Mike climbed down from the chariot, accepted his cane from Max, and exchanged a brief hug and a smile with Rosa, the blue feather in her hair askew, when she came over to take charge of the horses. The palpable euphoria after a show – they all lived to tumble and jump and fly another night! – was infectious, but Mike made his solitary way through the backstage melee. He needed some air.
A gaggle of ballet girls blocked his path for a moment, like one giggling body with twelve arms and twelve legs. He used his cane as a pivot as he swung out wide to the left to get around them, then kept on his way, past clowns, horses roan and piebald, Egyptian Suzanne with her monkey which bared its yellow teeth at him, more horses, an elephant – Mike waited impatiently, stomping the ground with his cane, for the pachyderm to move out of his way – till finally he ducked under a tent flap and was outside. His nostrils filled with cool night air, cut with the tangs of trampled straw, animal dung, popcorn, and exhaust fumes from the boulevard. Le parfum du cirque.
He paused for a moment to stretch his back. His pelvis cracked audibly, on the right side of course, his damned leg. Mike leaned on the cane and worked his right foot, pressed the toes against the pavement, then the heel, then the toes again. The nighttime chill made him shudder inside his sweaty leotard. He ought to change before he went home and gave Tino hell.
Two ballet girls pushed past him, hanging on the strongman, one to each ham-hock arm. The strongman lifted both arms above his head, the ballet girls dangling off, kicking their legs and screaming in delight as he carried them off into the Paris night.
Mike lifted the tent flap and glanced back inside, into the teeming throng of performers, animals, stage hands, and riggers. “Hey, Max!” he called out.
“Yeah?” came the reply from the mass of moving bodies.
“Fetch me my coat, will you?”
“What’d your previous slave die of?”
Despite Max’s attitude, a few minutes later Mike was buttoning his coat over his leotard and hobbling as fast as he could down rue Amelot, ignoring the taxis, the whores, and the rest of the street circus which was the Marais district at night.
Their room was in a three-floor walkup on the rue de Normandie. Mike staggered up the narrow stairs, which stank of cat piss and vinegar, borne up by an anger he’d stored up all day, like wine fermenting in a sealed cask.
That fool Tino! Insisting he was ready for a quadruple. A quadruple, for Chrissakes! Never mind that no one had ever done it. Never mind that it couldn’t be done. He’d fallen during practice, of course, landed wrong in the net, twisted his ankle a bit. No big deal, Tino and that greedy leech Bouglione had said, but Mike had insisted Tino sit out the night’s show, his heart still pounding from the sight of Tino missing his hands and falling. Tino had gone home to sulk rather than stay and watch Mike perform with the oldest Taglione boy, who was growing into a pretty decent tumbler.
No match for Tino, of course, but then no one was a match for Tino.
Mike yanked on the porcelain door handle so hard the door nearly bounced off the wall. He shouldered his way into their cramped room and was met by the sight of a bare-chested Tino half rising from the rumpled iron bed, a folded copy of Le Figaro in his hand – he was trying to teach himself French – and a startled look on his face.
That face. Whenever he messed up in practice, whenever he showed off too much for the audience, whenever he preened a little too much at waitresses flirting with him, and Mike ribbed him for all of it, it always reminded Mike of that first night: Tino sitting on the curb outside Le Café des Artistes, glancing up at Mike, young and irresistible and full of vim. Damn him, Mike thought. Damn him.
“Oh, it’s you,” Tino said, relaxing back onto the bed. He lifted his newspaper and hid his face behind it. “How was the show?” Like he didn’t care.
Mike closed the door behind him and started to unbutton his coat. “Pretty standard stuff. Doubles and back flips.” He matched his tone to Tino’s, deceptively offhand and civil. His hand hurt from squeezing his cane so hard, and he was sweating again from his rush to get there.
“Yeah?” Tino said from behind Le Figaro. “Did the audience like it?”
Mike couldn’t keep his anger hidden at that. “Well of course they liked it! They think trained seals are high art. It doesn’t take much to please them.”
Tino dropped the newspaper on the floor and fixed him with the sullen stare Mike knew, from Tino’s stories, had used to get him into fights with other boys all the time.
“Taglioni kid work out all right, then?” Tino said. “He must be better than a trained seal, at least.”
Mike clenched his teeth together, clenched his cane in his hand. He could have killed for some bourbon just then. He slammed the cane down on the floorboards – their landlady would give him hell for that – and ripped off his coat like he was ripping off his skin. Or Tino’s skin. Whichever he could sink his talons into first.
Two lopsided strides brought him to the bedside. Tino looked up at him, wary yet making no effort to throw up his arms in defense. He’d punched Mike once, when Mike had deserved it. He knew Mike better than to think Mike would risk damaging him, his amazing airborne form.
Mike yanked the chintz bedspread aside and wrapped his hand around Tino’s ankle. It didn’t feel hot or swollen, and Mike felt some of his anger drain out of him, like he’d been uncorked.
“Does it hurt?” he asked, his eyes on Tino’s leg. Aware, without looking directly at it, of Tino’s nakedness revealed from under the bedspread.
“No,” Tino’s voice was soft. “Mike…”
Mike let go of Tino’s leg and stood up straight, holding on desperately to some of his anger. He looked down at Tino laid out beneath him, gazing up at him, propped up on his elbows. He wanted to curse Tino for his damnable temper, for his foolhardiness, for the limitlessness of his bright-eyed ambition.
He should have cursed himself for all of the above, he knew.
“The Taglioni boy will work well with his brothers and sisters,” he told Tino. “But he will never soar like you do.” He watched Tino take in the praise, then struck at Tino’s heart, hating himself, knowing it was necessary. “Tino, the quadruple is a pipe dream. Don’t let it consume you.”
Tino was not wounded by Mike’s words. He sat up, his face brightening, like the dawn coming in through the window over the rooftop opposite. “That’s what they used to say about the triple, until it was done. Listen, Mike, I had time to think today. I figured out how to do it.”
Mike made an angry noise, swiped at the air in Tino’s general direction, and turned away. It was too late – Tino was consumed already. He would make the quadruple or die trying, and Mike knew he would have to be there to catch him. It was that, or convince Tino to let it go, or be ready to bury him, and Mike would only accept one of those options.
He would accept it – he already had accepted it – but not tonight. Tonight he had missed Tino on the trapeze, Tino flying toward him, Tino’s arms and legs meeting his hands, which knew their shape and length and strength. Tonight he felt his age and his injury, and he was too angry to fight Tino to the point where Tino would slow down enough for Mike to meet him halfway and help him capture his dream in midair, seize it and hold it in his chalky hands.
“Yeah,” Mike said, without looking at Tino on the bed.
Mike half turned and glanced at Tino, who stretched back on the bed, reached behind him and plumped up his pillow, his smooth chin up, his throat bare, and the line of his arm, flung up and over the pillow, leading the eye down to his shoulder, his torso, and on down south. He knew he’d won Mike over to the quadruple already, and he knew how to present himself to best advantage, and he knew that Mike wanted to look. Mike had wanted to look that first night, too, while acting the surly drunk on the cobblestoned streets of the Marais.
Mike had played reluctant then too.
Mike took a deep breath, looking at Tino enticing him, a siren to Odysseus. He knew that Tino had noticed he hadn’t changed before leaving the circus. He knew Tino had noticed how worried he’d been. He knew he was being humored and seduced in equal measure. His hands itched to touch Tino, but he stood on what was left of his pride, and said: “I should put the leotard to soak.”
Tino smiled at that. His voice got low, the Brooklyn in it more pronounced than usual, as he scratched idly at his chest – a trapeze artist did nothing idly, he was always aware of his body in space, Mike thought – and replied: “I’ll get Rosa to wash it tomorrow.”
Mike had his stiff right knee on the bed and was leaning over Tino, when Tino’s words sank in, and he pulled back, frowning. “Rosa? The hell you will! She’s not our wife, nor our mother. Why should she wash my leotard?”
“Because I pay her 500 francs on the first of the month to do our laundry, that’s why. You know she’s planning to leave Chikki, she needs the money.” Tino responded to Mike’s mood with some annoyance of his own, yet Mike’s expression made him burst into laughter. “I guess you didn’t notice I haven’t been doing the washing for a while now, huh? Dirty leotards don’t really fit into the pristine purity which is the sacred art of flying, so you just ignore them…”
Mike grabbed at Tino’s wrists and pressed him back onto the bed. “Don’t play the fool,” he said, torn between laughter and anger, while Tino pretended to try to get away. “You’re so used to getting your way, think you can just bowl everyone over…”
Tino went still under him, his clear, bright eyes on Mike’s face, and said: “Mike. Come here. I’ll catch you.”
And Mike knew that this was Tino still getting his way, always getting his way, because the world – like Mike – wanted so much to give Tino whatever would make Tino happy. Mike closed his eyes, and he swallowed, and he kissed Tino like Mike would chew him up and crush him, and like he would carry Tino to safety, a jewel in his mouth.
Tino returned his kiss with a hunger Mike recognized, no odalisque-like indolence now. Tino met him, and matched him, and pushed him onward, slipping his wrists from Mike’s grasp, tangling his fingers in Mike’s hair, peeling the leotard straps off of Mike’s shoulders.
Mike hated that he could not undress himself and keep Tino pressed up against him at the same time. Tino’s hands on his back, brushing over his chest, clinging to his hips, anchored him to Tino’s body, so that he could not fall.
Mike rested his full weight on Tino and ground himself against Tino from chest to thighs. He brought Tino even closer by clutching his hip, Mike’s other hand cupping the back of Tino’s head so that Tino panted, open-mouthed, against Mike’s jaw and neck, and Mike let himself stare blankly at the wall by the bed while Tino kissed and touched and ground back into him, their bodies sliding back and forth against each other. Mike let himself just feel how their breaths matched each other, feel them sweat together, certain that even their hearts were beating in sync already.
It had been like this that first time, after Tino had tracked him down to a flophouse in Clignancourt: Mike never had been able to pretend for long that he was running away from Tino. They’d grappled on an ancient mattress in a fifth-floor garret, Mike feeling pulled under and submerged while Tino wrapped himself around Mike, and gave, and wanted. It had been headlong, and match each other, and utter certainty, like in that moment between letting go of the trapeze and being caught. It had been like that every time since. Mike had used morphine for a while after his fall, but neither that soft rush nor the all-enveloping fog of booze could compare with what he felt when Tino held him and urged him on with every move, every intake of breath.
Mike tore his gaze away from the blank expanse of wall and the iron curlicues of the bedstead, and looked down at Tino’s face under his, his shiny eyes, his flushed skin, beads of sweat on his upper lip. Mike touched his face and kissed him some more, kissed him like he’d never get to do it again, for he still did not quite believe he could just kiss Tino whenever he wanted, despite it happening again and again. Tino moaned into the kiss and pushed himself up Mike’s body with his hands leveraged on Mike’s shoulders, till they met, hard cock to hard cock, and Tino ground fiercely back and forth, his lip curling with intent when he broke the kiss and looked Mike in the eye. He caught, he challenged, he demanded more.
Mike had caught him plenty of times, and loved the surrender, the rush of it. But he loved this even more. He’d never admit it, but he did. He’d been the one to make the triple, and he’d been the one to mold Tino into the Apollo of trapeze he’d become, with he, Mike, the one to snatch him out of the air, ground him like a lightning rod. The controlled loss of control was when Mike felt the most like himself.
His leotard was down around his thighs. Mike pushed it down to his knees, unwilling to part from Tino in order to strip it off completely, and anyway the thin fabric spared him the sight of his mangled knee as he knelt over Tino, reluctantly shearing away from his body, and reached to the bedside table, for the glass jar of glycerin. Tino panted under him, his legs tangled with Mike’s, his eyes intent on Mike’s hands unscrewing the lid, reaching in to scoop, then reaching, coated and slick, between them.
Tino’s eyes drifted shut as he arched his back – his chin, his throat, his chest like a taut bow offered up – while Mike stroked and pushed into him. Mike watched Tino’s reactions, almost like he wasn’t the one doing this, making this happen, but only watching a stranger in a blue movie prepare to fuck Tino, his hand slickly reach into Tino, pausing only to brush Tino’s tight balls with his thumb.
“Mike,” Tino said tightly, his face twisted sideways into the pillow, his arms around Mike. “Come on.”
And Mike withdrew his hand, stroked it down himself with what slick remained, and then settled his weight again on Tino as he pushed in, his cock gripped tight and smooth. Tino pulled at him, and Mike felt his body tilt forward, his bare ass absurdly raised up in the air as he gave in to gravity and plunged into Tino as deep as he could go. His groan was matched by Tino’s, a long release of breath and a floodgate opening all at once, before Tino’s heels met in the small of Mike’s back, and Tino gripped him around the ribs with his knees, and Mike propped himself up just enough to be able to watch Tino watch him while Mike rolled into and over him, smooth as flying, and as breathtaking.
Mike kept looking at Tino’s face, and then down to where their bodies met, Mike stroking smoothly and hard into, and into, and into Tino. Tino’s flushed chest heaving, his muscles working under the skin, his cock a red scepter between them, his face halfway between a grin and a bewildered blank at Mike rocking him back and back, the iron bedstead twanging under them.
Tino caught Mike’s eye and held it, and Tino grinned widely and took his cock in his hand. Mike settled on him again, feeling pulled in and claimed and yet the one in control. He felt the brush of Tino’s knuckles against his stomach, felt Tino keep pace and pick up speed, grinding down as Mike pushed into him faster, more frantic, wanting to keep soaring over the ocean, yet wanting to reach solid ground again too. His knee throbbed, damn it to hell, but his thighs, his hands, his stomach and chest and his cock knew only Tino’s beautiful body, Tino’s eyes focused on him, Tino’s sweat and Tino chanting “yeah, like that, like that” like a prayer.
Mike leaned in, pressing Tino to the bed, his hands cradling the backs of Tino’s knees, driving into him and kissing him to stop himself from saying something ridiculous, swallowing Tino’s voice as Tino spilled on his stomach and Mike’s. Mike imagined himself a hawk, wounded, falling, and he pushed into the mattress with his toes for leverage, and he rutted hard and spilled inside Tino, Tino drinking his wordless cries from his mouth, Tino’s sticky hands cradling his face, Tino kissing him while he rocked sharply, feeling Tino grip him and hold him tight and snatch him safely out of the air.
When he had nothing more to spare, when his body lay on Tino’s truly like he had spilled away his life, Mike still wanted more. He kissed Tino’s neck, his collarbone, licked Tino’s seed off of Tino’s nipple. Tino made a noise of too much, too much, yet arched up into Mike’s mouth, wanting more too, and Mike sucked on his nipple and held it between his teeth till he was sated at last. Finally he met Tino in a kiss while Tino rolled him to the side, off his body, between himself and the wall, Tino’s hand planted lightly on Mike’s chest, over his heart, Tino’s kiss one of satiety and, still, a hunger, always there, the hawk still wanting to soar.
Mike felt Tino’s lips desert him, thinking still more, more, and he opened his eyes to see Tino beside him, smiling and flushed and replete for the moment. Tino’s arm was around Mike’s neck, Tino was brushing his own ruby-red nipple with his fingers and shuddering at the sensation, Tino’s body lay like the whole world in Mike’s bed, in his grasp.
“Now that’s what I call keeping the same time,” Tino said.
Mike was too breathless to either laugh or roar. “Go ahead, laugh it up.” He scrubbed his hand down his sweaty face. “I’m too beat to care.”
He shifted to a more comfortable position, on his back, his head resting on Tino’s arm, and winced when his leg refused to get comfortable.
Tino took him in with one glance, then he was peeling away from Mike’s sweaty side, withdrawing his arm as a pillow, and kneeling at the end of the bed, facing Mike, and pulling his leotard all the way off, Tino’s hands cradling Mike’s leg at the ankle and just below the knee.
“I don’t need…” Mike began, but Tino cut him off: “Just be quiet and breathe with me.”
He drew an exaggeratedly deep breath and exhaled loudly and slowly as he leaned forward, holding Mike’s gaze, bending Mike’s bad leg and pushing his accursed knee toward his chest.
Mike rode out the first agonizing flare of pain, clenching his teeth, then breathed in as Tino put more of his weight on the bent leg, held still for just a second longer than Mike liked, and slowly eased Mike’s leg back down. Tino matched him breath for breath, and repeated the bend, hold, and release. They’d done this many times as well, since that day at Clignancourt.
“They shoot lame horses, nice and quick,” Mike said on the third go-around. He was sweating again, with the effort and the pain, a strange sensation since he hadn’t quite stopped sweating from the sex. Tino’s chest was still smeared with drying white like lead paint. “None of this endless toil and trouble.”
“Oh, give it a rest,” Tino said serenely, his eyes on Mike’s twisted knee, his hands gentle and sure in their strength. “You couldn’t stand to be anywhere else.”
Briefly his eyes traveled up Mike’s supine body and met Mike’s gaze. Tino smiled, just as he’d smiled lying next to Mike a minute ago, the same smile – Mike recognized it now – from that first night, sitting on the curb and grasping the end of Mike’s cane, like the dare and the promise Mike had meant it as.
Tino knew Mike’s pride, and Tino knew how much Mike liked giving him his heart’s desire, and how much Mike hated having that pointed out. Tino said: “That’s why you stuck around after your fall, messing around in the rigging, pretending you weren’t desperate to fly again. Because you love it so much.”
“You know everything, don’t you? Wise guy.”
The words had an edge, but Mike’s tone did not. The rush of performance and the double rush of sex had rendered him as soft as velvet, for the moment at least, while Tino worked on his leg and Mike followed and matched him, breath for breath, cradle and tense and hold and release.