Rafa sits up. “Yeah?” he says. “I’m going to meet your friends?”
“If you want,” says Rafa. He pokes Luca in the belly and leans over to gnaw at his shoulder and nuzzle against his neck. “They want to meet you.”
“Leave me alone,” says Luca, nuzzling him back. “You’re going to eat me alive.”
“If you’re lucky,” replies Rafa, licking his collar bone.
Rafa calls a taxi driver he knows and has him come to the house to pick them up. “Can drink a beer,” he explains to Luca.
“You, drinking?” says Luca. “I never.”
“I do sometimes,” says Rafa. “After a Major, maybe deserve a beer, no?”
“Of course,” says Luca, slinging an arm around him before they leave the apartment. “You do.”
The driver arrives at seven. He’s driven the Nadals around Mallorca as long as Rafa can remember. “Hernandez,” he says, as Hernandez opens the door for him. He’s getting to be an old man, a slight stoop to his back now.
“Rafael,” he says. “And who is this? I don’t know this boy.”
“Luca, sir,” says Luca, holding out his hand to shake it.
“My friend,” says Rafa. “He’s from Italy.”
Hernandez grunts and closes the door behind the two of them. He smokes in the car with the windows open, cigarettes he’s rolled himself and stacked neatly in a small, round container stuck to the dashboard. “So where to?” he says, looking at Rafa in the rearview mirror.
“Tomeu’s house, thank you,” says Rafa. He always feels like a boy around Hernandez, who has a presence not unlike his grandfather’s. He’s a part of Manacor the way the stones are, the way the cobbles are, woven into the fabric of the town. He drives down back streets and through tiny alleys, insisting that it’s faster even when it’s not, and gets them to Tomeu’s house in Porto Cristo. Rafa puts a twenty euro note on the little tray between the front seats and gets out before Hernandez can fumble for change. “I’ll call you later, okay?” he says, and Hernandez nods, lighting another cigarette.
Rafa leads Luca through the gate--he knows the keypad code--and around to the back of the house. Luca is a little nervous, chewing on his thumbnail. Rafa puts his hand on his back. “It’s gonna be fine,” he says, gently. “Come on.” They turn a corner that opens onto Tomeu’s deck. Tomeu, Xavi and Maria Francisca are all gathered around the barbecue, where Maria Francisca is rearranging coals with a pair of tongs.
“I told you,” she’s saying. “You need to let air in.”
“I was,” Tomeu says, a little peevishly.
“You weren’t,” she tells him. “You were smothering it.”
“Hey,” says Xavi, noticing Rafa and Luca’s arrival. “There he is.”
Luca hangs back while Rafa hugs his friends. “This is Luca,” says Rafa, then. “Tomeu, Maria Francisca and this is Xavi.” He points to each of them in turn. Luca gives Xavi a slightly longer look than the others.
“Hi,” they say, clasping hands with him. “Welcome to mi casa,” says Tomeu.
“Thanks,” says Luca.
“Sure,” Luca replies.
“Me too,” says Rafa.
“Hey, Marisol!” Xavi calls into the house. “Two more.” Marisol comes out onto the deck with beer bottles held between her fingers.
“Hi,” she says to Luca, passing him a bottle. “Nice to meet you at last. We’ve heard, well, almost nothing about you.”
“Saw you on TV, though,” says Tomeu, clinking their bottles together.
“Yeah, me and the WAGs, right?” says Luca. He laughs.
“We’re just trying to light this up,” says Tomeu.
“We were finally managing,” says Maria Francisca. She turns back to the fire and rearranges the coals again, though they look fine to Rafa. He hadn’t thought of how she might react to meeting Luca. He realises he’s been carefully excising Luca from his texts and phonecalls with her. Guilt still bubbles up inside him when he remembers those abortive dates with her. There’s still a vague look of sadness about her now like the one she had when he dumped her on her doorstep that night. A look of hurt.
“Miguel Angel is late as usual,” Tomeu is saying to Luca. “Have you met him yet?”
“No, but I’ve heard about him, I think,” says Luca, looking to Rafa for reassurance.
“Of course,” says Rafa. “Can’t talk about home without talking about Miguel Angel.” Xisca looks at him over her shoulder and then turns back to the flames.
“This house is beautiful,” says Luca. “What a view.” Out across the bay the night is crawling up from the horizon, the first stars already lit up in the sky. The moon is a pale crescent hanging over the sea.
“Yeah,” says Tomeu. “Not bad.” He grins. Something in his expression reminds Rafa of Roger and the way he looks in Wimbledon. Proud of his home.
“Who is he?” says Rafa. They’re having a late breakfast in the apartment in Manacor. Luca is toasting bread and Rafa unscrews the cap on a jar of Nutella.
“A friend of mine says he knows this guy. Used to work with the Mallorca football team.”
Rafa shrugs. “Sure, I’ll meet him,” he says. It’s hard to imagine getting to know anyone new to take Enrique’s place but Enrique is already gone home to his wife and he needs someone sooner rather than later. A couple of days later Rafa Maymo arrives from Barcelona and meets them at the club in Manacor. He’s waiting in the lobby when they arrive, looking at the photo on the wall of Rafa training at the club last summer. “Hi,” he says, when he turns around.
“Hey,” says Rafa. He likes him immediately. He’s quiet, unassuming, but from the start minutely observant. With his elfin eyes he notices tiny details like the compensation required in Rafa’s movement when he’s leaning on his left foot. He notices a little niggle in Rafa’s hip that Rafa hadn’t even mentioned to anyone. He writes these details down carefully in a small black notebook that he slips in his pocket when they wrap up the session. Later, on the table, his hands feel strong and competent and he talks easily about football. He tells stories about working with Réal Mallorca that make Rafa laugh even through the pain of massage.
“You want the job?” Rafa says before he’s even changed afterwards.
“Yeah,” says Maymo, in his quiet, smiling way.
Maymo moves into an apartment in Manacor and starts work right away. It’s down at the club that Rafa first calls him Titín, a joke about the way he squints at Rafa in the sunlight, and the name sticks. Maymo likes it, laughing at first and then just answering to it as it becomes normal. He talks to Joan Forcades about Rafa’s fitness training and he talks to Toni about tennis training. It turns out they have more time in Manacor that autumn than they were expecting; Rafa is exhausted and only plays Stockholm and Madrid before the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.
“No,” says Roger. “Not at all. Want to just walk and see where we end up?”
“Seriously?” says Rafa.
“Yeah,” says Roger. “I feel like a walk.”
Shanghai is still warm this time of year, warm enough to just wear a jacket, at least. The city feels like it’s built upwards, like it’s a conglomeration of towers, with neon signs running the length of them covered in Chinese characters. The streets smell of food and asphalt and the fumes from the subway that filter up through grates in the pavement. Down back alleys men in chefs’ uniforms gather to smoke and talk before heading back inside to the hundreds of restaurants that seem to fill some of the buildings top to bottom. Most of them have pictures outside of the kind of cuisine they serve and Roger and Rafa just wander aimlessly, gazing at unknown food, taking in unfamiliar smells and trying to find a place with a menu they can read. “Can you imagine being able to read this writing?” says Roger.
“I wish I could,” says Rafa.
“Looks amazing, no? So interesting. Different.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” say Roger.
They’re stopped by men in the streets wearing suits. They speak in perfect English, selling their restaurants. “Do you have an English menu?” Roger asks them.
“No, no,” they say. “But pictures, we have pictures. Easy for you.”
“We could end up eating anything,” says Roger. “Intestines or, I don’t know, horse.”
“Is normal food here, no?” says Rafa. “Maybe not so bad.”
Roger makes a face. “I can’t eat intestines,” he says. “I just can’t.”
Rafa laughs and shrugs. “Maybe we should have asked at the hotel.”
“Yeah, maybe,” says Roger. He grins wryly.
“We have an English menu,” says a man in a black suit. “If you like. We won’t serve you intestines.” The man speaks with a perfect American accent.
“Oh yeah?” says Roger.
“Yes,” says the man. “If you would follow me…”
“Is this creepy?” murmurs Roger to Rafa.
“Roger,” says Rafa. “Is normal, no? In Shanghai.”
The man nods and smiles and gestures towards a restaurant that looks pretty classy. “In here. You see? Delicious food. Beautiful restaurant.”
Roger looks at Rafa, an eyebrow raised, and Rafa says, “Sure, why not?” His stomach is rumbling at this point. He’d even try intestines, at a stretch.
The restaurant is indeed beautiful, with linen dividers between the dark wood tables upon which are laid black chopsticks on small ceramic rests. “Please,” says the man again, directing them to a table and motioning to a waiter to bring them a menu. “Enjoy.”
“Would you really eat intestines?” says Roger, as the waiter brings them menus. “You don’t even like ham!”
“Not pig intestines, maybe,” says Rafa. He loves it when Roger laughs. “Horse intestines?”
“Oh god, stop,” says Roger.
“Mirka did not come?” says Rafa.
“No,” says Roger. “It’s a long way to come, a lot of jet lag.” If the thought of Mirka not coming along with Roger makes Rafa happy, he doesn’t ask himself why. “And Luca?”
“Same,” says Rafa. “Too far. He’s in Rome this week, with his family, no?” He does feel a slight wave of guilt when he thinks of Luca, though he can’t even quite untangle it. It means nothing, this dinner. It’s just what they do. Ever since Luca mentioned it, Rafa finds himself analysing the way Roger looks at him, the way he’s casually physical. It means nothing. He’s sure of it.
“Rafa,” says Roger. He’s rearranging his chopsticks on their rest, even though they end up exactly where they were to begin with. “Until that night, you know, I didn’t know you’re gay.”
Rafa leans his elbows on the table, his arms crossed in front of him. “I know,” he says. “Maybe I should have told you before I bring Luca.”
“No, no. I mean.” Roger shrugs. “I mean, why would I assume about anyone, right? How can we know about anyone?” He takes a drink of water from the glass the waiter has laid on the table. “Anyway, I felt stupid for just assuming you’d have a girlfriend. I’m sorry.”
“No need for sorry, Roger,” says Rafa. “Doesn’t matter.”
“No, but I really felt like an ass.”
“Seriously. Everyone thinks… straight, no? Is easier. Makes it easier.”
Roger trails a finger down the condensation on his glass. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess. I just--”
That’s when the waiter interrupts. “Ready to order?” he says. He doesn’t have an American accent but his English is clear.
“Uh, sure,” says Roger, glancing at the menu. “Just bring what’s good? No intestines.”
“Understood, sir,” says the waiter, smiling. He’s recognised them, probably from all the posters and billboards around Shanghai. They have little chance of staying anonymous for too long. Or maybe he’s a tennis fan.
“Anyway,” says Roger. “I just wanted to say that to you.” He shakes his head a bit, puzzled at himself. “You know, I’m always so oblivious about these things.”
“What things?” It’s odd to see Roger discomfited. He’s still fidgeting, only looking in Rafa’s eyes for split seconds at a time.
“When I won the Orange Bowl. Okay, what year was that?” He calculates on his fingers. “1997. Yeah, that’s right. When I won there, me and Reto went out to this club in Miami. You know Reto Staubli? My friend?” Rafa nods. He’s seen him around. “Anyway, it was this huge place, like with all these dancefloors and palm trees and lights. I was too young to drink but I didn’t even care, you know? I just wanted to party. Me and Reto in these shiny shirts, oh my god, Rafa. And my hair bleached. Terrible.” The waiter comes back and leaves a bowl of dumplings in front of them, with smaller bowls of a thin sauce to dip them in. “Wow, these smell amazing.”
“Mmm,” agrees Rafa, slotting the chopsticks into his hands the way someone had shown him and carefully taking a dumpling from the bowl and dipping it in the sauce. He crams it all in his mouth at once and it’s hot so he has to gulp water right after it, but it’s delicious.
“Anyway,” says Roger, allowing his to cool before he eats it. “Me and Reto, we got split up in the crowd. I didn’t care, I was just dancing, you know? Like an idiot.” He laughs at himself. “I don’t even know what music it was. Just awful dance music, probably. Anyway, this guy, he started dancing with me. He was… really handsome, actually. Tanned and dark eyes. Kind of muscular but not too much, not like a bodybuilder. Anyway, he was dancing with me, really close. I was just dancing back, you know? He was leaning in, asking my name. I thought he was just touching me and talking into my ear because of how loud the music was.” Roger shakes his head, covering his face for a moment with his hand. “Anyway, then Reto found me and I wandered away. It was only when I happened to meet him again in the washroom and he, you know. He asked me back to his place. That’s when I realised.”
Rafa is spellbound. He imagines the young Roger, sheened in sweat, being propositioned by this dark-eyed man. “Did you go?”
“What? No!” Roger laughs. “I’m saying I was oblivious, not that I was being seduced.”
“Oh,” says Rafa, chewing another dumpling. “Was it a gay club?”
“You know, I actually have no idea,” says Roger. “I know I wasn’t the only guy who looked like Justin Timberlake, though. Well, that’s what I was aiming for, at least.”
“I’ve never been to a gay club,” says Rafa.
Roger takes a drink of water. “No?” he says. “Why not?”
“Can’t,” says Rafa. He imagines it, the darkness, the dancing, the sweat. Hot guys. Someone recognising him, pointing at him and saying, that’s Rafa Nadal. “Would be on the news in Spain, I think, if someone see me in a gay club.”
“On the news everywhere.” Roger says it calmly, an inert statement, but in his expression Rafa can see him imagine what it’s like to live a life occluded. The sadness of it doesn’t weigh on him often, but seeing himself through someone else’s eyes it suddenly comes into focus.
The waiter places a chow mein dish in the silence between them. He comes back with two more small bowls and two forks. “Anyway,” says Roger, eventually. “I’m an idiot. That’s all.”
“Poor guy,” says Rafa. “Thinking he get to bring you home. Then you tell him no.”
Roger grins. “I did feel bad that I’d, you know, led him on.”
“Terrible,” agrees Rafa.
“So how did you know, you know, with Luca?”
“That he’s gay?”
“Yeah,” says Roger. He takes up the forks and dishes chow mein out onto their plates, holding out one of the forks to Rafa when he’s done. Rafa takes it gratefully.
“Didn’t know at first,” says Rafa, twirling the noodles like spaghetti. “Just, then he asked me to his room.”
“What, just like that?”
Rafa shrugs. “Sure. He’s hot, no? I’m not going to say no.”
“It took me two weeks just to get up the courage to kiss Mirka.”
“Took you two minutes to pick up a guy at a club.”
“Oh my god, you’re right. I never thought of it that way.” He’s laughing again. Nearly giggling. Rafa wonders who else gets to see Roger Federer giggling.
Dinner is more like a feast. Dish after dish is placed on the table: young chicken, braised ribs, spicy tofu, two full crabs served on a plate and then cracked open for their buttery meat. There are stir-fried vegetables, too, and dry-fried green beans, and a wonton soup so good that Rafa asks for another bowl. It’s not the kind of food he’d usually eat before a tournament, but he figures he has a few days, and it’s all so delicious. By the time they’re finished, they can hardly move. “Oh my god,” says Roger, with his hands on his stomach. “I’m going to die. But that was so good.”
“So amazing,” says Rafa. “We come back here another day. We should.”
“Totally agreed,” says Roger.
They end up there two nights later with both their teams, and the waiter waves them to a long table at the back where they can sit together. It’s not their last visit before the end of the tournament, either. They even eat there the night before the semifinal they’re due to play together. Roger wins the match and afterwards, in the locker room, when Rafa’s gear is packed up and he’s ready to go, he says, “Are you flying out tonight?”
“Yeah,” says Rafa. “In a few hours, no? Going home.”
“Well, have a great break, Rafa,” says Roger. “Shame you can’t make dinner tonight. I’ll tell them to save us a table for next year.”
“Yes,” says Rafa. “Definitely do.” They grin at each other. “I hope you win tomorrow, Rogelio,” he adds.
Roger hugs him and says, “Me too.”
Exhaustion has infiltrated his bones by the time he gets back to Manacor. Luca arrives at the same time and they go to bed just to sleep. “Stay in bed,” says Luca in the morning, when Rafa blearily kicks back the covers. Rafa gets up to pee and then crawls back between the sheets, Luca wrapped around him. He sleeps for hours longer until he’s woken up by the hollow growls of hunger. Luca is still beside him, leaning against the cushions and reading.
“What time is it?” says Rafa, his mouth sticky with sleep.
“Nearly noon,” says Luca. He leaves his book butterflied on the bedside table. “You were completely out.”
“Mmmm,” Rafa groans, stretching. “Well,” he says. “Looks like you did what Toni wanted after all, no? Convinced me to sleep.”
He can feel Luca’s quiet laugh. “I guess so.”
Luca showers while Rafa wanders downstairs, where his mother is laying out food on the kitchen table. It’s the kind of feast she always produces for him when he returns from a tough stretch of tournaments: bread, olives, grilled mackerel with a lemon dressing. Salads of beans and pasta. She cooks fluffy omelets and lays them in front of Rafa and Luca, and pours Luca a strong cup of coffee. “Two to feed, now,” she remarks, watching them with satisfaction.
The season and the year begin in Chennai. Luca had spent half the break with him, then they’d both gone to Italy for a couple of days, where Rafa stayed in Luca’s father’s house. It’s a beautiful place south of Rome with views out over the Mediterranean. It’s not unlike Porto Cristo, except that it faces west and with that come the glorious winter sunsets out in the great expanse of sea and sky.
Luca doesn’t come to Chennai and Rafa doesn’t stay long either. He loses in the semis to Malisse and then continues on around the globe to a hot Melbourne summer, where the sun scorches the concrete pavements and the great river glistens under its southern light. Sunlight seems newer here, shining on a newly minted city, so young in comparison to the ancient stones of Manacor and Rome and Chennai.
“Alright, let’s go,” says Feli, when they go to practice together on Rod Laver under the beaten blue sky. “Put me through my paces.”
Rafa laughs at him. “You can’t keep up?”
“Sure I can,” says Feli. “I always could, couldn’t I?” Feli can make anything sound dirty.
They hit for nearly two hours, sweat dripping from them by the end. “Fuck me,” says Feli, too ragged to make it sound dirty now.
“Was good,” says Rafa. This time he’s the one joking.
Feli rallies to that. “Yeah, I always left you sweaty and satisfied.”
“Hijo de puta, Feli, where’s Ferru?” Rafa strips his shirt and starts towelling himself off. “I think you need to work this shit out, no?”
“Ha, yeah,” says Feli. “I will. Don’t worry.”
“Come on, Rafael,” says Toni.
Roger has come through the tunnel and is coming towards them with his team. “Rafa,” he says. His hair is a little longer than when Rafa last saw him and he looks cool, even under the sun. “How’s it going?”
“Not bad,” says Rafa. “Hot, no?”
“It sure is,” says Roger, clasping his hand. “Are you in the Crowne Plaza? I think I heard lots of Spanish in the corridors.”
“Ha, sí, it’s us,” says Rafa. “Good holidays, Roger?” Toni is picking up bags and Maymo is closing his book and sliding it into his pocket. Feli is squinting at them and pouring water over his head like he’s in some commercial for something. Roger’s team are milling around, moving into spaces vacated by Rafa’s things as the team packs up to go. They don’t stop chatting until Roger finally opens his bag.
“I guess I better get started if I’m to have a chance here, huh?” he says.
“Sure,” says Rafa. “Otherwise you have no chance.”
Again Roger laughs, that warm, broad laugh he has, that makes his face scrunch up till he’s so far from that cool self the world knows. Rafa leaves with one backward look and a final wave.
“Come on, dreamy,” murmurs Feli in his ear.
“Oh, shut up,” says Rafa, with feeling. “We’re friends. He’s a good friend.”
“Yeah, a friend who checked out that famous ass of yours as you left.”
“Son of a bitch. Don’t be stupid, Feli.”
“I’m not stupid. You might be blind, though.”
“Really, shut up, I mean it. You’re all so full of shit.”
“We all? All?” Feli nudges him, his eyes lit up. “Who else said this?”
“No one,” says Rafa, his mind flooded with memories of Luca in New York. “Just let it go.” He’s not joking any more and Feli can feel it. He says nothing else. Rafa stands under the shower in the locker rooms and lets the water flow over him, trying to think of Luca but finding himself instead thinking of Roger.
His Australian Open comes to an end in a match against Fernando Gonazalez with pain in his leg and his famous ass. The press room erupts into laughter when he says that, which lifts him a little. It feels like a kind of exorcism of what Feli said, even for a short time. The thought of Roger weighs in him like guilt. He finds himself leaving Roger out of texts and calls to Luca, the way once he didn’t mention Luca to Maria Francisca. Half of him feels like a fraud and the rest of him wants nothing more than to be home again, home to his Mama and her cooking, and to Luca in his bed. “I’ll kiss that famous ass better,” says Luca in a text, and when Rafa gets home, he does. It makes Rafa forget that anyone but Luca exists. He stays in bed with him for a whole day, and the next day he nearly dies of embarrassment when Toni mutters, “Well, I suppose you could call it physio.”
“What?” says Feli.
“Just… just shut up,” he says. “Stop.”
He realises he’s made a mistake when Feli’s expression turns serious and he just says, “Oh. Okay,” and then returns to packing his gear bag.
Then somehow, despite his conflicted heart, he wins Indian Wells. The joy of winning is complete, a symphony he recognises in his mind when he hoists the trophy aloft on the blue of the court, beneath the blue of the sky. That’s all he remembers afterwards, a haze of blue and happiness. He moves on to Miami, Luca joining him there, and he plays his heart out and makes it to the quarters. It’ll do, he thinks, even though it’s a bit of a blow. Then on to clay. He gets emails every few days with pictures of the court they’re building in Manacor, half red, half green. “It’s kind of poetic,” says Luca, looking at the photos over his shoulder.
“How do you mean?” he asks.
“Well, it’s half you, half him.” Luca’s hand is on his shoulder. “Like all of tennis, in a way, these days, isn’t it? Half you, half him.”
Luca must feel the tension in his neck when he says it, because his hand drops and he turns away. All the way through Monte Carlo and Barcelona there is a fragility between them and neither of them mentions the Battle of the Surfaces again.
May comes, and with it comes Roger to Manacor. He arrives on Tuesday, the day before the match, and the media follow them on their tour of the city. “This is my first time in Manacor,” he tells the press. “It’s beautiful.” Rafa can’t help but feel his heart swell with pride. They go to dinner that night in the restaurant on the ground floor of his family’s apartment block. The whole place is closed to everyone but them and the two teams gather around a cluster of tables in the middle of the room. It’s a Spanish feast, with everything from fresh mussels and oysters to paella and Iberico ham and cheese. There are salads, too, with basil and fresh lamb’s lettuce and a balsamic dressing. There’s bread piled in baskets and bowls of green olives stuffed with peppers. “Oh my god, Rafa, this is like Shanghai. Remember?”
“Shanghai?” says Luca.
“There was this restaurant we went to, it was amazing,” says Roger. “You have to get Rafa to take you there if you go.”
“I will,” says Luca, glancing at Rafa, slightly quizzical.
“But Spanish food,” says Roger. “Maybe it’s even better.” He grins at Rafa across the table. Rafa grins back. “What are you trying to do, make me fat and slow for tomorrow?” says Roger.
Rafa laughs at him. “I don’t think you can be slow, Roger,” he says.
“So just fat,” says Roger. “If I could eat like this every day and keep playing, I really would.”
Mirka murmurs something in German and Roger laughs again, in a way that reminds Rafa of Feli and his jokes. It feels like a veil being drawn across their momentary intimacy. He leans back and talks to Maymo in Mallorquín and feels childish, then, when Roger glances at him again and then looks away, even though there’s nothing reprehensive in his eyes.
Later, that’s the night he realises was the beginning of the end with Luca. It’s not that they act differently, or that either of them do or say anything different. It’s rather what’s not said. Luca never asks him about having dinner with Roger in Shanghai and Rafa can’t bring himself to mention it. He can’t explain it to himself, why these moments with Roger are so precious. Well, maybe he can, but only quietly, inside himself, where it’s barely an admission at all. The next day they practice on the court before the crowd come in and it’s bizarre, the change from one surface to the other. Sliding on one side, skimming on the other; hitting shots off a clay bounce calculated to land on grass. “This is insane,” Roger says, and neither of them can stop smiling and laughing at the strangeness of it, and something else, too. That they get to do this. Just the two of them. They wait in the makeshift locker room while the crowd comes in and Rafa foregoes most of his usual preparation rituals. He warms up, jumps around, but he doesn’t shut himself down or listen to music, and when he showers, he does it with the door open.
“This is going to be great,” he says to Roger, before they go on court. The crowd erupts when they walk on, and it is great, it’s amazing, it’s the most fun Rafa thinks he’s ever had. Later--after he’s won, which still elates him, even though it’s just an exhibition--they spray champagne over each other and it’s just the two of them there on the court, the background roar the sound of Rafa’s blood in his ears, pounding with joy.
Roger changes for the plane in the locker room afterwards. “You must go, Roger?” says Rafa, pulling on sweatpants and a t-shirt. “Could have dinner again tonight, no?”
“Yeah,” says Roger. “I know. It sucks.” He’s packing his bag methodically, each thing in its right place, the way Rafa does with his own gear bag. “I feel like I could really enjoy another feast tonight without a match tomorrow.”
“I know a place in Porto Cristo,” says Rafa. “Views over the sea. Best mussels in Mallorca.”
“Yeah?” Roger looks up at him, hands on his hips. He looks pensive, as if he’s working out calculations in his mind. “The plane’s ready. I’ve checked out of the hotel.”
Rafa can sense something in him, a reticence to leave. Roger wants to stay. It’s almost like he’s asking Rafa to ask him, to make him stay. Suddenly Rafa wants nothing more. “Could stay in my house,” he says, tentatively. “It’s your plane, no? You can rearrange the flight.”
“Mirka and Tony are already on it. They left just after the match. My luggage is on it.”
“Oh,” says Rafa. He’s never really been good at concealing his feelings, even if he’s sometimes good at hiding the cause.
“You know what,” says Roger, decisively. “Let me make a call. Give me two minutes.”
Rafa nods as Roger turns away and flicks open his phone. He packs his bag slowly while Roger talks to someone--Mirka--in German. He can barely understand a word, though he recognises the tone. Cajoling, apologetic, but bubbling with an enthusiasm all the same. “Nein, nein,” he’s saying. Saying no to what? Rafa feels like he’s counting down seconds as he balls up his socks and stuffs them in a side pocket. His sweaty headband is already in there. He looks around, making sure he’s got everything, and picks up a stray wristband and shoves it in with his socks.
“Okay,” says Roger, turning around. “They’re going to go on without me. I’ll fly tomorrow. Commercial. Tony will arrange it.”
Suddenly the whole evening unspools ahead of them. Him and Roger, alone in Mallorca, no press, no media following them around, just the two of them going to dinner in Porto Cristo. It’s like Shanghai. It’s better than Shanghai. “Okay,” he says. He can’t help the smile that breaks across his face. “Okay.”
“Okay,” echoes Roger, and Rafa knows they’re both thinking the same thing.
“You’re going to dinner?” says Luca, outside, when Rafa tells him Roger is staying. He tells himself that it’s fine, that it’s nothing. Luca says “Okay,” and tells Rafa he’ll stay in Manacor. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. “Have a good time.” Their kiss goodbye is chaste and it leaves a sick feeling in Rafa’s stomach. Toni is surprised when he hears what’s happening but he says little, just holding his hand out to take Rafa’s gear bag.
“We’ll probably stay at the house in Porto Cristo,” he says to his father. Sebastian nods and presses his lips together in a way Rafa’s not going to think about. He slips his phone out of his pocket and calls Hernandez. “No one will see us,” he tells Roger. Hernandez pulls up outside a back exit from the venue and Roger and Rafa climb inside. He’s lighting a cigarette as Rafa tells him to take them to Las Dores in Porto Cristo. He exhales smoke out the open window. “Is this the other guy?” he asks, in Mallorquín.
“Yeah, it is,” Rafa tells him. Roger sits beside him, uncomprehending and bemused, and Hernandez drives them what he insists is the very best route to the restaurant by the sea.
“Wow,” says Roger, when they’re led to a table on a terrace overlooking the bay. An indigo haze is creeping up from the far horizon and from the rocks below comes the gentle lap of waves. Rafa asks the waiter if they still have mussels and the waiter assures him they do. “Bring a half bottle of whatever white goes best with them,” Roger adds.
Rafa nods his assent. It’s days before he has to go to Rome, and in any case this feels like a celebration.
“You know, the last two days, suddenly I understand why you always want to come home.”
The evening is unusually warm for May, and the scents of jasmine and simmering seafood and the salt of the Mediterranean are woven in the air around them. A candle flickers on the table, caught for a moment in the breath of a breeze. “Always I love coming home,” says Rafa. “Happy for you to finally see it.”
“Yeah,” says Roger. “Me, too.”
“Come back another time, I take you out on my boat. We can go fishing, no?”
“Yeah. Well, I sit with a fishing rod. Sometimes I catch a fish. Doesn’t really matter if I don’t.”
Roger laughs, his eyes crinkling up. “I don’t think I’d be very good at gutting a fish.”
“Is easy,” says Rafa. He mimes slitting a fish’s belly with a knife and pretends to throw the guts over the railing and into the sea.
“Oh god,” says Roger. “Is that what those guys are doing?” From out in the bay comes the putt-putt of outboard engines, and here and there on the water the lights of small boats reflect erratically on the surface of the sea.
“No,” says Rafa. “Putting down the cages, no? Come back in the morning to pick up the lobsters and crabs.” Roger nods, learning these things that are as natural a rhythm to Rafa’s life as the tides.
“Where do the mussels come from? The one’s we’ll eat tonight?”
Rafa gestures to the bay. “Pick them here, down the coast,” he says. “Sometimes I used to pick them down that way. A little… I don’t know the word in English but cala, small kind of…” He makes the shape of a cove with his hands.
“Oh, yeah, I understand,” says Roger.
“Pick them there with Maribel. Miguel Angel, my uncle, took us on the boat when he was home. He’s like me. Come back to Mallorca when he can, go out in the boat. Come home with fishes or mussels or anything. Sometimes buy crabs from fishermen straight from the water, over at the pier towards Cala Romantica.”
“Sí,” says Rafa. “Beautiful place, no? Romantic. Maybe take you there next time, too.” He says it without even thinking. Only Roger’s surprise makes him register it. “Anyway,” he says quickly, looking down at the checkered tablecloth and straightening his cutlery, aligning his water glass on its ring of condensation. “One time we went to the cala. I swam in the water, picking the big mussels, putting them in a kind of, a bag like a net?” Roger nods. “Bring them back to the boat. ‘Not too deep, Rafael,’ Miguel Angel keep saying to me. I say ‘No, no, not too deep.’”
“But you did?”
“Yeah,” says Rafa. “That was before I didn’t like the deep water. Now I don’t like it. Then, I could swim better, I thought, it’s no problem. And always I love mussels. I wanted to get the best ones. All of them. Then a wave came, bigger than the others, no? Pushed me against the rocks. All down the arm”--here he gestures to his right arm, shoulder to hand--“all down here cut and bleeding. Only a little sore, but looked really bad. Miguel Angel so scared of my mother, no? Cleaned me up and brought me home and she tell him, you let him get hurt. So angry. Poor Mama. Always worrying.” The memory of her incandescent rage that afternoon has always stayed with him. After she stopped screaming at Miguel Angel, she didn’t talk to him for days.
“You never went out of your depth again?”
“I did,” says Rafa. “Not anymore, though. Too dangerous, no?”
“Yeah. Far too dangerous,” says Roger.
“Soon after that, Toni say, ‘Try playing with the left.’”
“Really, because of that?”
“Not really because of… well, maybe. A little. The next day the bruises came. Here, on the elbow.” There’s still the faintest roughness there, the legacy of the graze against the rock. “Maybe I stop being so strong with the right arm for a little while after that.”
Roger leans forward, staring at him intently. “So what you’re telling me is, it’s thanks to your love of mussels I have to play a lefty?”
Just at that moment the waiter comes and leaves a steaming pot of mussels in the middle of the table. Roger starts to laugh, and then Rafa does too, and when the waiter returns to give them serving plates and pour their wine, he gives them an odd look. Rafa wipes a tear from the corner of his eye. “I never think about it this way,” he says.
“And now here we are having them for dinner.”
“Is delicious, Rogi. Can’t complain about lefty when you taste these mussels.”
Roger pauses, the serving spoon in the air. “I wasn’t complaining,” he says, smiling a soft and conspiratorial kind of smile, the kind that winds its way around Rafa’s heart and chokes it still, just for a moment.
“Let’s go this way,” says Rafa after dinner, when they’ve left the restaurant. He leads Roger down a path to the beach. It’s quiet on the sand, the sea calm, no storms out beyond the horizon sending in swells. The waves break gently across the bay, washing up towards them as they walk on the soft sand above the waterline. Rafa points out Marisol’s house as they pass by. “Sometimes we light fires here, me and my friends. Sit here at night.”
“That must be amazing,” says Roger.
“Yeah,” says Rafa. “It was.”
“So this is where you spent your summers? On the beach?”
“When I am not playing tennis, no? Or football. Here on the beach.”
“Is this where you brought that bottle of wine and… what was his name? Your first boyfriend?” There’s mischief in Roger’s eyes.
“Not here,” Rafa says. “Up there. On the rocks. I show you.” There’s a spur of rocks across the beach worn smooth by the water and wind and sand. “This way.” Rafa climbs gingerly, making sure to take the easiest route. He’s clambered up and down these rocks his entire life and he knows them even in the half light of the moon, but he’s aware of Roger following him and makes sure he can see where to put his feet and where to hold onto a ledge or an outcrop. They make it to a flat slab beneath the final climb to the back garden of the house. “Here,” says Rafa, taking Roger’s hand to help him up. They stand side by side on the ledge and Rafa remembers it, wedging the wine bottle into the crevasse to one side, kissing Xavi. It feels so long ago.
“Was it your first kiss?” asks Roger.
“Not the first kiss,” says Rafa. “First with a boy, no?” There’s something abstract in Roger’s expression, as if he’s thinking things he can’t quite bring himself to say. He looks out across the sea, not a breath around them, even this high on the rocks. The night is unseasonably heavy. There’ll be a mist in the morning. After a moment, Roger seems to come to some conclusion in his mind and he inhales sharply, as if coming out of a reverie.
“Is your house this way?” he says, looking up the path towards the overhanging outgrowth of grass.
“Yeah,” says Rafa. For a moment he’d thought something else was going to happen. The heavy night, the sound of the sea, bringing back memories. Making him imagine crazy things. He leads the way again, winding up among the thick-stalked purple flowers that grow in the crumbly, sandy soil near the edge of the rock, and then on up until they’re on the tamer grass of the garden. The house is dark in front of them. Rafa fishes the keys from his pocket and leads Roger up the steps to the deck.
“This place looks amazing,” says Roger.
“Gracias,” says Rafa, slipping the key into the lock and going inside to turn off the alarm. Roger follows him inside and shuts the door behind him. The house has a feeling of having been silent and empty for some time, the family still spending most of their time in Manacor until later in the season. Rafa flicks on the overhead lights and they both blink in the sudden brightness. The spell of the dark is broken and Rafa shakes his head at himself. Stupid thoughts. He shows Roger to the spare bedroom and makes sure he’s got towels and a toothbrush. “I’ll get you pyjamas,” he tells him, and comes back a few minutes later with a pair of light sweatpants and a t-shirt he’s taken from his drawer. “I don’t really have real pyjamas,” he says, and Roger laughs.
“This is fine, thanks, Raf,” he says.
Rafa pauses at the door, looking back at Roger sitting on the bed, unlacing his shoes. “Night, Rogelio,” he says.
Roger looks up at him and smiles. “Goodnight, Rafa,” he replies. Rafa leaves, drawing the door closed behind him. He goes to the kitchen and pours himself a glass of water from the tap and takes it to his bedroom upstairs. The room is the same as when he was a child, with his trophies still arranged in order on the shelves his father put up for him that summer, and the summer after, and the summer after that. It’s the room where he couldn’t sleep and the bed to which he brought Xavi countless times. Now he sits on the edge of the mattress and takes his phone from his pocket. He can’t do it this way, by phone, but he’ll have to do it tomorrow. It’s not fair to Luca to stay with him, not when he feels like this.
In the morning, after a breakfast of coffee and pastries from a small café in the town, Rafa calls Hernandez and Roger leaves for the airport at Palma. “I had such a great time,” says Roger, clasping his hand and holding him close. “I’m so glad I stayed.”
“Me too,” says Rafa. “I am glad.” He watches as the car pulls away, and Roger turns and waves through the rear window.
Then Rafa has to get a taxi back to Manacor, where he goes upstairs to find Luca. He’s in Rafa’s apartment, reading, and it breaks Rafa’s heart what he’s going to say next. The worst thing is, Luca doesn’t even seem surprised. He places his bookmark carefully between the pages and closes the book, putting it aside.
“So… nothing happened with Roger?”
“No. No, it’s not like that. It’s just… It’s how I feel. I can’t do this to you.”
“Don’t pretend this is for me,” says Luca. He’s already standing, barefoot. He takes his suitcase from the wardrobe and throws it open on the bed. Something about the speed at which he does it makes Rafa wonder if he’d imagined it already today, this morning, maybe last night.
“I’m sorry,” says Rafa.
Luca glances at him with a raised eyebrow. “Okay,” he says. “Means a lot.” Rafa feels he deserves the scathing flippancy. He leaves the apartment, letting Luca pack. Before he closes the door behind him he hears Luca on the phone, calling someone to book a flight from Palma.
The two of them flying away from him in one day. It’s too much. “What’s wrong?” asks his Mama, when he goes into her kitchen. He sits down heavily at the table, his chin in his fists.
“Maybe you want to say goodbye to Luca,” he says to her.
“What?” she says. “Is he leaving? I’ve made him coffee.”
“He probably won’t drink coffee,” he says. That’s when she hears his deadened tone.
“Oh, Rafa,” she says. She hugs him and kisses him on the cheek. Then she goes to meet Luca on the stairs. He can’t make out what they say. When she comes back inside, he knows that Luca is gone.