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The First Cut

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“What was that?”


Rafael stared at Sonny’s back. He was in Rafael’s kitchen, working on something that seemed to involve every utensil Rafael had ever owned, and a few extra that Sonny had felt the need to bring from home. For a week now Rafael had been hearing about the meal he was going to make tonight, how Sonny had planned his visit to the farmer’s market carefully to get some particular kind of herb at the right time, and how Rafael had to get an exact kind of wine to accompany it. Rafael hadn’t argued all that much before going and getting two bottles that evening after work, along with a bunch of tulips that were now sitting on the tiny dining room table.

But from the moment Sonny had stormed in the front door half an hour ago, something had been off. Rafael had stood back as bags had been unpacked and pots slammed down on counters, figuring that it was best for him to stay out of the way. Although Rafael had been working from home today, he’d been emailing Olivia back and forth like usual. She’d not mentioned anything happening to Carisi or Rollins; they’d ridden their desks as far as Rafael knew.

After giving the token offer to help and getting a brusque refusal in reply, Rafael had retreated to his own desk to knock back a pre-dinner Scotch and tidy up some case notes for twenty minutes. By the time he ventured back into the kitchen, he could tell things hadn’t gotten any better. Though the pot slamming had subsided slightly, the bad mood was still coming off Sonny in waves. It overpowered the scents of garlic and basil that were mingling in the air. Sonny had been muttering some threat, and Rafael wondered what the hell had happened.

Had he not been enthusiastic enough? He’d tried for a kiss when Sonny came in, but had been brushed past.

Rafael waited. The tight lines of Sonny’s back softened, and he let out an almighty sigh, the kind Rafael associated with Rita when she didn’t cut the deal she wanted. Eventually Sonny spoke up.

“I was cursing out a caper. It won’t stay stuffed.”

“Hmm.” Rafael moved forward a little more. The kitchen wasn’t that big, and with one step he was close enough to run a hand over Sonny’s bent shoulders. “They never learn, capers. Classic repeat offenders.”

He could see Sonny’s cheeks rumple in a half-grin, but his head was still hanging low, while his hands were fisted on the counter.

Rafael didn’t tug at his shoulder, just kept running a hand up and over his back. Sonny’s breath was laboured, like he was trying to keep it together. Another noisy exhalation, and Rafael could feel his body relax a little. Rafael knew how Sonny held tension in his back. Usually he was coaxing it out of him from a different angle.

Sonny muttered again. “‘M sorry.”

“For what?”

Finally, Sonny turned to face him. The lines on his face looked deep. He wiped his hands on a dishcloth and rested his hips back on the counter, arms stretching either side as if to anchor himself there. “I’m ruining this whole evening. I wanted to make it something special.”

Moving a little closer, Rafael held his gaze. Sonny looked away first, almost rolling his eyes before settling his gaze down on the floor.

“Was it work?”

“It’s not work.”

“Uh huh.” Rafael nodded. He took a breath and asked cautiously, “Is it me?”

“No, no.” Sonny shook his head and leaned forward. One of his hands ghosted over Rafael’s arms, but didn’t touch - good for the sake of Rafael’s cashmere sweater. “Not you. Not, um, this. It’s family stuff. I just got it up in my head. Forget about it -”

He went to turn away, and Rafael caught his arm lightly. “Don’t.”

Sonny couldn’t hide a bad mood any more than he could shrink down to four foot tall and turn blue. He sunk down further against the kitchen counter.

Rafael leaned towards him a little more. Threaded his hands around his waist. Sonny melted, his forehead pressed against Rafael’s. After another ragged breath, he started talking.

“Gotta call from Theresa. There’s this guy Gina’s been seeing, and they want to do a big family dinner next weekend so we can all meet him.”

“And?” Rafael kept his hands light on his waist. “That’s your thing, isn’t it? Big family meet-ups, you doling out food, your sisters screaming at each other, eight thousand children running around.”

Sonny smiled, swatted him with the dishcloth. Then his expression turned serious again. “Up until now, all I knew about this one was that he was called Chris, and that he drives a Ram pickup. Theresa said he was from around the neighborhood, but that describes like a thousand guys I grew up with. I never thought much about it, figured I’d meet him, shake his hand, wish him and Gina all the best, give out a little overprotective cop brother energy.”

He was rambling. Rafael let him go on, watching Sonny’s eyes squint as he talks. “Then today, we’re chatting, I’m half-listening, trying to get to the store to grab some marjoram. And Theresa said, he’ll be coming around after Gina visits his folks, on Elwood St. His parents are Karen and Nicky Augustine. Which makes him Chris Augustine.”

Squeezing Sonny back, Rafael said, “That’s generally how names work.”

“Mmm. Chris Augustine. Grade ahead of me. He played baseball. We were in the same team for three years.”

“In high school?”

“Yeah.” Sonny’s breath was hot and sweet-smelling. He had a habit of chewing on mint or basil leaves while he was cooking. “For two of those years, I thought he hung the moon. He was on the honor roll, but he wasn’t a nerd, he was a jock - but friendly with everyone. Drove a cherry Mustang that his Pops had given him. Always had the coolest music, knew the best weed guys, went to incredible concerts in the city. And he played baseball and basketball and ran track. One of those kids who made it look easy.”

Rafael had no idea why certain cars had such symbolic power among swathes of American men, but he did understand the general gist of the High School Cool Guy. “I hate him already.”

Sonny barked a little laugh. “He genuinely was nice to everyone, though. And when I got a spot on the team, I started thinking we could hang out. We did, we went to the mall a bunch of times, and to a Stone Temple Pilots gig. It was my first all-ages show.”

“Living the high life.”

“For sure. And over time, even though I was younger, me and Chris kind of bonded. He had a bunch of brothers, not sisters, but he got the big, sprawling Catholic family thing. We both liked similar stuff. He wanted to become either an engineer or an architect, I remember, and I spent one summer telling everyone I was going to be an architect, too.”

“There’s still time if the law stuff doesn’t work out.”

“Hey.” Sonny cracked a genuine smile. Rafael could feel some of the tension in his body ease off. “It’s working out.”

Moving his hands up and down Sonny’s back, Rafael waited for the rest of the story. Sonny took another deep breath, and kept talking.

“I got… I got a little crush on him. A big crush. I was 15 and full of hormones and guilt. But I thought I had it under control and then one day some girl after a game made a joke about me making ‘googly eyes’ at him. And I just froze, and that’s the worst thing you can do, because everyone can see. They ran with it.

“Being called gay in my high school, back then, it was worse than anything. Worse than being a nerd, worse than failing all your classes, worse than - I mean, I think about it now, and I’m sure the kids who weren’t white and the girls who got called sluts and stuff had it bad. But for me, that was rock bottom. We did it all the time, you know - ‘you fag’, ‘you homo’, all of it. You take that plus ‘Sonny loves Chris’ and a bunch of teenagers drinking stolen booze on a hot day… I was dead meat.”

Rafael tried to keep the anger out of his voice. “What did they do?”

“Not what you’re thinking. Nothing physical. Beer dumped on me, someone pulled my books out of my bag and scrawled dicks all over them. Just stupid shit. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but Chris… Chris could’ve stopped it. He was the oldest one of us. The coolest one. But as soon as the first ‘Sonny loves Chris’ got said, he went cold. And hateful. Out of everyone, he said the nastiest shit.”

Sonny straightened up, folded his arms. “And he never stopped. For the rest of them, it was just some dumb jokes that one time we hung out. But Chris kept at me. He’d go pass me in the hallways and say, ‘stay away from me, faggot’, under his breath. If people on the team wanted to go to the mall, he’d only drive them if I didn’t come. He once threw a pack of gum at me and said I needed it to wash the taste of dick from my mouth. Jesus, Raf, this was when I wanted to be a priest, I was so scared that somehow Father O’Hara would hear what Chris was saying and he’d ban me from being an altar server. Don’t say it,”

He held up a hand to Rafael, who knew better than to crack any comments about the Church right then. Rafael took the hand and held it to his own chest. Squeezing his eyes shut, Sonny clutched at Rafael, exhaled, and opened his eyes. “It wasn’t just that I was scared of. You know. I was scared of so much. And I didn’t know… what I didn’t know is what I had done wrong. I prayed over it for so long. I begged Jesus to help me, to stop Chris from hating me.”

“What happened?”

Sonny’s grip on Rafael loosened. “Not much. He graduated early, went to work for his Uncle in Vermont, I think, before college. Last time I saw him was maybe six years ago. I walked into a bar, bunch of local guys, and there’s Chris Augustine. One of the people he’s with is my friend Benny, Benny calls me over to say hi. I figure, it’s been years, he’s not going to remember me. I’m asking Benny how his Ma is, and Chris just yells out - ‘Carisi, you cocksucker, why don’t you two get a room?’”

“Wait, that was his line? ‘Get a room’? That’s not even technically a joke, it’s so pathetic.”

“It’s not up to the standard of your trash talk, that’s for sure.”

Usually Rafael would slip into a who, me? bit and they’d trade off lines between each other. But this wasn’t the office, and it wasn’t the time. Instead he waited for Sonny, who was wearing a ghost of a smile.

“That was the last time I saw Chris. He made good, apparently, invested in Tesla early on, works in some tech firm. Paid off his parent’s mortgage. Theresa is so happy to meet him.”

“Your sisters don’t know?”

Sonny shook his head. “Nah, I didn’t say anything. None of it was a big deal. Not back then.”

He tried to wave a hand dismissively, like he was cooling down an overboiled pot instead of the fog of the past. Rafael continued to crowd him, demanding direct eye contact.

“It’s not right, though.”

“I know that.” He swallowed. “Now.”

“You going to tell them?” Rafael watched Sonny cringe, and he pressed on. “That Chris is a homophobic asshole? That he isn’t fit to lick the ground Gina walks on?”

“That’s just the kind of melodramatic stuff Bella would say.”

“She’d want to know. Her, of all people.”

Bella was the only Carisi sister who Sonny was out to, although Rafael had his suspicions that Theresa and Gina had their own suspicions. Sonny was too much of an open book, for all his attempts at rigorous compartmentalisation.

“I mean.” Sonny shrugged. “Trash talk between guys, it’s not something I’d usually…”

“What? It’s not bullying because it’s two guys? It’s not hate speech because he had a cool car once?”

“Gina really likes him.”

“And I really liked smoking cigarettes for ten years. Guess I should go down to the 7-11 and buy another pack.”

Wiping his hands off on his dishcloth, Sonny arched an eyebrow. “Really? You used to smoke?”

“Habit I picked up in college. Had to get rid of all my suits after I quit, because they all stank.”

“Damn, Raf. That must’ve been hard.”

Anyone else, Rafael would think they were making fun of him. But Sonny had genuine concern in his eyes. Not that Rafael would be lead into so easy a diversion tactic.

“You are going to tell her. About Chris.”

Rafael wasn’t about to demand any kind of revelation from Sonny to his family vis-à-vis his sexuality or this strange, delicate, still new thing between the two of them. But he also wasn’t going to let Sonny get away with this level of self-flagellation.

“Mmm.” Sonny’s eyes slid closed. His chinned dipped towards his chest. Muttering, he said, “I didn’t want to think about it tonight.”

“Yeah, that was a raging success.”

“OK, OK. You’re right.”

“I’m not usually a fan of stating the obvious, but I’ll allow it.”

Sonny rolled his eyes at that, then pulled Rafael even closer to kiss him. Rafael wrapped his arms firmly around him, their mouths opening to deepen the kiss into something less consolatory into something hotter.

Stepping back, Rafael drew Sonny closer. He was thinking that the best way to drive his winning argument home would be in the bedroom, with Sonny bare-assed and smiling between the sheets, Rafael pushing his bad mood far from his mind.

Instead of following, Sonny released him. As he turned around to the counter to pick up his knife again, Rafael kept one hand on his back.

“Dinner can wait a little, can’t it?”

Sonny nodded. “Yeah, it can. You’re right.”

Leaving the knife on the chopping board, he strolled past Rafael and out of the kitchen. “I’m going to call Bella right now. Let her know. Don’t worry, I’ll use the bedroom, you won’t have to listen.”

Rafael watched Sonny fish his phone out of his jeans before closing the door behind him. He was left stuck in the kitchen, no dinner, no Sonny.

He knew from experience how long a Carisi sibling phone call could take. Rafael estimated he had at bare minimum a glass and a half of wine between him and the end of the conversation in the other room. Good thing he’d been right about buying two bottles as well.