Leo could never forget the day his soul mark disappeared, the burning sensation in his wrist where the two letters—the initials of his soulmate's name—lived. The area was black and red and oozing, the smell of burnt flesh in the air.
“Hello,” Leo said looking down at the floor where he stood instead of the people staring at him. “I’m Leo and this is my first meeting. I lost my soul mark two years ago today.”
There were a few welcoming murmurs around the room, and Leo looked up. They were in the centre of a community hall. It was a large bright space with stark white walls and a stark white ceiling. There were chairs stacked against the walls for use during events. The members of the group concentrated in a close circle in the centre of the room that made the venue feel a bit less impersonal.
“I decided to join this group at my mother and best friend’s suggestion. They think maybe talking to people with the same issue can help. I’ll admit I’m sceptical but I hope that I can come to terms with losing my soul mark with the help of you all.”
After a moment, everyone seemed to realise he was done speaking and began clapping encouragingly. Leo glanced around the room, trying to judge everyone’s expressions. They were all nodding and smiling. It was nice to feel support after his words from these people who had all experienced the same pain.
“Thank you, Leo,” Pep said. He was president of the group and had greeted Leo warmly when he arrived, nervous and shaky. “That was very brave. A lot of us don’t even speak that much on our first time to the group because we’re too embarrassed.”
Leo smiled slightly at the praise.
They continued going around in the circle. Leo joined in clapping after each person’s introduction. There were lots of different people in many stages of losing their soul mark. A lot of them seemed comfortable in their proclamations but another new member broke down crying before she could even introduce herself. They comforted her and moved on to the next. It was a man that Leo had seen enter the hall earlier. Tall and fit with diamonds shining in his ears and hair spiked up with gel, he had left an impression.
He had gone around having conversations with almost everyone, except those that Leo could see were obviously new like himself. He seemed to be on good terms with everyone and held himself with a confidence that Leo was unaccustomed to in the few markless persons he had met before now. Leo wondered if he could achieve confidence like that in himself without a soul mark. Maybe not quite so obviously overwhelming but maybe he could achieve enough to stop second guessing his life.
The earrings glinted in the man’s ears as he looked around the room. He eyes met Leo’s and he gave him a wide grin that Leo wasn’t sure what to make of.
“Hello. My name is Cristiano and I was born without a soul mark.”
He seemed to have been a regular to the group because most people didn’t bat an eye at the statement, but Leo’s face slackened with shock with shock. He had never heard of anyone being born without a soul mark.
“Don’t worry, I’ve had a while to come to terms with it,” he said laughing. “I’m just here for the prime dating material.” He was looking at Leo.
Leo could feel a blush coming on and turned away quickly.
A groan went up around the room. Some people were shaking their heads and others seemed to be trying not to laugh. A few like Leo were surprised to hear Cristiano say something like that. Leo caught Pep rolling his eyes but the man didn’t look truly upset. Going by Pep’s reaction, Leo realised that this probably happened at every meeting.
“Cris, that joke’s so old, man. It hasn’t been funny in months,” the man seated next to Cristiano said, Pepe he had introduced himself as if Leo could remember correctly. There was a laugh at Pepe’s words and Cristiano looked around in mock offense then joined in.
“All right. All right. I get it already. Don’t worry, I’m actually here to support all of you like my good friend here,” Cristiano said clasping Pepe on the shoulder.
Leo was once again drawn back to thoughts of Cristiano’s circumstance. He couldn’t imagine the pain of being born without a soul mark. Knowing that there had been someone out there meant for him and only for him had been a driving force in his teenage years. He had chased many people with the initials D.V. that used to be on his wrist only to find out that they didn’t have his initials on theirs. He wondered what had become of his former soulmate’s mark when his had disappeared. Had theirs done the same? Was there a D.V. out there who had such a painful experience as well?
The meeting continued in a discussion of coping techniques since they had so many new faces. Everyone shared what experience they had in dealing with the loss of soul mark. Leo only listened, feeling as though he didn’t have very much experience in coping properly. Some said that throwing themselves into markless dating—or dating for people without a soul mark—had helped legitimise the fact that it was still possible to find happiness.
“You just gotta throw yourself into it,” one woman said, “It was really good for my confidence to see that people could still love me.”
There were a few grumbles at her words. The opposite side spoke up then.
“It’s harder than that sometimes. I’m not saying that your experience hasn’t been good but it’s not positive for all of us,” said someone else.
The woman nodded and acknowledged his response. Leo thought for a moment she was going to disregard his opinion but instead they went back and forth for a moment validating the other’s experience.
A few of the people who had been without a soul mark for many years longer than Leo shared how being without a soul mark had liberated them and helped them come to terms with themselves as being important instead of a mystery person that they may never find over their lives. Leo felt that was very brave. He couldn’t help still thinking that maybe he had a soulmate out there looking for him as unlikely as it was.
“That’s it for the formal part of the meeting,” said Pep after the meeting time came to an end.
“Don’t forget that we decided on karaoke for the quarterly event, so bring your singing voices next month.”
The veterans of the group all stood and began mingling. Leo didn’t know anyone and wasn’t sure how to introduce himself. He looked around aimlessly for a minute and then stood slowly. The circle was being taken apart. It made the room seem large and barely occupied. A few people were leaving through the double iron doors next to where the majority of chairs were stacked.
The voice came from close behind Leo and nearly had him jumping out of his skin as he turned clumsily, bumping into the chair in the process. He grimaced in pain. Standing behind him was none other than Cristiano with a grin, apparently pleased at the effect he had on Leo.
“Cristiano,” breathed out Leo, over his rapidly beating heart.
“Call me Cris,” he said holding out his hand for Leo to shake.
Leo eyed him warily but took it. His grip was firm and his eyes held Leo’s until their hands parted.
“So, how did you enjoy your first meeting?”
The question was innocuous enough. Leo smiled. “I liked it. Hearing about everyone’s journeys is interesting. I’m glad I came.”
“Have you tried markless dating yet?”
Leo’s smile faltered. He had heard about markless dating in his research after losing his mark. He had considered it. A few of his friends even suggested it. Kun thought it would definitely be the thing to pick him right up, but Leo wasn’t sure.
He shook his head. “I don’t think I’m ready for that,” he said hand going to his wrist to rub at the healed place where his mark used to be.
“Why not? It’s better now that never, isn’t it?” Cristiano said matter-of-factly.
Leo clasped his hands together, looking down away from Cristiano’s serious expression. What was he trying to do? Was Cristiano asking him out?
“Because you see, I run this thing called speed dating.”
Leo felt like a stone dropped in his stomach. His mouth was dry all of a sudden. Of course he would assume something ridiculous. It seemed that something of his upset showed in his face because Pep came over to them.
“Leo?” Pep addressed him but eyed Cristiano.
“I’m just telling him about speed dating, Pep. Don’t worry. I’m not doing anything sketchy.”
Pep sighed with a shake of his head. He placed a hand on Cristiano’s shoulder. “You know I don’t mind you advertising the event but terrorizing new members is not what I had in mind.”
“That wasn’t my intention,” Cristiano said, sounding apologetic as he looked at Leo. He hadn’t actually done anything wrong as far as Leo could deduce but it had still thrown him for a loop.
Cristiano pulled a small flyer out of his pocket. It was good quality, a sleek and chic design in colour and on photo paper. Leo took it automatically without looking at Cristiano.
“It’s next Saturday. You should come. We usually have a pretty fine turn out, if you know what I mean.”
And with that Cristiano walked away leaving Leo to Pep.
“Sorry about him. He’s a bit . . . inappropriate at times,” Pep said. His brows were furrowed slightly, lips pressed together. It was the same look Leo’s father always had when his brothers were fooling around.
Leo glanced down at the flyer. There was a silhouette picture of two people at a table toasting each other with champagne flutes.
“It’s actually a popular event.”
Pep was smiling and it calmed Leo a bit. He wasn’t sure why he had gotten so worked up over Cristiano’s invitation. Perhaps it was just the surprise at being asked at all.
“Have you ever been?” Leo asked.
Pep shook his head. “I haven’t had the need to but a lot of the members go and I’ve never heard a truly bad word about it. It wouldn’t be a bad experience.”
Leo considered Pep’s words but he wasn’t sure he would go, even with a recommendation.
Pep looks at his watch and seems surprised to see the time. “I have to go but hopefully I’ll see you at the next meeting?”
“I really enjoyed to today so if nothing comes up, I’ll be here.”
They shook hands and then Pep left. Leo looked down at the flyer Cristiano had given him once more and stuffed it into his jeans.
Leo found the flyer days later as he was clearing out his pockets to put the jeans in the wash. He stared at it then crumpled it in his hands to throw it away but found himself smoothing it out. He hadn’t had a chance to actually absorb the information on the flyer before. The back held all the relevant information: the location—a Bar La Cueva—and the time—seven in the evening. Although Cristiano was strange, speed dating seemed like something Leo would be interested in. “Go out and find your own soulmate,” Kun had said once, trying to cheer Leo up. Of course it had also involved some overly enthusiastic speech about how Leo had it good and didn’t have to be pining after an unknown person all his life. Coming from Kun who had already found his soulmate, or who he was pretty sure was his soulmate, it sounded like bullshit, but maybe he was right just a little that Leo needed to take the initiative.
So when Saturday rolled around, Leo found himself in a trendy but strange spelunking themed bar. He was early but the door had been open. It was empty. It seemed that Cristiano had booked the entire venue. The whole thing was made to look like a cave with a low textured ceiling and lowlights with headlamps and pictures of stalactites and stalagmites on the walls. Leo shook his head at the sight.
“Didn’t expect to see you here, Mr. Not-Ready-For-That.” Cristiano’s voice was good-natured.
“You’re not angry with me are you? I didn’t mean to offend you or anything last time. I just get a bit enthusiastic sometimes.”
“It’s fine,” Leo said. He looked around at the empty room once more as though people would materialise out of the walls. Talking to Cristiano was doing nothing to help the anxiety that was building in him at coming to speed dating for the first time.
Cristiano doesn’t look convinced. “Listen, can I buy you a drink maybe to make up for it?” he said looking to the bar set up against the wall where two bored bartenders were engaged in conversation.
Leo nodded instantly. A drink would be good for his nerves. “A gin and tonic then.”
“It’s a tequila bar,” Cristiano said.
Leo blinked. “They don’t have gin?”
Cristiano laughed at that and put his hands up in a motion of defeat. “One gin and tonic it is.”
Leo watched Cristiano as he walked over to the bar and greeted the bartenders. They knew each other and clasped hands over the bar. One of them moved to make the drink while the other stayed talking to Cristiano in a low voice. Leo saw Cristiano look over his shoulder back at him and turned away in case Cristiano saw him staring. He did have a good body, Leo couldn’t deny that. It was all muscle under his tight t-shirt and jeans.
Cristiano came back with the drink and handed it to Leo. Leo ignored the straw entirely and took a gulp, then another, feeling some tension going with the addition of something to do that wasn’t talking to Cristiano. The result was a momentary silence where Leo began to feel self-conscious again as Cristiano stared at him looking amused.
“So have you had luck with markless dating? Is that why you put this on?” Leo said, glancing back at Cristiano.
Cristiano looked surprised by the question but the surprise melted easily into a smile. “I don’t date. I just help other people date.”
“You don’t date?” Leo said, parroting Cristiano’s words.
Cristiano shook his head. “Nope. And before you ask, it’s a long story.”
Although he tried to sound flippant, Leo could see the tension in Cristiano’s body and knew that he didn’t want to talk about it. Leo rushed to find another subject. Maybe Cristiano had his own bad experience with markless dating. After all, it was unlikely that someone born without a mark had never dated which made it strange that he ran this event in the first place.
“So how long have you been running this?”
“Three years now I think.”
Leo wondered but didn’t feel it his place to ask why Cristiano would run an event that he had no interest in. The conversation continued amiably. Leo started to like him which granted probably wasn’t that difficult with Cristiano actually being very friendly and capable when holding a conversation.
People started to arrive. Leo recognized some of them from the group he had attended but there were many who hadn’t. In all, it was twenty two of them. A good even number, Cristiano proclaimed. Leo probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see so many people without marks but he was surprised all the same. He had known he wasn’t alone but it had never really sunk in that he wasn’t the only person that had gone through that awful experience of loss.
They all sat at the tables along the edges of the room with one group stationary and another group moving around to meet their next date. Leo was part of the group that moved. Each date lasted five minutes and Cristiano kept a stop watch where he sat in the corner of the room. He signalled the end of the dates with a whistle and everyone moved on.
The dates went well, Leo thought. Or as well as his first markless dating experience could have gone. It had been a bit stressful meeting people that reminded him that he was no longer pursuing a soulmate but they were all pleasant. He didn’t get any numbers, but the girl who had sat down from him in the sequence approached him during the mingling time after the session.
“Hi, I’m Antonella,” she said, holding out a hand to Leo.
Leo took her hand and shook it. Her hand was soft and warm in his palm. “I’m Leo.”
“Nice to meet you, Leo. It’s my first time here actually so I don’t know anyone.” She cocked her head to the side and smiled at Leo, waiting for his response.
He wondered if she had spoken to him because he looked a bit lost now that the dating was over.
“It’s my first time as well.”
“Good so we’re both on the same page then.” She laughed, such an infectious, bubbly sound Leo found himself grinning at her.
They spoke a bit before she had to leave but Leo wondered if he would see her again.
At home, Leo called Kun from the kitchen as he took out some food that he had bought on the way home, and relayed his experience. Kun had been Leo’s best friend for years now, before Leo had moved to Spain a year ago as a radical change of pace and had been supportive ever since Leo had lost his soul mark. Kun had moved from Argentina to England for work recently and that had made it easier for him to be there at the end of a phone call to give Leo advice and encourage him. Kun was intensely interested in Cristiano and Antonella, though more so the latter when Leo revealed the information that Cristiano didn’t date.
“I knew you could do it,” Kun said.
Leo sighed and moved to the sofa to sit down. He had done something certainly but it probably wasn’t as glamorous as Kun seemed to think.
“So did you get this Antonella’s number then?”
“No. Kun, she just talked to me. It’s not like that.”
Kun scoffed loudly. “You were at speed dating for heaven’s sake, Leo. She’s not going to talk to some guy she isn’t interested in.”
Leo was sure that he was wrong. Antonella hadn’t come onto him or flirted with him during their short talk. They had just had a simple conversation between two newbies.
“I know what you’re thinking, Leo and I’m definitely right.”
“Even if you are, I don’t think I’m ready for a real date yet,” Leo said.
“You’ll never be ready with that attitude.”
Leo knew that Kun was trying to be helpful by pushing Leo. Without Kun’s push, he probably wouldn’t have made it to the group in the first place. So maybe Kun was correct that Leo needed to be ready to go on a date.
A real one that lasted more than five minutes.
The next markless meeting was fun.
Karaoke was a ridiculous idea. Someone had set up a projector against the large white wall of the community centre and there were karaoke DVDs galore. Leo had hoped to see Antonella there but she was absent and from what he could gather when he asked about her, she had never even been to one of the meetings. Cristiano was there though. He sang twice, once by himself and once with Pepe. The latter duet was a spirited rendition of Rick James’ “Super Freak” accompanied by a semi-coordinated dance that involved Cristiano taking off his shirt. There were hoots and whistles and cheers. Leo couldn’t help but laugh as he inevitably stared at Cristiano’s abs. That he was fit was an understatement. Leo didn’t consider himself sloppy. He went to the gym and ate healthily for the most part but Cristiano was another level. Cristiano winked into the crowd and it seemed directed at Leo. Leo shook his head, knowing that Cristiano was just playing around.
They went to a bar after. Something that was apparently traditional after a meeting though no one had invited him the last time. He was invited this time and the majority of them moved down the road to a pretty standard bar. Leo sat a bit awkwardly at the edge of one of the groups as everyone talked about everything from their latest dates to their work.
Cristiano came over as Leo wondered whether he should leave. He sat next to Leo with a smile.
“So how did you enjoy your first speed dating experience?” Cristiano said. “Fun, right?”
The confidence made Leo chuckle. “I guess. It definitely wasn’t like anything I’ve done before.”
Cristiano nodded then leaned closer almost conspiratorially. “Did you get any numbers?”
Leo shook his head truthfully and Cristiano seemed to look surprised.
“I had fun though,” Leo said feeling as though he had somehow let Cristiano down by failing to get any numbers at his event.
“Good,” Cristiano said, smiling. He clasped Leo on the shoulder. “So how’d you like my dance?”
Leo had spluttered on the drink he had just decided the take a sip from, suddenly remembering Cristiano’s body and wink.
“That good huh?” There was a twinkle in Cristiano’s eye.
Leo rolled his eyes and took a more collected sip of his drink and Cristiano laughed at his lack of response.
Leo arrived early again for the next speed dating. Not as early as the first time, there were actually a few people already there, but around fifteen minutes. Cristiano was talking to the bartenders when he came in but made a beeline for Leo as soon as he noticed him. Leo was shocked to see Cristiano in front of him so soon.
“Do you like Japanese food?”
Leo looked at him strangely. What a question to ask without even a hello first. Leo nodded.
Cristiano’s face split into a grin. “Awesome. I was eating at this new place on Thursday and it just came into my head that you might like it.”
“Me?” Leo was surprised to hear Cristiano admit that he had been thinking of him. He felt flattered although he knew that Cristiano didn’t mean anything romantic by it.
“Yeah, you. We’re friends right? So I thought of you.”
That they were friends was news to Leo, not that he disapproved of the idea. Cristiano was charming and friendly and maybe he had thought about what would happen if Cristiano did date but friendship was as good as it could get.
“Thanks for thinking of me then,” Leo said.
Cristiano clasped him on the shoulder. “Are you free on Tuesday night? We can go.”
It was a bit short notice but Leo didn’t remember anything that he had to do so he nodded.
“Good, good. Give me your number so I can text you the address,” Cristiano said.
So Leo ended up exchanging numbers with Cristiano and agreeing to go out with him (as friends) on Tuesday. More people started arriving so Leo went to get a drink at the bar. He ordered and waited while looking around to see who was arriving. He was happy when he saw Antonella enter the bar. She gave him a little wave and seemed to want to come over to say hello but Cristiano signalled the start of the event so she gathered around with everyone else to pick numbers.
Leo ended up in a stationary position so that he didn’t have to move when the dates were changed. It turned out to be a good night. Leo had several interesting five minute conversations with markless folks from different walks of life, one of whom was Antonella.
“Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Antonella,” she said after she took her seat across from Leo.
Leo was confused at once and looked at her strangely. Had she forgotten him already? “We’ve met before.”
Antonella dissolved into a fit of giggles, bringing up her hands to cover her mouth and smother the sound. “I know, Leo. It was a joke.”
Leo breathed out a sigh of relief. “For a second there I thought you had really forgotten me.”
She smiles at him. “Sorry I made you worry.”
It was good to talk to her again, even if it was only for five minutes. He invited her to the group and she promised to come to the next month’s meeting. It had been easier this time, the dating. Maybe in time he would become accustomed to the idea of dating someone that wasn’t a potential soulmate. He left feeling a bit accomplished.
Tuesday came slowly, maybe because Leo was looking forward to it. They agreed to meet at seven which gave Leo enough time to go home from work and change into something a bit more casual. Cristiano was already waiting outside the restaurant when Leo walked up. He smiled and pulled Leo into a hug.
“How are you?” Cristiano said, leaving his arm around Leo’s shoulders.
“Good,” Leo said simply.
Cristiano released him and opened the door to the restaurant for him with a little bow. Leo laughed and entered into a chic Japanese restaurant with modern simplistic décor. The tables were glossy and black and spotless with matching black chairs. There were antique Japanese style vases fitted into spaces in the wall. The lighting was bright and everything shone in it. A server in a crisp white shirt with a black plain apron over it greeted them at the door. Cristiano told him that they have a reservation and Leo was surprised that he was so prepared.
They were seated right away in a booth at the corner of the one-room restaurant. Cristiano ordered some appetizers that he was sure Leo would like and Leo let him. He had confident friends but Cristiano was almost ridiculous. He was so sure of himself or at least seemed to be in regards to everything from his situation as a markless person to the ordering. It was amazing to watch.
The appetizers ended up being fantastic. There was prawn and vegetable tempura fried to perfection and crispy chicken karaage. The smell and taste left Leo’s mouth-watering for more. They ordered sushi after and ate their fill.
“Where are you from, Leo? You’re not from Spain right? You’re accent is different” Cristiano said.
Leo settled the piece of sushi he had picked up with his chopsticks back onto his plate. “I’m from Argentina.”
“Cool. Cool. I’m from Portugal myself.”
Cristiano asked him more questions about Leo’s job as tech support and his family and friends and other personal details. Leo couldn’t help but notice the one-sidedness in the conversation.
“How long have you lived in Barcelona?” Leo asked trying to steer the conversation to Cristiano’s life and something other than superficial answers.
“A while now,” was Cristiano's reply deflecting the question easily and following up with more questions for Leo. Leo was sure Cristian’s life was more interesting than he let on but decided that it would be harmful to whatever budding friendship they had for him to push the subject. In time he thought he could get Cristiano to open up.
The only question he seemed to answer with surprising honesty was a forced casual attempt by Leo to find out why Cristiano didn’t date. He hadn’t revealed his reasons the last time, citing that it was a long story. But this time when Leo asked, he seemed to consider and then put down the drink he was sipping with a serious look.
“You’ll probably think I’m ridiculous just like everyone else I know, but I just never felt that I could date, you know? I was born without a soul mark so maybe I’m meant to be alone. I mean, I still get physical gratification—” he grinned—“but dating seems like something that I don’t have the right to take part in.”
Leo stared at Cristiano disbelievingly. “You can’t believe that.”
“Besides,” Cristiano said smiling, “life’s pretty nice without it so why mess up a good run.”
Leo shifted uncomfortably as he remembered that Cristiano would never have had that drive to find his soulmate since he had always lacked a soul mark. Even though it had crossed Leo’s mind so many times, he couldn’t accept the fact that he was meant to be alone. But that hope came from his experience of having a soul mark for most of his life. Without that soul mark would he have come to the same conclusion as Cristiano? Besides, how could someone who felt that being markless meant that he couldn’t date run speed dating for other markless persons?
Surely all of them were in the same boat by lacking a soul mark. Did he believe that others somehow deserved more than he did? It was such a sad idea to Leo. He wanted to ask but Cristiano changed the topic swiftly with a grin.
Leo leaned back into his side of the booth and held his stomach dramatically, trying to relieve the tension that had built up over Leo’s question. Cristiano laughed loudly and the atmosphere seemed to gain some of its lightness back.
“Good, right?” Cristiano said.
Leo could only agree.
Cristiano paid the bill, waving off Leo’s insistence that he pay his share.
“I invited you,” Cristiano said. “Next time, you can invite me and then I’ll let you pay.”
Leo shook his head and relented. Cristiano offered to give Leo a lift home. Leo agreed after a moment’s consideration, after all Cristiano had already paid for the food so he wasn’t sure how much good will he should accept but the offer seemed genuine so that Cristiano probably wasn’t looking for anything in return.
Cristiano’s car was nice: a new-looking Audi. Leo glanced at Cristiano involuntarily when he saw it.
He had already heard that Cristiano was a club promoter but apparently he was a successful one. Cristiano smiled at Leo and unlocked the doors with his key fob. Leo slipped into the passenger seat. Cristiano instructed Leo to put in his address into the GPS in his phone before they pulled out of the parking space.
The drive was smooth and there was not too much traffic so they got there quickly, in about half the time it would have taken Leo on public transport. It felt strange to Leo. He knew it was just a dinner between friends but it felt a bit like a date, especially when Cristiano stopped the car in front of Leo’s building. It seemed that there should be a hug or a kiss or something to round out the evening, but Leo had to make do with just a friendly clasp of hands. After all, Cristiano definitely saw them as just friends and this had not been a date.
“See you soon,” Cristiano said when Leo exited the car.
Leo found himself hoping it was true.
It was hard not to think about Cristiano after their meal at the Japanese restaurant. Leo found himself thinking about all that Cristiano had said, how he had focused the conversation on Leo and not himself and what he had revealed about the reason behind his refusal to date. Leo felt a sympathy for those feelings. He wondered if he could help Cristiano somehow. He wanted to badly in that moment. He couldn’t imagine that Cristiano confided in many people. Just the fact that Cristiano had chosen him made him feel special.
Maybe he was taking it too seriously but seeing something other than Cristiano’s confident and easy way was so important to him. Cristiano’s confidence was attractive but Leo wanted to know more about him. So much more about him both his confidence and the other vulnerabilities that he kept hidden from the world. Maybe he could be the one to show Cristiano what love felt like. It was most certainly an odd vanity that brought out those feelings. It was almost certainly a doomed idea. He tried to suppress the desire that kept bubbling up in his chest with very little luck.
The next meeting came around and Leo found that he had to stop himself from looking at Cristiano. They hadn’t talked since a brief exchange of texts after dinner where they had messaged about how much they had enjoyed the evening. Instead he tried to focus on Antonella who had come to the meeting for the first time. She didn’t introduce herself in detail; she looked a bit shy when they came around to her, and just said her name. She exchanged a smile with Leo, however.
After the meeting, Antonella approached him but before they could get talking, Cristiano came over putting his arm around Leo’s shoulders. Leo was too aware of the contact but he didn’t want to hurt Cristiano’s feelings by trying to wriggle out of his grasp. Cristiano seemed to notice Antonella then.
“Hey. You came to the speed dating right? What’s your name again?”
“Antonella,” she said, giving Cristiano a smile and looking at the arm that Cristiano had around Leo.
“Nice to meet you,” Cristiano said with a grin and a nod in Antonella’s direction. Leo expected him to remove his arm so that he could shake Antonella’s hand but he did nothing of the sort. “Does that mean you two’ve hit it off then?”
“We’re just friends,” Leo said a bit too quickly. He couldn’t be sure but he swore a look of surprise and maybe disappointment flashed across Antonella’s face for just a moment.
“That’s too bad,” Cristiano said. “Anyway, I’ll leave you two to talking. I had fun last time, Leo. Let’s do it again soon.” He pat Leo’s shoulder and then left them.
A look of understanding dawned on Antonella’s face and her gaze followed Cristiano’s retreating figure before looking back at Leo.
“I am leaving now. Are you going to the Metro?”
“Let’s walk together,” she said.
“So you like Cristiano?” she asked as they walked up the road. Their surroundings were a bit quiet until they turned onto the major street that led to the station, then there were many cars on the road and other people walked passed them and around them. Their pace was slow. It was summer and warm in the evening so they didn’t have the energy to walk quickly.
“I don’t,” Leo said. He didn’t think he did. He thought about what it would be like for Cristiano to fall for him and he couldn’t deny that a part of him had fallen for Cristiano’s confident way and then again for the sensitive Cristiano that had peeked out during their dinner. “Not really, I think,” he said amending his statement.
“You don’t sound sure.”
“Because I’m not.”
“Hm, well be careful then. I’d hate to see you get hurt.” She smiled at him briefly before turning her attention back to the pavement in front of them. “He doesn’t date, you know.”
“I know,” Leo assured her. All sorts of doubts ran through his head. Maybe he did like Cristiano just a bit more than he should. He remembers the feel of Cristiano’s arm around his shoulder and how comfortable but hyper-aware he had been. There was no way it would end well. Not with Cristiano believing that he didn’t deserve love.
“Well, you never know. He could change for you.”
Leo laughed at the fake encouragement in her voice. She knew that was unlikely. Cristiano had never dated so the likelihood of him starting now and for someone as unimpressive as Leo was incredibly small.
They made it to the station in silence.
“I’m heading toward Poble Sec,” Antonella said stopping in front of the station.
“Gràcia,” Leo said.
“Then I guess that means we’re in opposite directions then. Can I give you my number?”
Leo looked at her in surprise. He hadn’t thought that Antonella was really interested in him, especially with the casual way she had accepted that he liked Cristiano.
“For when you get over your hopeless love,” she clarified.
Leo should have been bowled over by her boldness but instead all he could think of was Cristiano and how his attraction or whatever it turned out to be was indeed hopeless. Leo sighed at the thought, but he agreed and they exchanged numbers before heading to opposite platforms.
Leo and Cristiano went out a few more times usually with Cristiano initiating their meetings. Cristiano started to open up a bit. Leo learned a bit about his family that were back in Portugal and he learned the sad reason why Cristiano didn’t touch alcohol. Leo felt a bit awkward drinking in front of him after that but Cristiano insisted that it was all right. Leo liked when they met up. It was a guaranteed good time filled with good humour and a Cristiano who was becoming increasingly accessible and Leo was happy he could spend time with Cristiano even just as friends.
Cristiano took Leo to a Portuguese restaurant. It was a hole in the wall but the food was tasty. The beef was juicy and the vegetables fresh and delicious. Leo ate more than he expected to and left laughing with Cristiano. He couldn’t deny he enjoyed his company immensely. It wasn’t too serious or too ridiculous, just a nice in between that left Leo liking him more each and every time. He knew Cristiano didn’t date but every single meeting, Leo could feel himself falling for his friend even more.
It was dark by the time dinner had finished. It had to be around ten, Leo thought. The main road crossing the street they were on was still busy with cars going in all directions. The other shops around the restaurant were closed except for a shop a few doors down. Cristiano grabbed a hold of Leo’s arm as they turned back to the direction that Cristiano was parked. Leo turned back confused. Had Cristiano forgotten something inside? The serious expression on Cristiano’s face made him suck in a little breath. Cristiano pulled him closer by the arm and did what Leo least expected. He kissed him, full on the lips, a lingering kiss that had Leo reeling.
“Do you want to come back to mine?”
All Leo could do was stare at Cristiano, his words failing him spectacularly. There was no mistaking what the kiss meant. Cristiano didn’t date but that didn’t mean he didn’t have other needs. Those needs seemed to involve Leo at the moment and Leo couldn’t deny that his heart was racing and yes he wanted to take part in what Cristiano was offering.
His silence seemed to tell Cristiano otherwise however. The man dropped his hand from Leo’s arm and was turning to head back to the car. Leo quickly placed a hand on Cristiano’s forearm.
“Wait. I didn’t say no.”
Cristiano grinned at that. He followed Cristiano wordlessly back to the car. His mind rushed at a mile a minute wondering where Cristiano lived, how often he hooked up like this with others, whether Cristiano had any feelings for him at all beyond friendship and clearly sex. He pushed the last thought out of his mind quickly. Cristiano didn’t date. He didn’t allow himself to have those kinds of feelings. It wasn’t uncommon to hook up before you found your soulmate. Leo had done it in university when he was still looking for the mysterious D.V. that would never be his. It was something he enjoyed but it had never deterred him or any of his partners from their true goal of finding the one. Now there was no “one” for Leo. Or at least no “one” that was meant for him as a soulmate.
That didn’t mean that he didn’t want someone to spend his time with, to be in love with. Maybe it was another hang up from having searched for a soulmate for so long but he knew that was what he wanted. He knew there were people who had fulfilling love lives without the need for a soul mark and he wanted to be one of those people. Sometimes though he wished that he would wake up and find initials on his wrist again, whether D.V. or another set entirely but Leo had never heard of soul marks appearing, only disappearing.
The drive wasn’t long. Cristiano lived fifteen minutes from the restaurant in a multi-storey building. They managed to find a parking space on the street not too far from their destination. Cristiano would glance at Leo every now and then but he didn’t touch him again. They made a quick stop at the post-boxes for Cristiano to pick up two pieces of mail and then went up to the first floor where Cristiano opened the door of number seven to a studio apartment. It was spacious enough for one room. There was a kitchen to his left and a sofa between the bed further in and the large LCD television on the wall. Cristiano threw the letters onto the kitchen island and turned to lock the door behind Leo.
Leo stood just inside the door taking in the bed further in and to the right. It was large and looked comfortable and was probably where they would end up. His heart sped up at that thought. Cristiano came up behind him, resting his hands on Leo’s hips. Leo turned to him and received a long kiss for his troubles. Cristiano certainly wasn’t wasting time. He backed Leo into a wall to their right and pressed up against Leo pinning him to the wall with his body. Leo kissed back fervently. He had thought about this, kissing Cristiano for a while but nothing had prepared him for the pleasure of it.
Cristiano’s kiss was hot and made Leo’s body warm, his head light. Cristiano sucked Leo’s lower lip into his mouth, nibbling on it lightly. Leo moaned softly, wrapping his arms around Cristiano’s neck. It was such a good feeling to finally get this far. He had never imagined that Cristiano would desire him in that way. Leo opened his mouth allowing Cristiano’s tongue into his mouth. His tongue was hot as well as it slide over Leo’s own and explored his mouth.
Leo pushed back with his own tongue experimentally and Cristiano pressed into him even harder, leg slotting between Leo’s so that his growing desire pressed against Cristiano’s thigh. He moaned again and sent his hands under Cristiano’s t-shirt to feel his bare skin under his hands. His hands roamed over Cristiano’s torso, thumbs pressing into the flesh they found. Cristiano murmured Leo’s name against his lips. He could feel himself slipping deeper into the passion of the moment and he wasn’t sure when Cristiano would let him go.
It happened like that for a while until Leo ruined it a month later.
They were on the sofa at Cristiano’s apartment, Cristiano’s hand on the inside of Leo’s thigh. They were watching a drama that Cristiano liked. Leo didn’t really absorb anything from it because all he could think of was how he wanted to ask Cristiano if he had any feelings for him at all.
“I know you don’t date, but have you ever thought about it?” Leo stared at the television as he asked the question, not daring to look in Cristiano’s direction.
It was probably the most ridiculous thing he could have done, starting this conversation. He already knew the answer but there was hope somewhere within him. Maybe he hoped that Cristiano would be the replacement for the soulmate he would never have.
“I like you and not just as a friend,” he said quietly.
Cristiano removed his hand then. Leo stole a glance at him to see him staring ahead, jaw set and felt a regret as deep as the early days when he had lost his soul mark. Maybe Cristiano would still laugh it off, tell Leo ‘no’ and somehow they could just continue the way the things were. It was about as wishful as his idea that Cristiano could somehow have feelings for him.
“I’m not interested,” Cristiano said plainly.
Leo breathed in and out slowly, perhaps a bit shakily. His heart numb even though he had known the answer and how this would change their relationship.
“I should go,” Leo said. He tried his best to sound calm but he felt like he was choking on the words instead.
Cristiano said nothing, didn’t even look at Leo. Leo imagined that was a sign of how displeased he was by Leo’s confession. He stood and left Cristiano sitting on the sofa.
“I’ll let myself out.”
Not once did Cristiano turn his head to look at him.
Leo went home. The noise in the streets and on the Metro barely registered as his mind replayed what had happened in Cristiano’s apartment. A group of boys standing next to him on the train started laughing loudly. Leo closed his eyes, and clenched his fists. He practically ran out of the doors when he finally reached his stop. He stopped on the edge of the platform and took a deep breath, his body trembling and it wasn’t from the chill.
The walk from the station seemed longer than usual. He was relieved when he finally walked down the street leading to his apartment. It was quieter and though his brain was still going over everything, he could focus better without people around him. When he got inside, he dropped down onto the couch, head leaned back so he could stare blankly at the ceiling. Why did he have to open his mouth? He did the only thing he could really think of and called Kun as he went into his bedroom to change into pyjamas. It took a few rings and for a second Leo was sure it would go to voicemail but he heard Kun’s voice instead of the automated message.
“Hey, Leo what’s up?” Kun sounded tired.
Leo only then did the time register with Leo. It was late. He must have sat on his couch in shock for a longer time that he thought when he got home.
“Are you all right?” Kun asked when Leo didn’t respond.
Leo took a deep breath. “I just confessed to Cristiano.”
“What?” Kun shouted in shock. “Well, what did he say?”
“He rejected me,” Leo answered with a bit of a self-deprecating laugh because he still couldn’t believe he was so stupid.
“What a fucking asshole.”
Leo couldn’t agree. He had known from the beginning that he shouldn’t have feelings for Cristiano but he had allowed them to develop anyway.
“I told you that Antonella would be a better match,” Kun said. “You should go after her instead of an emotionally stunted piece of shit.”
“No way, Kun. I couldn’t do that to her. She’s not some rebound chick that I can pick up just because I got my heartbroken.”
Kun grumbled inaudibly but Leo could guess that he was probably cursing Cristiano some more.
A simple crush couldn’t be so painful. Leo groaned. Was this what a broken heart truly felt like? Like a burning, gaping hole in his chest? Had he finally experienced his first love only to have it cause such an awful pain?
“I just wish I could control my feelings. I never had this problem when I had a soul mark,” Leo said laying on his bed and putting the phone on speaker. When he had a soul mark, it hadn’t mattered who he had slept with or went out with, he had always been focused on his goal of finding his soulmate. Now he didn’t have that cushion of reassurance and had allowed himself to fall for someone not meant for him. He felt useless and in pain.
“You’ll find someone, Leo.”
Leo laughed disbelievingly. As much as Kun wanted to understand, he could never know what it was like to not know if there was someone that he was compatible with. If there was someone with whom he could spend the rest of his life.
“I’m serious. You’re not meant to be alone. You’ll find someone who shares your feelings.”
Leo hoped Kun was right but he couldn’t bring himself to believe that it was really true. Maybe like Cristiano he was meant to be alone.
Leo didn’t go to the next speed dating event. He also avoided the next markless meeting, forcing himself to Skype with his mother to avoid wanting to go to see Cristiano.
“I think I’m in love, Mamá,” he told her when she asked him how he was doing.
“What good news!” she exclaimed. She was smiling and looked happy for him.
Leo shook his head. “He doesn’t love me back.” His mother looked at him sadly on the other side of the screen. She didn’t truly know Leo’s feelings. From what he knew, his mother and father were soulmates and hadn’t met anyone else with their initials on their wrists before each other. No one actually knew what he was going through, neither his mother nor Kun had experienced this kind of heartbreak before. But they were trying to sympathise with him. He was thankful for that, but he wished he could talk to someone who had experienced it, whether a markless person or someone with a soul mark who had made the mistake of thinking of the wrong person as their soulmate.
“You’ll make it through. You’ll find someone else, Lionel.”
It had been weeks but his feelings haven’t dampened at all. He still thought of Cristiano and how badly he messed up when he could have still been in Cristiano’s bed receiving something instead of nothing. His mother tried to encourage him in much the same way as Kun but it was useless until he could find a way to cleanse himself of the love for Cristiano.
He received a text from Antonella a few weeks later. He hadn’t heard from her since they had exchanged numbers but he liked her so it was a happy surprise to see her name pop up on his screen. Maybe he should have tried harder to go out with her instead of being so interested in a lost cause. He could have forced himself to ignore those feelings before he had fallen this hard. He laughed at himself. Of course Cristiano was never going to have changed his whole life philosophy just because Leo asked. Another text message from Antonella caused his phone to chime.
Just thought you’d want to know that Cristiano’s been asking around about you.
There was a smiling, winking face at the end of the message. Leo shook his head and tried to dismiss the message as ridiculous but a part of him couldn’t help but be excited by the fact that Cristiano had been asking about him.
I haven’t seen him in a while so he’s probably worried that he lost a speed dating attendee, he forced himself to reply. It was a ridiculous reply but Leo had to believe that Cristiano wouldn’t be worried about him, not after the way he had not even shown an ounce of compassion when Leo had confessed. To think otherwise would inspire hope that would just lead to another heartbreak.
The phone chimed once more.
I dunno. He seemed pretty worried about you.
Leo let out a loud breath and turned his screen off without replying. Was Cristiano actually worried that he hadn’t heard of him? Then why hadn’t he just texted? He had Leo’s number. It had to have been a passing inquiry that Antonella had misinterpreted. Nothing like Cristiano possibly feeling embarrassed about the way he had turned Leo down. With a mild scream, Leo dialled Kun. He couldn’t think properly. He needed someone to tell him that he was overthinking things and not to expect something that was bound to break his heart all over again. Or at least that was what he expected to hear.
“Why don’t you go talk to him?” is what Kun said instead.
“What?” This wasn’t the answer than Kun was supposed to give.
Kun sighed. “Yeah, yeah. You want me to tell you to forget about him right? But just the fact that you called me means you want to talk to him. And if I know anything it’s that you’re gonna do it even if I tell you not to do it.”
Leo was quiet on his end. Kun was right, of course. He did want to see Cristiano. Even before he had heard he was asking about him, he had wanted to see him. Part of him just wanted to see the face of the man who made his heart race. The other part wanted to break with him cleanly. Tell him that he didn’t want to be friends anymore because it was too painful. He was constantly worried that he would run into him and that Cristiano would act like nothing had happened between them, like they were still friends. He had wished for it at first but he didn’t think he could handle being friends with Cristiano when his feelings were still so raw.
“Ok,” he said to Kun.
“Glad that’s settled. You should come visit. The weather’s been really nice lately.”
Leo laughed, some nervousness leaving his body at coming to a decision. “I thought the weather was always shit?”
“Yeah, well. God smiles on Manchester too, sometimes.”
Leo went to group the next month after much deliberation with himself on the best way to deal with Cristiano. He could have texted him or called but somehow that seemed wrong. It certainly would have made it easier to meet him outside of group where people knew them and probably about Leo’s obvious crush.
Pep looked surprised but smiled when he saw Leo come into the circle. He was one of the last to arrive before the start of the meeting by his own design.
“It’s good to see you,” Pep said. He looked relieved to see Leo. “I was worried that maybe we had scared you away.”
Leo shook his head and smiled back. “I’ve just been busy,” he said, embarrassed that he ended up ignoring all of these people who were somewhat his friends just because of Cristiano.
He tried his best not to look at Cristiano when he came in, at least no more than he needed to confirm his attendance. There was one newcomer at the meeting, all the rest familiar faces who smiled at him. Leo grinned back, forgetting how good it was to be around people who weren’t constantly mentioning their soulmate or their search of their soulmate. People who understood what it was like to be lost.
The meeting began with a discussion of markless discrimination.
Leo couldn’t say that he had experienced anything like that. It wasn’t as if he was differently abled, he just didn’t have a soulmate to find. Maybe he had received some pitying looks when people finally saw his blank wrist but he would never have thought that constituted discrimination. He had hidden his own wrist for a while beneath wrist bands and long-sleeved shirts but he hadn’t recently. He turned over his left hand and looked at the clean skin there. He had realised that most people didn’t notice unless they were looking for it and if anything, wearing wristbands at all or long-sleeved shirts in the height of summer made people more suspicious. Others clearly disagreed at the meeting, suggesting that people treated them like a pariah for being markless.
“I lost my job because I was markless,” a woman named Judit said. “I was working as a consultant for a big firm. I always wore long sleeves but someone found out and told them. They said they couldn’t have anyone markless at the firm. It was supposedly bad for business.”
There were cries of outrage at the treatment she had undergone.
Leo listened and the intensity of the conversation allowed him to focus and ignore Cristiano who was markedly silent throughout the meeting.
The meeting only ended because Pep had to leave. The discussion could have gone on longer. Leo had been fascinated but at the end, he felt the terror of his original agenda creep up behind him. Antonella bumped into him as he was returning his chair to the stack in the corner of the room.
“It’s good to see you again, Leo,” she greeted, smiling brightly.
Antonella was so lovely and clearly liked him for some reason that Leo couldn’t fathom. Leo felt bad about not returning the feelings that were clearly more than friendly. He considered that maybe he could try with her after getting closure from Cristiano but he could never do that to her.
She wasn’t a consolation prize for Leo to claim once the gold medal was lost.
“I’ve been busy,” he said with a shrug.
She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it, attention shifting to behind Leo, which he only understood after a hand ruffled his hair roughly. Leo groaned and tried to fix it as he turned around. Pepe was standing there, arms crossed and a grin on his face.
“Glad to see you, Leo,” Pepe said.
Leo couldn’t remember a time he had actually had a conversation with Pepe. The man only seemed to properly talk to Cristiano and one or two other members, but here he was speaking as though he and Leo were friends.
“You too,” Leo said, unsure what Pepe wanted.
“Cristiano’s been sulking since you stopped showing up to here and speed dating,” he said.
“I don’t think—” Leo started to speak but Pepe interrupted with him.
“I think he ran away. You should go after him.”
Leo looked around the room at that information and sure enough Cristiano was nowhere to be seen. His heart sped up. Was Cristiano avoiding him now? He turned to Antonella and could only imagine the distress on his own face.
“I think Pepe is right,” she said. Leo felt her hand at the small of his back giving him a light push. When he turned to her, she smiled.
Leo smiled back at her fondly, with a bit of regret. He resisted kissing her on the cheek before he took off outside after Cristiano.
He looked up and down the street, hoping desperately for a glimpse of Cristiano. His heart was racing now. What if Cristiano had really run away as Pepe had said? He wasn’t sure he could handle chasing after a Cristiano that didn’t want to see him. It was painful enough to have been rejected once. Maybe this time he had shown himself to be a glutton for punishment but there was only so much his heart could take.
Leo turned to see Cristiano leaning against the yellow wall next to the doors of the community centre. He felt relieved to see to see him there.
“I was waiting for you,” Cristiano said sounding serious and looking a bit shaken.
That this had been a bad idea was all Leo could think in that moment. He was surely going to get his heart broken again because two months had done nothing to diminish the intensity with which Leo wanted to kiss Cristiano on the mouth, kiss him and love him and never let him go, soulmate or no.
“Is this a discussion we can have in front of the centre or should we go somewhere else?” “Let’s walk then,” Cristiano said pushing off of the wall and starting down the pavement.
Leo moved off after him. They walked in silence for a while. Cristiano was the one who broke it.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really have many friends,” he said.
Leo glanced at his companion but Cristiano kept staring ahead of him. Leo couldn’t imagine Cristiano without friends. He was so charismatic and friendly that he had to be liked everywhere he went.
Cristiano continued. “They made fun of me in school for not having a soul mark.” He laughed self-deprecatingly. “Parents didn’t want me playing with their kids, like I was diseased or something. They could understand losing it. There was one kid who lost his when he was six. Everyone took pity on him, but me? I was something else. It didn’t matter that there have been cases around the world of people being born without a soul mark. It had never happened in Madeira before and everyone was sure my mother was a demon or some other godless creature to have a son like me.”
Leo glanced over again. Cristiano looked pained, as though bringing up those memories physically hurt him.
“I told you before right? Why I don’t date?”
Leo nodded remembering Cristiano’s belief that he didn’t deserve a chance at something lasting.
“No. No. Listen. I want you to hear what I’m saying.” Cristiano stopped suddenly and Leo had to backtrack a few steps to come to a halt in front of him.
Leo glanced up and down the street. There weren’t many people here. They were in front of someone’s house but no one was outside. They had gone in the opposite direction of the bar and the station. He met Cristiano’s eyes for the first time. The gaze was intense and hard. Cristiano’s face was tense. Leo wanted to speak but he refrained, sure that Cristiano would speak again when he was ready.
“I was content. There were a lot of flings. Nothing ever got serious. Not that no one ever tried. But I was happy with it that way. I thought—I thought I was happy that way. But then there was you. I thought I just wanted to be your friend, but then I wanted to touch you. God, it was so bad how much I wanted to touch you, so I did and I thought that would be it. That it would satisfy whatever desire I had, but all it did was make me want to touch you more and not just touch you. I wanted to talk to you, to tell you things about my childhood, about my life and I wanted to know more about you. I was so angry. So fucking angry that I was born without a soul mark. That there was no L.M. on my wrist.”
Leo listened, trying his best to take in the words that were spilling out of Cristiano’s mouth. Cristiano ran a hand down his face to rest over his mouth. He closed his eyes and let out an audible breath.
“Why did you reject me?” Leo said, speaking softly wondering if Cristiano would even hear him.
Cristiano’s eyes snapped open at the words.
“I thought I could forget. That I could forget about you. I told myself I would stay away from the group but I couldn’t. I wanted to see you. I couldn’t bear not seeing you again, even if it was only a glimpse among others.”
“You could have called me. I would have answered.”
“I didn’t deserve that. I probably don’t deserve to have you listen to me like this but I couldn’t keep myself from telling you.”
Leo took Cristiano’s hand. He was as far gone as Cristiano if not more. Cristiano had been all he could think about. He wanted to take this man and share the pain that had made him keep himself from pursuing love. It was probably delusional, but he wanted so badly to be Cristiano’s first love, to show him what love could be as if he truly knew himself.
“I love you, you know?” Leo said.
“And I’m a mess.”
Leo smiled drawing out a weak mirror image on Cristiano’s face. “I love the mess too.”
Cristiano laughed. It was less self-deprecating and more amused this time. Leo felt Cristiano’s hand hesitantly hold on to his own. He gave Cristiano’s hand a squeeze. They stood for a while on the pavement simply holding hands. Cristiano’s face sported a soft smile that made Leo happy because he had inspired it.
“We probably look crazy standing here like this,” Cristiano said looking around him.
Leo laughed softly. “I don’t mind.”
Cristiano’s eyes narrowed in a look of affection. Leo’s heart leapt. So what if they didn’t have each other’s initials on their wrists? This was enough.