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Something Stronger Than Wine

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“Did you know,” Owen’s text message said, “about the whirlpool in the VAC basement?”

That first text had been puzzling, the second… The second was a message that had rendered Affenlight useless for most of the afternoon, inspiring Mrs. McCallister’s sighs to ever greater heights of despair. Thoughts of Owen had dominated Affenlight’s mind for months, mingled now with his concerns for Pella and their foundering relationship, but this was a more immediate sense of anticipation.

When O had suggested a night at a motel, Affenlight had been able to ignore his fear long enough to simply say, “Let’s go.” But this suggestion of Owen’s – which, given a deep enough analysis of the message, was more like an imperative – had been given far in advance of the decision. Knowing Owen, which Affenlight by this point hoped he did, keeping him in a state of thrilled anxiety for hours was entirely intentional.

He slept little these days, so it was no trouble at all to stay awake long past his dinner of spaghetti à la McCallister, past the memos he made himself write, past the students’ rowdy departures for Bartleby’s and the town’s other dens of iniquity. Although he was often awake past midnight, Affenlight rarely if ever ventured out at such a time. But now the Quad was quiet, and how much attention had he ever paid to the administrative staff when he was a student himself? There were a dozen innocent explanations for walking around campus in the wee hours, if anyone wondered about it for more than a second. He was an adult, a graduate. He inhabited an unknown, unquestionable world that, despite all its mystery, was inevitably too boring for the students to dwell upon.

The back entrance to the VAC was unlocked, the interior dark. Affenlight kept the door open until he could find the light switch, then closed it and turned the lock. None of the facilities were open at this time, and certainly none of the staff would be working, but there was always a chance the students would try their luck, finding a spacious place to smoke dope and make out. He allowed himself a small smile as he walked downstairs. Naturally, whatever Owen’s plans were for the evening, they would be far more sophisticated. Still, Affenlight had cigarettes in one jacket pocket, condoms in another.

Two flights down, a switch turned off the light again. Along the corridor, a different light showed him the way into the locker room. Affenlight had been unable to discover whether this building was precisely the same as the one he had regularly inhabited as the school’s not-quite-a-star quarterback, but locker rooms were the same everywhere. Uniform. Institutional. Impersonal. And with an intense sweaty smog in the air.

Or perhaps that was steam.

Affenlight recalled from budget documents that there were two whirlpools in the building: a new one, for which funds had been requisitioned last year, and the old one, which Bruce Gibbs had spent some time arguing was perfectly adequate for the needs of Westish’s substandard athletes. Affenlight himself had seen neither. He hadn’t set foot in the place since his first arrival – on scorching summer days he took a dip in the lake rather than the pool.

“Owen?”

It felt dangerous to speak – what if some other athlete were here, and would then know why he was here. But for the college president to be lurking in a locker room past midnight had few explanations that didn’t involve secret liaisons.

There was no response. Affenlight nudged open the door.

Even if he couldn’t be certain about the building, it seemed reasonable to assume that the tub might date back to the seventies: a battered iron contraption that could probably hold three or four boys, but for now had only one.

“Guert!” Owen was lounging against the side of the tub. He wasn’t wearing his glasses. They would surely have fogged up in this atmosphere. “How are you?”

“I’m fine.” Affenlight closed the door behind him. “This is quite a place.”

“Indeed. But quiet and private. Get in.”

There were towels stacked on the side. Affenlight took off his jacket and folded it on top, then his t-shirt and sweatpants. When he’d been a student here, nudity had been the norm, and he’d had nothing he had the faintest desire to hide. The present-day Affenlight felt he had a good deal to hide, but after the motel there was little point in prudishness, even if the act of undressing then had been aided by several beers.

“Are we going to be joined by Mike Schwartz and Adam Starblind?” he asked, mostly to say something as he stepped into the tub.

Owen’s gaze was fixed on him regardless. “I imagine not. At least, not during bar hours.”

Affenlight sat down with a splash, the water bubbling around them as they kissed, Owen touching a wet hand to his hair. Owen’s kisses weren’t mock-chaste anymore, or at least hadn’t been since Saturday… not that Affenlight had actually kissed or even seen him since Saturday, but the motel still seemed like a sea-change. A mark of commitment from both of them: Affenlight’s willingness to spend the night together, repaid with real intimacy that was no longer veiled behind ironic smiles.

“How are you really, though?” Owen asked, just as Affenlight touched his ribs under the water. Even after they’d made love, it still felt like intruding. But it was nothing but nice, touching Owen, Owen’s skin, his chest, his belly. “Pella’s still a very absent presence?”

“It’s only been a day.”

“Yes.” Owen’s hand moved to his cheek as they kissed again. “But you’re upset.”

Upset conjured up images of sobbing children. “I’m used to not having her here.” On the other hand, Owen was the last person with whom Affenlight needed to put up a strong front. “I let her down. In a much more concrete way than I could ever have pushed her into David’s arms.”

“She’s two streets away, Guert. And there have been far worse crimes than this.”

Affenlight smiled. He stroked the crease of Owen’s thigh. “I should feel far guiltier than I do.”

“You’re very bad,” Owen agreed. He leaned an arm against the rim of the tub, his other hand sliding down over Affenlight’s whale, into the water. “I thought we might meet here due to the secrecy aspect… but also because you’re so eternally tense. Unless that’s my fault.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“A result of my presence, then. I rarely say this to anyone, but you do think too much.”

His presence here tonight was indubitably the result of too little thinking. Meeting Owen like this, despite the precautions, was exceptionally dangerous. They couldn’t account for the actions of twenty-five hundred students, any of whom might stumble in, or notice them coming or going. But their dates in Affenlight’s office were dangerous too, the motel visit unspeakably so, and yet no one but Pella seemed to have suspected a thing. Affenlight had always tended to think of Owen as a creature above those kinds of petty concerns. If Owen said it would be fine, then it would be. And Affenlight was inclined to trust in that, and not to dwell on the illogic of viewing Owen as some kind of omnipotent good luck charm.

He inclined his head toward Owen’s, kissed him on the lips, kept kissing. Everything they did together was something Affenlight loved, something he treasured the memory of and replayed in his mind while in bed or at his desk. He loved reading, loved the closeness and intensity of Owen’s mouth on him, his mouth on Owen. But the kissing… The kissing was a fulfillment of his very first fantasies. Then, months ago, he’d thought only of being this close to Owen, of touching his smooth skin, of having Owen touch him. And kissing, not necessarily sex kissing, which it almost always was now, but something light and sweet and platonic.

Was this better? Tasting Owen’s breaths, his tongue, his growing urgency. Having Owen’s hand press against the back of his head, holding him there, undeniably wanting him with a passion that went beyond appreciation for mere intellect or beauty. Better was hard to define. It wasn’t some divine thing, to slip his hand between Owen’s legs and stroke along the erection he’d already known would be stiff under his fingers. But it was what Owen wanted from him. And now, after three weeks of more sex than Affenlight had experienced in a year, it was what Affenlight wanted too. Perhaps had always wanted, in some vague, confused way.

The water no longer seemed quite as searingly hot, but more than comfortable, the jets bubbling around them. Affenlight had done this, or something like it, with a girl years ago. And then he’d surely spent less time analyzing his own feelings.

Owen pressed harder against his hand, saying something between kisses that Affenlight couldn’t quite hear, but the gist was there. He closed his fingers around Owen’s penis.

“I saw you this morning,” Owen said, “walking across the Quad. I used to watch you, when I first came here, and think I knew you better than anyone here because I’d read your book. Because I'd read almost everything you even mentioned in your book. But now I can look out my window and see President Affenlight, and know no one else seeing you today has any idea about that tattoo you cover up with shirts. Or the rest of you, for that matter.” His hand fluttered against Affenlight’s thigh, playfully brushed his thickening penis. “Much less how this feels. How it feels when you're in my mouth, or when I'm inside you.”

Now that truly was something no one else knew. Something Affenlight had been reflecting on since Friday night. What was it that drove you to want your lover to penetrate you? Women he could understand. There was instinct there, alongside obvious physical purposes. He'd wanted to be inside women for most of his life, and the pleasure of Owen sucking him off, the pleasure he might feel in one day penetrating Owen, made some sense too. But even before Owen had quietly suggested it on the drive out to the restaurant, he'd had a longing in the pit of his stomach, or lower. A longing mixed with fascination that kept his mind wrapped in fantasies while he lay awake at night.

“Which is not to say I entirely want you for your body, dear Guert. But I do want you for it tonight.” Owen pressed closer to him, settled against his side, their forearms brushing underwater as they stroked each other. “Would you like to know how it feels, being inside me?”

The motion of Owen’s hand, the warmth of the jets, made him feel just as unconcernedly relaxed as he’d been when he was mildly drunk on cheap beer. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

Owen smiled gently. “That's reassuring, but it's not what I asked.”

“Yes,” Affenlight said. “I’d like to.”

He hadn’t earnestly thought about what to do with a woman in years. With women he both knew what to do and knew that nothing much truly depended on being good at it. And, probably a result of that carefree attitude, he was – had been – brilliant at it.

He could be good at it with Owen too, he thought as Owen moved to straddle him, cupped his cheeks and kissed him. Affenlight held him close, hands against Owen’s lower back before he thought about moving them lower. If he wasn’t a good lover yet, he must be at least an acceptable one, for Owen to still want him. Perhaps it was better to assume he was a good lover. A brilliant one, even, who could kiss O with passion while sliding two fingers back where he’d barely ever touched anyone before.

“I can assure you everything’s very clean,” Owen said. “Although we’ll need lubricant for the serious stuff, and we should probably take things a bit slowly. I haven’t done this with anything but toys in… well, in years.”

“Toys?” Affenlight said, a fingertip lightly tracing the folds of skin, the tight muscle that relaxed under his touch. He knew what Owen meant, of course. But that image, like the porn, seemed so dissonant with the intellectual, romantic creature he had imagined Owen to be.

Owen reached down between them, his penis sliding against Affenlight’s. “Henry gets up to train every morning like clockwork. Sometimes it’s nice to stay warm in bed and feel a nice thick cock inside me. Or something like it, anyway. I’m sure you’ll feel much nicer.”

Fortunately no such toy was present, as Affenlight couldn’t help but imagine some grotesquely outsized dildo. But Owen was parting his legs further, leaning in, letting Affenlight crook one finger a little inside him. Owen sighed by his ear. “Are you going to fuck me, Guert?”

“I want…” The words were out before he thought about them. Which was good, in a way, even though stopping himself clearly wasn’t, because it made Owen look at him quizzically. And now, thinking about what he was saying, it sounded stupid. Foolish. But he couldn’t do anything but say it now. “I want you.”

Owen smiled. He gave Affenlight’s erection a friendly squeeze at the base. “I noticed.”

The locker room was chill compared to the tub, although not as bad as it would have been outside, and after a moment or two, as they toweled off and kissed, the steam that drifted through had made it something like comfortable. Affenlight pressed close to Owen nonetheless, wrapped arms around his hot lithe body while Owen fiddled with his messenger bag.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time in locker rooms,” Owen said. “Usually I find it’s best practice to avoid sexual thoughts in the company of others. Although hardly any of the other players are remotely worthy of fantasies, any sign of arousal might be taken the wrong way. Still, as of late I find myself thinking more and more about being laid out on benches like this one and taken. Which…” He finished with his bag and leaned back against Affenlight. “Which has always been a very interesting word, in my opinion.”

Owen’s body was familiarly smooth under Affenlight’s hands, what remained of the water helping his fingers glide to dark, hard nipples and O’s still-hard penis. “It is an interesting word,” he echoed, and took the tube from Owen’s hand. “One I wouldn’t mind exploring further.”

“You’ve spent a lot of time in locker rooms too,” Owen said, resting one knee on the bench, moving his legs apart. “Ever take a girl in here?”

Whatever Owen’s conception of the young Guert Affenlight was, it had to be some way divorced from reality. “No, never.” But it was true enough to say that, even in his day, these places had stunk of sex and testosterone, and probably more than a few unbidden erections. Had they laughed and called each other fag and homo back then? Affenlight couldn’t recall, but locker room talk had always existed.

The lubricant made things easier on more than one level, letting him touch and stroke, sliding in a finger while Owen’s breath hitched, the muscles of his thighs tightening. It could never be repulsive – nothing about Owen could be repulsive – but it was strange, unfamiliar territory. The lubricant let him stop worrying about pain and, as O bent his head, pushing back hungrily against his fingers, Affenlight felt nothing but a raw, desperate desire. With a hand still on Owen’s hip, he rolled on the condom.

Muscles gripped him tightly, inside, and Affenlight was thinking about pausing to apply more lubricant when Owen grabbed back at him. “Don’t stop. It’s good.”

And it was good, then, so good as Owen relaxed and Affenlight, too, thought about something beyond anxiety. Owen braced a hand against the wall and Affenlight’s covered it as he kissed Owen’s neck, thrust in a rhythm that felt right. Their breathing and the sounds of their bodies meeting seemed to fill the room. Owen was stroking himself, an “oh God” every time Affenlight hit home that changed to “oh, right there, that’s good” when Affenlight shifted his weight a little, moved faster.

Usually it didn’t take so long for Owen to come, even though Owen was of a preternaturally calm disposition, even though O could probably distract himself by endlessly reciting Clarel. That had never been an issue during oral sex, not once O assured him that taking longer was quite all right and that he could bear sucking Affenlight’s cock for as long as it took. It hadn’t been an issue on Friday either, although Affenlight would have liked it to go on longer. In this situation, though, Affenlight really wanted to come inside Owen – some primal urge he couldn’t deny – and perhaps that was even possible, the way it felt, the way he was unbelievably turned on by how much O was enjoying this.

“I think I’ll lie down,” Owen said, giving his fingers a squeeze. “My knee hurts, and I want to see you.”

Affenlight might have asked whether the bench wouldn’t be too hard on his back, if Owen didn’t look quite so… Well, Affenlight’s fantasies had never gone this far, not to the extent of this beautiful young man splayed out in front of him, steam and sweat collecting in beads on his perfect body, penis dark and full. And all of it, in some way, because of him.

“Come here, back inside me.” Owen lifted his long legs. “I’m getting cold.”

It already seemed right to do it, to just let himself slide in despite the angle and the anatomy, to move in close and kiss Owen, feeling O’s legs wrap high around his back. Yoga, Affenlight thought. He should try it.

They were back to slower movements now, a more relaxed type of lovemaking despite the locale, but there was little danger it would last. “I’m not too heavy?” Affenlight asked.

Owen’s fingers tangled tightly in his unkempt hair. “You’re wonderful. Don’t you dare move.”

He did move back, though, once Owen’s breaths became strained once again, his whole body shivering, to really fuck him now he was sure it wouldn’t hurt.

“Look at us,” he said, all the while moving, holding back O’s knees, O’s arm between his as he worked himself. “The college athlete and the president, fucking in a locker room. It’s like a porn film.”

“Mm,” Owen nodded. “I have that one. Just… Nice and deep now… oh.” His eyes closed as he tipped his head back against the bench. “Feel that? That, Guert, is absolutely perfect.”

It was also everything Affenlight needed to hear, the relief that swept through him finally exposing the pure physical pleasure of it all. A pleasure he’d frequently found in women, with this thrusting of the hips, the warmth of soft skin, but a pleasure that was somehow so different with O, different enough that it seemed he was feeling it from within an entirely new body. A body only Owen could help him discover.

“Come in me,” Owen said. “I want to see you coming in me.” His hand was moving faster.

How strange, to be embarrassed by imagining how he must seem – flushed, sweating, struggling for breath – while at the same time adoring those same qualities in Owen. How strange love was, in every way.

Owen’s hand was in his hair when he came, a surging release of tension better than any hot tub or old scotch, O’s smile all Affenlight could think about other than how good it felt and how he very much wanted to stay right there forever. And then Owen, still serenely smiling, but with an arched back and long moan, spurted out a burst of semen in the way young men did, a long trail of it patterning his belly.

“Come back with me.”

Rationally speaking, they should have sprung up and thrown on some clothes, if not leaving immediately then at least putting up a pretense of nonsexual behavior. And yet here Affenlight was, lying with his head on Owen’s chest, his body still between Owen’s legs, wanting nothing more than to draw some absent blanket over them both and sleep till morning.

“Come back where?” Owen’s voice was steady, untroubled, as he played with Affenlight’s hair, which was already mussed beyond redemption.

The question made it seem less possible already, but Affenlight wanted to keep the illusion of simplicity for a little while longer. “Home. To my apartment.”

“Mm.” Owen stroked his hair, soothing. Affenlight truly could go to sleep in his arms, never mind the discomfort of the bench. “I’d love to, Guert. But I have class in the morning and I know we’d do nothing but talk all night. Or… other things.”

Affenlight made himself raise his head. It felt weighty, as though stuffed with cotton. “Can’t I write you a permission slip?”

“This isn’t high school.” But Owen was smiling nonetheless, brushing a thumb over Affenlight’s lips. “What a surprise you’ve turned out to be. Perhaps, if it would be amenable to you, I could take you up on this offer Saturday night? After the game?”

Saturday still seemed achingly distant. But Owen would be gone to the regional championships soon, and there wasn’t much else to be done. He nodded and, with reluctance, lifted himself carefully off Owen and back onto his feet on the now cold floor.

“Unless of course Pella comes home,” Owen said, sitting up. “In which case I’m happy to make other arrangements.”

“We’re safe enough. My daughter’s never been mad at me for any period less than a week.”

Another session in the whirlpool would have been nice, but it truly was late and the locker room seemed very much like a locker room again, like somewhere Affenlight had no business being. They both dressed in a hurry, Owen wiping off his glasses and putting them on again, blinking.

“Perhaps you should leave first,” Owen said. “I’ll wait and put everything back as it should be.”

Affenlight slipped his hands into his jacket pockets, immediately encountering his box of Parliaments. “Cigarette?”

Owen took one. “For later. Heads will roll if anyone smells tobacco in here.” He stepped in close and kissed Affenlight softly. “You’re a sweetheart, Guert.”

The college grounds were near-silent when Affenlight stepped outside. Probably even the stragglers dragging themselves home were safely in bed now, or not coming back at all. He lit up his cigarette as he crossed the Small Quad, the chapel bells tolling two. How long would O wait to follow him? Not too long, hopefully, before he could look out and see the lights come on in Phumber 405.

A faint hope stirred within him as he unlocked the private entrance to Scull Hall: that Pella would be here, curled up asleep in his study, or perhaps angrily knocking back a scotch, demanding to know where he had been. Either one would be welcome at this point. All he needed was to know she had decided to simply be here, and that she would stay.

His apartment, though, was as dark as he had left it. Ordinarily he would be waking up in a couple of hours, taking his walk by the lake in the dawn light of an early May morning. Now he poured himself a half-measure of scotch, eased off his jacket and shoes, and leaned against the study windows, watching over the walkways until Owen, beautiful Owen, finally appeared. Windcheater zipped to his chin, messenger bag over his shoulder, BlackBerry screen lighting up his face as he tapped at it studiously, gracefully avoiding the trees in his path… No one could possibly even express surprise at finding Owen outside at this hour. Everything Owen did simply was. And besides, the library was open 24 hours.

Affenlight saw him swipe his entry card and disappear into Phumber. It was easy to imagine his easy, untroubled pace as he ascended the stairs. And then the lights came on. This, watching O’s silhouette behind the blinds, felt a little like intruding… But then O probably knew he would be watching. Still, Affenlight took a last sip and made himself go to bed.

He’d been sleeping nude the last couple of nights, since the motel, and now that Pella was even more unlikely to make an appearance, it seemed natural to do so. It might have felt freeing, felt nice to actually appreciate the thread count of his sheets, but there was no escaping the fact that he mainly did it because it reminded him of Owen. Owen’s skin on his skin, Owen’s hands on his body… God he was like a silly freshperson drunk on sexual freedom, suddenly alive to all the things two bodies could do, including simply lie back and breathe and be.

There was a buzz and a sudden bluish glow in the darkness. A new text message.

Affenlight smiled and picked up his phone.