There is something about Prague in September. It’s in the way the light turns everything gold – the leaves, the evenings, the future. Suddenly, it’s not so hard to imagine one where being happy together isn’t a feeble dream, a foolish fantasy, but a tangible possibility. Something within their reach. It’s not so hard to imagine that if he stretches his fingers wide enough, if he believes in this possibility hard enough, he might be able to grab it and hold on to it.
Not that Roger has time to see much of Prague.
Still, for five days the feeling remains, as intoxicating as it is bruising.
What Roger sees is this: the court he helped create, the endless corridors of a foreign arena, the blank ceiling of a hotel room that isn’t his.
Rafa arrives late into the night but Roger isn’t sleeping. He’s leaning against the railing of the balcony, facing the room. He’s left the windows wide open so that Rafa wouldn’t be caught off guard by his presence. Despite this precaution, Rafa takes a step back when he sees that someone is already there and, right. Maybe Roger should have just texted him. But then Rafa seems to realize that it’s Roger because a smile blooms on his face, a dizzying kind of smile. Roger is so glad he decided to make this a surprise.
Rafa leaves his suitcases and bags right in the middle of the room and steps out on the balcony.
“This is the right room, no?” he asks, as he closes the distance between them. Roger shifts his legs open so that Rafa can settle between them and he does, his hands coming to rest on Roger’s waist.
“It is,” Roger answers. He shrugs. “I wanted to see you.”
“Is a nice room,” Rafa replies, although he hasn’t spent more than twenty seconds in it. “And nice view.”
“Me or the city?”
Rafa laughs but doesn’t answer. His hands slide down Roger’s waist past his hips until they reach the top of Roger’s thighs, stopping there. Roger exhales, letting go of the railing to wrap his arms around Rafa, his palms against the small of his back.
“Hey champ,” he murmurs because they haven’t greeted each other yet. The way Rafa smiles makes his eyes crinkle and Roger’s breath hitches.
“Hey,” Rafa says.
It hasn’t been that long since they last saw each other, barely more than ten days considering that Roger stayed in New York until the end of the US Open – and god knows Roger has been busy in the meantime – but he has missed this. Missed Rafa.
“Come on,” he says, “let’s go back inside.” What he means is, let’s go to bed, and Rafa understands him perfectly.
Roger doesn’t bother closing the windows or drawing the curtains. He kisses Rafa as soon as they are inside, rushed and insistent, and Rafa opens his mouth under Roger’s, responding in kind. Their tongues touch and Roger thinks, yes, and he thinks, god.
It’s not a desperate kind of urgency, all teeth and tongues and whispered pleas in the dark, it’s a euphoric one, Roger leaving sloppy kisses on Rafa’s body and Rafa laughing. That’s when it starts building inside of him, with his mouth pressed against Rafa’s skin which is as gold as the autumn light in Prague – the feeling that the future is full of endless possibilities.
The next morning, Roger is in a buoyant mood.
It’s a hard thing to describe because the situation they are in is different from any other Roger has experienced before. There is what they are in public and that’s familiar, easy to smile about and even easier to talk about because he’s done it for years. And there is what they are in private which is, of course, something he can never talk about. Keeping both of those realities separate from one another is a careful balancing act and at times Roger feels like an equilibrist, dancing on a tight rope invisible to most people, performing a part no one knows how good he’s at.
It can’t even be compared to the exhibitions they’ve done together because those still relied on them facing each other instead of them working together. This is new and Roger feels invincible, like nothing can touch him.
In the back of the van driving them back from the Old Town Square, answering Christopher’s questions, Rafa next to him a heady presence, he starts pushing – just a bit. Just to see what it would be like. He says, I made him wait, giggling and his two realities begin to merge a little. Rafa gives him a somewhat bemused look before shrugging and following his lead.
After Christopher has stopped asking questions Roger leans back against his seat and throws Rafa a triumphant smile. Rafa smiles back, private and soft.
Roger is so fucking happy.
That night, thoughts racing, Roger finds himself making plans for this future he’s caught a glimpse of. They’re not his usual vague, half-sketched plans; they are bright and clear and full of colours – staggering in their intensity. He speaks of them out loud, adding detail after detail in an attempt to create the most compelling vision imaginable, as if Rafa needed to be convinced and this were Roger’s one shot at it.
“We could come back, you know,” he says. They’re lying in bed, facing each other, legs entangled and Roger relishes the sheer intimacy of it.
“Yes?” Rafa indulges him.
“Yes,” Roger nods, a decisive motion of the head as if the gesture could somehow ensure that it will happen.
“Well, to visit the city. First, we would go see the castle. We would have to drink mulled wine before climbing there so I guess it would be better to go during the winter. Mulled wine in summer doesn’t make any sense.”
“And nobody is asking us what we are doing here?” Rafa asks, tone sceptical.
Roger knows he doesn’t mean anything by it. That it’s simply a practical remark. Yet, he finds himself unsettled, because he hadn’t even considered it. In this version of the future, no, there were no questions. He can’t say that, though, so he shrugs and Rafa gives him an apologetic glance.
“Okay,” Rafa says, his fingertips tracing senseless patterns on Roger’s chest. “Tell me.”
So Roger does. He doesn’t forget about Rafa’s question or how it caught him off guard but he files it away in the back of his mind, something to be examined and analysed later. In the meantime, he talks about the view of the city they would have from the castle, about going to see the Kafka museum, about chasing ghosts across the old town. He talks until Rafa falls asleep, his breathing even. Then, without flinching, Roger says,
“We would kiss in the middle of Charles bridge and no one would care.”
They’re going to be late and it’s all Rafa’s fault. Roger is ready but Rafa is still battling with his bowtie all the while pleading Roger to please tell him what he is going to say in his speech, because he’s been curious about it ever since Roger mentioned it.
“But it’s supposed to be a surprise,” Roger argues, refusing to give in. “You don’t want me to ruin it, do you?”
Rafa huffs in defeat and goes back to frowning at his bowtie.
“Come on,” Roger says, coming to stand behind Rafa in front of the mirror. “Let me help.” He doesn’t make Rafa turn around, just wraps his arms around his shoulders and goes to work. When he’s satisfied he takes a small step back, his hands resting against Rafa’s shoulder blades.
“Good?” Rafa asks.
Roger nods but he isn’t looking at the bowtie or at Rafa. He’s looking at the both of them, trying to keep at bay thoughts of another situation where they could find themselves in the same position, clad in suits and facing a mirror, helping the other get ready.
The thing about imagining is that once you’ve begun, it’s almost impossible to stop.
Later, Roger makes his speech and says, I thought he was going to win the French Open once. Didn’t think it was going to be ten times, and Rafa smiles and smiles and smiles before joining him on the stage under thousands of watchful eyes.
What Roger means is, I didn’t expect this.
I didn’t expect you.
Time works differently in hotel rooms. It’s a strange phenomenon, the foreign space you occupy and make yours for a few days, sometimes a few weeks, always reminding you that your stay in this place is temporary, that it will have to end. That you should make the most of the time you have, that has been imparted to you.
Roger has spent so many years of his life going from hotel room to hotel room, some now as familiar to him as his own places, that he had forgotten about this feeling, the sense of urgency it carries.
On a Thursday night in Prague, refusing to close his eyes lest he might miss a moment of it, taking in every detail of Rafa’s sleeping face – the eyelashes drawing small shadows on his cheekbones, the smoothed crinkles at the corner of his eyes, the half-open mouth – Roger remembers.
Then the competition starts and Roger gets happier. It shouldn’t be possible. He didn’t believe it was.
The most exhilarating part, though, is that it is so obviously shared. Rafa keeps smiling and laughing, the most luminous person in the room and Roger can’t keep his eyes off him. Or his hands, for that matter.
It’s not that they don’t have to pretend because they do and there’s no way around that, it is that they have to pretend so little. Roger is carefree in a way he’s never allowed himself to be because he’s never had the chance to, and the freedom running through his veins is electrifying. Being able to stand close to Rafa, to talk to him, to touch him: none of these are new but the knowledge that he can get away with it every single time is. So he gives in.
“This was the most uncomfortable experience of my life,” Roger says, searching for his jacket which must have landed somewhere on the floor. It wasn’t but he likes to be dramatic, at times.
Rafa’s face does a weird thing, as if trying to decide on which expression to settle – indignation or amusement. Amusement must win because Rafa cracks up, bending in two.
“I know, no?” he manages to say, between two hiccups and Roger starts laughing too because this is ridiculous, the whole situation is and his arms hurt and he can’t find his fucking jacket. How on earth is he going to explain how he lost it?
“Here,” Rafa says, calmer now, holding a bundle of clothes that might have once been Roger’s jacket toward him. “Was behind me.” Roger doesn’t want to know how it got there. Or what happened to it.
“I need to find a new jacket.”
Rafa nods, attempting to look sorrowful and failing at it in a spectacular manner. Roger can see that he is very close to losing it again. “And new pants,” Rafa adds, pointing at his sweatpants.
“Right,” Roger says in a decisive tone, opening the door a little to check that the corridor is empty. It is. “I’m going out first,” he whispers. “Then you can go.”
“Okay,” Rafa whispers back. This is still ridiculous.
“And we,” Roger adds, “are definitely too old to be having sex in a cupboard.”
Rafa’s laugh echoes against Roger’s skin long after he has left.
What Roger doesn’t see is this: the sun setting on the Vltava, the curious gazes watching him and Rafa standing a bit too close, the room he actually rented and where his wife sleeps.
Two things that keep nagging him: the desire to push he’d felt, sitting in the back of the van; his surprise when Rafa had brought his fantasy back to reality. He can’t articulate what it is that’s bothering him, except that there is something and it seems to be filling all the empty spaces his happiness hasn’t yet reached. But his attempts at making sense of it get him nowhere and every metaphor he comes up with ends up being inadequate. It’s not that he thinks that what they’re doing is dangerous. It’s not standing near the edge of a cliff, careful not to fall, and it’s not walking on a tight rope. It’s not about falling or being scared to.
It’s about something else, something he can’t quite grasp.
“Roger? What is it?” Rafa asks, half-drowsing. He’s so finely attuned to Roger’s mood shifts it’s scary sometimes.
Roger doesn’t know what he’s going to say before the words leave his mouth, and then it’s too late.
“Are you happy?” he asks back.
“About playing doubles? I am very happy. Even more happy if you don’t make us lose,” Rafa jokes, turning around to face Roger. He looks soft and cosy and very much like he would like to go to sleep for real.
“No.” Now that he has started, Roger can’t stop. “Are you happy?” he repeats. He’s pretty sure he knows the answer but he needs to hear Rafa say it.
Rafa shifts, propping himself on his elbow, and watches Roger with the kind of focus only he is capable of, as if the answer to Roger’s question was written on his face.
“Yes,” Rafa says in the end, voice gentle and low. “I am.”
Roger wants more. He wants Rafa to quantify it, to qualify it. How happy? he almost demands. Tell me exactly how happy you are. Instead, he closes his eyes and bites his lips until he tastes blood.
Rafa presses one kiss against his naked shoulder and another one into the crook of his neck.
“And you? You are happy?”
“I’m the happiest I can be,” Roger answers. Which is not quite the same as saying, I’m the happiest I could be, but close enough and, oh god. He suddenly gets it, what he wasn’t able to put into words.
But now is not the time. He pushes the realization away before it has fully bloomed in his mind, before it has settled in his throat and he opens his eyes. Rafa is still staring at him, his expression akin to wonder, and Roger kisses him and kisses him until it’s the only thing he can think of, the only thing he can feel. Rafa’s mouth on his, Rafa’s hands on his body, as familiar as breathing, as comforting as autumn light, brilliant and clear.
The next day, he doesn’t think about it either; he doesn’t have any time to. They have their matches to play and then the doubles and Roger is so fucking nervous about that it leaves place for nothing else. Which is good. That’s how he wants it to be.
In the end, it goes way better than he expected. It’s not just that they win – even though, of course, there is that – but also the confirmation that they do work together in this too. That what they have finds its place in everything they do: playing against each other, playing together, being together.
For one perfect moment Roger is on top of the world and he isn’t alone. Rafa is right there, with him, and this kind of happiness can’t be tainted by anything.
Roger keeps distracting himself for as long as he can. It’s not hard – he’s on an adrenaline high and stays awake long after Rafa has gone to sleep, head nestled against Roger’s shoulder, one arm thrown across Roger’s waist, fingers digging in his flesh. Roger tweets and sends texts and reviews his schedule for the next day, then the next week until there’s nothing left to do.
He doesn’t want to face it but he also knows that he doesn’t have a choice. He puts his phone on the nightstand, tightens his grip on Rafa’s shoulder and exhales. Right.
Truth is, it’s not something Roger thinks about often. It might appear paradoxical, considering the situation, but that’s how it is. Roger usually tries his best to be content with the way things are – maybe because there is always a chance that they might change for the worse and that’s not a bargain he feels comfortable making. The desire to change things, to make them better is much more Rafa’s.
When he did consider it, it was in the way you would a child’s fancy – pleasant to think about but ultimately unrealistic and not worth spending too much time on.
Once, when asked about it, he had answered that of course he didn’t believe it would be a problem for a male tennis player to come out, the world was getting much more accepting wasn’t it? Not that he knew anyone that might concern. He was lying through his fucking teeth.
But that’s how it works and those are the rules they all must play by, or play against depending on how you view it, and some things are much harder to do than winning nineteen slams.
Yet here, for the first time of his life, all those reasons he knows and has long accepted are not enough anymore. Rafa is lying in his arms, peaceful and content after the day they’ve had – and it was so, so glorious – and it gnaws at him: the desperate need to change things, to mould the world into something resembling less how it is and more what it should be. Now that he has caught a glimpse of this future, now that he has imagined it, he wants it so much that he’s half-mad with it.
They are so close. They are so close that Roger can almost smell it, can almost taste it. And he only has one day left of it.
Roger keeps his gaze fixed on the ceiling where the pale light of the moon is drawing abstract figures, unable to look at Rafa lest the sheer weight of this epiphany could somehow suffocate him.
Even like this, he finds it hard to breathe.
He doesn’t go watch Rafa’s match. He hasn’t told him about his realization and has no intention to. What would he say anyway? Nothing is different – not his relationship with Rafa, not his relationship with Mirka, and certainly not the world. What has changed, though, is Roger’s feeling of impunity. The idea that even though it concerned him, it didn’t, not really. Not him. He doesn’t have that anymore.
He doesn’t go watch Rafa’s match because he has no idea how he would react and what little sense he has left in him tells him not to risk it. The mixture of emotions crawling under his skin is enough to make his head spin. There is, in no particular order – a urge to make the most of this last day, to bask in it, a sheer desire to win, a feeling of loss that keeps tightening his throat. It’s too much.
He puts it all aside and decides to focus on the match he will play, if he has to play it. Tennis is familiar and easy and soothing in a way nothing else can be and Roger takes comfort in it.
As it happens, he has to play and he forgets about everything else. It all fades away until there is only this left – him on a court, intent on winning.
And win he does; and win they do.
Rafa is in his arms and they’re as close as they’ll ever be in public and Roger’s brain feels like it might split in two. He wonders –
Can you be this euphoric and this bereft at the same time? Can something be so close and yet so far?
Rafa is on the court and Mirka is in the crowd and Roger doesn’t stop smiling, can’t, because if he did, even for a moment, he would be left with so little.
Roger leaves Rafa standing outside with a whispered promise of later and goes back inside the room to answer more questions in various languages. And that’s when it starts slipping away from him – the feeling of possibility. It’s a bit like a dream you’re trying very hard to recall but the more you try, the less you remember. The more Roger talks, explains, the dimmer the future gets, the harder it is to keep in mind how clear it had seemed to be.
Then he’s done. He smiles and gets up and leaves, thinking one last time, we were so close to it.
It’s not quite like closing a door, more like leaving it ajar but seeing the light on the other side of it diminish and diminish until you’re left in a pitch-black room. The door is still there and it’s still open but until your eyes get used to the darkness you might as well have made it up. It might as well have never existed at all.
When Roger gets back to the room that has never been just Rafa’s but was theirs, completely sober, he finds Rafa already packing. It shouldn’t hit him this hard, it shouldn’t make him want to scream but it does. This is what we do, he says to himself as if it could somehow prevent his heart from breaking, while Rafa tells him, apologetic, that he has to take an early flight. Roger nods, numb. This is what they do. They come and make a foreign space theirs and leave, only to start the process all over again, in a different city, in a different room.
Roger sits down on the bed, his elbows resting on his thighs and asks, “Can you come here?” If Rafa senses that something is wrong from the tone of his voice he doesn’t say. He stops packing, coming to stand in front of him and Roger looks up.
They don’t speak.
Roger doesn’t have words for what he’s experiencing – this kind of grief, this kind of mourning for something that didn’t happen. If he did, he wouldn’t want to burden Rafa with them anyway. This is his to bear.
Instead he grabs Rafa’s arse, pulling him closer before working his jeans open. He doesn’t bother making this into something it isn’t, doesn’t pepper Rafa’s skin (as gold as the light) with kisses, doesn’t whisper promises of love. He just takes Rafa in his mouth and maybe this is more for him than for Rafa. The weight of Rafa’s cock on his tongue and the burn at the back of his throat are a grounding reminder that he’s still here, that they both are. The sighs Rafa lets out, his fingers clutching at Roger’s shoulders a reminder that he’s good at this. His own cock hardening in his sweatpants a reminder that he loves this.
After Rafa comes, he tries to reciprocate but Roger shakes his head no, unable to speak. He rests his forehead against Rafa’s belly, soft skin covered by a thin t-shirt. In his mind, he counts to one hundred in German, then in English, then in French in an attempt to give himself some time to calm down. When he feels more in control, less like he might shatter, he says it.
“I love you.” The words come out low and muffled.
It’s not the first time he’s said it, of course. But it’s the first time he’s said it with the clear knowledge that if he could, he would choose this.
How do you do it? he wants to ask. How do you live day after day knowing this, knowing how fucking unfair it is?
“I love you so much,” is what he says out loud and it’s almost the same thing.
“Roger,” Rafa starts, cupping his jaw between his hands and tilting his head up so that Roger has to look at him, “We see each other in Shanghai, no?”
“Yeah,” Roger says, laughing a little. “Of course.”
“Okay,” Rafa says, a hint of relief in his voice and Roger can understand how his behaviour might have been worrying. Then, “I love you too.”
And it’s enough. It doesn’t change or heal anything but it’s enough.
“You should finish packing,” Roger says. “And then bed.”
Rafa bends down and kisses the corner of Roger’s mouth, something fleeting and fragile, before turning around, going back to his bags and his life.
The next few days are a blur of activity. His life goes back to normal or, at least, Roger tries his hardest to make it feel like it does. Things with Mirka are a bit stilted, the way they always are after he’s spent more than a couple of days with Rafa and that’s fine. It will be fine. The kids are delighted to have him back and he spends hours playing with them, taking care of them.
Roger goes to the gym and films a commercial in Milan and spends a whole evening smiling for the cameras at a film festival he can’t manage to get interested in.
He gets used to the absence of light, to having to see in the dark again.
By the time he has to leave for Tokyo he’s doing okay. He is ready to go back to what he does best, to playing tennis. Ready to see Rafa without crumbling. On a Monday evening, Roger boards a plane that will bring him to the other side of the world, to his obligations and the endless stream of events he has to attend. He rests his head against the window and exhales.
The thing about light is that it lingers. It’s not something you forget once you’ve seen it.
And so even though Roger goes on, he can’t quite forget how, for a few days, the future had seemed as luminous as Prague in September, gold and bright and shining with an infinite amount of possibilities.