Robert McAlmon didn't mean anything by his invitation to Spain beyond a friendly gesture to a new, less fortunate friend. Travel was expensive, but there was nothing more useful to a writer then seeing more of the world. Besides, traveling together under the guise of playing at tour-guide afforded McAlmon a certain liberty to cover Hemingway's expenses as he saw fit, and allowed Hem to save face. Avoided affronting his pride. Those who questioned pride's place in the pantheon of deadly sins had clearly never met Ernest Hemingway. The war killed many, but it fed Hemingway's pride; by now the inflation of his ego was comparable to the inflated tales of his boxing prowess and the size of his member.
He half expected Hemingway to refuse him anyways, on principle, anticipating McAlmon's intention to pay for everything and thwarting him by declining the invitation entirely. But Hem had agreed, and now here they were in Pamplona, the heavy air blanketing them with a pleasant warmth as they lay side-by-side on the hillside.
They'd shared a room on the crossing over. Separate beds, of course, and McAlmon always rose before Hem so there was no squabbling over the shaving basin or jostling for space in the dressing area. They ate meals together, and in the afternoons they'd sit out on the deck and write, but there was no hint of anything improper. In fact, everything about their interactions on the journey here had been the epitome of platonic, gentlemanly affection. It was enough to make him doubt his memory of that first night in the Select, just after the war: the way Hemingway's hand had brushed against his the back of his own; the look in Hem's eyes that made McAlmon's stomach flip and cause his trousers to become uncomfortably tight. By the time they reached Spain, McAlmon was convinced it had been a figment of his (admittedly overactive) imagination, and he had tried to forget it entirely.
Now though, lying on a soft linen sheet Hemingway had pilfered from their hotel room rather then purchase a picnic blanket. Now, as the sun drooped slowly beneath the horizon and a few brave stars began to twinkle in the sky... now he wasn't so sure.
They'd spent their mornings visiting all the sights Pamplona had on offer for tourists, which took twice as long as McAlmon anticipated due to Hemingway's tendency for wandering off, stopping to scribble down pages and pages in his notebook about the most trivial details. Perhaps it was just as well; McAlmon wasn't truly suited to the role of tour-guide, his interests tending more towards the people around him then the history of dusty old buildings. So Hem would ramble and McAlmon would interject the occasional sarcastic quip and soon enough it would be lunch and they'd go their separate ways until dinner at some fancy establishment, McAlmon's treat. (He'd gotten Hem to roll over on that one by insisting Spain was a country that could only truly be felt by being tasted, whatever the cost. It wasn't too difficult; food and good wine were Hem's weak point.) In the evenings they'd go swimming, taking advantage of the empty beach while the tourists salsa-danced the night away. Or Hem would drag them to some boxing match in the basement of God knows where that he'd heard of that afternoon from God knows who. If he was a betting man, McAlmon would bet his entire fortune that at most one of these matches were sanctioned by local Spanish officials. But Hem loved it, and God help him but McAlmon would do things far less legal if it meant seeing Ernest smile like that. Tonight though, Hem had no underground fight to entertain them, and after getting caught in a sudden rainstorm on the way home from yet another cathedral, neither was in the mood for a swim. The picnic had been Hem's idea, and Hem paid for it too, a concession to his pride that McAlmon was more than willing to make. After almost a week of fancy Spanish food, the simplicity of the picnic was refreshing. Bread, cheese, sausage, a few different types of olive spreads, and a wine skin each. When those were drained and they'd eaten their fill, Hem produced a small Tarta de Santiago each and a bottle of Scotch McAlmon knew was far too rich for a war vet- turned-novelist's blood. He kept his mouth shut, however, and accepted the tumbler Hem poured for him and nursed it slowly, aware the cost of the glassful alone was worth three days' hard labour back home. Hem showed no such restraint, knocking back tumbler after tumbler at a pace that would make even Zelda Fitzgerald blush. McAlmon barely managed to pour himself a second glass before the bigger man had drained the bottle. Hemingway stretched back on the blanket with a lazy sigh of contentment and McAlmon soon followed suit, though much more stiffly. Lying there, as the sky grew dark, bare elbows almost touching, the air suddenly felt electric.
It's all in your head, he chided himself. You're making it up. After all, writers are just liars who don't go to hell for it.
McAlmon had never cared much for religion, but there was something about Spain. The elegant churches on every street corner, or maybe the crucifixes above every door... It reminded him of his pastor back in America, screaming at them from the pulpit each week about the perils of sodomy. (It wasn't until adulthood that McAlmon realized most preachers chose a different sermon topic every week. Correlation is usually not causation.)
He was so caught up in his musings that he barely noticed Hem shifting closer to him. The air was growing colder, the chill beginning to seep into his bones, but strangely his right hand was still perfectly warm...oh.
Hem's hand was over his. Suddenly the rest of McAlmon's body felt frozen compared to the searing warmth of Hem's touch, but he willed himself to stay as still as possible. The moment seemed fragile, like a net of spun sugar surrounding them that would crack under the slightest pressure, and no matter how much he may live to regret it he was not going to be the one to break this spell. Hem's hand was wandering slowly up his forearm now, tracing some indecipherable pattern along the inside of his wrist and sending chills across his spine. Or maybe that was the cold, because it certainly was cold now. He could feel dew starting to settle across his face and he was starting to think he'd catch his death of cold out here on the hillside, and really how ironic would that be, dying of cold on a sunny holiday in Spain; knowing Hemingway's penchant for romanticizing Death, he'd almost certainly end up as a plot device in his novel, and it would probably serve him right.
"Hem," he tried to say, but it came out more like a whimper, and he cursed himself for his weakness, face beginning to burn with shame.
"Bob?" Hem rasped, voice filthy with desire- except that wasn't possible, Hem was a man's man, a war hero, it was just his damned imagination- Hem shifted, and surely this was it. The end of their friendship. Hemingway was about to punch his lights out for acting like a pansy and he'd wake up in a few hours, soaked through and alone. He braced himself for the pain, the thought to block or dodge never crossing his mind.
But the blow never landed, or rather it did, but instead of a heavy fist to his jaw it was a soft press of lips against his own. It was the first gentle thing he'd ever seen Hemingway do, but it didn't last. As soon as he was certain McAlmon wouldn't pull away, he became rough, crashing against his mouth in a flurry of teeth and tongue and coarse mustache. Hem shifted again, and suddenly McAlmon was warm all over, because Hemingway was pinning him to the ground, a weighty blanket against the night. Hands began to roam everywhere, and as the edges between Ernest's body and his own began to blur and smudge together, McAlmon had only one thing to ask.
"Why here? Why now?"
"You're the one who always says 'no backstories'."
McAlmon had a choice then. He could have pushed for the story, and their night would have ended like every other night in Pamplona, McAlmon listening to Hem ramble late into the night before retiring to their separate rooms to sleep and wake and do it all over again. He could have saved himself a lot of trouble, and a lot of absinthe-fueled nightmares, if he’d just said the word.
But McAlmon was young and stupid, and so he chose the other option, the one where he shut up and let Hemingway take over, the world dissolving away until there was nothing left but them, rough and messy and passionate.
When it was finished they stumbled back to the hotel, drunk on Scotch and sex, and they lay down together in McAlmon's bed.
"If you tell anyone about this," Hem murmured into his hair, "I'll tell them you're a liar."
"Who would I tell?" McAlmon whispered into the dark, and he meant it.
But Hemingway was already asleep.
And that's what happened in Spain.